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.