Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Grizzly Bear Band and Wandering

We walked out of the museum and headed back to the pair of squares with all of the fun stuff. As we walked past the Ferris Wheel, towards the part of town we hadn’t yet wandered aimlessly through, we passed something odd.
See, Knoxville is basically in the Smokey Mountains. One of the things the city—and the tourist trap called Gatlinburg down the highway—liked to associate itself with was black bears. Black bears are an attractive mascot of the area because they fulfill two requirements:
1)                 They’re fuzzy – It doesn’t matter that black bears have the strength to rip off your head; they have fur that looks like they could be a great pillow during a nap, and so people want to hug them. This is why you see signs around the Smokey Mountain National Park that have something along the lines of, “Please, for the love of God, don’t approach bears."
2)                 They’re about to disappear – This is a sad thing, as it is proof that the nature of humanity is not to conserve but to destroy. It’s readily apparent that the majority of the human race doesn’t give two damns about the repercussions of pouring leftover motor oil into a river. We try to make up for it by making dying species the mascots of various cities or teams, but more often than not, this just depresses a lot of people.
Apparently, part of the role of the city’s mascot entails being featured in a mechanical animatronic affront against all that is good. The robot bears were kept in one of the market squares in Knoxville and only turned on during the holidays. Their cold, dead stares went across the square making children cry and making me wonder just what the hell the tourist board of Knoxville was thinking.
So, succinctly put, this was the last thing I expected to see on the other side of the Ferris Wheel in Lille.
On top of a red and white bandstand, encased in glass, and wearing Santa hats, there were four robotic grizzly bears, clutching instruments in their fur-covered robotic claws, their heads moving at an unnatural pace on unnatural paths, always looking just above your head as they strummed and drummed. I stood in front of the bandstand, my eyes wide open, staring in fear. The Student stood next to me, looking around at the square, not nearly as freaked out as I was. He noticed that I hadn’t said anything. “Is this you freaking out about nothing again? Like when you curled into the fetal position on the Millennium Bridge?”
“That was the correct reaction to hallucinating sharks,” I said. “And I don’t trust the bears.”
The Student cocked an eyebrow and looked at the robots. “Are you serious?”
“They’re robots, Student. You can’t trust robots. We’ve both seen Terminator.”
“What? Are you fucking with me? You’re fucking with me, aren’t you? There’s no way you’re not. If you weren’t you’d be certifiable.”
“Maybe I am,” I said. I took a deep breath as the bears went into an Edith Piaf song. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Good idea,” he said.

We walked for a while. Our trip took us through the old section of Lille, basically the area that had existed since Canterbury had been around and hadn’t been bombed during World War II. The buildings were plenty pretty, but I’d reached the point during the day that the meager breakfast I’d had—you know, the cup of espresso—had worn off and my stomach felt like it was going to collapse in on itself. “Boulangerie!” I shouted.
The Student jumped a bit and almost got ran over by an Opel. The driver honked and sped off. A couple people on the other side of the street looked over but carried on their way. “What?” he asked.
“We need to find a boulangerie,” I said. “Baguettes, rolls, something. I’m hungry.”
He nodded at a shop down the street that had a picture of a sandwich in the window. “How bout a sandwich?”
“Nope,” I said. “We’re in France, not England. As far as I’m concerned, the sandwich does not exist in this country. Only baguettes and pastries. And snails.”
“That’s incredibly stupid. We had some food beyond that last night.”
“Yes, and this is different.” I gestured around us. “Do you see Pascale or her incredibly attractive friends around here? No. Do you see me going ‘guh’ at women passing by?”
“You did a couple of minutes ago.”
“Shut up. We need baguettes.”
“Fine,” he said, shaking his head, “just stop complaining.”
We found a boulangerie down the road, I bought a baguette, we left, and I nearly broke my teeth on it. “Good God, it’s solid,” I said.
“It’s probably been sitting in that basket inside for a while.”
I snapped off the tip and crunched it in my mouth for a few minutes, begrudgingly thinking that we should have stopped at the sandwich shop.
A couple of minutes later, though, as we’d hit probably the mile mark in our wanderings, we stopped dead in our tracks as we looked down an alleyway. “Huh,” I said. “Look at that.”
“Yeah,” said The Student. “Wonder why Pascale didn’t mention this.”
In front of us was a huge Gothic cathedral. At the time, I would have said that it was on par with Notre Dame—of course, I am an idiot, and treat new things with the enthusiasm of a Labrador presented with a new smell. Picture in your mind a stone building, covered in spires and gargoyles and depictions of saints and priests. Now, imagine a megachurch in, say, Houston, with a glass-and-cement front and a stained-glass cross above the glass entranceway. That was the cathedral in Lille. (As an aside, the proper name is Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille. However, we’ll continue to refer to it as “the cathedral,” even though, technically, it is a basilica.)
The Student and I walked down the alleyway into the cathedral grounds, which were covered in mostly pristine snow. As we left the alleyway and entered the courtyard, we walked into a parking lot, in which was parked a solitary black SUV. (Mind you, the European SUVs are about half the size of their American counterparts.) Bird tracks peppered the snow, and a trail of two bootprints followed the exterior of the cathedral. On the other side, there was a standalone tone pedestrian alcove with a small bench. Behind that, past the grounds’ black iron gates, were a line of surely expensive flats and town homes. The entire scene was still. Probably, I thought, most of the people were walking around the city center or Old Lille, shopping, getting drunk off of vin chaude, or, more likely, gallivanting around in black-and-white sweaters and pretending that they were stuck inside boxes.
Out came our cameras. I looked at The Student’s and noticed something odd. “We have the same camera,” I said.
He looked down at his camera. Looked at mine. “Kodax Easy Share X-3729?”
I checked my model number. “Yep.”
“Huh,” he said. “Well, it’s a common model. I think. Affordable.”
“I wouldn’t know. My dad bought mine.”
“Mine did too.”
A stiff, cold wind blew by and a shiver ran down my spine. “Right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We walked around the cathedral—the long sides were about two hundred yards long, the smaller bits were about a quarter that—taking pictures of the arches, the gargoyles, and what looked like very stern popes. Well, I took random pictures of the sky and a few bricks. The Student seemed to be more interested in the architecture and took detailed pictures in manual mode. A black dog ran by and I took some pictures of that, then the person running after it, a collar and leash in hand. For me, this was a very interesting and profitable endeavor, but, judging by the cursing coming from The Student, not so much on his end.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Fucking—damn it.” He smacked the camera’s lens a bit. “I can’t get a detail photo of the gargoyle up there.” He pointed.
I followed where he pointed and saw a gargoyle perched on top of the highest spire in the front of the cathedral, on the other side of the cathedral. “That’s pretty far away.”
“And I need to take a picture of it.”
“It’s not going to happen, man.”
The Student grunted.
We moved on, followed the exterior of the cathedral some more, and then agreed that we needed to take a wine break. Luckily for us, there was a tavern across the street, near some bookshops and boulangeries—your typical French sidestreet, really. We crossed the street, walked in, and threw our bags on a table before ordering some wine. “Vin, s’il-vous plait,” we said to the tanned man in black behind the counter.
“Coming up, pals,” he said, in French-accented English.
“Oh,” I said.
“Well,” said The Student. “That makes it easier.”
The guy laughed and we walked back to the table, just a bit crushed that yet another person had seen through our French skills and, this time, had the audacity to call us out. “The accent’s that bad, huh?” I asked.
“I used to be the best in the class. The teacher, when she wasn’t shouting obscenities at us in French for not doing our homework, said I sounded like I was from the North.”
“Isn’t the North of France supposed to be inbred?”
“...,” I remarked. I blinked.
We looked out the window until the guy brought over our mulled wine. I reached over to the window, saw a brochure for what seemed to be a bordello, and put it back down. This was not the sort of trip for a bordello. “Idea,” I said.
The Student took a break from staring at the vintage cigarette ad plastered on the wall behind me. “Mm?” he grunted.
“Short short story?”
He sighed. “Really?”
“It’s either that or we continue to sit here in silence. And, frankly, I can’t expect any of my readers to get into that.”
“You could always write about the bespec—”
“Shut up. Story or silence.”
“Fine,” he said. “Story, I guess.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Encounter

Time inside of a museum has a tendency to blur, like paint diluted with water. I checked my cell’s clock as we walked downstairs and saw that we’d been inside the museum for a few hours. Apparently, we’d been stopping and staring at every portrait in detail, but The Student’s discourse on Modernism must have shut down everything in my brain, save basic motor functions.
We walked down the flight of stairs and into the basement, the central part of which was set up to look like an amphitheater, with a bunch of black rows of seats facing a large projection screen set into a wall. On either side of the screen were sets of doors leading to the special exhibit hall. Sprawled out around and on the rows in the amphitheater were a bunch of shouting school kids. It was at that point that I realized that the stereotype of the French as a bunch of lascivious hedonists was true—the kids were all over each other in ways that, had I done the same in good ole boy rural Tennessee, I’d have been slapped with out-of-school detention and, probably, a severe scare-the-shit-out-of-you conversation by the police officer stationed in the school (which would have been ironic, as he was renown throughout the student body for being a lech). But, this being France, I shrugged it off and looked around.
The projection screen featured a film on repeat that seemed to be an video installation piece from the 60s. Some guy was driving a car, looking like he was either laughing like a mad scientist, or just having the best time ever. Then the film would cut to a woman sitting on a blue cube and slowly zoom in to an extreme focus on her right eye. After, there would be a cut to a dog walking down the street and pooping. Then the feces would be run over by a car, and then the film would return to the cackling man. I turned to The Student when the poop was on the screen, poked him (we were at this point sitting in the amphitheater behind the kids groping each other), and said, “Hey. That’s you, that is.”
He nodded. “Clever. Let’s move on.”
“Let’s,” I agreed.
The special exhibit hall was stark white with a lot of empty space. There looked to be about fifty people wandering around, looking at paintings and pictures in no particular order. The content of the exhibit was sketches of art schools from the Renaissance to the nineteenth centuries. A narrative about the changing methods and requirements of the schools was presented as one progressed through the gallery, and looking at one picutre in particular that seemed to be dead on, but was used as grounds to reject a student because “[the fingers] are out of proportion on the left hand, which shows that the student does not pay enough attention to accuracy, and cannot be admitted to the school.”
The Student shouted, “Holy shit!” and gripped my arm hard enough to make me think I’d stumbled into a vice.
“Good God, what?” I asked. He was pointing, I followed where he was pointing and let loose with my own, “Holy shit!”
Standing in a room in the exhibit hall dedicated to full-body sketches, right in front of a wall-sized coal-on-paper sketch of a nude female, was The Stalker. He held a notepad in his hand, but no pencil, and was staring at the sketch with the intensity of a toddler watching Nick Jr. He wore a black turtleneck, black trousers, and white sneakers. Slowly, as The Student and I stared on and stood as still as mannequins, he turned his head in our direction. He locked eyes with the both of us and grinned out of one of the sides of his mouth. We were frozen, as the victims of baslisks, and he walked towards us.
I whimpered a bit. Was I facing The Stalker as everyone knew him, or was I facing The Stalker as I’d seen him on that one, rare day—when he showed a side of himself that was normal?
We stood in place, probably hoping that if we didn’t move, The Stalker would lose track of us. After all, he was as terrifying as a Rex, so it was feasible that like the ones in Jurassic Park, his vision was based on movement. He continued forward, still grinning. When he was within speaking distance he said, “Well, well, well, what have we here?”
I gulped.
The Student regained some composure and said, “Hey, Stalker, you’re probably the last person I’d expect to see here.”
The Stalker took a deep breath and looked around him. He gestured at the art students and the sketches he was looking at. “Should I not be interested in the progress of art? Should I not be fascinated by the methods by which humanity has progressed in portraying itself to, well, itself? Is that what you’re implying? Or, perhaps, is it that you believe me to be too base, too depraved, to enjoy the human form?”
“No, not at all,” said The Student. I continued to stand still, hoping that The Stalker would walk away and not see me. “I was merely commenting on the strangeness of seeing you here, in Lille. It’s not the most popular tourist destination and—”
The Student leaned forward and came within an inch of The Student’s face. “When did you ever think that I was concerned with what was popular and what was not?”
Silence. The only sounds that came from the two was The Student going, “Oh, er, well, er,” and The Stalker breathing heavily.
Then, The Stalker grinned and tittered. “Joking. I saw it in a guidebook and decided to take a few days off from my work to immerse myself, however so briefly, in another culture.”
“What work?” I asked.
The Stalker’s eyes—lacking the black contacts, I noticed—burned fire at me. “My work.”
“What,” said The Student, “exactly, is your work?”
The Stalker turned his basilisk gaze to The Student. “It is of a private manner. Confidentiality.”
“Psychology?” asked The Student.
“No,” said The Student. He reached into the neck of his sweater and pulled out a pair of white earbuds, inserted them into his ears. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to appreciating art.” He nodded, turned on his music by pressing on his pocket—I’m assuming there was an iPod down there—nodded, and walked back to his alcove of nudie sketches.
The Student shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s as if I was faced with a doppelganger, that’s the sort of fear I felt.”
“The Spider-Man villain?”
The Student turned to me and turned his head to the side. “I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.”
“There was a Spider-Man villain called The Doppelganger. He had eight arms.”
“Yes,” he said. “Quite. Let’s move on, shall we?”
The Student moved on through the gallery, slightly faster, and disappeared around a corner, skipping the rest of the sketches. I took another glance at The Stalker and saw him, ah, fiddling with... himself. I sped right the fuck on out of there, sparing one last glance when I heard a girl scream and two security guards leap up from their chairs near the entrance and dash towards The Stalker’s alcove.
I caught up with The Student and he said, “What was that?”
“Nothing. Dear sweet God let it be nothing. Hey, what’s this? This looks like Springfield.”
We stood in front of a wall-sized painting done in the style of a colorful cartoon. It was one of those paintings that was created to look like a city’s street plan, with cars and people put on as illustration. The buildings were multicolored, as if they were settings in a Nickolodeon cartoon from the 90s. The catch was, and this is what probably elevated the painting to Art status instead of Something Pretty to Look At, all of the buildings were unbelievably witty send-ups of American institutions. McDonald’s was Fat-Laden Restaurant; gas stations had the word “Blood” in their names; that sort of humor.
“It’s trying really hard,” said The Student. He sighed. “This is why I could never study modern art. All these pieces that are trying to make statements about the human condition, or the condition of modern society, for that matter, are just so damn lame.”
“Much like the novels you’re reading.”
He nodded. “Oh, yeah. Much like the novels I’ve read for the last five years, really. Sometimes I wish I could go back to middle school, when I could read atrociously-written sci-fi, the sorts that are released and go straight into the bargain bin.”
“Those were the days.”
He agreed and we moved on. The rest of the exhibit was mainly made up of some more neo-satirical-cartoon sort of stuff and some video installation works that tried desperately to subvert gender and age roles, and neither of us were really that interested. I wondered what would happen if we found a Literature Tour of Lille. Surely there had to be one. It was a large city near a couple of very important cities (Brussels and Paris), so, at some point, there had to be some major authors who wrote about or lived there. But through the time we were in Lille, neither of us caught any signs that this was the case.
           We made ready to leave the museum and retrieved our coats. (I made sure to not make eye contact with the girl behind the counter.) We left the museum, went back into the snow and the freezing cold weather, and that’s when I realized that I didn’t find out what happened to The Stalker. I shrugged the question off. If he could make it through English Customs at the beginning of our year while wearing black contact lenses, he could make it through a—please God—misunderstanding at a French museum.

Monday, December 13, 2010

La Musee Des Beaux Arts

We woke up the next morning after Pascale had left for class. My preferred morning routine consists of waking up and laying in bed, cursing society for looking down on sleeping for eighteen hours.
I sprawled out on the bed, flailed a bit, and let loose a prolonged, “Fuuuuck!”
The Student jerked awake and shouted, “What? What happened?”
“It’s morning. Fuck this shit, I hate it.”
The Student groaned and turned on his phone. Chimes sounded.
“Stop it from talking! It’s too early!”
“It’s a voice mail, relax.”
I threw my pillow at him and fell off the bed.

About an hour later, we’d showered and made out way out of the apartment. The building’s shower system was an ingenious method to wake residents up while they showered, thus ensuring that they were productive members of society. Essentially, the showers forced a person to consider how they could keep a steady stream of water coming out of the socket while being able to stand in place. See, the system was rigged up to what was essentially a timer; the spray of water would stop after about ten seconds, so one had to find a way to force the knob to stop utilizing its spring. It took me about fifteen minutes, but I finally figured it out.
              After leaving, we stumbled down to the Metro station and got our morning espressos, drank them down like whiskey shots, and suddenly everything regained color. “So,” I said, “voice mail.”
“What?” asked The Student, who was watching a group of Roma enter the station. There were about six kids trailing their mother, who was wearing a brightly-colored headscarf over a black, ankle-length dress and pushing a stroller, which contained another couple of kids. “Oh, the voice mail. It was from Rebecca. She called to tell me that her sister is going out with a goy and her Dad’s flipping out.”
“Ah,” I said.
The Student shrugged. “Yeah, she wants to tell me, fine, okay.But if she asks me for advice, I’ll probably talk to her about the conflict of contemporary Jewish society, and how it boils down to whether or not we see ourselves as ‘white,’ or, more accurately, ‘typical Americans,’ or a distinct ethnic group.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I zoned out.”
“Exactly. My ability to turn anything into an essay is my best defense to having a serious conversation with anyone.”
“Good defense.”
We stood out there, pelted by, watching as busses pulled up across the median, and people tried desperately to avoid the black ice that covered the streets. I looked up, saw the overcast skies, and kind of wondered if I’d see the sun today. A car drove by and blared some bass at us, and I shivered. “Ready?” I asked.
The Student tipped his head back and got the last of the espresso out of the bottom of the cup. He crumpled it and tossed it at a trash can to his right. “Yeah, let’s head out.”
I sputtered something at the kid who tugged at my coat, slapped the touch screen machine until I got to where I needed to be and then bought the ticket. The kid kept repeating, “S’il-vous plait,” so I caved and gave him a couple of euros, which he pocketed and dashed over to the woman at the other side of the lobby.
The child made the equally valid point of “Monsieur, s’il-vous plait, monsieur.”
After a few minutes (and my having to brush aside my friend, after gesturing until he realized I already gave him money), The Student gave the kid a euro and we walked up the escalator to the tracks.
“We’ll see them again, don’t worry,” I said. “You can make your point again.”
The Student grunted.
We walked off of the escalator and stood in front of the anti-suicide doors, waiting for the train. “Where we going today?” I asked.
“Dunno. Back to Rihour?”
“We were there yesterday.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t go inside anything. We just walked around aimlessly until nightfall, when you became scared that we’d get attacked by hobos and had to duck inside a cafe.”
“It’s a valid fear. If we don’t give them money, they’ll stab us. They don’t care that we don’t speak French.”
The train—automated if I haven’t mentioned it before—pulled up, we stood aside as some more Roma piled out, and we boarded. The train moved forward.
“I don’t think that’s quite the case,” said The Student.”
“Says you,” I responded. “How about we discuss it over some vin chaud?” I asked, licking my lips.
The Student checked his watch. “Man, it’s eleven in the morning.”
“Yeah, and we’re in France. Alcoholism, as long as it’s with wine, is completely acceptable. Everyone knows that.”
The Student raised an eyebrow.

We got off the train at Rihour and The Student had to drag me away from the Deutscher Christmas Extravaganza, as I liked to call the Christmas Village. We wandered away from where we’d gone the previous day (which had led us to a shopping area with a massive HMV—a fact I withheld from you because you, Dear Reader, probably don’t give a shit), and found ourselves in a large plaza with a couple of fountains that were about ten yards square and iced over.
The plaza was between the Prefecture (in which I have no idea what happens) and another building that looked like a remnant of one of the Bourbons. This second building, one that looked like an urban chateau, was the Musée Des Beaux Arts, and, after stomping around in the snow that covered the plaza and throwing a couple of half-assed snowballs at each other, The Student and I decided that we needed some culture. So, we decided to save the boulevard laden with shops in front of us for another day, and headed over to the Musée.
We walked up to the building and up to the giant brass doors, opened them up and walked into the lobby of the museum. The floor was black marble tile, and there were sculptures sprinkled around the floor. They were mostly the sorts of things you’d expect to see, naked people laying around and expressing their love of hedonism, and there were a couple of bull sculptures near the staircase to the left. In front of us was a large hall, filled with folding chairs facing a large screen that, right now, was featuring a slideshow of attractions in Lille. Behind the screen, there was a small cafe. To our right was the ticketing counter, a staircase leading downstairs, and a staircase leading upwards at the far end of the entrance lobby. Footsteps reverberated throughout the museum, soft chatter bounced off the pillars and the walls. Light was let in by giant windows set into the walls.
I immediately started sweating and tore off my jacket. “Fuck it’s hot,” I said.
The Student adjusted his glasses. “A little bit, yeah. Tickets?”
We walked over to the counter, where, once again, I was faced with my apparent complete inability to perform even the most basic of tasks in French. The woman behind the counter, someone who looked like a librarian—by which I mean she had stark gray hair, large glasses with a chain so they could hang from her neck, and wearing what looked like she was going to a funeral—looked up at us without saying anything. I briefly placed myself in her shoes and realized that we both looked homeless. I had what was becoming an impressive mountain man’s beard, a stained, wrinkled t-shirt, and a torn-up pea coat, and The Student, an aristocrat by comparison, simply looked like he hadn’t slept in four days. “Bonjourney,” I said. I shook my head. “Bonjour.”
She nodded.
“Oof. Fuck,” I continued. “Duex billets, s’il-vous plait. Étudiants. Deux étudiants, billets. S’il-vous plait.”
The Student raised an eyebrow and slowly turned his head towards me, as if in awe.
The woman gave me basically the same look, except hers treated me less of a serial killer, more of a mentally challenged person. “Quoi?” she asked. When I didn’t do anything but repeat “étudiants,” she sighed and asked, “Vous-êtes americains, oui?”
“Oui, madame,” said The Student.
I pointed at him, a gesture I clearly meant to indicate that he was the more intelligent one out of the two of us and that I should not be addressed directly.
She told us the price of the tickets, in English, and handed us a couple of brochures, which were sadly not in English. She then pointed at our coats and made a gesture down the stairs. “Coat room!” I shouted.
The Student hung his head. “I shouldn’t have asked you along.”
“But then my readers would have been stuck in England for God knows how long.”
“Yes,” said The Student, collecting our tickets and thanking the now-impatient woman, “all two of your readers.”
“Eight,” I said. “The Google Analytics on my statistics page clearly states that I have eight readers.”
“Every time you post?”
“Well, no. Every time I post, I usually get two views. But it’s two people from the pool of eight.”
“A staggering amount,” said The Student.
“Shut up.”
By now we’d reached the coat room, where there was an incredibly bored-looking French girl who looked about our age wearing a black shirt. “Bonjour mademoiselle,” I said. “Vous-êtes hyper-chouette.”
“Fuck,” said The Student.
“Sécurité!” she shouted, still keeping the incredibly bored look about her.
“Non!” I shouted in response, throwing my coat on the counter and backing away. “Pas de sécurité! S’il-vous plait! Pas, pas, pas!” I held my hands up and backed away.
The Student walekd up to the counter, put his coat on the top, nodded, and walked towards the stairs. I followed. “Was that you hitting on someone?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t like the term ‘hitting on.’ I was trying to strike up a conversation with a lovely girl, and, sadly, it didn’t work out.”
“How many other times has security been called on you?”
“Twenty. That was last year, though. My own fault, I tried to talk to some girls at a sorority party.”
The Student shook his head and said, “You poor bastard.”
We’d by now made our way to the top floor of the museum, in a room that seemed to be dedicated to scenes depicting village life. It seems to me that every major European art museum is inside a former aristocrat’s manor, mansion, or chateau. The Louvre, in fact, was the home of French royalty until Napoleon said, “Fuck that noise,” and took it over. Eventually, it was turned into a massive temple to art—one which you, as a tourist, will probably never get to go through in its entirety, because it’s just that big. Le Musée des Beaux Arts in Lille wasn’t that enormous, but it’s always just a bit staggering being in a place that you know used to house some people who were probably bastards.
Anyway, the paintings in this room were of daily village life. They were also probably chosen because of some technique or era in art, but I know nothing about that, so I instead focused on one thing that confused me: The presence of no less than five paintings featuring fish being gutted by a robed fishmonger in his fish-guttery in graphic detail, one of which was the size of my room at Woolf. I pointed this out to The Student and he nodded sagely. “Yes, you see, in Romantic-era art, the fishmonger was seen as a symbol of the common worker, and fish entrails were indicative of the day-to-day toil of the common man. The knife that you see in all of these sorts of paintings,” and here he pointed to the knife that was the size of my head, “is a symbol of the coming Revolution, and the power of the people. Here, the fishmonger – or, the People – is not yet aware of the power he holds in his hands – quite literally.”
“No, that was bullshit. I don’t know why artists loved to paint people gutting fish, but these things are in the National Gallery, the Louvre, the Met, and probably every other major gallery.”
“Maybe people just hate fish,” I said.
The Student shrugged and we moved along, nodding at the security guard who was fighting sleep in the chair near the entrance to the hall.
The next room seemed to have a sea theme. Most of the paintings were of seascapes, filled with whales, birds in the sky, and ships sailing along or battling the elements. This made me think back to the time in middle school when I was overly cocky about my ability to comprehend complex novels and decided, “Fuck it, I’m going to read Moby Dick.” Well, I read the book in that I read all of the words inside the novel. But, if you were to ask me then or now what happened, or what the themes were, I’d probably have responded by shivering and saying, “People died.”
“This makes me think of Moby Dick,” said The Student. “I tried to read that when I was in middle school.”
“You too? What’d you think?”
“Loved it. Finished it in a week, went up to the teacher and had a discussion about it. Turned out he did his Master’s thesis on Melville. Did you know—” The Student then went on a lengthy monologue about something or other pertaining to American Modernism, a topic about which I have no interest unless it pertained to my Ranting in Literature modules. His monologue lasted a few rooms and the floor beneath us, which brought us to Impressionism—an era of art I like a lot, because it seems to me that all of the artists were on spectacular amounts of acid. After this, we made our way down to the main floor and decided to check out the special exhibit in the lower levels. It was there that I realized that, truly, everything in the world is interconnected, and if you don’t expect something to happen, then it surely will.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dinner Parties and Britney Spears

After wandering around Lille for a few hours, and generally spending the entire time surprised at the lack of homeless people in the city, The Student and I hopped back on the Metro and headed back to Pascale’s place. Tonight, a friend of hers was having a dinner party at her apartment across town. And a few of them had been to America before. The Student and I were enthusiastic, but shot looks at each other. We knew this could go one of two ways: The first was that they had been to New York City or San Francisco; the second is that they had been outside those two cities and were acquainted with everything that can be wrong about the country—namely morbid obesity, the fundies, and sweltering heat.
At any rate, Pascale got ready, grabbed some, and we headed back to the Metro to head out to her friend’s place.
Her friend, who was married to a guy who had also studied journalism at their undergrad, lived in an amazing flat closer to the city center. I’d be hard-pressed to describe it in architectural terms, but it was big, painted a clean white with black tile floors, with those little picture light thingies hanging from bars across the ceiling, and large windows looking out towards one of the churches.
We were greeted at the door by one of her friends, Melanie, who reminded me of a French version of a friend back in Tennessee. Immediately, bursts of French. I tried to keep up by saying, “Bonjour, ah, ca, no, wait.”
They switched to English. The Student grinned at me. “Hi,” Melanie said, “how are you?”
I shrugged. “Eh, pretty good. Pretty, pretty good.” She didn’t get the Curb Your Enthusiasm reference. The Student did and shook his head.
A tall, lean guy with glasses and black hair pulled back into a pony tail walked out of the kitchen to the right and hugged Pascale and did the cheek kiss thing. “Ils sont americains,” Pascale said.
The guy, call him Luc, grinned. “I went to New York for a six months.”
“Hey, cool, I went for five days,” I said.
The Student talked at him in French for a bit, Pascale and everyone else laughed, and I rocked back and forth on my feet. I could feel the anxiety and paranoia approaching, like gremlins, but I kept my cool.
As they stopped laughing, Luc said, “Dinner is about to be ready. Would you like to go sit down?”
We walked into the living room—a big place with a really nice black leather couch, some bookshelves, and a modest TV—and met a few other people who also looked like they were artists. As far as I can tell, it’s a genetic thing that the French have, this ability to always appear lean and as if they’ll brandish a canvas and paint pallet out of nowhere and go to town. They’d all gone to the same University for undergrad, and, while they told me the name several times, I couldn’t remember it after about ten seconds.
Now, here’s the thing about the ‘dinner parties’ I’m used to. Typically, the dinner (usually pizza) isn’t the focus. The focus is either Mario Kart or Super Smash Brothers, or some game where your bunch of pixels shoots other bunches of pixels good and dead. In short, they’re video game and beer nights.
Thus deprived of anything resembling society, I’d formed a vision of a dinner party in my head that combined the best parts of Thanksgiving (namely gratuitous overeating and drunkenness) with the best parts of all the parties I’d been to with my friends (video games and drunkenness) and walked into Melanie and Luc’s place expecting to see piles of pizza boxes and stacks of liquor. In place of my vision of hedonism, there were a few plates of crackers and cheese, and only a modest couple of bottles of wine.
I hung my head and muttered something completely inaccurate about the French character, but no one heard me, so all was well. “Please,” Melanie said, “sit.” She then introduced us to the four other artistic-looking people sitting at chairs near the sofas. I didn’t catch their names, but I’ll refer to them as Jean-Luc—the larger guy in the black sweater with thick-framed black glasses and a pony-tail;  Napolean, the reedy guy who was in a band; Michelle, the tall girl who sat on top of Napolean, and, occasionally, laid across him like a blanket; and Sophie, who would basically turn into our fourth friend this trip.
We greeted them, and The Student immediately started talking to them in French. I thought back to my high school French classes, which generally consisted of us trying to avoid making our teacher—a hollow-looking man who we figured for a drug addict—shout at us for no discernable reason. Then I thought back to my first college French class, which was taught by a hippy and was at the difficulty level of, roughly, coloring books. Then my second college French course, which was taught by a Parisian MILF, and was infinitely harder than my first one. Then my third, and so on until I filled my foreign language requirement and forgot French altogether.
All was well, though, as I got to sit around and eat some delicious crackers and cheese. I’d never had Camembert before, and eating it then, in all of its warmed-up glory, I figured that I’d gone and found a new favorite type of cheese. “This is some good cheese,” I said.
The conversation stopped.
The Student said, “Oh, hey Narrator, I forgot you were there. We were just talking about how the blog is becoming almost a literary form—sort of like a diary. What do you think, as a blogger?”
“Oh,” said Luc, “you have the blog?”
“Er,” I said, “well, yeah, you could say that.”
“What is it about?” asked Sophie, leaning forward and snagging a grape from the plate on the table.
I shuffled. “It’s, ah, nothing special. Autobiographical. Sort of.” Having nothing else to say on the subject, I gently coughed.
“He’s modest,” said The Student.
“No I’m not,” I said. “No one needs to know about it.”
He grinned. The bastard. “Nah, it’s a fictionalized version of the year we’re all spending over here. Some good writing in there. Kind of neo-Romantic era, but with just a hint of post-modern fear of the future.” He clicked his tongue. “Neo-Romantic nihilism, you might say.”
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“Roll with it,” he said out of the side of his mouth.
The word “nihilism” apparently interested the hell out of the French, as they all leaned forward and nodded. “So, this means you are the philosopher of the group, eh?”
I shuffled some more. “Eh, well, yeah, I guess. I don’t like the whole neo-Rom—”
“What do you think of Sarah Palin?” Jean-Luc asked.
“She’s an orphan-eating Hitler-devil, why?”
And then I was in their good graces. Sophie came over to our sofa and started talking to The Student and I much more than I’d have expected, Luc brought us a bottle of... well, I don’t know. It was similar to ouzo, but tasted similar to a Merlot.
The time passed a lot faster after that. They served a small spinach, feta pizza and then, blowing my mind beyond all explainable proportions, they turned on a karaoke game and started a horrendous chain of pop renditions from the 90s. Not that their singing voices were terrible, mind you, it was the fact that I had to sit through about six Britney Spears songs and twelve Backstreet Boys songs before they all got bored, passed me the microphone, and I went on an old school hip hop binge that no one but Pascale and The Student paid attention to.
After “No Sleep Til Brooklyn,” Pascale said, “I don’t know any of those songs.”
“What?” I said. “How do you not know The Beastie Boys? That’s a freakin travesty, man.”
The three of us debated the merits and demerits of French pop versus American pop until people started to leave, and the three of us dashed to the Metro to make it back to Pascale’s before the subway closed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Travel Guide Full of Lies

I might have mentioned this before, but my favorite way to learn about a city or a country is to wander around a city blindly and without regard to whether or not I’m in a safe part. To date, this hasn’t led to any altercations, mainly because wandering around blindly has the consequence that I look confused and scared, to the point where people who would otherwise rob me feel pity for me.
The Student and I wandered around a large part of Lille that day, and I’d equate it to unlocking parts of the map in an RPG. Now, I could easily tell you about everything we saw that day. I could tell you about stumbling upon a cathedral that Pascale hadn’t even seen. However, what I’m going to do is share with you part of what I like to call “The Travel Guide Full of Lies:”


 I decided that I would go to France. So, the first thing I did was book a ticket for a service called the Eurostar. It’s this giant beast of a train; consisting of about thirty to forty coaches and two large engines on either side. Going from Ashford International to Lille in just over an hour, it puts planes to shame and the ferries… well, it buries and spits on the ferries. (Avoid taking a ferry at all costs. You may think that there is something magical about travelling by water—especially if you’re from the landlocked states in the U.S., where we occasionally go out on man-made lakes and pretend to be pirates—but there’s not. The drinks are overpriced and, more often than not, there’s a delay for no apparent reason.) If you decide to take the Eurostar, I recommend booking as early as possible. I got a round-trip ticket to Lille for about £55.00 by booking in advance; considering the ease with which I traveled, I’d say that it was a good price.
So, arriving in Lille, I met my friend, who kindly agreed to let me crash in her place and sleep for about twelve hours a day. (This trip was the most restful I’d ever had.) Now, I had been awake since four in the morning—having caught the 6:57 from Ashford to Lille, I first had to shlep down to the train station in Canterbury and then catch an early train to Ashford—and so, when I arrived in Lille that morning, I was very, very tired. We made some arrangements concerning the keys to her building, she went off to class, and I slept for five hours.
When I woke up, it was two in the afternoon, and I was, for the first time in a very long time, fully rested and not artificially stimulated from coffee. I threw on my layers of clothing (the whole time I was in France, it was below freezing) and walked outside.
The first thing I noticed when I hit the street was that I had to watch what I was doing. Having lived in England for a few months, I was used to cars coming at me from a different direction. So, now, having a bus barreling down at me sent flashes of New York City through my mind and I ducked back on the sidewalk. Shivering in the fetal position on the ground, I heard a maniacal laughter from behind and above. I peeked up and saw a man about six feet tall with a long, scraggly beard standing over me. I could smell the reek of wine and whiskey off of him, and I, for the first time in Europe, was completely terrified. Then, in an accent I couldn’t quite place but which I knew was English of some variety, the man said, “Fucking French, oi?”
“You English?”
“I am, lad. I am.” He paused, turned to a pair of French students making their way down the street and screamed such vile obscenities about them and their mothers that I could never, even if I were forced at gunpoint, replicate them on page. This was my first encounter with Eddie. When the French students passed, Eddie looked back at me and said, “From the looks of you, you’re an American. Still, better than the ----- ---- -- - ------ -- --- ----- frogs here. So mate, you want to see Lille, does you?”
I nodded weakly.
“Good. For some food and a pint somewhere—proper pint, none of this ------ - -- -- ---- French --- - ---- - ---- they call beer. Too sweet, you ask me. Have to go for one at an Irish place—which isn’t much better than the French, but it’ll do. So, for some food and a pint, I’ll show you around. Call me Eddie.”
“Call me Ishmael,” I said. No chance in hell I was giving him my real name.
And so we set off into the city. We weaved in and out of disreputable-looking streets, Eddie occasionally kicking a sleeping homeless man and then laughing, until we happened upon a canal. The canal, it seemed, moved around a large park. This being winter time, the park was largely abandoned. There wasn’t a lot to see, since most of the trees were bare, and the few animals I could see were either ducks, squirrels, or rats. “This,” said Eddie, “is the King’s Canal. It was dug by King Louis XXII—”
“I thought the last Louis was the XVIII,” I said.
Eddie glared at me. His bloodshot eyes dilated and he took his hands out from his pockets. I caught a glimpse of them, right then, and saw that they were beyond grimy. Covered in dirt, dried brown stuff (I shuddered to think of what it actually was), and grease, I had to think of a way to get Eddie to put his hands back into his pockets, if only to get them out of my sight. “But then again,” I said, “you’ve lived here longer than I have.”
“’S right, I have. So,” he said, putting his hands back in his pockets, “the canal being dug by King Louis XXII, it was called the King’s Canal. In 1768, the people of Lille found a witch by the name of Henrietta, tossed her into the canal, and then set the canal on fire—it, at that time, being covered by a fine layer of oil. You see, mate, this entire area was, at one time, a vast oil field. And then, when the Lilliputians—as these people are wont to be called—set the canal on fire, it set the rest of the part of the city on fire.
“When the flames died down, they found that park.”
“Are we going to the park?”
“Course not. Not today. Today is a holy day in the park, and we, not being French, cannot enter into to hallowed ground on a holy day.”
It has come to my attention, just now, that this is to be a travel guide. Looking over what I have just written, it looks nothing like a travel guide. It, in fact, looks like one of my stories. Sometimes, I tell you, I am the biggest fool around. If it looks like a story, how are you to believe anything in it? Oy gevalt, I’m such a shlemiel.
So, henceforth, the format of this piece shall change to something more fitting for what it is trying to be. We will be going from region to region, as led by Eddie the Englishman—with a few eateries highlighted for your pleasure. Please note that, mostly because of my tour guide and my finances, none of the eateries will be fit for romantic escapades, frequent visits, or, in some cases, returning a second time. Please also note that, although Eddie the Englishman had been a resident of the city for quite a while (as he put it, “as soon as the bloody EU came about—had to get away from the ---- - -- -- ---- --- ----- back in England”), he was, and probably still is, certifiably insane. If I had to guess, I would say that about 95% of what he says is ill-informed or downright wrong.

Lille – Overview

Lille is a city of over six million people—most of whom are cleverly hidden underground, so that the city only gives off the appearance of having nine hundred thousand people.
The city is home to hundreds of cafés—all of which are run by authentic Frenchmen, so be ready to try out that miniscule amount of French you learned ages ago in high school. Never order a “croque monsieur.” All Frenchmen eat scrambled eggs for breakfast, kebab for lunch, and horse steak for dinner. No one orders a “croque monsieur,” and if you do, the proprietor of whatever establishment you are in will know you are a tourist and not only spit in your food, but probably defecate in it. The best thing in a French café is, if you can get it, a good British beer. The French wine they serve is worse than sub-par, and everyone knows that the French, as a rule, want to be British, anyway. Barring that, espresso is usually good. (In Eddie’s words, “But you might not be able to take the espresso, you quavering Yank wanker.”)
The districts you’ll probably be interested in are Vieux Lille (Old Lille), the Centre Ville (City Center), Euralille, and the big park in the northwest part of the city. Starting from the City Center, we will go in a meandering, haphazard route—much like the one by which Eddie took me through the city—looking at some of the places to eat, visit, and drink.

Centre Ville - City Center

The city center is, as far as I can tell, made up of two or three very large plazas, around which are shops, offices, and the general nucleus of the city. I do not know the correct names of the plazas, so I’ll just call them Rihour Plaza and The Plaza Right Next to Rihour. If you are going on Lille’s Metro, then the stop you’re looking for is—you guessed it—Rihour.

Places of Interest

At the time I was there, the plazas were decorated so that Christmas virtually oozed through the air. To give you an idea of the size of these plazas, the city set up a gigantic Ferris Wheel in the middle, and there was still room enough for a thirty-person snowball fight during a snowfall. Around the plazas, you will notice a few things of interest. Most immediately, you will notice the Theatre Du Nord. (Eddie insisted that this meant “Theater of the Norm,” but I have my doubts as to the veracity of that statement.) It is a large building by nineteenth century European standards. Its stones are grey, it has a very impressive staircase, and, apparently, the French have prisoners perform plays from time to time. Turning left from the Theatre, you will notice the Lille Opera. From traveling to Paris last year, I was a bit surprised to discover that the Lille Opera looks a lot like the Paris Opera. It, like the Theatre, is distinctly 19th century French and is one of the cultural landmarks of the city. (Leonard Cohen is doing one thing or another there at some point, so it must be a fairly big deal.)
If you walk South from Rihour, you’ll come to the Place Du Républic. It is a large plaza in between the Prefecture and the Musée Beaux-Arts. On one side, there is a fountain with a large sculpture of what I assume to be modern art. According to my guide, the sculpture represents the French bowing down before the British.
The Prefecture looks like what one would imagine a palace to resemble. It was actually built while the Romans still occupied Gaul, and, it is rumored, that the last Roman legionnaires occupied the building until World War One—inbred and deformed, but proud Romans shouting insults in Latin through the iron bars of the strong gates to the last. According to Eddie, these last Romans were killed in World War Two, when the German Army occupied Lille, saw the malformed members of the XII Felix Legion, and were so disgusted that they ordered a Luftwaffe air strike within minutes of spotting the beasts peeking through the large windows of the building. After it was razed, the Germans had the thing rebuilt the same day, “because if it’s one thing the rotters can do,” said Eddie, “it’s make things go up quick.”
Across the plaza is the Musée Beaux-Arts. (I am pretty sure this means The Museum of Fine Arts, but Eddie insisted that it means The Museum of Artists named Beau. That is, of course, ridiculous. There is not one painting in the whole of the museum by a man named Beau.) This is actually inside what used to be a nineteenth century palace. Inside the museum, you will find some beautiful paintings, the names of which I cannot remember. I always had more of an eye for antiquities and big hunks of rock, and the only paintings that stuck in my head were ones involving men gutting fish and David impaling Goliath’s head on a sword. Admission to the museum is €5.80 without concessions.

Places to Nosh

My eating experience in Lille was twofold: On the one hand, I was on the budget of a student, and on the other, I had to hide whatever meat I ate on the street from Eddie, who had a tendency to leap on cooked flesh with all the hunger and thoughtless greed of a ravenous dog. So, I am afraid that I cannot give you the full review of food throughout the city—not just in the centre ville—that I would otherwise be able to. I can, however, tell you that many of the bakeries that are sprinkled throughout the city are quite good—and cheap to boot. A baguette at €.80 should easily feed two people, and if not, there are plenty of newsagents that sell cheap sandwiches.
Let’s, however, assume that you want to lead a healthy lifestyle on your travels throughout the city and the continent. You’re going to need some sort of meat and fruits and veggies. Fruits and veggies are easy: France has the good graces to have plenty of independent green grocers who sell fruit and vegetables for fairly cheap. Meat is slightly more difficult. The places on the street that sell the meat will sell you greasy stuff that will probably leave you rushing towards the nearest public toilet. However, considering that many of you are American, this is not a problem.
My guide’s favorite place to eat, though, was a place he called La Maison Du Dumpster. I followed him down a few back alleys in the general direction of the river, and genuinely wanted to see the sort of place that would name itself after a trash receptacle, but, about the time we passed a kebab house, he stopped me. “I’d better go in, laddy,” he said. “They don’t take kindly to new people, and even though you’re not a ---- --- ---- ------- ----- Frenchie, you’re still a ---- ------ American.”
“Well,” I said, “do you need help ordering?”
“Fuck you,” he said, drawing closer, his eyes taking on the insanity aspect I’d noticed before. “Never assume I need help just because I got a little grey in my beard, you tosspot.” He suddenly calmed, laughed, and said, “Just kidding. It’s take away. I’ll get you something nice.”
So he disappeared down the alley and returned a few minutes later with two Styrofoam take-away containers. I opened the one he gave me and saw something that looked like a cocktail of trash. I think that, in the middle of the container, I saw a spit the sort of which kebab houses stick doner meat. I asked if this were safe to eat, and my guide threatened to open my throat so that the gulls could drink my blood if I didn’t eat what was in the container; so, naturally, I ate. And, all told, it wasn’t that bad. There was just a hint of lemon and garlic that I wouldn’t expect to see from something that looked like burnt lettuce, but it just added to the all around surprising flavor of the package. After we finished eating, Eddie demanded €3.00, which, in my opinion, was a pretty good price for something that equated to a pound of food.
I do, however, recognize that there are those among my audience who would not enjoy eating suspect foods—even though the price may be cheaper than anything they would otherwise come across—and, for them, I would recommend either going with baguettes, fast food, or ingredients to be found at green grocers’ sprinkled throughout the city.
Range of meals: €.80 - €5.60
Quality of meals: Meh – Strangely delicious

Watering Holes

“But what about the nightlife?” some of you may be asking. This I can answer with a severe degree of confidence. You see, by about eight o’clock at night, Eddie would be too exhausted to continue our tours, start shouting at random passers-by, and eventually pass out in an alley. (I’m not sure how he made it, but every morning at nine, I’d see him waiting for me outside the apartment. He must have had a fantastic inner GPS/alarm clock.) After he passed out, I’d return to the apartment via Lille’s metro system and make ready to be dragged around like a wet rag to wherever my friend already had plans.
As I mentioned before, my French is workable. I wouldn’t be utterly screwed and abandoned if I were travelling around the country by myself—unless I was in an area where the accent was the French equivalent of Glaswegian. While I trailed around after my friend, I picked up a little more here and there. (Apparently, there is a French phrase that, when translated literally, means, “You’ve missed the point entirely.” Naturally, the way languages and national senses of humor work, this idiom means, “You’ve hit the nail on the head.” I have, by now, forgotten the French.) We went from bar to bar, and eventually apartment to apartment, leaving me a shattered husk of a man, but my friend, God must have blessed her with such constitution to outlast Hercules. Whereas I would have to drag myself out of bed at half past 8 (so that Eddie wouldn’t start chucking rocks at the window), she was up and out of the apartment at seven in the morning.
So, where to drink?

The Puzzle
The first thing you must realize about Lille is that it is a University town. Even better, it is a University town consisting of nine fucking Universities. This means that there are a lot of students bouncing around at any hour of the morning. And, what do students do when they’re not putting off work? That’s right, drinking and drugs. As such, there are tons of bars around Lille. Not pubs, mind you, but bars. Living in England for a few months, you start to forget what a bar is like. If this is the case with you, I suggest you go to France and find yourself a bar. Anyway, there are quite a few good bars, but there is one I really, really enjoyed. It was called The Puzzle. They—and, honestly, I’d imagine most other places in Lille—had a beer called Laffe. It was deep red and twice as potent as the stuff I got in a pub in England. “Ha!” I said. “And the British thought they could do alcohol.”
After about four Laffes in this bar, the world was something with which I was deeply in love. I wanted nothing more than to be one with the world. To embrace it. To make it mine and, after a fulfilling career, buy a house in the country with it. Have a few dogs. See our kids every once in a while. Maybe take up a hobby. Even the house band—fronted by a man who looked like he was trying to combine all the bits of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison into one—sounded like they were the best in the world. (Through the alcohol haze, I remember that they were playing blues-rock, which was a definite plus in my book.)
The bar itself was divided into two floors. Up top was mostly standing room. The serving area was in the center of the floor, with a booth and a table on each side, but, apart from that and a staircase leading down, it was all standing room. Opposite the bathrooms on one side was a stage. It was a small stage, but one that any decent band could use. After all, if a band is playing in a place the size of The Puzzle—not small, but not big, either—then chances are they don’t need a lot of room to set up their equipment.
Downstairs were two very large couches, in the center of which were a few tables. The downstairs looked like a wine cellar and was probably one of the more unique places in which I’ve imbibed. If you don’t get too drunk in the place, it’s quite enjoyable. If you do get too drunk, then you may, like me, start getting paranoid that someone will come downstairs to seal you up in one of the cellar walls.
Quality of environs (1-10): 8
Price: €4.00 for .5L Laffe.
Overall experience (1-10): 7—would have been higher were it not for the possibility of being sealed in the walls.

Other Drinking Establishments

As I mentioned above, Lille is a university town extraordinaire. There are more cafes and bars than I’ve seen outside of London thus far. If you want a relaxed time, and a place to perhaps have an existentialist discussion about how life suffocates the individual, then you might want to find one of the many street cafes. The Centre Ville has plenty of them, and choices range from the low-key to the massive. If you want bars, then the only limiting factor is how loud you want your music.
The only word of caution I can give you is to watch yourself on the streets. Lille is in France, and as everyone knows, France is infested with mimes. At sundown, the mimes get aggressive, and will attempt to build invisible walls around you. I have seen the effects of these invisible walls, and there is no escape. You can find mime-repellant at most newsagents to the tune of €15.00. The price may seem extravagant, but when you are approached by a troop of white and black-clad delinquents, you will think yourself lucky.


As you can see, I am incapable of coming up with anything that has reality as its basis. However, the good news about all of this is that everything up there in terms of price is true. Anyway, moving on.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Christmas Time - dans francais!

Of course, I’d made a promise to myself that The Student would think I despised everything about the French, and so, outwardly, I snorted and said, “Fuck, if this were ‘murika, they’d have a big fuckin tree instead of of this Ferris Wheel shit.”
“You are lying,” said The Student, shaking his head and looking around with a smile. “Know how I know?”
“No I ain’t.”
“Yeah, see, that’s it. You’re lying because you’re using that fucking redneck voice you use to make fun of idiots.”
“N—no I’m not.”
“Whatever, man. Breathe it in. A country, a people who are outside enjoying themselves instead of complaining about the weather.”
I decided that I’d give it a rest.
The air was crisp, clear, and the smell of food of all sorts filled the air alongside happy French chatter and music. The plaza was home to some of Lille’s major cultural attractions, like the Theatre du Nord. All of the buildings were classy. Even though the temperature was hovering around zero, the street cafés were open and busy. People sat out in the gated-off areas—heating lamps buzzing above them—with their drinks steaming in front of them. I looked around at the skyline. Church steeples, the Hôtel de Ville’s spire, and the bell towers of the city’s cathedral shot into the air. I grinned. “Coffee?”
“Petit café?” asked The Student.
“Smartass,” I responded.
We set off for a café where we could grab a take-away cup of espresso without waiting too long. In England, you spot these things by seeing Lottery signs. In France, you spot these places by diamond-shaped signs that read Tabac. We walked into one and were greeted with the following sight:
The room was a lengthwise place, with a bar and a cigarette display. There was one person behind the bar. Opposite, there were a row of seats next to the window. A few older people sat at these, sipping from espresso cups and looking outside. There wasn’t any music playing from speakers, but the door was open, and the music floated in from outside. This was to be the norm for most of these mini-cafés. We went up to the bar and flexed our French muscles for the first time by ordering a couple of espressos.
The guy poured the espressos, gave us the cups, and spat rapid-fire numbers at us. I can barely handle numbers in English, much less French. Luckily, I had The Student and digital readouts on the cash register. We paid, took our cups outside, and went back to the square. Maybe it was because I didn’t speak the language, but the city of Lille managed to do Christmas without kitsch. America has a very bad habit of doing just that, making you come down with diabetes every year from the Christmas marketing spree—and, from everything I’d seen in England, it was the same there.
For me, Christmas was another opportunity to be a cynical bastard. “Oh,” I’d say, “Christmas is a sham. Look at all of the commercials and shit dealing with Santa. Santa is Coke’s mascot.” But, like the Grinch, when I walked into Rihour square, my heart grew three sizes. The Student, from what I could tell, just looked happy to be somewhere other than Canterbury. He walked around with his steaming cup of espresso and smiled warmly at the world.
“Nice place,” I said.
“I know, right? Somehow, I doubt we’re going to get robbed or anything out here. Chavs don’t like happiness.”
We walked down a small street and found ourselves in another square. If there was one thing the French liked, I thought, it was their public squares. This one was also  surrounded on all sides by street cafes, some bars, and a couple imitation English pubs. In the middle was what they refer to as an Alpine Christmas village. Think a bunch of quickly thrown-together wooden buildings with fake snow on the roofs, some pine trees sprinkled along the walking paths, and French Christmas music.
By this time we’d finished our cups of espresso. I turned to The Student, pointed to a sign, and said, “My friend, what does that sign say?”
The Student adjusted his glasses and looked at the sign. “Vin chaud.”
“Exactement. And what does that mean?”
“Hot wine.”
“Oui, mon ami. And what does that mean?”
“Mulled wine.”
Nothing more needed to be said. We walked over to the stand, ordered two glasses, said a quick l’chaim and drank. The day suddenly improved from good to better, and we commenced proper wandering.

Friday, November 12, 2010

We Arrive At Pascale's; Sleep

In about twenty minutes, after the ride on the metro—during which Pascale drew a diagram of the line we were on and circled the important stops—and a short walk, we arrived at Pascale’s apartment.
It was in a big apartment building in the southern part of the city. Walking along the street to her apartment, I was hit by the realization of a couple of things that I already knew, but didn’t actually think about. The first was that cars here drove on the right side of the road. Now, of course, I knew this as a fact beforehand, but it’s one thing to get off a ferry and spend a few hours in a dingy port town and to get off a train and spend five days or so in another city. What I’m trying to say is that I got out of the metro station near Pascale’s place (Port du Douai) and was almost hit by a city bus because I’d been trained to look a certain way in England. “Jesus Christ,” I shouted.
Pascale laughed—mainly because The Student had the same reaction to the same city bus.
“Okay,” I said. “Think America.”
“Duly noted,” said The Student.
The second thing that I knew, but hadn’t thought about, was that I was in a city. The English call Canterbury a city, but, truth be told, it lacks all defining characteristics of a city. The international presence in Canterbury is made up of take-away shops and students at the university. A city, by virtue of being a large place, has an international presence that influences the culture. In terms of architecture, Canterbury has two modern buildings: The one I noticed first is an apartment building near the West train station; the second is the library of Canterbury Christ Church (which The Traveler, a guy named Gilles, and I infiltrated much later in the year). Other than that, the architecture is largely composed of either 1960s blocky buildings, a shopping area, and Tudor buildings. Fair enough—but, after a while, you start to yearn for a reminder that you live in the 21st Century. And, of course, one of the most important characteristics of a city is the bustling atmosphere created by the movement of people and vehicles. Traffic in Canterbury is, a good portion of the time, stuck in place, and the people walking around the city are shoppers, tourists, and students. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, don’t get me wrong, but, in my opinion, you need a certain amount of franticness every now and then to wake you up—like a shot of strong espresso.
Lille, as a counter to this, had energy. Even out where Pascale lived, where it seemed to be in the not-quite-upscale area, the equivalent of a blue-collar neighborhood in a city, there was the immediacy and necessity of being somewhere. People had places to go, and, if they didn’t, they wanted to go somewhere. Walking around wasn’t a way to waste time, but a way to get to where you needed to be. You could see it in these people’s faces, that they lived in a city, and, thus, acted as such. It was at this moment, right after dodging the city bus and crossing the street, that I looked around, saw some people’s faces, and realized that, damn it, I really missed being in a city. “Bloody Canterbury,” I said.
The Student grunted. Presumably in agreement.
We walked up the stairs to Pascale’s place (she showed us how to work the locks as if we’d never seen the mechanisms before—this, I learned, was because The Student could never unlock the door to their house in Park Wood, even while he was sober), she picked up some stuff, showed us the bed, and dashed out the door to make it to her morning classes. Her schedule was intense. It was everything I’d hoped my schedule as a postgrad would be. She was in class from nine to seven at night, she had responsibilities on the university’s paper, she had projects, she had deadlines—it was, shockingly, like she was earning her degree.
I, of course, didn’t think about this that first morning. I thought about how I’d beat The Student to get the bed. Instinct took over. I shoved him to the floor and dashed up the ladder to the top of the bed. I should explain: Pascale’s room was tiny. It was like a single room in most dorms in the states—essentially closet sized with enough room for a bed, a desk, a warddrobe, and a couple of chairs. Like most space-conscious students, Pascale had converted her bed into a bunk, and thus squeezed some precious floor space out of the arrangement.
“What the fuck, man?” asked The Student, holding himself on his elbows and staring at me as if I’d just stabbed him in the back.
“My bed. You brought a sleeping bag for a reason,” I said.
“So did you.”
“Yeah? So?”
“Fine, whatever.” He unrolled the sleeping bag on the floor and climbed in with one fluid motion. Would’ve taken me five minutes to get it unrolled—clearly, I’d made the best choice for all parties involved. “How long are we conking out for?”
“No more than—” I didn’t finish the sentence before blackness and unconsciousness swept over me.
I woke up six hours later at the onset of the afternoon, stretching and blinking. The bed was in disarray—I’d done the usual of apparently convulsing in my sleep. I put on my glasses and looked outside. Through the small rectangle of Pascale’s window, I saw people walking outside in giant parkas. Still cold, then. I took a pillow and hurled it at The Student, snoring lightly on the floor.
He woke with a snort and looked around. “What? What time is it?”
“One in the afternoon.”
He flopped back with a thud and groaned. “I suppose we should go out.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Neither of us moved for a few minutes. He took the initiative, though, and splashed some water on his face from the nearby sink. I followed suit, nearly tumbled out of the bed, and put my shoes on. Then began the process of layering. You see, Canterbury never got truly, truly cold. Never in the sense that one had to throw on four layers or face the threat of some sort of frostbite. I’d looked at the weather forcast for Lille, though, and saw that it was going to be below freezing all day every day for the time we were there. I was prepared. T-shirt, sweater, jacket, pea coat. I couldn’t move my arms, but, damn it, I’d be warm.
The Student came out, did the same, and we walked out of her apartment, locked the door, and left the building. We stood outside, teeth still chattering. I pulled down my hat. “Where to?”
The Student shrugged. “Centre de ville?”
I blinked at him. “Don’t start that French shit with me, boy. You speak English while I’m around, less I bust a cap in yo ass.”
“Mangez ma merde,” he responded, and started walking.