Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Parisian Rendezvous

I could still remember how a stranger helped me lug my bags from Charles de Gaulle Airport to central Paris. From there, I had to find Rue des Bergers (where Amelie lived), to drop my bags off and then to rush to the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences-po) for the orientation talk cum French proficiency test. It was hectic preparing for my exchange programme to one of the prestigious universities in France. Finding accommodation in Paris was a headache. All the international hostels had been filled up, leaving me no choice but to bunk in with Amelie (a Sciences-po student who was on exchange in NUS) for about 2 weeks. I had to apply for visa, do the medical check-up, banking and other arrangements myself. To add, there was also the language problem. Although I could speak decent French but it was difficult understanding the Parisian accent. Besides, I was not proficient enough to comprehend all the political and economics jargons. What was I thinking when I applied to study in France? Either I was temporarily insane or just plain stupid.

“Yes, I am insane alright”, I uttered during the first Cour Magistral (lecture). I could hardly understand the lectures during the first few weeks. I was in a class of French and other international students. Everyone was so intelligent. Entry to Sciences-po Paris was extremely difficult and my classmates were all crème de la crème. I was the lone Singaporean in a school of 4000 students. There were no familiar faces that I could talk to. No one spoke English. Amelie was in a different year so I was left to fend for myself. Readings were in French as we had to submit an essay every week. Besides that, I had to prepare exposés (presentations) about the French political system as well as economic analyses. I was barely breathing. Besides trying to cope with schoolwork, I had to adapt to a whole new environment – different cuisine, climate and culture. Renting a room with a French woman and her six-year-old son allowed me to live a typical French family life. The first two months in Paris were the hardest and many a times I questioned my rationale studying in France. Weekends were spent doing countless plan rediges (essays) leaving me no time at all to travel around Europe and enjoy myself. Many tears were shed in frustration as I flipped through the dictionary trying to make sense of my lecture notes then.

As I sat in the Emile Boutmy Amphitheatre for my last exam paper, I felt a tremendous amount of sadness. I was actually going to miss everything about Sciences-po - the lectures of Jean-Luc Parodi who went on and on talking (sans transparencies), my distinguished economics professor Dominique Strauss-Kahn (the former minister of Finance for France), my economics tutor who questioned me during my economic presentations and my political science tutor who told the international students that the language barrier was no excuse for handing up his weekly essays late. Ahhh…… I even loved the classrooms in Sciences-po with its old chairs and grand mirrors. The small library with the long wooden tables and chairs, the winding staircases, the candle-like lamps and the old elevators made Sciences-po quaint. Although the students fretted about the lack of computer facilities, there were other aspects of the school that we loved. We loved the garden where we had lunches and discussions; and if the weather was not so cold, we even had our tutorials amidst the greenery. Sciences-po with their bon-chic-bon-genre students might appear very preppy and elitist to some but to me it is the best political science institution in Europe. Here, the lectures were interactive as the students were not afraid to argue with their learned professors. In fact, they were motivated and asked for more work, yes even during the optional language courses. Students were independent – having to live on their own and doing sports outside of campus. What we lacked in huge campuses was made up for in the intellectual atmosphere of the school.

As I bid my econs tutor au revoir, she asked “You are coming back, aren’t you?” My eyes grew watery. I had grown to love the hectic schedule where we would finish school only at 9.15 pm almost every night, the weekend lunches with friends from school, the fun but well-behaved nights-outs at the disco organised by the Bureau des Eleves, the helpful classmates who gave us the confidence to go through the tough syllabus, the forums by renowned lecturers, the political campaigns in school and even those 4 hour exams. Even our endless complaints about the heavy load were but sweet memories. Sciences-po has taught me independence, hard work and the value of a world-class education. It is to no surprise that all its graduates had become future leaders of France. Despite all the obstacles I had to go through, it was indeed a worthwhile experience. And if I have to go through it all over again, I will gladly do so.

[August 2000 - February 2001]

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