Paris,  travel,  year abroad

How (not) to intern in Paris

A reflection on the highs and lows of six months interning in the city of lights.

The first day of my internship in Paris set the tone for everything I would learn in the months to come.

I have accidentally arrived at the office twenty minutes early. A consequence of my metro-related anxiety and my fantastic capacity to get lost on most days. Today isn’t one of those days, and so here I am, standing outside an impressive Haussmannian office building, choking on cigarette smoke (thanks, France) and feeling not at all sufficiently chic.

I’ve been in the country for a grand total of four days and have spent three of them searching frantically for somewhere to live. Anyone unlucky enough to know me in real life has probably already been subject to several long rants about the bureaucratical cycle of impossibility when attempting to rent a Parisian flat with no French bank account or guarantors. But “tant pis!”. My more pressing concern is making a good first impression.

I take a deep breath, walk into the building and promptly almost take a lift down to the car park instead of up to the 6th floor. Even when I have been redirected to the correct set of lifts, I stand outside the office for some time wondering how early is acceptably early before I ring the doorbell.

Lesson #1: DO arrive on time or a little early, having practiced the commute from your house before the first day. DON’T let your awkwardness get in the way of owning your own fabulous punctuality.

Fast forward a few hours and I have experienced what amounts to a true microcosm of the entire six months: I have spent one hour filling out one admin form and then trying to occupy myself “productively” (reading the French news at length) since I haven’t yet had any training. I have bumbled through one Monday morning briefing, and gratefully drunk two mugs of English breakfast tea wishing that a few days of living abroad had the power to make me instantly fluent. I have then been given an “urgent” proofreading task at the last minute, worked halfway through my lunch break, and missed the opportunity to socialise with my new colleagues.

Lesson #2: DON’T ever underestimate the importance of lunchtime in the office. Getting on with colleagues is perhaps as important as learning new skills: ask people questions, find out what they do, and if you might be able to learn something from them. And no, occasionally muttering a “bah, oui” as you stare into your salad doesn’t count.

Thankfully, there’s a very agreeable (read: expensive) selection of nearby cafés, so the fact that I’m living out of a suitcase and haven’t succeeded in making a packed lunch for the first week of work isn’t a problem. I’ve yet to discover that my idea of a “packed lunch” is extremely English.

Lesson #3: DON’T take sandwiches to work for lunch in Paris. You will be laughed at and at least one health-conscious person will tell you it’s not a very balanced meal as there’s too much bread. (Too much bread?! In Paris?!) Alternatively, continue to take them once a week for sixth months and pretend to yourself it’s a cute quirk your colleagues will secretly like you for…

I don’t cope very well with doing nothing at all; I like being busy.

I was lucky that once things picked up in the following weeks, my internship was extremely “varied and fast-paced” (read: I stayed long past my contracted hours on several occasions), but of course there were down periods. I don’t cope very well with doing nothing at all; I like being busy. Which meant that for the first few months, I was extremely clued up on European politics (read: I talked my boyfriend’s ear off about Brexit) and my colleagues were probably bored of receiving emails asking varying iterations of “need a hand?”.

Lesson #4: DON’T be afraid to offer help – stop rereading your drafted email endlessly, and just press send. Once I mastered this, it got me working on some of my favourite tasks during my internship and also meant I could work with people whose roles didn’t usually overlap with mine.

I didn’t expect to feel sad when my internship ended, because I was too excited-slash-terrified to start the next part of my Year Abroad. So I was surprised when, handing in my entry key and doing a round of “bises à tous”, I realised I had a lump in my throat. I had made one or two good work friends (no small feat when I was the only intern for four months out of six) and settled into the rhythm of a 9-6 job more than I ever expected, even if I had ended up sleep-deprived in the process. To top it off, I didn’t seem to have made such a terrible hash of things after all and even got some nice feedback.

Lesson #5: DO ask for feedback from your colleagues regularly, and DO keep a track of all the different tasks and skills you’ve worked on for the past few months. Your future CV-editing self will be grateful.

Have you been an intern abroad and have any extra tips and non-tips? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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