Before moving to Grenoble, I had certain expectations, both good and bad, that I inadvertently picked up from speaking with different people about life in France: amazing food and wine, lots of red tape, super fashionable people, coldness to strangers, beautiful art/history/architecture. So far, the transition has been pretty smooth and even though I haven’t really felt a sense of culture shock, there have been a few “what the hell?” moments here and there. My expectations, well, they haven’t been shattered, but they’ve been bent and squished to fit into a more realistic picture of life here.
So here is my list of random things about Grenoble:
Let’s start off with the biggest stereotype – French people are unfriendly/snobbish/cold. Maybe this is true somewhere else, but definitely not in Grenoble. As long as you walk up to someone with a smile and try to speak French, everyone (and that includes the lady at the ministry of health, the bus driver, the train ticket seller, and the bank receptionist) will smile back and try to help. At first, I was shocked at how nice people were (probably because I expected the opposite), but then I started looking around. In fact, people are only nice when you’re nice to them first. If you walk up to the counter already in a huff with an agitated tone, don’t expect to get a cheery response. I also noticed that many people (store clerks, receptionists, etc) will get a funny look on their face when you speak to them in English. It’s not hostility, resentment or constipation…it’s that anxious look of having to speak a language that you’re not comfortable with. I definitely know how it feels: when I moved to Montreal and was just starting to learn French, I practically panicked when someone asked me something French. Deer-in-the-headlights was my usual facial expression for about four years. So what I’m trying to say is that relax, people here are friendly if you give them a reason to be.
In North America, I’ve only seen these nailed shut to the walls as decorations, but in France, everyone actually uses their shutters. Whether it’s the folding ones or the new high tech ones, no one seems to think that curtains are a better idea. I guess in a country that doesn’t experience -20 degrees very often, no one minds opening and closing their shutters every day.
No apartment numbers
Another thing that I feel like suggesting to every French person: apartment numbers! There aren’t any. Your mailbox just has your name on it and if you need to specify which apartment you live in on formal documents, you just write “the one on the third floor, to the right of the elevator”. For a country that loves to have every detail on file, I’m pretty surprised that everyone is totally fine with this.
Another stereotype broken: not every French person looks or dresses like a runway model. Again, maybe because this isn’t Paris, but Grenoblites (Grenoblitans? Grenoblians?) dress pretty casually… except for the kids. I wish I could shrink to half my size so I could steal their clothes! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many six year olds walking around in perfectly fitted blazers with scarves and little fancy boots. On the days that I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I try not to stand next to kids in the tram because I look like a big hobo.
Some people like them, but I just don’t understand them. I’ve got mine folded half way up the wall. I guess I’m a rectangular pillow kind of girl.
Merci, bonne journée, au revoir
Being from Canada, I thought I was pretty polite (I never forget my “please” and “thank you”s), but after coming here, I was surprised to find that I have to put in a bit more effort than I’m used to. In Montreal, people said hello to each other 1 out of 10 times in my apartment building. You also don’t say goodbye to everyone when leaving a gym class (no one interacts in a gym class…you just sweat). In Grenoble, I have to remind myself to say hello/goodbye a lot more, and if I ever forget, the shopkeeper will kick start my memory with her “merci, bonne journée, au revoir”. Yes, all three at the same time.
Overall, these differences are neither shocking nor dramatic, but just a fun reminder that I’m actually living in a completely different place. The only one that has had a hard time getting used to everything is my cat.