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.

The Journey South

I used to think the journey from Morningside Heights to JFK Airport was a long one. But that was before I went from Montreuil-Sur-Mer to Brussels Charleroi International Airport in a single day. Four trains, a shuttle bus, a cab ride and then a plane the following next morning is apparently the cheapest way to Spain from here.

Being that it was our third break in the school year (Vacances d'Hiver), a few of us planned a trip to migrate south for 10 days and get out of the cold, rainy weather of Nord Pas de Calais. Our destinations? Spain and Portugal. Our tickets on Ryanair and easyJet for the entire trip were really cheap, and being that it is actually easier to fly from Brussels Charleroi rather than Paris Beauvais (seriously, Beauvais is very far from Paris), we decided to head to Palma, Mallorca from there.

My trip began with waiting for the train at the station, to catch another two trains to Lille. Being that it was a clear day and before noon, I thought there would be no problem or delays. But of course there was. My train to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, which had departed from Arras, was 15 minutes late. And there was only a 22-minute gap in between that train and my connection to Gare Calais-Frethun. By the time the rickety old train finally reached Boulogne, I had two minutes to get myself and my two duffel bags (one of which I was going to live in Lille) four platforms over to the next train. I made it, gasping for air as I flung myself down in my seat, then asking a family in front of me if in fact I was on the right train, which they confirmed.

Up until this point, the sun was uncharacteristically bright with plenty of blue skies hovering over the Cote d'Opale. About 30 minutes later, I was disembarking into a sea of fog. I had to make one more transfer at Calais to catch the TGV to Lille Europe. (Being that it was a Saturday, there are fewer trains towards Lille, thus I had to make two changes, which is unusual but the only way to get there in under two hours.) When the train left me at the platform, it railed away into the mist where I was unable to see it any longer. Within the span of an hour, I had changed from sunglasses to earmuffs. Such is the weather of Northern France.

But within 20 minutes, I was whisking away down to Lille on the high-speed TGV train. After arriving, I completed a couple of errands, namely dropping off one of my bags with my laptop tucked inside at Rachel's apartment in Fives, and then going to La Furet du Nord (a giant bookstore chain) to pick up a copy of The Alchemist for the journey. Being that a Brazilian wrote this novel about a young man traveling in Andalucía (and beyond, but I won't ruin it), I thought it was relevant enough and appropriate for my own trip down to the Mediterranean.

By late afternoon, it was time for the two Rachels to hop on board the Eurostar train to Brussels. Only a 30-minute journey, we arrived at Gare Bruxelles-Midi right on time. Brussels is definitely one of those cities where I visited once and thought, "Okay, well I've seen it and I don't have to come back." Somehow I've been to the quirky little European capital three times now, each time wondering, "How did I get here again?"

We met up with Liz inside the station, and our first order of business was to find the shuttle to Charleroi airport, since we were staying at the Etap Hotel right next door to it that night.

Just to make things clear: Charleroi is not Brussels. Ryanair might say it is, but it's not. We learned this the very, very hard way. I knew we were in for a trek getting there, but it was beyond anything that any of us expected. After meeting up with Liz, we asked a few station agents where was the shuttle to Charleroi Airport. And after asking in both English and French and getting responses in both languages, all of those responses were different. And given that Bruxelles-Midi is the size of a small airport and one of the largest train hubs in Europe, walking around the perimeter of this station countless times while carrying somewhat-heavy bags on our shoulders wasn't exactly relaxing.

After about 20 minutes, we finally came upon a bus that departed every 30 minutes to Charleroi. Being that the description of this bus matched the one we had read about on the Internet before, we assumed this was the correct connection and decided we'd go eat in the center of town first before heading out to the middle of nowhere.

So after getting on a quick train to Bruxelles-Central (which you can only get on if you already had a major train ticket from TGV, Eurostar or Thalys to Midi), we hopped off and ate at the same restaurant I ate at on my first voyage to Brussels in 2004. And what did I eat? The perfect Belgian meal: fries and waffles. All that was missing was a side of mussels, but I had to keep costs down somehow.

After dinner, it was already nightfall, past 6 PM. We were aiming to get back to Midi to get to the bus by 7 PM. After trying to figure out the Brussels metro system for a few minutes, we got onto a train, which transported us back to the 1970s. I seriously questioned whether or not the Berlin Wall had fallen yet or not. It's not that the train was old itself, but it had that mustard yellow and brown color scheme going on that only goes with a shaggy carpet.

Two metro trains later, we were back at the bus stop outside of Midi. Only, after we got on the bus and were about to pay, I asked the driver if he was going to Charleroi. He said he was going to the town, but not the airport, and that we shouldn't board that bus. So we hopped off quickly, and a Belgian girl tried to help us by suggesting we take the train. However, I think we were all sure the train was more expensive and the shuttle bus was only supposed to cost 13€.

So we headed back into Midi, asking two more times where to find the bus. Finally, we tried the last door out of the station that we hadn't exited from before, and sure enough, we found the navette (airport shuttle). After a 45-minute drive, we got to the airport. At this point, it was approaching 8:30 PM. We could even see the neon-blue sign of the Etap hotel, but being that it was dark, freezing and no sidewalks in sight, our only option was a taxi. But when we got into the first taxi, the very brash driver informed us sharply that it would cost us 20€ minimum. For a five-minute drive. So we hopped out of there as faster than we got in. We almost started to walk out of the airport, but there was really no safe way to do that, especially in the dark.

We headed into the terminal, which looked recently renovated, shiny and spotless. (I've always imagined Ryanair to fly into places with wooden shacks for terminals - somewhere that hasn't been renovated since the 1950s and might have an old TWA sign hanging off its hinges, but it turned out to be the quite the opposite on this trip.) As we were unsure at this point what to do, Liz called the Etap concierge, who saved the day by sending over a taxi that only cost 7€ total.

Etap is a hotel chain in Europe that is hit or miss. It's quite cheap (our room was only 49€ per night, then split amongst three people) and they're available in most cities and near most airports. However, they're not always clean (or bearable, as I've read in some reviews). But thankfully, after a voyage that lasted nearly a day just to get to an airport for a 20€ flight, ours was one of the nice ones, with a friendly staff to boot. There was even a TV! What a treat just a simple TV has become after living without one for months.

However, we had only just begun our vacation, and we were already exhausted. Several different phone alarms woke us up at 6 AM, at which point we gathered our things, headed back down stairs and into the taxi back to the airport.

There was one thing that had kept me nervous the whole previous day: I typed in my passport number wrong when checking in for the flight online. I was terrified that because I added an extra digit, they might not let me board the plane as some kind of security precaution. However, it turned out that they didn't even care, just taking a glance at my passport and stamping my boarding pass, "Visa Checked." It was lucky for me, but I certainly hope that any potential terrorists don't try to plan their journey through Charleroi.

Soon later, we were on the plane, flying over the clouds and the European continent to the Spanish island of Mallorca…

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.

Coming to America

Getting to Montreuil wasn't easy. Getting OUT was even more difficult. First off, I couldn't take the train to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport and get there before my flight within the same day within reasonable hours. I could have left at 7 AM, changed in Arras and arrived at CDG 8 hours before my flight, but I preferred not. Thus, I left Montreuil for Lille on Wednesday (Dec. 16) and spent the night at Rachel's place. This turned out to be a great idea as it was quite a fun evening and picked up my spirits before heading home.

However, we ran into a problem with keys. She had class early in the morning, and my TGV to CDG wasn't until noon. Thus, we rushed to Euralille at 8 PM at night with the foolish hope that a key copy shop would still be open. Carrefour (France's Wal-Mart) still was, but as we soon found out, the key place wasn't. Rachel and I tried coming up with several different plans, but given the way her buildng is designed (you need a key to lock the front door, mailboxes are on the inside, etc.) we couldn't think of anything right away. We decided to ponder further over at her friend's apartment, quite close to Gare Lille Flandres. As we were walking over in the frigid weather, I noticed something falling on me. Something soft and fluffy, but it kept disappearing on my coat.

Snow.

I knew France's first snowfall was coming soon since I had just heard news about it hitting England already that day. While it was all lovely and romantic, I knew this wasn't going to be good for my travel plans. I tried to put it out of my mind, as the key situation was more pressing. After debating whether or not I should call someone we knew to meet up with me in the morning and take the keys, Rachel realized we could meet at Porte de Douai while she was taking the bus in between schools, and I could give her the keys there. That was settled, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening with some wine and snowflakes before one of her friend's drove us back to her apartment.

When I woke up in the morning, I wasn't as excited as I normally am when I see what I saw. Lille was a winter wonderland. The fresh and clean snowfall was delightful and a perfect touch to the already-decorated city, but it was not what I needed before my flight to New York. Our key plan worked perfectly, especially since I had a tiny roller suitcase. I took the bus to Porte de Douai, said a fond farewell and save travels to Rachel as she was going home a few days later, and then caught the train directly to Gare Lille Europe, where I waited just a bit for my TGV to the airport.

The landscape outside the windows on my 59-minute high-speed ride was quite the contrast to the one I had taken to Lille three months ago. Back then, the sun was shining, there was some warmth in the air and the fields were relatively green and bright. Now everything was covered in a shiny white blanket of snow. It was also far easier without tumbling along with three giant suitcases. Instead, I just jumped off the train at the very convenient CDG station, as the train continued on to Rennes.

That's when I saw the reality of the situation on the Departures board. A good deal of the flights were canceled, including all of those headed to England. So far, my New York flight was A-OK. I headed up to the Air France departures terminal and got in line to drop off my bag. Then, I hit a milestone in my time in France: for the first time at the airport (or any other place that deals with a lot of tourists in Paris), I spoke to the employee in French...and they replied in French!! It's usually always automatically in English. But I said in French that I printed my boarding card the night before, and she said that was great and asked where I was going, etc. in French! Then I placed my little brown suitcase on the conveyor belt and just hoped everything inside (especially two bottles of wine and a bottle of Ch'ti beer) would make it safely to America.

Everything continued to go smoothly, as I went through French border control, then security and then on to my terminal via shuttle train. I was amazed by how friendly all of the airport employees were towards me. I don't know if it was because of Christmas, the first snowfall, not too many travelers at the airport that day, the fact that I spoke in French first always, or the ridiculous giant grin on my face because I was so happy to be going to NYC. I had an hour or so left before boarding, and the flight was still supposedly on time. I got some spinach quiche, a glass of wine and some petite treats for my final meal and picked up the three very well-designed bilingual magazines published by Air France. (Would LOVE to work for one of those).

By 4 PM, I was just Twittering and waiting by the gate as that's when we were supposed to start boarding. However, we weren't. There wasn't even any indication by the movements of the employees by the gate that we should get ready. After a few minutes, a passenger asked an AF employee in a yellow vest when we would start boarding. Then he replied, in English, "Oh, well we think it might be delayed about five hours." My jaw dropped.

Five seconds before this, all was peaceful around the gate. After this sentence, all the New Yorkers showed their colors and bounced up from their seats, throwing questions at the AF employees left and right. They ranged from, "Are you serious?" to "You better tell us the truth right now" to "It's not even really snowing outside!" And that NYer was right: if that were JFK, we definitely would have taken off anyway. There are always crews going around, clearing snow from the runways and de-icing planes, 'round the clock. In Paris, there was pretty much no one outside doing anything. (And it was only about 28-30 degrees F.)

Normally, I'm quite embarrased when I hear Americans speaking so loud and acting this way in France. It's no wonder they hate us sometimes. But this time, I was proud to be a New York resident. Someone had to express our frustrations, and no one expresses frustrations better than a New Yorker, let alone a whole plane of them. Then one of the passengers asked if we could go up to the AF Elite Member Lounge since we were going to be stuck there for hours, to which the now-frazzled employee said "yeah, probably." So we headed up there, all ready to make up some story to find that the lounge front desk was pretty busy. So four of us just walked in. And it was like heaven. There was an unattended open bar with a fine selection of wines, beers and spirits, along with a table of free food, and a refrigerator of sodas, bottled water and other specialty drinks. There was also free Wi-Fi, free French magazines (I picked up French Premiere, with Natalie Portman on the cover) and free international newspapers (I picked up Le Monde and The Guardian, since I can't get those so easily in the U.S.). Plus, all the chairs were plush and leather, and there were HD flat-screens tuned to France 24, reporting on Copenhagen and then the poor weather at CDG. Of course. I even met a Columbia Journalism school alum who works for Global Post in Paris, and we shared a bunch of stories about professors who seem to never leave. I guess you really can find J-Schoolers everywhere.

After about an hour up in the lounge, there was an announcement that Air France Flight 10 to New York-JFK was finally boarding. I even got to board with First Class since they were just trying to get us all out of there. However, we were all shuttled by bus to the plane, which took about 45 minutes. Then, we sat on the plane for another hour before moving. Finally, after falling asleep for a bit, we finally starting moving, at which point I switched off my iPhone thinking we were going to take off. But then we just moved to another part of the airport where we had to de-ice the plane. This took about another 30 minutes. Basically, it was like going through a carwash. The two guys inside the truck took a hose to the plane and just went at it, as the snow began to fall every which way from the top of the plane to the bottom, and then flying off the wings. It's a good thing they warned us that the sights and sounds from this process was completely normal, or I'm sure we all would have been a little freaked out.

About a minute after this process and about four hours after we were originally supposed to take off, we were wheels-up in the sky. Considering I couldn't see a darn thing out the window until about 5,000 feet from all of the snowy clouds at 8:30 PM CST, it was a very smooth take-off, and so was most of the rest of the flight.

Despite the delays, Air France is truly a great way to travel across the Atlantic. The dinner was delicious (I almost licked the plate from the boeuf à la sauce de moutarde (beef with mustard sauce), plus there was free champagne for an apertif and unlimited free wine. Not to mention that their media library is also quite packed and useful (when it works...it stopped working somewhere over Greenland and they had to restart it). I finally watched The Hangover, which has to have been one of the best comedies I've ever seen.

Finally, after seven and a half hours in the sky, I saw the bright lights of Manhattan's skyline as we gently touched down at JFK Airport. And being near the front of the plane and apparently one of the few Americans in that section, I made it through Immigration almost immediately. Then I got my bag from the Carousel, all safe and sound. Upon making my exit from Customs, I was bombarded by shady taxi drivers asking if I needed a ride to Manhattan, and that big, ridiculous grin returned to my face. I was back home in New York City. I ignored them, and like a proper New Yorker, I got in a Yellow Cab and headed for Stephanie's apartment on the Upper East Side. I even got a very nice driver, and speedy one at that, getting me there in 30 minutes.

Twenty hours after I left Lille, I finally made it.

Bordeaux: Land of Wine and Macarons

rachel-king-Saint-Emilion On a very typical Lille morning (rain, cold, more rain) on October 27, four female American language assistants boarded a TGV with a final destination of Bordeaux. After only three weeks at work (and a total of six in France for me), we already had our first paid vacation. Life in France can be very good.

As the little blue dot on my iPhone Google map application treaded southward past Gare Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy (a.k.a. the station for EuroDisney), there were only blue skies for us for the next seven days. But, as we learned, there's a price to pay for nice weather. Namely, you're trading in friendly people for friendly weather. You can't have both in France. Nowhere is perfect. While we arrived in Bordeaux twenty minutes late, the five-hour train ride fairly pleasant. High-speed train is really the most relaxing way to travel long distance on a budget (Although I've never been on a cruise ship, I've never been fond of boats.). But I did make the mistake of forgetting to bring enough snacks along for the ride, and in a moment of weakness somewhere near Tours, I made my way to the Bar Car and ended up paying € 2 for a bag of Lays classic potato chips. I still can't believe I did that.

After taking the very sleek and futuristic tram into the center of Bordeaux where our hotel was, we got in a bit of sightseeing before the day was out. We started out at the Place de la Bourse, which has a huge fountain spraying pink water and the nymphs above the fountains had pink sashes draped over themselves for breast cancer. After that, we walked on water. Literally. Bordeaux has a giant, flat reflecting pool that tourists and locals mingle barefoot over, splashing about in the daytime and then admiring the brilliant reflection of the Parliament buildings at night.

After checking out the local carnival, we met up with Liz's Bordelaise friend, Veronique, who did us the great favor and service of showing us around Bordeaux each evening. But as we were all exhausted by the end of the first day, we passed Rue Sainte-Catherine (the longest pedestrian street in Europe), had a round of drinks and called it a day. Not without trying to find a local grocery store first though. However, we were five minutes too late when we got to the closest market to the hotel, which was actually open pretty late for France (9 PM). After deciding to walk another block, we passed a Chinese food restaurant, which prompted us to all swear to eating there for dinner the following evening as we all had gone into Asian-food withdrawal. A few doors later, Amy screamed at an appropriate American-volume level, "It's a liquor store!" There we were able to gather necessary supplies, namely wine and cookies. After we got back to the hotel and realizing being four girls in the "penthouse" (fourth floor) of the hotel and the week of Halloween, it was the perfect time for slumber party-style sharing of ghost stories. While I told my usual Unit 3 Computing Center "I saw a Ninja-looking ghost" story again (which is so true), Amy definitely won with her retelling of La Llarona, which might not have been the most pleasant imagery before going to bed.

rachel-king-bordeaux-macaronsThe four of us woke up fairly bright and early (for a vacation) refreshed and ready for a full day in Bordeaux. Most of that day consisted of drinking wine and eating macarons. After visiting a very sketchy flea market in the morning (looking more like a garage sale without any garages), and lunch on the steps of the Grand Théâtre à la Gossip Girl (I should have worn my sparkly headband), we first visited the Maison du Vin...then the Musée du Vin! The Bordelais have much to be proud of (please don't take that as sarcasm, I do mean it.) Bordeaux is a very beautiful, clean city. It's a mini-version of Paris, just less hustle and bustle. On our way to the Musée, we discovered we all like antiquing. Rachel walked out with a very pretty pair of gold earrings, I left with an old-fashioned (or maybe just old) poster of 19-century French fashion and a deck of cards, and I think Amy left with a bag. (I can't remember if Liz got anything at that particular antique shop.)

After touring the Musée and a few tastings of wine, I left with a few bottles that I can't discuss as they're surprises for people who might read this. But we stopped by the macaron shop again on the way home, where I got five macarons (blackberry, rose, pistachio, vanilla and raspberry) and two kouignettes (raspberry and apple). Then we had Chinese food for dinner, which wasn't too bad actually, and then drinks at Le Petit Bois (the little forest). Decorated with trees inside and wallpaper reminiscent of Versailles, it looked like an Anthropologie catalog. Thus, I liked it.

We set out for Saint-Émilion on our final full day in Bordeaux. Saint-Émilion is a tiny town in Bordeaux's eastern wine country. When we hopped off the train in the early afternoon, we were welcomed to very surprising warm weather (so much that I had to find a bathroom/corner to take my leggings off it was so warm) and absolutely no one at the train station. There wasn't even a town in sight. The station itself was closed an there weren't many signs pointing towards any civilization. And I thought Montreuil is petite.  But after a bit of dilly-dallying around some fields near the station, Liz stopped inside a vineyard office and asked where the town (and tourism office) was. We were pointed up hill (of course). After about 10 minutes of walking and just around the bend, there was the town. Extremely cute (and extremely touristy), we definitely made a good choice in picking Saint-Émilion to visit. At this point in the day, we really only had time for one winery, a trip to the Catacombs and possibly the Disneyland-looking train ride around the area. After finding the tourism office at the very, very top of the hill, we were pointed back down in the other direction to Château Le Chatelet.

When we arrived at Le Chatelet, we had to knock on the door a bit since it didn't seem like anyone was there. But then the manager came out to greet us and asked if we wanted a dégustation (tasting), to which we all promptly replied, "YES." Patrick, the manager, was extremely friendly, telling us all about his Grand Cru bottles, of which we tried the 2003, 2005 and 2006, and then the warm, smooth, fruit-filled 2007 Le Chatelet. While the last bottle was my favorite, it was € 60. So we all ended up taking a bottle of our second favorite for € 35 per bottle: the 2005. While the three San Franciscans of the group briefly flirted with the idea of shipping bottles back to SF collectively to save costs, we realized we still couldn't afford it (the shipping minimum was € 150 for 12 bottles...then the prices of the bottles). Perhaps we can go back in the spring. But, nonetheless, as there was no one else there besides of the four of us and the very hospitable Patrick, it was a lovely nice private tasting session. We even got a peek at the cellar, which as far as the winery goes, is five generations old. But the cellar itself is probably over 1,000 years old.

After grabbing our bottles and bidding farewell to Patrick, we headed back to the top of Saint-Émilion. However, as it was late afternoon, we had been walking all day and not really eaten much. Thus, the tastings quickly added up and we were stumbling but smiling all the way back up. We missed the only English-language tour of the Catacombs 4 PM that we bought tickets for by six minutes, but as we were all in an extra-good mood, we just said, "Oh, we can just take the tour in French! No problem!" By the time the French tour rolled around (4:30 PM), I was starting to become sleepy and I probably wouldn't have gotten much out of a tour in English. But with the tour in French, I was pretty much sleep-walking. After an hour and a half, we realized we didn't have time for the Disneyish wine country train, thus, after stopping for some yummy mushroom Quiche and hot chocolate, we headed back down to the train station.

There wasn't anyone else besides us, a few young French people, and a group of young Asian tourists. By this point, the wine had worn off and we were just ready to eat as soon as we got back to Bordeaux after the 40-minute TER (local) train ride. I don't know if it was because we were tired or it was close to Halloween, but even though we weren't standing that close to the tracks, when a train in the opposite direction headed towards the station at full speed (maybe 60 MPH), it literally looked like it was going to jump off the tracks. Thus, when it whizzed past us, we all screamed and jumped back towards the station wall. I even ran with my hands covering my face. We all clung close to the wall laughing so hard that the French people started laughing at us too, but I assert they were laughing with us. Whatever. Our train eventually came, and Rachel read us another passage from my our new must-read, Are You There Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea (by Chelsea Handler).

On the only morning with substantial fog and clouds we had outside of Lille, we went back to Gare Bordeaux-St.Jean for a seven-hour train ride to Marseille. They really need to install a TGV line in between those two cities. I'm a bit shocked there isn't already one. The Corail-TEOZ train was comfortable, but ran at about the same pace as Amtrak. Unacceptable. Passing many places I wouldn't mind stopping in the future (Toulouse, Montpellier, Carcassonne, almost near Perpignan...), the ride went almost without incident. But somewhere near Nîmes, a group of rowdy, greasy-looking guys started talking really loudly and asked if they could "buy" our table from us. Seating is assigned on TEOZ, and even though it was a joke, the manner in which it was delivered was so rude that it wasn't funny. If only we knew then what we had to expect when we arrived in Marseille...

London Town

rachel-king-london-regent-streetAfter three weeks in France, I was itching to hear a bit more English being spoken. So I went to England. Well, that wasn't the only reason. The primary reason would be that my dear friend Mary was organizing a petite reunion of the J-Schoolers in Western Europe (more like those in London and +1 from Ireland and +1 from France). When I woke up on Friday morning, I could see some sunlight breaking through the clouds, so I had some hope for the day's weather. Typically, what the weather is in Northern France, it is in England. But as the day progressed, I saw it deteriorate all along my journey, finally culminating in pouring rain when exiting King's Cross-St. Pancras International Station.

It didn't help that back in Montreuil, I realized as soon as the TER pulled away from the station that I had forgotten my Oyster Card AND my Eurostar tickets. I was slightly nervous all the way to Lille that I going to have to pay a hefty fee for getting duplicate tickets, since it said so on the email. When I got to the SNCF counter at Gare Lille Europe, I asked the woman to reprint my tickets, when she replied, "C'est pas possible." (It is not possible.) My jaw dropped. I said nothing. My face must have gone pale. (But judging by the photo above, I'm sure you can guess I did make it to England this weekend.) I think she realized my fright by my lack of motion or life in my body, so she went to go talk to her supervisor. He came out with her and started speaking to me in English. He then pulled out a notepad of Eurostar tickets, gave them to her and she hand-wrote my new ticket. The forms were obviously old since they still said "London Waterloo" on them.  But both of them were very nice, and probably extra so since I didn't cause a fuss, yell or throw a tantrum when I almost didn't get my way.

While I will say the Eurostar is an incredible feat and the simplest way to England possible (I've taken both plane and ferry there), it isn't the most comfortable ride. Second-class on Eurostar is just as cramped as coach on any airplane, with the exception that there's no middle seat. But I was in London from Lille in less than 90 minutes. I was invigorated right when I stepped off the train, despite the rain. Few cities delight me and make me as happy upon arrival as London does (a short list would include SF, NYC and Paris). I can't quite explain the feeling, perhaps its the familiarity with the city at this point. (That isn't to say I don't get lost in London easily. And I think I have a pretty good sense of direction. But that city is an absolute maze.) I was also delighted to see Mary waiting outside the Arrivals exit when I ran out the door and practically tackled her. After a quick trip back to her house in Northwest London, we made our way back in to Spitalfields, where I had my first burrito in weeks. Normally, Mexican food is one cuisine I have learned to stay away from in Europe, since only once (in Paris) have I had anything remotely good (or even edible). But recently, Nick and Frank opened up their own burrito shop in London named Poncho No. 8. Europe is a desert, and Poncho No. 8 is an oasis. I don't think that's an overstatement, as I'm quite hard to impress when it comes to Mexican food. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who finds themselves in London. Plus, it was especially nice that there were specially-made burritos there waiting for us after-hours, thanks to the order that Laurence kindly put in for us.

Most of the rest of the night consisted of drinking several (and several more) rounds of wine, beer and shots of Sambuca at The Three Greyhounds in Soho (which I mistakenly kept calling The Three Broomsticks, which is actually found in Hogsmeade). If it weren't for lots of water and a Subway sandwich that hit the spot, I might have been worse off in the morning. While I wasn't completely myself the next day, I was up and ready before noon for some brunch and shopping near Oxford Circus.

Naturally, Mary brought me to an American-style diner, except they served British-style breakfast. Quite the "special relationship" combo. Afterwards, we met up with her friend/bandmate David, and we set out to complete the one other objective I had for the weekend (besides the burrito): visit Europe's first Anthropologie, which was supposed to have opened on Regent Street in September. The key phrase: supposed to. It wasn't that I was going to buy anything, as since I only have U.S. dollars in my bank account, and I haven't been paid in Euros yet, it would be too expensive for me to buy anything yet. I was really just going to look. But, alas, I couldn't even do that. Once we found it, there it was: the windows covered in paper and the doors were shut closed on a bright, sunny afternoon. I threw myself at the feet of the doors and wept. Well, sort of. More like I pretended to do so and we all laughed for a few minutes straight. I guess I'm just going to have to go back to London next month.

Anyway, after the failed trip to Anthro, we hopped on the 23-line bus towards Mary's house, and more importantly, the Sainsbury grocery store near her house. However, London Transport is ridiculous, and we were forced to take three separate 23-buses to get uptown. (There was a 15-20 minute stop at Primark, which I discovered along the journey, and I CANNOT WAIT to get paid so I can go back there.) Most of the bus ride consisted of Mary telling us about her dreams about the Queen (I guess it's something they all do in England, as I've never dreamt about her. I've never dreamt about any American presidents either. I might have had a nightmare about Cheney once. Oh no, that was an eight-year reality...), and learning how that in middle-class England, when adding the suffix "-ed" to the end of any noun can exemplify how drunk one was the night before. For example, "I was so bungalowed" last night. Try it.

After about an hour and a half (or more, who knows), we made it to the Sainsbury. The highlight of this store was when we pressed the "Press Here" buttons on all of the plush pumpkins on the shelves, which proceeded to sing "I Want Candy." Otherwise, Mary picked up all the necessary ingredients for dinner, while I picked up all the necessary ingredients for Pimm's.

Dinner was quite a success, albeit my petite cold clogged up my nose to the point where I was having difficulty breathing for most of the night. Mary made a vegetable-style lasagna, while Gabriele brought the Spotted Dick. I'm usually scared of most English food, especially given that a lot of dishes have misleading names (See: Sweetbreads). But this has to be one of my favorite English foods now (although, the only other two things I really like are Cottage Pie and trifles...). It was especially delicious drizzled in creamy custard. Plus, anything goes well with Pimm's. Anything. This evening was definitely more tame than the previous night, given all of our hangovers, but it was still lively and late nonetheless. Plus, it was especially nice to see some familiar, friendly faces after moving over to this side of the pond. (Coincidentally, there was another reunion going on over on the other side of the Atlantic, and they all walked to Brooklyn. Too bad I can't be in two places at once.)

Sunday was basically a travel day. I got up again around 10 AM, at which point Conn realized he might miss his flight back to Dublin, so everyone's goodbyes at Mary's house were quick. I was a little nervous about making it back to King's Cross on time when the Bakerloo train decided to sit at one station for 10 minutes.  But alas, I made it back to King's Cross, with £5 to spare. I spent half of it on a copy of Hello! with Kate Middleton on the cover and a bag of cheddar -flavored Kettle Chips. The rest is in my coin purse, mixing with some Euros and ready for their next trip up north in November.

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.

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.