In April 2012 I found out about the Campus France grant for study in France. By then I was an LL.M student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
I didn’t speak a word of French but the opportunity to explore a new world and a new culture was irresistible. I applied and was admitted to an English (master of international business law) programme at the Université Catholique de Lyon.
Everyone I had spoken to in South Africa seemed to harbour some stereotype about the French. ‘They are rude,’ ‘they are impatient,’ ‘they are too conceited,’ I was told. So in August 2012 I packed my bags and ventured into the unknown. I expected my time here to be very uncomfortable.
After three planes I was in Lyon. Lyon is a mid-sized city in east-central France in the Rhône-Alpes region. It is situated between Paris and Marseille. The city is breathtaking. Most of the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site; a chest of Franco-Roman (Gallo-Roman) history. Besides its own beauty, the city is a knowledge treasure with dozens of museums (big and large), magnificent churches, opera houses, galleries etc. The banks of the Rhone River were recently transformed into a park; so you can imagine.
Unsurprisingly, Lyon is also a cultural melting pot. The ESDES école de management (situated in the same university I am attending) registers thousands of international and exchange students per year. This has transformed the city and its nightlife. Each night you can rest assured that some club in Lyon is throwing culturally themed party, showcasing cultures from around the world.
The master of international business law, to which I am enrolled, (although a very specialised programme with a class of about 30 people) had up to 15 nationalities.
Then there is the Fêtes des Lumières (the Festival of Lights). The festival transforms Lyon into heaven’s stairway. Beautiful (this is an understatement) displays of lights are installed all over the city and people from around the world travel here to watch and take pictures of the astonishing light projections.
French people have turned out very different from the stereotypes. English is not popular here, but if you’re struggling people will go out of their way to help you. One thing did prove true: French people are beautiful.
If the city and the people weren’t enough, there’s also French culture. French cuisine is world-famous for a reason. For many centuries Lyon has been known as the capital of French gastronomy. Famous French wine regions are also close to Lyon; so quality wine comes cheaply. There is also the cheese, the bread and the world-famous “Sausage Lyonnaise”.
I have also had the opportunity to spend a week in Paris, to stand face to face with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, and to travel to various small French villages. I travelled to and met people at the international organisations in Geneva, Switzerland. One weekend I went with friends on a ski trip in Grenoble. I also had the pleasure of representing my university at the 8th ICC International Commercial Mediation Competition in Paris with teams from over 60 universities from around the world.
Although the French language is proving very difficult to learn – more so when most of what I do is in English- I am certain that I will be fluent in French soon.
I can’t tell you everything about my experience here. I could write a book (and maybe I will). What I can tell you is that I have learnt a lot, and grown a lot. People say that I should be travelling right now and exploring as much as I can before I return to South Africa. I just laugh at them. I know I will be back.
My message to everyone reading thing: take chances!