[Lille, France, August 2014]
The old lady with the accordion covered herself and her instrument with tarp and continued to play underneath her little gazebo. A nearby violinist gave up and packed his gear away. August rain started falling and the darkening streets of Lille thinned out.
Walking down Rue de la Monnaie in the evening rain felt like being in a black and white film. The rich Flemish reds of the buildings were washed out by the dull sky and the bars lining the street were so dim it was hard to tell if they were open. There was a damp, cabbagey smell. I watched a well dressed man hold a newspaper above his head as he ran into a restaurant, and I skipped into a bar nearby. It was nearly empty except for a lady staring down at her espresso. The barman laughed at my sodden shirt and poured me a heady beer. After exchanging greetings he joked that English visitors expect Lille to have the climate of the Mediterranean despite being just over an hour from London on the train. Guilty. Wet and mocked, I ordered another drink. Then more.
Lille is a beautiful city to be lost in. The streets uncurl left and right and each has a curiosity of its own, be it an impossibly narrow townhouse, the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, or buildings with cannonballs in the brickwork as a reminder of the 1792 siege. Like a house of mirrors, it's beguiling enough that you can walk around for hours without realising how far you've strayed. Lille is the cobbled France suited to fleeting visits, couples and hand-holding, and being there alone left me longing for someone else to share it with. That someone else. Her.
|Port de Paris, Lille|
An hour or so later the rain stopped. I settled my tab and walked to Grand Place. As I paused by the fountain to take a picture a mime artist caught my eye and a flower seller loitered. I nervously assumed I was close to becoming involved in performance art. My only ever scrape with street performance was when I was asked to be the supporting legs of a pantomime donkey in Plymouth aged nine. My mum didn't think it was a good idea and I've since realised her wisdom on the matter. With that in mind, I decided that my simplest method of exit was to buy a flower from the looming rose hawker and make a dash for it. They had me good.
|Grand Place, Lille|
With the summer rain gone the music had returned. Accordions, strings, harmonicas, some bloke with a keyboard on his lap. It felt young and busy in dry weather, and the tables outside the brasseries were as good as full. A girl coolly stamped out a cigarette and ducked into an oaky kicker bar ahead. That always seems to happen in France. Spirited in several senses, I tipsily decided it was too early to call out Lille as being a place for couples only. Just one more drink, one more hello. Dubious €5 flower limp in my hand, I held my breath and walked into the bar.