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.
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,