As I leave France, I feel much richer than when I arrived. Travelling in countries where either you don’t know the language (Switzerland, Germany), or countries where they speak your first language (Ireland, Northern Ireland) (even if it feels like a foreign language!), just isn’t as much fun. It makes me very glad for having been educated in a French immersion program, and perhaps more significantly, it makes me desire switching my PhD concentration to work in French rather than German.
This isn’t to say I’d want to live here. The culture shock isn’t immediate in France – it sets in over time. At first you think, “oh isn’t it nice the towns are so pretty and old-fashioned looking”. In fact, this is largely a product of a culture which looks down on the expression of individual wealth or creativity. So, even though it doesn’t actually cost any more to paint your house a lively colour, don’t – your neighbours will consider it an egregious show of wealth. And, to the extent that cultural taboo doesn’t prevent creative architecture, committees make up the difference – if your house is within a specific distance of a culturally specific monument (read: anywhere), you can not renovate or alter your house in any way without hiring a state approved architect. In fact, you can’t even change the colour of your window blinds without filling out forms at the city hall and attaining permission.
School here is free. That’s good, compared to states where school financially impoverishes, enslaves people. But that doesn’t mean you’ll like it – it differs in two essential ways from the North American system we’ve grown use to. One – there are no assignments. Grading is entirely exam, often oral exam. Examination is not comprehensive, but in fact severely arbitrary – if you happen to have studied well the question which you get asked, you do brilliantly. Otherwise, you do badly or fail. For four months of school, your entire grade is decided in ten minutes by a tired prof who has to personally interview the hundreds of students which take his or her course. Two – rather than application processes, entrance into programs is decided in competitions, “concours”. And once you are in a program, continuation in the program is contingent on success in more “concours”. So, you get the impression that everyone is constantly doing “concours”. In effect, it’s not so bad – if you fail, you can always try again. And, since school is free, you aren’t dead broke or tired from working, or enslaved by massive debts. But it has the impression of being, and, as I’ve been told, actually is, highly stressing.
One thing I do like about the universities here is that, since they do not get their funding through tuition, they don’t spend their time producing a fun and worthwhile-looking image of themselves. Entering a University Campus here is the opposite of what it is in North America – no grand posters glorifying the institution, no pictures of happy-looking undergrads. One gets the sense that this is a place to work, to learn, not because “college is the best years of your life” (i.e. the North American stereotype), but because it’s hard, and you need to succeed here if you expect to do well in the cut throat French hierarchical employment system.
I don’t think I’d want to be French, but that isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to study or teach here for a while.