Lille to Liège – Desire Paths

Max Sebald once said that the clocks in Lille and Liège kept the same time but were different from the other cities across Belgium in the nineteenth century. It was only the connection by train between French and Flemish speaking cities that brought the times into synchronisation. I was a visiting lecturer to the University of Lille 3 in the 1990s. I used to take the train from Newcastle station when I travelled to teach there, and then change onto the new Eurostar service from London Waterloo. The Eurostar train only started daily services in May 1995 so it was still an exciting novelty to see Lille shown on the departure boards far in the north east of England. For a short time in the 1990s, the incoming train from Newcastle would stop out in a vast yard of rail lines in London, the engine driver would disembark and walk slowly the full length of the train then start again in reverse to complete the last few miles into Waterloo International.

My stay in Lille during each teaching period was always intensely busy so my exploration of the city was limited. I grew to know the Allée de Liège, with its glass shopping mall, Euralille on its southeastern side. If I arrived late in the afternoon on the Eurostar, then the mall provided a quicker walking route than the allée, and offered the additional benefit of a small coffee bar just before the exit. On my later stays, I started using the Hotel Lille Europe, which was part of this gigantic glass mall. Travelling for work always creates economies of movement.

At breakfast, the room-height windows of the first floor offered a panorama of the city. The tinted glass cast a bluish grey cloud over the commuters as they hurried to work. North-west across the double width road, I could see the Henri Matisse Park being laid out; it was still a contest between new paving and those desire paths trampled by workers late for the office. I did not realise back then that Wallonia lay due east of the Allée de Liège and that a desire path began only 200 metres from where I enjoyed breakfast.