By: Cindy Wang
In my bedroom closet, at the very top shelf, sits a small Ziploc bag, hidden between a few dust-covered books. At first glance, you might miss it completely – with a few receipts, a bus card, a print-out map – it’s not the first thing you would reach for. But each item is a token, a reminder of a specific time and place, each containing a little piece of summertime. Rummaging through them now, I find myself forgetting about the snow outside, as I am taken back to warm summer days spent in Lyon, France.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Ontario Rhône-Alpes Summer Research Program, where I worked in a French research lab for two months. Leaving the train station and moving into the streets of Lyon, the first thing I noticed was the number of people carrying half-eaten baguettes. I was most definitely in France! After mistakenly trying to check-in at the restaurant in the front of the building, I finally found the Puvis de Chavannes residence and settled into my room on the seventh floor.
Waking up the next morning, I noticed tiny dots crawling on the ground. A quick google search confirmed my suspicions, they were bed bugs. Now for you lucky individuals who have never had to learn everything, there is to know about bed bugs, I will kindly inform you that bed bugs are one of the sneakiest, vilest, most unpleasant creatures to exist. These pesky little creatures manage to hide in the tiniest corners. I found a bug in the zipper of my suitcase, the crease of my running shoes, and the fold of my shirt collar (as I was wearing it!). Needless to say, for a good week afterwards, I would shudder every time I felt a light breeze tickling my arm. I remember that day clearly, sitting in my bug infested room, wanting to cry and wondering if this exchange could get any worse. But in some ways, those bed bugs were the best thing that could have happened to me. After speaking with the staff downstairs, I was able to move to the second floor, where my summer truly began.
I lived in room 209, near the corner of the hall, right by the staircase. If I close my eyes, I can picture it now; with its lemon-yellow closet, tiny bathroom, and a large window that overlooked a field where children played on lazy summer afternoons. I spent most of my first week alone, waking up, going to work, eating, going to sleep.
While cooking one day, I noticed a hand-drawn poster, inviting the entire floor to a potluck in a week’s time. It didn’t take me long to find the only decorated door in the hall, belonging to the hostess of the event. I stood in front of the door for a full minute, deciding whether I should introduce myself to this stranger on the other side of the door. In a moment of impulsiveness, my hand reached up to knock, and I found myself face to face with a girl my age. We talked about everything, I confided to her about the difficulty of adapting to a new country, and she shared with me her own experiences as an exchange student. Before saying goodbye, she gave me the map that was taped on her wall, a little plastic bag filled with popcorn, and a promise to introduce me to the rest of the floor at the potluck. Do you know that moment in movies when something just clicks? The sun peeks above the horizon, Gandalf and an army come galloping down the hill, and everything finally seems to be right with the world? Well, that was one of those moments – even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I just remember walking back to my room, feeling very satisfied with the little bag of popcorn and my new friend.
The rest of my summer passed by in a blur; the days melting together under the sweltering June sun. Our floor spent a lot of time together, from sleepless nights strolling the empty streets of Lyon, to evenings sitting in the kitchen, passing around aloe vera after getting sunburnt at the beach. Thanks to my new friends, my days no longer felt long and tedious.
Sometimes, I still think about how different my summer would have been had I stayed on the seventh floor. Well, for one thing, I would have only had the bed bugs to keep me company. But I would also never have met the wonderfully kind people on my floor, who made my summer unforgettable. Thinking back, I realized that they never had to include me in their plans, in fact, it might have been a lot easier not to. Why put up with this random Canadian girl who relied on them as human dictionaries, who made up French phrases (apparently “c’est d’accord” does not mean “its okay”), and who used outdated Quebecois words that were met with puzzled looks (it’s not a “chandail” its a “t-shirt”)? But despite all this, they always made me feel included, they patiently corrected my grammar and they listened to me ramble on about the flies I worked with in the lab. While they would sometimes joke about some of the French phrases, they tried their best to do it behind my back, so you know what? C’est d’accord!
As the summer progressed, I felt more comfortable speaking in French. However, a part of me was still very much aware that this was not my first language. Often, I felt like a simplified version of myself. With a limited vocabulary, I felt like I was always colouring inside the lines, not being able to express myself the way I wanted to. Thus, I found myself often hesitating before speaking, and would often just resort to listening. That being said, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Eiffel Tower! Learning French is challenging, and becoming fluent is even more. Over the past summer, thanks to the patience of the people around me, I think that I’ve gotten a little bit closer to achieving fluency. All the better, if you ask me. Just another reason why I need to go back to France one day.
Nowadays, when I am sitting on the bus, wrapped in my red scarf and listening to music, my mind can’t help but drift back to the warm summer days in Lyon (This also happens when I am eating a particularly disappointing croissant). One song, in particular, takes me back to 7 AM trips to the market. It captures that feeling so vividly that if I tried hard enough, it feels as if I would be able to hear the bustle of the crowd, and smell the crisp morning air.
The music captures the essence of Lyon that I have struggled to describe with words. Beyond the architecture and the physical beauty of this place, there was something about this city that gave it a life of its own. To me, Lyon was biking home after a day hiking on the French Alps, past the riverbank where people sipped wine and gazed idly towards the horizon. Lyon was watching scary movies until the peak of dawn, drinking more black coffee in a span of a week than I had in my entire life. After years of the same place, the same routine, being in Lyon felt like waking up. It’s the way you feel when summer is in full bloom, and you are thousands of miles away from home.
To the readers of this blog, congratulations for making it this far. I realize that when you clicked on this article in hopes of getting a list of quick tips, you weren’t expecting to read this long essay that resembles a diary entry of someone with way too much free time. But that is the point that I wanted to convey: the idea that travelling is not just a to-do list of must-see destinations. It’s about the stories you hear, the people you meet, and the places where little pieces of yourself have been left behind. For those of you on exchange or leaving soon, be happy, be thankful, jump up and down, look at the little dot that is you on google maps, ask yourself “am I really here?!” – realize you are, and be happy all over again. You are about to embark on an extraordinary adventure. You may feel homesick. You may feel lonely. But little by little, you will meet people who make you laugh, you will bike alongside cars with the wind in your hair and no longer be afraid. The things that seemed so intimidating on your first day will silently fade into the background. The city will take you in, and one day, on your way back from a weekend trip, you will step out of the train station, and suddenly feel like you are coming home.
Cindy Wang is a student in the Faculty of Health Sciences, at McMaster University. She completed an internship with the Institut NeuroMyoGene at the University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 from May to July 2017 through the Ontario Rhone-Alpes Summer Research Program. Cindy’s research focused on the role of a neuroglial signalling pathway mediated by the Notch receptor.