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Sunday, 13 October 2013

An Ultimate Erasmus student's guide to Grenoble




I have seen this meme hanging around facebook, and quite honestly I can say that despite being highly stereotypical, it's true. We all get told that bureaucracy is crazy in France, but then we come here and complain about it anyway. We all take advantage of the cheap wine and fresh baked bread (though perhaps avoid the t shirt marinière and beret). A lot of people fall in love with locals or other international students, parties are plentiful, and yet it still kind of feels like a holiday. A holiday with lots of work...

My second month in Grenoble has just started, and I'm about to go into week 4 of university (already!). Things have not been as smooth as one would hope, though I did not expect them to be. I did not like all of my courses and have already made some changes. I have seriously got into the whole mountain location thing, hiking every week (sometimes with friends, other times with the credited course "les randonnées patrimone et nature"), socialising over good wine and engaging in plenty of French conversation. Here are a few points which I think are essential for any prospective Erasmus students in France, and more specifically, in Grenoble.

Learning the language and getting absorbed in the culture


A friend who came here last year wisely told me "it's not about what you do in uni, it's about what you do outside of it". Benny Lewis, the traveling polygot behind fluent in three months has just been announced the national geographic "traveler of the year". Reading the interview, I was reminded of my key goal for being here:


NGT: What’s your approach to language learning?
BL: My "approach" to language learning is nothing more than avoiding English. I don't tend to spend any time with expat communities abroad. It's very effective! I am genuinely passionate about using my approach to encourage adult language learners to have more authentic travel experiences.

As an Erasmus student, you will find that this is not always possible, unless you avoid meeting friends with some great people. In my halls there are French people, but also Germans, Brazilians, Italians, Australians and more nationalities. When possible, the lingua franca of choice is French. Some people have very basic French though, if any, and cutting them out for that reason can be harsh.

It is so important to not JUST mix with international students. Before even arriving I befriended a local who could not offer me a room on appartager.com but was interested in doing a language exchange. As soon as I arrived I signed up to the Integre tandem programme, through which I met my lovely tandem partner who I meet at least once a week for a walk, coffee or a glass of wine. I have met others through being brave in class, taking part in voluntary activities such as Phares and going to social events like parties. There is already a Grenoble language exchange group which organises informal language exchange socials, and I intend to go to one in the next few weeks.

It is quite an incredible thing, realizing that your language skills are progressing. I was at the Sunday fruit and vegetable market just this morning, and realized that I could make out other people's conversations. I had previously found it a great challenge understanding when people were not talking to me directly, so this was a small personal victory.



Bureaucracy  


I can confirm that this is just about every Erasmus student's idea of hell. If you thought the mobility online forms in your country of origin were bad, and the online procedures just to apply to your French university, wait until you get here. I arrived at my university halls of residence tired and hungry, and of course I had to queue for around an hour to get my keys, just to be handed a form and have to queue all over again. Good thing I already had some passport photos on hand, as one was needed in order to get my keys. I got to the room-no duvet, no sheets, and no one to complain to as I had no internet! What's worse, it was Sunday so all shops were closed. Bienvenue en France. I actually did without internet for a week, as to get that I needed my student card and university log in details, which I could not get until the following week.

To to make sure you get fully matriculated and internet access in your room, check that your European health card (if you haven't got one, go get one!) is not going to expire during your time here. If that happens you are going to end up having to order a replacement from your country of origin and waiting up to a month (or more, depending on your country) for it to arrive. Thus you will end up waiting a month for internet. Not good.

I cannot count how many times I have had to visit the photo box over on campus to get passport photos. Why? Just about every course needs a detailed inscription form, complete with a photo. It is also required for getting your student card, sports club card and tram card. Signing up to courses is so much easier in the UK, where you just pay a visit to your director of studies/tutor who plots out a nice timetable for you. Here you will likely have to queue outside numerous teacher's offices, sign multiple forms just to be on the list and then more forms to actually inscribe. Do not hope for a helping hand or you will be bitterly disappointed. What is more, this will all be carried out in French.

Insurance is also necessary in France, students need civil liability insurance in order to get enrolled into a university programme (which costs about 15 euros) and also housing insurance (this really varies). I got both of them free with BNP when I joined, though only because I am staying for 6 months.  Opening the bank account takes a while as you need to wait for various letters to arrive in the post before you can validate your card. It's a good idea to get an appointment at a branch as soon as possible, as during the freshers period it can be difficult to get seen. You will need: proof of residence, an ID, student card.

Before coming to France you probably heard about the CAF funds, which give you up to 30% of your rent back if you are a student. Whilst this is well worth doing, it is good to set out on your Erasmus year with a good idea of what is needed: a birth certificate (some offices ask for this to be professionally translated, fortunately this does not seem necessary in Grenoble), an ID, proof of residence, documents showing parent's revenues, and a French bank account (which I already mentioned). All of this takes a long time, but do not delay it! The quicker you get it done, the more money you are likely to receive. That said, I still have not finished the long and grueling process. 

Just be prepared for it, take an iPod or book to read it those long queues. Maybe take up meditation before coming too, just in case...


Picking courses


I thought this would be a lot easier than it was. I attended several classes before finally settling for my selection, with which I am really happy. All the courses are much longer than I am used to, 2 hours compared to the 50 minutes in Edinburgh, so in order for me to concentrate, I really need to be interested. For those who are patient and not afraid to change some things around, there are some really well-organised interesting courses. I made it a mission to avoid the old-fashioned classes with no online resources, no print outs, and someone rambling monotonously at the front of the lecture theatre without bothering to learn anyone's name. I did attend some of those classes, namely Cinéma and approche comparée, and hastily avoided getting myself too involved. After much deliberation I finally found my (almost) perfect selection. Here it is, in case anyone else ever finds themselves in my position:

Linguistique historique: This is a really great course which I came to after 2 weeks in Phonétique et Phonologie. That course was actually way too easy for me, and though my initial thought was "easy credits", the compulsory attendance would have made those two hours really boring. In the end I thought that this linguistics course was more appropriate for my level, developing on what I learned last year in A structure and history of European languages in Edinburgh and going deeper into what interests me more: Romance languages. The course gives a detailed history of the structural and cultural changes which took place with the appearance and developments of the Latin language. It is also great for improving French vocabulary, showing how various roots were maintained are warped into other words which are in romance languages today. The teacher is very efficient, providing detailed handouts and keeping the classes as interactive as possible. She also has a powerpoint presentation, which is quite a rarity in France.


Littérature francophone: We are just studying one work for this course, an Algerian book, Loin de Médine. So far we have just had an introductory class, looking at the main themes involved in the work, the most important being the position of the woman in an Islamic context.Written in French, it is also interesting as a multicultural work with elements of different cultures and linguistic influences coming from Arabic and the local dialect.

Littérature d'idées: Each week we read extracts from major philosophical works, plays, novels, and even science fiction, from Descartes and Cicero to Asimov and Racine. We discuss why these can be considered in this category, what elements make them literary and scientific/essays. On top of this, we are supposed to read one book in great detail during our own time. We had a choice of three authors, and I went for André Gide's Corydon, a historical and cultural account as to why homosexuality is really natural. There is no exam for this course, just two essays. The first will be based on these extracts we read in class, the second a comparison between Virgina Wolf and Gide's literary styles. The class is quite difficult to follow language-wise, but I sent an email to the lecturer who sent me a really long, reassuring email telling me that everything would be okay.


Grammaire Française: This is an Erasmus course, and I am limited to only one or two of these, but it is basically easy credits for a course which can only help you with your language skills. When I saw the topics, I thought "damn this will be boring, it's for beginners!": the article, pronouns, prepositions etc. Fortunately this was an illusionary worry, as the exercises are far more challenging than expected and are great for reviewing vocabulary and difficult collocations, memorizing transitive and none-transitive verbs etc. The teacher talks a lot and seems pretty generous with marks. He has already assured us that he fails no one who does the work, so that is okay.

Pratique de la langue française: I feel pretty safe about this course too, as it is the same teacher. I did however have to put up with the worst assessment method I can imagine last week-an oral presentation in front of over 30 people. This is my worst nightmare, I feel sick and tongue tied, go red and the awareness of that makes me even redder. That said, I am glad I got it out of the way (I did my presentation on the status of the woman in society). We also get marked on class participation, and 50% of the final grade comes from a 2000 word essay on a social problem of our choice...


Chinois: langue et communication: This is one of my favourite courses, though does not contribute to my degree in anyway. It is just there for my own pleasure and personal enrichment. The teacher is great, and makes sure we each get a chance to practice the pronunciation of the sounds in the language and to translate things which are written on the board. There are handouts, a powerpoint presentation and we borrow calligraphy pens and the chemical fabric for practicing the characters. The course does seem quite fast, so hopefully by the end of the semester I will have achieved a good foundation in the language, which I can develop further through personal study and a year in China after graduating.


Les Randonnées: This is a credited course, but again is not recognised by Edinburgh university. I have to do a presentation next week, I chose to do mine about the local wildlife. Aside from that, the fact that you get credits is kind of a joke, as really it is just a means of walking in the mountains and discovering amazing landscapes. It is also absolutely free, so I avoid having to pay extortionate mini-bus fees. So far we have visited Lac Achard and Lacs Robert in Belledonne, but will soon be visiting Vercors and Chartreuse. This will be taking up my free friday afternoon during the entire month of October. 


A bit of Advice: Do something which which you are perhaps already familiar or think is doable, do what you know you will enjoy, try out some extra curricular activities to extend your knowledge and give you a more enriching experience. Don't do something because it looks impressive or because everybody else is doing it. I am not the biggest fan of skiing though felt pretty tempted to join the ski club at University as it is "the thing which you do in Grenoble". I am glad I did not go for it, as there are other things which I am doing which are less expensive and interest me more.

Choosing accommodation


This is a dilemma for any Erasmus student: Should I live in university halls, in a private flat with international students or a colocation with other Francophone students? While the latter sounds best for full immersion, I rationalized and considered the following points:

1. When in Edinburgh, did I spend a lot of time with my flatmates? No. I spoke briefly in passing but most of my social encounters were with people from university societies, tandem and tutorials.

2. What is the best-value option? If I were to go for the cheapest option, that would be le rabot or la tronche with CROUS, the student housing service. I had been told however that these are often in inconvenient locations and with undesirable shared facilities (One Turkish toilet per 30 people, no fridge?). I was wondering whether to go for that, or whether to pay a bit more (275 euros) for a fridge and a private bathroom. In hindsight, I am glad I paid a little extra. Being ill during my first week here I was certainly glad to have the extra privacy and comfort, and saved myself some hassle. The CAF funds should also help me out a little. Going for the really cheap options would however allow me to travel a lot more freely.

3. Location? Again, I avoided some of the really cheap options because they were far out. Private flats in the centre are great for shopping and feeling integrated into society, though are also further away from university and would require you to get a tram card. Résidence Ouest, my uni residence, is 5 minutes from a tram stop and a 15 minute walk to university (or 5-10 minute bike ride).

4. Comfort. Some of the private flats or more expensive halls of residence inevitably have better facilities: fully equipped kitchens, televisions, bathtubs, common areas etc. That said, a lot of people in those positions do without internet for months on end and have to worry about bills. I am just here for one semester, so having all of that all ready to use and included in my rent is a bonus.




I will keep updating this when it strikes me that something is important. Prospective Erasmus students, please feel free to ask questions :)
 






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