We walked out of the metro at Rihour, up the stairs, and were greeted by the utmost in Frenchness. The only thing more French than what we saw would be walking out of the Paris metro and seeing mimes on unicycles and playing accordions. It was Christmas time, and, naturally, the city of Lille decided to set up festivities such as: a giant Ferris Wheel, speakers blaring pop music, and street performers blowing fire, and the smell of vin chaud. Next to the Ferris wheel was a carousel, and next to that were a bunch of crepe carts. This was exactly what I needed to escape England for a little bit.
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?”
“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.