Today I bring you my guide to the first couple of months in France. I’m quite excited/mildly terrified right now as I’ve just received a letter detailing the time and location for my OFII appointments and it got me thinking about everything I’ve had to do so far; the challenges and paperwork of the past few months.
For the uninitiated these OFII meetings are steps on the way to approving my visa and I consider it a fair achievement that I’ve managed to reach this point without any major mistakes. I realise how stressful these couple of months will be for anyone about to embark on the adventure of exchange so this is my little list of pointers!
I’ve not been in France for ages yet, but I feel, as I’m about to head on Spring Break, I can, at least, give you a vague guide to avoid complete catastrophe.
Before we begin, please make yourself a hot tea, sit down on some kind of comfy seat and know that you can do this. Yay optimism!
Prepare for this to be stress-inducing, perhaps best to knuckle down and get it done as soon as possible so you can relax a little. But just know that everyone finds it difficult and you can always find help from either your university or a website such as http://www.blog.parisunraveled.com/ – which I found incredibly useful!
Some of the key things are organising your accommodation, which will evidently vary on your exchange location, organising your VISA, which usually requires a police check, and passport. Then obviously flights. Once you’re here there is the French Bank Account, Electricity, for most people the OFII as part of validating your VISA, organising Health Cover if you’re under 26- I think?- and the Caf Benefits Program. Ta-dah! Such fun!
I know it sounds like a lot, but honestly, if you divide it up into manageable, escargot-sized pieces you will be fine. It is also, as my mum reminded me during one of my several breakdowns, a great opportunity to practice your French. By filling out forms. Again, a yay for optimism.
I would suggest making a particular song your form-filling anthem so this process can be slightly more palatable. Though it’s important to realise that you will forever associate that song (Shake It Off- TSwift lol) with the hell of French bureaucracy.
2) Phone –Sim Card
A working SIM card really is an essential on your travels! They can be picked up quite cheaply from a range of places. I would recommend getting a plan with a lot of data and perhaps save international calls for Skype.
I probably have way too many of these but from past disasters I know you can never be too safe, also make sure scans of your documents have been sent to an email you can access around the world.
4) Imperfection. Embrace the fact that you will not be perfect and you will probably feel out of your depth in a lot of things. It can be terrifying coming from a place where you typically feel very in control but shift your perspective. No one expects you to know everything; this whole experience is an opportunity to make mistakes, to learn and to see life from another angle.
5) Get involved in your university activities. Whether that is contributing to the student paper, playing a sport or representing fellow students in university politics, it all contributes to your experience, which will be made even more amazing by the various groups you join.
6) Keep in contact with friends from back home, but not too often that you’re constantly reminded of how far away you are.
7) Establish a home base. While it’s obviously awesome to travel, I think, as a major homebody, there’s also some merit in really diving into one place and establishing a home. Finding the joy in supermarket shopping, bank appointments and afternoon strolls is what it’s all about.
8) Home. While exchange is about trying new things, it is always a tremendous comfort to have some relics from home. Whether that’s Vegemite (which doubles as a stellar prank) or Twining’s. It doesn’t even have to be an object, it could be a T.V show or a book or a YouTube series! Anything that is essential to who you are, and that will make you more at home!
9) Make the most of your opportunities to speak French and also the availability of tools such as French TV, newspapers and novels. Yes it’s hard sometimes but just keep persevering and you’ll get there I promise.
10) Meet locals but also have exchange friends.
I love having French friends, they are obviously very familiar with French culture and bureaucracy, they can help me with my difficulties in French, they are incredibly glamorous and just generally make me feel more cultured by association. Saying that, it is always useful to have some exchange student friends who know what you’re going through, for the rant sessions and the homesickness tears.
11) See every difficulty as an opportunity.
Again with mum’s motto, but it certainly rings true. How exciting to get to discuss how to deposit money in France with a bank teller?! This really sounds sarcastic, but honestly this was a super happy day for me, the lady was so kind and I felt so accomplished. I’m terrible at that stuff in English but doing it in French, I think they all assume ‘You just don’t know the specific vocab for the bank,’ which I prefer to ‘This sheila is bloody hopeless.’
12) Health. It’s something that can often fall by the wayside, even at home, but it is super important that you keep on top of it while you’re away from a health system with which you are familiar. Obviously if you are sick over here you’ll be able to get help! But you’ll want to avoid any of the minor, avoidable bugs if you can.
- Take medication if you need to
- Keep hydrated and get enough rest
- Don’t eat too much fromage
- Get outside in the fresh air
- Maybe exercise if you’re not a lazy sod like me
- Be social and connected- one of the keys to feeling supported
- Maybe try meditation? It is actually pretty helpful! I use https://www.headspace.com/ 10/10 would recommend.
- If you are looking for therapy online these are some of your options: http://www.talkspace.com/ or http://www.7cups.com/
And obviously you also have real-life medical professionals at your disposal, and depending on the size of your exchange town there may even be doctors who can conduct appointments in English.
15) Even if the worst happens you’ll get through it.
Okay so I’ve had my passport stolen while overseas, one of my cousins had to have emergency surgery while she was backpacking around South East Asia, my parents camped in some desert in Egypt when there were hyenas outside their tent. Obviously, take all reasonable precautions, but rest assured you will get through! Make sure you have travel insurance and don’t expect everything to go swimmingly, but there is always a way to sort things out and people who’ll be happy to help.
So that is my brief guide to the first few months in France, or in any country really if you find details on your specific paperwork and health systems. I wish you the best of luck- it’s going to be so cool I promise.
The most common thing that goes through my head here, other than ‘ahhh everything is so Instagramable,’ is ‘I’m so glad I challenged myself to come here.’ Because even though it has, at times, been scary as hell, it has also proven to me that I can deal with a lot if I trust myself.
Love to you all,