Teaching Assistant in France Survival Guide/Returning home
Finishing a year abroad is not as easy as you would like it to be. Instead of planning goodbye parties, you may be busy trying to close your various French accounts, making shipping arrangements, terminating leases, and attending to other mundane business.
French assistants are often unprepared for the baggage they accumulate in one academic year, both administrative and physical. Don't be caught off guard! The earlier you start making departure arrangements, the more time you'll have to say good-bye properly when you do leave.
If you signed a three year lease, you need to advise the landlord of your intent to depart three months in advance. This is generally done by lettre recommandée, so that you can later request proof of delivery if necessary.
Mobile phones, Internet
When you opened your mobile phone or ADSL (Internet) account, you may have been told that it would be easy to get out of a contract if you present a plane ticket. It isn’t easy, nor will a plane ticket be of any help. With SFR, for example, you will need to supply a justificatif de domicile. This particular administrative bug-a-boo probably doesn’t exist for your home country – tant pis, they don’t care! Their only concern is filing the right paperwork.
Ask your parents to mail you a signed and dated letter (English is fine) attesting that you will be returning to live at their address on a particular date. Take this letter to your mobile phone company at least a month before your departure to ask for your résiliation. They will likely refuse to do this in the store and give you a phone number to call. When you call and explain your situation, they will give you an address or a fax number where you can submit your claim. Do all of these things early and correctly, and they just might close the account.
Generally speaking, terminating ADSL or phone subscriptions can be difficult for the French too, because companies do not strive too much to make it easy. If sending paper mail to a company who you suspect may give you trouble, always use certified mail (lettre recommandée) and cancel the automatic withdrawal authorization that they have on your account, if they have one. The lettre recommandée will be proof that you took action with respect to the company.
If you were lodged in your school or furnished apartment, you have one less thing to worry about. But if you did need to purchase furniture, you certainly aren’t going to try to bring it home with you. Ask your landlord if they are interested in buying your furniture. If not, ask them to offer it for purchase to the next people renting the apartment. If that doesn't work, just start asking everyone you know if they need furniture. You can also place ads in the local petites annonces, in boulangeries, grocery stores, etc and at the university (if there is one in your town). At worst, perhaps someone from your school will hold on to it for next year’s assistants - things like pots and pans, plates, etc would be really useful and wouldn't necessarily take up much space in someone's garage for the summer.
During your stay, you've probably collected more clothes, souvenirs, and gifts than you can fit in your bags. Even if you are able to pack everything (and transport it by yourself!), the party may be over when you check in at the airport. Depending on the airline, your baggage weight allowance could be much lower than what you would like to bring home. Beyond this allowance you are charged a fee per kilogram of luggage; sometimes it is reasonable, usually it isn't. You will need to determine what the rules are for your airline and find some means to weigh your luggage.
There are several alternatives to bringing everything with you on the plane home. In larger cites you might find some international shipping options at interesting prices. If you can get to an airport, look into AirFrance Cargo. If you're in a small town, your only option might be the Post Office, which becomes prohibitively expensive if you need to send more than two kilograms. Ask about the book and brochure rate (le tarif livres brochures), which is cheap if you are sending only books out of the country – apparently they do check the contents!
As a last resort, carry everything with you and plead. Application of the luggage weight limits and fees is – strangely – at the discretion of ticketing agents. Sometimes they will look the other way for nice, desperate teaching assistants (who, naturally, have nothing but good things to say about the douceur de vie in France) returning home with a year’s worth of souvenirs. Just be prepared to throw some heavy pieces of France in the garbage, if need be.
Closing your bank account
After a year of borderline poverty, you’ll find yourself with more money in euros than you know what to do with just before you leave. Your last month’s salary should appear in your account at whatever its normal time is; if you had an apartment, you will have the deposit back, and if you sell furniture or other things you can’t take home, that’s even more money for you. Unless you plan on returning to France the following September, you’ll need to close your bank account and do something with all of that cash. Whichever option you choose, make an appointment with your account manager for the account closing (at least a week in advance as usual).
The easiest option, and the one likely to be proposed by your account manager, is to have the money wired to your home bank account after your departure. This allows you to keep the account open for any last minute virements, such as an electricity or phone bill. But after a year with a French bank account, you should see the catch in this immediately: the closing, wire transfer, and currency conversion fees are unreasonably high. If you let the bank handle everything, they will take more than 100 € for themselves after you’ve left the country.
Further, your account funds will still be available to your similarly untrustworthy mobile phone company that may not have processed your contract termination paperwork in a timely manner, unless you have closed their authorization.
Leaving the account open
American ATM cards used abroad often give good exchange rates with minimal fuss. Why not leave your French account open, take its card with you, and withdraw your money from home? This way, you could be sure that the final debits for your account have cleared (paying your last electricity bill takes about a month). The problem with this approach is that using your French carte bancaire outside the eurozone is not very practical. Your withdrawals are usually limited to a maximum of 250 € per week, and the bank will take around 3% for the currency conversion. Figuring out how exactly much would require a thorough reading of your finely printed fee schedule, and possibly a conversation with the Microsoft Excel paper clip. Good luck! When you want to close the account, you will need to mail a letter to your bank requesting such, with your bank card (cut into bits) enclosed. On balance, you may not feel so bad about stiffing the electric company for your last month’s bill.
Depending on your situation, your best option could be to keep your money in euros. This will allow you to close your French account on the spot and handle the currency conversion at your leisure. If you’re feeling bold, you could take all of the money 200 € notes; otherwise, put most of the money in a bank check. If you think you’ll be in Europe again any time soon, or if you’re traveling immediately afterward, spending this money should be easy. Even if you don’t plan to spend it for a year or two, consider that typical currency conversion fees will far exceed any interest you would earn on the money if it were in a bank.
If you must exchange the money, shop around for a good conversion rate. The currency conversion site XE can tell you exactly what your money in euros is worth in your home currency at a given time, but don’t expect to get this rate from anyone. Instead, use it as a guideline to see exactly how much of your money a currency broker wants to take. Without getting bogged down in a discussion of conversion rates and fees (commissions), keep it simple. If you have 800 €, XE may quote a value of $990.90. With this number in mind, ask your bank, exchange bureau, or post office “How much in dollars will you give me for 800 €?” The answer will never be as high as the figure from XE (no one works for free!), but if you ask around you can at least be sure you aren’t being ripped off.
We hope this guide has been helpful to you throughout your time in France, and that you are free enough of administrative entanglements to spend your final weeks traveling and seeing friends. One last word of warning: prepare yourself for the slight culture shock you may experience when you get home. Some parts of your French life you are sure to miss terribly!