some truths painted with a fine sablehair.

May 2, 2008

although i’ve survived my exams and papers, i’ve got more than a few things to take care of these days. thus, i will leave you with something i wrote a while back.

cheers, guys.

dear christopher,

i was given your e-mail by ubc go global. they told me that you were considering going on exchange to nanterre and wanted a bit of a heads-up of what you might expect here.

first thing to know is that the french school year starts goes october – january and february – june. if you’re leaving in september/october, this isn’t a problem, but if you’re leaving in january/february, like i did, you may have to work out something with your advisor here in order to finish your classes (the prof that i have advising me pretty much said “no problem”). otherwise, you’d have to miss out on a term at ubc, which may or may not be acceptable to you.

next, one thing to prepare for is french bureaucracy. god, it’s unbelievable that a western european country still runs on pen and paper…but very true. if you move into nanterre (not recommended, read below), you’ll have to deal with the lovely folks at the prefecture for department 92 (hauts de seine), who will – with a smile – put you on a waiting list for your residency permit that will be about 12 weeks long (i’m not joking). if you move into paris proper (department 75), your case will be expedited by virtue of you being a student (there’s a special office here somewhere).

documentation is key. whatever you have, bring it. driver’s license, ubc card, SIN card, ISIC card, passport (obviously) are all important to have. once you’ve assembled them, make about 5 copies of them. leave one copy at home, another copy at home with somebody else in case the first person isn’t available and bring three copies with you. you think i’m sounding crazy, but you’ll thank me later. bringing a few copies of your parents’ ID will also help when you’re looking for an apartment: your landlord will likely require that they act as your guarantor for your rent – though as a foreigner, this is impossible to enforce, so don’t worry about implicating them in anything if that would be an issue – i faked my dad’s signature anyway. also, MAKE SURE to bring your birth certificate. they don’t tell you this at the consulate, but you’ll need it for your residency permit.

oh, that gets me to another point – people here assume that you know everything. it apparently doesn’t get through to them that you don’t – hence, why you’re asking them questions about everything.

another good idea is to go to a photography studio and get ID photos taken. the french government has a standard that must be adhered to – so make sure that they do this. if you end up doing this here, that’s not a problem. there are automated machines in virtually every metro station (although they’re fairly expensive at EUR 1 per photo – i believe that the department store BHV does it for fairly cheap). you’ll need a LOT of these, especially if you intend to find a job. yes, i know that this would almost certainly be illegal in canada, but this is france!

the residences (and university food services) are run by CROUS, an institution that is somehow linked but not owned or directed by the university. the university restaurant is pretty good; you can get a solid meal for EUR 2.75. unfortunately, this is only available at lunch. also, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re pretty much out of luck (this is pretty much the case with everything in france, though – there’s ham in pretty much everything).

so while the restaurant is not perfect, it’s pretty good. unfortunately, the opposite can be said of the residences: it’s perfectly revolting. the whole building smells of years of smoke, there are holes in the walls, the kitchen facilities are disgusting, the toilets don’t have proper seats on them, the residents admit that there’s a big problem with theft, etc. in addition, while the old city centre of nanterre is pretty nice, the university is NOT located there. it’s surrounded by three highways and a pretty serious railway. there’s not a whole lot around: a crappy supermarket, a cafe/resto/bar (which, admittedly, is nice), a tobacconist, a phone shop and a branch of BNP that won’t cash traveller’s cheques.

doing the residence thing is really not worth it. if you didn’t care about the location, i suppose it wouldn’t be too bad. but then again, if you didn’t care about the location, you wouldn’t be going on exchange.

my suggestion is to live in paris. finding a pad is not the easiest, but it’s not impossible either. just for reference, i’m paying EUR 465 + electricity for a 9 square metre “studette” in paris’ 12th district in between the gare de lyon and the place de la bastille. i’m very happy here (this is a fantastic neighbourhood, btw) and, from what i hear, got lucky with my place. generally speaking, the cheaper neighbourhoods are in the north and east of the city (the 11th, 12th, 13th, 18th, 19th and 20th districts are all fairly student friendly, but affordable accommodation can be found almost anywhere in town…if you look hard enough and get lucky, that is) – ideally, you’ll find a place around nation, gare de lyon, les halles/chatelet, auber/opera/saint-lazare or charles-de-gaulle/etoile, ’cause then you’ll be on the RER A line – direct to nanterre.

you might want to try to get into the cite universitaire. this is a bunch of residences in the south end of paris. if you can get in, it’s a fairly nice neighbourhood – albeit fairly nondescript – and affordable. only downside is that you’ll be put into the “canada” house – which means that you won’t be meeting too many locals.

if you come in september/october, make sure to get an imagine-R card from the RATP (the public transit operator). it will guarantee 50% savings off of the monthly pass (assuming 3 zones, paris included, that means about 70 EUR full price, 35 EUR with imagine-R). even if you choose to do the residence option (for the love of god, don’t do it), it’s still a deal. virtually everyone has one. of course, you could do as a lot of people do and jump the turnstiles. the penalty fares are low enough to encourage you to do it – i’ve only been stopped once in all the time i’ve been here. seriously, when i see these old men jump the turnstiles, i think to myself, “why am i paying for these people?” and then i remember that i don’t want to get deported. that usually keeps me out of trouble.

buying a bike is a great idea for paris. take a look on craigslist…or send me an e-mail about it. i’ll hook you up with a friend who sells very sturdy bikes for very cheap prices.

my experience at nanterre for the first month was rotten, largely because of the residence issue. as soon as i moved into paris proper, though, things got much better. though…keep in mind that, as an international student, you can move out of residence without giving your notice without incurring a penalty. so you may want to use it as a base to find another place.

although i paint a picture of paris as being this backwards place, it’s really lovely once you get your feet on the ground. i’m enjoying my time here thoroughly and consider myself lucky every morning as i wake up steps away from the oldest public market in paris. the walk every morning to the metro – and even the battle to get into the metro – is exciting and new to me, and i would certainly not trade this for anything. the french may be reputed to be rude and cold, but truth be told, they’re warm and as welcoming as they can be. parisians are simply big-city people with little patience for rudeness themselves; they treat people with exactly the amount of respect that they deserve. so if you’re nice to them, they’ll bend over backwards. trust me on this.

anyway, if you have any questions, please feel free to send them to me and i’ll be more than happy to answer them. also, if i can help you in getting set up in paris, let me know what i can do for you and i’ll do my best.

take care,



2 Responses to “some truths painted with a fine sablehair.”

  1. tatiana Says:

    Hello Mike,

    i am a spanish student that´s moving to paris this september and i am looking for some help to find a studio/studette. i am not really sure of what brought me to your site, but there are some interesting conseils that i will surely take. if you think you can give me any ideas or help, i would be very thankful.

    kind regards,

  2. Sarina Says:

    haha you forwarded this to me when I first decided to go to Paris for exchange, my residence isn’t *too bad*… just looks like a hospital, has mould on the walls and a shower that works with a button that needs to be pressed every 8 seconds.

    thanks for all the wealth of info you’ve passed on along the way!

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