Living Abroad in Paris as a Student
Reading a book in Paris studio on the apartment ledge.
My first night in Paris was December 31. New years eve promised many things: fireworks, wine, dancing in a crowded Parisian disco, and a kiss from a beautiful Frenchman, if I might be so lucky. The moment I stepped out into the dark night and the icy cold wind whipped through my hair, I should have known my night was not going to go quite the way I had imagined. I squeezed into the already crowded carriage of the Paris metro, direction Eiffel Tower. Wedged between a tall dark man smelling strongly of alcohol and cigarettes and another in a Russian fur hat, I began to feel a little clammy beneath my layers of winter clothing. The train came to a halt at the platform with just under three minutes to spare, the crowds surged. Not needing to move my feet I was taken with the sea of people up into the night, the Tower rising above, sparkling spectacularly through the mist. As the clock struck midnight the crowds cheered, “Bon année!” Happy New Year! We waited for the explosion of fireworks, but they never came.
No fireworks, no metro, no taxis, and waiting in the freezing cold amid people yelling words I could not understand led me to question my ability to survive the next five months in this ever-engaging city.
Arriving in Paris, most foreigners dream of living the Parisian life and blending into the local crowd: sipping bad coffee, smoking strong cigarettes, complaining about anything and everything in perfect, slang French. Paris is the city of dreams; the city of lights; the city of love—a city of clichés for a reason. But it’s not all quaint passageways and luring Frenchmen. If you are thinking of heading to Paris for a study period, then perhaps a little reality check is in order. But what the hell, my experience was—despite a few low points involving grades, red wine, and dirty kitchens—a romantic one.
I paved my path to Paris through an exchange program with the Australian National University. In Canberra I study linguistics, majoring in French and Spanish, which lead to my language exchange for one semester at Sciences-po University on Paris’ left bank. The application process was a lengthy one. First I was required to complete an application for the Australian National University, and then another for Sciences-po. Once accepted, and having survived the intense online course registration at 3 a.m. my local time, I was on my way across the globe.
On arrival in Paris I was constantly reminded of the ever-present bureaucratic processes I was required to complete. Forms to be filled in, meetings to attend, bank accounts to open, the list seemed endless. Perhaps it was due to my slightly obsessive organizational habits, perhaps it was because I was expecting the worst, but somehow this endless list of to-do’s was completed in little more than a week. There was one glitch in this smooth sailing though. The medical check up I was required to attend in order to obtain my Carte de sejour (residency permit). This didn’t take place until a good two months into my stay. I was still one of the lucky ones it would seem, some other students were not called for the appointment until a mere month before they returned home!
Then the real work began.
Once classes were underway, I found myself volunteering to do oral presentations and assignments first, rather than last. This tactic turned out to be very helpful because:
- I was fresh and keen at the start of semester when I was pumping out most of my work.
- By the time mid-semester exams came around I had plenty of time to study.
- When everyone else was panicking at the end of semester, I could frolic around the city in the warm spring sunshine.
Once I had finished class for the week, I had an ever-increasing list of museums to visit, neighborhoods to explore, cafes to sit in, parks to run around, and bars to frequent. Read as many books about Paris as you can. Talk to as many locals and other foreigners living there as you can. You will soon realize that everyone has different experiences and different favorite places in the city, which in turn provides you with a plethora of new places to discover.
The one thing that reading a book or talking to someone cannot do, is provide you with the experience of wandering Paris by foot. I cannot explain the serene moments I had walking to school each day along the river, or aimlessly winding through narrow streets lined with bookshops and galleries. I discovered some of my favorite places in Paris by wandering. The people watching, the sounds of the city, the colors as the seasons change, they all add to the ecstasy that is experiencing Paris as a local—a once in a lifetime opportunity for most students.
After spending five months frolicking through the enchanting neighborhoods, I fell in love with the atmosphere that oozed from every open door, and with every spoken word. There is something comforting about walking to the market each Sunday to be faced with the most vibrant array of fruits, vegetables and dairy products imaginable. There is warmth in saying bonjour to the man across the hall. There is calm in returning home from a day out in the city and looking out the window at the timeless cityscape. There really is something special about living in Paris, and getting to know places you know you would never have discovered as a tourist. Yet there is also excitement in knowing that you will never truly know Paris, there will be something new to see, something you never knew existed before.
On my last day in Paris, I confidently said, “Bonjour Monsieur,” as I passed the little store down the street, constantly overflowing with dusty vegetables and overripe fruit. “Bonjour mademoiselle! C’est notre petite touriste,” he bellowed back from behind a crate of cereal boxes. I guess no matter how hard I tried I was always going to be an outsider, a tourist. Only now, I could understand what was being said to me.
The best part about going on exchange in Paris is falling in love with the city in your own unique way. Everyone’s experience of Paris is different. I know mine is unique and special to me, my own little pieces of Paris.
Students hanging out along the Seine.
Practical Tips for Living in Paris
The French are known for being a little difficult when it comes to bureaucracy. Such, however, was not the case when it came to my visa. The process is fairly straight forward as with many other countries, in that you need to provide evidence of financial support and your place at the host institution among a few other things. Once your visa application has been submitted the waiting period is generally 20 days, however mine was ready much sooner, in under a week.
The Language Barrier
There were a few students at Sciences-po who arrived in Paris not speaking a word of French. This obviously means it is possible, but I would not advise it. The French often do understand English, however they are not always happy to use it. Saying Bonjour and making initial contact in French will work wonders for you, whereas expecting that they speak English will do just the opposite as it suggests a lack of respect for their rich culture. Learn some basics before you arrive and your experience will be all the more enticing and exciting for it.
Living in Paris is a dream for many. Renting can be a nightmare. Sciences-po, like many universities in Paris, does not provide student accommodations. Most however, have an accommodations office and can assist students. The options in Paris range from homestays to studio apartments.
The homestay programs, many of which are organized by American universities for their students, can be a hit or miss. I have some friends whose host families were solely partaking in the program for the added income and others who had a very positive experience, gaining much more than expected from their guest.
Renting, which you might think to be a more predictable option, is anything but. You might strike it lucky with an agent who helps you from start to finish, but most are not so easy to deal with. I have been home for two months now, and am still waiting to get my deposit back for my apartment. My number one tip for dealing with agents is to be firm and persistent.
Once you have found a place to live, expect to pay anywhere between 600 to 1,000 Euros per month, depending upon the location and set up, though studio apartments tend to lean towards the more expensive end of the scale. If you are in one of the twenty arrondissements of Paris, prices don’t vary too much, so aside from perhaps looking for somewhere close to your host institution it is only is only a more progressively suburban character as you leave the center of the city.
Getting around Paris is really very easy. The metro, which is open from 5:30 a.m. until 12:30 a.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 1:45 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, is the fastest way to get from one end of the city to the other. If you find yourself feeling a little claustrophobic underground everyday, the bus network criss-crosses the city in a very orderly and punctual fashion. And of course, if you prefer to feel the wind in your hair, the Velib system of public bike stations around the city is an easy and cheap way of getting places, not to mention fun. You can purchase 24-hour, 1-week or 1-year passes at the machines. The metro and buses work on the same ticketing system, for which you can buy 10-ticket books, weekly, monthly, or yearly passes.
There is a free Paris magazine in English advertising jobs of all types, mostly part-time or casual, that can be found in newsstands and cafes, especially if they are run by English speakers.
There is also a great demand in Paris for English tutors. You can advertise on websites or through your host university.
Finally, if you enquire at your host institution, many have internship programs with companies both during term and over the summer.
Mobile phones all have their pros and cons. If you don’t want to call much and will only be texting friends in France, then going prepaid is a good option, with most providers offering unlimited free texts to French phones. If you are more of a smart phone addict or need to be phoning, then a plan is a good option. Most are 2-year contracts, however if you provide evidence of a flight out of the country and provide reason for urgently needing to leave, you are able to exit the contract without paying another cent!
French bank accounts do technically have Internet banking, but unlike other western countries, the word instantaneous does not really come into play. If you need money urgently, you might have some trouble. Also, in order to close your French bank account, you will need to make an appointment. Despite that negative bit of information, depending upon the university you are attending as a student, many banks will actually want your money in their hands, and thus offer you some in return simply for opening an account with them. The major banks are HSBC, LCL and BNP Paribas.
There are a few simple rules that every foreigner should learn before arriving in France. One, always say Bonjour when entering a shop or restaurant. It will not set you apart, but make you immediately accepted as necessarily polite. Two, do not talk at the top of your voice in English in public spaces, notably the metro. It does not do anything for the Anglo reputation, and it will undoubtedly attract pickpockets. Which leads me to number three, keep hold of your belongings and don’t wave them around in public. The pickpockets in Paris are very good at what they do.
Reverse Culture Shock
When most people return home after a trip abroad they're excited—to sleep in their own bed, to see their friends, to share the experience they have had. Returning home from a study abroad program can be a little different. Sometimes you can experience reverse culture shock. Don’t be alarmed when your fellow natives are not quite so enthusiastic about the French way of life as you are. This is perfectly normal. Remember that it may well take you a few months to get back into the routine at home, following such a drastic change to your daily routine. The best way to cure this is to either plan another trip or start appreciating your home town and discovering what it has to offer that you haven’t seen before—basically treat your home town as you would a foreign city and get exploring.