*Estate agents call them studio apartments
The Ugly Truth
So you’ve made it. You applied to become a language assistant, made it through the gauntlet of application forms and paperwork and past the final cut. Hey, even your long awaited arrêté arrived in the mail. The struggle is finally over, you’re well on your way to the best year of your life so far, right!? Right!!??
In reality you are on one side of a gaping chasm of silence known only to those who have experienced its stomach churning, stress inducing horror. This abyss is known as les grandes vacances d’été. Oh, I know you’ve heard tell of those few months in France where anyone who can help you with anything more taxing than a filled baguette has been spirited away. I know you shrugged and blithely thought “it can’t be that bad, no one is unreachable in this modern age!” But I, my dear reader, have stared into the abyss and the abyss stared back at me.
“But Cow Whisperer,” you cry, “it can’t be that bad, I mean they tell you where you’re going on your arrêté, don’t they!?” Well the answer is, “yeah, sort of.” At best, your arrête, will have the snail mail address of the school or schools you will be working in. Failing that it will have the address of the school or IEN you are administratively attached to. At worst you will receive a blank topographical map of France and a pair of dowsing rods. Be prepared for the fact that your arrêté will be posted towards the end of the school year, just to make sure that by the time you receive it, there will be no one anywhere near a phone. Or the school building for that matter. At any rate, be prepared to bust out some serious google-fu moves to find current email addresses and correct phone numbers, especially if you have been assigned to a small town. Then be prepared to face the abyss.
“I’m not a wino, I live in a house”: The Cow Whisperer’s Guide to finding a hut in The Wilderness (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love France)
STEP ONE: Get in contact with your school
The key here is persistence. Make phone calls, send emails, write letters. Make sure you try each of these methods of communication at least once for the big three: the headteacher of your school, the teacher you will be working with and whoever is administratively responsible for you. I did all of these things at the as soon as I got my arrêté in July and to date I have only received one response. Of all the things I tried, a polite and pleading letter to the headteacher was the only one that worked. That letter landed me with a cute little one room, mountain view affair and a lovely landlord. I was lucky.
STEP TWO: Plan B: get in contact with a past assistant
If you come up against that familiar wall of silence whilst trying contact your school, try and find someone who worked as an assistant in or even near your school or the town your school is in. Even if they can’t help you with finding out more about the school, they might know the past assistant and they will at the very least be able to point you in the right direction when it comes to searching for somewhere to live. Don’t be afraid to contact them, more often not they’ll be happy to help because they’ve been there. This is an extremely helpful directory of past assistants on The Assistants in France Survival guide:
STEP THREE: The Ultimate failsafe
The internet. You can buy anything over the internet, apartments included. (I know it’s tough but it can be done) Here are a few sites to get you started:
Help for young people:
STEP FOUR: In the event that the internet does not deliver
You have two choices here:
a) Physically go to France/ get someone you know in France to apartment hunt the old fashioned way
Fairly simple in theory. Go to France. Go to estate agent. Get apartment. However, this is very costly especially if you’re not in Europe already. A hop across the pond costs a pretty penny, I know. So you are ultimately left with:
b) Wing it.
You heard me. Head out a week or two before your contract starts, book a hotel/ find a hostel for your first week and search for apartment. A lot of assistants get by this way each year, but if you can avoid it try not to end up in this position.
ASIDE: Finding a hut in Paris
I kid, I kid.
No, really, you’re boned. Try the websites above, same as everyone else, just expect it to be a lot tougher and a lot more expensive.
TIP: If you’re winging it, hit up the American Church notice board at the Quai d’Orsay for colocation ads. New lists go up at around 10am.
One landlord that has been recommended by someone currently on their year abroad:
http://www.centralparisrentals.com/ – English speaking landlady, helpful, starts around 500€
(If you know any others tell me and I’ll add them to the list!)
STEP FIVE: You’ve found an apartment!* Sign the contract
Try to get around needing a French guarantor. That is a mighty big can of worms.
Sign the contract, pay your deposit and first month’s rent and take the keys to your new home away from home.
Congratulations! You are officially no longer homeless!
*rinse and repeat steps 1 to 4 until you find a place to live.
Note: For those of you unfamiliar with Special Brew, in the UK it is a notorious brand of tramp juice/ hobo fuel. It’s strong, cheap and nasty. If you drink it, you most likely live on a park bench or pass out on one often enough to declare it as a second home on your tax return. An excerpt from an in depth BBC Two documentary on the use of Special Brew.