NICE, France — When Anna Carroll, 19, stepped off her train and into the perpetually-warm Nice air at 11:20 p.m last Friday night, sleeping on the streets outside the Gare Nice-Ville train station was the last way she expected to conclude her day’s travels.
After a day spent travelling along the French Riviera, Carroll, a journalism student from Saint-John, New-Brunswick in Canada, had planned to stay the night in Nice. Carrying everything she needed for her two-week tour around France on her back (her whole life, as she calls it) she made her way to Hotel Altair, dodging the late night hustle and bustle of pedestrians returning home, or others only starting out for the night. When she reached the hotel, a mere five-minute walk from the train station, she found she was unable to get in.
“I’m ringing this kind of sketchy door in Downtown Nice and there’s no answer,” Carroll explains. “So I buzzed it again. Right after I buzzed it, the lights in the building immediately went off. That was my first indication that something was wrong.”
Carroll had booked a room at Hotel Altair (more of a hostel than a hotel) two weeks prior, indicating in her email that she might arrive a few minutes passed 11:00, the hostel’s check-in cut off.
She rang the buzzer a few more times, glancing around at her surroundings in the dark. A man returning home from a late-night stroll with his dog let her into the building with his key.
Together they pounded on the hostel’s main door, located three or flights of stairs from the ground floor, but were not let in despite hearing quiet chatter coming from the other side.
After a visit to Hotel Altair, manager Philippe Delhaye explains the hostel has a strict 11:00 p.m cut-off so as not to disturb sleeping guests and because they don’t have anyone to work at reception during those late hours.
“Unless they have told me that they will be arriving late, they will have to find somewhere else to stay,” Delhaye says.
Carroll’s story is, of couse, an extreme example of hostel-booking gone wrong. Not every traveller will be met with the same predicament.
Nice is a city brimming with opportunity for young travellers. There is variety in the in the street performers and artists stationed down the length of the Promenade des Anglais, there is life in the trendy alcoves of Vieux Nice. There are also several lodging options available to students during their stay. Highlighted below are the pros and cons of perhaps the most prevalent three: hostel accommodations, studio apartments and host families.
For students on a budget, choosing a hostel to stay in is a viable option, with most rooms in Nice ranging from 14 to 30 euros a night.
Many hostels also provide a continental breakfast, access to Wifi and information at the reception desk on all the ins and outs of the city.
Speaking of her hostel experience, Carroll says it can be worrying not knowing what to expect from the establishment. For example, Carroll enjoyed her stay at Antares Hostel in Nice, vouching for its cleanliness and noise control, but was unable to even make it through the main door of Hotel Altair.
At the end of the day, getting to speak with her roommates about their own travels is the hostel memory Carroll carries with her most fondly.
“It’s nice to end the night talking about travel stories with people who have been places you’ve never seen, or may never see,” Carroll says with a smile, shrugging her shoulders contently.
For students who crave independence and privacy, there is also the opportunity to rent out studio apartments in Nice.
Students at Actilangue, an international language school in Nice, can rent an apartment through the school. Students have the choice between a single or double room equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, washing machine and Internet access.
Marketing student Katie Bonnema says she chose to stay in an apartment during her séjours in Nice as a French and journalism student at Actilangue this summer because she didn’t speak any French going into the program.
“I heard from some people who did the program last year that staying with a host family and not knowing any French caused some confusion, ” Bonnema explains.
The apartment room, though well-equipped, is minuscule and Bonnema and her roommate Zoë Kaler share a small futon-bed.
“When I first walked into the room, I actually laughed,” Bonnema admits. “It was so small. Luckily we like each other. I think it would be a very difficult situation to be that close to someone and not like them.”
The freedom and flexibility of her own schedule appeals to Bonnema, however, as well as the short walk between the apartment and the beach. Though she does say she gets sick of cooking for herself every night.
“It would be nice to have someone make you a meal,” she says with a small laugh.
Riley Schmidt and Anna Wischmann, also in the apartments, both agree that they enjoy being able to come and go as they please, unburdened by a set dinner time similar to what might be found when living with a host family.
Given the chance to make the trip again, however, they say they might consider staying with a host family if they learned to speak French fluently.
According to their website, Actilangue keeps a list of 100 pre-approved families to house students from around the world. The families provide breakfast and dinner and encourage the students to develop their French language skills through conversation.
“I want to improve my language skills and the most effective way to do that is to live in the country where that language is spoken, to communicate with the people,” recounts Elena Belova, a Russian student working towards her master’s in French. She has been staying with a host family on Rue Marceau for the last two weeks.
For Grace Christensen, who shares a host family with Belova, the language barrier was a source of anxiety for the Wisconsin communications student.
“I was definitely nervous going into it because I only knew common French phrases. The first night was a little overwhelming but over time I got more comfortable with it. I’ve loved the dinners and the conversations we’ve had during them,” Christensen explains.
The conversations are not only beneficial to students, they can also mean a great deal to the host families as well.
Valérie Angas, who has been welcoming international strangers into her home for the past four years, says she was drawn to the idea of hosting students to supplement her income but quickly learned that the experience meant so much more.
“It’s the conversations that I love, not the money,” Angas says in French, clutching a glass of water in her hand and smiling. “I also get to practice my English with the students a little bit too.”
For Izzy Docto of Canada, the comfort her host mother brings while she’s far away from home stands out in her experience.
“Even when you’re far away from your own family, it’s like you have your own French family here, so it lessens homesickness,” Docto says.
For Carroll, the story did not end quite so well. Her mystery helper eventually left her, giving her a few names of hotels she could try.She made her way through the surrounding streets, holding up her phone periodically to the sky in search of Wifi. Eyelids heavy, she returned to the train station, propped herself up against the wall and spent her night swapping stories with other travellers gathered there with no place to stay, catching precious moments of shut-eye as they came along.