Life in Montpellier France as an American Student Abroad
Alyssa is an American student, blogger of Transatlantic Living and Youtuber currently living in the south of France at Montpellier. She talks with Michelle of MyExpatCommunity about the relaxed French lifestyle, eating out late, studying abroad, top expat tips, and more.
Hey Alyssa! Thanks for meeting with me today.
No problem! Thanks for the invitation.
All right, let’s begin. Where are you originally from?
I’m originally from a pretty small, rural town in Kansas, in the US.
Ah, I’m from a small rural town in Connecticut, US 🙂
…and where are you currently living in France?
Ah, I love the East Coast!
I currently live in Montpellier, which is a pretty big city in the South of France, near the Mediterranean Sea.
Sounds lovely. What brought you to live in Montpellier?
It’s a long story… I was already living in France, in Bordeaux, as an au pair in 2018. And I wanted to stay, so I knew I needed to figure out a way to make that happen. I started looking for jobs (I had a bachelor’s degree from the States) but nothing I found looked promising or even the tiniest bit interesting (because I wasn’t crazy about the field of study).
So after years of saying “I’m never going back to school” I decided to go back to school. I applied to a few different Master programs in France, went through a lot of paperwork, and a few months later, I got accepted into a program in Montpellier! I was overjoyed when I found out. I felt so relieved to know I’d just bought myself two more years in France, and in the sunny South, to boot!
Now, I’m currently (still) a student! I’m studying digital communication for organizations. And I’ve got about three months and one giant final research project left, then I’ll be done. For real, this time.
Exciting! Did you already know French when you worked as an Au pair?
Yes. I took my first French class in 8th grade back in the States (so I was maybe 14). I had the option between French and Spanish and everyone wanted to take Spanish, so I naturally decided to take French. I stuck with it throughout the next four years of high school, and I was all right at it. I got As and Bs. But I never imagined I’d actually need it to survive one day.
In small town Kansas, as a high school student, I didn’t really imagine my life very far into the future. Then I went to college and I needed to take an extra elective class to fill up my schedule my freshman year. So I decided I might as well stick with French since I already had the basics down.
One class lead to another, and I just kept progressively learning more and more until one day, one of my college French teachers came to me and told me I could study abroad in France the upcoming summer. That was the moment that it all kind of became a reality for me.
Wow, yes, and looks like it all fell into place too.
It really did. When I look back on it now, I am amazed by what the Universe was able to lead me to.
What would you say have been the challenges living in France as an expat? And if you can remember the culture shock you first experienced, that would be interesting to hear as well!
First of all, the most obvious challenge is the language barrier. Just because I had learned French in a classroom doesn’t mean I was ready to order dinner at a restaurant in France. It’s terrifying at first. Especially in France, which is probably the country with the most stereotypes about being mocked or thought to be stupid if you screw up the language. I remember being horrified to speak to strangers or to make a phone call when I first arrived. It took probably a year for me to get over that.
As for other challenges, I had a tough time adapting to the different eating habits. In France, they eat dinner much later than in the States. I’ve received all kinds of comments about that online with people pointing out that other countries, like Spain, eat much later than in France. That’s fair. But in the US, I was used to eating dinner at, say, 6pm, and when I came to France I had to get used to eating at 8pm or sometimes even later. I was always starving (and a bit hangry). But now I’ve gotten used to it. It just took some time.
(At least the French have “apéro” which is the equivalent of appetizers in the US. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I’d see apéro arrive some nights when I was starving).
Then the individual parts of culture shock that stick out to me the most are the differences in personal space and the different clothing styles. My immediate reaction coming to France (and it’s probably true for other European countries, as well) was a feeling of claustrophobia, like everyone was in my personal bubble.
The people stand so much closer together than in the States. It may not have been so shocking to me if I had come from New York, where the population density is higher, but coming from the Midwest with wide open spaces… I struggled adapting to that. I still get a bit flustered going to the grocery store with people in my personal bubble now.
And as for the clothing, it’s no secret that France is supposedly the fashion capital of the world (or Paris, at least). So I immediately noticed how much more “put together” everyone seemed to be as compared to in the States. That stereotype definitely exists for a reason. And as a result, it’s made me more conscious of my own appearance, although not necessarily for the better. I feel more judged for my clothing choices and appearance in public in France than I do in the US. So that was a pretty big culture shock for me at the beginning. It’s not as strong anymore, but it’s still in the back of my mind.
I can also relate a lot to the personal space and fashion! I would get stared at for what I wore when I first moved abroad lol, but I am grateful Vienna, Austria did open my eyes to better fashion taste…
What are some of the great things about being an expat in Montpellier?
I love Montpellier. It’s a college town so there are a ton of students here, and a lot of other expats, too. I think there are maybe more than 10 schools here if you combine the public universities and private schools altogether. So it’s very diverse. I love that mixture of French natives and expats from all over the world that you wouldn’t necessarily find in other parts of France.
Plus, as I said before, we’re in the South! It’s hot and sunny and there’s the beach like, right there. It’s true what the French say about the South as compared to cities like Paris. It’s a different pace of life, a different state of mind. It’s a bit slower and less uptight. So people are a bit cooler and definitely open to expats.
I’ve never met anyone in Montpellier who wasn’t, at worst, understanding that I’m an expat, and at best, totally impressed with 500 questions about the US.
Sounds really great over there.
How has it been connecting with the communities? Expat, local, American communities?
I haven’t had any real troubles connecting with the communities, and I know I’m very lucky in that regard, because I struggled with it a bit in Bordeaux. I know that it can be tough and borderline clinically depressing being an expat. But so far in Montpellier, it’s been lovely.
I think it helps being a student, because I’ve been able to make friends with my classmates just as I would have back home. I was a bit shy and hesitant at the beginning of the the Master in the fall of 2018 when we started, but it didn’t take long for us to all warm up to each other. I think there are about 50 of us altogether, and I’m the only foreigner (so the only one with an accent). I don’t know any fellow Americans in Montpellier, but I haven’t really sought any out, either. Not on purpose. I guess our paths just haven’t crossed and I don’t feel that it’s necessarily missing from my daily routine.
I have, however, made a ton of fellow American and expat friends online through my blog, which has been absolutely amazing. I have met a lot of fellow American women who live all over France, and it’s a special kind of connection, because you automatically understand the other person’s experiences. I’ve even met a few of them in person. I think of that and realize what a cool time it is to be alive. We can meet other compatriates living abroad thanks to our internet connection and then share our experiences in real life. It’s astounding.
Thanks for sharing that! I have a few more questions: what inspired you to start your blog, Instagram, and Youtube channel?
I started my written blog around the time that I started looking for a job to be able to stay in France, back in 2018. (It’s also my blog that made me realize I should pursue a degree in digital communication – duh, Alyssa!).
I’ve had various blogs throughout my life and I’ve always loved writing. It’s therapeutic for me and I love being able to share my experiences and connect with others, especially if it can help them in some way. So the blog was a natural step for me, and plus, it was a great way to be like, “look Mom, I’m still alive” and update everyone back at home all at once without having to tell the same story to several people over and over again when something happened in my life.
Then I started my Instagram account as another platform that would help me connect to more people and share my new articles a bit further than just on my personal Facebook page.
But my YouTube channel, that’s where things got serious. It was around the end of 2018 that I realized I wanted to do more with my blog, and create more interactive content. My blog was only in English, and I realized that not everyone was going to read 2000 words about my life (besides my mom).
I was on YouTube one day, and I stumbled across a video of another expat recounting her story and she was like, “I’m going to make the rest of this video in French, but I’m not very good at speaking it, so please be nice because I’m doing my best.” And that’s when the lightbulb went on. I thought, “well, I can do that too!” And that’s it.
I decided to start making videos, in English and French, always subtitled in the opposite language, so that more people could watch them and understand, and so that I could show French people my American perspective on their country and show American people what life is like in France. And from there, it just took off. One of my videos made its way into the YouTube algorithm last summer and overnight, I gained like 1,000 followers. I was in shock. I still am.
That is amazing! Yes I noticed you have a large following on Youtube!
How are you and Montpellier doing during the pandemic?
I’m doing well. France went through a two-month period of total confinement from mid-March to mid-May. Both work and school have been done 100% online since then.
Montpellier has shown a pretty big sense of solidarity, with a lot of people intentionally choosing to shop at small businesses and our local bike delivery companies doing all their deliveries of food and groceries free of charge.
There’s been a warm sense of community, at least in my social circles, that has made it much easier to deal with. I’m grateful.
Good to hear
What would you say are the top 5 things to do, eat and see in Montpellier?
Oh gosh, the 5 best things I can think of… This is gonna be hard.
First of all, I think with my stomach. I’ve tested almost all the burger restaurants in Montpellier, and my favorite, by far, is Burger n Co at the Place de la Comédie. I’m American, so I know burgers. And I highly recommend it.
Next, you have to go for a visit of the anatomy museum. Montpellier has a long history with medecine and one of the universities here is where all kinds of medical discoveries were made, hundreds of years before America was a country. And now they have all kinds of gross, cool stuff in a museum about medicine and science. I love it.
Number three, I would say you have to get lost in the tiny, winding, cobblestone streets downtown. They are picture perfect (which is why there are so many of them on my Instagram).
Obviously, I’d also recommend going to any one of the beaches nearby, even though they’re not technically in the city of Montpellier. But you can get there by bus or tram in under an hour, and the commute is soooo worth it if you love the sun and sand as much as I do. And in Montpellier, it’s summer from about April to September, so you’ve got plenty of time to go.
And finally, I’d recommend going to get a drink during Happy Hour at The Broc. It’s a locally-owned bar and café next the Jardin des Plantes with cheap beer, a great staff, and overall just a chill atmosphere. Plus, their fries are to die for.
Adding these to my list I’m also a foodie and would love to explore France someday.
Last question!! What advice do you have for expats?
My advice for expats: No matter the country or the language, just to do it! Whatever “it” is. Get out of your comfort zone, do the thing that scares you, learn something new and just dare to try.
Know that you’re gonna make a fool of yourself, and you will definitely screw up on several occasions – be it speaking another language, figuring out public transport, or eating something new. But that’s the point. You’re a fish out of water. You’re not supposed to automatically know how to do everything here. And that’s okay.
I always tell myself, “if I wanted it to be easy, I would’ve stayed at home.” You’re abroad for whatever reason – so you might as well take advantage of all the opportunities that brings you that you never would’ve experienced back in your home country in your comfort zone where everything is familiar and safe.
Jump in with both feet and experience it fully, even if it means you look a fool. You may not be an expat forever, so you might as well enjoy it while you can still take advantage of that “Oh, I didn’t know, I’m not from here” kind of excuse!
Great advice, Alyssa! Thanks so much for offering your time and wisdom for MyExpatCommunity
Thank you for choosing to reach out to me and ask about it!!
About the Interviewer
Michelle is the editor of MyExpatCommunity’s Expat Interviews, and a fellow expat herself. Originally from the US, she has been living in Vienna, Austria since 2014. In her free time, she likes to write, do yoga, and try new recipes. Check out her Vienna blog, American in Vienna!