You might get excited if I say I was travelling on a High Speed Train underneath the English channel. For such a high-tech piece of machinery, the train looked dated. I had somehow imagined a shiny piece of engine and shinier coaches. Not the case. The train could as well be about 40 years old from the looks of it. Guess, at such speeds, wear and tear show up quite a bit on the outside at least.
Europe, Day 5
The ride was smooth and there were few passengers in the coach I was in. As we rolled off St. Pancras and through the suburbs, I didn’t get a sense of thrill of the speed. Very soon we were cruising past picture perfect pastures. The early morning fog added a sense mystic to the journey. I refused to think of the day ahead and sank into my seat and thoughts. The S&P was up though by a few points and the second plunge I anticipated never seemed to be coming.
I arrived in Lille, France after 90 minutes or so. Lille is an hour ahead of London, so I lost an hour. For some reason, I was thinking I come in early so I could catch some breakfast. The station had a stand I could see and I didn’t feel like waiting in line to check what breakfast I could get. Out of the station, the street was dealing with the morning peak hour. Many lines of cars stood parked on the outside. It took me a while to find out where the taxi stand was. It was a sign of things to come in France. No names in English and it was the beginning of a challenge. I wished I had a hotline to my son who is quite fluent in French, but he would have just been two hours into sleep at 5 AM EST, after his regular ordeal of High School work and projects.
The line at the taxi stand was long and I finally got into a shiny Mercedes driven by a young, energetic driver. He had either the ABBA or the Pet Shop boys running and the songs echoed in my mind. He wouldn’t accept credit cards, so we stopped at a cash machine to get some Euros. We arrived at the B’Twin village around 10 o’clock local time. The B’Twin village is actually a bicycle mega-store, the size of which was something I haven’t seen even in the US. The store occupied the space of 20 or 30 or so Costcos! There were aisles and aisles of bicycles and equipment. Thomas met me at the reception and we weeded to the back of the store to the work space. The whole place is as bright as a place with glass walls and tops – there is so much natural light. The building is as energy efficient as it could be – the lights turn off if the light level is sufficient for work during day time. The place was lined up with regular desks with the IT staff each spreading nothing more than a laptop and other work items. This was very unlike the cubicles with a lot of persona-bilia that I am used to seeing. Many of the staff ride bikes inside the building or skate. Lunch was at the cafeteria – some very thick yogurt, pastry and a small carton of tomatoes with cheese balls. We worked till 5 PM and Thomas ordered a taxi for my ride to the hotel. The taxis turn on the meter from the point where they start. This is unlike in the US where they do so after they come to pick you up. The meter also runs on time, not just on distance – thus during a traffic jam, you get to pay for sitting and waiting. Very taxi-friendly atmosphere.
The name Grand Palais and Best Western spa might give you a sense of the French Grandeur, but the hotel was located on a small, crammed street, made smaller by the line of cars parked on the side. The hotel didn’t have an ATM so I had to ask the driver to take me to a cash machine and back. Of course, I paid for the extra ride.
You might venture out in the streets of London as a new comer to the city and get away with it. But not in France. I located Taj Mahal, an Indian restaurant about 20 minutes walk from the hotel. Being always open to exploration, I took up the challenge and with a sense of comfort of Google-maps, I ventured out onto the streets of Lille. It took me only about 15 minutes to get to the round-about, which was half-way to the hotel. There ended all my aspirations for an early dinner. It was another 40 minutes before I entered the restaurant. Such is the challenge of navigating yourself based on maps, not much of street names and no sense of French in a French city. Anyway, as I got closer to the city center, some of the streets reminded me of those in Gandhi Bazar back in Bangalore – wide, but parked cars and ever streaming traffic. Motorcycles don’t hesitate to show off their prowess with sound hoping to ever impress the passing woman. The streets are lined with shops – not big enough to stand on their own in a building, but adjacent to each other, jam-packed. Some of the famed French architecture was evident in the public buildings and landmarks. I was too keen on finding the restaurant on time that I paid little attention to what I was seeing. It was getting to be around 8 PM and I wanted to finish dinner soon.
The Taj Mahal is probably the only Indian restaurant in Lille. The next match in a Google search yielded one in Belgium! The place had a darkish interior with a Mogul theme (of course, what else is Taj Mahal but Mogul). The hostess wasn’t the most hospitable I have seen. She seemed to be as disappointed with the number of diners as I was and it showed on her demeanor. The food was just fine. I didn’t get to appreciate a favoring of meat and sea-food on the menu. After dinner, I was hoping to get back to the hotel walking, but my innate sense of getting lost in new places wouldn’t let that be. After 40 minutes of strolling and admiring the old, grand building in and around City Center, Lille I found another Mercedes for a ride back to the hotel. As it was way past 9 PM, I was happy to get a ride. Hard as it was to find a taxi, it was even harder to find a taxi stand. So, if you happen to see a taxi, be sure to flag it for attention.