Back in NYC now after what ended up being 16 days in France.
The go, go, go of the trip caught up with me in Lille and I got pretty sick. I felt horrible when I woke up Saturday morning. Runny nose, fever-ish and weak.
I can easily kill a cold at home with rest and hydration but I don’t do either when I’m on a big vacation so first thing Saturday I visited a Lille pharmacy. When you need a get-well pill, the places to go are easily identifiable in France. They’re stamped with a generic lit-up green cross above the entrance. The meds they gave me worked well in one regard: it shut off what had become a fountain from my shnozz. There was some consternation on the part of the pharmacist as we discussed options on a remedy. The main stumbling block was my inability to understand the French word for hypertension. As with a lot of vocabulary, the word is the same in both English and French. I was simply not catching the pronunciation. An onlooker intervened and translated. Once I made it clear I was neither hyper nor saddled with tension, I walked away with a five-day supply which cost at least half what the same stuff would be in the States.
Totally solo in Lille for four days, I had plenty of time to explore.
I was drawn especially to the Wazemmes neighborhood. Exiting at random Metro stops, I found Wazemmes my first day in Lille. The center of Wazemmes hosts a massive open-air market three days a week and I stumbled upon it Thursday (10-29-16). The market was in absolute full bloom when I arrived and it gave me a real rush of excitement. Dominated by merchants with north African / Middle East backgrounds, there was great energy in the air as vendors sold food, clothing, books, everything. Many sellers made loud verbal pitches and there was negotiating and bickering of all sorts. A permanent, indoor market with items of higher quality/price and with more traditional French tradition sat in the middle of the livelier, outdoor event.
I walked the streets each day in all directions using Wazemmes as my starting point. This part of Lille was a real mix of old France and new. White, black and brown.
France’s big cities have a beautiful blend of people which has caused discomfort on the right given findings of blame related to terrorist attacks in France and Belgium over the last year or so.
I felt an unmistakable undercurrent of tension and unease as I moved about within the three French cities I visited. French law enforcement (armed to the gills) is highly visible, especially at places like train stations, large public gatherings and sadly, in quartiers with plain-to-see high percentages of people with backgrounds linked to the terrorists.
In the Paris neighborhoods Belleville and Barbes/Goutte d’Or – and in Lille’s Wazemmes, I saw a much higher concentration of police with guns than in other parts of those two cities. Perhaps government intelligence gathering pushes strategy in these instances, but the display of militarization in places where Muslims live and work felt excessive. Given the religious and immigration components fueling some of the irrational rhetoric as governments debate how to move forward in the immediate months after horrific terror, it’s helpful to walk these streets to gain context. Intimidation is counter-productive in communities that need support and encouragement rather than a constant glow of suspicion.
Getting a crooked look from a cop with a machine gun in one’s own neighborhood isn’t going to stop terrorism. Undue, symbolic displays of force heighten anxiety and distrust.
As with more traditional forms of crime, bad guys are sniffed out by good guys inside communities left to thrive and pulsate in positive ways by feeding off the diversity of thought/cuisine/energy that comes from new immigrants who settle in these places in search of a better life.
Unfortunately, France’s government is shifting in a way that is expected to deepen the rift between old and new. Top national posts will be determined by the electorate next year and the polling suggests a sharp turn to the right is coming. France’s uniquely strong labor laws and compassionate social welfare guarantees are in the crosshairs of leaders not unlike the Paul Ryan/Ted Cruz variety.
About a quarter million people live in the city of Lille and if you include the burbs, it’s about a million total. That makes it the fourth largest metropolitan area in France. I reached Lille via a non-stop flight from Toulouse on EasyJet.
This is the fifth or sixth time I’ve flown EasyJet and they’ve been solid each time. The fare was under $100. An hourly bus takes you from Lille’s airport to one of the city’s main train stations. It cost 8 euros. Had I gone back to the airport, it would have been just 2 euros more to complete the round-trip.
A three-day unlimited-use pass on Lille’s extensive and reliable public transport system cost just 11.7 euros. I gave the pass a serious workout. The local newspaper – La Voix du Nord – was extremely helpful with info on events of all types. It tipped me off to the opening of a new photo exhibit at La Maison de la Photographie not too far from the Fives metro stop. I saw some works of Iranian photog Kaveh Seyed Hosseini (spare shots of birds in formation) and Michel Ginies. The Ginies collection on display was a series of paparazzi pics taken mostly in Paris in the 1970’s. There are some great black and white shots of top American and French film stars coming out of parties or restaurants. There’s one of Liza Minnelli on arrival at Orly being pushed in a baggage cart by either a boyfriend or assistant.
La Voix du Nord also gave me the heads-up on a protest Thursday afternoon with people assembling near Lille’s Porte de Paris, a gorgeous monument that dates to the 1600’s. It was to be my first French manifestation!
In the months leading up to my visit to France, I watched many street protests (manifestations) via an app on my phone called Periscope. A Russian news organization consistently covers these events live (mostly in Paris) with great zeal using Periscope and I found it interesting on many levels to watch the footage. Reporters carrying just a cell phone broadcast incredible live video from inside the center of these protests and describe the proceedings in French.
So, here I was now at the protest in Lille waiting for it to get interesting. It was actually kind of a let-down. It was a couple hundred or so retirees seeking to resist cutbacks in their existing benefits. They marched down a city thoroughfare with minimal police or public interest. There would be no tear gas or excessive passion at this manifestation.
My bar of choice in Lille was a very simple place near St. Michel’s church. It was just a little bodega-like joint where people bought candy, lotto tickets and cigarettes but it had a full-service bar inside. I’d order a “Picon biere” which was a glass of lager (in this case Jupiter) with a splash of orange-flavored alcoholic syrup poured in before the beer. I’d sit outside the place and watch the world go by.
The outdoor revelry at bars and cafes is a real thing in France as I guess it is in other parts of Europe. In some Paris places, the drinks cost more if you sit outside. Not the case in Lille. At my “bar,” the tables offered a view of a traffic circle (rond-point) where bicyclists outnumbered vehicles during the evening rush hour. On Friday afternoon, I watched three police officers on foot stop cars in the traffic circle by the dozens. They appeared to be asking for documents showing proper registration of the vehicle but they also peered inside the cars during the stop. A young pair of non-white males were asked to step out of their car. They were frisked and sent on their way.
A middle-aged white woman driving an old car (pictured above) failed to produce requested documents and was forced to stay put while whatever her problems were got sorted out. Her routine was delayed by the stop at least 45 minutes.
On Saturday, after buying the cold medicine and a long sandwich filled with chicken, cheese and lettuce, I had an unnerving encounter in the park near the Wazemmes metro stop.
My radar for potential danger and approach to handling these kinds of situations is keen but I chalk up the degeneration of this dust-up to my failure to talk my way out of it.
Each of the three days I visited Wazemmes, the small park between the Metro exit and the streets leading to the market appeared to be occupied almost entirely by groups of young, tough guys. There was also significant police presence.
The vibe in the park felt a little dicey but I had no trouble the first couple days. On Saturday while walking back to the Metro stop, two teens came at me on the far end of the park. One of them peeled away at the last second but the other got into my space and started speaking a rapid combination of French and what sounded like Arabic. He leaned into me and I told him my French was bad and I didn’t understand what he was saying to me.
I had been asked for money a lot on this trip and with a couple of exceptions did not offer any.
In this instance, I couldn’t sort out exactly where the dialogue was going and what the kid wanted. As we got closer to the Metro stop, the kid grabbed my arm and reached for my left front pocket. I pushed him away and muttered some frustration in English. He took off. My heart raced.
I was really wiped out on my last night in Lille but made the trip out to see Ligue 1 action at the beautiful new soccer venue in Villeneuve-d’Ascq. Just four years old, Stade Pierre-Mauroy is home to the Lille Olympique Sporting Club (LOSC).
The stadium is named after a former Lille mayor and is a very unique venue. When I arrived about two hours prior to kickoff, a big rainstorm swept through but the stadium’s roof was closed. After the skies cleared, the roof retracted and we all walked into an outdoor stadium with no hint of the earlier deluge. It has a capacity of 50-thousand for soccer and converts quickly into a more cozy venue with varying max seat counts for other events like basketball, tennis, concerts – and yeah – handball – a French favorite.
UEFA loves the place and placed six matches there during this year’s 2016 championships including the 3-1 Wales upset over Belgium in the quarters.
A long row of outdoor concession stands on a strip of land adjacent to the stadium sell beer and food before the match. This gave the place a bit of a sanctioned tail-gate feel which was cool.
Lille beat Nancy 1-nil in a yawner. Both teams currently sit near the bottom of the league although Lille has a pretty rich tradition and their supporters were enthusiastic. Attendance was announced at 25,719. I had a pretty good seat in the corner at field level. It cost 18.50 euros.
Two metro stops take you out there to within a fifteen minute walk of the venue.
After the soccer match, I went back to the hotel and packed up for an unusally early departure Sunday morning. I caught a 120 AM Flixbus from Lille to Brussels for the 11 AM flight back to Newark. The fare on Flixbus (a German company) was just 7 euros. The 2.5 hour middle-of-the-night ride was smooth. The bus was packed.
I’ll pass on a few more assorted notes and observations about the trip when I next get a chance. I go back to work tomorrow. The Mets have a tough assignment against the Giants and their lefty ace here in Queens tomorrow night. If the Mets can pull it out, all I can say is that the Cubbies want no part of the Mets. No part.