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,

Getting lost has its benefits.

I’ve decided, with the help of my good friend Mackenzie, that getting lost is an important part of traveling. She has always said, since the first time we travelled together in Marseille, that she loves getting lost because you get to experience the area in a new and unique perspective, and you’ll always find your way eventually. Sure, getting lost makes a trip last a little longer, but that’s not a bad thing when you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery and good friends.
Needless to say, getting lost on our trek to the castle in Lisbon yesterday was an adventure in itself. We strolled along residential alleyways and definitely got a good work out from the many stairs and hills we climbed up and down. And despite getting lost, we made it to the top and saw the beautiful view of Lisbon at dusk. Unfortunately, being the poor and budget-wise students that we are, we were unwilling to pay the 8€ to get into the castle, but it was beautiful to see!


We spent the rest of the day wandering around the different districts of Lisbon, and tasting the various treats that Portugal has to offer. My favourite thing would have to be the “pastal de nata”, pastry tarts filled with a SCRUMPTIOUS custard. I also had a delicious dinner of cod and chips, and braved the unknown seafood that was served along our bread as an appetizer. I think it was octopus of some sort, and while I am happy I tried it, I didn’t exactly dig in for seconds.
We attempted to go out to a few bars and clubs, but seeing as it was a Monday, the nightlife was underwhelming. We managed to make the best of a rainy and dead night though, and met two guys from Brazil who are also on their fall break from studying in Grenoble, France. They were very friendly and spoke Portuguese, which was helpful for getting directions throughout the night! We even met up with them this morning to take the train together to Sintra, Portugal.
Sintra was amazing! I was expecting a city similar to Lisbon, but it was surprisingly quite unique. It had much more of a tropical feel to it, and didn’t have the old-town vibe of Lisbon. We spent most of the morning at Moor Castle, a massive and breathtaking fortress. We walked all along its edge, which was yet another workout of stairs, both up and down. The view of Sintra from the top of the castle was fantastic, and made me feel like I was “The King of the Castle”, hee hee.


We had lunch at a cute little tourist trap of a restaurant, but our server was fantastic. He gave Naomi (he asked who was the youngest of the group) a handmade little pin of a Portugal doll, and ended our meal with a free shot of a cherry liquor made in Portugal. It was delicious! He was quite shocked when we all shot it back like a shooter, because he had tried to warn us to sip it because it was too strong. Gotta love ignorant North Americans. But he laughed it off. 🙂


We finished our day at Sintra by wandering around “Quinta da Regaleira”, a summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family built in the 19th century. It is HUGE!!! There are hidden grottos and waterfalls and tunnels that link the entire property, we felt like we were in Pan’s Labyrinth and/or The Secret Garden. It felt magical :).
Tonight we are having tapas and sangria in our hostel for 6€! I love hostel living 🙂
We fly to Barcelona tomorrow for 5 nights, which should leave us plenty of time to wander and eat our way through the city 🙂 Yum!
I hope everyone is surviving the effects of Sandy wherever you may be. I’m worried about everyone, even if I don’t need to be. That’s the life of an exchange student, living across the world from her loved ones.