Preparing for the TAPIF language assistant program in France: What to do, and what not to do

Hello future language assistant. If you’re getting ready to come to France for the next school year, I’ve got some tips for you. I was an assistant in a lycée in Lyon in 2013-2014, and although I initially had my doubts about the program, I ended up having a great experience. Even though I had already been living and teaching in France for a year before I went, I reached out to past assistants to get tips from them and they were delightfully helpful. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas or resources in this post!

Do practice your French

In my opinion, the better your French is before you move, the easier it is to improve while you’re there. Before moving to France, I used Conversation Exchange to do a French/English language exchange. I also used Meetup to find a French language group in my area.

When you watch French movies, challenge yourself to take the subtitles off if you can, and watch French videos on YouTube. Try Golden Moustache Videos – they are hilarious and you can put on subtitles. (I know I just said to take the subtitles off, but you may want to have the option with Golden Moustache – their jokes go by fast, and subtitles can help you learn some of the slang they’re using.) The best one is the longest one, Le Fantôme de Merde. There’s also Norman fait des videos and Cyprien. You can also watch Quotidien in French, and for something a little more serious, C dans l’air.

The number one thing I wish I had known about sooner? Comme une Française TV. Géraldine makes great videos demonstrating expressions and cultural quirks that you just don’t learn in the classroom. I’m fluent in French and I still learn new things from her videos all time. Even if you’re a dude, it doesn’t matter – most of the topics are gender neutral.

French words
Note: do not call your waiter “garçon” in French.

Don’t overpack

You probably don’t need as much stuff as you think you do, and you are going to have to carry it all. You know you’re going to be going home with more stuff than you came with anyway!

(As I wrote in another post on teaching English in France, the dress code tends to be on the casual side, so don’t worry too much about bringing dressy clothes for work.)

Do connect with other assistants in your region

There should be a Facebook group for your city or region – find it and join it. Even if you really want to spend your year making French friends, not other anglophone friends, it is nice to have that online network when you have a question about lesson planning or opening your bank account. You don’t necessarily have to hang out with other assistants, but it’s a good idea to stay connected in the anglophone community. Sometimes being a foreigner is rough, and we have each other’s backs.

Do get in touch with your school

There’s some information you’re going to want sooner rather than later – will your school provide lodging? What will your schedule be? Will you be teaching your own classes, or having small conversation groups? You have no control over when someone gives you this information, and chances are no one will be in touch until the end of August or September because of les vacances, but at least if you send them an email (in French!) you’re opening the door for that communication to begin.

Do bring some props from home

You’re going to be talking about where you come from and your culture as much as you will be teaching English (more, in some cases). It’s great to have visual aids to present. Depending on your responsibilities and teaching style, you might want to have real English-language materials, like magazines, etc. to bring to class. Tip: think about presenting your city or region rather than (or in addition to) your country as a whole, especially if you’re American.

Don’t be too nice

If you’re responsible for a class, even if there are only eight students, be prepared to lay down the law from the start. Decide what is and is not acceptable in your class, and what the consequences will be if a student is uncooperative, and be consistent. If you don’t follow through, they will never take you seriously. Ask a teacher what the school rules are and what your options are to discipline, since you probably won’t be grading them.

Don’t mess up your consulate appointment

Going to the French consulate should be a million times easier than any French bureaucratic process in France. If you schedule your appointment ASAP, get all your paperwork lined up (there should be a list of requirements on your consulate’s website), and show up on time, there’s no reason it should go wrong.

Do feel free to tell the consulate if you have a reason to stay in France after the end of your contract

Your visa status is “travailleur temporaire.” You can have a visa with this status for up to a year. An assistant contract is usually seven months, and the visa is often valid 8-10 months – it depends on your consulate.

When I was getting my visa at the San Francisco consulate, the woman asked me if I would be staying in France after the end of my contract. Since I live in France and am annually plagued with visa obstacles, I wanted my visa to be valid as long as possible. That didn’t seem like the right thing to say at the consulate, though. I explained that my friend was getting married in September (true), so I needed to be able to stay in France until then. This kind sweet lady sent my passport back with a visa valid for 12 months. Woohoo!

Note: the 12 months start the day you arrive in France, not when your contract begins. That’s why you have to have purchased your plane ticket before your consulate appointment.

Of course, this all depends on which consulate you are at and who you speak with, but it can’t hurt to ask as long as you present a good reason!

Do get a new copy of your birth certificate with an apostille and don’t wait until the last minute!

You’ll need this to get a social security number and healthcare. They should accept a copy (color is better) at your appointment, but better to have the original on hand in case you need it. When I went to the Assurance Maladie, they didn’t require a translation for a birth certificate in English, but many people recommend that you have one done by a translator certified by the French consulate. (Note: L’assurance maladie is sometimes finicky with American birth certificates since they vary by state. Be persistent. You can read about my ordeal here.)

Do start looking for housing before you arrive

Finding somewhere to live can be a challenge. If your school offers lodging, I recommend that you take it. It will most likely be the cheapest option, and you can always move out if you find somewhere you’d prefer to live. Otherwise, network with other assistants and expats and search on leboncoin.fr (like French craigslist – it’s your best bet for finding a place.) It’s not necessarily likely that you’ll actually have somewhere to live when you arrive, but at least you’ll know the lay of the land. However…

Don’t get scammed on Leboncoin

Just like Craigslist, use caution on Leboncoin! There are tons of legit offers on the site, but if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Of course, never send money or personal information ahead of time. You might be tempted to wire a deposit if you’re in a panic about ending up homeless, but don’t do it! You will not end up living on the street. Okay?

Do have a credit card with no international fees, and do find out where you can withdraw cash with no fees

You’ve got to set up a bank account in France to get paid (but you need an address first!) but in the meantime, you still need money. Having a credit card with no international fees is a no-brainer, and you also want to check with your bank to find out where you can withdraw cash without getting charged (you gotta have cash!)

For example, in the States, I have an account at Bank of America. I can withdraw cash at BNP Paribas ATMs without getting charged per transaction (but I do pay a small percentage fee). I also have their Travel Rewards credit card, which I love a) because there are no international fees and b) because it has the little European chip in it, which makes it easier to use over here. (You literally have to show people how to swipe a credit card in their machine here, unless you’re somewhere with a large influx of non-European visitors. It is a completely foreign concept.)

Note: Even if you have a credit card with the chip, there are still some places it won’t work because it’s a foreign card, like the SNCF train station automated machines.

Don’t forget to tell your bank and credit cards where you’ll be so that your account doesn’t get blocked!

Because that is no fun for anyone.

Do have enough funds to last you a month or two when you arrive

You’re not going to get paid until the end of November. You might get an advance of a couple hundred euros at the end of October. You will still have to pay for stuff.

Euros

Don’t expect everyone to speak English

The English teachers at your school will speak English (right?) but the administration and the other teachers probably won’t. Some people will want to practice their English with you, so if your goal is to speak French, figure out a polite way to communicate that (just continuing to respond in French often does the trick.)

If you struggle with speaking French at first, that’s okay! Look up a list of necessary vocabulary before going into new situations. For example, if I go to the doctor, I make sure I have all the words I need to explain what my symptoms are, and if I go to the préfecture, I make sure I have a long list of profanities handy. (…Kidding.)

Good luck!

I’ve written more about teaching English in France (including lesson plans, types of visas, and getting a TEFL certificate) here.

Have you been a language assistant in France? What advice would you give?

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Updated: Seven foods that need to go mainstream in France

(Update: I wrote this two years ago, and a lot of things have changed around here! I’ve discovered new things, a lot more international food has popped up in Lyon, I started buying almond milk, you get the idea.

I think that a lot of the things on the list still hold true. None of them are part of French culture (France has its own awesome things) and most of them are still unfamiliar to the older generation/people who live in less urban areas.

Keep in mind that Lyon is the second biggest city in France (or third after Marseille depending on how you slice it). It’s been voted one of the best cities for start-ups and there’s a substantial population of young hipsters and bobos (and foreigners, like me!)  There is so much innovation and creativity present in this city! Happily, that has begun to translate into food too. In the years that I’ve lived here a lot of new restaurants and cafes have popped up, and I’ve discovered new places I didn’t know about before.

If you live in a less-urban area of France, I’d love to know your take on these things too! Can you get smoothies and barbecue where you live? Does anyone eat corn on the cob?

So with that, here’s the original post; you’ll find my updates italicized below each section.)

Continue reading “Updated: Seven foods that need to go mainstream in France”

Outdoor cafés in France, and other problems

Anyone who’s lived somewhere with seasons – you know, summer, fall, winter, etc. – knows the feeling of the arrival of spring. It could happen anytime between March and May, depending on where you live (and if you think May is a crazy late arrival date for spring, one, I totally agree, and two, you’ve clearly never lived in the Midwest.) People start to venture to the park for lunch, winter coats are tentatively put away, and cafés open up their terraces. Everyone is in a cheerier mood when the first days of spring show up. (Except maybe Severus Snape. Cheery isn’t really his jam.)

Teatime Buttercup Lyon
What I did this spring

There is nothing better than sitting in the sun on a peaceful terrace with your latte or your rosé, am I right? France is well-known for its outdoor cafés great for people watching. Ah, the romantic cliché of sipping your cappuccino on a little sidewalk café on one of those cute Parisian streets. I can’t lie to you – I totally imagined this before moving to Paris, and don’t tell me you haven’t too!

Cafe in Paris
Café in the 10th arrondissement, Paris. Or maybe it was the 12th.

Sometimes, sipping your drink outside at a café watching the world go by is really as picturesque as it is in a movie starring Audrey Tautou. And sometimes, there are other elements to deal with that maayyybe you didn’t factor in when you were imagining your fabulous Parisian life.

It goes like this: you’re sitting outside with your café allongé feeling good about yourself because the weather is finally nice and you get to wear your cute warm-weather dress and you look chic like a black and white postcard sitting at your tiny café table with wicker chairs that stick to the back of your legs. Everything is tranquil. Then you hear the click of a lighter next to you, and suddenly, you’re coughing up second-hand smoke. The moment’s over.

Black and white Place des Terreaux
I said Paris, but this is Lyon. Still looks chic in black and white, doesn’t it.

This is my absolutely least favorite thing about France. (Yes, more than bureaucracy! Because even if French bureaucracy seems like it’s trying to kill me, it isn’t. Probably.) Even if you’re not a super-sensitive West coast girl like me, the gaping cultural differences between the French and American attitudes towards smoking can’t be denied.

It’s rare to hear “Mind if I smoke?” because the assumption is that you don’t. It’s apparently acceptable to light up at a café next to a mom and her eight-year-old, and it’s okay to push a stroller with one hand and hold your cigarette with the other. When I taught at a ritzy high school, the entire student body lined up in front of the school before and after class to pollute their lungs, including the ones planning to become doctors. *facepalm*

This is why the question “Would you like to sit inside or outside, Madame?” skewers me with indecision. I love to sit outside in the sun, but I know that sooner or later, someone will fire up their tobacco stick, and I’ll be left crossing my fingers that the wind blows the other way.

Red chairs Champs Elysées
This is May in Paris, believe it or not.

However, I think there’s hope. This week, I was in the south of France (I’ll tell you about it later!) at an outdoor bar watching the France vs Ecuador World Cup game, and I saw smoke wafting from the balding gentleman in front of me. I turned me face to the side and braced myself for the cloud of stinky smoke, but nothing happen. Instead, a subtle vapor breezed past. This lovely man was smoking an e-cigarette.

Now, I know that the jury is still out on the health implications of the e-cigarette. I’m not offering a commentary on that, because my expertise on e-cigarettes is approximately equal to my knowledge of the mating patterns of tropical fish (um, zero). However, e-cigarettes are infinitely kinder to non-smokers. Instead of choking on a cloud of burnt nicotine (or whatever) it’s a gentle vapor that dissipates quickly and sometimes smells like peach or coconut.  I wish all the smokers in France would exchange their tobacco rolls for these tropical mist machines.

Let me ask you this – what smells better, cigarette smoke or peaches?

That’s what I thought. No one hates the smell of peaches.