The UBC/Sciences Po Dual Degree Program gives UBC social science students the opportunity to spend their first two years of college at one of France's elite universities. As a first year in the program from Vancouver, France has certainly not disappointed — from European nightlife, to trench coat season, to regionally-correct champagne.
However, if there's one thing we’ve learned from our French peers since our arrival, it’s how to complain about everything. Here are some of the biggest culture shocks my UBC dual degree peers had to share.
While it sounds like a stereotypical take from the controversial Netflix series, dual degree students confirmed that French people’s attitudes are harsh compared to trademark Canadian friendliness. Rasee Kachchakaduge, a first-year student, found that people were much more outwardly judgemental and that it was more intimidating to ask for help.
“I'm not saying Canadians aren't judgmental, but I think we keep it more to ourselves,” she said.
Mayya Chaykina, also in her first year, said that she doesn’t mind the bluntness.
“As someone who worked as a receptionist myself, I know we were trained to be very friendly. Here, things are a lot more straightforward, which I personally like. You just go into a bakery, you order, and you're out of there very fast.”
Students also pointed out the lack of diversity in Reims, the small city outside of Paris where Sciences Po is located. Kachchakaduge said she missed the abundance of cultural food and authentic restaurants to choose from in Vancouver.
Deon Feng, a second-year student, mentioned Orientalist and xenophobic attitudes that left them feeling stared at on the streets.
“It's like some French people have literally never seen an Asian person in their life. I've crossed the street and I've heard a kid say, ‘Regarde maman c'est un Chinois! [Look mom, it's a Chinese!].’ That would never happen in Vancouver.”
For newcomers, both social environments and bureaucratic systems can be hostile.
French administration, both public and private, is also incredibly slow and convoluted at times. Chaykina described it as a “never ending loop.”
“For example, to get a French phone number, you need a French bank account; but to get a French bank account, you need a French phone number.” While she admits that there are loopholes, it can get ridiculous.
The same can be said for visas. Kachchakaduge mentioned how difficult it was to navigate through the application process on her own: “It's a mess and no one really prepares you for it.”
The social environment of Reims can be challenging, but financially, at least it's relatively affordable.
What most tourists might not know is that the abundance of social services in France makes it a relatively economical destination for international students.
The government partially subsidises rent for domestic and international students through the CAF program. The state-funded Crous program also gives students access to affordable housing and three-course lunches for as little as one euro for scholarship students.
Paris is only a short trip from Reims, and from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame to the Panthéon, the capital is an incredible destination for the arts and history. However, the dual degree students felt like the city was often over-romanticised by their friends and family back home and wanted to debunk some misconceptions about the City of Lights.
“It's dirty, it's crowded, and it's not as romantic as you might think it is,” said Kachchakaduge. “There are so many gorgeous places around France, and so much more France has to offer than touristy Paris.”
Feng shared a similar sentiment. “It's not the 1920s anymore,” they said, “but I still like it all the same, for all its dirtiness.”