Looking on the bright side, this last weekend did bring home to Bear the fact that, with the best will in the world, we couldn’t possibly undertake the longer holiday he has been hoping for.
It was fine while we went around with our friends in their car but they had to leave early on Sunday and that left us with the rest of the day to kill in Calais until our train to Lille in the afternoon.
We walked along the sea front taking frequent breaks on the wooden seats to stare across the sea at England as it was a very clear day and to watch the ferries as they came and went. Our brief walk along the sand on Saturday had done Bear’s knee more harm than good so we didn’t dare go on the beach and the town centre was much too far.
We passed the time until midday and then went to the hotel for lunch. Even though we tried to make it a leisurely meal we had finished before two o’clock and asked the receptionist if he could order us a taxi for about three. Then we waited in the small lounge area beside the dining room until the cab turned up.
We arrived at the station with loads of time to spare and so sat around again until the train came in. It was a scrappy old model with torn, uncomfortable seats and filthy windows but we were able to find a couple of places where you could just about see through the glass.
We weren’t expecting it to be crowded but quite a few people boarded before we set off. Strangely enough it stopped at many of the little stations we had passed through on the way there and more and more youngsters got on, two of whom played very loud music.
“Must be time for the University to go back” we thought, but when we arrived in Lille we found that it was the annual ‘braderie’ in celebration of the beginning of the mussel season. The station was packed and the town was heaving with bodies, stalls selling all sorts of rubbish and heaps and heaps of mussel shells. There were skips overflowing and mounds of them on all the street corners and every eating place was advertising “moules frites ” .
We had been told that the hotel we had booked was 200 metres from the station so we asked directions from one of the many policemen. He told us which exit to take and said it was beside ‘Flunch’ so we managed to push our way through the crowd until we found it.
We decided not to risk going out to eat but dinner at the hotel was disappointing. We tried their speciality of ‘poulet au maroille’ – chicken with the local cheese. It was tasty but not very hot when it was served. Dessert was a rather tired apple tart for Bear and a meringue and ice-cream concoction in a plastic container for me. The wine was served in a litre carafe and we were informed that they measured it after the meal and only charged for what we had drunk. Coffee arrived thirty seconds after dessert so it was a bit tepid by the time we were ready to drink it. This third rate repast cost over 60 euros!
What is it about the typical English tourist that makes us accept these things without complaining. One of my excuses is that I don’t trust my French to be able to express my complaint in a suitably strong but polite manner, but I have to admit I would probably chicken out in English as well, unless I was feeling particularly stroppy.
The streets had been cleaned up pretty well and were fairly empty when we ventured out just after 10.30 next morning. Bear wanted to photograph the organs in the Cathedral and Church of St Meurice so we made our way in a stop-start fashion to the latter and after helping Bear to negotiate the steps I sat down on a hard chair while he fiddled with the camera. Organ-hunting used to be quite a pleasure in the days when I was enamoured but I have to admit I find it terribly boring now.
With St Meurice done and dusted he made noises about finding the Cathedral. But it was twenty to twelve and they’d be locking the doors at noon so it wasn’t worth it but we proceeded slowly in the right direction until Bear was near to collapse and, luckily, came upon a small café.
We sat down gratefully at the nearest table in the shade of a tree but after the young lady had taken our order it became very noticeable that the local dogs had watered the tree copiously.
“It stinks of dog pee” I complained but Bear was not too keen on getting up and moving to another table. However, after a few minutes, the whiff penetrated his nostrils as well and we moved away. Lunch was a light meal of quiche and salad for Bear and tuna salad for me before we set off for the cathedral.
It was still closed when we found it but there was a garden with seats where some of the locals were having their lunch break. We struggled towards an empty bench and Bear almost fell onto it. With more time to kill I began to regret not bringing my book with me. We sat in silence and I found myself wishing I was at home.
Eventually the doors were unlocked and we went in. A beggar at the door waved a plastic cup under my nose asking for money. I told him I hadn’t any change – which was quite true; in fact my purse was completely devoid of any money at all – but he followed us into the church and tried again a few minutes later. Fortunately he had gone by the time we we ready to leave.
Several coffee stops later we decided to collect our case from the hotel and make for the station. We might as well kill time there as anywhere. We found seats in yet another coffee shop and I left Bear there while I went to look for the toilets, clutching the handful of coins he had given me.
The signs seemed to lead nowhere so I had to ask a chap in SNCF uniform who informed me I had to go down the escalator and turn right, down some more steps. Sure enough there was the unisex loo with a stern looking attendant at the door.
“How much is it?” I asked her.
I counted the coins Bear had given me: it came to 42.
“That’s all he gave me” I pleaded
“Well you’ll have to go and find some more” was the response.
Thank heavens I wasn’t in ‘desperate mode’. Back up the escalator I went and asked Bear if he had another 8 centimes.
A few minutes later I was back at the toilet with a 5 euro note.
The attendant grinned broadly and handed me the change.
We left the coffee bar and found a seat facing the departures board. Time passes very slowly when you’re bored and the seats are hard but at long last the platform number came up and we were able to make our way to the train.
Thank goodness it was a modern, comfortable train and we found a group of five seats where we could keep the case with us, and hopefully, not have anyone in the seats opposite. As it happened a lady did have to squeeze in until the first stop but after that the train was practically empty.
During the last part of our journey I broached the subject of Bear’s difficulty with walking and the fact that a longer holiday wandering about all day without a base just wouldn’t be practical.
Much to my relief he agreed. Our anniversary trip will be reduced to 48 hours.