Emma Sidnam
Nov 10, 2022

Bicycles, Wine, and Français - a NZ Student's Lyon Exchange

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10 min read

People say that you’re truly fluent in a language when you dream in it. But I’ve been dreaming in French for years, even before I could actually understand it.

I’ve always wanted to speak French. Maybe it’s because of my brother who lives in Paris, or  the French films (Welcome to the Sticks!) we watched as a family, but I’ve been planning this exchange since I was thirteen and learned how to conjugate ‘être.’

My name is Emma and I’m an exchange student at Jean Moulin Lyon III for the spring semester of 2022. I’m from Wellington, New Zealand - and I didn’t realize how exciting that was until I arrived in France and my nationality became my defining feature. I admit it’s strangely satisfying telling people that ‘New Zealand is indeed far away,’’ and that ‘the New Zealand accent is vastly superior to the Australian accent.’

I chose Lyon instead of Paris for three reasons. Firstly, I liked that Lyon is smaller than Paris. I find large cities overwhelming and difficult to get around. Secondly, the exchange program at Lyon III seemed a lot more straightforward than the exchange program at the Sorbonne which seemed impermeable. Thirdly, I’d never been to Lyon before and liked the idea of going somewhere completely new. Whilst I loved visiting my brother in Paris, I wanted to discover a new city on my own.


New Zealand is the furthest possible country from France. That meant I couldn’t fly directly to France. I was supposed to stop over in Los Angeles for one night, transfer to Washington DC, and then fly to Europe. However, a storm delayed my second flight and I arrived in Washington DC around midnight - only to be told I’d missed my flight and would have to wait until the next evening.

I finally arrived in Lyon on the 23rd of August. Frederic, a family friend, was picking me up from the airport but I couldn’t find him. For a confused ten minutes, I loitered outside in the sweaty heat, trying to spot a red car. Eventually, Frederic found me. He didn’t speak any English and I was eager to speak French so we made polite conversation while he drove towards Lyon central. I was nervous about my French comprehension even though I’d been practicing speaking with a friend and listening to Le Monde podcasts every morning for six months.

‘Tu veux manger?' (do you want to eat?) Frederic asked me and I nodded. Ten minutes later, he pulled into a Mcdonald's!

And so it came to be that my very first meal in Lyon, the gastronomy capital of France, was a soggy chicken wrap and fries.

I found my apartment when I was still in New Zealand. Whilst the university offers to set us up in CROUS apartments, I decided to search individually. I only wanted to live in CROUS if I could share an apartment with others and they told me they couldn’t guarantee that. I looked at websites such as LivinFrance, ChezNestor, and CarteDeColocs but I eventually found my apartment through a Facebook group called LyonLogement. A lot of scammers offered me apartments but they refused to video call, instead asking me to send money immediately. Blandine, my French flatmate, messaged me telling me a room would be available in late august. She was happy to video-call and didn’t mind that I’d only be staying for four months. Within a week I agreed to live with her.

The apartment is in Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon). I didn’t know anything about Vieux Lyon when I was still in New Zealand, but I was thrilled to discover that I would be living in the cultural heart of the city. Vieux Lyon is famous for its narrow, cobble-stoned streets, its orange and yellow Italian-style buildings, red-tiled roofs, and traboules – the charmingly thin passageways between the walls of buildings.

Blandine welcomed me in front of our building with a smile. The door is wide and red, directly opposite a touristy bar. Our apartment is gorgeous and distinctly (if I do say so myself) French. I fell in love instantly. Our landlord is an artist and he’s filled our walls with paintings and photographs – all of which are named and described in our lease. We have a red marble fireplace that doesn’t work, blue and golden kitchen cabinets, and two windows with iron decorating railings where we can sit and read.

The one shortfall of this apartment is the lack of privacy. Our ‘rooms’ aren’t really rooms. Rather, they’re alcoves off the main space, sanctioned off with curtains. My alcove is bright and large with a bright orange curtain. Blandine’s is smaller and darker but not as noisy. I can hear everything – both from Blandine and the bar across the street. Sleeping with earplugs has become my new normal and I have to call home from the kitchen (which has a door) to avoid waking Blandine. If we didn’t get along, this arrangement would be terrible. Thankfully, we get along really well and have spent many evenings watching old films together or reading in the window.

The First Afternoon:

That first afternoon felt like my European dream. I followed Blandine through the winding streets, my eyes flitting left and right as I tried to take it all in. The bouchons (Lyonnaise restaurants) spilled into the streets, carte du jour blackboards everywhere. Marionettes hung from windows, Le Petit Prince winked at passers-by, and red praline popcorn, brioches, and tarts leaned alluring against the many boulangerie windows. Blandine took me to Hôtel de Ville where we sat at outdoor tables. I bought her a verre (glass) of Côte du Rhône red wine and we got to know each other. It was my first whole afternoon speaking French and it felt good.

Even though I hadn’t biked in years, one of my goals was to start cycling. That very first afternoon, Blandine helped me set up a Vélo’v account. I nervously eased the orange Vélov’v bike out of the station and clambered on it. The beauty of biking is you never forget how to do it. Within minutes, I was gliding along. The sun soaked into my shoulders as I cycled through the beautiful streets. As it’s my first time living in Europe, my only reference points are films. That first afternoon, speeding through the cobblestoned streets, I felt like Elio in Call Me By Your Name.

Vélo’v is the Lyon public cycling system. Vélo’v stations are everywhere and for 16.5€ a year, students can use Vélo’v as much as they like.  I use Vélo’v almost every day. There’s a charge if a ride is longer than 45 minutes but that’s generally enough time to get around in Lyon. Most students buy the 25€ a month unlimited metro pass, but I’ve only used the metro 4 times. When it rains I usually walk with an umbrella. One warning about life in Lyon: when it rains, it pours.

Another observation on  Lyon weather – it changes fast. The first two weeks were swelteringly hot, then then the temperature plummeted and suddenly people were wearing turtlenecks and scarves. Two weeks later, the temperature was back in the 20s.

Getting to know people

On my second day in Lyon, I biked to the Manufacture des Tabacs, one of the Lyon III campuses. Yes, that does mean Tobacco Factory. Yes, French people do smoke a lot. My language teacher said that everybody used to smoke, even lecturers while lecturing. Now, it’s not quite as prevalent but I have gotten used to the wafting nicotine between lectures.

I signed up for SIM, the one-week immersion program for DEUF students – exchange students studying in French. The Lyon III campus is confusing and not particularly well-sign-posted. Walking into that lecture hall, I was surprised to see a few hundred students. I didn’t realize how popular Lyon was. I slid into a seat next to Sara, who I’d later travel to Strasbourg with.

That first day, a group of us ended up hanging out – and that became my first friendship group in Lyon. We’re from New Zealand, Spain, England, Poland, Japan, Italy, and Germany – and comparing our cultures, politics, and foods has been a staple in our conversations. That first week, we went to cafes, ice cream stores, and museums. Later, we visited towns like Annecy and Pérrouges. The beautiful thing about befriending other exchange students is that everyone’s in the same boat. Everybody wants to travel and get to know the city.

I’ve found French friends too. I met Eva on my very first day while waiting in line to talk with the recreation department at Lyon III. She was extremely helpful and friendly and we’ve been friends since then. I’ve also some friends in classes and Judo. Making friends with local French students is definitely harder than with exchange students because local students have pre-existing jobs and social lives here. However, it’s worth making the extra effort to talk to French students. Some of them are interested in learning about other cultures or practicing English, and others are just happy to make new friends.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Particularly in the first month, I had a lot of emotional ups and downs. It’s impossible to build long-term, deep friendships in a month and I missed my support networks back home - the people that know me inside and out. There were moments I felt lost and lonely, a failure for not loving every minute of my European exchange. I had to remind myself that those moments were normal. Being in a new country and culture is a huge change and bad days are to be expected.

Food – the heart of Lyon:

My flatmate Blandine and I cook together. We buy fresh produce from the market next to the Soâne on Saturday mornings, writing our communal purchases on a piece of paper on the fridge. During the week, we cook when we can – making enough for lunches as well. Blandine mostly cooks French cuisine like ratatouille, gratins, and tartes. I cook a lot of Moroccan tagines and Asian stir-fries.

At the university, the Crous restaurant serves hot meals, soups, salads, and desserts for affordable prices (3.50-6 euros). The first time I tried to go, the line had a 20-minute wait. After that, I learned to avoid going on the hour. 12:45pm or 1:30pm are ideal times to go. The food isn’t extravagant but it’s filling and relatively healthy. A meal might be vegetable soup, dhal or pasta with chicken and vegetables, and a fromage blanc or apple sauce.

Before arriving in France, I didn't know what fromage blanc was. I assumed it was like cream cheese. It's closer to yoghurt - thick and creamy, delicious with fruit. It's become a staple with my morning porridge.

I’ve discovered I really like Lyonnaise cuisine. I’ve tried a few of the Lyon specialities: the andoulinette: a delicious, savory sausage, quenelles: a soft fish-bread dumpling in a creamy sauce, and a salad with haricots (beans) and canard (duck). I’ve also tried escargots (snails) and chenouilles (frogs legs). French people keep telling me how great frogs legs are but I didn’t like them particularly. They seem messier than they’re worth.

In Lyon, a lot of people drink Aperol spritzes. It was never previously my drink of choice, but it’s become one of my favorites. I’ve also discovered that whilst wine and beer are a lot cheaper in France than they are in New Zealand, spirits tend to be more expensive. A verre (glass of wine) might cost 3.50€ but a gin and tonic will generally cost at least 8€.

Lyon III, the University:

The Lyon III campus isn’t luxurious. The toilets don’t have seats so you have to hover. The outdoor garden area is pretty, but there’s nowhere to sit inside unless you’re in one of the restaurants or a lecturer. In my opinion, the best thing about the campus is the coffee vending machines. For 0.40€ you can buy a decent cappuccino or hot chocolate. Pay with coins. It’s technically possible to pay by card or Izly, the student payment system, but that barely ever works. I’ve spent far too much time in the coffee queue watching someone fight with the machine.

Exchange students can benefit from the sports and arts workshop programs. For 36€ a year, students can attend up to 4 sports/gym classes a week. I go to CrossFit, cross-training, and judo. They’re good classes and an easy way to make friends with French students. The art workshops are free but have limited spaces. I’m  signed up for a creative writing workshop which is two hours a week with a guest teacher. It’s been a really fun way to do something outside of law study.


Choosing to study in French seemed obvious to me. How else was I going to improve? I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I didn’t fully anticipate the stress of trying to understand legal concepts in a foreign language. The first few weeks were hard - there were moments when I barely followed at all. If I was tired or anxious it was almost impossible. Sometimes, I’d lean back in my seat and mentally give up. I had no idea what the lecturer was talking about and I just had to accept that.

Thankfully, French students are generally happy to share their notes with foreign students. All it takes is introducing myself as an exchange student from New Zealand and many French students offered their notes without me even having to ask.

Eight weeks in, my comprehension has improved vastly. I’m finally able to work out what’s important and what’s not so I don’t copy every word the lecturer says. I’m finally able to transcribe full sentences. And I’m finally getting my head around dates like 1994. (The fact that the French word for 90 is literally 4, 2, 10 is so frustrating!) Whilst there are still confusing moments, it’s bearable because I’m usually with another confused exchange student or a French student I can copy off.

Despite the fact that my comprehension has improved, I would actually say I’m less confident in French than I was before. The more time I spend here, the more aware I am of all the gaps in my vocabulary. It’s the classic ‘the more you know, the less you know.’ I can speak more fluidly than before, I’ve learned a lot more words and phrases, and yet I’m painfully aware of how foreign I sound. I’ve realized that I’d need to spend at least two years here to attain the level of French I want.


Overall, I love being in Lyon. I love sitting in the window, looking at the colorful houses on the side of the hill. It’s a view I’ll never tire of. When I sit there with a coffee or a glass of red wine, I feel like a French cliché. I love feeling like that.

I also love speaking French, creating entire friendships in a foreign language. I love the food, the wine, and the glow of the Soâne as the sun sets over Croix Rousse. Even though the first two months had their ups and downs, I’m extremely grateful to be here.

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