Ways to prepare for a year abroad in France – by Ellen Roberts-James

Year Abroad is one of the most exciting and life-changing things you can do as a student. You will no doubt make some amazing friends and see lots of incredible places, but that is not to say that you won’t experience some of the most infuriating and frustrating complications known to man. That’s a slight exaggeration. But after experiencing a range of administrative errors (this especially applies to France), I can safely say that preparation is key if you don’t want any unpleasant surprises when you arrive. So here are the main pieces of advice that I would scream frantically at any student approaching their departure, lest you have to deal with the same level of administrative incompetency and confusion as I did:

  • One folder, a million papers. For the love of God make sure you bring all the documents you’ll be needing. In France we can apply for something called CAF, which is essentially a housing benefit for students, and for which you need copies of your passport, a translated copy of your birth certificate (pricey and annoying, but worth it), and a photocopy of your EHIC. Although the office likes to mix it up and sometimes asks for other documents too, depending on how they feel that day. Make sure your EHIC is up to date and that you bring it with you, because forgetting it is a nightmare – one of my friends couldn’t even start university until he got his updated. Bring multiple copies of all these things. Make sure you have copies of your housing contract if necessary too. And ID photos. A rule of thumb is: if you’re not sure you have enough copies, make another one.
  • Make sure you have properly enrolled at university. Sounds painfully obvious, which makes it all the more painful when you actually make this mistake like I did. French universities are notorious for their inadequate admin, and you pretty much have to do everything yourself. Double, triple and quadruple check that you have finished all of your online application and enrolment, and that your learning agreement is ready for your arrival. If you’re not sure, check with your administrator. When I arrived at the university ready to collect my student card, I was sent back and forth between offices because of a problem that no one could really explain. In the end, it turned out I hadn’t put a photo on my online enrolment form, meaning my form was unfinished and I couldn’t enrol at the university. As it happened, after some serious negotiation and pleading, it turned out to be a simple case of the woman adding a photo to my account. But it was very stressful nonetheless.
  • Pack what you will actually need. I packed some items which, arguably, are not the most useful to my everyday life here in France. My large book of Plath poetry, a thousand incense sticks and an ornament of Ganesh, it turns out, were not necessary. What would have been useful though, contrary to my mother’s advice (which I followed) was some winter clothing. I had to get a coat and jumper sent over to me because I idiotically did not foresee that winter in the South of France would obviously be quite cold. If, like me, you have only one large suitcase and your hand luggage, the best idea is to properly research the weather conditions of your destination and pack as little as possible accordingly. Did I realistically need seven pairs of shoes? I did not. Did I realistically need five bags and four scarves? I did not. Be realistic, it will save your live and the integral structure of your spine as you try to lift that suitcase upstairs.
  • Do some research. Before I came to France, I did some basic research of the area and things I might like to do, and in a way it’s nice going in a bit blind and just rolling with the plans that crop up. However, as much as spontaneous adventure and exploration is a huge part of your YA, I wish I’d made more of a list of things I wanted to do and see, if only to give myself an idea of how much I needed to fit in to such a relatively short amount of time. In my three months here so far, I feel like I’ve done so many wonderful things, but there are more places I would love to have seen which I now won’t have time for. Making a list of things means you’ll never be stuck for ideas, and your weekends will never be empty!

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  • Make sure you’re doing something you will really enjoy. I know it’s hard to do considering that no one, naturally, can access hindsight until it’s too late. But the trick is to focus on an idea that genuinely excites you, but something you can realistically see yourself doing. Don’t be scared to do something because it feels bigger than you – if you think you can manage it and it’s actually permitted on the scheme (the more restrictive issue) then by all means go for it. If you like the idea of working, apply for jobs you like the look of, even if it’s only speculative application. Originally I had my heart set on work, and I applied to about a dozen magazines and received no response, but it doesn’t hurt trying anyway. I feel like I didn’t try hard enough with my job search, and university was actually my safety option for when I didn’t get the job I interviewed for. Although I am glad I stayed as a student and got to experience Erasmus student life (which is certainly worth it!), a part of me still pines after an artsy, creative job in a big city, like Paris. For me, I find that I don’t get on very well with the French university system. It’s fairly backwards and impersonal, and nothing like I’ve been lucky enough to experience back home. Luckily for me, however, I move to Geneva next semester, and get to experience the Swiss university system which I know to be more organised and better suited to me.

The overall advice I will leave you with is to get to know your placement and destination as well as you can, gather everything you could possibly ever need for it, but before all this, make sure it’s the right placement for you. I’ve loved my time here so far, I’ve even weirdly enjoyed some of the godawful road bumps along the way, for their retrospective comedic value and as lessons that I can carry with me as I continue to trip through life. Just make sure you pack the photocopies!

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