Lyon used to be just a dot on the map for me. Situated in the east of France and tantalizingly close to Switzerland, this city was my obsession over the summer and fall of 2017. I don't know how many times I zoomed in on its name in google maps and watched rivers and streets appear as I got closer and closer. Eventually, I lost track of what I was zooming in on, and suddenly this little dot 3,734 miles from my hometown in Connecticut became a moderately overwhelming labyrinth of street names I wasn't quite positive I could pronounce. I fantasized life there as sort of an amorphous mixture of cobblestone streets, lots of bread, and little clips of the twenty-odd YouTube videos I had watched incessantly. I couldn't differentiate Lyon from any other French village, and so its name floated in my mind for months without any concrete sense of what it meant.
Now, I have lived here for almost two months. I know exactly which metro to take to get to the touristy Bellecour, or the ancient roman theaters at Fourvière, or Vieux Lyon to grab some crêpes. I spend my breaks between classes listening to Jaques Brel as I walk by the river Rhône--unless, of course, I happen across a spontaneous performance of trumpet players in mismatched outfits. My point is that this city is becoming like a second home to me, but, no matter how comfortable I get, there is always a surprise waiting to jolt me back into a sense of wonder.
This spring I am studying through USAC at L'Université Lumière Lyon II. (Even just being able to write that sentence feels amazing!) There are times when the dense open-air markets and endless boulangeries feels normal, and other times where the reality of where I am and the privilege I have been given hits me like a douse of ice water. For the whole two flights there—a 13-hour process in total, first to Montreal, then to France—I felt fine. In control. (I had taken a plane many times before. I knew where my passport was. I checked again to make sure I knew where my passport was.) Then, after getting off the plane, I was able to push through my nerves and keep myself moving from point A to point B. Eventually, I found myself late that night with a new set of keys and sitting in my new dorm room, having introduced myself to so many people I wasn't sure I could remember any of their names. It hadn't felt unreal or like a dream as I expected but like I was taking a short vacation to a very different place.
Only I wasn't. I was living there. I had flown to another continent where I knew no one and my phone didn't even work. The surrealism hit me most one morning when I was ambling by the river across from campus when I noticed a huge gathering of swans for the first time. Anyone who knows me knows that I love birds, and so I promptly sat down on the bank and began feeding them bits of my pain au chocolat. It was in that moment, as the swans were nipping at the pigeons who were swooping down to steal their crumbs, that I realized completely that I was in France. In Iowa or Connecticut, I never would have been able to walk by classic buildings and boat-restaurant hybrids to stop and feed some birds glowing white on the turquoise water in the sun. I also wouldn't be constantly surrounded by an invigorating (and somehow reassuring) mix of old and new: Lyon was first settled by the Romans a year after the assassination of Julius Cesar in 43 B.C. Their amphitheaters still stand, and I can trip walking up the steps just as countless people once did in ancient times on an evening out to see Medea. At the same time, the city is incredibly modern and progressive, and its inhabitants weave their way through all its history to do very uneventfully, quotidian things in famous places. I am just so amazed to find myself in a place so old and yet still growing. And, most of all, I am so grateful that I can add to its story, and that these next few months I spend in Lyon will be a part of its complex narrative. And, maybe, just perhaps, the swans who will stay here will think of me after I leave when a nice stranger throws them a piece of bread.
Lee Ann Pelletier is an English and creative writing major at the University of Iowa, who will be spending her semester at L’Université Lumière Lyon 2 in France as part of the USAC Lyon program.