Canadian loving

This past week has been very busy, slightly emotional, entirely exhausting, but definitely worth it considering the weekend I had in Arras with Logan and the most welcoming group of Canadians I’ve ever met.
On the 10th, Logan and I caught a train to Arras. After nearly missing our connection in Paris, and walking circles around the city a few times, we made it to our cozy hotel, where we had the best sleep either of us had had in a while. As exchange students, we’ve been traveling on a fairly tight budget, and have been sleeping in hostels or on couches for the past two months of traveling. But Arras had neither hostels nor couches for us on Saturday, so Hotwire came to the rescue with a Best Western for only 63€ split between the two of us. Needless to say, a night on a hotel bed was just what we needed to start our amazing weekend in the quaint little city of Arras.
We caught a cab from our hotel at 8:30 on Remembrance Day, and 15 minutes and 30€ later we were at the Vimy Memorial. I had been to see if five years ago, but my experience the second time around was nothing close the first. We were dropped off at the site before it officially opened, and were able to fully take in the empty remnants of battle fields, the signs warning of potentially undetonated mines, the massive ridge Canadians conquered over 95 years ago, and the massive monument commemorating the thousands of Canadians who died for our country. It was a chilly, quiet morning on the ridge, and neither Logan nor I felt the need or desire to talk for fear of breaking the silence and/or letting my emotions get the better of me. It was nice to have those few moments to ourselves to take everything. We also were lucky enough to get blue skies to appreciate and capture the majesty of the monument. As we walked towards the visitor center, the fog rolled in, as if Mother Nature was setting the scene for the 11:00 ceremony.
The ceremony was put on by the 18 Canadian student guides who are hired by the Canadian government for a semester of working at Vimy and Beaumont Hammel. The ceremony was short and sweet, and had everything you’d expect from a Remembrance Day ceremony- men and women in uniform, the last post, “In Flanders Field”, wreath laying, the national anthem, bagpipes, and two minutes of silence for the soldiers who have fought and for those who continue to fight around the world.

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I was already feeling extremely fortunate to be able to be at Vimy Ridge on Remembrance Day, but the day continued to get better as we were welcomed into the lives and homes of our fellow Canadian students. At the visitor center I got talking to a guide from Ottawa, who lives a street down from my best friend in Chapel Hill. After talking a bit longer we realized that we had a mutual friend who had helped us both with our French Visa applications because she has gone on exchange to Lyon last fall – such a small world! Once we had established that connection, she offered to host Logan and I on the couches in the house they all lived in, in Arras, and we of course accepted with much gratitude! After a tour of the trenches and intricate tunnel system that was used to capture the ridge, Logan and I shared a cab back to Arras with two other Canadian backpackers we had met throughout the day. We had a delicious dinner of Moules & Frites at a restaurant in Arras with the guides, their bosses, and the parents of one of the girls.The night continued at an Irish pub, and ended with us crashing on a DIY bed made of couch cushions and spare blankets.
The travel gods were clearly on our side on the weekend, because we were then welcomed into the travel plans of two wonderful east-coasters who were visiting their friend, one of the Vimy guides. Shaun, an RCMP officer who had gotten permission to wear his formal uniform for the ceremony, had rented a car to drive around Europe for a week, and invited us to tag along for a road trip with his buddy Colin on Monday. Traveling with Logan can be a bit overwhelming for me at times because she is so easy going and spontaneous (I just tend to plan ahead whenever possible), but it has always worked out for the best, and this weekend was no exception. We gladly accepted the offer to tag along, and had an amazing day driving through the French and Belgian countryside.
We had lunch and lots of chocolate in Gent, and walked throughout the city for a few hours. Gent has lots of pretty canals, bridges and old churches – one of which has a dragon on top of it that has been overlooking the city since the 12th century! Our next stop of the day was in Knokke-Heist, a fancy and very expensive coastal town that stretches along a beautiful beach, dotted with hundreds of huge condo buildings. We also had the most delicious Belgian waffles from a small shop hidden among the Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores. It was to die for! We then somehow made room for dinner and Belgium beer in Bruges – yet another beautiful town with canals, arched bridges and lots of chocolate shops! By the time we got back to Arras from our adventure, it was 10:30, and long past the last train to Lyon. Luckily the guides were friendly enough (duh, they’re Canadian) to let us crash on their floor for a second night, and we caught the 7:30 train back to Lyon the next morning.
As for the rest of my week:
Tuesday we celebrated Mackenzie’s 22d birthday at her favourite bouchon in Vieux Lyon, and surprised her with a pair of rock climbing shoes she’d had her eyes on for months. Wednesday the school organized a trip to Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine festival with lots of drinking competitions and wine tasting galore. It was a very cool experience to be part of, especially because the locals were so excited to have so many international students at their farms and in their small little town. We didn’t get home until 3:30 Thursday morning though because the real festivities don’t start until midnight- when they open the 2012 batch and give a sample to everyone! Thursday I was really feeling the effects of a busy week, and spent the majority of my day on campus – 6 hours of class and 3 hours in the library. By the end of the day I was ready to crawl into my bed and was seriously considering canceling my weekend travel plans because I was feeling so tired and overwhelmed from the week’s events. But I’ve come to learn that good friends are the glue that holds you together, especially while in a different country in new environments, and especially when they are facing the same issues as you every day. Logan saved the day with a phone call saying just what I needed to hear. Shaun had come into Lyon for the night from Arras on his way to Switzerland and Germany, so I had dinner and wine with him, Logan and a couple other girls. Shaun, being the kind Canadian that he is, offered to drive us to Chamonix so that he could see the Alps on his way to Germany, which we once again accepted graciously. So here I am now, sitting in our Chalet/Hostel enjoying some free chicken wings and some down time with Logan while we wait for the three other girls to get in from Grenoble later tonight. Tomorrow promises beautiful views of the alps, hiking in the clean mountain air, and then an evening train to Annecy where we’ll stay until Sunday.
I think that should catch everyone up with what I’ve been up to lately in France. Hoping everyone is doing well wherever they are while reading this,
Xox, B.

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Learning from experience what books could never teach me

It’s been a busy week for me, which seems to be the norm since I’ve been on exchange. I got back from Barcelona on Monday, and was literally in my apartment for 15 minutes before changing into my least-fashionable-but-most-comfortable outfit to meet a group partner on campus to finish up a presentation for Tuesday’s 8:00 am class. It’s already Thursday and I never seem to understand where the week disappears to, but here I am with yet another week of classes under my belt, and only four more to go. Tuesday’s French presentation went OK, and the day ended on a good note with an evening of wine, food and trip-planning galore! Next weekend, I will be going to Grenoble, Chamonix and Annecy with three other girls for a weekend of hiking, snow and maybe a bit more wine and food. I swear I’m not a drunkard, the wine here is just so good, and always cheaper than any other beverage on the menu- c’est la vie!
Wednesday’s six-hours-straight of class was fairly uneventful, other than handing in my only paper of the semester for my European Union Law class! I’m not sure what to expect with the paper, because as much as I enjoy writing, I’m not used to writing about the European Union and its legal system, so it’ll be interesting to see how I do. Today I had my favourite class, Comparative Literature, the only class I seem to be gaining anything from, which makes Thursday mornings enjoyable, but puts into perspective how futile it is to be in school here.
I came into this experience with an open mind, prepared to work hard on my studies when necessary, but also hoping to be able to see as much of Europe as my wallet and my organizational skills would allow. There is now a wide consensus among the SELF kids that as hard as we try, the classes here are not enlightening us in the same way as classes do back home. I think it is likely  because we are put into classes designated for exchange students instead of being integrated into the classes of full-time UJM students, and we are therefore treated differently (more leniently) than other UJM students.  While our brains may be missing out on a semester of an academic learning environment, I know that I have already learned so much about myself and the world around me from the places I have seen and the experiences I have had. I think that is what people expect to gain from going on exchange, but it has taken some getting used to. I definitely still make an effort in school, and I am doing well as far as I am concerned, but it is a refreshing feeling to be able to focus on my experience here as opposed to being stressed and hung up on schoolwork.
This past week was definitely a learning experience in itself. I went to Lisbon and Barcelona for eight days with eight girls and it was…something. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Lisbon and Barcelona, and love the girls that I was travelling with, but after eight days of eight girls living together, I was craving the serenity of my little apartment in Lyon. I learned that I am a much less patient person that I used to think I was, which is difficult when travelling with such a large group. I often felt guilty for getting frustrated when having to wait for the whole group to catch up, but I was just so keen to see what each city had to offer. I also learned that the more the merrier is not always applicable when it comes to travelling. In the end, I got to see plenty of each city, and loved what I saw. Not only did I get to experience new places, but I also got to know the girls a lot better, learning both the good and bad that comes with every person, and still loving them dearly despite being with them 24/7 – that must say something good about them!
Despite the high estrogen levels and cramped bathroom shenanigans, my week off was amazing. From what I saw of each country, I think I preferred Portugal over Spain, but I know there is still so much to see in each country. Lisbon, as you know if you read my last post, was beautiful and we kept very busy with sights and good food.
But we said our goodbyes to the welcoming people of Portugal on Halloween morning, and caught our flight to Barcelona without any problems. We were welcomed with sun and about 15-18 degree weather – better than the zero degree weather we’d had in Lyon! Wednesday we had a low-key meal at a restaurant called Tarantino, which was decked out in movie posters and other Tarantino paraphernalia. We stayed in a six-person apartment (with 8 girls…) in the Gothic quarter, which was the perfect location. Staying in an apartment was nice because it felt like we were really experiencing the city from more of a local’s perspective. And we managed to survive without wifi, making the occasional trek to a nearby Starbucks for a quick dose of Internet access.
We did two free walking tours, one on Friday and another on Saturday, which were super informative. Friday’s tour was about Gaudi, the very talented and quirky architect whose work is found all throughout Barcelona. His quirky style appeals to me, and a lot of his work reminded me of my mom, who is attracted to the quirkier things in life. The second tour took us through Barcelona’s Old Town. We saw a lot of the city within those 2.5 hours, and I learned a lot about the city’s history, which was right up my alley. Before visiting Barcelona I had no idea that it is Catalonian, as opposed to Spanish, so I definitely learned a lot about its culture and history throughout the week. (See, learning without books is possible!).
Barcelona was full of lots of adventures, which were unfortunate and miserable at the time, but have already made for some good stories now that we are back in Lyon. On our first night out in Barcelona, one of the girls stepped on a piece of glass at the club, and had to go to the hospital the next day because she thought she might need stitches. It was a pretty deep cut, but luckily 300€ and a pair of crutches later, she was let out of the hospital with a cleaned and bandaged foot. It put a damper on the rest of her trip, which was unfortunate, but we did our best to make it as enjoyable as possible for her.
There was also a spout of food poisoning near the end of the week, which was no fun for everyone involved. But my theory is that no vacation goes off without a hitch, and we were lucky to not have been pickpocketed or have anything worse happen to us. We’ll all be laughing it off in no time (I hope!).
The rest of my time in Barcelona consisted of delicious meals, a walk along the beach, and lots of shopping! It was a good week off from classes, and I still have so many places to look forward to seeing. This weekend I am going to the Vimy Ridge Memorial near Arras, France with a fellow Canadian, Logan, for Remembrance Day. I’m looking forward to seeing the memorial again, and am glad that I’ll be able to be there for November 11th. Our soldiers deserve to be remembered, and what better place to do it than where they fell over 95 years ago.
Love and miss you all,
Xox,
B

I fell in love with Ireland and didn’t want to let it go

At the Cliffs of Moher!

I know I’m overdue for a blog post, but time seems to be slipping away during my time on exchange, and I don’t know where the past two months have gone (I have officially been outside of Canada for two months as of today) or how I already only have 56 more days here. I have been keeping busy with travelling and school assignments lately, which has definitely made the time go by more quickly, which leaves me wanting to spend the little spare time I have with the amazing friends I have made here. I only have one more day of classes (today) before I on my fall semester break for a week of no classes, and lots of good food, friends and drinks on the beaches of Portugal and Spain. But before I get into that, I’ll try to quickly fill you all in on my life for the past few weeks.

I have been pretty busy with school for the past few weeks, which means that the few days where I am in Lyon, and not travelling elsewhere, I have either been in my apartment/the school library/cafes meeting with partners to work on school projects and assignments. I am now happy to say that I got my Contemporary Indian Society midterm and presentation over with yesterday morning, and I have completed and passed three french tests in the past three weeks. I have one assignment and a presentation the week I get back from holidays, but I am done the presentation already and I am not worried about the other assignment – planning on starting and finishing it tomorrow. It’s been a strange feeling having to actually be productive on homework in the past few weeks because the French Uni system is very different than back home, where I already would have written several midterms and essays and would likely be preparing to write another batch in a few weeks time. Here in Lyon we basically have one assignment and one final for each class, and I am already done the majority of them. I love the life of an exchange student! But no aspect of being an exchange students compares to the ability to travel to places I’ve only ever dreamed of visiting, and having them fill every expectation and more.

Standing at the edge!

I went to Dublin this past weekend, from Friday-Monday, and it was arguably one of the best weekends of my life, and definitely the most amazing places in the world that I have ever visited. I must point out that I don’t know how it rates in comparison to my cottage or Ottawa, but those aren’t places I visit, they are where I live and where my heart is, and most importantly where I call home.

I left Friday afternoon, and had to fly solo because Preeti (a friend I met in classes and who also happens to be from Canada) couldn’t get a flight out until later in the evening. On my way to the airport, I found myself thinking about the way I present myself while travelling, and how I inadvertently feel self-conscious about who I am and who I’m trying to be.

There is a fine line between struggling to feel like you belong in a new city, and the desire to still represent and advocate the place that you come from. I noticed this on my way to the Lyon airport from my little apartment in a very residential district of the city. I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb with my big Canadian flag sewn on my bag, and I felt the desire to inform everyone around me that, while I am undoubtedly a proud Canadian, I am also a resident of Lyon, and will continue to be for the next two months.
Once off the public transport, I ran into a fellow Lyon III student who approached me not because he recognized me as a classmate, but because, as a fellow Canadian, he wanted to tell me how much he liked the flag badge proudly displayed on my bag. So then I felt guilty for being ashamed of my flag back near my apartment, because I love being Canadian, as I have recently mentioned, I realize how much I take for granted while living in Canada that I now miss. It’s also nice to be Canadian because not only do people around the world seem to appreciate meeting Canadians, but fellow Canadians love being Canadian too. All this to say, I’ve realized that it’s nice to identify myself as a Canadian among a sea of Europeans, but also to be able to identify with the few other Canadians that I meet along the way.

By the time I had finished this internal debate with myself, I was off the Rhonexpress and waiting for my flight to Dublin! I was taken aback when I first stepped onto the plane and was met with a very friendly and accent-ridden stewardess, who greeted not only with a smile, but in english! It had been so long since I had heard spoken by someone in the service industry, that I instantly felt like I was back at home, and knew it was a good sign for the rest of my trip.

I found my hostel easily enough, and was content beyond belief to be surrounded by Irish people, who were not only ten times more friendly than the people I have become accustomed to meeting along my travels in France, but who had the most beautiful accents that my heart would just melt the instant anyone opened their mouth. I think it’s the Irish in me, but I was in heaven this weekend. I choose to identify with whatever percentage of Irish culture I have in my family because I am drawn to everything it is about, from its history and its stories to its food, music and art. I’ve said it already, and I’ll say it again: I fell in love with Ireland, and I am counting down the days until I can visit it again.

Saturday Preeti and I borded a bus tour to the Cliffs of Moher, which lasted from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, but I swear I could’ve stayed for longer if only it meant I could see more of Ireland. We drove along the beautiful countryside and stopped every hour or so to see the architecture, quaint villages and natural beauty Ireland has to offer. The cliffs themselves were beyond anything I had ever imagined. I felt so small and insignificant in comparison to their size and majesty, which is always a humbling feeling. I took over 300 pictures this weekend, and a large majority are of the cliffs. Of course none of them can really capture the essence of the cliffs, but hopefully they will provide me with a good enough picture to fuel my memory. I took a few pictures standing as close to the edge as I could, which I know will freak my mother out, but you know what they say: live life on the edge! 😉

Cliffs of Moher

After our tour, Preeti and I headed to a pub for some delicious pub grub, which we of course washed down with a pint. We spent the rest of our evening in the “Temple Bar” area, moving between the various bars and pubs, meeting beyond friendly (in a good way, not a creepy way) people from all over Europe. We also had the great fortune of being shown how to party the Irish way because we met Leah, a very happy and gregarious girl from Limerick who was staying in our hostel room for the night. She asked what we were doing for the night, so I suggest she join us since we had no specific plans. It was a perfect evening of live music, impromptu air bands, arm wrestling, cider chugging and many many laughs. I didn’t want the evening to end. But Sunday showed us there was still lots to see and love about Ireland.

Sunday we toured around Dublin. My favourite part of the day was seeing Trinity College, which made me fall in love with Ireland all over again. The campus is beautiful, and I instantly had the desire to study there and be immersed in Irish life for semesters at the time. Upon hearing this, my mother said “Omg, my world traveller will never stay home”- but I swear once the travel bug bites, there’s no letting it go.
We had lunch (and a pint) at Ireland’s oldest pub, “The Brazen Head”. I decided to eat like the Irish, and left the pub feeling uncomfortably full after a fish cake starter and Guinness stew which came served in a giant yorkshire, complete with mashed potatoes and dense soda bread. But believe me, it was worth the tummy ache – so delicious! We traipsed along Grafton street, enjoying the window shopping and talented street performers, not to mention a leprechaun sighting or two! After our routy evening Saturday night, we spent Sunday at a pub near our hostel, and were in bed by 11:00 at the latest.

We said a sad farewell on Monday morning, and had to face reality once we had safely landed back in Lyon. I had a french test tuesday and my Indian Society presentation and midterm wednesday, all of which went well and are finally over and done with! Now I have a week of no classes to look forward to, and am looking forward to starting a new set of adventures Sunday night when I fly off to Lisbon, Portugal with five amazing girls. It should be amazing!

Miss and love you all,

xox, B.