“Il faut aimer la vie” – a GDST Travel Scholarship report from France

By me&him

Louisa Cotterhill, an alumna of The Royal High School, Bath, takes us on a journey to the South East of France in the latest in our series of reports from recipients of a GDST Travel Scholarship.

On the morning of 2nd June 2016 I landed in Lyon, France, where I was about to spend the next month. It was only when I left the airport and headed into the city that I realised just what I was undertaking: I was alone in an unfamiliar city, where I knew absolutely no one. Looking back on the trip, I can safely say that it was the best month of my life.

The main purpose of this trip was to improve my knowledge of French language and culture before embarking upon a French degree at Oxford University in October. I had booked myself onto an intensive language course at the Alliance Française de Lyon and had organised an internship at a travel book shop.

From a linguistic point of view, the lessons at the Alliance Française were extremely helpful. I attended classes every weekday morning, with other students from all over the world. For most of us, the only common language for communication was French and even most of the Anglophones would insist on speaking to each other in French.

It was beautiful to see so many nationalities brought together by the common goal of wanting to perfect our French. The teachers were able to iron out any hazy grammar points and introduced us to the art of summarising different texts. Each week focused on a different topic and encompassed a range of different reading, writing, speaking and listening activities.

However, the best thing about the Alliance was the friends that I made there. I met some truly incredible people from a wide range of countries. I have so many memories with my group of friends, such as going to Lyon’s annual Fête de la musique together and using our lunchtimes to sample the culinary delights that Lyon has to offer as France’s gastronomic capital.

Working in the bookshop (Raconte Moi La Terre) gave me an opportunity to put the French that I was learning into practice. It is a lovely shop that specialises in travel books. Having previously worked in clothing and book stores in the UK, I soon learned the differences between retail in England and France. In the French bookshop, much more emphasis was put on the overall aesthetic of the shop and quality of the products and less focus on the customer service.

It took a while for me to be accepted into the team, but after a couple of weeks I felt I had broken the ice! The shop also has a café where I could eat the most delicious food at heavily reduced prices. As the shop is located in the city centre, it is slowly becoming a tourist hotspot so I was able to use (and put to the test!) my translation skills for the store signage.

The more time I spent in Lyon, the more I fell in love with the city. Situated between the Rhone and Soane rivers, it is a vibrant location, brimming with French history and culture but also with a truly international atmosphere. I was there during the Euro 2016 football tournament (for which Lyon was a host city), meaning that Lyon welcomed fans from all over Europe.

Interestingly, I was previously not the slightest bit interested in football but I was astounded how the matches brought people together. I remember vividly being in a bar when France was playing Albania and the electrifying atmosphere when France won, with everyone singing the Marseillaise at the top of their lungs!

I will never forget when I first ascended the Fourvière Hill to the Basilica and was blown away by the incredible views all over the city. I never found myself bored for a single second, as there was always something to do. For example, I spent many afternoons in the myriad museums that Lyon has to offer, such as the Musée Confluences which had exhibitions ranging from Antarctica to the importance of shoes to our identity!

In the Musée Gadagne I learned all about the history of Lyon – similar to Bath, it was previously a Roman city (called Lugdunum). The Musée des Beaux Arts showcased some of the most impressive works of painting and sculpture and the gardens were a beautifully tranquil place to get some homework done (yes, the language school gave us plenty of homework!).

I stayed with a host family during my stay. Initially I was slightly disappointed as they lived far away from the city centre (I had to catch three metros to get to school). However, the commute helped me get to grips with the public transport system very quickly – this was useful as there were often metro strikes which meant having to make alternative plans. It also made me maximise my time in the city by not going back home during the day.

Talking to the family at dinner times was a great way to improve expressing myself about matters such as politics and culture as they were always willing to chat to me. They also lived close to a very interesting area called the Croix Rousse, where all the silk workers used to live back when Lyon was one of Europe’s major silk producers. The hills of the Croix Rousse, intricate murals that cover the walls and the Saturday morning food and antiques market gave the area a very special atmosphere.

Being an English speaker in Lyon provided an excellent opportunity to add to my funding by giving English lessons… and I was soon in high demand! I got a regular job teaching conversational English to the children of a colleague at the bookshop and gave some lessons to another colleague. This was a very interesting exercise which revealed to me the complexities and difficulties of my own language. I also babysat the six-year old daughter of one of my teachers at the Alliance. Reading her the Mr Men books in French sent a shock-wave of nostalgia and certainly taught me some new vocabulary!

I used my weekends to visit places in Lyon’s surrounding areas. The most memorable experience was a trip to Annecy. It is an extremely picturesque town in the heart of the mountains, not far from the Swiss border. Lake Annecy is beautifully clear and blue and the town itself has a series of crystal clear canals and striking architecture. I also visited the medieval castle there, which is historically very interesting and provided stunning views.

I also took the train to Pérouges, a tiny medieval village just outside of Lyon. It is so small that it doesn’t even have a train station so I arrived in a neighbouring village and walked through the mountains to get there. It was like stepping back in time, as the original medieval fortifications are still intact and the streets are cobblestoned.

Overall, I feel that I have not only gained a great deal of knowledge from this trip, I have gained an even greater amount of maturity. Being immersed in a different culture in an unfamiliar city presented its challenges but I am proud to have overcome them and to have returned to the UK a much more independent person.

It will stand me in good stead for my year abroad and for my future career (I hope to enter the diplomatic service). One of the most important lessons I learned can be summed up by the words of a French person I met: “Il faut aimer la vie” (it is essential to love life) – a very important mantra if ever there was one. 

I would like to sincerely thank the GDST for awarding me the Marguerite Nicholson Travel Scholarship and for helping me turn my dream of spending a month in Lyon into reality.