Musing on my experiences in BC as a French exchange student

“Being an exchange student . . . can be difficult. But here in BC, I never felt abandoned, never felt out of place.”

Image courtesy of Pixabay

By: Noé Baudouin, SFU Student

“Good morning passengers, we’re now 24,000 feet above ground on our way to Denver,” exclaims the pilot through the microphone. It is 11:35 a.m. and I am on my way to France to celebrate Christmas with my family. It’s funny to see Vancouver shrinking through the window of the airplane. What has been my playground for the past four months gradually fades away: Burnaby Mountain, Surrey, downtown Vancouver’s skyscrapers. Eventually, the whole of British Columbia vanishes as we enter the clouds. 

It is on this plane that I am writing these words. Seeing Vancouver from above makes me reflect upon the discoveries and experiences of my journey at Simon Fraser University. I am Noé, and I am an exchange student from France. I arrived in Vancouver in August, driven by a personal quest of identity. I was born in Québec City, but I grew up mainly in the French Alps. 

I believe that being French and Canadian has given me a unique perspective on my journey here. A French ‘eye’ allows me to observe Canada as an outsider. A Canadian ‘eye’ allows me to go deeper in my reflection, beyond common Canadian clichés. 

One thing that never gets out of my head when I explore differences and compare Canada and Europe is the difference in scale. Let me explain: here in BC, the plates, glasses, dishes, plastic bottles, and a lot more everyday items are bigger and thicker than they would be in Europe. But it is also true for nature! Walking around on Burnaby Mountain made me realize that even the average Canadian tree is impressive compared to those in Europe, and that goes for the mountains as well even though I come from the Alps.  

The distances are also different: commuting for an hour to get somewhere in Vancouver seems to be normal. In France, only people in Paris would have to commute for an hour to get somewhere else in the city. 

But what I love most is how wide the sky seems. Whether you believe me or not, the sky here is different. The shades of blue, pink, orange, and yellow that the sky takes daily (when you can see it, of course) are astounding — it seems like the sky stretches beyond the limits that the European sky is bound to. 

SFU’s Burnaby campus has been an experience in itself. Is it just me, or does it feel like the whole campus is just a giant starship that landed on the mountain? There are massive buildings with concrete alleys, secret doors, and multiple levels. Convocation Mall looks like it is covered in an iron and glass canopy. I am not saying that the Burnaby campus is beautiful, far from it. But evolving at SFU on a daily basis makes me feel like I am part of a space fleet standing on top of Vancouver, and my ultimate goal is academic pleasure and success. 

I also came to love what seems to be the Holy Trinity of style in SFU students: the red athletic SFU Nike backpack, slippers, and Mira refillable bottle hanging on the side. The SFU style is intensely debated amongst the international student community: for example, some believe that slippers are inappropriate in a study environment. I personally like how it mixes modernity, sportswear, and comfort in a way that would not be seen in France or Europe. 

Another delightful observation during my time in Vancouver so far has been the public transportation strikes. I might sound weird, but being French, I’ve experienced loads of public strikes! In France, a strike goes on for ages; they are recurrent and often long. While I am writing these words, France is breaking its own record in history with more than 30 days of striking against the government changing pension plans. French people, therefore, learned to live with strikes, to be resilient, and to cancel events at the last minute. For example, I am supposed to go to Paris at the end of December to celebrate Christmas at my grandparents’ home. But with the massive strike going on right now, we’ll only know on D-Day whether we can join our family or not. 

You can imagine my surprise when the TransLink bus strike that was supposed to occur between the 27th to the 29th of November was cancelled November 27th at midnight! Announcements were made saying that an agreement had been found between Unifor and the Coast Mountain Bus Company. I loved the way everyone got crazy about the potential strike on social networks. Do you remember that one SFU student who said that he would hire a private charter bus to go up and down the mountain? For a French person, a population getting really worried about a strike and managing to find a solution before the strike feels like fiction! I think that this says a lot about the great ability of everyday citizens to discuss and find cooperative solutions. This is something that French society should envy.

But my time in Vancouver has also been shaped by less exciting, unpleasant and yet major discoveries. On my way to Pholicious, my favourite lunch place in front of SFU’s Vancouver campus, I left my bag in the library. I bet you can guess what happened . . . Once my bag got stolen with the most precious electronic devices and official documents, I had to discover the process of going to the Vancouver Police Department and the Canadian administration. You can guess that I’d rather have not learnt that! But it is part of the experience, I guess . . .

As I look upon the clouds from the window of the airplane, one last thought comes to me. I am thankful for the SFU community for welcoming us exchange students from everywhere. Being an exchange student also means leaving your family and your friends from your hometown. It can sometimes be difficult. But here in BC, I never felt abandoned, never felt out of place. 

Now I can’t wait for when I come back this semester for the ski season!