A few hours later, Pascale, The Student, and I were back out on the streets of Lille. (The hours in between the story-now and the last time we met were filled with me shouting obscenities at my laptop due to my inability to write more than a sentence of my Ranting in Literature essay—I’d chosen the topic about Upton Sinclair’s Oil! being the first modern novel-length rant—and The Student, in turn, telling me to shut up as he was trying to read a difficult passage of the original language version of La Morte D’Arthur. For fun. So, really, you don’t want to hear about that.)
Pascale was talking about a friend of hers who came into France as a refugee from Afghanistan and was having trouble adjusting to the culture. “He talked to me about a girl he met and said she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen and he’d been following her around, watching her.”
“The fuck?” I asked.
“Weird, yes, but wait. Then, he says to me that he wants to marry her, and wonders how to approach her father. I told him that he should just talk to her about it. He said that he couldn’t do that since he hadn’t talked to her or her family before.”
“So he’d been following her around. Stalking her,” said The Student.”
“The fuck?” asked The Student.
“So then I ask him about her, and he says, ‘She is fourteen.’”
“Fuck!” The Student and I said in chorus.
“Yes,” Pascale said, “exactly. And then I told him that this was illegal, and he said he didn’t understand.” Pascale then went “Pfft” and shrugged her shoulders and laughed.
I nodded. Good as a reaction as any, I thought.
“Oooo!” said The Student, pointing ahead of us.
I looked ahead and saw a small car, Ford Fiesta type, with a giant menorah on it, lit up with seven candles on the top, and the French equivalent of “Chabad Lubavitchers” on a placard on top of it. “Hey, we’ve stumbled upon a Jewish place!” I said. “Happy Chanukah, Student.”
“You too, my friend. Let’s get schloshed.”
“What does this mean? Sloshed?”
“No,” I said, “schloshed.”
She tried four more times, but she couldn’t get the hang of it.
I waved it off. “No biggy. It means drunk.”
“Ah, yes. There will be a lot of drinks there. You’ll like it, and I’ll introduce you to friends.”
“Sounds good,” said The Student.”
We turned a couple of corners and walked up to a building that could have easily been a church. We walked up the steps, into the lobby which, thank God, actually had heating going through it, and Pascale checked us into the party, which had not yet begun.
Imagine, if you will, a hallway in a public high school. The walls are decked out with announcements on several different colors of paper, the tile floors are stained, and the doors to different classrooms are discolored and the windows are fogged-over from various kinds of schmutz. The only difference between this hallway and the high school in your head is that everything is in French.
And there was a DJ stand and a rack of show lights, and a set of sincerely high-quality speakers set up along the walls, and the Christmas lights all around the edges of the walls.
Oh, and the collapsable table draped in a red tablecloth covered in five kinds of liquor and a few kinds of snacks.
But, other than that, it was like a high school hallway.
While I stood in awe of the actual, high-quality Scotch (single malt at a party – God I love journalism students), Pascale pulled a friend of hers over and introduced her to The Student. I didn’t notice, as I was still thinking about who would bring something not in a plastic bottle to a party.
Then, when I felt my hair being ruffled, I reacted in my normal way: I shouted, “Please don’t attack me!” and jumped in the opposite direction, in this case, into the table, knocking off the bottle of Scotch. In a rare display of the reflexes I hadn’t used since I played baseball when I was a kid, I ducked down, caught the bottle and put it back. Then, for good measure, I cleared my throat and looked at my attacker.
She was wearing a red sweater, had short brown hair, brown eyes, and had a great smile. “Guh,” I said. I shook my head. “Yo. I’m The Narrator.”
She looked between me and The Student, “The Narrator and The Student. Relatives?”
“No, thank God,” The Student and I said in chorus.
I pointed at The Student and shouted, “Jinx, you owe me a Coke!”
He sighed and shook his head. Pascale asked what that meant and The Student explained.
Jessica, for that was her name, held out her hand and introduced herself. In a rare occurrence, I did not go “guh” at her, but actually held a conversation.
The four of us, after The Student finished explaining the intricacies of American middle school humor and puns, grabbed some drinks and went on a brief tour of the school. There was a kitchen in there, which I found odd since none of the schools I’d been to had kitchens available for students—but then again, English Lit was never one of those disciplines that required students to pull all-nighters. Inside the kitchen were a few people smoking and reclining, talking rapid-fire.
Other than that, it was a basic school-ish building with halls, restrooms, and classrooms. After the brief tour, we walked back into the bit of the hallway with the DJ booth and the lights and whatnot and saw that some more people had arrived. Pascale introduced us to them as well, and The Student and I engaged in some serious self-deprecation at the the expense of the South.
(One thing I’ve noticed: If you’ve lived in the South for a while, and don’t necessarily share the stereotypical beliefs of the region—which, if you’re travelling abroad, you probably don’t—then you can make some quick friends by joking about it. The vast majority of people have a perception of the South based on Deliverance, and you can make a distinction between the film and the reality, and still be funny. Such as: “No, people in Nashville won’t sodomize you if you make eye contact; however, they will if you say bad things about Garth Brooks.”)
Soon after that, the music started, and I was treated to the most bizarre array of dancing I’ve ever seen. They were even whiter than my AEPi frat brothers. The dancing on the floor—which accompanied everything from gangsta rap to ska—ranged from the hopping thing you see at teenage punk concerts (Pascale and The Student), jazz swing (Jessica in her own amazing little world), headbanging (a group of guys over in the corner), club dancing (led by a girl who’d chosen to drape herself in Christmas lights), and then my own spastic movements of the arms and legs that I considered dancing. In short, everyone was having a good time, even me, and I never have a good time dancing.
For example: the Greeks back in Woolf went clubbing as if it were their job. Thursdays through Sundays around ten at night, they’d descend upon Canterbury in five or six six-person cabs and go out for overpriced drinks in crowded basement bars across the city and stay until three AM, then complain that everything closed so early in England. It was mind-boggling to me, a person who would go out to a house party and fall asleep on a random couch around one in the morning. I went out with them a couple of times, a couple of them tried to teach me how to dance, I’d give up and hang around the bar and glare at people who fulfilled my requirements of “douchebag.”
And so we drank, we danced, I fell in further “guh” over Jessica. (The state of guh can last anywhere from three minutes to three days, but generally not longer than that, and will, by and large, never result in my taking any action to form any relationship whatsoever with the girl—mainly because I’ve been rendered borderline retarded.) At one point, I may have started regurgitating John Donne poems, mangled beyond any comprehension to an English Lit student, much less a French journalism student, but I’m not entirely sure. The night gets blurry around the time when The Student and I formed an air guitar duo when the DJ (which, I should say by now, was actually a massive iTunes library that people just went up to and requested songs) played a string of Queen songs off of one of the greatest hits albums.
I do know that I sobered up about the time when the three of us were in the kitchen and someone was trying to make me understand a phrase. “No, that is not it,” he said. He was shabby, looked like he should be a poet instead of a journalist, with a scruffy beard, brown sweater, and a mop for hair. He said it again.
I repeated what he said.
“Yes,” he said, clapping his hands once and then pointing at me. “Exactement!”
“What does that mean?” I asked. I’d forgotten how to ask the question in French, which, in the back of my mind, struck me as extremely ironic.
“It means ‘you’ve missed the point entirely.’”
“But. W—that’s the complete opposite of the English expression that we were talking about.” That expression, I think, was, “You hit the nail on the head.”
“Oui, exactement,” he said. “We like irony in this country.”
“We like irony in the U.S.”
“No, you like sarcasm. Different things entirely.”
I responded with the phrase he taught me.
“Oui, exactement!” he said.
I’m not entirely sure why that sobered me up. Perhaps it was because my brain had to take away energy from the portions that were having fun being wasted and divert that energy to portions that were normally reserved for figuring out crossword puzzles. At any rate, thinking about the mental gymnastics that were required to make an ironic statement while being completely sincere were enough to sober me up. Which, looking back, was a good thing. Ten minutes later, as The Student was stumbling into coat racks shouting that someone had stolen his blue coat, when it was caught on his shoes and he was dragging it around, I’d needed that sobriety to carefully dodge around him, pick up the coat and shout, semi-convincingly, “Hark!”
He turned and blinked slowly at me, as if a Neanderthal. “Whuh?”
“I have stopped the vagrant mid-stride as he absconded with thine coat!”
The Student held a fist in the air. “Woo!”
“Here,” I said, flinging it through the air. The Student caught it. “Wear it with pride, for it is a trophy of goodness and wonderment in the modern world.”
The Student, drunk beyond any reasonable standard, put the coat on backwards. It was good enough. We waited up in the lobby as Pascale made the rounds, then headed back into cold and desolate world of wintertime Lille at night.