It’s that time of year: young anglophones lugging bulging suitcases suddenly appear in airports and train stations all over France, many of them employing a version of the local language that exists only in textbooks (and some of them, if we’re being honest, speaking what can only generously be called franglais). The TAPIF invasion has begun!
There’s a good chance you stumbled upon this post because you’re excitedly and/or nervously preparing for your own year abroad through the Teaching Assistant Program in France. From here, the seven months between you and the end-of-visa horizon seem like a long time, but I can attest that they will pass in a pastry and wine-filled blur, especially if you get too bogged down and overwhelmed settling in. Here are a few tips to help you take care of business and make the most of this fleeting opportunity:
1. Mail the OFII paperwork immediately.
Try to send in the OFII residence form (demande d’attestation d’OFII) as soon as possible, even if you have to use a friend’s address (you can change it later, or have your friend attest that you’re staying with them), because the associated medical appointment will be scheduled anywhere from several weeks to a couple of months later (and it’s a real pain to change it). The medical appointment is part of a kind of visa verification process, and at the end of it you get a special sticker that allows you to leave and come back into the Schengen Zone. You MUST have this sticker within three months of arriving in France, or you may not be able to leave and re-enter the country. Say you wait until November 15th to send in the form – that means you could be looking at a medical appointment during the December break (a real bummer if you plan to visit family). Trust me, it’s much harder to enjoy Europe if you’re worrying about administrative merde.
2. If your school offers you housing, take it.
It’s tempting to plan on finding a really cool apartment with some awesome new French friends, or maybe a romantic studio with a little desk for writing poetry and sipping coffee, but the reality is that looking for housing in many French cities is a nightmare, especially if you’re foreign and don’t have a French cosigner. Fortunately, many schools that participate in TAPIF have accommodation set aside for assistants and visiting teachers. This accommodation ranges from lovely, spacious apartments to prison-like rooms in some forgotten corner of a student residence. Regardless of quality, they usually cost 100-150 euros a month (though I’ve met some assistants who have lucked into amazing living spaces provided to them for as little as 50 euros a month) and are close to work. Take it. You’ll appreciate the saved money and time, and if something better comes up you can just move.
3. Get your French up to snuff, then challenge it.
Although the TAPIF application includes a French language requirement, not everybody arrives in France ready to speak French. Whether because of shyness, laziness, or dishonesty, some assistants are not nearly as proficient in the language as their application suggests. You don’t want to be one of the assistants who shows up with a vocabulary limited to “bonjour, ça va?”, because even if you were a French major with a 4.0 GPA, using the language in daily life can be a challenge. Having a solid foundation at the start of the program will allow you to hone your language skills faster (which is great for your resume/CV or to help you stay abroad longer). Plus, if you want to make French friends or better connect with your coworkers, even intermediate French can be very handy.
I recommend practicing with an app like Duolingo, watching lots of French Netflix, and reading in French. When you get to France, don’t be cowed by the complicated French cultural tendency (it’s not everybody, but it’s there) to throw shade at those speaking less-than-perfect French. The only way to get better is to practice, and the only way to practice is to put yourself out there (by joining clubs or sports teams, buying groceries at the market instead of the grocery store, and going to the movies in French, for example). You’ll screw up, of course, but that makes for funny stories (I once told an entire classroom of French 11-year olds that mistletoe required those standing under it “to fuck.”) And if you’re a language nerd like me, there’s nothing so rewarding as observing changes in your own thought processes as your brain accommodates your budding bilingualism.
4. Have some lessons in mind and try to understand the role an assistant plays in your school before work is in full swing.
One of my criticisms of the TAPIF is that schools don’t always know how to use their assistants. As an assistant, your function is to facilitate language practice, to act as a resource for native language usage and pronunciation, and to provide cultural enrichment. I’ve been told that assistants are not to lead classes, nor are they to plan full lessons, but my personal experience with the program involved doing quite a lot of both. Understand before you arrive that the school may not know what to do with you, in which case you will have to explain your role to them. Your coworkers may not speak English and rely on you to steer the ESL ship, despite all indications from TAPIF management that assistants are supposed to follow staff teachers’ lead. Prepare for this by deciding ahead of time what you’re comfortable doing, and make sure you have some language practice ideas in your back pocket. I plan to post about some of my favorite ESL activities at some point, but my friend C-Rose is already all over that!
5. Don’t drink your paycheck.
Depending on what else you have going on and how much effort you put into lesson-planning, you may only be working 10-15 hours a week. You are a young wild thing in a new country, I know; some of you are fresh out of (or, in the case of many British assistants, in the middle of) college/university, so weeknight revelry beckons. Remember: you will be making around 800 euros a month. Budget travel throughout France and Europe is doable, but only if you don’t drink your measly paycheck. I know too many people who partied for the entire duration of their TAPIF assignment and wish they’d spent their money on something else (a few even left France with significant debt). Go out and have fun but, for the sake of your bank account, dignity, and the image of your country abroad, behave yourself and don’t get crazy sloppy.
6. Make at least a few friends who don’t share your native language.
It’s so easy to fall in with anglophone expatriates that you won’t even realize you’ve done it. It can be difficult and feel intimidating to make friends with someone who doesn’t share your native language, but the cultural experiences are worth it. Getting to know the Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian language assistants is easy, and you shouldn’t be afraid to take your coworkers up on any invitations they might extend. The French are notorious for being a bit insular and unapproachable, but tenacious and outgoing foreigners have the advantage of the curiosity factor (you’re somewhat of a novelty and therefore entertaining). If you’re too shy to approach people yourself, find a like-minded but more outgoing fellow anglophone to do all the initial introductions so that you can piggyback your way to a network of friends that spans the globe.
7. Try not to sweat the small stuff.
You may have trouble getting wifi access. Your French coworkers may ignore you. Your Carte Vitale application may be denied because the stamp on your birth certificate is the wrong color. Your school may be in the middle of nowhere. Almost every assistant runs into many such problems, but I know some for whom these problems felt insurmountable. It shook their conviction about being in France so much that they considered going home early. Ultimately their fretting was a waste of time, because TAPIF lasts only seven months, and almost anything can be put up with for that long (excepting, of course, genuinely traumatic situations!) The little challenges can make you a more capable person and teach you about aspects of France that you don’t often see in the movies. Remember that you’re being paid to live abroad, an opportunity that most people never get.
8. Order Free Mobile.
Whether you’re planning to use your regular phone in France or buy a burner, don’t waste money on pay-as-you-go. Sign up for a Free Mobile plan– it’s cheap (2 euros per month) and easy to cancel.
9. Explore your city (or village) on foot and make a to-visit list.
You may have no choice in the matter if you’re out in les boonies, but exploring on foot is the best way to get to know a place. Look around, you’re in France! Is there a dive bar, an independent movie house, a quirky local museum, good hiking paths? Take note of businesses and landmarks that you want to investigate and start checking them off, because you’ll be headed to the airport to fly back to your home country in no time.
10. Decide what you want out of this experience, but leave room for the unexpected.
TAPIF is one of those make-what-you-want-of-it experiences. You aren’t given much guidance, which is a blessing for some and a curse for others, but either way it’s an incredible opportunity. Do you want this to be a seven-month vacation? You got it – a good bottle of wine costs 3 euros, delicious carbs are everywhere, and you’ll have plenty of time to relax. Do you want to devote some time to an artistic pursuit, like writing, painting, or photography? Do you want to work an interesting job while researching future career goals or making a game plan for pursuing higher education? Playing with teaching as a calling, and want to dip a toe in and gain some real-world experience in an unconventional way? Want to work on becoming fluent in French, or explore translation and interpretation professionally? Learn as much as you can about French culture, or see other countries in Europe while using France as a home base? These are all legitimate goals for your seven months, but it’s worth reflecting on them before you leave home. TAPIF will be on your resume/CV someday, catching the eye of a prospective employer (in my experience, always positively), and you may want to talk about how it contributed to your professional and personal development. Plus, it’s a great way to indulge wanderlust, especially if you can’t afford a “gap year.”
No matter how you plan to benefit from this time, make sure you’re open to unexpected experiences and ready to try new things. Otherwise, why leave home? I have some acquaintances who travel to foreign lands only to post a Facebook album full of shots of Starbucks, McDonalds, and American movie posters (as in, isn’t it COOL that you can get the same things abroad!?). There’s examining your own culture through a foreign lens, and then there’s clinging to your own culture while you miss an opportunity to explore, and it’s important to know the difference.
You’re about to experience a foreign culture from the inside. If you’re lucky and proactive, you’ll meet lifelong friends and have adventures and gain skills and confidence and challenge your opinions. Bon courage, et profitez bien!
I’m hoping to post a few more TAPIF-related articles in the coming days. Good luck with the packing and visa-obtaining, new assistants!