A Home Away from Home

Erasmus student Michelle Murphy gives us an idea of her current year abroad in Saint Etienne, France.

There is that well known cliché that distance makes the heart grow fonder. While I despise using clichés in any piece of writing it is hard to deny how true it is. I am currently spending my third year in France as part of my degree. While I could just go on the longest rant/whine about all the things I miss (Dairy Milk chocolate, oh sweet Dairy Milk) there are so many interesting and wonderful opportunities a year abroad can offer.

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I was complimented on my ‘beautiful accent’. As a native Corkonian this is the first time anyone has ever said anything vaguely nice about the way I speak

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First off is university life. As an Arts student I expected to be in large lecture theatres much like the Boole but French students pick their speciality before they are even accepted into university. This means that the class, yes I mean class not lecture, sizes are significantly smaller for any degree under the Arts, Languages, Social Sciences, Humanities and Music faculty. With an average of twenty five people in a room the lecturers often opt to just speak without any microphone or presentation slides.  This does mean that you get to know the lecturers and your classmates a lot better than you would in a larger setting. Aside from the language, class size and lack of Power Point presentations French universities place a lot more emphasis on academic achievements which results in no Students Union, Clubs or Societies or even a College Bar. Yes I am probably fulfilling any stereotype of an Irish student abroad but every international student I encounter are equally as shocked by the lack of extracurricular options. Thankfully I found a choir to satisfy my extracurricular needs.

It’s far from all bad news though, certain lecturers absolutely love Erasmus students, especially those who deal with literature. In one of my first classes the lecturer noticed my name wasn’t on her roll call, although my pale freckled skin, the faint aroma of factor fifty sun cream and my generally bewildered expression may have also given me away. Upon realising I was an “Anglophone”, the name any native English speaker is given in France, she immediately insisted I stay in the class because she wanted to have someone to read out the English passages in class. The next week I was complimented on my “beautiful accent”. As a native Corkonian this is the first time anyone has ever said anything vaguely nice about the way I speak but I happily took the compliment and smiled in superiority over my classmates. Of course I was brought back down to earth when I was asked a question and had to resume speaking French.

France is famous for its cuisine and having a bakery on almost every street corner makes lunchtime very enjoyable. Miniature cakes and pastries are widely available and for very reasonable prices. There is also an abundance of stores stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. Not only is the produce better than the same brand in local chain stores but it is extremely cheap. Picking up some apples, potatoes and carrots for the week I was pleasantly surprised by the price of €2.16. Not only is it student friendly but the owners are perhaps the nicest people in the entire country. When I realised I didn’t have enough change to pay for my weeks supply and the price was below the minimum transaction limit the owner simply smiled, handed me the bag and said that I could pay the next day I was in. Not only was this smiling student happy not to have to sprint to the nearest ATM in the pouring rain but it also reassured me that humanity may not be so bad after all.

Sadly all of this wonder is overshadowed by the horror of walking into a shop and not finding a single deli counter. My taste buds still haven’t adjusted to the lack of hot chicken rolls, especially on a Friday afternoon. I would let it go except the French invented the baguette so surely there would be a counter where they would fill this marvellous creation with magical wonders like hot chicken, wedges and sweet chilli sauce?! Yes it’s probably better for my cholesterol, but as a relatively young and impulsive student I feel now is the only time where one can make mistakes and eat all the junk food in sight.

One of the things I really enjoy is French public transport. Unlike my beloved Cork, the buses have a strange habit of arriving on time. All the cities and some of the bigger towns have trams that go from one end of the city to the other. Unlike the Luas in Dublin, they have shorter carriages and a more frequent service which means that very few people drive to school, college or work, instead opting for the very affordable tram. Some of the bigger cities have the underground metro but there is the terrifying possibility of being swept through the crowds at rush hour to consider.

The novelty of being in mainland Europe still hasn’t worn off, even after a few months. I would highly recommend inter-railing to anyone who loves travelling; walking to a train station and seeing cities such as Geneva or Munich being listed among local services is almost surreal and serves as a reminder of how small our planet is. I have already had the chance to visit other regions and experience things like wine tasting in cellars from the Middle Ages, hiking through gorges, exploring medieval towns and meeting a wide variety of nationalities.

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Walking to a train station and seeing cities such as Geneva or Munich being listed among local services is almost surreal and serves as a reminder of how small our planet is

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The warm weather earlier in the semester also made exploring that little bit more enjoyable and not having to constantly worry about rain was also a pleasant change. By the time you read this piece there will have been at least an entire week of five inch snow in Saint-Etienne, my home away from home, making it seem much more wintery and festive. It’s hard to go on a rant about Christmas being advertised too early when you’re surroundings are the cover of a cheesy Christmas card.