Are you a student or a new arrival and want to know how to live in Grenoble on a budget? Expatriated Brit John Lubbock has learnt the hard way, and has kindly agreed to share his tips and experience with Grenoble Life readers.
Grenoble is not a bad place to be poor. But, like a tramp with a favourite patch, you have to know your environment; or like a foraging bear, where the best pickings are to be had. You may need to change some of your bad, foreign influenced habits to make the most of your insertion into French culture (beer is expensive apart from Stella, which isn’t one of the best things about French gastronomy, is it?).
Tourists, as we all know, are naive sponges who deserve to be squeezed dry, so try not to seem like one. People will often poorly attempt to converse with you in English when they realise you are not a native, but insist, “Je suis en France, il faut que je parle en français“, and they won’t despise you as much for usurping their language as the world’s Lingua Franca. It is mostly from lack of better information that tourists agree to pay higher prices, so I intend to give you some information to help you make better spending choices.
If you do not want to spend your first month in France on a sofa or in a hostel, it pays to research accommodation before you arrive. There is an association called OSE Club which you can join for €30 which will find apartments for you in a designated area of the city, if you want to be near to a university. Then there are websites such as www.appartager.com and www.vivastreet.com, which have petites annonces for flats, but these are generally only useful if you pay the €10 fee to see the telephone numbers of the advertisers and call them up directly as they don’t answer messages on the site.
Watch the French film L’Auberge Espagnole before you go to get an exaggerated idea of being interviewed by your future flatmates and the kinds of hilarious European stereotypes you are likely to be cohabiting with. If you are not a student, it is even more important to find a flat quickly, because without a rental agreement, you will not be able to get a French bank account or contract telephone, and will thus be considered a SDF (Sans Domicile Fixe) by the French. This will mean that you are forced to become a baba cool (hippy) and sit in the street with your dogs holding out a frying pan to ask for spare change.
N.B. If you are staying for less than a year, it is worthwhile getting a contract phone, which will be cheaper than pay as you go, the phone will be nicer, and there’s little they can do about it when you tell them that you’re leaving the country before the contract finishes and close your bank account. But don’t tell anyone I told you.
If you have never lived in the socialist paradise that is France, you may not be aware of the kinds of social benefits available to people living there. The CAF‘s housing benefit system could pay for some of your rent if you are a student or living on a low wage, although like most bureaucratic systems in France it takes about six weeks to get anywhere with it, and since these forms are all in French, it is more like a test of your reading comprehension which you need to pass to gain entry to French society.
If you are (un)lucky enough to be a political refugee, asking at the Préfecture (a big administrative building which makes you feel like Josef K from Kafka’s The Trial, wondering if you’ll ever be told what you’ve done wrong in order to end up there) or at the Conseil Général can get you free French lessons, which can otherwise be obtained by calling the ADATE organisation. I am not sure if you can get lessons with them without being a refugee, but I am considering telling them that I have been forced to flee from the UK as a result of the impending government takeover by a bunch of Tories with accents so posh and annoying that they constitute a form of social oppression. If you have to go to the Préfecture for any annoying bureaucratic reason, like to obtain a carte de séjour, don’t ask anyone which ‘queue’ you should stand in. The French for queue is pronounced like ‘que’, while saying ‘queue’ sounds like the French word for something rude.
When it comes to transport, if you are poor, the bicycle/vélo will become like your husband or wife, or perhaps the god to whom you pray for benevolence. If it works well, you love it and praise it, and if not you curse it. There are three main places I know of to obtain bikes cheaply. Firstly: on the street. I found three bikes lying in crumpled heaps on pavements in the first month I was here. The problem then is to take them to somewhere you can repair them. So either have a bike repair kit (Decathlon, around €15), or go to the second place to get cheap bikes – Un P’tit Vélo Dans La Tete meaning something like ‘A little bit biked in the head’.
This atelier (workshop) sells bikes that have been repaired for between €15-60, or you can go there to fix your own by paying a €15 abonnement (subscription). It is a good place to practice your French, as there are lots of guys who can help you to fix your bike, and they have a handy board on the wall with a picture of a bike and the French names for every part of it indicated. However, fixing bikes takes time, and if you have a second hand bike, or one you bought at P’tit Velo, it will break down roughly every two weeks. On the plus side, you will get very good at repairing bikes. The third option is Métrovélo, who will give you a generic yellow bike for €75 for six months (plus €50 deposit) and repair it for you if it breaks down.
Of course, you can always chance a free ride on the tram, but getting caught by the officials will land you with a €65 fine, unless you can pretend to be a totally clueless foreigner. The tram tariff is €24 a month for students, but Grenoble is the flattest city centre in France, and waiting for a tram and slumming it with Joe Public are hidden costs not worth paying in my opinion. That’s why liberté comes before egalité and fraternité: because it’s more important.
If you want to go further that the city limits, go to www.covoiturage.fr and find someone who is making the same journey as you to go with. It will be far cheaper than any other method of transport, and the people I’ve met doing it have all been nice.
Although many people come to France for the food, as an impoverished young person, this will likely be one of the areas in which you sacrifice quality in order to live within your means. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a man who lives within his means has no imagination; but you will likely be finding your culinary options limited by the exigencies of having little money to spend. Ed is a cheap supermarket, and it happens to bear the name of some of my friends, although since the name Edward doesn’t exist in French, they call it “Ee-de”, which sounds much more corporate and less friendly. It is worth taking a notebook around to the supermarkets to write down prices of items you buy regularly, because while vegetables may be cheaper in Ed, Géant may have cheaper milk, for example. Unfortunately, I have just been informed by my collocataire that Ed is closing down – evidently the world of modern commerce is too cruel for such friendly-named businesses – but Lidl is almost identical in that it has hardly any choice of products and brands you have never heard of, but they are all usually cheaper than the Géant/Casino equivalent.
Yet if one just bought the budget Casino brand pasta/rice/couscous to eat with with vegetables every day, you might end up wanting to kill yourself. So for the minimum luxury of not cooking the food yourself, you can go to a CROUS canteen, near the gare, or in Domaine Universitaire. These are supposed to be for students, but you can just pay the €2.90 it costs for a meal there in cash without showing any student card as well. You get bread, salad or cheese, a main meal of canteen standard chips/pasta/vegetables/etc. and some meat served with customary indifference and a bad attitude by people who look deeply unhappy about serving ungrateful students who could pay their wages with their tuition fees (those who go to an École supérieure anyway).
Of course, if you really want to make things easier on yourself financially, you could get a job. “A job? What’s that?” I hear you cry. “I am a student – they don’t work. Then I wouldn’t have time for all the drinking and Facebook which the energy I consume from crisps and Red Bulls goes into”. Well, you could work part time. If you are a native English speaker, you could get employed by a soutien scolaire company, telling kids what they did wrong with their homework. Believe me, it’s satisfying to be on the other end of this after receiving homework corrected in red-teacher-ballpoint ink for 10 or more years. Don’t be put off if you don’t have a TEFL or CELTA qualification, I didn’t find this a hindrance, though it may help to say you have experience of private teaching even if you haven’t.
If there’s one thing I learned looking for jobs here it’s that it doesn’t pay to be honest: always tell them you are available to work, always tell them you have the experience. It took me a while of offering my services to language companies (Grenoble Life already has a useful list here), universities and other places like the Chamber of Commerce and Rectorat before I was employed, but once you have your foot in the door, you will hear about other teaching jobs that are advertised within teaching circles.
The Pôle jeunesse on Avenue Agutte Sembat has a useful wall full of job and accommodation offers. But if you have a degree, they will tell you that they can’t help hoity-toity types like you and that you should go instead to AFIJ who have an office at 29 Avenue Felix Viallet near Cour Jean Jaurès. These guys mostly have offers for internships or well paid jobs, so if you are just looking for a petit boulot, the Pôle jeunesse might be more useful.
You could try working in a bar, but the French can be quite snooty if your linguistic skills aren’t up to scratch. This matters less when applying to one of the studenty bars like London Pub or Sun Valley, but you will invariably have to call a Frenchman ‘boss’ (and thereby lose all the nationalistic self-respect you have built up living in your own great land), and traipse around the campus putting up flyers just for the pleasure of sacrificing most of your evenings for €9 an hour. There are also lots of agencies you can work for who hire waiters and other restauration workers for company or other private functions, but I personally found them somewhat useless, though Adecco is worth a try. Then you can try the listings in Pôle Emploi, which is like the JobCentre in the UK, but with more paperwork.
Of course one of the reasons why you came to Grenoble is to ski, so if you are a student, join the École de Glisse, and try to obtain some cheap equipment from one of the second hand ski places like Boite aux Skis. There is no way of getting around that skiing is expensive however you do it, but hopefully you will have saved enough money in other areas to afford the silly ski-pass prices. And if you injure yourself, just remember to have your European Health Card handy. Good luck, mes amis.