An Update

I owe all of my readers (and my mother) an apology. Fortunately, I’ve been extremely busy over the past two months: travelling all over, seeing the world, and just generally transitioning. Unfortunately, it’s left me little time to process, write, and share. I’ve been on the move so much someone recently asked me if I was “perennially homeless.” It’s not far from the truth. Here’s a little life update on what I’ve been up to, what I’m doing now, and what’s to come.

The first of my trips was over Easter weekend. The other English assistants and I went to Chamonix, France as a last hoorah together. The town itself is bustling with tourists, but that’s for a good reason—the surrounding mountains are magnificent.  

 

Mont Blanc

 

Shortly after, during my school’s spring break, I spent two weeks in the Rhône Valley and Southern France. I couch surfed, saw heaps of Roman ruins, met up with a friend from college, and reunited with the host family from my high school trip in 2009.

 

The Calanques, featuring Derek Franklin

 

When I returned I had only a week left at my school. I said farewell to my students, colleagues, and roommates. Some friends in Chambéry have been kind enough to allow me to keep all of my things in their basement during this nomadic period of mine.

 

Saying goodbye to some of my favorite students

 

Next was my month-long voyage. The first stop was Paris, where I spent five days doing obscure things that I had never been at liberty to do. All of my prior trips were with first-time visitors eager to see the main attractions, so I ended up repeating the same things. This time I saw Paris on my own terms.

 

Place des Vosges

 

Ireland was my second destination, where I spent about nine days touring the island. I greatly enjoyed the lively cities, the lush countryside, and the welcoming people. I will no doubt return someday.

 

The Cliffs of Moher

 

I took a ferry across the Irish Sea to Scotland, where I spent more than two weeks exploring both the Lowlands and the Highlands. I had originally planned to descend to England, but I found Scotland so agreeable that I simply decided to spend the rest of my time and money there. I visited distilleries, heard a lot of bagpipes, and shared quality time with two dear friends from back home.

 

The largest scotch whisky collection in the world

 

I intend to post about all of these in greater detail, but it may still be a while. That is because I am currently preparing for a challenge I’ve had in my sights for over two years. On June 19th I’m going to start the Haute Randonnée Pyrenéenne, a 45-day hike across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. At this very moment I’m squatting in a friend’s living room in Chambéry for a week, digesting my travels and preparing for the coming expedition.

For the next month and a half I’ll essentially be off the grid, but I hope to prepare some pieces in advance that will automatically post while I’m gone—stay tuned. If all goes according to plan, which is not a guarantee, then I’ll finish with my hike in early August and return directly to the US.

My post-European future is less definite. I plan to apply to creative non-fiction MFA programs this fall (which would start in the fall of 2016), and I’ll search for a job in Missouri when I return. I’m sorry again for my silence, but I hope you’re now up to speed!

 

Here's some random Marseille street art for you

An Exceedingly Humble Guide [Part Three]: Lyon


Lyon is an unequivocally terrible city. It is, simply put, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You, dear reader, will have lived an enviable life if only you can boast that you never entered its miserable confines. Still, Lyon’s matchless unpleasantness deserves a review of sorts. This guide will outline exactly why it is an awful city and specifically what you should avoid if you are ever forced to visit.


 

Once the prestigious capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon is now the decrepit center of the French Rhône-Alpes region. The metropolitan area is the second largest in the country, home to some two million pitiable inhabitants. The layout of Lyon is determined by the surrounding hills and rivers. The confluence of the Rhône and Saône creates a peninsula called the Presqu’île. To the north of this peninsula is the neighborhood of La Croix-Rousse. On the left bank of the Rhône several neighborhoods are grouped together as the “Rive Gauche.” On the right bank of the Saône are Vieux Lyon—or “Old Lyon”—and the neighborhood of the Fourvière, which overlooks the entire metropolis. Travel between these areas is a continuous ordeal thanks to the sorry state of Lyon’s infrastructure: there’s only 1 international airport, 3 train stations, 4 metro lines, 5 tram lines, 123 bus lines, and 340 bicycle-hire service stations.

 

The office of tourism in Lyon has developed a clever little stylized slogan: “Only Lyon.” They would have you think that Lyon is filled with manifold attractions, but don’t be fooled dear reader—it is but a cheap trick. Lyon would be a terrible place to take people who are visiting you from America. There is nothing worth seeing, but there is indeed plenty to avoid.


Photo credit: Anne Donnelly

Definitely don't bring friends to Lyon or they'll look like this

Stay away from the Fourvière hill. There’s no point in looking out over the vast urban panorama. The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière has an unoriginal exterior and the décor inside is terribly bland. The ancient Roman theatre and odeon are uninteresting and they certainly don’t offer a fascinating view into the lives and cultures of ancient peoples.

 

No views to be found here...

The exterior of the basilica

The interior of the basilica 

The (restored) steps of the Roman theatre 

Don’t even think about visiting the Presqu’île. The Opéra Nouvel hosts no events worthy of note. There is no pleasure to be derived from strolling along the banks of the rivers and taking in the city views. The whole neighborhood seems haphazard: the Place Bellecour, Place Carnot, Place des Jacobins, Place des Terreaux, and all of the expansive avenues connecting them seem as if they were organized by a blind person.

 

The Saône

At Place Bellecour looking up to the Fourvière

Statue of Louis XIV in the center of Place Bellecour

Rue de la République 

The Hôtel de Ville in the Place des Terreaux 


Keep away from La Croix-Rousse, dear reader, if you know what is good for you. Just walking down the streets, one can sense the oppressively bohemian and lively atmosphere. The Roman amphitheater located there is just like every other Roman amphitheater. It is a neighborhood completely bereft of history and culture (apart from it being the capital of the European silk industry for several centuries).


Graffiti in La Croix-Rousse 

Kevin from Up


Don’t waste your time with Parc de la Tête d’Or; it is one of the oldest, largest, and dullest urban green spaces in France. It has nothing to offer in any season: the gardens are lifeless in the spring, you shouldn’t bother boating on the lake in the summer, the foliage lacks any color in autumn, and it’s a miserable place to spend Christmas Day biking around with the woman you love.


Cherry blossom


Steer clear of Vieux Lyon at all costs. For some reason UNESCO has declared it a world heritage site—probably as some sort of joke. The Cathédrale Saint-Jean is just a modest little chapel of no cultural significance. The narrow pedestrian streets and Renaissance architecture throughout the neighborhood leave much to be desired. Vieux Lyon is known for its traboules (covered passageways originally used for silk transportation in wet weather), but what’s so special about a few tunnels?


Cathédrale Saint-Jean

Traboule marking


In addition to all of these places to avoid, it should be noted that Lyon offers an embarrassingly meager selection of museums. The tourist unfortunate enough to travel to Lyon can see it all in a short afternoon: the Gallo-Roman Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Confluence Museum (of science and anthropology), the African Museum, the Hôtel-Dieu (medical museum), the Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Gadagne Museum (history of Lyon), the Museum of Automated Puppets, the Lumière Museum (the birthplace of cinematography), the Miniature and Cinema Museum, the Silk Weavers’ House (museum of the Lyonnais silk industry), the Printing Museum, and the Laundry Museum.


Roman mosaic 

Roman keys

 

Regarding Lyonnais culture, there’s not much to be said. While Lyon might be lauded as the gastronomic capital of France (and sometimes the world), anyone with a sense of taste will disagree. There is a dearth of regional ingredients, excellent markets, and international restaurants. The traditional Lyonnais eatery, the inhospitable bouchon, serves minuscule dishes of a quality barely rivaling Kentucky Fried Chicken. Any culinary culture that Lyon once had has been thoroughly stamped out by the infamous chef Paul Bocuse (whose only praise comes from fringe organizations, such as the Culinary Institute of America who named him Chef of the Century). Worst of all, dear reader, you’re forced to wash this so-called food down with the obscure and tasteless wines of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhône—too insignificant to warrant further review.

 

quenelle, just try it


Lyon is widely known for its annual lights show, the Fête des Lumières—although it’s difficult to understand why. The Fête des Lumières is one of the top three biggest festive gatherings in the world in terms of attendance (after Rio Carnival and Munich Oktoberfest). Three to four million people come to see the hackneyed train wreck each year. It is a truly pedestrian event in both senses of the word: every road closes to traffic and swells with spectators. The entire city of Lyon is lit up by dozens of unimaginative installations, ranging from run-of-the-mill psychedelic animations projected on the cathedral to giant, bromidic puppet shows. You will see more originality, dear reader, by driving around your neighborhood in Christmastime. 


Cathédrale Saint-Jean 

Giant puppets and interpretive dance 

The Hôtel de Ville

The festival is actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary


Sure, Lyon may have ranked as the second best city in France by the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, but anyone who visits can observe otherwise. As you can discern from this guide, dear reader, there is nothing to see or do in Lyon. Its only redeeming features are six Starbucks locations and transportation to other destinations. It is utterly devoid of vitality, diversity, and culture. You will lose a fragment of your soul for every second you spend in such a miserable place, just ask any of two million people who reluctantly call Lyon home.

Three Weeks in Limbo

The outskirts of Chambéry

 

I am in France! For the last three weeks I’ve been occupied with getting acclimated to my new city and preparing for my work as an English teaching assistant. I had forgotten how much I love this country and language. I had forgotten that everyone looks beautiful, I had forgotten that everyone smokes, and I had forgotten that every single toilet is different.

Unfortunately, I had also forgotten about the bureaucracy. France has a cultivated and rich tradition of administrative entanglement. The paperwork is simultaneously nightmarish and impressive. Over the past few weeks I’ve had to accomplish a series of tasks: find a temporary place to stay, get a cell phone, find a permanent place to stay, open a bank account, register with my school, get a bus pass, and finalize my working visa with the French government (to name a few). To complete these tasks I’ve had to furnish a multitude of proofs, circumnavigate catch-22s, schedule and reschedule meetings, message and call, message again and call again, seek the help of others, exaggerate my helplessness, and smile.  

 

 

Finding housing has proven to be the greatest challenge. Teaching assistants are required to organize their own housing, and there are many different options. There was a possibility that I could live at my school (they have housing for students as well), but I didn’t receive a response from the school before I departed—so I arrived in Chambéry relatively unprepared. The first night I stayed in the cheapest hotel that I could find (still expensive), just to give me a little bit of flexibility. The next day a girl named Perrine accepted my Couchsurfing request, so I hauled all of my luggage over to her place—I’ll describe my experience there later on. I only planned to stay for the weekend, but once I told Perrine and her roommates about my situation they welcomed me to stay until I found a permanent place.

 

My hosts' chicken

 

Once I set up camp in their living room, I started wholeheartedly searching for an apartment. I continued searching for two weeks. As it turns out, there is a shortage of real estate in Chambéry. Even the most undesirable of accommodations will fetch at least three hundred euros a month. Something approximating nice will cost around five hundred. I wanted to share an apartment or house with French people. It’s cheaper, I could practice my French, and I could make some easy friends. For two weeks I scoured close to a dozen different sources: websites, agencies, university postings, and friends of friends. After incessant calls and messages, I received dismally few responses. Again and again, promising opportunities fell through. I became discouraged.


Taking a photo while biking

 

This period of instability would have been even more distressing if it weren’t for my hosts. Perrine lives in a colocation with four other young people: Amel, Antonin, Jean, and Léo (colocation doesn’t have a great English translation, so I’ve chosen to use the French word—or its abbreviation—throughout: it is a name for a living situation with multiple roommates, flat mates, or housemates. It commonly connotes conviviality and community). In one of the most vulnerable periods in my life, I have experienced profound hospitality. From the moment I arrived they not only put a roof over my head, but they invited me in on their meals, conversations, and plans. Antonin and Léo took me hiking (although we got rained out). Amel introduced me to all of her friends and brought me to her English class. Jean included me in all of his game nights and movie nights. Perrine took me climbing. In particular, Amel was immensely helpful in assisting me with my paperwork and housing search, and she was a constant source of encouragement. I also just returned from a three-day backpacking trip with Antonin and Léo through the Chartreuse mountain range—although I’ll save that for another post.

 

 

The coloc quickly became more than just the place where I slept—it is now where my closest friends in Chambéry live. Although installing myself in this city has been a slow process in other regards, I am tremendously fortunate to have established the roots of friendship so rapidly. I have no doubt that they will remain close for the duration of my stay in Chambéry—and long after.

 

 

Eventually my housing search started to yield results. I secured a visit to an apartment about ten minutes from the center of the city. It is a coloc with two other guys: one Asian student and a French man who I suspect is around thirty or thirty-five. I met them both, along with the landlord, during my visit. I saw the room being offered and the amenities of the apartment. My impression: it seemed to have neither spectacular advantages nor significant drawbacks. It was attractive because it existed and because it was available—which is more than I could say about any other option I had pursued. I told the landlord that I was interested and that I would decide within the next couple of days. In the meantime, I was still waiting for responses and seeking other leads.

Several days later, there were no new options. After three weeks in limbo, with my job about to start, I decided that it was time to make a decision and get settled. Exactly one week ago I accepted the offer, signed the papers, and moved in. The relief that comes from transitioning out of virtual homelessness in a foreign country is difficult to qualify; for the first time in the better part of a month, I was able to unpack my suitcases. I could organize my belongings. I had privacy. I felt secure.

 

 

Over the past week I’ve made this apartment my home. It is quite nice! So are my new flat mates, Xiao and Cédric. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the coloc had Wi-Fi: I was told it didn’t. There haven’t been any nasty surprises yet, and the bathroom is pretty normal (you never know in France). As I explore the neighborhood, I’m also realizing how practical the location is. The bus stop is right in front of my door, there are multiple grocery stores nearby, my favorite restaurant is only a couple minutes away, and the old coloc is right up the hill.

 

A party at the coloc

 

I am getting established with my job. A couple of weeks ago, all of the foreign language assistants in the area of Grenoble (about two-hundred and forty) congregated for two days of training. We met our colleagues, we were guided through the impending administrative obligations, and we attended workshops on pedagogical strategies for assistants.

 

So-called training

 

Last week I started at Lycée Louis Armand as the English teaching assistant for the entire school (there is also one Spanish assistant and one Italian assistant). The English faculty has been welcoming, and the students have been surprisingly agreeable. Although French classrooms are known for being a bit more rowdy, my students have been engaged and interested—for now, at least, I’m novel. I am enjoying my work, and I feel confident in my ability to do it well.

After three weeks of uncertainty, I am finding equilibrium. I have a home, I have friends, and I am fulfilling the purpose for which I am here. It is no longer the beginning.