It’s crazy to think that this time two years ago I was making last minute preparations for my move to Pau, France, to start my 8-month placement as an English Language Assistant! I remember feeling extremely nervous and excited, but mostly just feeling very overwhelmed with the fear of not really knowing what to expect! So I have put together a few points that will hopefully help anyone who is leaving (or has just arrived) to start their year abroad. Some of these points may be specific to France or Language Assistants, but I hope they can help!
I was very worried about this because it does make up a big part of your Year Abroad experience. The first thing I would advise is to contact anyone and everyone on where previous language assistants / students lived. It is important to ask yourself where you want to live – would you prefer to commute if you lived in a bigger town? Would you like to live with French natives? Are you happy to live in student accommodation? Would you like to live alone? Once you know these answers, you can get looking for a place online (appartager.com and leboncoin.fr are useful sites).
Personally, I was offered a university room in Pau. Although it was cheap, it was extremely basic and the university atmosphere was nothing like the UK’s. I lived with a few French people and many other language assistants who were mainly English or Spanish. Looking back, I think living with French students would have benefitted me more, as I would have spoken more French, and an apartment would have been a lot more comfortable.
As a top tip, I would advise you to apply for CAF (Caisses d’Allocations Familiales), the housing benefit France offers to students, regardless of whether you are living in student halls, a house-share, or private accommodation. Although it’s a lengthy process and a fine example of slow French bureaucracy (see point 6), it’s generally worth your efforts in the end. I ended up paying around 105€ per month for my accommodation after CAF was deducted!
The first thing I was really unsure about was how much money to take with me when I left for France. Remember that it’s always better to have too much than too little! I knew I wouldn’t have access to a cash point until I opened a bank account, so I took around 700€ in cash and a further 500€ on my Thomas Cook Cash Passport* (looking back I feel I should have taken more!) I let my UK bank know that I was going to be out of the country so that any transactions made abroad wouldn’t result in my card being cancelled (luckily I only used my UK card once while abroad!)
As for a French bank account, my responsable recommended opening an account with La Banque Postale, which cost me 7€ every three months. I’m unsure if still costs this amount, but I know for sure you can open an account elsewhere for free. The Carte Bleue is useful if you travel around Europe whilst on your YA; cash withdrawals are free in most countries!
Many places will require paperwork from you when you register, for example when you open a bank account, apply for Social Security or move into your new accommodation. It’s useful to have numerous (and by numerous I mean around 10) copies of confirmation of your job placement / Erasmus status / passport – also advisable are copies of your driving license, birth certificate, bankcards. I would also recommend taking about a million passport photos, as the French seem to love/need them for everything.
Which brings me nicely onto…
The laid-back French way of life is something I really wish did not apply to important things, like applying for housing benefits (CAF), or opening a French bank account. However, c’est la vie and you just have to grin and bear the fact that you’ll need to take many trips to the admin offices, and fill in the same form numerous times, and then wait for what feels like and probably is
Due to a lack of communication with my responsable before leaving England, I hadn’t really got a clue about teaching until I arrived in Pau. Luckily I met all of my teachers before officially starting my job, but even after that I was unsure what would be expected of me: would I be taking full classes of 25 pupils? How long did the lessons last? What facilities were available? Did I have to stick to a curriculum?
I soon learned that the best way to find out was, believe it or not, simply to ask. I was afraid of looking a fool for asking too many questions, or, more likely, for stumbling over my French as I tried to ask questions! Most teachers are happy to answer any questions and don’t mind if you make mistakes in French – after all, you’re doing them a favour by helping teach English!
If you’re going to be a language assistant, a great way of getting students interested in their English lessons is by using genuine English materials, such as newspapers, magazines and songs. If you’re teaching in a primary school, you’ll soon learn that children are fascinated by English coins, sweets… – even your own family photos can prove to heighten their interest when learning to talk about their family. If you aren’t going to be an assistant, take souvenirs anyway. There are many foods (i.e. baked beans, marmite, tea bags) that either don’t exist in France, or are so extortionately over-priced that you’ll wish you brought it along! Gifts are also a lovely ice-breaker on your first day of school or work – a box of English shortbread biscuits will go down a treat, especially if they are from M&S!
Skype is your new best friend! Or, failing that, Facetime. It’s important to remember how lucky we are these days to have the technology to be able to chat with others at the touch of a button. If you don’t have internet at your accommodation yet, remember that loads of bars and restaurants have wifi, often for free.
As for a mobile phone, it’s very easy to buy a pay-as-you-go phone and top it up as and when you need to. I took out a monthly rolling contract for 20€ a month with free.fr which I used on my (unlocked) iphone. This gave me unlimited data, unlimited texts to French numbers and unlimited calls to both French numbers and UK landlines. It was simple to start and terminate, and fed my unhealthy addiction to Instagram throughout my YA!
Don’t tempt fate – you don’t want to end up in hospital with a whopping great bill…
I got my insurance for twelve months (so I was covered for my trip to Italy after France, as well as for a family holiday to Greece and a clubbing holiday to Kavos with friends) and it cost £184 from yearabroadinsurance.com, but many websites offer it for varied lengths and prices. Mine included cover for when I went skiing whilst in Pau too!
Homesickness happens, and you should in no way feel guilty for it. Check this post when you feel a world away from home. However, it’s important to find a way to combat it: read a book, go for a walk, listen to music, meet up with friends, go to the cinema, go swimming, have a nap, Skype your family, write someone a letter… the possibilities are endless.
If it’s becoming too much (because sometimes it does), and you feel that you don’t want to continue with your Year Abroad, you should speak to your University back home about your options. Remember that no one is forcing you to do it. It’s common to feel unsettled at first and I would advise you to stick it out for at least a month or so before making any rash decisions.
A good way to be positive is to start a project to record your time away: start a blog, write a diary, make a scrapbook… Try to record everything you learn about the country, take loads of photos and when you come to leave, you wont share a thought for the homesick times as you’ll focus on how incredible the year has been.
One thing I tried to do whilst on my year abroad was say yes to everything – whether it’s attending Zumba classes with one of your teachers, or tutoring a seventeen year old whose vocabulary is wider than your own. Travel as much as you can, meet lots of new people and make your Year Abroad what you want it to be.
To everyone embarking on their own year abroad this year, have a brilliant time! I must admit that I’m very jealous and wish I were doing it all over again!
Lots of love,
Disclaimer: None of the photos used in this post are my own, apart from the first two.