Mouthing sweet nothings in Catalonia and the Langue d'Oc
Barcelona to Toulouse
4th November, 2003
It is a tiresome place, Barcelona. I had come here in order to feel sorry for myself.
Leaving London in low spirits, I went to Spain
because there was a convenient flight from Manchester. I had no plan. No plan normally means disaster. Endlessly
wandering alone in the rain, talking to myself, sore feet and missing every opportunity. Part of me almost
looked forward to it. If I was miserable, then the world must be a miserable place.
Barcelona, damn it, ruined everything. Not only was the weather spring like and sunny,
but I couldn´t take five steps together without enjoying myself. Consider:
- Night one: going out by myself for beer and tapas, fell into company with two American girls, Mandy and Julie, who demanded laughter
and mojitos all night. My hostel built its bedding cubicles out of steel, and
two girls are flailing around next door (note to self: buy mirror on a stick) setting off the dorm like the Kingston Steel Band. Three hours sleep.
- Day two: as the weather continued hot, curse it, I joined a cycle tour of the city. Few Spaniards have any notion of bicycles. They react to the little bell
by twisting and leaping into your path with a frantic swatting motion as if you were some sort of overgrown mosquito. So cycling through the little streets changed from a gentle meander to an exhilerating thrill ride. We finished in a beach bar, in November, drinking sangria in our shorts.
- Night two: I joined a backpacker pub crawl. What was I thinking of? I don't belong with these children, I thought at the start. Drink-crazed nubile
twenty somethings gqthered round qnd insisted that I laugh too much and dance with them all night. Sighing, I surrendered. Two hours sleep.
- Day three: Rain! Hooray! I can have a break and drink coffee. In the coffee house... two more new friends pop up. Rebecca and Diane invite me
to a night of beer, tapas and flamenco. Now this had to go wrong - I could expect nothing but overpriced food, gaping tourists wondering when to clap, and the landlord´s aging wife mincing around
the boards in a fading dress two sizes too small. The tourists were there of course, but so were dozens of Spanish flamenco fanatics who only turn out for a top class act. The sound and rhythm of the flamenco penetrated my passions till the blood rose up behind my eyes and I had to
force myself not to leap onto the stage. But... no. A rapid exit from a flamenco bar at 3am with a guitar wrapped around my head, pursued by an angry mob of flamenco fans... no, keep that for the end of the week.
Four hours sleep.
- Day four: burnt out, and determined to hide where no more strange women pursue me to an exhausted grave. I zipped off to Montserrat. This
is a monastery built on an extraordinary churning mountain plateau soaring high above Catalonia. The weather perfect, the evening sun lighting the
the tumults of stone in cascades to the valley below. On the train back a Germanic woman stared at me keenly. I hid behind a seat.
I was shocked how much Barcelona had changed. I last came here on an interrail ticket, 15 years ago. Then it was dark, dirty, sinister, and
distinctly foreign. There was nowhere to stay but some suspect pensions you could only find by asking around the
along the Carre de la Princessa, and if you wanted anything, anything at all, you had to speak Spanish, or go hungry. Yet, hard as it was, surviving all that made travel into
an adventure. It was memorable. I only knew a few words of Spanish then, but they went far.
Now I come to Barcelona able to speak Spanish fairly well, and everyone insists on speaking to me in English. It´s ridiculous. Every time I use a perfectly constructed
Spanish inquiry, back comes a perfectly structured English reply. I am therefore always on the wrong foot, having to instantly calculate whether to
continue in Spanish,
or in English,
or just stand there infuriated while they say
"Four euros. Four." and wave four fingers in front of my eyes in case so great a number should evade
my reason altogether.
I wonder why I bother at all. I suppose if I had longer and ventured beyond the tourist
areas it would be different, and I would have to use Spanish or Catalan to be understood. The newer generation of backpackers often take it for granted they can always use English.
I was shocked when I came here to hear a Australian girl walk into a coffee shop and ask a local couple "is this seat free?" in English without even an attempt at Spanish.
She might as well have gone to Bob's British Bar, We Serve Fish 'n' Chips.
The city itself has changed enormously. It´s clean, safe and shining with confidence. I paused for a moment when my cycle trip reached
the beach bar. Beach bar? I didn´t remember any beaches... they were added in 1991.
The next flight leaving Andorra
I decided to travel to France over the mountains instead of the coast, and see the Pyrenees.
This meant travelling on yet another perfect day, first through the rolling red and green sandstone ridges
of northern Catalonia, then through the autumn colours of the mountain forests and high passes on the road to Andorra.
Andorra itself has no airport, there being no land flat enough for an airstrip. As an act of spite, therefore,
they´ve transformed the entire country into an airport duty-free lounge and shopping mall. The villages are nothing
but a continual line of hotels, shops and restaurants with little sign of heart or culture. A country made up of ski villages,
empty spaces with a roof on top.
It is a country of extraordinary beauty, and so I took yet another cloudless day to go hiking in the pre-winter green
and gold mountains. In accordance with the random state of my planning so far, I managed to ascend entirely
the wrong mountain and ended up blundering around in snow drifts under a blazing sun at 2200 metres.
"This can't be right", I said to myself at 200m.
"No, this is certainly wrong," I added, at 700m.
Training informed me that I should go back down and relocate.
"Sod that safety lark", I thought, and carried on.
At 2200m I looked at the map. "Ha! I knew it! This is completely wrong!" Thus filled with the glowing satisfaction
that comes from total vindication, I turned around, and, very slowly, fell over.
Oh well. The view was good, and I wasn´t in a hurry to get back to another evening contemplating
endless rows of tax-free video cameras anyway.
The official language here is Catalan, and all signs are written in this ancient mediterreanian tongue.
However most of the people are of non-Andorran origin, speaking either Castillian or French. This has led to
the odd situation where some shops and cafes have signs outside informing us that we can use Catalan inside. Only old people seemed to go in.
For myself I am generally pigeon-holed into speaking English here as I was in Barcelona. I have my revenge: I start every discourse
by speaking only Catalan ("Bon dia...") and watch to see if they for once I can shift them to the wrong foot... I may even wave four fingers
in the air.
Slobber, it sounds like what it is
Down the mountain roads to Toulouse at last, in the Langue d'Oc. Another cloudless day, and the
Pyrenees put one last magnificent show of autumn colour.
I didn't intend to stop in Toulouse at all, but the rail ticket machine refused my card, so I decided to make the
best of it and endure an evening in the rose red city. Of course, destiny loves to throw cabbage in my face, so the city I endured turned out to be immaculate, still and yet alive, from the grandeur of the bridges reflected by moonlight in the motionless Garonne, to the
artless perfection of the student girls sipping their apperitifs.
I hate goddam France. Always the same, showing me up, making me look stupid. Stupid, lacking in style, taste or any civilisation. A dumb, hulking, northern barbarian, slobbering as he tries to do up his shoelaces, then falling
over his stone club as he tries to enter a cafe by way of the window. On the other hand, while they're still arguing about where to sit, I've already eaten and am striding manfully towards the future. So it evens out.
But at least they speak French here. Or do they? The language of this region for a thousand years was Occitan, a close relative of Catalan, the medieval tongue of courtly love. The Abigensian crusade destroyed the political basis for a separate southern tongue, but it took the
French government to wipe it out entirely, by insisting that only pure Parisian be taught in schools. Only the grandparents remember it now. It was
a mountain tongue in the end, for peasants.
So naturally it's come back into ghostly fashion. All the young hotheads of Toulouse have been
busily adding Occitan signs under all the French. It's more interesting, to have a separate identity. I predict that, if the current Andorran generation
lets their Catalan die, their grandchildren, tired of being indistinct from any Madrlieno come-lately, will angrily resurrect their ancestral tongue.
They might even build a statue of me, the forefather of their linguistic revolution, the storm crow of their cultural dignity, a statue striding with purpose into the future, a strange look of angry incomprehension on his face, and four stern fingers in the air.
Hat & Spoon