We woke up the next morning after Pascale had left for class. My preferred morning routine consists of waking up and laying in bed, cursing society for looking down on sleeping for eighteen hours.
I sprawled out on the bed, flailed a bit, and let loose a prolonged, “Fuuuuck!”
The Student jerked awake and shouted, “What? What happened?”
“It’s morning. Fuck this shit, I hate it.”
The Student groaned and turned on his phone. Chimes sounded.
“Stop it from talking! It’s too early!”
“It’s a voice mail, relax.”
I threw my pillow at him and fell off the bed.
About an hour later, we’d showered and made out way out of the apartment. The building’s shower system was an ingenious method to wake residents up while they showered, thus ensuring that they were productive members of society. Essentially, the showers forced a person to consider how they could keep a steady stream of water coming out of the socket while being able to stand in place. See, the system was rigged up to what was essentially a timer; the spray of water would stop after about ten seconds, so one had to find a way to force the knob to stop utilizing its spring. It took me about fifteen minutes, but I finally figured it out.
After leaving, we stumbled down to the Metro station and got our morning espressos, drank them down like whiskey shots, and suddenly everything regained color. “So,” I said, “voice mail.”
“What?” asked The Student, who was watching a group of Roma enter the station. There were about six kids trailing their mother, who was wearing a brightly-colored headscarf over a black, ankle-length dress and pushing a stroller, which contained another couple of kids. “Oh, the voice mail. It was from Rebecca. She called to tell me that her sister is going out with a goy and her Dad’s flipping out.”
“Ah,” I said.
The Student shrugged. “Yeah, she wants to tell me, fine, okay.But if she asks me for advice, I’ll probably talk to her about the conflict of contemporary Jewish society, and how it boils down to whether or not we see ourselves as ‘white,’ or, more accurately, ‘typical Americans,’ or a distinct ethnic group.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I zoned out.”
“Exactly. My ability to turn anything into an essay is my best defense to having a serious conversation with anyone.”
We stood out there, pelted by, watching as busses pulled up across the median, and people tried desperately to avoid the black ice that covered the streets. I looked up, saw the overcast skies, and kind of wondered if I’d see the sun today. A car drove by and blared some bass at us, and I shivered. “Ready?” I asked.
The Student tipped his head back and got the last of the espresso out of the bottom of the cup. He crumpled it and tossed it at a trash can to his right. “Yeah, let’s head out.”
We turned and walked back into the Metro station, walked to the ticket dispensers, and were immediately flocked over by a couple of the Roma kids who we’d seen follow their mother into the station. They spat words at us, and I blinked. I caught “Monsieur, un billet, s’il-vous plait, s’il-vous plait.”
I sputtered something at the kid who tugged at my coat, slapped the touch screen machine until I got to where I needed to be and then bought the ticket. The kid kept repeating, “S’il-vous plait,” so I caved and gave him a couple of euros, which he pocketed and dashed over to the woman at the other side of the lobby.
The Student didn’t have the same approach to this, and was spending his time haggling with the child. From what I could gather, The Student was making the logical point that, as a child who clearly had a parent—as evidenced by the child walking in with his mother—it was not the responsibility of he, a stranger, to pay for his travel, especially as he was not a French citizen, but it was the responsibility of his mother.
The child made the equally valid point of “Monsieur, s’il-vous plait, monsieur.”
After a few minutes (and my having to brush aside my friend, after gesturing until he realized I already gave him money), The Student gave the kid a euro and we walked up the escalator to the tracks.
“We’ll see them again, don’t worry,” I said. “You can make your point again.”
The Student grunted.
We walked off of the escalator and stood in front of the anti-suicide doors, waiting for the train. “Where we going today?” I asked.
“Dunno. Back to Rihour?”
“We were there yesterday.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t go inside anything. We just walked around aimlessly until nightfall, when you became scared that we’d get attacked by hobos and had to duck inside a cafe.”
“It’s a valid fear. If we don’t give them money, they’ll stab us. They don’t care that we don’t speak French.”
The train—automated if I haven’t mentioned it before—pulled up, we stood aside as some more Roma piled out, and we boarded. The train moved forward.
“I don’t think that’s quite the case,” said The Student.”
“Says you,” I responded. “How about we discuss it over some vin chaud?” I asked, licking my lips.
The Student checked his watch. “Man, it’s eleven in the morning.”
“Yeah, and we’re in France. Alcoholism, as long as it’s with wine, is completely acceptable. Everyone knows that.”
The Student raised an eyebrow.
We got off the train at Rihour and The Student had to drag me away from the Deutscher Christmas Extravaganza, as I liked to call the Christmas Village. We wandered away from where we’d gone the previous day (which had led us to a shopping area with a massive HMV—a fact I withheld from you because you, Dear Reader, probably don’t give a shit), and found ourselves in a large plaza with a couple of fountains that were about ten yards square and iced over.
The plaza was between the Prefecture (in which I have no idea what happens) and another building that looked like a remnant of one of the Bourbons. This second building, one that looked like an urban chateau, was the Musée Des Beaux Arts, and, after stomping around in the snow that covered the plaza and throwing a couple of half-assed snowballs at each other, The Student and I decided that we needed some culture. So, we decided to save the boulevard laden with shops in front of us for another day, and headed over to the Musée.
We walked up to the building and up to the giant brass doors, opened them up and walked into the lobby of the museum. The floor was black marble tile, and there were sculptures sprinkled around the floor. They were mostly the sorts of things you’d expect to see, naked people laying around and expressing their love of hedonism, and there were a couple of bull sculptures near the staircase to the left. In front of us was a large hall, filled with folding chairs facing a large screen that, right now, was featuring a slideshow of attractions in Lille. Behind the screen, there was a small cafe. To our right was the ticketing counter, a staircase leading downstairs, and a staircase leading upwards at the far end of the entrance lobby. Footsteps reverberated throughout the museum, soft chatter bounced off the pillars and the walls. Light was let in by giant windows set into the walls.
I immediately started sweating and tore off my jacket. “Fuck it’s hot,” I said.
The Student adjusted his glasses. “A little bit, yeah. Tickets?”
We walked over to the counter, where, once again, I was faced with my apparent complete inability to perform even the most basic of tasks in French. The woman behind the counter, someone who looked like a librarian—by which I mean she had stark gray hair, large glasses with a chain so they could hang from her neck, and wearing what looked like she was going to a funeral—looked up at us without saying anything. I briefly placed myself in her shoes and realized that we both looked homeless. I had what was becoming an impressive mountain man’s beard, a stained, wrinkled t-shirt, and a torn-up pea coat, and The Student, an aristocrat by comparison, simply looked like he hadn’t slept in four days. “Bonjourney,” I said. I shook my head. “Bonjour.”
“Oof. Fuck,” I continued. “Duex billets, s’il-vous plait. Étudiants. Deux étudiants, billets. S’il-vous plait.”
The Student raised an eyebrow and slowly turned his head towards me, as if in awe.
The woman gave me basically the same look, except hers treated me less of a serial killer, more of a mentally challenged person. “Quoi?” she asked. When I didn’t do anything but repeat “étudiants,” she sighed and asked, “Vous-êtes americains, oui?”
“Oui, madame,” said The Student.
I pointed at him, a gesture I clearly meant to indicate that he was the more intelligent one out of the two of us and that I should not be addressed directly.
She told us the price of the tickets, in English, and handed us a couple of brochures, which were sadly not in English. She then pointed at our coats and made a gesture down the stairs. “Coat room!” I shouted.
The Student hung his head. “I shouldn’t have asked you along.”
“But then my readers would have been stuck in England for God knows how long.”
“Yes,” said The Student, collecting our tickets and thanking the now-impatient woman, “all two of your readers.”
“Eight,” I said. “The Google Analytics on my statistics page clearly states that I have eight readers.”
“Every time you post?”
“Well, no. Every time I post, I usually get two views. But it’s two people from the pool of eight.”
“A staggering amount,” said The Student.
By now we’d reached the coat room, where there was an incredibly bored-looking French girl who looked about our age wearing a black shirt. “Bonjour mademoiselle,” I said. “Vous-êtes hyper-chouette.”
“Fuck,” said The Student.
“Sécurité!” she shouted, still keeping the incredibly bored look about her.
“Non!” I shouted in response, throwing my coat on the counter and backing away. “Pas de sécurité! S’il-vous plait! Pas, pas, pas!” I held my hands up and backed away.
The Student walekd up to the counter, put his coat on the top, nodded, and walked towards the stairs. I followed. “Was that you hitting on someone?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t like the term ‘hitting on.’ I was trying to strike up a conversation with a lovely girl, and, sadly, it didn’t work out.”
“How many other times has security been called on you?”
“Twenty. That was last year, though. My own fault, I tried to talk to some girls at a sorority party.”
The Student shook his head and said, “You poor bastard.”
We’d by now made our way to the top floor of the museum, in a room that seemed to be dedicated to scenes depicting village life. It seems to me that every major European art museum is inside a former aristocrat’s manor, mansion, or chateau. The Louvre, in fact, was the home of French royalty until Napoleon said, “Fuck that noise,” and took it over. Eventually, it was turned into a massive temple to art—one which you, as a tourist, will probably never get to go through in its entirety, because it’s just that big. Le Musée des Beaux Arts in Lille wasn’t that enormous, but it’s always just a bit staggering being in a place that you know used to house some people who were probably bastards.
Anyway, the paintings in this room were of daily village life. They were also probably chosen because of some technique or era in art, but I know nothing about that, so I instead focused on one thing that confused me: The presence of no less than five paintings featuring fish being gutted by a robed fishmonger in his fish-guttery in graphic detail, one of which was the size of my room at Woolf. I pointed this out to The Student and he nodded sagely. “Yes, you see, in Romantic-era art, the fishmonger was seen as a symbol of the common worker, and fish entrails were indicative of the day-to-day toil of the common man. The knife that you see in all of these sorts of paintings,” and here he pointed to the knife that was the size of my head, “is a symbol of the coming Revolution, and the power of the people. Here, the fishmonger – or, the People – is not yet aware of the power he holds in his hands – quite literally.”
“No, that was bullshit. I don’t know why artists loved to paint people gutting fish, but these things are in the National Gallery, the Louvre, the Met, and probably every other major gallery.”
“Maybe people just hate fish,” I said.
The Student shrugged and we moved along, nodding at the security guard who was fighting sleep in the chair near the entrance to the hall.
The next room seemed to have a sea theme. Most of the paintings were of seascapes, filled with whales, birds in the sky, and ships sailing along or battling the elements. This made me think back to the time in middle school when I was overly cocky about my ability to comprehend complex novels and decided, “Fuck it, I’m going to read Moby Dick.” Well, I read the book in that I read all of the words inside the novel. But, if you were to ask me then or now what happened, or what the themes were, I’d probably have responded by shivering and saying, “People died.”
“This makes me think of Moby Dick,” said The Student. “I tried to read that when I was in middle school.”
“You too? What’d you think?”
“Loved it. Finished it in a week, went up to the teacher and had a discussion about it. Turned out he did his Master’s thesis on Melville. Did you know—” The Student then went on a lengthy monologue about something or other pertaining to American Modernism, a topic about which I have no interest unless it pertained to my Ranting in Literature modules. His monologue lasted a few rooms and the floor beneath us, which brought us to Impressionism—an era of art I like a lot, because it seems to me that all of the artists were on spectacular amounts of acid. After this, we made our way down to the main floor and decided to check out the special exhibit in the lower levels. It was there that I realized that, truly, everything in the world is interconnected, and if you don’t expect something to happen, then it surely will.