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06.09.2004

Lille

Great Britain is a deceptively small country; it's very easy to get distracted and find that you've overshot it altogether, which is how I found myself standing near a petrochemical plant in Calais just a few hours after boarding a train in Sheffield, a city that I thought was safely removed from the southern coast.

The French have done everything in their power to encourage their British neighbors to stay away. An entire two-mile strip along the coast has been carefully devastated, as if to say "turn back, nothing but industrial wasteland from here to the Urals". Ferry passengers disembark onto a giant concrete apron surrounded by derricks, and only a twenty minute ride on the shuttle bus reveals that you have arrived in a cool little city, with LEGO-like towers and a tolerable downtown.

The Brits seem completely undaunted by this ruse. A large number of them are drawn to the ferry by some complex and advantageous tax loophoole that involves buying massive quantities of beer (and let's be honest, do you need an excuse?). Large South Asian families are also well-represented, seduced by the thought of taking group photographs of themselves backlit against a grubby ferry window. Still other visitors are day-trippers who just seem to enjoy the shopping in Calais, or perhaps what attracts them is the opportunity to taste food that does not contain mechanically separated meat.

Since I was in northern France, it seemed like a good time to go see the big Rubens exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille that I had heard about some months ago. Rubens is one of my personal heroes - a phenomenal painter who lived a happy and full life, got extremely rich from his art, served as an unofficial diplomat under cover of his art-related travels, had two beautiful wives, and died old and universally respected. Working in a profession in which people are liable to walk up to you painting on the street and say "you have to suffer", it's good to keep someone like Rubens fixed firmly in your mind. Misery and squalor in service of artistic inspiration are Romantic inventions that he would have found amusing, in between lavish state dinners and extremely frequent and satisfying bouts of marital sex.

Every public space in England south of King's Cross had been plastered with posters for "Lille! European city of culture, 2004". Lille is the capital of French Flanders (bon-diddly-jour!), tucked up next to Belgium, in that sweet spot where the beer is magnificent, but people can still understand and laugh at a Belgian joke. The train from Calais to Lille is a wonderful, rickety old box that stops at villages with names like Aiscqx and Wijrijenbovhen, and clatters through field after wide green field in between. Most of these green fields have seen some hideous fighting in the past hundred years - the train runs near Arras, site of a 1940 British tank battle, and the trenches of the first world war ran in a line paralleling the coast, just to the west of Lille. Lille had been occupied during both world wars, and bombed heavily in the second, so I had been careful to apply my life philosophy ("minimize expectations") before the visit. After all, I was fresh from the equally industrial city of Sheffield, which even without dual German invasions was closer in aesthetics to Detroit than to Chartres or Venice.

To my happy astonishment, Lille turned out to be a charming city, full of historic buildings and in the summer weather strangely reminiscent of Marseille - slightly seedy, busy, filled with Moroccan and Tunisian merchants. I had occasion to wonder again at the omnipresent kebab stands; the cylinder of rotating meat that transcends cultures, languages, borders, infesting every city center in Europe; an object of dubious nutritive value that could serve as the symbol of the European Union. I checked in to the Hotel Monte Carlo, in tribute to my aleatory travel plans, and found the usual long cylinder pillow, a nice view of Lilleois rooftops, and free in-room pornography (hardcore after midnight!). I was travelling in style.

Somewhere between Warsaw and London I had acquired a knack for bringing full, glorious summer with me everywhere I went; I have vivid memories of people in Sheffield stopping and staring up at the sky, mouths open, marveling at the strange blue expanse they knew only from books; watching my fair-skinned friend turn scarlet over the course of a single beer at an outdoor table. Lille was no exception; it was bright, hot, relentlessly sunny. The central square of the city had been turned into a remarkable art installation, something called the suspended forest. This was a canopy of eerily lifelike leaves held up by wires about fifteen feet above the pavement, with fake papier mâché trunks pointing up into the sky far above. Public art in France is bimodal: it tends to either fail horribly (who can forget giant inflatable robots at the World Cup?) or succeed with flair, and the inverted forest fell right into the second category. I sat for a while under the real shade from ersatz trees, drinking little, tiny six dollar beers.

The Rubens exhibition was being held in the Palais des Beaux Arts, which is one of those stately and imposing Belle Epoque edifices that the French could knock out in their sleep back in the late 19th century. Its many staircases were sprinkled with anarchists, basking in the sun like rattlesnakes. Inside, the museum was packed full: every senior citizen in France had apparently been given instructions to attend the exhibition on pain of losing his pension. Reinforcements had even been called in from abroad; there were Dutch seniors, Belgian seniors, even a large contingent of the kind of big-haired British ladies who I would have sworn never set foot outside the United Kingdom.

All the viewers had picked up the little audio guide that is now ubiquitous in European museums, giving the impression of a roomful of people on the phone with a very chatty and somewhat bossy friend. Fortunately, age and the stunting effect of a wartime childhood combined to keep the average height in the room low, and I could see the top halves of many of the paintings. It certainly helped that Rubens had not been squeamish about painting on a gigantic scale. When you have an entire studio full of assistants and sub-painters to take care of things like carpets, skies, and large expanses of fabric or dimpled belly, you can be fearless about square footage.

Rubens is best known these days for painting fat women and cherubs, which is accurate but leaves out his greatest talent, which was for dynamic composition and the use of color. You can see this most clearly in the little preparatory cartoons and sketches he did for his major paintings, creating an entire little world with just a few brushstrokes. Three hundred years before Marvel comics, Rubens was throwing around jumbles of bodies in contorted, muscly poses, all painted with a beautiful feel for color, and he got his pictures effortlessly right on the first try. He can be excused the occasional superheavyweight Venus or an excessive use of cherubim.

The paintings I like best are ones Rubens did purely for his own use; a quick portrait of a parrot, or some little head studies for use in later paintings. The Lille exhibition even had a nice collection of drawings, which are humbling and unbelievable. The man makes it look effortless.

Fired up by the art show, but also stir-crazy from spending two hours packed into a room with hundreds of people, I wandered out into the city to see what else I might find. There was a large map of Lille posted by the old tourist bureau with a large star outline marked "citadel", just north of the Old City. It looked worth exploring.

The citadel turned out to be the real article, a beautiful old fort built under Louis XIV as part of a chain of fortifications to protect against the Dutch threat, back when that was a problem. Given the recent progress in relations with Holland, I was somewhat surprised to see that the citadel was still serving strong as a base for the 43rd Regiment.

No army in Europe can resist the temptations of a citadel. With a thousand years of continual warfare, most European cities have acquired one or more of these solid, eye-catching historic fortifications, usually in the most prominent and visualy attractive part of the city. And rather than to throw this open to crowds of eager tourists, armies will do anything they can to be allowed to continue using the structures for parading around and whatever else it is European armies do to fill their days. This is certainly the case in Poland, where the Warsaw citadel remains an active army base (because it has been so effective at protecting Warsaw in the past), and it was the case in Lille, where I got turned back by two bemused and very insistent guards when I tried to take a walk through the four-hundred-year-old ruin.

Readers of this site will know that I am a staunch Francophile, and that I have been steadfast in defending the honor of the French armed forces in the face of jingoistic attacks by people who play fast and loose with European history. I hated the France-bashing that preceded the Iraq war and the smug ignorance it represented. Over the life of this blog, I've done what I can to cheerlead for France, and promote harmony and mutual understanding. But I have to draw the line at citadels.

At some point in the past fifty years, a President of the Republic should have stood up to his General Staff and said: "Right - with the most powerful army in Europe, you stood idle and let Germany rearm in explicit contravention of a treaty signed with you just a dozen years before. And then you did nothing when Germany began an unprovoked war with Poland, preferring to dig in to your fortifications rather than strike the weakly defended German industrial heartland with your ninety seven combat divisions. When the decisive attack finally came, almost a year after the start of hostilities, you disintegrated with stunning celerity. Your greatest living war hero completely discredited his country serving as the leader of a collaborationist rump wartime state, and your conduct during and after the war was ambiguous at best. You brought shame upon your country in Algeria and Indochina. You conducted nuclear tests in the South Pacific way after that had gone completely out of style.

You sank a fucking Greenpeace ship.

NO CITADELS FOR YOU!"

But it never happened, so now France has not only irritating little affectations of power like the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle or the Force de Frappe, but its armed forces occupy vast tracts of lovely real estate that would much better serve as a museum, historical park or just plain recreational site.

Still, outrage is remarkably hard to sustain in Lille in May, particularly when dinnertime finds you in a Moroccan restaurant, ladling vegetables onto couscous from an enormous tureen and eating giant hunks of meat from a platter. If 17th century citadels are what it takes to protect this fantastic restaurant culture, then it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. The last thing we need is Dutch invaders pouring over the border to impose their culinary yoke of flensjes, hagelslag, and roast ooievaar.

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