People who are born to make things--to make photographs or essays or paintings--are faced too often with the choice between earning money and creating art. It's a painful choice, too, because the art often demands to be made and the refusal of that demand can leave you exhausted or wilting while you work to earn a wage.
What you need is the luxury of a little time, the time to grow into your craft or to learn to do it well. That time is so hard to find. But I know a place where work weeks are shorter, a place where the pace of life is slow enough to let you stop and think. A place that has--already for several centuries--privileged art and believed in its value in society. It's where Americans have always gone when they want to make art.
That place, of course, is France.
Getting to France as an artist isn't easy; established artists--with enough capital--can apply for a visa, but it's costly and requires funding for the project in advance.
There is a work-around for aspiring artists who are willing to do a little bit of due-diligence, however, and this is the Teaching Assistants Program in France. And the good news is they've just extended their deadline to March 1.
The Teaching Assistants Program in France (TAPIF) allows people under 35 to spend a school year in France teaching French students in a public high school for 12 hours a week. There is a monthly stipend provided by the government, and the visa is free if accepted to the program.
Though it's at heart a teaching program, TAPIF is a perfect opportunity for a lot of creatives. Here's why:
1. They recently extended the age limit to 35. Though it was fun to go abroad in college and party in Barcelona until the sun came up, going abroad as an adult has great benefits. Less frazzled, more in control and aware of your life and how to live as an adult, you can use the time you're not panicking about what to eat for dinner to make your art. Plus, your life experiences have likely prepared you to understand your responsibilities at the school, and to balance those responsibilities easily, as they are far less intensive than a full-time job.
2. There is art & inspiration everywhere: If you ask your public school for a "passe education," you have access to every national museum in France for free, and discounts at most others. In fact, even at city- or state-run museums, I almost never paid an admission fee if I showed my pass. But art is not limited to museums, and there is inspiration in all the shabby-chic corners of this country. If your art is culinary, you won't be disappointed either. An appreciation for creativity and the arts helps to make this place feel more comfortable to artists (France is called a Type 4 on the Enneagram--a whole country that reflects the artistic personality type)
3. You have an outlet to showcase your creativity: Because you're in the classroom a few times a week, you have a place to use your creativity in front of a willing audience. Your students will love working with their assistant and look forward to the time they spend with you, so they'll be eager to participate in whatever you bring them--and this is a chance to get creative, make learning fun, and even bring them some of the art you really love.
4. The visa is easy to obtain and carries weight: Because your visa is sponsored by the government, it's easy to ask your school for things like proof of income and employment, which landlords like to see. Other visas are expensive and require proof of funding and bank account statements, but the Teaching Assistants Program does not. In France, there are always paperwork problems, but in general, this visa is one of the easiest to get and to use for opening a bank account or finding an apartment.
5. Time. Need I say more, really? Sometimes, all you need is sheer time. The time to rail against the difficulty of creation. The time to procrastinate and whine about your lot in life. Then, the time to finally sit and make. In France, you have two weeks of vacation every two months. You'll have two weeks in the fall just after you arrive, followed by two weeks at Christmas, two weeks in February, and, if you're in the right school zone, another week or two in April. You are paid the same stipend every month even with the vacations, and during these long days, you'll have the time to create. To walk around and take pictures. To write. To paint. To sing. To build your portfolio.
How do I know all of this?
I first did TAPIF in 2011-2012 when I was just out of college and wanted to explore France and learn to speak French, and I had the best year of my life and ate delicious food and made some of my very best friends. Here we are at the annual wine festival in Dijon:
Then, in 2017, when I was struggling to find the time to write, I applied for TAPIF again. Though most of the other assistants were younger than me (I was 29), I had enough perspective to realize what a gift it was to be able to go to France for 7 months and to enjoy the time to write and submit. While I was abroad, I was inspired, saw art, took pictures. And, of course, ate well (and beautifully).
There were times in France when I thought I wasn't writing enough. But looking back, I can see that I was writing, far more than I am now, in America, where I have less time and more obligations.
A few caveats:
By now, I know a lot of people who have done TAPIF, and it was easier for some than others. Not everyone enjoyed an organized school environment or a kind and attentive teacher to look after them and welcome them to the community, and you do have to teach. Some people had trouble finding an apartment or a living situation that was the right fit. If you are going abroad with the idea to create, I don't recommend a homestay, for example, where you often find yourself obligated to someone else's timetable.
Life abroad is hard. Speaking a foreign language is at times frustrating or embarrassing. Learning the customs of a country--and especially the little things, like weighing and pricing your produce before you approach the cash register--can feel overwhelming. You'll think, how am I supposed to make stuff when I am just barely getting around? I promise, you'll get the hang of it. You'll find your routine and after a little while it'll be easy enough, like regular life.
Not everyone can leave their lives for 7 months, I know. You have family obligations and other commitments, and the monthly stipend isn't a lot. I'm not saying it's easy, but if the desire to create really burns inside of you, you'll find a way. Remember what Alexander Chee has said:
"I think writers are often terrifying to normal people--that is, to nonwriters in a capitalist system--for this reason: there is almost nothing they will not sell in order to have the time to write.
Time is our mink, our Lexus, our mansion. In a room full of writers of various kinds, time is probably the only thing that can provoke widespread envy, more than acclaim. Acclaim, which of course means access to money, which then becomes time."
It might not be possible for you to apply in the next two weeks, and you might consider applying in a future year. If you have questions, feel free to get in touch.
To apply for the Teaching Assistants Program in France, visit tapif.org
There is so much to love about TAPIF as a writer, but I have to say the best thing is this: the experience lasts 9 months, but the stories, the memories, and the friendships continue to create inspiration for many years to come.