Universities and Prepas for the Uninitiated!

Somewhere between choosing lycées and choosing universities I must have dozed off! Suddenly I find myself with an 18 year old in the throes of exams, with conventional school aready behind her. I’m not quite sure what happened but as parents, we find ourself in a dilemma, and one surely lots of other parents suffer, (not least foreign parents trying to make head and tail of a new education system), the dilemma of “I’m not sure if I’ve made the right choice.

I’m not even going to begin to classify myself as an expert in the french system, far from it. Only an hour ago I had a lovely french girl-friend over for coffee, for a moment of “conseils”, or advice, who amongst other things even managed to put me straight on the fact that my lovely 16 year old, who has a habit of letting important letters fester in the bottom of his school-bag, still has one major french exam to do next week, and that he hadn’t “finished everything” as I was led to believe yesterday! The fact that he’s playing computer games and hasn’t come down for breakfast (or lunch) despite the fact it’s 3.45 pm probably resonnates with many parents out there – please tell me i’m not alone!- and may in some way help to explain why I have totally screwed up in terms of parental responsibility over university applications.

The problem with adolescents these days is that one minute they are adults and know best about their future, and the next they are hiding information in unread emails and letters and wondering why their “do it all” parents have failed to adhere to important deadlines. They lurch from shouting battle commands to their friends at the top of their voices through their headsets whilst at the same time failing to shower or wear anything other than a pair of boxers for the majority of the day, to “revising , honestly mum” with a split computer screen simultaneously showing a movie on the left hand side, and typing in revision notes to the right. Motivational comments and messages fall on deaf ears, usually because there is a set of headphones wedged into them.

And so I come to the dilemma. Initially my 18 year old was all set for university in the UK. A year ago, this was the only considered course of action, and so we spent a great deal of time writing all the necessary personal statements and filling int the UK UCAS form for the required dates, and then sat back to wait the result. A few months later it was the turn of the french online application form, The “Admission Post Bac”. This was the point of error. As the direction was UK, UK, UK, we filled in the french web-site as an afterthought, without nearly enough parental input, research or dedication. The purpose of this post is not to tell you how to do it, but to tell you what to do when you have passed all the deadlines before you realise that you have screwed up!

Essentially in france there are several different undergraduate educational routes, and the system is far more complex than in the UK. After the Baccalaureat students can go onto normal universities which can be good, mediocre or downright terrible, depending on location, courses and teaching staff,(and for that matter the aspirational quality of students), or they can apply for a “prepa”, otherwise know as the “cours preparatoire” which lead onto application to selective schools (schools of commerce, or business for example) and “grande écoles” (prestigeous selective type schools which are on a par with Oxford and Cambridge and MIT) ; or finally for “concours” (selection tests) directly into selective schools. For the universities and “prepas” the route is through the online application site, otherwise admission aplications are made via the “concours” to schools or through the “Sesame” online application site with strict compliance to key dates.

The problem arises when after a cursory glance and hastily filled online french university application in march your potential student decides, in june, that they are not cut out for the overseas course they originally applied for, and no longer want to study abroad. It is only at this moment when it is far, far to late, that you realise that those hastily filled-in details on the french site counted for far more than you had originally believed, and are now totally inadequate.

If, amongst the 6 or so french university applications made on the on-line site, your number one choice of university gives you an offer, you will never find out what offers the other universities would have given you, nor will you get the possibility of turning down your first choice in favour of your second. This means that if you have chosen hastily the wrong course or the wrong city for your future education, it is too late.

Or is it? And this is the question I posed to my french girlfriend.

There are three different routes possible:

If you are a french resident you are entitled to university education. You are entitled to visit your home-town university to request admission into the fac (faculty) of your choice, beit law, beit economy etc. As long as they have places, a home-town student has a right to a place. In otherwords free education and living at home, which is win-win for parents and students alike in the era of huge education loans, although most students wouldn’t necessarily see it that way. Three more years with parents isn’t always every student’s dream… or their parents, for that matter! At the end of three years study, the student makes an application for the concours (selective tests), known as the “Passerelle”, or “concours parallel”, into the “école” of their choice in any city – for example an école de commerce or business, and once accepted is leap-frogged immediately into the second year.

The second route is that of the “Sesame” on-line application. The student doesn’t take up the place offered for the current academic year, but takes a year out and starts building up their general knowledge, maths and language skills, and in the January applies, through Sesame, for the concours into the Ecoles of Commerce, Business etc and then, if successful, goes onto study the full course starting in the first year.

The third route is to reapply by the web-site for “Admission Post Bac” for the desired course in the following March, taking every effort to pay more attention second time round, and then simply take a year out and try to gain some extra attributes, a job, or a work-placement (stage) in the desired field to augment the application before the March dead-line.

I had heard rumours that applying to university in France one year late, or taking a “gap-year” was unheard-of, but my friend explained that there are many students who either start a prepa, or a “license” (degree) at university and then find it so tough-going, or not their “cup of tea” , that in fear of failing the first year they make a “safety-net” new application to the on-line “Admission Post Bac” for another course and another university just in case…and they do receive offers, which they then later take, or discard, depending on the results of their year exams.

The key is to keep hold of the initial “Admission Post Bac” student reference/application number, as, despite not having done any studies, the students are classified for new applications on the website as “Bac+1”, rather than “Bac” applicants and use the same application number.

It is somewhat of a relief to know that there is indeed a way through, and that the future doesn’t end at a giant brick wall.

But if you want to avoid all the stress, best to pay a little more attention than I did from the outset!

Was Ist Das? Comment Dire? Will We Ever Get The Hang Of It..?

We are into part 2 of the first term of the DELF/DALF B2 French Diplôme, and today we all as one reached melt-down.  We were listening to a radio broadcast in very rapid French, and after a few panic stricken minutes had ony managing to pick out one or two key words. Sidelong glances at our counterparts reassured us that we were not alone! Thankfully one by one we disolved into snorts and giggles, and not into floods of tears -though perhaps that’s still to come!

The B2 is divided into three main parts, Grammar, Comprehension Ecrit (written) and  Comprehension Oral. Clearly we all have our individual difficulties, and the course is set to challenge us to our full. No more inane conversations about daily life, but serious debate on current affairs – L’argumentation, Le debât et…Le STRESS! Since we have all arrived from different parts of the globe, our personal cultures present their own individual difficulties. Whilst the Europeans have the clear linguistic advantage of the same alphabet and the European compulsion to ‘speak out’, the Chinese and the Russians have an alternative alphabet, and those from the Far East have a  clear cultural predisposition to listen and revere the word of their Professors. So we see the Russians, Turkish, Germans and British in full voice, with the Far Eastern contingent reticent to contribute, yet technically mastering the language in great leaps behind the scenes. Notwithstanding the individual difficulties of the group, each and every one of us has a common stumbling block – pronunciation.

Today, led in a false expectations following a particularly helpful Comprehension Ecrit class, in which another prof had masterfully aided our pronunciation of two phonic vowel groups, and having been promised ‘more’ in the Comprehesion Orale class, one Turkish classmate requested help with the phonic sound of ‘Merci’. The ‘ER’ sound, whilst being easy for the German and Anglophone contingent presented enormous difficulties for the Turks.

‘Mais NON’ declared emphatically the Prof of Oral, ‘phonetics are no longer taught after B1’.

A situation spectacularly unhelpful for all those who arrived in B2 without having ever followed the earlier A or B1 classes. What did come up as a result of this request was an amusing series of examples of how mispronunciation can shape a language and create new words for the dictionary.

Whilst I was still living in England, ‘Husband à L’Etranger’ headed off for the hitherto unknown city of Rouen in France to work, and about the same time I met a French woman living in our village and the opportunity came one day at the school gate  to introduce them to each other.

‘Where are you working?’ she said

‘ROO-on’  replied Husband à l’Etranger, typically pronouncing Rouen ‘à l’anglais’  ‘How about you?’

‘Wwuon’ replied the French woman

‘No, I don’t know it’, replied Husband à l’Etranger, ‘where abouts is it?’

In fact, they were talking about the same city, though at the time they had no idea. Simply said, their national phonetic had created two places out of one.

Another foriegner, buying a train ticket in Perpignan to travel to Rouen, through mispronunciation ended up in Rouanne, nearish Lyons, where he was forced to sleep on the station platform until the first train left the following day, all thanks to his pronunciation.

In medieval times, the simple and rather quaint act of pulling petals off a flower,

“she loves me – she loves me not”

– known in France as ‘compter fleurette’ (literally to count petals) was transferred abroad to England, probably due to the fact that the English medieval court used French as it’s language of business. This in turn being most likely due to the English Ducs of Normandie being the Kings of England from 1066 – 1204. Whilst in court the  expression ‘compter fleurette’ was understood,  as it diversified into the greater English population who were not French speakers, the expression muted to:

‘To Flirt’

In the 1960’s the verb “To flirt” was adopted by the French as ‘Flirter’,  to express the romantic coquettery of seduction,  and whilst the English and French believed that its origin was English,they were incorrect, and it was really the simple fault of mispronunciation which created a new verb for both nations.

In the same manner, the British “Attaché- case”, the symbol of the British businessman, and now widely used in France for the ‘homme d’affaires’ in the city, actually came from France as the ‘Attaché-Caisse’, and it was the British that pinched the word. And so it is that now the French man carries and refers to his  ‘attaché case’ rather than an ‘attaché-caisse’.

Probably the most extraordinary was the German couple who, having bought a house in France, requested their builder install new roof windows for their loft bedrooms. When the builder asked what type of window they would prefer, the German couple, being of limited French pointed to another window in the roof, hoping for a bit of help with their vocabulary, and said:

‘Was ist das?’ (what is that)

The French builder,also having communication difficuties and  misunderstanding the Germans assumed that this was the German name for the French ‘Lucarne’, the typical French style roof window, and replied:

‘Vasistas? Mais oui Monsieur”

The windows were built;  the locals talked, and the name ‘Vasistas’ bizarrely became common-place.

Today, if you go to a local Builders Merchant, both in France and (apparently) in Poland and ask for ‘Un Vasistas’, the staff won’t ask you “What’s that?” but rather “What Kind?”, and in a matter of minutes you will have a brand new window in the back of your car.

Should we, therefore, seek to eradicate all phonetic mispronunciations in our desire for perfection of a language. If in our errors we create new words which become globally recognised, which have historic significance and such humour behind their creation  shouldn’t we enjoy being part of a living language? Perhaps the Professors are right to stop teaching phonetics by level B2, we are after all comprehensible, but we are also the inadvertant cause of hilarity amongst our adopted populace..

..and perhaps the cause of a whole new string of words!

Making Headway – Registering at a French University.

language school

A couple of months ago I threw a book into the dustbin. I have never thrown a book away before, but then again I have never disliked a book enough to warrant doing so. What was the book, you might ask? Humiliating an author is not very ‘bon esprit’ but some may recognise the book  nevertheless.

Every so often I pick up a book written by an author who has started a new life abroad. Most are amusing or heart-rending or downright outrageous tales of  courage or mishap in the face of adversity. The particular tale that ended in the waste-paper basket was one in which a woman had simply given up her life abroad. Of course many have given up on a life inundated with drama and catastrophe, and there is nothing wrong with that; but the author of the book in question had given up on their dream long before the book was written, and the book was merely a justification of the decision. It nearly killed me to read it, but I dedicated myself to every page in the hope that somewhere along the line the author would “DO” something to try to halt the inevitable decision to quit and head home her the country of birth. I wanted to see her try. She never did, and by the time I had finished it, I too had nearly given up on hope in life itself!

Many of the issues faced by that author were ones that I have faced myself, ones of loneliness, friendlessness, boredom and isolation. They come to all of us at one time or another, heightened by the foreignness of the adopted country itself. What made me so desperate about this particular book was that at the end of every page I wanted to shout

“stop – there must be a way…. couldn’t you..?”

but of course it was far too late to say anything, even less protect other readers from her depressing prognosis that it was quite simply impossible to make ‘it’ work.

Probably the two hardest issues to deal with when moving abroad are employment and financial stability,  and friendships. Every nationality has a different approach to these two major issues, none more so than the French. In the last year, after having stagnated for at least two, my life lurched forward a gear or two, and everything started to fall into place. This week, as a result of a lively discussion between a wide variety of nationalities, the subject of friendships in France arose and our understanding of them finally started to fall into place. How did I happen upon this group of foreigners? Quite simply, I decided to enroll into French university!

One of the main barriers to friendships and employment in a foreign country is of course language. Having four children in the French school system I observed two things. Firstly, total immersion is key to language learning, secondly mastery of language and immersion enables the development of friendships and the creation of opportunity. Nowhere else have I noticed the power of the word of mouth for career and life development than in France.

So it was that last December I handed over my CV to the Bureau of Tourisme to apply for their “Formation” to be a “Guide Conferencier” (tour guide), and acceptance onto that training course opened the door to university in France. It wasn’t ‘per se’ the training course that made university possible, but thanks to one of the other trainees I met along the way. The young Italian trainee was at the time enrolled at the University of Rouen studying the DELF/DALF/DUEF course. Essentially a Diplôme de la Langue Français pour les Etrangeres. (A diploma in French for foriegners) It appeared that holding the “Diplôme” was an essential step in career development, further education, and becoming confident about conversing in a French friendship group. Having suceeded in passing my “Guide Conferenciers” exam, a French oral, and being painfully aware of my limitations in the language as a result, I decided that to do this university course was the next logical step.

In June, I downloaded the application forms online for the “Departement des Lettres”, compiled my CV, wrote a “lettre de motivation” and photocopied and translated my degree certificates. Then I left for my summer holidays. When I returned, a “pre-inscription” form had been sent to me. In principle I was accepted for the course, but not before I had completed a three hour French exam. In September I sat the exam which consisted of  a French multiple choice grammar paper, an oral comprehension exam and a written comprehension exam. The following week we had our results. According to the French system there are a series of “niveaux” (levels) of positionment. Broadly speaking A1,A2,B1, B2 and C1; A1 being unable to communicate, and C1 being fluent.

“If you don’t understand what I’m saying” said the course director in the exam hall “leave now, forget the exam – you will be A1!”

I was placed into the B2 group, and the attainement of the B2 diplôme at the end of the academic year is the all-important “golden milestone” into life in France. The B2 enables everything from entry at Master’s degree level at a French university to acceptance into professional jobs; and crucially competence around the French dinner table! The C1, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

At the time of the Guide “Formation” I was probably feeling a little like the author of the book. French friendships had developed to a certain level, but then had seemed to meet a wall, from where close friendship, as we’d understand it from an English point of view, seemed unobtainable. As one of the Russian students in our first lively university discussion so accurately described it, even four years on, French friendships seemed “superficial”.

“But not so”, exclaimed the professor of our first French oral lesson, the problem was that we simply didn’t understand the French!

The genuine true close friendship with a frenchwoman takes years to develop. The idea that one could become close-friends with a French woman in a matter of months is unthinkable. French friendships are like fine wines or cheeses. They take years to mature, at first they are one dimensional and without depth, they move through specific stages of development, and with each phase they develop a new layer of warmth and understanding, until at last, often six or seven years on, they reach full maturity, with trusted nuances understood facets and a reliability beyond question. When a french woman at last decides to commit to a close friendship, it endures through thick and thin and to the end. A true french friend will rise from her bed in the early hours of the morning to aid in a crisis and at the drop of a hat, in full knowledge that the gesture will be reciprocated without question. But until that stage, the women must first be aquaintances, then copines, then friends before ever achieving the exaulted status of close friends.

Indeed, as our professor explained, the very British or American manner of “divulging all” in the early stages of aquaintence or “copineship” frightens French women away. The idea of discussing private family activities and issues within an aquaintance group is “très mal élévé” and typically the French will withdraw in face of it. It does now go to explain why in my early days in France no-one ever seemed to discuss their weekends in the school playgroup on a monday morning.

French women do however like to share – lifts to children’s activities, information about activities and events, offers of hospitality and discussions about current affairs. They like nothing better than voicing concerns and opinions about life-style and culture in general. But what is private stays private until a friendship nears maturity.

“And that” said our professor “brings us back to the matter in hand”;

For the B2 course is about dispensing with chatting about the simple day to day life; and is the training for debate on current affairs and culture. The B2 is the enablement of dinner party discussions and  job interviews with all the necessary vocabulary. And when we have finally attained our B2, the French women will probably know an awful lot more about what kind of person we are from our cultural and political contributions to conversations than they ever could have done after endless divulged stories about our weekends.

Registering at French university is about more than just learning a language; it is about understanding the French and their cultural differences and becoming more like them.

When the author of the book threw in the towel in the face of what seemed to be a stagnation of friendship and the inability to find something to do with her day, if only she had known she was facing “une petite pause” in the natural stages of development of becoming closer friends with the French, and what to have done to overcome it, she may have persevered and succeeded yet.

For making a success of it abroad necessitates mastery of language, total immersion into culture and re-education of preconceived ideas.

…helped along the way with a healthy dollop of “le diplôme B2 “

The Kermesse, The French School Fête.

Today was the day of the Kermesse, otherwise known as the school fête. A day filled with bonhomie, bonbons and “ah bon?” (what really?)

The day started early, and at approximately ten this morning – my ‘otherwise-asleep’ adolescent was clamouring for his croissants in order to meet up with his friends in the school ‘cour’ (playground). They had a basketball stand to manage!

The school has devised a pretty neat system for paying for activities and refreshments, a large ‘welcome’ tent manned by parents selling booklets of ten tickets for ten euros, and thereafter a money-free day for children and parents alike. A second row of parents selling ‘ticket repas’with a choice of two possible menus, budget and gastronomique!

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Today as I headed into the crowd to find my children with their meal tickets, It did occur to me that I might be being a little over ambitious – After being confronted by the following stalls, it was pretty self-evident that by lunchtime they wouldn’t be hungry!

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Une toute petite (?) boule de Barbe à Papa!

A little ball of Candy floss – otherwise know as Grandpa’s beard!

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No really, there aren’t enough to chose from….

Mais oui, Madame, ily a un autre rang. But yes, Madame, there’s another row!

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Ah bon?  Really?

Bon Bon!

Did I mention how French parents are natural crèpe makers! No shortage of parent helpers for this stall! No lemon and sugar for the French, but a huge bowl of molten chocolate to spread over…liberally!

Under the trees thirty long tables are set out to await the parents, Maman qui ne mange pas entre les repas – French maman who doesn’t eat between meals – et papa qui a grand faim – And French papa who is a gastronome! And me, well because the menu gastronomique  has been cooked by a French chef and it’s good.

A midi, the parents discard their children and seat in huge gregarious groups n’importe ou (no-one minds where), the length of the tables, pulling in extra chairs for stragglers, serving friends, husband, wife, mamie (granny)or papie (grandpa) glasses of wine or sparkling water in gobelets (plastic cups – it sounds better in French doesn’t it!) whilst tucking into the menu budget, or gastronomique.

Frites merguez for the impoverished, (chips and spicy sausages)

Melon, dressed salad, Paella (chicken, mussels, merguez) and of course frites for the discerning!

Finally, a good hour and a half later, the parents rise, replete with bonhomie, a year’s worth of conversation and a contented stomach to search out their wandering children. Let the afternoon begin!

Monsieur ‘La chasse’ is once more on the scene. The hunt, an essential part of the French lifestyle is introduced early, and a necessary feature of the school fête, even though one wonders about the presence of authentic air rifles and lead pellets passing any sort of ‘health and safety’ guidelines.

I had already noted the stripey ‘Police – Do Not Cross This Line’ tape surrounding the sweet stand – curiously absent here!

Monsieur La Chasse turns away to help a six year old handle the rifle, leaving my nine year old wielding his!

Ah Bon?

The day is not complete before all the classes of primary have  entertained their parents under the ‘Grand Preaux’

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The space men sing us a little ditty. The performances last all afternoon and parents come and go to watch their ‘petite pousse‘ (little ‘growing thing) do his bit!

Enfin, the tombola; first prize, dinner and a night for two at the 5 star Renaissance Hotel Bourgtheroulde in Rouen (complete with spa and underground swimming-pool). It is of no great suprise that I don’t win!

A last throw of the basket ball…

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and we head home happy, our pockets full of silly 1€ plastic toys that will probably only just survive till the morning!

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La Remise de Brevet.

We have just celebrated the Remise de Brevet with my 16 year old daughter.

Who would have thought, only three years ago, we could have so proudly watched this moment. I was only sorry that ‘Husband à l’Etranger’ had to miss the event. In three years my daughter has gone from wordless, to literate French student and I am so proud of her achievement.

Settling next to me, some other French parents took their seats to watch the 132 strong year group receive their certificates. How did she do, they whispered. But then the proceedings were underway and there wasn’t time to answer. They didn’t have long to wait however, we are amongst the ‘A’s in the alphabet!

First, our lovely, and ‘so chic’ headmistress talked of the achievement of the year group. A 100% pass rate, 34 with Mention Très Biens, 52 with Mention Biens, and 24 with Mention Assez Bien.

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And then one by one she called up the students to the award table,

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Before I had time to focus the camera, my daughter was receiving hers!

anabel brevet 001There was quite a buzz when word got out that she’d passed with a Mention Bien, and the applause resounded.

Then we all settled in to watch the rest, and giggle at the new  ‘lycéen’ girls’ liberated foot attire. Some could barely walk in heels that defied gravity…and the distance from seat to award table!

Having left for different Lycées, the hubub of student ‘catching up’ threatened to drown out the ceremony. But everyone was too good humoured to mind that, or the popularity cheers as each student rose in turn.

Wisely the headmistress directed the students to the alcohol-free table of refreshments before everything really got out of hand, and we parents savoured the champagne, canapés and Macarons on offer.

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I’m sure my O’level certificate just got sent in the post !

anabel brevet 004Champagne and Canapés – sigh!

anabel brevet 005Secretly, I think I was shortchanged!