"Surviving as a sorbonnarde", by Ruqayyah

I remember being on holiday nearly a decade ago and my dad pointing out the Sorbonne as we passed by, explaining that it was one of the oldest universities in the world and suggesting offhandedly that, when the time came, I could think about applying to a foreign university. After unexpectedly ending up studying French a few years later, I’d gone to stay with a family in Normandy for an “intense French revision holiday” and it was there that I remembered what he had said. I was already leaning towards going to l’Île-de-France when I started doing my year abroad research and, on reading that Paris IV had the best languages department in the country, choosing to go there became a total no-brainer.

I was nervous before leaving: I’d essentially jumped from GCSE French to second year university level in the space of two years, and felt like as I was still playing catch-up, I would struggle more than everyone else. I had unwittingly painted a picture of what lay ahead when I arrived, however most of my preconceptions turned out to be wrong. My to-do list was left unscathed and nothing went to plan, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. When not at home obsessing over a macaron recipe or cursing crèmes brûlées for singeing, I was shown round artists’ ateliers, met musicians in jazz clubs, photographed photographers, received freebies from bakers and chatted with textile-designers about silk-weaving all, to my surprise, in relatively comprehensible French. And I still serendipitously happened upon all of that “quintessential must-see Parisian stuff” without having to traipse around hackneyed attractions.

I’d been warned of the inaccessibility and exclusive nature of parigots, that my peers would already have cemented their social circles and that I would have to make extra effort, so I joined Judo and BJJ to meet people. It transpired that having my derrière kicked around bi-weekly was (bizarrely) helpful in making friends, but wasn’t actually necessary in doing so, nor was making much effort. On finishing my first Spanish class, I was approached by three tentative French girls asking me to lunch, and the same happened in Italian the following week. Six months later, I’ve just said goodbye to those same friends, who always kept me company, were eager to include me in everything, who saw beyond my naivety and grammatical faux-pas and who were the main reason my French improved.

Because the Erasmus events weren’t my scene and the class was tough, my “Erasmus experience” may not have been conventional, but I really enjoyed it. That said, the module-choosing and paperwork were so kafkaesque that after a month of being hamstrung by red tape, I gave up trying to coordinate credits and subjects and ended up stuck in classes where previous study should have been a pre-requisite. Translating El País extracts on Venezuelan politics into native-standard French, and the seemingly-arbitrary marking made me feel as though I’d been spoon-fed during my English education, when actually fac was just more demanding. Learning to live with lower marks aside, the challenge was rewarding and was compensated for by things like les Sorbonnales and le Gala. On an unrelated note, your chances of finding decent, reasonably-priced accommodation in Paris are about as good as finding proper Brie in Tesco. I ultimately had to compromise but rather than freeze in a 7m2 studio in Pigalle, I jammily sub-let a bedroom from the parents of a Liverpool student in les Halles, using my Navigo-Vélib to get to class.

Disregarding the “crise du quart de vie” that conveniently coincided with my first weeks at fac, the aspect of being away I struggled with most was being perceived as “foreign”. Getting teased over putting milk in my tea, my mignon accent and baked beans, and being questioned about the wonders of Poundland was amusing, but it was frustrating not being able to interact as I would in my mother tongue, and I was sometimes shocked at how embarrassed I felt about being English.

Note: Vingt-et-Un, hyperactive fac students and Pastis are definitely not a wise mix but they guarantee a good night.

Concisely summarising a semester at the Sorbonne, let alone life in France’s capital, isn’t possible. Besides experiences differing from person to person, I’d just be giving spoilers if I went into all the surprises, ups, downs and rushing around involved, and I feel as though there isn’t much about Paris that hasn’t been said. It’s still beautiful but you’re bound for disappointment if you expect a romantic little attic in the Paris of Gothic novels or the Belle Époque. A lot of my time was spent underground or in classrooms overlooking the banlieues. Paris is, indeed, steeped in history, culture, secrets and stories, but that real “magic” is only found in small pockets where most don’t bother searching. Avoid looking places up online or using the metro too much; go and get lost. And when you discover your own secret spots, refrain from divulging their locations with everyone. I’m incredibly grateful for having lived here and feel as though it’s changed how I see things as well as opened up an infinite amount of doors – and not just career-related ones!


Try (almost) everything, learn to love the grey skies, avoid the eccentric SDFs, eat Spéculoos, fresh traditions and fromage AOC whenever they're available, go out whenever the opportunity arises, always say yes to un before and if you hoard books, be prepared to throw out half the belongings you arrived with on returning. Bar the obvious, the only things you’ll really need to survive as a sorbonnarde: sensible shoes, the pluck to give it a go and get it wrong, a notebook for vocabulary or scrapbooking, your Collins-Robert, not too many expectations and a scarf for when the cold kicks in. And not forgetting a little mettle.

Note: Vingt-et-Un, hyperactive fac students and Pastis are definitely not a wise mix but they guarantee a good night.