As my suitcase and I descended in an elevator at Charles de Gaulle, bubbly excitement rose up from my stomach for the first time. Four semesters of early morning French classes, various information sessions, applications, getting professors to agree to credit transfers one at a time, getting a certified translation of my birth certificate (why would a school care that I was born?!), paperwork for a visa, paperwork for insurance, paperwork for housing, and 113 emails later, I finally understood why in a department of some thirty students I was the only one who took the trouble.
But now, Paris, here you are.
I was sure that the next five months would be some of my most hilarious and carefree yet, filled with gasps at artistic pastries, churches from a long lost age, staring at professors in their linen suits, and other tales.
The majority of my Parisian days were spent, however, to put it in an accessible way for all of us, in a larger version of the E-Quad. With a campus resembling a mid-sized high school in the southern suburbs of the fabled city, École Centrale is about half an hour away from Notre Dame by train.
Centrale belongs to the never officially established but highly influential system of the French grandes écoles, its “grand schools.” One can be admitted into them after taking a two-year post-high school program, a classe préparatoire (or prépa as it was referred to — think two years of college level math and physics), and passing a competitive exam. The school boasts alumni from the likes of Gustave Eiffel to André Michelin and Armand Peugeot. Unlike most universities in Europe, students here live in dorms, clusters of off-white cubic buildings across from the soccer field.
My first impression of my fellow schoolmates was forged by the integration weekend. After the first week of class, first-years and exchange students were put into buses with some senior students and shipped off to a then-unknown destination. We embarked just after one in the morning. There were hysterical chants, games involving sliding people on top of the seats, crawling over each other, drinking boxed wine from the tap, passing around apples without using hands, and more. And when I finally closed my eyes for a few seconds after five o’clock, one of the seniors squirted water on my face from a water gun, a rude awakening done to anyone who attempted to sleep. Before noon, we arrived at our camp in the south of France at Lac de Miel, the Lake of Honey, with no reception whatsoever. The next three days were filled with sunbathing, swimming in the lake, and dancing till dawn.
But perhaps the most extraordinary scenes took place at dinner. We would gather shortly after sunset under a great tent, and then, by common initiative, small groups of students would sing. Sometimes it was the cheer of a sports team; sometimes it was a very simple tune like cho-cho-chocolat. One chant commanded people to do various actions, the last verse of which involves all the boys taking their shirts off. Another chant involved guys of one club encircling their leader, and after about half a minute of great noise, the leader in the center would strip and wave his underpants in the air. Typical Europeans, I thought. There were special chants to invite other groups to sing next, and one that, when combined with a certain hand gesture, was used to boo those who just sang. Songs would fall and start seamlessly in the chilly wind of early autumn, after about two hours of which we would finally start eating.
The result of all that was, of course, a symphony of coughing and sneezing in the lecture halls that lasted for weeks.
The rest of my semester was filled with a lot of 8 a.m. classes of three hours each. For some five weeks I spent my Friday afternoons in a west-facing classroom with about eighty other students working on their laptops. The sun, the heat from the bodies and computers and the lack of air conditioning turned the tutorial into a very long sauna session with some incoherent coding. I eventually gave up trying to make out what the confused instructor at the other end of the room was saying as his shirt slowly became drenched in sweat. I would watch the clock ticking, becoming annoyed that I wasn’t taking in much and waiting for the weekend to come. Those were the times when we could escape to town and wander among the cafés, restaurants, galleries, gardens, shops and bars, and pretending it was the twenties at Les Deux Magots.
There was a stage during my time abroad when simply looking at the tiny campus of square-ish buildings made me sick the same way that half-dried cucumber slices soaked in a kind-of cream sauce from the cafeteria did. Nevertheless, whenever Metro Line 6 emerged from the tunnel and crossed the Seine to allow a glimpse of France’s famous Lady of Iron, tears sprang to my eyes.
~Siyu Yang '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler