Life as a Student in France – Part 1

This was after I resigned my job, and went as a Scholarship Holder to France. I will discuss the events that happened during the first two years here in France.

I immediately resignation to the Project Manager Mr L N Sarin, who was very kind and gave me all kinds of advices. I left Mehsana on 17/10/1973 evening, by train to Mumbai.

In Mumbai, I went with my passport to the French Consulate for my Visa. The officer went through my copy of the letter from ministry and examined my passport, and agreed to affix a visa. He also made a booking by air France by the flight on 20/10/1973. The airline official at the consulate advised me to go to the Reserve Bank of India Mumbai as their Ahmedabad office had not provided a certain P-Form. The RBI issued the necessary P-Form as well as approved a foreign exchange of FF 50 towards my initial travel expenses. The Air France office kindly issued my ticket for France and thus I was all set for my studies in France.

My flight was in the night, and as required, I checked in at Mumbai Airport (The Santa Cruz Terminal was the only one those days). I boarded the flight, a Boeing 747, coming from Hong Kong, with a stop at Tel Aviv before landing in Paris. I was given a great French Dinner, but most I didn’t enjoy it, as I already had my dinner before boarding. I felt bad of having to waste a dinner. Before landing in Paris Orly airport, they gave me a breakfast, which I really enjoyed.

At the Orly Sud International Airport, where I had arrived in the morning, I got my US$50 exchanged into French Franks, after which I went to the Helpdesk. I told them that I am a student from India and had to go to the address in Paris, given by the GOI. They told me that I could use a Cab which would cost me quite a bit, or use the Orly Rail & Bus, a system using French Metro & Bus. I decided to use this option. I purchased a Rail ticket to the place which was advised by the HelpDesk, and boarded a bus. The bus driver had very courteously lifted my suit case and kept inside the Bus, with a smile. I was surprised at his behaviour, as in India, the driver would not have bothered to do such a thing. After he loaded all baggages, and ensuring that all passengers had boarded, he started the bus which was to take us to the Rail (or Metro, probably) station Rungis. The same driver loaded all baggages in the train, very politely. I thanked him profusely.

The train took us to the Invalids Station, where I was to get down. The office I was to go was quite close by, and the Taxi fares were quite reasonable. I took a Taxi and told the driver where I was to go, by showing the address & directions given by the airport helpdesk. He was kind enough to take me to the office.

At this Office i was welcomed by a lady, who told me that if I am yet to pay the cab fares, she would pay, and told me that they generally expect students to take a cab from the airport to their office, even without any money with them. My case was different, as I had spent much less, all within the cash available with me.

The first part of my study program was a French Language Course. I was told that I need to be proficient in this language to be able to write exams or reports or theses in French. This was a quick fix, and this was in Royan, a small town in the Atlantic Coast in the Charente-Maritime District. A train was to take me there that evening from Gare d’Oreleans Austerlitz.

This office also had a university restaurant nearby, I was given a lunch coupon so that I could have a lunch there. In the evening I was courteously dropped off with my baggage at the Railway Station. The rail ticket and money for my journey and some more was also provided. Actually I don’t remember at all about how much money I was to get until then, but here somebody told me that the GOI scholarship was for FF 250 per month. Besides, since Royan didn’t have a university restaurant nor residence, I was to get an additional FF 100 per month.

Early morning the train had reached a station La Rochelle where I was to take small train to Royan. This way, I also had a view of the French country side. The train went through Rochefort, Saintes and finally Royan. It was in fact the rail Terminus. The Paris office had sent information of my arrival and I was picked up by my landlady Madame Gilet. The place I was to stay was in Boulevard de l’Ocean. The language institute was just walking distance from there.

I was the first of Indian students, sent by the Ministry of Education. I was told that they have received communication of three students in all, to undergo French Language Course at the Language center (Centre Audiovisuel de Royan pour l’Enseignement Linguistics (CAREL).

The director of the institute was Max Delhomme, the chief of administration Madamme(Mme) Reigneux, Head of French Language course Prof Patreuilleux, Reception Mademoiselle (Mlle) de la Chappelle. Apart from this there were teachers Mlle Moulya, Mlle Catherine, Mme Patreuilleux and Mme Jeanine Louche.

There were many students from Arabia, mostly Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanian, two from Yemen and Albania and one each from Rhodesia, and Malawi. We were to be soon three Indians.

In about a week, Mr Amar Ranjan Ghosal, chemical engineer from Jadavpur University joined. The same day there was also Aishwarya Mann Shreshtha from Nepal and Kaukert Bonchukosol from Thailand. After a few days, Mr Sharma who was a teacher in aeronautical engineering in University of Punjab also joined.

We Indians the Thai and the Nepalese knew no French and naturally were moving together. But soon we started talking in Hindi, as Shreshtha also knew Hindi, putting Kaukert to some discomfort. Though I felt it was not good, this Hindi conversation always continued, although Kaukert, Shreshtha and me used to be together more occasionally. In fact we became quite thick friends. Among the Indians, such friendship was only with Ghosal, as Sharmaji was interested in his personal activities alone.

I started communicating with Indian embassy for information and news from India. They were very friendly those days, probably because of the very small Indian Community. In one of my letters, I explained to poor understanding of India among my classmates from various countries, as well as the French staff of the Language centre, and without any notice, I got a carton of Film Reels, suggesting that I could project them for the benefit of the public there. As soon as I had this, I requested the Director Max, who agreed to screen it, Professor Julian of the English Department was asked to coordinate, along with Mme Reigneux. My friends Ghoshal, Sharma were also very happy, so was Shreshtha. A good crowd, mostly Frenchmen, took part in the screening of the film and discussions that followed. Of course, for me also, it was the first time I had seen the film, so I didn’t have a clue what was going to be shown, but it was a good show. From the Language Centre, they had arranged some cold drinks / coffee for the participants. The next day, I packed up all the stuff and sent the reels back to Indian Embassy, by Rail Courier Service.

This event made Professor Julian to be one of my good friends, as he had invited me to his home to meet his wife, who was from Australia.

My class teacher was Mlle Moulya, but after about a few months, some of the Arab Students requested for changing her, and it was immediately agreed, and Mme Louche became our teacher. Kaukert and Shreshtha were also in my class, also the Albanian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Malawi, Rhodesian, Kuwaiti and some Syrian, and Palestinian students. Ghosal and Sharma used to be in another class with Catherine as the teacher, with the rest of Palestinian and Syrian students. Perhaps this association of such diverse nationalities that helped me to learn language much faster and better.

Professor Patreuilleux was also advising students in their pursuit of higher studies in France. I had written a couple of letters, of course in my own French, to universities and the Institut Francais du Petrol, requesting for an opportunity of research. Professor Patreuilleux had modified those letters, encouraging me to write more, and told me of the nuances of addressing persons of higher education or public institutions, as well as the polite ways of ending the letters in different contexts. I think I followed his ways, even in the last ever letter I wrote to someone.

We also used to have Weekly picnics around the area, to Cognac, Saintes, Poitiers, La Rochelle, as a part of our Language Program. Probably the funding was from the French Government, as we didn’t have to pay except for the packed lunch (Sandwiches generally).

In Cognac we had visited several of the famous the wineries and the distillery of Martell. We used to get free samples of wine and cognac, which some of our Arab friends weren’t supposed to have, but in general, they had enjoyed the drink more than others. We were given an introduction to wines of the region and Cognac. Saintes was a small town nearby, known for its cathedral and wineries around.

Poitiers was a historical sleepy town, or a small city, where in the olden days, the Crusades were fought between invading Muslim Army and the defending Christians under Charles Martel (Who subsequently became the Pope Charlemagne of Avignon). Battle of Poitiers was quite decisive as if the results went otherwise the Europe would have been another large islamic area. I had no idea that Spain and the southern half of France were part of the Arabs of North Africa till then.

La Rochelle was also a small city like Poitiers, had a sea port and Chemical Industry, and looked prosperous. Characteristic of all towns and cities was a large Cathedral, which could be seen from almost everywhere. Buildings were small, unlike in larger towns and small cities which had many multi storied buildings.

By March we had completed the Courses, all of us could read, write and speak fairly fluently. Professor Michel Combarnous had replied me saying that he would be in Bordeaux one of those days, and i could meet and discuss the prospects of my higher studies under him. This was a decisive interview, and he had suggested that after a few more months of my present course, I can join him in the team at Toulouse. When he saw a communication I had with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore offering me admission to a course in Master of Engineering, he took a copy of the same and told me that that was the only recognized educational/research institution in India by the French Government and would be very handy for my admissions.

At this time, we were scheduled to go to some larger university premises where we were to undergo specialised training for the specific areas of industry or science where we were to be specialised. Ghosal and I, along with several Arab students were sent to the Paul Valerie University of Montpellier in the Southern France. The Course here was under Prof Lalaurie of the Faculty of Chemistry. We had a good teacher who explained various technical terms of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, comprehension and writing of technical language.

Weekends were more interesting, as we were taken on picnics to Sete, Nimes, Avignon, Sea Beaches and Grottes (Caves) of Clamouse, and Notre-Dame, Pont-du Gard, and many other places. I saw Bull fight for the first time in Avignon (known to be the seat of Holy pope, until Vatican had the prestige many years later).

In the month of April, I had been called to visit Toulouse, where I was to meet Professor Serge Bories and Michel Combarnous. Serge had taken me around the Laboratories of the group and in the institute in Banleve as well. I was told that I could actually come any time and start the program.

Thus, I think in May or June 1974, I was in Toulouse, staying in the University Hostel of Daniel Faucher (It was a vacation Hostel for students who actually stay in any of the six or seven Hostels in the city), and started my work in the IFP-IMF Group under Prof Serge Bories.

My work in the Research Lab had started earlier than the University sessions to reopen. After that happened, I was advised to take a few courses as a pre-requisite for my PhD Registration. Turbulence, Mechanics of Suspensions, Two-Phase Flow and Heat transfer with phase change were among the compulsory subjects that I had to clear. Meanwhile my first year’s requirement was to study literature, and find a suitable project, which if approved by the industry, would fetch me grants to pursue my research, apart from the University’s grants, which was not as high. In about three months, I had completed the Library research, and selected a project, which Serge and Michel had reviewed. They felt that it could be presented to the Group’s Board, for possible grants. And the funding of the research was soon approved by March-April 1975.

However, the passage of the compulsory courses was far from satisfactory. Out of the four subjects, I could not clear in one in the Exams of May 1975, and had to take it fresh in July 1975 once again. The rule was that the repeat examination was just on one subject, which I would know only when I start writing the exam!. This time, I was much luckier, and the exam results were fine.

With this, my research project had started in July 1975


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