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Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Bologna sandwich

Can you name the deadliest terrorist attacks in Western Europe? Like me, you probably think of Nice, Paris, or the Madrid subway bombing in 2004. Like me, you may not remember the fourth on that list, which was linked not with Islamists, but with the far right.

In the front of Bologna Centrale train station, there is a list of the victims of 2 August 1980. On that day, a neofascist terrorist group targeting the famously left-wing city planted a suitcase containing a time bomb in an air-conditioned waiting room at the station. Air conditioning being rare in Italy then, and knowing how hot Bologna gets in the summer, I can imagine how many people were crammed into that room. Between the station and a train that was waiting at the platform, 85 people were killed, ranging in age from 3 to 86, as the list of names tells us. It was the worst massacre in Italy since the Second World War.

It is surprising to remember that in my own lifetime, countries in Western Europe were still struggling with fascism, just as Eastern Europe was oppressed by communist totalitarianism. Spain and Greece were dictatorships into the 1970s, and Italy had a history of political violence as both right- and left-wing extremist organizations killed for their ends—just to give three examples. 

I mention this because it is useful to be reminded that extremist violence is not new, nor is totalitarianism a danger that is generations removed from us in the West. Standing in front of Bologna Centrale station the other day, and reading those names, was as sobering as realizing there were concentration camps in Italy.

We came to Bologna for the practical reason that it is centrally located, and wherever we were going to next in Italy, we could get there easily from Bologna. We were also told it is beautiful. It is, and window shopping on the Via Rizzoli, you’d never know the area has a long history of being governed by communists. For signs of that, look to Via Stalingrado (now, ironically, adorned with a McDonald’s), or the public bike system, rows on rows of red (of course) bicycles that look as tattered as if they’d come from the old Soviet Union. To be fair, they are free.

Bologna is also credited with having the oldest university in the world. My dad tells me that students, rather than faculty, ran the university, and if they didn’t think lectures were long or thorough enough, they fined the professors. Maybe that’s where the left-wing tradition began.

Getting there on the train was challenging, though. The trains were all right, except we didn’t realize the coach numbers appeared on signs along the platform. So we counted from the wrong end, then got on the train and had to haul our baggage through all of 2nd class and most of 1st class too. Didn’t feel like we were traveling so light! When we arrived, the apartment was nice, but there was no map and in the absence of a coastline I was completely disoriented. 

This is where I plug another business we are not actually customers of. The SavHotel in Bologna was next door, and its staff extremely helpful. I got English, and a free map.

I try to remember to ask Italians if they speak English, even if I think they can help me without it. People do like to help. One man offered Spanish and, while we’ve already established I don’t speak Spanish, I was pretty sure I could ask for a bus ticket. He didn’t sell them but told me tabacs did (these are shops that sell cigarettes and sundries, also called tabacs in France and Québec, I believe). Fearful that I might not understand tabac, he then did an elaborate mime of puffing on a cigarette, which made me laugh. Then there was the guy who, before I could ask, said clear as day, “I beg your pardon? English is possible!”

Bologna is distinguished by its anarchist graffiti, which I guess is part of the anti-state tradition also. Stuff like “Rome is shit,” or this gem:
Only the good-looking ones, T. said

They say travelers don’t know where they’re going, and tourists don’t know where they’ve been.

We met a tourist the other day. We were on a hot train platform and the afternoon was probably getting to him. Being American, he was friendly, and I found out that he knew the part of the world I grew up in, which most people overseas do not. But when I asked him how long his family was staying in Italy, he got this distracted expression.

“We’re on one of those tours,” he said with a vague gesture, “where they just take you all around…” Then he and his son had to rush off and join his wife.

We always have time to talk about where we’ve been. As to where we’re going, I’m afraid the hot afternoons have played a role in figuring that out. Because it has been hot. More than 90 degrees F hot, every day, and sunny all day, for weeks and weeks. Ireland was a totally different world. It’s July in southern Europe, and traveling has us outdoors and walking a lot. We are tired of being quite so hot.

I appreciate that this is a very First World problem! Parts of the First World live in central air conditioning, but that is not the case for travelers in Europe. A whole world of tourists seems to be here in July, and when we looked down the Adriatic coast towards Croatia, the weather looked to be as hot as central Italy. So we have decided to turn north. I suppose the turning point was Florence.

Florence (Firenze) is a world treasure, one of the first foreign cities I wanted to visit, and I will never forget that first time. But it was December then, and in the picture (there’s only one), I’m wearing my overcoat and wool beret. I saw the Galleria degli Uffizi (the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art) and the Galleria dell’Accademia (built to house Michelangelo’s David). I don’t remember prebooking tickets in those pre-Internet days, or standing in long lines. I remember room after room of Madonnas in the Uffizi and then all of a sudden Botticelli’s Birth of Venus burst into view, a pagan sigh of relief.

I’m glad I had all those experiences twenty-five years ago. Because, while I don’t know what Florence was like this past December, I wouldn’t recommend anyone’s first or only visit be in high summer. It was hot. It was crowded, but what I really mean by that is that things were sold out. I couldn’t have gotten into the key museums even if I’d wanted to. Four hours standing in line is not unusual.

As for the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), the cathedral itself is free, but the line was so discouraging I ruled out going in again. And tickets were sold out to go up into Brunelleschi’s dome (fortunately, I’d already done that too). I briefly considered climbing Giotto’s bell tower instead, but there’s no way to buy a ticket just for that; you have to pay the 15 euros for the museum, then stand in line, then climb up 414 steps. On a cooler day I might have done it. This time, it was just another thing in Florence I didn’t go into.
Ponte Vecchio (1345), the only bridge across the Arno not destroyed by retreating Nazis

Don’t get me wrong: We were glad to get back to Florence. It’s beautiful from the outside too, and it was nice just to wander without the pressure to buy tickets or check things off lists. But I felt bad for people whose only experience of Florence was that one. If you’re going to go there once, I do not recommend July.
Palazzo Pitti

It didn’t help that we could have gotten train tickets for a fraction of the cost. We had read online the day before that you can get to Florence in only half an hour from Bologna, and for only 9 euros. Each of those things is true, but not both. To get there in less than an hour and a half requires the high-speed train, almost all of the journey underground, and it costs a lot more than 9 euros. It’s amazing how an expensive train ticket can suddenly make one balk at paying 7 euros to go in the Boboli Gardens.

We’ll figure Italian trains out perfectly—just in time to move on to somewhere completely different.

We stopped in the shadow of the Duomo to have a cold drink (we stop for this a lot). The people at the next table may have been Canadian, judging by the daughter’s Toronto Blue Jays cap. The mother kept insisting to the waiter that her children would only eat pasta with either “alfredo sauce,” which I have not seen on menus in Italy, or “ground beef with tomato sauce.” She kept repeating “ground beef” although I don’t think this phrase meant anything to the waiter. I’m not sure what they ended up ordering…

Tourists, eh? 

Our last day in Bologna we stopped by the Sala Borsa, a free public library. (Must’ve been the communism wearing off on us.)
Pictures of Italian resisters, outside Sala Borsa
In the library I found a postcard for a Joan
Miró exhibition in the Palazzo Albergati. I’m a fan of Miró and had looked for his works in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, but hadn’t been able to find them. Maybe they were on loan to Bologna! I enjoyed an hour with his paintings, almost all to myself, in a peace and cool that was far removed from Florence.

Outside the library T. met a couple from Asheville who noticed she was wearing the same backpack as theirs. (Thankfully, at least ours aren't the same color.) They're traveling around Europe the opposite direction from us: they'd come from Trieste and were on their way to celebrate their birthdays in Nice and Barcelona. They're dragging suitcases around with them too, but as he's about to turn 70, and she 75, I don't blame them! With their tales of bouncing around from hostel to hostel, meeting students from all over the world, they sounded younger than me.

We finished the day at a wine bar, Enoteca Italiana, on the wonderfully named side street Via Malcontenti. We found it by accident. I tasted (and subsequently bought a bottle of) a local wine, and the proprietor served us each a square of lasagna, which is what they’d cooked that day. It was delicious--and all very red.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Liguria the superb*

Question: Which of these three fellow bus passengers is most likely not Canadian? A. The one who describes the “washroom” on the bus as out of order; B. The one carrying a Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack; C. The one with a maple leaf flag and badge prominently displayed on her backpack, who says “That’s awesome!” in a loud voice. If you guessed C, I’ll bet my passport (or at least one of them) that the maple leaf passenger is from the United States. I can confirm that A was, in fact, Canadian; I have been recognised (Berlin 2008) as having come from Canada by my MEC bag.

There are over a hundred tunnels along the coast from the French to the Italian Riviera. We seemed to pass through each one of them by road. The journey was some of the most spectacular scenery, close between mountains and the sea, punctuated constantly by tunnels. 

In other respects, it was the least eventful border crossing I can remember. I didn’t even see a “Welcome” sign, just noticed that road signs were suddenly in Italian. What a difference from my first crossing between France and Italy, in those pre-Schengen days. The train juddered to a halt and a moustached police officer with a dog entered our compartment. The dog was very interested in my case, and I had to open it for inspection. No, I hadn’t borrowed the bag from a dodgy relative (Mom?); it was the jar of peanut butter that my dear friend Fritz, under the impression that I couldn’t get peanut butter during three months in England, had sent me by sea mail. I’m sure the shipping cost more than the peanut butter; fortunately I didn’t have to surrender it to the Italian police. I do miss Fritz.

This time, our bus driver was French, and the first (and only) stereotypical Gaul we’ve encountered on our travels. Unlike previous French drivers, who gamely announced “Sorry for the late” and “Be sure to forget—not to forget” in English, this one was angry, and shouted and gesticulated throughout the journey. Mostly at other drivers, though also in animated conversation with a passenger in the front row. To his credit, he announced several times clearly (in French) that we would have only thirty minutes for our lunch stop, and Dieu help us if we boarded the bus late. We were all back on board within half an hour. The driver then proceeded to light his own cigarette, and continue to smoke it while walking up and down the aisle of the parked bus, counting passengers. He then forgot to put on the air conditioning until one of us reminded him; I suspect it was to avoid his highly illegal French smoke getting in the AC and causing him problems down the road. He dropped us at a stop in Genoa, no bus station in sight, angrily yelling about somebody else.

In Italy, we’re taking trains.

Liguria, northern Italy, was at one time the Republic of Genoa. It’s sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Appennines, which is how I found myself taking a snack break partway up a mountain called Ramaceto. It was Sunday morning and the church bells were really going to town. I felt a pang of guilt for once again not being in church on Sunday, even though I wouldn’t have understood much of the service. (I needn’t have worried; Ramaceto is topped by a chapel and a statue of Mary. She’s followed us all the way from Ireland.)

There was a candy wrapper lying along the trail. Normally while hiking, I’d be disgusted to see litter. But as we hadn’t seen a soul the whole way up the hot mountain (though not as hot as Sainte-Victoire), I admit a sign of humanity made me feel less alone. Surely we would survive to see our cousins, at whose house we were staying, again.

There was a tea bag on the final ascent and I stopped appreciating wrappers. But that sense of isolation was something I hadn't experienced, certainly not in Ireland, where hillwalking was on national park trails with people from many countries. We saw exactly one other person on the plateau of Ramaceto, a ragged-looking pilgrim who carried a sleeping mat and said he’d run out of food. (One of the reasons always to carry extra lunch.) It’s a beautiful mountain, which can be seen from our cousins’ window. It isn’t on tourist maps though. And, as our pilgrim friend had discovered, even in the village you can’t buy anything to eat. There are no shops anymore.

I’ve been in more rural places, but not many. There is a road, and the church, whose bells peal regularly throughout the day. You can hear them across the valley. Sitting up here in the mountains, with  the moon and stars at night, knowing that wolves are out there somewhere. It is not the Italy of the guidebooks.

And that’s a good thing. Italy, like Spain, hasn’t always existed; it’s a bunch of different places, and Liguria isn’t one I’d ever visited or knew anything about. In fact I was looking forward to our time in Italy for where I didn’t have to go.

I hasten to say that the well-known cities of Italy are unforgettable. Everyone should visit Pisa or Pompeii, and it is said of Rome, in particular, that you could spend a lifetime there and still not see it all. As for Florence, it’s a gift to humanity. But I have been to all those places, and so, while I know I’ve only scratched the surface of them, I could resist the checklist mentality. I can see a different and less urban side of Italy.

We’d never have stayed in this village without knowing someone here, which is the beauty of it. Even Genoa, the port city of Liguria that was once on a par with Venice, is not on must-see traveler’s lists the way that Rome, Florence, and Venice itself are. Which is kind of a shame, because there’s a lot of beauty in the old city. But it was also kind of nice to feel we were discovering something for ourselves.

Standing at the top of Ramaceto, however, looking down at the sea from one direction and the village from another, the rest of the world seemed forlornly far away.

Then I saw them. More hikers! They had obviously come up a different trail from another village, and were making a beeline for the summit. T. remarked that we’d toiled up the mountain all morning in solitude, only to find our lunch break interrupted by a bunch of other people. (She put it more graciously than that, of course.)

They were all Italian speakers, which made me feel better. They might not have been local—our cousins’ village only has 250 inhabitants, and almost all of the families have lived there for generations. But they weren’t French or German or English speakers, and that made me feel as if I’d discovered something, too.  (We could communicate enough that one of them offered to take a picture of us both.)

I’ve been writing about my languages, or lack thereof. If my Spanish was bad, my Italian is almost nonexistent. I guess a language in another alphabet would be even more challenging, as I can at least guess some words on Italian signs, but starting a conversation would not be a good idea. And here is where the difference between speaking a language a little or badly, and not at all, became apparent again.

When something non-English comes out of my mouth, it is most likely to be French. This results in lots of mistakes like saying “oui” when I mean to say “si”. When this happens, as when I was asking for coffee in a town on the Ligurian Riviera, the coffee lady took me for a French speaker and addressed me in that language. Clearly she knew I had no clue in Italian, so at least we were making progress.

I was most trepidatious about the ufficio postale. Post offices can be challenges anywhere, but mailing a package from Spain had been time-consuming enough, and I knew I would need help in Italy. There was only one person at the counter who dealt with packages, and when I asked hopefully “Parla inglese?” she assured me she did not. I then asked if she spoke French.

Un peu,” was the answer. It’s exactly what I say when someone asks me, and by gum, a little is enough to get things done in a post office. T. came over to the counter to remind me to stop saying oui

“But I mean to say oui! We are using French—it’s the only language we have in common!”

I don’t know how long the Italian mail will take to deliver my extraordinarily expensive package. But I know if the post office lady and I didn’t both have bad French, we would be there to this day, an unbridgeable gulf between my English and her Italian.

The day our cousins, one of them a native of Genoa, spent showing us around his hometown was a revelation. After the near silence of the village (broken only by church bells and the all-day crowing of roosters), a city felt overstimulating, and even hotter. Luckily the narrow streets of the centro storico are mostly shady, and there are patios. 
Detail of Cathedral San Lorenzo, rumored to hold the Holy Grail, a relic of the crusading years (1097-1101)

Genoa from one of its many high points, accessible by public transit elevator
In its mediaeval and Grand Tour heydays, Genoa rivaled and even eclipsed Venice. I assume that the reason everyone goes to Venice nowadays is the canals. Both cities have doge’s palaces, marvelous old architecture, and a history with Marco Polo (Venice claims him; Genoa locked him up). Those of us with U.S. origins know that Genoa produced Christopher Columbus, a figure who did not, in fact, “discover America” but does keep following us around through these travels, from Madrid to Barcelona.

Strade Nuove, the street of palaces
Imperial Spain may have sent Columbus to discover what he thought was the East, but the money came from Genoa. That is, the money that didn’t stay here. Casa San Giorgio is the first bank in history, and Genovans continued to be very good at holding onto their money. It isn’t ostentatious, but there’s a lot behind the facades of the Palazzi dei Rolli.

Strangely, Genoa also claims one of the darkest accomplishments in history: the introduction of the Black Death to Europe. Its sailors, fleeing the siege of Caffa in Crimea, unwittingly carried the plague home to Genoa, in the same way the ships sailing into New York Harbor for the 1976 Bicentennial may or may not have brought the virus that causes AIDS. The 1347 plague is thought to have killed one out of every three people in Europe.

But Genovese life wasn’t all plague deaths and despoiling the Americas. The people of Genoa and Liguria found time to create some of the tastiest foods we know: pesto, focaccia, and pansotti with walnut sauce, just to name three. I know these things are widely for sale in supermarkets, but they don’t taste the same as homemade in their native region. What does?  

When we did a village-to-village hike in the Cinque Terre, we kept telling ourselves that friends in their seventies had done it a few years ago, and we couldn’t be shown up by them! It turns out they’d done a coastal walk that was somewhat less arduous than climbing up to the clifftops. I considered it making up for the hike we couldn’t do in France.
Manarola, with its steeply terraced vineyards
 It is true that the old people of Liguria seem to get out and enjoy themselves. The ladies were seated in the shade at the top of Genoa where we went to get gelato, fans in hand. The men were in groups playing cards or boccia down by the beach. Or standing in a row at their local coffee bar, drinking glasses of prosecco at 11:00 in the morning. The coffee there was the best deal I’ve found.

Our last day we visited Camogli on the coast. That area gave the world focaccia con formaggio, a delicious cheesy focaccia that doesn’t resemble any I had ever had abroad. Then we took a boat to the 10th-century abbey of San Fruttuoso. It’s a weird place: this ancient abbey facing right onto the sea, now surrounded by beach and bars. Somehow it seems fitting for this beautiful region of Italy: the sacred and the recreational, all mixed up together. Like life, really.

*Nicholas Walton, Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fond memories of my Aix

When we left England, I thought the hardest adjustment for T. would be leaving behind our washing machine. I can’t say if that’s true, but laundry has become a big part of our lives. We seem to spend a lot of time checking whether our hosts have a washing machine, figuring out how to use the machines, and finding laundromats. I haven’t spent so much time in laveries since my grandma looked after the Lakeside Laundry ca. 1980.

At the packing stage, I planned on having a week’s worth of clothes. Inevitably, though, we have not been doing laundry every seven days on the dot. If we can’t get to a machine, the laundry may have to wait a day; if it’s so hot we’ve sweated through all the sleeveless shirts, it happens more often. I’m equipped to hand wash things in a sink occasionally, but laundry, like eating, has become a function: we do it when we have the opportunity. I have never thought so much about food, clothing, and shelter, those basic necessities of life. Not because I can’t afford them, but because I constantly have to find them someplace new.

So we’ve slowed down. We can’t be hitting the road again every two or three days. Ireland still felt like vacation—“two weeks till our ferry to France; let’s go everywhere we can.” France, by contrast, feels like a good place to reside, or at least stay in one place for more than a few days. To eat, to drink, to live.

Plus it was 36 degrees C in Provence.

Some things didn’t change between Spain and France. One was the sex positivity—condom machines on street corners and, on the road into both Barcelona and Narbonne, billboards advertizing sex toy shops. Perhaps related was the heat. Aix-en-Provence was filled with people from many places; T. remarked that if it had had the sea, it would have been overwhelming.

But no sea, and no sea breeze. Brilliant scenery, to be sure. The parc naturel of the Camargue, and Arles, were both striking from the road, but neither compared to the charm of actually being in Aix-en-Provence. Its beauty, and that of the nearby mountain, Sainte-Victoire, inspired the native son of Aix, Paul Cézanne.
The distinctive ochre color of Aix's buildings comes from the nearby quarry.
They make a big deal of Cézanne in Aix these days, but it wasn’t always thus. During his lifetime the pretty little town turned its back on Cézanne, an oversight, our guide Stella told us, that it regrets to this day. The result is that the town does not own a museum or even a roomful of Cézanne paintings: it has exactly two, plus eight that it borrowed (thirty years ago) from the Musée d’Orsay. The rest of his works are still in Paris or, mostly, the United States. Hard to know which grieves the good people of Provence more.

Probably Paris. After all, Provençal was the standard and literary language from the 12th to the 14th centuries, before Parisian French was imposed on everyone. Provençal is the most important of the Occitan dialects spoken in the south of France, and is closely related to Catalan. As with the Basques, there are Catalan speakers in France as well as Spain who would like a greater Catalunya, centered in Barcelona. You can see from the street signs in Aix that Provençal’s spelling and grammar are closer to Spanish than French.

We learned a lot about Cézanne on this walk. His big contribution to painting, and what his contemporaries didn’t like, I guess, was to paint what he felt, rather than realistic representations. This was explained to us as a necessary innovation in art, because Cézanne’s life coincided with the invention of photography, and so painting had to do something new. He painted colors side by side instead of drawing in line. Picasso, among others, revered “Monsieur” Cézanne.
Ancienne Chapellerie de Cours Mirabeau (his father's old hat shop)

Inspired by his paintings of the mountain, we set out boldly to hike Sainte-Victoire ourselves. It is two months until I set out up Kilimanjaro (see sidebar), and I need all the practice I can get. So we got information, got a bus, and started off for Lac Bimont.

Unfortunately, it was 36 degrees, and a dry heat. Meaning fire risk. Meaning, as sometimes happens in other places I’ve hiked (Arizona), the trails were all closed. We could not even hike down to the lake! Nothing to do but catch the next bus, which was driven by a man wearing a bolo tie and cowboy hat (speaking of the southwest). In the village of Vauvenargues, I snapped a picture of the Provençal lavender fields.

Of course, we also did laundry. The laundromat was pretty hot, as they get in such weather, so while waiting for the clothes to finish we crossed the street to a bar called Kremlin. It was even hotter inside, but it was worth it. A little boy with glasses, who appeared to be guarding the door, shouted “Maman! Il y a des gens!” She came to see these people and that is how we ended up with beers in a vodka bar. Every other container of vodka seemed to be shaped like some alarming military implement: a missile, a machine gun. 

Maman was not Russian, she told us, though her husband is from Belarus. She is Portuguese, but her son (I’m not sure which of them was prouder to tell us this) is French. “Il est né ici,” she said, and the little boy laughed. He laughed at everything. When he said he supported the Portuguese national football team, and T. mentioned her erstwhile fondness for Cristiano Ronaldo, I thought he was going to go into fits.

We left Kremlin for the relative cool of the laundromat, and I reflected on how friendly everyone we met in France seemed to be. Some, like the staff of the Kremlin or the hairdressers, we spoke with only in French; others heard us speaking and volunteered English, like the woman in Vauvenargues who suggested another place we might walk (it was closed too). At our last lunch in town, the man at the next table made suggestions (in French) as to how T. could take an artistic photograph through a glass of kir, which is possibly the most French thing anyone could make suggestions about.

There were tourists, but it wasn’t a tourist vibe. It was more a vibe of people living together, short- or long-term, and buying fresh bread every morning at the boulangerie just like our neighbors. I’ve mentioned my fondness for the bonjours and au revoirs that lubricate every social interaction; I was thrilled that, even with my haircut, even wearing a hat, they still always called me madame. These people are just clued in somehow!

Part of what made Aix so rewarding is how much we weren’t on vacation. En vacances, people look forward to eating out every day; we liked not having to forage, being able to eat as well as you’d expect in Provence, whether on the go or “at home.” 

This isn’t a restaurant-recommendation type of blog, but I do want to say that we treated ourselves to Le Petit Verdot and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had in my life. (And not that expensive either, in terms of value for money.) I’d read mixed reviews but decided to go down the unprepossessing side street and try this place that uses old wine crates for tables. They found one for us outside when we said indoors was going to be unbearably hot. They presented (literally, introduced) the menu to us in English, although we hadn’t asked them to. And a pichet (jug) of any wine was the same price, so I chose the most local red they recommended, which also happened to be the most expensive by the bottle. It was so good even T. had a glass.

On the way home one night we came across Saint-Esprit’s church (18th century). It was open to worshippers only, as they were having a service. We didn’t go in, but I paused, and was genuinely thankful for all my blessings, especially the opportunity to travel and share stories with the rest of you.

And to eat well, of 
Interior of St. John of Malta church, 12th century
I was sorry to leave Provence, as anyone would be. But the Côte d’Azur is a good bit cooler and not a comedown at all. I’d been to the Nice area before, but only in winter, so enjoying the seafront is new to me.

Some things the different places we’ve been in France have in common. They like square pillows, much as the Spanish places tended to one long cylindrical pillow the width of the bed. They like their meat saignant, literally “bleeding.” They don’t seem to like toilet paper holders very much.

In other ways, the Côte d’Azur is very different from Provence. Cagnes-sur-Mer is small, but it feels touristy in a way Aix didn’t. Not that people are unfriendly. The guy in the laundromat still talked to us.

When we aren’t doing laundry, there’s a pebble beach just across from our balcony. It feels like a family beach, much more Bakio than Barcelona. But the absence of surf means I can actually swim. And I am swimming, for as long as I can.

Have to get that fitness training in somehow.
Moon over the Mediterranean

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Spain to France

I am really glad to be back in France.

That is not to say it’s all been smooth, or that we didn’t enjoy our previous sojournings. But foreign is relative and, for someone like me who no longer knows what is home and what is foreign, France feels relatively familiar.

It’s amazing the difference between speaking a language badly, or in pidgin form, and knowing only a few words. I thought my French was pitiful, until I tried remembering Spanish. Never mind all the countries where the most I can do is memorize the sounds for “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Do you speak English?” In the same way that England back to Canada feels like coming home, or France back to England, crossing the French border felt like a sigh of relief.

Or would have. As I said, it hasn’t all been smooth. I just got finished cleaning AfterSun lotion off a selection of items that were sharing the same Ziploc bag (the bag, being from Sainsbury’s, had handily burst after a few uses, but luckily was separate from everything else in my baggage). Before that, there was the tiny matter of the washing machine, a type neither of us had ever used before which, absent a crucial detail that neither of us knew about, gets the drum stuck with all the clothes (and the water) inside. Our Airbnb host is six time zones away. Through the wonders of messaging her, and also my making French sounds, eventually a neighbor guy came over and did “something” and now there’s only water and dripping clothes. 

I was going to take a day off from drinking alcohol, but I can see that’s not a good idea today.

I’m working my way backwards with this journey, but it has once again been littered with examples, not just of breaking stuff, but of how people are nice and try to help each other. (Mon Dieu! Is there anything else we are asked in this life?) We reached Aix-en-Provence after a long and not particularly smooth journey, which I’ll get to; but when we got here, we found that the bus platform we were at—and every other in sight—were just along a main road, seemingly unconnected to a station or any facilities. (I have since found that the first twenty platforms are around the corner at the actual bus station, but that was not visible to us on arrival.) 

Where to look for a taxi? Where even is Aix? We followed a sign towards the city centre, in 90-degree F heat, and then I saw a hotel. In I went, with my French, and asked the guys on reception if they could possibly call us a taxi. I didn’t have a room number, but they assured me it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a guest of the hotel. Five minutes later we were on our way.

We cannot afford the Renaissance Hotel in Aix-en-Provence, but I am happy to recommend them to anyone who can. 

Where we actually are is a tiny little studio with a futon and everything in cubbies or hanging on the wall. It feels sort of like being on a ship. I am in love. Not so much with the busted washing machine, but our own little space, after the Barcelona experience which I’ll come to in a bit. We look out the window at flowerpot-tiled roofs. We walk down the street and there are not only bakeries, naturellement, but grocery stores overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables and an entire aisle of wine. We even got haircuts, for which we were desperate. Sure, I’m not fluent, but if I’d tried that in Spanish I probably would have walked out with a perm or something.

Heureusement, nous sommes en France.

The Schengen agreement, which includes many European countries such as France and Spain, abolished internal passport controls some years ago. In other words, once you get stamped into the Schengen zone (in my case, from Ireland to France) nobody takes your passport and stamps it until you leave the zone for some external country. This doesn’t mean, as we confirmed yesterday, that you shouldn’t have your passport on you when you cross borders. Ever since the attacks in Belgium and France, when it emerged that men were crossing too freely between those two countries to do wicked things, countries have stepped up security. And so it was that as we approached the border, a spot check was going on. They couldn’t have been checking everybody, but a carful of guys was being frisked outside our bus window, and Spanish police boarded and asked us all for our passports. One person only had a photocopy, which they scolded her for, but they couldn’t detain her—it wasn’t passport control.

Then they took a real interest in a woman a few seats in front of us who just happened to have a darker shade of skin than most other people on the bus. Or it could have been her nationality, which I don’t know, or the fact that all her possessions were in plastic bags (hopefully without leaking AfterSun). In any case, they went through everything: her toothbrush, her underwear. She got it all out for them, and then they searched her bags under the bus. In the case of a young white guy on a previous (internal Spanish) bus, the drug dog sniffed him out. This woman evidently didn’t have anything, but we all had to wait, and then it was the turn of the French police down the road! Out came the passports again. A guy with a green passport (passport color is a privilege at least as much as skin) got his taken away and then we had to wait for that. I didn’t think there was any paperwork to be done at these border crossings anymore, but then I wouldn’t want my passport under the bus!

We’d emerged from Andalusia, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, to the welcome sight of the sea. There are evidently more English along this coast. I would take in a sign or some words and suddenly realise I was reading English: “Extreme Fire Hazard,” or the Daily Mail. 

I was glad to get to Valencia. It’s on the Mediterranean, has a sea breeze, and the oranges grow on trees. For all the beauty of the Alhambra, Granada has none of those things. I was starting to feel scurvy acting up. 

I would like to spend more time in Valencia; the old city is beautiful, and I’m sure the beaches are too. The river used to flood,
so Valencians innovated by diverting its flow, and now the old riverbed is 8-9 kilometres of green parkland. Everyone seems to bike everywhere. There are so many bike lanes I was sure that was how I was going to die—at least I can hear a car coming.

There are moments in longterm traveling where you just crack. It might take the form of suddenly addressing a shopkeeper in English, even though you’ve been dealing with another language for weeks and have no reason to think he understands. (To his credit, he did try to help—heard “ice cream” and pointed out the ice.) Or, you look around and realize that for all the restaurants in Valencia, no one ever appears to be eating. They drink, and smoke, but never an evening meal to be seen. We had to traipse back into a touristy area to find food, even though it was 9:00 PM.

“They’re just a bunch of p*ssheads!” T. said admiringly.

Anyway. As all the locals know, and as we know now, you never eat paella in the evening; you only eat it at lunchtime. In fact, what we never got the hang of is that we should always have been eating our main meal at lunchtime. There’s a fixed-price menu that’s very reasonable, and then everybody goes back and has a siesta. Then you can just eat a sandwich later. Ah well, maybe we’ll get into the swing of this in France.

Then we hit Barcelona. This is a city that everyone warned us about. Pickpockets everywhere; everyone has a story about being robbed or scammed. One of the people who warned me about Barcelona is the type of person who always goes on adventurous vacations, such as riding all over rural Jamaica in a bus driven by a guy smoking a spliff! But no, Barcelona was where we had to watch out.

I kind of understand why now. It was the 1st of July, and we were walking along La Rambla when we spotted several people wearing Canada T-shirts. “Happy Canada Day!” T. said, and I waved to them, but they were totally oblivious. Who knows—maybe they were just Spanish people wearing English-language shirts they thought were cool. If people are that out of touch with their surroundings, no wonder they get their pockets picked.

We didn’t. Barcelona was laid back, friendly, and the bakery next door had the best croissants outside France. The place we stayed, the balance we found between affordable and central, was on a lovely tree-lined street, one of many sprawling apartments surrounding a huge courtyard of them. The elevator was the craziest old thing I’d ever seen. It had three doors you have to close before you can go anywhere, and appeared to be balanced by huge bricks.

The apartment was shared with a young Egyptian guy named Islam, a French girl, and unofficially by some friends of the latter who came and cooked and squatted. The bathroom situation was a lot better than it sounds like it would be. The only student we really talked to much was a Pakistani friend of Islam’s who came by to visit. He’s doing a doctorate in biomedicine and is working on a new drug for Parkinson’s disease. “If I get it right, I’ll win the Nobel Prize,” he said. "If I don't, I'll get my Ph.D."

I didn't take as many pictures in Barcelona, because we spent some time just chilling on St. Sebastian Beach (Platja de Sant Sebastià). Barcelona is in Catalonia, which nationalists there will tell you is not Spain at all, and the signs are in Catalan first. I’d just gotten used to Castilian! But the water was swimmable, no surf like in Bakio, and the beach was hopping with pretty much everybody. We did go to the church of La Sagrada Familia, the #1 tourist destination in Barcelona, but it was sold out for days. Who knew? From the outside, I can tell you it isn’t the Alhambra:

La Sagrada Familia is famous for having been begun in the 19th century and still being constructed, like the cathedrals of old. T’s opinion is that they shouldn’t bother finishing it. (I’ll reserve judgment since I didn’t see it from inside.)

But all the wonders of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture cannot compare to the greatest feature of our studio in Provence: the coffeemaker. I think I’ve said that every single place we have stayed, if it had a coffeemaker at all, had a different type. Usually a type I’d never seen before, let alone knew how to use. Here, we have an actual drip coffeemaker, the kind I hardly hope to find even in England.

Let the laundry hang soaking out the window; let the AfterSun flow all over my stuff. Just make me a normal cup of coffee in the morning.