Two weekends ago came the most anticipated event in the Lyonnais calendar – the Fête des Lumières. Back in 1643, the south of France was hit by the plague. As it crept steadily and, I imagine, bubonically, towards Lyon, the understandably desperate municipal councillors promised to pay tribute to Mary if the city was spared. Due to some reason that’s totally explainable with scientific thought and empirical evidence (even pretty lights won’t persuade me to believe in divine intervention) the city did indeed remain untouched, and so for four days every December Mary’s supposed mercy is celebrated with installations, projections and fireworks. Historically, inhabitants place tea lights on their windowsills in the evenings, and certainly the few authentic Lyonnais I know followed this custom. However, as French Wikipedia notes rather despondently, the lumignons (as the little candles are called) have become the minority today, as “the commercial celebration has overshadowed tradition”.
Despite all that is implied by the idea of profitable commemoration quite literally outshining quaint convention, the Fête was actually full of pretty things to look at that were executed in a largely tasteful way. Notwithstanding its Hollywood-esque leanings, the giant “Merci Marie” sign which twinkled from atop the hills above the city seemed to be more about reminding everyone of the origins of the festival than demonstrating how much money the council could pump into it. The Presqu’île (the almost-island created by the Rhône and the Saône) and Vieux Lyon undoubtedly had the best installations, with the Place des Terreaux projection onto the Musée des Beaux-Arts being the most mesmerising (see video below).
Although the twinkly brilliance sparkling throughout the city did warm the cockles of my cold, cynical heart, it was actually (and surprisingly I might add) something we found in the Paroisse Saint-Nizier church that I found most affecting. In the past couple of months there have been waves of protests in France against Francois Hollande’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage. Some 70,000 people marched in Paris, and there were similar demonstrations in Lyon, Toulouse and Marseille. While France allows civil unions between same sex couples, the right to adopt is reserved only for those who are married. As the French Republic is founded upon the notions of égalité (equality) and laïcité (secularism), the rhetoric used by the opponents is very different to those in, for example, the United States. Here it rests upon the idea of “children’s rights” and “one mother, one father”, which frankly sounds even more ridiculous than the religious argument put forward in other countries (and let’s not lie, that one’s bullshit in the first place). However, the protests did produce the fantastic photo below, which went viral thanks to the hilarious shocked expressions of the elderly women in the background. Returning to Lyon, in the Paroisse Saint-Nizier, we found they had covered the walls of one alcove with paper and were handing out pens for you to draw round your hand and then write your wishes for the new year within. My absolute favourite is below, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that it was inside a Catholic church.
During my second week in Lyon, whilst nervously trying to speak to a member of the university staff, I bit down on a pen and one of my front tooth veneers (the consequences of a disappointingly undramatic fall aged ten) snapped clean off. I immediately rang home, panic-stricken: “Mum! I’ve only got half a front tooth! I look like a convict – I’m never going to make any friends!” After some speedy Googling, we managed to find somewhere that was still open at 6pm (a feat in itself), and that was able to give me a new veneer on the spot. Around the same time as the Fête des Lumières, I experienced more of the French healthcare system. After expelling morve verte (green snot) for a period of three weeks, I thought it was probably time to see a doctor, and booked an appointment with an English-speaking one. On the day, there were metro strikes, and it also happened to be blizzarding. Having typically left it too late to research other transport options, I ended up cycling there through the thick snow, arriving with a heavy coating on my shoulders, hat and gloves. After hearing that I was on Erasmus exchange, the doctor promptly decided it would be good for me to conduct our conversation in French and the whole thing progressed like an extended GCSE role play. I say extended because at school they didn’t actually strip us half naked in order to listen to our lungs, and nor was there a prolonged period of gesticulating in order to try to describe the aforementioned thick green snot (vocabulary that is now firmly embedded in my brain).
Over the past few weeks I have been attempting to practise more English with Sarah, the little girl I take care of after school. Aside from her propensity to run through numbers using wee and poo (“won pipi, two pipi, free pipi” or “four caca, five caca, seks caca”), it’s going quite well. Earlier this week, she asked me what I did all day, and I told her I went to university. “Mais, l’université, c’est quoi?” I explained that university was a sort of school for adults, to which she responded, wide-eyed, that she’d had no idea such a thing existed! While I initially thought my description had been silly, the more I pondered it, the more I realised it actually seems incredibly fitting for Sciences Po, at least from my Erasmus vantage point. Instead of doing a range of reading and coming to your own conclusions, the emphasis here is upon attending every single lecture (even if sometimes that leads to having six hours of class in a row, with the same professor, on a Friday), and regurgitating their words of wisdom. In my history exam early this week, one of the ‘questions’ was simply: “The Vichy regime: origins, characteristics, place in history (5 points)”. There was no scope for freethinking or engaging with the topic in a way that would make you stand out; instead it just seemed to be a case of writing down everything you could remember.
This is a strange dichotomy I have witnessed in several areas of French life; although Sciences Po Lyon belongs to the grandes écoles (prestigious and competitive universities that have produced most of France’s high-ranking politicians and civil servants, as well as scientists, writers and philosophers), the whole system feels a bit like being spoon-force-fed – you do not need to think for yourself because a pre-determined doctrine will be imposed upon you. You can see this division again in the aforementioned vehement protests against two people who love each other having their union recognised by law, despite the fact that France has equality as its motto. Or in the rigid politeness of strangers, which means you will be greeted every time you enter a shop, but which doesn’t seem to extend to helping you if you get embarrassingly trapped in the metro doors. Or in the pride people take in their city, whilst also finding it completely acceptable to piss in its streets at any hour of the day. I originally thought our neighbours across the channel couldn’t be that different to us, but their country of contradictions has proved me wrong, and it has been interesting (and challenging) to unravel them over the past few months.