Monday, May 2, 2011

Aix-en-Provence, France, *Shaun Brennan,

Information on travelling to and arriving at your study abroad destination/host institution 

I spent last summer in Chicago so I left myself little enough time to get everything organised. I booked my flights to Marseille airport in early June, they were cheap (€70) with Ryanair from Dublin. I flew out from Dublin on the 31st of August and got the bus from Marseille airport to Aix-en-Provence which leaves very regularly. I booked into a cheap hotel the first night. If you have no accommodation booked prior to leaving for Aix, go directly to the tourist office where they will book you a room in either a hostel or a hotel, depending on your budget. I paid €30 a night in Hotel Concorde, located next to Rue d’Italie. It was comfortable and reasonably central. The tourist office advised against the hostel, especially after seeing the amount of baggage we had. 

Your experiences with finding accommodation for your study period abroad
We arrived in Aix-en-Provence having not booked accommodation. After spending three days looking for a place to stay, we (a classmate from NUI Galway and I) found a fourth floor apartment right next to the Town Hall. This was as central a location as it gets and to be honest, it made my year. I was literally two minutes from the university and everything else that we needed was a stone’s throw away.  While writing this report I’m looking down into the square watching the people strolling about or sitting having a coffee while a great five piece band play music. I could not have asked for a better location. Now, as regards student accommodation, it is an interesting tossup between that and a place like mine. First of all, the price difference is big. For student accommodation you’ll pay €170-€200 per month. I’m paying €430 a month. It’s quite a big difference, especially considering I had to spend my fair share of nights working in the bar, or days playing guitar in the street. But both working in the bar and playing guitar in the streets or in pubs were a huge experience for me. So from that perspective I didn’t mind paying the bit extra. There are three student residences that I know of, one I won’t even mention because of its distance from the university and the town in general. Cuques and Gazzelles are located right next to each other and are located about a twenty minute walk from the town centre and the university (IEP). When I say twenty minutes, thats at a good pace! There are other universities located close to these student residences (Fac de lettres) however I presume all are going to the IEP. Life in the student residences is an entirely different experience to the one I had, however I can offer you an insight into life there as I had lots of friends living there. Everyone living there gets very close and great friendships are made there. It’s a great way of meeting people at the start. Not that we had any problems, there were many parties and nights out and it seems that the hundred or so Erasmus students all get to know each other. Cooking facilities are basic, you purchase one plate, one fork etc in a starter pack and use a communal kitchen with twenty or so others for the year. In most kitchens there are only two hobs so patience is a good virtue to have. The walls between bedrooms are thin and disturbance is normal. In fact I’ve often heard people having converstions from the comfort of their beds with a friend the other end of the corridor. Clothes are left drying on lines in the bedrooms, and most rooms are tight for space as it is. However, in spite of this, these residences are really homely places once one gets settled. I saw two Irish girls from Limerick return home after less than two weeks after finding accommodation together in a private house. I can’t help but feel that wouldn’t have happened had they lived in student accommodation. From a personal perspective, I couldn’t have imagined living in student accommodation, but that’s only due to the the location of my house and the number of friends we made so early on. Everyone is in the same situation, so just start conversations. My best friends this year were those I met on the first day just through being sociable. Having a private house, we were free to play music as we liked, study and sleep in peace, cook comfortably and throw some brilliant parties! In my opinion it’s worth  the extra money to find a place in town. However it may be advisable to come in August rather than September like me and sort a place out in advance. If you do book student accommodation, you’re also going to have a great year. 

Information on the local environment in general, including issues like safety, native people’s attitudes, local customs, etc
Aix is a very safe place, often girls walk back to their student accommodation alone after a night out. The night life is very lively, but safe. As for local customs, there are markets three times a week  and an abundance of bakerys, both play a big part in the locals lives. Be sure to eat well, I doubt you’ll find another place in the world with such an array of foods and tastes. The place is brimming with culture.

How was the academic set up at your host university, for instance: was it difficult for you to find suitable courses? How are courses assessed?  Are the teaching methods very different to what you were used to? 
At the beginning it is made very simple for Erasmus students to register for courses. In fact, you have one month to register both in September and January so you can sample courses and see what is for you and what isn’t. You can take either 2nd year or 4th year subjects and there is a wide choice catering for all interests and abilities. Some lecturers are very helpful, others not so much but that is the case in all walks of life. Courses are assessed by either three hour written exams or 15-20 minute oral exams. Oral exams is the more common for Erasmus students. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of an oral exam, your French will improve no end during your stay here. You’ll be well abe. The classes are smaller than Galway and the lectures are two hours long for the most part. There are no tutorials. 

Information about student life in Aix:
There are an abundance of clubs and societies to join, sports, amnesty, music, basketball, boxing. I got involved immediately in the soccer team and found my feet very quickly in Aix thanks to them. Foreign people, especially Irish seem to be a novelty for French and they are very welcoming and include you in everything. Some of my good friends were made through soccer, and it’s sure that we will kepp in touch after I leave. Bonds made on sporting teams are strong as we’ve travelled around the south of France together as well as to Strasbourg for the national championships. There are wonderful sporting facilities available in Aix. There are numerous astro turf pitches, which you can play on for free, a fifty metre swimming pool, running tracks, tennis courts, table tennis tables etc. There is also Mount Saint Victoire, which everyone has to climb before leaving. 

Information about the cost of living at your study abroad destination
As regards local transport, I didn’t need to use it as I am within walking distance from everything here. However it is very cheap for bus journeys around the town. Trips elsewhere to Marseille etc are more expensive, but you can buy a card if you intend to travel frequently in and out. Trips are organised to all places worth visiting around the area. Feel free to contact me as regards places to visit as I made it my business to see as many as I could. Although on arrival here you will quickly learn of the best places to see as people begin to say ‘’what? You havnt been there yet?’’ A meal can be got for less then three euros in the university canteens, located in different parts of the town, all walking distance. The food is nice usually and you get a dessert too! In general eating out anywhere else is expensive, although there are some lovely resteraunts that cater for students. Laundry is expensive. You’ll pay €8 to wash and dry clothes(not a large amount). In the Student residences its cheaper as you can hang your clothes out the window if you’re not on the ground floor. The phone! Orange are ridiculously expensive and one of the very few things I would change about the year is not have spent money on credit. It lasts no time at all. Use webtexts! Get a phone(not Orange) but my advice would be to use webtexts asmuch as you can. Skype is also a great thing. We were lucky in that our fairly wealthy neighbour allowed us to use her wireless for the year. However if you’re willing to pay €40 a month you can get your own broadband with house phone and unlimited free calls to European landlines. Which is really a very good deal. Any questions regarding that I can find out more if needed. 

Did you get part-time work?  Is it difficult to find?  Any tips for future students? 
Part time work is difficult enough to find. In bars and nightclubs it’s easier, however they look for experience and I had four years. Minimum one year I imagine. If anyone can play music, there is a big music culture out here and bars will pay you decent money to play. If there is anyone coming out here for the year, I may be able to help find part time work if you could start immediately in September in the bar I worked in. Its one minute from the university, The Wohoo (25 Rue de Bon Pasteur). Otherwise, put up hundreds of adverts offering English lessons and you’ll be pretty much guaranteed to get a few lessons a week and make €30 for yourself.  

Playing at the Wohoo, International Bar
Any other advice? 
My advice would be to set up your bank account with Soc Gen, on cours Mirabeau the main street. They are straight forward and relatively helpful to students. You’ll need this account for CAF. CAF is money back on your accommodation(25% roughly). However, one thing I would change about this year is go to the CAF office with as much personal documentation as you have early on (in the first two weeks at latest). If you post it, you won’t get money until you leave. They are very slow.  

Would you do it again?  Would you change anything? 
This year has quite simply been the most exciting, rewarding and best year of my life. I’ve made brilliant friends from every continent of the world, people I will undoubtedly stay in touch with for the rest of my life. I’ve climbed a mountain, I’ve ran around the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world in Nimes, I’ve been to the ‘Grand Canyon of Europe’, I’ve learned to play the piano, I’ve lost money in a casino in Monaco, I’ve slept on a roofop in Turin Italy, I’ve sat in the Nou Camp for a Barcelons game, I’ve seen the Palais des Papes in Avignon, I’ve sat on a cliff in Saint Marie de la mer for a night playing the guitar with friends, I’ve played football in the national university championships, I’ve drank great wine (and a lot of cheap wine too), I’ve swam in Valencia Spain during the night, I’ve read books and seen films in both English and French, I’ve thrown snowballs in the Alps, I’ve danced with jubilant Marseille supporters after they won the league, I’ve swam in fountains, I’ve climbed the Eiffel tour. There is nothing I could or would change about this year. Study abroad, you won’t regret a minute of it!!!

In apartment with international friends

Sean is a student at  NUI Galway

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