Here we are, a new semester, and you could easily stay back in the States on your boring campus, drinking light domestic beer like everyone else. But that would be boring and predictable, and you are cool and different, so you’ve decided to spend a few months abroad. And of all the continents on earth, you picked Europe. Great choice. Very original. (Much like when we Europeans go for a vacation in “America,” but spend all three weeks in New York City.) But are you really prepared for what you’ll find, or have you just been watching Amelie on repeat for the last ten years? That won’t be enough by itself — you need to be well-prepared, beyond just learning where to buy Absinthe. Here, a guide to making the most of your time abroad without being the proverbial Ugly American.
Be prepared to do your PhD in paperwork.
Yay! You have your student visa, your plane tickets and your official city guide. You can finally have all the goodbye parties you want and start wondering who will take you to the airport (maybe you should have waited to break up with that guy). Don’t think settling in your new city will be easy. It will actually start with a great deal of red tape. First of all, most of the Unis have received foreign students for years, but they’ve never actually figured out how to do it. Indeed, you will always be missing at least one paper (yes, even if you’re hot, as there is no way to explain that to a computer). Teachers won’t know if you can attend their class or not (unless you’re hot, which allows you to attend any class), no one will know if you have access to a student card.
Then, you’ll probably want to live somewhere (I’m assuming, I don’t know you). To achieve it, ask a bank to be guarantor for you, because virtually no owner will rent you their flat with a guarantor abroad, let alone without guarantor. Plus, it will save you the trouble of bringing 2 years of pay stubs to prove that you LEGALLY earn three times the rent. Yes, prostitution is illegal. Yes, so is drug dealing. Once you have found your flat, the next step will be asking for housing allowance which will make any red tape adventure look ridiculously easy. I would love to tell you all about it, but the pain is still too fresh for me to go into details. And I’ve been renting flats in Europe for the last 5 years. Just remember that if you show up with just a naive look on your face and two words in the native language, you’ll probably spend half the semester helpless and laughed at by locals.
Nothing good happens before 9 AM.
Unlike the big cities in America (notably New York), Europe is not the Continent That Never Sleeps. Things close down at night, and open again in the mornings. Unless what you’re looking for is a bakery or a post office, I’m sorry to say most of the shops, museums and pubs are closed until 9 am. It will be a bit hard to accept the first time you’re drunk in the first metro at 6 am and having pizza, visiting the Louvre or even hanging out in the school library seems like the greatest thing that could ever happen to you. You’re probably on the verge of death from fatigue but too drunk and possibly disappointed (yeah, I’m sorry, but let’s face it: not all European guys are great lovers) to notice it. Don’t wear yourself out too early on this voyage — get some sleep, try to avoid the hangover you’ll end up having anyway, and wake up with enough time left to catch some daylight (if you can, I don’t want to judge).
English will get you through, but won’t make you look good.
There are thousands of places in Europe where people still believe their language is the world’s most beautiful one and everybody should learn it. It isn’t completely true, but it isn’t completely wrong either. Actually, if you come here and do not know a single word of the language spoken around you (and please remember Europe is made of several countries where different languages are used), three terrible things will happen:
1. You will be lost in any place where things aren’t translated into English, including restaurants and pubs and bars. Really annoying if the waiters don’t speak English, or just know how to introduce themselves. Which happens. A lot. (Here’s a secret: They will automatically dislike you for making them work so much harder, as they’re not getting tips regardless.)
2. You will only see tourist stuff, which isn’t bad, but if you ask your way and people hear your effort of learning a bit of their language, they may reward it by showing you confidential places nearby you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. What do you want? Come back with the Eiffel Tower picture your whole family already has, or be considered like a fine connoisseur of the secret places you’ve visited?
3. You won’t be able to impress anyone with your extended two-word knowledge of their language and won’t ever hear the sentence “Oh my god!!! Your accent is so. cute.” You don’t want to miss all those precious chances of getting laid!
Don’t ever relax.
A year in Europe probably looked like the perfect holiday idea before you got here. And yes, you will have wine and pasta and drunk makeouts with literally thousands of beautiful European people. But don’t start to think studying abroad is a perfect time to relax because no teacher ever demands anything from exchange students. Even as a foreigner sitting among European students, you will probably have some homework. The great thing is, though, professors will usually leave you at least two weeks to work on it. Do the right thing, and get to work as soon as you can. Don’t believe that you actually have two weeks to work on it. Let’s face it, there is always something going on. If you are really here to enjoy your city, you will always find a good reason to go out. Concerts, museum exhibitions, oh-look-the-sun-is-shining-again parties. Friends tweeting you for an impromptu shopping session; that cute guy from that one bar texting you for an impromptu date; people you barely know calling you for an impromptu apéritif by the Seine. If you get in the habit of postponing your minimal schoolwork, you’ll always find something more important to do, until you find yourself with exactly one semester’s worth of work and exactly one night to do it in. Don’t be that person. Time management is essential — something you should master while you’re here.
Erasmus parties won’t bring you local sex.
If you are an American exchange student, you may have come to Europe thanks to an agreement signed directly between your French and American universities or thanks to the MICEFA, so you may be at first wondering who the hell an Erasmus student is. Erasmus is a wonderful program allowing European students to travel to a foreign European uni for a semester or a year. In other words, Erasmus is perfect if you’re trying to improve your language skills, willing to finally move out from your parents’ place or engaging a who-will-nail-the-most-nationalities contest with your classy friends. Whether or not you’re on for that last point, you will sooner or later be tempted by Erasmus parties where you can get in clubs for free by showing your foreign passport. Sounds amazing, no? Drinks and endless dance music, what happens there stays there so everyone’s “single,” condom distributors everywhere (Go Europe!). What else? Oh, right… local people, maybe? The people you came here to “learn from” and “appreciate the culture of”? There will be a few, sure, but really not enough to actually meet them in the club, let alone have any kind of intercourse. These parties can be addictive, but are about as culturally enriching as going to a Chinese New Year festival in the middle of Iowa. So please, if you don’t want to miss your chance for local sex (and maybe some local conversation, but let’s not get crazy), just pay and go a to a party where it can actually happen.
Don’t tip. No, really, don’t tip.
I know people in America tip a lot, even students who have to actually work for their spending money. Clubs, bars, restaurants, everywhere, even for a simple coffee. In Canada, they even know how to calculate how much they should tip. It was always incredibly hard for me, every time I had a meal in a Canadian restaurant, to think about giving that extra 15 %, and even harder to actually give them, especially if the service or the food was quite bad (why do you do this to yourselves?!). Thank God I came back to France, where tips are made for men 35 and up, or twenty-somethings willing to impress a date, to show they had some money to throw around or thank the waiter for exceptionally good service. Actually, there even are places where the words “service included” are written on the bill. What they mean is: “We don’t pay our waiters more than any other place, but at least here you don’t have to feel guilty for not tipping.” Heros, really. Of course, there still are waiters who’ll make a point in showing you how incredibly stingy you are, but don’t worry — you can always tell them you’re a student and they’ll probably start to pity you.