Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dear Bank/University/Mum, I’m writing about my change of address...

I’m slightly nervous about this instalment, because, as with everything so far, finding accommodation hasn’t been a bed of roses. However, to those starting their year abroad preparation now, fear not – it’s not as hard as it seems, and for everyone I know, it’s worked out pretty well.

There are various possibilities when moving abroad as a student. The most obvious is applying for university halls. There’s a lot of competition for these rooms, but, at least in the case of Montpellier’s universities, it was organised early - the application form came with the other enrolment documents, and we were informed if we had a place or not by the end of June. An application is therefore certainly worthwhile – if you get a halls room, the task of finding accommodation can be ticked off, and if not, you have the whole summer to find somewhere else. Usefully, the university also sent plenty of helpful web addresses for accommodation to people who hadn’t got halls places.

Another important fact to note with university halls is that they won’t necessarily let you know if they have spare rooms – two friends emailed them at the end of August to say they had nowhere to live and were immediately found rooms. This isn’t something to bank on, but it’s definitely worth a try if you think you’re still going to be living out of a suitcase in a hostel come the start of term.

Many people also apply for private halls, such as Les Academiades de Montpellier and Les Estudines. Although they are slightly more expensive than university rooms, they tend to be centrally located and have good facilities, including a small private kitchen area and private bathroom. The only slight downside to these halls is that an Ikea trip is essential for everything from bedding to kitchenware, which can get expensive if you’re only going to be there for one semester. On that note, I’m reliably informed that a useful website to know is wedelivertheworld.com – a worldwide shipping agency, which transports your stuff to and from wherever you are based abroad for relatively low prices (a huge bonus to girls with lots of shoes and anyone who’s bought pots and pans for a four-month period). Always worth knowing, as airline fees for extra luggage are extortionate, especially if paid for at the airport.

The final accommodation alternative is a colocation, in other words living with a family or other students, which is what I’ve done. It’s a common way of finding accommodation for students abroad, as it’s usually relatively cheap and guarantees that you’ll be speaking the language to others in the house.

There are plenty of good websites for finding a colocation, the most popular for France being appartager.com and accueilenfamille.com, both of which I’ve used. These websites give you the opportunity to specify your exact needs and then offer the best possible matches to your profile.

Of course, it’s important to arrange accommodation like this safely.  I decided to live with another UCL student, which made the whole process more manageable and less terrifying, and also gave us safety in numbers. We started looking in July, which is just about ideal - by August, especially in student cities such as Montpellier, competition for rooms is immense. Even in July, I arranged four viewings, and by the time I arrived in Montpellier, a week later, three of the rooms were taken.

If you’re moving into a private house, viewings are essential (especially if you’re asked for a deposit). You need to ensure that you’re living with relatively normal people, and that the house is secure and in a safe area. It’s also a good chance to verify in person things like what your rent covers, local amenities and transport, if you need to bring anything (bedding, cookware etc) with you, how rent is paid etc. These may all seem like basic things, but in a town where buses stop at 8.30 pm, you don’t want to find on arrival that you either can’t socialise in the evenings or you have an hour’s walk home through a dubious area. 

Also, to reiterate a message given out on the websites: don’t pay any deposit without seeing the place (just in case it doesn’t exist...) and without some form of receipt and contract.

Of course, these measures don’t guarantee success...We congratulated ourselves on sorting out rooms with a family, under a four-month contract, by August. Two weeks after moving into our house in September, we were told that actually, we’d have to leave on 1st October. Apparently our family hadn’t foreseen the potential problems of combining two student lodgers (one of whom would live in the converted attic, with a VERY creaky floor) with having a toddler aged three and a baby of two months.

This was obviously an awkward situation, exacerbated by the mother of the family, who – either through awkwardness or a desire to ensure we left quickly (and without an argument about their breach of contract!) – stopped speaking to us, and instead communicated with us via post-it note. It was surreal to say the least – the first day there were no fewer than 10 notes dotted around ranging from “clean!”, with an arrow pointing to a mark on the sink, which neither myself nor my housemate had made, to (I quote) “take your hairs out of the shower or the pipes will get blocked up with shit”.

Luckily, they put us in touch with Accueil en Famille, who found us somewhere else to look at straight away, which was not only fine, but perfect – cheaper, closer to university and our friends, with a much more sociable and welcoming family, and with a private pool. There must be a catch with it somewhere, but so far (with fingers duly crossed and touching wood) we’ve yet to find it.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as we announced we’d found somewhere new, the post-it orders stopped.

Obviously this is a very rare scenario. Everyone else I know has settled in well immediately at their houses, and we’ve now settled in well here. If a family or group of students are looking to rent a room to a foreign student, chances are they’re going to be welcoming and understanding – and it’s a brilliant way to meet people and ensure that you’re speaking French at least once a day in one capacity or another.

From the point of view of ease, I’d hoped to get a university room, but actually I’m happy about the way living with a family has worked out (in the end). I think it really is worthwhile. Maybe just avoid families with tiny babies, for their sake and yours.

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