I've been in Grenoble for most of a week now. The city's beautifully situated - it's surrounded on all sides by the foothills of the Alps and then the mountains themselves, whose (abnormally not-very, actually) snowy mountaintops stick out bizzarrely over a layer of clouds. The city itself is fairly modern by French standards, with lots of stately cement buildings, bakeries, pharmacies, clothing stores, troops of heavily armed soldiers for security, and, oddly enough, giant Calder sculptures. This one outside the train station looks almost identical to our own Big Sail.
There's a very convenient tram system, for which I got an unlimited monthly pass for 20€. Thus my impression of the city is heavily biased by the streets that the tram happens to run through on the way from my host family's house.
The highlights of the city so far have been the art museum and La
Bastille. The museum is a light-filled building in front of the mountains that's currently hosting a huge Kandinsky exhibit, mostly borrowed from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I'm not quite sure what the point is of having so many Kandinsky works, because they're all kind of the same, but lots of fun anyway. I also saw the 20th century collection, which is great - very diverse, with a lot of names I don't know, but arranged in a coherent and appealing fashion. I got to watch a tour guide discuss Chagall with a group of super-excited French five-year-olds, which was kind of the cutest thing ever.
La Bastille is the 19th century fort on the hill towering over the town. There's a funicular up to the top, aptly known as "The Eggs", but I hiked up the impressive trail network instead. Gorgeous views, spiral-staircase towers, and a creepy old escape tunnel that's probably the most silent place I've ever been.
I'm living with a very nice family slightly out of the city. The mom is British and the dad French; the kids are 14, 16, and 18, and the cats are white, fluffy, and occasionally scratchy. I've mostly been home in the evenings, reading the huge but fascinating book on Israeli history that I've been slogging through for the last two months. I brought my host family a copy of Set, and then it turned out that the mom and son are both colorblind... awks. The daughters seem to be enjoying the game, though. We've had some fun dinners; yesterday we had raclette, which is the French answer to hot pot. Everybody grabs a pile of cheese slices (which are made of actual cheese rather than plastic, because France), charcuterie, boiled potatoes, and tiny sweet pickles. Then you put a cheese slice in your own tiny little pan which goes in a special tabletop broiler; once the cheese is melted, you pour it onto your potato-meat-pickle mound, consume, and repeat until you reach food coma. Which happens quickly.
Giant piles of melted cheese seem to be a theme here. I took the train to Annecy on Saturday and ordered a "corziflette" for lunch, after trying and failing to get the waiter to explain what it was. Turns out to be a dish of ham, and little bits of some unidentifiable white fat, melted in a vat of pungent cheese. Pretty tasty, but not quite health food (though there was a damn good salad on the side. Also damn good bread, because, again, France). I also had the trademark alpine vin chaud, which is kind of like hot sangria with cinnamon except much tastier than that description makes it sound. Annecy itself is quaint, colorful, and painfully touristy - but the lake is beautiful, and would be an amazing place to swim in the summer. The town also features some moderately interesting museums in a very cold castle, loads of Russian tourists, some nice galleries with friendly owners, overpriced shops with unfriendly owners, and a Boston Cafe.
The "teaching" so far has been basically nonexistent. We spent our two days last week hanging around the nanotech-research-cross-high-school-outreach center and nodding as the staff ran around pontificating in French about some lab equipment. There was also this one old teacher dude whose mission for the afternoon seemed to be to touch my arm and back as many times as possible, and another who explained physics to his students through such helpful examples as "when your mother does the dishes" and "now, the girls will know this one, how does an iron work?". Today, we're actually in a school, but it doesn't seem like anyone has the faintest clue what we're supposed to be doing. As I write this, I'm tapping on my phone in a corner of a classroom while my one teammate reads and the other makes friends with students (I did not get enough sleep last night to socialize in French). All that said, most of the school and nanotech-center staff have been super friendly and welcoming, albeit confused about what they're supposed to do with us, and we've been getting some quality French immersion. We also spent an hour last Friday advising a team that's presenting a science project at an event in Singapore, so we got a little bit of feeling useful.
I haven't had much so far of that overwhelming sense of "oh my god I'm in Europe and everything is beautiful and amazing" - maybe because of the mediocre and time-consuming professional side, maybe because I'm acclimated (and slightly jaded?) after my freshman summer in Paris. But it is nice being here, and I want to take advantage of the nature and mountains more. Also looking forward to travelling in Italy afterwards, with a friend and then family - it'll be good to have more free time to explore and relax.