Alex Taranto

Grenoble, France, is a jigsaw city. A glance in any direction will reveal a unique piece of it. Maybe it’s a street corner, or commuters squashed in a tram, or graffiti on the side of a school. Everything fits together in one intricate and Dali-esque puzzle.

My favorite piece of Grenoble is the kitchen window that looks out on the Chartreuse mountains. The mountains are vast, their green terrain dotted with village houses and people. From such a distance, everything on the mountain seems to be sinking behind the clouds, like it might all disappear if you squint too hard.

This view is so captivating that I could stare out at it every morning—and I did, during the summer of 2018.

In a series of extremely fortuitous events, my wide-eyed junior year self was accepted into the City of Phoenix’s summer exchange program. I received my acceptance letter in February, which notified me that I would be sent as a “Youth Ambassador” to one of 10 cities, and that a committee would be choosing my destination for me. I anxiously waited until I received the news that I was headed to the capital of the French Alps. It seemed perfect. When June arrived I boarded a plane, poised to discover another corner of the world and meet its inhabitants.

My first exposure to France was through my host family. They were the first and most special piece of Grenoble that I experienced. Their kindness in welcoming me into their family allowed me to see so many pieces of Grenoble with the perspective of a local. With my 16-year-old host sister, I witnessed the intense frenzy surrounding the World Cup. I realized that the nationwide love for Les Bleus ran very deep. Whenever the team scored, the city screamed and leapt from their seats in their exhilaration, and so did I.

On some days, I accompanied my family on adventures in the city and nearby villages. On other days, we sat on the couch for hours playing Wii. Everything on the screen was in French, so this in itself was an adventure for me. Sitting on the couch with my host sister and her brother, attempting to navigate the maze of Mario Party, I felt so lucky. I felt like Grenoble was opening its arms to me, inviting me into the family and the heart of the city.

Among so many pieces of Grenoble that I loved, some stood out to me. Grenoble is a city of artists. Summer is the season of the street art festival, and cement walls of buildings are transformed into canvases by muralists from all over the world. Some murals cover more than one building, some appear three-dimensional, and one mural was (as I was amazed to discover) painted by one of my favorite artists, Shepard Fairey.

Grenoble finds another excuse for an annual summer festival, too. The day of Fête de la Musique was my favorite day in France. All throughout the streets, musicians gathered crowds. My sister and I wandered through the performances, finally stopping to watch a band perform their rendition of “Hey Jude.”

The most famous pieces of Grenoble, the ones you find on postcards, are the cable cars that carry passengers across the Isère River and up to the abandoned Bastille on the mountain. They are known as “The Bubbles” and are characteristic of the city. At the top, the Bastille is quite a remarkable monument to see. The prison cells and overall isolation of the fortress impressed upon me Grenoble’s historical significance in the French Revolution. This rich history was another piece that I was eager to discover, and it is one that I would still like to learn more about.

The scenery from the kitchen window may have been my favorite view, but the sight from the Bubbles as you soar over the river is definitely more awe-inspiring. From that perspective, I could see everything, from the river around which the city was built, to the string of Italian restaurants known as “Pizza Street,” to the bustling city center. I could see so many interconnected pieces all fitting together to create an integrated city.

To say that I spoke a little French before departing on this trip would be generous; more accurately, I knew some words and phrases that didn’t serve me much. While in France, I felt frustrated, and slightly inadequate, when comparing my skills to my multilingual host family.

I wanted to belong, but the French language is a crucial, inseparable piece of Grenoble that I could not fully appreciate. My best efforts to remember all the phrases I heard over the weeks rewarded me with a slightly larger vocabulary but no real grasp of the language.

Upon returning home, I made two goals for myself. First, I wanted to learn French so that one day I could go back to France and connect with Grenoble more deeply. Currently in L2 French at Yale, I am on my way.

My second goal was to maintain a relationship with my host family. With WhatsApp and social media, it wouldn’t be hard, but I wanted (and still want today) to always be their transatlantic friend. It’s easy to fall out of touch, but the City of Phoenix gifted me an exchange opportunity too special to waste; I want to have a lifelong connection to Grenoble and my family there.

Grenoble is inseparable from its people. Without them and their interactions with their city, it’s just a collection of buildings near a river. My relationship with Grenoble is a unique aspect of the city that I am privy to. Given my affinity for the city, it’s no wonder that on this side of the ocean, I often find myself trying to look through that kitchen window. I seek the comforting view of the mountain that reminds me of my family in France. Squinting through windows that instead reveal the traffic of New Haven, I often forget that I carry so much of Grenoble with me already. All of my memories are pieces of the city that I bring wherever I go. I cannot hold them or see mountains through them, but I can remember them fondly and relive the excitement of discovering what feels like a whole new world.

Grenoble is untethered energy that flows through the streets of Phoenix and New Haven. And it’s a secret city, just like any city. The only ones who know all of its elusive truths are the locals. Everyone else is grasping at pieces of the city, arranging them the best they can and I’m doing the same. My incomplete pieces are not enough to truly know the city. Grenoble is more than a collection of pieces; it is a cohesive and boundless expanse of people and memories, all creating a beautiful bigger picture.

Of course, this won’t stop me from searching for more pieces of the puzzle. I am teased by my pieces so far, inspired to learn more about Grenoble and its place in the world. It’s a complicated city and it may seem far away, but I feel a connection to it that spans the Atlantic Ocean; I can still see the mountains through the kitchen window when I close my eyes.

Jessica Romero | j.romero@yale.edu