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Thursday, July 4, 2013

FAQ, enfin!

A long, long time ago, I started getting questions about living in France and about the TAPIF program and decided to answer them all in one place. Then I traveled for 4 weeks, flew to Texas, and got super busy living my very American life. I finally stopped working everyday just this week, and so here you go. Ta-da! The answers to the excellent questions I received from lots of future TAPIFers. Thank you SO much for posting questions, it feels good to know someone's actually reading this thing! ;) I hope that these help some of you as you prepare for your year in France. (Also, just FYI: I also did a pre-France FAQ back in September, which included questions I was frequently asked before I left for France.)

When it came to choosing your top regions, what pushed you away from Paris?

Personally, I had already spent time (4-5 weeks) in Paris, but really nowhere else in France, and wanted to expand my knowledge of the country. I knew it’d be better for my French to live somewhere else besides Paris (I never heard anyone outside of my students, teachers, or four English-speaking assistant friends speaking English in Narbonne, while you’ll hear English all.the.time in Paris). Also, I’m from Texas. I hate cold weather.

Rationally, BUDGET. You take home around 790/month, regardless of whether you live in Paris or in a small town on the Mediterranean. I recommend choosing Paris if you are independently wealthy OR don’t mind eating lentils for 8 months and/or not traveling at all.

Typically, how much money should a prospective “TAPIFer” save before heading to France? I know that a lot of variables are at play here, but assuming one wanted to travel as frequently as you did, what would you recommend?

Well, you're right that there are a lot of variables at play. I left with about $2,000 to travel and get myself set up. (It was supposed to be more, but then it turns out that my 12-year-old car decided to be THE WORST and suck out a RIDICULOUS amount of my money (way more than $2,000) from me before I left. Poor thing.) How did I travel, then? 

Well, I had a kind of exceptional case in that I was given a free very basic room on my high school campus. There was a list of pros and cons (No kitchen AT ALL? Constantly being surrounded by high school students? No cute little French chez moi?), but in the end I decided I had the rest of my life to have a cute cozy place to live, and eight months to live in Europe. So I took my paychecks and I traveled with them. Well, obviously I lived on them. But I spent a lot of that on traveling.

Even if you don't have a ton of cash or a free place to live, there are still a ton of way to travel cheaply. Think low-cost airlines, hostels or even Couchsurfing, less popular (meaning less crowded but not necessarily less beautiful!) destinations. Even eating grocery store food while you travel rather than eating out. Traveling cheaply can be done!

Did you need your birth certificate translated? / How did you succeed in not getting your birth certificate translated? / Can you tell your sneaky secret of getting your birth certificate approved without the official translation?

Yes, you do need your translated birth certificate (with an apostille on the birth certificate but not on the translation) in order to process your Sécu (social security) paperwork, which gets you your social security number and insurance. 

Okay. So I can't really tell you how I got around the translation thing. I can tell you it involved my own ability to translate (as well as maneuver myself around Microsoft Word in ways most people can't), and a friend with access to some official letterhead to approve it. Basically, if you can do it yourself and make it look REALLY good, you may be able to pull it off.

What about needing your shot record? Translated?

The only time you'd need your shot record is your immigration medical appointment. I had my dad scan/email mine to me the week before my appointment because I freaked out and thought you needed it (because my friend had used hers). So I had mine. However, the doctor just kind of asks you about your shots and looks over it quickly and it's not a big deal. You don't need it translated because it's just dates and all the shots have these medical abbreviations. I know a lot of people who didn't have theirs, no problem.

Did you have to get an international driver’s license to drive the car?

I didn’t actually drive in Europe (I wasn't sure about the validity of my license and I don't know how to drive a stick, lazy American, whoops!), but I’ve heard the following things: 1) You can drive for a certain number of months on your foreign (i.e., not French/EU) license. 2) You can go online and pay a small fee to have your American license made international. I don't have personal experience with either, so if this is serious consideration you have, do a little research and I'm sure you'll find a solution!

Did you bring a cell phone? Laptop? iPad?

I did bring my cell phone (not a smart phone, and locked... I unlocked it later using www.cellunlocker.net but it is a good idea to unlock your phone before you leave the States if you can). I was very glad I had it because I used it with my FreeMobile plan (you'll learn about that later). I also brought my laptop (well, netbook really), which I used while I was home. I also used it to store/backup my photos and to blog. I also brought my Kindle for reading (I LOVE to read but didn't want to waste luggage space (or weight) hauling books over there or back) and for taking on trips when I didn't need my laptop. I am glad I brought all three things and wouldn't change that.

What did you do about your American cell phone number/service plan while you were in France?

Okay, I cheated. No one actually asked me this question, but I'm answering it quand-même. So, if you don't care about keeping your number, obviously you can just cancel your phone line. Or, if you're fine with paying for it for a year, you can just keep paying for it.

If you're like me, who wanted to keep my number (that I'd had for ten years) and not pay for two phone plans for eight months, you can do something called "park" your phone number. You can do this with your cell phone provider (AT&T wanted to charge me something like $10/month for six months, and after six months, they would have kicked the phone line back into active mode, meaning that my regular phone bills would have restarted). Or, you could use an external service, like www.parkmyphone.com, which is what I used. I used the cheapest "deep freeze" plan, which basically just saved my phone number for me while I was gone. It was $3/month and a one-time $15 porting fee. The downside is that it takes about 3 business days to fully get your number up-and-running when you return back to the States, but hey, it was worth it to me. Just make sure you keep up with your email correspondence with your parking service so that you can bring it to your cell service provider upon arrival in the States.

What did you take with you? Clothes of course, but… Sheets? Towels?

I didn’t take sheets or towels with me; that takes up very valuable luggage space each way. A teacher loaned me sheets once I was there, and I bought towels. I did take a travel towel, which is a thin, fast-drying towel. I used it for backup until I bought a real towel, and I also used it on all of my trips. That was a pre-France purchase I was very happy with and know that I'll continue to use in the future. 

By the way, I took one 69.5 lb. luggage each way. (Yes, that costs $60 (with American Airlines) because it weighs over 50 lbs. But it was worth it.) I also brought a backpack as my carry-on and a bigger kind of weekend bag flattened in my suitcase. I used the backpack for weekend or Ryanair trips and the bigger weekend bag for two-week long vacations during which I wasn't flying Ryanair or easyJet. If I did it again, I think I'd bring the following: one giant checked luggage, one hard-case Ryanair-approved sized carry-on, and either a soft backpack or the bigger weekend bag flattened in my large suitcase. My small backpack was quite difficult on the Ryanair trips.

As I’m thinking about what to pack, I’m wondering what I should plan to wear for work at the schools? Not sure if it matters, but I will be in a primary school.

I (and all of my friends) wore regular, comfortable clothing (jeans, casual skirts/dresses) to work. The dress code is much more casual than it is for teachers in a normal American school. As long as you’re decent (don’t wear holes in your clothes, don’t dress provocatively, don’t be sloppy), you’re fine.

Were there any items you felt were absolutely essential to have taken from the US or items you wished you’d thought to take?

See above. I took a few adapters so I could have a few things plugged in at a time, as well as a universal adapter/converter that I could take anywhere. Things I wished I'd taken that I didn't... I can't think of anything right now, but I'll add it later if I do.

Thought of something! I brought extra deodorant, toothpaste, and chap stick (Burt's Bee's, holler!), because these were all things I had heard Americans miss in Europe because they're very different. I found that to be true with deodorant, but not the other things. European chap stick's fine (I like Labello, which is actually German I think, but I find it a bit shinier than normal chap stick, which I like but a guy might not). European toothpaste isn't as minty strong as American toothpaste, but it's fine. You know what is super weird? European deodorant. They mainly sell spray on or a liquid-y roll on, so if you like the regular American stick kind, bring some extra. Also American gum. French gum is not as good.

One more thing! I didn't bring my student ID, which was dumb. Granted, I've not been in school since I finished grad school in 2010, but my grad school student ID picture still looks like me (from 2008, awesome), and it doesn't have a date on it. I didn't think to bring it, but it would have gotten me discounts on some museum things while I was traveling. I asked my parents to find it and mail it to me, but they never could find it. I swear I saw it sometime last summer. Someday I'll find it... and try to see if I can still pass it off. :)

When did you first arrive in France? How long before October 1st?

I arrived in France September 18th, originally intending to hang out and just get to know Narbonne for a week before school started. Then I decided to take a train to Munich to go to Oktoberfest and visit my friend Irene, which meant I didn't get back to France until September 25th. Luckily, I had housing already arranged so I didn't have that to worry about, so it wasn't a big deal. Plus, Oktoberfest? Worth it. 

What would you say was the most difficult/frustrating thing you had to do when you first arrived?

For me, the most difficult thing was getting a bank account, but that's because I went round and round with who knows how many banks because they wanted a water bill with my name on it, which I didn't have nor would ever have because the high school was housing me for free. Eventually I figured out that la Banque Postale was way more lenient with that (they accepted the official signed notice on Académie de Montpellier letterhead that my school have given me noting that I was housed there), so I signed up with them and everything was good. For many other people, however, housing was the most difficult/frustrating thing that they dealt with on arrival.

Do you have any tips on finding an apartment?

Well, I had housing at the school, so I didn't really have to deal with it. However, a few websites to look at are www.leboncoin.fr and www.appartager.com.

Any tips on dealing with slow-moving French bureaucracy?

Take care of everything on your end as soon as you can. Make copies to keep for yourself and note when you send things in. Also, not really. Just deal with it. Sorry.

What did you do about cell phone & Internet?

Cell phone: I went over and immediately (this really needs to be the first thing you do) went to an SFR store to get a cheap phone (20) and a pay-as-you-go phone number. (The whole system's called carte prépayée and it's kind of confusing.) That way, I could immediately have a contact number to put down for banks, teachers, etc. You can recharge your phone in any Tabac, stores like Carrefour (like a less fun Target), or with your bank card over the phone. However, within a month I realized that this system was super expensive and I went online and got ANOTHER phone number with a company called FreeMobile.

Let me tell you about FreeMobile: FreeMobile is what you want. Now, the kicker is that you can't get it until you have a French bank account, so you generally can't do it right off. (You have to have a phone number to open a bank account, but you have to have a French bank account to get a FreeMobile phone plan. It's a whole chicken-and-egg situation.) Anyway, so once you're set up with your bank account, you can sign up on the website for the FreeMobile (no contract) plan.

For 20/month, it includes:
-unlimited calls to any French phone (cell or landline)
-unlimited texts to any French cell phone
-unlimited calls to landlines in most European countries
and, drum roll please...
-unlimited calls to any American or Canadian phone (cell or landline)

YUP. For 20/month, you can call your family and friends anytime! It's AWESOME! Best thing ever. You just need to put the SIM card into any unlocked phone (I was stupid and didn't unlock my phone before I cancelled my service in the States, but I used this website to unblock it once I was in France with no problem.) You could also buy FreeMobile's cell phone (not sure how much it is) if you don't have an unlocked cell phone.

Note of caution: Do pay attention to your calls/texts outside of France while you're traveling. The unlimited calls/texts included in your 20 only apply while in France. (You can look up the rates for different services from different countries on their website before you leave the country to travel.)

You heard it here: FreeMobile. You're welcome.

Internet: Well, after two months of begging them to get WiFi in our rooms in the school (and traipsing ourselves, laptops in hand, to McDo,  friends' houses, and SPAR), they finally got us WiFi... with Facebook and YouTube and everything useful blocked. But it was SOMETHING! (We used a program called UltraSurf to access those pages, but fyi, it messed up my computer. Nothing nightmarish, just annoying. Had to restore my PC to factory settings afterward. Worth six months of Facebook.)

Other people in normal situations (e.g., apartments, host homes) went through companies like SFR, Bouygues Telecom (yes that's the weirdest French word ever. Bouygues, not Télécom), Orange, or even FreeWifi (as in FreeMobile) to get a boîte (wireless router) for their living space. I think Free even does a deal if you get their box and their cell phone service.

What did your 12-hour schedule look like?

Well, this will theoretically be quite different depending on if you’re primary or secondary, and if you’re at one school or multiples. I was at one lycée (high school). A lot of high schools are separated into semaines paires and impaires (even and odd weeks). My schedule was as follows:

first semester, even weeks

first semester, odd weeks

second semester, even weeks

second semester, odd weeks

As you can see, my schedule was pretty sweet. I lucked out and had really considerate teachers. Notice I had Friday off both semesters. :) (You can ask for a Monday or a Friday off, but sometimes for one reason or another it's just not possible.) My second semester I had Wednesdays off, too, which was pretty great (I used them for private lessons).

If you're curious about more related to the school aspect of my year in France, and you didn't catch this post I wrote in February comparing French and American schools, check it out!

Generally, one should never inquire about the financial aspect of someone else’s life, so forgive me, but what did you charge for private English lessons? Did you come up with the fee yourself or base it off what others suggested? Were these lessons done under the table or did you have to register them in some way?

Don’t worry, I’m very open (you have to be if you’re willing to put your experience on the Internet), so I’m not offended. I charged 20/hour, which was basically what they told us to charge when we asked them at the meeting for the Académie in October.

Also, I didn't register the lessons in any way. I mean, as long as you're not giving so many lessons that it's interfering with your classes/preparation (doubtful), no one cares. My teacher colleagues are the ones who passed my name along to people in need of lessons, and no one else (administration) at the school ever knew or cared about it or probably even remembered my name, frankly.

I know that not all schools in the program have rooms available for teaching assistants, but since yours did I was wondering a couple things… Did you have to pay rent for your room or was it free? Were they comfortable with you staying there or did you get the vibe that you were expected to find an apartment? If you were to have friends visiting, like you did with your German friend, were they allowed to stay in your room on campus with you?

You’re right that not all schools have rooms available; in fact, very few do. I’ll answer your questions regardless…

I didn’t have to pay any rent. I had a friend who got a room on her campus in Montpellier and she had to pay 60/month. However, she had access to a shared kitchen and I didn’t, and it would have been totally worth the money to have a kitchen!

The school was totally comfortable with me staying in the room. The room wasn’t needed by any teachers and it wasn’t a student room, so there’s no way they could have been making money off it anyway. No one wants to live in a high school unless they have to, basically. They actually even let me leave my stuff in my room between end of April and end of May while I was traveling.

I never asked anyone if I could have my friends stay over, but I bought an air mattress and did it anyway. No one really knew, but I did mention it to my teachers conversationally when I had friends over. 

I was especially excited to hear about those cheap flights to Morocco and other places and was wondering which airline you used?

There are several low-cost airlines in Europe (for a full list, you can see this one from the ever-reliable (?) Wikipedia), but the most well-known (and the only ones I’ve used) are easyJet and Ryanair. Ryanair is the ABSOLUTE cheapest, and they’ll try to nickel and dime you every step of the way (I should write a separate post just about my Ryanair shenanigans this year), but you can get cheap flights! They usually fly out of smaller airports rather than bigger ones, so you have to figure in transportation costs to the smaller airports (usually a train or a bus).

Eight months abroad seems like an incredibly long period of time, especially for someone like me who has never really been away from family for that long. How did you cope with being away from family/friends?

Well, luckily, 2013 permits us several technological opportunities to get time with our family and friends! Regular-ish Skype dates help. Pay attention to the time difference, and try to set up a regular time with your family. (Sundays afternoons in Texas/evenings in France worked for my family.) I also talked a lot to my friends, much more randomly. I learned that Skype doesn't always have to be active, you can also keep it on the background while you're sorting through pictures or something. It's more like you're really hanging out that way. I've watched my friends cook and listened to my brother play piano via Skype while I blog. I've talked to my dog via Skype (yup). I took a tour of my best friend's new home via Skype. I've even had "show each other new music" singalongs with a friend via Skype. Yeah I'm weird. But you know that sounds fun. And if you don't, you're probably lame.

FreeMobile! Check out the phone question if you haven't already. Being able to call my friends just because on my walks home from downtown was really great. Just... FreeMobile. I can't stress it enough!

I loved getting and receiving snail mail this year. I tried to send out regular postcards. Just because or for any events at home. Getting and sending cards with an ocean in between is even more fun than it is normally! I used them to decorate my room.

Last but not least, attitude. I had the attitude that "This is only eight months. I have eight months of my life to life in Europe (work 12 hours/week, eat croissants, dance with my international friends in the living room, take weekend trips to Spain, etc.). Yes, I'm missing one Christmas with my family. One birthday with my friends. (And the list goes on...) But this is the only year I get to do it. I have to enjoy it now because I won't get this back, and I will enjoy and appreciate my (Christmas/birthday/everyday life) next year even more. And I WILL miss this in the future, so I need to make the most of it right now." It's true. I was honestly never homesick. I missed people and things, yes, but I was never sad and homesick. You HAVE to profite from France while you're there. You'll miss it later!

Could you maybe compare your experience to the experiences of other assistant friends of yours? Were they jealous of your placement because the rent was high, were you wishing to be somewhere with better public transportation, etc.?

Well, in some ways, the grass is always greener... I mean, of course, some people were jealous of my free housing, but I was jealous of their cozy French homes (and abilities to cook things in their kitchens or watch French TV on their TVs.) I was sometimes jealous of those living in bigger cities with more to do and more conveniences, while some of my friends in bigger cities were jealous of my more personal experience with the people of Narbonne and my close-knit group of assistants. In the end, everyone had their own TAPIF year. No one's was perfect, but perfection isn't the point. I am very happy with my year, despite its imperfections. (It was perfect for me!) I think (hope?) most people would feel the same.

Any ideas of activities beyond the day-to-day of this program to pick up and further improve language skills?

-Do NOT just make friends with English-speaking assistants. Make friends with the Spanish, or German, or Italian assistants in your city/area. Communicate with them through French, not English.
-Make friends with French people! Seriously. That is the best way to improve you French. You'll learn idiomatic expressions you wouldn't otherwise, and they'll help you by correcting you (which you may or may not like, but I like it).
-Make sure you get to speak in French at least half of the time when you speak to your teacher colleagues. Many of them will want to practice their English with you, and that's great, but work out a system that works so that you each get to practice!
-Spend time with your teacher colleagues' families if they offer the opportunity. Their family members will probably not speak fluent English and so you'll have plenty of opportunity to speak French!
-Take a French conversational class through the city! Some of my friends did this and not only did their French improve, but they met some Spanish physical therapists who introduced us to a ton of other Spanish physical therapists and ta-da! our friend group grew exponentially.
-Take exercise classes through the city as well. I didn't do it (should have, as I gained 14 pounds!), but some of my friends did, and they met a lot of French people that way (and had to do the actual classes in French, of course!)
-Give private lessons in English. When you have to explain some things in French, it helps you! 
-Get involved in babysitting or au pairing for a French family. Speaking with French children is simple and really helps out!
-I'm sure there are tons more ways to get involved and improve your French. These are just a few!

Did you generally speak English with the other assistants?

Well, this has a little something to do with the above question. In my city, there were nine total assistants. Three English girls, a Canadian guy, three Spanish girls, a German girl, and me. Our common language was French, and so we spoke in French when we were all in a group. That said, of course I spoke English with my fellow Anglophone assistants when it was just us. Also, sometimes I’d try to speak Spanish with my Spanish friends or we’d all speak some English. But mainly we spoke in French, which was FANTASTIC. I know many assistants in larger cities, and they reported that a lot of times, English speakers hung out with English speakers, Spanish with Spanish speakers, so on and so forth. Not so good for your French.

How much would you say your French has improved since you moved to France? That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing this!

Well, honestly, I was actually pretty fluent before I left. (That sounds really cocky or braggy but I promise it's not, I'm just trying to give you an understanding.) Now, that said, I have a Bachelor's and Master's in French, had taught French for three years before leaving, and had spent time studying in Quebec all before I arrived, so it's not like I just picked up fluent French on the side like some people do because they're just awesome. However, my French definitely improved! My accent got better and my knowledge of current/conversational French vocabulary is way better now. I have a few friends whose French was at a more intermediate level at the beginning of the year (to the point where I sometimes struggled to understand them) and they all VASTLY improved. All of my Narbonne friends' French is now on point, and there are a lot of factors that went into that (see above question). I think if you start out with a low or intermediate level of French, it's a little harder at the beginning, but your overall improvement is more vast than if you start out at a high level.

How do you think your teaching style has changed over the past 8 months?

Well, it's interesting, because in the States I've always been a "real" teacher - that is, a teacher with a full classroom of students belonging solely to me. I've been responsible for curriculum, assessment, and all four language skills (reading/writing/listening/speaking), and I've also been dealing with students in their first through fourth years of language learning. In France, I was responsible for smaller groups of students for shorter amounts of times and was really only responsible for speaking/listening with students who have been learning English for quite a while and are therefore more advanced. It's really very difficult to compare the two. I suppose the most practical things I'll take from my work experience in France and bring to my classroom in Texas are the role of realia (real-life materials) in the classroom as well as the importance of speaking as language learning motivation. I also have taken home several activities and ideas from my fantastic French teaching colleagues that I will love using in my classroom!

How have you changed as a person from this experience? Positives and negatives!

Ohhhh my gosh. What a question! I won't go into too much detail, because I still have some posts to write that kind of cover this. But I'll say that I have a better understanding of both French and American culture, what I think is a more healthy attitude about work-life balance, more of a desire to be happy and maintain my current happiness, and more of an appreciation of what I have. These things are all obviously positive. Negative? My work ethic is now a little... lacking. Ha. I guess that's not really accurate. It's just that I'm going to take a bit to get back into the fast-paced get-everything-done-right-now American way. Well, actually, I've worked or gone on interviews pretty much everyday since I've been back to the States, and I've gotten a lot done outside of work too. So I guess I'm back into it. It just makes me way more tired than it would have pre-France. Also, I gained 14 pounds and spent all my money. (Whoops! Worth it.) However, notice all of these negatives (including the work ethic/fatigue) are temporary and the positives are permanent!

Are you hoping to stay in France permanently? I am hoping to do the TAPIF program two years from now and am curious as to what steps people tend to take afterwards!

Nope! Not for now, at least. I've been back from France for a month, and have been happy to refind my life here in Texas. I'm also excited for the fresh start this fall. I was very happy during my time in France, and am very happy now that I'm back. Which I think proves that I live a blessed life! 

However, some of my friends are still over in France, traveling or trying to find permanent positions. I just saw on Facebook that one friend got accepted to do her Master's. I think some have reapplied for TAPIF, but generally repeat applicants don't find out one way or the other until August/September, from what I've heard.

What job did you find after returning home? I read that you were already a HS French teacher, but do you feel like the TAPIF program made you more competitive in the hiring process?

Yes, I was already a HS French teacher for two years before I left for France. After returning, I was extremely fortunate to very quickly secure a position teaching HS French again in a very good school in the DFW metroplex. I do feel like TAPIF made me more competitive; my new principal (who hired me) was fascinated by my experience in France and is excited about what it will bring to my students. And I'm also very excited to get back into my own classroom full-time again! Although after working 12-hour weeks, it may be difficult working 40-hour weeks (not counting prep & grading) once more... Oh well. The real world awaits! I'm pumped to get back to it, renewed and refreshed from my year en France. :)