It’s a jarring juxtaposition that upon leaving places you’ve lived you realize how fundamental they are to you, and to your sense of self, and yet simultaneously how inconsequential and unknown they are to others. Edinburgh and London have, by and large, made up my world over the past twenty years, and it was slightly surreal to have to explain to someone that they are not actually in the same place because Great Britain is not, in fact, synonymous with England (I’m sure my Yes Scotland friends shuddered reading that).
I’ve passed the one-month mark here, and the only real cultural insight I’ve acquired from this time is that clichés exist for very genuine reasons. Last weekend I was round at a French girl’s apartment and we were drinking tea, which caused her to proudly proclaim that we were being “very English”. Ironically, we were in fact drinking a herbal blend – surely the most continental of all the teas – and when I pointed out that the truly English way of taking tea is with milk, she very sweetly rushed to offer me some. Upon further research I actually discovered that only 25% of the French add milk to their tea, with lemon and, worse still, “nothing” coming in higher at 30% and 32% respectively. They’ll never learn.
Three weeks of classes have already passed at the Institut d’Études Politiques. Any students or former students reading this will remember the shock of transferring from their cosy, familiar secondary school to the vast, daunting immensity of university. I have experienced this again at Sciences Po, but in reverse, as I have scaled down from Edinburgh’s 30,000 students to a mere 1,300. My courses are also taught in a fashion more reminiscent of secondary school with students having to put their hands up to speak in tutorials. I have also yet to encounter a single lecture slide – perhaps the closest I have come to any form of interesting visuals has been in a French Revolution history class, when the lecturer drew a hexagon on the white board to represent France, followed by an isosceles triangle for Britain. I should also add that lectures here are all either two or three hours long – no more of this namby-pamby fifty-minute stuff.
For the bargain administration fee of 10 Euros, students at Lyon 2 and Sciences Po can enrol in a semester of sports classes. In a truly “inspired generation” move, I signed up for an hour and half of handball each week, thinking it would be a great way to meet other Brits keen to sample a very European pastime. As it turned out, not too many foreigners actually want to try their hand at a sport that is essentially the bastard son of basketball and rugby, and so I found myself the only non-native Francophone in a class of thirty seasoned handballers (both male and female). Provided it’s not heavily accented or spoken incredibly fast, I can understand French. However, comprehending the rules of an entirely new sport in an echoey hall over the sound of dribbling, shooting and running is, well, a whole other ball game. The coach, who I believe is an Ultimate Frisbee World Champion (strangely this is one of the least bizarre things about the whole experience), was very understanding and was happy to go over anything with me to one side. Once I’d shaken off five years of netball-related inclination to stop moving as soon as I had possession of the ball, I turned out to not actually be terrible. Defending proved to be more of an issue (especially for someone with no experience of contact sports and more used to the refined distance of tennis), but seeing that the French clearly had no qualms about grabbing me by the waist and slamming their full body weight into mine, I decided to get stuck in, and it ended up being quite cathartic.
My first month in France has thus involved a peculiar combination of behaving like the most stereotypical Englishwoman to have ever ventured to foreign lands; taking in some of Lyon’s best cuisine and culture, such as a café gourmand after viewing some Monet and Picasso; and grappling with sweaty French men over their balls. I have no doubt that the next eight months will continue to surprise me.