The night before, Anne and I were so very charmed by Lille that we were considering spending a full extra day there. The Old Section of town is lined with fancy boutiques and interesting little stores and bistros, and graced by more than one Town Square whose majesty and beauty can't help but take your breath away. Unfortunately for us, we arrived as a weekly market was closing down for the day, and we decided then and there that if we had the time at the end of the trip, we’d return to see it.
We spent the night in a budget hotel called L’Hôtel de France. The view from our window was gorgeous, but after having left the window open for the evening we learned too late that the city is not, in fact, run by people but by mosquitoes. By morning I had fully 25-30 bright red marks on hands, back and face, and was paranoid for several days afterward that I’d be thrown into quarantine for SARS, as sickly as I looked.
Have I told you about the facilities? The ‘shower’ consisted of a dingy old bathtub, approximately one and one-half foot in width, with a piddly little shower fixture attached to the side. There’s nothing like a shower wherein you’re crouched behind a curtain (to the room—a shower curtain would be far too luxurious!), spraying (and I use the term generously—trickling might be more appropriate) water over yourself, careful not to move for fear of rubbing up against centuries-old porcelain with the soothing hum of mosquitoes buzzing in your ears. No, there’s nothing like it. Thank God.
And now back to Day 4: As morning breaks, we discover to our chagrin that our plans have been foiled by the weather. It’s raining very heavily, with no sign of letting up, and after a miserable search for a beauty shop that, despite being ‘just around the corner from the hotel’ takes us a half hour to find, we get back to our hostel, soaked through and with three minutes until checkout. We have no choice but to collect our things and leave, dashing for the train station and searching for the next train to Amsterdam. We were told yesterday the train would be departing at 12:10, which would give us plenty of time to dry off and find lunch. There’s only one train leaving at that time, according to the Big Board of Departures, and since we have a stopover (at a town named Berchem) we aren’t alarmed that our particular platform doesn’t mention Amsterdam explicitly. We climb aboard our train, anxious to move on, and, as it turns out, oblivious to our situation. Two hours or so into our trip we ask an attendant if this is the stopover for Amsterdam. She gives us a horrified look and explains we’ve spent the last two hours traveling in the wrong direction.
Two stopovers and nearly three hours later we’re back in a mercifully shower-free Lille. Hobbling up to the information desk, we’re told in cryptic French: “You can’t go to Belgium today. They’re closed.” I kid you not. The following day we’ll learn (surprisingly, from another Ottawa couple who happened to sit down across from us on the train) that the Belgian train workers are on a one-day strike to protest something or other (to show that they mean business--apparently one day will do it...), but at the moment we have no idea what’s going on. We accept that we’re stranded for a second night in Lille, and to add salt to our wounds, as soon as we leave the station the heavens open up once again and we’re served another fine helping of torrential rain. We scramble around for the better part of an hour, trying to find a replacement hotel, and finally settle in the Floréal.
After we settle in, I head back out to rove the streets in search of a newspaper. Before long, I'm stopped by what I think is a petitioner, and am about to explain I'm a tourist (and so exempt from petitions) when she breaks into a spiel in broken English. I don’t catch much (I never do when a Francophone tries to “help me out” by throwing random English words into their sentences) but from what I understand, all the children of Boulogne will perish if I don’t help their cause immediately. Now, I won’t have that—-I can stand one or two children perishing, maybe a half dozen, but not a whole city full, that is where I draw the line—-and so I’m eager to hear what I have to do to help.
I’m told that for a contribution of only 1є80 I have a choice of two candy bars, one having a blue sticker (boys), the other a pink sticker (girls), but I’m assured both bars taste the same (and at this point I’m wondering why I’m being held up, in the pouring rain, having this particular triviality explained to me). I pull out my money and hand it over, envisioning scores of Bolognese waifs soon rejoicing as they hear of my largesse, when I’m brought back to Earth by the woman. She turns the bar over and shows me the stamp on the back: 8 euros, not 1.8 (apparently her English is not as polished as she’d hoped). It might be water on the brain or my attempts to avoid it, but I hastily pull out the correct amount, pay my extortion fee, grab my nougat bar and speed off without looking back. I can only hope that princely sum is spread out to include not only the children of Boulogne, but children in need everywhere. I am, indeed, a Samaritan.
Our evening is spent indoors because of the weather, trying our best to dry off and cracking the code that is the international phone directory. Next stop, Amsterdam.