1. A Youth Hostel is not a permanent home. Arrive a few days early.
This enabIes you to explore the area you’ll be living in and also to get any administrative work done. I personally had to arrive early before term started to look for a place to live, which took about 10 days to move from auberge to appartement, but I know people that managed to find a place in a couple of days. It basically depends on your budget (remember that the CAF will help you with the rent though), the period of time you need to stay for (I was at a serious disadvantage as most landlords were not keen to rent a place out just for 4 months and others who were desperate for you to move in were just a bit too desperate, especially when you notice the red bills everywhere…), the area you are looking for (whether it is in close proximity to where you’ll be studying/working or whether you prefer to be in a more central/quieter/safer etc. location) and who you want to live with (I was set on having a french flatmate but it can sometimes be easier to find a place if there is a group of you as the landlord is happier that you’ll get on well).
2. Mrs. D, Mrs. I, Mrs. F, F I… Be patient with French bureaucracy.
Before you go, it’s well worth stocking up on a few passport photos and photocopying important documents e.g. passport, student card from your home country, European Health Insurance card etc. I also photocopied my Birth Certificate and Driving License too but didn’t need to use them. Whether it’s opening a bank account, applying for CAF
or registering at your new uni, you will be presented with a mound of forms. However, do not fear; they’re pretty straightforward (although you may have to sign many many times and write half a dozen ‘lu et approuvé’ s) but you’ll get there. The hard part is the waiting…and waiting…and waiting. I went to the bank a good four or five times still to learn that my card had not arrived. Realistically, there’s nothing you can do so just try and grin and bear it. My quickly adopted phrase was: “Just keep swimming”, which somehow helped. Try it.
3. Sundays = the day of rest = a ghost town.
I did occasionally find myself singing The Specials’ hit ska halloween anthem, but it’s TRUE: France is pretty much closed on Sundays. I found this to be the case in Rennes anyway. Almost everything is closed (and if it’s open then chances are that it’ll be closed on monday) so do not expect to ‘faire grande chose’. You really don’t want to realise on Sunday afternoon that all you have to eat is an unsliceable, mouldy baguette, a knob of Brie that has seen better days and the dregs of an old pot of Carrefour Discount Jam. Try and plan ahead, especially as there is a fantastic market on the Saturday in Places de Lices. When asking a french student what they do on their sundays he said he always goes home for the weekend, and now I understand why. This is a good time to have a well-deserved ‘grasse matinée’ (lie in)/do the odd bit of work/washing up you’ve been avoiding/skype your family/meet up with friends etc. Oh, and if you’re going ‘out’ on Saturday night then unless you want to leave to catch the last bus/métro just after midnight, then expect to either walk home (Rennes is pretty walkable and central anyway) or catch the first service back around half past seven on Sunday morning…
4. Become a lark, not an owl.
I’ve always been quite nocturnal but studying in France made me go to bed at a time I thought was only fit for children. Wrong. I was very tired during the first month or so as I was going out, discovering new places, thinking in french a lot and then had a new obstacle: an 8am class. “What?!” I hear you say. I know, I know. However, in France this is the norm and often the métro at 7.45am (eurgh) would be so crammed full of students that I would have to wait for the next one (or even the one after that) to get to uni. The 8am would also coincide to be on the busiest of days, and I often found myself at uni until 4pm and sometimes even until 8pm! I recommend a lot of coffee and a good night’s sleep. Oh dear, I sound like I’m getting old…
5. Parlez-vous anglais? Have a go speaking the lingo.
Sounds obvious, but it’s sooo easy to speak just english with other international/erasmus students. Although it’s easier said than done, try and make some French friends, either through your classes, a club you’re interested in or just out and about. Although you might feel silly at first, don’t be afraid to just go up to people and introduce yourself. The French people I met were really friendly and more than happy to help me with anything, plus the y were very kind and complimentary with my French, which made me feel more motivated to use and improve it and put all those hours of studying to use!
This might also sound obvious, but when I arrived I wanted to go to loads of places in Brittany and then towards the end of the semester got rather bogged down with coursework and revision. The time just goes so quickly so I recommend finding out your dates for your Toussaint holiday (if you have one) and planning something to look forward to! SNCF also do a 12-25 discount card which costs 49 euros but saves you a lot of money on train journeys, so it’s well worth investing in this if you plan on travelling and exploring France from Lyon to Lille and Rennes to Reims.
7. Note: ask for notes.
If you’re studying at a university then you may sometimes get very lost in the 2-hour lectures and often feel a little clueless, especially if you are learning about a subject that you know nothing about. In french. Basically, do not despair and keep calm. Try and note down as much as you can understand, even if you can just pick up key words to look up. I ended up buying a dictaphone which helped a bit, but I found that if you asked, the French students were more than happy to help you and even gave us some notes. Of course, I helped a few people out too with their English but I was so so grateful as their notes were ten times neater than mine and made everything a LOT easier to comprehend. Plus you make new friends too.