The Mole Diaries: Chambéry (Volume 2)
The Erasmus programme is specifically designed for foreign/modern language university students from all over the world, and sends them abroad on placement for 12 months, whether to a foreign university, a work placement or to be a teaching assistant. I am involved in this year abroad experience by studying French and Spanish, and it has led me to the small Alpine city of Chambéry, located in the Savoie region of south-east France.
Having spent 12 consecutive summers travelling around France with my family, and several independent trips to Paris, I have always felt that I have had a relatively good understanding of France, its language, culture and society. However, upon arriving in Chambéry on August 31st this year with four fellow university students, I found myself realising the diversity of this country which I thought I knew well. Having never been so far east towards the Alps, the scenery of the mountains sitting at the end of every street view was a fresh and exciting sight. This merely heightened my impatience to settle into this new location and explore the region.
Leaving Friends and Home
Despite having left some of my closest friends and loved ones back home and knowing that there would be those more lonely moments whilst abroad, the novelty of Chambéry and its region, combined with the Year Abroad experience as a whole, allowed me to fully immerse myself and appreciate the opportunity I had been given, despite missing those back in England. This led to trips most weekends to surrounding areas; Geneva with its beautifully famous lake, Montpellier exposing its old and new, France's "mini-Paris" city Lyon, Annecy's Venice-like canals and streets, and Grenoble only being a brief hour's journey by train. Even cheap and quick flights to Berlin and Amsterdam from the nearby airport at Geneva were accessible during our Half Term along with the ease of transport to the airport from a local coach system (see web link under Travel section).
Rather than flying to Chambéry* (or to Geneva or Lyon airport and then catching the coach or train to Chambéry), I chose to catch the Eurostar train from London St Pancras, changing at Paris Gare du Nord, and then getting the SNCF direct train from Gare du Lyon down to Chambéry. Some may say that this is the more expensive and slower option, yet it meant that I didn't have to worry about the baggage weight and content restrictions at the airport. I was fortunate to travel with three fellow Cardiff friends who are also studying at Université de Savoie with me. We booked into a hotel for the first night, which allowed us to have a little wander around the small city before dragging our suitcases to our halls of residence. We had made an arrangement to meet the receptionist of our halls for the first morning, enabling us to collect our keys, be shown our rooms and settle in with much ease.
*Chambéry's own airport doesn't open until late November or early December for the ski season
Many people's first question about living abroad is, “how am I going to get all of my belongings out there?”. I thought the same, until I was told of a system which operates around the U.K. itself, Europe and even America. Unibaggage, or SendMyBag, are almost identical companies which transport a fully loaded suitcase or box of your own, and deliver it to your doorstep! You can choose what weight your package will be and the dimensions of it, consequently determining the end price, but they can range from £25 up to over £100.
As Chambéry is located at the foot of the Alps, to some people it is known as the “gate way” to the ski resorts. This may make one assume that it has a colder climate, which is certainly does when you get into November onwards, but when we first arrived at the beginning of September, the temperatures stayed high until mid – late October! Don't pack your suitcase at home thinking you will be arriving in wintry weather; I would recommend packing a range of summery clothing to complement the colder and wetter weather coats, jumpers and boots.
A dilemma which is put to Erasmus students fairly late on (and which requires a quick response) is the decision between flat sharing with (hopefully) other students from your host country, or opting for University Halls. In my opinion, there are many pros and cons of each option, yet I believe the choice mainly depends upon your own character. I ended up choosing halls of residence so that I could avoid having to search alone for a flat to live in, as well as having Skype interviews with the other "colocs" (flatmates), whilst revising for my end of year exams in the summer. Fortunately, I have been put into a great hall of residence with fellow Cardiff students and friends, and the majority of the other Erasmus students. This has allowed us to fully embrace the social side of the year abroad and quickly settle and make friends of every nationality.
On the other hand, the evident advantage of flat sharing is how much more your language will improve. There may have to be that extra effort to meet the other Erasmus students if living separately, but living with native students from your host language can be great fun and immensely rewarding. This website has proved very helpful for people searching for accommodation in France;
Something I would encourage in France is to buy a (student) railcard for the trains. These cost around €50, which initially seems a lot, despite being similar, if not cheaper, than in England, yet it drops the cost of every future train ride by a significant amount. Another tip with the trains (in France at least) is to buy your tickets together at the desk if there is more than just one of you. Fortunately this often reduces the price of each ticket by a significant amount (e.g. an €18 ticket is reduced to €13).
Similarly, a system which is not half as popular in England, but which has exploded in France, is 'Covoiturage', or carpooling. This safe and economical system is used by all ages of drivers and is another great way to meet others, potentially of your own age, and to practice your language.Covoiturage service for all over France: Aerocar coach service – Grenoble – Chambéry – Geneva
One incredible aspect of the year abroad is the Erasmus Grant; money given to the students which is separate to a Maintenance Grant and can be spent on travelling. For example, in France you are given €400 a month, and €350 a month in Spain. You have to apply for it through your university before leaving for your host country; often it doesn't arrive until (late) November, and it can only be paid into a local bank account (one big reason for having to open one). However, this enables each and every student to travel around the region, the country of their placement(s), and neighbouring countries. This significantly avoids any discrimination of 'de los padres' (a Spanish term referring to those students who can afford to travel more often than others, and consequently improve their language and skills more than others who are unable to take advantage of such opportunities). The Grant allows us constantly to build on our language, knowledge and understanding of the country, and not worry too much about the expenditure of travelling!
French bureaucracy is renowned for being disorganised and tardy, and so expect to have to hassle your designated tutor in the host country, or for schemes such as C.A.F. (a French rent subsidy scheme which reduces your rent bills by 20-40%!) to take several weeks/months to arrive or respond! What I would recommend is to be as organised as you can be, and bring the following documents with you:
• Photocopy of your Passport
• Passport photos (6+)
• Photocopy of your Driving Licence
• Updated version of your Birth Certificate - ask your local council about this and expect it to take up to 2 or 3 weeks, so don't leave it until the last minute before moving abroad!
• Photocopies of your A-Level Certificates from school (or the equivalent)
• Photocopy (and card) of your EHIC (European Health Insurance Card)
• Photocopied or printed versions of ANY documents you have already had to fill in/sign which your own university or your host university or placement has required (certificate of University Hall, confirmation of your place at your host university/work placement...)
• Photocopy of your bank statement from your home bank; this is not essential but may be useful to prove that you do not have any financial problems or debts
During the first stage of settling in and organising yourself (such as opening a bank account, getting a phone of your host country), I would recommend you carry all of these documents on you at all times as you never know what they're going to ask for at any time, and often you will have spent a while queuing to get that far!
Many of my friends here in France have got themselves a phone contract with Virgin (€20 a month) whereas I have merely got myself a Pay As You Go SIM with Orange, as we tend to use the internet (such as Facebook) to talk and organise plans with one another, and so have rarely used my French SIM. One thing to recognise is that Pay As You Go has an expiry date in France, unlike England, so don't think that the credit will last until it is used up!
What I wish I'd known before I left
Firstly, expect to spend a lot of money in the first month or two after arriving, with the amount of things which you have to sign up for regarding university, banking, food and bits and bobs for your room (especially if you fly!); as well as socialising most evenings to begin with in order to meet the other students; and events such as Erasmus parties etc.
At my French university they offered a 2 week 'Intensive Language Course' costing €200, before the start of term. Not every university offers this (Granada for my second semester doesn't), but I would highly recommend going on it. This gives you the chance to arrive at your host town/city in advance of the start of term, so you can sort out your accommodation (whether settling into it or actually finding it!), get to know where you are and the university campus, and meet the other Erasmus students. I found that by the time that the course had ended, I couldn't believe that others were only just arriving, as we felt like we had made close friends by that stage, and felt extremely settled in the city. However, make sure you ask the university about this well in advance. I was only given a month's notice and so my family had to rearrange their summer plans, which wasn't the end of the world but could have been very costly!
I am a keen sports player, and so when I arrived in France I didn't realise that the sports system would be quite different from England. As at home, they have an A.U. (Athletics Union equivalent) society which you have to join in order to belong to any sporting society (it cost me €12). However, once the website for applying to a sporting society is open, it is on a 'first come first served' basis, and the website opened at midnight! This meant that I ended up not being part of any sports team as the ones which took my fancy were full almost instantly. There will always be gyms which you can join (here it is approximately €34 per month), but if you are like me and prefer team sports, I would recommend you ask other students or your tutor about the system, as soon as possible. An evidently popular sport at Chambéry is skiing, due to its proximity to several ski resorts such as Tignes, Courchevel and Val Thorens. I had never skied before I came to Chambéry, but the majority of my friends here had, so if you are interested in skiing (which personally, is a must!), make sure you have a look at the numerous ski sales which occur almost weekly in the build up to the start of the ski season (early/late November), as you will find yourself saving a lot of money compared to renting all of the required equipment at the resorts themselves.
A popular and stereotypical activity in France is renting bicycles. Where I am, it was €150 deposit either in cash or by cheque (give this in by cheque as they won't actually cash it unless there is any damage when you return the bike!) and €15 for one month, or a mere €20 for four months – great value! Thinking that I wouldn't use the bike that often, I have been surprised as I have used it every day since renting it; whether for university, going to the larger and cheaper supermarkets further out, or attractive cycle rides along the numerous cycle paths.
As some may know, France can be a quiet place on a Sunday and Monday with most banks and supermarkets being shut on these days. It's important to remember not to leave your kitchen cupboards empty leading up to the weekend unless you're prepared to eat out! The majority of supermarkets (Carrefour City, Monoprix, Casino, Franprix) shut on a Sunday at 12pm or 1pm, and banks are not normally open on Mondays (or at lunchtime during the week). Therefore I would highly recommend not arriving for your year abroad in France on a Sunday, (or even a Monday if possible, though it's not as significant), to avoid any problems arising from a lack of services.
Similarly, I did not realise that, unlike England, you cannot check your bank balance at an ATM, meaning that you have to go to your bank specifically to check your account balance. I opened my account with LCL (Credit Lyonnais) bank, the most popular choice where I am in France, but failed to realise that they charge you 1€ for every withdrawal unless you get your money out from a branch of your own bank. Even though this seems minimal, it ends up accumulating over the course of the months, and you may find yourself being charged a fair amount of money if you withdraw money on a regular basis!