I live on a mountain. No joke. If you are traveling on foot, the best way to get up to my residence is to take the stairs (as opposed to the road that I took when I drug my suitcases up the hill the first week – with that much luggage, the road was better than the stairs). Some fellow students from my home college lament the number of steps one needs to ascend in order to reach the top floor of Old Main, or any floor of Old Main for that matter. We counted those steps and came to 81. One afternoon, I counted the steps I take to my residence. I’ll give Annise some credit here – she totally helped on this. Including the stairs inside my building (I live on the 3rd floor, 4th floor by American standards) there are a total of 450 stairs and one really long hill that I take to and from the city center. Here are some pictures as proof.

This fountain is at the base of the stairs leading up the mountain.

And, the stairs commence!

Take a left-hand turn.

And then a right-hand turn.

Or you can take this set of stairs to the left as an alternate route (notice I said alternate, not shorter).

Another left-hand turn.

Keep going.

There are more of these (and the Téléphérique).

Just around the corner to the right you can see the top of this set of steps.

Oh, hey. There is the Musée Dauphinois just off to the right at the end of the steps. You didn’t think anything else could possibly be up here, did you?

And, then begins the trek up the hill:

More hill to the left. That looks so much longer in this picture. It is long, to be sure, but it oddly enough doesn’t feel as long when you are walking it.

To the right there is the archway that serves as the entrance to my residence:

A bit more of the hill after that. You can see some of the older buildings in the complex here. They are a bit castle-esque. Those gates close between 1am and 5am for some strange reason. You can still get into the residence by cutting between the buildings. You just can’t drive up to the parking lot.

Then, the steps begin again. There is an alternate route that you can take between the buildings in the picture above, but the number of steps works out the same. I use them interchangeably.

In through the trees.

These are the funniest little steps. Because of the grade of the hill, the staircase is really long, but the steps are very short. They’re awkward to walk on because you expect to have to lift your feet higher. Every single time I take this staircase, I expend more energy than I really need to.

There are a couple more. Just a couple. When I first saw this staircase when I was just moving in, I said, “Seriously? More steps?” and stopped for a moment to catch my breath. At that point, I had help carrying my suitcases, so it wasn’t too bad.

Just five little steps and you’re done with the steps outside. You can’t see my building because it is behind the bush and across the parking lot.

After this, there are still 3 flights of stairs inside my building to get to my room.

I’m tired just looking at those pictures. I used to walk this at least once a day when it was still nice outside. It’s gotten a bit colder, so wearing a heavy coat poses problems when tackling this particular physical feat. I tend to ride the bus more often, but it only runs first thing in the morning, about an hour around lunchtime, and from 4pm to 8pm. I try to plan shopping trips around when I can get the bus. Of course, to take the bus, I must have a tram/bus pass. I get a student discount, so it’s only around 26€ per month. It’s worth it to get the card because one ticket costs 1€30 and is only good for one journey on the tram or bus. Anyway, that’s a lot of steps, and I still take them quick frequently. I live there. So, stop complaining about the ones in Old Main.

Oh my goodness, were the first few days in France “terrible”. I mentioned a few posts ago that I started crying when I finally got some time alone after just arriving. For the most part, that was the toll of the lack of sleep, the stress of travel, and the lack of nourishment resulting from anxiety. Surprisingly, I didn’t have another such encounter after those first two days despite how stressful the following week was.

After getting to my residence and getting a bit settled, I had to start finding resources for living. This was a bit hard. It involved a lot of walking and spending more money on tram tickets than I really should have. I had to mentally map an old city while (1) searching for cooking utensils, cleaning supplies, toiletries, bedding, and food and (2) fighting off hunger, anxiety, and linguistic confusion. You’ll notice above that “terrible” is in quotations. This is one of my favorite words in French (you thought it was in English, didn’t you?) because of its double meaning. “Terrible” can mean either “horrible” or “wonderful”. While this process was stressful, it was also an incredible amount of fun. Even though you wouldn’t necessarily use “terrible” to mean both things at once, I am exploiting its versatility to describe the dual nature of my quest for survival.

I remember getting lost quite a bit. I was completely alone. My functional, quotidian language skills were limited. I was starving. And I was having the time of my life. I felt like life couldn’t get any worse than dragging my suitcases by myself up the hill to my residence in the heat. I had lived through that with a positive outlook that I didn’t know I possessed. After that, I sort of felt invincible. I wasn’t invincible, of course, and spent more money on certain things when I could probably have gotten them cheaper with a little more searching (even so, I searched quite a bit).

The overwhelming newness of it all made it hard to wade through the thoughts, but also made it impossible to think negatively because there was no room for it in my brain. I was more concerned with satiating my hunger rather than complaining about it, more focused on trying to remember how to get to and from places rather than on lamenting how long it took to find them.

I learned quickly just how limited my language skills were. Even now, after three months in France, I still run into that problem. The main issue seems to be vocabulary. Even though I was struggling to communicate, I remember being proud that I could use a certain amount of circumlocution to get across what I wanted. The mental exercise made the experience draining, but fun. Ultimately, it ended up being exponentially more rewarding than I would have thought.

I was pointed toward a lot of expensive shops and stores that weren’t selling what I needed. At times, I either didn’t understand the directions I was given or the person I asked gave me poor ones. I was glad that I had decided to come a week before university orientation in order to get settled because I spent, and quite possibly wasted, so much time trying to find the right stores and prices.

In those first few days, I got frazzled enough, even in my happiness, that I ended up buying McDonald’s french fries. I felt terribly American, but I didn’t care. On another occasion, again just as frazzled but happy, I decided buying a crêpe was a better idea. It felt very French to order my crêpe with Nutella from the little cart that sits in the middle of Victor Hugo, one the main parts of Grenoble. Victor Hugo, which is fairly close to where I live up in my little hole in the mountain, is populated with tons of shops hiding in an intricate network of streets. Most of those streets are foot-traffic only, which is nice for shopping. Occasionally, you get the odd car for deliveries or maintenance, but it’s usually pretty clear.

It seems silly to me now, but I remember thinking that everyone in Europe drives on the left, rather than the right, side of the road. In France, they drive on the right, just in case someone else as absentminded as me didn’t know that. It was nice to not have to adjust to that when I got here. It definitely helped in the first week because it’s important to watch for cars when crossing streets. That seems obvious, but it’s even more imperative here. Cars won’t necessarily stop for you, even if the light is red and pedestrians have the right-of-way. I almost got hit once that week, and I have had a few other close calls since then. It occurs to me that my parents are reading this, so I am obliged to add in reassurance that this is common even for people who live here. Despite how drivers conduct their vehicles, pedestrians are more brazen than is probably wise and just walk in front of cars. Frankly, it scares the crap out of me, but I have never seen anyone get hit, and I have not been hit myself.

Revenons à nos moutons … I eventually found all of the things that I needed. Pot and pan, cooking utensils, dishes, cups, silverware, pillow and case, cleaning supplies, food, the whole lot. And then, I made a friend. Annise, who comes from Yorkshire, England popped up on the bus one day. Somehow we figured out that neither of us were native French speakers. She had just arrived that day, so I offered to give her a hand and make her some dinner that evening. I had a chance to pass on the help that Daniel had given me. You can read about his kindness here. Anyway, from that totally random meeting, I met one of the best friends I could have hoped to encounter in the first week. Since that point, we decided to try to speak as much French with one another as possible, but we end up breaking into English quite a bit as well. Either way, it’s been fun, and meeting Annise helped me get through the beginning a lot better than I would have had I been completely on my own.

“If I could have one thing from home it would be ____________ because …” I should probably answer this with just one item, but that’s no fun. Answering with multiple categories makes it sound like I really miss everything American, but I don’t. I’m perfectly happy and well without any of these things. I can do without them indefinitely. Knowing that I don’t have to have them is a liberating feeling. Knowing that I was able to move to France, for however short a time, without bringing everything with me has shown me in a wonderfully freeing manner how much I don’t need certain kinds of things that I thought I couldn’t live without. But, here are some things that I would like.

If we are talking about food … it would be peanut butter because it is awesome and because it cannot be bought in France. Nutella is not a substitute. It is different from peanut butter. Even though I love Nutella and could probably eat that just about as often as I normally eat peanut butter, it could never replace the flavor and texture of peanut butter. And, because peanut butter.

If we are talking about personal possessions … it would probably be one of my sweaters that I left behind. I like wearing sweaters. Don’t judge me.

If we are talking about appliances … it would be my hot-pot. I miss being able to make hot water in my room. I’m too lazy to want to walk down the hall to the kitchen. What’s that? The kitchen is 20 feet from my room? But, it’s cold out there, and I have to put on shoes. My life is so rough.

If we are talking about services … it would be shorter check-out lines at the grocery store. I’m usually hungry when I grocery shop, which I know is a bad thing, but standing in a really long, slow-moving line makes it ten times worse. I’ve gotten used to it, and it does not bother me nearly as much, but I would rather not do it if I don’t have to.

If we are talking about people … it would be … I’m not answering this one. It’s mean to me and to all of you to make me choose. I have said to a lot of different people, “I miss you. I’m having an amazing time, and I wish you were here to experience it with me.” This is probably the only thing, the important people in my life, that I wouldn’t want to go without indefinitely. If had to pick one of you, I wouldn’t be able to choose, and my head would end up exploding. Do you want that? I don’t. I want pie.

Because pie. The answer is always pie.

I have a hard time remembering all of these because I have been picking them as I go, and it has already been a month and a half since I got to France. However, there are definitely things about France and the French people that you will not find in your little travel guide. There are things that the French expect every person to know or do that I did not realize before I got here.

For starters, if you know any French, try to speak it and do not look at people like they are stupid if they do not understand you when you pronounce words wrong. Just ask again, keeping in mind the accent. If you are truly having trouble, use “Parlez-vous anglais?” as a last resort. I cannot stress that enough. Try, try, try to use French. People are more polite that way, even if they end up helping you in English. Persist in French as much as you can. I was trying to buy pain killers a few weeks ago and did not think to look up the words before I left, so I had to ask the pharmacy attendant if she spoke English after I felt like I had exhausted my vocabulary. She did not speak English. This happens. And you know what? I left the pharmacy with pain killers, completing the entire transaction in French. I felt bad that I even asked if she spoke English after that.

Forget your personal space. I was standing in line to order food one day when the man standing in line behind me stepped as close as possible without touching me and placed his arm on the counter in front of me, essentially giving me a really loose one-armed hug. He continued chatting to his friend like this was no big deal. Because, in France, it is not a big deal. I was startled at first, but remembered that similar things happen all the time here. When queueing for public transport, check-out lines, or performing transactions with a bank teller, people will get really close to you.

Speaking of people being really close to you, keep a close watch on your stuff. This might be in a guidebook, but I think it is worth mentioning here as well. I have learned to wear my bag across my chest, keeping it in front of me or at my side with my arm on it. Why? Petty theft is a problem in France. It is more of a problem in Italy, where people will come at you from the front and cut the strap right off of your shoulder, but it is still pretty common in France. Just be safe about your money. You do not have to keep it in your shoe or anything like that, but keep an eye or a hand on it. This is especially important in larger cities. I haven’t had a problem in Grenoble, so I’m a bit more relaxed about it around where I live. However, making sure to look after your belongings on the Paris métro is a good idea.

Do not be that loud English speaker. Europeans tend to think that Americans are loud. It is not just Americans. It is English speakers in general. A Spanish friend of mine tells me that the Spanish are just as bad if not worse. We are loud. It is annoying to the French. Just watch the volume level. I have gotten a few dirty looks. If you are having a good time, you do not always notice the dirty looks, so just keep this in mind.

This kind of goes along with the previous suggestion, but it should be said explicitly also. If you are going to drink, do not become obnoxious. Being drunk in public is okay if you keep it to yourself. As an American woman, I am embarrassed when I see other American women (who seem to be the worst offenders) stumbling all over themselves, asking dumb questions, and disintegrating into an incoherent mess. This is a little exaggerated, and it is missing a few things, but this video explains what I am talking about. No one needs or wants to know how drunk you are. The French look down on  it. Frankly, it’s irritating because it makes the rest of us look bad.

Say “please” and “thank you”. In some cultures it is okay to never say please or thank you. In France, it is a must. It’s polite, and politesse is very important here. A simple “merci” is sufficient for a lot of things. When purchasing breads, cheeses, meats, or anything else at a counter where you have to ask for it, always say add “s’il vous plaît to the end of your request. (It’s important to note here as well that it helps if you try to speak French for the entire transaction. If you don’t speak French, then just be as polite as possible.) When you’ve gotten what you asked for, or even if you haven’t, say “mercy”. You can add “beacoup” on the end. It’s rather common in Grenoble to say “merci bien”. I’m not sure if that’s a regional thing or not, but people would know what you meant if you said it somewhere else in the country as well.

In the same vein, say “hello” and “goodbye”. “Bonjour” for the daytime, and “bonsoir” for the evening. If you aren’t sure what to say because it’s right on the boarder, just follow what the other person has said. With friends, it’s common to just say, “salut,” no matter what time of the day it is. When leaving a shop, “au revoir” is sufficient. You can also say “bonne journée” for the daytime or “bonne soirée” for the evening.

I’m certain that there are a lot of things I’ve missed with this post. I will probably amend it later or add another post.

If you go to another country and manage to be oblivious to the fact that a lot of things are different, I really want some of whatever you are on.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it is important to be open to new and different experiences. I have spent a good amount of time discussing all the things that are different in France with some other American students and my friends and family at home. Sometimes, it sounds like I am complaining. I would like to extend the following disclaimer: there is a difference between complaining and explaining. Complaining usually involves phrases like, “I do not understand why they do it this way”, “It would be better if they tried this”, and “I do not like how this works.” Explaining is an attempt to describe something, show intrigue (in some cases confusion) at its dissimilarity, and an attempt to understand it more fully. Sometimes, I feel like I am complaining, and I feel it is necessary to differentiate between complaining and explaining in order to reassure all involved.

Anyway, here are the top 10 things I have noticed that are different from my home country.

1. The language

This one is extremely obvious. I am in France. They speak French here. I live with a lot of other foreign exchange students, so I hear a lot of other languages as well. Europe is diverse anyway, but because the people in my building come from all around the world, language and communication are large portions of the day. I switch between French and English quite frequently. I try to speak French as much as possible, even when I know the other person knows English. Sometimes, French is the only common language, as with some of my Argentinian friends. At other times, though this happens more rarely, English is the only common language.

2. Lines

There are lines for absolutely everything in France, and they do not move quickly. Americans tend to pride themselves on how quickly they can serve patrons. The French, on the other hand, do not move as quickly, preferring to take their time while not necessarily being thorough. This frustrated me at first, but I have gotten used to waiting for everything. Patience. Do you have it? Well, you do now whether you want it or not.

3. Soda and other junk foods

The French are not familiar with high fructose corn syrup. Soda has actual sugar in it, and it is not the “Throwback” kind; it is just regular soda. Also, fruit sodas, like orange or lemon flavored drinks, are made from actual fruit juice. Basically, orange soda is orange juice with carbonation. Overall, artificial flavorings just are not popular in France. They do exist, usually in things like Doritos or other processed foods, but they are not terribly common. Speaking of Doritos. While they are not the snack of choice in France, they do sell several flavors in the grocery store, but you have probably never heard of them if you are from the States. Same brand, same concept, different flavors.

4. Manners

There is that horrible stereotype that French people are rude. Stop thinking that. Stop it. They are a terribly well-mannered people. Of course, they can be terribly polite and insult you at the same time because of French grammar and etiquette, but this is usually reserved for when you have already done something stupid. When you walk into a shop, your presence is almost immediately acknowledged with a friendly “bonjour”. When shop assistants offer help, they do not ask if you need help, instead informing you that if you need something, do not hesitate to ask for it. Then, they leave you alone to shop in peace. When you leave, even if you have not bought anything, someone will generally say “bonne journée” or “au revoir”. It is polite, attentive, and non-intrusive. This happens more infrequently in the States. In France, people tend to leave you alone unless you ask for help. But, when you do ask for help, they will generally do their best to give you directions, help you find clothing sizes, or hold the tram for you as you run down the street with three bags full from the day’s shopping.

5. Hygiene

Okay, so everyone is thinking that all the women have hairy legs and underarms. False. In my experience, it is about half and half. Some women shave and some women do not. And no one seems to care either way what the hell you do. In general, people shower less often in France (and Europe as a whole). As a result, you can normally smell what other people smell like. This is not unpleasant. I have never really understood why the American culture as a whole seems to be afraid of body odor.

6. Bathrooms

Now, don’t get me wrong, you can find some pretty strange bathrooms in the States, but usually those bathrooms are designed in some unconventional way or they’re just plain filthy. My experience tends to be a little different from most in this respect. The majority of toilets here are similar to the standard ones we have in the States, but I wouldn’t know that for sure because the only thing we have at my residence is the old French style squat toilets (every time I say this, I can’t help but think “squatty potty” and giggle in a juvenile way – thanks Dan). They really aren’t that bad. They’re inside and they have doors. That’s good enough for me. In other situations, like many of the toilets on the university campus, there are no toilet seats. Showers in apartments or homes are pretty much the same, but the showers in my residence have push-button water. I give them props for the eco-friendliness.

7. Food

It is better. I’m not talking about the style of cooking either. I am talking the raw ingredients. I do not know if it is just because they are almost all free-range or if it is a different breed, but the eggs just taste better here. The variety and quality of cheese is spectacular (I do not use this word lightly). You cannot find slices of cheese very much here. They exist, but no one seems to really use them except at sandwicheries. Open air markets with fresh vegetables and fruits are abundant. While you can buy sliced bread here, and a lot of people do, the most popular is the baguette. But, that’s not the only kind of bread, and boulangeries routinely sell out of the 15 or so varieties they are offering on any given day. I actually kind of prefer a flute moulée to a baguette de tradition. Okay. I’m just trying to impress you with my knowledge of different French breads. They are both very good; they are all, indeed, very good.

8. Transportation

Very rarely are headlights out. The laws might be a bit more strict on that here. In general, there are fewer cars because of the immense amount public transportation. This may be different in larger cities like Marseilles or Paris. Lyon was comparable to Grenoble in car traffic, but Lyon is less than a quarter of the size of Paris. Either way, cars are generally scraped up a bit from reckless driving. Sometimes cars stop for pedestrians, sometimes they do not stop. Just get out of the way and do not cross if it does not look safe. A lot of people ride bikes, even in poor weather. And, of course, foot traffic is very high.

9. Clothing

The regular stereotype is that the French have awesome style. I will dispel this rumor now. It is true. I do not think, however, that it has everything to do with clothes themselves. It has more to do with the people. They generally do not seem to care what they put on before leaving their residence, nor do they care what you wear. Someone put it to me this way: “It does not matter what you wear, but when you are wearing it, you have to own it. You have to wear it like it is your job.” It is being confident in your clothes and not giving a damn about what other people think of your outfit that makes French style so good. On top of that, the French sizing system is more uniform (meaning one size 38 is the same size as every other size 38).

10. Wine

I almost went through this entire post without mentioning this. What is wrong with me? It’s definitely cheaper to buy a bottle of wine here. It is not bad wine either. You can pay about $7 in the States for a cheap wine. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are not. And, you should probably go to a wine & spirits shop to find anything worth drinking. In France, you can pick a bottle off of the shelf in the grocery store, pay around 3€, and be fairly satisfied by your purchase. Boxed wine does not exist. Screw top wine is very hard to find and usually sucks when you do find it. You can buy your 70€ bottle of wine here, but that’s the stuff they keep in the little locked case. I am too poor to really look closely at that case. You are better off selecting something from the literal wall of wine choices. If you want to blend in, red wine is the way to go, and for the love of all that is beautiful in the world, please do not refrigerate it. White wine and rosé will get you scoffed at, though not necessarily openly.

Paradoxically, the most stressful part of studying abroad was the part that I endured with the most stoicism.

One of the best things I did before leaving was to have a small going-away party with family and friends. It was not my idea. In fact, I was very against doing this, but I was not about to be rude and tell my father that he could not give me a sending-off. My parents are divorced, so the situation is a little shaky when trying to do stuff like this. My solution is usually to just not do anything. I made sure to see as many people as I could before departing, having had dinner with my grandparents, mother, stepfather, and sister, so I figured I was covered and did not really need a party. I grumbled inwardly at having to spend time away from what I felt was more important (packing instead of saying goodbye to people I would not see for 5 months) as my anxiety for the trip grew. I was upset, but zipped my mouth shut because it was something really nice that my dad was doing for me. I felt ungrateful for hating the attention. Most people want these kinds of things.

It was not anything big or complicated, just a few friends and some family. We had pizza, beer, and cheesecake. We sat outside and talked for a few hours. Honestly, it was the most fun I had had in a long time. For a while, I forgot that I was leaving, and I even stopped worrying. Even though I did not initially want to have a party, I was very grateful that my dad organized it. It was important to see everyone and to remove myself from the stress for a while. That, and it was fun. This is a necessary part of any long-term trip abroad.

After everyone went home, I returned to my packing. It did not take me long to put the finishing touches on my luggage. I tied brightly colored ribbons to the handles for easy identification at the airport (which works very well). I knew I was not going to be able to sleep. I stayed up later than I probably should have. At some point, I was talking to a professor online who mentioned that I would probably sleep on the plane, anyway. Up to that point, I had managed not to think about the actual plane rides. I had never been on a plane. Suddenly, I was terrified. I had no idea that Schrödinger’s cat and the accompanying dead cat stories could be so calming to talk about, but that was ultimately what made me feel better. Realizing how strange my life is, I decided to at least try to get some sleep. I did not sleep incredibly well, but I caught a few hours before getting up to start my travels.

I do not remember eating breakfast, so I will say that I probably did not. I do remember, however, my father forcing biscotti on me at the airport. You know I am nervous if you have to force biscotti on me. But, I was prepared. I had the essentials. Aside from my computer, without which I would be unable to live (I am sure), I had my passport with visa attached, my boarding passes, my baggage claim slips, all of my school documents (from home and host), a change of clothes, and money. The airport was fairly empty, as the small ones often are. The hardest part was walking out the other end of the security check point and looking back to see my dad. I was okay to give him a hug and say goodbye. I was fine to go through the security procedures. But when I got to the other side where he could not come, it became very hard to smile back at him. I smiled and waved, anyway. I started to walk away, and when I looked back again, he was gone.

Planes are not all that bad. I had a short flight to Chicago to get me started. There is a lot of white noise created by the sheer amount of air rushing out of the way as the plane bolts through the clouds. It is very soothing in a terrifying way. I took a book with me, but I did not read it very much because I could not focus on it. I listened to music and stared out of the window in stead. And then we landed in Chicago.

The Chicago O’Hare airport is huge. I wandered around for a while, and then went to find something to eat. I ended up chatting with a random person over chinese food. Question. Why do I always end up talking about philosophy or religion with strangers? The random person with whom I shared lunch was a Jehovah’s Witness. It was all I could do not to laugh. But, there was not much time for that since I had to change my money and to catch my next flight.

The next stop was Madrid, Spain. Everything on that flight was said first in Spanish and then repeated in English. This made perfect sense because we were going to Spain. We were given dinner and breakfast on the flight because it was 9 hours long. Airline food is not all that bad. Everything comes in its own separate container, so it is very easy to ignore the meat (did I mention that I am a vegetarian?). I ended up being seated next to a Spanish woman (go figure). The two of us assumed that we did not understand one another and proceeded to communicate through facial expressions, gestures, and the occasional ineffective English or Spanish word. We both ended up sleeping for a good portion of the trip. I cannot for the life of me remember her name because I did not understand it when she told me. I felt very much like a stereotypical dumb American. Anyway, she and I realized about a half hour before landing that we both spoke French. I had not occurred to me to ask if she spoke French. We laughed for a while about that and then chatted for the remainder of the flight.

This is Grant. He would not shut up. He suggested that I tell you all this.

If I thought that the Chicago airport was big, I was even more surprised by the one in Madrid. It had its own underground tramway for connecting from arrivals to departures. It took at least a half hour to get from my arrival gate all the way to my departure gate. That does not include the security checkpoints I had to go through. And then I had 4 hours to spend in the airport. That was probably the worst part about the trip. While I was wandering around the airport, I found a small internet kiosk and decided to update my Facebook status. The keyboard at this kiosk was made of metal, and the buttons were extremely hard to push. Typing sentences was a slow process. I had paid for 30 minutes of connection, but I needed five minutes to complete each task, so it felt pointless to even try. While I was struggling with and swearing under my breath at the keyboard, a young man walked up to use the kiosk next to me. His name was Grant. He was traveling in Rome. His visa had expired, and he was couch surfing in Spain for a vacation. Or something like that. I was very sleep disoriented by this point.

Traveling was starting to wear on me heavily by the time I hit my last flight from Madrid to Lyon, France. I felt physically sick for a while. It was not terrible, just nagging. I encountered a teenage girl returning to France after spending time with some family in the US. The flight was short, and I napped for the duration of it. And then we landed, and I walked through customs into France. The only thing I really remember about the Lyon airport, St. Exupery, is how dirty it was.

From here, I needed to take a bus from Lyon to Grenoble. I headed for the ticket counter. As I was buying my ticket (my first transaction in French) I met a middle-aged man from Dublin. He was terribly kind, helping me find where the bus was and loading my luggage for me. We shared the ride to the Grenoble train station where he helped me to unload my luggage and to find a map of the city. I was very grateful for his help. By that point, I had been traveling for almost a full 24 hours. It was very draining, but I did not complain. We parted ways, and I went in search of my hotel. The office for my student residence had already closed by the time I arrived in Grenoble, so I planned on heading over the next day. The hotel I wanted to stay at, which was recommended by my student guide, did not exist. The address was 25 Félix Viallet, but the numbers went from 24 to 26, and there was no 25 on the other side of the street. So, I found a different hotel. So far, I was getting by with my French fairly well. I had not died yet. That was a plus.

I was doing fine, really. I drug my luggage up to my room, closed the door, and started to cry. I was exhausted. I was in a foreign country. I was so grateful for the help I had found. And I wanted to go home. I did not want to admit it. I took a shower. Then, I set up my computer and called my dad on Skype. Managing to keep a smile was hard. In fact, I do not think that I smiled much at all. I got very quiet for a few seconds and then asked, “I can come home if I want to, right?” He did not say anything for a long moment, but eventually replied, “Well. Yes. But …” I did not really want to come home. I just felt so tired. And hungry. I had not eaten anything since breakfast, and all I had with me were a few granola bars. However, I was too tired to go anywhere to find something to eat. I decided to get some sleep and figure it out in the morning. When I could not really sleep, I called my mom on Skype. She could tell I was tired and upset. I almost had her crying, too. Almost.

The next morning, I did not get around to finding anything for breakfast other than another granola bar and some Airborne vitamins (click here for some concerning information). It felt hard to eat for some reason. I checked out of my hotel and went in search of a taxi to take me to my residence. I had the address handy, so I figured it would not be too hard. The taxi driver told me that the road to my residence was closed. He would not be able to take me all the way to it, but he could drop me off as close as possible and direct me on how to get to the building. What else was I going to do? I got in the cab, and we drove through town, across the river Isère, and up to an archway between two buildings.

The archway leads to a road up the mountain-hill, but there happened to be construction taking place on the road immediately in front of the archway. I could walk through, but the taxi certainly could not drive through. “Okay. This should not be too bad,” I thought. The taxi driver showed me on a map where I needed to go. One, two, three, four turns in the winding road and continuing straight on after that would take me up to my residence. He helped me get my luggage out of the back. I gave him a few euros, attached my luggage to itself, and began to pull it up the hill. It was at least a kilometer to my residence from the bottom of the mountain-hill. I drug my luggage all the way to the top. I was very grateful for the wheels. At some point as I was trying to find the right building at the top of the hill, I stopped and asked another student if he knew where the office was. He did not, but he offered to help me find it. We were shortly joined by his friend. They took my luggage for me for a while. It turns out I had overshot, and had to walk back down the hill a short way. We eventually found the office, and I was able to check in. I gave them my sincerest thanks for their help before getting my key.

This never gets old.

As I was heading out of the office, a young woman offered to help me carry my things up to my room, which is on the third floor (the fourth floor by American standards). Her name is Sara. I have seen her a few more times since meeting her when I moved in. She tells me that I need to go skiing with her. And then, I unlocked my door and stepped into what will be my room for the entirety of my stay in Grenoble. The first thing I did after setting down my luggage was open the window and stare in amazement at the beautiful view.

My next mission was to find something to eat. I was starving by this point, and I knew that there was more walking in store for me. I grabbed my wallet, locked my door, and headed out. I stopped and asked someone if they knew somewhere good to get some lunch. This is how I met Daniel. He said he was heading out to his university cafeteria and invited me to join him. Sure. Why not? We walked back down the mountain via a long set of stairs. Then, we headed across town. Daniel is from Argentina. He is studying engineering in France. We shared lunch that afternoon. He had errands to do, but he walked me back to the base of the stairs so I could find my way back to the residence. I was exhausted again, so I decided to take a nap. Later that evening, Daniel made me dinner. I thanked him profusely for all of his help. He told me that he was glad to do it because someone else had been kind to him in the same manner when he first arrived.

The first days were very hard, but I learned a lot. I learned to deal with a lot of things without complaining. Walking up the hill was difficult and discouraging. I had to stop a lot. A lot of people would have given up if they had been faced with something like this. A lot of people would complain. I did not complain. All I could think was that my circumstances could not get much worse. If it could not get much worse, and if I was able to do it with some energy and fortitude of mind to spare, then I would be able to handle almost anything. These were not the most spectacular of days. I felt discouraged a lot, but at many points, I could not keep myself from thinking how excited I was to finally be in France even if I felt disconnected.

The two most important things I learned in those two days were gratitude and openness. I learned to ask for and accept help from strangers and to be both outwardly and inwardly grateful for it. I learned the value of extending a hand to others and made myself a promise to help someone like Daniel helped me. I learned to be open to new and challenging experiences and to refrain from complaining about them because they are not what I am used to. If I could impart any knowledge to those who are thinking about traveling or studying abroad, it would be those two things. I would advise trusting yourself to know from whom you can accept help because it is easy to tell and almost always worth it. And I would further advise holding your tongue when you most want to let loose a complaint.

Now that I’ve been living in Grenoble, France for about 4 weeks, I think it is about time that I fire up my travel blog. The delay was partly due to my indecisiveness about the blog name. I wanted something simple, but I did not want my blog to be exactly like everyone else’s travel blog. Let us be realistic (or pessimistic, which might leave me pleasantly surprised or at least not disappointed): my blog will probably end up like every other travel blog. I settled on practicalguidetogrenoble for a few reasons. First, my experiences will hopefully give my readers a faint idea of what it is like to live in Grenoble, France. Second, I don’t want to focus only on my experience; I want to give some good advice for others traveling abroad. Some of that advice I had before leaving the States, and some advice I will draw from my own experiences or the experiences of others because I wish someone would have told me those things before I left.

To be honest, I worried about the blog name. As more time has passed since I have arrived,  I have become more and more worried that I would forget what I wanted to write about. I feel like what I have to say is important, but then again, so do all bloggers. Anyway, I think that worry is a good place to start.

Worry is what ultimately delayed my trip. You heard me right. I was originally supposed to study abroad a semester earlier than I am currently. I battled some problems with anxiety, had a nervous breakdown about going overseas, and decided to postpone my studies in France for an extra semester. You do not really need specifics, but I will say that I had a great support system to let me know that I made the right decision.

My situation is a bit more extreme than the normal pre-study abroad experience worries, but it serves as a good example. It is okay to be worried about studying abroad. These kinds of doubts and questions are not unfounded. Taking the time to address those doubts and questions was the best thing I could have done in that situation. Once I got past that struggle, I was able to focus on more important things about my perceived impending doom because that part was over.

During the Spring semester, I spent a lot of time going over visa procedures, making lists, talking to my advisors about courses I might take, pricing flights, filling out paperwork, applying for a scholarship, corresponding with my host university, etc. I got a lot prepared before I even went home for the summer. I had a lot of help while I was at school, but it was still a daunting process because of the sheer amount of things that needed to be done.

Depending on where and how long you are studying abroad, the visa process can be a bit complicated and confusing. I bookmarked the French consulate website, printed out the visa application instruction page, and immediately began to curl up in a ball on the floor. I had already started the visa process the semester before, so my list of things to do was shorter, but not by much. The thing about a foreign consulate is that most everyone that works there is, well, foreign. That means that the consulate website is normally in their native language. In this case, that would be French. There is an English version as well, but it is not the most spectacular example of translation. Therefore, the instructions I had were a bit hard to understand. I had to read them very carefully. After several weeks of nervous anticipation, my appointment was impending, and I still felt like I hadn’t done everything I needed to do. On top of that, my dad and I were going to be late. I may have hyperventilated. Not really, but you get the idea.

It was a crazy day. The consulate was behind on their appointments, so being late turned out to be no issue. One of my documents was not sufficient for proving my financial support, so I needed to find a notary to witness the form saying my father would support me. I was able to get everything I needed that day, but by the time I got home I was coming off of a stress high. Not a pleasant day, but everything that needed to be accomplished got accomplished. (I make it sound less stressful than it actually was because I have omitted more than half of the story.) Things I learned? Read, reread, and reread the directions. Do this ahead of time. Follow the directions carefully. Do this ahead of time. Double check your list and cross-reference it with all of your materials. Have extra copies of everything. If the consulate asks for passport photos, bring more than they require (extras will come in handy later). Do not try to put the finishing touches on your application materials on the way to your appointment; plan to get all of your materials together by 2 or more days before your appointment. Be early to your appointment, even if it means you will have to wait extra time if they are running behind.

The next big challenge for me was purchasing a plane ticket. This is harder than it sounds. If you are flying overseas, it can get expensive very quickly. The study abroad department at my college was nice enough to give us some tips before hand. Some of their information was helpful, some of it was not. When looking for tickets, I checked student websites like StudentUniverse as well as individual airline websites. If you’re going for price, it is a good idea to stick with major international airports. Small international airports, like the one I flew out of, are convenient if you live close to them, but it will cost more to depart from them and create extra stops. Stops mean layovers. Layovers mean less sleep. Less sleep means more stress. Ultimately, I paid more money for the convenience of flying out of an airport less than a half hour away from home. The extra cost was worth it to me, but it might not be the best choice for everyone. It is a good idea to keep things like this in mind and to check out as many prices as you can. There are rumors that airlines will snipe you on baggage costs. I cannot attest to the veracity of those claims for all airlines. The airline I chose charged me $60 to check two bags and keep them until I got to my destination. To me, that did not seem too bad. If this is a point of concern, most airlines, if not all, post their baggage specifications and prices online. Making an informed decision is always the best option. Do not regret it later if you find a better price after you have booked your ticket and are leaving in two days. Of course, I do not know this from personal experience at all.

As for packing, I find that this is a very personal matter. I have exchanged packing stories with several other students. Everyone does it a little differently. Underwear is always good. Socks, too. Comfortable walking shoes. I guess clothes in general are essential. Pictures of your family and friends. Addresses for sending postcards. Camera. You can buy a lot of things when you get there. Again, my college’s study abroad department was pretty good on their advice for this. They suggested that I take two suitcases (within airline specifications, which really is not hard to do) and pack both suitcases half-full. This saved me from packing too much and will leave me with enough room to bring home souvenirs. Rolling suitcases are a very good idea. Whoever invented them has my eternal gratitude. That story will come later. As with everything else in my preparation, I fretted over what to pack. The easiest way for me to figure out what I needed was to think the things that I use most often. For this, I did not make a list, but it probably would have been helpful if I had done so. Parents love to send care packages, but if you are overseas, it can get very expensive doing so. Seriously, though, no pressure if you forget something. Just make sure you have your passport and all of your other important documents. If you do not know if it is important or not, bring it anyway.

This does not sum up all of my worries as I was preparing to study abroad. These are just a few of the major concerns that I had in regards to physical obstacles. The most irritating and disturbing worry was my icy fear of being unable to communicate when I got to my destination. I was fairly quiet about this worry to other people. I knew I would be fine. I would work something out in order to be able to communicate efficiently. That did not stop me from being afraid. I cannot tell you that I should not have worried. That would be pointless. Worrying is not always bad. Maybe I should not have worried as much, but I had legitimate stresses and concerns that needed to be addressed. Basic logic and confidence in my abilities kept me from breaking down. Basic logic I have had for a long time. Confidence I learned from therapy. It is not like that for everyone, but the point is that I used the tools available to me to combat the stresses and concerns in face of the worries. And I thought about how awesome my trip was going to be. And I ate a lot of ice cream. And then I left the United States and no longer had time to worry.