Monday, 25 May 2009

Journal Entry 6: 25th May 2009

And so we come to my final few weeks in Rennes, and consequently my last journal entry... I'll forgive you if you're breathing a sigh of relief right now! It's a funny feeling, though - while looking forward to returning home, it's also strange to find myself at the end of this year abroad already, and is an ideal time to reflect on how the year has gone.

It would be fair to say it got off to a considerably rocky start, and in my first term I was very very unhappy here, which had a knock on effect on my mental health, and as a result, my physical health and my day-to-day life. Having taken stock of how I was feeling over Christmas, speaking to friends, family and Exeter staff I elected to return to Rennes - although, in all honesty, it was never in doubt - I know myself well enough to know that had I not at least tried to make a go of things out here, I would never have forgiven myself. One thing I am not is a quitter. I found enough modules to just about make up for the credits missed in my first semester, and chose modules that I knew would interest me and motivate me to work.

Unfortunately the strikes interfered with this somewhat, and now I am at the end of my second semester and have sat as many of the exams as possible, although with minimal amounts of teaching it remains to be seen how well I've done, but there is little point fretting about it now - I have done everything in my power to try and ensure that I pass these exams.

However the year has panned out in terms of my education at Rennes II, I feel that I have benefited from merely being abroad - and my confidence has improved, even if I do still get a little apprehensive at times - I still get so nervous my pulse races, when I have to speak to, for example, a tutor one-to-one which is a horrible, feeling. I have managed to go and visit Paris 3 times over the year, as well as some time in Pisa (more on this later!) which has on the one hand reminded me of my passion for the language, and why I chose to study it in the first place, but simultaneously reminded me that over the summer I need to brush up on my vocabulary and mastery of the Italian grammar, in whatever way possible.

It's been a few years since I last went to Italy but my time in Pisa was fabulous, although I did come to the conclusion that I prefer the French architecture over the Italian architecture, but that's by the by. It had been a long time since I'd seen Nicola and having some time together and seeing where she's spent her year, and how, was lovely. I also saw Jen, another Exeter girl who Nicola lives with, and Charlotte, another course mate. My Italian was weaker than I thought, which is worrying, but has also spurred me on to focus on it over the summer, perhaps by buying Italian translations of well known books I've read to improve my vocabulary, among other things.

We visited Florence, and Lucca, which were both lovely - Lucca in the sunshine was particularly idyllic, and lovely and green. Italian ice cream is delicious, and I ate a LOT of pizza - naturally, I suppose. The French just don't quite know how to do it - instead of mozzarella and tomato, the most common one is jambon and emmental - not quite what I'm looking for in a pizza! I ate well, slept well, and felt relaxed, which doesn’t happen all too often in Rennes! At the end of a year that’s had both ups and downs, we could look forward together to next year back in Exeter, and being reunited with everybody who’s been abroad this year.

As far as final comments on my year in Rennes go, I feel being on the continent has helped improve my language, although in all honesty, for the money and the emotional turmoil I’ve been through, I don’t know if I’ve seen a big enough improvement... I do wonder whether in future, if tuition fees do go up, people will be less happy to sign up to a course that incurs extra costs, although, equally, I suppose students will be prepared to do it for the improvement in their language.

It’s been a rollercoaster, yet I am slightly sad to be leaving... I don’t know what this summer holds me, other than a houseful after the serenity of my little chambre! I’ve got my little habits and routines here that will be lost, and of course my darling friend Caroline, who has shown me extreme kindness as well as giving me an insight into local theatre through her amateur dramatics, and her interest in all things theatrical.

I could go on and on and on, but I think now would be as good a time as any to sign off. I queried at the start of the year whether I was even doing the right degree, but when we found an old visitor’s book at my grandfather’s, I’d signed it at the ripe old age of 5 and a half, before I’d even started learning languages, and added a comment of “très bon”, so at the end of my year here I’ve finally accepted that my degree is the right one, and as a result, this year should have happened, and that there is no point now looking back with regret.

Journal Entry 5: 6th April 2009

It's only been a few weeks since my last update, and yet the news is the same - I've been to Paris again! It was a fairly spontaneous decision, but as the blockades are still in full force here, I thought I might as well make the most of the free time and explore a bit! I stayed with Stefan, a bilingual Post Grad student from Exeter who's currently living with his Parisian father and welsh mother in the suburbs of Paris. Once again, I feel like spending time in Paris with someone else gave me yet another experience of Paris. Each day, we had no fixed plans, and just hopped onto the metro line and headed wherever took our fancy, usually with a cheeky bottle of red wine in tow! We managed to land ourselves with some free champagne, saw some amazing street performers, and while dining at a French friend of Stefan's, I learnt (and was quite good at!) the card game 'tarot.' We explored La Défense, went to a jazz exhibition, and drank wine on the hill up to the Sacré Coeur. Stefan commented that he felt there had been a marked improvement in my French since the last time he saw me in February, though whether he said it just to encourage me, I don't know - I'd like to think not!

Back in Rennes, my social life has picked up considerably. A lot of the Erasmus students who were here in the first semester have left, and as a result those who are left have reformed a smaller, closer group and we frequently spend time together, which I enjoy immensely and has improved my state of mind and attitude towards being here hugely, which I am immensely grateful for.

I did spend some time in the UK in March, while the strikes were ongoing, and popped to Exeter for the elections for the Erasmus Society committee for the next academic year. A friend and myself were running together for the joint positions of Events Organisers, and we were voted in! A fair few others had nominated themselves for the position, and competition was tough... I have to say, in the end, I think the fact that we were both present for the elections to make our speeches swung in our favour, but either way, I'm very happy that next year I have the chance to help incoming Erasmus students to Exeter to make the most of their time here, after feeling that there's been quite a lack of support for Erasmus students here in Rennes.

Last week I did spontaneously book flights to go to Pisa next week to see Nicola, as it seems very likely that the strikes will still be ongoing. Windows have been broken here at the university, and at one point the Vice President of the uni was taken hostage within one of the university buildings, so in my next journal entry I'll tell you all about it!

Journal Entry 4: 2nd March 2009

After what was a fairly promising start to the semester, since the 2nd February the university has actually been on strike. I'm now editing this on the 22nd March, and the strikes still haven't finished. It started out quite innocently, with lessons simply not happening, but it developed into frequent manifestations, and the university buildings' doors being blocked up with desks and chairs from the inside, to physically prevent anybody from getting into the building. There's now an extensive picket line and there's a student presence on campus every morning from 7am to ensure the blockades stand strong. With things being the way there are, there is not much to report on my progress at university in France, so instead I will try and explain why the French are striking from the information I have gleaned from various sources.

At first it was the lecturers themselves striking - this coincided with some general strikes and protests across France in response to the government's handling of the current economic crisis. In the education sector it seems the government has announced job cuts - this is right across the education system, from schools up to university level, and the strikes have reflected this. In addition to this, it also seems to be partly due to lecturers losing power over how their time is structured, and having to surrender power over what their research focuses on to their superiors - in fact, it seems to be this restructuring within the university staff that has been the least popular. Now, the students are involved with the strikes too, I believe merely to support the staff, though that is not to say that the changes have not been unpopular with the students too, just that the students have not been affected as directly as the staff, until the strikes began anyway!

Personally, while France is famous for permanently being on strike, and these strikes have interfered with my studies, I do feel that maybe we should take a leaf out of their book in some respects. Whatever we may judge of their strikes as a country, they have the gumption to actually do something when they're not happy, and make a stand. We may grumble and moan about things, but how often do we make a stand and insist that something is changed? Students in the UK are charged approximately £3000 in tuition fees each year, which along with maintenance loans means an average 3 year student leaves university with a massive £18,000 worth of debt - and now there is talk of the tuition fees being increased again.

As previously stated, I am now editing this on the 22nd March. By my calculations 6 weeks of teaching have been missed due to the strikes. As it stands, it is uncertain as to what the university intend to do about the missed teaching, but as far as I can see, even if the strikes finish tomorrow, making up 6 weeks of teaching including the week's holiday set aside for Easter, and the 1 week of study leave for revision, instead of finishing exams on the 6th May, I actually wouldn't finish until the 3rd or 4th week in June. This incurs extra financial strain as well as extending the year well beyond the term dates given. I appreciate it's due to unforeseen circumstances and that until Rennes II have said how they intend to resolve the problems created by the strikes that there isn't much point in worrying, but I think given how long this has been the situation for several of us in France, it's time for Exeter to make a decision on how to assess us and let us know. My reasoning is that I don't see how the university can make up all 6 weeks of teaching, and consequently to base our assessment on French exams when we haven't benefited from all the teaching we should have had, the results aren't a good indicator of our progress.

As far as the standard of my French is concerned, I feel like I am finally improving as a result of my time here. I spent 5 days of half term week in Paris with a French friend, as well as my parents and some old colleagues from Exeter being there at the same time. I noticed that when I was talking to French people, even if they persisted in speaking to me in English, I responded automatically in French, without even having to stop and think to make the transition from one language to another. What does frustrate me is grammar that I still haven't grasped, although this is fairly minimal, the main culprit being when to use direct and when to use indirect pronouns. It's not that I don't understand the difference, more that I just can't get my head around when to use which, but Caroline corrects me and we've gone over it a few times - hopefully with some exercises I might be able to master it.

I feel this stay in Paris differed to my last visit there, and offered me a different side of Paris. Last time, that is to say, my visit to Gaby in November, I feel I discovered the tourist side of Paris, whereas this time, being with Caroline, and her cousins who live in Paris, I feel I got a taste of the more Parisian side of Paris, so to speak. Having a mixture of people there was also entertaining, and the Sunday evening when I went for a meal with my parents, Caroline, and my friends from the Clog, was lovely.

Journal Entry 3: 26th January 2009

So here we are, a new year, a fresh start, and I am back in Rennes.

I moved back out here on the 12th of this month, ready to tackle the second semester head on and get down to business with my courses. I managed to choose 39.5 ECTS credits worth of modules, which will hopefully be enough along with my YAJ to complete the year. Unfortunately when it came to timetabling, there was one module that I simply could not accommodate - the French tend to fit all their teaching hours in the first half of the week, mostly mornings, and I could not find a time slot that didn't clash with something else.

I've chosen a wide variety of courses, the most useful and important I feel to be my Italian grammar class and my French/Italian translation classes, which I hope will help me to master both languages, and also help me keep up with my Italian as I most likely be spending much, if any time, there before I return to Exeter for 4th year.

My time in Rennes thus far, as my previous journal entries have shown, has been little more than tolerable, and I have found myself feeling quite low a lot of the time, and in fact really didn't want to return here for more of the same after Christmas. I have suffered with depression in the past and consequently went to see my doctor over Christmas to try and get some support. His opinion was that the way I've been feeling is a result of my circumstances but that if these do not improve things could become more of a problem, and has suggested that I try to find a support network, or boost my support network, to help me cope with my time abroad, and also wrote a doctor's note for Exeter as acknowledgement of how difficult I have been finding my time abroad so far, and the effect it's having on my mental health, though was reluctant to prescribe medication as I wouldn't be in England for the required follow up appointments. I've ummed and ahhed about whether to include this in my journal, but I feel that not doing so would be quite a big omission.

One big difference I have noticed is how I feel about my own safety. At home in the West Midlands, and in Exeter, I am fairly comfortable and confident being out and about after dark on my own, unlike some friends I have who insist on always being walked home. Saying I am entirely relaxed doing it would be an overstatement, but I am not too afraid to do it. Here, however, in the space of a week there were three "incidents" in the space of a week when I was out after dark and was intimidated by groups of male youths/men. I found this very unsettling, partly because I'm not used to that feeling of intimidation, and partly because being in a foreign country, it is possibly more intimidating than back in the UK. It hasn't been anything physical, but on one occasion another girl and I were followed from the centre of town to the next metro stop along, and on another occasion a car pulled over opposite the entrance to my building and cat calls and so on were made from the car windows, with the car engine being revved at the same time as a friend and I returned home. It's taken some getting used to, not having that same almost automatic feeling of safety, and I asked a friend in Exeter to post me a personal alarm to keep with me when I'm out on my own. I don't know whether this is a problem that's considerably bigger in France, or if I just haven't encountered it in the UK before and that's what I am finding unsettling.

Journal Entry 2: 15th December 2008

I have made the decision not to sit my exams this semester. This is going to be a very difficult decision to justify, however, in all honesty, I cannot see what good can come from sitting exams for modules when I haven't, for the most part, attended the classes. I spoke to Christine about this during a brief visit to Exeter at the start of December, and while I have noted that if I don't acquire all the necessary credits for the Year Abroad I may well have created a lot of problems for myself, I still feel that little will be achieved by staying in Rennes until just before Christmas and sitting the exams.

Things have not improved much since my last journal entry, other than that I have reached a point where I am now doing more than just coping, and managing to live a more "normal" life out here, but I still feel very isolated and depressed. I haven't bonded with anybody other than my French friend Caroline, who I am in fairly regular contact with but don't really see all that often. I still have very little to do with other Erasmus students here, there doesn't seem to be an Erasmus "Society", certainly not one established by the University. There are very occasional emails about day trips, from a member of staff at the University. It's made me consider the role of the Erasmus Society in Exeter and think about investigating the committee positions for the next academic year, as I feel an Erasmus society here would have been of enormous benefit to me.

In more cheerful news, I did spend a weekend at the end of November with in Paris with my old housemate, and fellow French and Italian student Gaby. Rennes is only 2 hours away by train, so I took myself off there on the Friday afternoon and returned Monday morning. I have been having a one-sided love affair with Paris for years now, and would hate to admit just how many times I've watched "Moulin Rouge" (in all honesty, I probably couldn't admit to it, as I lost count a very very long time ago...) but have not actually been to Paris before. I was slightly nervous that it wouldn't live up to my expectations, but I needn't have been - even seeing a rat in the street when we were out on the Saturday evening was Parisian charm for me. Gaby was a fantastic tour guide, taking me to Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame, La Madeleine, the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, l'Arc de Triompe... The list goes on and on! It certainly tackled my rather paralysing fear of heights head on! It was lovely spending some time with an old friend in the run up to Christmas, and certainly helped break up my time here. Following my brief stay in Exeter, my boyfriend flew back out with me for a couple of days and we went to a couple of gig at the music festival held in Rennes, "Les Transmusicales." Again, this broke up my time here as well as gave me more of an incentive to get out and about within Rennes.

My French is gradually improving, I think the thing I've noticed most is the pace of my language - I no longer have to think about something to understand it after I've heard it, if that makes sense, and likewise the speed of my spoken French is increasing I believe.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Journal Entry 1: 31st October 2008

I arrived in Rennes on the 13th September, so I have now been here for almost 2 months. Considering the length of time I have been here, thus far I have very little to report that's positive. I'm not sure how best to approach this journal, because I'd like to try to be objective, however, how the experience has affected me emotionally can't go unmentioned.

My year abroad placement was all rather last minute, and consequently I missed the "Erasmus week" here in Rennes, and as a result have struggled to meet and bond with other Erasmus students. The Erasmus students I have met, mostly from the UK but some from Germany, seem to have already formed a clique and I rarely am included . Whether this sounds like a juvenile attitude or not, I don't know

There have been many obstacles thus far, that I have struggled to overcome and move past owing to a crippling lack of confidence on my part. Of all the things that are needed to spend a successful year abroad, I believe that confidence and self belief are the most important -

The problem is with a lack of confidence that even if you can identify that that is what's holding you back, what's also lacking is the capability to resolve it, or at least there is no immediate solution. I have no reason to doubt my language ability, and yet I find myself nervous when a situation arises where I will need to speak one on one with a native, and almost script what I need to say ahead of time, hoping that they won't say anything I won't understand. For this reason, even the smallest of tasks becomes mammoth; I'm making a mountain out of a molehill some might say.

I appreciate that this has been more about how I'm coping given my own strengths and, more relevantly, my weaknesses, than how I am finding Rennes, and my improvement in all aspects of my French, however, I imagine that the first term was always going to cast a light on our own character and attitude. This evening, I am hopefully off to meet other Erasmus students which will hopefully result in me feeling more integrated; thus far my existence here has been rather lonely and isolated. I owe a lot to a French girl here who I coincidentally met in the UK over the summer while she was au pairing, and it's through her that I have experienced the French culture, and furthered my language skills, by having meals with her and her family, going to various story telling evenings including one she was performing in, and conversations with us both helping the other to further their second language. Although we were introduced as a matter of convenience, to give me a contact in Rennes for when I moved out here, we have a strong friendship, and I can't help but feel that if it wasn't for her I might have already given up and returned home.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend...

3.41am and I'm finally writing my first blog. I've realised my first Year Abroad Journal entry is due in on the 1st November so I need to start assembling my thoughts about just how I'm going to analyse my time here so far.

I've decided I see little point in pretending that it's been easy - it's been anything but easy. What will I learn by trying to fool myself, and more importantly perhaps the tutors in Exeter may be able to help future students with preparation for their time abroad from my experiences.

Looking back, I believe if I had been here for the Erasmus week, or if I had at least known that the first couple of weeks were to tip up, see what lessons went well, what didn't etc I probably wouldn't be here, hating every minute, now. It's not entirely the French administration at fault, but perhaps some kind of... explanation prior to my arrival would've helped - then again, that's what the Erasmus week was for.

Culture shock hasn't been too much of a problem - only not being able to find rashers of bacon, or cheddar cheese is taking it's toll on me. The city is nice enough, and I love being able to nip about on the metro to get from a to b. I know where I can find home comforts like Gu brownies, and where the H+M is, and feel quite confident getting around, though some spots are to be avoided - as I learnt in my first week! I wandered down Rue de la Soif, where ALL the bars are, on a football afternoon and was promptly accosted by drunk and excitable football fans - the first posed with me while his friend said "SMILE!" while the 2nd wouldn't let me go - I had to physically lift his arm from around my shoulders. They were harmless, I'm sure, and I had a good giggle about it afterwards, but possibly not advisable for a young gal on her own!

The biggest obstacle is my confidence - or to be more exact, lack of it. Having missed the first few lessons of various modules I have still not plucked up the courage to go, petrified of drawing attention to myself/not knowing or understanding what's going on and simply nervous having left it so late. This is getting worse and worse the longer I leave it, and I really need to just email the tutors and explain - but this late on even excuses are going to look poor. Need to go back to my mantra of 'what's the worst that can happen?' Thankfully I'm only taking a minimal amount of lessons this semester meaning a) I can't do THAT badly and b) next term I'll be much busier with all the credits I'll need to take... Given the advantage of knowing what to do when I come back in January. I also have all the module descriptions for next semester already so I can start to peruse and pick some interesting ones...

I will say that I feel I'm learning to enjoy my own company, or at least learning to be able to cope with it. I've decided I want to be better read - I've had a few conversations recently where I have felt not quite uneducated, but that there are things I should know and understand and don't. I'm planning on teaching myself French history [too late to take a module now, but maybe something to think about for next term?] using the wonder of the internet and maybe buying a not too complex French book charting the major events.

There have been highs - day trip to St Malo, an evening out with a few English girls, seeing Caroline my lovely lovely French friend once a week or so... But I do feel slightly excluded by the English Erasmus people here - primarily, I believe, because they all bonded in the week I wasn't here and I was the 'late arrival.' I do intend to keep trying to infiltrate but I find it very demoralising when you persist and persist and still get nowhere.

As of tonight, I'm going to try and create a list of things I could take the chance to do while I'm here - some day-to-day, some visits perhaps... A weekend down in Bordeaux in the spring, a trip to see Gaby in Paris before Christmas... Pisa in the New Year I hope... Becoming quite the accomplished traveller, assuming all goes without a hitch this weekend.

This entry has been a bit lacking in Structure, and more about me than my time here in Rennes, but I'm hoping from here I can start to move forward. I'm at home next week - though whether this will offer any comfort or support, I'm not sure, but it will be nice to have the opportunity to catch up with the college crew, and my Bewdley babes... - then can come back, hopefully with a fresh head and a more positive attitude and ride this semester out til January. I may also investigate some kind of ... counselling, perhaps, or *shudders* self help to see what I can do to help boost my confidence. It may just be that one first step, but somehow... I feel I've made a few while I've been here and haven't had some kind of epiphany...

Finally, I'd like to show my gratitude to those who've been there for me when I've needed a shoulder to cry on: Tom, first and foremost. I know I drive you bonkers, but I'll get there in the end. I promise. Nicola, Casper, Hugh, Josh, Poshy... The list goes on. It may not seem like I appreciate it at the time, too bogged down in self pity but I really do. The little things mean so much.

For now, mes amis, onwards and upwards... Tequila Tess xxx