004 – Newsflash! French food is good; university system less so.

Now into my second week as a fully-fledged Rennais, I consider myself suitably experienced living in this little city to have formed a few opinions worthy of a blog post or two. You’ve been warned! For your reading comfort, these thoughts have been carefully categorised into four groups which have more or less been the cornerstones of my stay in France thus far. For fear of lulling my readership into a waffle-enduced coma (and not the good kind of waffle), I shall tackle two of these topics today and save the other two for later.

La ville

 Those avid Facebookers among you will have surely spied some photos of my French hometown already, but if not, feel free to have a coup d’oeil on my profile. It goes without saying that Rennes is a fricking pretty place. Many an hour of this blogging rosbif has already been spent wandering the cobblestone streets and marvelling at the medieval buildings. There’s also a street called Rue le bastard so this is clearly a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

But aesthetics aside, it’s a remarkably practical place to get around, too. As a complete no-hoper when it comes to directions and general orientation, I have surprised myself by familiarising myself fairly quickly with the layout of the town. It’s one of those cities that isn’t really big enough to warrant an underground, but has one anyway. Because I only really ever go to London to feel big and important and use the tube, this has proved to be most pleasing to me, even if it’s probably the smallest metro system known to man, with just one line and fifteen stops. (I was even told today that it’s the smallest place in the world to have a metro system! But that was from a bank manager, so presumably it was all lies) In conclusion: the underground is fun.

Along with my own personal cultural, linguistic and spiritual development, one of my biggest aims in coming to France was to become a massive fatty, and I can confirm that thus far all is going well on that front. It’s practically impossible to explain the amount of creperies there are in Rennes. Brittany is especially renowned for its crepes and galettes, and indeed; at times it seems like every other building is a place where pancakes are readily available. My introduction to this culinary treat started with a galette saucisse; a sausage pancake to you and me. It’s a combination so absurd it makes my eyes water, but it really works! Seriously, in these parts they’ll wrap a crepe around anything. My current record for most crepes eaten in a day stands at a wimpy four, but I intend to beat it. I’m powerless to resist them…screw cholesterol, I’m going for full cultural immersion here. Of course there are other Breton delights, including moules (mussels) and cider. Sorry, I mean cidre. Breton cidre in fact tastes a little bit like normal cider that’s been stored overnight in a chicken’s bladder, but once you’ve had a few bolées (special ceramic bowl in which cidre is served) it’s actually quite agreeable. So essentially, I very much give the thumbs up to the delicacies on offer in Rennes, and look forward to the inevitable year of gluttony to come.

Finally, during my short séjour here I have come into contact with various locals. And, in spite of various cultural and linguistic mishaps, with many a dodgy conjugation ignored, many a phonetic blunder overlooked and many a shaky choice of vocabulary brushed aside, I can confirm the people of Brittany have been nothing but good to me so far. One thing that has struck me is, in spite of the friendly rivalry between our two countries, British people and French people really are rather alike. And I think it’s partly that that has made it so easy to feel comfortable here in spite of the lack of abode and various administration issues (more on that in a later post). All in all, the city provides me with opportunities to talk to nice people in French whilst looking at pretty buildings and stuffing my face full of pancakes. It’s a keeper!

 L’université

The glaring observation that I have made about French universities is the following: There are too many students. Now, this isn’t a mere snide observation coming from a recent graduate resentful towards the hoards of fresh-faced 18-year-olds gallivanting through the corridors of L’université de Rennes 2. Rather, it is a practical observation based on my own experiences as both a teacher and a student. Firstly, a bit of background for those of you not so knowledgeable about the French HE sector (guh, ignorance). In France, university is cheap. I mean, really cheap. We’re talking 500 Euros a semester here. I told some people that our Torydem government had recently increased British fees to the tune of roughly £5,000 per semester and they practically fell off their chairs before exhaling loudly, pulling that expression of disapproval that French people are so fond of, and muttering something about a greve. Secondly, in France, pretty much anyone can go to university. Forget UCAS points, forget extracurricular activities, forget personal statements, as long as you’ve got the Bacalauréate (A levels) you’re in. Far be it from me to criticise, but having had a taste of the system it seems obvious that this is nonsensical. French universities technically don’t have the right to reject applicants that have their school qualification. And, because it is so easy and so cheap to be a student here, pretty much everyone does it. And why not? You’d be a fool not to at those prices. In fact, many students just sign up at their local university for the student card to get student discount. I’ve even been considering doing it myself – I really miss student discount.

And so, cue the swarm of students descending upon the university campus yesterday for the first day of classes, full of hope and aspirations, wide-eyed and eager to learn. In my department alone there are roughly five-hundred newly-arrived students taking English language modules. FIVE HUNDRED.  Presumably because of the low tuition fees, facilities at the university are a bit of a mixed bag. In something of a kitsch throwback to the twentieth century, many classrooms come only with chalkboards; whereas others have really played the pioneer by installing a single computer. Essentially, it’s a pleasant enough environment to work in (example – I just casually have an office because I’m super important and official), but I think British universities (Southampton at least) definitely win this one.

My classes are about 23 in number, and the focus is essentially on oral communication, so I’m a bit like the Esteban of the department, except my teeth aren’t as white. The first session got off to a wonderfully tremendous start when, after hearing my five minute introduction to the course, a student grabbed his belongings, excused himself and ran out of the class crying. OK, he wasn’t really crying.  Unsure of what the problem was, I figured that as I hadn’t run out of students yet I should just focus on ‘teaching’ ones who were willing to brave out the rest of the session. I didn’t let it perturb me too much that he left, as we were a bit pushed for space as it was. Indeed, in the interests of a roomier learning environment, I might see if I can scare a few more away before the semester is out. Next week the plan is to talk about naked Prince Harry, that’s bound to do the trick.

Next blog post will discuss Accommodation, Administration and the utter nightmare that is the French language.

A plus!

Juanito

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