Eurostar Station, Lille, France
I consider myself to be a savvy traveler, a conscious American, a practitioner of assimilation, etc. but there are times when one just cannot escape the feeling of being a bungling tourist – and France is a place where it is easy to feel that way. I have just returned from a day out in Lille which is only 1½ hours from Kings Cross, London by Eurostar high-speed rail. My ‘Have Son, Will Travel’ status temporarily stayed as Lucas spends a week with his father who lives here in the UK.
Lille has a long history as a prosperous trading and manufacturing center that has been in the midst of an ongoing ‘renaissance’ (guidebook lingo for facelift) brought about largely by the Eurorail link and an influx of EU funding. Vieux (or old) Lille reveals its unique French-Flemish character and is the place to explore with much lovely architecture. It was fun to sample some of the local cuisine in which beer figures heavily in sauces and stews and seafood is fresh as the port of Dunkerque is not far away.
For lunch I went for the traditional moules marinerie et frites. Apparently, mussels are compulsory everywhere once a year during the Grand Braderie and the restaurant with the biggest piles of mussel shells out on the street front wins a prize. By mid-afternoon, there were brightly colored pistachio, lemon and raspberry macaroons – little cushiony explosions of flavor – that needed sampling and dinner was comprised of a local cheese tart, salad and chicken cooked with a very strong cheese (‘Maroille’).
My day out in Lille necessitated dining alone, since I was determined not to let my solo traveler status prevent me from enjoying one of the main treats of being in France, which is of course, eating. When I am traveling alone I like to determine my destination, in this case my restaurant of choice, before I leave the hotel. No meandering aimlessly and stopping to read menus along the way, leisurely and romantic as that might seem. I prefer to pick the place that interests me the most and is in my budget, map the route, and enjoy the walk there and then the success in actually finding it. Once there, it seems, my robust confidence departs me.
For dinner I had chosen an ‘Estaminet’, which is a particularly northern French version of a bistro that is casual, homey and affordable, and often features local specialties. They are decorated with bric-a-brac and memorabilia and give the impression that a French grandmother might emerge from the kitchen at any moment. However, as a recent trend in their popularity has taken hold, what exists now seems to be ‘estaminet-redux’, staffed by barely teenage girls, with no French grandmother in sight, their ‘authentic’ quality slightly in question as an eye towards tourism seems to be more the guiding force. That said, the meal, local amber beer and wine were all great.
However, I will say quite frankly, that there is really no good way to dine alone without feeling somewhat like the red, bulbous nose on a drunken French farmer. So here are my three tips for trying not to feel quite as conspicuous as that:
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actor-writer-director, improviser, mother, traveler, general renegade and rabblerouser.