10 things I wish I had known before starting my Residence Abroad

February 12, 2013 6:10 pm

Year abroad

If you have ever been subject to a Residence Abroad lecture, or have ever considered living in another country for an extended period of time, chances are you will have heard the age-old “it looks great on your CV”, “employers love people who are flexible and confident mixing with all types of people and cultures” and “it will change your view of the world” reasons to get you to up-and-leave for a completely new experience.

Five months ago today I stepped foot onto French turf for the first day of my ten month stay out here in Toulouse. Thanks to the above reasons having been drummed into my head, I was prepared to instantly become cultured and have loads of French friends and speak and hear loads of French; I had only heard good things about Residences Abroad from the 4th years, so I figured I had nothing to worry about but my own lack of confidence. Unfortunately it wasn’t as simple as that, and I quickly came across some of the rather severe drawbacks of being foreign, a student, and even worse… a combination of the two. I compiled a list when I first started at l’Université de Toulouse 2 – Le Mirail to make aware future people in my position of the realities, as well as, as the French say, the super cool things about being a foreign student in Toulouse.

So, here it is. The 10 things I wish I had known before embarking on my year abroad to Toulouse:

  1. Internet in halls of residence is not a given. You need a cable and/or a student card and/or a log in and/or an electrician and/or a hundred other codes before you can even think about Skyping Ma, Pa and the rest of them back at home. France doesn’t care who you are or how long you’ve been without internet; McDo is just down the road and they have WiFi… so, allez-y.
  2. The French don’t care whether you knew or not, it’s all your fault. Just because they told you the reception would be open 24/7 for your arrival to the Cité Universitaire, that doesn’t mean they actually will be, and if you get it a bit wrong and turn up at the wrong time (God forbid), prepare yourselves to be tutted at like you’re 8 years old again.

    Pizza Pas Cher

  3. Toulouse is full of pizzerias. There must be, without exaggerating (okay, exaggerating a bit) about 7 pizzerias on the 20 minute bus journey from my halls to the centre of town. I haven’t yet got round to counting the rest, but I’m willing to bet it’s close to 25 or something utterly ridiculous. Also, the Domino’s Pizza they claim to have there, is not Domino’s as you know it. It uses the same logo (legally or not is yet to be discovered), but it’s actually called Pizza Pas Cher. I’m not complaining too much, it’s still pretty tasty, and the delivery people come right up to your bedroom door.
  4. You will walk home from a night out. With the metros and buses stopping at 12am (or 1.30 on weekends), either your night has to end early or you have to make sure you are in stumbling distance of your accommodation. Drunkenly taking the Vélo Toulouse bikes may seem appealing but may not always be the most practical option (ask any of my friends who have done it, and consequently regretted it). Plus cycling drunk is illegal, so it might end up being more trouble than it’s worth.
  5. The French don’t know how to use the internet, or even if they do, they won’t use it. In banks, the university, accommodation… anything that involves putting you into a system must be done by pigeon or something judging by the speed it actually gets done. Nothing is immediate; getting a student card alone took some of my friends close to a month, probably because of the 1500 cigarette breaks or 3 hours of lunch that the French take every day. So prepare yourself for everything taking twice as long to get done. For example, although it would save a lot of stress, confusion and travelling being able to pick classes and finding out whether lessons are on/off/in a different classroom online, that is simply not the case. To find out anything or to register for anything, you have to travel the 40 minutes to uni to look on a notice board outside the building. I dread the day that notice board tells me the one French lesson I travelled all the way in for is cancelled.
  6. Drinks are NOT CHEAP. Considering Toulouse is one of the biggest student cities in France, compared to student cities in England, it is certainly not a cheap night out if you don’t know where to go. With a drink being close to 6 or 7 euros each in both bars and clubs, pre-drinking is an absolute must. Luckily, this isn’t such a hardship when bottles of wine in supermarkets go from the low low price of 1 euro. Your only problem then is finding somewhere to host said pre-lash. Halls in France do not have the same reputation as Halls in England and it’s not unusual for security to come and toquer sur la porte to tell you to shut up or get out at 11pm on a Saturday.
  7. Université Toulouse II – Le Mirail does not look pretty. If you don’t mind a place where beggars and their children come right up to where you’re sitting eating then you might not mind so much. And if you quite like the look of amateur graffiti both inside and outside the absolute maze of classrooms then yeah, this place might not seem so bad. But it also smells of wee. The head of year recently revealed to us that the university is actually sinking into the ground, so they are in the process of replacing all the old buildings with new ones in a slightly different location… that pretty much says it all really.
  8.  Erasmus students don’t count. And by this I mean nobody can help you. And they won’t try to. You don’t get given a timetable and are therefore not officially registered for any of the classes you go to. You do get a lot of freedom with regards to what you want to study, as you get to make up your own timetable, so I am currently on 14 hours of French lessons and adding 2 of translation to that mix. Each Erasmus student’s timetable will vary depending on what their English university requires of them, but in general it’s nothing too strenuous once you’ve spent the first three weeks ripping all your hair out trying to get something sorted for the semester.
  9.  Tisséo is the best transport network in the entire world. If I thought I was going to have problems with the transportation network/getting lost/not having enough dollar to get around Toulouse, someone should have pointed me in the direction of the tisseo.fr website. For 8 euros, you get a top-up monthly travel card, or Pastel card, with your photo and your name on. Once topped up with 10 euros, you get a month’s unlimited travel on all the Tisséo buses and metros throughout the city, giving you complete freedom to go wherever you like, as many times as you like. Bargain.
  10. Girls get judged if they go to the toilet together. Although a norm in England, the French seem to think you’re either lezzing off/doing drugs if more than one of you go to the toilet at the same time. I have had some very awkward conversations and some dirty looks from French people who do not understand why a group of 2 or 3 girls would ever go to the toilet together on a night out. At least now we know that’s why they’re sniggering, anyway.

Something to bear in mind, though: these realities all come hand in hand with the very true, but very cliché, best-year-of-your-life, you’ll-make-loads-of-new-friends, your-outlook-on-life-will-change reasons to step out of your comfort zone and installez-vous in a completely new way of life. You heard it here first: a Residence Abroad is highly, highly recommended.

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