Welcome to the IP Program in Aix-en-Provence. Your year of study in France could very well be one of the most valuable of your education; it has the potential to be a year of great intellectual, personal, and social growth. This will depend wholly on your attitude and self-motivation. This cannot be stressed enough. Leave your expectations behind; pack an open mind and your determination.
This report is a summary of past student experiences. Although it will probably seem abstract, please read it carefully before leaving. We have tried to anticipate your questions and have included many bits of information we would have liked to have. You will be asked to update this report next year, so bring it with you and refer to it during your year in Aix. We wish you the best for a successful year abroad! BON VOYAGE!!
Your Arrival and First Weeks in AIX (Top)
Aix-en-Provence is a growing city with a rich historical past still very much in evidence. It houses a population of over 130,000, with approximately 30,000 students. The old town is small in area and crowded. Suburbs spread out around the vieille ville and thin out to dot the nearby hills. In 2002, Aix was selected as the number #1 city in France for its quality of life, according to the magazine "Le Point".
You will be arriving in Aix in the last days of August. This is still summer vacation in France. There will be many tourists in town, and you will find some of the local businesses are closed. It will be hot and sunny, Aix's many fountains will be burbling, and the plane trees will be in bloom along the beautiful Cours Mirabeau.
Things will return to normal fairly quickly, however, as the locals prepare for the reopening of the primary schools and return to business. The University does not begin until mid-October. The Preparatory Language Program (PLP) will begin within the first few days of September and you will find yourselves quite busy.
A Few Things To Be Prepared For (Top)
These points may seem small but it is often the small things that add up to big differences.
Physical Climate (Top)
Situated near the Mediterranean, Aix has hot summers and mild to cool springs and autumns. September temperatures are typically 22-25°C [72 - 77 F], with little rain. October and November are usually cooler and wetter with possible heavy rains. December through February are colder than what most California students are used to; in November of '99, January of '03, and January '09, Aix had snow for a couple of days. It goes from VERY hot to VERY cold extremely quickly. There is the Mistral, a cold, powerful wind that comes from the Alps down the Rhône River Valley at speeds upwards to 80 km/h (53 mph), causing temperatures to drop to as low as -10°C. This is a miserable wind. It numbs the tips of your fingers and toes, and is not to be underestimated. Therefore bring warm clothes, including a heavy coat, scarf, hat and gloves. (or be prepared to buy them once winter arrives). Bring summer clothing for the earlier and later periods of the school year. For the winter, a variety of sweaters and other layered clothing, such as thermals or polar-fleece are advisable. A warm overcoat, a raincoat, and rain boots/waterproof shoes are essential.
Political Climate (Top)
French students are politically oriented, and gatherings can include animated discussions on national and international events. Most French students have strong opinions on world affairs and they keep current on world politics. You should keep up with world affairs, because you will be asked your reactions to events taking place in the US and elsewhere. You will encounter people with critical attitudes toward American policies, and you should be prepared to deal with the situations in a diplomatic and informed manner. By the way, you should not assume that an attack on the US government is a sign of personal antagonism or unwillingness to cultivate a friendship. The French are well aware that you personally are not responsible for the follies of your government. Regarding politics at home, if in an election year, don't forget to register for absentee ballot before you leave.
There is a wide variety of political activity which many students find to be educational. However, use discretion and common sense if you become involved in political organizations, demonstrations or other activities. (Note: OIP advises against participating in these!) Remember, visas can be revoked. French labor situations can also be stormy at times, with frequent strikes involving a number of private or public economic enterprises. Although in general they do not last long, they do require a lot of patience and sometimes an adjustment of plans.
Religious Climate (Top)
Participation in church activities is an outstanding way to meet the natives and often leads to other invitations. Although France is largely Roman Catholic, virtually all major religions are represented in Aix. Le Mois à Aix, available at the Tourist Office, publishes a complete list of places of worship and times of services. Recently, a new controversial French law banning "ostentatious religious symbols" in public schools has been passed. The law should not apply to universities where professors can individually decide what can be worn or not in their classes.
Before going into details the most important points are:
The way you handle your money makes a great difference in your adjustment to and the success of your year in France. This area of concern has posed many problems in the past, so be sure to consider your financial situation carefully before leaving. This cannot be stressed enough. If you are planning on receiving financial aid you must be prepared to wait two to three months to receive your first checks or sign up for direct deposit (you will receive your funds faster). More importantly, you must make certain that you have taken all the necessary steps to secure your aid. Check and double-check! Make sure your financial aid officer knows you will be overseas. Make sure you have notified the holders of any existing loans of your plans. It is bad enough to have to wait for the aid without trying to solve problems from overseas. Be sure to apply for a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) pin number in order to reapply for financial aid the following year.
Traveler’s checks are a safe method to carry money. However, you will have to exchange them at various bureaus on the Cours Mirabeau. Majority of stores in Aix do not accept them.
Perhaps the best method for obtaining cash during the year is to obtain a VISA debit card which allows you to draw money directly out of your US checking account. (Bank of America has a partnership with BNP Paribas, a French bank, that has no fees for ATM withdrawals.) This also gives you a good rate of exchange, as you get the bank's money market rate. The debit card is easy to find in California and is available at American Savings, Sacramento Savings and First Interstate. This card can be used at ATMs throughout Europe and thus can replace traveler's checks. Some students have reported a delay in receiving these cards, so explore this option right away and do not forget to get an international (4-digit) "PIN" number. It is strongly recommended that you initialize your card before coming to France, to ensure that it works properly.
Another very good method for getting cash is to obtain a VISA or MasterCard credit card (again with an international 4-digit PIN) with the highest limit possible and then draw cash advances against it in France. The VISA bill can then be paid in dollars with American checks at an excellent exchange rate. If you are using a VISA credit card, a good method to avoid interest charges is to keep a credit balance against which you draw cash advances. Students have also reported success putting a parent's name on their checking account and having the bills sent to the parent for payment. This works best if you know the billing date for your card. Then one can take cash advances a few days before the billing date and only pay interest on those four or five days.
Yet another option is to open a checking account with an American bank that is linked to an ATM in Aix. For example, a CIRRUS ATM card works at the Crédit Mutuel, 6 place Jeanne d'Arc. (Contact 1-800-4-CIRRUS). You can withdraw money directly from your checking account and take advantage of higher exchange rates, since your balance is in dollars until the time of withdrawal. If a parent is a co-signer on the account, he/she can deposit financial aid checks and pay bills as necessary. Make the necessary arrangements as soon as possible to assure that ATM cards and checks are available before you leave. Again, Bank of America has a partnership with BNP Paribas. If you open a free student account with BNP, you will withdrawal money free of charge at any BNP ATM and deposit your euros into BNP account. If you decide to open an account with BNP, you will have to set up an appointment with a banker (the most helpful branch is located on Rue De Sextius), and you will need to have your proof of address in France.
If you are depending on money sent from home at different times throughout the year, be sure to request the money well in advance. Perhaps the fastest way to get it is to have it wired from the US to the American Express Office, Western Union (through the Post office) or direct transfer into your French bank account. This is a little expensive, but prompt, and you can receive the money in US dollar traveler's checks. While some students have opened accounts and had no problems, others have had to deal with expensive fees, unexplained costs, and lots of fine print. Worse, students have waited as long as five weeks for American checks to clear! Most students in recent years have used Crédit Lyonnais, and thought it was most useful, although there is a fairly low maximum amount for the student savings account (1,500 euros). BNP Paribas does not require a minimum.
Remember that you are not in the US and things take a lot longer here... two weeks to get your bank card, two more for the check book, and a week to replace a lost or stolen card... You have two options for transferring money - wire a lump sum (expensive and a bit time consuming but worth it if you don't want the hassle) or withdraw from an ATM in smaller increments. Withdrawing from ATM will cost a little bit for each transaction, but the exchange rate is always the best, and some people find it easier to budget if they put one month worth of expenses in their French account and leave the rest in the States for the months ahead. The euro is a little easier to calculate exchange rates, which should make money managing easier than with the French franc in days past. In 2008-2009, many students were required to transfer a large sum of money into a French account in order to receive the Carte de Sejour.
It is important to know that your 1st two months will be the most expensive so allow extra money. This is often due to the fact that most places require a deposit equal to one or two months rent as well as the first month's rent. Also keep in mind the initial purchases within the first few months, such as: sheets, towels, cleaning supplies, etc.
If you are receiving financial aid during the year, be sure to bring enough money with you to carry you through at least two or three months. This cannot be stressed enough. Your school will not send out the checks until after registration which does not always coordinate with the school schedule in France.
Also, exchange rate fluctuations can significantly affect the dollar amount of your expenses in euros. That being said, the average monthly budget should be estimated at about $500-600 per month, not including rent. (But the first month is significantly higher, so plan on over $1000 for September.) This figure does not include travel expenses and does not allow for an extremely active social life. It should cover pocket money, meal tickets, laundry (about 3 euros per load) and dry cleaning, toiletries, postage (letters to the States cost the same as postcards: 0.85 euros for up to 20 grams or about 0.5 oz), snacks, and a reasonable number of recreational activities.
The cost for textbooks is usually negligible compared to American universities; some students have only had to buy 2-5 books per semester, none of which were extremely expensive, others had no books to buy at all. Food prices are generally higher than those in California, especially for meat. Clothes are generally more expensive in France, particularly cotton, but one can find great deals at the open-air market. Note that there are sales in France only twice a year, in July and January. Do not miss the winter one! Since you may want to participate in the cultural life of southern France and also travel to other areas of Europe during your vacation periods, you should augment your budget accordingly. We have found that during vacations students usually spend two to three times the amount of money for the same time in Aix.
Above all, plan ahead and overestimate whenever possible. Allow yourself a comfortable living allowance; if you spend less than your budget, you can always augment your vacation money. Also be careful during Christmas break, as the rent is still due for January and the IP emergency loans are limited to 300 dollars maximum.
Finding housing in Aix is probably what you're most worried about, but my advice is, "Don't worry! I felt the same way but it all works out." Yes, you have only about 2 to 3 weeks to find housing, but the IP staff will help you.
Finding an Apartment
Brush up your French vocabulary as you will need them for flat hunting.
Students will find housing in a variety of studios or apartments in Aix. Some compromises may have to be made, so try to be flexible! Keep in mind that living conditions are different in France (smaller rooms, fewer facilities). Also bear in mind that the French students will not be in town until mid-October, approximately six weeks after you arrive. If you are dreaming of a French roommate, you may have to be patient, but it is always worth insisting.
They usually have tile floors, small bathtubs or a shower, a kitchenette, and a shared bedroom. They are more or less conveniently located, but in very old buildings that are unlike anything found in the US. The buildings are probably noisier than you are used to. Lodging of guests may be accepted, but this varies with landlords and roommates.
Studios/apartments are rented furnished or partially-furnished. Virtually all students have found furnished studios. This includes pots and pans, utensils, beds, and some other furniture. It pays to look around and to avoid agencies who generally charge a month's rent as a fee, so use an agency only as a last resort. In searching for housing students have received some assistance from the Institut; used the local newspaper or the specialized advertising bulletins, Aix-Hebdo and Choc; the rental list from the Tourist Office available every Wednesday, the many bulletin boards in town (especially in the program office and at the Institut), and word of mouth. Another useful method to look for rooms or roommates is www.appartager.com. This website cost about 10 euros for a month subscription, but many found it very helpful. Rents range from 300 to 600 euros, with most in the middle of that range.
Living with a French family is an experience (cuisine, slang, traditions, etc.), and if you have an open mind, it can be very satisfying. Most home stays are a bit more expensive than renting an apartment, but the experience is richer. Here are some tips to help you prepare for your homestay. We recommend you take these suggestions very seriously.
If you use their telephone, internet, computer, or Skype (a free internet service to talk to family and friends who are Skype users too), DON’T ABUSE IT. The French rarely telephone after 9:00 p.m. or before 8:00 a.m. Keep the calls short, not only because it's not your line, but French communication services are very expensive. If you are not allowed to use the phone (most students were), buy a phone card and use one of the many public phones.
Most families do not like a lot of noise late a night (what families do?). This is something to consider when going out at night or coming home late. Also, having someone sleep over, such as friends and relatives, is typically not accepted. You want to address these issues before making the final decision to move in.
Most French homes or apartments are quite small, so do not be shocked if your room is just the right size for a bed and a desk. This probably will not be up for discussion, but bear it in mind.
A few suggestions: Most families have their preconceived ideas about Americans and the US (based on movies and TV programs) and they will often voice them. Some are funny (all Americans are fat, Americans only eat hamburgers, etc.), and some might annoy you. (The French feel free to make statements that Americans would find rude.) Instead of getting angry or defensive, ask why they think that, try to understand, and do not forget that Americans have preconceived ideas about other cultures, too. Comparing stereotypes can be fun, if it is done diplomatically. Offer to help with the dishes or setting the table. It is a great time to talk or listen to another family member. These activities also establish you into the family routine. Be sure to ask ahead of time how to use phone, laundries, bathroom, etc.
Above all, be considerate. Remember your real family might tolerate your "habits," but the same habits might annoy others. This is common sense. If you have any questions about behavior, ask your hosts what they expect. Communication is the key to your successful home-stay in France.
Eating Out (Top)
Although restaurants tend to be expensive for students, there are quite a few cheap places and snacks in Aix. Most restaurants offer a “menu” for lunch which can cost half the price of the dinner menu with all of the same dishes. If you’re dying to try a certain restaurant, save some money and eat there for lunch rather than dinner!
Vegetarians will need to be creative or prepare their own meals. There is an excellent health food store on the rue d'Italie (expensive), another on the rue Gaston de Saporta, just up from the Institut. A number of restaurants have vegetarian menus that are excellent, such as La Fontaine. The water in Aix is very good and safe to drink. Most students prefer to do their own cooking and find it more economical. Boca Loca, Medina de Fèz, and Simply Food also offers vegetarian dishes.
There are cafes and snack bars located near each student restaurant, and throughout the town, where students meet for a snack, or a drink and conversation with friends. The cafes along the Cours Mirabeau are popular but expensive. (You are paying for the privilege of sitting there as long as you choose.) A café costs 1.90 euros , a café crème 2.85 euros , a hot chocolate 2.85 euros , a beer 3 euros and a coke costs 3.50 euros . These prices are increased at night. Prices are generally much better at cafes and restaurants elsewhere in town.
Social Life (Top)
Your attitude, openness to new experiences, and patience in developing friendships will greatly affect your success in the social arena. Do not be afraid to socialize and speak French. You will not be in school with French students, and you may find them aloof when you meet them in cafes or nightclubs. Bear in mind that you are not unique in Aix. Instead you are just the latest in a yearly cycle of foreign students. It may take a great effort on your part before you can make congenial friendships. It is not impossible and it is rewarding, but it takes time and effort on your part. The Cathedral also organizes dinners every Tuesday at the Cave (it is recommended to come early). And the Aix Bulldogg (the best place to get a burger!) has a language exchange program once a week, usually on Wednesdays. However, this may change later on, so inquire as you’re eating your delicious burger.
The women in the program want it made clear that many men in Aix, French and otherwise, seem to consider foreign women as prey. This goes back to the fact that there is a new group of foreign students in Aix each year. People will try to take advantage of your natural inclination to be friendly. This does not have to ruin your year or be frightening, but bear in mind that French men can be quite forward and persistent. Eye contact and a friendly smile will be construed as an invitation in France. Women have mentioned having had to learn how to tell a "creep" from more acceptable types. Don't be afraid to be rude to those who persist! It may be useful to learn dismissing French phrases that you can employ, if needed, such as: laisse-moi tranquille, dégage, and casse-toi.
Perhaps the best way to meet the natives is to pursue your hobby or interests while in Aix. There are numerous social organizations that are open to you; all it takes is some effort on your part to search them out.
There are many sources of information about clubs and various student organizations in Aix; look for them! Don’t miss the Activity Fair located on the Cour Mirabeau in September. It’s a great place to collect fliers and information on local businesses and activities for you to participate in.
There are many gyms available, as well as ballet and jazz dance studios, all of which can be found in the Mois à Aix (available at the Tourism office). When joining a sports club, keep in mind that you will probably have to undergo another basic medical exam. If you decide to join any of these organizations, there will be a fee. For example, joining the local gym costs approximately 300 euros for the entire year.
Movies: There are 3 theaters in town which give a discount upon presentation of your Student Card, except on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Movie prices are about 8.10. Discount prices equal US basic prices. The Cezanne shows films dubbed in French. The Mazarin and Renoir theaters have films in original version with French subtitles. For 17 euros, you can purchase the Carte Cinétoile which offers unlimited movies at 5.20 euros, including on weekends, at the 3 Movie Theaters. Wait until October to buy though since the yearly membership starts and ends in October.
Plays, Operas and Concerts: There are a number of theaters in Marseille which regularly offer both dramatic presentations and concerts. In Aix, apart from the summer Festival d'Aix, there is the Théâtre Municipal, rue de l'Opéra, and occasional concerts by visiting groups. Not to mention several community theatre groups. Check with the tourism office for a list.
The "boìtes" in Aix: Going to the boìtes is a popular activity among Aix students. A boìte is a discothèque, sometimes in cellars or caves beneath restaurants. While it is not uncommon for men to go to these nightclubs solo, women generally go with friends. The three most frequented boìtes in Aix are L'IPN, Scat Club, and Le Mistral. These places vary on cover charges and stay open until 5:00 am. The boìtes differ from bars. Bars in Aix, like Le Bar Sextius on cours Sextius, or O’Shannon on rue de la Verrerie, offer live or recorded music, generally no cover charge and close at 2:00 a.m. There are many such bars in Aix, and their popularity with students ebbs and flows. Drink prices vary, but are more expensive than in the States, except for wine, of course. Cheap places to drink and socialize can be found though!
There are numerous boìtes outside of town and in Marseille but these require a car to visit. Some of the boìtes are free for women on certain nights. Drinks, however, are expensive, from 8 euros apiece depending on the night. Men can expect to pay from 10 euros to 20 euros for admission, which may include one free drink. Bear in mind that these boìtes attract some unsavory characters. Be firm with unwanted admirers and do not be afraid to tell the bouncers about problems. These clubs value highly the business of foreign students.
Medical: Health matters present no unusual problems in Aix. Medical and pharmaceutical services are comparable to those in the US. Your Resident Director and/or the Institute can recommend a doctor. Their charges are less than those in the US but must be paid in full in cash or check at the time of the appointment, usually 25 euros ( "tarifs conventionnés") for a general practitioner, 40 euros or more for a specialist, but doctors can charge more if they wish. Prescription prices are also usually lower. Be aware that some medicine available over-the-counter in the US requires a prescription in France.
Consider bringing a yearlong supply of any medicine you have to use regularly. It may be cheaper to get a new prescription for the same medication in France. Talk to your doctor and look into availability. Pharmacies are open 24 hours on a rotating basis (Call the Commissariat or look at the postings at any pharmacy entrance to find the pharmacie de garde) and pharmacists are extremely helpful in advising remedies for common ailments. Doctors will make house calls in France ( SOS Médecins).
Contraceptives (condoms) are readily available and found everywhere in cheap public distributors or in pharmacies.
Dental work is about 2 to 3 times less expensive than in the US but dental costs are not covered by student insurance. Since you are responsible for paying all medical bills upon treatment, funds for illness or emergency should be included in your budget. Program insurance will reimburse you at least partially (expect a month for reimbursement) for covered expenses, after the $100 deductible, (doctor's fees, hospital bills, drugs, and medical lab expenses) upon submission of bills. French doctors, and dentists expect their fee to be paid at the time of your visit.
Transportation: In downtown Aix, everything is within walking distance. A lot of walking will soon become a part of your everyday life. You will need rain gear and at least one pair of the most comfortable walking shoes you can find; insulated boots are welcome in winter.
The local bus system is extensive and reliable; however, the main buses stop running around 9:30 p.m., depending on your route. This can present a problem for those who live out of town and who have a taste for night life. Anywhere else you might want to go is accessible by bus: Marseille, Avignon, Orange, Nìmes, etc. Or by train via Marseille: Lyon, Paris, Nice, Barcelona, etc. Marseille is about 30 minutes from Aix by bus at the Gare Routière. Buses leave every 5 minutes on weekdays. The regular roundtrip fare is 9.20 euros or 19.30 euros for a block of six tickets. The SNCF train is more expensive. Both the bus and the train arrive in Marseille at the Gare St.-Charles. Make sure there is a bus back to Aix. Being stuck somewhere and taking a taxi is stressful and expensive.
Post:Airmail letters up to 20 grams (about half an ounce) and postcards to North America cost 0.85 euros. They generally reach California in 7 to 21 days. You may want to send valuable items "en recommandé" (registered mail). For Christmas mail be sure to allow 2 to 3 weeks for airmail. The central post office is just off the Rotonde and a smaller office is located on the place de l'Hôtel de Ville. There is a new one located at the end of rue d’Italie, next to Schlecker supermarket. Be careful to declare a minimum value to avoid additional customs tax. No need anymore to wait in line at the counters for stamping your letters, as there are now coin-operated stamping machines. Great way to use those centimes coins although most machines have a tendency to spit them back out. There are weight and size limits for outgoing packages. The Post Office will handle packages up to 20 kg (44 lbs.). The SERNAM service is no longer available, so for packages over 5 kgs (11 lbs), try Colissimo International, XL size. Itemized customs declarations must be filled out for each package.
Hair care: French stylists and barbers are excellent but can be expensive. For men, a wash, cut and style runs about 15 euros. For women the price can be double or more, between 25-45 euros, depending on the salon. Designer hair care products are very expensive. If you insist on a certain American name brand, plan on bringing some with you, or having it shipped to you. You can also have a free haircut at the Hairstyling School, rue Fernand Dol (near the Office) for a very cheap price: 7 euros
Laundry and Dry Cleaning: Laveries abound in Aix and they are all the same price. A single wash load costs 3.60 euros. Dryers cost 0.50 euros per six minutes or 1.20 euros per 15 minutes, count on a minimum of 3 euros. You may want to practice your hand-washing skills before you arrive. Woolite is sold in France though there is a cheaper French generic brand. Most Laundromats also have coin operated dry-cleaning machines, 8.40 euros per load. This is much more economical than a cleaners.
Telephone: France Télécom, 1, rue Chabrier 0800 131 014 (behind place de l’Hotel de Ville), or in the new Allées Provençales will be happy to install a telephone in your apartment at their convenience. (Count on it taking several weeks). The cost of installation (cheaper for students) is 30 euros or 40 euros depending on whether or not previous tenants had a phone. The basic service will cost you 7 euros per month, plus your local (minimum 3 euros per month) and long distance calls (available through other companies than France Télécom). Itemized billing is not standard but can now be obtained for free upon request. Also available are "receive only" and "local only" phone lines which may entail additional expense. Expect to spend a month or more haggling with France Télécom if there is a billing error or any other problem with your account or line. It is more expensive to call overseas than from the US. It is more economical to have friends and family call you and then reimburse them. Or you can use a card.
Calling cards are useful for calling the States once in France. However, do not buy international calling cards in the States because they only work if calling from the States to another foreign country. Just buy an international calling card in France. Note for US calling-card users: the phone number in France for an American operator is 00-0011. The Continental calling card seems to be the best deal and may be purchased at the store Coup de Fil, rue des Cordeliers, or at the Phone Box, 3 rue Lieutaud. This card offers from 300 to 1280 minutes of calls to the US, for 15 euros depending on how you call, from a public or private or cell phone, through a regular or 800 number or through a call back system, all available on the card. Calls from a cell phone are always much more expensive. Watch out also for the expiration date (usually 3 months). For more information on other phone cards: www.allomundo.com
In France, all public telephones are "chip"-card operated. These "télécartes" have a microchip rather than a code or magnetic stripe and can be bought at any "bar-tabac" (tobacco shop, usually in a café/bar): 50 units for 8 euros and 120 units for 15 euros. They should be used mostly for domestic calls, not for international calls. Checking expiration dates is always a good idea. Once you get settled, you may want to look into a mobile phone.
Nearly all students opt to get a cell phone. It turns out to be pretty expensive if you call overseas from a cell phone, so use a phone card (cf. above). However, mobile phones ( "portables") are more popular and services are often cheaper than in the US (depending on the value of the dollar). Because of the lack of compatibility between the different cell phone systems in the US, I doubt that your cell phone will work in Europe (GSM 900/1800 Mhz), but I advise you to bring it if it is a tri-band phone (GMS 900/1800/1900 Mhz). Because you will not have your cartes de sejour for the first few months, it is easiest to purchase a cheap phone that can be recharged as needed. The phones generally cost around 30 euros and can be recharged in amounts from 5-60 euros. Also, text messaging is considerably cheaper than calls, and with most companies—it is free to receive incoming calls or texts. There are three companies: SFR, Orange, and Bouygues Télécom, which are about equivalent.
Another cheap way to call the U.S. : use Skype.com from your laptop : 0.02 cts/ minute to the US, and US 0800 numbers are available. You cannot call a US 0800 number from a French fixed phone.
Computers and Internet: DSL is available for those bringing a computer, but you must be able to get a land line and most plans require a one year contract. Prices are coming down (as cheap as 20 euros for 128k, 30 euros for 512k), and having the Internet readily available to you may be worth it. In the beginning of the school year, companies like SFR and Orange offer packages which include the internet, cable, and a phone line (with free calls to the US) for about 30-40 euros per month. For those without computers, Internet café are very prominent, one of the better deals being Easy-Everything. Also, many of the universities offer free Internet access, but you have to be willing to wait in long lines to get to a computer. Bringing a computer is a good idea if you are used to typing your papers, though not usually required in French universities.
Americans are spoiled by one of the most efficient systems in the world, at least that is my opinion given the bureaucratic tedium and the overall lack of motivation one will find in France. But then the French like it that way and aren't bothered by missed deadlines and broken engagements. For example, to write this message, one needs a computer with a word processing program, ubiquitous in the States, also ubiquitous in the bureaucratic maze over here; they even have those neat new flat screens. But lo, do the universities have anything comparable? As my tone may suggest, ready access to computers and the net is generally only found in private enterprises, which charge from two to eight bucks an hour. E-mail cafes do not include printers. Your best bet is to bring a laptop over and use local copy/print shop for all printing needs. The IEFEE also has a computer lab where you can print for free, if you bring your own printing paper.
Expect computer access, printing, photocopying and phone calls to be a lot less accessible, and generally more expensive. One may find some surprises at the various libraries, many of which will be available to you with your local "carte d'étudiant".
Electricity is an issue for accessories like cameras, but usually not for laptop computers. Europe and most of the industrialized world uses 220V/50 hertz rather than our 110V/60 hertz. Never plug an electrical device constructed for 110V in a 220V outlet (or vice versa). You will need to have a converter for most electronic appliances. US/France Adapters are cheaper in the US, so bring about 4 or 5.
Shopping: Aix has any number of quality shops and boutiques. Stores, grocery and otherwise, are more expensive downtown than in the suburbs or in Marseille. Aix has the well-deserved reputation of being an expensive town.
There are several kinds of well-supplied supermarkets & food stores, both in and outside of Aix, with varying ranges of prices. There are open air produce markets every morning in the Place Richelm on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, on the Place du Palais de Justice for clothes, shoes, and random items. If you cannot find it in Aix, you can usually find it in Marseille. Take advantage of these markets for the best pick of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Most products that are available in the States, can be found here in some shape or form. You just have to be willing to look. However, if you do like a specific brand, you may want to consider bringing extras with you or having someone ship you some if necessary (shipping is not cheap and the mail system is not 100% reliable).
You probably have read it at least once already and you'll read it again in most of whatever your exchange program gives you, most students spend way too much in the first two months they're over here. So watch out !
Academic Life (Top)
Your academic life in Aix will begin as soon as you arrive with a four-week, graded series of intensive courses (PLP) in French. A placement test will group you with students whose language ability is similar to yours. The classes are designed to acquaint you with French culture, improve your language skills, and introduce you to the French style of writing, which is notably structured and precise. The professors are there to inform you about the nuances of the French language as well as cultural differences. Be sure to write down any questions you may have, whether they concern vocabulary, French life, or whatever puzzles you, and bring them to class.
You will begin your regular classes soon after the PLP. ALL STUDENTS ARE REQUIRED TO CARRY A MINIMUM OF 15 SEMESTER UNITS PER SEMESTER. Be sure to read the IP Bulletin for information on classes and IP policy. Because CSU unit values and class hours sometimes do not match, it is possible to have more than 20 contact hours a week of class. For most students, there will be 10-14 hours per week of language/grammar classes and 6-8 hours of electives. The load is rigorous and may require more time per week than you are used to. Attendance is essential. The Institut allows no unexcused absence; or else your grades may be reduced. Also, there is no choice about the times of classes as there is a fixed schedule depending on the level you are placed in. Before leaving California be sure to discuss unit transfers and equivalents with your advisor. If you plan to graduate at the end of your year in Europe, you may wish to bring your home campus adviser's fax number and e-mail. It is usually a good idea to check and double-check whether a course transfers, as course descriptions sometimes don't match up once you are here.
All IP students take classes at the Institut d'Ètudes Françaises pour Ètudiants Ètrangers (IEFEE). The courses include translation, phonetics, history, geography, political science, etc. Students there come from all over the world. You will take a another similar written placement test and will be placed in one of five Niveaux (levels): Niveau I, Niveau II, Niveau III , Niveau IV, or Niveau V (from lowest to highest level). There is the option of the DU (Diplôme Universitaire) by taking extra classes.
With careful planning and a lot of work you can complete some of your home campus requirements in French and also be eligible to take the Institut diploma examination at the end of the year. The diploma is optional and is in addition to the grades and units you receive in your courses. There is a separate diploma for each level and requirements vary, but a lot of additional effort is required.
Typically the results of the placement test for the fall semester are received on the Friday before classes start on the following Monday, and you cannot plan your classes until those results are available. Be prepared for a certain amount of confusion during the first week or two of the academic year. You will have about three weeks to finalize your fall schedules. The best way to get the classes you want and work best for you is to attend all the classes you may want and then opt to choose only the amount (either 3 or 4 depending on your Niveau) you need for the year. By attending all classes, you don’t miss on the important imformation that is given within the first couple of weeks, and you will not feel lost if you decide to join the class at a later time. Teaching styles vary greatly. Use the first weeks to visit as many of the available classes as possible, then choose. Relax and be patient; enrolling at most CSU campuses is more complicated than at the Institut.
Note: Not all courses offered will have precise CSU equivalents, and in some cases, your campus advisor may have required a class that is not offered during a particular academic year, or one that is inappropriate to your language level. You may also have to change your group if you really feel you are misplaced. Expect some frustrations in trying to satisfy your home campus. Stay in touch with your advisors at home to ease these tensions!
Physical education courses are available at the Bureau des Sports at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP), next to the IEFEE. Just show your French student card and you can access the University sports facility for 11 euros per year, located next to the dorms. The classes which are given at the Centre des Sports at Gazelles include tennis, swimming, yoga, dance, volleyball, basketball, self-defense, gymnastics, and field-hockey. These P.E. classes are an excellent way to make French contacts. It can be really cheap if you can join a gym as a group. No grades or unit credits are received for these courses, and you are allowed only one. However, these courses fill up quickly, so enroll immediately. It is best to try within the first week or two.
Expect to put in more work than usual to maintain your grade point average. Don't expect professors to be outgoing and available. Be prepared for a more "old-fashioned" way of teaching, which commonly counters the style of teaching we are use to in the States. French professors tend to motivate their students based on a more critical approach, often using critism rather than encouragement. Don't expect everybody to speak French; English is the more common language among students at the Institut. Do not forget however that ALL classes are taught in French. It takes determination to practice your French with the other students, many of who are just as happy practicing their English with you! Check bulletin boards at the program office and the Institut for notices from French students seeking language sharing, and do not be afraid to put up your own notices at the neighboring Faculté de Droit or the "Fac" de Lettres, where there are many French students studying English.
At the Institut, there are at least two exams per semester for most courses In the French system, personal interpretation and generalized theorizing are inappropriate for examinations. The professors do not want your opinions; they want to know that you have been listening to them and/or reading critical works.
There is a computer lab in the Institute, which you can use freely for e-mail. There is a significant waiting time, though and a daily limit of one hour. Be warned that Internet cafés can be pricey and an hour or two a week adds up fast!
Packing for a year is not easy. Most students recommend packing light and adjusting to a limited wardrobe. It should be remembered that you will be carrying all of your luggage on your own. How does one pack light for a year? There is no easy answer but a good rule of thumb is to gather all of your "necessary" items and then pack only half of them. Remember, you will also accumulate new clothes/items throughout your stay in Europe—you will want to have room to carry them back.
Send winter clothing from home by boat (surface mail), which takes two or three months, but is not too expensive. Rush mail from the US is very expensive. Remember, the more you bring over, the more you have to send home and the French post office does not offer surface mail. List the contents on the outside of the package as "DES EFFETS PERSONNELS, SANS VALEUR COMMERCIALE" (personal belongings with no commerical value) and declare a maximum value of 30 dollars (never declare the actual value, especially if you are sending used personal items) to avoid customs costs and problems, and insure the package.
Have packages addressed to you:c/o CSU International Programs
Do not mail packages to arrive before August 10. There will be no one to receive them at the IP Office and they will be returned to sender after two weeks. However, do ship packages as soon as possible to avoid freezing while you wait. It goes from hot to cold very quickly—be prepared to pack away your summer clothes around mid-October until spring. Do not leave your winter clothes behind! It would be a shame to be stuck in the cold waiting for your winter clothes to arrive. It is highly recommended that all letters and especially packages be sent to the program office throughout the academic year.
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, here is a short list of essential items to bring with you. If you have traveled before you will have your own ideas.
Soap & travel size shampoo
A week's supply of shirts / blouses
Two pairs pants/jeans
Comfortable walking/tennis shoes
Swiss army knife (in your suitcase, not with you on the plane).
Warm clothing to include:
Cotton sportswear for warm days
You should consider bringing:
Laptop computer (most adapters are made for int'l. current)
Outfit for formal occasions
Shoes with grip
Robe and slippers with soles
One set of eating utensils
A year's supply of any prescription drugs you use regularly (US prescriptions cannot be filled here BUT you may get a French doctor to give you a new prescription - Be sure to check on availability of meds with your own doctor first).
Your favorite cold remedies, especially flu remedies (i.e. Nyquil, Contac)
An extra pair of glasses (French optometrists do not read American prescriptions)
A battery charger
Common items which may be extremely expensive here:
Bedding and sheets Cosmetics
Contact lens wearers can find everything they need in Aix, but products are different and may be expensive. Soft lens products are available under the same circumstances.
You will need a good English/French and French/English dictionary, which is readily available in Aix. Dictionaries, grammars, reference materials and a selection of travel materials left by past students can be consulted in the reference library of the IP Office, or can be purchased in Aix. You don't need to mail tons of books. Don't bother with "501 French Verbs" as you will probably buy a "Bescherelle Conjugaison" here, the smaller and more precise French equivalent.
France has a 220 volt/50 cycle electrical system rather than the 110v/60c system of the US. Do not bring electrical appliances (hairdryers, shavers, etc.) to France since everyday use, even with a converter/adapter, can create fire and electrical hazards.
You do not need to bring any toilet articles, except those needed for your trip unless you feel you must have a certain brand. You will be able to find everything you need in France.
If you have to make a choice, opt to pack lighter - common sense is always the first thing to pack, and it comes in handy to have lighter luggage because you always need to be capable to carry everything you bring on your own (for example, from the airport into town upon your arrival).
Most students feel the need to pack all “necessary items” for their study abroad—which translates to over-packed luggage. This can be costly when paying the extra fee in the airport. Seriously, PACK LIGHT!
Many students travel on weekends, most often to the surrounding countryside, or other neighboring countries. It is a good idea to visit France also, not just other European countries : it has much to offer !
Vacations (several days following the PLP, two weeks at Christmas, one week in February, and two weeks at Easter) provide students with the time for lengthy travel. L' Office du Tourisme in Aix, located at place de la Rotonde, plans tours to all parts of the world, often with student discounts. Students highly recommend checking with CROUS. Wasteels, located on cours Sextius, has been popular with students because not only do they offer student discount rates, they also handle both airplane and train tickets. Also check the travel agency OTU at the Gazelles Student Hall. USIT on Cours Sextius offers cheap student tickets. Idée Nomade located at new Allées Provençales has excellent packages for students, though most are weekend or week-long trips by bus. In most European cities there are student discounts on tickets for public events. Your French student body card will enable you to save money at many museums and art galleries, and allows discounts on public transportation, movies, concerts, etc.
Students usually budget a minimum of 40 euros a day for vacation travel not including transportation. You can save money by making arrangements to stay in the youth hostels. You can buy a Youth Hostel card before your departure from the US or after your arrival in Aix at the local hostel. Accommodations there are fairly comfortable and cost approximately 20 euros per night with breakfast. Prices vary in other countries. In budgeting for meals, students usually save by shopping for food in supermarkets or bakeries rather than eating in restaurants.
If you plan to go to other countries during vacation, you can always count on train expenses running at least 125 euros round-trip to central spots in Europe. During the October break, remember that some hotels may be closed. Also, there is a tendency to indulge in the local specialties and to buy souvenirs, so two-week vacations cost between 500 euros and 700 euros. Students are always surprised to find that travel is so expensive. Most countries have their own kind of passes - check with any travel agency in Aix. There are some excellent values on French Rail Passes that can only be purchased in the US (by you or a friend) up to six months in advance. They are valid for any 15 or 30 day period, so they are great values for Christmas or Easter traveling if you are staying in France.
The TGV station (a French railway system) is located in Aix and Marseille, just a bus ride away. TGV offers transportation to big cities in France. Great deals can be found at least a month in advanced or completely last minute, if you’re lucky. However, you should give plenty of time to purchase tickets for availability, especially around the holidays.
The French railway system has a good option for students (up to 25 years old): Carte 12-25. Buy this card 49 euros, and then all your other train tickets, if purchased in advance, will be up to 50 % cheaper. Another way to save on transportation is to buy a Student Eurailpass, which will allow you to travel by railroads, second class, for a one- or two-month period throughout most of Europe. These passes cannot be bought in Europe, but if you decide you want one after having left, someone in the States can buy it for you. All they need is your passport number. Eurail Passes cannot be used in Great Britain or in most of the former Eastern Bloc countries, but if you check with travel agencies in the States these areas offer train passes of their own. Interrail Pass, on the other hand, can be bought only in European countries (including the UK) and also in Morocco. You pay half-price in the country of purchase, nothing after that.
Automobiles: A car is utterly useless in Aix. Parking is difficult and expensive - 8 euros per day, depending on the area. Car insurance is mandatory and expensive. Gasoline costs about 3 euros per liter (tanks average 15 liters). It would be wise (but not absolutely necessary) to get an International Driver's License at any AAA office before leaving the States, in case you decide to rent a vehicle. Renting a car is expensive, but within reach if the price is going to be divided among at least four people. Agencies will rent to a person at least 21 years old (some others require you to be 23 or 25 years old) who has a major credit card. Be sure to figure gas and mileage and expensive tolls (15 euros between Aix and Lyon) into the cost.
Student with Accompanying Dependents (Top)
Budget: In past years married couples without children have estimated that, being very careful, they can live on about $1500 a month, including room, food, utilities and transportation. We would recommend increasing this figure at least ten percent. The best rule is to be especially careful about expenditures, contractual commitments and other planning, especially during the first month, until you feel more confident in the new environment.
Hotel: If for any reason you choose to spend time in a hotel, the less expensive hotels in Aix cost about $60-70 per night for a couple.
Services and utilities: For a two-bedroom apartment, electricity and heating may average between $100 to $150 a month. Count on a food budget roughly equivalent to that in California.
Child Care and Schools: French public schools are free, though children must attend the school in whose district they reside. Although registration is very easy, and directors demonstrate goodwill toward foreigners, parents should check registration procedures as soon as possible. There are also private schools. Among these, the Ècole Sainte-Geneviève (an école maternelle or kindergarten) has been recommended. Also the Pensionnat de la Nativité, rue de l'Opéra, and the Ècole Maternelle Sainte-Marie, rue du Bon-Pasteur, near the Institut. There is also an International School in the nearby village of Luynes, but it is pricey.
On Wednesdays children have the whole day off, but attend school on Saturday mornings. During major holidays, there is a day camp called Le Centre Aéré des Services Municipaux, 7 rue du Maréchal-Foch (ages 3 to 12). Passport needed for identification. Certain immunizations are required. The public schools run from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with a lunch recess from around 12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m. This schedule varies at the collège and lycée level.
The success or failure of the child's year in a French school will depend upon many factors: age, health, general adaptability, previous study of French, etc. Experience has shown that, especially with junior and senior high school students, it is well to consult with schools at home before leaving about requirements, receiving credit, etc. Parents and children must realize that methods and attitudes are different in French schools. The customary, perhaps blunt, directness of French teachers will undoubtedly be interpreted as overly harsh by Americans.
Babysitters can sometimes be hired from among your fellow students.
It is highly recommended that students with dependents contact and join the Anglo-American Group of Provence (AAGP) right away. They have an impressive network of contacts and programs, including one for newcomers. They should even be contacted prior to your arrival by writing AAGP, 1 rue Emile-Tavan, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, France (aagp-provence.com). They will place an ad in their monthly newsletter under "Housing Wanted," if you wish. The membership fee of 30 euros ($28) is probably a good investment.
Final Checklist and Reminder of Things to do Before Leaving (Top)
BON VOYAGE ET BONNE CHANCE!
Updated 2/13/08 DAP