I spend a few days in Lille, my last destination in continental Europe. I’m hiding here to do some paperwork before I continue on my journey to the UK by the oddball Euro Tunnel.
Hiding in Lille
Believe it or not, I do have a “normal” job in addition to being a professional circumnavigator, and unfortunately I have a bit of postponed paperwork to do. While doing paperwork while riding a bus or hot air balloon or camel sounds romantic, it’s actually quite impossible in practice, so I resign myself to a few days of old fashioned nose to the grindstone desk work.
I choose as my office a rental room in a townhouse in an inner suburb of Lille, France. No distractions, just work. For three days, I relive my former life as a student, dwelling in a small room, bending over my computer for hours. I drink instant coffee and eat canned beans heated on a hotplate. The mornings blur into the evenings, and the evenings into the nights, without me taking notice.
One upside of my stay in Lille is that I get to experience French café culture in a less touristic area. Around the corner from my room is chain patisserie selling coffee and baked goods. It has cardboard signs dangling from the ceiling advertising various specials. Before 09:00, buy two pastries and a small coffee for €3, or with a large coffee for €3.50, or with just one pastry for €2.50, unless it’s after 12:00, in which case you can upsize to a cream filled pastry for only a bit more, but you can’t upsize the coffee unless you also order a sandwich. You know, one of those places. Customers buzz in and out all morning and afternoon, some getting a snack to take away, and others lingering for hours. And, as is always the case in France, the pastries are superb. More than that—divine. Flaky, creamy, chocolaty goodness. Pastry is my spiritual crutch for these three days
Three days later, I finish my work, and I am free to continue on my way.
The fastest way to get from Paris to London is by Eurostar high-speed train, which travels from one city center to the other through the Euro Tunnel (better known as the Chunnel) in only 2h 45m. Fortunately, it pauses in Lille en route. Unfortunately, it’s too expensive. So, to save cash, I hop on a local train and go to Calais, the French town that has forever been a major ferry port between France and England, and from where much cheaper buses to England depart from.
The train drops me at the last station on French territory before the railway tracks tunnel underground and underwater into the Euro Tunnel. As I get off the train, I imagine all of the lucky, rich passengers riding the train in comfort from Paris to London, sipping champagne and discussing stock prices while pouring caviar down the toilet. My lowly bus departs from the Cité Europe shopping mall, which is a couple of kilometers away, so I strap on my backpack and start walking. Unfortunately, I neglect to notice on my map that the Eurostar tracks are uncrossable, being secured behind a high fence and barbed wire. So I walk, and walk, and walk, all the way around, for nearly two hours. The sunshine and open fields are nice. The sunburn and multi-lane highway cloverleaf are not.
At last, after two hours of walking, I arrive, exhausted and sore, at the Cité Europe mall. I have a few hours before the bus leaves, so I pop into the adjacent outlet mall to buy a much-needed addition to my wardrobe. In less than two weeks I will be taking Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 ocean liner across the Atlantic, and my current clothes are woefully inadequate for such a luxurious environment. I rectify the situation by buying a trim and stylish light blue sports jacket, which I stuff into my backpack in a crinkly bespoke ball. Now they should let me on the ship.
The bus picks me up at the shopping mall, and then drives me and the other passengers into an enclosed and secure paddock to clear customs. The English border agent talks in a lilting accent and is positively jolly. He even apologizes when he asks me to fill out a short declaration form.
Passport stamp secured, I settle in for the crossing. Now, you might assume that the bus crosses the Channel by ferry. This was my assumption too—but no! In fact, the bus drives right back towards the Eurostar train tracks, drives down a ramp into a train yard, and then rolls directly into the gaping mouth of a huge rail-mounted box. The system is quite ingenious. A series of containers, sized precisely to the cross-section of the tunnel, are linked together into a sort of rail-mounted vehicle shuttle. Cars and buses drive right on and are transported between England and France in a manner similar to a ferry, except in an underwater tunnel.
The shuttle-train rolls into action, quickly disappearing under the earth and then under the English Channel. As the journey is in progress I am free to exit the bus and wander about. For such a cool concept, the actual experience is tragically uninteresting. The tunnel is made from grey concrete and is only dimly lit, so there isn’t much to see out of the tiny windows. The inside of the shuttle looks like a drab 1980s hospital basement.
Some time later, the shuttle arrives at the other end—England! The bus drives off and winds its way, very slowly, through endless traffic, into the heart of London.