Notre Dame, Marseille, France
© Nikhil Muralidharan
I first came to the land better known for Napoleon, Joan of Arc and Clouseau two months back. Three months of student exchange thanks to the management program at my business school, IMT Ghaziabad. With less than a month left, I felt it was time to put down some thoughts about the experience.
Here are a few things that the stay in the international student community in Marseilles, the second biggest city in France, has taught me.
1. Everything is opposite
That’s the first impression you get when you reach here. Traffic, light switches and doors are the main things that baffle you. It’s like you are suddenly back to learning the basics again. You wait to cross the road looking at the direction you are used to looking in India and halfway across the road you realize that the cars are coming from the other direction. But, thankfully, most drivers are polite here, which brings us to the next point.
A typical switch in France in OFF mode.
2. People are polite and courteous
Be it the janitor in your building, be it the guy at the ticket counter or a random person on the road, almost everyone is polite. You suddenly feel like crying when you finally find people, even those in public services, greeting you with a “Bonjour!” or saying “Au revoir!” or “Merci!” when you leave. And it is not something they do out of the way. It is a way of life here.
3. Fashionable people. Everywhere.
Almost everyone from the little toddler sitting in his pram to the old lady walking with the help of her grandson are dressed like they are going to walk the fashion ramp on the way home. The result? You have a feeling that you are grossly under-dressed. It’s like walking into a cocktail party in your college clothes.
4. Food! Oh, Indian food, I miss you!
That’s one of the main things you are going to miss if you are one of the people who is particular about your food. Initially, you live on “pain” (Although it sounds like torture it’s just the French word for bread and small sandwiches J). You slowly find your feet with other food once you realize what each item on a menu means. It is a real task for vegetarians to find good food because almost everything is meat-based and most of it can be bland to your tongue brought up on spicy Indian food. The closest you will get to Indian are the kebabs at the Istanbul or Doner restaurants.
A kebab place
French baguette sandwiches
5. Prices. Euros. The conversion. OMG!
If you are a typical middle-class Indian, you feel like you will have a heart attack every time you take out your wallet to pay. Your first week in the place is usually spent hunting for things to buy that are under 1€!! It takes you a while to realize that you are fighting a losing battle and then resign yourself to spending an average of 5 € for a meal. You do the math! And the plug points! All are two-pin plug points. So people without converters are screwed until they buy a new one which usually cost 14-15 € o start with. My advice: buy a converter from India when you come.
6. Lots of languages. I mean lots!
On group assignments given in class, you spend more time learning about other cultures and languages than doing the course work. Russian, Lao, Chinese, Spanish, Portugese and of course, French are some of the languages I have had the opportunity to hear and learn.
While on the subject of languages, it is important to mention that I have been indebted to Google Translate ever since I reached France. Almost everything is written in French and having a translator app in your mobile is a blessing!
7. Couch-surfing. Is. The. Best.
Although I had heard of the concept before, I got to try it out only after coming here. It’s basically people who invite you to stay over at their place when you visit their city in return for…nothing. That’s right! It is all about meeting new people and learning about new cultures. It makes a huge difference to your schedules and wallet when you are back-packing across countries in Europe. And it is relatively safe, provided you do your research about your host before requesting for a stay in a city. You get to interact with the local people in a city every time you visit a city. Be it the European Parliament member who hosted us in Brussels, the old businessman in Antwerpen with a 200-year old house or the group of musicians in Liege, every couch surfing experience so far has been novel and thrilling.
But, a word of caution, please be sure of the kind of host you are staying with and make sure they are vouched for at the site before you request them for a stay.
8. Beautiful locations
Contrary to the story Yash Chopra movies have taught me, it seems it’s not just Switzerland that is beautiful. Take any place in a city and you could probably relate it to a movie song sequence you have seen. Plug in headphones, take a walk and feel like Surya in a Gautham Menon movie. 😀
The Calanques at Marseille.
© Nikhil Muralidharan
That is one more thing you will not be used to if you are used to waiting for long periods for public services. The public services, especially the transport services, are so good at keeping time that they could put a watch to shame.
10. Cars. Bikes. And Toilet Paper!
This first part is for the people who go crazy over bikes and cars. You will have plenty to ogle here on the roads. The sheer variety of vehicles for different needs leads you to realize that you have only seen a small share of the automobile industry.
And last but not the least, we come to the dreaded topic of toilet papers! To those who are not used to it, it is an altogether different experience. Gross maybe, but definitely different. Like all things in life, you do eventually get used to it.
That’s all for now. Europe has been kind so far. A few more days and I will have to visit it in my memories. Sniff. Blow. Sniff! 😉