If inefficiency was a competition, France would win hands-down.

Here’s a rundown of my first two days at École Polytechnique.  I was talking to a friend from home recently and explaining this whole process, and he said that if he had to deal with all of this he would have left already.  The French are ridiculous.

Day 1:

  • Got off at the bus stop and walked into the nearest building because it looked pretty important.  Note that I am dragging along a 60+ pound rolling suitcase (no weight limit on the train from London to Paris), a larger-than-carry-on-sized duffel bag that I used as a carry-on anyways, and a large purse.
  • Saw a sign for the office of student life and housing, so I followed the arrows like a normal person.  Naturally, the arrows led to a dark corridor and a broken foosball table.  Also there were no people around which I attributed to the fact that it was lunchtime.
  • I attempted to access some wifi on my phone to pull up a map.  Turns out there is no guest network.  Not even a shitty one.
  • I decided I was in the wrong building because I vaguely remembered something about a “grand hall” with administrative offices.  I dug inside my bag and found a general unlabeled map of campus, then dragged my bags outside and along a path of crushed rocks.  I aimed for the biggest building and started walking, switching hands every minute because my forearms were dying.
  • I was super lucky to run into one of the guys I know from Caltech (Cedric) after walking for a while.  We went to dump my stuff in his room.
  • I got my keys from the housing office (for which the only visible label is right next to the door in tiny letters) without even showing identification.  I was told to come back later to sign the contract.
  • We went to get badges but the office is closed.  Apparently it is only open for 2 hours a day.  Probably because it’s exhausting work, taking pictures and putting them on ID cards.
  • Cedric didn’t bring ID photos with him, so we went to the one place on campus where you can get them.  Also closed.  Lunch has been over for a while now.
  • We attempted to connect to the internet using some information from the housing office.  Our laptops can only connect through ethernet in our rooms, and there is a different IP address for each room as well as a different router for each floor and a different subnet mask for each building.  This must all be typed in manually as well as the DNS servers and proxy settings.  After all that, it didn’t work.
  • Remember the original birth certificate and certified translated birth certificate plus 3 copies of each that I had to get?  I haven’t turn them into anyone yet.  I went to BasiX, the exchange student office, to turn in some required forms.  Apparently Cedric had been there earlier and waited for an hour in line before the lady in charge decided that she was going to close the office for 3 hours.  We went about 20 minutes before it was supposed to re-open so we would be first in line, and successfully turned in some photos and papers.  We were told that we would receive our polytechnique email credentials through email.  We don’t have internet, and we need our credentials to access the school computers.  Classic catch-22.
  • We went to the “Scolarité Rouge” which is the registrar for our year.  They told us to access our schedules online.  Again, no internet OR credentials.  At least the woman was nice and printed off our first week’s schedule for us.  Also books for each class are printed and bound by the school, so we get them for free.  Probably the most exciting news of the day.
  • We ask about enrolling in a French class because it’s mandatory for Caltech.  We are directed to yet another office that deals with Language and Culture classes.  At first, we are told that our French is too good to take classes.  It’s a nice compliment but I actually have to take one, so I ask about literature and culture classes.  Turns out I can take “Art and Culture”, so that’s exciting.
  • We went back to the housing office to sign the contract.  Also we have to turn in a whole separate form to open the phone line in our room even though it’s included in the charges.  Also we have to open a French bank account because the housing charges are debited from our account automatically by the accounting office.  Why is this necessary?!
  • We had to pay a deposit on our room in cash.  Even though the monthly rent is debited from the account.  Very inconsistent.  Also there was a long line and the guy announced that he would only be there for 30 minutes so we left.
  • A very nice French student helped me set up internet.  I had missed a couple settings apparently.  Because there weren’t enough already.

Day 2:

  • Woke up early to go get ID photos for Cedric and then get our badges.  Successfully got the photos.
  • The ID photos are taken at the office where we register for sports, so we asked about that as well.  I tried to sign up for climbing but was told that I need a medical certificate saying that I am healthy and fit to do sports, specifically climbing.  I tried to show them my physical that I got at the doctor’s office before I left, but it wasn’t enough.  Apparently, the word “climbing” needs to actually be on the certificate.  What?!  That’s exactly what physicals are for – the doctor says you can do sports.
  • We go to the badge office and get badges, which takes all of 10 minutes.  But then we have to go activate the badge at a completely different office, and then we have to go put money on the badge at a completely different office since we don’t have French bank cards yet.  Geez, you think they could have streamlined that whole process a bit.
  • We go back to BasiX so that Cedric can turn in his photos.  Again the line is huge.  We leave.
  • We go to the housing office to turn in our room move-in checklists and request to open the phone line.  We try to pay the deposit and they say to come back later.  We also asked for certificates of residence which we need to open a bank account.  We were told that BasiX had them.  We did not receive them from BasiX.  A nice old man makes us new ones.
  • We heard from some other students that we could get access to wifi by asking a certain person in the graduate office.  We go there, but we are not on the list.  I’m not exactly sure what list this is, so maybe that’s a good thing.  We look very confused and lost so the lady takes pity on us and leads us on a 15 minute walk through the maze which is the Grand Hall, culminating in walking on an enclosed footbridge to a building that is only supported by the four corners and is otherwise open underneath.  After a few more corners, we made it to a tiny little office which was open with no one in it.  Apparently this woman is the director for PEI (Programme d’échange international) students, which is us.  She eventually comes back to her office and seems surprised that we haven’t yet received important things like online login information.  She walks us back out of the maze and to the IT people where we are informed that our access information has just been emailed to us.  We would know this if we had wifi.
  • We have lunch and are able to pay with our new badges.  Quite exciting.
  • We take the train two stops into Orsay to go to the BNP Paribas (a bank) and attempt to open accounts.  We are told that we must do it at the school where there are three banks but each one is only open once per week for a few hours.
  • After exploring Orsay a bit, we take the train back and climb up 300 stairs back to campus.  I go to the bank and see that it’s the day for Société Générale, so I ask to open a student account and they say yes.  It will take at least a week to get my bank card, so I need to survive on my final 60 euros until then.  I had plenty until I had to pay that stupid housing deposit.

I still need to register for a sport in an office that’s also only open 2 hours per day on weekdays, but on the bright side we found out how to connect our phones to wifi (which only exists in one of the buildings.  Obviously).

As you can see, things are going swimmingly so far.  Wish me luck!