A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Lyon, France for several days because someone at my office thought it was a good idea to pay me as a consultant to be the “rapporteur” at a two-day meeting. Ah, the glorious life of a consultant for an international organization who shall not be named. The amount I got paid for two days of work was more than my monthly stipend as a student, and should just about cover the amount that I owe Uncle Sam in taxes for this year. Woo hoo! The feedback was that everyone was impressed with my typing skills and the fact that I was able to listen to the proceedings and take notes at the same time. Um, thank you? Glad all that education is being put to good use. Not long until it will be me giving those presentations instead of taking notes, mwahaha. It was, however, also an excellent networking opportunity and as the meetings were Thursday/Friday I stayed in Lyon over the weekend to check out the city.
Lyon is the second-largest city in France after Paris and is famous for being the French capital of gastronomy and having an UNESCO world heritage site. The prospect of spending a weekend partaking in French food, wine, coffee, and wandering around the cobbled streets sounded fantastic. What I failed to take into account, however, was the sub-zero temperatures. This was the week billed as “the coldest week in 27 years” in Europe and the temperature failed to rise above freezing for over a week. But did that deter me from my weekend plans? Jamais! I ended up stopping in a store to by an extra scarf, hat, and stockings to put on under my jeans. I haven’t experienced tights-under-jeans weather in YEARS and forgot just how cold below-zero feels.
I would like to take this opportunity to plug a great business I used to find a place to stay in Lyon – it’s called Airbnb and is a similar idea to Couchsurfers, except you pay for your room. I had such a positive experience I just have to gush about it a bit. And no, they are not compensating me in any way to say this. From their website:
We connect people who have space to spare with those who are looking for a place to stay. Guests can build real connections with their hosts, gain access to distinctive spaces, and immerse themselves in the culture of their destinations. Whether it’s an urban apartment or countryside castle, Airbnb makes it effortless to showcase your space to an audience of millions, and to find the right space at any price point, anywhere.
Basically, you can search for places to stay in the city you want to visit that are almost exclusively made up of people renting out rooms in their houses. Generally these are people who are interested in meeting new people, showing off their city, and making a bit of cash from their spare bedrooms. You can see photos of the place, read reviews from people who have stayed there in the past, and you can ask questions and exchange information (addresses/phone number) with the hosts before you pay a dime. Payment is done online so no surprises about the price when you show up.
I like this whole idea because it makes the experience of visiting somewhere new so much richer compared to staying in a impersonal hotel. Especially since I was there on my own. For 65 Euros a night including breakfast I stayed in a lovely, comfortable flat on the Presqu’ile within walking distance to the metro and main tourist areas with a couple who were students in Art History and Philosophy. E and C were very warm, welcoming, and it was a fantastic opportunity to speak French and chat about Lyon, French culture, and our lives in general with people who know the area. Plus, E plays a wicked bass guitar. Now go check it out as an alternative to a hotel for your next trip.
Speaking of the French language, it was such a joy to be in a place where I can communicate with anyone and everyone and not have to preface every conversation with, “Do you speak English?” Speaking only French for three straight days was so wonderful. No one even tried to switch to English with me. I’m not sure if this says more about my French skills or about their willingness to abide tourists compared to people in Paris, but it was much appreciated on my side. I was worried after too many years of neglect I would no longer be able to claim fluency in French, but at this point I can confidently say that is no problem. Some of my vocab is rusty, but that stuff comes back quickly. And as a bonus, in the short time I was there no fewer than four people stopped me on the street and asked for directions. European assimilation ftw! It’s amazing what a big scarf, skinny jeans and ankle boots can do for the perception of your nationality. Oddly enough, this has happened before. When I was traveling with my ex-boyfriend in Romania after college we were walking through the main plaza in a city called Cluj when a girl ran up to us and said (in French) “Ah, you are French, I just know it!” Could it be the unwashed-backpacker-chic that confused her? My ethnic heritage may be a mishmash of various European countries, but French is not one of them.
As a result of that experience with language, back in Basel I am more frustrated than ever about my lack of German skills and inability to connect with people here in a deeper way on their terms and not just my own. It is time. I decided to stop beating around the bush and finally enroll in a German class. I start on March 9th. I’d say it’s about time, after a year of being here and only managing to learn “survival German” (aka phrases centering around food, drink, and curses)!