My time in Lyon was full of ups and downs, highs and lows. At times, it felt like a game of snakes and ladders: I would triumphantly ascend a miniscule ladder with each email written in error-free French, only to slide down the longest snake known to mankind two squares later. Living abroad is a steep – and occasionally unforgiving – learning curve, and I’ve learnt a lot from this particular séjour. With that in mind, it’s time for Nine Lessons (and one Carole*) from Lyon . . .
*That would be my lovely Grenobloise colleague and friend, Carole, whose sense of humour got me through many a bureaucratic meltdown and who welcomed me to Lyon 3 with open arms. I simply couldn’t resist the pun, even though it inevitably necessitated a short explanation.
- There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone
If Oxford Dictionaries define solitude as “the state or situation of being alone” and loneliness as “sadness because one has no friends or company”, then the difference between the two appears, to me at least, to stem from one’s state of mind. I had days when all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and shut myself off from the outside world; I had days when I felt invincible. I swung between feeling cripplingly lonely – ironic given I spent my working hours surrounded by people – and revelling in my new-found solitude. Little by little, I learnt to enjoy my own company, and gradually the soundtrack of my year abroad changed from Bridget Jones’ rendition of ‘All By Myself’ to Imagine Dragons’ ‘On Top of the World’.
- A good dose of humour works wonders
Life is never just plain sailing, and the odd curveball is bound to be thrown your way. While nosy neighbours, bureaucracy and the SNCF can contrive to create an apocalyptic catastrophe, a good dose of humour will see you through.
- Sometimes, you need to say ‘no’
There were occasions when I was so tired, so fed up, so exhausted that I was ready to pack it all in. I felt like a hamster on a wheel whose speed was being controlled by someone else. At the end of the first semester, after a Netflix-filled weekend, I took a step back to reassess the situation. Quite clearly, if things carried on in a similar vein, either my mental or physical health was going to take a hit. (Or, more accurately, a bigger hit than it already had.) I needed to rethink my game plan, and I did. I spent December and January planning all of my lessons for the second semester. Needless to say, the second semester was much less stressful. I was offered additional hours, which I didn’t take; I knew my limits. It was so nice going to work, teaching, coming home and knowing I didn’t have to plan activities, games and worksheets for upcoming classes. It was a relief to regain control of my weekends; I still had some marking, but there was less of it this semester. I’m not advocating a negative, non-committal attitude to work, but one which accounts for your limits and respects your need for a sustainable work-life balance.
- People are more important than places
Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to describe my third year abroad as the best year of my life, it was certainly one of the best so far. I may have lived alone – a result of the unprecedented departure of the other assistant at my school – but I rarely felt lonely. In Lyon, it was a different story. I loved Lyon, but I came to realise that people count for more than a place ever can.
- If something is too good to be true, it probably is
Cliché, but so true. Whether it’s a dirt-cheap flat with all bills included, or a colleague saying there’s nothing to prepare for a module, take everything with a pinch of salt.
- It’s better to go alone than not to go at all
There are plenty of proverbs and quotes which champion waiting (e.g. good things come to those who wait), but when your time abroad is limited, you can’t afford to spend an inordinate of time waiting around: waiting for a sunny day; waiting for someone to go with; waiting for the sake of waiting. If you want to go, go. If I hadn’t been prepared to embrace going solo, I would probably never have seen all the places I saw. Carpe diem, and don’t look back.
- Social media doesn’t tell the whole story
We’re all guilty – to some extent – of being selective when it comes to what we share with others: our friends, our family, and our followers. Cultivating this image takes time, effort and energy. We’re only human: eventually, one of these things will lapse, and we’re left to face the harsh, bitter truth. In this day and age, our unwillingness to admit to things being less than perfect results in a romanticised vision of living abroad for those back home. It’s about time we opened up about the side of living abroad that doesn’t reach our Instagram feeds. Students shouldn’t feel like failures when their third year abroad doesn’t turn out to be the best year of their lives. Expatriates shouldn’t feel guilty about missing cheddar cheese when they’re supposed to be indulging in the finest French fromage. Our nearest and dearest shouldn’t live under the assumption that the grass is always greener: sometimes it’s greener, sometimes it’s browner.
- The only thing holding you back is yourself
If someone had told me five years ago that I would be teaching classes of up to forty students independently at a foreign university, I would never have believed them. Heck, even a year ago I would never have dreamed I was capable of that. I’ve learnt to stop putting myself down, to have a little more faith in myself. After all, if you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?
- If all else fails, the boulangeries will be there for you
Lyon’s many boulangeries were the answer to most of my troubles, the little pick-me-up I so badly needed at the end of a difficult day/ week/ month (delete as appropriate). Stay tuned, as there’s more to come on these éclair emporiums and pastry palaces shortly.
Since this series has now reached its conclusion, a number of thank yous are in order. (Many of these people have no idea this blog even exists, but that’s beside the point.) To Olivier, for organising hikes in the region, thereby enabling me to meet other assistants and see places I might not otherwise have seen. To Carole, for your sense of humour, warm welcome and book recommendations. To my other colleagues (you know who you are), for your smiles, patience and advice. To Laurence, for putting up with my tales of woe, for taking the time off work to holiday with me in France and for brightening my day with novelty Snapchat filters. To Mum, Dad and Vicki, for being there when I needed advice (or cheering up), for sending me some much-needed Marmite (amongst other things) and for visiting me in Lyon. To Grandma, for sending me postcards and letters – seeing something in the letterbox for me always put a smile on my face. To Sally and Olivia, for squeezing in a trip to Lyon just before I left. To my Chester friends, for listening when I told them at Christmas that things weren’t as rosy as they might have thought. And last, but by no means least, thank you to those of you who read my ramblings on this blog, for your uplifting comments and continued messages of support.