We arrived a kilometer and a half later, thirty minutes later, and just a bit more frozen. The beach was empty and dark. It seemed that not going to the beach in the dead of winter and at night was a universally agreed-upon principle that everyone but us adhered to. We followed it for a ways, and I was reminded of Whitstable’s pebble beach for an instant, then the lack of chavs brought me back out of it.
There was nothing to differentiate it from a pier you’d see anywhere in the States, and, except for this being the first pier I’d set foot on, it was wholly unremarkable. The French started walking onto the construction and The Student said, “Er, hey, wait.”
They turned around. “Yes?” asked Pascale, briefly stopping in her breathing into her hand for warmth.
“We’re not going on that thing, are we?”
“Of course,” said Andy. “Why, you scared?”
“No, not at all. I’m more concerned about the, well, fucking cold breezes out there. Wind doesn’t stop on the ocean, and this is some mighty cold air—don’t know if you HOLY SHIT.”
A gust of wind blew by, carrying with it a couple of newspapers, some Styrofoam containers, and a seagull corpse. We shielded ourselves against it and cursed in our native languages.
“Eh, it’s not so bad,” said Albert. “My family, we climb the mountains in the winters, usually. That is bad.” The fact that he said this through chattering teeth and a half-covered face made me doubt that he could handle the freezing wind, but I shrugged and followed them onto the pier. I heard a string of expletives behind me as The Student shuffled along after us.
We reached the end of the pier and stood around for a bit. I started spitting into the water, thinking that somehow my spit would freeze midair. Everyone else ignored me and went to look at all of the boats docked in the harbor to our right. Eventually I joined them, looked at the boats, lights illuminating the darkness, some foghorns honking into the night, competing with seagulls to see what sort of sounds would most directly counter a conventionally serene setting like a beach at night. A ferry set on its way out of the harbor, which, due to its size and the speed it was traveling at, meant that it would be out of the docks in thirty minutes—a length of time in which I hoped we’d be sitting warmly inside somewhere.
“Nice,” said Andy, lowering his scarf momentarily.
“Well,” I said, after The Student threw a snowball at my face, numbing my ear and making me wish I’d stayed in England. “Bout that time, eh chaps?”
Albert nodded. “Right oh.”
We walked back towards town.
On the way back, we stopped by a building that looked like a structure out of a strategy game I used to play. Turned out that this was the hôtel-de-ville and the other building was something else entirely. I thought about asking what the other building was, but instead decided that I’d get The Student back for making my ear not work for ten minutes.
While he and the French went up to a statue of three elders (Rotarians, for Americans) who decided that they’d rather not work with the Nazis, rebelled by helping people leave the city, and were, predictably, shot. There must have been about five inches on the ground there, enough so that I didn’t even have to bother with making a snow ball. I just bent down, scooped up what felt like ten pounds of snow and ran over to The Student while screaming, “Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh!”
He looked over and his eyes widened for the couple of seconds he had before I smote him with the snow mound.
Well, The Student dropped to the ground like a rag doll and lay there moaning. Gotta tell ya, it was a bit of an awkward time explaining to the three of them that I hadn’t meant to render him unconscious and/or kill him. It was even more awkward when we had to drag him back through town, especially as he spent most of the time murmuring about Rebecca. Things I did not want to know and now that I had heard, I could not unhear.
When we finally made it back to the car, we sat him up in the backseat. “Huh,” I said. “Er, yeah. Really didn’t mean that. Hope you all realize that.”
Andy shrugged. “It happens.”
“Frites?” asked Albert.
“Oh,” said Pascale. “Yes, I am hungry.”
I looked at the car. “Will he be okay in there if we just up and leave him like that?”
“Yes,” said Andy. “He’ll be fine. People will assume he is drunk and leave him alone when they steal the car.”
Pascale punched him in the arm.
“What? It was a joke.”
We walked off to find frites, along the way, I was given a history lesson in just how it was a Belgian idea to fry potatoes like this, even though Americans called them French fries. I kept telling them that I knew they originated in Belgium, and was met with a constant, “Then why do you call them French fries? It makes no sense!”
“Because that’s what they’re called,” made no headway. Nor did: “It’s like calling McDonald’s or Taco Bell ‘food.’ It’s nonsense, but that’s the socially accepted norm.”
The argument, surprisingly, persisted the entire trip to a mobile fry station, where we each walked away with what would equate to two super-size fries from McDonald's—and they say Americans eat more unhealthily than anyone else in the world. Pshaw.
Anyway, after that, we headed back to Lille. The Student regained full consciousness on the motorway, and, as a peace offering, I offered him the remainder of the fries. He hadn’t retained any memories of being knocked unconscious by a massive snowball, judging by the, “Did I fall? I knew I should have worn my boots on this excursion.”
Far be it from me to describe massive head trauma—and I also made sure to clear my throat and wink at the others in the car (though I’m not sure if they quite understood what I meant). “Yeah, pretty nasty one, too,” I lied. “Luckily, you didn’t cut yourself or anything. Don’t know if they have free health care in this country or what.”
“Yes,” said Andy. “We do.”
“There we go,” I said. “Bleed away, my friend.”
“My entire face feels numb,” said The Student. “It’s like when my brother and I used to smash each others' faces into the snow.”
“Yes. Indeed. You tripped forward into the snow. It was very unfortunate, but we got you out before any major damage could be done.” I cleared my throat. Lying always seemed to create ungodly amounts of phlegm. “Have some fries.”
“These look half-eaten.”
“Yes, they are. My God, this one looks like a toothless rat was gumming at it.”
“That’s ridiculous, these are perfectly good fries that I bought for my dear, unconscious friend.”
The Student glared at me. “Liar. You ate most of these fries, didn’t you? You did, there’s no way to explain—good Good, there’s a pool of spit at the bottom of this container.”
“Drool, not spit,” I said. “Fuck,” I cursed. My cover was blown.
The Student grew just a bit green. “You drooled on your fries before you ate them?”
“They smelled delicious. I can’t help that they smelled delicious. Guys,” I said to the French, “didn’t they smell delicious?”
“You drooled on your frites?” asked Pascale.
“They smelled delicious!”
“That is disgusting.”
“Do you do that for all of your food?” asked Andy.
“No,” I said. “I just haven’t had fries in a while.”
A groan filled the car and I became the pariah. I spent the rest of the ride trying to explain why I was not a Neanderthal or a troglodyte, and thus deserved something other than the incredibly cold group of shoulders that I was currently getting. I’m not certain if I made the headway I thought I deserved, but I did get to shake people’s hands at the end of the night, so I think that I made some progress. We went our separate ways and prepared for the next day, when, unbeknownst to me at the time, The Student and I were scheduled to take a trip to Brussels.