Packing for TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) is no easy task. You’re moving to a foreign country, but only for about half a year. How do you minimize cost, maximize efficiency, and still make sure you don’t feel like you’re living out of a suitcase? It’s hard to predict what you’ll regret leaving behind, but knowing a bit about the assistant lifestyle and the availability of certain products in France* can help.
Toiletries: Buy almost everything in France, but consider packing complexion-specific makeup, as not all cosmetic brands are available and you don’t want to have to match your skin tone all over again. Also, if you wear sunscreen or if you use Vaseline or Blistex in the little tubs, pack some of both. Sunscreen is oddly surprisingly expensive in France, and those little tubs of lip balm are virtually nonexistent. Also, if you have terrible skin like I do, be aware that French stores are stocked with anti-aging creams but little in the way of cleansing products.
Food: The only people I’ve met who have trouble with diet in France are the gluten-sensitive and vegans, simply because there aren’t usually many options in restaurants/bakeries and because hosts will consistently try to shove bread and meat down your throat. It’s a myth that you can’t buy peanut butter in France– you can, it’s just more expensive. But why would you buy peanut butter when there’s so much Nutella around?
Teaching Materials: Bring a yearbook, restaurant menus, travel brochures from your home city, and other culture-specific materials to use in class. If you’re working with little kids, foreign money can be fun for them to handle, while older kids might be interested in seeing your driver’s license and prom/sports photos from high school (if you were what they call a “pom-pom girl,” aka cheerleader, they will absolutely lose their minds).
Clothing: You’ll be in France through the winter, so do some research on what the weather will be like. Throughout much of France, the winters are relatively mild, but if you’re planning to ski you may want to pack snow gear. Work dress varies from city to city and school to school, but I found my coworkers to be casual (it’s not uncommon to see jeans at work). To be safe and make a good first impression, at least make sure you have nice trousers or dark jeans and shoes that aren’t sneakers (but ultimately you could end up wearing t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers anyway). The French dress pretty sharply in general, and tend toward modest neck and hemlines (even when people are out on the town). Obviously bring whatever you like and makes you feel comfortable, but know that short skirts and plunging necklines definitely stick out. French men are much more style-conscious than American men, broadly speaking, and seem to spend more time grooming and putting their outfits together.
Documents: Oh, France, Land of Paper. If you’re not from the EU, you may need an official copy of your birth certificate, which is easier to get BEFORE you leave your home country. Make sure you ask for an “apostille” so that the document will be accepted in France. Don’t forget to pack any documents that were sent to you for TAPIF, like the work contract/arrêté de nomination (MAKE COPIES), and if you have extra passport photos, bring those as well. In fact, bring copies of anything you imagine might ever be needed in a comedy sketch about bureaucracy, because in France this comedy is a reality and you can never have too many documents.
Other: If you have room, bring a frisbee (or just buy a soccer/football as soon as you get to France)– picnics and pick-up games are a great way to get assistants together. If you’re going to miss reading in English, bring some English books because it can be slim pickings in bookstores outside of Paris, and if you know you’re going to be in a remote area, plan for wifi access issues and bring a DVD wallet so that you don’t lose your mind completely on weeknights. For prescriptions, try to get a bunch of refills in advance so that you don’t have to figure out how to get the equivalent abroad. Finally, don’t pack kitchen supplies or linens of any kind. Your apartment may come with some utensils and cookware, and kitchen stuff and linens are relatively inexpensive at stores like Carrefour (giant French low-price department store).
One of the things that I’ve learned from being a temporary worker abroad is how little I really need to be comfortable. As you pack for TAPIF, it’s realistic and practical to aim for one big wheeled suitcase, one bag about half to two-thirds the size of the suitcase (preferably one that can sit on top of the suitcase while you wheel it), and a carry-on backpack. Remember that you have to lug all of this yourself, that you may have an apartment the size of a large closet, that France is not Mars and offers many shopping outlets, and that you’re going to need to either give away or repack everything in a few months anyway when you move back. Ideally, paring down your stuff will feel liberating.
*Remember that I’m American, so I’m comparing product availability and experience to Stateside counterparts.