Study Abroad vs. TAPIF: A Comparison

Many things in these first few months have made me think about this question:

What’s the difference between studying abroad and doing TAPIF?

I think this question is relevant to a lot of people, so I’ll use my experience to answer it for myself, and maybe it will resonate with someone!

First, some important background:

Then: Paris, lived in a homestay, went through a program organized by an American university with 45 other students, stayed for one semester. Studied (12 hours of class + homework). First time abroad.

Now: Valenciennes, live in a tiny room-apartment, went through the TAPIF program (organized by the French Ministry of Education), staying for almost a whole academic year (7 months). Working 12 hours/week.

I’ll make this comparison in list format, because it’s an internet trend but also because it’s organized and pretty

Pre-departure Differences

  1. The application process: This part is actually fairly similar. Both study abroad and TAPIF require everyone to fill out an application with some of the same material listed. One of the major differences is that the TAPIF application requires you to essentially translate your CV into French, by listing all your activities and extracurriculars in French instead of English. TAPIF is also much more competitive these days.
  2. The visa process: This is EASIER for TAPIF than it is for study abroad. They didn’t require nearly as much paperwork, and the French government paid for the visa fee. Unfortunately the trip to San Francisco is still required for people from my neck of the woods.
  3. The packing/panicking process: There’s no “things to bring” lists or advice or people to talk to if you’re in a panic when you do TAPIF. There’s Carolyn Collins, who sends out some e-mails throughout the summer, and the Guide de l’Assistant de Langue en France. I read all the things, and none of them particularly prepared me or helped in moments of panic. In my study abroad program there were lots of helping hands in case we got stuck or panicky, between the study abroad liaison at Whitman and the directors of the Paris program.
  4. Leaping into the unknown: Nobody knows where they’re going or what it will be like before they leave. This was a HUGE difference, because with study abroad programs there are usually past participant testimonies, a general structure to the program that we know ahead of time, and we plan out things to do and everything before arrival. Including housing.

Lifestyle Differences

  1. Speaking French: In my study abroad program, we were required to speak French on school grounds, and also generally had to use French to talk to our host families and the professors and administration at our French schools. All of that goes away with TAPIF, depending on your situation. In my case, I live alone, hang out with English speakers, and most of the people I know at my high school are English teachers, so it takes a lot more effort to speak French. Sometimes it’s possible to find a host family, so if that’s a concern for you, explore your options.
  2. Helping Hands: With TAPIF, you are at the mercy of kind souls in your school who may or may not want to help you get set up, find a bank, find a house, get a phone, etc. There isn’t a conveniently located center for the program with advice and deals and all the answers. If there are no kind souls, you do it yourself! I was fortunate and my teacher contact helped me out a lot with the bank, but for most things I was on my own.
  3. Work vs. School: You are no longer a student when doing TAPIF. You have a job, and having a job means being professional, interacting with colleagues, and setting a good example for the students you teach. Living a student life in Paris, nobody was expecting me to be anywhere or do anything or interact with them professionally in a work capacity. Here, I definitely feel watched at school, and there are many expectations. On the flip side, I’m not actually in school very much, and I live in a different town so I don’t worry about running into students outside of class. And I like having a work life and a home life!
  4. Location: In study abroad, I was in Paris! And now I’m in Val. It’s like going from magical fairy wonderland to the woods. Magical fairy wonderland was a new adventure full of shiny things to see and learn every single day, and the woods are basically the same all the time. But the woods are more natural and teach me survival skills, so I’m happy with it. But: don’t expect the woods to be magical fairy wonderland! Appreciate them for what they are.
  5. The ex-pat community: There is a different community of people awaiting with TAPIF. In my case, my friends are not all American study abroad students…they are European, American, South American, Canadian lecteurs (English teachers at university level), assistants, and students. And even some French students, teachers, and families. It’s great for French sometimes, not so great other times…but in my case, I feel like I’ve found some people that share my passion for cultural exchange, just as I did during study abroad!
  6. Living conditions: In Paris, my friends and I were generally housed in home stays or student foyers. Now, it’s everyone for themselves, and the conditions range from single-room shared-facilities to 3-story house.
  7. Making a salary (!?): Now, I make money! In Paris, I didn’t. That being said, the salary is barely enough to live on, even in a less expensive area!

The most important difference to me personally is that before, I was going back somewhere — Whitman, my home away from home — to do something determined. So, the whole semester had a magical feel to it, my first experiences not at home and in a country that I’d dreamed of visiting for so long. I left feeling like I had unfinished business.

Now, I am officially launched into the world, so this is like my debutante ball. I am living MY life! And I’m trying to decide where it’s going next. Who knows where my business will be finished?

Anne in Paris, 2013!
Anne in Paris, 2013!
Study Abroad vs. TAPIF: A Comparison

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

I recently discovered that aside from my “chatty” and “angry” neighbors, I have another neighbor who is much worthier of being visited: BELGIUM.

Some of you may have already seen my post about Ghent with Dana. That was my first Belgian adventure. In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, I’ve been there twice more.

A trip to Belgium from Valenciennes involves:

1. Taking the city bus from the train station to “Frontière,” the last stop on the line which is right on the Belgian border (30 minutes).

2. Walking across the border, down the street which consists of nothing but Tabac shops (bulk tobacco, booze, etc. for much cheaper than in France), and end up at the grimy and desolate, not to mention closed down indefinitely so we can’t actually go into it, station. (15 minutes)

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3. Catching the train from Quiévrain (the border town) to St. Ghislain. (20 minutes)

4. Catching a train in St. Ghislain to basically anywhere in Belgium (1 hour to Brussels, where you can catch another to Ghent, or about 1 hour to Tournai)!

In other words, it takes me about as much time to get to Belgium as it does to get to Seattle in traffic at home. My friend even worked out how to get to Luxembourg or Aix-la-Chapelle this way.

I had Tuesday off this past week, so Matt and I went to Tournai.

The belfry, which is the oldest one in Belgium

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The view from the belfry (cue intense feeling of vertigo)

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On the main square

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Then, this weekend, my friend Laura and I went to Brussels, having heard about their amazing Christmas market. It definitely lived up to our expectations.

Inside the market rows

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Bison burger (!? they invited Québec to do a few stalls) and vin chaud (mulled wine)

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Smoked salmon! 

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Sometimes (all the time), a change of scenery does wonders for one’s mentality. There is nothing better than arriving in a brand new city with a bunch of new things to do and see and feeling like every little victory (navigating a new metro system? finding the grande place?) is a championship achievement.

Also, I loved the Brussels Christmas Market because so many of the stalls contained things I would never be able to get anywhere else in the world. It was mostly a visual feast, because after I got some Christmas presents there wasn’t a reason to spend more money…but the number of beautiful artisan home decorations, jewelry, food, etc. we saw was insane! The market went on for blocks and blocks, and we got lost several times…but it was a GREAT day.

Goal of the year: visit every Belgian city worth seeing? 🙂

Bummin’ Around in Belgium

En Train

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Valenciennes, my home, is three train stops (a ~20 minute ride) from Somain, where I work. When I first arrived, I told my temporary hosts how miraculous I think the SNCF (France’s train transportation network) is, and they laughed at me — “Wait ’til there’s a strike,” they said. It’s a terrifying prospect, because if there ever is a strike I’ll be basically done for, unless I can find a teacher to give me a ride; the train is my only way of getting to work.

There’s also the newly discovered inconvenience which is: there are no trains between 2:09 PM and 4:45 PM. This means that if I get off work at 2 or 3, I’ve got quite the wait until the next train home. Waiting is one of my very least favorite activities. I’m an incredibly patient person, except when I’ve had a long day and can’t wait to eat and crawl into bed and Netflix before sleeping. I need a commute book.

I’ve started to measure distance in trains, also. I am 42 minutes by train from Lille. I’m 1h45 by train from Paris. I’m a few hours away from London. I’m about an hour from Brussels. (My location is like, !!!!)

The title of this post is part of a French expression used to communicate being in the middle of doing something; Je suis en train de lire  = I am in the middle of reading, Je suis en train de voyager = I am in the middle of traveling, etc. It’s basically another version of present tense; it’s the idea of continuous movement, an activity that’s still going on. In French, the idea of this expression and the idea of being physically in a train would be distinguished from one another via prepositions — “in the train” is not en train but dans le train.

However, I like thinking about the intersection point between trains and this expression: the idea of continuous movement, and of being perfectly positioned to head off toward an adventure of my choice. My life goal right now is to put myself in a place that enables me to go where I want to. If I’m at the appropriate station, I can choose the train that’s hurtling toward somewhere I want to go.

So far, I think I’ve been pretty successful at that. I’ve picked things to do that engage me while I’m in the middle of doing them, taking me a station closer to finding my eventual route through life. I went to a fabulous school which my gut said would make me into someone I wanted to be (thanks, Whitman). And now in France I’m positioned to learn more about things I know I love — education, people, and French — and discover more things I didn’t know I’d love. New experiences are in close proximity.

There’s a lot of post-college nonsense about having a concrete plan for the rest of life, as if that is going to magically be handed to you with a degree in whatever happened to be your undergrad passion. But after surviving these first few post-grad months, and after talking to more seasoned post-grad friends, I think it’s much more about the present than the future. Yes, have goals. But have goals in order to inform your present, not predict the future. Have goals like “go here,” “learn more about _____ that I’ve always been interested in.” Be self-aware and reflect. Engage with new communities. I am a die-hard optimist (and a believer in people) who thinks that everyone finds their niche, but not without putting themselves in the ideal position to find it.

In whatever you are en train de faire (in the middle of doing), make sure you’ve boarded a train heading somewhere. And if you realize it’s not, hop off at the next stop and find a new one.

Sometimes, there will be a strike, and you might be stopped in your tracks. But the world (and especially Commuter Anne) needs you!!

En Train

On Growing Up in Communities and Stuff

Several things this summer have reminded me of stuff that is absolutely essential to my being.

#1. COMMUNITY

I’m not sure if there will be a #2 in this post, but I am clarifying that there are other things that are essential to my being. I’m working on discovering them. For now, I want to write about how much I love communities, via specific examples.

This summer, I returned to my true alma mater for a summer job. This phrase is Latin for “nurturing mother,” and most aptly describes what my elementary school is and was to me — both because my mother works there, and, perhaps more profoundly, because it was one of my first and most nourishing communities. Here are some things it gave me, because I’m into lists today:

A. A love of learning, and a commitment to the Whole Child. My school is a Montessori school, and for those of you who don’t know much about Montessori…do some research. It’s a beautiful educational philosophy. Among its key components is a commitment to nurturing the whole child. Montessori kids don’t just learn math and language and science, they learn how to set the table, how to pour juice, how to sew, how to collaborate and compromise with other kids, how to mentor and how to be mentored, how to make choices and take responsibility for them — essentially, how to function in a community. The importance of this foundation has gradually revealed itself to me as I’ve grown up and found new communities. Each new “habitat” requires the same humble curiosity as I learn how to be a part of it, and the process of shaping it and being shaped by it brings me the same joy and sense of security that I felt throughout my formative childhood years at Eton. I learned how to engage in communities with my Whole Self, and I know what it feels like when I am holistically engaged by a community in return.

B. An appreciation for “all God’s children,” as my friend (and also the father in the movie Easy A) would always say. My 8th grade class had a whopping 13 people in it, and they were people I’d known at least since fourth grade. Growing up in a small group can be stifling at times, but it can also provide a super-safe place for being one’s self, without fear of judgment or ostracism…hard to come by in middle school. I learned to appreciate even the people in the group that were most different from me, and how all of our unique strengths came together when we all participated in the community. The school play was a yearly example of that, when all of us transformed into characters — little did they know, we were all pretty out-there characters already. We even tried to write a novel as a class, which was a crazy undertaking, but inventing a story incorporating 13 different people who wrote their own characters and had totally different writing styles and dreams about where the story will go is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (After a chaotic brainstorm session and DAYS of discussion rounded out with an unruly vote, we ended up calling it: “Troubled Waters”…..)

This idea is on the forefront of my brain because I’ve been so thoroughly reminded of it this summer, by working at my old school AND by my visit to my college town last weekend. I have a lot of friends who are still there for jobs or because they have another year to go, and engaging with them again reminded me why I love communities so much: to me, there is little that is more fulfilling than exchange. Exchange of ideas, exchange of wisdom, exchange of smiles, exchange of hugs, exchange of food and friendship and insights and laughter — and in a community like the ones I grew up in, exchanges are everywhere. Being there made me feel connected, and the interactions I had were so fulfilling that the feeling of connectedness that started forming when I was a little 7 year old playing Guinea Pigs and Unicorns with my best friends at recess remains deeply embedded.

It’s incredibly comforting to know Where I Came From, at the same moment that I prepare to jet off into Where I’m Going.

Where am I going? Geopgraphically, I know. Physically, my body will probably stick around. Emotionally, the forecast is a drizzly PNW morning: a little confusing and shrouded in mist. Linguistically, I’ll probs speak a little French. Ultimately, I hope that Where I’m Going is into a new and different community, maybe one that I get to create myself. But, regardless of what happens now, I am full of gratitude for my dearest formative communities, and what awesome tools they’ve given me to community-build in the terrifying REAL WORLD.

People keep asking if I’ll be coming back…who knows. 😉

(6 days!)

On Growing Up in Communities and Stuff

Douai? Valenciennes? Somain?

Salut, chers lecteurs et lectrices! (Hello, dear readers!)

I may do a series of belated posts on my summer adventures, but for now, an update on France – I have at long last received my work contract, and therefore I know roughly where I’ll be living next year! It’s very exciting, because now I can start obsessively googling pictures and maps and train fares and offices of tourism and historical information about REAL things and not just hypothetical ones. The adventure begins.

I have a decision to make. I was placed as the English Language assistant in a middle school and high school in Somain, which is a tiny commune (about 12,000 people, which is like a 5th of the population of my suburb near Seattle) between Douai and Valenciennes, which form a triangle with Lille (see map). So, I think I get to decide whether I want to live in Douai or Valenciennes, larger and more train accessible cities…and what to do if they offer me super cheap housing in Somain, because that could be tempting.

So naturally I have started doing some comparative googling. Maybe I’ll make a pro/con list of each city, or maybe it will come down to which one has the best looking housing options. Regardless, I am embarking on a new and adventurous thought project, and could not be more stoked.

But it’s also nice to keep thinking the back-of-my-mind thought: wherever I live, it will be new, exciting, challenging, scary, in a different language, and something(s) unanticipated will happen. Just the way I like it.

Douai? Valenciennes? Somain?

An Inspired Community

“As you leave here, remember what you loved most in this place. Not Orgo 2, I’m guessing, or the crazed squirrels or even the bulk cereal in the Freshman Marketplace. I mean the way you lived, in close and continuous contact. This is an ancient human social construct that once was common in this land. We called it a community. We lived among our villagers, depending on them for what we needed. If we had a problem, we did not discuss it over the phone with someone in Bubaneshwar. We went to a neighbor. We acquired food from farmers. We listened to music in groups, in churches or on front porches. We danced. We participated. Even when there was no money in it. Community is our native state. You play hardest for a hometown crowd. You become your best self. You know joy. This is not a guess, there is evidence. The scholars who study social well-being can put it on charts and graphs. In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, as you might guess, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.”

From a graduation speech given by Barbara Kingsolver, in 2008, to Duke graduates. This totally resonates with me in relation to Whitman.

(The full speech is good too: http://today.duke.edu/2008/05/kingsolver.html)

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Spring Cleaning

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I haven’t been at home in 5 months. I have never been at home as not-a-student.

My gift to myself for graduation is resurrecting a blog — I started this one right when I got home from Paris and haven’t used it much yet. But, I am craving a place for documenting my next adventures: public, but only to people who care to read about them! So, welcome.

My first summer project: a deep-clean of my room. I am a hoarder, especially of all things School. I’ve always felt like throwing notes and assignments away is like throwing away a piece of my soul (…homework is my horcrux…). This time around, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I no longer actually want anything from high school. Recycling it was catharsis.

I’ll make that a metaphor for my feelings about graduation. It feels like a catharsis.

From Wikipedia (now that I’m not in school, who needs peer-reviewed sources amirite?): 

Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) is the purification and purgation of emotions…or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.”

This definition captures what everything I’m throwing away and my feelings have in common: both are undergoing a restorative purification, a cleansing purgation. When you spend a large amount of time in one place, things pile up. Experiences collect in haphazard piles, memories form. Some, untouched but cherished, gather dust, and some won’t go away even if you’d like them to. Cleaning allows me to revisit and restore (or purge) everything that’s been absorbed into my brain over the course of my education. I can hold on to some things and let go of others. I can pick out things that are particularly meaningful, things I want forever, and things I’d rather leave behind.

Graduation day was an “extreme change in emotion.” There is a people-shaped hole in my heart for all the friends who have catapulted off on adventures all over the world. But it’s good that it makes me sad, because catharsis requires a depth of feeling that is scary and all-consuming: the more you put in, the more you get out. I am incredibly grateful to have attended a college with a community in which I could naturally invest my heart and soul. And I am equally grateful for this opportunity for rest, reflection, and figuring out what it gave me back.

Time to take out the trash. 😉

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Spring Cleaning