Getting Started: Introducing my program and finding an apartment

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Strasbourg

In France crepes are considered an everyday food. “Student food” my friend says. “Cheap and easy.” My Turkish friend has a different opinion of the crepes. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but I remember it was related to her general commentary about eating large meals with her family, multiple times a day. “We’re always eating. I mean I’m not.” She’s a professional swimmer and has an enviable figure. My Spanish friend thinks the crepes are big, “We never eat this much for dinner.”

There are 19 of us in the class of 2015 of the Joint Master in Neuroscience. The master is a joint effort between the universities of Strasbourg, Basel, and Freiburg and it attracts students from all around the world. In my class, only two students are French, three students are from Mexico and three are from Spain. Two are from Italy and two more come from Germany. The rest of us are the lone representatives of our countries: Indonesia, Singapore, Turkey, Bosnia, Lithuania, Denmark, and the US (of course).

During our first year students spend half the year in Strasbourg, France, and half the year in Freiburg, Germany. We participate in conferences in the Neurex network, a network of Neuroscience labs in the Rhyne river valley, and complete 3 internships at Neurex labs.

We just started classes in September. So far, school has been a bit better than I expected and everyday life has been worse than I expected. As life has been difficult in a very time consuming way, it has taken up most of my thoughts and energy. So I will discuss the latter, in this post. I am sorry for the length, but I wanted to describe some problem-solutions I’ve found, in a way that might be useful to others.

Je Ne Parle pas Français

I might have expected more difficulties, given that I do not speak French. The French are notorious for only wanting to speak their own language. One of my Professors explained this, saying that speaking makes French people nervous and speaking in English makes them so nervous that they may avoid speaking all together. He told me that French people are discouraged from speaking out. Although types of speaking that are not acceptable in our culture, specifically yelling, are perfectly acceptable in France. According to my Professors, in elementary school students just listen to the teachers and are not asked to participate. Now that I live across the street from an elementary school, it seems like the students do not have any problems with screaming and making noise [or singing “California Girls (by Katty Perry, not the Beach Boys, see also)”, with a thick accent, when you ask me where I am from and I reply. Ok, you guys are cute], but making noise does not seem to be the issue (see earlier comment about yelling being ok). The issue has something to do with speaking. This explanation was a bit hard for me to grasp.

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School across the street

Meanwhile when I called to ask about apartments, I would get hung up on, as soon as I got to “parlez-vous anglais” and “je ne parle pas français”. Towards the end I realized that I could get google translate to read phrases to me. So I had it translate a few key phases: “I am interested in the room that I saw advertised on”, “I do not understand”, “Can I arrange a visit”. I had it play them over and over again, so I could practice the pronunciation. This worked surprisingly well. Although I did not get an apartment, at least I stopped getting hung up on.

Getting an apartment in France is hell, even for the French

The French system makes it very difficult for landlords to evict tenants and possibly because of this they are extra careful about who they rent to. Normally you need a guarantor or a French (they have to be living in France) person who agrees to pay for you if you miss your rent. There is no substitute for a guarantor, no matter your salary or job. One of my Professors told me that he, a 40 year old man, with children, had to get his parents to write him a note to get his apartment.

Thankfully one of my professors agreed to be my guarantor. An alum of the program told me to write him and essentially ask him to put his financial rating at risk for me. At the time I had not met him, so I was a bit shocked when he agreed, but he does this for all his students (if you are not so lucky you can try a bank guarantor, but you need a French bank account and normally you need a French address to get a bank account, there is also LOCA pass, but it only works for at limited number of places).

With copies of my Professor’s ID, bank statement, salary statement, and receipt from his last rent payment (proof that he is my guarantor, did I mention we just met?), I picked a random apartment and walked into the office and got a tour of the building. There was a weird smell and random broken things. The last place I toured did not have a functioning toilet, so I was not inclined to be too picky, so I applied. To find out weather or not I was accepted, I had to come back the next day (during class time, no there was not another time available this week or next week).

Never under estimate a hot water bottle

I was accepted. The first night was awful. The windows were open when I visited and the smell wasn’t too bad then, now that they were closed I started having a respiratory allergic reaction to something, which I thought might be related to the smell. The allergies made the smell difficult to identify and it took me weeks to identify it. In the mean time, I slept with the windows open. It was very cold and too early in the year for the radiator. I made a light heater out of some tin foil and pillows. I think that helped a little, mostly it made me feel more in control of the situation. Then I found a hot water bottle and that helped a lot. Never under estimate a hot water bottle, those things can seriously put off a lot of heat!

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“Light Heater”

Eventually I identified the smell as mold. So I bleached everything in my apartment (normally I would use vinegar, but French supermarkets do not put it in the same place and it took me awhile to find it). I spent an hour a day cleaning for about three weeks and now all the mold is gone. I bleached out the stains in the sink and on the floor and fixed the doors for the closet. I’m feeling pretty good about it all now.

On Sunday, I had people over for the first time and I felt pretty proud of my place and I actually felt proud of how I transformed the place. When the rest of my stuff arrives I will post pictures, but for now, here is the view from my window. It is a bit fuzzy, but the pointy thing in the distance is the cathedral:

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Also here is an up close image of the cathedral:

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4 thoughts on “Getting Started: Introducing my program and finding an apartment

  1. My, my you are becoming resourceful! Lots of challenges. I wonder how you communicate with students from all over the world?? Is teaching in English? Is everything as expensive as I recall it being in France?

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    1. Donnis! Yes the teaching is in English (thank god!) The students from around the world all have very good English. Since most of the major science journals (e.g. Nature, Science, etc.) are in English, it’s almost required for science students. Everything is about as expensive as it is in Santa Barbara (or slightly cheaper), but more expensive than say Ventura or Atlanta.

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