A huge thank you to everyone who participated in our Pre-Departure Chaos blog post! Alas, lo and behold, the answers to your questions! Our contributors include future TAPIFers Anne Donnelly, Avec Sam, Jen, JenTee, Nika Likes Maps, and Anne Elder (be sure to check out their blogs!)
- What types of teaching materials did you bring with you, and were they worth the space in your luggage?
Dana: I brought a high school yearbook, money, and old restaurant menus. Honestly, apart from the American coins (to simply pass around the room on the first day), I never used the resources I brought, and it wasn’t worth the extra weight and space. I obviously brought the yearbook and money home, but chucked the menus before I left France. Overall, just don’t be old school. Save your pictures and videos of home onto a flash drive or an iPhone and use internet resources like YouTube and Skype to create more authentic lessons. I connected with teachers from home to do Skype exchanges between students.
Lauren: As Dana says, putting pictures and videos on your computer saves space. While realia can be fun and useful, it helps to know how you’ll use it. Otherwise, I agree with Dana, I didn’t use many of the resources I brought. If you can find out what types of classes you’ll be teaching before you leave, that can help you tailor what you bring appropriately.
- Was there anything you wish you had bought but didn’t or vice versa? Does anything specific come to mind where either of you had a moment of “Darn, it I really should have brought [whatever],” be it clothes, paperwork, etc.? Was there anything you brought with you that you didn’t end up needing at all and/or realized would be easier to just buy once you were in France?
Dana: As for things I wish I had left behind, see question one regarding school supplies. Otherwise, to be honest, I was extremely prepared– the only thing I forgot to bring was a flash drive, which I bought in France at FNAC. Some key things: I made a crap ton of copies of everything before leaving, and I had my birth certificate certified and translated so I didn’t need to worry about that. The absolute best thing I brought was a portable file folder. I kept everything organized that way and it was a life saver! Additionally, I had all of my medical prescriptions for an entire year with me in France. Although initially a hassle with the insurance, it was worth it for me since I never received my carte vitale. Finally, because I was living in the south, I decided to forgo the winter coat and I’m so glad I did because the family who helped set me up lent me one for the winter months (I also ended up buying an awesome leather jacket in Barcelona during the Toussaint holidays.) Thankfully it never got THAT cold (but I am from Wisconsin, where “cold” has an entirely different interpretation.) One last thing: I was so determined to fit everything into one suitcase, but in the end I ended up checking a large suitcase and a carry-on. I am so glad I brought the carry-on because that is what I used for the majority of my travel on trains and budget airlines!
Lauren: I wish I’d brought an American fashion magazine for my fashion students to look at. As Dana wrote and I now reiterate, MAKE THE COPIES. ALL THE COPIES. COPY EVERYTHING. Then leave a set of copies (visa, passport, the French forms, credit cards, health insurance, etc.) at home with your parents as a security precaution. I sort of wish I’d taken a jacket that was heavier than my windbreaker, but it did give me an excuse to buy a really cool wintry jacket. Thrift sales at markets are fairly common, at least in the south of France, so if I’d wanted to save money, I could have bought a cheap used winter jacket (which I did, for five euros, before I found the irresistible winter jacket). I debated leaving my backpack home, but I’m so glad I took it because it was really convenient with Ryanair. I forgot my flashdrive, so I had to buy that in France at FNAC. Whoops.
- What was the most unexpected thing you encountered?
Dana: This is a really tough question! I feel like everyday in France is an adventure! I definitely was not expecting to move in the middle of my contract. However, I’m so happy that I did, because I think it made all the difference in my overall experience. Additionally, when you read many TAPIF blogs, they make it seem like it is all fun, all the time. But it can take awhile to find your groove (it certainly did for me and many other people.) I’d say that I finally felt completely comfortable and secure in mid-November. It’s not all going to happen at once, and don’t feel bad if you’re feeling blue at the start of your contract. It does get SO MUCH better!
Lauren: This is almost impossible to answer. I’m inclined to agree with Dana that every day is an adventure with it’s own joys and trials. I really wasn’t expecting to do some of the things I did, like discovering Taizé. I’d honestly say to try not to expect anything in particular. You’ll have your fair and unique share of difficulties and of happy occurrences. All assistants do, but never in exactly the same way.
During my study abroad experience, I encountered an uncanny amount of unfortunate and difficult circumstances and it took me until I got home to realize that I’d experienced depression. If you ever find yourself in depression, please, seek help! I wish I had then. Luckily, this wasn’t a problem during TAPIF for me.
- I know this will vary from school to school and even class to class, but I’m curious: what was your students’ general English levels? How often did you have to use French to explain something?
Dana: I worked with “Euro” students in 2ème (sophomores) and Terminale (seniors), meaning that their levels were much higher (my Terminales were practically fluent). I hardly ever needed to use French with them. My BTS students (first and second year university students), however, were INCREDIBLY low. It was difficult at first to plan for my BTS, because most of their lessons needed to revolve around technology, electricity, etc. which was difficult for me as well. (I don’t have a background in that sort of thing, so reaching out to other staff was a lifesaver!) But, word of advice: Seriously, DON’T use French with them. I spoke way too much with my BTS and I regret it!
Lauren: My students varied in age from 14 to 27, troisième to BTS, the whole gamut. In the BTS classes, some students were incredibly talented at English and others not so much and there really wasn’t much of a middle. My fashion students were better than my banking students for the most part. As for my high schoolers, it depended, but they were loosely divided by level within their class year. I totally agree with Dana on the French usage. Don’t do it unless the student absolutely positively cannot understand despite making their best effort. Rephrase, break it down, but French is a last resort.
- Would you recommend living alone or with roommates?
Dana: It really, really depends on you and your situation. I started in a studio, alone, and I frankly hated it. Originally I wanted to live alone because coming from college I was so over roommates, but I was very lonely and kind of miserable because I didn’t know anyone in the city, and my studio was not well-equipped either. I definitely settled to save money but in the long-run I wish I had splurged on something better, as living space is important to me and my overall health (some people can get by just fine in a closet-sized room!) When I moved into my apartment in January, I was so much happier to have a full kitchen, working wifi, a balcony, and three roommates. It was then that I really branched out and met French people. We brought my roommates to our parties and events, and then they brought their friends, so by the time May came around, we really had a really fun and hopping group! So, if you want to meet people quickly, live with roommates. It will also vastly improve your French and expand your cultural horizons. I recommend not selling yourself short on housing. It’s worth the extra cost if it’s going to make things easier. (I will also say to really do your research before committing to renting a room in someone else’s home– there are sometimes a lot of cultural differences and also difficulties just between the various lifestyles of adults.)
Lauren: It depends. I started off with roommates (other teaching assistants) and it really wasn’t working out for so many different reasons. I was a lot happier alone in my adorable little studio with the frequent company of Petit Chat. I think that if you can get a place with French apartment-mates your living style jives with, that’s great for you socially and culturally. Having a happy living situation is really crucial to your mental health, so be nice to yourself. CAF is there to help with the cost.
- If I have no teaching experience, is there anything I can do to prepare before I leave for France?
Dana: See if you can observe or help out in some classrooms, find a job or volunteer activities working with kids for the summer, or take on individual tutoring before you head off to France! If you can afford it, take a TEFL class (sometimes they have deals on Groupon). Additionally, read articles online about teaching- there are a TON of resources on Twitter.
Lauren: You can try volunteering with people who speak English as a foreign language, some churches and community centers offer classes for English language learners you could get involved with. Try to observe in a foreign language or ESL classroom if you can get permission. Volunteer with high schoolers or primary school aged kids. Teaching is a skill which comes mainly from experience.
- How was living on the assistant salary–were you able to survive or was supplemental income necessary?
Dana: I would say that if you plan to just live in France and not do any traveling at all, you can live on the salary in most parts of France. I also tutored every week and brought in an extra 100 euros per week, which helped a TON. For the majority of the time I was there, I was able to just live on my salary and tutoring income, and still have fun during the week. HOWEVER, I brought $7,500 with me (after purchasing a round-trip ticket). With this money, I was able to travel for the first two weeks and last week of September, as well as set myself up in terms of a train ticket from Paris to Toulon, bank account, cell phone plan, security deposit / first month’s rent, bus pass, carte jeune, groceries, a used bike, and supplemental items for my first studio (including a microwave). That was about $2,000. I also set aside a part of that money order to make student loan payments and travel. I took a huge trip at the end of my contract and that’s where most of that money went. But most assistants got by on much less– I just wasn’t very frugal about saving! I ended up coming home with about $1,000.
Lauren: I don’t know what I did, but I managed to travel, pay for rent (my apartment was furnished), feed myself, pay for my outgoing and return flight, and still have money left over. Having CAF definitely helped. I tutored and brought in 50 euros extra a week. I guess I’m just really thrifty? I do tend to live a rather minimalistic lifestyle. You will need to have extra money at the beginning because it takes a while to get your first paycheck and then your first paycheck isn’t even in full. Of course, it depends on your region. I wouldn’t bank on being able to survive on an assistant’s income in Paris.
- How much cash would you recommend having on hand for arrival? Should I bring cash/travelers checks for rent and deposits?
Dana: No one uses traveler’s checks anymore. The easiest thing to do is to withdraw euros from an ATM using your American credit card once you get to France, converting dollars to euros on the spot. My bank(Educator’s Credit Union) doesn’t charge international fees for ATM’s, so I’m lucky in that sense, but usually this is still the cheapest way to convert cash, especially if you just decide to pull out a lump sum at once. Again, referring to the question above, bring as much money as you can. I would recommend at least $3,000 dollars, but honestly, $4,000 is probably more feasible, especially if you want to do a little traveling. I brought $7,500 and was able to do much more.
Lauren: If you have Bank of America, you won’t be charged any fees to use a BNP ATM. I think I brought along the equivalent of somewhere between $400-800 in euros and then just went to the ATM in France. It allows you to not carry tons of cash and save on conversion fees. As for how much you should have in your bank account, I’d say at least $3,000 for food, a security deposit, and first and maybe second month costs. With the money part, it really depends mainly on housing and what you have to pay. I said $3,000-$5,000 in the bank account just in case of unforeen events. I didn’t spend more than $1,000 of it (food and rent) and then made it up when I got my paychecks. You shouldn’t spend all the $3,000, but precaution is good and this number is based on the cheap prices of housing in Nîmes. It takes a while to get your first and second paycheck to cover initial expenses. Bear in mind that you’ll want to have some “just in case” American dollars (or whatever the currency is where you’re from) for when you go back to the states (I think I took about $50-100).
- When you get your cell phone unlocked, what did you use during the transition between leaving the US and getting the new SIM card in Europe? I have an 18 hour layover in Iceland and want to make sure I will be able to use my phone (for instagram purposes…).
Lauren: Personally, I’ve kept around an old unlocked phone I used when I studied abroad in France and again during my TAPIF stay. If you can use an old unlocked phone or get one from a friend, it lets you not worry about your American phone. Once in France, you can buy a temporary SIM card. I’ll let Dana handle the Iceland part of this 😉
Dana: I have an iPhone 5, which are already unlocked. So, froze my plan with Verizon, and planned it so my cellphone plan froze the day I left, so I didn’t worry about it. In Iceland, you’ll just have to use your wifi on your phone, unless you want to buy an Icelandic SIM card to make calls (honestly in my opinion it’s not worth it). Your phone will work like an iPod under wifi, even if it can’t make calls. The day I got to Paris, I bought a temporary SIM card for my iPhone from the SFR boutique I saw (it only had texting and calling, and no 3G- for about 2 weeks’ worth, so I just used internet on my phone under wifi during that time.) Once I had my address, I was able to set up my phone plan with Free.fr. (unlimited calls and texts to France and North America, as well as 3 gigabytes of data for 20 euros per month– a steal!) I received my new SIM card in the mail in a few days, and just disposed of the old one.
10. I’ve read that a lot of landlords require a guarantor…how did you get around this? Are there any legal/paperwork obstacles when it comes to finding a place to rent?
Dana: Some landlords do and some don’t– it really is luck of the draw. Some are flexible with foreigners. Your arrête will count as source of income, so that is something you can show them. My first studio was under the table, so they couldn’t require a garant, and I couldn’t apply for CAF. My second apartment was great because the landlords rent to assistants every year and they are up-to-date with our situations. All they required was an arrête, and then they filled out their portion of the application for CAF. If you have ANY contacts in France, ask them if they would be willing to be a garant if the situation arises. Sometimes teachers at your schools may be willing to be your garant. Overall, you really just have to search around or try to negotiate with them. If they won’t budge, move on.
Lauren: My landlords didn’t require this, so I got lucky. Before coming to France, I had my American bank notarize a copy of my dad’s bank statement just in case. You’ll show your arrêté de nomination to prove your own income. One thing to ask every potential landlord is if they’ll allow you to apply for CAF. My first place was under the table, so I couldn’t apply.
11. How can I get a bank account without first having an address? Or, (I have a place where I am staying for a week and a half) can I use that as an address?
Lauren: Luckily, my first landlady let me pay my rent in cash. If not, try to get whoever you’re staying with to write you a justificatif de domicile and give you a copy of their ID, then change your address later.
Dana: If you’re lucky, you may find landlords that will let you pay your security deposit and first month’s rent in cash, with an absolute promise that you will go directly to the bank and set up your account. Your bank will require proof of residency in order to set up an account. However, banks don’t really care about where you’re living, as long as you have something to write down. So, if this is your situation, have whomever you’re staying with write you a justificatif de domicile and give you (several) photocopies of their ID and an EDF (utilities bill). Then, later, it will be super easy to change your address at the bank- just go in with a new copy of your lease and let them know– you should be able to change it right then and there.
12. Do you know at all about deferring federal loans?
Dana: If you, like me, have all of your federal student loans managed through My Great Lakes (www.mygreatlakes.org), this information will make sense to you. I did pay my loans at first, but chose a lower monthly repayment option (Gradual versus Level). If you want to defer your loans, you will probably NOT qualify for economic deferment as TAPIF suggests (because 12 hours per week is NOT full-time). So, what I did instead was just simply request a forbearance. It took a couple of days to go through, but it is valid for an entire year. This is definitely an option for you once you are out of your grace period.
Lauren: I decided not to forbear my loans because I didn’t qualify for economic hardship either, but didn’t want to accrue interest since I no longer had student status. To be honest, all I really splurged on was weekly chocolate/sweets (uncontrollable sweet tooth here), and travel and I was quite content that way. If you like to drink, you can end up blowing through a lot more money.
If you have any other questions that arise, please leave a comment and we will get back to you! Also, PLEASE let us know if we forgot any of your questions (we did our best to make sure we got all the comments from both of our posts, but we are only human!)
Dana and Lauren