Set your car GPS to Lille, the northern French city, and you'll see, it can be somewhat of a challenge; The city is one of two, and to people that find Europe to be small, it is quite close to its brother. One lays just across the border is a cute little town in Belgium. So it is hardly the fault of your GPS if you land in the wrong place. The upside of that is you can still tell all your friends you went to Lille. So no man overboard. The Belgians call their Lille ‘Lille’, and the French one ‘Rijsel’. I shall use both, but only to display my deep knowledge of the intricacies of European topography. The name Lille, as I have been told by a local, comes from the French ‘l’île.’ This stands to mean an island. Needless to say, the area surrounding the city used to be a little swampy and as prejudices go, the ‘French from the north’ are seen by the rest of the country as open and helpful, and also a little ditsy. But I will let you be the judge of that.
On any morning, when you exit from one of the two train stations that are situated some two hundred meters from each other. You will find yourself caught up in a tidal wave of the young and very well dressed crashing hard into the heart of the city. If its main square would be the outstretched hand of a young and beautiful woman, they would all be rushing towards it, to grab it, all the while they would be smoking, because France seems to be a country where that is still considered ‘cool’. Me, as a non-smoker, and only occasionally well dressed, look like an old car caught up in a flock of sheep. If you spot me. Or better yet, a character from the movie ‘Borat’. There is plenty of reason for having a kick in your step when you advance to the center of this old city; because,’sacre blue’(!), it is pretty. And pretty big too. It radiates grandeur like London radiates empire. Moving along its main square, the ‘grande place’, you feel that every footstep of yours that touches the pavement is insignificant as to those that touched it before you. I imagine the feet of Charles de Gaulle where I put mine, him tapping his walking stick on the pavement. Indeed, these are the shoulders of giants you will successively stand on when you find yourself strolling through Lille.
The atmosphere of Lille, as opposed to that of Paris, is relaxed and chilled in nature. Rarely will it be the sounds of car horns blaring and dogs barking to cause a ringing in your ear. Instead, there will be of birds of song, and the swift tapping of runners feet at the end of a working day. When you combine this with a sun that shows itself quite often, a stroll through the ‘citadelle’, biggest park of Lille, at the end of your shift at work can be added to the few joys of city its life. Bring a book, a blanket, or if you have kids, take them to the zoo or playground built into this lush habitat. For the many young smokers Lille seems to inhabit, due to a large student population the older generation seems to have shed this habit for a healthy and fit lifestyle. I assume that the French youngsters are merely rebellious and don't want to listen to their elders.
A city this pleasant is still not immune to its surroundings. There is a large police force guarding over its citizens, army units patrolling the streets and mostly around the station. In large part this has to do with the scourge of terrorism in France, but there is also a palpable tension between the haves and have-nots in this city. This runs parallel to the divide between the indigenous French population and its immigrants, as in many European cities, the successful are claiming an ever larger part of the inner city, while the have-nots are pushed onto the fringes. On weekends they mix in the heart of this city, but seemingly not knowingly how to do it, in a kind way.
Still, not all is lost.
For a city that has so much history and so much to show for that history, it's eyes are set in stone, facing a bright future. The northern region of France, and the city of Lille in particular is turning into the tech hub of the country. Young tech entrepreneurs, app builders and software start-ups are leaving the expensive capital for Lille, a city as dynamic as Paris but more affordable. Being not so much of a nerd myself, and only downloading apps that are for free, the idea of trying to get rich off an app seems to me quite ludicrous. Still, many people try it, and better to fail in a place that has an Aldi.
This city that used to call itself an island makes all the more sense when you take a dive into its nightlife. You might find yourself at a table with a half liter of a fine Belgian beer listening to a succession of inebriated French singing French chansons over the sounds of a busty French accordion player, like the rest of the world doesn't exist: Just the French with their chansons and their accordions, probably reminiscing about the time when they used to rule the seas, crying over Napoleon.
But know this, you'll have an awesome time alongside them, in their pretty, little, French city of Lille.