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