Thank You Lille
Lille, a Love Story
We met at an academic conference in 2007, my first visit to the region. A few French colleagues back in Canada had cast doubt on her reputation, but I found her charming from the start. Sadly, the conference kept me too busy to spend much time with her, and my partner was always out of town, exploring World War I sites in the region. However, on our very last evening, walking back to the hotel after a fine meal at a local estaminet (tavern), we heard music coming from the Vielle Bourse, with its elegant Spanish-Flemish architecture — one of the few historic buildings I had already visited, built prior to the city’s becoming French in the late seventeenth century. A light rain was falling as we walked toward the open door, where a young woman grabbed me and said “voulez-vous dancer avec nous?” In the courtyard behind her, a large group of people was indeed dancing: men, women, young and old, in ballgowns and suits and in jeans and t-shirts, dancing a tango in the rain. No, we could not stay, we could not dance, we had to pack for an early departure… but I had just fallen in love with Lille.
My partner felt the same, it seemed, and as a francophone could communicate with her better than I. So, when the opportunity arose the following year for me to return to explore a new academic partnership initiative, we returned together. It was a short trip, yet we saw more of the city than we had before, which only deepened our relationship with Lille.
I gratefully accepted an invitation to return the following summer with a group of students from my home university, and again the summer after that. By the third summer I was both teaching and serving as guide on student trips to nearby WWI sites, relying largely on what I had learned from my partner. Then in 2012 I left home to run the new program that had emerged from those initial administrative meetings. My partner planned to retire early, sell the house in Canada, and move to France as soon as possible. However, the new program was cancelled almost before it began due to budget cuts at my home university, and I had to return to my old job, leaving Lille behind. Still, I vowed to return, if only for the summer; I even kept the lovely seventeenth-century apartment I had rented. I left a part of myself behind.
Back in Canada, my partner convinced me to leave the university, so that we could both return to Lille. I was in love, so it took little convincing. I left the university and what had been my job for a quarter century, left home once again, and moved back into that apartment. I could not know then that my partner would ultimately decide to remain in Canada, in the same house, with someone else.
I had abandoned everything I knew and found myself abandoned in a foreign country with a foreign language. But Lille took me in and gave me comfort, as did her friends. With their help, I worked on my French, and found part-time work both as administrator and as a university teacher. I found another place to live, free of the memory of my ex-partner — a house where Lille and I could be alone together.
Even throughout the enforced confinement of a global pandemic, when I could not travel far from that little house, she expanded my horizons. I have become an official guide-conférencier, giving guided tours of the city and the region — no longer just in English, and no longer just on behalf of the university and the summer program that first allowed me to get to know Lille better. She takes me on long walks, and tells me stories of her past, revealing her scars and wrinkles while becoming ever more alluring, more beautiful. A desire to capture that beauty and reveal it to others furthered my interest in photography, and Lille’s response was as always positive, gracious, and supportive. She introduced me to still other friends, and thanks to them some of my photos are now on display in her Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Lille changed me, enlarged my life. And I love her. Yes, she has many lovers, but I am happy to share her beauty and her pleasures with others. How could I not? Most who get to know her cannot leave without longing to return to her embrace. She has spent her entire existence on a changeable frontier, between cultures, between languages, and so is welcoming to all. She has suffered through many wars, and so offers peace. She has suffered deprivation, and depression, and is willing to share all that she has with all who desire it.
She is the only home I want or need.
Garrett Epp has worked as a teacher (and academic administrator) for 40 years on three continents, and is now also a professional guide as well as an avid photographer.