Lyon: Culture, Politics, Mice and City Bikes

Salut tout le monde! 

I was fortunate enough to spend fall semester in Lyon, making trips as well to places around France, the UK, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. My GLI Global Theme is Culture and Politics, with my challenge being to assess the ways in which multilateralism can be channeled into environmental sustainability efforts. I felt privileged to be taking classes on pertinent topics such as fascism, international criminal law, comparative constitutional law and others, the perfect opportunity to explore culture and politics while away. The French are characteristic debaters, with the expressions “in fact”, “but”, “honestly” or “I find” at the start of every other sentence. I felt like I arrived during such a period of flux for the EU; with the war in Ukraine, the death of the Queen, a couple of new UK PMs, and elections around the EU resulting in the rising far-right favor (Sweden, Italy), and of course the World Cup hot off the press in my time in France, there was much to discuss. 

(Buzzing streets after Morocco made it to the semi-finals, widely celebrated in Lyon due to the prevalent Northern African population in France. Such a historic moment, so cool to witness!)

Despite the French being classic debaters, I didn’t find that much was open for discussion in class. A lot of what professors had to say about cultures other than their own seemed broad-brush-y or “cancellable” from my perspective, had the same thing been said by an American professor. I have a few friends who walked out of class one day (in classic French “spirit of resistance” fashion) in the absence of the space for discourse. They left to demonstrate that there are other points of view that might’ve had different and potentially more respectful or informed points to contribute.  I struggled with the fact that there wasn’t room to be Socratic about certain statements that were made. Still, the intriguing subject matter of most of my classes kept me engaged, and feeling fortunate for the opportunity to observe the delivery of such information from a different cultural standpoint or method. 

It was interesting to witness how much better-ingrained issues of sustainability are in daily life in France. The indisputability of climate change, or more specifically, the importance of sustainable practices in transport, food systems and more was refreshing, and spoke to the feasibility of models that could help the United States achieve greater levels of sustainability.  Most of the produce displays in grocery stores listed the product’s origins, with many markets carrying only produce within France, or even the region; a lot of the markets carried exclusively fruits and vegetables in season. You could certainly get your hands on more exotic items like kiwis or avocados, but the simple listing of this information by the producer increases a more sustainable ethic around consumption in France. Not all of the fruit is picture perfect, reducing the amount of food wasted. Public bikes and other modes of transit abound, relieving people of  reliance on cars to get from place to place. There were days each week where you might find the city lights dimmed, part of Emmanuel Macron’s new ‘energy sobriety’ program, which is commendable, given most (69%) of France’s energy grid is powered by nuclear in the first place. 

(My roommate Carlota and I on our way home, via city bike)

Life in France required far more self-advocacy than I was used to in my hometown of Missoula, where I can comfortably bumble through life with my hands tied behind my back and blindfolded. I had been warned of the bureaucratic throes of France, and expected to be challenged. Challenges presented themselves when I’d find mice in my hundreds-of-years- old-apartment, have to tell a French ER doc what happened with my simple language skills, or asking if a menu item contained gluten (everything in France contains gluten). Learning to articulate my needs, whether it be dietary, school-related, interpersonal, or professional in French was an added challenge- but one that made success doubly rewarding when things worked out. To be an effective leader, one that represents and protects others, I believe self-advocacy is a crucial first step which allows us to remain consistent with our beliefs and needs in the face of challenges. I’m grateful to have had the chance to hone this skill! 

Coming out of this experience and during, I’ve wondered  how to translate what I learned into my life at home and onward. I can’t constantly hijack conversations and talk about my study abroad experience, but I can do my best to replicate the moments, practices and experiences I had in France here at home. I hope to continue my language practice, experience and create more art, slow down every once in a while, walk more, consume thoughtfully, congregate and dissect social and political issues with my friends, maybe over a glass of wine.  I read a collection of essays by Umberto Eco for my fascism class in France- in light of the aforementioned rising prevalence of far-right political regimes in Europe and the U.S. alike right now, Eco argues that one of the best prophylaxis is facilitating the international student experience. While we, and other students abroad might think that parties, outings, dinners and what have you are not much deeper than plain fun, they are also cultivating a Europe and a world that will continue to embrace multiculturalism. Eco suspects that we will befriend, marry and remember people from abroad and the ways they’ve impressed upon us. Indeed, it will be impossible to see others and the world in the dimensions you might’ve seen them in previously. The people I spent every day with who started as strangers now fit comfortably in the role of old friends, whose gifts I’ll always carry with me. 

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