off the beaten track, france, destinations, europe

My Study Abroad Experience: Moving to Lyon, France

france Life Study Abroad

It might seem like a little late in the day, so to speak, to post about moving to Lyon, considering this has been my home now since September. However, if I’d written about it in the first few weeks that I’d arrived it would have been a post full of nerves, stress and bittersweet sadness. Study abroad in France always seemed like an utterly romantic whimsical dream of mine but as I’d visited more times than I can count, I honestly didn’t think it would be all that much of a change. Especially since it wouldn’t be all that hard to return home if absolutely necessary.

Yet, as I should have realised, visiting and living in a country are two completely different ballgames. Visiting France is indulging in all the Brie, Camembert and Roquefort you can get your hands on. Living in France is just dying for a slice of good old, never-lets-you-down cheddar. Visiting France is spending all holiday at a slow French pace and forgetting about your responsibilities. Living in France is screaming in frustration when every shop is shut on a Sunday… and at lunchtimes… and Wednesday afternoons… and sometimes Mondays just for the hell of it. Visiting France is never dealing with the crap that becomes the absolute bane of your life when you live in France.

My first few days in Lyon were the hottest of the year and the sun did absolutely nothing to melt away my gloomy feelings. Having said goodbye to my boyfriend for -what I thought would be- a year, missing my family, friends and university town, being homeless and living out of a hotel, coming to terms with the fact that I had come to study at quite possibly the most disorganised university on earth, realising just how rusty my French was and how unhelpful the French could be, I felt like I’d voluntarily signed up to watch my life fall apart.

I was living in a cheap run-down hotel room by the river with my best friend for about two weeks and there wasn’t a second when either of us didn’t feel the pressure of our pockets becoming fast emptied by the hotel fees. Our home university told us that our best bet was to find a place to live in Lyon once we’d arrived so we didn’t risk being scammed by people online. This made a lot of sense to us, hence why we didn’t find an apartment before we arrived. There was always the option of university housing, however students who had lived in them previously had warned us how awful they were, so we stayed well away. Renting a house or apartment back in our home university of Leeds is an easy and quick process but for some reason in Lyon, it proved impossible. There seemed to be no vacancies anywhere, and when we did find one, by the time we called up the landlord it had already been snapped up. We spent hour upon hour each day scouring ads online for rooms we could rent and visiting estate agencies that regretted to inform us that there were no places to rent left- how could there be no places to rent left?! You’re an estate agency, for god’s sake; you can’t just be plain out of places to live…

It quickly began to appear as though Lyon had just completely run out of apartments until one day we lucked out and saw an advert on a noticeboard at our university offering a room nearby to rent. Cloé called up the number and lo and behold, she had a room! Finally! So, we moved out of the hotel and into her tiny little dusty bedroom in a cluttered flat shared with an senile, elderly lady where the two of us lived on top of each other yet again for another week while I continued searching for somewhere to live myself. Secretly, I didn’t really want to find somewhere. I was thinking that this bad luck must be an omen, a sign to return back home. I didn’t want to be there. I’d call up my mum crying some nights, begging to come back to England. I wanted to give up before I’d even really begun. Absolutely bogged down with depression, not wanting to talk to anyone, eat or do anything but sleep, it really didn’t feel like I could cope with this change. But then we saw an advert for another room at university and I called up for a viewing. The apartment was nice, the room was nice and the girl who showed me around was also nice. I guess if we’re going to believe in omens, this had to be a sign that I needed to continue. So I moved in with a middle-aged French woman, into her daughter’s old room.

Even though I was happy with the apartment -it was clean, spacious and pretty- it became clear that the circumstances weren’t right for me. I didn’t like being a lodger. I didn’t like living in a family house. The woman’s daughter and son and their partners would be round every weekend and some evenings and chat loudly for hours in the kitchen while I hid in my bedroom. I’d be nagged at daily for something that I hadn’t done right. I’d dripped some tea on the floor, I’d not washed the table properly, I’d not turned the heating down before leaving the apartment, and I’d used the wrong towels on the floor in the bathroom. They weren’t unreasonable complaints but to not have my own space and live by my own rules, constantly treading on eggshells around someone else’s wishes annoyed me to high heaven. When I went home for a week holiday in October, I returned to see that she’d rearranged my things in my bedroom and covered all my sides in sticky-back plastic. I felt like a child… why did I need everything covered in plastic like I was going to draw all over them? I swiftly decided that I wanted to move out, and so did Cloé and Nadia from their respective apartments, thus we began to look for apartments that we could rent as a three to move into after the Christmas break.

In the meantime, the university that I was at was driving me insane with its disorganisation and lack of empathy towards students, especially international students. On our first day at university, we were invited to a meeting to discuss the ins and outs of our year abroad. Arriving on campus a good 20 minutes early, we were confused to find that there were no people stationed at the entrance to guide us where to find the lecture hall, not even any signs around to show us the general direction. Without any maps and only the name of the amphitheatre to guide us, we wandered around for a good half an hour before we found it in a dark basement, with no lights in the corridor. After fumbling around in the pitch-black corridor and entering the bright lecture hall with blinking confused eyes, we were immediately welcomed by the furious screams of the lecturer as we had the audacity to be 5 minutes late. The whole lecture was in fast-paced French and we started to realise in fear how this study abroad year was going to pan out.

Enrolling on modules at the university was near impossible. Unlike at Leeds, where you choose modules beforehand and the timetable is created for you in advance, we had to find out the time and places of each module, attend a few weeks of lectures to see if we liked them and if so, add it to our timetable that we created ourselves. The tough part of this was, all we knew about the modules was the names. So, having to attend about 5 different lectures all with the title of ‘Littératures and Cultures Français’ to even find out what the syllabus of each one was, got slightly frustrating and hard to follow. It was absolutely maddening that they couldn’t just upload a module handbook, with information about what each module entailed onto the online portal; it would be such an easy task for the administration and so helpful to the students. Information that actually was online, like the time and place of the lectures, was rarely actually correct and we spent the first week sitting in law lectures that were supposed to be history lectures. When we asked our study abroad co-ordinator what this was about, we were the stupid ones, as we hadn’t thought to consult the noticeboard. That noticeboard of which we had no idea existed.

In the International Relations office, where we were meant to find support from the university, the desk was hardly ever open and when there was somewhere there, they’d often snap at us that it was their lunch break or they were busy at that time. Every email that we sent to the international office would be ignored, even if they were about urgent matters like disability support. The actual lectures would be unnecessarily difficult to follow. Yes, we came to France aware of the fact that we would be studying in French. However, with no hand-outs, powerpoints or any added support, it was impossible to keep up with the fast-paced two-hour spiels of information that were rattled off at the front of the classroom. When we asked a lecturer if it would be possible to add some supplementary handouts or even just write on the whiteboard some keywords just to help us spell them, we were answered with a brief and to-the-point ‘no’.

Although so far this might seem like a warning to stay well away from study abroad schemes, there are inevitably a lot of silver linings to the study abroad experience. A month into our time in Lyon, we began to plan spending some weekends away visiting some more of Europe’s highlights. Our first trip was a short day visit to Annecy, the idyllic lake town. Escaping the frustration and leaving it all behind in Lyon to spend a day sunbathing, swimming in the lake and surrounded by mountains let me return with an inner state of serenity that made me think that maybe I could really handle study abroad after all. It soon became an addiction and we spent every weekend in a different place. We explored abandoned abattoirs, climbed a dormant volcano, hiked the creeks of Cassis and rode cable cars to the tops of mountains. I started to really appreciate where I was, what was feasible there and the endless possibilities of adventure that surrounded me.

Now, at the start of my second semester in Lyon, everything feeling a lot more stable. I’ve moved into a cosy apartment with my two close friends and I’m feeling prepared to handle the disorganised chaos of the French education system. It’s easy to get annoyed with how different a country is from your own. Everything feels like it’s so much more difficult than necessary and you don’t understand why they haven’t figured out a better system. But after a while, you’ll figure out that getting angry at the way they do things is pointless, you just have to go with it and make the best out of it. After all, I didn’t embark on study abroad for everything to be exactly the same as it is at home.

Before my study abroad experience, I was told by the co-ordinators to expect a rollercoaster of emotions but there is truly no way to prepare someone for what is to come, no map of expectations you can use to navigate yourself. You’ll have your own individual study abroad experience; you’ll cope with it in your own way but after some time, you won’t be coping any more you’ll be flourishing.

Read More: On advice on how to best explore Lyon and its surrounded areas, check out Maegan’s guide. 

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  • Reply
    February 11, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    OMG I feel you. I’m French!! So I should be able to figure out how the university works but trust me, you’re right when you say: “Everything feels like it’s so much more difficult than necessary and you don’t understand why they haven’t figured out a better system.”
    -> it’s true for every French administration, not only the university 🙁

    • Reply
      February 14, 2017 at 6:49 pm

      Oh god, tell me about it, girl. We had to get insurance for our apartment last month and it was SO LONG and complicated- they make you sign, initial and date every piece of paper in a stack of 100… why?!

  • Reply
    CatherineRose || La Vie En C-Rose
    March 7, 2017 at 6:33 am

    Finding a place to live in Lyon at la rentrée is the absolute worst!! I hope you’re getting to enjoy Lyon more now despite all the frustrations that France tends to bring 🙂

  • Reply
    April 1, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    Studied abroad twice and twice it wasn’t what I thought it would be, and I happily returned home after the term was over. Despite having many good moments, studying abroad was never better for me than studying at my home uni. I’m glad I did it, but I didn’t have as amazing a time as everyone else seemed to have. You seem to be on the right track, hang in there 🙂

  • Reply
    April 1, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    I FEEL YOU in all your words!!! I was in Bordeaux for 6 months, trying to find a house (really a nightmareee), to find a course (not be able to, impossible!) and the list goes on.. i gave up and left.. pfff I like the place, but there are so many things that are just unbearable. I also had a crazy landlady who kicked me out of the house because she thought I broke down her 30 years old food mixer! Rude rude rude!!!

  • Reply
    Memoirs of a Globetrotter
    April 2, 2017 at 6:33 am

    I studied abroad in Lyon for a semester. I can definitely relate to feeling frustrated about stores being closed on Sundays, especially when I needed groceries! There was a mini Carrefour a short bus ride from where I was living that was open from 9am- 1pm on Sundays, but the bus only came once an hour, which was super inconvenient. Occasionally I went to Supermarché Asie (a Chinese supermarket) on Rue Passet, which was open on Sundays. And most restaurants in Lyon don’t open till at least 7pm or even 8pm for dinner, which I wasn’t used to at all.

    Your rental experience sounds very stressful! I’m surprised at how complex registration for classes is at your school. At mine we had to register online before the semester began.

    I’m glad you seem to be happier in Lyon now though! It’s a gorgeous city, and I absolutely loved eating all the French desserts. 🙂 A good thing about France is its relaxed attitude towards vacation time. My school had a few breaks during the semester, so I had plenty of time to travel. 🙂

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