Monday, October 17, 2011

Day Off & Concert Day: Zénith Arena, Lille, France (October 15-16, 2011)

Imagine you’re in a small hotel room in a foreign land. Small. So small that you can hear your breaths echoing. So small it makes prisoners in Saint Quentin feel very good about themselves. So small that it’d make Richard Bennett miss his days in Nottingham.

The room isn’t very clean: the carpets have apparently not been vacuumed (or washed) since the first World War, the bathroom’s floor appears to be torn apart beneath the semi-plastic material they covered it with for attempting to convey some sort of an acceptable appearance.

You lay down to sleep. Your eyes are shut but you’re feeling some tickling sensation on your feet, then up your legs. Ecstatic, you get up, turn the light on, pull the blanket off but you see absolutely nothing walking on you. The sensation goes away, but it returns as soon as you turn the lights off again.

You’re thinking to yourself, “that’s it. It must be bedbugs or something”. But no, no bites. Just a tickling sensation all over your body, and that sensation intensifies the more you think about it.

Know the feeling? Oh, you don’t? So it might as well be just me losing my mind. Anyway, that’s how I lost about an hour of sleep. I don’t know what made me fall asleep eventually, but I did, and luckily so—as I was expecting quite the hectic travel day from Bournemouth to Lille.

Getting from Bournemouth to Lille requires you to take a train from Bournemouth to London, then get to London’s St. Pancras International train station, and then take the Eurostar to Lille. As the Eurostar is an international train, you have to go through a process similar to the one you take when you board an aircraft. Your luggage is screened; security checks; then passport control (by the UK authorities. Interestingly enough, there’s no passport control to go through once you get in France. I seem to recall it used to be the other way around). Arriving at Lille, you have to turn your watch one hour forward. The entire process—from the time you board the train in Bournemouth to the time you arrive in Lille takes about seven hours, assuming you’re allowing for enough gap in London, say 3.5 hours (total train travel time is about 3.5 hours).

I was therefore not very willing to start the day. Upon waking up, I looked through the window and was amazed to discover no clouds at all, whatsoever, in the sky. Packed everything within a few minutes, checked out of this horrid hotel which I will never see again, and went outside. Crossed the road and enjoyed a beautiful view of Bournemouth’s beaches.


It was sunny, but a bit chilly. If I had an extra hour just to sit there and breathe, I would; but it was 9:00am already—about an hour to departure, and I haven’t had breakfast yet—so I had to bid the good view goodbye and walk back to the train station.

Across the train station, there’s a small plaza featuring a gym, a McDonald’s (how smart) and a small cafe. One mediocre sandwich and two sips of horrendous coffee later, went to the platform and waited for the train which arrived just on time.

Two minutes into departure, as the coach I was on was already populated by extremely noisy and obnoxious people, one of the attendants bothered to announce to us all that, to her surprise (she has just found out), there are no functioning toilets on this train. I should tell you that the train had 5 coaches in it. Now to remind you, I had a bit of coffee before departing. Fortunately, the coffee was so disgusting that I couldn’t consume more than a couple of sips of it.

Sure, I can carry two hours like this. No problem.

Until the train stopped somewhere along the way, between two stations. “We’re in a traffic jam” the attendant called. Fantastic. And I thought that the reason we have trains around to begin with was to avoid traffic jams altogether.

These are exactly the times when you thank yourself for allowing some good “safety interval” between connecting trains. Unless this train is delayed by an hour and a half, I should still be able to make it. We ended up arriving at London’s Waterloo station about 10 minutes late; the entire train unloaded itself into the toilets and I once again found myself roaming around Britain’s busiest train station, in terms of passenger throughput: London Waterloo.

After spending a few days in small cities in the UK, arriving to London can be a bit overwhelming. It can, and it was. No more tired faces; no more feeling as if the country is populated exclusively by the elderly. You’re suddenly swept in a sea of people, and you can’t possibly position yourself anywhere in the station in a way that will not disrupt others—especially in sunny, warm days as yesterday (I suppose such brilliant days are quite rare in UK’s Octobers).

I was good on times so I decided to wander around the station. The London Eye is practically across the street from the station, and so is Westminster Bridge which isn’t quite the unknown tourist location either. I decided to cross the bridge and enjoy the view, before taking the Tube to St. Pancras International.

Crossing the bridge typically doesn’t take more than three minutes of continuous walk. Yesterday, however, it was different as the weather was so good that it seemed that no London resident opted at staying at home. The bridge offers wide sidewalks on both sides, however both of them were almost entirely static as shady, not-quite-trustworthy people were challenging innocent passer-byers with all sorts of tricks, mainly involving finding small items underneath ever-moving boxes.


I got tired of the masses and was craving the peace and quiet of St. Pancras International (I have been there a few times before) so I decided to take the Tube. At last, after a few times in London, I had the common sense to actually go ahead and buy the Oyster Card. This card actually guaranteed that you always end up paying the lowest public transportation fare, given all sorts of parameters (such as number of rides per day). My advice: if you’re going to be exploring London even for a day, don’t even think about doing it by individually paying for each trip, or buying individual passes. Get yourself an Oyster Card.

Jubilee Line for one station to Green Park, then the Victoria Line to King’s Cross—St. Pancras International… about 20 minutes and I was there. Finally, peace. Great lunch, check in, passport control and all I had to do was just wait.

Everything going according to schedule, boarding went on smooth and I found myself in an half-empty coach. Laptop plugged to A/C outlet—done; BlackBerry recharging through USB cable—done. All set.

Until a small girl seated right behind me started kicking my seat, which prompted me to start writing my thoughts about where this society is going (maybe I’ll publish it some day). Shortly later, the Eurostar started moving in immense speed; not much time passed before we were all cruising through the English Channel, and shortly later, we arrived at Lille-Europe train station.

Welcome to France.

So the first thing I noticed once I departed the train and went on my way towards my hotel—a mere 5-6 minutes walk—was that we’re certainly not in rural England anymore. You suddenly feel a great sense of… well, how should I call it… “life”. Things seem colourful again.

From Lille-Europe, which is the train station mainly used by Eurostar for international travel, to Lille-Flandres, which is Lille’s central train station, it takes about 5 minutes to walk. The hotel I was staying in, Hotel Balladins, was literally across the street from the train station, which initially raised a few concerns as hotels near central train stations aren’t known to be very pleasant. Then again, reviews that I had read implied that this hotel is something worthy of staying in, so I tried to keep my mood elevated and see where things are going.

I was, actually, quite impressed. 3-stars hotel in such a location, surprisingly very quiet, for about €50 a night—seemed like a bargain (well, I did book it a few months in advance). Very clean rooms, comfortable bed, fantastic location—what else could one ask for.

Hunger hit hard; quick set-up, unloaded everything I had on me and stormed out of the room in a quest for something to eat. The receptionist told me that I should be looking around the Opera House which is about 2-3 minutes walk away, so I left the hotel and started walking there.

A smile took over my entire face immediately as I left the hotel and started walking towards the city centre. This is a gorgeous city.

This restaurant—“Les 3 Brasseurs”—seemed very familiar until I realized that this same chain also exists in Canada. Look closely to the left of the restaurant’s sign; you’ll see a vertical sign saying Hotel Balladins—that’s the hotel I was staying at.


Kept on walking, taking shots from around me.


Then I reached the city centre.


I mentioned, in one (or more) of my previous posts, Barry Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice”, which does wonders to explain to its lucky readers how easily can a large variety make one’s life miserable. You get to understand the immense truth in it, once you realize that you’re starving and there are literally dozens of restaurants around you to choose from (and when I say “around you”, I mean within 2-3 minutes walk radius). I walked and walked around, encountering plenty of restaurants with all sorts of menus (mostly in French, of which I couldn’t make sense of whatsoever) but couldn’t quite figure out which it is that I want to enter.


After trying out a few places—all being completely full (well, it was Saturday night), I ended up at “Les 3 Brasseurs” by my hotel. Good chunks of beef, as well as this lovely dessert.


Up to my hotel room…


And I decided that that’s it. I’m in France; tomorrow will be food day.

And it was.

And painfully so.

OK so here is the thing about France and food. French people love their food. The French cuisine is considered by many to be the best in the world (I’m more in favour of the Italian cuisine, but I’d definitely be happy with French meals any time), and one of the things they take great pride in is their desserts.

So, I decided to go on a little quest. Woke up early morning and went on to explore. Armed with a camera, I was looking for sweets.

The first place I came across is Meert, which was a pity because I sort-of intended it to be the last place to go to, as it is quite the landmark for those with the sweet tooth. I sufficed with an exterior picture and moved on.


Getting a bit lost at the city centre, I saw this nice establishment. It’s called “Paul”, and as I learned later, it’s not just a store but actually a chain. They are everywhere. So I stopped by and asked for a croissant.

Great way to start a day: consuming a croissant before any sort of breakfast.


I left the store holding the croissant in my hand. About 20 seconds later, it was all gone. It was actually so good that I couldn’t walk and eat it at the same time. It was all consumed within one meter radius of the store’s entrance. Just gone.

Facing Paul, I noticed this nice store.


Approaching, I encountered this.


Now that’s a call for challenge. I mean, you see something like this, you just have to enter the store, regardless of whether the store is open for business or not. Luckily (for the store’s owner), it was open.

I should say that all pictures from the interiors of the stores were taken after requesting permission from the store’s owner (or attendant)

How about those macaroons (spelled “macarons” in French)?


And these?


They also sell breads.


I spent about 10 minutes inspecting everything they had to offer—and, as you can see, we’re talking about quite the selection. Opted at a croissant (yes, another one) as well as another “puffy cake” which was wrapped in a box and later consumed with much love in the hotel room (see below for the “before” picture).


Being stunned by the celebration of tastes and flavours, I stormed out of the hotel room once again, trying to avoid thoughts of sweets by taking pictures of a gorgeous city centre in even more gorgeous weather.


Perfect time for getting some sun, so I spent about an hour over coffee in this nice terrace.


And then, I felt I was ready.

I was ready to go and explore new dimensions.

I was ready to take on myself the great responsibility (and accompanying pleasure) of stepping into the shrine.

I took upon me the quest to bring to you, my people, the blessing.

I went to Meert.

The first thing you notice about Meert is the people who are constantly outside the store looking at the display window. There are often more people outside the store, gazing at the window and drooling, than people inside the store—that’s because prices here are not cheap. Most of the delicacies shown here go for about €5-6 a piece.


I then took the courage and went inside. Asked for permission and took a few shots…


… As well as a video.

Meert’s desserts on display.

What’s special about Meert, comparing to other locations I stepped into, is that these guys exercise extreme attention to detail when they design their desserts. Of course, it’s all relative; even the crappiest desserts store here would seem like heaven to the outsider.

20 minutes later I was able to decide that I’m going for a cheesecake and some other chocolate-based cake. Wrapped it up for later and went back to the hotel for a short rest before the concert.

The Zénith Arena is located about 5 minutes walk south-east from the hotel I was staying at. The city centre is a few minutes walk west, so that was new unchartered territory for me. A bit of a shady walk, I should say; but still, the Novotel hotel is located at that stretch so I’m wondering how bad can that area really be.

One of the best ways to know that you’re close to the concert’s venue is when you’re encountering scalpers. Scalping is illegal in France but, just like many other French laws, this one serves as a mere recommendation, a “rule of thumb”.


Arrived at the venue and immediately met Laurent, a nice fellow with whom I stayed in touch with since the last tour. Was good meeting with him at last and catch up, as he was introducing me to this venue.

At the front, there were a few lines that looked quite like what you might expect bull stalls to look like—the stalls that hold the bulls at bay before the wooden door opens and the bull rages into the arena. There weren’t many people there when I arrived, maybe a hundred or so.


The ticket office, shown in the picture above to the very right, was closed. That would royally suck for people who bought general admission tickets for venue pick-up, as such people would miss the chance being in the front (at least theoretically. As you shall see soon, there always are “creative solutions”). The way this venue is organized is that the floor is general admission, standing only, and there are terraces at the second and third floors for seated guests. As always, I opted at the seated option so I was certainly in no rush.


Elian, Arnaud and David, a trio whom I had met during the last tour (I still recall the awesome wine, cheese and Stratocaster eve in Elian’s place), drove from Paris and showed up shortly after. There we were, the five of us, waiting for the doors to open so we decided to go have a drink and a snack nearby. Beers for everyone except myself (I had coffee. I rarely drink alcohol; there needs to be an extremely special occasion for that to happen), some French fries (well, over there they’re simply called “Fries”) and back to the venue. While we were away, people kept arriving and now there were some sizeable queues everywhere.


Brigitte and Marithe were both there, good to see them both as well. We all lined up waiting for the ticketing office to open… well, as much as you can call it “line up”. This is not Canada. For an illustration what a French line-up looks like, refer to the picture below.


A typical Canadian encountering this would probably freak out and crawl back to his hotel. Line-ups appear to be deprecated in France to the same extent that they’re worshipped in Canada. In Canada, a line-up is where people want to be. It’s where they feel that they’re doing something right, something proper. Something polite. Yes, even in the French-speaking provinces. But in France…

Shortly after 7:00pm, an attendant called the audience in line to stay calm and enter the venue slowly and not rush anywhere. Two minutes later, the gates opened and absolutely nobody followed any plea for peaceful entry. Well, it wasn’t as aggressive as in Spain or in The Netherlands (the latter might sound a surprise. The Dutch are indeed polite and orderly people, but when the time comes to race towards the stage in general admission concert… they’re different) but still it was nothing I’d ever wish to take a part of.

The initial instructions for those who picked up their tickets (or bought tickets) at the ticketing office were to grab their ticket and then join the regular queue, effectively being the last ones to enter. That would suck the sweat of many perspiring horses for people who were there to pick up tickets for general admission. Not to worry, though. Some barrier has been moved and suddenly a new way existed to enter the arena.

My seat, once more, failed to impress me or anybody. First row on the terrace, to the right—right in front of the stage’s left-hand speakers. Contrary to Bournemouth though, sound was surprisingly good, even in that location.


One of the things that were fascinating for me to learn last year as I watched 87 concerts in 21 different countries, was audiences’ behaviour and reception of the band. So, another proof for us not being in England anymore was the audience—by far, the most receptive audience so far this tour (not such a big deal, considering the fact that we have been mostly in the UK so far). I couldn’t help but smiling as I witnessed the great love being poured onto this band by this very receptive audience—it is truly heart-warming, even if you’re not a member of the band.

I recall the French, Italian and Spanish audiences being the most receptive audiences, with the Italian & Spanish ones bordering on insanity sometimes (depending on the area. The more south you go, the more likely you are to encounter the seeds of audience insanity).

And with this, folks, comes good performance. There is no way around it. With all due respect to this band—and some of you may have already understood the level of respect I have towards this band—they are not, and they can not, decouple their level of performance from the warmth of audience welcome.

What It Is opened the show, allowing the Lille audience to well demonstrate that we’re now in a warmer, more receptive place. Cleaning My Gun followed, rocking as usual except for a period of about 10-15 seconds when Ian Thomas had to play the drums with one hand, using the other to properly fit his earpiece. Unless you were looking at him at that time, you wouldn’t have noticed.

Corned Beef City is back in the game, spreading rock n’ roll dust all over the arena using three chords (C, F, G), one of which dominates about %98 of the song. Together with an excellent performance of Privateering, these were the two unreleased songs of the evening—Haul Away for Home being left out (insert an extremely sad face here). For pretty much everybody’s enjoyment, Speedway at Nazareth made a comeback. That is—everybody’s enjoyment but mine. Sorry, I just am not a huge fan of this particular song. Never was, unlikely to ever be. Shoot me.

So Far Away was the only Dire Straits song to be played, and concluded the show at around 9:15pm. Great show. Post-concert shoots follow.


Some convincing having been done, I decided to pop some earplugs and stay for Bob Dylan’s performance. At the end of Mark’s set, I went for a breath of fresh air around the venue.


How about this. They serve crepes and Belgian waffles at the venue. Now how’s that instead of a hotdog.


Went back inside a few moments after Bob’s set commenced. Sorry to say but… no. I just can’t bring myself to the state of enjoying this show. Bob’s band is great, featuring top players but for me, vocals count a lot and even with earplugs in place I just couldn’t take it much further than 5-6 songs, at which point I got up and left the arena.

Back in my hotel, I decided I was starving. Some Shawarma from a nearby hole-in-the-wall did much to fix it (well, I was eating like a pig the entire day, so might as well finish it like a pig), and so did the two Meert desserts that were left. At 11:30pm, I was after dinner involving Shawarma and two brilliant cakes. It was then when I realized the immense level of insanity of the food I had been eating all day. Felt really bad, and had immense trouble falling asleep.

Woke up this morning feeling like a dead horse after severe trouble staying asleep.

Signing off this post from my hotel room in Paris.


1 comment:

Leslie V. said...

Isaac...if you have more time in Paris, venture over to Cimetière du Père Lachaise. I see you found culinary heaven sometimes comes at a price...but sometimes worth it?
Safe travels !!