Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Leisurely Lille

Lille is in northern France, right on the Belgian border so it is a fascinating mix of French and Flemish architecture - black slate rooves with mansard windows and curving Dutch roof facades.
It is so good to be back in France after a 30-year absence. I delight in the musical French voices and the day-to-day courtesy. You say 'Bonjour' as you enter a store or restaurant and 'Good day. Enjoy your afternoon/evening' when you leave. The French are reputed to be snooty and unhelpful, but I thought they were wonderful. They were helpful in showing me what wines were available with screw caps (No, I don't travel with a corkscrew) or in giving me minute quantities of all sorts of lovely chocolates. Life seems more leisurely as well. Sidewalk cafes abound and are busy all day long with people stopping for a beer or a coffee or a glass of wine with friends and family. Stores aren't open 24 hours a day. They actually shut on Sundays and sometimes over the lunch hour. It's August so many of the stores and restaurants were closed for annual summer vacations - unheard of in North America, perhaps because there are less family-run businesses, but it's also a different mentality. In fact, my hotel was officially shut on the last day I was there as the owner had gone on holiday. But I had a key to let myself in and left it behind when I left.
French life seems less anonymous as well. There are small tabacs selling newspapers, cigarettes and coffee on every street. And unlike 7-11 which are staffed by bored teenagers, the tabacs have an actual owner who knows his customers and has coffee with them.
I visited Amiens and Arras as well as Lille and was delighted by how little vehicle traffic there was. Train stations are downtown and the central core of all three cities was pedestrianized. Amiens was lovely with canals intersecting the city and surrounding it with water meadows with cottages, market gardens, and parks intersected by canals and streams. Also the largest cathedral in France. Arras has two squares surrounded by Dutch roof facades.
I think I did everything I had hoped to do in France. I ate good cheese, excellent pastries, couscous, crepes and drank wine, beer and cider. I visited 4 art galleries, La Piscine in Roubaix in a renovated art deco swimming pool was exceptional. I even went to a classical music concert in the Conservatory with Suzanne Ramon playing the cello.
Now, there are things I wasn't so keen on. The majority of French people seem to smoke, but I avoided them most of the time. The suburbs are a deserted concrete desert on Sundays. And I'm really not convinced that downtown squares should be made into 'beaches' with paddling pools, slides and mist machines with lounging chairs.


Jennie said...

Hope your taking lots of pictures! It sounds awesome!

Stephanie V said...

So nice to hear from you...and that you have enjoyed your stay in France. Memories are tricky things...

John Bound. said...

No wonder a million English have gone to live in France.