Tales from abroad: Grenoble
“The things an American who is abroad for a very long time misses ... weren’t the things you were supposed to miss,” wrote Adam Gopnik, a correspondent for The New Yorker living in Paris during the 1990s. “We are supposed to come to Europe for leisure, sunshine, a more civilized pace, for slowness of various kinds. America we are supposed to miss for its speed, its friendliness, for the independence of its people and the individualism of their lives. Yet these were not the things I missed....”
It’s true. During my four-month stay this fall in Grenoble, France, as an intern at the Xerox Research Centre Europe, I was more conscious of missing the little things in shared culture more than any grandiose ideals of the American way. The big stuff is there: French people consume American media, all the way from Pixar’s Up (re-branded in French as Là-Haut) to “Jingle Bells” (playing in English on the radio). It was the smaller points of reference that I found myself wishing for: being able to casually mention a weekend drive on I-80, for example, without having to first explain the U.S. interstate highway system, the terrain of central Pennsylvania, and what it feels like to drive across it.
Few things either tie us together or keep us apart as much as geography. If anyone in France asked where I was from, I typically started by answering “Cleveland.” I would start zooming out until something made a connection. If not Cleveland, I was from Ohio. If not Ohio, I was from a place halfway between New York and Chicago. If not that — and this became mostly my standard answer — I was from the United States, “in the center, but a little to the northeast.”
The situation was reversed when my new acquaintances tried to tell me where they were from. Even after nine years of French classes, I found I’d only studied the “big” places in France. I had heard of Grenoble before living there, but it wasn’t until I arrived that I knew anything about the actual city, its region, or most other French places. When I met a new person, I tried to keep the name of his or her hometown in my mind long enough to get back to a map and look it up. At least I wasn’t alone in this problem: I was once part of a conversation in which a girl from the northern city of Lille was defending her region against two southerners, who had lumped it in with Paris.
Grenoble itself presents an astonishing range of geography for the outdoorsy newcomer to explore, a lot like a few days I once spent in Boulder, Colo. A city in southwestern France about half the size of Pittsburgh, Grenoble is squished into two river valleys in the shape of a Y at the foot of the Alps. The flat part, laced with 200 miles of bike lanes and trails, is a haven for bicycle commuters. Half an hour on a local tram puts you at the beginning of one of the mountain ranges and their hiking trails, while for an hour on a regional bus you can be at a couple of alpine ski resorts.
During my out-and-about time, I became aware of an underlying difference between the French and American approaches to public transportation. I mentioned one day at lunch to my co-worker, Claude, my amazement at how easy it was to get around — especially on the national rail network, which ran multiple trains per day from Grenoble to any destination I could think of. In my co-worker’s view, what makes this possible is that in France, certain services are deemed too important to not have, so they are provided by the government and funded by the people through taxes. The idea that a rail service should be profitable — or forced to be profitable — seemed absurd.
The downside to funding large public services is that in France there’s a 19.6 percent value-added tax on almost everything. On the one hand, it helps pay for increased public services like rail networks, vacation time, or health care; on the other, the costs of consumer products or services in Grenoble are consistently about 50 percent above what they are in Pittsburgh. Debating the pros and cons of each of these systems is a complicated matter. On the occasions when the subject came up among my co-workers or acquaintances, the only conclusion I was ever able to draw was that it’s impossible to just consider health care or prices or vacation time alone — the way each of these things functions in American or French society is tightly bound up in the cultural system as a whole.
One of the most basic reasons for living abroad is to experience something “different.” Though living in France meant losing a large amount of shared experiences and cultural context with the people around me, it was also the best way for me to start learning new ones. As the weeks went by, I became more integrated into French life and started to rebuild a common, everyday framework of experiences. More importantly, I stopped comparing the experiences to their American counterparts. As Gopnik had discovered before me, I didn’t miss America’s speed, independence, and individualism — I learned to ignore them.