Woolf College, deserted, looks like a prison under lock down. At least, shivering in the darkness in my pea coat, my wool flat cap pulled down low over my head, that’s what I thought about. I stood out there, waiting for The Student to head down my way from his block.
He wore a puffy brown coat—the sort of thing you’d expect to see on a child with an overprotective mother instead of an adult in grad school. The hood was pulled up over his face, and I saw that he was wearing corduroy pants and boots. He had a backpack, a messenger bag, and a sleeping bag with him. “Yo,” he called.
“Yo,” I answered.
He walked up to me and we turned towards the other side of the College, making our slow progress to the footpath. “Big coat,” I said.
“It’s cold,” he said.
I nodded. We were talking like we were in a Cormac McCarthy novel, and my overactive imagination started kicking into gear. There was no doubt that we’d get waylaid on the path by highway men. Sure, we’d reason with them, but, in the end, they’d strip us of everything of value and, because I thought of The Student the weaker of us, would kidnap him and use him for slavery. They’d kill me. No doubt there. Cannibalism might be involved if it turned out we were in The Road. As for The Student’s belongings, well, I’d be happy to let Rebecca have them.
“Supposed to be this cold in France?” I asked.
“Yep,” said The Student.
We continued on in silence. Walked past Eliot College and were now in the woods. Lapsed back to Cormac McCarthy mode. I listened to the wind for the sound of hooves on ground. Maybe diesel-powered trucks, belching smoke and driving through the woods. I’d hear gruff men shouting to each other, “Look for signs of camps.” They’d hold guns and have ammo. We’d be easy prey for killers. I wasn’t a killer. The student wasn’t a killer. I started sweating. Dead giveaway if any of them had a powerful nose. They probably did.
“Quiet out here,” said The Student. He shivered in his coat.
“Yep,” I said.
Yes, The Student would definitely be the one of us to be cut down. The arms of his coat swished against the side. Easy sound to recognize. He should have worn a wool coat. Could have told him, but that would have been useless. He wouldn’t have time to go back to Woolf to get it. The highwaymen would catch him by then. I wished I had a revolver on me, but they were illegal. Not that laws had much to do with a wild land like this. I looked to my left. A fox dashed through the trees.
We made it through the footpath and into the neighborhood at the bottom. Silence here, too. Now they didn’t even need to come through the woods. Just had to drive down the roads in their massive cars/big horses. I shook my head and snapped back to reality. I really should have had some coffee that morning. Reading No Country for Old Men the previous night probably had something to do with it. (That’s the thing about the UK. Even if you get lost in the countryside, you’re probably no more than two miles away from a country pub.)
We walked to the train station, bought tickets to Ashford, and waited. I looked at the station clock for the first time and saw that we were half an hour early. I grunted. Well, at least we definitely wouldn’t miss the train.
As the time got closer, a few people in business suits arrived at the station and, generally, looked even more miserable than us. The Student fell asleep on the station bench and I took out a book to read. Doing that was harder than I thought it would be. Apparently, my brain had no interest whatsoever in concentrating on reading at six in the morning. I closed my book (the new You Just Don’t Get It, Do You? by Richard Dawkins—chosen by the head of the course for a module next term) and took out my wallet. I have a habit of keeping receipts long past the time when they are useful. After I realize that I have no idea what they’re for (generally because the ink has faded), I use them as scrap paper or bookmarks. Today, though, I would use them as pellets to harass The Student. I did so, and he stirred a bit.
Finally, the train arrived, I pushed him awake, and we got on and both promptly fell asleep until we arrived at Ashford.
After passing through French customs and getting on the Eurostar—a mammoth train that was, at this hour, surprisingly full of people who somehow had the capacity to talk—we fell asleep again and woke up as the train zoomed into France, briefly stopping in Calais.
By the time we got to Lille, predictably, I was more tired than I had been at six in the morning. You’d think that after four years spent napping in the mid-afternoon after getting no sleep the previous night, I would have remembered the sorts of problems that came from not getting enough sleep.
We got off of the train and walked into the station. My initial reaction was that it was big. My second reaction was, “Jesus fuck it is cold in here.”
The Student nodded, shivering a little himself. “Little bit, yeah. I understand that they need to keep the sides open so trains can enter and leave, but you’d think they could have... I don’t know, doors or something in train stations. Christ. This place must get boiling hot in the summer.”
I turned to him and said, “How can you think of summer at a time like this?”
We walked a little ways down the platform. The Student displayed a method of looking for people that resembled my own: He looked through the crowd, occasionally waving at someone, and then quickly retracting his hand as he realized he didn’t know that person after all. We walked through the train station—a place about the size of London Victoria with one major difference: Lille-Europe was actually modern. Nothing against the train stations in England, but, for the most part, there’s no difference between their appearance now and what they probably looked like a hundred years ago (save, of course, digital displays that tell you exactly how late your train will be). Lille-Europe is a big bastard, made of concrete and plate-glass up top. Shops, a couple of cafes—basically, normal fare for any transportation depot.
It was around this time that I noticed something that, for some reason, hadn’t registered before: I was in a non-Anglophone country. More so, I was in a country where, even though I was essentially on the level of a five year old with mental difficulties, I could speak the language. I looked up at one of the blue signs showing where platforms and the metro were. “Hey, Student,” I said, pointing to the sign.
He paused in his searching and looked at me. “Yeah?”
I nodded to the left, towards some escalators, an elevator going down, and a group of ticket machines. “That way to the metro.”
He looked over. “Yep.”
“What, aren’t you surprised—nay, shocked and amazed—that I could discern where the Metro was, using only my skills dans français?”
“The symbol over that ticket machine is a white ‘M’ in a square. It’s obvious that that’s where the Metro would be. Look, I need you to shut up for a second and think where my friend would be.”
“You’ve got her number, right?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t pick up.”
I didn’t even realize that The Student had been on the phone at any point since we got off of the train. That’s what I get for being amazed by signs in another language, I guess. I looked around, trying to think of where I would be if I were a French college student. Naturally, my first inclination was, “a café!” But then I realized that such an answer was a disgusting stereotype and that I should be more sensitive in the future. My second answer to my question was, “in a boulangerie!” That’s when I came to the conclusion that I’d spend the entire time in Lille giggling away to myself about the Frenchness of the city while The Student hid his face or otherwise disassociated himself with me. I saw a sign pointing outside, to a plaza separating Gare Lille-Europe from the mall (in the part of Lille called Euralille—essentially, offices and this shiny, shiny shopping center). “How bout there?” I said, pointing to the sign. “People like plazas.”
The Student shrugged and we followed the sign, walked down an escalator, and found ourselves outside in a snow-dusted plaza with a couple of statues and a bridge to our right, following the main road to the mall. It was early enough that there weren’t many people out, and those that were were dressed in overcoats, boots, and gloves. A few flakes of snow fell lazily from the sky, and a stiff, cold breeze made its way across the plaza. Off in the distance, I saw the skyline of Lille—mainly made up of cathedral and church spires, with, confusedly, the upper half of a Ferris Wheel in the distance. I nodded. I liked this place. Granted, I hadn’t really set foot outside of the train station, but it seemed like it would definitely be a nice change of scenery—if nothing else—from hanging around Canterbury so much.
The Student’s cell phone rang and he answered it. “Bonjour, Pascale! Ça va bien? Oui, oui. Ah, er, where are you?” It seemed The Student’s French was on par with mine. “By the platform? Must have missed you, okay. We’ll come back in. Au revoir.” He pressed a button (hitting a few others with his gloved finger), and put the phone back in his front pocket of his coat. He nodded and said, “Right.”
“You know something?” I asked as we made our way back to the escalator.
“Everything here—it’s all so... French.”
Thankfully, escalators keep going up even when you don’t. The Student stopped his ascent and turned back to me. “What?”
“I mean... the Frenchness of the whole place is just insane. You can practically smell the garlic in the air.”
The Student grunted. “Look, please don’t say this sort of stuff around Pascale.”
“Cause that’s not—it’s just mildly—just don’t say it.”
“Look,” I said as we came off of the escalators, “if I want to say something, then I’ll damn well say it. It’s my right as an American!”
“You’re in France now.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m surprised there aren’t fucking mimes everywhere.”
He grunted. I knew, right then, that most of my enjoyment this trip would come from harassing The Student. Not his friend though, she was letting us crash at her place and I’d be a good guest. But, so help me God, The Student would come to believe that my sole goal this trip was to shit on a crepe. I’d ensure that only he would hear me, and then I would proceed to make the most absurd jingoistic statements possible. “Hey,” I’d say, “let’s go get Freedom Fries, though I bet they’re better in Amurika.” Or: “Hey, look at that church. Ain’t got nothin on an Amurikan church. Bet they ain’t even got room for a revival in there.”
We made our way to the platform and then The Student was sideswiped by a short, thin, smiling French girl with brown hair, wearing a blue coat and jeans. The air went out of him in a rush and he dropped his bags.
The Student and Pascale exchanged a burst of plesantries in French—I’m taking it all to mean some very basic catching up (after all, though The Student had better French than me, his wasn’t far beyond the level of elementary)—and then The Student turned to me and said, “Pascale, this is The Narrator; Narrator, Pascale.”
I gave my winning smile—the one I take to mean nonthreatening and the one least likely to scare off children—and said, “Hey.”
Pascale smiled and said, “Nice to meet you.” She then laughed and said, “Oh, I get to practice my English.” She had a lovely accent—I’m assuming it was vaguely Northern French, but, as I’d find out, I can’t discern Parisian from Norman. She turned to The Student. “I haven’t since Canterbury, you know.”
“You’re doing fine,” The Student said.
“Okay,” Pascale said, “shall we go to ze train and zen we will go to my apartment?”
“Please God, yes,” I said. “I’m exhausted.”
The Student groaned.
“Okay, follow me.” She led us through to the areas that said ‘Metro’ and to a very bizarre form of ticket control.
Lille’s ticket system ran thusly: There were no homicidal gates. The ticket barriers didn’t look the least bit intimidating; they were clean, steel columns about three feet high with a little black slot with two, welcoming lights—one red, one green—above it. The purpose of the slot was to stamp the ticket. The process involved no chance of the ticket getting caught in the machine, a total time of one second—one point five if you were slow or confused about it all—and very little chance of getting crushed in any onslaught of passengers. I even took a few trips on this thing during rush hour and had no problems at all. There was a black line connecting all of the columns, running at an angle to the escalators, which, I think, served to tell you where you could go if you hadn’t paid for a ticket. The whole system ran on trust that people wouldn’t go through and ride without a ticket. (In fact, it seemed like the business that ran the metro in Lille only checked tickets twice or so a week—around five o’clock during weekdays.)
Of course, I wasn’t there that long, and I wasn’t in the company of ne’erdowells, so there is a very strong chance that I was only seeing one side of Lille—but, hey, I rather like my invention of the city.
Anyway, we walked up to the ticket machine—similar to any digital dispenser with the exception that it was, of course, in French. This threw me for a minute. I had to utilize my rusty, piecemeal language abilities to navigate through the machine. Suddenly, I was back in my high school classroom with the utterly insane Mr. Edwards, who stopped a lesson on verb conjugation to rant about the Concorde, and whose car was found to possess massive amounts of porn and hypodermic needles when he brought it in to the mechanic shop at the high school. I wept a little bit, then, and Pascale came over and explained exactly what I had to do.I wiped my eyes and said a tearful, “Thank you.” I bought a day card (an easily-losable strip of paper about a third of the size of a credit card) and joined The Student and Pascale in the long schlep down the escalators and into our train.
 A while ago, I was in Houston visiting my brother. At one point, he took me to the Vietnamese part of town (which boasts the highest Vietnamese population outside of Saigon), and, I’m not kidding, I took thirty pictures of street signs that had Vietnamese characters under the English. Easily amused does not begin to cover my mentality.