A Student’s Arrival in Lyon

Published: 2023/11/13

Study Abroad Experience: 1st Hours in Lyon

You arrive in an adrenaline-fueled haze of excitement and nervousness, accompanied by friends who were strangers a few hours before. Suitcase wheels against cobblestone streets of Place Carnot is not an unusual phenomenon but the sound is magnified by nearly 30 of them.
You endure the orientation and the group dinner, organized by your study abroad program, after nearly 24 hours of travel with flickering eyelids and slumped posture.

Over the next few days, you cripple under the weight of suffocating heat with no air conditioning and no ice. Your step count skyrockets – you spend your days seeing churches, buildings constructed in different centuries, and climbing hills – and each night you fall asleep in minutes, exhausted from the stimulus and stress of each day.
It feels as if you have never slept more soundly, and yet the weariness remains each morning. The first few days feel like a vacation — meals with friends, sightseeing, late nights, and early mornings.

These moments are the ones you have been dreaming of through mountains of paperwork and emails, securing travel logistics, a visa, and financials. You have come to affectionately refer to the hubbub of all of this as the “study abroad experience.”

Touring Lyon’s Iconic Sites

Lyon Fourviere Basilica

© Moorea Thompson

That first Saturday in Lyon you and your group journey up to Fourviere with your program directors as guides, them shouting over the din of noticeable English speakers, herding us like sheep into the funicular and then out into the shadow of Notre Dame de Fourviere.
Here you take in the vast history of this city as you look out, 250 meters above it all. You are in awe of the basilica, the first magnificent church you have seen since arriving in this ancient European city.
Inside, you crane your neck in wonder at the stained glass windows and ornate display before you. The grandiose altar honors Mary while the windows tell more of her story.
The origin story of this monument is as inspiring as Mary is iconic. As someone with a fascination with history, you wish you could remember every detail of the stories you learn.

Wandering down into Vieux Lyon (the old city) with its narrow cobblestone streets and Renaissance-style buildings, wafts of sewage overwhelm you, yet you remain taken with this neighborhood.
It is as if you have been transported back in time, and you marvel at how people still live here today.

Reality Sets In

Street of Lyon, France old town: St Jean district

© Moorea Thompson

The realities of living somewhere versus visiting begin to set in quickly. The to-do list grows long: student taxes to pay, visas to be validated, more papers to sign, and public transportation passes to obtain.
You join the lengthy queue of other people waiting in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun outside the TCL office, praying to inch one step further into the shade.

As you look out onto the street and beyond, a square, Bellecour, is bustling with people.
Bellecour is lined with tall buildings with intricate decorations, beautiful windows, and small metal terraces.
As the line shrinks in front of you, the anxiety returns to the forefront of your mind.

You have been relying on the stronger French speakers during your outings that require more than the basic “Bonjour” and “je voudrais” when ordering at the cozy restaurants that can be found all over the city.

For this, you will be on your own. The equivalent of the bureaucratic DMV nightmare, but in a foreign country. You are stripped of all the advantages you have at home, speaking the language, knowing the process, and understanding cultural context.
Here you must speak with the attendant who is likely worn out from a long day of dealing with ignorant students just like you.
They may or may not speak English, making them merciless in the effort to obtain a necessary item for living here for the semester.

The Challenges and Triumphs of Living Abroad

Lyon, France from Fourviere hill

© Moorea Thompson

As you make your way indoors you and two new friends huddle closely. The line attendant hands out tickets, but first inquires about your reason for being in this stuffy office. Naturally, you don’t comprehend and piggyback off your friend who goes before you. Just when you thought the waiting was nearly over, you waited a while longer, shifting anxiously and still sweating underneath the barely there air conditioning.

Waiting gives you time to think about how best to communicate your needs and eavesdrop on the current people being helped, hoping to absorb any helpful vocabulary. At last, it is your turn.
Some marginal relief washes over you as the desk you head to is not staffed by an employee you have perceived as being more ruthless than the others.

The older woman smiles kindly as you tell her you need a student metro card in French.
She responds in kind, understanding without you having to repeat yourself and asking if you would like to buy for two months right away.
You pass over your passport, she takes your photo, and then you pay. As you tap your card she asks “Parlez-vous francais,” which immediately makes you inwardly preen with one of the best compliments you have ever received. “Oui, un peu” you smile back. You consider this a success, even though the older woman likely saw right through you, hearing your French for what it was.
Her kindness and simple flattery will carry you through the harsh stares given when English is heard in public and the moments simple phrases pass right over you.

The student experience as an English speaker living in Lyon is so much different from that of a traveler.
You must be prepared to endure the frustrations of trying to live normally through the restrictions of everyday interactions you once completed so instinctually in your home country.
Grocery shopping will make you frustrated, and trying to understand the cashier will exhaust you. Nevertheless, you take the small wins. The moments where you can order, ask, or understand without switching to English.

This journey is unique, yet shared by the peers you met in an airport who also embark on this adventure of studying abroad.

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