Helena Oliveira Coelho
Oct 29, 2022

A Brazilian young woman’s exchange program in Lille

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8 min read

Dear readers, my name is Helena and I’m originally from Brazil. I’m a Psychology student at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and at the moment I’m in an exchange program at the Université de Lille for the fall/winter semester of 2022. I’ve always dreamed of studying abroad and since I’m in my last year of my undergraduate studies I had to grab this chance.

My university (UFMG) has the biggest project of international mobility in Brazil, the Minas Mundi, and in order to apply, I had a lot of options to choose from. For this very important decision, I made a spreadsheet and compared several factors: the possibility of financial aid (scholarship, university housing, food, etc.), the University itself (ranking, course reputation, subjects taught, possibility of research labs), its location (campus, city, region and country) and the language (level of proficiency I already had and what I wanted to develop). After a very careful reflection process I decided to apply to the University of Lille, one of the top universities in France.

lille city center
Lille-centre (Personal file)

Coming to Lille was my first option and the best choice I’ve ever made. Not only am I getting to study Psychology while practicing my French - which was my main goal, but I’m also getting to know the city - that is adorable. And, especially, I’m getting to travel a lot to all kinds of places nearby - and if that’s not a good enough reason to choose Lille for living abroad, I’ll try to convince you through the rest of this text while telling you my story.

Before talking about the practical aspects of my arrival, I’d like to start with first impressions. We’ve all heard some stereotypes about France, right? “French people are rude”, “French people don’t speak English”, “French people are romantic”, “they have a lot of rats and pigeons on the streets”, “you will find baguettes everywhere”... Well, I’ve got to realize that not all of them are true, but some definitely are. I don’t know if it’s specifically the people in Lille, but I haven’t met a single rude person. The warmth of the Lilloises contradicts the cold of the North. Maybe that’s also an exception due to the city being a student town that receives a lot of foreing people, but in most places they do speak English. I’ve come with a reasonable level of French and I try to use it on a daily basis, but I have international friends here that speak zero French and are still managing to get by just fine, so for me it’s another myth. Are French people really more romantic? Well, I haven’t experienced any of that romance, but I can assure you that flowers here are way less expensive than in Brazil, specially in the Wazemmes market in Lille, so I would say it’s at least easier to be romantic. Unfortunately, the animals stereotypes are very true. Not that I’ve seen a lot of them so far, but the experience of seeing 2 almost cat sized rats running on the street the very first day of my stay in Lille was traumatizing enough for me to consolidate that stereotype in me. It’s also true that they have a lot of pigeons on the streets and you are likely to be able to buy and find baguettes everywhere - trust me, sometimes these events are linked, and that’s when I had to take a picture of this very French cliché.

Pigeons eating bread in square
Pigeons eating bread in square (Personal file)

Ok, now let’s get practical and start from my arrival: to get here, I took a 12 hour flight from São Paulo to Paris, and then an 1 hour long train from Paris to Lille. To be honest, transportation was pretty easy from the beginning - like I said, it is effective here. The 2 metro lines and the city buses got me to all corners of Lille and the metropolitan area, and we can use the same ticket for both forms of transportation (and also the city trains). My only error was to think that the 10 tickets package was going to be the best option financially… I ended up having to buy 5 of those in the first month, because I just had so much to do and see in town.

#TipMoment: if you’re the kind of person that enjoys going out and visiting places, you should get the monthly card for public transportation in Lille - it will allow you to hop at any metro, bus or train in the metropolitan region for 36 euros a month or even €31,00 if you, like me, are 18-24 years old. You can also easily find out the best way to go to your destination and what transportation to use through the Ilevia app or website, designed especially for the city.

Since I got a room at Crous - the French government housing for students - the accommodation part wasn’t that hard, but it wasn’t a piece of cake either. I had the room guaranteed, but I still had to straighten everything that I brought from Brazil, and it was a lot since I was able to travel with two 23kg luggages included in the special student tarif from AirFrance plane tickets. Thankfully, my brother was here to help me and climb up the 4 flights of stairs with all that, since the elevator was broken. I also had to buy a lot of things for my room, so I went to all kinds of stores and supermarkets: Lidl, Carrefour, Cora Flers… but I ended up buying almost everything from IKEA, which was far from where I live but easy to access thanks to the metro.

Another #TipMoment: there’s a website to buy used furniture and appliances for a much more affordable price - that’s where I bought my perfectly good originally 150 euros microwave for only 30 bucks - it’s called Leboncoin.

Discovering the city was fun and easy, since the University of Lille had all sorts of events planned for the arrival of the international students. From tours like ‘discovering the campus/the city’ to ‘soirée dégustation de fromage’ (cheese degustation), I had a good time emerging in French culture and adapting to the university. I also engaged in several activities with the ESN group - an organization focused on making our international stay easier and allowing us to connect with other students in town. I went on so many walking tours I can’t even count. I also went climbing, bowling and partying with them, and my personal favorite event was the international dinner, on which we got to prepare our country’s traditional meal and try so many different foods from other cultures.

Not long after I arrived, the city had its most famous event: La Braderie de Lille - the biggest clearance sale in Europe. It was a great way to experience the local culture and try the famous ‘moules & frites’ (mussels with fries), the typical dish from the north of France. On the same weekend I had my first opportunity to enjoy one of the most appreciated events in France: the day of free museums, which happens every first Sunday of the month. You can check here all the places you can appreciate for free those days in Lille. I personally have already visited the famous Palais des Beaux Arts, the ‘Musée de la piscine’ (a former swimming pool that is now a museum), the zoo, and my favorite so far: the exposition ‘Le Serpent Cosmique’ in ‘l’Hospice Comtesse’ - it’s not at all what you expect from a museum. I walked so much that weekend that it reminds me of the next

#TipMoment: be sure to bring or buy a pair of comfortable shoes and a small umbrella. Walking through the streets of Lille is one of the most beautiful and cheap ways to know the city center, especially Vieux-Lille, and even though I haven’t experienced the famous cold and rain of the region, the weather is kind of unpredictable, which is why it’s always good to have a security umbrella in your purse or backpack.

Musée de la piscine & Braderie at Grand Place
Musée de la piscine & Braderie at Grand Place (Personal files)

I’m going to be honest, now that I’m writing about it I realized that arriving here before September was a great option, because not only I got to experience the one time a year Braderie de Lille, but an amusement park was also in town. It was the 186th time that the park has installed itself in the Champ de Mars at the city’s citadelle, but it only happens twice a year for around 1 month, and I got to live it. Its variety of attractions and spectacle of lights brought a child-like joy in my heart and was an unique event to go with friends and alone (yes, I did both). My favorite part was seeing the city and all the colorful lights from the top of the Ferris wheel. It was truly magical. Apart from that, September was also the month with the ‘journée du patrimoine’, the annual event in which not only museums are free (like once a month on the first Sunday, as mentioned) but also the public is allowed to discover many buildings and other places that are often only exceptionally open to the public, such as the City Hall and the inside of the Citadelle of Lille.

Lastly and definitely not the least important part: traveling! One important thing to know about Lille is that it is strategically located in France for fellow travel enthusiasts like me. I already got to see the seals in Baie de Somme, visit places like Monet’s house and garden in Giverny and the citadelle of Dinant, and ride through the canals of Bruges and Gants. I could have done these day trips by myself taking the train or buses - which are cheap since it’s all close from here - but I chose to travel with Ulysse - an organization from the university - and with Erasmus place - a private organization with the purpose of making our exchange experience richer.

#TipMoment: if you’re shy and have a hard time making friends or simply enjoy being around new people, these trips and the ESN events are the perfect place for you. I frequently went by myself not knowing anyone and got back home with new friends - always having a good time.

Ok, fine. Have you realized I haven’t properly mentioned my studies? Well, that’s because all this happened in my first month in France, mostly before classes started. Now I’m more focused on my studies and have a little less time to spend on all of that (even though my weekends are still reserved for it), but I made sure to warn you on how much happened in so little time to get you the idea of how intense and rich an exchange program can be, and how much the city has to offer you, if you’re staying for a semester or for your whole studies. I still have plans to travel to Paris, Brussels, Luxembourg, London, Amsterdam and so many other places. I also can’t wait for the holidays to enjoy the famous ‘marchés de noël’ (Christmas street markets) in Europe. I hope I can continue to live wildly fun experiences, making friends from so many different backgrounds, emerging in European and French culture, practicing my language skills and, of course, writing about it. I also hope that if you, reader, are planning to study or live abroad, you have an equally amazing experience as I’m having.

And here is my last #TipMoment: if you’re able to arrive in town a couple of weeks or days before your classes/internship/work starts, it will make your adaptation easier and more enjoyable.

I would like to thank my home University, UFMG, for making this possible for me, and the LivinFrance team for giving me the opportunity to share my story.

If you liked to read about it and were even a little bit convinced to visit or live in Lille, please like and share my post with your friends and family. Thanks for getting on this journey with me!

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