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?”
“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
“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 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.