An incredible landscape unfolds in front of my eyes: Versailles. I dreamt about this place, only possible in history textbooks and travel fliers. I am trying to scope out this playful mirage made of vivid colors and elegant forms, but is impossible to cover it all at once. I watch every feature from right to left, up and down in an attempt to memorize everything. It is summer and fruit trees are in full display outside the Orangerie. I am very happy to be here. My mind, overloaded, drifts and begins recollecting the journey to this moment.
Nicholas, Mark, Scott, and myself made up the Summer 2012 expedition team to France. Our Education Abroad Program Manager Ellen C. helped us with logistics and other preparations. We were scheduled to arrive at Lyon at the end of June. This beautiful city is located in the Rhône-Alpes region which borders Italy and Switzerland.
Few weeks before departure part of the team decided to get together at Acadia, a popular place for students to have a break. During the conversation we speculated about the possibilities. What would France really be like? For us it was going to be the first trip to the land of D'Alembert, Voltaire and Descartes. Nick proposed a toast, the moon shining above us in the open patio.
- This trip is going to be epic! Cheers gentlemen!--Nick said. I could only imagine what he had in mind. Nick had arranged his summer schedule in such a way that he was going to be hoping from one European country to another, with France almost in the middle of his itinerary. He had signed up for classes in Germany, Austria, France, Turkey and Greece. I wish I had that kind of luck sometimes.
Between La Saône and Le Rhône
In Lyon the Carlson team stayed at Presqu'ile, a commercial district flanked by two rivers. To the south there is Place Bellecour, a nice open space where people gather to watch soccer games in big screens or just to walk on the clay floor of the plaza. To the north there are museums, shops, alleys with restaurants, some small, some big and all cozy. To the west an incredible view: The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière on top of a hill crisscrossed with rose gardens. During the two weeks of our stay we had the chance to know the district fairly well, day and night. The streets were clean. People were polite and dressed neatly, many wearing suits or formal dress. Some of them, with tie and all, rode bicycles to and from work.
Further to the east there is la Gare de la Part-Dieu, the train station where I arrived from Paris in the TGV, the fast train. And to the southeast, the Université Jean Moulin where we attended classes at the business school IAE Lyon.
From Place Bellecour we travel by subway to school every day. I memorized the names of the subway stations by listening to the female voice announcing them in the sound system as we approached them: "Bellecour", "Guillotière", "Saxe-Gambetta", "Garibaldi", and our destination, "Sans-Souci".
My wife joined me the second week of the trip. During the day I went to school and she shopped around and visited museums in the commercial district. One of her favorite sculptures was in the middle of a fountain in Place des Terreaux. In the evening, over a nice meal and some wine, we talked about the places she had visited and how things went at school.
At IAE Lyon Nick, Mark, Scott and I attended classes with students from India, Ukraine and France. Our coordinator and principal contact was a nice lady, Madam Inssaf M., who showed us around and introduced us to school staff. I am deeply thankful to her as well as to Professor Chappoz, Madam Greco, and so many other nice people who guided us during our stay.
It took us a while but by the end of the seminar we were well integrated with the other students. Studying and working in teams with people from different countries was a unique experience. Debates sometimes became heated, charged with arguments and counter-arguments on how the world works or doesn't work.
The focus of our attention was Europe and the current crisis. Will the Eurozone survive? That was the big question. And in order to answer it, we took a peek at the tidal forces at play under the apparent calmness of the European business environment. The diversity of Europe comes with its own challenges. We analyzed several cases to try to understand how regions and blocks of countries within Europe interact with each other. Sometimes those blocks pull in different directions, making their goal of regional economic growth that much harder. To have a practical view of the problems firms face in such conditions, we visited two real companies located outside Lyon. One was an established salad manufacturer; the other, an hologram-based advertising startup.
The first time I met Monsieur Conrad he reminded me of the Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He has an air of an inventor who does not stop at anything to make his company succeed. His goal was to sell his hologram-based products to all over Europe, specially the UK. Our team proposed a business plan based on the characteristics of the company and the market it was trying to enter. Our final presentation received very good comments, in English and in French. Most importantly, I began to understand the challenges companies like this face in an environment where governments may have different agendas and could ultimately look to bail out of the Euro to pursue their own monetary policies. That understanding would come full circle later on this Fall during World Economy class.
In a late evening during the first week of the trip I took a walk along Rue de Brest, feeling a little hungry. My steps took me to a bakery. It seemed to be a popular place judging by the many people surveying pastries or talking to attendants. I went in.
The smell of chocolate bread, creme brulee, fruit cakes, and other varieties of bread made me remember my hometown. I eagerly wandered around and ended up in a corner, away from the crowd, staring at croissants and roundly shaped biscuits that looked so appetizing under the sunlight piercing through the windows. I could have stayed there forever, if not for a young woman who slowly approached me, all dressed up in white and wearing a cap. She stood silently for a few seconds at the other side of the counter. I did not dare to look up, unsure what to say. She greeted me in French and smiled at me, her teeth so white. I smiled too and tried desperately to remember any of the survival phrases I had rehearsed time and again for cases like this, to no avail. I was speechless. She finally pointed out to a couple of pieces of bread and started talking to me; her voice was musical as if reciting a poem by Gérard de Nerval (I had recently read Fantaisie). I looked at her in awe without understanding anything, but enjoying every word she was saying. After she paused, awaiting my response, I only managed to say, "Bonjour, j'aim ce lui ci", pointing towards the smallest pastry. She smiled again, then promptly grabbed a bag and dispensed the object selected. I rushed out of that place as fast as I could after paying the bill, my hunger completely gone.
If you are planning on visiting France I would suggest checking the following articles from the Economist and National Geographic. Good luck!
The Economist on rural France
Pictures from France in National Geographic