Hey all!

I spent the 2020-2021 academic year studying abroad at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées Lyon (INSA), a prestigious engineering school in Villeurbanne, France, part of the Lyon metropolitan region.

During that time, I decided to share my experience by writing periodically throughout. The most recent contribution is on top - for my very first post, scroll down all the way. I've included lots of pictures - enjoy!

If you're thinking about doing something similar, send me an email and I'd be happy to chat.

Saying Goodbye to a New Home (July 21st, 2021)

That’s a wrap, folks. I’m back stateside and even had a few days to spend with my family in Germany before flying back to be in a wedding. A little under a month has gone by and I am updating this blog for a final time – at least about my year in France.

For those who are looking for more travel pictures, skip down to the next bolded section where I share my last three trips.

The title above describes my last month pretty well. While I finally had the occasion to travel given that restrictions were being lifted, spending almost every weekend away from Lyon was bittersweet as I knew my days there were counted.

On the other hand, being aware of just how little time I had left made me enjoy every single second, every sunset picture from the window of my tiny apartment (I won’t subject you to those here), and every step walking across campus. The same campus that I had found to be so ugly at the start of the year was admittedly still moche, but it was my home – and my workplace (as I got pretty used to spending multiple hours a day in the lab). The strangers that had welcomed me so warmly ten months prior were now no longer strangers – they were and still are my friends.

 
 

Leaving Lyon was easier than I thought it would be. I have a lot of experience with moving from one place to another, and I have also witnessed multiple friends study abroad – whom I met before and during their respective experiences. These two things definitely prepared me from the start: I always had the end in mind.

Still, who wouldn't miss this atmosphere?

   

Even as I had a lot of goodbyes to say (pictures from one of those meals below), the smiles and laughs were a lot frequent than the few tears. I know – or at least hope – that I will see many of these people again: my fellow exchange students who are among the few that will understand what it was like to do an exchange in the uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic, my teachers and classmates whom I got to know better only so late in the year, and my closest French friends – c’était pas mal, non?

 

What is a lot tougher is looking back now on this chapter of my life, knowing that it is over. However, it ended on a cliff-hanger (I started dating a Frenchman right before I left) and the next chapter is looking pretty good so far. I’ll have to figure out if and what to share going forward, but I want to keep this up – let me know what you think!

As for now... Au revoir, Lyon!

 

Final Travel Pics (May-June 2021)

It took me a while to update this blog, so I’ve decided to just do a photo dump of pictures from my final trips. They are sorted from most to least recent.

Grenoble

I spent my last full weekend in France visiting my friend in nearby Grenoble, where I had been just before the lockdown. We celebrated her birthday and hiked around and over the Passerelles himalayennes du lac de Monteynard-Avignonet (two suspended bridges connecting a trail that crosses all three branches of the lake). Despite these adventures, I probably enjoyed our conversations – which are notoriously never-ending – the most!

    

The Côte d’Azur

So this is where all the rich people go… Seriously, this trip blew me away. I almost didn’t go, but in the end, I am so thankful for my family that motivated me to go despite being in a lot of pain and for my Italian friend who hosted us the whole weekend in Antibes. From there we took two day trips to Cannes (home of the famous film festival) and Nice. My smile in the pictures is very real!

  



          
   
   
   
   
    

    
    

­­Marseille and the Provence

For this trip we conveniently chose an extra-long weekend, so we had four days to spend around Marseille. Our group of six meant that we split up on some occasions to do activities that only certain people were interested in – due to my back, I took part in the excursion to Aix-la-Provence instead of a second day spent hiking the Calanques. The first day spent on the islands of Frioul was more than enough for me and I got to enjoy a view onto the Sainte-Victoire mountain instead of another Mediterranean view.

       
 



 
       
 
  

The Wild, Wild (South) West (May 19th, 2021)

With the travel restrictions finally lifted, and my back doing a lot better (shout-out to my physical therapist!), I was able to take a trip over the long weekend thanks to the celebration of the Ascension of our Lord.

A fellow exchange student and I made the trip by plane from Lyon to Toulouse, the aerospace capital of Europe, and were rewarded with a bird eye’s view on the Cité de l’Espace, with its replica rocket. We were not, however, rewarded with good weather.

Upon arrival in Toulouse we had enough time to take a quick picture and get some groceries before curfew. We spent the evening cooking and watching a movie, before I decided to get some much-needed sleep before my excursion the next day.



As a Catholic, I became familiar with Lourdes and the associated apparition of Mary years ago – when moving to France, it became an item on my bucket list. So I am so happy to finally have been able to make the trip, which measured 8 hours in total (including a two-hour train ride either way from and to Toulouse). I had a wonderful time at Lourdes visiting the grotto, going to mass and confession, and being able to take the time for myself and my relationship with God. Even the rain was not able to extinguish my joy.


  

In addition, an unexpected bonus of the trip was getting a look at the landscape at the foot of the Pyrenees.

  

Back in Toulouse to pouring rain in the early afternoon, my friend and I were able to walk around the entire central part of the city. Toulouse has lots of parks, and beautiful, distinctive streets and architecture. Once again, I found myself in a new French town thinking that really everything (alright, most) there is just beautiful. Some time into our hours-long walk we were even rewarded with sunshine, which improved the pictures we were able to take.


After another movie night (there really isn’t a lot to do with a 7p.m. curfew), the final morning in Toulouse had us visiting the Japanese Garden within one the city’s larger parks, the Basilica Saint-Sernin which is part of the extended El Camino, as well as the campus of the University of Toulouse. The latter was more difficult to access than expected – we were quite surprised to have to walk around a large wall that enclosed half the campus. Another train ride with gorgeous views brought us past Carcassonne to Narbonne (that is, closer to the Mediterranean). In Narbonne, my friend took another train and bus back to Lyon while one of my French friends was waiting for me in front of the train station, hereby beginning Part 2 of the weekend.

 

I was blown away by the drive through the Corbières Massif – I had not realized that I missed sitting in the passenger seat of a car on a back road with the windows down that much (yes, I like country music). At the house, we were able to take a gentle hike in the hills around the small village.


The next day involved a longer excursion and picnic around the étangs which lie between the coast and the Mediterranean. Just like that, sooner than I wanted, the weekend ended with a coastal drive back to the Narbonne station and a few hours in a train back to Lyon. However, even these were enjoyable listening to music.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about my adventures in a bit more detail. If all goes well, there is more travel to come in the next few weeks. I just had too much to say about this one trip to wait any longer before posting.


Well, that was unexpected (April 28th, 2021)

I have not posted on this blog for a while and want to give my 2-3 loyal readers an explanation. For those pessimists among you, my previous post might have been an indication of the disaster to come – as Nelly Furtado sings, “all good things come to an end”. However, I do not like to be negative, and now that I am back on my feet, I am ready to share my life with you once again!

Ironically, my medical problems had nothing to do with the pandemic taking place around me. Or maybe everything. Because after spending almost a year living a very sedentary lifestyle, my back was not happy with all the traveling, hiking, almost daily sports, and long nights I was subjecting it to. In the beginning I thought the cause was bad sleep but after the pain increased over a few weeks led to a weekend not being able to move without being in extreme pain, then visits to the student health center and a doctor, and finally to an MRI, the problem was evident. The diagnosis: A partially (thank goodness!) slipped disk in my lower back. The prescription: No sports, including bike rides, until the summer, lots of bed rest for the first few weeks and maybe months, a back brace, frequent physical therapy, and initially lots of painkillers.

Now having completed some aspects the regime (I am still in physical therapy but my pain has been greatly reduced and I no longer need medication or the brace), I am feeling much better and have been attempting to once again increase my physical activity. I am saddened that I was “kicked out” of the tennis class I had just started when all this began, but eager to continue to practice once I get the go-ahead. I am also grateful for this unique chance to get to know the French healthcare system from the inside.

Coming off of my final break for this school year, I am joyful to enjoy the warm weather and the Easter season. Sadly, I have not been able to enjoy much outside of Lyon as new restrictions limited personal activity to a 10km radius in addition to the curfew already in place. I am now awaiting the lifting of the former next week and perhaps I will be able to get one more trip under my belt before leaving France (much to my disappointment) at the end of June.

One of the best days of these last two months was our trip to the lake and park Miribel, located within the legal 10km radius from my residence. My friends and I got to spend the whole day having a barbecue, playing lawn games, and swimming in the lake – it was cold but warmer than the Mediterranean in February. Look for the mountain line in the background!

 

I was also able to visit some friends in Grenoble, France, right before the new restrictions were enacted. Although I spent a good part of that weekend as an invalid, I had company, as one of my friends had broken an ankle, and still made it up to the famous Bastille for some great pictures using the “eggs”. I took the opportunity to improve my photography skills:


I took some walks through the city (along the Rhône) ...
      

... and the countryside (a gentle back-friendly hike up the Mont d'Or northwest of Lyon).

       

Finally, enjoy these pictures of me just chilling around town.




Back in Lyon and elsewhere (Feb. 19th, 2021)

After about two months with family in Germany I was eager to return back to campus. Despite the lockdown lasting several weeks, life in France did not stop and after a few weeks I felt like I was missing out on student life and the opportunity to make more friends and travel. I returned to Lyon just in time for New Years Eve and was able to have a great start into the new year. Here's to 2021!

Suffice it to say that this year is already way more enjoyable than the last one. In just seven weeks, and coming off of our winter break, I made a ton of new friends among the other international students (only to say goodbye to many of them as the first semester came to an end), and took trips to Montpellier, Aix-les-Bains & Chambéry, as well as an excursion to nearby Vienne. The weather has been truly amazing, and so I am able to enjoy the city once again.

The next picture shows us running into the Mediterranean Sea in the beginning of February - a favorite memory from our trip to Montpellier. I should note at this point, that I cannot show some of my favorite pictures of my time in France, as my choices of photos reflect my desire to respect the privacy of my friends.


The 26.5 hours I had to spend in the city and on the beach reflect my need to balance classes and the research projects I am working on here and remotely in the US with fun like the above. As always, a bit of both seems healthiest to me - I try to work as much as possible when nothing is going on, so that I have time to join the fun when somebody proposes and activity. Below, I have included another picture of little me in Montpellier and maybe the best picture ever taken through the window of a moving train (of the Lac du Bourget, on which lies Aix-les-Bains).

 

Lyon and the surrounding region is not without cold winters, however, and so the picture below on the left shows the town of nearby Vienne on one of the coldest days here. It stands in contrast with the next (middle) photo taken on January 29th, on which it was warm enough to take a bike trip down to the Confluence (the point where the two rivers of Lyon meet). Finally, another cold day where I was able to capture the few golden rays of the day reflecting off the Rhône while on a jog.


I was also able to witness an amazing phenomenon while in Lyon. On the morning of February 6th, I woke up to orange light coming through my shades. I opened the window to find the sky orange-brown. After a brief panic, a quick Google search led me to discover that sometimes wind will scatter sand from the Sahara desert through a large a part of Southern Europe. This picture does not capture it well, but you can find better attempts online if interested.



Finally, enjoy these pictures of me enjoying a crêpe from a pop-up stand downtown and the beautiful (> 60 degrees Fahrenheit) weather in mid-February from my "balcony". Hope you're also enjoying the weather wherever you're at!

 


'Confinement' and Sad News

After just about two months in France, I am sad to report that I am now no longer in France, but instead at home in Germany, where I plan to spend the next two months before returning to Lyon. I'll explain why, but for those of you who just enjoy looking at pictures, I am including some here as well.

Below you can find the view from my window in France at nighttime - the sound from the generators of the research lab was bothersome for the first few days, but now I do not notice it. I took this picture because it reminds me of those children's books where you can see a house or building "cut open" and watch what is going on inside. I realize that might seem creepy, but it was not my decision to brightly light a building with floor-to-ceiling windows at night.


I also couldn't resist having a melancholic photoshoot with my cup of tea on the morning I left.

        

Finally, a picture of the train station - and a sign in the 'tramway' on the way there that caught my eye: I never even thought of wearing my roller skates while on my scooter! ;)

    

So why did I leave France? First, I want to clarify that I didn't have to leave - I could have stayed in my apartment as the university residences have remained open and the school has been working on providing meals to the students (in addition to anything I could have cooked in my kitchen at home). But after the strict lockdown put in place in France until Dec. 1st was announced, I started considering going back home.

It took about one-and-a-half weeks after the announcement for my department (not the entire university, that is) to put a plan into place regarding classes. It became clear that nothing would be taking place in person - my sport class and research are canceled until January - and lectures moved to a strictly-over-Zoom format. Even with all this, I considered staying in France, as I feel I have made remarkably many friends considering the circumstances, but in the end, spending time with just even a single person would be breaking the rules which prevent any gatherings outside of the family unit. Finally, it felt strange and unnecessary to fill out paperwork (even if it was available online) every time I wanted just a breath of fresh air, and I never did grasp the rule of having to stay within one kilometer of my house (as there seemed to be plenty of exceptions to this as well).

In the end, I decided to make the trip back home to Germany - I spent 10 hours on a train, which went well except that it was difficult to book the ticket in the first place. Now I am staying with family here. While in theory I would love to go back to France in the beginning of December for the last 2-3 weeks of classes before Christmas, it is just too complicated given the mandatory testing and quarantines on either end of the trip. As we speak, I am in quarantine in Germany but I look forward to (hopefully) testing negatively for the virus tomorrow (after all, I have been living alone and isolated for almost two weeks now) and being able to enjoy some things that are still allowed on this side of the border, like going to church and visiting my grandparents.



Toussaint-Break and a French family (Oct. 28th, 2020)

We are one of the "lucky" universities, as I am told, with a full week off for this French holiday, which is All Saints' Day (Nov. 1st). I am one of the lucky exchange students, as one of my new French friends invited me to spend the week with her family.

We started off the first weekend with the rather short drive to the Alps, where her family has a small vacation apartment that they use all-year round. In the winter, the French tend to ski, and in the summer, even though a lot of the country heads to the beaches in the South, the mountains are a great place to do some hiking and catch some sun as well.

The view in the morning:



On Saturday, we headed to well-known Chamonix, a small village at the foot of the Mont Blanc - close to Italy, and not far from Switzerland, and popular with tourists as well as locals. We were able to do some hiking around the "Mer de Glace", a glacier field complete with an ice cave that contains an ice sculpture exhibit in non-corona times.

 



 

On Sunday, we took advantage of the heights near Les Gets, which once again allowed a great view of the Mont Blanc. Since the highest mountain of the Alps is round, it does not stand out well against the other mountains that seem larger from Chamonix (in the large picture of me you can find it right under the left-most cloud that is partially cut off), but on this hike, it was clear which is the largest.

 

After this wonderful weekend, we headed back to the family home - an old rectory right next to the church of a small village in the French countryside an hour away from Lyon. For privacy reasons, there are not pictures of this beautiful house, but I am completely in love with the historic rooms and decorations which tell my friend's family history.

In staying here I have also learned so many things about the French culture and way of thinking (especially about Americans).

The food and meals. I know everyone talks about this, and initially when I arrived on campus, I thought that I had a good grasp of the traditional entrée (=appetizer!), main course, cheese, and dessert order. What I did not expect, was that this would carry over into every single lunch and dinner. Admittedly, we've skipped some of the appetizer courses, but while the main course might not be as large as I am used to from the U.S. or Germany, it is followed by a cheese platter, bread, and dessert - without fail. With each meal, I am encouraged to try each of the multiple cheeses available, which are eaten with or without the baguette. The baguette, in turn, serves multiple purposes: it accompanies the cheeses, fills the stomach, and is also used to clean the plate. Finally, for dessert, I am allowed to choose between yogurt, fruit, or a sweet, like pieces of chocolate.

American women. Several long conversations with my friend have allowed me to conclude that for the French, wearing too much makeup (i.e. foundation, extravagant eye shadow, especially in unnatural colors, excessive lipstick, etc.) or too little clothing (i.e. crop tops, shorts if you don't have nice legs or are older, low-cut necklines), is considered "vulgaire". This could be considered a shocking criticism of the current American woman, or at least the current American female college student, but I think it makes clear that restraint and a strict and detailed attention to what is flattering and what is not constitutes the je-ne-sais-quoi-elegance that we might see in French women. But while the latter, knowing the tendencies and culture of their counterpart stateside, might not immediately judge their character for it, dressing in the manner detailed above will make you known as an American right away.

University studies. The higher education system here is definitely different from that in the U.S. (and in other countries), but what has shocked me the most, is just how hard students are expected to work in order to excel in the future. A large amount of pressure is placed on the school you are accepted to following high school, allowing you to or preventing you from having jobs in certain companies, or determining your pay for an internship, where you are paid differently than students from another university doing the same job as you. Additionally, students enter medical or law school immediately, forcing them to put in that hard work without having an undergraduate career to afford a bit more time for relaxation.

At my engineering school, a normal course load requires about 8 hours of class every single day, not excepting time spent on assignments or studying - additionally I find that students work the entire weekend without allowing time for things I spent the last three years doing, like hiking or movie marathons. My school is one of the few schools in France with many active student organizations, but I am told, that almost all students join just a single organization. This organization will almost certainly be listed on a resume or CV, because employers know that membership in even just a single student organization can be responsible for a significant drop in your GPA.

While class rankings here are used as strict selection criteria for internships and study abroad, as well as your grade (only the top 10% will receive an A), I am assured that the French students are still quick to help one another succeed and that study groups are common. Additionally, older students will give advice to the younger ones, and when peer ratings are a part of the grade, students will unite 'against the professors' to raise each others' grades together.


Initial Impressions (Oct. 17th, 2020)

I have been here almost 6 weeks now, and we just completed the fourth full week of classes. In this short time, I have already learned and observed so much about life as an engineering student in France in the midst of a global pandemic.

It has been surprisingly easy to meet people, as the stereotype of closed-off, reserved French people was immediately shattered by the many local students that have become my acquaintances, and even friends. Additionally, despite the reduced number of academic exchanges taking place world-wide, there are many international students here - the school itself boasts that almost 30% of its student body is international.

Although students are ready to converse in English if needed, I have been able to rely almost completely on the French I have studied for the majority of the last seven years, and have made large improvements in the recent weeks. I am even proud to have mastered the more complicated aspects of daily life like opening a bank account (which is a little tougher for Americans than it is for anyone else), subscribing to internet and a phone plan, and making a call to a French company about a potentially fraudulent purchase on my credit card.

I have also been amused at times about the perspective a native English speaker might have on the following signs:


Campus vs. City:

The school itself is located in the town of Villeurbanne, bordering Lyon directly and connected by the same public transport system - in fact, as far as I can tell, Villeurbanne is probably better considered a neighborhood of Lyon, excepting the change in address of course. The towering, concrete buildings of this "urban city" look to be constructed in the 60s and 70s, although some buildings, like those on our campus, are going through some renovations.

In comparison, the historic center of Lyon is a beautiful reflection of the architecture that both natives and tourists appreciate about France. A walk through the historic "traboules" of Lyon shows the very oldest homes from the inside out, while the older part of the "Presqu'île" (situated between the two rivers Rhône and Saône and bounded to the South by their confluence) features many classic structures with French balconies as well as extremely modern expansions of the downtown.