Post 5. Marseille

I arrived in Marseille on Bastille Day, but not, sadly, in time for the fireworks. The lateness of the hour - in strange, urban-gothic symphony with a lad trying to sell me hash the very second I stepped out of the Gare St Charles and a man scowling at me from his car as I crossed the road and the slightly sketchy dimness of the two or three streets between the station and my Airbnb and, let’s not forget, my naturally skittish tendencies - was a bit disquieting.

Further, more reasonably-founded anxiety came with the discovery that the apartment’s keys were not where my host Thierry, who’d decamped to the Alps for the festive weekend, had told me they would be, i.e. in a bar just below the apartment. The barman here, presiding bored over an empty interior and a couple of pavement tables of men drinking demis, met my enquiry with a frowning shrug that suggested he’d not only never heard of ‘Airbnb’ before but had also never heard of ‘keys’ (or ‘clés’).

I called Thierry and he, in fairly fluent English and in that shrill and indignant tone so commonplace in the fretful tourist realm, (which I’d probably addressed him in first to be fair) insisted that the keys were behind the bar. So I went back and said as much to the guy and it turned out yes they were, they were hidden behind a glass.

The apartment, a few floors up a steep spiral staircase, which served as an atrium for the many-levelled utilitarian tenement building, almost broke from the ‘bourgeois interior’ template observed in each city theretofore. Upon entry, the air was still and warm, and it was heavily dark, until I found the switch and the apartment’s suddenly over-lit characteristics revealed themselves: somewhat pokey, a little untidy and furnished in a basic, even, homespun way, with bricks and planks for bookshelves and tatty, little curtains instead of cabinet doors. For all of this though, it was not ‘unhomely’.

There was no living room, just a large open space, skirted with worktops and shelves and boxes of what seemed to be artist’s tools, paints and materials. Strewn across a large desk were pencil-drawn design sheets, apparently for sculptures and installation pieces. On one wall were painted humanoid figures, men as if seen via an x-ray-type device, with, it looked like, large (literal) boners.

In the corridor, a male mannequin, wearing only a cowboy hat and boxer shorts, with a ripped torso, daubed with black paint, had stuck to its arm a piece of paper with the customary Airbnb host’s slogan ‘WELCOME HOME’ written on it in sharpie. Thierry had left several such hand-written notices around the place, denoting: my room, his room, the bathroom, the toilet, the kitchen, the fridge, how to turn the gas on, how to turn the gas off, the wifi details, and several other useful points of domestic information. At no stage in this (or in any other) feat of communication, however, did he say anything along the lines of: ‘btw my flat is quite weird’. And, in the end, why should he?

I sat down to carry out my ‘safety in Marseille’ Google search, having neglected to perform this important duty in Madrid, and quickly discovered a familiar kind of forum-mediated consensus: the city centre is pretty safe, save for a few streets around the station, which are better avoided at night (tricky, I reasoned, as that’s where Thierry’s apartment was). One forum poster suggested that women might not wish to dress up nicely and walk around in the evenings as they could be mistaken for prostitutes. Another had it that the city is run by gangsters and the police serve only an ‘ornamental’ presence. Further consensus came with the observation that the Quartiers Nords are the most impoverished parts of the city and that it might be dangerous for tourists to go there, but, as one poster, asked ‘why would you bother if it’s so far away from the centre’?

Further reading revealed these cautionary notes to be the tip of an iceberg of journalistic reporting into Marseille’s endemic, heavily institutionalised poverty. One article suggested that the city is ‘more like Britain than Paris’ in that social housing is contained within the city itself rather than being shoved out to the suburbs. But many others talked of Marseille’s outer cités being damaged by under-investment and effectively being cut off from the rest of the town by the Metro and Tram lines.

I went down to the bar beneath the apartment and drank a demi while trying to figure out whether the place was owned by gangsters and whether the other drinkers were gangsters and whether the men drinking at another similar looking bar over the road were rival gangsters. I remain inconclusive on every count.

The bar closed at 11 and I wandered towards the centre-ville. My first impressions of Marseille (quiet, too quiet, and a touch sinister) were belied as soon as I stepped onto the Boulevard de la Libération, which was a dynamic picture (a video?) of people strolling and people sitting and people standing, outside bars and restaurants and on benches and on fountains. Trams shoved through the happy crowds, which swelled still more as I joined La Cunebière leading to Le Vieux Port (old port), where the fireworks had been. Here was L’ Église Saint-Vincent de Paul, standing gravely above the merriment, there an art-house cinema, vomiting l’hipsters all over the pavement.

My Foix Airbnb host, Eloise, had felt it important to warn me that ‘there are a lot of Muslims in Marseille’ and I could see that, in the raw veracity of her statement, she was correct. The majority of people on the streets that night did seem to be of Arabic or North African heritage. But guess what: the cautionary element was blatantly unnecessary. At no point during this evening, nor at any point during my stay, did a Muslim (or indeed anyone) attempt to do anything bad to me at all (except for one (white) waiter who was rude and didn’t give me free crisps but did give them to everyone else).

It was almost as if those Muslims that they had there in Marseille were just human beings walking around, taking the evening air, pushing prams, eating ice creams, taking photos, just like us non-Muslims do!

I wouldn’t be so flippant in assessing whether the forum post about the city being unfriendly to women dressed up and walking around at night had any validity. I didn’t see any kind of harassment taking place but then I wouldn’t necessarily be attuned to its happening, and, as observed elsewhere, I must resist drawing grand conclusions about these places based on the specific low-level happenstance of my short visits.

More trustworthy are repeat themes across conversations I’ve had with people in various cities. And twice now have I spoken to women (not including the conversation with Eloise) who live in Europe - namely in the cities of Paris and Rotterdam - and have been harassed or made to feel threatened by men they perceived to be immigrants. It’s not a totally unfamiliar issue to me, your archetypal, would-be engaged, metropolitan, liberal-leftist white male, but it remains one I habitually meet with a dumb confoundment. N.b. Neither of those women seemed to be arguing that anti-immigration policies represent a solution to the problem.

That night, at least, in Marseille all seemed well on the streets. More than well, blithesome in fact, The crowds surged around the old port. The lights of the bars, restaurants and the big Ferris wheel played on the water, and everyone was smiling.

***

The next day, Saturday, would at last bring the opportunity to get hold of some cash (as I’m still without a bank card). Or so I thought. It turned out that all central Marseille branches of my bank (I’m too paranoid to reveal which it is online; is that stupid?), which has basically no presence in Spain, were closed for Bastille weekend. They’d re-open on Tuesday 18th, the day after I’d leave the city.

So it was off to the Western Union again to undertake the drawn out process of having funds transferred from my account to the Union and then given to me in cash. The big headache with this operation is that you’ve to confirm with the WU branch that they are able to conduct the transfer, as some branches are not, and on this particular Saturday lunchtime in Marseille, as it had in Barcelona, it entails a half hour wait - mainly because of a boorish Italian family who push to the front of the queue and, speaking only Italian, demand to be served before everybody else, a woman with a small baby included, because they have a taxi outside – to be told: ‘no sorry, we are not doing it ‘ere’.

It’s a twenty minute walk to another branch, which, mercifully, uses a ticketed queue system, like at the butcher’s, and I spend an actually quite pleasant half hour sitting down and reading my book (still A Time of Gifts; I’m a slow reader) before being told by a very friendly woman that she does speak English and she would love to help and I just need to get the transaction code from my bank.

So then follows maybe another half an hour on the phone to the bank, being tossed around different departments and having to explain the situation to every different advisor I speak to, all of whom then ask whether I have a bank card with me and whether there might actually be a branch of [bank] open nearby, and, if not, whether there might be someone there with me who can lend me the money, and after I’ve told them NO! on every count, feeling ashamed at myself for actually allowing anger to leak into my voice, they eventually try to connect me to their ‘Western Union team’, keeping me on hold for ten minutes, before coming back on the line to say that the department is closed for the weekend and to try again first thing Monday morning, which, of course, is when I’ll be leaving Marseille.

Foiled for the weekend and determined not to waste my only full day in my next stop of Genova going through this not quite Kafkaesque but still pretty annoying process once more, I decide to just eke out what’s left of my cash reserves until I get to Florence, where a friend of a friend has kindly agreed to let my new debit card be posted to her house. This means getting by on about eight euros a day until then, which realisation sends me into a self-pitying fury, lasting as long as it takes me to walk 10 metres down the street and see at least three people who look like they’d be delighted to live on eight euros a day (with or without the pre-condition that they have a pre-paid Airbnb room to retire to whenever they please). And I remember I’m in a city where the percentage of people living below the poverty line must be well, well into double figures, and that soon I’ll be in another fancy-arse city, with access to money again. And then I pull myself together.

In fact, eight euros a day proves more than adequate an expenditure. A walk up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde costs nothing and affords not only stupendous views of the city and coastline but also quite a fun chat with four 18-ish year-olds, originally from Tunisia. When I ask them whether they now consider themselves French (a latent, reactionary ‘intergation not immigration’ thirst at work here?!) they emphasise ‘Marseillaise!’, not Français. It’s not unusual, I later read, for Marseille’s immigrants to feel this way.

Their group dynamic felt somehow reminiscent of the little crews who’d wander around the Leeds suburb I grew up in: three lads - one cocky and loud; one more polite and nervous; another reserved, almost catatonic - and one girl, (girlfriend of the confident one seemingly) apparently brighter than her male confreres (in this case, the best English speaker anyway) but also prone to giggling self-apology.

They roll a spliff and I ask if they’re not worried by the presence of several armed soldiers patrolling only a few metres away. ‘They are only here to shoot terrorists’ the confident one states bluntly. I half-hope they’ll offer me a toke but they do not. They do, though, tell me I look like Wayne Rooney.

‘Parce que mon visage est très blanc? I ask.
‘Oui’ the leader replies, ‘et très rouge’.

Before traipsing off down the hill, they also tell me that there are more fireworks at the port tonight. So, after making a sub-three euro dinner of pasta and vegetables, I buy a couple of Cans for Melenchon and go and enjoy this free spectacle from the vantage of a side street off the Vieux Port, where I have a conversation with a middle-aged guy who also happens to be drinking cans in the street. I say ‘conversation’, but it’s really just him saying ‘C’est beau! C’est beau! Bravo Marseille!’ over and over again and me saying ‘oui’ and smiling. He offers me a cigarette and looks heartbroken when I decline.

***

More costless joie the next day in the form of a visit to one of Marseille’s famous ‘Calanques’, which are narrow Mediterranean coastal inlets with very nice beaches in them..

I go to Calanque de Sormiou, known apparently as ‘the lazy’s man’s Calanque’. It disturbs me to imagine how hard-to-reach the other Calanques must be, given that my reaching this one represents perhaps the most gruelling beach trip I’ve ever undertaken, necessitating an hour walk to a bus stop, where I discover I’ve missed the bus I need, so have to wait half an hour for another one, which doesn’t take me quite as far as the other one, so I have to walk half an hour to the edge of the Calanque road (where traffic is restricted due to the prevalence of wild fires in the region), which then leads me onwards sweating for 10 near-shadeless minutes, and then up and then down a steep hill, in a circuitous contour, and all of this in 38 degree heat. But from the moment the sea, with its sparkling and mobile blueness framed by the limestone horseshoe of the Calanque, becomes visible over the crest of the hill, the reward more than justifies the effort.

Improbably here, in the Mediterranean, on one of the hottest day’s of the year, the water feels as cold as the North Sea holidays of my childhood.

On the way back into town, when I go to pay my fare, the female bus driver, presumably picking up on my shambling and self-pitying demeanour, bats my hand away. I’ve mentioned her being female not with some regressive, ‘it’s weird for a woman to be a bus driver’ motive, but because I felt somehow that this timely act of kindness might have had a gendered significance. But then a few days later I read in some essay an assertion that the idea that ‘women are inherently nicer than men’ is a patriarchal lie. So, I suppose, in the end, what I’m trying to say is this: that bus driver, who just happened to be a woman, was the nicest bus driver I’ve ever encountered.

Moreover, because of her, I could afford to treat myself to an Orangina on the way home.
This I drink outside a bar in Notre Dame du Mont, which, with its many chalkboard bars and cafes, large rectangular plaza covered with colourful awnings, and wall-to-wall upbeat graffiti, is surely the Shoreditch of Marseille.

Notice that in the main I’m managed to resist the tic of identifying ‘The Shoreditch’ of every city I’ve been to, but here it’s just too irresistible (or perhaps I’m just being lazy because I’ve been on a hot train in Italy for seven hours and the train has now stopped because of a ‘a fire on the tracks’ and there’s been no indication how long the delay might last and I’m feeling woozy (but once again a fellow passenger is being extremely nice to me, giving me food and biscuits and explaining the Italian announcements. I’ll let you guess her gender).

Needless to say, the prices are a good 20% cheaper here than in Shoreditch. And sitting with my ice cold, corporate-branded soft drink on this sultry Sunday evening I begin finessing my Take on Marseille, reckoning the city to be Up There With Barcelona as My Favourite of All the Places I’ve Been To So Far. I can picture myself living in Marseille, perhaps bombing about on a little moped with a shoulder bag full of hash, and bae on the back, smoking in Adidas flip-flops. Or, more realistically, I’m sitting alone outside the salon du thé, reading Le Canard. Either way, it’s a happy picture.

When I get home I meet Thierry who’s returned from his Alpine  retreat. A friendly, tall and slightly nervous man, verging on middle age, he’s relieved to hear that all his signs were helpful. I ask him about his life and work in Marseille. He’s an artist, working with the media of ‘paint and the body’ but for a day job works as a social worker in a prison.

He is astounded that I can afford to go round Europe like this for 10 weeks and is even more so when he learns that I’m a fellow artist (his word) and don’t have another job. ‘Do you earn a lot of money?’ he keeps asking and I try to explain that I don’t really, not enough to think seriously about trying to buy a house or bla bla bla anyway, and that I just happen to have had a good year this year, whereas the year before was bad, and that there’s no knowing which way any given year is going to go.

He just seems too distracted by the fact I don’t have a day job and it brings home to me quite the quantity of privilege that’s underwriting this trip. I try to change the topic and ask Thierry about Marseille but he seems a bit down on the place.

‘When I came back from the Alps,’ he tells me ‘I thought to myself: oh why do I have to come back here? But that’s life.’

That’s the reality I suppose I’m fleeing from (and occasionally being reminded of), as I dart around Europe on my mega-holiday: people coping (with varying degrees of success) with dissatisfaction, repetition and the sense there’s something better out there, in some inaccessible elsewhere.

Whatever happens, I’ll definitely come back to Marseille.

4. Spain

Chance had it that two old friends were, entirely separately, in Barcelona at the same time as me, thus precluding my spending the entire three days in the kind of solipsistic and yet voyeuristic trance I’d fashioned and worn in Paris and Foix. Good news for those long-term readers quietly hoping I’ll peg back the word-count a bit now that the novelty of simply being Away From Things has worn off. I certainly do intend to exercise a little more concision as I venture through the warm south. And, at the same time, I hope you’ll forgive me some sloppiness - stylistic, grammatical etc. If I carry on at the same fussy rate as heretofore, I’ll be physically on the Eurostar home in September, while mentally still contemplating a weird dog seen in Genova in July or something. 

Rest assured though that accompaniment in the Catalonian capital hardly reduced my propensity to worry. This time it was my mother’s fault. Of all the cities I’ll visit – young ex-communist capitals, economically-subdued southern metropolises, sites of recent terror attacks – it was Barcelona and Barcelona alone that she, despite never having been there personally, felt it necessary to warn me about - on account, she said, of ‘the pickpockets’. She wasn’t alone. A now habitual pre-arrival ‘safety in [city]’ Google search revealed a veritable subculture of people about to go Barcelona and freaking out about pick-pockets, bag-snatchers, muggers, swindlers, scammers, pimps, sex workers, drug dealers and more besides.

Naturally, there is also a counter-movement intent on quelling the hysteria and maintaining that Barcelona is utterly safe to anybody exercising ordinary levels of caution. I concurred with the assertion that ‘you’d have to be an idiot to let a stranger teach you how to play football or dance flamenco in the street’ (remember that detail) but, nonetheless, did disembark at Sants station with a padlock on my big rucksack and my money and passport in my small rucksack and my small rucksack on my front and my head screwed on and my wits about me, and by the time I’d gotten off the Metro at Drassanes I’d realised that nobody else was being so self-importantly over-cautious and I decided to chill out a bit.

Bianka, the girlfriend of my Airbnb host (Marie, who was at work) ‘did the welcome’ in the small but decent flat with a dark tiled floor and art and plants and guitars and reassuringly cluttered kitchen. Bianka laughed when I told her I’d read online about this part of town being potentially unsafe at night. ‘It is safe’ she said. And then, boldly, ‘everywhere is safe.’ I took her word for it and we had a good chat. 

Bianka was from Belgrade. She first came to Barcelona two years ago on holiday, staying in Marie’s Airbnb and they got on so well that she decided to move to Barcelona in order that they could be together. Now she was studying photography and adapting to life in a different kind of city.

 ‘At first I was overwhelmed because it is so busy and there is a fiesta every night and people take drugs but now it is okay’, she explained. She told me, only semi-jokingly I think, that my country is leaving Europe because of her country, Serbia, and other Eastern Europe states chasing EU accession. ‘You must hate us a lot if you are willing to do something so crazy’. I didn’t really know what to say so just I told her that I didn’t vote for it and that I was looking forward to visiting Belgrade in August.

 ‘It is okay’, she said, ‘you will have a good time but it is not so good to live there. People are not open-minded like in Barcelona’. This struck me as a good juncture to start talking about Podemos (the left-wing electoral party that grew out of the Spanish anti-austerity movement) but she quickly rebuffed this conversational line by stating bluntly: ‘I don’t like to talk about politics’. 
           
By the time I’d broached the rift between Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, she’d definitely lost interest and I decided it time to go and walk around outside. The apartment was on the edge of the Gothic Quarter, off the southern end of La Rambla, the city’s epicentral boulevard, familiar from ‘Homage to Catalonia’ in whose opening pages George Orwell, who fought for the leftist militia during the civil war, describes: ‘this wide, central artery of the town’ and its ‘loudspeakers […] blaring out revolutionary songs.’ He recalls his first impressions of Barcelona: 

‘It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. […] There was much in it that I did not understand. In some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for’.

Something to think about there for certain of the Orwell-fixated journalists of the Sensible Left. 

Now, in the maelstrom of post-transition, bourgeois-friendly capitalist democracy, it’s harder to perceive what kind of class dynamics are at play here. The northerly sections of Las Ramblas are lined by expensive hotels and high-street outlets. At the southern end, photographic menu boards advertise 20 euro meals to tourists. Beyond La Rambla, stretching out over visually refreshing bay waters towards the waterfront development of Port Vall, runs La Rambla de Mar, built in 1994, in the city’s confident post-Olympics era. At night here, dozens and dozens of African and South Asian vendors sell a panoply of goods – handmade jewellery, Nike trainers, football shirts, finger spinners – from white sheets, which are quickly bundled up and stuffed into hold-alls at about midnight when the police arrive. The siren of the squad-car screams out for a few threatening seconds, prompting the vendors, some in small groups, some alone, to hurry away to who knows where.

In the Gothic quarter, apartments, apparently mostly of a similar size, are stacked high above labyrinthine and shadow-cool streets. Each has a small balcony, from many of which hangs the red and yellow flag of Catalonia.You could stand on your balcony here and easily hold an intimate conversation with any one of about thirty neighbours. 

At ground level there are small supermarkets, clothes shops, head-shops, bike-hire outlets, segue-hire outlets, scooter-hire outlets, art galleries, tapas restaurants, wine bars cevecerias, Irish bars, cocktail lounges, purveyors of souvenirs and hyper-modern ephemera, house clubs, pizzerias, coffee shops, sushi restaurants and innumerable other such establishments. These cater to tourists mainly.

In Plaça George Orwell, (apparently known to locals as Plaça del Trip or Acid Square) where ‘1984’ is vividly painted in red and blue on a metal shop shutter, about five restaurants ply a slightly cheaper trade than their Paris equivalents. An abstract and only slightly humanoid statue sits in the middle of things. A middle-aged woman in punk attire winds her way around the tables asking for a cigarette. Finally she gets one from a middle-aged British woman who offers a flaming lighter as a follow-up, which the punk rejects. Then she snatches the lighter and sparks herself up before goadingly feigning to hand it back three or four or five times before losing interest and chucking on the table. A man sleeps on a cardboard bed in a doorway. After dark, people sit on crates and drink shop beers around the terrace tables. South Asian men sell cold cans of Estrella to British teenagers for one euro (an improbably small mark up.)

On the first afternoon I go to the Museum of Catalonian History where I spend too long on the early historical sections (as in Copper Age early; you might as well be anywhere during the Copper Age) so fail to properly take in the thorough coverage the region’s modern history. But still I learn a lot about Catalonia, its cultural distinction from the rest of Spain, its historically fraught relationship with Madrid, the brutality it suffered during th civil war, the doggedness of its many various resistance movements, (though not a great deal about Catalonian terrorism in the 80s and 90s), the centuries long shaping of its identity, and the ongoing question of how independent it truly wants to be.

All of this leaves me wondering about the general political outlook of contemporary Catalonia, and a few days later, by chance, I read a letter in the Financial Times (genuinely the least bad British newspaper I could find in multiple newsagents, plus has a good cryptic crossword) that Catalonians are probably split about 50/50 between those who do and don’t want independence from Madrid. These days, the letter claimed, it is a topic to be avoided during social interactions, as discussing it invariably leads to arguments.

I hadn’t realised that Catalonian is a entirely distinct language from Spanish and when I discover this fact, I’m left not knowing know which language to poorly attempt to speak, using a few basic phrases cribbed from the internet, in order not to feel totally abject in my tourist status.

In the evening I meet Marie, home from her job in construction logistics (a role which appears to belie her scruffy, artistic demeanour). She is French but finds my efforts at her native tongue too frustrating to deal with so we speak English. She’s immediately likeable, diminutive and spirited with short red hair. She came to Barcelona eight years ago intending merely to stay for one summer. I ask if she’s ever been to Madrid and tells me she hasn’t, in the way a Glaswegian might if you asked them if they’d ever been to Yeovil. She rolls a spliff without much fanfare and offers me some and then she immediately gets the giggles extremely hard. I can’t even remember what she was laughing at.  Something to do with the time one of her Airbnb guests later went on to become Madonna’s PA.

I ask Marie about the guitars and whether she ever plays gigs. She seems to find the very notion funny, but then answer that she does sometimes. I ask if she’ll play now and she shyly objects at first but then is very quickly persuaded. By my (admittedly inexpert) judgement she is pretty good and I tell her I think so and that her voice reminds me of Bjork’s. This seems to please her a lot but, I probably mainly said it because she had told me two minutes earlier that she likes Bjork. I’d said in my initial Airbnb message that I’m a writer and she asks me to help her edit some English lyrics written for her by a friend. Too stoned and swept up in the moment to explain that I’m not really a lyricist, I agree and she produces a print-out of the lyrics to a song called ‘Fire Rabbit’. She plays it once through and it’s genuinely quite good imho, seeming as it does to evoke themes of generational anger at difficult-to-identify oppressors, and the importance of resisting apathy and resignation. It does, though, contain a few strange non-sequiturs, which might be a result of mistranslation such as: ‘… in that dark and secret place/ where we all have your face’. 

I share my thoughts and she looks a little crestfallen and says she now thinks she’s misunderstood the song because she thought it was above love. I say that there can be no single, correct interpretation of good lyrics, which seems to re-encourage her. I then offer a few edits, mainly focussed on bringing through the Fire Rabbit motif a bit more and skimming off the incongruous lines. Marie thanks me for these but I’m not convinced she’ll heed them. 

The following evening Marie and Bianka came home together while I was in the shower. I heard them arguing and when I came out of the bathroom Bianka was gone. Marie and I chatted a bit and she apologised for being in a bad mood. I asked what was up and she said Bianka had left ‘just because I gave her one bit of advice’. Something to do with Bianka having 1000 Euros in cash and Marie telling her to put it in the bank and Bianka not wanting to do that. Marie said she thought really the cause of the argument was incidental; they’d be rowing a lot recently and Marie worries they’ll have to break up. 

‘She is eight years younger than me’, Marie (who I reckon to be about 35) explained. ‘I just want a girlfriend and to stay at home together and to go out only sometimes. But she is new to the city and wants to party and take drugs and that is normal but maybe we can’t be together.’

The next night, my final night, Marie and Bianka came home together and didn’t argue, in fact talked happily, and then went to bed, so who knows how their story’s going to play out?  

And yes, the confused chronology of this instalment is partly an effect of a newly-feckless approach to writing, but also, I think a fitting formal product of the city’s pleasantly disorientating vibe. I was quickly seduced into a sultry mental fever by the temperatures – 35 decrees C and above by day, rarely below 25 at night - the insistent offerings of the bars and food outlets, and above all the architecture - a modernista super-organism of unfamiliar, anti-geometric shapes, beguiling curves, swollen apexes, suggesting flora, berries and fertility, art nouveau forms and gothic borrowings. (And a load of more linear contemporary horseshit as well.)

The organic elements obvs stem from Gaudí’s influence and sorry to be that guy that who goes to Barcelona and then won’t shut up about Gaudí for two weeks but..

The Sagrada Família – the famous basilica which Gaudí devoted his life to, before he was killed by a tram at the age of 73 with about a quarter of the construction completed – manages to transcend its electronically-ticketed, machine-gun protected, audio guide-mediated anchorings and inspire a kind of woozy terror with its stark depictions of Christ and co, it's stem-like spires and its almost digitally-luminescent stained glass. Construction continues apace (due to be completed sometime this century, before, presumably, renovations begin) and were I in more wankily post-modern spirits I might claim that the intermingling of the spires with lofty cranes actually enhances the whole aesthetic.

***

On the one night I wasn’t with the pals, I went on my own to a club just around the corner from Marie’s place called Club Macarena. It was nowhere near as terrible as it sounds but actually a vaguely trendy, small-scale house and electro club, whose doorman initially wouldn’t let me into because my said my 10 euro note was not crisp enough. Inside, the DJ booth was in the middle of the room and people gathered around and danced or nodded rhythmically while watching the DJ or DJs DJing. I am led to believe this is a modish club set-up, from a short-lived obsession a few years ago with YouTube videos of pop and electro colloborators Tirzah and Micachu.

Going into it, I mainly just wanted to be able to say I’d been clubbin’ in Barca, and hardly expected to last two hours, but so delicious was the vibe and so scintillating were the grooves and so massage-like was the bass and so much a tiny bit cheaper than London prices were the drinks, that I stayed the course and emerged blinking onto the narrow calle at about five, whereupon I got chatting to a really friendly guy - whose name and general aspect I can’t remember - about football! He was absolutely over the moon to hear I liked football too and asked me if I want to play.

‘But do you have a ball?’ I asked, blatantly fucked.
‘We don’t need ball man, come on!’

He then basically rugby tackled me and, as he was much taller than me (that I do remember) I struggled to extricate myself from his grip and he just merrily led us both down the narrow street this way for a good few paces before I managed to stumble free, right outside Marie’s door.

‘Well this is me man!’ I said. ‘Have a good night yeah!’
‘You too Liam! It was great to meet you!’ And then, when I’d turned to go in: ‘Oh Liam! Wait! Look you dropped your wallet’.

I looked down and, sure enough, my wallet was on the floor in the middle of the street. I picked it up and thanked my new friend profusely for his vigilance and kindness. It was not a problem, he said, and went on his way. 

I was about to fall asleep when it dawned on me what might have just happened. I googled something along the lines of: ‘how quickly can you copy a debit card?’ and was terrified by the results. I phoned the bank and cancelled the card straight away, necessitating an administratively drawn out visit to Western Union the next day to withdraw cash. My friend and her friends, with whom I had dinner the following evening, suggested I’d perhaps over-reacted by cancelling the card. ‘He clearly decided you were alright and just wanted to teach you to be more careful’ one guy told me . Maybe. Or maybe he did just want to play football without a ball.

***

On my final afternoon in Barcelona I cycled to a beach several  miles out of town. This was a dreamy four hour sojourn, which took me along a decidedly Ballardian circuit, past beaches and casinos and super clubs and parades of restaurants, playgrounds, a marina, a Decathlon, a vast, ambiguous, unpopulated zone which might have been a level on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater where sound-checks for a musical festival were heard, a nature reserve, factories, a power station, which seemed like a remnant from a future that never came to pass, luxury apartments, non-luxury apartments, before finally I decided I’d gone far enough and it was time for a swim.

The water was as warm as a half-hour old bath. Three young Spanish boys were splashing around nearby and seemed to find me a source of interest. Eventually one of them, apparently the most cocksure, asked:

‘How old are you?’
’29’ I replied.
‘I am 12’.

They laughed and then huddled together giggling. This provided the structure for the ensuing conversation, them laughing for a minute before giving me quite a banal question or statement and then laughing at my answer.

‘Where are you from?’ 
‘England’.
(Laughter followed by discussion)

‘Do you like Football?’
‘Yes.’
(Laughter followed by discussion)

‘Do you like Barcelona?’
‘Yes’.
(Laughter followed by discussion)

‘Do you have girlfriend?’
‘Not at the moment’.
‘I have four!’
‘That’s a lot… Many.’
‘Not for me.’
(Laughter followed by discussion)

Then a really long consultation at the end of which the young chico came back with:
‘I am nice.’

The validity of this claim was undermined almost immediately as the boy emerged from under a wave holding a massive rock. He then held this up as if to throw it at me, from point blank range. His friends laughed, almost disbelievingly. He then drew his arm back. From the look in his eyes I suspected that he himself wondered if he might, as if he were encountering some terrible new potential within himself. 

‘This is the real Barcelona’ I thought. ‘Off the tourist trail, twenty miles out of town, standing waist deep in the sea, about to be bludgeoned in the face with a massive, perfectly smooth pebble by a 12 year old Spanish boy’. 

At last, with a snigger, he dropped the rock. I swam around for a minute, heart racing, and then got out.

‘Goodbye’ the boy called. ‘It was nice to meet you’. 

***

At sites of tourist interest throughout Barcelona, on lampposts and other pieces of street furniture, are stickers bearing a skull and crossbones and the statement, in black upper case against a yellow background: ‘Tourism Kills the City’. Clearly some people do well out of the tourist economy here but not everyone. A city the size of London can absorb a constant tourist presence as a minor annoyance, manifested merely in it being a bit tricky to walk down Oxford Street sometimes and Camden Town tube being ‘exit only’ at weekends. But for Barcelona, which has a population about one seventh of the size of London’s, and as the capital city of a region with a complex, in some ways uncertain identity, ever-swelling masses of tourists perhaps do pose something of an existential threat.

Moved to research the subject online, I discover that the city’s council has recently increased the number of ‘housing inspectors’ in response to protests over the proliferation of Airbnbs, which some claim is driving up rents and forcing out long-standing residents.

The focus of the anger seems to be less on residents letting spare rooms to make ends meet, and more on professionals who own one or more Airbnb properties that they do not live in. Marie is in the former camp which just about lets me off the hook, or so I tell myself. But still, I have no idea of the status of my future Airbnb hosts. There’s ethical dimension to this self-serving project that I hadn’t given due to consideration to heretofore. And, just as I’m leaving the city between that and the administrative upheaval of trying to work out how to get a replacement bank card sent to Europe when I’m not going to be in one place for more than a few days, the pleasant emotional spell I’ve been under for the past few days is broken. 

***

While the heat in Barcelona was often humid and sometimes quelled by sea breezes, in Toledo - Spain’s ‘holiest city’, an hour away from Madrid by train - it is dry and dead still. Like Foix before it, Toledo is comprised of a well-preserved old city and an expanse of modern urban sprawl, visible from the high vantage of the former element as a heat-shaken near-mirage of office blocks, car parks, roundabouts, billboards, and high-cabled bridges.

It is renowned as ‘the city of three cultures’ and certainly Moorish, Christian and Sephardi Jewish elements are all boldly manifest in the city’s architecture, often interlaced in stunning interplay: Moorish arches above Christian Pillars, a mosque re-purposed as a church, a synagogue re-purposed as a church (it’s mostly stuff being turned into churches tbh). But the city’s history, as much as it is one of harmonious coexistence between the three religions, is also one of conflict, regular and often violent reconfigurations of power dynamics, the gravest example of which being the issuing of the Alhambra Decree by Ferdinand Isabella in 1492, demanding the expulsion of all practicing jews from Spain.

Today, the sacred buildings have all been adapted to the logistical demands of commercial tourism (which I guess is the true modern religion, amiriii?) and, in the new town, a graffito asserts that ‘refugees are not welcome’. I’m constantly reminding myself not to extrapolate too much about these places from small and singular details but it is a dismaying to see.

The status of my Airbnb host here (‘Diana’), in terms of the dichotomy established in Barcelona of: Good (innocent amateurs trying to make ends meet) vs. Bad (private capitalists renting out properties exclusively to tourists) is ambiguous. Diana asks me, as soon as she opens the door, whether I speak Spanish. I apologise that I don’t and she looks terrified, even though, it quickly turns out, she speaks English fairly well, albeit in a slightly hesitant  way, which I think might be a product of a speech impediment. She looks to be in her late 30s but has the air of a likeable 18 year old, energetically and innocently excited by her own intelligence.

I tell her I’ve come to Toledo in order to see the Don Quixote windmills. 

‘Youuuu like (beat) Don Quixote?!’ she asks, with some wonderment. 
‘Yes’ I reply, expecting her to reveal a mutual passion for the delusional Don..
‘But it is so boring!’ comes her actual reply.
‘No, it’s funny!’
‘It is not’ she says, finally.

It’s not that she’s anti-literary – she talks rhapsodically about Lorca and Shakespeare – it’s just that, she says, Spanish kids have to read Cervantes in classical Spanish, which is really difficult. As Shakespeare is for English kids, I guess. 

I’ve arrived earlier than arranged and Diana hasn’t finished cleaning the apartment, a fact that isn’t helping her apparently naturally nervous disposition. She asks me to help her and I follow her to my rented quarters where I just fecklessly stand in the doorway and carry on talking while she cleans. 

Diana’s intellectual proclivities are more scientific and mathematical she tells me. She used to work as a health and safety engineer in Madrid.

‘But then she economy went…’ she says, before crossing her arms emphatically and making a sort of ‘sorry, wrong answer’ SFX with her mouth. She lost her job and can’t find another one in the same sector.

‘What is the economy like in the UK?’ she asks and I intimate that it’s okay, maybe not as bad as Spain’s and then realise that her comprehension of English probably couldn’t withstand a lecture on the vicissitudes of the gig economy and the public sector pay cap, so proceed to just stand there dumbly while she mops the floor.

Now Diana works as a science teacher, which she enjoys but doesn’t pay as well as her former job. In the school holidays she also gives private tuition in this apartment. She lives in a different apartment nearby, while renting out the three rooms in this one, hence the ambiguity. One of the other rooms is taken by an enchanting woman called Christine who’s from Quebec. She’s visiting Toledo during a summer break from the University of Valencia where she is taking a masters (or the equivalent thereof) in Spanish translations of Malian folk stories. She seems to just about tolerate my idiotically over-eager questions about her research over coffee in the mornings.

 The third room is taken by Pauline, a long-term tenant who comes home from work at about 11pm each night and leaves a note in Spanish for Christine and me to please keep the noise down as she needs to sleep in. We make and drink coffee whisperingly the next morning but Pauline can still be heard screaming ‘joder!’ (fuck) from the other end of the corridor.

The artistic keynote of Toledo is its association with renaissance artist El Greco, who lived in the city for 37 years. I feel like I fail to get his reputed brilliance and initially it seems like his supposed innovations amount to just painting everybody to look a bit like rats and also sometimes letting the primer or the canvas show through the paint. But after staring hard and long at the (fairly small) litany of his works which remain in the city, I do begin to appreciate The Greek’s brooding complexities and mannerist breakthroughs a bit more.

On my final full day, I travel by coach to Consuegra, a small town 50 km from Toledo where ‘Don Quixote’s windmills’ are apparently to be found. In the six or seven small towns the coach stops in on the way, fascist and anti-facist graffiti is visible, in about equal abundance. It’s only as I’m getting off that I notice a swastika carved into the seat-head in front of me. Again, trying to not extrapolate too much.

The windmills (‘los molinos)’, it turns out, are only about 100 years old, so definitely can’t be said to have inspired Cervantes who wrote ‘Don Quixote’ in the early 17th century, but, reasoning that the fundamental nature of windmills can’t have changed very much across that 300 year interval, I’m satisfied by these smooth white cylinders with elegant black sails and conic roofs. They really do have a gigantic vibe about them, standing sentinel over countless miles of dusty ground. You could forgive Quixote his mistake.

On the  horizon, the white limbs of a wind-farm are just about visible.

One of the windmills has been converted into a ‘gastrobar’ and I drink a cerveza in its shadow. It is very windy here, great shock. But in the sun it’s nonetheless punishingly hot. Some men are at work, painting the windmills. If I had to do that, I think, I would be dead within an hour. 

As I leave Toledo, the temperature is pushing 42 degrees C. The record temperature for July here is 42.6. Coincidentally (or not), on the way to Madrid I read a Guardian article about the effects of climate change on Spanish farming, with some areas seeing 75% less rainfall this year and harvests fall by 50%

***

In Madrid, the temperature reaches 41 degrees, the hottest ever recorded in the city. .

Here my Airbnb hosts are a family, apparently spanning three generations. There’s a woman of about 70 called Maria who lives with her daughter, Camilla, and Camilla’s partner, (I think) Roberto. Then there are (at least) four children, who, Roberto tells me, are Camilla’s but they live in the Philippines and are just here visiting. I’ve only just learned that the Philippines were a Spanish colony for three centuries. The country’s colonial past is covered in its museums without a great deal of angst or contrition as far as I can see, except in an exhibition of Hispanic art at the Prado, which does acknowledged the role of native art in the development of Latin-American culture. 

My Airbnb review from Camilla reads: ‘Liam was nice. Very timid but friendly’. The perceived timidity was partly, I think, a consequence of the fact that, when I asked Maria about Podemos she got really angry and said they’d turn Spain into Venezuela. She also wouldn’t stop asking me questions about the British Royal family (‘what is Harry’s girlfriend like?’; Did I know that Charles had an ‘erotic phone call with Camilla on the day of his wedding to Diana?’). After all this, I probably went out of my way to avoid conversation. She also called Theresa May ‘crazy like Donald Trump’ which I did fun. Unperceptive, but still fun.

But the other, and primary reason, for my timidity was that I spent a good portion of my short stay in my bedroom, or sort of sneaking around in anti-social way, owing to an absurd series of incidents, which I’ll expand on another time, but the long and short of it was that I drank too much Rioja and was sick on the bed sheets so had to take them to the launderette and brought them back clean but then spilt tomato sauce on them while opening a tin of sardines so had to take them to launderette again but the stain wouldn’t come out, which panicked me, because I was still without my bank card so was eking out the money from the Western Union in Barcelona and was gutted by the prospect of having to hand over cash to pay for the ruined sheet, but then, genuinely, in this household full of Catholic iconography, when I woke up from a dismayed sleep, the sheets were clean again.

I did manage to get out and about a bit. Firstly, to the Prado museum, which is astonishing, primarily for its Sorollas imho (check out: ‘And Still They Say Fish Are Expensive’) And also it's Rosa Bonheurs (check out Rosa Bonheur). In the Prado bookshop, I found a book called ‘The Beaten Track’ by James Buzard. This is an account of European culture in the 19th and early 20th century insofar as it was shaped by travel, which, the book seems to assert is a distinct enterprise from tourism. A quick skim, revealing discussion of the European journeys of Dickens, Christina Rossetti and an entire chapter on the notion of the ‘anti tourist’, gave new grist to the old mental molino and I made to buy it. Then I discovered it cost 68 euros which, even if I had my debit card, would have been beyond me. Certainly buying the book would have kept me off the beaten track, by simple dint of making everything thereafter unaffordable. One day, in more sedentary times, I will buy that fucker.

The following day I went to the Reina Sofia, the modern art museum and saw Guernica. ¡Guernica! I didn’t expect to see it. I just walked round a corner and there it was. I mean, admittedly, it came at the end of an exhibition called ‘Picasso’s Path to Guernica’ but I didn’t dare to dream they’d have the actual painting. But they did. Right there, on the wall. In all its horror.   

The exhibition, which gave artistic and historical context to the painting and included photographs of the children killed and injured by Franco’s bombs - strongly reminiscent of the contemporary images of dead and injured children in Syria – theorised that a major part of Picasso’s development as an artist was to move beyond cubism, a movement enthralled by material objects and bourgeois interiors. Many of Picasso’s early works are of interior scenes, comfortably hemmed in by walls. In later works, when the walls start disappearing, they reveal abstractions, monsters and uneasy figures, often recognisably female.

I’d seen a lot of different bourgeois interiors in the last few weeks. For isn’t that what Aribnb represents, the commodification of the bourgeois interior? The properties are, in most cases, tremendously comfortable spaces to inhabit. Not just in a literal, physical sense, but also in a psychological sense, in their provision of an atmosphere of homeliness when you’re not at home - something hotels by their nature fall short of. 

 In his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, Sigmund Freud examines the German equivalent word ‘Unheimlich’ (literally ‘unhomely’) and shows that uncanniness is a feeling of the familiar (the homely) suddenly seeming unfamiliar (unhomely/uncanny) and thus frightening.

Airbnb’s slogan is ‘Welcome Home’. I suspect that the corporation instructs hosts to actually say these two words out loud to their guests, because several of mine have done so, usually as a slightly anxious afterthought. When they’ve finished showing me around and have given me the keys, they’ll have walked off down the corridor and then suddenly turned and said, not always very convincingly:

‘Oh and Liam, welcome home.’ 

Hearing that when you’re a thousand miles from home: uncanny. 


3. Foix




The taking of a long train journey probably ranks amongst my three greatest pleasures, unless I’m facing backwards during said, in which case it would probably rank amongst my three worst pleasures. Sadly it was in that vestibular-system confounding orientation that I travelled from Paris to Foix, a medieval city on the edge of the Pyréneés-Ariégeoises in south-west France. 

All hope of reading or writing abandoned, I adopted a 700 mile grimace, stared out at the beige and graffitied engine sheds and listened to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN and then Laura Marling’s Semper Femina, and then Laura Marlin’s Semper Femina again, because I am, at heart, a drip.

My reasons for staying at certain of the places on my route, or, more to the point, why I’ve opted to stay at each place for a particular number of days (for, dear old darling reader, my itinerary is as rigorously yet abtrusely planned as an EU Parliamentary cycle) are sometimes proving elusive, even to me. 

Case in point: Foix, known primarily to many French people for being referenced in, to quote my Parisian Airbnb host, ‘a stupid rhyme or poem’ (like St Ives to many British people, I guess); a medieval town on the river Ariège of mid-level historic significance and interesting but repetitive architectural tenor, surrounded by miles and miles of suburban sprawl. I’d elected to stay here for four nights, one more night than I’d stayed in Paris. My reasoning might have been at least partly based on the fact an Airbnb room in Foix costs about 30% less than in the capital.  

Still bad forecasts accompanied me and as a hard a rainstorm as I’ve seen all year commenced just as I stepped off the train amongst the verdant, near-Spanish mountains. Fortunately my Airbnb host, whom I will call ‘Eloise’, out of reluctance to disclose her irl identity, and also to call her ‘my host’ over and over again like some sort of Henry James character.

Eloise greeted me by the station entrance with a fulsome, middle-aged grin and hurried me to her car. Damply ensconced therein, she asked me to remind her how long I’d be staying and, when I told her as many as four days, she shook her in head in pained incomprehension. ‘What are you going to do in Foix for four days?’ came the elucidation. 

She asked me if I spoke French. I told her un petit peu and she told me it would be good for me to speak to her in French then. There then followed a faltering conversation about my trip, Eloise being somewhat more inquisitive than my Parisian host (who will now be retroactively named Meredith). 

Any residual fear from Paris that I would meet French people only of a liberal, cosmopolitan stripe was extinguished when I told Eloise that I would be staying in Marseilles en route between Spain and Italy. 

‘Ah Marseilles!’ she cried. ‘You must be careful!’
‘Pour quoi? I asked.’
‘Ill ya beaucoup de Musulmáns. You understand me?’

Dispiritingly, I did. ‘There are a lot of Muslims there’.  I told her that didn’t seem like a problem and she said again ‘you must be careful there’. 

***

Where Meredith had displayed a surprisingly lax attitude towards domestic security given where she lived, Eloise’s attitude seemed a little paranoid. As we rolled up to the house, a mile away from the centre of town in a quiet-seeming neighbourhood, she stopped and pressed a button on her key fob and a white metal gate at the end of the drive began to peel back with Bond-film gravity. Behind the gate stood a two storey detached dwelling with a large and slightly scruffy garden, which, due it’s dusty and gravelled-strewn surface and an unfinished garage facing the back of the house, felt slightly like a building site. But a very calm and quiet one. 

Inside in the entranceway, overwhelming photographic renderings of Las Vegas and Disneyland served as wallpaper, and in the living room was a large glass cabinet of novelties and trinkets and figurines, perceptible from a distance to be too annoying to be worth looking at properly at. The bedroom was simple but spacious. Eloise tried to explain why there were no curtains on the window but I couldn’t understand her, even though she was speaking in English at this point. Instead, there was a mechanical shutter on the outside of the building which she could control. She would lower it every night she informed me and I must not raise it again until morning ‘because of the thief’, conjuring the pleasing notion of a single town thief adept at penetrating unfortified windows. And thief, or no thief, as JG Ballard once warned: ‘the suburbs are far more sinister places than many city-dwellers imagine’. 

When the shutter was down and the light was off, the room was pitch, pitch black and pretty terrifying to wake up in. 

Despite the paranoia and the gaucheness and the suggestion of xenophobia, I was finding it hard to dislike Eloise. She was friendly and curious and kept offering me food and drinks. I told her I was planning to head straight into town to eat and she said she’d give me a lift, which I accepted as it was still raining, though less hard now. She was on her way to work anyway she said; apparently being an Airbnb host doesn’t pay all the bills and her main job was cleaning offices in town after the other workers went home.

We got into a different car from the one she had picked me up in - I saw Eloise helming four different vehicles over the course of my stay including a pushbike and a pick up truck - and her husband, a slightly Shane Ritchie-esque guy in shorts and vest, got in the front as he was heading into town too. He and I exchanged pleasantries in French (he spoke no English) and he remarked that my French was good and Eloise interjected that it wasn’t but that it was getting better, which I thought was generous given that I’d been in her company less than an hour. They dropped me off on the edge of the centre-ville, just as the evening sunlight was picking out a few conclusive raindrops.

I’d arrived at a sort of plaza, covered over by a grand awning. I looked up at it and was transported back to childhood and an uncanny feeling I used to get when regarding such structures, probably due to my brain freaking out at the apprehension of being both inside and outside at the same time. Half of the ground-space under the awning was filled with tables and chairs belonging to restaurants adjoining the plaza, while the other half was accommodating some kids with micro-scooters, a beleaguered dog and an assembly of raffish middle-aged tinnie-drinkers, whose rowdy outcries punctuated the otherwise steady scene. To the immediate east, a mountain loomed.

I drank a demi under the awning and phoned home. I then took a little dérive through the narrow thoroughfares, which were adjoined by tightly compacted houses, all more or less alike in their slanting, wooden-shuttered irregularity. There was a dreamy intimacy to the quiet streets whose shops were now mostly closed. Affixed high on the sides of buildings, round every second or so corner were speakers, our of which music blared during commercial hours - at this moment, ‘What’s my Name?’ by Snoop Dogg. 

I reached a tavern with an irresistible façade – all half-timbering, gothic lettering and stained glass – and duly stepped inside. I don’t think it was in any way explicitly signed as ‘a tavern’ but in my fantastical would-be medievalist mind, bars had become taverns and would stay that way until I reached Barcelona.

A couple with young children were eating dinner and they bade me a bon soir. I approached the bar and asked for a Demi, prompting the elderly old tavern-keeper to run round to me in a polite flurry, asking where I’d like to sit. I said outside and he practically shoved me out there and told me he’d bring my drink. On reflection it may have been more a brasserie, than a tavern. 

As I sat and struggled with the cryptic crossword, a van pulled up a few metres away, out of which a couple of lads leapt and started strewing what looked like police tape across one side of a small junction. On second glance I noticed that the tape actually bore the logo of international sports goods conglomerate ‘Decathlon’. Moments later a flurry of runners came tearing by. Very French, I thought – setting out the barriers for a race while it’s happening.

This sluice of aspiring Paula Radcliffes outlasted my demi and, when I’d paid for my drink in the patient and customary way, I edged my way along the street, against the, by now, funny-costumed and jocular flow, to a restaurant that Eloise had recommended. Here the most vegan item on the menu was ‘mackrel et frites’ and I tempered the guilt of eating this with a glass of house red, which cost about one euro and tasted as good as any wine I’d ever had before (there might have been a touristic confirmation bias at play here, I’ll admit.)

The street was clear of runners as I stepped out again but a few streets away, in another plaza, the arcane and nonchalantly demarcated course found its end and the runners stumbled over the finish line, most of them laughing. The spectators were all laughing too, for some reason. For a moment it felt like the entire race was some kind of joke that I wasn’t in on, but then I’ve had a similar feeling maybe eight or nine times per day throughout the trip. This gregarious, and oddly alienating, atmosphere permeated the centre-ville, and might have been slightly anticipatory in quality because, it turned out, the Tour de France would be rolling its dope-ravaged way through Foix at some point later in the month. The discovery of this fact piqued my interest briefly and I had a moment of thinking ‘oh maybe I’ll get into the Tour de France’ this year. A fortnight on I’ve made not even the most desultory effort to do so.

I found another tavern – beautiful dark wood furnishings, smart brass bar fixtures, jolly yet debonair patrons, bla bla bla – drank a couple more demis, failed to finish the cryptic and called it a night. 
***

The next morning people are selling antiques and jewellery and PlayStation 2 games from stalls in a car park on the edge of the old town. This sight solidifies the image of Foix which is forming in my head: a relaxed town with few pretensions, despite its geographically and architecturally rarefied aspects. People stop and chat in the street. They sit in the parks reading or looking at the sky. The tinnie-drinkers are ever-present by the awning and nobody takes offence at them. There’s an apparently harmonious diversity amongst the populace in terms of class and ethnicity (though the fact that Eloise felt no abashment in being, upon meeting me, immediately racist somewhat belies this observation.)

No clear political affiliations are manifested, save for a few old anarchist and antifa posters on one old phone box near the swimming pool. Modish posters advertise upcoming arts festivals, some with an emphasis on ecological themes. One morning a guy ties up a donkey, loaded with effects, outside the supermarket and goes into buy bread. Hikers drop in from the mountains to eat lunch. One evening at sunset, a German-looking guy in serious rambling gear turns up in the tavern asking for a room. Witnessing this, I begin to regret my largely pre-orchestrated, Airbnb-reliant approach and wonder whether I should been more freewheeling, until I hear that the cheapest room is 50 euros for the night. The maybe-German lad swallows and hands over his credit card.

I pass the stall-holders and begin winding my way up to the Château. The door and shutters of one house are open, and a stubbly guy with a close-ish shaved head steps out to smoke. Behind him a hippyish woman is drinking coffee in an artfully basic kitchen. A girl of about two sits in a high chair playing with her breakfast. I feel suddenly curious about property prices in the town. 

Seen from the castle gatehouse, terracotta roof-tiles form a sea of soft waves and sudden angles, concealing a thousand Saturday mornings, and nudge the eye upwards and beyond to close and distant mountains. 

Within the château walls I receive an enthusiastic crossbow and longbow demonstration from a thin, goatee-sporting guy of about my age, dressed up as a medieval archer (him not me). This might have been me in another life (and still might be in this one). I get to have a go with the projectiles and receive a ‘pas mal’ on both counts.

Higher up the hill, in the castle proper, I join a group tour and understand only the proper nouns. Through private study of the English-translated information boards I discover the kind of potted history you’d expect: built on a 7th century fort, castle was important strategic stronghold for Cathars, Simon de Montfort failed to capture it twice, Henry IV (yeah that one) ‘owned’ it for a while and had a bed here (which is still on display) but he never came to sleep in it.

I buzz off this medieval fix all afternoon. Later: another night, another tavern, little progress with the cryptic.

***

The following morning it’s time to have a tilt at one of these mountains, the one just to the east of the town. N.B. I can find no info online about the name of this mountain which kind of implies it’s maybe not a mountain and is rather just a big hill, but without solid evidence to the contrary I’m going to keep thinking of it as a mountain.

Eloise has told me about two walking routes up the mountain: 

‘The yellow route and the red route. You take the yellow route first and then come back and do the red. Be careful to stay on the route or you will end up in Spain.’

Being, as is established, cravenly respectful of the compass of the tourist realm, I set out with every intention of heeding her advice and join the route via an inauspicious, even spooky, dark and over-covered alleyway between two houses by the river. This leads to a rough and rocky up stairway, past me down which a group of exhilarated twenty-somethings comes. 

One of them wishes me ‘Bon appetit!’ and I wonder what the fuck he’s talking about until I remember there’s a big baguette sticking out of my backpack. The most vegan lunch to be found in the supermarket was some bread and cheese and tomatoes and crisps (genuinely, there was no hummus).

The path zigzags laboriously against the sheer gradient and the town grows slowly more toylike as I make the 10 minute climb to the beginning of the yellow route. This takes a similar approach to its forebear as it snakes into a wood and then out again to reveal a series of farming terraces, a range of graduated terrace steps on which the wily hill-farmers of Pech, lacking access to good old fashioned flat fields, would grow crops. These low walls of earth, reinforced by stone, were designed to, as well as resisting the gravity-obeying tendencies of mountain soil, radiate heat from sunlight onto the crops. I arrive upon yet more remnants of agricultural yore and return sisypheanly to the beginning of the yellow route. 

The red route, initially, is as well marked as it’s yellow confrere and regular markers draw me on in thigh-punishing ascent. Soon though, the path branches in several directions – off into a field, off into one section of woodland, off into another section, off into another. I follow what appears to be the road most travelled by and I am soon gratified by the sight of another red daubing on a cairn-ish rock. But soon appear other markings: a red and white strip and an orange one.

Determining to be extra-fastidious in my path-following from now on, I enjoy a long stretch of flatter ground which at last takes me out of the woods and onto a wide and sunlit upland, from which I can see the now model village-seeming city and, away to the south and west and south-west, spectacular Pyrenean vistas, of a kind I’ve long dreamed of seeing.

I go an hour without seeing another person - discounting those in cars, halfway to the horizon, beading along the motorway  – and then start to feel peckish. But, given how good this sandwich is probably going to be, I reckon the effort-reward ratio to not yet be in my favour and that I should give it another hour.

The path bends sharply uphill towards another wood and here, in a patchily lit clearing, I’m confronted by a ruined house.

[n.b. I’m aware that I keep switching between tenses (probably as a result of writing in intermittent bursts), and here I abandon the historical present in favour of the past tense, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic tense but there’s no way I’m going to back to edit it into a state of coherence now].

The darkness within poured out through its rough door and window spaces. It had a tortured physiognomy. A chill would have run down my spine were I not so claggy and warm from walking.

 ‘Amazing! A ruined farmhouse! What a cool thing for an intrepid young lad to stumble upon! In I go…’ is what I wish I’d thought. 

Instead my inner mon’s reaction to the discovery was more like: ‘oh shit! This is exactly the sort of place a murderer would live, or, only slightly less ridiculously, some kind of criminal gang or other deviant sect, lying in wait to steal the baguettes of walkers who stray off the red route.’ I didn’t go in.

I’d go in on the way back, I decided, utterly ignorant as to whether or not the red route (assuming I was even still on it) would return me this way. I passed the roof-less shell of a barn and entered the wood. Here two deer flashed across the path ahead, causing me too shit myself even more. And then I heard voices. Shouts and laughter, male and female, were emanating from verdant depths unknown. I stopped, hardly breathing, and listen closed. 

There were two of them at least. I could hear them talking high-spiritedly, but my lack of familiarity with the French accent and dialect left me unable to characterise the speakers and what danger they might pose. It might have been the mountain gangsters out on the march… Then a dog barked. I decided it was time for lunch and retreated.

In a field overlooking the terrible structure, I found a vantage point on a log from where I’d see anybody leaving the wood or the house. Either, I figured, I’d see the laughers emerge or, by the time I’d dealt with the Great Sandwich, they’d be at a safer remove.

I washed my hands, using just a few drops from my water bottle, as I knew I should ration it in case I accidentally went to Spain. Then I split the long loaf and stuffed the pre-grated coagulated bovine casein into the doughy ravine, before popping about 12 cherry-sized tomatoes in there too, to add taste, texture and nutritional grace. I tucked in heartily, without forgetting about the crisps side, and looked out across the mountain scene, feeling like someone who might be depicted on one of those little badges walkers used to nail to their sticks. 

As I reached the midpoint of the baguette I heard the voices again, now closer than before. Then barking from two different dogs.

Suddenly two spaniels came haring out of the wood and towards me! The curious creatures didn’t apprehend my presence immediately as they sniffed around the pathway to the house. My heart was thumping now. The tree-shrouded voicings grew louder still. What figures were about to emerge? Spaniels didn’t seem like the kind of dogs gangsters or bandits would have but maybe they do things differently in the mountains. Here they came… Human forms, out of the arboreal gloom… 

It was… a little girl, of about five. With a stick and a small backpack, she skipped into view, closely followed by, presumably, her parents, a middle aged woman and man whose dress and general bearing suggested they were not about to rob me. They saw the house, looked slightly surprised by it and then walked straight inside. 

I watched them explore the various hidden spaces while finishing my sandwich and crisps with a coward’s solemnity. Eventually they emerged and set off downhill, chucking me a loud ‘bonjour’ as they passed. The spaniels came right up and, seeming to smell my cowardice, fixed me with onyx-eyed stares before tearing away after their owners.

I went to look in the house. There wasn’t much in there. No contraband or accessories to vice. Decay and plant-life were enthroned amongst broken furniture – a broken bed, some old chairs, a few pieces of antique farming equipment. Half the ceiling had fallen in. The staircase was still intact but, even in my now slightly less melt-like state, I wasn’t bold enough to climb it, primarily because I thought it might collapse, but partly because I feared what might be waiting upstairs.

Three or four odd and old shoes had been left on a windowsill. Outside on the barn a keystone read ‘1912’ but the house itself looked older.

A little less ashamed of myself, I set off in search of another red marking.

Let me now bring this already long and embarrassing tale to its end and tell you that I then accidentally followed the red and white path for a couple of hours, but not as far as Spain - just down the other side of the mountain whereupon I realised my mistake and had to walk back up again and then down the side I’d come up initially, to get home. 

***

The Sunday evening brings (back to the historic present, excitingly) the much awaited First Conversation with a French Person that Doesn’t Qualify as Emotional Labour Necessitated by a Commercial Transaction. After dinner (crepes; the wheels have fallen off the entire vegan project by this point) I go back to the tavern, the one where the German hiker turned up late the previous night.

As I walk over the plaza under the awning, I notice a fracas between a tall, hefty and slightly dishevelled-looking guy and a shorter, skinner but also slightly dishevelled-looking guy. Both are middle aged and the shorter guy appears to have his son with him. The big guy has the smaller guy by the scruff of the neck and is giving him an earful, but it’s unclear what his tone is; he’s being aggressive but also it seems desperate somehow, like he’s asking for something from the shorter guy, as much as threatening him. The son looks embarrassed. I pass them and go into the tavern where I order a demi, and sit at the bar trying to make some headway with this accursed cryptic. 

The tavern is nearly half-full but there’s a calm atmosphere within, muted almost. A moment later the big guy, just seen altercating outside, saunters in. There’s a subtle ‘here he comes’-type ripple from a couple of lads at the end of the bar. The big guy sidles up next to where I’m sitting and orders a wine. He already reeks of booze. The barman asks him what kind of wine and he thinks clumsily for about 20 seconds before answering ‘rouge’. When this has been served to him, he sits down next to me and says something to the lads at the end. They don’t take much interest and he quickly turns to me and asks in French about the crossword. I think he’s literally asking what it is and I try to explain, in French, the concept of a cryptic crossword. He doesn’t really seem to get it but says it’s très intéressant. His general bearing is much gentler than the first impression suggested, childlike almost, but like a child that is who’s had far too much wine is as big as Peter Schmeichel. 

He’s certainly une caractère and I’m happy enough to be distracted from the cruel puzzle. He asks what I’m doing in Foix and I say I’m travelling but straightaway the conversation starts to falter because he can speak almost no English and the wine is impeding his comprehension of my already obtuse French. He looks genuinely pained that he’s failing to communicate. His eyes are doleful which softens the bully-ish macro-vibe. He crunches up his face when he fails to articulate his next question, and I try to tell him not to worry about it and then he grabs my hand. I tell him not to worry again but he’s still got hold of my hand. 

I pull away with a chuckle but this happens two or three more times. I look up at the lads at the end of bar for some sort of bantering acknowledgement but they just look awkwardly away. The big guy then thrusts his hand at my thigh and I have to sort of gesture ‘don’t do that, old friend’ without using words. N.b. It’s not the idea of a man flirting with me that’s freaking me out here; I’ll happily have a flirt with a stranger of whatever gender, just not one who I know to be drunk and apparently given to aggressive confrontation and arbitrary tactility, and who is also twice my size with hands like big steaks.

I shift away a bit but decide to give him the benefit of the doubt and ask him a thing few things about himself: he works on the SNCF (the French railway network), he’s been in Foix about eight years, he moved here for the tranquilité. But he’s really beating himself up about not being able to communicate, and then, after he gets tactile again and I turn back to the cryptic, he sits there almost growling and slapping his palms on the bar. I finish my beer and bid him ‘bon chance’ (bit weird in hindsight) before bailing to another tavern. Perhaps he posed no danger and it was unfair to dismiss him like that, but he was not much fun to talk to. Not quite what I was after from my first proper tête-à-tête. But then beggars can’t be choosers. 

***

The next morning Eloise is getting stressed about coming up with more things for me to do in Foix, having exhausted all her usual suggestions. Eventually she decides that I should go to Andorra (100km away) and tells me her friend works there and will give me a lift. But it turns out the friend is on holiday so instead Eloise tells me I should go to Ax-les-Thermes, a town about 50km away, which, as the name suggests, sits on some thermal springs and has baths for swimming. So I go to Ax-les-Thermes and swim in the baths. It’s the first hot and sunny day of my trip and I float around in the outdoor pool looking at the mountains, wild against the blue sky. I gain nothing in the way of social or cultural edification here but it’s self-care to end all self-care. 

On the way back to Foix, when I get to Ax-les-Thermes station, a boy of about 12 wearing massive headphones with a microphone attachment says something to me. Unsettled by the previous evening’s encounter I, pathetically, try just to smile and walk away but it turns out he was telling me that the train has been replaced by a bus and if it weren’t for him I would have missed it. The winding bus trip back through the mountains is the stuff of daydreams and I listen to Semper Femina again.

When I get back to the house Eloise has made waffles and mint tea which she serves ‘in the real Moroccan way’. So she can’t be a total Islamophobe, I think. But then maybe this kind of cognitive dissonance is not all that uncommon in the racist mindset.

***
The next morning I’m up before the sun to get the train to Barcelona. I have to perform the Crystal Maze-worthy task of taking my bags out to the street, opening the electric gate, running back into the house to leave the keys and then running back out again before the gate closes (presumably so The Thief can’t get in). It takes me three goes but eventually I slip through just in time and off I go, with jocund day standing tiptoe on the misty mountaintops.

So that was Foix, welcomer of hikers and medievalists, enabler of Saturday morning family idyls, (false?) promiser of tranquilité.  

Unlike Paris, I leave Foix with no rueing of opportunities missed (failure to complete the crossword aside). Maybe I’ll come and live here one day with my own little family, in our own little shutter-fronted medieval townhouse, and we’ll walk in the mountains and go to Ax-Les-Thermes for a treat every once in a while. Or maybe I’ll never come back here again. Time will tell.

P.S. Speaking of ‘time’, I found the ‘Foix’ poem/rhyme on a postcard… 

Il était une fois
Dans la ville de Foix
Une Marchande de foie.
Qui vendait du foie.
Elle se dit ma foi
C’est la première fois
Et la dernière fois
Que Je bends du foie
Dans la ville de Foix.

Which I think translates as:

It was once upon a time
In the town of Foix
A merchant of liver
Who sold some liver.
She said to herself, my faith,
It’s the first time
And the last time
That I sell some liver
In the town of Foix.

Good stuff.