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.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Cathedral

I don’t go into churches in the U.S.. It’s probably because I’m tainted by dealing with Baptists, but I’m generally repelled by the sight of a cross, and when I see large droves of people walking into what could double as a sports arena, a shiver runs down my spine.
However, when I’m traveling, that reservation disappears, flinging itself into the wind, like a rabbit caught in Canterbury wind. I’ve been in cathedrals and megachurches in every city to which I’ve traveled, and even a giant synagogue in Manhattan. That was a pretty cool experience, but fundamentally different from the megachurches sprinkled around Nashville.
It’s because I view these churches and cathedrals as exhibits in a museum. They contain the heart of every city, and, in doing so, create a form of their religion infinitesimally different from other versions. If I’m lucky, I’ll be in the cathedral during a service. Once I wandered into a service in Canterbury Cathedral. It wasn’t much different from a Roman Catholic service, but the bishop did mention that he was always available for a chat over tea and biscuits.
In this vein, before I go about laying detail about the cathedral in Lille, here are some observations I gathered about the city:
·     While small, Lille has a vivid tourist industry. The amount of people wandering around the cathedral with giant cameras was staggering.
·     The city prides itself on multiculturalism. All the signs in the cathedral had several different languages printed on them. (Of course, this is par for Europe. It’s still jarring when you come from a red state that has a “If you don’t speak English, you can get out!” mentality.)
·     There’s a lot of pride in terms of the city’s history. Well, at least enough pride in its history to not allow a renovation on the Cathedral to take a decade due to lack of funding. (Ba-zing, for those in the know.)

The interior of the cathedral was spacious, but fairly modernized. In front of the entrance were rows of pews facing the apse (the main hangout of the high priest) and the ambulatory behind it. As in Canterbury’s Cathedral, the apse in Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille featured both the altar and a gated-off section with what I’d like to think of as the cathedral’s mascot: in this case, a large and ornate cruciform. Behind and around that, in the ambulatory, were several small chapels featuring important saints. The space was lit by huge stained-glass windows that we hadn’t noticed outside.
We entered the cathedral a few hours before one of the masses, and, off to the side in one of the aisles, in a glass room, a red-robed priest studied a book. There were a few other glass rooms, but these were empty. Further up the aisle were a few confession booths. These were not glass, but wooden. Part of me was glad that these weren’t glass, but another part of me was thinking up ideas of a reality TV show that just might rescue a floundering Catholic church’s reputation.
The Student dashed off to the left aisle and began lining up shots on his point-and-shoot camera. I didn’t bother trying to engage him in conversation, as his mind was probably looking at the Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille in relation to Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame or some such thing. Thus, I decided to go for a meander around the building and take thoroughly less detailed pictures of the chapels, maybe read some plaques, stare at a wall, have a sit on the pews.
I meandered down to the apse, glanced at the altar and took a blurry picture, then walked around the ambulatory. As I stood in front of a statue that I took to be Joan d’Arc, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand straight and heard some light breathing to my right. I turned, slowly, and there, standing and looking straight ahead at a wall, was The Stalker.
“Er,” I said.
“Hello,” he said, continuing to look at the wall.
“Something interesting there?”
“Did you tell him?”
I cocked my head to the side. Part of me started to pray to whatever saint stood in front of me. “Tell him what? That you have multiple personality disorder?”
He turned to me. The black contacts were back. “That’s not something to joke about.”
Silence. Time passed.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. I see you avoided getting thrown in prison for exposing yourself.”
The Stalker nodded. “Le Gendarmerie and I came to a mutual understanding. One that involved them understanding my position that a) I did not expose myself to anyone, and was merely licking my lips because there was capuccino residue, and the girl happened to be in my line of sight at the time and b) it would be a terrible thing for all those involved if I was to wind up incarcerated.”
“How’d you come to that conclusion?”
He turned back to the wall. “Through calm, intelligent discussion.”
“For that matter,” I said, “how did you avoid the border control folks way back in September?”
“Through calm, intelligent discussion,” he said.
I nodded, went, “Hmm,” and snapped a picture of the saint in front of me. “So how are you liking Lille, then?” I asked. I turned to my right and saw that The Stalker was no longer there. I looked around and saw no trace of him, no lingering possible psychotic/sociopath in a black trench coat. Only tourists taking pictures.
The Student made his way over towards the ambulatory and took around fifty photos of the statue I was looking at. “You see The Stalker?” I asked.
“Did you know that the representative style of this particular statue was prominent around the time of the Revolution?” He asked, clicking away. “Apparently, the face is replicated on every female saint statue created during that time; the sculptors were typically in the same, ah, cadre—is cadre the same word?—and it is posited by several art history scholars that the model was an oil painting of Bonaparte’s wife.”
“No kidding,” I said, blinking rapidly at this onslaught of supposition. “And who are these art history scholars?”
The Student lowered his camera, checked through the pictures he’d just taken. “Some absolute nutcases at Berkely. Had to read one of their articles for a Hugo paper last year. Worst drivel I’ve ever seen—then again, it’s art history.”
I nodded. I knew nothing about art history, other than there was a history of humanity creating works of art. “Quite. What’s the plan for tonight?”
The Student took out his phone and pressed a few buttons. “Looks like we’re going out to a bar to hang out with a bunch of Pascale’s friends from journalism school.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Sophie going to be there?”
The Student raised an eyebrow.
“You know,” I said, “just wondering.”
“Is there something I should know? Are you going to try anything on her?”
“What?” I asked. “No. No that would... that would... No. Come on, man. I mean, she’s pretty and all. But, I mean, cause I can’t speak French, right?”
The Student shut his eyes and gave a kind of shiver that only took up his head. “That was complete nonsense. But I gather that you think she’s incredibly attractive and would totally ‘hit that,’ in your almost impossibly awkward way. Right? Look, man, as long as you don’t put this up on your blog for the world to see and embarrass the fuck out of me, I don’t give a damn.”
“Ha!” I said, pointing at him. “That’s where you’re wrong! Only eight people visit my blog a week! Three when I don’t post anything.”
The Student raised an eyebrow at me. I thought for a moment that, since The Student was such an academic individual, the muscles right above his eyes got the most workout in his body. “Okay,” he said.
“I think,” I continued. “I’m not entirely sure. Blogspot’s stat counter is kind of confusing and strangely detailed. Especially compared to WordPress, which is really the Mac of the blogs, if you ask me. It’s really user-friendly and easy on the eyes, unlike Blo—”
“Shut up, please,” The Student said. “If I wanted to know about the differences and pros and cons between blogs, I’d just research it myself. Hearing about it, you see, is incredibly annoying, as it calls to mind the days of yore when everyone in my high school was on livejournal.”
I hung my head.
He checked his watch. “Let’s head out, I’d like to check out the rest of Vieux Lille before we go out tonight.”
I shrugged, buried my hands into my p-coat, and shuffled along behind The Student. We walked up to the entrance of the cathedral, put some coins into the donation box, and walked out. (In light of all the odd things I might have said about religion, this may or may not seem like an odd thing to do. My thoughts on the matter boil down to 1) Don’t fuck with the metaphysical and; 2) it’s best to build up what I like to think of as a karma buffer – donating to all sorts of religious institutions in order to placate the various deities. That way, I figure, if one religion turns out to be right, and it’s not mine, then I’ve got at least something going for me.)