'Imagination will take you everywhere'
The lifestyle: Despite the stress of studying, deadlines and exams, the French pace of life does soothe the nerves. So after a hectic day spent in the bibliotheque it was nice to have a drink or two at our local brasserie, or a picnic in the park. Remember you are not only here to study but also to experience the culture.
The people: Meeting students from all over the world – not only from France – is an eye-opening experience, as you get to learn about their culture as well. So try to get to know as many people as possible. This will also prove beneficial in the future when you have lots of friends around the globe to visit – there’s nothing like experiencing a new country through the eyes of a local. So keep in contact with them!
Living on a budget: It is possible. Food is relatively cheap, especially if you go to a local marché for fruit and vegetables. Wine is also much cheaper than in the UK, which is a plus for many students.
Erasmus money: Students are entitled to receive between €250 to €300 per month. This actually goes a long way, and actually covered my rent every month. But it’s important to remember not to spend it all at once as it disappears very quickly.
Integrating with French students: It can be hard to make friends with French students, especially when they have already established their friend groups. Some of my international friends spoke of the divide they felt between them and French students. But usually if you make an effort to mix – particularly by joining associations and sports clubs, then you will get to know lots of French students.
Free entry to museums for EU students: The French have a strong appreciation of culture, and so EU students can get in free to most museums across the country when they show a valid student ID – make sure you make the most of it and see as many Cézanne’s, Monet’s and Matisse’s as possible.
The classes: French teachers – whatever the subject – love to make cultural and historical references. From the French Revolution to Charles De Gaulle, Jean-Luc Godard to the Marseillaise, so it helps to do some background research about the country, otherwise you’ll be in the dark.
The language: Try to speak French as much as possible – ask for directions, go to the post office, get your hair cut, barter at a market. It may be hard but it’ll only improve if you push yourself out of your comfort zone.
The bureaucracy: Dealing with things like student housing, visas, CAF, can be a very long and draining process – especially if you are not well-versed in the language. It is best to ask a French person to help you, or your university should have a person to advise you. Above all, be patient (easier said then done, I know).
Finding a place to live: There are lots of different options for accommodation. The most common choice is student residences, which is good to meet other students, and is normally a simple process done through your university. However, you can also stay with a host family; good for practising your French and learning how the locals live. My friend found a host family through Welcome2France.com. There is also flat sharing or colocation, which is a great way to meet new people – not just students. There are numerous websites for you to search for available rooms, including Roomlala.com or Leboncoin.fr.
Trains: As an exchange student you will want to travel and see the country, but France’s trains can be unreliable and expensive if you don’t book in advance. Try OuiGo for cheap train deals, or BlaBlaCar, a car sharing or covoiturage network which is very popular in Europe. Also investing in a Carte Jeune – a student railcard – is well worth it.
The grading system: It takes a while to get your head round the completely different mark scheme of 1 – 20, instead of out of 100. But 20 is unreachable – many French students say 20 is reserved for God (or king), 19 for professors, in general 17 or 18 is considered as being very good. Remember that you have to adjust to a new school, so don’t worry if your marks don’t reflect your true academic abilities.
Oral presentations: French universities have a love of oral presentations – particularly at Sciences Po, which is renowned for producing some of the best orators (current French President included). So if you have a fear of talking in front of large groups of people, then this is your chance to practise – you’ll be a pro by the end.
Travelling back home: I took the Eurostar, which you must book in advance if you don’t want it to get expensive. Some friends preferred flying or taking a bus from Paris to London, which you can do for around €18. There are also bursaries available to students, have a look at Gov.uk to find out more.
It’s not all about Paris: The capital is where everyone wants to go to on their exchange year, but there are many other smaller cities around France where you can have just as much fun. I went to Reims, a city in northeast France, and found many advantages to living in a small city. For starters the rent is much cheaper (my rent was €240 per month), there is a stronger student community as you are all in close proximity, you can walk everywhere – don’t have to rely on the metro and save money that you would spend on transport, it was surrounded by beautiful countryside where we hiked and camped, and it was only a 45-minute train journey (or cheap 2-hour bus journey) into Paris, so if you really yearn for a buzzing metropolis then it is easy to get to.
Originally published on The Local France.