I'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.