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.”
“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.