Best of Montpellier: Visit, shop, eat

Remember how much I loved Montpellier? Well, one thing that made our 24 hours so awesome was this great guide to Montpellier from Design Sponge. Natalie, the author, use to live and blog in Montpellier, and I wish I could find her on social media to thank her for writing such a fantastic comprehensive guide. We visited quite a few places on her list, and all of them were hits.

With only twenty-four hours, I didn’t feel bad about staying in the city center, although next time I’d love to venture out to other neighborhoods. We skipped the beach, since we had just come from Sète anyway, and spent hours wandering the charming winding cobblestoned streets of Montpellier, eating and drinking and taking photos. Here are some of my favorite places that were on Natalie’s list (and a couple that weren’t).

Continue reading “Best of Montpellier: Visit, shop, eat”

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Things I Wish I Had Known About Teaching English in France

I frequently receive questions about teaching English in France. I try to answer honestly but recognize that what was true for me may not be true for everyone.

I came to France with wildly unrealistic expectations. Actually, no. I didn’t really have clear expectations. I didn’t know what to expect.

The problem was, it was hard to get accurate information on the reality of teaching in France, and I think that’s because the reality can vary so much. I read that you had to fly over here, knock on doors until someone offered you a teaching job, and then fly back home with your work contract to get your visa. I’m sure this has happened to a handful of people in the history of teaching English in France, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say THIS IS A LIE. In my opinion, the only way this would work is if you used the Franco-American chamber of commerce to sponsor your visa (they have an exchange program for professionals under 35 with a college degree). And you certainly could do that. If you can find a teaching contract that meets the requirements.

My TEFL program set the record straight on visas, but while they gave me an idea of what it was like to teach in France, I still didn’t really know what to expect. Before I launch into my list, let me give you the rundown on what I’ve done here: I’ve been a teacher in France since 2012. I taught for Business Talk France and Les Petits Bilingues in Paris, I worked as a TAPIF language assistant in a lycée in Lyon, and I’m starting my second year as a lectrice at a university in Lyon. I’ve taught pretty much all ages, all levels. I’ve even “taught” babies and stuff. (What? It was less stressful than teaching teens, and I’m handy with a tambourine.)

No, I’m not an expert – a few years of teaching does not an expert make! However, I’ve had a taste of a variety of teaching situations in France, and I sure know a hell of a lot more than before I came over here – thank goodness.

I was as innocent as this delicious juice.
I was as innocent as this delicious juice.

Before moving to France, I wish I had known that…

Teaching contracts aren’t full time, and your hours aren’t fixed

You’re going to laugh at me, but I thought if a language school hired me, I would work 35 hours a week. That’s a full French work week, right?! And I thought, if I work 35 hours a week and get paid 18 euros an hour (which is a common hourly rate), I’ll make 2500 euros a month! Anyone who knew anything about work in France was shaking their head and going, “No girl, just… no.” But I honestly didn’t know how it would work. So here’s the deal.

No one teaches 35 hours a week. No one. (If you do, please tell me your story!) In theory, you could if you worked two teaching jobs. But a full time teaching contract isn’t 35 hours anyway, because you need time to prep and lesson plan (which you will not be paid for, FYI.) The truth of the matter is, that while there are jobs out there that will offer you enough hours to live on, most language schools only offer part time hours as they have them available. For example, I started out working fifteen to twenty hours a week with a language school in September (which is probably the busiest time of the year), but in January, there were fewer students to teach and so I only worked ten hours or less with that language school. I interviewed with quite a few other language schools to see how they worked, and most of them offer students as they become available, a few hours a week at a time, and won’t guarantee a certain number of hours. This means you could go from being able to pay your rent to living on your savings and eating 99¢ pasta. Eek. That’s not what you want.

Bottom line: if you’re paid hourly and your hours are prone to fluctuate, you better hustle. Most teachers have more than one job.

Salaries are lower in France

I did have some co-workers who had full-time contracts. They were paid a monthly salary instead of hourly. (It’s often easier to negotiate this kind of contract with your current employer if they know you, like you, and want to keep you.) Their salary was about 1300 euros per month. To give you another example, Les Petits Bilingues is a language school for kids, and center managers work full time teaching and managing and earn 1800 euros per month. A French teacher in a French school earns about 1800 euros per month. A marketing professional might earn 2000-2500 euros per month, and an assistant or receptionist might earn 1300-1800. Minimum wage is higher compared to the United States (about 9-10 euros/hour) and government benefits are great, but overall, the payscale is lower than what you’ll find in the US. (If you have more examples or a different opinion, please tell me! This is based on my observations and personal experience, and certainly it can vary depending on the job.)

Sometimes, employers lie

Look. Not all language schools are bad. But sometimes, employers promise things that don’t turn out to be true. I’m sure that their intention is not to mislead teachers, usually. But the fact is, if you end up only working half the hours they promised you, you get screwed, whether they meant to lie to you or not. This happened to me with two language schools and it sucked a lot. If it’s not in your contract, there’s no guarantee. Have a back-up plan.

The dress code is on the casual side

When you’re moving to France, what do you pack? I didn’t know what I would have to wear to work, especially because I didn’t have a job yet! There are some situations where you want to look sharp – interviews of course, and when a language school that sends you to the student’s professional office to teach. In general, casual is fine as long as you still look nice. Business casual is okay, but jeans and a sweater are usually acceptable too. I like to dress up a little for classroom teaching because I look younger than I am, but some teachers dress more casually. If you’re working with kids, all bets are off. When in doubt, pack versatile clothes that you can dress up or dress down, but know that you won’t be expected to wear a suit or heels to work. It would actually be pretty weird if you did.

Classroom management is more important than your teaching skills

I’ve been working in the ESL field for over six years, and I love teaching adults and private lessons. You know what I suck at? Classroom management. With business language schools, this isn’t a problem because you teach grown-ups who have chosen to be there and presumably want to learn. With the TAPIF assistantship program and with schools like Les Petits Bilingues, it is a huge issue because you have to manage groups of kids, and they could be anywhere between three years old to eighteen years old. (Note: sometimes, language assistants aren’t responsible for their own classes – they might help the teacher in class or work with just a few students at a time. It completely depends on the school you end up in.)

In fact, although Les Petits Bilingues was impressed that I had a TEFL certificate, they were much more concerned with my experience managing groups of kids, for good reason. There’s no lesson planning involved with that particular company because they have their own materials, so corralling the kids is truly the toughest part of the job (seven year olds are the worst.)

The hardest part is this: you really have to discipline them in French. I don’t find that English is effective for discipline in most cases; they just don’t understand. And it is not easy to discipline kids in your second language.

Truth: I am not a scary person. I am small and smiley and baby-faced. If you are more intimidating than I am, or simply more comfortable and experienced in classroom management, this may not even be an issue. Good for you!

Visas are a big deal

I knew that I needed a visa to work in France. I knew that an employer was unlikely to sponsor me. But I didn’t realize how big a deal these legal things really are. Sometimes you even need legal status to work with a family privately, because they can get tax benefits by hiring you. You can work up to 20 hours a week on a student visa in France, and many people go this route (I did my first year.) No one is really calculating the number of hours you work, and some people say it’s an average of 20/week over a period of time that matters. I think this probably matters most if you are filing taxes, and I’m not sure what would really happen if you exceeded the limit (by working for two employers, for example) although I don’t recommend you break the law.

When employers find out that you’re not European, their first question will be about your legal status. Some of them are wary of student visas. When I had two months left on my visa, many schools wouldn’t even interview me. “Give us a call when you take care of your visa,” they said. Since schools can hire UK citizens with no extra paperwork, it makes it tougher on Americans looking for work. Canadians and Australians can get a working holiday visa in France, but that program doesn’t exist for Americans. Most job postings will say “must have the legal right to work in E.U. or don’t bother applying.”

Luckily, school is cheap here, and if you plan ahead you should be able to enroll as a full time student. Be warned that if you don’t actually go to school and pass your classes, you won’t be able to renew! I wish I had had this guide about enrolling in school in France before I came.

Christie was right… the TAPIF program is the way to go

I taught in this shiny lycée.
I taught in this shiny lycée with the TAPIF program.

Christie was my advisor at the International TEFL Academy in Chicago. Christie is awesome. And she told me that they really advise people who want to study in France to go through the TAPIF language assistant program. But I didn’t want to do that. No, I said, the pay is so low (about 800 euros per month net.) No, you don’t have any control over where you’re placed. No, I would have to wait until the following year to apply and I want to go to France now. (What a brat.)

Let me tell you, if you’re not studying in France, if there’s no exchange program with your home university, if you don’t have a European passport, I really believe that the TAPIF program is the way to go. I’ve done it both ways, and it was much easier being an assistant than it was doing it on my own. It can be a bit luck of the draw in terms of where you end up, and not everyone has a good experience. But at least you know you have 800 euros coming in every month, you have plenty of time to work another job on the side (assistants work 12 hours per week), and the visa process is easy-peasy. Sometimes schools even offer housing for cheap. Dana and Jill are former assistants who have written a ton of helpful posts about this program.

The most important part of your job is to get your students to use the language

Yes, grammar is important and you should know your stuff. Yes, private students may have individual needs that differ from each other, yes, it can be hard to incorporate oral activities in a large class. BUT. In general, the French school system drills verb tenses into their students’ brains, but many people are not confident speaking. In the vast majority of everyone I have taught in France, the written level is much higher than the oral level. This is normal when you learn in the classroom, and it was certainly the case with my French before I moved here.

When I tested grammar levels, my students knew all the irregular past participles and found written exercises too easy, but struggled with oral communication. Just getting them to use the language is huge, and if you’ve studied a foreign language yourself, you know how essential this is to making progress.

If they are prepping for a test like the TOEFL or TOEIC, it’s a different story, and of course you want to know your stuff so you can offer helpful grammatical explanations and help your students expand their capacities for expression in written and oral English. Many schools have their own curriculum they want you to use, which takes lesson planning off the table. (Less work for you, but also less freedom.)

But in general, I find over and over again that practice listening and speaking is what students need most, and where they have the least confidence. More likely than not, they know more than they think they do, and just never have the opportunity to put what they know into practice.

Note: If you’re a language assistant, this is the whole point of your job. Your students already have English teachers for learning grammar and taking tests – you want them to have fun using the language so that they like speaking English and want to continue to progress!

Teaching English in France isn't always a bowl of cherries
Teaching English in France isn’t always a bowl of cherries

Some disclaimers and caveats:

This is my perspective, based on my personal experiences. Not everyone shares my perspective, so please take it all with a grain of salt (feel free to add tequila and lime if my ranting has left you depressed.) I wanted to write it because I had a hard time finding honest personal accounts of what it was like to teach in French language schools in particular before I moved. There are many bloggers writing about the TAPIF program, which is great!

If you disagree with me, I’d love to hear your story! If you’ve experienced something similar, well, I also love it when people agree with me.

Have you taught English abroad? What was your experience like?

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?

Riding the Metro in Paris: 7 things you should know

I know not everyone will agree, but I love the Paris metro. There are fourteen different lines webbing all over the city, trains come every couple minutes, there’s music, there’s art, and it’s relatively inexpensive. Sometimes it’s dirty, sometimes it’s overcrowded, and it has a pickpocket problem, but as city public transport goes, I think it’s pretty great. Before Paris, I lived in Chicago, and let me tell you, waiting fifteen minutes for the red line outdoors in the dead of winter is no fun.

Actually, the public transport is so good in Paris that I only see three reasons to take a taxi: 1) it is after 1am or 2am and the metro is closed, 2) you are physically unable to cope with all the stairs, or c) you have to transport something you cannot carry more than three meters.

Paris metro red.jpg

Of course, I’m always the first one to say, “That’s only six metro stops away. Let’s just walk!” because I love walking in Paris, but there are times when you’re running late, it’s zero degrees out, or you’re lugging a 50 pound suitcase (about 23 kilos) and in those instances, the metro is your friend.

If you’re not familiar with the metro, here are a few tips to help you out. (And if you are, scroll down to the bottom for the link to my favorite Paris metro game!)

Botzaris metro, Paris
I took this photo because Botzaris is a funny word.

Buy a carnet

Let’s start with Paris metro 101. If you’re staying for less than a week, you want to get a carnet of 10 tickets. You save a bit in relation to buying single tickets. I don’t recommend buying single tickets ever, unless you are only going to ride the metro one time and you are never coming back to Paris. I didn’t finish a carnet I bought in 2009, but I held on to the leftover tickets and they were still good when I returned to Paris in 2012. (They had been demagnetized, but the RATP agent at the window could see they hadn’t been validated and replaced them for me.)

Multiple use passes do exist (3 day pass, 5 day pass, etc) but unless you’ve carefully calculated the value for your needs or if you’re regularly going to be leaving Zone 2 (aka taking the RER to the near suburbs) it’s almost never worth it.

What’s up with the zones?

Paris has five zones of public transport. The metro and the city of Paris are within zones 1 and 2 (the basic zones you get with any ticket) and the RER and some buses go out to the suburbs, the airports, and Disneyland. The further out you go, the more expensive your ticket is. If you don’t have the right ticket, you could get a fine. Moreover, you won’t be able to exit the RER if your ticket isn’t valid for that zone – you have to put your ticket in the turnstile to get out too. You could get on the RER in Paris with a regular ticket, since the machine doesn’t know where you plan to get off, but once you get out to Versailles, that ticket won’t let you out. Merde.

My personal zone pet peeve: You can get to La Défense by metro or RER. If you take the metro, you’re in zone 2 and can use a normal ticket. If you take the RER, La Défense is considered zone 3 and you’ll get a fine with a regular ticket. Considering it’s the same place, that seems a little unfair, no?

Get a Navigo pass

If you live in Paris, you have a Navigo. Your employer probably reimburses half of the cost. If you’re visiting for a few weeks and you plan on taking the metro quite a bit, it may be worth it to buy a Navigo découvert, which is 5 euros at a ticket window for the card itself (don’t forget to glue on your photo!) plus 20.40 euros for a week pass (or 67.10 euros for the month). Added bonus? It’s “dezoned” on the weekend, which means you can go to zones 1-5 without any added cost. For example, going to Charles de Gaulle airport would normally cost you around 20 euros round trip because it’s in zone 5, but with your Navigo, you won’t pay anything extra on the weekends.

Note: The Navigo découvert card is really convenient because you can buy it at a ticket window with no hassle, but if you’re staying in Paris longterm, you’ll want to get an official Navigo card, which you can do in person or online. There’s not huge difference between the cards except that the official one requires a Paris address, but with the official card, you’re protected against loss or theft, and with the découvert, you’re not. I didn’t bother to get the official card when I lived in Paris, and when my découvert Navigo card was stolen, the 67 euros I had just paid for the month went down the drain. Ouch.

Update: Prices have gone up since I wrote this. The week pass starts and ends on specific days of the week, not any seven consecutive days, so it may not be worth it depending on the dates you are in Paris. Please verify zone access with a Navigo pass.

More on Paris RATP transport tickets and prices here.

La Motte Piquet Metro, Paris
La Motte-Piquet Grenelle metro, Paris

Don’t get fined!

Sometimes you’ll see people in green outfits patrolling around the metro and on the bus. These are the contrôleurs. If they ask to see your validated ticket and you don’t have one, you will get a fine, so hang on to your ticket until you exit the metro in case you bump into these men and women in green. On the bus, usually the contrôleur will ride up front next to the driver, so if you get on the bus and there’s an extra dude in green up there, you’d better make sure you have a validated ticket.

You are likely to see people jumping over turnstiles without paying for a ticket. The people at the ticket windows don’t seem to care. It’s not their problem. Once, I saw a well-dressed lady get stuck climbing over a turnstile while on her cell phone, and the woman at the ticket window five feet away didn’t bat an eye. But the contrôleurs definitely do care. You’re most likely to see them in busy stations like Saint Lazare and Chatelet, but I’ve been “controlled” way up in little stations like Jules Joffrin and Simplon at midnight and on Sunday morning.

Hang on to your valuables

Seriously, there are pickpockets and they will steal your stuff. You know the drill – nothing in your backpacker, keep your purse zipped and in front, don’t have your phone out while the doors are open if you’re by the door.

Line 1 is particularly known for its pickpockets because of all the tourists, but I had my keys stolen out of my pocket while commuting home on line 12 to Jules Joffrin in January (a great time of year to be locked out of your apartment, by the way!) There were no suspicious characters around – everyone looked like they were coming home from work, just like me.

Each metro station has multiple exits

Thank goodness someone told me this the first week I moved to Paris. A metro stop looks like one tiny dot on the map, but the different exits of one station can spread out quite far, especially if there are multiple lines that stop there. For example, Chatelet has more than eight different exits, so saying “I’ll meet you outside the Chatelet metro stop” isn’t specific enough.

There are usually little close-up maps of the neighborhood with the exits listed – very useful. Or alternatively, you can meet up with all your dates at Saint Paul in the Marais – the two metro exits are right next to each other. (And the Marais is obviously awesome.)

 Anything else?

RATP route calculator here and RATP website here.

I like this post on the Paris metro by Almost Never Clever so much more than mine.

I have spent way too much time playing this game that tests your knowledge of the Paris metro map.

There are quite a few Paris metro stations that are no longer in use – the ghost stations.