Lyon used to be just a dot on the map for me. Situated in the east of France and tantalizingly close to Switzerland, this city was my obsession over the summer and fall of 2017. I don’t know how many times I zoomed in on its name in Google Maps and watched rivers and streets appear as I got closer and closer. Eventually, I lost track of what I was zooming in on. This little dot 3,734 miles from my hometown in Connecticut started to become overwhelming. On my computer screen it looked like a labyrinth.
Once physically there, I found out just how hard it was to navigate.
I studied in Lyon for four months last spring through the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) at L’Université Lumière Lyon II. Looming over all the memories of the ancient Roman theaters at Fourvière, the crêpes in Vieux Lyon or the ski trip to La Clusaz in the Alps are the hardships I encountered. Now that I am back in Iowa for my senior year, I’ve had to decide how to judge my experience, for good or bad.
The first thing that comes to mind is the bad.
I had many embarrassing and difficult experiences. Though for the 13 hour flight in total, first to Montreal, then to France—had gone fine, (the airline wouldn’t let me get on the wrong plane, after all) actually living in France was a completely different experience.
On that first day, I introduced myself to so many people I wasn’t sure I could remember any of their names. I found myself late that night sitting in my new dorm room with a new set of keys. I learned that living in a new country means gaining a new identity.
Suddenly, I wasn’t Lee anymore, but a fumbling foreigner who mispronounced basic words and got flustered at the self-checkout line at the grocery store.
After attempting to hit a random button one time the whole kiosk started flashing and three different workers came up to me and started asking questions in French I couldn’t quite keep up with. My phone didn’t even work. The French I encountered on the street was very different from the one I learned in class, complete with its own slang and unsaid rules and cues which I knew nothing about.
I also struggled with illness from running out of my medication that I had brought from the U.S. One particular low point was when I had to ride the subway across town to get to my doctor appointment while in danger of fainting from withdrawal the whole time. I also dealt with social anxiety and homesickness.
In short, I didn’t realize that there are infinite ways to study abroad, and just because I was not always surrounded by a new set of international best friends, didn’t mean I had done it wrong. And I did find a group of friends that I would go to restaurants with, despite my anxiety.
I pushed myself.
But, I did not give myself credit for all the ways I had grown as a person. I learned so much more about myself than I ever could have in my comfort zone. Going on an international student outing for a hike in the Bourgone region even though I didn’t know anyone else going, made me proud of myself. I challenged myself to make a friend to walk around with, and met a girl from South Korea. We hiked the endless hills covered with grape vines and found an antique store filled with old pianos.
This made me a lot more confident when I went back to Lyon. I grew more comfortable each time I went out and memorized the metro to get to all ends of the city. Walking along the river Rhône, I listened to Jacques Brel and watched the sunset countless times until I could picture it in my sleep. I spent hours at the Parc de la Tête d’or with the deer, emu and giraffes at the free zoo.
I learned that it was okay to be quiet, but that I could also be extroverted with a little practice.
Now, when I think back on my time living in Lyon, a very specific memory floats up. One morning, when I was ambling by the river across from campus, I noticed a huge gathering of swans for the first time. Anyone who knows me knows that I love birds, and so I promptly sat down on the bank and began feeding them bits of my pain au chocolat. It was in that moment, as the swans were nipping at the pigeons who were swooping down to steal their crumbs, that I felt the most grateful for being in France. In Iowa or Connecticut, I never would have been able to do this.
The swans were glowing white on the turquoise water in the sun. I lived in a city first settled by the Romans a year after the assassination of Julius Cesar. I was just a metro ride away from the amphitheaters that countless people in ancient times had crowded on for an evening out to see Medea. I added to the city’s story, and it feels incredible to know that those few months I spent in Lyon will always be a part of its complex narrative.
And, maybe, just perhaps, the swans there still think of me when a nice stranger throws them a piece of bread.