Arriving in France


I’ve been living in Lyon for a little over two months. Where did all the time go? I’ve only just started to reflect on everything that has happened since I arrived. I’ve been through the star-struck arrival, the honeymoon period, the culture shock… and now I think I’m finally settled in. I can walk down the street without feeling out of place, I can argue with bank managers in French about their ridiculous administration, and people can no longer tell I’m a foreigner just by sight (I think I’ve finally wiped that ‘awed-tourist-look’ off my face and replaced it with a ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ expression).

But let me tell you, it’s been a journey to get to this point…

The Star-Struck Arrival

I arrived in Lyon on the 17th of August. My first hour in France was terrifying; as soon as I left the station in Paris I was approached by a woman with the scariest blue eyes I have ever seen (they must have been contacts – I can still remember them vividly and they give me the shivers), who asked if I could speak English. Now, any seasoned traveller would have ignored her, but of course I answered yes. She then handed me a note asking for money to help her brother get out of hospital.

For a few fleeting seconds I was genuinely concerned, but then I remembered all the stories I’d heard about beggars in Paris, and marched firmly in the opposite direction without looking back. It made me feel sick – I felt so heartless just leaving someone behind on the street, even though she was most likely a con. Besides, what could I do? A young, naïve traveller, new to the country – I didn’t want to put myself in a vulnerable position. And there was something about her that made me incredibly uneasy.

After that incident I was feeling pretty vulnerable, not to mention stressed. I had 55 minutes to get across the other side of Paris to catch my connecting train to Lyon. I considered mastering the metro, but being female, alone and with a bag nearly bigger than me, I went for the ‘safe’ option – taxi. I’d been in the cab for 5 minutes when we nearly got rolled by a lorry when my driver didn’t look before changing lanes. By then I had definitely broken into a sweat!

I was relieved to finally arrive at the train station, but here I had another challenge waiting for me. I got out of the taxi to find that my bag had been placed on a trolley by a man wearing a suit. “Where do you want to go?” he asked, already walking briskly with the trolley (with MY bag!) before I even had the chance to think about what was going on. I think I went into auto-pilot mode because I just dumbly responded “Lyon”.

He then started walking quickly through the packed train station – so quickly that I had to jog slightly to keep up – and that was when I started thinking shit, this guy is going to steal my bag! But I didn’t know what to do – cause a massive scene and grab it off the trolley? Yell and call for help? But at the same time, he was wearing a suit, he had got my bag out of the taxi – maybe this was normal in France? Above all I was embarrassed – I noticed people looking at me like, ‘shame’, you fell for it. Obviously I managed to pick a taxi driver that had some connection with the dodgy opportunists of Paris train stations.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, he did drop me at my gate, but of course I had to tip him. I had 40 cents and 10 euro note. I tried giving him the 40 cents but he wouldn’t budge. So he walked away with 10 euro. It still makes me angry today just to think about it! I felt so silly for falling for that within my first hour in France! But at the same time, they do know how to play you… I mean my bag was out of the taxi and on his trolley before I even opened my door.

I managed to collect my composure on the train to Lyon, which takes approximately two hours. I arrived without much more drama. My second taxi driver knocked a guy off his motorbike, but it wasn’t serious so we just kept driving… what an introduction to driving in France! I vowed to take public transport.

Never in my life had I been happier to see a Youth Hostel! L’Auberge de Jeunesse de Vieux Lyon felt like a home during my first ten days in the city. Which makes sense because at that point I had nowhere to live. The hostel overlooked all of Lyon and I remember sitting out there, eating breakfast each morning and wondering which apartment building would become mine. I can’t quite explain how strange it is to turn up in a new city with nowhere to go. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it – I knew I had to find a flat, so I set about doing so.

In fact, I was annoying optimistic about it. There was a big group of us at the hostel doing the same thing – all exchange students, madly hunting for the perfect French apartment. And of course we all wanted perfection; cobblestoned streets, a bakery on the corner, a beautiful old apartment, and a lovely French flatmate. You’d think this wouldn’t be too hard… but man, I met some freaks and saw some crazy living situations. We’d all wish each other luck before we went out flat hunting. “Hope they aren’t freaks!” was our favourite line.

For example there was the guy that was renting out his room and sleeping in the lounge. He was of the vain, buff and bronzed variety. We walked in and he was playing racy music videos, his weights were stacked in the corner, and there was a line of empty vodka bottles displayed like trophies across the table. The whole apartment smelled like it was doused in cologne. I could just imagine waking up every morning to find him flexing his muscles in front of the mirror.

Then there was the 30 year old woman who was also renting out her room and sleeping in the lounge. The apartment was dark, dingy and she was your stereotypical intimidating beautiful French woman. I was very happy to get out of there!

There was also the three young party-animal guys setting up a pad – my room would have been on the mezzanine, without a door, or perhaps even a curtain. At this point I was so desperate I think I would have taken it if they’d offered it to me. Thank god they didn’t! The last apartment I saw was living with two gay guys, although they weren’t a couple – one was 50, the other 30. The apartment was nice, the location perfect, and I get along with most people; but two older men? I cracked up when I imagined Skyping my family and saying hey mum, meet my new flatties!

The apartment I ended up taking was the first one I saw. It didn’t make a huge impression on me on my first visit – I still had fantasies of living in cobblestoned streets, with a large group of people and right in the city centre. But as time went on, and after visiting at least ten apartments, very few of which even offered me my own room, it began to look like paradise. And now I am here and despite the lack of cobblestones, it’s perfect! I live with two other French girls who are both lovely, yet they are often away so I also have independence. I’m close to university and to the city centre. And the bathroom is spacious!

So that sums up my arrival in Lyon… ten days of mad flat hunting (which I can only describe as being a mixture of a job interview and a blind date), with many tears and laughs in between… it was very unsettling but at the same time empowering - getting my own set of keys and unpacking my suitcase into my new room was a very, very humbling moment!

The Honeymoon Period

Ah, the first month of my relationship with France was bliss. I fell completely in love with every single aspect of it. It was warm, the sun was always shining, I was making new friends every day and I got such a thrill from little things; like buying cheese and baguettes, talking French at the supermarket and being able to ride a bike without a helmet!

I also revelled in being independent. I had a lot of independence back home, but here I am totally self-sufficient. And considering that it’s the first time I’ve lived away from home, it’s very exciting! There is something so empowering about realising that you can look after yourself.

So I was on a high about having my own cute little apartment, about coming home and cooking in my cute little kitchen… everything was glorious and French and beautiful. I was also meeting lots of new people every day at uni… going out all the time, living the dream, to put it simply. But at the same time it didn’t feel like reality. I was just walking around feeling in love with everything all at once, in this haze of positivity… September was easily one of the best months of my life. Never before had I felt so sure of myself, so happy, so completely centred… everything just seemed to make perfect sense. One of those brilliant moments in time when it feels like the universe is balancing perfectly for you.

Anyone who spoke to me then could feel my buzz and excitement. France! Cheap wine and cheese were among my favourite things… that and the thirty degree days. This place simply shines in summer. Everyone was happy. I went around telling everyone that I was going to live here forever… and I honestly felt like I could. But then the reality of living in a different country many, many, many miles away from home set in…

Culture Shock

For me, culture shock was a gradual process. When I arrived at France I kept being struck by how ‘normal’ it seemed – I felt so at home here (I still do, but at the same time I can see clearly now that it isn’t my home…).

I guess for some reason I always thought that culture shock would be sudden – the name implies that much – shocks tend to be sudden and intense. But for me, it was more facing up to the reality of living in France once the honeymoon period was over. France is associated with so many romantic, glorified stereotypes – the land of romance, freedom, passion… wine and cheese! But there is so much more to this country than its tourist attractions.

I can imagine if I was here on a whirlwind tour, simply going from winery to winery, that it would be different. But I am living here, and that changes everything. France is a country in Europe, it’s not just a hub of art and culture; and Europe at the moment is going through a really hard time economically. We hear talk of this recession in New Zealand, and some of us have been hit by it, but here it is evident on everyone’s faces. My mum recently asked my why the young people cared about the retirement reforms that are being pushed through at the moment. It’s because unemployment here is huge – and even young people worry about it. The way they see it is, if someone retires at 60, it opens up new jobs for them. From a very young age, people are aware of the competition and the difficulty of getting a job.

This seemed so strange to me – I have never ever before worried about getting a job. I have always just been confident that something will fall into place. And I think a lot of Kiwi’s have this mindset – we are very cruisy, open, optimistic people. We are taught in schools to do the things we love, to follow careers that interest us, to make our own choices.

Here there is none of that. My flatmate wanted to be a journalist, but knowing there were no jobs in that industry she changed her degree to web design, not because she is passionate about this but because she knew there was a better chance of getting a job. This country may see itself as the country of freedom – but the difficult economic climate is taking some of that freedom away. You can’t just be whatever you want to be – not if you want to get a job.

Anyway, this is just one example of how I transitioned from my honeymoon period to facing the reality of living in a country that is struggling. The daily differences that I come across between the French mindset and the New Zealand mindset continue to amaze me. Now I am in a period of not blind, devoted love to France – but of learning.

Every day I learn something new about this country and the way the people live. I am glued to the news. This caused me to be a little homesick for a while – only because I realised how lucky we have it in New Zealand. You don’t realise how amazing you’ve got it when home is the only place you know. But leaving it puts things in perspective – which is why, although it has been hard to adjust – it makes me grateful that I am going through this learning process and this amazing period of self-growth, because without it I would never be able to truly appreciate all the little things that I am learning to love.

On that note, I think it’s time to finally finish this first chapter… I’m not sure if anyone had the patience or the interest to read through until the end, but it has been good to me to get some of these ideas down on paper. This is another reason why I have started this blog – I’m hoping it will motivate me to jot down the new things I notice everyday. Whether anyone follows it or not, I know if I don’t take the time to write down these thoughts then they will be forgotten and swept up amongst all the other new experiences that are occurring every day. Because one things for sure – life in France is never, ever boring!