After what I can only describe as the most stressful week of my life, I am glad to say that I am finally (half) settled in Montpellier. My first real blog entry has been postponed until now due to a lack of essential things such as having a room and internet, and in any case I would have had nothing but ranting and stressing to report, which would make for a pretty unenjoyable read. Nevertheless, here I am, almost an entire week into my Erasmus exchange in Montpellier, still reeling from the shock of having to sort out so much so soon, but finally enjoying this amazingly beautiful and vibrant city.
My journey technically began at 11pm from my front door back home and ended at around 10am the next day, having travelled from my hometown in Wales to London overnight and catching a 6.20am flight from Gatwick Airport the following morning. On top of this, I had been immensely sleep deprived initially the previous week due to nerves/stress/excitement, and thus wasn’t exactly in the most ideal state of mind for the immense task at hand of finding myself a home for the impending academic year. My parents had booked us an apartment for the week in the quaint town of Lattes, about half an hour south of the centre of Montpellier. It should have taken slightly less time to reach the centre, but since the roads are being dug up left right and centre in preparation for the city’s third tram line, rendering my stepdad’s iPhone GPS pretty useless. Our hosts were the loveliest French couple you could ever imagine, who had gone to great lengths to make sure we were comfortable, having even drawn out maps by hand showing the best places in the Montpellier periphery to sightsee. They also knew a lot about local wines and food, so we were lucky enough to sample all kinds of wine and the most amazing locally grown melon. We were even treated to an impromptu lecture on the history of crusaders in the Languedoc-Roussillon region from our very enthusiastic and adorable host. I’m glad to still be in contact with them during my year abroad as they are a veritable mine of information as well as being so lovely and helpful.
I will try not to bore you too much with details of the hellish series of events that occurred while I was trying to find a room, but if you are reading this blog as a means of gathering advice for your year abroad, then I will say that it is NOT a good idea to come immediately at the beginning of your university’s academic year with nothing lined up for accommodation. The French matriculation process is confusing and chaotic enough as it is without having to gallivant all over the city looking for flats. I would recommend arriving a week early at least if you want to look for a ‘colocation’ as opposed to halls, especially since at this stage most places are taken by people who are clever and sensible enough to have sorted out their lives beforehand. Plus, you have other things to sort out, such as bank accounts, tram passes, the CAF form (if you’re eligible) and for the most part you have to draw up your timetable all on your own. Once you have a place to live, all of the above becomes far easier in comparison.
Thank goodness the hell is now over and I eventually managed to find my idea of a perfect home for the year in a villa sharing with three very friendly French girls, one of whom is studying at my university. It’s about fifteen minutes away from uni on foot and less than five away from the nearest tram stop, plus it has a front and back garden. I’m still struggling to believe that I found such an amazing house where I’m able to practise French all the time, and I can only conclude that I was an extremely good person in another life to have got so lucky! I even discovered today that one of my flatmates is a vegetarian, and I had thought that it would be impossible to find a fellow veggie in France, let alone one who I live with and who is actually French. Here is a picture of my villa!
The weather is stunning but it is absolutely SWELTERING here. It’s taking a heck of a lot of getting used to and makes running around on the inevitable wild goose chases set for you by French administration all the more unpleasant. Obviously everything at the university has been an organisational nightmare, having been told that ‘in theory’ our courses started on the Thursday, making it plain that none of the staff had much of an idea what was going on. Thus far I’ve not been too impressed with the university due to their lack of planning, as well as their tendency to subject you to three hour long seminars in boiling hot classrooms. However I’m open to a change of heart, as the staff seem very friendly and approachable and the course material (where it’s available or known by the lecturers) is potentially very interesting. I’m hoping to take some courses in French literary history and culture, comparative literature, contemporary history and translation. I am a fan of the idea that all students study some kind of foreign language alongside their main degrees, and if I’m feeling daring I might just take an introductory course in another foreign language, which I have been told is only about an hour and a half’s worth of teaching a week.
After having been confined to Lattes and the hunt for a flat for so long at the beginning of the week, I was really looking forward to my first night out in Montpellier. I met up with a few Erasmus students as well as with a French girl I had met on the internet while I was searching for a room, who had brought all her friends too. We went to a couple of bars near the Place de la Comédie, the bustling and very beautiful heart of the city centre where you can see some of Montpellier’s most impressive rustic architecture and its famous opera house. In general the bars were student friendly, but beer is far more expensive than in the UK, however in my opinion the good value of the wine more than makes up for this! Montpellier is renowned for being one of the biggest and best student cities in the whole of France, so there are usually lots of student offers, happy hours and Erasmus gatherings all over the city, particularly in September. A particularly tongue-in-cheek example was when we turned up to the Temple Bar where they were offering a ‘free surprise’ for groups of five girls or more, though thankfully it only involved chewy sweets and a free drink. Here’s a picture to commemorate my first time out in Montpellier!
Last night was also a fantastic experience, as it was the last night of an annual summer festival known as ‘Les Estivales’, which takes place every Friday on the esplanade between Comédie and Corum. There is absolutely incredible food in abundance, as well as stalls selling books, jewellery, antiques, and most importantly, loads of wine. You buy a glass for 4€ which comes with a set of tickets for three refills, or ‘degustations’, of the amazing local wines on offer. There were several bands, playing traditional French music as well as a double act performing covers of contemporary songs. The atmosphere was sensational, and it was a real insight into how food, wine and a great convivial atmosphere form such a central part of French culture in the south of France.
As much as I like the idea of making lots of new friends through Erasmus parties, which is the most common way to get to know people initially, I’m very eager to get to know the locals and French students in order to improve my French and my knowledge of the area, particularly in terms of the best places to go out. I feel as though my French has definitely improved already, since I was calling people all the time to arrange flat viewings and having to sort out a lot of things which required relatively advanced knowledge of the language, such as opening a bank account. I was initially very worried about my standard of French before coming here, but people here will be delighted with your efforts, especially since I have found that not many people that I have met so far speak much English. To anyone who is worried about their French, you really will surprise yourself, and the best way to deal with any embarrassment is to just dive straight in there and have a go. The compliments you will receive about your speaking skills will feel so rewarding!
My goal is to know what courses I’m doing by the end of this week, which is a lot harder than it sounds. I’m definitely hoping to avoid too many three hour long seminars, as well as find out if there is any more information available on the contemporary history course other than just the title. Thus far I still feel as though I’ve barely discovered student life in Montpellier, which is both exciting and a little frustrating, as there really is so much on offer in this very modern and vibrant city, and I hope that next time I post a blog entry I will feel a little more like a local.