After you've received your letter of acceptance and decided once and for all to ignore the objections of your friends and family, it's time to prepare for your year abroad.
Before you buy tickets, you will need to decide if you want to travel around Europe before your assistantship. Although you may be anxious to tour the continent, there are a few reasons you may want to wait:
- Your baggage for the full year is more than you will want to lug around Europe.
- You will be living off your savings until the end of October when you receive your first salary payment.
- You'll want to travel again during the two-week long toussaint vacation at the end of October.
- You will need to have your arrêté de nomination and get your visa at your home (US) consulate before leaving.
If you aren't travelling beforehand, you should schedule your arrival for a few days before your contract begins. You should plan on returning from France at least a few days after the end of your contract to make sure you receive your last paycheck.
If you are not coming home for winter vacation, it may be cheapest to buy a single round trip ticket for earlier than you expect to return and then just change it once your return date is available on the airline website (depending on the airline, 9-11 months in advance.) Another possibility is to buy two roundtrip tickets and to not use the return on either of them (one-way tickets are almost always more expensive). It's difficult and expensive to find a plane ticket with a return longer than nine months, and “open return” tickets are even worse. In most cases you will be better off buying the cheapest ticket you can find for your arrival window. Having a return date that you may use to “bail out” after a month or two is not a bad idea either. StudentUniverse.com and BT-Store.com both offer cheap options for one-way tickets (just over half the cost of a round trip ticket). Better yet, buy a flexible ticket from statravel.com if it's not too much more expensive. You can't always book tickets more than six months in advance (and almost never more than 11 months), so you'll have to buy an early return ticket. But after a few months you'll be able to reschedule for April, May, or June for only the change fee ($50-$300 plus the difference between the original return flight cost and the cost of your new return flight. Keep in mind that the cost difference can be substantial, sometimes around $200 extra.)
Remember that there are several large airports in France. You can fly into Paris, Lyon, Nice, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and a few others. It's often not much more expensive to fly all the way to your region. Check train schedules and prices before you buy your plane tickets. If your academie is located near airports in another country, consider flying there instead. Flights to Brussels or Frankfurt, for example, are sometimes less expensive than flights directly into Paris.
Also, look into Prem's fares out of Paris. These are cheap train tickets that can be purchased from two weeks to two months in advance. It might be cheaper for you to fly into Paris and take a train. A Prem's fare from Paris to Toulouse or Nice can be as low as 25€.
It is hard to pack for a year in a foreign country. A rule of thumb is to lay out everything you think you need, and then get rid of half of it. Avoid bringing heavy things. Avoid bringing too much clothing. Remember that you're bound to buy quite a bit while you're in Europe. France has big, government-regulated sales two times a year (les soldes), in mid-January and early July, and are usually four to six weeks long.
If you have a digital camera, bring it. If you don't have one, and you can afford it, buy one (try Overstock). Film is expensive in France, and you'll want to take a lot of pictures of your travels and your friends. Also, MP3 players pack much better than your CD collection. Bring your mobile phone if it is GSM 900/1800 (not 1900) and will work in Europe, but leave its power adapter unless it is international (230V, you can easily buy an adapter in France for most phones). To use your GSM phone with a local subscription make sure it is not SIM-locked or network/operator locked. Don't use your US subscription, the roaming surcharge will cost you an arm and a leg, and the rest of your body. Get, for example, a prepaid local SIM card/subscription.
Be careful with WLAN equipment. France does not allow the usage of all WLAN channels in all locations or with the full transmission power or at all. The US FCC approval means nothing in France. And, at least in 2002, outdoor usage of WLAN equipment required a special license not to be issued to private persons. Make triple sure your equipment is legal in France, because some of the WLAN frequencies are used by the French military, and you might get in real serious trouble.
Here is a list of things that are more expensive or harder to find in France:
- Dental floss
- Peanut butter
- Electronic equipment
- Contact lens solution
- Over-the-counter medication (especially antacid)
- Blu-tack (and it's not blue here, it's yellow - le tac patafix!)
Not only is underwear expensive, but so is laundry. The more socks and underwear you have, the less often you'll have to go to the laundromat.
Bring as little as possible, because without a doubt you will bringing back much more. There is no reason to bring a heavy journal or a photo album with you. Think practically. Once you think you've packed, try walking around the block with everything. If it's too much to handle, you're bringing too much. You might be alone on a train or a bus somewhere in France. You'll be tired and hungry and it might be hot.
Do not bring your leather jacket. It rains most of the winter.
Teaching materials to bring (use your own judgment):
- Maps (one of your country is helpful), pictures, info about your hometown
- Photos of you and your family
- Restaurant menus, recipes, brochures, travel stuff about your country
- Magazines (ie Teen People, teen magazines)
- Popular music, especially with easy to understand lyrics
- High school yearbook (or copies of some pages)
You will be able to get plenty of information and lesson plan ideas over the internet, so don't overdo it, but it's always helpful to have props to use, no matter what you're teaching.
Over the course of the summer you will likely receive further correspondence from your académie, some of it possibly from the establishment or school system where you'll be working. If someone is taking care of your lodging, this will likely be indicated.
In late August or September, someone from your school system may contact you by email to help arrange your arrival. If you don't hear from anyone, start trying to make contact yourself in September. The correspondence that you received earlier likely contains some email addresses; as much as they love paperwork and paper mail, everyone in the school administation has email. Making arrival arrangements by international post is expensive, slow, and unnecessary.
Be persistent! It's reasonable for you to expect some communication before you arrive in the country and to know whether or not you will immediately have somewhere to sleep. If emailing doesn't work, call the school and explain that you are the language assistant. And if writing emails and making phone calls in French intimidates you, remember that the alternative is walking out of a train station in France without knowing exactly where to go.