So, today may or may not mark the one month anniversary of my arrival in Lille. To my loyal readers (Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Aunt Randie): I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get to this point! It has been a treacherous journey – to say the least – to get where I am now, sitting in my own bed in a heated and fully-functioning apartment. My mother and I arrived in Lille on September 16th, and by the end of her nearly week and a half-long stay, we still didn’t have a long-term housing situation. By the way, when I say “we,” I’m referring to myself and my roommate, Sarah, from North Carolina. I totally lucked out in finding a roommate who likes and dislikes the same general things as me; we judge with reckless abandon the high schoolers who hang out in front of our apartment and joke about finding our boyfriends at a local nightclub called RnB Chic. But actually. It’s called RnB Chic and it takes itself really seriously.
Anyways, we have this great two-bedroom furnished apartment (those are almost nonexistent in Lille) in a better-than-fantastic location whose rent came in under budget. I really felt for a while during the never-ending stress party otherwise known as an apartment search that I was starring in my own personal non-televised episode of House Hunters International. It was kind of awesome. But really, finding an apartment was one of the more stressful things I’ve experienced in my 22 years on this Earth. Lille has about five thousand (approximate guesstimate) universities, ranging from regular undergrad to law school to med school to a marketing and communications school, so by the time we got there virtually everything worth looking at was already occupied by the students who started school a month earlier. Needless to say, my mom and I were both shocked to find ourselves still on speaking terms by the time her departure rolled around.
Lille itself is a really great city, much to my surprise. It’s in the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France, basically meaning it’s as close to Belgium as you can get without crossing a border. A lot of its reputation has come from this film, Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis, which is currently the highest-grossing French comedy of all time. A “ch’ti” (pronounced shtee) could be more or less translated to our version of a hick, and in this case is someone from the Northern region who speaks with a strong accent and is very welcoming and friendly. And, I’d have to say that this so far has been pretty spot-on. I don’t notice an accent when speaking to people my age or my parents’ ages, but I can certainly hear it with older people and have had difficulty understanding them sometimes (people who speak with a “ch’ti” accent are known for pronouncing their s‘s as sh‘s and substituting a, o, and u vowel sounds with a general mix of the three plus some nasal sounds that I’ve only heard coming out of one other person’s mouth – Janice from Friends). In addition to the accent, the people actually have been exceedingly nice and welcoming here. My mom can even attest to this one, believe it or not. While consulting our handy pocket map during our first few days in Lille, we would oftentimes be stopped by passersby offering to help us find our way. An old man even struck up a conversation with my mother and I while waiting at a crosswalk, which I would say is almost unheard of here (waiting at a crosswalk, that is. Oh, and striking up a conversation with a complete stranger). Bartenders are also really nice, which is great for Sarah and I. The owner of one of the bars we’ve been to a couple times makes homemade couscous and vegetables and serves it for free to every patron at his bar once a month, because according to him he has a good life and a healthy family and has the means to share, so why not? That seems to be the general outlook of people here, which I can definitely get on board with. Also, the really great thing is that they’ve totally embraced their “ch’ti” stereotype, and have even created a Ch’ti beer, have Ch’ti comic books, and one of the region’s version of the Zagat guide is called the Ch’ti. And it’s worth mentioning that Lille also has some pretty significant cultural pull. They’ve got a monumental opera and symphony, a renowned art museum that hosts world-famous exhibits, and they even have this bi-yearly event called Lille Fantastique, which lasts for a a few months and just started last week with an event that made it to the front page of the newspapers for both its odd nature and its 12 million euro price tag. There was an enormous parade with the most bizarre floats (I’m really not sure how to describe them, but to give you an idea, this is the mascot for the event, which shows up in shop windows and on restaurant menus) and a strange fashion show. The organizers were obviously trying to go for a “high fashion” kind of look, but it just looked contrived. But at least there are cultural events to go to! I’m very glad to have that in the land of the Ch’tis.
Actually, Lille is actually probably the least “Ch’ti” of all, because it’s a bustling city center/melting pot of people coming from all over the country and the world to study in one of the five thousand universities. The two middle schools I’m working in are very Ch’ti, each being about an hour commute from the city, and are even farther north on the map, if you can believe it. So yes, on that note, I actually work! Granted, I only work 12 hours a week (great for traveling, not great for my wallet), but nevertheless I am teaching English. Or at least attempting to. One of the middle schools (the one I’m liking a little bit less so far) is in Neuville-en-Ferrain, and pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The length of my commute and the increasing number of farms and cows I see seem to be directly related. The students are quite rowdy and pubescent (as middle schoolers so often tend to be), and with an already notoriously strict school system, it’s definitely taken a little time to adjust. My other school is in Halluin. This school is pretty cool because a) the students are a little nicer and more well-behaved, and b) the street that the school is on actually goes right into Belgium. Not kidding. It turns into Belgium. All the teachers keep telling me to go into Belgium for lunch one day (I get 2.5 hours for lunch). Apparently, all I have to do is walk 500 meters up the street, and look out for changing street signs, and then I’ll be in Belgium. There are even a couple students and teachers at the school from Belgium. That just blows my mind.
Speaking of Belgium, my roommate Sarah and I actually went for a day a couple weeks ago, on a Sunday. The great thing about living in this area is that it’s close to everything. An hour from Paris, and hour and a half from London, and, depending on if you take a train or a bus, 30 minutes to an hour and a half to Belgium and Amsterdam. Anyways, we went to Brussels because Sarah wanted to run the Brussels Half-Marathon. I was the cheerleader in the morning, and in the afternoon we got to explore. It was so great going for just a day – we felt like we got to see everything (even the famous Manneken-Pis fountain, which I’d describe as the Mona Lisa of fountains – a lot of hype for a tiny little fountain, but it’s still pretty cool to be able to say that we’ve seen it in person!). The people there speak our language, both literally and figuratively – everyone speaks French, English, and German, and they’re really into fries, beer, and waffles. I mean, come on. How great is that?!?! Also, it was cheap!!! It was a really great day, and I’m ready to go back and explore more! I’ve also been instructed to visit Bruges, so that is now on my insanely long and unrealistic to-do list.
Speaking of insanely long and unrealistic to-do lists, I’ve got some laundry waiting for me. I apologize for the length of this post, and I promise that I’ll try to post more often so that you don’t have to read as much in one sitting. À bientôt mes chéris!