The stories of a couchsurfer

La Braderie de Lille, 2013

La Braderie de Lille

In the end I had time to spare. For so many moments in the early morning, it seemed likely that I would miss the Eurostar back to France. There were four or five crucial moments where had I made one wrong turn or split decision, I would have been likely staying another night in the UK.

Yet destiny smiled kindly on me that day. Perhaps more of a smirk than a grin.

When I first took the train over from Paris the month or so ago part of the allure was the journey itself. Experiencing what it was like to travel through the chunnel. Now, that experience had passed, and I wished only for the speediest re-entry into France.

What greeted me instead, however, was my lottery ticket onto a carriage full of rowdy 20-something Brits who were embarking on their own journey – to Amsterdam as part of a bucks weekend for Jim.

Ahh Jim, you and your friends seemed to have had quite the entertaining life together throughout your adolescence and in cracking your first beverages at the sprightly hour of 8 A.M before the train had even departed the platform was a convincing way to start making new stories together.

Despite this, I do wish everybody else on the carriage didn’t have to hear about all the women and drunken nights that had occurred over the last decade of your life.

When I say “everybody else on the carriage”, I mean myself and one other bloke who, quite luckily, was sitting next to me. The rowdiness of the carriage didn’t seem to affect him – such was his focus that he was even able to work on a few spreadsheets during the journey!

Jim and his buddies were part of the reason I was happy to be leaving England. I feel sorry for France that I brought back a piece of it with me, if only temporarily. In all fairness though, characters like Jim are found in every country and culture that I’ve visited, and France is certainly of no exception.

I was headed, after all, to one of France’s biggest annual festivals.

La Braderie de Lille.

A braderie, in it’s literal sense, is an open air street market. La Braderie de Lille is the largest such market in Europe, attracting more than ten thousand sellers and visitors in the millions.

Today, many young French take the trip to Lille at the beginning of September not to find a steal on an item in a market, but to revel in the party atmosphere on the streets and in the bars. This is what really attracts the visitors.

Personally, I hadn’t even known of the concept until told about it by Kévin, who hosted me during my first stay in Lille and insisted at the time that I come back for La Braderie. I decided to take Kévin up on his offer and he was more than happy to oblige, so once again, just like way back in April, I couchsurfed with Kévin.

I say way back, but it was really only three months between my initial stay at the end of April to now in the beginning of September. But when one travels in the fashion that I had been doing over the summer, the experiences gained each and every day make it seem like years have passed where, in reality, only weeks have.

It was genuinely exciting to return to Lille. So lucky I was to have been greeted by sunshine the first time I was there, my memories of the city were fond and when I exited the train station I was once again greeted with sunshine. The place was just how I remembered it. Why wouldn’t it be? It was only three months, after all, but the familiarity struck a chord with me.

One of the little pleasures of traveling is returning to a place you’ve visited before – particularly if you enjoyed that place. Hopping from a new city to the next is remarkable for the discoveries one makes, but with it comes always the sense of being a visitor.

It’s not necessarily that you feel lost, but more so that you aren’t familiar with the place. That’s part of the allure of visiting a new place, and the want to continue discovering and becoming familiar with places are what keeps me going as a traveler.

Yet when you proceed day after day in this state it’s natural to start to feel less secure, more wary and therefore less relaxed. There’s always the sense of uncertainty which provides excitement but also invokes a want to return to the comfort of home if exposed to it for too long.

When you return to a city you’ve already been in you obtain a piece of that comfort. It’s not home – truth be told I’m getting to the point where I feel that I have no home – but it does provide some assurance and certainty.

Returning to Montpellier gave me this sense and to a lesser extent returning to Paris also. Being so large and diverse, it’s hard to believe anybody ever truly feels at home in a place like Paris.

Coming back to Lille, I stepped out of the train station to a mid-sized city that I felt I was familiar enough with, a friend that although I hadn’t spent the most time with I felt close to, and the reinvigorated excitement of travel and discovery having fled the UK.

I had never had a single moment of doubt or question to whether or not this journey was the right thing to do, yet still, at this moment in Lille I felt as assured and content with myself and my life as I ever had.

The streets were already bursting in Lille by the time I had arrived with a lot of activity and people. Although La Braderie itself wasn’t on until the Sunday, the party atmosphere had already well and truly taken hold on the town.

Kévin was off to his parents’ homestead in the countryside for the Friday night but he had generously invited me to stay at his place in any case. We had time to catch up before he left when he arrived home from work and let me in to his place. It was great to see his face again.

He left me in charge of taking care of the punch in the fridge for the party the following night and set off for his parents. He also left me a local beer in the fridge which he insisted I must try called 3 Monts.

Belgium, rightfully so, gets much acclaim for it’s array of tasty beers but just across the border in the Flandres region of France are plenty of beers to match. After the rush of the morning in Oxford, I was really looking forward to just having a relaxing night in, reacquainting myself with the French language by watching the television and enjoying a world class beer.

The problem was opening the beer.

It’s not uncommon, in these parts of the world, to find corked beers – a small metal latch pushing the cork into the neck of the bottle. The first challenge is managing to rip the metal latch out of the indentation to the cork that it holds in place. This takes a good few minutes, by which time you’ve gathered a thirst and want the already frustrating opening process to just be over with.

But even after overcoming this obstacle the cork is still in the bottle, and it’s so tightly pushed in that it requires the use of a corkscrew.

Yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a corkscrew in the entire apartment. The only region in France where a corkscrew isn’t a staple utensil.

I admitted defeat, and when Kévin came back the following day, he calmly stripped it out using only his fingers.

Rugby players…

Over the course of the day Kévin and I prepared for the party. He was expecting a few friends to come over to join in the Braderie. He was also expecting another Couchsurfer, a Bulgarian girl who had stayed the previous night in a hostel in the city.

So, during the daytime, we went out to search for her. The streets were already insanely packed, to the point where you could barely move. The daytime was reserved for the markets – people buying and selling – but the bars were still brimming at this stage.

It took a while, but eventually we found the Bulgarian, waiting for us on the street. She had come to Lille to work as part of her medical studies, but could barely speak a word of French. Remarkably, the majority of her work environment would be in French, but she didn’t seem phased in the slightest.

Because of her limitations in French and because of Kévin’s limitations in English (particularly after a few beers), I acted as an interpreter of sorts during my time there.

We decided to walk around town a bit before going back to Kévin’s place. I loved the atmosphere of the streets and everybody was in a festive mood. The markets consisted of your standard bric-a-brac crap. Trinkets and second hand things. There was barely a single thing that I would have wanted to take with me, except for perhaps a few books that I found while perusing one of the many ad-hoc bookstores floating around town.

Eventually, Kévin got a call from one of his friends that they were waiting for him at his place so it was time to head back.

There must have been about eight or nine in total, including us, and a relatively small apartment made for a cosy atmosphere. The punch disappeared quickly and the beers flowed and soon enough we were rowdy and laughing and having fun.

The Bulgarian was tired and decided that she would try and get some sleep, but it’s hard to imagine that she would have had any with the rest of us fooling around.

When we ran out of drinks we decided it was time to head back into the city in search of some more. The streets hadn’t died down one bit and were, if anything, even busier than during the day. Now the crowd was noticeably younger, though.

We rarely stayed in the same spot. The frequent popup bars on the streets provided us with beers throughout the night and we wandered from location to location.

It was a very unplanned, spontaneous night that included the group losing each other and then finding each other on multiple occasions – quite miraculous given the density of people throughout town.

Lille has quite a small city center compared to other European cities, but the party seemed to spread to all corners and consumed the entire central area. Quite possibly never before in my life have I seen so many people in such a small space.

At some stage in the early hours of the morning, the gang decided to stumble in to a corner burrito store to get something to fill our already bloated stomaches. As I sat on one of the tables waiting, I noticed something quite curious to me.

A man sitting at another table only metres away from me triggered a strange sensation of familiarity. I didn’t recognise him, but something told me we had met before, yet this could have been a case of strange déjà vu.

After some time the man started to look at me curiously too – not in the “why does this guy keeping looking at me” way, but I could see that he also had the sense of familiarity.

My curiosity could not be contained any longer so I approached him and just before I sat down it hit me. The guy was Julien, a former Couchsurfer that I had hosted in Australia.

Neither of us could hardly believe it. What are the odds? Of all the millions of people in the town this weekend, we happened to go to the same burrito store at the same time. He wasn’t even aware that I was travelling Europe, so it came as a great shock to him.

We talked for a while, drunkenly in the burrito store, until we parted ways and I joined up with Kévin again.

Little surprises like that are just another reason why traveling is so great.

By now it must have been getting close to dawn, and we went back to Kévin’s place to get some well earned rest.

The next morning was slow. One of Kévin’s friends hadn’t coped too well with the alcohol and had fallen asleep and vomited in the bath. Well, there could have been worse places to do it, I guess.

He spent the next hour or so cleaning that up while the rest of us tried to minimise any movement in our bodies so as to not cause any pain in our heads.

There was still one thing to do before leaving, however.

We hadn’t even experienced one of the most famous parts of the Braderie. One of the primary reasons that I decided to come for the festival.

The Moules.

Mussels are quite common everywhere in France, and there are plenty of coastal regions that would like to lay claim as the masters of them, but Lille and it’s surroundings have a compelling argument.

Readers may remember that last time I was in Lille, Kévin accompanied me to a restaurant where I had some mussels but he told me it wasn’t the best season for them. That is when he insisted I needed to come back during the Braderie.

The traditional day to eat them is on the Saturday, and restaurants compete against each other to see which can produce the highest mountain of eaten mussel shells. They stack them up right on the streets as if it were a show of strength, a reflection of how good their moules are.

Too busy drinking and soaking up the atmosphere, we missed our chance on the Saturday, but there were still mussels to be had on the Sunday.

We ventured back into town in search of them and this time the Bulgarian girl tagged along. We gave up on the first place we attempted after twenty minutes of no service and continued on until we arrived at another outdoor establishment, where the service was much quicker.

The mussels were nice, without being extraordinary, but maybe it’s something that needs to be done on the Saturday, with the company of a few beers to really appreciate them.

After this it was time for me to go and catch the train back to Paris. I said goodbye to Kévin, his friends and the Bulgarian and headed off alone to continue my journey.

I can’t say this was typically French – Lille is a generally quiet, peaceful city on any other weekend – but it still was something different. Countries like Spain, Portugal and France seem to be quite happy to host an unorganised, unpredictable and wild party for millions on their own streets whereas I can’t think of any comparable instance in a place like the UK or Australia.

My return to France started off with a bang, and it only excited me further to continue my quest.

I had realised, for now at least, that France was where I wanted to be. For the long haul.

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