Snap Back to Reality

So I’ve finally left Lyon. Almost exactly 4 months away from home. After leaving Lyon, I went to Brussels, Paris, Rennes, and London. All very nice places to be. But there’s a bit of a bittersweetness to the trips when you’re lugging two hefty suitcases along, knowing you won’t be going back to what’s been “home”. I don’t have too much to say about these last few cities because I’d rather focus on other things, but if I were to sum up each one really quickly, it’d go like this:

Brussels: I’m pretty sure we ate bucketloads of chocolate each day. Very food-based couple of days, pretty small city

Paris: Second trip to Paris opened up so much more to the city than the tourist sites. I feel like I’m still not through exploring the city

Rennes: My lovely friend Gaelle was the absolute best guide to this small quaint town. A great place to live, with galettes and crepes everywhere

London: Took this second trip really chill; shopped some, ate well, slept lots. I watched Singing in the Rain with Tina and her friends, Anita and Cynthia, and went into Chinatown for a couple meals. Turns out, the London Chinatown trumps a lot of the other ones I’ve seen in the US and abroad. Who would’a thunk it?

(a little quote I found in the Maison Dandoy menu, known for their Speculoos cookies)

So obviously, now that I’m home, people want to know about the trip in 100 words or less. “How was your trip??” It’s really not so easy as to say that it was “great”. There were highs and lows, and things that I’ll miss and things I could do without. Among those I’ll be more than happy to never encounter again are the “Ni Hao”s I get on the street, whether in the Guillotiere area of Lyon, or certain parts of Paris. And the more space between me and the notoriously sneaky pickpockets of Barcelona, the better. On the other hand, I soso wish we had a Carrefour, the sell-all supermarket, in the US. It was also extremely convenient to get around in Lyon (and Europe in general) with the choices between metro, trams, buses, and bikes. On the flat, even land, it’s also easier to walk from place to place. None of these thirty-degree inclines of Seattle. But at the same time, the French bureaucracy is just HORRENDOUSLY annoying to me as an American. To get anything done required that you either show up in person, or send a letter. There’s never any confirmation of having received any mail, and going in person means waiting in line for who-knows-how-long. God forbid that you run into their lunch break. I’m pretty sure that the only businesses running between the hours of 12:00 and 14:00 are the restaurants. Then all the important businesses, like the banks and anything governmental, close sharply at 18:00. On top of that, to get any sort of official document requires a multitude of steps and documentation beforehand. Which can sometimes be circular. So imagine my frustration upon first arriving in Lyon, ready to be a student, trying to be productive in the early afternoon, only to learn that in order to get a student card, I needed a bank account, which needed proof of residence and a student card. Can you tell that it’s a point that I feel somewhat bitter about? I guess I’ve been too accustomed to online transactions and quick phonecalls. (I was so amazed on my return to find that I could replace my driver’s license (!!) online, without anything but some basic information and a credit card.)

But despite all that frustration bureaucracy stuff, there are one two things that make up for it all: the food and the people.

(When was the last time someone took the time to put that many dots on your plate? From La Mere Brazier)

Lyon is considered the home of gastronomy in France, which is to say that it’s the best place to eat in Western society. They’ve got the cute “bouchons” that serve the absolutely delicious warm Salade Lyonnaise, and several Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as newer cuisines, like a Japanese-French fusion restaurant, and French tapas-style place.

I know that the French have this stereotype for being snobby and rude, but in all actuality, I think most people agree that it’s just in Paris that people can be like that. In fact, I found that the Italians were the least patient with tourists, in general. I found the French I encountered in Lyon, Marseilles, Rennes, and even Paris, to be perfectly fine, for the most part. The people in shops could be a little uncaring sometimes, but for hourly-paid workers, I don’t see what motivation they’d have to be otherwise, really. Most of the people you actually talk to are really quite nice.

But even MORE than the city and it’s beautiful rivers and how awesome it is that you can walk everywhere and the food scene, I loved the people I met. I met a wonderfully sweet group of Chinese girls who cooked everything Chinese on their own (dumplings and tang yuan from scratch! Holy cow) and took care of me when I was sick just before finals. I met them during the orientation week, when I was still looking for a place to stay. I eventually moved into a residence with them, subletting a room one of the girls had who offered to move in with her friend. We went to Paris together, and they made me awesome Chinese food, and I helped them handle French and introduced them to home-baked goodies. Of the group, I consider myself closest to Zhang Yun (so funny, she has names for all her clothes!), Wan Xin (who’s room I was staying in), and Yuan Mengwan. They absolutely took care of me and they’re so sweet.

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(from left: Pan Nan, Zhu YinLin, Wan Xin, me, Yuan Mengwan, then Zhang Yun)

My Chinese got better, from hanging out with them. Woohoo for side benefits of going on exchange! It’s also rather funny to see the culture differences. They hand wash all their clothes and linens, and like their meat cooked all the way through (in stark opposition to the French), and eat a LOT of it. I found out that they don’t eat salads, because they don’t really like raw vegetables. But they’re excellent at doing high-heat sautees and mixing sauces. Mostly this is based on Zhang Yun, since I was with her the most.

Don’t be fooled! We aren’t actually this normal. (From left: me, Jiseon Kim, Raissa Cheu, Diana Lam)

I also met my exchange besties. The four of us could do anything together. We watch many of the same shows, like to explore new foods, and wanted to travel around Europe during our stay. The two girls from Vancouver, BC, Raissa and Diana, and Jiseon from Korea also had a semi-regular Friday dinner, essentially a pot-luck. There’d be wine, and whatever themed dishes we could think of. We did crepes one night, pizza and spreads (speculoos, nutella, etc) another, and even fondue one time.

Because we’re cool like that.

We went all over the place! Our first trip was Marseille, then I went to Italy and London with Raissa, then we all went to Barcelona, and finally Paris. I sound so sappy writing this, but everything we did together was fun. We all loved food and wanted to try new things, and none of us were crazy, or loved to party super hard. We just kind of… chilled sometimes. It was nice. I’m definitely going to miss these girls. I’m so glad that I’m so close to two of them. For Jiseon, well, we’ll just have to plan a Korea trip at some point.

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(“This continues not to be a pipe” from the Magritte Museum in Brussels)

After all these people, places, foods, and sights, I think the big question I’ll hear is, “So what did you learn from all of this?” It’s a valid question, for sure. For all the money spent on it, I should hope I got more than some nice memories and new friends.

I mean, I guess a lot of this isn’t quantifiable. But from what I do know, I can say that I left with a better understanding and appreciation for the French system. Yes I can be frustrating, but once you get past the initial transition, you learn to appreciate the benefits they get out of having such personal business connections and strong reliance on the government. They accept their government as an aid, and rely on it for essential perks like health care, and women’s maternity leave. Not to mention they only have to work forty hours a week, with mandatory five-week-long vacations. What some Americans would do for those kinds of benefits… I also learnt about the French schooling system. Three-hour-long Powerpoint-less lectures, I found, are NOT my thing. Not very conducive to my learning. But it’s these kinds of ties to tradition, of having a relationship with your banker, of having two hours in the day for lunch to go home and rest, and getting the freshest produce one can at the multitudes of farmer’s markets that you don’t see in the US. (Those, and the three-hour-long dinners. Those are definitely rare in the US)

Obviously, many, if not most, things were the same. Most people had seen or heard of Big Bang Theory, and How I Met Your Mother. US Nutella and French Nutella are the same. They also have Abercrombie&Fitch (although I think the French think more highly of it, for who knows what reasons), and most teens are on their phones 24/7 (although God knows their internet service can be atrocious—do they not use the Web??).

But I also learnt about their fear of losing jobs to immigrants, which was alluded to every time I got a “Ni Hao”. They also have a strong Algerian/Moroccan population. Less tied to France itself, I learnt about my ethnicity a bit. From being with my friends from China, I learnt about the regional cuisines (Shanghainese like sweet food. No wonder my sweet tooth is so strong! And dumpling-making is mostly a Northern thing). Zhang Yun also explained how she saw the One Child Law. It made total sense to her—it was a logical act of population control.

Beyond all that, this trip was a bit of a justification. I was almost proving to myself that I could go out into a foreign country, accept and adapt to their way of life, and survive. I consider myself fairly sheltered. Nothing traumatic in my life ever happened, and very protective, nurturing parents sheltered me from the harshness of the world. When applying for study abroad programs, I almost chose one in England. But I’m glad I pushed myself to use my French (which I actually got compliments on! Yay!) and see how I’d do. And yeah, I learnt to take things in stride and accept certain cultural differences, but to push for what I needed when it came to it (this was mostly just when I was trying to leave and get everything sorted out for that).

Would I go on exchange again? Definitely! But I don’t think I’ll have the money for that for a while. If I left to country again, I’d want to go to Asia. I’m thinking Shanghai, Korea, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Japan. Or if I were in Europe, I’d want to go to Prague, Lisbon, Germany, and Greece. But that’s just wishful thinking there. Maybe in the future, when I’m a millionaire and can travel willy-nilly as I please. So either in my dreams or when I’m 90 years old. Well, at least I have something to dream about, and look forward to in the future, I suppose.

This also concludes (I believe, unless I do any trips to Vancouver) my posts about my exchange. I’m thinking we’ll go back to food posts or random life tidbits. We’ll see how this goes.

And we’re off!

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