My name is Josefina and I’m a fourth- year International Relations student. I lived my whole life in the Czech Republic, until I went abroad to do my undergraduate degree in St Andrews. But St Andrews is not the “studying abroad” experience that I’m going to tell you about. That happened in Paris during my Erasmus placement in third year. I’m not surprised people say ‘Paris, je t’aime.’ anymore. Paris is where my heart is, and that is where it will stay for a long time from now.
The whole process of moving abroad was easier for me because I’d done it once before when I moved to Scotland for the first time. My decision to go on a Study Abroad programme from St Andrews was easy—I just didn’t like life in St Andrews that much. I was miserable and only wanted to go and live back in Prague when I’d finished my degree. I never imagined I could like any other place as much as home. My worst time in this town came around November 2016, just when the study abroad applications were almost due. I decided that being miserable in Paris for a year was better than being miserable in St Andrews.
Studying abroad also meant I got a second shot at redoing all the stuff I thought I’d done wrong the last time I started at a new university. Just a heads-up—I didn’t redo anything as I had planned. I was scared of things being in French, I didn’t join any clubs or societies (even though a few of them were exclusively in English). But to be honest I wasn’t that sorry. Thinking about studying abroad, after St Andrews I didn’t expect much. I thought moving to Paris would be a cool thing to put on my CV and tell stories about when I moved back to the Czech Republic forever. After two years in Scotland I thought that liv ing abroad was not for me. Oh, how wrong I was.
The university I went to, Sciences Po, is a prestigious institute of political sciences—one of the best in Europe. I got really excited. You don’t get many opportunities to study Europe in St Andrews IR. Sciences Po, on the contrary, is very much about studying the European Union (even though not at all exclusively). Academically, it fitted my interests perfectly. But it was a really hard transition from the structure of courses I was used to in St Andrews and made my first semester studying abroad almost painful because of the St Andrews credit requirements.
Unlike other exchange students at Sciences Po, I had to do six modules, none of which was a language class (that Sciences Po offered, and that I so badly needed to revive my French — unfortunately I couldn’t even take it voluntarily because Sciences Po has six modules as a limit and they don’t allow you to do more). For comparison, all of the other exchange students there only had to do four modules and a language class, or exceptionally five and a language class. My workload in the first semester was horrible, by far worse than the workload of St Andrews’ fourth year!
As you can imagine, my social life then wasn’t amazing. I didn’t have any real friends, although I was talking to some people in my classes. One of the great things about Sciences Po is that a third of all the undergraduate students are exchange students. This is because studying abroad is compulsory for Sciences Po undergraduates in third year. The exchange community in Paris was big and welcomed new people, but I just had no time to join in the first semester.
Even so, in November I went for a glass of wine with my classmates after our class was over. There I met Marta—my future flatmate and bestie. I didn’t really like Marta that much at first. But she was looking for someone to live with her when she took over somebody else’s flat in January and I thought, why not? It was closer to Sciences Po and in a cooler neighbourhood and, most importantly, cheaper. Almost three quarters of the rent could now be covered by the erasmus grant I got. I managed to find another person to take over my room in a flat with an older lady where I lived before—amazingly enough it was a former St Andrean who was studying her Masters at Sciences Po.
My first semester in France was tough (and I learned almost no French at all). But I didn’t feel out of place. I felt okay and wasn’t even that excited to go home, which was always the case going from St Andrews before.
I had no idea that my life in Paris had only just started. I moved in with Marta in the second semester, not expecting much since we didn’t really know each other. I had new classes, new exciting topics to think about, new classmates. Of course, Marta and I became best friends in a few months. She taught me French and why Catalonia wants to be independent (as a proud Catalan). I taught her random Czech words, what it means to be from Eastern European and how to be a horrible cynic! We had a great time. We were miserable at the same time in February, and the happiest in both our lives in May when we finished school, looked for jobs and travelled around France. We didn’t have much money so we didn’t go on many trips. But day trips from Paris are great; after a year I still had places to discover in that city.
What is worth mentioning is spring in Paris. I thought it was cliché but it’s not. My cynicism fails me there, Paris is the most beautiful place to live in in the spring. It’s also a strike season in France. In April, there was a “blockage” of Sciences Po by some of the students. They came into the main university building one night at the end of April and occupied it for the next four days, which caused most of the classes to be cancelled. At one point they tried to occupy another building where I’d just had a class. We ended up being locked inside the building for two hours, not knowing when we would get out. In the end the security guards let us out in the groups of five from the old back exit, it was like a secret agent escape. Life (and people) can be so dramatic in Paris.
I knew by spring that my life in Paris was and might forever be the best time of my whole life. I was so happy. I suddenly had everything I’d never experienced in St Andrews and never even knew I wanted. I lived a proper student life with a lot of friends with the same interests. I drank wine by the Seine, went to museums for free (because EU citizens under 26 are free in most places in Paris!), and found my best friend in the world. And, of course, I had a brief romance at the end of semester with a Norwegian classmate—doomed from the start by having to break it up when I left. I even stopped my cynicism for a few days. No, actually not as much.
Even so, I really miss the international community. Being with people from all different backgrounds and countries could be annoying at times. But not being around them any more, I’ve realised that it was the most enriching society that I’ve ever been part of. I know you’ve heard all of this before because people who have studied abroad can’t shut up about it. I am the prime example. But studying abroad is the most fascinating thing you’ll ever do. How I changed as a person in Paris and learned to approach life differently is surprising. Especially when I never thought I could or would. Looking back, I would not change a thing. Wish me luck, I’m applying to do to a Masters course there after I escape St Andrews once and for all. Maybe I will live the great life in Paris once more. Or maybe I’ll hate it the second time. I just know that my affair with that city is not over yet.
Fun fact to end with. The whole time living in Paris was cheaper for me than living in St Andrews (and I live on one of the cheaper rents in this town, all the way up by Morrisons). That is including life expenses and stuff that I don’t even have in St Andrews such as a pass for the metro.