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,
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.