Thursday, 13 November 2014

Toussaint, Salsa and Geneva!

The past couple of weeks have flown by, and there is so much that I could write about, but I’ll try to stick to interesting highlights and important updates, and as always, the photos will be able to speak for themselves!

We had a mid-term break for Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) the week of the 27th October, so I decided to travel across France to visit some family friends’ who for the last few years have been calling a small village called Vergné home. It’s located in the west of the country, somewhere between Poitiers, Limoges and Angoulême, in the Poitou-Charantes region. It took me about 4 hours on the train with a quick change over outside Tours, and I was greeted with warm, welcoming and very familiar faces at the station. What was so lovely about my week away, was the time and freedom to do whatever we wanted, be it relaxing, exploring, reading, or walking through the beautiful countryside and farmland. We went to a book fair, made friends with a local donkey and walked a dog around a lake, and I got to spend some time in the fresh country air – which was refreshing after so many months of city life!

La Rochefoucauld
One of the best parts of the trip was going to a town called La Rochefoucauld, and seeing the stunning château, which looked out over the surrounding area. My favourite thing though, was on the birthday of one of my hosts, when we had the French neighbours over for apéros (drinks and nibbles). It was fantastic, I was surrounded by a generation of French people I don’t normally have the chance to socialise with, and not one of them could speak English! Their accents were a little tricky to understand at times, but they were all so lovely, and I think they quite enjoyed having a young English girl speaking French to them.

When I got back to Lyon, I went to see the Lyon women’s football team play a league match against Paris Saint-Germain. Amélie, the university team captain, invited me. She gets free tickets because she trained with Lyon women’s academy up to under-18 level. Despite playing football and watching women’s matches on the television during major tournaments, I had never seen a live professional women’s game, and I was surprised how many people turned up to watch. There were just over 10,000 spectators, which is more than some English men’s league teams can manage. To top it all off, the match was full of action, with Lyon eventually winning 2-1. (I sense a recurring pattern…as this was the score at the last Lyon game I went to see…)

I thought going back to university for the second half of term was going to be difficult after enjoying a week of not having lessons. However, I found myself missing my new friends, and anxious to get various exam results back. I’m pleased to say I passed all of the ones that I have received my marks for, and I’m particularly pleased with my mark for the oral presentation I gave on the British Monarchy in my French language class. Smug feelings lasted only a little while though, as I realised that this is the half of term where deadlines and exam dates are all the more frequent.

I decided to distract myself with various gatherings; namely for drinks, dinner or coffee. The best of these nights was by far a trip to one of the many salsa bars in Lyon. You walk in, have a drink…or not…or three…and strut your salsa stuff on the dance floor. I went with three of my Australian friends, we ended up befriending some French students who seem to go quite regularly, and they told us to meet them there any Friday as they would more than likely be there.

I also have a little confession to make. I had a moment on 5th November when I realised I wasn't going to see any bonfires or any fireworks... I wasn't going to eat baked potato or mushy peas with mint, or stew or pie, or rolls filled with roast pork, stuffing and apple sauce, or toffee apples (not that I like them much)...I wasn't going to be able to drink mulled cider or mulled wine, or hot toddy...more importantly, I wasn't going to be able to play with sparklers!!! I won't lie, it was a little depressing. It's one of my favourite times of the year, and the first thing (friends/family not included) that I've actually missed about the UK. That night, I turned on my heater, curled up in bed, watched an uplifting film and booked my train ticket home for Christmas...

Palais des Nations
One of the highlights of the past few weeks though was most definitely my day trip to Geneva on Saturday 8th November. It was my first ever time visiting Switzerland, and it’s only two hours away from Lyon on the train. I was accompanied by Emmanuelle, one of my Australian friends. We started with a fleeting walk through the botanical gardens, before heading to the United Nations. The square in front of the UN is home to a lovely fountain, and a giant chair with a broken leg, designed by Swiss artist Daniel Berset. I have to admit I had absolutely no idea what the meaning was behind it, but I’ve done some research and have discovered that it symbolises opposition to land mines and cluster bombs. It was erected in 1997 before the signing of the Ottawa Treaty, and has been there ever since to act as a reminder to politicians and tourists alike who visit the Palais des Nations. We ate our lunch on a bench by Lake Geneva, looking out to the Alps and the imposing yet majestic Mont Blanc – it really is a breathtakingly beautiful city. We spent some time trying to work out where the famous Jet d’Eau (fountain in the lake) was, before realising that it just wasn’t switched on that day. It was a relief actually, because before we realised that we were in fact in the right place, I was beginning to lose faith in my map reading skills.

Horloge Fleurie
Next, we headed to the Jardin Anglais to see the Horloge Fleurie (flower clock), before having a wander around the old town. We visited the Cathedral Saint-Pierre, and decided to pay to climb the towers so that we could see the view of the city from the top of one of the its most iconic buildings. We weren’t disappointed. The lake, the mountains and the tops of old and new buildings alike greeted us. I felt quite intoxicated by the city to be honest – I liked it that much! After catching our breath, we finished the trip with Swiss fondue for dinner, before catching the train home.

We actually only have around three weeks of teaching left before exams start in December and I have three essays to write before then. I’m already planning what to do/where to go to celebrate after I’ve handed them all in and finished my exams. I’m determined to make the most of the time I have left of the French half of my year abroad, and I don’t think it would be complete without a visit to one of the world’s best Christmas markets: Strasbourg. As no UCL student has actually received our Erasmus grant yet, (three months in), I’ll have to wait and see nearer the time if I can afford it!

Friday, 17 October 2014

"She was a day tripper!"

The past two weeks have been a bit hectic. Aside from suddenly being swamped with work after being told that the year abroad “is a bit like a holiday”, I had two sets of friends visiting (first my friend Daniel came on Wednesday and Thursday, then Sophie and Lauren came for the weekend). I also had a little day trip adventure. This could only mean one thing: time to be a tourist!

Wall Mural at Musée Urbain de Tony Garnier
We started with the obvious attractions. The beautiful Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière never fails to disappoint, and the panoramic view of the city from the top of the hill is a perfect photo location. Whilst up there, you can’t miss a trip to the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre either, which on a bright and sunny day such as the ones we enjoyed, is a great place to stop and sit and catch up with life. One of the best things to see in Lyon, however, is the Musée Urbain de Tony Garnier, which is a collection of buildings in Lyon’s Etats-Unis district with fantastic murals painted onto their sides, and even the rain which fell on a biblical scale couldn’t dampen our spirits or ruin the impression the amazing artwork made. It was also nice to have my friends from home meet some of my friends here in Lyon. Daniel was treated to a university organised party, whilst Sophie and Lauren joined us for a much more relaxed bottle of wine at a bar by the Rhône. I also took advantage of having visitors by eating out and enjoying some of the food that Lyon has to offer. We ate at typical Lyonnais bouchons and I tried, although I admit it wasn’t my favourite dish ever (much to Daniel’s amusement), the famous Lyonnaise quenelle. It’s a sort of mixture of creamed fish, breadcrumbs and egg which is poached before being served with a lobster sauce. The sauce was delicious, but I couldn’t get my head around the texture. Try to imagine a fishy suet dumpling…yeah, that’s it…you’ve got it!

Aix-en-Provence market
I can’t tell you how brilliant it was to have some friends from home come to visit. It was as if they had brought a piece of home with them, and just being able to spend some time with them has re-energised me and given me a little emotional boost for the next few weeks of my stay. Last time I lived in Lyon I was here for over three months and didn’t really miss home that much. It’s funny, I didn’t realise how much I missed home this time until I saw my friends from England here in Lyon, and it’s only been two months!

Last weekend was absolutely fantastic too. A few of the girls decided to day trip to Aix-en-Provence and I’m so glad I agreed to join them. The town itself is pretty small and you can see most of it in a day, but the weather was beautiful and the surroundings even better. The best thing about going on a
Saturday was that there was a market, which of course meant I spent a ridiculous amount of money on soap and jam and chutney and chocolate-orange spread and all the other things in life that a girl can’t live without! We spent a little time looking at Paul Cézanne paintings in a local museum and took a walk up to the cathedral in the afternoon. It was so understated inside but had an alluring charm that was quite disarming. Often when cathedrals are elaborately decorated I find it hard to get past the aesthetic beauty of the building, but the simplicity of the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence and the beautiful organ music being played allowed me to connect on a much more spiritual level, which I really loved.

Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence
An ice cream and a coffee later and we were on the train home. Despite the long day, I actually found
my time in Aix-en-Provence quite relaxing, and came home feeling refreshed rather than drained. Spontaneous day-tripping is definitely the way to go, and with train tickets for only €10, it’s so affordable.

I’m hoping to have a couple of quiet weeks now. There are tests to tackle, presentations to give and essays to start planning, and whilst I've had my fun, I should probably start knuckling down. Then again…I am the queen of procrastination, so maybe I’ll have something else to write about sooner than I think!


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Au bord de la mer...

It’s official. I have now been in Lyon for just over a month, and it’s been a pretty great first month. But rather than talking about Lyon this week, I thought I’d tell you about my first real adventure: a weekend trip to Marseille.

There are a lot of rivalries between the cities of Lyon and Marseille. Arguments over the better football team, the better food, the better weather, and which city is France’s second city behind Paris. As a city, Marseille is France’s second largest, but if you include all the surrounding urban areas, then Lyon is larger. Food hands down goes to Lyon, the weather is debatable but Marseille stays warmer for longer in the year, and football changes from season to season. I had never been to Marseille before, and as an adopted Lyonnaise I was a little sceptical, but it was certainly worth a visit.

Calanque de Sugiton
Getting up at 5.30am on the Saturday, I met two of my Australian friends at the train station to catch a 7.20am train. I drifted in and out of sleep during the journey south, but the times I managed to keep my eyes open long enough I was rewarded with the views of beautiful hills and sparkling lakes. We arrived at about 10.30am and after finding our three other friends, stopping by the hostel and grabbing some lunch, we headed straight to one of Marseille’s most naturally beautiful attractions: the calanques. A calanque is a steep-walled inlet, cove, or bay often surrounded by limestone mountains and valleys, and the only two ways to get to the ones in Marseille is to either pay €9 for a boat to take you right there, or to catch a bus to the end of the line and then hike down the valley. Naturally, being an adventurous group we decided to go for the hike. It’s a massive cliché to say I felt at one with nature, so I’ll just say that the views from the top of the valley down onto the Mediterranean Sea were incredible, and the hike itself was a fantastic bonding experience. The terrain was a little tough, it was quite warm and at times I felt like we’d gone rock-climbing instead of hiking, but what we found at the bottom of the valley was well worth the effort. Beautiful blue sea surrounded by trees and rocks to jump from, and it wasn’t overcrowded either. The water was a little chilly to begin with, being sheltered from most of the sun, but after the climb down it was refreshing and so welcoming!

After another hike back to the top which made me think I was travelling to the Eyrie in Game of Thrones, we went back into the city, made ourselves some dinner back at the hostel and then went out to find a nice bar where we could reward our day’s exertions with a drink.

Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Inside the Basilique
Sunday started with breakfast from the boulangerie around the corner from the hostel, and then we headed off to visit Marseille’s cathedral on the hill, la Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde. Looking at it from the outside, you can see the southern/Mediterranean influences on the building. The colour of the stones wasn’t that dissimilar to the Duomo of Florence. There was also a very obvious marine theme inside, with paintings of boats and the sea on the walls, and model boats hanging from the ceiling. It was beautiful, and unlike any church décor I had seen previously. The views of Marseille from the church weren’t bad either, despite it being a rather misty morning.

Vieux Port
The call of lunch brought us back down the hill to the Vieux Port, where we bought scented Marseille soap and spent the next hour or so eating at a restaurant in a little square just off the main tourist area. I then spent a bit of time enjoying the scent of fresh sea air and admiring the yachts and boats that were docked in the harbour, (goes with the territory of being from a naval family), before we headed to the station to catch our ride home.

On the whole I really liked Marseille. It has got a lot of things going for it, never mind the fact that it’s right by the sea, but I prefer Lyon as a city to live in. I was glad that after a really enjoyable weekend away I could come back to somewhere I’m really happy to be able to call home. I’m also especially looking forward to this next week as I have some people coming to visit and I cannot wait to show Lyon off to them. 

Left to Right: Marie-Laure, Me, Johanna

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Fun, food and football!

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post and I’ve done quite a few things in that time that I think are probably worth a mention. So if you’d like to know what I’ve been getting up to, please read on!

I guess the main change I should talk about is that the international student orientation classes have ended, and real university classes started last Monday. It’s a different system to get your head round, as the course commencement dates are staggered here: lectures started on 8th September, my French language class starts on 15th, and my seminar classes don’t start until next Monday (22nd). September is what’s known as the opt-in/opt-out period at Université Lyon 3. I can turn up to any lecture or tutorial I want until I ‘validate my choices’ online, which has to be done by the end of the month. I’m pleased to say I have about 80% of my classes chosen, with just a few seminars left to try. Another difference is the style of teaching over here. A lot of the lecturers prefer to use over-head projectors, something I haven’t encountered since my primary school days, and something that no one in this day and age should even contemplate using - mainly because it relies on you being able to understand the lecturer’s writing, which half the time is a sprawl of illegible mess. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much of the spoken lecture I can understand, and by the amount of notes I’ve been able to take in French…although at times I do have to revert to my reliance on fluent franglais. I quote, “personne n’est vraiment capable de dire ceux qui sont the boarders/exact boundaries of the Islamic State’s territory”. Hey, I said I took notes in French, not that those notes were in good French!

Generally, all of the lectures I’ve been to are very interesting. I’m going to be studying a mix of history, literature and culture, as well as attempting some French-English translation and vice versa. I’m also taking an Italian grammar class to keep up my (poor) standard ready for my second semester in Bologna. 

In other news, I opened a French bank account and was rewarded with a nice new piece of shiny plastic to play with. Now I won’t have to take so much out on my English card and I won’t get oversees transaction charges.

I also signed up for sports at my university. I can now join the women’s football team…no I can’t live without it even for a semester, take zumba classes and play badminton. I think it’s a pretty good deal, a great way to meet people (hopefully more French people), and if it means I can work off some of the extra baguette and cheese calories, I can’t lose really. Well, except for the loss of some weight…which I won’t really mourn that much!

Other things worth mentioning…

Café Théâtre
I went to a café théâtre with some of my new friends. It’s essentially a bar with a stage where you go to have a drink and watch some kind of performance. It’s very popular in Lyon, pretty cheap, and you get to soak up some of the local atmosphere and culture. We saw a comedian called Jeremy Charbonnel. A decent looking chap; he was actually very funny. If you ever find yourself in Lyon and can understand the language, a café théâtre should be near the top of your list of things to experience!

Trips to the bar and the park with new friends have been wonderful, and with all the warm sunny Lyonnais weather we’re having, I find myself out and about most days and nights. The relaxed, warm evenings and the promise of a red (berry flavoured) beer is an added bonus, but I promise, that’s not the only reason I’m going out…no…really.

Stade de Gerland
I also went wine and cheese tasting. I don’t need to tell you how good that was…it was WINE and CHEESE tasting. Now you know why I signed up for sports!

Of course, my visit to Lyon wouldn’t be complete without a football match, so on 12th September I went with some of the international students to Stade de Gerland to watch Lyon play Monaco. I went to a game back in 2011 to see Lyon play Caen, but that was as exciting as watching paint dry. This match was completely different: end to end football, some world class players on display and to top it all off, Lyon won 2-1. Lyonnais, Lyonnais, Lyonnais!!! Is it too early to invest in a new football shirt??? At €80 a ‘maillot’…I think so…

Life in France would also not be complete without trips to the market, and I LOVE markets. Fresh produce, the chance to meet some real characters and know that your food came from a good place. Not to mention it’s so much cheaper than the supermarket. Obviously there are some things you just can’t get at a market, but for most food, it’s the only place I would go in France. This week was a trip to Montplaisir market with my Australian friend and new found market buddy, Molly. I could have spent the whole day there, but alas, it only lasts the morning. Still, I managed to buy heaps of fruit and veg, half a roast chicken, apple juice fresh from the farm and some fine looking strawberries, and I didn’t break the bank to get it all! This is how food shopping is meant to be!

Last week some of us decided to have a girls’ night out at an Erasmus party held in a local club. The party itself was fun. My friend decided to take part in the dress up sumo wrestling, which resulted in me nearly dying from asphyxiation due to laughing so much I couldn’t breathe. Actually, the best part of the night was before we went to the party. We went to buy food at Carrefour, that queen of French supermarkets, went to my friend Marie-Laure’s apartment and had burritos and homemade guacamole courtesy of my Colombian-Canadian friend Daniela. Words cannot express how good the food was, and the company was even better!

On Saturday, some of us may also have managed to accidentally crash someone's private party at a venue near the river whilst looking for a loo. There were no bouncers/security on the door, we were pretty desperate and it wasn't until several minutes of dancing later that we realised we probably shouldn't be there. We politely shuffled/danced our way out of the door, and cycled home on the Vélo'V bikes, (Lyon equivalent of a Boris Bike). Honestly, it is impossible to find a free bike late at night, and when we did, it then took us hours to find a free space to put our bikes near our homes. A good, if somewhat surreal time was had by all, and we will never speak about the party crashing ever again...apart from when, in a few months time, one of us says, "hey, remember that night we went out and couldn't find a bathroom, and walked into the private party and then couldn't find anywhere to put our bikes so cycled round Lyon until about five in the morning?"...absolute rebels! (This blog is called Abby's Year Abroad Adventures...I guess it wouldn't really live up to its name if there wasn't an accidental party crash thrown in there at some point!)

Oh, since arriving in Lyon I’ve also been described by others as a BNOC (big name on campus) and 'cool' for using the word ‘fit’ to describe a good looking guy whilst talking to my Irish and Australian friends. Me…cool…I know right?

After all of that excitement I thought I’d bring you crashing back down to earth with a bang: someone I know got mugged in Paris, another of my friends snatched her phone back from a pickpocket on the Lyon metro, and another of my friends had her purse stolen by the same pickpocket (the fiend). Needless to say I’ve been walking home alone in the early hours of every morning and walking around with my bag open and all my valuables out on show. Vive la France!

Left to right: Johanna, Marie-Laure, Katrina, Samuel, Molly, Me, Kathleen, Emanuelle, Daniela

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Bienvenue à Lyon!

As most of you who know me are aware, I study French and Italian at University College London. In third year, we have to spend a year abroad either working or taking part in a university exchange. I opted to go for university exchanges in Lyon, France, and Bologna, Italy. I know a lot of people blog about their year abroad experiences, so please don't feel you have to read these posts, but if you like me enough to want to know what I'm doing, welcome to my year abroad blog! :)

I've been in Lyon for ten days now, and I have to say I'm quite happy to be back in the city I lived in for nearly four months back in 2011. Last time, I was studying at ESL language school and living with a lovely host family in a place called Cuire. This time, I'll be studying at Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, and living in a little studio room in a residence not far from La Guillotière - about half way between my university and the Rhône, one of Lyon's two rivers.

The Rhône
I moved into my room last Monday with the help of my sister, and said goodbye to her at the train station just hours later. From then, it was a case of same old Lyon. It was strange to be back. I was walking down streets I already knew, hearing an accent I was already familiar with and seeing sites I was already well-acquainted with. To be honest, coming on this year abroad was the last thing I wanted to do, but being back in the city I have loved and missed for three years has made it all much more bearable. I know this city, I know it's people and culture and I know how to get various bits and pieces essential for everyday life and where the best places are. Perhaps this year isn't going to be so bad after all...

I've spent the last week at integration/orientation sessions and classes at the university and I've met most of the international students who have also come here on exchange. They are a lovely bunch of people from every corner of the globe: USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Colombia...the list goes on. We've been drinking wine by the Saône (the city's second river), drinking beer in a Danish bar, eating ice cream in Vieux Lyon (the old town), and getting to grips with French bureaucracy together (yes, we do other things besides eat and drink!)

River Saône
That moves me onto the next thing...paper work! I've never been so frustrated in my life. To get my student card I needed to prove I have Civil Liability Insurance, to get that I needed to open an account with a French bank, to do that I needed to get proof of residence...for the past week I have been swimming in a sea of documents and have been sent from pillar to post to find everything. Thankfully, I can now say I have overcome France's attempts at demoralisation and come away with a shiny new student card all pretty with a multi-coloured background...the picture on the other hand is rather awful hence the lack of a photo!!!

I don't want to drag on for ages in my first post, and they won't necessarily be regular either. But for all those who were forgetting who I was already, I just wanted to let you all know I've made it past four days, all bets are off!

I'll leave you with a lovey picture of my university!

Jean Moulin Lyon III - Manufacture des Tabacs campus