Any tips for studying abroad in France
January 31, 2006 7:06 AM   Subscribe

As a college sophomore, I plan on studying abroad in France for a full scholastic year in the fall. To anyone else who has been in Europe for an extended period of time: I am trying to pack light, but what sort of things would you consider bringing that are either necessities or very helpful? Also, any other tips on getting along with the French, or helpful hints about Europe in general?

I am going to be staying in the southern part of France, in Montpelier. I am considering bringing a laptop so I can watch my DVDs, upload pictures, etc., but I won't have internet access on a regular basis so I am debating the risk that it gets lost/stolen/destroyed. What kind of clothing would go best? Any help on social faux pas (ha) with the French?
I would also appreciate any help I could get with regards to airfare, which is currently very high. And the electric outlet converter, could you plug a US power strip into it and use that? Or would that overload the outlet?

Thanks so much!
posted by amicamentis to Travel & Transportation around France (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure lots of people will jump on this bandwagon, but I'll start with just a few things:

There's virtually nothing you can pack here (I'm assuming you're in the US) that you can't get in France. I wwent to Paris for a semester in college, and I ended up buying some clothes at H&M in Paris and throwing them out at the end of the semester. Same goes for toiletries, school supplies, food, etc.

Getting along with the French: Learn French. Speak it as much as possible.
If you're a smiley person (I am), tone it down. (Start practicing ahead of time.) Don't wear big t-shirts, or t-shirts with American flags on them, or big, puffy sneakers (Pumas and the like are ok from time to time, but you'll want nicer shoes in general). All of these will brand you as an American. But I found that the French are a lot nicer than is rumored here in the US, as long as you don't act like a loud American.

Finally: Student Universe for airfares. You've got some time, so just check every week or two, and you'll find a decent fare at some point.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:17 AM on January 31, 2006

CiaoMela is right about being able to buy nearly everything there, unless you're loyal to a particular brand of any sort of toiletry (soap, deodorant, shampoo) -- there's not a lot of overlap in brands, I found, and a lot of their deodorant is spray-on. Also, I personally found it harder to find clothes in larger women's sizes -- not even huge, just 12-14ish -- but not impossible; I think my budget limited me.

You might want to bring books that will last you for a while, or ones that you don't mind rereading a lot. Books in English can be expensive, and after spending all day talking and listening in French, you will want a little bit of easy thinking time.
posted by librarina at 7:27 AM on January 31, 2006

I second everything that's been said so far.

If you end up meeting other Anglophones in Montpellier (not that I recommend searching them out), you might be able to swap books, but if you buy new ones, you're looking at $15+ for a paperback in English. I would bring over a travel guide like Let's Go or Lonely Planet. They're much cheaper in the States than they are when the French are selling them to a captive audience. :)

Don't buy new clothes before you leave - save your money and buy new things over there. You won't have as much to carry over AND you'll blend in more by looking like a local.

In addition to Student Universe, you could check out STA Travel. The nice thing is that they have actual offices where you can talk to a human being, if that's your bag.

If you really like peanut butter you could bring it along, but it's become the Stereotypical Food That Americans Miss these days, so you can usually find some brand in a grocery store in a big-to-medium-sized city. Just maybe not Jif. There will be other little food things like that, so you might want to just arrange for your parents to send you a package once you figure out what you're craving.

I wouldn't advise bringing a US power strip to plug in with a converter. It sounds like there are a lot of complicated connections there. It would probably be best to get a French power strip and plug your appliances+converters into that.

As for the laptop, I think it depends on how dependent you are on computer access. Sometimes it can be nice to go to a cyber-café instead of sitting around on the computer at home, because it gets you out of the house and into a situation for potential socializing.

Have fun!
posted by srah at 7:50 AM on January 31, 2006

If there are things that you absolutely can't live without, but would load you down at the airport, if you're going to have a home base (i.e., if you won't be on the move the entire time) I know quite a few people who have had luck sending items via freight (UPS or the like). It's not so mind-bendingly expensive. Consider buying freight/shipping insurance for expensive items... Even more, though, I'd recommend waiting until you've been there for a little while to assess what you'd really love to have that you can't get there (though I'd imagine it wouldn't be much-- that you can't get there). Appealing to your friends/family members for care packages (and being specific about your needs) can both cut down on overpacking and underutilizing, and score you some free stuff...

Amen on the learning the language as well as you can. In my book, assimilation is key to a really genuine experience, and the difference between traveling and touring.
posted by penchant at 8:04 AM on January 31, 2006

Speak French as much as you can, try your very hardest to make some French friends. That's something I didn't do very well >_< know you'll get depressed sometimes. speak french as much as you>
Montpelier is supposed to be a cool college town. Find out where the young kids go!

Also, email me if you want me to forward you a big 3-page email (in french) l I sent friend in the same situation this year.
posted by themadjuggler at 8:08 AM on January 31, 2006

All good advice above -- especially the power strip.

There are a lot of cyber-cafes in France, as (last I heard) more households own deep fryers than computers. Take the laptop if you feel you need it for DVD's, etc, but I wouldn't risk it just for the Internet access.

Drink Orangina.

As far as getting along with the French, I found them to be generally quite amiable, despite my severe lack of skill with the French language. So long as you are polite to them and observe all of the small social niceties, most of them will bend over backwards to be nice to you. Some examples of customs that can make a difference:

- When riding a train, the Metro, or some other mass transit, pull a "poker face." I am told that being too friendly in this setting is considered flirty, especially smiling at the opposite sex. Whether that is true or not, it's not hard to look around and notice everybody else staring blankly out the window or at their shoes.

- When dining out in France, you have to ask for your check. The French consider it rude to rush diners by bringing the check to the table before they are ready to leave. This leads to a lot of miscommunication with Americans, who are used to being rushed. That waiter isn't being rude -- he's being polite by not rushing you.

- "Bonjour!" When entering and leaving a store is considered polite, and people do it regularly.

Finally, and a bit more seriously.... As a co-ed studying abroad in Europe, be careful. It's a sad stereotype, but a true one, that a lot of predatory Eurpean men view American co-eds as naive and easy. In the Latin-culture countries (Italy, Spain, France...), there is a much different outlook on sex and sexual relations than we have here in the States. Cat calling and affairs are commonplace. A close friend of mine was date-raped by her exchange university's activities coordinator. Just be on your toes, and be on guard for sweet talk. Sadly, The Onion has this one spot on.

Anyway... not to scare you too too much. Go and have fun! It'll be a wonderful life experience!
posted by kaseijin at 8:13 AM on January 31, 2006

Most devices you have like chargers or laptop power supply run off of 220v so it doesn't matter if you bring the power supply. Check the label of the power supply or transformer to make sure that it supports 220. There will be no danger of overload if this is the case. You may want to travel light and leave the converter at home and buy extra plug adapters. Definitely bring the laptop and a camera.
posted by JJ86 at 8:20 AM on January 31, 2006

kaseijin: It's a sad stereotype, but a true one, that a lot of predatory Eurpean men view American co-eds as naive and easy. In the Latin-culture countries (Italy, Spain, France...), there is a much different outlook on sex and sexual relations than we have here in the States.

There aren't just as many predatory guys in American colleges? I think this problem is much more a problem in the US on college campuses. Of course there is a different sexual culture in Europe which is more open and less puritanical. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that is negative. Be aware of the differences and try not to make any assumptions from an American viewpoint.
posted by JJ86 at 8:27 AM on January 31, 2006

I echo drinking Orangina, and bringing books. When I lived in Spain, I had a lot more time for reading than I thought I would, even though I was at school full time and travelled and socialized. I think if you watch TV at all in your normal US life, you'll be surprised how much more you'll want to read. English books were expensive and there wasn't a stellar selection, even in a metropolitan area like Madrid.

Bring toiletries you yourself are fussy about. For me, it was deodorant. Also, I wished I had brought some type of medicated sunburn soothing stuff. I found aloe gel, but nothing with "-caine" in the name.

I also echo shopping while you're there, at places like H&M and Zara, if you're relatively thin.

And (duh, but) travel within Europe a lot once you're there!
posted by lampoil at 9:15 AM on January 31, 2006

I would second the "be careful if you're not a typical French size" advice. In Italy, I could buy very little because my hips are just simply not the size of most Italian women's hips -- short and curvy they do, tall and curvy they do not do. I actually had a little more luck trying on clothes when I was in Paris, but they're still obviously cut for a French body type, which tends to be very thin.

For clothing in general, dressing a bit formally helps. I wore mostly skirts and fitted tops/sweaters, and high boots with a bit of a heel, the entire time I lived in Europe and while no one thought I was a native, I also didn't get those "Ugh, stupid tourist!" looks.

Definitely bring "chewy" books that you'll want to reread. I also found that in Italy, at least, British magazines tended to be slightly less expensive than American magazines (but were still definitely a splurge), and I lived for the International Herald Tribune. MTV also had a lot of English-language programming for when I was totally homesick, which hit right at the three-month mark.

If you're staying in a dorm, definitely try to get out and have some social life in French, with the French. There was a univesity study-abroad dorm near me in Venice, and I was amazed at how little any of them knew about the city or the language, because they spent all their time hanging out together, speaking in English. That would be a silly waste of your time, IMO.

On toiletries: In Italy, the deodorant *sucked*. That, and make-up, were the two things I had friends send me from home (the make-up because I am not olive-skinned and can therefore not wear the lovely oranges that Italians wear!). Everything else I bought there, though I did bring travel sizes of whatever I had at home for when I first arrived.

I've loved France every time I've visited, and the people have always been generous and kind. Bonne chance, and I'm envious!
posted by occhiblu at 9:25 AM on January 31, 2006

Also, I would avoid bringing anything that plugs in, really, unless it's a camera or something hugely expensive that you absolutely need. I toted an alarm clock radio over only to realize I'd need an adaptor to plug it in; ditto on the hairdryer. It was just easier to buy that stuff there (and I ended up with a travel alarm clock that I still use).
posted by occhiblu at 9:31 AM on January 31, 2006

Almost all laptop power supplies are dual voltage, eg they say on the base AC 100-220v. All you need is a plug adaptor
posted by A189Nut at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2006

I read somewhere (can't remember for the life of me where, it was in one of the guides I got handed before I moved to the UK) about the phases of living in a foreign country.

First there is the love. Everything is new an beatiful and all the better aspects of the culture/country come out on top. Enjoy it. This can last between weeks and several months.

After about three months (more or less depending on your own integration into the culture etc.) there's the phase where you begin to notice that everything is not as great as you thought it to be. Homesickness to the nth degree. You'll notice annoying mannerisms in the locals, cultural things and products that are just better at home. This is the hardest part. A lot of people find out during this period if they can actually hack living abroad. Like the previous phase, it's a hightened sense of the "otherness" of the place. Initially it's great, but it slowly loses it's appeal.

The third phase would be something along the lines of the first two phases integrating into something that can be considered reality. It starts to feel like a home of sorts with good and bad parts. It's usually then you find out if it's the place for you.

I mean, you're only going for a year, so you can "suck it up" and survive even if you don't like it. But please try. I had a friend who moved to America for uni and gave up after 6 months. I don't think he honestly even tried to integrate himself into the culture and was constantly looking at what he disliked about the place, not what he liked.
I, otoh, moved to England about 4 years ago and now don't want to leave. The first year was definitely the most fun (pubs! new people!) and also the hardest time (new people, odd culture/language) for me.

I'm from Finland, so not sure how this translates to the American mentality.

Enjoy the experience. Even if you end up hating it, you can always be proud to have tried and seen the world. That's the way I saw it when I left home. Helped me loads.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:41 AM on January 31, 2006

I've never been to France, but I've lived extended periods of time in the Netherlands and Sweden, and this is what I brought with me:

1. Contact lens solution--bring several months worth with you, and have friends/family ship you more when you are running low. This stuff is crazy expensive in Europe.

2. Tampons--again, crazy expensive

3. Stick deodorant--like others have said, most deodorant I've seen there is spray, and the few stick deodorants I tried were really harsh.

4. Bar soap--only if you have a brand loyalty. I personally don't like using shower gels, and the only bar soap I saw over there were imported American brands (=crazy expensive.) My friend's son was so fascinated and intrigued by my bar of soap that I gave it to him. He thought it was the coolest thing.

You might want to read Culture Shock-France: A guide to customs and etiquette. I haven't read this particular book, but I've found the other ones in the series very helpful. The books are geared for people who will be living in the country instead of the traveller.
posted by luneray at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2006

Read _A Moveable Feast_ a few times before you go, only because it's a good idea in general.
posted by kcm at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2006

Some tips for the world traveller--
Don't seek out other Americans, Canadians, Brits, or Aussies. In fact, avoid them. Then you'll find yourself acting and speaking like a native with your new French friends. That's what you want. That's the point of going there. Bonus points for thinking Americans are weird or obnoxious. Bonus points for difficulty speaking English after a while. Try to make friends of all ages, too. Older friends will take care of you better, and people your parents' age have (guess what?) kids your age! Ta da! Instant friends!

In the same vein, don't let people practice their English on you. Let them pay and come to Amelika if they want to learn English--you're over there, learn their language.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning a language is actually reading it, as it tends to be more literary (surprise) than the spoken word. I would say Eschew English Entirely. Read the French newspapers if you want news.

Lastly, don't be afraid to be a clown. I remember my french teacher saying "55 million French people can't be wrong," about their language. So no matter how good you think you are speaking French, french people will correct your language. Let them. They will laugh about how you butcher their language. Laugh with them and then ask how to say it right. Don't take offense--learn from your own mistakes, because you will make a lot of them. And you may eventually forget to put deoderant on and suddenly realize how nice people's natural scent is.
posted by gilgul at 10:27 AM on January 31, 2006

Gilgul's comment reminded me: The book "60 million Frenchmen can't be wrong" is a great guide to many of the peculiarities of the French system.

As for eschewing English entirely: You most likely can't, and you shouldn't feel bad when culture shock hits and ALL YOU WANT is some DAMNED POPTARTS DAMMIT (or whatever). I really and truly spent three days in bed watching MTV while the acqua alta rose and flooded the entire city and just cried and moped and wrote angry emails to people asking WHY Italians are SO BLOODY ANNOYING -- it passed. And those emotions certainly didn't keep me from experiencing the city -- most of my social life was in Italian, and my friends were a good mix of Italian-speaking Americans and native Venetians.

Occasional feelings of "This country sucks, I want to read American Cosmo and ignore everyone" does not mean you've failed, just that you should give yourself a bit of a break and go easy. And I think indulging your homesickness a bit at that point makes it go away faster.

But that doesn't let you off the hook for seeking out actual French people to interact with, either.
posted by occhiblu at 10:53 AM on January 31, 2006

(Link to Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French. It's a little less confrontational than the subtitle might suggest. I would have loved such a thing before going to Italy, because I think it does a good job of explaining how the country's institutions and history shape its inhabitants behavior and attitudes.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:58 AM on January 31, 2006

Montpelier is a wonderful place - you will love it there! The old center of town is beautiful.

Most likely your school will offer many resources for networking and socializing. Take advantage of all you can, because it's a wonderful opportunity for meeting people and making friends.

I don't understand the comments about bar soap. It's widely available.

French people are very friendly and kind. Many of them, in fact most your age, speak english. With strangers, always ask politely in french if they speak english. Usually they will say, "of course!"

More than occasionally, I have encountered French people saying they don't speak english when they really do. In every case it was because they were embarrassed about speaking english poorly. Once they witnessed my truly horrific french, they would pipe up with some passable english.

The most important phrase I learned (from a book) is, "Excusez-moi de vous deranger, mais..." It means "pardon me for bothering you, but..." You can get help, advice, directions, etc, from any stranger by beginning with this.

When I was there for an extended period and really needed something familiar, I found that watching or listening to the BBC was very helpful and comforting. Sometimes you just need to hear your native language.
posted by shifafa at 11:26 AM on January 31, 2006

I brought a laptop to Italy and used it just fine with only a plug adaptor.

Everyone else has things covered pretty well, I think. There are times when the entire country will seem infuriating, but you'll miss those same "quirks" when you get back.

I wouldn't worry so much about social faux pas, people are people. The French have some weird stereotypes about Americans, too, but then every French friend I've had would say something like, "Wow! [more like, Waou!] I thought all Americans were stupid sheep, but you're cool!" (not kidding). Think of yourself as, like, an undercover stereotype-busting ambassador. Or something.

Liberation (that title is with appropriate accents) is a great paper, if you're a little lefty. I found reading newspapers and watching tv to be a great way to work on the language when you just don't feel like making the effort to have a conversation or read a whole book. Virginie Despente's books, like Baise-moi or Les Jolies Choses, are weird and kinda trashy fiction but have a LOT of pretty hard-core slangy dialogue in them, if you're interested in that (I was). Although I had to make vocabulary lists to go through with a friend, since a lot of those words won't be in a regular dictionary. In return, I transcribed and translated some Snoop Dogg for her.

I don't know, I'm kinda rambling here. Bonne chance!
posted by ruby.aftermath at 11:29 AM on January 31, 2006

There aren't just as many predatory guys in American colleges? I think this problem is much more a problem in the US on college campuses.

I would say that's entirely true. I didn't say that Europe had *more* of them -- rather, that predatory types tend to view exchange students as easy prey. That isn't really up for debate.
posted by kaseijin at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2006

Airfare - try flying to London, then getting an EasyJet/Ryanair/BMI flight across, or even taking the tunnel. Flying to England I've always noticed loads of Francophones on the flight.

Laptop-wise, you're going to be there a full year. Might as well take it so you have everything with you. One of your first purchases in France would therefore be the cable part from your power pack to the wall (your power pack automatically handles the conversion). As people have said, apart from that, try and avoid bringing stuff that plugs in with you, especially if you can replace it cheaply in France. But if you can't, then yes, plug in a power strip to a single converter, and it should be fine.

As for language, start reading/listening to French now. Read Le Monde, listen to RFI online. If you can, find French speakers at college. The more you know when you go, the easier it will be. When you're there, speak as much French as you can, and try to make sure that your French friends speak French with you! If they start speaking English, either try and speak full French, or mix it up - e.g. "I'd love to, mais je dois faire quelquechose ce matin" etc etc. Oh, and try and watch some French movies before you leave (see if you can rent them on DVD so you can turn on subtitles).
posted by djgh at 12:33 PM on January 31, 2006

I am an American currently studying abroad for a year in Germany. As I was preparing last year for my upcoming European Experience, a fellow American friend of mine, who had spent the previous year abroad, told me something that accurately describes the past half year of my life. Basically: be prepared for the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Personally, its kind of like falling in love and breaking up, all a few times a week. If you're like anyone I know who has gone through this, you will likely experience some of the hardest times of your life--- but God, it will be worth it.

Other than that, practice your French, enjoy what you truly love of home while you can, and stay excited for the adventure ahead. You will amaze yourself at what you can do.
posted by liverbisque at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2006

55 million French people?!
60 million Frenchmen?!
Not to derail, but good grief, must be inflation. The original is Fifty Million Frenchmen, the great 'lost' Cole Porter musical (source of "You Do Something to Me") and I imagine the expression was already a cliché which he borrowed. (Some quick Googling indicates the current population, men+women, is around 61M.)
posted by Rash at 4:38 PM on January 31, 2006

Yes, the authors explicitly say they took the Cole Porter song and updated the population numbers.
posted by occhiblu at 6:40 PM on January 31, 2006

If you take prescription medicine, bring enough for the year. I spent the past semester in Spain, and I learned the hard way that you can't ship meds into the country. My study abroad program didn't tell us this; I assume it's the same for all EU nations.

Bring a pillow (the squishy airport kind, like this). Chances are, if you do any traveling, you'll want it for overnight bus rides, airplanes, or getting stuck somewhere. I also recommend earplugs, and if you're an MP3 player person, maybe some noise-canceling headphones. You may want to sleep, but everyone else on the bus may be watching a movie.

Bring at least one of these things of toilet paper and a couple small bottles of hand sanitizer (I know, I know, superbacteria, but bear with me) in case you end up roughing it somewhere, or even just for public restrooms in big cities. I needed it in Morocco, but I've even seen Turkish toilets in some places in southern France.

And bring some warm comfy fleece or sweatshirt ... you might want it for overly A/C'd buses, et cetera.

Clothes? H&M, Zara, et cetera will take care of all your clothing needs.
posted by anjamu at 12:33 AM on February 1, 2006

I second Culture Shock-France: A guide to customs and etiquette, one of the few books I brought along when I went on a high school trip to France. I'll raise you French or Foe?, which was used as a textbook in a class in college on cross-cultural understanding. Check them both out!

It can't hurt to take a look at Pacific University's What's Up With Culture? for information along the same lines.

As for the U-curve (nowadays sometimes referred to as a W curve) that someone mentioned earlier... I did a little Googling and couldn't find anything that described it quite as well as I learned in class, but the University of Minnesota's pretty close.
posted by srah at 4:26 AM on February 1, 2006

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