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.”