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Living and Studying in Lyon, France

An International City

Overlooking Lyon, France
Overlooking Lyon.

The hardest part is clicking the button. That little “submit” button on your study abroad application page. It takes nerve to commit to a year abroad, a year away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings. But taking the plunge gives rise to so many opportunities: the ability to live and travel in a country different from your own, to meet new people, be surrounded by a foreign language, and a new way of life. Living abroad is more than learning a new language and meeting people, however; it forever changes your worldview and perceptions of the global community.

Deciding on Lyon

As soon as I settled in as a freshman at the University of Oregon, I knew I wanted to spend my junior year abroad. Luckily, the UO has a great study abroad program, with several locations in France, French being the language I began studying when I came to college. My family and I had hosted several French students in high school, giving me my first exposure to their language and culture.  I chose to study abroad in Lyon because it is a large city (the second largest in France, after Paris), has a rich cultural history (it was once the capital of Gaul during the Roman empire), and it is centrally located in Europe, allowing for easy traveling. The city is quintessentially French: a center of gastronomy, and historically a manufacturer of silk for fine French clothing. The city’s distinctive red roof architecture is unmistakable: you’re in France.

Culture Shock

The phenomenon of jet lag is unfortunate, because when you arrive at your new destination, you are completely and utterly fatigued, and yet those who greet you after awaiting your arrival are eager to show you their culture. When I first arrived in Lyon, the family I was staying with wished to shower upon me every facet of French cuisine. Literally every meal was something new: small, unidentifiable bird? Check. Massive leg of pork hanging from the ceiling, ready for bits to be shaven off for each meal? Nothing out of the ordinary.

I distinctly remember lying on my bed a few days after arrival, tired and still not completely over my jet lag, with awful stomach pain. My head was spinning after speaking nothing but French day in and day out. The unrelenting wave of new food was getting to my system. I sat there, upset, wondering how they could eat all of this! How were they not experiencing what I was? I began to question my decision to live here for a year, wondering how I would ever make it out of France alive. But, I told myself, I will adjust. It will get better. And it does. Within a month, I felt completely comfortable in Lyon. Everything that was once unfamiliar and bizarre was now second nature, and speaking French at shops, restaurants, and on the metro was now natural: Lyon became my home.

Settling In

Before you arrive, if your university’s study abroad program is anything like mine, you will have plethora forms to fill out, meetings to attend, and things to take care of, such as going to get a student visa (at the embassy in San Francisco, if you live on the West Coast). Fortunately, your study abroad office should have program directors to help guide you along the way.

The first couple months in your French host city, you encounter quite a bit of paperwork and other hoops to leap through, both expected and unexpected. When you first arrive, you will probably want a cell phone, which is difficult to buy when your French is still weak. Additionally, if staying for an extended amount of time (I have a year-long visa) you need to get a medical check up in France for immigrants, called OFII. Once you pass the examination, you have a sticker placed next to your visa in your passport. There are little things that need to be done: initial expenses for your apartment, buying a public transportation card, getting a student card for the SNCF train network (called a Carte 12-30). It can seem overwhelming, but once you have all of these things, you are truly settled in at home, and feel like one of the locals.

Additionally, you meet many people when you first get into town. I was lucky enough to have 32 people in my program, Centre Oregon, which has ties to the university I attend here (Université Lumiere Lyon 2), and is comprised of study abroad students from various colleges in Oregon. These people will quickly become some of your best friends, and your year together abroad becomes unforgettable as you share so many new and diverse experiences together.

Picnic with friends near Rhone river in Lyon.
A picnic with friends on one of the two rivers in Lyon, the Rh�ne.

Traveling

For many, studying abroad in Europe brings along with it notions of backpacking around the continent, enduring hardships along the way as a poor college student. While the romantic notions of traveling cheaply still exist, it fortunately has become easy to travel quite comfortably while still on a budget. One of the great things about living in Lyon is that it’s airport, Saint-Exupery, is a hub for Easyjet, a low cost British airline for short flights around Europe. While they have strict baggage limits, and no free peanuts, traveling on Easyjet is really quite like any other airline. Flights are routinely 20 or 30 euros to neighboring countries, and its free baggage limited to one carry-on is actually a blessing in disguise — it helps you keep your load light when you are traveling, quite helpful and necessary unless you wanted to be lugging suitcases around the tiny canals of Venice.

Hostels are, by and large, quite comfortable. They are plentiful throughout Europe, and many offer clean sheets and bathrooms for inexpensive prices. Many of them are indistinguishable from a hotel, apart from the fact that many hostels have shared bathrooms.

Combining these two factors makes it quite inexpensive and simple to travel around for the wandering college student. It is quite doable to see a large part of Europe in the time you are abroad. On limited funds, and confined to traveling only on school breaks, I have gone to the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Morocco, and up and down France (with future trips planned!). It takes some savvy, dedicated searching on hostel websites and for cheap flights — but even on a student budget, you can make your travel dreams happen.

Studying in Lyon

One thing for certain about studying abroad in Lyon is that you aren’t alone — Lyon has one of the largest student populations in France, boasting over 120,000 students, 16,000 of them international. The main university system is, simply named, Université de Lyon. There are 4 of these universities, split by various disciplines, throughout the city. My school program goes through Université Lyon 2, which specializes in the social sciences and humanities. Other main universities are the Université Catholique de Lyon, a private school specializing in literature and philosophy, and IEP, or Instit d’Etudes Politiques, the political science school. At IEP especially, it is not uncommon to hear several different languages in the hallway. Lyon has a wealth of universities to choose from, leading international students to flock to Lyon for its youthful student population.

Classes at French universities are different from American universities, and the differences are hard to get used to. For one, technology has not been as universally adopted, and websites commonly used in the U.S. like Blackboard are nonexistent. Coming from a university where PowerPoint presentations are a mainstay, to a university where emails are fortuitous, is quite a change. Communication is much more sparse, and often classes will get changed or cancelled without notification. Instead of online course registration, a list of classes is posted in the hallway, and you sign up by going to them. It is difficult at times to accept the lack of organization, but you learn to come to terms with these differences as part of the experience.

Making Connections With Families

Without a doubt, the best way to practice your new language is to speak with the locals. You can try practicing with your fellow study abroad friends, but who is to know if you are both making linguistic mistakes? You really need a native to correct you along the way. Additionally, getting to know a family allows for real insight into everyday French life.

I live in an apartment, but I rent from a French family that lives on the floor below me. Very gracious and accepting, they often invite me to dinner and on other occasions. I try to take them up on every offer, because these are the times that let you see the culture in its simplicity, and in the most revealing ways: we often will sit and have a drink, perhaps watching French TV and discussing various issues which come up in the news. When we dine together, we don’t eat elaborate dishes, we eat simple things that they have in their daily diet, not the rich foods you see in expensive French restaurants.

These connections are the kind that last — I have no doubt that if I am to visit Lyon years from now, they would be equally welcoming. If they ever visit Oregon, I would love to show them around.

If you do not have access to a family in your living situation, try and get a job teaching English — regardless of the country you are living or studying in, native English speakers are in great demand, and can be a great job for study abroad students (it is otherwise hard to get a job as a foreigner, unless you are completely fluent in the language). I tutor a little girl in English once a week, and have gotten to know her family as well. These relationships make your city, and experience, personal – while Lyon is at times a large, overwhelming city, connections with families make the city seem small and intimate.

Breakfast with family in Lyon
Enjoying breakfast with the family.

Making the Most of Your Time Abroad

It is easy to settle in comfortably to your life in a new country and let life become routine, but it is important not to let this happen — after all, you are only here for a limited amount of time, and you must make the most of the wealth of new experiences available. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a study abroad “bucket list.” Before you leave (or shortly upon arrival), making a list of all the things you want to see and do in your upcoming months, both in your city and a list of places you would like to travel. Having a tangible list of things to do will help keep you active, and checking them off as you go lets you keep track of all the things you have done.

Additionally, keep a journal of your times abroad — you might think at the time that you will remember everything, but the truth is, those little memories or moments so fresh in your mind now become fuzzy in the future. Try to keep detailed entries  about the little incidents and stories which are ultimately the moments you will want to remember! Of course, a decade from now you will remember the big things that happened – the countries you went to, for instance. But you forget the spontaneous encounters you have with strangers, the funny miscommunications that arise from mistakes in your foreign language, the feelings you experienced when you first walked into that foreign grocery store. These are the moments that you will likely want to remember.

While it might seem nerve-wracking to take the plunge and leave familiar territory, to live for an extended period of time in a foreign language, it will broaden your mind and forever change your viewpoint on the world. Your travels will shape you, teach you, and let you see what you appreciate most in life. It is not an easy ride. Living abroad comes with hardships and difficulties. But these challenges help you grow at an important stage in your life. As the French like to say — Profitez!

For More Info

Easyjet — A low cost airline for flights around Europe.

Hostelbookers — plenty of inexpensive hostels to choose from, with ratings and reviews.

International students in Lyon — A wealth of information for getting your start as a student in Lyon).

Wikitravel — Indispensible source of information on any city for traveling.

Chistopher Dalton is a junior at the University of Oregon, a double major in Political Science and French. He grew up in Sacramento, California, and hopes to work in international politics after graduation..

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