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Graham Wright

University of Grenoble

Language School

I started my ERASMUS year a month in advance, enrolling myself in a language school for August. CUEF (http://w3.u-grenoble3.fr/cuef/accueil.php3) is run by and held at l’Université Stendhal, and is aimed at newly arrived international students with all levels of French. I made my application for this at the same time as that for UJF. The course cost me €600, though being a UJF student I received a 10% rebate afterwards. Having done only French GCSE and the Learning French 3 module at Warwick’s language centre, my French was relatively weak. They work on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages), and after completing a written test and having a brief chat with one of the teachers, I went in at level B1.0, though within a week they had moved me to B1.6. You attend 4 hours of lessons a day (usually in the morning) with class sizes around the 20 mark. This is divided between traditional class work, involving exercises and class discussions, and time spent in the top class language labs, where you complete exercises in listening and pronunciation. Meanwhile, CUEF organise various trips to local attractions such as Mt Blanc, or the castle at Vizille and hold cinema evenings each week. All in all, I found the teaching to be of a good level and my French improved dramatically over this month, but most importantly, I found that CUEF gave me a great opportunity to settle in to the language and the culture, and make many friends before the term started. Bear in mind that there will be very few people around during August; being a student town, your real ERASMUS social life won’t get going until September, when everyone arrives.

Accomodation

During my month at CUEF, I stayed in a host home. This was an option I ticked on the language school’s application form. The host was a woman, Madame Guyon, in her late 50s who lived on her own, but filled her house with students. There were 4 others, a 16 year old girl from Serbia, a 17 year old boy from Mauritania, an 18 year old girl from America and a 19 year old girl from Italy. They were all from the language school and each became good friends of mine. The house was situated on the south eastern side of Grenoble, 20 minutes bike ride from the university in the western side of the city. She provided breakfast and evening meals, which were both very good, but timing was strict: I had to make sure I was home for 6:30 each day for dinner. Around the house we were encouraged to speak French all the time, but having an American who’d already been in France a month already certainly helped me settle in. I very much appreciate what Madame Guyon did for my French, but come the end of the month, I was eager to gain a little more independence.

Before I left for France, I was searching for accommodation online using various internet sites, notably www.colocation.fr. However, since these offer only limited functionality for free, and make you pay to get the contact details of any of the houses, which I did not want to, I achieved no success. A few friends I made later in the year told me that they had ended up paying the subscription fee, and most had used this to find their accommodation.

Given the lack of confidence I had in my French, and not knowing the area well enough to make a decision about where I’d like to live in the city for the rest of the year, I decided to take the easy option and go for University halls of residence. I did not want to arrive in France without knowing where I was going to stay. Applications are done separately to that of your university, since the accommodation is run by a separate company, CROUS (http://www.crous-grenoble.fr/), who serve all three of Grenoble’s universities. Once your place at UJF has been confirmed, around mid-term 3, you’ll receive a letter detailing how to apply. The application deadline is in late June and as long as you apply before this date, as an international student, you are guaranteed to get a place.

In France, there are two types of residences, Traditional and Modern. With the risk of sounding snobbish, traditional residences are cheap but barely inhabitable, avoid these for certain! Modern residences are to a similar standard to those at Warwick, and all in good locations with respect to the campus. The general consensus is that the residences Hector Berlioz and Ouest are the best located and most sociable, the former costing €300 a month, and the latter €285, which make them the two most expensive residences on offer, but not too much more than prices in England. As a student with no income however, in France you’re entitled to receive the CAF (housing benefit). The amount you get depends on the type of accommodation you’re in, but for my Berlioz room, I received a €111 a month (see CAF in general living section).

These two residences are situated in the north-west corner of the campus, closest to the city centre at just 10-15 minutes on a bike. The B and C tram lines stop right outside each of them, and they’re within walking distance of a large supermarket, Casino. The rooms come with a single bed, but no bedding, a desk, a chair, a wardrobe, a shelving unit, a (very!) small fridge and all modern residences have ensuite toilet-bathrooms. The main difference between the two aforementioned halls is that the bathroom is a good size in Berlioz, but very cramped in Ouest. Meanwhile, Berlioz has a passcode system for secure entry to each block, whilst Ouest has nothing but an open door.

The biggest physical difference between French halls and those in the UK is the kitchen. Mine was shared between 32 people, and there were only 8 electric hot plates and 2 sinks. There is no communal fridge or freezer, no microwave, no oven and no cupboards for storage. This made cooking for myself very difficult, especially when not having a vast amount of space to store food in my room. Many people chose to buy their own microwave to keep in their rooms. The kitchen and hallways are cleaned every day, but you have to clean your own room, for which you will have to buy your own cleaning materials. Unfortunately the halls have quite a sterile feel to them; picture Rootes with an emptier kitchen crossed with a hospital! Nonetheless, it was fine for me.

When you sign up for university accommodation, you have to indicate the number of months you wish to stay. Before my year started, I had not been told when my course would end, and knew nothing other than the official date for the end of the UJF year, which was in mid July, so this is what I put down. You’ll find, however, that you will be completely finished by mid May, and hence I had to write to CROUS to get permission to finish my rent early, at the end of May. I ended up leaving Grenoble in early June, by which time most students were also leaving or had already left. My CUEF course ran throughout August, and I moved into my halls on 1st September. You must arrive early at the secretary’s office for your particular residence, and they will allocate you with a number. You wait for your number to be called in the secretary’s office, and there you pay your first month’s rent, one month’s deposit and hand in all your details. You must provide a form of identity and your EHIC card before they show you to your room and give you your keys. Officially, to live in France (and in particular at these residences), you must also have and show a copy of your social insurance for the year (see details concerning SMERRA in general living section).

Given that the halls serve three universities and several research institutions, you’ll find that there’s a complete mix of undergraduate, postgraduate, freshers, interns, internationals etc. In my halls (and others were similar), roughly 25% of residents were international students, and the rest are French. Probably the biggest difference between University in the UK and in France is the socialising. For the French, it is rare that they travel to anywhere other than the closest university to where they grew up, due to the importance of family in France. This means that people arrive at university with the majority of their childhood friends that they grew up with, and spend their time outside of lessons with these people. In addition, whilst they’re at university, they’re there to work and not much more. The large majority of French students go home at weekends to get their washing done and have food cooked for them and it is there that they will continue their social lives. As such, it is very rare indeed to find and make anything other than the odd French friend here or there in your halls. I had heard similar things before I signed up for halls, but I went in with the attitude that it’ll be what you make it to be. Sadly, it’s all true. The kitchen is not the social centre it is in English halls, and people only go there to cook their food, leaving their pasta on the boil and retreating back to their room. I only knew the name of about 5 of the 25 or so French people I lived on the same corridor with. The international students however (two Spaniards, an Italian and a Fin) became some of my closest friends, and with them we had a great time living in halls. You’ll find that there are kitchen parties, but that they’re nearly always ERASMUS students.

The halls come with free wi-fi, but it is worth mentioning that working out how to connect to the internet for the first time is a lengthy process. You are given an instruction sheet upon arriving, but it is not entirely clear. You must first receive your username and password from UJF, which you will get upon registering on your first day there. You must then find a site available on the local intranet, from which you have to download a piece of software (called VPN) together with a small file. Install the software and using it, locate the small file that you have just downloaded. This program will then require you to enter your username and password, and only then do you have access to the internet! It is also worth saying that this connection worked very slowly during times of peak demand, and regularly cut out.

Another halls worth considering is Rabot. It’s situated on the mountain side under La Bastille (see later section), and as such has stunning views of the city and the mountains past it. It’s a good 20 minute walk up the hill from the centre of town, but friends I know who lived there say you get used to it, and that they actually appreciated the exercise given the amount of drinking they did! There is a bus throughout the day, but this stops at 10pm. The main advantage of living there, other than it being significantly cheaper, is that they had a real community atmosphere much similar to that found in English halls. I gather that everybody there knew each other and there was much more integration with the French students. Finally, Rabot regularly host some of the best ERASMUS parties in the year, and you’ll appreciate not having to get home from them!

By far the most popular and most successful method for finding private accommodation, was to arrive a couple of weeks earlier than necessary, stay in a hostel (for which you can email Stendhal or UJF to get addresses and contact details) and search for accommodation in person using one of the many estate agencies. The majority of lettings are never placed on the internet, and so this way your options are much wider. The majority of my friend’s who lived in private accommodation found it this way, and only one or two were disappointed with their choice by the end of the year.

As for location, I’d say anywhere along the B or C tram lines is optimum. These are the city’s main arteries, and you’ll find most of your time around Grenoble will be spent somewhere in the triangle between the campus, Chavant (the north-east corner of Parc Paul Mistral) and Place Victor Hugo in the centre of town. In particular, the majority of my friends lived on one of the roads coming off Rue Gambetta, which links the B and C lines and is very central.

In hindsight, I regret not being confident enough to go searching for my own place in town with French students - this is the best way to improve your French. However, halls wasn’t bad at all, and waking up just 5 minutes from your lectures never gets old.

The course

In each semester at university in France, you are required to study a minimum of 30 ECTS. Though under Warwick regulations you need to complete a minimum of 45 ECTS over the year(for amounts less than 60 you must make sure you get permission from your ERASMUS coordinators). They also advise that you do not go over this limit. Studying maths, if you’re not doing MMath (I didn’t), you have a choice of two paths to make: Parcours A or Parcours B. Almost all the same modules are available in each path, though the difference is that the content load for each module is slightly less in Parcours B, and as such it is the easier of the two routes. I chose Parcours B, since I was worried about my level of French, as well as the possibility that different knowledge to that I had thus far accrued might be required in France. With hard work however, my French swiftly improved to a sufficient standard, and my second doubt turned out to be unfounded. If no specific request is made, it will be assumed that you will follow Parcours A, and those on MMath must do this.

The modules are detailed at http://www-fourier.ujf-grenoble.fr/enseignement/, and in case the link changes, I have also attached a word document describing those available in each path (Parcours A is the left column, Parcours B is the right column). However, don’t panic just yet, you’ll have time to pick and choose your modules when you arrive. Although you’ll make a provisional choice before arriving, this can always be changed. Keep an eye on the notice boards in the maths faculty, any changes to modules and times are placed here, and not online. As for enrolling, there’s nothing like the OMR, you just go along to a class, have a chat with the teacher and enrol with them. Just make sure you let both your ERASMUS co-ordinators (in Warwick and Grenoble) know.

Here I shall just Parcours B. In the first semester, there are two compulsory modules: Algèbre 1 (15 ECTS) and Topologie des espaces vectoriel normé (12 ECTS). For the domestic students, the remaining 3 ECTS are designated for an English course, which leaves you able to choose an option. I started following these modules, however, it turned out that the Algebra module follows heavily the course followed by Algebra 2 from the second year of mathematics at Warwick, and I was finding it easy. Eventually, despite advice from the module’s lecturer that I should stick with it as it would help with modules in the second semester, I was given permission to drop this module. The Topology module starts off with ideas with which you will already be very familiar such as uniform continuity, however this quickly progresses to aspects that I believe are covered in Metric Spaces, which I did not take in my second year, and as such I found this module both challenging and interesting.

The set up of courses in France is divided in roughly equal proportions between lectures and ‘Travaux Dirigés’. These run like more formal versions of the support classes offered alongside modules at Warwick, and attendance is mandatory. The tutor will set exercises which you complete in class before going through together on the board. There are in-class-tests at quarterly intervals in the semester, with the halfway and final tests counting each counting 50% towards your final grade (unless you perform better in the final test, in which case this takes 100% of the weighting).

After dropping the Algebra module, I chose to focus on improving my French with my remaining credits. There is a French module worth 3 ECTS for one semester (available in both) to all international students at UJF. However, there are also many more modules available from l’Université Stendhal aimed at international students which cover a wide variety of aspects of life in France. They are all available in both semesters and are worth 5 ECTS. You can study: French Grammar, Professional French, Translation (English <-> French), History of the Rhône-Alpes Region, Social Problems in France, The European Union and French Media. To inscribe on any these courses, you must first gain permission from the Mathematics department to drop a maths module, and then visit Stendhal yourself. The international office is on your right in the main building, and information about the above modules will be pinned on a board outside. The Stendhal term starts two weeks later than that of UJF, but the office will be open before so that you can organise this. You will have two weeks from the start of the Stendhal term to confirm your module choices, which must be written down on a form you can collect from this office, and attached to a passport photo.

In the first semester, I chose not to take up the 3 ECTS module offered by UJF and instead chose Grammar, Translation and The European Union totalling to 15 ECTS. The Grammar module provided a more rigorous analysis of aspects of French Grammar that I had covered before, together with many I certainly hadn’t, which proved very valuable in the development of my written French. The translation module is split evenly between English to French and French to English. Articles providing interesting challenges in translation are set as homework each week, and the lessons are spent analysing people’s suggestions. Here I learnt about many of the problems we face when translating between two languages together with interesting points regarding word structures in both English and French that I had never before considered. My vocabulary also expanded dramatically as a result of this module. Finally, in the European Union module, students are required to assemble themselves into small groups in which they prepare a research project on a particular aspect of Society, Politics or the Economy in the European Union before presenting this over the course of a lesson on a particular week, before launching a debate on a particular aspect of your chosen subject. My group chose the Euro and the economic problems it has created. The focus of this module (and the History and Social Problems modules follow the same set up) is not on the content, but on getting foreigners to present and debate in French. It is well lead by an interesting teacher and my confidence and speaking abilities improved a lot over the duration of this course.

I filled my final 3 ECTS with sport. This option is available to anyone from any of the three universities in Grenoble, with an exceptional selection of sports to choose from. For example, you can do fencing! I chose football, for which you must pay €30 to cover coaching costs. There is a training session and a match required each week, and you must log various aspects in a personal training book as you go.

There is only one compulsory module in the second term: ‘Calcul différentiel éqations différentielles, applications’ worth 12 ECTS. Although this lies closely to some of the ideas in differential equations from Warwick’s second year, I found that this module takes certain proofs as ‘trivial’ which at Warwick would be a typical 20 mark question! As such, the subject is explored much more deeply.

Following the success of my first semester, I was given permission by both Warwick and UJF to follow a similar structure and focus on the development on my French. I filled the remaining 18 ECTS with Translation once again, Professional French and Sport. Of the French modules available from Stendhal, only Translation and Grammar are available to take in both semesters, since the content does not repeat itself. In Professional French, we learnt how to write CVs and covering letters as well as training in undergoing job interviews. The structure of such things changes in other countries, and for myself, given that I hope to work in France in the future, the information I accrued in this course will prove invaluable.

Sport is not usually available to students to take twice in one year. Since the first, however, was as a result of not being required to take the English course, ERASMUS students are able to choose this module twice. In the second semester, with the ski season having just begun, I was able to choose snowboarding. Note, you must be a member of l’École de Glisse (the Snow-sport society) and it is not worth choosing a snow sport in the first semester since the season doesn’t start until mid December. There are courses for all levels, but having been snowboarding on holiday twice before, I was able to choose between medium ability modules. Ahead of Downhill Racing and Half pipe, I chose Freestyle, which covered various jumps and tricks, as well as a little half pipe and off-piste. The course is concluded with an examination of your skills on the last visit. My snowboarding had improved no-end by the time this module concludes at the end of the season in April.

The maths faculty is small; there were roughly 25 students who followed Parcours B, and around 35 on Parcours A, and indeed there was very little mixing between the two. The aforementioned problem about French students tending to stick to their predefined friendship groups from home also applied. In my class, I found everyone friendly, though only three or four people were eager to get to know me, and it is with these people that I spent the rest of my year when in the maths department.

My year

Semestre 1:

Topologie, UJF, 12 ECTS

Sport (football), UJF, 3 ECTS

Grammaire français, Stendhal, 5 ECTS

Politiques Européennes, Stendhal, 5 ECTS

Traduction, Stendhal, 5 ECTS

Semestre 2:

Calcul différentielle, UJF 12 ECTS

Sport (snowboarding), UJF, 3 ECTS

Français proffesionel, Stendhal, 5 ECTS

Traduction, Stendhal, 5 ECTS.

Note, as an option, other languages (worth 3 ECTS per term) are available. However, since these courses do not repeat themselves, you cannot pick up a language in the second semester having never done it before and having not done it in the first semester. I know this, because I had planned on doing this with Spanish! Also lessons are of course taught in French and of those that did study other languages, I know that many struggled with the Latin languages, since the module is aimed at the domestic French students, who will inevitably hold an advantage over you.

In France, there is a large emphasis on mathematical reasoning. Whilst a Warwick exam is typically 25% definitions, 35% regurgitated proofs, 20% examples and 20% ‘moments-of-genius’, in France it’s 0% definitions, 25% variants on proofs seen in the course and 75% ‘moments-of-genius’. This doesn’t mean you scrimp on learning the courses; you tend to need every definition and theorem in order to answer the problems, but an equal amount of ingenuity. In Parcours B, in general I found the level of maths challenging, but not strenuous. The ERASMUS student who preceded me, David Chart, did Parcours A and struggled with the maths, though he nonetheless enjoyed the maths, and knew that he’d be in excellent stead for his final year at Warwick.

So long as you allow yourself a few weeks, or preferably do a CUEF course in order to settle in to the language, you should have no issues with comprehension in the lectures. They’re a lot smaller, so you can ask questions without feeling that you’re disrupting, and most teachers will ask you personally after the first lecture to see if their pace/accent is ok for you as an Erasmus student.

Sport

If you are interested in playing any sport during your stay in Grenoble, you need to keep your eyes peeled for posters advertising the Sports Forum which is held in one of the sports halls in the far corner of the campus in mid September. Many people who did not attend this were not able to follow the sport programmes they had hoped to due to over-subscription. If you are planning to take any sports as part of your options, you will need to pick up the appropriate form sometime BEFORE the sports forum at the sports office (which is found in the main UJF building - this is not the Maths building), and take this with you to the relevant stand at the Forum.

To study a sport with the university, it is required that you have a health check up with a doctor to verify that you are in a suitable physical state to compete. This lasts less than 5 minutes, but it is necessary to organise it yourself with the health centre before hand (see HEALTH section in General Living).

At the sports forum, I joined the école de glisse (snow sports, http://www.ecole-de-glisse.com/). This costs €30 and requires a passport photo for your membership card. If you’re interested in going skiing more than once or twice during the season, then this is an absolute must. They offer heavily reduced rate day passes and cheap transport to and from three excellent local ski resorts (les Deux Alpes (large), les 7 Laux (medium), St Pierre de Chartreuse (small)). A day pass will cost you roughly €10 instead of the full €30-€40 price, and transport will usually cost another €10, leaving from either the campus or the centre of town. Meanwhile, whilst the public transport busses are cheaper at roughly €6, the bus station is on the other side of town, takes longer to get there and being a public bus, you can’t leave any of your possessions on it. I had previously considered buying a season-pass for my snowboarding, but this would restrict me to just one resort.

Regarding Ski equipment, assuming you don’t have your own, you have two options; buy or rent. If you want to buy new, there’s no question that your best bet is to do so whilst still in the UK. Prices are cheaper over here. However, with Grenoble having such a large student population, there are definitely 2nd hand deals to be had, though unfortunately these will be best at the end of the school year, around June, when people are moving out and need to sell off their stuff. Otherwise, in October some time, Decathlon (France’s bigger better version of Halfords/JJB, which is one tram stop away from the Campus at Grand Sablon) host a 2nd hand sale; though I went to this and unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, you’ll be hard pushed to find something suitable. The most sensible option, particularly if you’re a beginner, would be to rent equipment. This can be done for the season from many shops around Grenoble, but as a member of the École de Glisse, you’re entitled to a discount rate at a shop called Adrenaline, which can be found at Chavant.

Elsewhere at the Sports fair, aside from football, I also signed myself up for tennis lessons. You can pay €30 for lessons once a week and pay the €5 each to use a court every time you want to play with a friend or €50 for unlimited lessons and unlimited court use. Bring a copy of your timetable and get there early to get one of the sessions which take place in one of the indoor courts: you’ll appreciate it in the winter! The lessons are available at all levels. I’d played tennis frequently before, but I’d never had lessons. I found that over the year I improved a lot, and I played every other day come summer as the campus has many courts.

Although I did a fair number of hikes with just friends and a map, I would advise joining the hiking club to really profit from the surrounding mountains.

In general, getting involved in sports at uni whilst in France will give you a fantastic opportunity to make French friends. This is because the relationship is not limited by language barriers, as there is no pressure to be interesting and funny, since this happens whilst playing.

General Living

HEALTH

Domestic students in France must purchase a social security scheme ‘sécurité sociale (étudiante)’. However, on the health-care website for students in the Rhône-Alpes region of France (http://www.smerra.fr/), I found a document which told me that students from inside the European Economic Area do not require this; instead, you are covered by the International Relations Department of the Social Security Office for the area of the region that you are studying in. It claims that “the SMERRA will reimburse your costs on the spot at your agency when you produce the proof of your health expenses.” However, of course, it is advisable to have insurance on your possessions, and on emergency costs, particularly if you’re skiing.

There is a health centre on the campus and a hospital just two tram stops away on the B line. To use the health centre, you must first sign up. This is necessary in order to get the physical assessment required if you take a sports module. If you get ill, the health centre are also able to provide you with the prescriptions needed to buy whatever drug you might need.

MONEY

You get an ERASMUS grant from the British Council, which for me equated to £3400 (£2100 upfront and the rest at the end of the year once they’d worked out how much they had left), but this varies year on year depending on the Council’s budget, and the uptake of ERASMUS places. There are no tuition fees, license fees, administration fees etc to pay when moving to the country or enrolling at the university. Other than your CAF housing benefit (see next section), there are no other grants available from the French government or from the university. You can still apply for the maintenance part of your student loan in the UK, and the amount you receive is the same as if you were staying at Warwick another year.

I arrived in France already using a Nationwide Flex account, which offered free cash withdrawals within Europe. Unfortunately, they now charge 2% commission for such transactions, which is better than its competitors, but no longer the deal it used to be. The Post Office used to be the only other company to offer free withdrawals, though I am not sure on their policy nowadays. Nonetheless, for certain things such as paying the rent, or receiving the CAF (read on) it is necessary to have a French bank account. As such, I would recommend going to open a bank account as soon as you can as the process itself takes up to 3 weeks. Get used to bureaucracy in France!
One thing you need to be aware of about banking in France, is that clients pay the bank a small fee each month for the right to have the account, a little more to be able to have a bank card (called a ‘Carte Bleue’), a little more for a cheque book and a little more for security features etc.
Based on the advice of a previous Warwick student who had studied in Grenoble, I chose BNP Paribas for my bank account. They had a fantastic introductory deal, offering 2 years free banking (none of the fees mentioned above). They have a small branch on the campus with an ATM, but there are no facilities to make deposits. Larger ones are found in the centre of town at Place Victor Hugo, and at Chavant. In addition, BNP offered a deal with an insurance company, where if you bought a policy for €26 when you opened the account, you would receive €40. This company is SMERRA, and their office is found at the Grand Sablon tram stop on the B-line. I had no problems with BNP throughout my stay, so I too would recommend them.

CAF

The CAF (caisse d’allocations famille) is part of a government run organisation which supports people on low incomes with their rent and bills. This applies to students too, and is very generous. There is a large office towards the South of Grenoble (rue des aillées) and a smaller one in the centre of town. As with all things in France, the application is a little complicated, but it is well worth it. There was a computer in the office’s lobby, on which new applicants start their application process. I went to the office before I knew the exact details of where I was staying (I knew that I would have a room in Berlioz, but not yet which room) and before I had set up a bank account, but was nonetheless able to fill in the forms, simply skipping anything I didn’t yet know (this, apparently, is not a problem). The machine will then print out 3 or 4 sheets, which make up your application. It is then your duty to fill this out and return it to the office. It’s a fairly complicated sheet, but if you’re staying in a university residence, the residence’s receptionist should be able to do it all for you fairly easily. When you finally come to complete your application, along with these sheets, you need to provide photocopies of certain documents. This included your passport (a drivers license won’t do), your European Health card, and a handwritten cover letter declaring that the information you’ve provided is true. For this, I had no idea what to write, but the CAF receptionist was able to dictate for me.

You’ll get an amount every month after your first month in that accommodation. If you’re staying in a university residence, the money you receive will be given directly to CROUS (the organisation in charge of the residences), and deducted from your bill. As such, I believe no bank details are necessary. However, if you are renting privately, it will first be necessary to have a bank account in order to give them your RIB (this is the acronym given to a small document containing all your bank details).
I finally finished my application at the beginning of September, and didn’t actually here from the CAF until mid November. This meant that I had to pay the full rent for the September, October and November. However, when the letter finally arrived, they recognised that they owed me for the months of October and November (no-one gets financial help for the first month in their accommodation), and indicated a date that they would forward this money to my residence.
Since the CAF works on an annual basis, around Christmas time a document was sent to me asking me to confirm/renew my status. Only upon receiving this will they grant you a continuation, which takes several weeks, so be prepared for January’s payment to be late. Several of my friends did not apply for the CAF until very late into the year, but fortunately you are able to claim all the money back in one lump sum. I would recommend though, that you make a visit to the CAF office one of the first things you do in Grenoble.

The amount I had eventually been allocated was €111.20 per month, which is a fair amount of the €300.70 I was paying. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but the amount you’re given is a function of many things, including the size of your accommodation, your rent, your location, your facilities etc.

https://www.caf.fr/wps/portal/etudiants/aideaulogement/votrepremieredemande

If you’re staying in a university residence, they will organise the cancellation of your claim at the end of the year on your behalf. Otherwise, you need to do this yourself.

PHONES

I don’t use my phone much, but Pay-as-you-go is a rip off in France. You must first purchase the SIM card for roughly €15, and then credit on top. The credit also has an expiry date (I believe €25 lasted 30 days, and the length of the credit’s validity reflected the amount purchased) meaning that if you haven’t used it by this time, you lose it. Finally, the rates are incredibly expensive, meaning you’re likely to run out before the end of its validity anyway.
Conclusion: get a contract phone. You’ll get much more for your money, (in fact it works out cheaper), a free handset, and what’s more, if you leave the country before the end of your contract, you’re legally able to cancel it (check this before you sign yourself up to anything, but you might not want to give away the fact that you’re definitely leaving the country before the time is up!) Orange and SFR tended to be the most popular phone providers.

FOOD AND DRINK

Food and drink are significantly more expensive in France than in the UK, particularly in Grenoble. You’ll get used to paying €2 for 3 slices of ham in the supermarkets, and €4-€6 for a pint of beer.

However, in addition to the CAF, another massive benefit of University life in France is the university restaurants. These are situated at several points around the campus, and there’s one or two in town. The largest of these is just outside the Berlioz residence. On offer are two rooms selling traditional plates (fish, pasta, chicken, soup etc), and two selling more fast-food like alternatives (chips, burgers, pizza). Meals cost just €2.80, for which you get a 3 course meal. I found the quality to be not bad, and certainly better than anything I could produce, and the quantity to be more than sufficient. All the restaurants are open for lunchtimes and evenings on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday lunchtimes. For the weekend, including Friday evenings, only the Condillac restaurant is open. To use these restaurants, you must first get a CARTE MONEO from one of the offices just outside the restaurants. Some of the Bank Cards offer MONEO services, but you specifically need the one from the university to receive the reduced rate of €2.80, otherwise meals will cost you €6.80. I recommend you get one of these cards ASAP, since the queues for doing so are gigantic during the first month. You can recharge this card on one of the many machines you’ll see outside the restaurants, but you must use a French bank account. My Nationwide card did not work.

Grenoble

Grenoble as a town is fantastic. It’s completely circled by mountains, which means that you’ve got some of the finest surroundings nature has to offer. There are more hikes than you could hope to do in a year, as well as climbing, cross country skiing, and of course alpine skiing. La Bastille, (a hillside fort turned restaurant) is the main tourist attraction, but the centre of town is full of cobbled streets, large European squares and fountains, filled with bars and restaurants, making it quite attractive. However, having exploded in population around the 1968 winter Olympics, outside the C.B.D there is a lot of grey, uninspiring concrete buildings.

Climate wise, I’ve heard that Grenoble is France’s hottest place during the summer, and coldest during the winter. This doesn’t surprise me, as the mountains trap the air around the city. Unfortunately, this means that it’s fairly polluted, so much so that you can see it if you escape the city, climb one of the mountains and look back. In August, the heat was almost unbearable, but try to make friends with someone who lives in the residence Houille Blanche (in the St. Martin D’Hères suburb) and you’ll have access to a swimming pool! Meanwhile, winter can be very snowy and later, very wet. September and particularly April/May are very pleasant months to be in Grenoble. You’ll be able to see snow topped mountains all around you, whilst you’re playing football shirtless in the sun.

GETTING AROUND

The city has a population of around 400,000 people, but getting around is easy. It’s apparently the flattest city in France, 2nd flattest in Europe, which is surprising considering its location in the middle of the alps! There are very regular running trams, which will get you within walking distance of almost anywhere you’ll need to go in the city. These cost €1.40 a journey, or you can buy cheaper deals for 10 journeys, or monthly passes. However, you’ll soon work out that you can avoid paying altogether. You buy blank tickets, usable at any time, which you validate using a machine at the stops just before you get on. It’s a hop on hop off service, on which, occasionally, there are ticket inspectors, and if they catch you without a ticket, they’ll give you a €40 fine. You must keep your eyes peeled on approaching trams and at the stop you’re at to check that there aren’t inspectors already on the tram, or about to get on with you. If there are, you just get the next tram in 5 minutes time. The way you’re likely to get caught, is if they want to get on the tram once you’re already on it. They work in large teams, and have been known to block people getting off until their ticket has been inspected. They arrived on my tram several times throughout the year, but I was lucky enough to notice them and get off in time. You always carry an un-validated ticket in your wallet, and if worst comes to worst, you play the ‘I’m-a-stupid-foreigner-who-doesn’t-understand’-card. I know several people for whom this worked, but as many for whom this didn’t. Nonetheless, even for those who were caught and fined twice, it was still cheaper for them than paying for each journey they made!

By far the best way to get around Grenoble though, is by bike; everyone has one. There are large weekend markets early on in the year at which you can get second hand bikes cheaply. I would steer clear of these however, since it turns out that the majority of these are stolen; there is A LOT of bike theft in Grenoble (at least 5 of my friends had their bike stolen), so make sure you have a D-lock, which are impossible to break. I had one, and my bike went untouched. I took my own bike from England with me, though this I regret. There’s a fair amount of glass on the sides of the roads, and I ended up with many punctures over the course of a year. However, there is a fantastic organisation in a small building near the centre of campus to which I would recommend subscribing. For just €15, ‘Petit vélo dans la tête’ offer you unlimited spare bike parts for free and tools which are free to borrow. Staff are on hand to help you fix your own bike should anything go wrong. The only things that aren’t free are spare wheels, seats and inner tubes. I decided not to join, but ended up spending much more than €15 on repairing my bike over the course of the year.

However, better than all these options, is the metro vélo (http://www.metrovelo.fr/). Metro vélo are a company which rent bikes out for periods from as small as a day to as long as a year. You pay a €50 deposit, and then a fee of roughly €100 for the year (make sure you get your student discount). The bikes aren’t fantastic, but they’re incredibly durable, can support people on the back (this, you’ll find, is a standard way of getting home!) and very secure. No-one had their metro vélo stolen unless they left it unlocked. On top of that, if you get punctures or any other problems with your bike, simply go to the agency and they’ll either fix it or replace your bike for free. It also means you’re not faced with trying to take a bike to and from England or find a buyer for it at the end of the year. I would definitely recommend getting a metro vélo.

INTÈGRE

Intègre is a society aimed at helping international students feel at home (http://www.integre-grenoble.org/website/). First and foremost, whilst you are still in England, you should subscribe to both their Parrain (meaning godfather) and Tandem partnership systems, which both partner you with a French student. The tandem is someone who is interested in learning your language and your relationship with them becomes a language exchange. Meanwhile, the Parrain is simply someone who’s prepared to help you settle in, help you with any forms you have to complete, show you round, introduce you to their friends and generally be a friend. You will be given the email address of your buddies, and they leave it to you to start benefitting from one another. Not all the relationships turn out to be successful, many never get past the first meeting, but some turn out perfectly, and it can’t hurt to try. I met my tandem just once, but had a wicked night out with him and his mates. My parrain however became a good friend of mine, and a friend of hers became my girlfriend!

Past the buddy systems, Intègre (if you want it to) will take up an important role in your social life. They organise events such as international meals (where people from any nation come bringing a traditional dish) and various weekend trips to the mountains. Most importantly however, every Tuesday there will be a party at one of the many bars in town, each time different. It’ll be very popular at the beginning of the semester and begin to dwindle by the end, but nonetheless you’ll find between 80 and 400 students all in one place, mostly international but with an important contingency of French students too. This gives you not only a fantastic opportunity to get to know the different areas of town, but also you’ll meet hundreds of people from all over the world. Thanks to ERASMUS, and mainly Intègre, I’ve now got friends from at least 3 countries in every continent, and almost everywhere in Europe.
I can’t speak highly enough of Intègre’s Tuesday nights, and I hope that one day Warwick will provide something similar for their international students.

NIGHTLIFE

I loved Grenoble’s nightlife. In general, the going-out culture in France is more low-key (but no less fun) than in England and less rushed. In a typical night, you’ll go to a café/bar around 6pm, drink slowly, and then maybe go dancing later in one of the livelier bars around 10, but these often shut at 12. You have to get used to spending £5 on a pint of beer though! If clubbing is you’re thing however, you may be disappointed. The clubs tend to be far out of town in the suburbs, with only a few in the centre of town (this is due to noise restrictions in place).

Aside from Intègre’s Tuesday nights, some of my favourite places to go were;

  • Subway (the bar, not the sandwich shop) – cheap beer with every flavour of syrop to add under the sun.

  • La table ronde – nice open square to sit in for the warm evenings.

  • O’callaghans – very expensive irish bar, but it plays all the british sport!

  • Bukana - More lively bar for dancing in

  • Pheonix – a nightclub in the suburb of Meylan, they do a good cheese night called ‘super-kitch’ the last Friday of every month

Otherwise, look out for the ERASMUS parties at Rabot (one of the university residences which is situated on the hillside underneath La Bastille), and the all-you-can-drink Nurse and Medic parties at SONO near the campus.

JOB

Around November time, I was contacted by the international office of UJF asking all English speakers if they would like a job giving informal English classes at lunchtimes in one of the university’s constituent colleges. Polytech-Grenoble was an engineering school situated 5 minutes from the edge of campus behind the Casino supermarket. I applied, went for an interview (in English) and was given a job working 3-4 hours a week during lunchtimes, giving classes in both ‘chat’ (to get students used to actually speaking English) and lab classes, in which I supervised student’s individual work on the language computers. I was paid over €15 an hour, and the work, although slow at times, was pleasant. The chat classes contained between 1 and 10 students, and in the labs people came and went as they pleased. Thinking about going into teaching myself, I was pleased to get the opportunity to get more experience. It also forced me to really think about English for the first time, and analyse it’s structures.

Having done the ‘Introduction to Secondary School Teaching’ module at Warwick in my second year, and completing a 3 week school placement, I’d had previous teaching experience, and this may have been why I got the job. Nonetheless, Caroline West (an Irish lady who is head of the English department at Polytech) is lovely, and if you’re hoping to find a job and this one appeals to you, I suggest you contact her on caroline.west@ujf-grenoble.fr (or else visit the Polytech reception and ask for her) to see if the job is still available. Explain who you are and where you’re from.

French

Most Erasmus students from other nations will speak atleast 3 languages (English, French and their own) fairly well, if not fluently, since people rarely learn French before English. Don’t let that dishearten you though; whatever your level of French, if you put the work in, you’ll dramatically improve over the year, particularly in speaking and listening, since this only comes with time and exposure. The first week or month might be difficult, but you’ll settle into the language side of things soon enough; bare in mind that I’d only done GCSE and Learning French 3 before arriving at CUEF. I found that a particularly good way to improve your vocabulary was to cut images out of magazines and catalogues, stick them to your wall and write the French underneath.

Try to avoid English people at first. Inevitably you’ll pick them up as you go (you’ll miss British humour!), but try to force yourself to speak French wherever you can. The majority of ERASMUS students find it hard to make French friends, particularly those studying languages, since their courses are filled with other international students. As a mathematician, you have an advantage, since you’ll be possibly the only Erasmus student in the department, so try to take advantage of this and avoid the hoards of English language students who stick amongst themselves if you can. You’ll find that at the end of the year, their language will have barely improved.

Personal note

You will grow up and learn a lot about yourself during your time abroad. I’d travelled South-East Asia and Australasia for 3 months, and been hitchhiking around Europe, but living abroad, in a fixed place is another thing altogether. You’ll end up noticing the tiniest differences to the culture you’re used to, to the point where it may become infuriating at times. The French psyche is just different. I remember irrationally becoming so angry at people honking their car horns all the time; but that’s just the way it is! But it’s in placing yourself in such new environments, without any links to home and to your past which to a certain extent influence who you are whilst you’re there, that you test yourself and work out who you actually are.

On Erasmus, you’ll have the time of your life: it’s not a walk in the park, nor is it 100% fun all the time. It can be frustrating and infuriating, and you will miss home from time to time. Nonetheless, the rewards are phenomenal. Academically, you’ll find it difficult to adapt to the style of learning in France, but once you’ve got there, your understanding of maths will be much deeper for it. You’ll marvel at yourself the first time you have a fully-flung debate with someone in French, without even stopping to realise that you’re speaking in another language. Culturally, you’ll be much more appreciative and aware of the tiny nuances that sum to give a country their identity. Finally, socially, you’ll learn from people from all around the world, and make friends that you’ll keep for life.