The Unnatural Habitat: Things about French University that I did not Expect

Moving to France and starting a year at University Paul Valéry Montpellier has been one of the most confusing experiences of my life. From the admin that seemingly means nothing, to people casually smoking weed on campus, I’ve been perplexed by a fair few things in my two short weeks attending a French uni, so I thought I’d share my confusion with you.

1. You’re expected to sort out your timetable yourself.

Back in Cardiff, your timetable magically appears online at some point just before you start the semester. In Paul Valéry (and a few other French universities as I’ve heard from friends) you have to physically approach each and every lecturer and ask them if you can join their module.

To find out what modules are running, I had to trawl through the university website and download several PDFs that each had some information about what lessons I could take, when they took place, who runs them and where they happen. Of course, this is France so they can’t put all of this information on one easy to read sheet, it’s literally some sort of bizarre online treasure hunt.

Once you’ve been through the hassle of finding what choices you have, you can pretty much put yourself a nice little timetable together, and begin approaching the relevant lecturers to sign up to the lessons. If you’re lucky, they’ll reply to your emails but if not you can choose between trying to hunt down your lecturer’s office (good luck!) or just turning up to the lecture and approaching them before the lesson to announce your intentions of signing up to that module.

I had to find a couple of back ups as well, because some of the modules I wanted to partake in were already full and some of them ended up clashing. But once I’d finally settled on a nice selection of modules I then had to fill in a form which I sent to the Erasmus office. Hopefully at some point they’ll confirm I’ve filled in the form correctly.

To me, this was just a bizarre experience all around, and wholly more difficult than necessary. I don’t quite understand why they can’t just let you select your modules before the start of the year and give you your timetable online, but I guess I can’t single-handedly change the whole university system, so I’ll just have to do this all again next semester.

2. Time? Means nothing.

Okay, in the UK, if you’ve got a lesson at 9am, that means it probably starts at 9am. If you have an appointment at 3PM, you’ll be there at 3PM. Planning on meeting at friend at 7PM? Maybe a little tardiness (with an accompanying apology) is acceptable, but generally you’ll be meeting them at the planned time.

I knew that the French have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the English (and way more relaxed than the Japanese!) but I was not really expecting it to apply to university lessons. Well, it applies to everything as far as I can tell.

I’ve had lessons start 15 minutes late, lessons finish early or late. I’ve had lecturers quite simply not turn up, without emailing or even leaving a not on the door. As someone who is generally quite punctual, this is a bizarre occurrence.

In terms of students, I’ve noticed that a lot of people will just turn up to, or leave, a class halfway through. And not one bats an eyelid to any of this.

3. People smoke everywhere and anywhere.

I’ve never attended a campus university before, but in general I’d imagine there to be particular smoking areas. I asked a few UK friends and they confirmed my assumptions, you normally can’t just smoke anywhere on campus.

At Paul Valéry, there seems to be no restrictions regarding this. People will smoke in the doorways of buildings, on the grassy areas, whilst walking from one class to the next. No one seems to care too much. I’ve even seen (well smelt) people smoking substances other than tobacco, without a single care in the world.

You’ll even spot lecturers and other members of staff popping just outside the front of their building for their smoking breaks. It’s all quite normal for staff and students alike.

This is quite weird to me. I know that in the UK you can smoke freely on the street, so I guess I shouldn’t find it that odd. But I just didn’t really expect it.

4. Lessons finish quite late (and some start quite early).

Three days of the week, I finish my lessons at 8:15PM. Compared to my latest lesson in Cardiff that finished at 5PM, this seems really late.

By the time I get home, it’s usually gone 9PM so I don’t have much evening time to myself, and hardly any time to get ready for a night out. I’m sure I’ll start to get used to it, but at first, it’s been a bit of a shock to the system and I’ve found it difficult to structure a routine around it.

I’ve also heard that some lessons start as early as 8:15AM, which I guess isn’t much earlier than a 9AM start in Cardiff, but still that’s 45 less minutes in bed.

In my case, I’d have to wake up at 7AM to get into class on time. Which is probably a normal person’s wake-up time, but I have evolved into a creature that rarely functions that well before midday. Luckily my earliest lesson is at 9:45 so I don’t have to worry about that. Definitely wouldn’t fancy it though.

5. I can’t be entirely sure that anyone actually knows what is going on.

To be honest, this could just be me, because I don’t understand at least half of everything said to me in French. But I’ve also noticed that a lot of the staff I’ve spoken to have an “eh, just sort it out yourself” attitude to most problems I’ve had, and nothing gets followed up at all.

No one seems to take a register or notice whether or not I’m actually in the lesson. I attended one lesson and wasn’t on the register yet, so my lecturer just waved me away and said that I’ll probably be on it next week. She didn’t take my name or anything though. By the next week? I still wasn’t on the register and my lecturer didn’t remember me.

I’ve also asked staff for the emails of other staff or where I can find a particular office and they just don’t know. “Go to this building and have a look around. It’s probably there somewhere.” Is about as much help as I got when asking after the office of my year abroad coordinator.

You’re expected to be a lot more organised because the only one that is actually going to get stuff done is you. I guess it makes sense, but compared to Cardiff (who will email me after one unexplained absence) I feel a lot less supported.

Just a few differences I’ve noticed so far! I never really thought that things could differ so much between university in two different countries, but it’s definitely taking a bit of getting used to.

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