Lille’s Top 12

As this is my second to last night in Nord-Pas de Calais, I'm sharing a bit about my favorite places that I've visited in Lille in the last few months. They're not in any particular order, and I've probably forgotten quite a bit. But here's my top 12, at least according to Four Square (so please pardon the informal punctuation and formatting. I've included photos where I've remembered to take them.

1. @ Hotel Le Moulin d'Or: Favorite hotel in Lille. Very affordable for singles/doubles with bath. In Centre-Ville and right next to the train stations (which is actually a safe area). Also includes free Wi-Fi and cable TV!

2. @ L'Empire: Cheap lunch menu and nice outdoor seating during the summer months. They also have a sign that says "Here We Speak English."

3. @ Gare Lille Europe: Eurostar/TGV station...basically the connection to the rest of Europe. Do not confuse this with Gare Lille Flandres.

4. @ La Piscine, Roubaix: One of my five fave museums in the world. The art-deco building itself is prob even more stunning than the collections. Formerly a bath house in the 1930s, now a modern art museum.

5. @ Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille: Beautiful on the outside, and the interior itself is nice as well. The collection isn't bad, but a bit on the gory side. See if you can go on a free admission day.

6. Palais de la Bière: Excellent Welsh Complet and Carbonnade Flamande (both Ch'ti favorites). Service is a bit slow, but ambiance is nice. Plus they serve food ALL DAY, which is rare in Lille.

7. @ Aux Moules: Best restaurant to bring visitors. They also have a large variety of mussels. (See the name...)

8. @ O'Scotland/L'Irlandais: Two of the most lively bars on Rue Solferino. Just don't get on the bouncer's bad side...

9. @ Le Furet du Nord: Best major bookstore in Lille. Huge selection of BDs, cookbooks, paper products and much larger English-language section than FNAC.

10. @ McDonalds Grand Place: Free Wi-Fi and plenty of electrical sockets. Enough said.

11. @ Kokoa: The milkshakes are amazing. There are over two dozen flavors that can be served as either ice cream or milkshakes. Plenty of other yummy desserts at this modern ice cream parlor as well.

12. @ La Citadelle: Beautiful parks and lovely settings for a picnic or kicking around a football on Sundays.

Aller-Retour

On January 2, I walked out my front door in San Francisco at about 5:00 AM PST. I unlocked the door to my studio in Montreuil 25 hours later.

While my journey was long, exhausting and mundane at times, it was relatively smooth - especially in comparison to other winter travel/horror stories I heard from other assistants upon my return. I managed to catch every connection on time and my little brown suitcases made its way successfully to France (filled with 45-lbs. of toiletries, food and a few pieces of clothing I exchanged for things I brought home). Basically, it went plane-plane-train-train. Sounds simple, and since I knew exactly where I was going when I got to France, it pretty much was.

It didn't start out so certain though.

Aside from the fact I was nervous about the weather in Washington, D.C., where I was changing planes at Dulles International, I was also looking at a 30-minute connection time in DC between my flights from SFO to Paris CDG. My brother drove me to SFO about four hours before my original flight (and without traffic, it's only a 20-minute car ride from my house to the airport). We walked up to the United Airlines ticket counter, already busy with plenty of passengers there early, either for flights or because of long security line fears after the Christmas Day incident in Detroit. After flying solely with JetBlue Airways and Virgin America within the United States over the last three years, it was bizarre entering a different terminal at SFO, or flying with a different airline. But the employees of United turned out to be kind and friendly from start to finish.

I asked the ticket agent if I could get on the stand-by flight to DC that was departing an hour before my booked flight, and she replied that I probably could fit on the plane! Lo and behold, about 90 minutes later, I was boarding the flight and even got a window seat (albeit, the seat was in an exit row - a first for me - and directly across from the flight attendant in the jump seat). She also put my bag on the earlier flight, so even if I didn't make it on that plane and ended up being stuck on the later one, my suitcase would probably make the connection to France. (I thought this was a bit strange since I thought according to some of TSA's anti-terrorism rules, every bag that goes on to a plane has to have a passenger with it.) But, given that the flight got to DC on time (although there were some other delays at Dulles due to very strong winds, so only one runway was open for landings and take-offs), I got a nice 90-minute window instead of 30. I decided to use my time to buy a burrito for the last time for a while and read my new book (The Boleyn Inheritance).

With the time change and since the first flight (SFO to DC) was only four and a half hours, it was already 5:30 PM EST by the time my second flight departed from DC. I gave a last look out the window from American soil (pictured, right) and let out a big sigh. While it is always difficult to leave home, the murmurs of French voices on the plane already filled me with excitement to return to France. The part that hurt the most, however, was flying over New York City. By good fortune (and asking the gate agent up until the point where I was in line to board if there were any window seats left), I got a window seat on the left side of the plane. As the plane crept north over the Eastern Seaboard, I knew exactly when we would be approaching New York without even looking at the map anymore. And then I saw the Manhattan street grid, perfectly straight from my angle and glittering like threads of gold.

Then there was just darkness. For a really long time. And most unfortunately for me, the only flight I was able to get any sleep on was that first one. So for seven long hours to Paris, I was awake. It's time like that in which I really hate traveling alone. But as the tiny plane on the Google map flew over the island of Jersey, then Rouen and finally landed in Paris, I gained a tiny second (or third or fourth) wind.

I booked it off the plane. Given that I only had a purse for a carry-on, I knew where I was going, confident enough with the language, I felt like a local already. Getting to Immigration and baggage claim was a bit of a walk (with a moving sidewalk), and the baggage claim area at CDG Terminal One was the most bizarre room I've ever seen in an airport. (Maybe ever.) I thought I walked into a giant hamster maze for adults. There were tubes with escalators going every direction. Fortunately for me, there were again more EU citizens on the plane than non-EU citizens, so I zoomed through Immigration, and my bag turned out to be the fifth one to roll down the conveyor belt. After a few "excusez-moi"s, I grabbed my bag and power-walked for the AirTrain to take me to CDG Terminal 2, where the SNCF-TGV station is.

Turns out I didn't have to walk so fast since the first and next train to Lille wasn't leaving for another 45 minutes. Not to mention that since I now have a French bank card compared to when I first arrived, I was able to buy my ticket from the SNCF kiosk (since my card has a chip) and not have to wait in the INSANE line at the ticket counter. After waiting a bit to see which platform would be announced and checking my email on my iPhone (it felt so good to have internet on my cell phone everywhere again), the voie (platform) was posted on the board.

I was about to take the elevator down, when I ran into Liz Louie! France is turning out to be a small place. After a long voyage and leaving home after the holidays, I was already a little down-trodden, so it felt good to see a familiar, friendly face. She was taking the train back to Lille after a trip down south, so we caught up with Vacances de Noël stories while waiting for the TGV to approach. However, we had to sit in different cars since we bought our tickets separately. When I found my seat, it was the most bizarre part of a TGV train I'd ever seen. It must have been the first class car's coat or luggage closet before, since it was part of the first class car, but there were only a handful of seats, and most of them aligned flat against the wall like a subway car.

When I landed in France, it was still dark, at about 7:0o AM CST. Now that it was closer to 9:00 AM, the sun was rising over the snow-covered valleys and farms that I passed on my trip to the airport in December. Except this time there was actual sun. I dare say that it was one of the most beautiful days I have ever seen and experienced in France. Unfortunately for me, I was too tired to appreciate any of it.

After my train arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I dragged my little brown suitcase over to Gare Lille Flandres, where there was the one direct train of the day to Montreuil, leaving at 11:30 AM. I sat in the waiting area reading my book, while vagrants were walking in and out (out because the station guards were constantly checking on them). Considering it was freezing outside (literally), I felt really awful for them since they weren't causing any trouble and not asking anyone for money, just trying to sit inside and escape the wind chill.

Finally, my train to Montreuil was announced, I got up and on to the last part of my voyage. I had the hardest time trying to stay awake. My eyelids felt like hard stones and I couldn't lift them anymore. But I was more afraid of falling asleep and waking up at the train's terminus: Calais. (I'm not afraid of Calais; it's just really far past where I needed to be.) The sunshine was absolutely gorgeous, and I'd normally give anything to have such a nice view from the train. At about 1:30 PM, the TER finally pulled up to Gare Montreuil-Sur-Mer, after which I dragged my suitcase up the giant hill, past the ramparts, through the cobblestone village streets, into the very empty Grand Place and then up the stairs to my studio.

The bizarre feeling upon walking into my studio was: it was like I never left or went anywhere. I was back in some surreal dream. Is it because it's France? A tiny village in the middle of nowhere? Such a contrast from New York or San Francisco? I don't think there are as many contrasts between French and American cultures as some people might think (or like to admit, on either side), but maybe I've really adjusted to living here.

The downside to being back: I had jetlag for over a week.

The Brooklyn of Lille

rachel-king-lille-fivesAfter having a very busy, stressful week, I needed to surround myself around friends and take a break from worrying about paperwork. So on Friday, I headed out of Montreuil back to Lille for the weekend. I even had a very special visitor, as Sharon visited me on her first stop during her French backpacking trip. When we first sat down for coffee, I spilled everything that happened in the past week and spoke a mile per minute as it was the most English I had spoken in five days. After heading back to Rachel and Pat's apartment in Fives (pronounced "feeves", which is pretty much the Brooklyn/Hackney of Lille, Sharon and I didn't have much to do as neither of the roommates were at home. But I had their keys since I was staying there for the weekend, so it was no problem getting in (except the 15 minutes I spent at the door trying to figure out the key). But without a TV or internet in the apartment nor a working toilet (it was fixed the following morning), it didn't help we were extremely tired. After about an hour of staring at the wall and listening to Disney tunes blaring on my iPhone, we walked up the street to the first bar or café we could find to use a bathroom. I don't think we were prepared for the place we walked into. Or perhaps they weren't prepared for us. The windows were open, the lights were on and there were people inside, so I made the assumption the bar was open. When I pushed the glass door open, the world stopped. The darts stopped flying, the old people stopped drinking and everyone in the room turned to look at us. It was as if I swung a saloon door open, and it was very obvious we were the new kids in town. I was also immediately surprised by the smell of cigarette smoke clouding the room, since its illegal to smoke indoors now in France. I asked (in French) if the place was open, and the big buff man said yes. Everything resumed as normal, so I walked over to the barman, ordered a coffee and sat down while Sharon went off to the restroom. After I finished my drink (quickly), I followed suit, and we bid them all adieu.

But after another hour of waiting back at the apartment, we were both exhausted, but hungry. There's not much open in Fives after 9 PM, as most people still out at that hour are probably in Centre Ville or near Rue Solferino. But we stumbled upon an open kebab place, where I ordered fries and Sharon got a vegetable sandwich. I would have gotten a kebab, but I was saving it for my 2 AM meal the following night (which I never ended up getting). While we were eating, a local French guy started talking to us, asking us about where we were from, why I was in France, etc. While I love the fact that I'm getting better at French with each conversation, after awhile, I was just too tired to talk in another language. And Sharon was tired from the fact that she had just arrived after a seven-hour flight from New York with only four hours of sleep, being that she had arrived in Paris about 12 hours prior at this point. We managed to squirm away politely after about a 30-minute conversation, and both went home to get a good night's sleep.

Un Compte d'Argent

In France, one can't get a bank account without detailed proof of an address. But, quite often, one cannot get an address without a bank account. There in lies the problem that faces the American Assistants de Langue. But, as I am admittedly an iPhone-aholic, my bigger concern was getting a French phone plan. My preference is Orange (France Telecom) since they are the official iPhone plan people in this country. I had my phone unlocked (with AT&T's permission and even at a place they recommended with a coupon in San Francisco) before my departure. However, when I went to The Phone House (a store that features all of France's biggest phone carriers in one store), they informed me that I would need both my passport (check) and a French ATM card (darn).

The French Embassy in the US (the organization that recruits the Assistants and very loosely facilitates the program) suggests that we open bank accounts in France as soon as possible. After the visa process, all of our paperwork (which is a lot) depends on our French bank accounts. As does my iPhone.

When I was back in Lille the first week, I quickly sent my school contact, Laurent, an e-mail asking if I could use the school's address to open an account. He said he didn't see any problem with it since I have a mailbox with a lock at the school. Thus, I set out on a fine sunny Tuesday morning in Lille to make an appointment to open un compte d'argent.

The receptionist at the bank at was very friendly. She noticed I didn't speak French like a local, but she didn't treat me any differently and attempted to speak a little English, but not much. Either way, the appointment was made and I returned that afternoon. After reading on the French Assistantship forums about how much trouble other American Assistants all over France had with opening bank accounts, I was nervous. However, the Lille bank agent proved to be just as warm as the receptionist. She asked if I spoke French, to which I said a little, and she asked for my documents. I handed her my passport, a letter from my bank in the US proving my account there and my arrêté de nomination (my official employment sponsorship from the Académie de Lille that has the address of my school on it). When she glanced at my passport, she exclaimed, "Oh! I thought you were English, not American!" This is definitely the first time I've ever gotten this remark. (So I heard from another Assistant more familiar with France than I am, most French speakers can't tell the difference between the two accents unless they've experience an extended period of time around one or the other. Bizarre.)

She asked if the address on my arrêté was the same as my home address. Since I knew I'd be staying at the school for while and my contact gave me permission, I just said yes. (Okay, so it was a bit of a lie.) Then she spoke on the phone with someone, very fast in French so I could only pick up bits and pieces. Then she spoke with someone else. Then her vocal tone dropped. I knew something bad was coming. When she got off the phone, she said that all of my documents were fine and that she really liked that I had a letter from my American bank, but that I'd have to return in two weeks to pick up the card. Thus, she said it would be better if I just waited to open an account at another branch in Montreuil. I relented since it looked like opening an account in Lille wouldn't get me an iPhone plan any sooner.

Exactly one week later, I found myself in the lobby of the bank branch in Montreuil with Laurent. I appreciated the fact that he took the time to come with me, as it is very evident that the teachers here are trying to help my stay be as pleasant as possible. That's not something I'm entirely used to after previous stays in France. He explained to the receptionist and another bank agent my situation and that I had to have a bank account open by October 1st to start on paperwork. He also explained the address situation, and they said it would be worked out. I had to return the following morning (or what is now yesterday).

So yesterday morning, foggy and early, I set out for the bank. However, it was neither the same receptionist nor bank agent there that morning, which made me a little uneasy. I wasn't sure if the bank agent helping me knew the urgency (not about the iPhone but the bureaucracy/paperwork stuff).  This agent seemed to like speaking to me in English right off the bat. However, most of the appointment took place in both languages, alternating at random times. He first looked at all my paperwork, glancing at my pictures in Xerox copies of my passport and visa. Then he looked back at me and said, "You look very American. Very Californian." Since I was bundled up in a jacket and scarf in the chair across from him as he smiled, I wasn't sure how to take this, but personally I think it is always a compliment to be considered Californian, so there. While glancing at my paperwork, typing in his computer, he made a few other strange comments, including mumbling something about America changing after the "Twin Towers" and how "America is afraiding the world." I heard "afraiding," thus I’m not sure if he meant we're afraid or we're scaring everyone. I guess it could be a bit of both.

After reviewing everything, he questioned me about my address. Since I am actually staying at the school until I can find a place to live and this time my contact instructed me to use the school's address, I said that's where things should be mailed. Even on Monday at our first meeting, the headmistress agreed that would be acceptable. But the bank agent wasn't buying it. He asked for the school's phone number to call and confirm. I quickly complied, but when he called, I guess the line was busy since he said he would call again later. Then he typed some more, and things started coming out of the printer, with the words "Ouverture Compte d'Argent" on top. It was happening! I was getting a bank account!

That happiness faded fast when he decided to call the school one more time. Whoever answered the phone told him I wasn't living at the school for long. He gave me the RIB form with a bank account number I needed by October 1 to get an advance in pay (if we don't do this, we don't get paid until at least the end of November), and he had me sign all of the forms necessary to open the account. But he also gave me strict instructions that I had to return within 10 days with a change of address or a formal letter from the school stating I was living at the boarding house permanently, or the account would be put on hold (causing lots of paperwork problems) and I wouldn't get that very much desired ATM card. I accepted this half-victory, half-defeat and returned to the school, where I told Laurent all about it.

I also came to conclusion that I'm going to have to take the room in the apartment with the older woman. I can't wait much longer on finding a permanent address, and the room is furnished and has Internet access. Laurent said she'd call her back again to see if I could still take the room, since apparently after meeting me (when I barely said a word in either language), she was afraid I'd cause a lot of noise. I'm not really sure where she got this from, perhaps my age. Either way, I just want to have somewhere to live soon. I can't live out of a suitcase (or three) much longer.

The First Day

rachel-king-montreuilI've moved from a city of eight million to a village of 2,000. And no one seems to want to let me forget that. My Motorola phone woke me up at 6:45 AM on Monday morning, giving me enough time to get ready and throw the last few things in my suitcases. Rachel helped me carry my three suitcases down the two sets of stairs, where I bid farewell to her and the Hôtel Moulin d'Or. As I stepped out the front glass door, pulling a big suitcase on each arm, fog was there to greet me. However, I barely noticed the temperature drop from the previous day after the sweat of carrying my bags downstairs. Luckily the trip to Gare Lille Flandres was short: just across the street. However, I overestimated how long it would take me to get ready and bring my suitcases down, thus was 45 minutes early. However, I noticed quite a few of the trains were delayed, including my 8:35 AM TER train to St. Pol-Sur-Ternoise, where I'd connect for the train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer. The train was five minutes late, which made me very nervous as I only had a 9-minute break between trains, and pulling my suitcases off a train and throwing them back on would not be as quick as it sounds.

The TER train system is far slower than the TGV, which stands for Train Grande Vitesse (basically, Big Fast Train). It's probably the equivalent of an express subway train in New York when it's going at its fastest possible speed. But it's still quicker than Amtrak. However, my train pulled out of the station very slowly, and as it slowly picked up speed and some sunlight managed to break through the clouds, I said tout á l'heure to Lille. See, the town where I'm assigned to teach is Montreuil-Sur-Mer, considered within the same school district or academie as Lille, but its 75 kilometers away, with only five trains per day, none of which are direct. So the minimum possible travel time is 1 hour and 55 minutes on the TER. I assume it's faster by car. And with the consistency and frequency that French unions strike in this country, I found out it would be impossible to commute. Thus my resolution has been to spend my weekends in Lille, at least, with my other friends in the program.

As the train made its way to the junction point, St-Pol, I became increasingly nervous (as usual) that I was going to miss my connecting train. We arrived at 9:45 AM, precisely when my next train to Montreuil was supposed to depart. As we approached the station, I didn't see any other trains. And there were only four tracks. The TGV has usually been on time for me in the past, I assumed the TER was the same way. Well, apparently not this morning. When I finished pulling my bags off the train, I asked the station agent where train to Montreuil was, and he replied by telling me it was delayed. "Quarante minutes." Forty minutes. I sighed, but was slightly relieved when I saw the elevator down to the underground walkway between the platforms. But when I reached the elevator, naturellement, it was out of order. Thus, I had to make two trips down the stairs with my bags, and then two very slow trips back up the next set, since that elevator, too, was out of order.

A gaggle of teenage girls were on the platform. One offered me help, but I foolishly said I could handle it on my own. I did, but it hurt. They all went back to laughing and smoking. If I thought the fog back in Lille was thick, it was nothing like that in St. Pol. I could barely see to the end of the platform, nor anything beyond a few trees past the station. If it were a movie, I'm sure a mysterious character dressed in a trench coat and a fedora would have emerged from the mist. But after 40 minutes, the train did.

After another 20-25 minutes, I arrived in Montreuil. While there were actually some patches of blue sky and the station itself looked a little more alive than past ones, it was certainly clear that I was far from any major city. Especially when I jumped off the train, only to discover by the sand already in my shoe that the platform was made out of gravel and sand, not cement. I pulled my suitcases off the train one last time, and two people, one man and one woman, approached me. Saying my name and speaking to me in English, it was definitely my two contacts from the school. Laurent and Nathalie both greeted me with smiles, kisses on both cheeks like any proper French people would and helped me carried my bags to Laurent's car. I apologized prefusely about the delayed train, to which they both simply laughed and said, "This is France." They asked me how I was able to carry such heavy suitcases by myself all this way, and I replied by saying there aren't many elevators in New York apartment buildings, so I'm fairly used to Europe.

By this time, it was close to 11:30 AM. First thing was they brought me to see an apartment. Well, it was actually a room for rent. Both of them insisted that I did not have to take it, and I should be completely honest with them about how I felt. When I saw the elevator, I was already a little pleased. The catch was that I'd be living in the flat of a much older woman, probably somewhere around 65 years old. It was a cozy room, a bit small, and facing a parking lot, but not bad at all. My only concern was how much influence or authority the landlady might want over me. Typically in French home stays, the owners of the home like to exercise parental authority over their guests. While I definitely understand that anyone would have rules over a potential tenant, I'm a bit too old and independent to take on a foreign set of parents. She also talked a bit, as even Laurent said to me on the way out that she was "a bit of a chatterbox." Nathalie informed the woman that I would have my decision in a few days, which I'm still not quite sure about as I write this post. The rent was fine, but I believe hosting any guests would definitely be out.

But I'm not really expecting many guests in this town. As everyone I met that day seemed to tell me in one way or another, Montreuil is a very small town with not much going on. Everyone also seemed to make a big deal of the fact of how long my journey to Montreuil was, starting in San Francisco to New York to Paris CDG to Lille and finally to Montreuil. I guess it didn't seem so bad or so long since I had so many breaks in between the major legs of the journey. Just the suitcases weighed me down. I tried to keep up a smile on my face, saying that the small town didn't bother me and that I was very excited to be living in France. But I was definitely lost on the inside.

Nathalie and Laurent brought me to the Lycée, which was already in the middle of the lunch break. High school was weird enough when I was a student. And I don't think I've been in one since I graduated. But walking into a crowded lunchroom in France isn't much different from one in America. They look fairly the same, and with the noise level as high as it was, individual accents were inaudible. But the food was certainly far better than anything I've ever eaten in any American high school cafeteria. Only €3 for all-you-can-eat. It was a reflection of the school in general: very modern and upscale. Once a monastery, it was now a very advanced school, with plenty of computer, engineering and science labs as well as clean classrooms and a large library as well. For being in the middle-of-nowhere, it is a fine educational establishment.

In that sense, I'm very lucky compared to most in the program, and compared to most of my friends who are teachers in the United States and the UK. I must also emphasize how nice and friendly everyone has been to me at the school so far. My contacts are both very helpful and kind to me. But I began to feel out-of-place quite quickly. My French isn't exactly up-to-par, precisely one of the reasons I came to France. I understood most of what was being said to me, but there was only so much my brain could translate at once. I smiled and nodded a lot. Hopefully no one was insulting me, but I really doubt it. But when other teachers asked me questions, I became very nervous and tense, and I couldn't quite think quickly enough. I kept apologizing for how poor my French is, and everyone insisted that it isn't a big deal and I'll learn, but I still felt pathetic.

The feeling was especially palpable by dinnertime. As I'm staying at the internat (boarding school) until I find a place to live here for the next seven months, I can have my meals at the school. Before dinner, I met up with the other assistante de langue at the school, a 23-year-old from Germany named Julia. It's very nice that I have at least one other person to commiserate with here. Around 5 PM, her school contact brought us to two other rental options, neither of which could fit two people. The first was a very cute, petite French house - but with an emphasis on the petite. This place could only fit one person, or perhaps a couple. While it is fully furnished and with a TV, the upstairs is a loft and the shower isn't private. In fact, it isn't a shower, but rather just a bathtub, and since the roof is slanted, there isn't enough room to stand up. The other option was at the base of the hill, closer to the train station. But it was two beds in one tiny room in an old French home, and the elderly landlady said there was no possibility for installing Internet there. Both Julia and I each looked at each other and left. Both of us need Internet, not just for work, but Skype is our only affordable way to call home. Inevitably, Julia took the small house, while I said I'd keep looking.

I returned to the school as I thought dinner was at 6:45 PM (it's really at 6:30 PM). I walked up to the ticket machine, flashed the new ID card I had been given earlier, but no ticket came out. I needed the ticket to be served, and I also noticed there wasn't much food out left. Thus, I walked back out the door of the building and across the courtyard, trying to comfort myself that I could eat the chocolate I bought in Belgium for dinner. When I got back to the front door of the internat, I couldn't unlock the doors. For some reason, my key kept jamming.

Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a young woman approaching me. She was one of the RAs of the building, letting me know that I could still get dinner even though I was late. I followed her back into the dining hall, where I was able to get the last helping of steak et frites (fries). But since I was late, I had to eat alone. When the RAs and the students were departing for evening classes, they were asking me some questions. But by this point, I was so hungry and so tired; I couldn't understand a thing anymore. I was so embarrassed and kept saying desolée, to which they replied it was fine. But when they all departed and as I sat alone at the table eating my dinner, tears began to well up. I refused to let them out, as I would not be seen crying on my first day. But I just felt lost and completely alone, both in language and a new, very small town.

Lunch in Brussels

rachel-king-brussels-belgian-waffleAfter a week of exploring Lille's crowded squares, gothic churches and lively nightlife scene, there weren't many options available on a Sunday afternoon. Usually in France, grocery stores, bakeries, many shops, etc. are closed on Sundays, and no one was going to show available apartments to my friends that day either. Plus we were hungry. So what were we to do? Have lunch in Lille? No...we went to Brussels! Why? Because we could. Brussels is just a short, 30-minute ride on the TGV from Lille. And with our SNCF resident discount cards (for ages 12-25), it was only €13 per person to get there. After waking up around 11:30 AM (I think we got back to the Hôtel Moulin d'Or from O'Scotland and the African Bar on Rue Solferino around 3 AM), Rachel and I got ready slowly, as Liana and Pat eventually arrived at our hotel room. We had bounced the idea around of going to Belgium soon, but as we sat in the hotel room with the French music station playing on the TV in the background, we realized we had nothing better to do. I checked the schedule online, only to discover that the next train was in 30 minutes, and the following train wouldn’t depart from Lille until after 3 PM. Thus, we sped across the street, through Gare Lille Flandres and then the following 400 meters to Gare Lille Europe. Actually, we made it with plenty of time to spare since there wasn't a line at the ticket counter.

I had been to Brussels once before in July 2004, and the weather was much fairer and warmer on that Sunday in late September than that chilly, foggy summer day. I never really planned on returning to Brussels, since there really isn't much to do there besides eat. When we arrived in Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles, depending on your language of choice), we had to walk a bit to reach the center of town, as we arrived at Midi Station instead of Central Station. After a 10-minute walk past a sketchy flea market and a more rundown part of town, we made it into the Grand Place of Brussels. However, most of the square was closed off since they were cleaning up from their Braderie. At this point, we remembered the reason we came to Brussels: LUNCH. There are several culinary specialties in Belgium, namely waffles, chocolate, beer, mussels and fries. First on our menu were fries. We found a sandwich shop off of the main square where we all got sandwiches with both meat and fries within the bun. It was simple, cheap and delicious.

We had to walk around a bit before moving on to the next meal. As we passed through the Grand Shops corridor, I remembered something I wanted…no…needed to buy: a Swiss Army knife. On the previous night, we had two bottles of wine and alas, no wine opener. Except then Liz showed up with her trusty Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew attached, and we were set. Not only did I realize that would be useful to have around in France, but also a pair of scissors and a small knife couldn't hurt too - in case I have to fight off some wild animal out in the country where I'm living. Thus, we found a very nice shopkeeper, who informed us what was legal and not legal in Belgium and France (Mace and switch blades are not.) He suggested we travel to Holland if we want either of these items.

After walking along for a bit further, checking out boutiques here and there (including a store that had a full-size Nimbus 2000 in the window), we started making our way to the famous baby statute in Brussels. Unfortunately, about a block before we got there, some local police yelled at us. We started crossing the street when the green walk signed appeared, but by mid-street, it was red. And they don't really give you a warning with a flashing sign or anything to that effect, so we were caught red-handed by the police. It was a little startling, since they seemed really mad at us, but we walked away with a sneer verbal warning.

After being made to feel like criminals, it was definitely time for waffles. I ordered a strawberry and chocolate syrup waffle, which was so big I couldn't even finish it. We washed our waffles down with some local Primus beer (and a €3 water for me, hmph) before heading to Gare Bruxelles Central to buy tickets back to Lille. After waiting in line for at least 10 minutes before reaching the ticket counter, we were informed the next train to Lille was in one hour from Gare Midi on the Eurostar. We got on one of the shuttles over from Central to Midi, and made it almost just in time to check-in for Eurostar.

This was my first trip on the Eurostar, so it was quite an adventure. It's also far stricter than the TGV. The morning train was like hopping on the subway. The afternoon train we were booked on was headed for London, with just one stop in Lille, thus even though we were only going to France, we had to check-in at least 30 minutes prior to departure, go through security, and even speak to UK Border Control. When I got up to the UK official, she looked at me very sternly and asked me how long I was going to France for, which I responded by saying for several months. This caused her to raise an eyebrow, but I quickly pointed out my visa, and she responded by asking me why I was going to Lille. I said I teach English there, which produced a very large smile on her face. I found this hilarious, but I don't think it would be a good idea to laugh in front of UK immigration officials. They scare me a bit. The train ride home was quick, and it felt like we were barely moving. High-speed rail is just fantastic.

When we got back to Lille, we were all a bit tired. Thus, most of the evening was just finishing off the last bottle of red wine we had in our hotel room, watching some more French TV and packing up our bags as it was the last night at the Moulin d'Or. I also had to tuck in early, as I had to get up very early for the TER train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer, the town where I am living and teaching this year.

Les Lillois

rachel-king-lille-englishI've been to France before, so for some aspects, I know what to expect. But those trips were for studying abroad or vacation. Nothing so long term or intense as actually living and working in another country. After leaving the train station on what was then Friday afternoon, I headed for the flat that three other American Assistants de Langue (language assistants) and I were sharing for four days in Lille. I am really glad that we went this route for two reasons: 1.) I got to know other people in the program right off the bat, so the first day wasn't lonely, and 2.) it was very cheap. For four nights, it was €200 total for a furnished flat with cable TV, silverware, and (something rarely found at somewhere so affordable in Europe) a clean bathroom. When I first showed up at the flat, the French landlord was friendly, but immediately he asked me, "Would it be possible if we only spoke in English? I want to practice." I laughed a little and said that was fine.

While getting my bags up and down Stephanie's five-story walk-up apartment building on the Upper East Side was a feat in itself, getting all of my bags up the narrow passageway that resembled a staircase was a new task altogether. But with the landlord and my new temporary roommates' help, we all made it up. After the landlord departed, the four of us plus one more assistant headed into Centre Ville (downtown) to check out somewhere for dinner. (At this point, it was almost 7 PM Central Euro time, and I hadn't eaten since I left America.) Mussels are a specialty in northern France, and thus, our first dinner was at Aux Moules.

The next few days were quite relaxed, at least for me, since I can't search for an apartment until I reach Montreuil-Sur-Mer next Monday. (For those Victor Hugo buffs, yes, that is one of the towns mentioned in Les Misérables.) Plus, it was the weekend, and since things are already pretty relaxed in a 35-hour-work-week-country, the weekends are even more about just sitting back and enjoying a peaceful day. Since we lacked Wi-Fi (pronounced "wee-fee" in France), most of the next three days were spent at the McDonalds in the Place de l'Opera. Turns out: All McDonalds around the world except the ones in America are supposed to have free Wi-Fi. Thus, both the McDs in the Place and at Gare Lille Flandres looked more like a local college cafe rather than a crowded fast-food joint filled with overweight tourists in big T-shirts and shorts.

What I've enjoyed most about Lille so far are her inhabitants. Nowhere in France have I met such friendly people. (To be fair, I've only been to Paris, Lyon and Nice, with some Autogrills along the road here and there.) But no one here frowns when they hear my (very poor) French accent, people smile and greet you when you walk in and exit a store and most of all, I don't feel like anyone is judging me here. I don't know if that is because of the differences in America between now and before. (Then: Bush, now: Obama. Really, on day one when we walked into a mobile phone shop, when the store owner found out we were Americans, he smiled and screamed, "Obama!")

I've also noticed the Lillois are a bit of an eccentric bunch. I don't know if that's because this is a very large college town (there are over 100,000 students at the several universities here), or because its an industrial town (they've been hit very hard by the recession), but either way, its a bit grittier than other French cities. I haven't been outside one day without seeing some group of people (at least 50 or more each time), marching together in a group, chanting for/against something. And it's not always political. Yesterday, on the way to McDonalds (Yes, I said that, but I swear I only go there for the Wi-Fi), I saw a group of people smiling and yelling about a hugging contest. I'm not sure I understood it completely, but there was definitely a lot of hugging.

Although, it hasn't just been locals who have seemed a little off. While walking home on Sunday (yes, from the McDonalds), an older man with his white hair tied back in a ponytail started walking without his flip-flops on. His three friends didn't really seem to notice. He looked at us and smiled, and since he seemed a little weird (He was walking without shoes on!), we didn't really reply. Then he said to us with his Kiwi accent, "I know all of you speak English. I heard you!" Turns out his flip-flop broke, but they were almost at the car. The four of them (1 New Zealander, 2 Englishmen and 1 American) were in Lille for the weekend and driving back to Calais to catch the ferry back to England. He asked about our program, and we told him we're here to teach English, to which he replied that we must be corrupting French kids. Then one of his English friends asked with a hint of attitude, "What are you doing in Lily?" (Lille, by the way, is pronounced "leel.") It's always nice to hear people speaking your native language when far from home, even with a different accent.

Arrival en France

rachel-king-air-franceFor the last year, I've been planning on moving to France. It never actually seemed like this time would actually arrive. After a fashion-wine-college-football-packed week in New York City, on September 17, I departed from JFK airport on Air France to Paris CDG. Armed with two large suitcases, a carry-on suitcase and my laptop bag, I wasn't exactly traveling light. After a relatively quick Super Shuttle to the airport, I suffered through another round of French bureaucracy at the Air France counter. (Honestly, I think this is the country's version of hazing.) After having to stand in one line to get my boarding pass from the check-in machines, I got in line to have my bags checked. While waiting in line, I met another New Yorker, Helene, who was very excited for her European adventure (except to Italy, not France). She, too, noticed that I had a lot of baggage, and I told her I was going to France for seven months to teach English, since I couldn't find a job in the U.S. right now. She commented how strange it must be to have to leave America to find a job, and I agree, but I hope it will be a great adventure anyway.

When I got up to the counter, it turned out one of my bags was overweight, thus I had to pay a $50 fee. However, they don't take your bags at the Air France counter. Since my bag was overweight, I had to haul ALL of my bags over to the Air France customer service counter to pay the fee, drop off my suitcases at another stall, and then return to the check-in counter to show my receipt and get my boarding pass back. Security seemed like a breeze after such an ordeal.

After security, I ran into Helene again, and we searched for the first terminal bar we could find. (I'm a very skittish flyer, despite how many times I might be on an airplane in any given year. I don't like turbulence.) It seems you can't go far in New York without finding someone else in the media industry, as Helene worked for a NYC radio station for many years. Thus, media and the recession were one of the big topics. After talking with Helene and the bartenders for about 90 minutes, I was much more relaxed and ready for the 7-hour flight ahead of me. I said au revoir and bon voyage to Helene, who got the lucky chance to sit upstairs on the flight to Paris, while I made my way for my window seat in row 34. Departure from the gate was a little delayed, and I nearly fell asleep for take-off, but I woke up just in time to see us lift off the ground, with the lit-up Manhattan skyline grow smaller and smaller until the plane turned, and I could only see the pitch-black Atlantic Ocean.

The flight itself was relatively smooth. Since I had brought a Chipotle burrito for my meal (the last burrito I figured for a while), I waited for my complimentary glass of wine, and passed out for about three to four hours, with brief moments of turbulence here and there. It's remarkable how long I survived on such little sleep. Sunshine was breaking through the clouds as we descended over the French countryside, with a very smooth landing at Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport. As I disembarked from the plane, only the coffee must have kept me awake and sane, as the sun nearly blinded me through the glassy exterior of the gate ramp into the terminal. Prior to leaving for France, I was incredibly nervous for days, to the point where I thought I was developing an ulcer and couldn't eat well for days. From worrying about my poor French skills, to people judging me about being from another country, to wondering what line I should even get in at Immigration, I was a wreck. Well, one problem was solved at Immigration, since all passports had to get in the same line! When I got up to the front, the French Immigration officer was actually very nice, just asked (in French) how long I'd be staying, stamped my passport and work visa, and I was on my way.

At this point, I had about an hour and 15 minutes to get my luggage from Baggage Claim and make my way to my 12:42 PM TGV train directly from CDG to Lille Europe Station. French time is a bit slower than American time, but I noticed even the French passengers getting annoyed with how long it took for the bags to start falling onto the conveyor belt. It took about 30 minutes for suitcases from the New York-JFK flight to start arriving, since they were backed up after a flight that had just arrived from (coincidentally) San Francisco. After checking my watch every minute for about 15 minutes, I became nervous that I'd miss the train I had already booked a ticket on. Thankfully, my bags arrived just at 12:00 PM. I practically threw them onto the (thankfully, free) luggage cart and started power-walking for the TGV station.

Unfortunately, I couldn't determine which check-in machine I was supposed to use for retrieving my e-Ticket. I tried both of my credit cards on both the TGV and SNCF machines, but nothing came out. Finally, an Information Desk employee pointed me towards the TGV office, where I was able to get my ticket. Then I took the elevator down to the platform and got my bags off of the luggage cart with five minutes to spare before the train to Lille arrived. I have learned that running for trains in Europe is not romantic or Jason Bourne-esque with two 50+-lbs. suitcases.

Up to this point on my journey, getting around with my bags actually wasn't very difficult since I could hook up the carry-on suitcase to one of the bigger ones. It was just a strain on my arms. But lugging three bags onto a train by myself proved to be impossible. However, the French passengers on this train proved to be a friendly bunch, as several people offered help when I boarded and disembarked the train. The 59-minute train ride from CDG to Lille was a relaxing break after the last two hours of running across an airport with all of my life for the next seven months packed into three suitcases. Listening to the Marie Antoinette and Amelie soundtracks on my iPhone, the TGV train whisked along the northern French fields faster than you could say "Amtrak."

When I arrived at Gare Lille Europe, I had about an hour and a half to kill before taking a taxi over to the furnished flat that three other American assistants and I were renting for the next four days. I wasn't hungry, and I attempted to read the Air France magazine I picked up on the plane, but after about 10 minutes, I couldn't even turn the page anymore. My biggest task was trying not to fall asleep while sitting in the station. I felt like Forrest Gump for about 90 minutes, as several different characters ended up sitting next to me at different times, including a cute elderly French couple, and a woman headed home for a few weeks to Martinique. She noticed that my French isn't, well, the best, and asked where I was from. I said that I'm American, and she asked all about the program and moving to France, etc. The woman, probably in her mid-30s, was very friendly, noting that I shouldn't be too nervous about France, and that Lille is a nice town. Finally, it came time to get up, find a taxi and say goodbye to the latest person I met on the journey. As I picked up my bags one more time, she said, "Bonne Courage!" I replied, "Merci," knowing that I'm going to need it.