Train Connections

Madame Gisele of Montpelier writes her address
for us as the TGV approached Lille today.

Hôtel Brueghel,
5, Parvis Saint-Maurice Lille

Our train excursion to Lille today involved some unplanned excitement in Paris.

The TGV sped us from Cannes to Paris Gare Lyon in four hours, which meant we had more than two hours to have lunch before catching another TGV to Lille in northeastern France. We stored our bags in a locker, found a decent Chinese restaurant near the station, and lingered afterward at a makeshift crafts market where I bought a book by a Chetchnian author for my Institut professor, Jean. I thought I would have 40 minutes to take photos in the wonderful light of the train station after checking the board to find our track location. I immediately knew something was wrong when our train wasn’t listed, even though trains before and after it were on the board.

In nearly the same moment, I knew what was wrong, and I confirmed it by looking more carefully at the ticket. Sure enough, our train to Lille was scheduled to depart in 30 minutes from Gare Nord, not Gare Lyon. We raced out to the curb and frantically asked a taxi driver if he could get us to the right station in 30 minutes. “Pas de problème,” he assured us, and off we sped.

Traffic was mercifully light, and our driver seemed sure we would make our train. I relaxed enough to ask him some questions in French and learned that he was from Haiti, that he had voted Non in the referendum, and that he thinks all the French leaders are buddies who live in grand houses and don’t care about the plight of the common people. “You will have time to have a coffee,” he assured us, which was an overstatement, but we did arrive in time to make our train.

Our seats on the one-hour TGV ride to Lille faced an elderly woman who was returning to Lille to visit friends. Her name was Madame Gisele, and she said her husband had died three weeks ago, and that they had been married 62 years. We talked about her travels to Egypt, California, the Grand Canyon (including a helicopter ride), Ceylon, and Greece. We talked all the way to Lille, with Darlene listening and adding a couple of questions. As we approached the station, she offered to write down her address in case we are ever in Montpellier, where she now lives. I do believe if we have the chance we will try to visit her there before we leave for the U.S.

We didn’t know what to expect when we got off the train, and as usual low expectations led to delight. Lille this afternoon was bustling with people in the old city, which has handsome old Flemish buildings and large plazas. The crowds on a pedestrian mall were so thick that we wondered if we had stumbled into the middle of a big festival. In the Place de Charles de Gaulle we sat for a while watching a boy kick a soccer ball to his mother.

We also noticed several bizarrely dressed young women accosting strangers with odd requests, each of the women followed by a group of giggling friends. One of them made a bee-line for me and put a scale down on the ground and asked if I would stand on it to be weighed, for a kiss. This sounded like a good deal, so I stood on the scale, received my two-cheek kiss, and then sat down at the edge of a fountain. One of the girl’s friends began speaking to me in rapid French, and I somehow got the idea that she was asking for a donation. I assumed they were raising money for a school project, but when I reached into my fanny-pack for a Euro, they looked horrified and explained, in English and French, that the woman was getting married next week and that she had to weigh and kiss men totaling 1000 kilograms as part of her preparation for marriage. This explained what all the other hubbub had been about, and we were introduced to a custom we hadn’t read about in the Michelin green guide.

It’s cool here in Lille, headed for the 50s tonight. Tomorrow we have heard there will be a big open-air market near our hotel. We are looking forward to exploring the city, and I’m going to be on the lookout for brides-to-be needing help from strangers.
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