People are strange, but the same everywhere
People are strange, when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly, when you're alone
Women seem wicked, when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven, when you're alone
Jim Morrison knew what he was talking about. Although he was more of a stranger to life in general, these lyrics describe perfectly the state of mind you can get into in a foreign city where you don't speak the language. The song kept popping up in my head the last couple of days in Lille.
I don't know if there is a right and a wrong way to familiarize yourself with a new setting. My strategy, if you can call it that, is always to start looking for similarities. These can be a waiter trying to get the attention of people passing by, couples fighting or kissing, the uncertain posture of a French man speaking English, which you recognize as your own speaking French, or the way people pretend not to see the beggars in the street asking for some small change.
On my first day in Lille, drinking a cup of coffee and watching people passing by, there was suddenly a disturbance in the crowd, heads turning and people stepping aside. A bunch of twenty-somethings in white overcoats were leading a pack of younger people wearing bathrobes and towels around there necks. They were singing loud and punching the sky with their fists. Arriving at the fountain in the middle of the main square the bathrobes and towels were thrown of at the call of one of the white coats. It was thirteen degrees out and these youngsters were about to take a bath in the middle of the street. They kept on singing and jumping untill, again at the call of one of the white coats, they gathered around the monument in the middle and started doing the elephant walk. With that last move it was certain, these were students in their introduction period of the university.
I went out to take some pictures and to try to find out a little bit more. Even if they are students and probably know how to speak some English, stepping up to them and asking "Parlez-vous Anglais", is not the right way to get information. "Non", is the only way the average French person knows how to react to that question. In my best French I manage to learn that they are students of the medical faculty and this is indeed their introduction week. Whether the introduction is for the university or for some voluntary student society I still don't know, but at least there is recognition. I had to do the same silly things when I started out at the university of Leiden.
Another strategy to feel a bit more at home is to find other strangers in the same predicament, or who have been at some point. I already mentioned the Australian pub here in Lille. After five days here I have gotten to know almost everyone there and they helped me with some contacts so I can finally move on to Paris. You can always feel at home in a community of strangers, and in this case they were crucial to get a foot in the door with the French. I am grateful to have met them. Á Bientôt! Tomorrow I'll be off to Lens.