Two Months, plus Side-Effects

Wow. I started writing this a month ago to celebrate my first month of being here. It’s now almost two months, and I feel like I can finally be bothered to start writing again. Sorry for the long silence!

So, happy first two months in France, me! They’ve been quite eventful . Since the WEI, which was the subject of my last post, I’ve got up to quite a lot! I got my ear pierced. I auditioned for and got into a choir in the city centre. I went to a Pirate Metal concert and got so drenched in sweat that my clothes were sodden and my fingers turned into prunes. I’ve started learning Arabic and re-taken up (and subsequently dropped) German, and am doing Latin again. It’s great to get the opportunity to actually learn languages once more – after all, it was this that persuaded me to study languages in higher education, with literature and essays and being anal very much of secondary importance. On top of that, I’ve started visiting the surrounding area: I’ve ticked off Avignon, where I bought a turban, and also Nîmes, where I got to have a lovely catch-up with some of my friends from university. That isn’t to say that I’m fed up of Lyon, however, but rather that I’ve now identified some of my favourite places. These include the prostitute-infested streets surrounding the ENS (known locally as la rue des putes, particularly special when lit up at night), Starbucks, and the bottom of the Rhône. Just kidding. I actually quite like the Parc de la Tête d’Or, but that doesn’t sound as cool and I think I’m funny. Here are some photos to look at.

Alestorm: Pirate Metal at its weirdest
Alestorm: Pirate Metal at its weirdestIMG_0530
Palais des Papes, Avignon
Palais des Papes, Avignon

The fun times have been occasionally been followed by bad times, however. Just for your amusement, I thought I’d compile a by no means extensive list of some of my recent (and ongoing) misadventures:

Shit things: 

  • Last month, I had money but my card wouldn’t let me pay for anything.
  • This month, my card lets me pay for things but I have no money. Hurry up, Erasmus Grant!
  • A few weeks ago, Lyon’s vélo’vs (the city’s equivalent of the Boris Bike) robbed me temporarily of 450€.
  • I stayed up until 6am on Monday (Tuesday?) writing the fourth chapter of a depressing story about a sad Japanese girl.
  • The ENS International Office is invariably shut, despite having opening hours it *should* be keeping to.
  • The online form for applying for an accommodation grant from the French government (la CAF) crashes whenever I try to fill it in.
  • I still have no fixed idea for my Year Abroad Project.

All in all, I’m a rubbish adult, and I don’t even have money to buy myself a McDonalds to make me feel better about it. I probably don’t even need to mention the fact that I’m worried that I’m not making the most of my Year Abroad, either. As much is perhaps evident from the fact that I’m here in my room writing blog posts, rather than bah-ouais-ing my soir away with a gang of trendy potes. For those not down with the lingo, that translates as “having that fabled time-of-your-life that all languages students are supposed to have, magically becoming fluent in a heartbeat and basically fitting into the same niche you occupied whilst in the UK, or else, finding yourself and realising that your true calling is to be a brooding intellectual who renounces the Anglo-Saxon world and stalks chic coffee establishments”. Don’t worry, I’m doing that tomorrow night.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to think that I might not be enjoying myself that much. I think that sometimes as well, but then I decide that I don’t want to end up unable to get out of bed and missing classes like I did in one term of last year, so I do things to brighten the horizon. Sometimes it’s learning Dutch on Duolingo. Once it was buying flights back home for the weekend (heads-up, I’ll be in the UK from 20th-24th November, for those who are interested). Just something to escape the fact that classes are boring, the ENS is in an area that I’d affectionately describe as the arsehole of Lyon, etc. In a similar vein, I booked a first-class train to Paris for a few days next week. First class was only 4€ more expensive than the normal rate at the time, and I’ve never experienced it before, so I though it would be fun to combine two (hopefully) classy experiences and treat myself.

The excitement I’m feeling for Paris, however, cannot help but be slightly tainted by a previous experience I’ve had with the French rail network. It was the first time I’d travelled alone on a French train, and actually happened quite a while ago, now, but I’m going to write my next post about it. I enjoy recalling it to myself and others to serve as a reminder that things could always be worse.

Nous sommes de l’ENS: Le WEI

I was going to try and write this yesterday, but I got up hideously late and then had stuff to do. That wasn’t very interesting, but I feel like a little bit of backstory is necessary for an introduction, and I’m not feeling particularly imaginative today. I guess there could have been a natural disaster earlier on in the day that would have made it more intriguing, but even if there had been, I probably wouldn’t have noticed due to being asleep and slightly ill after the weekend I’ve just had.

One thing that makes the ENS de Lyon great is that although its freshers’ fortnight does feel a bit dragged-out, it is certainly concluded with style. Le Week-end d’Intégration, or WEI, is a Friday-to-Sunday weirdfest of sports, booze, nudity, sleep deprivation, poor hygiene and nudity. I think I saw more willies and bottoms last weekend than I’ve seen in the rest of my life, and it’s not even as if I had to actively look for them. They were just everywhere, at every opportunity, as if they felt they were adding something to whatever scene your eyes happened to be looking at. It was like having the sun burn a phallus on to your retina, except that it was nothing like that. I’m exaggerating. There was a lot of nudity, but there was a lot of other stuff as well.

Nudity aside, I think the purpose of the WEI is multifaceted: to make lots of new friends, make better friends with the people you’ve met already, and generally create a sense of community among the members of the ENS, which is important considering that the whole institution is made up of just over 2,000 students (in comparison with over ten times that number at my home university); I imagine that such a small student body could feel quite claustrophobic if nobody talked to each other, or if things became too cliquey. To achieve this, the BDE (bureau des élèves = ENS student union) ships at least five busloads of students off to an unknown location in France to have fun and get to know each other. It’s not as if it’s just the freshers that participate, either. People from across all the years join in, and it seemed to me that at some points during the weekend, it was the older students who were more keen for the whole thing. I suppose they had the advantage of having gone on previous WEIs, so were better prepared for what lay in wait.

There’s that cheesy proverb that annoying people occasionally like to wheel out that goes something like, “It’s not the destination that’s important, but the journey.” I never used to listen to them, because of course, I always know better than everyone else, but the bus journey to the WEI brought a whole new meaning to the saying for me. Each bus has a theme, be it music, electro-pop, the Association Sportive, or the notorious bus de merde (roughly translated as ‘the shit bus’ – seemingly for all the weird burnout older students who spent the whole weekend off their face on awful boxed wine, naked or wearing weird combinations of gimpsuits, tights, morphsuits etc). I had originally been really keen to go on the music bus, but I arrived too late to the sign-up session, and so instead opted for the bus pom-pom. This was the cheerleading bus, apparently the ‘second-coolest’, and I knew a couple of people who were going on it, so I followed suit, thinking it could be fun. Looking back, I’m not sure whether to say it was fun, or just to say that it set the tone for the rest of the weekend, or maybe a bit of both. There were crude songs about vicars, buggering someone’s sister on the table, and even a corruption of the Marseillaise, transformed to be about how the students of the ENS are the best, most sexually active and most drunk. Then there were fun games. One of my favourites involved a competition where both sides of the bus competed to take as many clothes off as possible and throw them to the front. Our side won. There were lots of naked people. Another good game was the cul-fenêtre, where you had to pull down your pants and moon at any of the other WEI buses as they passed on the motorway. Some people didn’t stop there, but went instead for full-frontal nudity along the back window. I think that was called a Garfield, but I’m not sure if that’s just what I heard, and it’s actually spelt differently. Also of vital importance was letting the rest of the bus know whether you were chopable or not. If you were, it meant you were game for a bit of whatever over the course of the weekend. Most people were chopable! Who knew? I guess that after two years of intense classes préparatoires you might be quite up for a bit of whatever, with whoever.

I spent the majority of the bus journey being an English prude and secretly hoping that if I sang the songs in the paillardier loudly enough, they wouldn’t ask me to come to the front of the bus and tell people whether I preferred boys or girls, whether I had any interesting sexual anecdotes, and if I wanted a shag that weekend. I got my wish, but instead of being relieved, I was quite disappointed: at least more people would have known my name then, and I could have been Ed, the Awkward Brit, rather than just The Awkward Brit. Anyway, after about two hours, we finally arrived at the campsite where we would be spending the WEI, and once being mooned at by the guys from the Association Sportive bus was out of the way, it became clear that we were in for a treat. We’d arrived in the Ardèche region, at a campsite that had its own water park (supposedly the biggest one to be found on any French campsite), which had been booked out exclusively for us. Needless to say, everyone headed straight for the pool, and unsurprisingly, there were yet again several naked people.

Fun times were swiftly followed by fun times, as one would expect, with drinks, jazz and the presence of the piquette society (who specialise in serving crap wine), and then one of the ENS’s by-now notorious soirées, this time in a marquee in a car park. I don’t really remember much, except being sweaty, suddenly becoming a really great (or maybe just enthusiastic) dancer, and then reaching that overly emotional and tearful stage of drunkenness because I was the only person who didn’t seem to be snogging someone on the dance floor. Drunk me felt so unwanted. Maybe I just really give off a pas chopable vibe.

I went to bed, and was woken up again too soon by the ENS Fanfare marching round the campsite at some ungodly hour, playing Brooklyn by Young Blood Brass Band. I think I would have found it hilarious, if the night before hadn’t happened. I felt like crying, and just wanted to stay in bed and die, but had to make do with internal, spiritual death and went to find breakfast. Some people were still drinking; I was almost sick as I drank cold coffee and forced down pieces of baguette smothered in fake Nutella. The rest of the morning consisted of team activities, including wrestling, dodgeball, and spinning round in circles, none of which were my top priority at that point, given that a day-long hangover was looking like it was on the cards. There was also a great water-slide-thing that left someone with a gash along their side because the soapy tarpaulin that people were sliding along had sharp stones underneath. Such fun! I remember finding the poor person’s misfortune quite funny at the time, but it might have just been because I’d found the one person on the WEI who was slightly more worse-for-wear than me that morning. I chose to go canoeing along the Ardèche River in the afternoon. The views were stunning, and the cool breeze coming off the river and the excitement of going down the rapids were an excellent hangover cure. Sadly, I was unable to take any photos, because I risked drowning my phone. I really hope I can go back there over the course of this year, though; I’ve never felt so much like Aragorn paddling the Hobbits down the River Anduin.

Saturday evening was much like Friday: drinks, music, then another soirée. I managed to not embarrass myself in floods of tears this time, but got really randomly angry at the end and again had to go to bed prematurely. I don’t think that alcohol and I are a particularly good match. I’d probably swipe left on Tinder, if you know what I’m saying. Especially since I’m seemingly so pas chopable anyway. It was a pretty crazy, fun night apart from that, but I felt that bed was probably the answer at that point. The rest of the people at the soirée didn’t seem to agree though, because they turned up at my chalet at about 4am, came into my room and tried to tip me out of bed. Trying to tell people in French that you just want to sleep, when it’s 4am and you’re still quite drunk, is quite hard, but I suppose I wouldn’t have been particularly eloquent in English then, either.

Sunday was more relaxed. Everyone just hung out by the pool until the buses arrived, and by some miracle I had not a trace of a hangover. The bus journey back to Lyon was a bit of a chore, because I was knackered and some people still insisted on screaming the awful songs from the outward journey, but I came back to my apartment with a feeling that I’d definitely achieved something by going on the WEI. I suppose that even if it had been three days of being uncomfortable, drunk, constantly at emotional extremes, and not even managing to choper anyone, I’d had a really great time. The closest I can imagining any British university offering to the WEI would be a trip to Center Parcs, and it would be nowhere near as good, because nowhere in Britain is hot and sunny in September, and nobody would think to organise it. I remember being offered a canoeing trip on the Ardèche just before GCSEs for around £400. This weekend cost less than a quarter of that, and we got so much more than a poxy canoe trip.

I’m extremely grateful to those who organised the WEI, and am actually quite keen to go on it again next year, but we’ll see. Two days on, I still feel exhausted. What’s more, my classes have now started properly, I’m yet to organise my timetable properly, and I still don’t have a supervisor for my Year Abroad Project. It was great to finish the Rentrée with 3-day party, but boring stuff sadly beckons. Plus there’s another soirée on the way in the next two days, so I really should start preparing for that.

Admin, Soirées, Repeat: The First Week




I’m a massive fan of milestones, so I thought I’d commemorate reaching the end of my first week here with a post. I did think about saying that I survived my first week, or something cheesy like that, but then I suppose there wasn’t really much chance of that not happening, given that Lyon is quite a nice place, and I’ve not been intentionally starving myself. I’ve not really been in any particularly dangerous situations yet either, which is unfortunate, because that would be far more interesting for people to read. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll go and aggravate the lions at the free zoo in the parc de la Tête d’Or or something. 

This week has actually been quite an interesting one, absence of dangerous lion encounters aside. The paperwork just seems to keep coming, so you’re never at a loss for something to do in the daytime, even though it might bore you to tears or make so little sense that you wonder whether the people in the ENS office are just trolling you. On Monday, having newly discovered that my card could actually let me into my flat if it really tried, I went to do my inscription administrative, which is the process of enrolment at the School. I thought I had all of the documents that Erasmus students needed in order to enrol, but it turned out that I was missing basically everything. I would say that it taught me a lesson in being better organised and arriving better prepared to things like that, but I would be lying. I think that whatever pieces of paper I brought into that office, they would have sent me away and asked me to come back with ten copies of obscure meaningless documents that you probably don’t even have to fill in if you wanted to emigrate to Narnia. What’s worse is how bitterly disappointed they were in me. The meeting started with happy smiles and ended with sighs and looks of genuine betrayal, and they didn’t seem particularly fussed about helping me get sorted out either. It’s not particularly productive for either parties to just get cross and tell someone to come back with the required paperwork, without suggesting how they might go about finding said paperwork. But I didn’t say that, because my French isn’t good enough. 

Site Descartes, École Normale Supérieure
Site Descartes, École Normale Supérieure

The evenings have been pretty packed as well. There seems to be a Freshers’ Fortnight going on at the moment, which is a novelty, given that Freshers’ ‘Week’ at the university I’ve come from is essentially three days, but I feel like it might be something that I was more ready for as an 18-year-old, rather than now at the ripe old age of 20. Amazing how much two years at Cambridge can age you… But anyway: almost every night there has been a soirée organised by one of the associations at the ENS, and they’re really good fun, with a vibe that reminds me of Oxbridge college bops, given that they’re themed, have imaginative but dubious drinks, and take place on campus. Alongside that, there have been barbecues and jam sessions in the ENS gardens, and visits to see the School’s resident herd of mouflon. I don’t really know why they’re there, but why not, I suppose. I’m pretty sure they’re going to be let out of their cage at some point though. Maybe instead of trekking to the zoo, I could aggravate the ENS mouflon and get that dangerous experience I was looking for with slightly less effort. I mean, they’re quite horny and could probably butt you quite hard. Take that however you like. 

Les mouflons
Les mouflons

What I would say about the ENS soirées, however, is that although they’re really good fun, and a great opportunity to meet and dance crazily with other students, they have a tendency to get a bit weird. There seems to be a song that comes on which has the same tune as the Schlager Griechischer Wein (maybe it’s the same song), that makes a train of men suddenly appear on the dance floor, one sat behind the other, and to get to the back of the train, the next guy has to sort of crowd-surf over the people in front of him. I asked a couple of other onlookers what was going on, and they didn’t really know either. Oh, and I saw a guy with a highlighter up his bum. Just enjoying the atmosphere, I suppose. 

A couple of times, to spice things up a bit, I’ve been with some of the other international students to specially organised Erasmus nights in the city itself. The last one I went to was on an Australian-themed boat/nightclub called Ayer’s Rock. At the start of the night, it was lovely: cocktails in an open-air terrace overlooking the Rhône and some of Lyon’s fancier architecture, artfully lit up so that their reflection shimmers on the surface of the river. However, the terrace and the dance floor soon filled up with that vapid sort of Brit Abroad who doesn’t even try to speak French, insists that France is backward, and for whom the Erasmus nights must be a homely anglophone beacon in the gallic wilderness. I don’t understand why you’d even bother doing a year abroad if you weren’t prepared to go out and speak to the locals in their own language. You might as well go to the Costa del Sol instead… or maybe even Skegness. I might give Ayer’s Rock a miss in the future. 

View across the river from Ayer’s Rock

I’ve had time to do touristy things as well. Yesterday, we spent a day travelling around to different places on the Metro, and it’s a really pleasant surprise to come up above ground again and be surprised to find oneself in an area that has a completely different feel from the last, despite being in the same city. We spent the morning in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has a lovely leafy courtyard in the middle of it, and then walked across the Saône (the other river that runs through the city) to Vieux Lyon. It’s an area full of character, but more importantly, bouchons. These restaurants are native to Lyon and serve cuisine typical of the area. I had a quenelle, which is a sort of creamed fish dumpling with a light egg binding (or so Wikipedia says), and it was very nice. I’m very keen to go back and sample other things there. There are also some cracking ice cream places along some of the streets, but after the bouchon lunch, I was regrettably too full for anything else. Another time. 

All in all, things are fairly sluggish at the moment, given that there’s still quite a while before anything serious starts at the École, but I’m enjoying the relaxation. It’s quite nice to think about living life at a more normal pace for a year, rather than mentally bracing myself up for another year’s hard slog at uni. Plus, next weekend there is this thing called the weekend d’intégration (WEI for short), which as far as I know is going to be a lot of fun and a good bonding experience. Apparently, they cart you off in a bus to an undisclosed location and you do sports and party for a couple of days. I’m sure I’ll write about it afterwards, so stay tuned! Or don’t, I don’t really mind. 


First Impressions

I’ve technically been in my accommodation for two and a bit days now, but I’m going to count yesterday as my first day for various reasons that I won’t bore people with now. 

I’d like to say that my first day at the ENS went swimmingly, but it felt a little bit more like drowning at some points. I’d moved all my stuff into my room on Friday, and it was all very exciting: I had keys, my flat and room were (and still are) lovely, and the École seems welcoming and fun. I think I might have cursed it, however, when I decided to go and spend one last night with my family in a small town about an hour from Lyon, before they drove back to the UK. We had a lovely evening and then the next day we went up into the beginnings of the Alps with a picnic, and made it as far as Switzerland before heading back down to Lyon to drop me off. This is where the fun starts. My badge d’accès (basically my university card) allowed me in through the back gate  without a problem, so it was an nasty surprise when it stalwartly refused to let me into my flat. It was almost too predictable. Moving in the day before had been stressful, as moving in normally is, but there had been no complications whatsoever, and I could just sense that the fact that nothing had gone wrong was too good to be true. I think fate had cottoned on to the fact that I had clocked what it was up to, and so decided to bite me in the arse extra hard by postponing disaster for 24 hours, daring me to hope that I might actually be able to start my Year Abroad without panic-stricken despair.

After a brief moment where I was convinced that the world had ended, I pulled myself together and proceeded to the security desk to ask them to help me solve the problem with my card. It then transpired that the only person able to fix the card wouldn’t be back on campus until Monday. It was Saturday, and I had a small internal cry at the prospect of being housebound with nothing to eat but bananas and raw rice for almost two days, whilst I tried to make light of the matter in my bastardised French (“c’est pas grave” my arse). In fairness, the guards on duty did let me into my flat, but the prospect of not being able to leave it again without having to go back and explain why I’d left was reasonably bleak.

I moped in my room for a bit on Facebook – I’d had the foresight to buy an ethernet cable, thank God – and indulged myself like  a brat by fantasising about calling up my parents and asking them to take me back with them when they caught the ferry in the morning. There was an Erasmus event near the Vieux Lyon side of town that evening, but I felt like I couldn’t go because I wouldn’t be able to get back into my flat again without facing the scary security people. In the end, I did go because I have extremely bad FOMO, and I optimistically propped open my front door with a loo roll to skirt round the problem of having a badge d’accès that hates me. It was a really fun night. I met a lot of nice people, and got to go on the metro for the first time and see a lot of the city that I’d not found yet. I was exhausted though, and so I left the night early on my own to go to bed.

Amazingly, it turns out, Lyon is actually not the same size as Cambridge, but bigger than Liverpool in terms of area, so my stupid assumption that I’d be fine walking back to my room from the clubs on the other side of town (something you can easily do in Cambridge) led me on a walk that lasted an hour and a half through some pretty scary banlieues. My phone was about to die on me, and I wasn’t absolutely sure where I was going, so when I finally stumbled upon the back gate of the Site Descartes where I’m staying, it felt like I’d reached the promised land, or as if I’d suddenly realised what I’m going to do for my Year Abroad Project. I panicked a little bit when I got back up to my front door and found that my toilet roll doorstop had been removed, but luckily my lovely flatmate Rocío let me in, despite it being almost 2am.

Looking back, it was all quite funny, and I’m sure that there will be more hiccups like this lying in wait somewhere along the line, but it wasn’t the way I would have chosen to start things off. Nevertheless, things are looking ever upwards: I’ve pretty much unpacked, the sun is shining, and I can understand pretty much everything that people are saying to me, provided that they’re not drunk! I still need to sort a few things out, like a bin (surprisingly necessary – I already have a weirdly large pile of rubbish), bank accounts, travel passes, and knowing what the merde is happening with my Erasmus grant, but my strategy is to not worry about things. I might work, or I might just end up dying of hunger. We’ll see. 

Rekindling the French Flame

One of my biggest shortcomings in writing is that I never know how to start things, so I thought I’d just jump in without any forward planning and see what happens.

This is a blog I’m writing during my Year Abroad, which I’m spending at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. Going into my degree in Modern and Medieval Languages at 18, embarrassingly optimistic and really really loving my subject (I thought), I wasn’t to know that taking up Spanish from scratch alongside French post-A-level would, in fact, take over my academic life. French that had been nicely ingrained in my brain for years suddenly dissolved and was ousted by those banal sweet nothings that make your examiner nod encouragingly – or perhaps patronisingly – during GCSE speaking exams. I was so proud that I’d managed to learn those things, and also the phrase, “Oh my God, I’m so drunk.” I was so proud of that one, in fact, that I kept saying it at parties, nights out, bops, boat club dinners etc for the rest of the year! “Borracho” is probably my single most-said Spanish word, and it was so worth it! I decided to get shit at French for the sake of telling people, who in hindsight clearly didn’t care, that I was not only drunk, but also a silly fresher idiot who was getting off on the fact that he could say stuff in a cool-sounding language. 

Consequently, I did significantly better in Spanish language at the end of First Year than in French. I didn’t mind particularly, because as far as I was concerned at the time, Spanish was my new forte. I mean, I could read Spanish things, and I preferred the Latin American Spanish translation of “Let It Go” over the French one, so I was perfectly happy to let French wither away into the Hintergrund, since I was already beginning to strongly regret not choosing German as one of my two languages at degree level. I fantasised about coming back in Second Year and roguely switching to post-A-level German and keeping the Spanish, and splitting my Year Abroad between Berlin and the Sloth Sanctuary in Costa Rica. It sounded exciting, edgy, and far too cool for me. I was ready to do it, preparado you might say if you loved Spanish as much as I did.

I suppose what made me abandon all that was remembering that I had loved French all the way through school, and the only real reason I’d fallen out of love with it was because I hadn’t done any of it for about a year. I’d been too preoccupied with learning Spanish most of the time, and the rest of the time, I’d been preoccupied with hating my supervisor for Use of French. Neither are particularly helpful when trying to enjoy and maintain skills in a language. I decided on Lyon as my destination for this year, because I really want to get back to where I was with my French and build up competence again from there, because in all honesty, I feel like my language skills were the best they’ve ever been at the end of A levels, despite having now been studying languages at Cambridge for the past two years. Several people have asked me why I didn’t choose the ENS in Paris, and it’s a fair question; Paris would have undoubtedly been lots of fun, but there is quite a lot of France that isn’t Paris, and from what I’ve seen of Lyon and its surrounding region so far, I’m quite glad that I steered clear of the capital. I would never have realised what I was missing out on! 

I’ll be using this blog to record my experiences over the coming year. Depending on my motivation, it may be more like a journal, or I might just sporadically rant my way to July, when they kick me out of my accommodation. I’m quite nervous about stuff at the moment, but the overriding feeling is one of excitement at what this year can offer me. Watch this space!