“Oui, tout de tout / Oui, je regrette tout.”
Speaking as someone brought up in comfort (public school, then Oxford and being able to travel abroad for a few days at a moment’s notice) my move to Paris has possibly been the hardest month of my life. Surprisingly through no fault of my own.
The first signs that things were going to be difficult were when my car – a Peugeot, no less – started making odd noises during a trip I took down to Cornwall. You can learn a lot about a nation from the state of its cars. German cars are sophisticated yet, especially in light of “l’Affaire Volkswagen”, deceiving under the bonnet; American cars are all bark with no bite, and French cars? While it boasts with all of the gloire of a nation trying to forget its history and downfall, it’s dull, clunky and useless. Just like driving a Peugeot, getting the French to do what you want them to do with as little fuss as possible is just a desire.
Indeed, ‘useless’ is how I’d describe most facets of the administrative system in the land of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité. It took a month of complaining and using my painfully slow 3G for the folks at Bouygues Telecom to get my internet sorted, and I’ve heard people say much worse about the former state provider, Orange. My transport pass has not yet arrived, meaning I’m spending approximately one metric tonne of money on single journey metro tickets every week. Want to get an important document signed before a deadline and you’re already pressed for time between lectures and other bureaucratic nightmares? You better hope you have two hours free and wait in a long queue with everyone else.
What am I doing when I’m not complaining incessantly? It turns out I’m at another university and well, it just ain’t Oxford. A lack of academic stress is not normally a complaint, but if you’re under the impression that I feel as free as a bird, it would be more suitable to compare myself to a goose destined for a tin of foie gras, seeing as most of the day consists of repeated gavage of information in a building that makes Catz look like Versailles. The building is divided into ailes or ‘wings’, for God’s sake. Merely looking like an immigration removal centre just wasn’t enough.
To be fair, we were warned by the all-knowing mandarins at Oxford. To all those back home, every time someone complains about how Wellington Square has mucked up, take solace in the fact that the French have a system that can only be described as “hyper-Kafkaesque”, and that’s if you’re already a French citizen. Any other nationality is put at the true mercy of le systeme. Every time you think you have beaten it, you’re quickly disappointed. And then, instead of trying to rectify the problem straight away, you are sent through the labyrinth that is itself a separate system to rectify the problems of the last system before returning to the original system to continue on your merry way. Sounds complicated? Good. It’s like the film Inception, only less Ellen Page playing with mirrors on the Pont du Bir-Hakeim, and more questionnaires, angry emails, and a constant sense of panic that you’ll finally be caught out and placed indefinitely in administrative limbo.
Just like how I counted my lucky stars every time my car started, I consider myself lucky that I do finally have Internet, and that I live in a comfortable flat in the 3rd, an accessible and relatively “chic” arrondissement of Paris. Considering that Oxford is comfortable, and with many properly old buildings to boot (Baron Haussmann destroyed most of medieval Paris, leaving pretty much only the Marais unscarred), you do have to wonder why, at the age of eighteen, I elected to leave Oxford in the first place. When you’re not sobbing from homesickness, you end up questioning the feasibility of joining the thousands of migrants in Calais trying to make the dash to Dover.
So there’s my evaluation of my year abroad so far: a horrible mess thanks to the system, and yet it could be a million times worse. Instead of being skilled and agile like Muhammad Ali, the ugly, mutated behemoth that is la bureaucratie française often stands in your way before lifting you up and throwing you back to square one, like being assaulted by André the Giant. When you feel like the system is screwing you over because you weren’t given God’s golden ticket of being born in the land of Charlemagne, Napoleon and the Le Pens, you’re bored stiff at university, you’re suffering from serious FOMO from not being at Oxford, and when a tub of hummus costs three euros, it seems as if you have only liberté, égalité, fraternité, or la mort to choose from. And thus, you just have to lie back and think of England.