Saturday, September 18, 2010

Juxtaposed Versailles

After a slightly difficult week with first classes, illnesses of myself and everybody around me, confusion, frustration and occasional spouts of loneliness, this Saturday was the perfect opportunity to shake it all off and just… enjoy life in Paris. But first things first – first classes.

I knew that the French lecturing style would be different and was apprehensive about what would expect me when I walked through that door the first day. Well, the French lecture course as well as the English one were just fine, except for the language barrier for economic vocabulary (ALENA = NAFTA??) and the fact that on Tuesday I concentrated more on not throwing up over my course notes than on completing them. But then came the conference courses, and they left me baffled. In a … good way. I guess. Because different isn’t automatically bad. But – it’s most definitely different. First of all, the class sizes are tiny. My largest class (the cours magistrale) are 45 students, the smaller ones are between 19 and 22 students with a real professor to talk to! It’s like taking all master-level seminars at McGill! Awesome.

Then, the evaluation methods are … interesting. In three of my five classes, I don’t seem to be having finals. In one, I need to make a presentation and a hand-out, in another one write a paper and participate in class, and in the third one, I need to do a presentation, and hand in 2 to 3 other written assignments. Oh – that is all? O—kaay…

Finally, in my steady search of “where is the work? where is the work?", let me confide you a secret: there are no mandatory readings in French conference classes. Our professors did say that readings would be important to contribute better to the class, and gave us reading lists of 10 to 20 books, but none is mandatory. Apparently, they want you to be able to express an informed opinion on the topic we are discussing and to defend that opinion in front of your peers. But whether you do that through improvisation, reading like crazy, nights in the library or leisurely Sunday mornings reading the weekly press is apparently your choice. This absence of structure brings me on edge. Couldn’t you just tell me which book to buy? Which chapter to read? It’s bad enough to be researching for one topic relying on good luck and chance to actually find the important readings and quotes, but having to constantly work like that? Don’t the teachers just want to spare themselves the effort of making a course pack? On closer reflection, I guess the fact that not all students will have prepared exactly the same way will make for way more fascinating discussions – provided everybody has enough self-discipline to actually prepare at all…

So, enough of Sciences Po rant and more to Paris. With my friends John, Haruho and Cecile, I went to Versailles today on a glorious beginning-of-fall day (the air is starting to get crisp, leaves are curling up on their branches and boots are definitely replacing the ballerinas on the feet of trendy Parisians). We didn’t know it yet, but we picked a great weekend to go, since only last week the exhibition of the oeuvres of Murakami in the rooms of Versailles opened up. Imagine crazy, colorful, fantastic, imaginative, funky sculptures sharing the limelight of fleur-de-lys tapestries, golden moldings and mahagoni cabinets. Don’t think it works? Let me prove you otherwise:



I loved it. Having seen Versailles before, obviously I was impressed by the grandeur, but I had already thought the first time that it was a little too much gold, a little too stuffy, and too many portraits of men and women I didn’t know. This exhibition brought exactly the right drop of fun and ridiculousness into the whole that I would say was desperately needed. Though we heard a lot of French muttering about “comment c’est moche”, there were also loads of people enjoying themselves immensely, especially the Japanese tourists and children obviously. In our hearts, we are all just children, aren’t we?

After the exhibition, we wandered around the gardens, came back to my place and made carrot-yam stew and home-made bread. What a perfect, perfect Saturday.

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