Nov 21, 2022

Moving Abroad: Art School in Toulouse, France

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7 min read

Sweaty, sleep-deprived, and lugging two suitcases up a seemingly-endless spiral of rickety, wooden steps, I wondered if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. After a decade of building a life in Los Angeles, California, I decided to leave everything behind (well, everything that wouldn’t fit in two suitcases) and move across the Atlantic to a city I’d never been to before.

Logically, this seemed like just that: the biggest mistake of my life. But, as cliché as it may sound, something in my soul told me it could end up being the best decision of my life. There was only one way to find out…

After months of research, several 2am Skype school interviews, and a trip to the French Embassy, I found myself with a student visa and one-way ticket to Toulouse, France.

Why I chose Toulouse

I’ve always dreamed of living in France. Admittedly, most of those dreams involved the glittering lights of La tour Eiffel or croissant-fueled strolls along the Seine. But I also knew France had many other cities aside from its postcard-famous capital. So when I started applying to fine arts masters programs in France, I decided to look into other cities as well.

Toulouse, located in France’s southern Occitanie region, seemed like the perfect choice. Dubbed La Ville Rose (‘The Pink City’) thanks to its many terracotta brick buildings, Toulouse blends bustling capital and university life with a slower, “tranquille” quality of the south. The multi-disciplinary curriculum of their Beaux-Arts school (isdaT) especially appealed to me. After receiving an acceptance letter, I enrolled as a masters student in their fine arts program.

One of the reasons I chose my school was the diverse curriculum, and the option for students to experiment with different artistic mediums. My favorite class so far has been "Neon Factory". We spent two weeks in Paris learning how to make neon art! This is a photo from our final exhibit at Lieu-Commun in Toulouse.  Photo ©franckalix

For my undergraduate degree, I studied film production at the University of Southern California, which led to several years working in the film industry (first as a production designer and then as a freelance director/videographer). While working in the industry taught me a lot, I felt ready for a change: a change of scenery, a change of industries, and, I guess in my case, a change of language! Studying art in France seemed like an exciting challenge, and the type of very big life change I desired. Plus, I loved the idea of trading in daily LA traffic jams for slow, South of France strolls and metro rides…

TIP: If you’re looking to move abroad for school or a study abroad program, research all of your options. Don’t narrow your search to a single city. You might find the perfect fit in a place you hadn’t initially considered!

A warm welcome and facing fears

The move to Toulouse came with many fears. Would my language skills survive a two-year masters program entirely in French? Would I find new friends in a foreign city? Would I miss my family? Would I adjust to a new life thousands of miles away from everything familiar?

Lugging my suitcases up that tiny staircase that day, I ran through all of these questions in my head…multiple times. But the second I made it to the top floor, and saw the sun setting over the terracotta roofs of Toulouse, all my fears dissipated. I took in the new landscape, my new home, and felt like, maybe, this might not be a mistake after all.

Well, ok, obviously my fears didn’t totally disappear with a single, picturesque sunset. But I will say that Toulouse proved to be a warm and welcoming city. I’d heard rumors that people in Southern France are some of the “warmest” in the country (perhaps due to the warm, sunny weather?). And so far, I can honestly say that cliche has proven true.

There’s the woman at the local boulangerie who complimented my French and smiles at me every morning, the guy at the fruit stand who gave me free plums, the librarian who enthusiastically walked me through the process of getting a library card, my neighbor who watered my plants when I was away (plus helped me carry my broken fridge to the curb!), and countless others who have shown me kindness, genuine conversation, and welcoming smiles. It’s (surprisingly) not uncommon to strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger at a cafe! This general “warmth” helped soothe my fears of making friends in a foreign city and navigating the logistics of life in a new place.

TIP: It’s easy to get overwhelmed by worries, fears, and “what if” scenarios in your head. Sit down and write them all out on a piece of paper. This is a helpful first step to make your abstract worries more tangible and approachable. For each fear, write out what the worst case scenario would be. If it arose, how would you deal with it? Next, write out the BEST case scenario. What if you faced a fear/challenge and it DID work out?

My first few weeks in Toulouse, I spent a lot of time exploring the city with my camera. I took this picture at one of my favorite spots, Le Jardin des Plantes. It's a gorgeous public park with plenty of flowers, grassy areas to picnic, and even free-roaming chickens!

The challenges…

Moving abroad inevitably comes with its challenges. Aside from the initial homesickness and need to keep my brain in translation mode for multiple hours a day, I also had to deal with the logistics of moving to a foreign country. Finding an apartment, opening a bank account, securing insurance, and so many other tasks filled my growing to-do list. Luckily, I found a helpful community of expats, as well as companies like LivinFrance, that made the entire process simpler, and less overwhelming, than I anticipated.

As for the language barrier, the locals I encountered were all understanding of my initial stumbling and mistakes in French. So day-to-day trips to the bakery and grocery store were never a problem. The biggest challenge proved to be two-hour lecture classes in French (I definitely underestimated the mental energy it takes to go to school in a second language…). But after the first few weeks of school, I found that my listening comprehension and overall language skills drastically improved. I even had my first dream in French! Just a few months in France proved to be significantly more effective than years of text-book French study.

The distance (and time difference) between me and my family brought an initial homesickness I hadn’t anticipated. At first, the excitement of exploring my new city provided a distraction, but eventually I had to come to terms with the reality of only ever seeing my family and friends via occasional Whatsapp video calls. This distance forced me to get out of my comfort zone, make new friends, and approach my life with a newfound level of independence (moving alone to a foreign country is a unique type of independence I never knew existed).

TIP: Making new friends and finding a community abroad can be a daunting task. As a starting place, try to find local meet ups, groups, and events that revolve around your interests. I found a Cinephiles group at my local library, as well as language exchange meetups, and even a Pyrenees hiking club (which I have yet to join, but very much want to…). Going to these events alone was scary at first, but I ended up meeting really interesting people and making new friends!

One of the benefits of moving to Toulouse versus Paris was that I could find a more spacious apartment within my budget. I found my studio on Facebook of all places , but LeBonCoin (the French equivalent of Craigslist)  is another great option.  Just make sure you email/phone as soon as possible, because l found that listings move very quickly!  There are also services to obtain a "garant" if you don't know someone in France who can act as your garant during the application process.

From tourist to local: “Permanent vacation” and a new home

The first week before my school program started, I explored the city. I began every day with a coffee and croissant from the local bakery, and then wandered the streets, allowing my new home to reveal itself. The blooming flowers at Le Jardin des Plantes, the melodic bells of Basilique Saint-Sernin, wooden boats along La Garonne, art exhibits at Les Abattoirs.... Each day brought a new discovery. At first I felt like a tourist, exploring new places with a camera in hand. But once the semester began, I made friends with fellow classmates and got into a new rhythm of classes and student life. This new city began to feel like a familiar home.

Over a year later, Toulouse truly feels like home. I am happier than ever with my decision to leave everything familiar behind and give this South-of-France city a try. For me, the beauty of moving to another country lies in the unknown of it all. Getting on that flight to France with a one-way ticket in hand, I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea (aside from the few pink-hued tourist photos I’d seen online) what my “new” life would look like. Today, it involves walking cobblestone streets to art theory lectures, picnics with friends on the banks of La Garonne, and even the occasional weekend train trip to explore a nearby medieval castle.  

A picture I took while visiting a medieval castle in Foix, France. This was one of the many day trips I've been able to take via train since moving to Toulouse!

I still have work, school assignments, and general “chores” (unfortunately, laundry still needs to get done, no matter where you live in), but living in France has brought a new “permanent vacation” feel to it all. Living abroad has made me more alert to the beauty of the everyday. A trip to the grocery store doesn’t feel like a chore, but rather a small adventure. I often take new streets, or the long way, just so I can admire the old buildings or boats along the canal.

So, was it a mistake?

Today, I’m writing these words from my studio apartment, looking out the window at the pink-hued clouds. Every sunset here reminds me of that first evening I arrived in France. It reminds me of that sweaty, sore, sleep-deprived girl looking out at the terracotta roofs of Toulouse. That night, I didn’t yet know if leaving behind my old life had been a mistake or not.  All I knew was I couldn’t turn back.

Now, over a year later, I can honestly say moving to France was the best decision I’ve made. Sometimes, buying a one-way ticket to a new life isn’t as crazy and illogical as it first seems. Sometimes, it’s just what your soul needs.

If you’d like to follow my French expat journey, I document my experiences on my Youtube channel ( and Instagram (@hellonicolette). And if you

have questions about moving abroad, feel free to send me a message!

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