So here I am, almost two weeks after I headed off to France, trying to put my first impressions into words. I’m taking a break from Edinburgh here in Grenoble, a city in the French Alps with about 100,000 inhabitants. I’m not a language student, so this was an entirely voluntary decision, because living abroad, and in as many different places as possible, has always been high up on my life goals list. This is the third time I signed up for something like this, and I can feel I’m getting old. I find the whole settling in process a lot more tiring now, although all the adult things you have to sort out at the start, like setting up a bank account, getting a new phone number and public transport ticket, seem less intimidating now. Looks like all this is good for something! Seriously though, an experience abroad can be a real boost for one’s self-confidence, which is one of many reasons why I decided to go abroad. You’re on your own, you need to get things done, and then you realise that they’re actually not as hard or as annoying or whatever you thought. And although you come across clumsy at times, or struggle with the language, you manage to do them.
Grenoble is in pretty much every way more similar to my home town in the Italian Alps than Edinburgh ever could be. The landscape, the architecture, the prices and social norms remind me of Italy, and so does the huge administrative nightmare they call université, and all those unfriendly and often incompetent people in offices. I’d been warned of these things, and of course I ignored all the remarks about how chaotic and rude things and people can be in France. Those things shouldn’t stop people from doing something that will turn out to be immensely instructive and fun.
The historic centre of Grenoble is much nicer than I’d expected, and than what some people had told me. I love its architecture, and wandering around the narrow streets and discovering new shops, cafés and parks alongside the river Isère is awesome. Although it’s about five times smaller than Edinburgh, there is an impressive amount of free museums, small art galleries and cultural events of any kind to pick from. I still need to explore the numerous hiking opportunities around Grenoble, and have up to now only walked up to the Bastille, a huge fortress about 40 minutes away from the city centre, which nowadays hosts a crag. Grenoble is also know for being an ecological city, it has a Green Party mayor and there are cycle paths everywhere. Also, there is this amazing thing called métrovelo, an agency that lets bright yellow bikes, for anything between a day and a year, to really affordable prices. Needless to say that especially the domaine universitaire, where most Grenoblois students live and study, is full of yellow bikes. You really need to remember where you put yours. Altogether, it’s obvious why Grenoble has repeatedly been rated one of the most popular student cities in France.
A handful of universities call themselves XY Grenoble, even though they’re actually in Saint Martin d’Hères, a smaller town right next to Grenoble. That’s where most halls are and where pretty much everyone studies. The campus is huge and works a bit like a little village, with its own post office, métrovelo station, kiosk, park, two big libraries, a student union building and cafés galore. There’s even an anarchist allotment garden where people grow their own vegetables, and which I really need to acquaint myself with before the snowstorms hit us.
The university system is quite different from the Scottish one. I always felt like most members of administrative and academic staff in Edinburgh went to work in the morning determined to make students’ lives easier. Here it’s not like that. I had to seriously annoy people for two days in order to get my log in details for the WIFI, people don’t reply to your emails, they’re simply ‘not in’, and so forth. Our library is about as big as the café in Edinburgh’s central library, and it’s open from ten till six. And the best thing is it will be shut down in second semester, because of the building works. The same building works that already let to the academic year being changed more than once.
There doesn’t seem to be anything comparable to our personal tutor scheme in Edinburgh, which is a shame, because knowing that someone in this jungle of staff is there for you makes many things easier.
Edinburgh is very fancy. But again, I’ve been warned, I was prepared. Today is a good day, and on good days it’s easy to embrace the ten to six library.
Same here, I’ve been warned! Like most Grenoblois students, I live in halls in Saint Martin d’Hères. I’m in Résidence Berlioz, which is huge and made up of several buildings. Together with the smell of the pine trees in the courtyard, Berlioz reminds me of the slightly crappy holiday resorts I used to go to with my dad when I was little. The buildings are divided in corridors, and one corridor shares a kitchen and a ‘common room’, which is literally a tiny room with a table and a bench. The kitchen is also a sad place. There are eight hobs, two sinks, two tables and two benches in there, full stop. No oven, no microwave, no kettle (I know right!). Since I’m only here for a year and have – in some ways – nothing to lose, I might just provide the agency with some feedback, at the end of the year, even if they don’t want it. This overall structure really undermines a feeling of community, because the common spaces as they are make students want to go back to their rooms asap.
Of course there is a but. I pay only 280 euros for an en suite room. For only ten euros you can sign up for the Berlioz society, which enables you, among other things, to use the résidence gym. While ‘my’ corner of Saint Martin d’Hères has this industrial/suburban flair, it’s very green and a good place for outdoor exercise or a nap in the park. And last week I realised that this is not only my third year at university, but also the third year where I live only a ten minute walk away from LIDL. Other reasonably prices shops with more variety and two tram stations are at about the same distance from Berlioz, too. All this, together with horror stories about a résidence on a mountain with squat toilets, makes me feel pretty lucky.