Things I wish I’d been told before my year abroad in France

Things I wish I’d been told before my year abroad in France Boulangerie by Mathieu Thouvenin

This article was written by Jonathan Kerr, published on 5th July 2013 and has been read 9639 times.

For my year abroad, I secured a work placement in a school where I translated, taught, and did a lot of admin. French admin is very much like English admin, except there’s a whole lot more of it. However, as my time here draws to a close, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt that I wish I’d known before I left.

Food and drink

Lunch in the UK is a sandwich, I’ve found, and eating at one’s desk is the norm. You gobble it down and you get back to work; you’re not paid to sit about eating. Except I found that in France you really are. Lunch – indeed, all meals – are a serious business, and for the first couple of weeks I didn’t realise this. I made like I do at home, wolfing down my plate, and then had to endure the uncomfortable experience while the rest of my colleagues ate a couple of bites, talked, had a piece of bread, talked, leapt up to greet a passing colleague (who then had to faire les bises all around the table) and generally ate without a care in the world. Once you settle into that rhythm, though, it’s the best thing in the world.

There are two major drinks in France: wine and coffee. Coffee may be drunk at any time but not with a meal. After? Certainly. Before? Of course. But with – never. Wine, on the other hand, may be drunk at any time save breakfast, because if you’re drinking wine with breakfast then no matter where you are, you’re in trouble. Water is drunk at all times by all people, and most of my colleagues had a bottle of Perrier or Evian on their desks at all times.

Finally, with all the good food you’ll try – and you should try it, without a doubt – you may put on a couple of pounds. This is literally the least important thing in the world; once you’re back to the stresses of uni work and a part-time job, you’ll grind that little extra away in no time.

The weather

Summer is actually a season. Coming from Aberdeen in Scotland I was under the impression that “summer” was the two weeks in June that weren’t as wet as all the others. In actual fact summer comes onto the continent with the sort of dry, roaring heat that you experience when you open an oven door. Stepping outside in anything less than a T-shirt and shorts will result in you sweating out every drop of fluid in your body, and since I owned neither, I spent a week walking around with a 2-litre bottle of water to top myself up. Pack for all weathers, not just the ones you’re used to!


Your ERASMUS grant, along with your student loan, should be more than enough to get by on but if you want to earn some extra pennies while you’re out there – perhaps saving up to buy a bike when you get home – then giving English lessons is a great way to make a bit of cash. You don’t need special training, although having a TEFL qualification will make it easier, and it’s a great way to meet some really interesting people. In addition, you’ll find yourself learning more about English and, as a result, French as well.

If you don’t fancy teaching and want to leap in at the deep end, a job as a waiter or bar-person is a great way to learn French. Especially the insults, as you’ll overhear more than one, but for an intensive French course there’s nothing better. Plus, you might get your meals for free. That’s worth it by itself.


You will miss your family more than you can imagine, especially in the build-up to events that are normally all about family – Christmas, Easter, and my parents’ birthdays are the three that really stick out for me. I was lucky enough to be in Paris; it’s not as difficult to get back to the UK from here as it is from elsewhere. However, if your year abroad will take you further away, then I’ve got to be honest – even though I’m only three hours from my folks, I missed them a whole lot. 

You will also miss your friends, with whom you have all these amazing inside jokes; your uni work, because apparently it’s a lot easier; and your go-to drunk food. We all have a drunk food, and for me it was chips and cheese. Try to imagine the look on the guy’s face when I tried to ask for chips and cheese in French while drunk. Picture a mix of horror, revulsion, and pity. You’re about halfway there.

You’ll also fall in love at least once with an incredibly attractive stranger. You will worship them, in their exotic mystery, and you’ll creep up to them and ask in your target language if perhaps they’d like to get a drink sometime. They may well not understand you at all. That’s what happened to me, but the trick is to realise that nobody is keeping score – although you’ll feel incredibly embarrassed, don’t skulk home feeling flushed and a failure. Use it as a springboard to improve, or as something funny to write about.


There will be a moment that will be simultaneously exciting and horrifying, and it’s when you find yourself searching for words in English. Shortly after that you start dreaming in your target language, and for a couple of days you wonder (in your target language) if you’re losing your roots. When this happens, sit down and watch the opening to the Olympic Games in 2012. Have a cup of Tetley’s tea. Speak to a loved one. Write a blog. It’s what I did, and that led to me writing this for

Use this site to plan your time abroad. It’s amazing, and I’m utterly frustrated that I only discovered it once I was out here. Since you’re reading this, you’ve already discovered it, but don’t keep it to yourself – share it with your year abroading friends! You are all going on an adventure and when you come back you’re going to be a little bit different. Not a lot, you’re not going to have grown an extra nose or lost five inches in height, but different. You might be a little more patient, a little more thoughtful, a little more open to new ideas. You might even speak your target language a little better, but that’s almost not as important – at least, to me, it wasn’t – as the people you will meet. If your life is a river, then I can assure you that the people you meet this year will be giant rocks, changing its course forever.

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