Farewell, Paris: HONEST Year Abroad Survival Guide

 

On Friday 25 May, I got back to London having finished my 8-month stint of living and working in Paris. It’s been a surreal experience. In this post, I am going to be real and honest about my experience, and share all my tips for those who may be considering or facing a Year Abroad (‘YA’ from now on). 

I’ll cover: my experience, how to find accommodation, settling into work, opening a French bank account, paperwork you need to know about, finding a church, transport and maintaining your mental and emotional wellbeing while abroad. It’s a long one, but it’s all my best tips, on one page, to help you. Grab a cuppa and take lots of notes. LET’S GO!!… (or should that be, allons-y!) 😉

My experience

I did enjoy many aspects of the YA, such as making some of the most precious friends, improving my language skills, and getting brilliant corporate work experience in an amazing company for my 2nd internship. But honestly, the YA can be TOUGH, and it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. It’s something you can’t really explain to people until they have experienced it themselves!

First thing to say is that a lot of your YA experience will depend on factors beyond your control, such as whether you have family/friends living in France who you can stay with for free, whether you already speak French fluently, and whether you have contacts who can hook you up with a job and/or accommodation. Also, whether you choose to study (in which case accommodation is pretty much sorted for you) or work (in which case you risk dealing with dodgy landlords/flatmates) will vary your experience. If you have none of these in your favour, your experience will likely be very different from those who do.

I always like to find the balance between honesty and not dwelling in negativity and/or the past, but my Year Abroad, in summary, was honestly very tough, and I really didn’t enjoy some aspects of it. Sadly I had a run of truly bad luck with accommodation, from dealing with flatmate bullies who threatened me with violence (and later apologised, admitting they had violence and anger issues), to living with unruly children and their just-as-noisy landlord parents (yep…), and other people who didn’t value giving space or enjoying silence (trust me, it can get tiring!).

But highlights for me were abundant, like my amazing second internship, at Deloitte, and my amazing new YA friends. Don’t let my experience put you off your YA — it is definitely an experience that builds resilience and will forge your character — but also don’t buy into the expectation that it will necessarily always be rose-tinted and dandy. The best thing you can do is be as prepared as possible.

So, let’s get you prepared. Here are my practical tips:

Accommodation

My best advice for finding accommodation in Paris is to go on appartager.com and sign up for the 1-week membership (about £20). Find and save some places you’re interested in. Then, invest in going to Paris and viewing the places you’re planning on living in to see whether you really could live there long-term. Viewing the property and meeting the landlord is my biggest tip. 

Analyse the landlords and flatmates carefully – but remember people can always put on fronts, as I learnt the hard way (explained in my February post).

I always shared my accommodation with other people in order to save money; in retrospect, I would have rented a studio apartment for my whole year, because personal space—and not being forced into conversation when I am tired—is very important to me (lol!). Bear things like this – your personality, introvertedness/extrovertedness etc – in mind when choosing where to live.

Also look into a long-term stay in an Airbnb – it might be a better option for you than an Appartager flatshare, although it’ll be pricey.

Work

Every country has its own workplace culture. Parisians are stereotyped as being frank and direct (often borderline rude) and inconsiderate of others’ feelings. Not all of them are like this, of course, but in my experience and in the experiences of many of my fellow YA students, this stereotype has rung somewhat true. Tip: don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, and don’t expect people to show you the same level of consideration that we are taught to show—even at a basic level—in the UK. 

France and the UK are very different. A Parisian once explained to me that in French culture, it’s not accepted to show joy; conversely, it’s the norm to show (and ensure everyone knows) your misery. I’ll never forget answering my door one time to one of my flatmates. She knocked on my bedroom door, I opened it with a smile; she looked me up and down and asked me, ‘why are you constantly happy?’.

A French manager might happily cuss out your work — or you, for that matter — loudly in front of your colleagues, and/or bully and/or micromanage you. I once had to politely inform a manager at my first internship, who had a habit of talking over me, that interrupting people was, in the UK, seen as impolite and disrespectful; she took offence and became defensive, but she didn’t do it again. Be assertive, respectfully of course. Things like that that we learn in the UK — not to interrupt people, always to have manners, to be considerate of others — are not a given in France. It’s just the culture.

So yes—be prepared to learn be assertive. Had I not been assertive, I would have been paid half the salary I was paid, and worked 9am-8pm on a 9-5 contract. Renting in pricey Paris, with a 1.5hr commute, those were not options for me. Stand your ground, don’t take things personally, and state your mind with love, respect and clarity. Do not be bullied.

Banking and Finances – Opening a French Bank Account

I would HIGHLY recommend coming to Paris at least a few working days before you start work, to open your bank account, get your Pass Navigo (like an Oyster card in London, for transport), settle into accommodation, practise your commute, find your local supermarket, and get any groceries in.

For banking, I highly recommend going with Crédit Agricole. 

They have an English-speaking office (trust me, this is USEFUL when trying to open a bank account in France) at this address:

Crédit Agricole d’Ile-de-France – Banque et Assurances

E-agence Internationale

31 rue de Constantine 75007 PARIS

Tel. 01 44 73 30 00

You can register in advance to open an account with them here, and then open it in-branch. My advisor was AMAZING, spoke fluent English, and made the whole process super smooth. She was available by email or telephone all year round if I had any problems.

She opened a current account and a savings account for me, with an 18-25s contactless debit card for transactions (takes up to a week to arrive after you’ve opened the account – another reason why I suggest coming to Paris a week before your placement starts).

Bureaucracy 

…is pretty unavoidable in France! But didn’t cause me many problems. The only thing I had worries about was finding healthcare (I still don’t know how GPs work out there, but if you have an EHIC and you know the emergency services number, you’re all good!). Social Security numbers can be a pain and pop up here and there; none of my employers – and not even my French banking advisor – knew what mine would be or even how it worked for me. But in the end, I didn’t need it. Top Tip: always carry ID and proof of your French address – you’ll need these for opening a bank account and securing a Pass Navigo (explained later).

Looking for a Church?

Anyone looking for a warm, welcoming church family, I suggest Eglise en Action in Argenteuil. It’s a charismatic, French-speaking, evangelical church. Aside from the faith aspects, attending a church is a great way to stay connected, volunteer, meet locals, find a family of friends, listen to an inspiring message in fluent French once a week (immersion) and have fun. I joined the gospel choir because I love singing! Find out more at http://eglisenaction.fr/. Hillsong Paris and The American Church in Paris are other options.

Transport and Travel

To get around Paris, you’ll need a Pass Navigo. This is just like a London Oyster card, and costs around 75 euros per month. You get unlimited travel in and around the Paris region with it – very handy.

You can get one (again, take ID and proof of your French address) at one of the agencies in most major Parisian overground stations. La Défense was the one I went to, and most of the staff there speak English.

For quick trips back to the UK, you can get cheap Eurostar tickets (we’re talking £25 instead of £121 😉 ) on Eurostar Snap. It’s run by Eurostar and it’s where they sell all their last-minute remaining tickets at much lower prices. Just be aware that you can’t choose the time of your Eurostar, only whether you’d like to travel in the morning or evening. They’ll choose the train time for you and let you know a day or two before. Best to go for 3 days; no use ending up with an 11pm Paris-LDN train on a Saturday and a 5am return journey the next morning, with no time to chill in London in between!

And finally: Mental and Emotional Wellbeing

People underestimate how hard this part can be. You are going through more transitions in the space of a few months than many people go through in decades—if EVER in their LIFETIME. Here are just SOME of the transitions you go through SIMULTANEOUSLY and REPEATEDLY on a YA.

  1. Moving house.
  2. Moving abroad.
  3. Moving house abroad. (Relocating/changing accommodation within France).
  4. …in French.
  5. Staying abroad for more than 2 weeks, or 2 months. (Usually 8+ months).
  6. New flatmates.
  7. New boss.
  8. New landlord.
  9. New friends.
  10. New commute.
  11. …in a foreign country. (So you’re learning the metro and the overground maps all over again).
  12. Again, starting a new job (after student life).
  13. …in a foreign country.
  14. …in French.
  15. Starting at a new uni + a new course. Basically Freshers + First Year all over again, but in French.
  16. Working/interning in another language.
  17. Changing job multiple times (as your internships end, or if you leave early)
  18. Thinking in English —> thinking in another language; speaking it in realtime without translating in your head. You’ll likely go from translating in your head to thinking and responding automatically in the language.
  19. …with your survival and safety often depending on your ability/accuracy.
  20. Culture shock / cultural differences.

Ever been on holiday abroad and experienced a feeling, towards the end of your trip, of being ready to come home, or an awareness of there being no place like home? Holidays are usually only a matter of weeks long, and people get fed up, tired and miss home by the end. A YA = doing all of that—but for eight plus months. You will be stretched. Be kind to yourself.

I was honestly pushed to my limits on the YA. Just having to deal with a string of unkind people and homeowners, unsettled homes, a tricky first internship and having to relocate three times (four different homes) throughout my year, plus adjusting to two internships, while being away from home and THINKING in another language was tiring and draining. But I survived! God is good.

My tips on YA mental/emotional wellbeing are as follows:

  1. Don’t stay caged up in your accommodation. Get out and explore your local area, try a new restaurant nearby. Just going for a walk will help you to feel less claustrophobic — which is naturally how you might feel when you first move to a new environment and you don’t know the local area.
  2. Self-care. Shameless plug: get your copy of my book, a self-care poetry and affirmation collection, here. And remember to EXERCISE – walk to work if possible, go for a jog, or join a gym. This can work wonders!
  3. Stay in close contact with friends and family from home. FaceTime and Skype are LIFE-SAVERS. Schedule frequent calls with your friends and family. As I always say, good catch-ups are like therapy.
  4. Visit home whenever you need a break. The great thing about Paris is it’s 2hrs 26 mins away from London by Eurostar. Grab a ticket for £25 on Eurostar Snap. Pop home to the UK whenever you need some home-cooked food, quality family/friend time, conversation in English, or just a good nap.
  5. Journal. Ties in with self-care. Get your thoughts, feelings and emotions down on paper. Your journalling time may be the ONLY time during an entire day – or week – that you get to express and explore how you feel, in English.
  6. My faith, as a Christian, was the cornerstone for me throughout this YA. In my private time of reflection and prayer, and in my times at church with my church family, I found refreshing, strength, rest and grounding. Faith, prayer, alone time and meditation will keep you spiritually healthy — and mental and emotional health will often follow suit.
  7. Learn to shake things off quickly. You will need to forgive and move on quickly. You will need to be kind to yourself, and give yourself a break. You will need to be ready to brush things off quickly and not take things personally. To think quickly, not just in terms of thinking real-time in another language, but even being able to analyse situations and people quickly. There is no familiarity on a YA, so your intuition will be necessary.

Final Words

I’ve said A LOT, so I’ll wrap up. Your YA is a great opportunity and, honestly, it will be what you make of it. You will likely come out more resilient, more courageous, more accomplished and more mature, with a better command of the language. You’ll meet new people, have a more open mind, and have a better understanding of yourself. And you’ll be able to deal with both difficult situations and CHANGE – two of the best life skills.

Sometimes it’ll be hard being away from home, living with people with very different characters, or transitioning from student life to working life. The first few months of being immersed in French can be tiring as your brain is adjusting. But bear with it, be kind and patient towards yourself, keep in close contact with your support network back home (set regular times to catch up), visit Paris’ restaurants, bars and tourist attractions, stay safe, take everything with a pinch of salt, use common sense, and believe in yourself. You’re going to learn something new, and blossom!

Imani x

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