Studies, Camembert, and Laundries. Veronika Popkova Talks on Her Experience in France
Despite the pandemic, some HSE — St. Petersburg's students went abroad to academic mobility in September. So did Veronika Popkova, a third-year student of the programme 'International Business and Management'. She went to Lille, France. She had been studying in a blended learning mode until the end of October and then switched to distance learning. In this article, Veronika shares a story about her study experience and what she has managed to visit while being in France.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
I got interested in academic mobility when I was applying to HSE University — St. Petersburg. I asked around, and my friends from senior courses said that it was better to complete the first and second years in Saint Petersburg as this period is eventful. They also went on exchange in the third year, so I decided to do likewise.
It was difficult for me to choose my study destination. I was originally thinking about going to Mexico. At the very last moment, my parents got scared of the crime rate in Mexico, and they encouraged me to go to some other place. That is when it hit me that my childhood dream was to live in France when I grew up.
I was in Paris when I was 15, and the city seemed quite dirty. As for Lille, I liked it. I chose this city based on my previous experience. Although now I think that I would have rather liked Paris: it has very ambitious and vivid people. But Lille is a better place to take things easy.
Having made my choice, I visited the HSE — St. Petersburg site and found the list of partner universities, which included the Lille University School of Management. It was a new HSE's partner. I thought it would be cool to become a pioneer! In so doing so I was not afraid that my trip would be cancelled due to the pandemic because I had been warned that my mobility would start in a blended format.
What did change in your study process?
At Lille University School of Management, the academic year consists not of modules but semesters. There is no examination period in autumn like at HSE, but there is a week free of classes to summarise what we studied and do our project work. The examination period is at the end of the semester, from 7th to 17th of December.
We had been studying in a blended format until the end of October. Three courses were given online, and three more were delivered face-to-face. We have been studying offline since October, but the examination period is going to be offline.
We usually have a 45-minutes class with lecturers on Zoom, then we have a break, and continue after. Sometimes in-person classes lasted for two or three hours. A lecturer decides if we take a break. He used to do it in the middle of our class or by its end. Sometimes we would not have any break at all. Of course, he always asked if we needed a break or preferred to finish the class earlier.
I was for offline mode because attending in-person classes let you cover all the information presented. You may always approach a lecturer and ask some questions to clarify what you could not understand. Studying a course online often makes you feel that you do not catch something. In-person classes work such a way that a lecturer directs you. Meanwhile, you gather a lot of information from different sources. The more information you collect, the more it makes you feel helpless. In offline mode, a lecturer decides what information is more important and necessary for students.
What is the difference between foreign ad Russian students?
It seems to me that French students are very open-minded and friendly. They start a conversation first, offer their help, and invite you to join working groups and do a study project together. There is the only difficulty. I have a feeling that they speak English only in my department. It is difficult to speak English on a street when you need to ask a direction or want to get a piece of advice on where to take a meal. Usually, the locals do not understand you and brush you off.
There were a few times when I was mistaken for a French. For example, when I had just arrived, 5 people asked me for help at the airport. At that time, I was able only to introduce myself, and it embarrassed me. France was my first country where people do not normally speak English.
I cannot recall any distinctive features in French students. Some students are thoroughly doing all homework, never late for classes, and critical to themselves. On the contrary, other students do not worry about their studies so much and are always submitting their assignments at the very last moment. The university uses a 20-point grade scale, and they feel pretty fine with 8 points out of 20.
What are the three things that surprised you in a new country?
I started to worry when I was not given a class timetable upon arrival. I went to the university study office. I first thought that the delay was due to the pandemic, and it was not a regular thing. Then my carefree classmates said: 'Calm down, everything will be fine.'
Student Accommodation Costs
Even though I arrived in France on September 18, I was asked to pay for my accommodation for the whole month. This was strange since I had stayed there for less than 2 weeks. I pay the rent of 310 euro per month. Student accommodation prices range from 200 to 600 euro per month.
And yet I am happy with my apartment. I have a friend whose place leaves much to be desired and costs more. There are streaks on the walls in her studio apartment. My place is in mint condition: I have a kitchen, a refrigerator, an induction stove, and a bathroom with a shower.
International Student Engagement
The university is actively engaging international students in university life. Despite the pandemic, my university organised a lot of events like quests and parties. However, there were restrictions. For example, only a total of 45 people was allowed to attend one of the events. Meanwhile, the participants were divided into groups of five people. Besides, they had to confirm their registration for the event the day before.
What difficulties did you have in France in the early days?
The main obstacle was to pay the deposit for the accommodation as I did not know where I could do it. Initially, I was told that I could pay for it on the website, but it did not work. When I was applying for a card for the apartment, I met a guy who helped me to figure out this deposit stuff. I learned from him that I needed to go to the campus office to sort these things out. All the rest was good.
What new food have you tried?v
I am not a fan of snails and frog legs, so I liked French pastries. Regional croissants, baguettes, and buns were far better than those I had tasted at home. When you eat croissants in Russia, you always want to add something to them, such as chocolate. Here, croissants are delicious even without butter.
I have started a small new gastronomic ritual in France. Every Friday I buy two cream buns: one for the evening, the other one is for Saturday morning. Their cream is incredibly delicious; they make it themselves in the pastry shop.
I also liked French cheese very much. A friend of mine treated me to camembert on the first evening after my arrival. I used to think that I was not into such a smelly cheese, but I really liked French camembert. Sometimes I buy some cheese, and it is so good that I can have it for dinner. I do not even want to make any sandwiches. When I come back to Russia, I will miss all this delicious food.
What are you spending your money on?
Cell Phone Account
This money is transferred from the card automatically. The first instalment was 35 euros. Now I pay 15 euro for 70 GB of the Internet.
The travel card I buy allows me to take public transport — both subway and surface transport.
You need to choose a plan when you are paying for a travel card. A three-station long ride costs 1,10 euro, an hour-long one is 1,90 euro. My card is unlimited and valid for 30 days. It costs 30 euro. It is a good deal for me because my university building is 40 minutes away from my dormitory.
I do not know any French who has a washing machine. Residents use the laundry service with washing machines and dryers. You should take laundry detergent and fabric softener with you. Washing and drying cost five euro, and the detergent and softener cost about ten euros. Anyway, I think I am equipped enough for doing laundry till the end of my stay here.
Three places you liked
Notting Hills Coffee Shop
This is a chain coffee shop which is easy to find: there is one at the train station and one on the main square. I had been looking for a place to take a cup of good coffee in Lille for months. Here, coffee prices are like in Starbucks. Local students often go there, but I do not really like that place. A cup of coffee costs more than 4 euros in Notting Hills, but at least this coffee is good.
Place du General-de-Gaulle
The square with the fountain is the most popular place for tourists in Lille. It is like Nevsky Prospect or Vosstaniya Square in Saint Petersburg. The place itself is lovely, it is good for a stroll, and all the sights are within walking distance.
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille Museum
It is an art gallery with a large collection of French paintings. There, you can see paintings of the XVIII-XIX centuries and Impressionist paintings, including Monet and Picasso. I also liked the interactive experience I got into this museum. For example, there were six chairs spinning on their axis at the centre of one of the halls. A visitor may sit down, and the chair will show him or her around the museum room. So it is easier to plunge into the beauty of the exhibition and feel its atmosphere.
What did you gain from this exchange experience?
I do not think that I gained any new skills, but I improved those what I had. I like how I deal with problems I face here. I feel more confident.
At the same time, I think that I am getting pretty good at prioritizing. When I was studying in the building on Kantemirovskaya street, I wanted to take part in every event or activity, and I did not think about priorities. But when I abstracted my mind from my tasks in the course of my mobility, I began to think about the importance of certain tasks often.
I started feeling what things were more interesting to me. I also began to go with my gut more. Now I realize that one should choose a certain direction and evolve in it.