There’s no way I fancied the return trip back up to Lille on the Megabus so the next best cheapish option was Ouigo, a train service that is run along the lines of a budget airline. You have to check-in half-an-hour before departure, there’s no buffet carriage and luggage costs extra. There’s even one of those cages to put your bag in just in case anyone tries to sneak any larger than allowed luggage through. They also use secondary stations, hence the departure from a station that isn’t the main one in Lyon and arrival somewhere on the outskirts of Lille, but still on the city’s Metro system. For a fare of €15 I can put up with all of that. The train itself was perfectly fine. Someone even asked to swap seats which meant that I got an electrical socket within having to pay the €2 surcharge.
Lille Europe train station offers a left luggage service when you can store bags for a few hours. I knew this because I looked it up on the internet prior to arriving. In hindsight it should have been obvious that thousands of others would have the same idea. When I got there at 11am the doors were locked and a sign informing people that the facility was full. To be fair the demand was huge. During the fifteen minute I was standing outside, perhaps about fifty people pulling suitcases turned up. Many of these were angry but to be fair there was no way, especially with the current security conditions, that such demand could have been met. I waited around to see if it was one-in, one-out but even after three people had collected luggage I was informed that it was still full. I was a bit miffed but anyone who had travelled from abroad, looking forward to seeing their team play for months, must have been gutted. As 20kg of luggage is probably among items prohibited from the stadium the only feasible option for me would be to go back to the hostel where I stayed the other day to see if they would look after my bags. I didn’t want to see the game enough for a mile and a half walk without any guarantee that they would actually even keep hold of my bags. There were plenty of tickets available so I didn’t want to line a tout’s pocket, who probably wouldn’t have given me more than €10 for the ticket. Also I didn’t want a ticket with my name on it potentially getting into the hands of a Russian hooligan.
This meant that I had about eight hours to make use of in Lille. Not wishing to keep going on my French skills but today I finally managed a full conversation ordering a coffee in the local lingo!
When I was in Lille the other day I spotted a good bar showing football, just outside the city centre, which may be a good bet to avoid any aggro. Today I found that it contained a group of England fans playing football in the beer garden, supervised by three police cars. It all seemed good natured but I didn’t want to take the risk of having to leg it out of there with my backpack in the event of it all kicking off. Eventually I found a quiet bar on a side street to watch a game taking place in the same city of which I had a ticket for, which all seemed a bit bizarre. It actually turned out to be a good game to with Slovakia getting a deserved win.
The atmosphere took a noticeable turn for the worse as I walked across Lille, towards the Eurostar station. There were England fans all over the main square, many of whom were behaving leary and singing sectarian songs. By this time Russian supporters were beginning to arrive back from their game which created a bit of a flashpoint. Families and everyday Russian fans (as oppose to the black t-shirted meatheads) were being goaded by Danny Dyer clones. The atmosphere had become toxic and it was still daylight. Walking around Lille today I noticed a new category of police that hadn’t been apparent during the rest of my time in France. In addition to the heavily armed military patrols, the Robocop-uniformed riot police and the regular regional and local police were a group of middle-aged men wearing jeans and carrying helmets, batons and radios. The police-logo on their vest was the only indication that they were representing the authorities. My initial thought was that they reminded me of the rent-a-mob style of police from the television show, The Shield. One of them was wearing a sweatshirt with the logo from another popular television, Sons Of Anarchy, bizarrely about a motorcycle gang who were about as anti-law as you could get. So far in France the policing had been good-natured, with officers happy to give directions to lost tourists and pose for photos with fans. However the recent developments in Lille didn’t fill me with any confidence that if it did eventually kick off tonight.
The Eurostar was slightly underwhelming. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it’s just a standard intercity train, although being in central London half an hour after leaving central Lille (allowing for the time difference) is still quite impressive. There were quite a few Slovakians on the train who were in good spirits and that’s not a euphemism for being drunk. They were genuinely elated to have beat Russia and were dispelling a common eastern European stereotype and remaining sober. In St Pancreas the breaking news was that it was kicking off in Lille. I don’t mean to say this in a pompous or self-righteous way but what I saw was quite embarrassing. It was then onwards to my accommodation for the night, a chair in Heathrow Airport.