In a word, my first day of real classes at Sciences Po was…anticlimactic. After weeks of ooohs and ahhs and rumors and lectures about how incredibly hard Sciences Po would be, I was frankly almost disappointed.
This year will be far from easy, but after all the build-up, I was getting kind of curious to find out what school could be like when it’s really really really hard. I was terrified, yes. Barely able to sleep last night, definitely. The fear was unecessary.
I’m not sure I believe in the idea of really hard school. School that makes you work hard, bien sûr, but I’ve never been faced with any work that wasn’t doable with a little effort.
Walking to school this morning was every kind of terrible – with every step I psyched myself out a little bit more. Every step said “You are not on the same level as these French Sciences Po students, what are you doing here?!?!” The doubts stuck with me as I sprinted up four flights of stairs, entered the classroom and sat down. As soon as the maître (translates literally as “master,” but means teacher) began to speak though, I remembered one important but forgotten fact – I really like school. In fact, I would maybe go to far as to say that when it’s good, I really love school. Rather then feeling waves of doom crashing down on my head, I actually got kind of excited as we went over the syllabus. Like, excited to buckle down and do some real, interesting work this semester. Work with the added challenge of being entirely in French. The prospect kind of thrills me.
My first class of the day was a conference (something like a quiz section at UW) for my class on the Union éuropéenne et droit (law) communautaire. Meeting once a week for two hours at a time, the conferences are the basis for your entire grade for the course. During the two hour séance today, we were instructed to form groups of three, in which we would be doing all of our work for the rest of the semester.
This was at first terrifying, given that no one in the 30 person conference knew anyone else (well technically, Jessica and I have a prior connaissance. But due to the fact that we not only went to UW together, but Stadium High School as well, we were pretending we didn’t know each other. Otherwise, it’s just too weird to be in a class together in Paris), and we were choosing two people upon which our semester grades are going to rest. After maybe a minute of silence and furtive glances, we all went for it, and I am now permanent study buddies with Alex from Germany and Sara from Poland.
The grouping was followed by a frantic 45 minutes of choosing our work for the rest of the semester. That’s right, choosing our work. We were each handed a two page itinerary that detailed the subject of every séance in the semester and told we needed to choose: 2 exposés (strictly formatted oral presentations), 2 points d’actualités (news summaries), 4 fiches techniques (four-page reports, but in a less formal note style) and 2 débats (debates). As the conference meets only once a week, there are only 14 séances in the semester, and of the debate and oral presentation subjects, some were decidedly more desirable than others.
Some of the subjects were in high demand, such as “Après les référendums français et néerlandais, la Constitution est-elle morte?” (After the referendums of France and the Netherlands is the Constitution of the European Union dead?) My group was lucky enough to snag this for one of our exposés, but we got stuck with one real doozy: “Pourquoi peut-on dire que l’Union européenne est “un objet politique non identifié?” (Why can the EU be termed a non-identified political entity?) It was slightly unsettling that the maître chuckled when she assigned it to us and said, “Je vous aiderai.” (I will help you).
Even (or perhaps especially) in groups, this is a hefty workload for the semester for just one class. Hefty doesn’t necessarily mean hard though. Yes it’s a lot, but as long as I actually put in the hours, Sciences Po is not going to be giving me the hernia I’d expected.
My second class of the day was the Cours Magistral (like a big UW lecture) for La Vie Politique de la France Aujourd’hui, which I was actually really excited for. Rightly so, as the professor is really relaxed and funny and has written half the books assigned throughout the Sciences Po curriculum. I never knew I was so interested in French politics (though I had been really looking forward to this class), but I was rapt as we went through the five presidents of the 5ème republic. That was as much politics as we got today, because the first part of the class was comprised of an introduction/low-key quiz to see how much we knew about political entities around the world.
The one disturbing part of the class was when a girl got booed. Yes, booed. I didn’t feel that sorry for her though – she’s apparently a fellow American, and seems to be pretty proud of that fact. When Professor Duhamel asked someone to describe the function of the NSA, she goes, “The National Security Agency of the United States…” I think she might have been about to switch into French at this point, but she was completely drowned out by laughing and booing. This wasn’t even intimidating though – I have never at any point been in danger of thinking it would be okay to try to speak English in a francophone class at Sciences Po, so that’s a humiliation I don’t think I need to worry about.
Tomorrow I have my Droit Communautaire cours magistral at 8h du matin! Alors! Then I have my conference for La Vie Politique, and in the afternoon I have my first French hip-hop class. I mean, “l’hip-hop.”
*** A few guidelines for wearing high heels in Paris (these are important for any Parisienne, because it is the mode here to wear your nice shoes out in the casual daytime. Yes, you will find occasion to wear your tallest and craziest heels at 11h in the morning.)
1. Don’t be afraid to wear your heels! You’ll stand out a lot less in heels then in flip-flops (quite the opposite of Seattle).
2. Avoid cobblestones at all cost – be aware that cobblestones are difficult to avoid in many areas of Paris, so choose your walking routes wisely.
3. Always take the escalator rather then attempting your usual sprint up the stairs out of the metro in the morning.
4. Make sure you have a good grip on something in the Metro.
5. Don’t be the dork who stares at the ground while they’re walking, but at least take the caution and scan the road ahead of you for stinky dog piles – yes, they are everywhere.
6. Make sure you have adequate time to get where you need to be or,
7. Make sure you have mad high heel running skills.
I was pleased to discover that I do, in fact, possess the skills to sprint through Paris wearing high heels (without breaking my legs!). I don’t know how I unconsciously developed these skills, but I was quite content with them when I avoided being late to my first class of the day. I feel pretty proud of this mostly inutile skill. For demonstrations/lessons, come visit me!