A year in Paris: half term report

Madeleine, an 18th century church in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris
The view of Paris from l'Arc de Triomphe
The view of Paris from l’Arc de Triomphe

Bursting the Bubble

After a several-month-long hiatus in writing this blog owing to exams, essays and inertia (many apologies, Ed), I am left contemplating, not Paris, but the Bubble. Since departing east Fife’s shores and witnessing St Andrews life from the other side of the channel, my opinion about the place has changed somewhat. Nailing our colours to the mast, we bandy around the euphemism, the Bubble, as a point of pride, as if we are different, separate, somehow elevated above the untermensch.

But living in the heart of a big city where you are just another face, another set of shoes trudging to and from the metro, another weathered hand that drops 50 cents into the polystyrene cup of a Roma family of five as they shiver through the freezing Parisian winter nights, the whole Bubble thing begins to seem fairly pathetic; and not just that, worrying. According to the University of St Andrews’ website, thanks to the small nature of the town: “You start to feel very quickly that you belong.” This is all well and good and after two years of being in the Bubble I certainly felt like I belonged.

However, quitting St Andrews, you quickly learn that what once was comforting cotton wool have become shackles. Although I would argue that two years of St Andrews education stood me in good stead for the academic rigor of the Sorbonne, it would be entirely wrong to suggest that I was in any way prepared for the novelty of it all, the shock of not feeling like you belong. St Andrews has taken much flak in recent years after figures about its intake of relatively poor Scots buttressed its image as a bastion of the cosseted and wealthy, the elite, the publicly educated and the frequenters of 40s. “The Bubble” does not help this image: it suggests a severance, a self-obsession, an insouciance for anything outside St Andrews.

Madeleine, an 18th century church in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris
Madeleine, an 18th century church in the 8th Arrondissement of Paris

These attitudes fuel a hubris which should be anathema to any university education, an education that at its best should not only equip you with the necessary tools for the job market but for life in general, an awareness of the world that surrounds us. A friend of mine who went on a year abroad said that returning to St Andrews was strange, that it felt like a part of his life he’d put behind him, that once you’ve burst the Bubble you can’t just blow another one.


The sick man of Europe

As Europe’s economic recovery gains traction, France’s economy is ineluctably sliding backwards. Unemployment figures and recently published data shows that France’s service sector output slumped to a six-month low in December. Yet rather than tackle the economy head on and stave off suggestions that France is the new sick man of Europe, Francois Hollande, the least popular French leader, it seems, since Louis XVI (who lest we forget was executed), has stolen the headlines for his indiscretions.

The subject of Monet's 'Water lilies' in Giverny
The subject of Monet’s ‘Water lilies’ in Giverny

The magazine Closer, infamous for splashing salacious gossip across its pages, has published revelations alleging Hollande to have indulged in an affair with actress Julie Gayet. Le President struck back, deploring the attack on his privacy and suggesting he might seek legal advice. The indiscretions of the president laid bare differ sharply from the pre-Mitterand era, when affairs were the done thing, lovers were kept and illegitimate children were accepted with a Gallic shrug.

Agnes Poirier, a French journalist writing in the Observer, summed up the mystique of the “President” succinctly: “I grew up in a country where the president embodied not just the state but also the nation. He may be a man, but he is also an institution. He is France – in other words, he is me and I am him. We may dislike the human being; we inevitably revere the symbol. Hence the deference – or at the very least, the inherent respect – accorded any French president by his compatriots”. The airing of Hollande’s dirty laundry feels like a watershed moment: the revered symbol has become just another celebrity in the gossip mill, chugging along and spewing whatever rot it can grind out, no matter whose private life is laid bare, even if “he is France”.

But I digress: as France sank ever deeper into the quagmire of recession, pressure from the trade unions forced local governments into changing opening hours. Supermarkets which were at one time open until 11pm, seven days a week, now shut their doors at 8pm during the week and not at all on a Sunday. It’s not that the French are idle, however. Graffiti has been daubed across the city along the lines of “Nous voulons travailler” (“We want to work”). The debate that raged in Britain in 1993 about Sunday opening hours is currently taking place in France, the only difference being that the French economy is in tatters and refusing custom in the evenings and at the weekend and stopping the French working seems like the policy of the most witless of dunderheads. It is, after all, the economy stupid.

Paris shooting

You may not have noticed on the other side of the Channel but in mid-November, Paris found itself with a gunman on the loose. The shooter, later named as Abdelhakim Dekhar, who was convicted in 1998 as an accomplice in a high-profile 1994 robbery and car chase that left three police officers and a taxi driver dead, shot a young photographer in the offices of the left-leaning newspaper Libération before terrorizing staff at the headquarters of the bank Société Générale.

Yet you’d be forgiven for thinking not a whole lot was going on. News reports did their best to play up the fears that abounded but the idle-looking police officers dragging on their Gauloises spelt out a collective Gallic shrug. So the frightfully British scaredy-cat I had been when the story broke scuttled off, and I sauntered the streets, feigning blissful ignorance that I may at any moment have my head blown off. If this is how they treat a gun wielding loon, it’s not surprise their economy is in the doldrums. Just stick your head in the sand and keep belting out the Marseillaise. All together now: “Allons enfants de la Patrie…”


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