Anyone that tells you otherwise can shove two hot ones up their greasy noses.
Ivana of Black Hummus Diaries and I had been staying with our long-time friend, Simon. But the time had come to part ways: Ivana to Amsterdam for a conference and me off into the unknown. I had three days to explore before meeting Ivana in Brussels for our flight to the next adventure, so out I went into the tundra.
I had the choice: Germany or France?
Having traveled through France on a number of occasions, the charm and joie de vivre has always had a hold on my, however, the areas in the North of the country had yet remained undiscovered. Two Flixbus rides through the rains of Belgium deposited me in Lille, a city only visited by those wanting a layover on their journeys between Paris and Brussels. While it may be a layover for many, the city offers enough of a draw to make it worth exploring for several days alone.
As per usual, I opted for the Couchsurfing route. I was offered to stay with a man with an extensive history of over 500 surfers staying in his house, so I couldn’t go wrong with that tracklist. Wintertime in Lille is a pleasure in the senses. Winding streets lined with boulangeries and cafes make up the old town, lit with warm lights and smelling of sugared delights that are just as decadent to look at as they are to eat.
For many centuries, Lille was part of Flanders. It had an identity more akin to that in Southern Belgium or Luxembourg than to Paris, and for that reason the Lillois are far more welcoming and laid back than some of their countrymen further South. Strangers will smile and say Good evening and shop keepers will speak slowly and smile politely as you butcher their language to pieces on their store counter.
I arranged to meet with my couchsurfer at a hostel bar called Gastama, his local haunt which he hangs around every night to meet tourists and chat with new people. He’s incredibly outgoing, talking up anyone that walks by, instantly putting a smile on their face. The bartenders are well familiar with him and call him a friend, offering us both discounts on all of our drinks. Together we sat, talking of the French state of sexuality (quite a fluid one indeed) and all of the people he has met through Couchsurfing, with a random point towards a stranger followed by a quip along the lines of “Oh he’s gay, look!” somewhere in the middle.
A Chinese tourist walks up, one that my couchsurfer met the previous night. His phone is outwardly facing, and he is live-broadcasting everything to China directly through the app. He’s a painter by profession, but he makes a good side hustle live-streaming his entire day to a community of anywhere from 25,000 to 80,000 live viewers. 80,000! He was big money, throwing us free beers and treats anytime we would do something funny for the camera to get him more views.
My host is a social worker, so he was up and out the door early the next morning. It allowed me to lazily get up and play with his cat a bit before heading out into the cold of Northern France, which is delightful despite the chill. Lille is a lot larger than the map would lead one to believe. I spent the entirety of the day wandering, spending time in the Middle Eastern shouting of the Wazemme market and the chill of reading a book with Belgian beer at L’Ecart café. By far, the best food to be had comes in the form of the oh so omnipotent fried julienne potato. Any establishment, the greasier the better, will provide you with the sumptuous artery lubricating delight that brings peace among worlds. No need to continue hunting, for the best fries are in Lille, dear readers. After enjoying such delights, I was provided the proper strength to have one more drunken night at Gastama.
I met with my host late, who was sitting with a pitcher of beer and his Colombian friend that looks eerily like Dave Franco. Eventually, the Chinese live-streaming painter returned his good graces upon us. I offered my hand in marriage to over 80,000 Chinese watching, to which I was thrown bouquets upon bouquets of virtual rose which earned my Chinese friend enough to buy me a nice Belgian beer. Don’t cry now momma, I’m making a good living.
Lille, you’ve been a treasure on the eyes and a pleasure for the soul. The more I travel, the more I realize that every city is more or less the same when you boil it down and remove the postcard landmarks. What makes a place special and memorable are the citizens that inhabit it, and from that aspect, Lille has been a beautiful mark on this huge country of France. The next day, I had a Belgian itch to scratch and headed on a blablacar across the border into the less glamorous, French underbelly of the Belgian pig. Off to Wallonia for unknown debauchery unlike any I’ve experienced.