Friday, January 21, 2011

The Puzzle and Ex-Pats

Not much happened after we left the cathedral. We continued looking around, occasionally stopping at the odd bookshop or CD place.. The sole unique thing we saw was a horse butcher. It was a storefront much like all the rest in Vieux Lille, except it had a neon horse's head poking out from the top of the doorway. Horse steaks, burgers, and roasts were advertised in the window.
The Student and I, very used to a society that did not have horse as a meal, stood across the street and gaped in awe at the blatant display of horse-eating. Much like the rest of our fellow Americans, we thought of horses as modes of transportation for cowboys. Sort of like a living car. And, we thought, no one would eat a car. For a moment, the words of The Prophet rang true. Then, the next day, we asked Pascale about it, and she told us it was an old-fashioned thing. Sort of like eating pigs’ knuckles in the South was on the way out.
Anyway, a while later, we were back at Pascale’s apartment waiting on Sophie to arrive to wander on down to the bar to meet their friends. We had some dinner—a simple dinner I was really beginning to enjoy: a baguette with warm camembert, and some pasta with spinach. After, as Pascale and The Student were talking and washing up the dishes, I stood at the window, looking out at the snow-covered parking lot in the night, the parking lot lights tracing out the snow as it fell from the sky.
It was pretty still out there, aside from a couple tall guys in black hoodies talking underneath one of the lights. It struck me as Hoth-like[1]. I preemptively shivered.
Then the door opened, and in the reflection I saw Sophie walk in. “Guh,” I said. (The Student, as we were on the Eurostar back from Lille, watched as I made the notes for this entry and insisted I go in-depth about my true feelings for her. If you want to see that, go look at the other blog. The one with the “bespectacled vixen” and the poetic language.)
Everyone hugged and did the cheek-kiss thing, I blundered through saying, “Hi, how are you,” in English, and we layered up and headed out.

I wasn’t really that far off in my comparison with Hoth. It was damned cold outside and I spent most of the walk shivering, trying to bury my head in my neck and p-coat collar, and saying various obscenities that I’d picked up from foreign movies.
Pascale and The Student spent the walk swapping stories about the year they’d spent in England, and a lot of them revolved around a bizarre man from Frankfurt who had the laugh of a squirrel. Sophie spent most of the walk on her cell phone, and, eavesdropping while pretending to listen to Pascale and The Student, and using my rudimentary French, I understood she was trying to calm her boyfriend, who was convinced she was seeing someone else. I heard the equivalent of boyfriend and went to The Dark Place, the place from which the only escape was alcohol, followed by sulking, and then more alcohol. She hung up and Pascale headed towards the back of our little diamond, The Student subconsciously moving up to create a square.
He saw me trying to bury my head in my pea coat, probably saw the teeth grinding, put together the very recent transpirings going on behind us, and said, “Ah, so the curse is on you, now.”
“What?” I asked.
“You heard me. Now you’ll go along and find every girl to whom you’re attracted is attached. Never fear, my friend, for the veil of sadness shall soon lift and, yea, verily, you will find happiness. For the Universe does want us to be hap—”
“Shove it,” I said.
The Student shrugged and we walked on.
I looked around at where we were and saw a bunch of closed-up pawn shops, some open kebab shops, and a lot of cars that looked like they’d seen better days. I put this together with the presence of some angry-looking Turkish guys who were loitering in door frames and staring at us and realized that we weren’t in the best of neighborhoods. I realized that the two people from the city, and thus most likely to know where we were going, were behind us, and this was odd. “Pascale, where are we going?” I asked.
She looked around and laughed. “Oh yes, I haven’t been paying attention.”
She and Sophie conferred, and, after much pointing and laughing, it was decided to go to the right.
We did, and after a little while longer, we crossed into an area in which glowering angry-looking people became stumbling, drunken young people. And, up ahead, projecting out of a house, was a lit-up sign that said “The Puzzle.”

Inside was dark and, it all of a sudden hit me, was a bar. Not an English bar, which was really a club, but an American bar. The difference between a bar and a pub being, mainly, music, seating, smoking, and lack of leering old pensioners. The Puzzle had a stage set up on the other end of the room, on the opposite side away from the entrance, upon which a bunch of musicians were setting up instruments. Some electric blues a la Stevie Ray Vaughn was playing on the speaker system throughout the bar, and there was a lively vibe throughout.
Pascale poked a bit at her cell phone and said, “Okay, they are downstairs, so...” she looked around. “Ah,” she said, pointing in front of me.
I looked and, behind a couple of tables, was a staircase that, indeed led downstairs. We walked downstairs, left the dim, smoky bar upstairs, and headed down to the cellar.
It reminded me of something out of a Poe story. Well, a Poe story with some happiness, alcohol, and lots of people sitting around in very comfortable, wall-long sofas. So, in that regard, nothing like a Poe story.
However, it transpired, as it normally does in these situations, that The Student and I, after some time spent briefly talking to some people nearby, ended up having a long discussion with an American ex-pat whom I’ll call Alice, and her boyfriend, whom I’ll call Olivier. (Those may or may not be their correct names. I’m working off of a bent and folded and ripped business card of a webzine.)
Anyway, Alice and Olivier had met when Olivier was doing a yeah abroad in South Carolina. The two dated for most of that year and Alice decided that she might as well head over to France for her year abroad. Then, she decided that she liked it enough to stay over there, and arranged to stay for grad school, and was working on naturalization. As I figured out later, the visa process took a lot of chutzpah to go through, and the fact that she was doing it in a foreign language said shitloads about her willpower.
So we talked about being ex-patriots, and how cool it was being able to say we were Americans when Obama was President, unlike a year or so ago, when you had to say something like, “I’m an American, but fuck Bush." Around the half hour mark, I ran out of beer, so I suggested a beer run. Alice and The Student shooed Olivier and I away so we went up to the bar, where, because I’m a gregarious drunk, I bought the round and nearly had an aneurism when the total came up.
“You know,” Olivier said, in his better-than-mine English, “I can buy half the round.”
“No,” I said, wiping the sweat from my brow, “no, I—I got it. Just. Fuck, yeah, right.” I handed the euros over and tried to reassure myself that it was all okay, that I was fine because I had a credit card and another installment of my loan coming in.
“Are you sure? I can do it, it’s not a big deal.”
“Nope,” I said. “Money’s across the counter. It’s gone.”
The bartender returned with my change. My meager, two-coin change. I nodded at him and we headed down the stairs again, some of the red liquid dripping from my glass. For every drop that ran down the side, I counted up the wasted cents, and despaired.
We returned to our table to The Student and Alice talking about what it’s like to live in France as a foreigner. “It’s actually pretty nice,” she said. “The French are used to a large ex-pat community from, well, everywhere. The only place you’ll get any problems is Paris—and ‘problems’ consists of being looked at oddly.”
At this point, one of the guys at the sofa on the other side of us started shouting about something, and Olivier said, “Don’t worry about him. He can’t help it. He’s French.”
To which the guy turned around and shouted, “QUOI?”
We laughed and drank some more. Cigarettes were passed around, and the band upstairs started playing.
I went up and peeked and saw that the singer had the hair of Bob Dylan, the glasses of John Lennon, and the singing voice of Tom Petty. Backing him was a blues-rock band. It made me realize how much I’d missed live music. Canterbury had some bands that played from time to time in the same pubs and there was a blues night at a place called Orange Street Music Club, but the same bands had the same repetoire.
While this might have been the case here in Lille, I doubted it. The city was exponentially larger than Canterbury and had something like five universities within four square miles of each other. In my mind, that means that there are a lot of bored students, and where there are bored students, there are bands.
I went back downstairs and the rest of the night passed much like that. At one point, we four started conversing in French, where my dialogue took three times as long as everyone else’s, but in being forced to speak French in a way that I hadn’t been even in my college courses[2] made me improve—granted, it only lasted an hour or so, but the brief improvement was there.
Anyway, after about two in the morning, the bar was shutting down and we had to leave. People said goodbye, exchanged e-mails, and we left the cellar, up the stairs, through the bar where the band was disassembling equipment, and out onto the streets.
Along the way, we were attacked by some snowball-wielding, carol-singing teenagers in the most confusing display of vagrancy I’d ever seen.
We got some sleep, for the next day would be full of more wandering and then a journalism party at Pascale’s university.

[1] Now, hold on, I know that’s not the, ah, sanest metaphor to make.  It was just that, well, the temperature was dropping rapidly to a point where I don’t think life could easily be sustained.
[2] Aside from the Parisian teacher, my other instructors were either grad students or young instructors who’d rather be drinking, and so getting them to speak English instead of French in class was supremely easy.

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