Student Blog: Tales from a Year in Paris so far


By Melissa Thorne (English and French Third Year)

Paris holds so many romantic connotations, with famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur and Notre Dame, to name but a few, that have a singular prestige in popular culture. However, before I arrived here for the start of my year abroad, I had only been to Paris once, for four days, and, honestly, I had not particularly enjoyed it. Having watched the film ‘Amélie’ a few too many times, I was horrified by the swarms of tourists in Montmartre, the lack of any French voices and the greyness and graffiti shielded in pictures by rosy light filters and conscientious photoshopping.

And for my first three weeks here, it didn’t get much better. Having been far too laid back about my travel plans, I was eventually offered my six-month internship at Flammarion, a publishing company, just two weeks before I was due to start, leading to panic, piles of paperwork and frantic (failed) accommodation searches in the run up to my arrival.

I got here in July, far earlier than most other languages students, which was really hard: I knew no-one in Paris and all the French people were on holiday, so finding permanent accommodation was near-nigh impossible. It was also bakingly hot, making trawls around Paris on frustratingly fruitless searches for mobile phones, bank accounts and apartments even more difficult. We discovered that the getting into the French system is ridiculously catch-22 – for example, you can’t open a bank account without a French address, but you can’t sign for accommodation without a bank account.

However, once I started my job in a wonderfully air-conditioned office, everything started to look up. Through one of my colleagues, I found a five week temporary flat-share with an Oxford graduate, who turned out to be a pastry chef and who, even better, took me under her wing and showed me the ‘real’ Paris – untouristy places, gorgeous parks, bars and cafés. She had even published a guide with all her favourite restaurants and coffee places in Paris – I couldn’t believe my luck. She introduced me to all her friends, and as I settled, I started to gain enough confidence for my wavering French to improve. Crucially, it also gave me time to sort out my paperwork and find somewhere more permanent. Eventually, after a lot of hard work and good fortune, I found a cute and cosy apartment in central Paris, walking distance from Montmartre and Galeries Lafayette, where I will live until August with a lovely Belgian art student named Amélie. I feel comfortable speaking French with her, and she is teaching me fantastic French slang and text speak, which we definitely did not learn at school or university.

My job at Flammarion has been an amazing introduction into the world of publishing, as I have been given active roles in every stage of the publication process of a book throughout my internship: from coming up with ideas, to financial planning, to cover design, to editing manuscripts, to sales strategies, and finally book launches. I have also had great experience working for a French company, as we use French computer systems (making use of vocabulary that I had previously learned from putting my iPod and Facebook in French) and my work involves a lot of translation: of marketing materials, tables of content, and sometimes parts of books - I am particularly proud of the fact that a section of a book that I translated has now been published!

As my department produces art, cookery and photography books, including exhibition catalogues, it has helped to give me an insight into the ever-changing cultural scene in Paris. Whenever I can, I have been visiting the fascinating array of museums and art galleries here, as well as participating in events like the Nuit Blanche – a cultural “all-nighter” with hundreds of one-off displays taking place throughout the city. I have also taken the opportunity to travel beyond Paris around the rest of France, such as visiting Strasbourg for the first weekend of its extraordinary Christmas markets, which take over the entire city with myriads of multi-coloured light displays and endless varieties of vin chaud/glühwein. I have also learned that sometimes the best opportunities to practice French come in the most unexpected places. For example, when I accidentally got lost on the wrong side of a mountain range with incredibly limited phone signal during an impromptu trip to the Alps, I was forced to speak in French to the friendly locals I encountered, removing the fear that comes with speaking a language that is not my own.

I study English and French, meaning that, unlike a lot of modern languages students, I will stay in one country for the duration of my year abroad. I feel lucky to be able to do this, as I feel as if I am only just starting to properly find my feet in Paris, and it would be a shame to leave when so many new possibilities are just opening up now. Although I do not have any specific work to do for the English side of my course, being away has reminded me how much I love reading, and I have visited English language book shops, in particular the famous Shakespeare and Company, where I have sung Christmas carols and participated in a reading of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, and attended poetry evenings run by international Anglophiles.

During my stay in Paris so far, I have met lots of other year abroad students, all of whom are doing different things – a testament to the number of options available for this year. Some are teaching English with the British Council, others are undertaking journalism internships for art newsletters and the British media, and many are studying at French universities, such as Sciences Po and the Sorbonne, taking on a range of subjects from History of Art to Ancient Egyptian.

Despite the initial stress, I was lucky to start my year abroad so early – it forced me to be very self-sufficient, and my French and understanding of Paris have improved a lot as a result. I have looked forward to my year abroad since my A Levels, when I used it as motivation to study, and it has certainly lived up to my expectations so far – even though I have definitely lived both the year abroad dream and nightmare at various times. It is sometimes difficult being away from England and Brasenose, but it is also incredibly satisfying when people believe that I am actually French or, on one brilliant occasion, apologize to me for initially “mistaking” me for a foreigner.

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