Letters to My Manager: France Part I--Lyon

At the border between Switzerland and France, there was a brief passport check. Basically a small partitioned office between one platform of the station and another. This little piece of architecture, along with some of the other systems that make up the Swiss infrastructure are reminiscent of how guarded a country it is. It's easy to move through, but there is a prescribed way the French and Swiss like to move people around. There's a way the Italians like to deal with the Swiss border as well, but Switzerland to France is the only border I crossed where my nationality mattered at all.

Quickly the landscape turned into large patches of trees and wide fields with cows. Fecundity really began to prevail rather than the golden dryness of Italy or the hard stone of Switzerland. France is a verdant country. There was still a long leg of the trip before reaching Lyon and testing out the French system for doing things. It was where I really found my stride in traveling.


In Lyon I stepped a toe into France. But in many ways Lyon is the best of what France has to offer. There's a lot of history; multifarious architecture; great food; above all, it's a manageable size and easy to navigate. The trains, light rail, and funicular can really take you anywhere you want to go in Lyon, and that's usually not far. At one point there was a longer walk to the Air BNB, but it was ultimately worth spending time in the cool night air.

Arriving on Sundays and holidays always seemed to happen. Something was going on whenever the train pulled up to a new town that meant that pizza would be the first meal in a new place. Eating pizza around Europe may seem blasphemous, but it's always available and it's an interesting cultural experience for an American to see pizza tackled around Europe.

By the time I was in Lyon and Paris my calendars got extremely detailed. The information I wanted from a paper map got moved into the book and this let me be flexible while also outlining each day in some kind of depth.

By the time I was in Lyon and Paris my calendars got extremely detailed. The information I wanted from a paper map got moved into the book and this let me be flexible while also outlining each day in some kind of depth.

Lyon, like the rest of France, is a place that is continually partitioned and partitioned. Everything is granular and everything in France is separated into as many sections as possible. On the broadest level of a town, these are the arrondissements, the sort of boroughs of a city but with a deeper meaning intended to distinguish residential areas from historic areas, from commercial areas, and probably even local government. The city itself seems contiguous itself without these markers on the map. But my maps of Lyon and Paris were in a book format and indexed by the arrondissements, so I got to know that kind of partition very well. The separate arrondissements are an important part of the fabric of the city.

Lyon also has a Part-Dieu, which isn't uncommon in France. It's usually where the city picked up again after one revolution or war or another. The upshot in Lyon, for me, was that Part-Dieu was where the Apple Store was. I made a habit of visiting Apple Stores in most cities, but this time I really needed to stop by. I had to keep my promise to my manager, and I had to make a change to create a better interface between me, the things I carried with me, and the particulars of Europe.

Across the river, the newer Part-Dieu is visible. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

A typical old style street in Lyon. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Until May 17, 2016 I'd been navigating and using this dumb universal plug converter, and finding out that really each country in Europe has it's own similar but different take on the electrical socket. I recommend getting some kind of native converter for countries, rather than a universal adapter and thereby declaring yourself a citizen of the world. The technology had finally gotten to me. It'd drained my phone. I needed to charge and I needed to charge now. So my first stop was modern and almost American in Part-Dieu--the Apple Store. I got all the adapters. When my phone woke, I put out a quick email to my manager, the clock had been ticking.

The modern indoor shopping mall is an export from my adoptive Minnesota. Finding myself in a mall in Lyon was a cultural out of body experience; not a look at an interpretation of what's American in another culture, more like parking next to a lesser known foreign car, like finding a Peugeot in downtown Chicago.

The modern indoor shopping mall is an export from my adoptive Minnesota. Finding myself in a mall in Lyon was a cultural out of body experience; not a look at an interpretation of what's American in another culture, more like parking next to a lesser known foreign car, like finding a Peugeot in downtown Chicago.

In this very American style mall I also picked up a map and a phrase book. Not speaking any French is no way to go about traveling in France. The more you speak the better. The best I could do was politely ask for the check; Je voudrais l'addition, s'il vous plaît. Write this little phrase on a useless American bill to surreptitiously read to waiters.

The rest of my time in Lyon comes down to three things food, unexpected history, and the significant beauty of the Rhône confluence. First and foremost, food. Every restaurant in Lyon is staggeringly good and most are very reasonably priced. I think there's a lot of competition and oneupmanship among eateries here. Even a sort of wacky bagel place I stopped by was doing some pretty knock-out stuff with an extensive and changing menu. Going around the 1st, 2nd, and 5th arrondissements is the historical center of the city, but particularly as you head north of the confluence, you get increasingly good restaurants. Frequently they're packed right on top of one another as the land rises North and East.

The 2nd and 5th arrondissements hold the most showy history with Roman ruins and late renaissance buildings. All of this history is very well kept. But what's different about Lyon than most places in Europe where you can see these ancient things is that the steep streets and steps of Roman theaters are the things that you can walk around and touch. There's a high degree of immediacy that shouldn't be missed in Lyon because I think it was unique in my time out of the States.

But there's some unlikely history as well. Lyon is the birth place of cinema. Quite unexpected for me, the factory where the Lumière brothers made the first movies is here in Lyon. The museum and library cost money to see, but you can walk around the grounds for free. This underscores the very French way of viewing certain important things as the cultural heritage of the world, but indeed this really felt like hallowed ground for me. This is where it all began!

This kind of hallowed, culturally open ground is probably the most important thing to take in in Lyon though. Rather than go to the various destinations it has to offer, just walk around. The bank of the river is perfect for running as are the hills that characterize many of the streets of the older parts of the city. I walked up the Montée de la Grande Côte where you can see the confluence of the river and the old part of the city disappear into the new.

This path must run for a mile before it gives way to more sweeping views. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

This path must run for a mile before it gives way to more sweeping views. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

On another day I walked even farther--alone unfortunately--up a long narrow staircase to the Basilique. The building is really kind of ugly, something slapped together in the 19th Century, but the walk up from Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and back down the streets takes in so much of the character of Lyon. That being said, some of these areas are the most overrun with tourists. For me it was the journey between each highly charged punctuation that was rewarding. Lyon affords all these moments for finding more than meets the eye.

Lyon from the Basilique. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

Lyon from the Basilique. Shot on an iPhone 5s.

The time I spent in Lyon proved to be a little lonely though. In Paris I'd note some of my travel fatigue to my manger, but much fed into that. Not the least was my situation back home, holding out for a job and an apartment to be ready to grow into when I returned based on arrangements I'd slapped together in a few weeks now months past--a Hail Mary pass to my future self. But the fatigue of being on the move without a place to settle was elevated by the social contrast between Switzerland with family, Lyon almost alone, and Paris where I'd spend ample time with friends.