Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

“Fuck,” I said.
“Yes,” said The Student. “Quite.”
The giant board in Lille-Europe winked threateningly at the two of us, standing in the middle of the departure area in the midst of rushing Europeans in one of the busiest train stations I’d seen. The line that read “Bruxelles” also had a little buzz-kill “Annulée” just down the line.
“Maybe there’s a later train?” I asked.
The Student shook his head. “I doubt it. The weather outside is terrible, and they won’t run the trains if the lines are icy.”
“Ask,” I said.
“I’m not asking if I already know the answer, it’s a waste of energy. We should spend the time looki—”
“Ask,” I said.
The Student tossed up his hands in defeat and joined a very long queue at the ticketing agent booth. I followed.
There’s something unifying and vaguely warming about seeing people from different countries complaining about the same thing at the same time and in the same physical area. It’s one of those things that we miss out on in the States, unless you want to count the Southwest, which is just as bilingual as French Canada is. At any rate, the good vibes were destroyed once it became clear how incredibly annoyed and angry most of the people in the line were.
After a few minutes in the line, spent behind a couple of German ladies, we got up to the booth where The Student asked what was going on. The ticket agent responded that the Eurostar trains were canceled for the day because of the weather. The Student asked if we could switch to the French line, and the ticket agent laughed and told us to get the hell out.
We left the line, stood at the fence along the walkway overlooking the trains, and leaned forward. “Well,” I said.
“That’s a fairly accurate description of everything that’s going wrong today. Indeed. Yes.” The Student hung his head.
See, this would not have been a problem any other day, and we would have otherwise just gone on our merry way and head back to Pascale’s place to slumber until the afternoon. However, having planned to be in Brussells by eleven, we’d made certain arrangements with Pascale—namely, she’d frolic on out to her parents’s house, thus taking her keys with her, and we’d be drunkenly swaying around the EU’s capital. And so, Pascale already nearly at her parents’ and us stuck in the train station, we were faced with another day spent wandering around Lille.
Eventually, we left the station and headed back out to the plaza. The trains were closed for good reason. Between us and the entrance to the plaza opposite, a distance of about fifty yards, there was a sheet of snow blowing at about twenty miles an hour. Neither The Student or I had scarves, so we covered our faces with our hands, barely cutting some of the coldness, and schlepped across the plaza, up the staircase, and onto the pedestrian portion of a bridge, where the wind was even worse.
I looked up and saw that we had about a quarter of a mile to the giant mall in EuraLille. I was so cold, I didn’t even have the mental faculty to delude myself into thinking I was stuck in a fictional world like Hoth.
Eventually, though, we made it inside a chain café—kind of like Panera Bread back in the States, except French. Everything on the menu seemed to flavored with onions and garlic and served with a baguette on the side. If my heart hadn’t frozen solid, I might have thought about how this was healthier than deep frying potatoes with every meal, but most of my working mind was trying to keep my body from dropping.
The Student and I ordered some breakfast with a couple of double espressos and took our trays to the windows. The people outside looked just as miserable as we did, but took it with a certain European panache that said that, oui, they knew that this weather was coming and had planned for their outfits to match the weather.
“Bastards,” I said.
“What?” asked The Student, who was still shivering.
“They manage to take this in such stride. We resembled two hunched-over old men with...” words failed me, as they often did. “Hunched-overitis.”
The Student cocked an eyebrow. “Perhaps part of that is because we’re from a rather hot climate. This, you may have noticed, is not.”
“Quite,” I said.
Through the rest of the day, this would be a recurring thing. We’d be on the verge of killing each other because of the cold, retreat inside, and talk nonsense over a couple of too-large espressos.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Docks and Statues

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.
We nodded.
“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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dear God It's Cold

We arrived in the evening, parked on the street and exited the car.
Calais, seemed to be made up of two-lane roads, with the exception of an area next to the mall and the hôtel-de-ville. A mile or so down the road from where we’d parked was a large mall, some more, iced-over roads, and a bunch of shops. For a port town, Calais seemed really nice—especially when one compares it with Dover.
In the waning light, snow was briefly illuminated by the streetlights spaced out every few yards, and people walked around with take away boxes and shopping bags. The sound of jazz, coming from speakers mounted on shopfronts, floated through the air. That’s all information that registered after I got out of the car. What I primarily thought of was a series of horrible invectives directed at the gust of wind that blew straight into my face.
The Student stepped out of his side of the car, slipped on a patch of black ice, and steadied himself with an impressive chain of body contortions that brought laughter and applause from our French friends. When he regained composure by clinging to the side of the car for dear life, The Student gave a little bow and shuffled his way to the sidewalk, which was alternately salted and covered in snow.
“So,” Pascale said, turning to Andy, “ou sont allons?”
“Oui,” said Andy’s friend, Albert, “Andy?”
I tilted my head to the side.
The Student, who had by now shuffled up to my right, whispered, “They’re asking where we’re going.”
“I know, thanks.”
Andy put on a disconcerted face. “What? Why are you asking me?”
“You wanted to go here,” said Albert. “What do we do?”
“I just suggested,” said Andy, shrugging up his shoulders.
“Pfft,” said Pascale.
“C’mon, man,” said The Student. “You drag us out here, we have to sit in friggen traffic for two hours to come to Calais, what are we going to do? Huh?”
Andy looked at us in shock, as if we were pinning war crimes on him or something. He gestured in the air, hands twirling in indecisive circles, like a compass trying to right itself with a magnetic force, and eventually, he pointed down the road. “That way. We’ll go to the beach.”
“There,” I said. “Was that so hard?”
“Now you?” he asked.
We laughed and walked down the street, every once in a while shouting obscenities while one of us lost footing on the ice, with the others laughing, masking their fear of the knowledge that it would probably be them who would fall next.
We made it about a mile or so before the sun started setting. We had passed the mall and were now on what would be a busy district, if it weren’t for the ice covering everything. The roofs’ overhangs were sprinkled with icicles, shops’ windows were frosted over, and in the dusk, the neon lights of the few open kebab, frites, and bakeries glowed like beacons. We’d spent the past fifteen minutes—or, in spatial terms, since nearly being run down in a roundabout and pausing in the plaza near the huge quasi-Gothic hôtel-de-ville to allow The Student to take roughly twenty pictures of its spires and clocks—discussing what to do for food.
Ultimately, as we walked along the street and stumbled upon the only large boulangerie that also did not seem as if it was a drug front, we decided to just get some rolls and such until returning from the beach, when we’d get something a little more filling. We went in, ordered some food, and continued down the street.
Pascale, Andy, and Albert took up the front of our promenade—which made sense since I had never been to France, even, and The Student hadn’t been to the country in a year and a half. They talked in that rapid-fire way that made it clear they were gossiping, and The Student and I followed behind, noshing on our baguettes.
“So, how’re you liking France?” he asked.
“Pretty, pretty good,” I said. “Lille’s my kind of town. The coffee flows like wine, and the wine flows like water.”
The Student nodded. “I like that. You should use that in your blog.”
“I’m gonna.”
“How is that going, by the way? I’ve missed the last few entries.”
“Going well. Just got to where The Drunkard smote The Stalker and banished him unto the dark depths of the Underworld, wherein the latter was forced to undergo a purging of all that was dark in his soul in order to rejoin our group.”
“The hell?”
“Allegory for when The Drunkard’s flatmates tossed The Stalker into Madame Guillotine.”
“What goes on in your head?”
“Twisted things that seem as though they were ripped from a Tim Burton movie, why?”
“That’s what I thought.”
A few minutes later, we’d taken a detour into a war memorial park because hey, why not? We walked past a few people, past a fountain that had frozen over and then, near a barren playground that, too, was frosted over, we saw a giant world map, the sort of thing that reminded me of when I was in elementary school and my friends and I pretended to be Godzilla and crush Ohio. It was big enough to show Cookeville, Tennessee—a true shitsplat of a town.
So, my instincts kicking in, I started pretending to crush the U.S. beneath my giant Godzilla feet while The Student showed the three French where we came from in the U.S.. Soon, we moved on.
We were now obviously close to the docks. I say obviously close, because everything was just a bit more run down than the rest of the city, and the human to seagull ratio was rapidly resembling the worldwide human to insect ratio. Off in the distance, I could see the dull glow of light pollution from the high-powered lights on various docks. The sounds of giant ferry horns wafted through the air, like the songs of horribly ill songbirds.
“Out of curiosity,” I said, “how much further to the beach?”
“Oh,” said Albert, “not that much further. Kilometer, kilometer and a half.”
“Oh,” I said. “Good.”