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?
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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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).
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.