Tag Archive | study abroad

French Friday #53: Meeting of minds


Oh, the things Molière and Hugo could talk about…
I always liked this corner in downtown Grenoble. I first saw it when I did my study abroad in Grenoble in 1999. Later, I went back to visit with Mr. Gren and baby Rana in 2006 and made sure to get a picture. There’s not much to it, but something about seeing those two names together… It’s like the convergence of history and possibilities…

French Friday #12: Arrival in Grenoble

During my junior year in college, I decided that I would like to do a study abroad in France. Through the fall semester, the professors in the Language Department at my university encouraged me and helped me work out the details from choosing a program to figuring out how to apply my scholarships to the cost of the program. There were a few times when I thought it was all going to fall through, but by the time I left for Christmas break, we had nearly everything settled. During my month at home before the spring semester began, I made contact with the program director in Grenoble, a man named Alexis (a-lex-y). He told me about my host parents and I let him know when I was scheduled to arrive in Grenoble.

Cathedral Notre Dame of Grenoble, just a short walk from my future home. I could hear the bells chime from my bedroom.

I left for France at the end of January in 1999, flying from Seattle to Paris with a stop in between. I found my way through Charles de Gaulle airport to the train station at one end. This would be the second time in my life I had ever ridden a train. The first was an Amtrak from Denver to Portland when I was 10. My dad took care of our luggage and ticket-punching and whatever else was involved then, but this time, I was on my own. I dragged my two suitcases through the train station (you aren’t allowed to take the luggage carts from the airport side) out to the platform. While I was there, I met two students from the University of Arizona. We talked for awhile, but discovered that our seats weren’t anywhere near each other, and they were going to be studying in Lyon. Too bad.

The TGV — train de grande vitesse (high speed train) pulled in and after stowing my luggage, I found my seat and realized that it was going to be a very lonely ride. There were only a couple other people in the whole car! So I settled in and decided to absorb as much of the French countryside as I could as we shot off towards Lyon. After awhile, I was freezing and there really wasn’t much to see, so I tried to sleep. In Lyon, I successfully managed to switch trains; I owe thanks to a stranger who saw me struggling with my suitcases and wordlessly snatched them up and hefted them to the top of the stairs for me. The French do love to help a damsel in distress. Just another couple of hours and I was in Grenoble.

The Isère river on a cold winter day in Grenoble.

As I disembarked from the train, I was approached by another “helpful” stranger who wanted to take my bags… for a fee. I held on tight and kept walking out to the main waiting area. I had never seen a picture of Alexis, so I scanned the crowd for anyone who might be looking for someone to arrive. A couple of times I thought perhaps I’d found him, but then the man hurried past to greet somebody else. Pretty soon, the station cleared out as everyone met relatives or got a taxi. And there I was, sitting on my suitcase in the middle of a train station. I remember it was pouring rain outside, so I didn’t venture out to have a look. I could barely see across the street, it was coming down so hard. I waited for close to an hour, trying to give Alexis the benefit of the doubt. Surely he would come for me, right?

Looking up at the Bastille from centre ville.

Finally, I purchased a phone card for the pay phone and dialed the number he had given me. A weary, croaking voice answered on the other end. This didn’t sound like the voice I remembered, but I did my best to conceal my shock and in my most polite French, asked if I could speak with Alexis. The voice replied that he was Alexis.

“Alexis…? Ah, c’est Jennifer. Je suis à la gare.I’m at the train station.
“Oh hello, Jennifer. We look forward to seeing you. What train station are you at? Let me know when you arrive.”
“But, I’m at the train station in Grenoble! I arrived an hour ago. Is someone coming for me?”
“Grenoble?? Today?!” His voice croaked. He was flustered now. “We didn’t expect you until tomorrow!”
“But… I gave you the dates…” I answered helplessly.
“Ah, yes, yes. Just… just stay there!”

As if I had anywhere else to go. I dragged my suitcases back out to the middle of the lobby where I had a good view of both doors and settled down to wait. Twenty minutes later, a voice crackled over the intercom throughout the station:

“Zheny-fair All, veuillez aller au centre d’informations.”

They had made several announcements in the time I had been waiting, but this one pricked up my ears. I listened again and was introduced for the first time to the French pronunciation of my name. Zheny-fair = Jennifer. Startled to realize that I was being paged, I hopped up and dragged my suitcases to the information desk. The man there passed me the receiver of his telephone through the small window, telling me, “Vous avez un appel de téléphone.” Bewildered, I took the phone, and heard Alexis’ strange, croaking voice.

“I’m sorry, Jennifer. I am so sick today. I can’t get out of bed. I have called André (one of my host parents) to come get you. It might be awhile. Hélène was not ready for you today; they are trying to prepare your room!”

I thanked him and settled back down to wait. A few minutes later, I heard my new name announced over the intercom again to take another phone call. This time it was André. He cheerily informed me that he would soon be on his way and that he would wear an American flag in his cap so that I could recognize him. I found that quaintly endearing and knew I would like him. Another half hour or so passed and two college students ran through the main doors of the train station and made a bee-line straight for me. They introduced themselves as Adam from Oregon and Jen from New York, also staying with André, who was out finding a place to park. A minute later, in he came, wearing a tan cap with a little American flag fluttering from the side and a big grin on his face. I knew it was going to be a good semester.

Jen from NY, me, and Adam a couple days after we had arrived with the Belledonne mountain range behind us.

French Friday #5: Serendipity

Full disclosure: The majority of these photos were not taken by me (you’ll learn why), but instead, were sourced from free stock photo sites on the Webernet. If you relied solely on my photography skills from twelve years ago, this would be a fairly bland post. I want you to see what I’m going to share.

In 1999, I had the opportunity to study abroad in France for a semester. This was nearing the end of the photographic Dark Ages — true, I didn’t have to use a hood and a magnesium bulb, but fancy schmancy digital photography was still in its very expensive infancy — so I, being the poor college student that I was, had to make 8 rolls of 24-exposure film last from January til June. That required some awfully hardcore rationing and several gut-wrenching decisions and, in the end, a lot of regrets.

There I am with the program leader and two other students, standing at the plaza that overlooks the valley below St Paul de Vence.

My actual studying took place in Grenoble, in the Alps, but the program in which I participated had several “excursions” built into the program, the first of which was a long-weekend trip to the Côte d’Azur. Our hotel was in Nice and from there we visited Menton and Monaco, and, in the other direction, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins and St. Paul de Vence. We saw some beautiful sights in each of those places, but my favorite was the little village of St. Paul de Vence. It is located about halfway between Nice and Cannes, back from the coast by several miles, atop a hill standing alone in a vast valley, in turn, hemmed in by rugged mountains. It’s quite an impressive location and no wonder that it was chosen as the site for this medieval town.

St. Paul de Vence

This was my first encounter with a town so old and so inaccessible that there are no cars allowed in the village itself. You can see in this photo there is a parking lot right at the wall and there are a few others like that. Once your car is parked, you start hiking! I saw a tree bearing oranges for the first time in my life and walked along cobbled streets lined by quaint and picturesque buildings. Our group leader let us wander the streets as we wished, so I tried to drink in as much of this Provençal charm as I could.

Typical little street in St Paul de Vence

As I strolled down one narrow street, the right side unexpectedly opened up into a little courtyard. Vines grew up the walls and formed leafy awnings over the doorways. Ancient stone planters filled with colorful flowers lined the base of the walls. Gracefully curved iron grills bowed out from the windows. And there, in the center, was a breathtakingly beautiful little fountain. A spigot mounted on an arched stone trickled water into a basin set into a larger block of stone. Certainly, France is peppered with lovely fountains; the fountains at Versailles are a sight to behold for their opulence. But this, this fountain was perfect in its simplicity. Sheltered by the households that, at one time, probably made daily use of its cool flow. It was removed from the crush of tourists, a welcome breeze wafting through the courtyard, silent except for the sound of the water gurgling in the basin. But, oh! The decisions! I had already taken four photos here in St Paul de Vence, not to mention the several I took in Monaco and Nice, and it was only February! With a pang in my gut, I resolved to commit this perfect little scene to memory, and turned away.

Of course, you know already that not taking that picture was one of my biggest regrets of the whole semester. But what could I do? There was no way to get back. Every time I thought about it, it made me feel a little sick to my stomach. For the sake of one picture! I couldn’t have spared one shot? It sounds so ridiculous now.

Church in St. Paul de Vence. I took a picture similar to this, but this one is better than mine.

I returned to the States in June and, a couple months later, began my senior year of university. After being gone for so long, it was great to reunite with my roommates as we all tried to catch up on each others’ lives. Naturally, most of my stories were about France and all the wonderful and incredible things I had seen and done there. So when Christmas rolled around, one of my roommates gave me a calendar called “365 days in France.” I loved it! It was full of richly colored photographs from all over the country.


I happily flipped through the pages, admiring the variety of photos. When I got to March, I gasped! Could it – is it? I looked more closely and yes! What were the odds? Of all the tiny towns, of all the fountains, of all the fountains in tiny towns, what are the odds that my fountain would be featured in this calendar? (Math is not my friend, so I will never bother to calculate that.) But there it is, in all its tiny glory. Seriously, the picture is about two inches high, but I don’t even care. Now I have a picture of that lovely little fountain and I will never get rid of this calendar. And now, you can see my fountain, too (although, bear in mind, since I had to enlarge this itty bitty picture, the quality is not that great. Use your imagination. 🙂 )

The luck of the Irish brought me a French fountain.