If you’ve decided to embark on the Teaching Assistant Program in France, chances are you already have the travel bug and an interest in deeply discovering a foreign place instead of skimming its surface like the average tourist. There are lots of ways to take advantage of your resident expatriate status while living abroad and to do things you might not have time for on a whirlwind vacation. Such as:
- Hike a GR. France has an undersung network of beautifully-maintained hiking paths called the Grandes Randonnées (for example, the GR4, which runs through the Gorges du Verdon and is a personal favorite). Follow the blazes and be amazed by the beauty of the French landscape.
2. Drink on a quai. There’s nothing quite like sitting next to a river on an ancient stone riverbank with a cheap bottle of wine and a fun crowd.
3. Play soccer/football with teammates representing at least three nationalities. Get a soccer/football and a nice big patch of grass, collect an international bunch of friends, and let the good-natured clash of cultures begin (and if you care about winning, make sure you’re on the Brits’ team).
4. Really see Paris. Get to the capital city more than once. The first time, do the necessary: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, etc. Then return to explore spots that are off the tourist track, because Paris is so huge and grand that it feels really impersonal until you burrow in a little bit.
5. Seek out regional festivals. A fake sandy beach along the Seine in Paris. Barge fanfare for a wine nobody much likes in the Beaujolais region. Christmas markets in just about every major city. A festival of light installations in Lyon. Lavender festivals all over Provence. Music festivals, theater festivals, film festivals, food festivals. There’s pretty much always a festival happening somewhere in France, whether a well-known multi-day event in a big city or a bizarre but unforgettable small-town celebration. Get there. My friend Dana writes about things like this pretty often, so check her blog out for some inspiration.
6. Travel alone. Traveling alone is a bit of an acquired taste, but a very underrated one. I traveled alone for the first time during my first TAPIF stint and wasn’t sure I’d like it. It turns out that my introversion is perfectly suited to solo travel, and I love making travel decisions on my own. I still have great times with the right travel buddies, but there’s something uniquely thrilling about setting off on my own with no idea who or what I’ll encounter, knowing that my whim dictates my travel path. Just don’t knock it ’til you try it, as they say. Realizing you can manage your own trip, unexpected obstacles included, will make you more independent and self-assured. Plus, ironically, traveling alone can open you up to meeting and talking to interesting people you might otherwise have ignored (or who might have ignored you) if you were with a group.
7. Taste the local cuisine. Even if it looks gross, give it a go. Each region in France has its own specialty dishes and produce– sampling them is part of immersing yourself in the culture of your temporary home. You may hate blood sausage or truffles or red wine, but it can be as memorable a part of the experience as the architecture, art, or nightlife.
8. Get yourself invited to a full French meal. Many French families have huge meals together (often lunch on Sunday). These are multi-course, boozy, conversation-fueled food marathons that last for hours and make you wonder how the French stay so slim. These meals are fascinating windows on French family dynamics and eating habits. Just make sure you remember the phrase, “non, merci, j’ai bien mangé” because otherwise they WILL keep serving you.
9. Watch French films and listen to French music. American culture is heavily imported by the French, and it’s actually possible to spend the duration of the TAPIF going to see only American films or listening to American music. It’s interesting to see what in American culture most resonates with the French, but it would be a shame not to also seek content produced in France by the French.
10. Explore Europe on a budget. Getting to Europe is expensive; traveling through Europe doesn’t have to be. It’s never been easier to book deals online or to use the so-called sharing economy (couchsurfing, covoiturage, etc.) to save money. If you haven’t done so before, learn to rough it while traveling. Don’t compromise your safety, of course, but it can be a fun game to find ways of making the most expensive cities affordable or to find a cheap destination off the beaten path.
11. Keep a journal. I know it sounds lame, but this doesn’t have to be a soul-searching, “Dear Diary”-type habit. At the very least, jot quick notes about where you went, what you saw, what words and customs you learned, and who you met. Someday your life in France and your other travels will start to blur together, and you might want a way to recover the details. On a practical level, a friend could ask you for travel tips and it would be nice to have something to jog your memory.
Embed. Go beyond tourism. You’re a transient local, and it may permanently change your travel outlook.