One year ago, I returned from a semester in France. I’ve had a decent amount of time to reflect on this and to think about my experience and what advice I would give to other students. Given that I am writing about the entire process of this from picking a program to coming home, this is a massive post. The links below provide an outline and can be used to jump around within the post. Fair warning though, this is over 3000 words (not sorry) and largely written as actual study abroad advice rather than a “What to do in France” post. So, I’ll get right to it with an outline of what this talks about.
Phase One: Planning and Packing
How early should you start planning for a semester abroad? It will depend on your school, major, and program, but it’s good to plan by at least a few months. I knew that I wanted to go to France, and I began looking into programs a year before I actually left; however, meeting with a study abroad advisor can help narrow programs down. If the program is faculty-led, the application will usually be less involved and you will have longer to complete it; however, for a program like the one I did with an organization outside my school, it was useful to get started early so I could contact everyone I needed to contact and fill out all the forms – for example approval of the classes I would take. Additionally, it takes longer to plan for a semester program, since the duration of the trip is longer. When I spent five weeks in Italy, I did not need a country visa, but for a stay longer than three months in Europe, a visa is required, so I had to complete a Campus France application and schedule an interview with a consulate before I could leave. This can take a while, and no matter what country you’re applying to visit, you need to allow plenty of time for the slow pace of bureaucracy. My schedule ended up looking like this:
November 2017: Decided on program and began application
January 2018: Meetings with advisors and began researching scholarships
February 2018: Obtained recommendation letters; Finished study abroad application
March 2018: Accepted to program! Began Campus France form; Worked on deferring scholarships which would not apply abroad; Applied for other scholarships; Booked flights
April 2018: Pre-departure Orientation; Campus Health visit; Submitted Campus France;
May 2018: Enrolled in classes at the Institute for American Universities, Aix
June 2018: Road trip to DC for Visa interview
July 2018: Visa received
August 2018: Flew to France
It was a long process. However, I had multiple advisors on campus and online to help. In particular, my major advisors helped me with scheduling and choosing classes; the study abroad advisor helped me with the university end of things, and the CEA advisors helped me understand their side of the application.
As far as packing, I recommend remembering that winter exists. The French Riviera is pretty warm, but it does get cold eventually, and if you’re doing any traveling, it can get cold. I packed only long pants, since tourists are really the only ones in France who wear shorts. Additionally, I had a few nice-ish shirts – graphic t-shirts are also not much of a thing – and a couple sweaters. I ended up buying sweaters in France as souvenirs when I got cold, and I still wish I had brought an actual winter coat. Geneva in November in a blazer and blouse was absolutely freezing.
The most important thing that I think I did in my packing was limiting what I took. Although I carried both a checked bag and a carry-on, I made sure that everything would fit in the carry-on, so that coming back I would have room for souvenirs and new clothes.
Phase Two: Immersion
Going to France was not my first experience with language immersion, and it was honestly less intense than the summer camps I did in high school. I will say though that being in a small town in the south of France gets you a lot more French immersion than does being in Paris. The CEA program I studied with also offers internships; in Paris, no knowledge of French is required, but it is in Aix-en-Provence. Being a less-developed town with more old people, not everyone in Aix knows English. Additionally, although Aix has become a tourist destination for cruises docking in Marseille, the locals are not entirely used to foreigners who refuse to attempt their language, and they are not always thrilled about it either.
Since I was not doing a homestay, and since my roommate spoke no French whatsoever, I was not at all overwhelmed by the language immersion day-to-day. The only place it became stressful was in one of my classes: Visages de la France Contemporaine. I was taking two classes taught fully in French that semester, but this one was by far the most difficult of everything I was studying. The information was almost entirely new, and the professor did not speak English to us or slow down his French. The first couple weeks were so stressful I did wonder about switching into a different class. The material in this class was really interesting though, and I think I learned more in that class than in any other class I’ve taken in college – not just French classes, all my classes. I still think about the content of this class and how it applies to other things I’m studying. Most importantly, it was this class that was most valuable to improving my spoken and written French during the semester.
The language immersion may not have been too stressful for me, but life in France definitely had its ups and downs. Part of this, undoubtedly, was that I struggled to make close friends during the semester. French culture is not that different from American culture, after all, and I was attending an American university with half my classes in English. Yes, there were differences – there was a produce market in the square below my apartment, and I lived over a bakery where I could order a pain au chocolat every morning before class – but people in France still eat three meals a day and hang out at the mall with friends.
So that brings me to the part where I talk about what I wish I’d done differently. First, I’m not an incredibly outgoing person, and it can take me a while to warm up to someone. Since I did not click with my roommate, I really struggled to make friends with people whom I only saw a couple times a week at classes. I was friendly with lots of people, but it was difficult to find people who really shared my interests and would want to meet up at a café instead of going out to a bar because the drinking age in France is only eighteen. Admittedly, I could have made more efforts to engage with people, and that leads into what I would recommend to anyone else going abroad, especially for a whole semester or year.
In a nutshell, attend everything…and then socialize. Both CEA and my school (IAU) hosted events throughout the semester. Although I went to almost everything, most of the time I ended up retreating a little and not actually putting myself out there. Therefore, talk to people. The funny thing is, at one of the very first events, I met two girls who were basically exactly what I was looking for, and we went to dinner…once. So, after you talk to people, follow up, even if you don’t have classes together. These two girls were the people I became closest to on the trip, but I still barely saw them. Making more of an effort there would have been beneficial to me.
An important part of studying abroad for such a long time is keeping in contact with friends and family back home, since they can offer a lot of support for homesickness. This can be difficult because of the time difference, so although I could text at any time, I usually had to plan ahead for a call or video-chat. I tried to call home once a week, usually on Thursday evenings at 10 pm. I did this because I didn’t have class on Fridays, so staying up wasn’t an issue, and being 5 hours ahead of my family meant I had to wait for them to get home before we could talk.
Although I had a lot of fun in France and did amazing things, homesickness at some point is inevitable, especially on a long trip. (Before studying abroad, you will have at least one orientation in which they show you the chart of culture shock and homesickness, and though it gets annoying, it’s pretty accurate). One of the things that really helped me was cooking – or attempting to cook – recipes from home while listening to American radio or watching American movies. It’s impossible to avoid homesickness completely, but doing stuff like this and occasionally hanging out with other study abroad students is a good way to get through it.
One of my favorite activities was doing volunteer work with a church in Aix. It’s a winter tradition for them to feed the homeless in the mornings, and I loved walking the streets of the town early in the morning when only bakeries were open. It was during these times that I felt most at peace and most connected to the city. (There was definitely a part of me that felt like Belle in the opening of Beauty and the Beast when she’s walking through the town as it comes awake.) I think becoming a part of the town like this relieved a lot of my stress and helped me feel like Aix actually had become my home in a way. Seeing Aix like this, did a lot to relieve some of my homesickness, and I have to recommend doing something – whether volunteering or joining a conversation group or a dance class – that puts you in the town with locals as a way to remember what it was you wanted to get out of this experience: Connection.
But, of course, traveling helps too.
Phase Three: Travel in Europe
Let’s be honest, this is one of the main reasons people study in Europe – because it’s easy to travel to lots of countries. However, there is still some significant cost associated with travel, and it can be exhausting to go somewhere every spare second. I talked to a lot of people who tried to go to a new city or country every weekend and see everything there was to see. Based on that, I much preferred what I did.
Most of my travel was around Provence and the Riviera – never more than an hour away from my town. For these trips, I usually took buses since with my student ID I was able to get very nice discounts (a trip to Marseille was 2 euros round trip). I did take the train to Avignon since it was a little further away, but this was the only day trip on which I took a train. The bus system between cities in France is excellent, and there were also a lot of opportunities to go with local travel companies or on class/program field trips. I enjoyed this travel since I got to see and experience the region I was living in. These trips were also cheap and easy to plan, so there was little headache about my budget or trying to catch a plane to get back to school on Monday. Though I did take one long trip over fall break, I’m trying to keep this post under 4000 words, so here’s just a link to that post.
I took four long-weekend trips, and each was a little different. The first trip to Prague was one I took with my roommate. We left on Friday morning at 4 am and returned at 11 pm on Sunday night. The flights bracketing the weekend were more stress than I really wanted, but the trip itself was fun if a little rushed. To be honest, I don’t love these there-and-back trips to a different country. Although I loved Prague and am so grateful that I was able to go, it was a lot of money and stress for a trip so short that I didn’t really feel I got to experience the city. However, if you do want to see as many European cities as possible and have the budget, this kind of trip is doable, though it’s good to plan ahead what you want to see.
The second weekend was Paris. I did this one on my own, and took the train up Friday morning and back on Sunday morning (an evening train would have been more expensive). Although I definitely did not see all Paris had to offer, I really enjoyed this trip. In part, the train stations were much less stressful than the airport, but also traveling on my own meant I could go where I wanted and change the plan as I liked. I planned ahead what I wanted to see and do and approximately how I would do it all. This gave me a schedule to follow, so I didn’t have long periods of “well, now what?” As I was on my own, I stayed in a cheap hotel rather than an airbnb just for safety. Paris is like any other big city in that respect, and safety is largely a matter of common sense. Though I was there during the first weekend of the Gilets Jaunes/Yellow Vests protests, I did not feel unsafe; I just avoided the protest areas. The metro was a little stressful at first, but once I figured it out, it wasn’t so bad and I actually really enjoyed doing this trip by myself.
My third long weekend was actually a trip with one of my political science classes in which we visited Geneva. This was a pretty stress-free trip since everything was pre-arranged. It was also nice since the school was able to organize things that would have been more difficult alone – like a tour of the UN. I really liked Geneva as a city and would love to come here again on a less scheduled trip. Because we had things to do everyday, there was not really any time for exploring on my own except for one evening. Overall though, take any trip arranged by your school or program. Always worth it.
Finally, near the very end of the semester, I went to Grenoble. I really wanted to see the French Alps before I left, and I had been fantasizing for months about mountains and Christmas markets in the snow. My first choice was Strasbourg, but because of the distance and time of year, that was too expensive. I travelled to Grenoble on a four-hour Flixbus, which wasn’t ideal, but it was pretty nice. There was also a decently long rest stop halfway through to use the bathroom, buy snacks, and watch the Gilets Jaunes protests on TV. Grenoble was chilly and beautiful, though a little rainy (no snow 😥). Also, the Christmas market was not nearly the size of Strasbourg, so there wasn’t that much to do without spending more money than I wanted to spend. However, I was in a hotel for this trip as well, and I really just enjoyed a nice quiet weekend with mountain views as I wrote my final papers, ordered a room service dinner, and watched movies. Not an exciting trip but still one of my favorites. I like the idea of traveling without the stress of trying to do and see everything in a couple days. In Paris, I picked out the main places I wanted to visit, and I didn’t worry about the rest. In Grenoble, I came to just walk around, have fun, and relax before finals. It was exactly what I needed that weekend.
Phase Four: Coming Home
So back to that culture shock thing, there’s also “reverse culture shock” in which you’re glad to be home, but you’re also homesick for the country you left and you have to readjust to the way things work in the US. (Not related to this trip, but when I came back from Ireland a few years ago, I remember automatically walking to the driver’s side of the car since in Ireland that was the passenger seat where I was used to sitting).
Not gonna lie, the semester in France was difficult. It was fun and amazing, and I would do it over again in a heartbeat – even the rough parts. By the time December rolled around though, I was desperate to see my family and eat a cheeseburger. This, of course, reversed on the very last day when I was hugging everyone and lingering at the Christmas market until it got dark. I realized that, even though I didn’t have an instant bond with everyone on the trip, and even though I didn’t make a new best friend, I did make some friends – all of whom I was about to leave behind. That last day, when finals were finished, I stood around in the cold (without a real winter jacket, still a regret), drinking hot chocolate and sharing churros and talking about how, suddenly, we didn’t want to leave. I went to dinner with my roommate and some of her friends; we had our disagreements over the semester, but we did get along all right most of the time. And, despite the fact that for the last two weeks I’d been counting down the hours until my flight, that day I was constantly on the verge of tears because I didn’t want to leave.
When my flight landed, I was still excited to see my family and go home, but it wasn’t the complete and total relief that I had sometimes imagined. It was bittersweet because I’d also had to leave friends and places behind that I had grown to love. And the culture shock did set in: I’d been longing for a decently priced cheeseburger, but at the same time, I discovered that I no longer really wanted fast food. And that has stuck. In the last year, I’ve almost entirely cut fast food places out of my diet, and I’ve kept the love of cooking that I really developed when I was in Aix and couldn’t afford to eat out.
I also definitely felt the shock of suddenly living in the US where I can’t walk everywhere or use a well-organized bus/train system. Last winter was brutal in that way since I’d become so used to the idea of “Hmm, I’m bored. I think I’ll walk to the Christmas market” or “I think I’ll take the bus to Marseille today.” Instead, I needed a car to get just about anywhere. Although I’ve gotten used to that again (and the Tucson bus system *sigh*), I still do wish that the US had that sort of robust public transportation. I would love having an easily accessible bus station somewhere in the city from which I could take intracity buses, and I definitely daydream about train stations with more travel options than one Amtrak per week passing through.
Finally, I noticed a shift in my opinions of world affairs. I think it’s easy in the US to view Europe as the opposite of the US for better or for worse; however, one thing that became very clear to me was that a lot of the problems and debates we have in the US are similar to what they have in Europe. People are at times suspicious of and fanatic about the EU and the idea of a supranational government. Within France, I saw the gilets jaunes protests and got to learn about working-class/upper-class divisions and how liberal and conservative politics play out in France. It makes for a more complicated view when I read headlines about “The future of the EU” and “Is this the end of the EU?” because, although I still like the idea of the European Union, I understand that it is rife with problems, and it needs to address those in some way. Although it can be frustrating not to be fully with or against various arguments relating to government and politics, I think it is useful to have a complicated opinion and to be able to research and understand the other complicated views that people may have.
My semester abroad had its ups and downs. I was at times frustrated and elated. Sometimes all I could think was “I want to go home” and at other times I stood in front of a painting or a building I had dreamed of seeing and it hit me that “I’m actually in France, and I never want to leave.” All in all, I would do it again, and I think everyone should travel somewhere. It’s an experience like no other, and it changes you, even if that change is slow and hard to notice in the moment. I would absolutely do all of it again.