An American in Berlin
18 August, 2016
I may have to change the name of this blog, for all the time I’m spending in not-Berlin. Most recently it was France and Spain. In a way, it almost feels like two separate trips. There was the trip I took with Charlotte, and the travelling I did by myself. I’ve been going over with myself whether it’s best to tale the tell – strike that, reverse it – chronologically, or to treat the accounting of it as two separate trips. Survey says? Just tell as it as it happened.
Right. So on Friday, I had a 7am flight to Barcelona. That meant, airport at six, which meant leave the apartment at 445. So what I should have done was get a good night’s sleep. What I did instead was take a late nap (around nine), because I was stressed from packing. This meant, of course, that a good night’s sleep was out of the question, and so I stayed up til 2am doing Hebrew. Well, I could sleep on the plane. Which is what I did.
Once in Barcelona, I had time only to hustle to the bus station by way of metro and catch my ride1 to the French (little) city of Perpignan, at the feet of the Pyrenees mountains. That’s where I was meeting Charlotte and also picking up the rental car. Only she wouldn’t arrive for another few hours. So I walked around the city a bit. I didn’t do any research on the place, so I didn’t know any sights to see. I just wandered, comme habitude, as they say.
Then Charlotte informed that her carshare2 had hit traffic and that she would be late. It would be a good idea, she told me, if I could do some food shopping and take care of the car. So after my wandering, I stopped at a café for the obligatory glass of pastis.3
This done, I returned to the train/bus station to get the car sorted. I booked through an agency called Europcar, and got a discount through my EasyJet flight. The lady there was very nice. J’ai réservé une voiture, sous le nom Starr, I said in quite passable (I think) French – I’ve reserved a car under the name Starr. She answered me in French and pulled up the details. Then she asked, in French, if I wanted to proceed in French or English. I took this as a sign that my French was good enough that she was ready to believe I really could manage this in her language. And perhaps I well could have. But with so much money on the line, I decided English would be safer. Anyway, the car was a four-door Seat hatchback. I’d never heard of Seat before, but when I got to the vehicle, I was surprised to see that I’d been upgraded. You see, when I booked online, the car was meant to be a manual. Furthermore, GPS was offered as not-free add-on; this I declined since we both had GPS on our phones. But when I got to the car, I saw that it was an automatic and had a GPS built-in. Here I must confess that I was a bit disappointed, with regard to the transmission. I knew we would be driving narrow mountain roads, and I was quite looking forward to having some fun. After my adventures in Italy with that big old van, I was ready to do some real driving. And yeah, also, I wanted to show off a bit for Charlotte. Well, I wasn’t very well going to go back in and complain about being upgraded, was I?
With the car taken care of,4 I found a supermarket in the train/bus station and did a bit of French grocery shopping. In other words: baguette, charcuterie, cheese, tomatoes and, of course, wine. Whereupon did I stash this bounty in the car, got out my book5 and waited for Charlotte. When she arrived, there was the happy reunion and then we hit the road. The closest thing to our destination on the map was the village of Los Masos. However, we would be staying with her friends – the ones from last time, who’d just had the baby. But they didn’t live in the village itself. They had a small cabin up the mountains a bit.
As we drove, Charlotte explained to me that they were a bit off the grid. They owned the land they were on, but the cabin they’d built wasn’t quite legal. So I didn’t know what to expect. What I found when we got there was a cozy little one room cabin attached to a camper-trailer. Jerome, the father, had built it himself. It was adorable. It also didn’t have running water; there was a cozy little outhouse though.
Once again, they were very happy to see us. They were also, once again, very kind and welcoming to me, the guy they’d only ever met once and who barely speaks any French. We hung out for a bit outside, in a clearing centered around a sort of picnic table and with a magnificent view of the valley and the mountains rising across the other side.
Before long, several of their hippy friends arrived, appearing out of the woods like hobbits. There was a couple with two kids, a girl (I’m guessing 12ish) and a boy (I’m guessing 9ish), as well as some other guy. Everybody was very nice, but I had a hell of a time keeping up, as the French they spoke was fast and slangy and not very well enunciated. Or rather, I should say, I couldn’t keep up and soon stopped trying. In fact, it was the kids who I could understand best.
At one point, I went for a bit of a walk around the property, partly to get away from the crowd and partly just to enjoy the scenery. A bit later, Gaëlle – Charlotte’s friend, the mother – gave us a tour. She showed us all the vegetables they were growing; squash, melons and many others I’m forgetting. She also showed us their chicken coup – seven hens and a rooster. All very impressive, though in a bit of a state of disrepair as they’d been away/busy with the whole baby thing. There were also, apparently, wild horses. We came across two white ones just chilling on the mountainside. It was pretty fantastic.
After a while, the hobbit people left and we went inside for dinner. This was delicious. It appeared to be zucchini – OK, I guess they also grew zucchini? – stuffed with some kind of ground meat, which I think was turkey. We hung out and drank for a bit. Around midnight, I guess, G&J left for their apartment6 down in Los Masos. Being bereft of guitars, and being tipsy and tired from a (very) long day, Charlotte and I went to bed. In the trailer part of the cabin, there was a lovely bed set up. We promptly passed out and slept like babies.
The next morning, I was awoken by the crowing of the rooster. Did you catch that? I was actually woken up by a fucking rooster. Where the shit was I? Oh, and speaking of animal sounds, the night before there was this incessant “aaaaaahing” of some unseen goat. I’d never heard this before. I mean, it just sounded like some guy yelling out “aaaaaahhh” in a flat, even monotone. It was weird. But I tuned it out pretty quickly, and it was done with its spiel by the time we went to bed anyway.
The next day’s adventure was to visit the walled village of Villefranche. It’s just what it sounds like. It’s a walled medieval village in a valley between some mountains. OMG was it ever fucking gorgeous.
Oh but wait, I forgot, earlier in the morning we went into the nearby village of Prades to hit the market.7 It was a very small market and utterly adorable. There we met with G’s mother, Martine. Also, I bought a thing of fresh raspberries. Because I fucking love raspberries, OK? After this, we headed back to the cabin for lunch. M rode with us. As I drove, she and Charlotte chatted away, and for the first time, I felt like I was listening to people I could actually understand. I don’t know if it was because M was a “grownup” or what, but her French was quite clear, if tinged with some kind of accent, possibly southern. And Charlotte, being a bloody French teacher already, speaks quite clearly. Which is not to say I was able to follow the conversation. The roads up the mountain are quite tricky and required my full attention.
At one point, Charlotte asked me in French if I was understanding any of the conversation, and I didn’t even know she was talking to me. So I could hear enough to know this was followable French for me, but I couldn’t pay it the requisite attention. Well, that’s how it goes.
Lunch back at the cabin consisted of what C & I had bought the day before plus whatever the various members of the crew had picked up at the market. We had a pleasant time of it, no doubt. This being France, however, it was only a matter of time before people started asking why I couldn’t eat cheese. Whereupon did have to explain – in French – how lactose intolerance works. Believe it or not, I actually did a passable job of this.8 So lunch was very nice. And it was after this that we made for Villefranche.
As I’m writing this, I have a group G-chat going on on the side with the lads from home. And Rob is talking to me about some insane wrestling match. And as we’re talking about it, I’m remembering how much I love good wrestling.9 He’s telling me about this ridiculous cruiserweight match, and cruiserweight wrestling is of course the best. That’s where you get the high-flying stuff, the great mat-work, the artistry, the energy. And he’s telling me about the mix of styles – Japanese, Lucha and so on. And I’m just remembering all the times we used to watch wrestling growing up. And I’m remembering all the times Jared and I would drunkenly watch old WCW or old Bret Hart matches in our apartment. How we would marvel at literally anything Dean “Eyes of Ice” Malenko would do in the ring, how he could take literally anybody and make them a star for fifteen minutes, based solely on his mastery of the craft. And so now I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for those times. For me, there was no better time for wrestling than the Golden Age of WCW’s cruiserweight division – not matter how poorly it may have been managed. The young Chris Jericho, the young Billy Kidman, the new Rey Mysterio, the veteran and glorious Dean Malenko, and yes, the young Chris Benoit, who was probably the greatest of them all, whatever tragic fate was spun for him. And of course, any match Bret “the Hitman” ever took part in. My God, was Hart “the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.” If Malenko was a technician par excellence, Hart was an artiste. Everything he did was perfect, every move pure magic. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, “the excellence of execution.” I mean, there was this match against Ricky Steamboat – Hart wasn’t even wearing pink yet – and, just, wow.
I read Hart’s autobiography, which Jared had in the apartment. Even for non-wrestling fans, it’s well worth the read. It’s touching, poignant, tragic, and in the end – sadly – a bit bitter. But in there, he talks about Tom Billington, “the Dynamite Kid.” And he talks this guy up – a guy I’d never heard of before, let alone seen – as being the greatest talent he’d ever witnessed. So just now, as I’m going down memory lane here, I pulled up a highlight reel of the Dynmaite Kid, and oh my god, you guys. I’ve never seen anything like this. He had the impact and the artistry of Hart, the intensity of Benoit, the fluidity and speed of Mysterio and the technical mastery of Malenko, all in one. I’m talking to Jared now, and he says that for all that, he was still missing something. And that may well be true. Watching a highlight reel, you can’t get any sense of his ability to tell a story in the ring – and nobody was better at storytelling than Hart. But the tragedy of Tom Billington – who threw his life and career away on drugs and/or alcohol – is that we never got to see him develop. We’ll never know what he might have been. Well. So much for wrasslin’.
So, Villefranche. As I said, it’s a medieval walled village, and so you enter through the old gate. As I recall, the old, heavy wooden doors are there, but are now fixed open. The portcullis is gone, though the rusted chains are still in place. It’s a bit of an odd place, in that it’s kind of touristy down the main drag. Lots of shops selling tourstiy memorabilia, that kind of thing. But it’s beautiful and charming, and off the main drag, actual people live there actual lives there.
This was actually a bit of a surprise to me. I mean, it’s hard to explain. The place had an almost Disney-esque feel to it. What I mean is, it felt a bit like a reconstruction of what a medieval village was supposed to be. So I asked Charlotte if people really live here, or does it just shut down at midnight and everybody goes home? Sure enough, she told me, this is a real, actual, functioning village. Yes, it’s a bit touristy in the center, but regular people really do just live here. And once you’re out of the touristy bit, it’s much as it must have been back in the day. Only the streets aren’t covered in horse shit.
We all hung out together for a short bit. Everybody else bought some ice cream. I bought a chocolate sorbet. Probably not worth mentioning, except that it was delicious. Also, I haven’t had ice cream in probably fifteen years, and this was the closest I can ever come. Man, did I love that! After this, G, J & M left while Charlotte and I ascended the overhanging mountain to check out the 17th century Fort Libéria.
This is where I got my first bit of history on the region. See, this was all once part of Cataluña (Catalonia), which, I suspect, we all assume is a part of Spain. Certainly I assumed that. But in fact, Cataluña was it’s own ‘nation’ (for lack of a better word) which straddled the Pyrenees long ago. It even had (has, even) its own language – Catalan. But as is always the case with small and weak nations, it got fucked over by the larger France and Spain. Ultimately, it was divided between the two, along the borders that we all now know. The part that is now in Spain is still called Catalonia. In France, the region is Roussillon.10
Anyway, the fort was very cool. It’s largely much as it was when it was in use. You can still walk the parapets, still traverse the interior halls. The views from the walls are stunning. Below, you can see Villefranche and the mountains behind it. And as you peer through the meurtrières, you’re met with a stiff, refreshing breeze – a most pleasant contrast to the Mediterranean sun shining overhead. There is also a small dungeon, called the “women’s prison.” I’m a bit sketchy on the details, but basically several dames form the French royal court were exiled there, at least one of which for “witchcraft.” The two most tenured inmates spent 36 and 44 years in that awful cell. How nice it is to think we’ve advanced far beyond that sort of treatment, eh?
After our tour, Charlotte and I paused for a drink at the café which lies in the central courtyard of the fort. Homegirl had a rosé while I, naturally, opted for a pastis. As we sat, a small bird landed upon a nearby wall. Story time.
“You know the story of the birds here, right?” I asked. And she smiled that smile. The one that says, “Oh, you’re going to tell me a story now?” “Not a story,” I have to remind her. “A history. This is true! Though not a lot of people know it. And don’t bother looking it up, because you won’t find it.” “OK,” she smiles. “Tell me the history.”
Right. So you know how there were two woman imprisoned here, who were accused of witchcraft? Well, they were actually witches. And after spending 36 and 44 years in their cell, they knew that death was upon them. Now, you know that one single window, high up in the wall of the cell? Well, birds would always land there. And as the end drew closer, and they knew they were about to die, they used their witchcraft to transfer their souls to those birds.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Does one of those birds right there on the wall have the soul of one of those prisoners? No. Of course not! This was over two hundred years go, after all. The birds they transferred their souls to have long since died. But these birds are their decedents. And even now, they have something of the spirit of their ancestor’s hosts in them. And so, even today, the local people think that sometimes they hear the birds that fly around the fort laughing and crying. Laughing because they are free from their imprisonment, and yet crying because their spirits are bound to this place and they cannot leave it.
“Really?” she asked. “Then how come nobody ever told me about this? I mean, Gaëlle’s friend works in the village. We were in her shop earlier. How come she didn’t say anything about this?” “Well,” I answered, “did you ask her? I mean, you were too busy shopping. You didn’t ask about local lore. And anyway, she probably knows how crazy it sounds. So you can’t expect her to volunteer this sort of information.”
“Well, I don’t hear them laughing or crying,” she tried again. “Of course you don’t,” I answered, as if it were obvious. “This only happens at night, when the moon is shining. You can’t expect this sort of thing during the day. That’s simply not how it works.” Whether she was satisfied with this, or was simply tired of my bullshit, I cannot say. But she pressed the issue no further. And anyway, it was time to leave.
Now, we had ascended the mountain by way of a winding path which crisscrossed the rocky flank up to the fort. But the way down would be different. You see, although the fort had been built in the 18th century by some dude named Vuaban,11 it had been modified in the years since. Such that now, there was a stairwell down to the village which cut straight through the mountain itself. This is called the Milles Marches – the thousand steps. Now, you don’t get to call something the thousand steps without expecting people to count the bloody steps.
And this is just what we did. In the beginning, we busied ourselves with trying to determine whether each flight simply had the same number of steps. It was soon apparent that they did not. So we quickly moved to just trying to keep count. At first, we would pause at every landing, to see if our counts matched. Since they did, we left that nonsense behind and began stopping at every hundred steps, checking to see if we agreed that this was 300 or 400 or 500. But by five hundred, we had begun to deviate in our respective numerations.
Now here’s where it get’s sticky. As I remember it, when we finally reached the bottom, our counts were roughly 10-15 steps apart. But we could at least agree that the staircase held approximately 850 steps – give our take 10-15. Only the next day, Charlotte was insistent the number was not 850 but 750. For my part, I maintain that it was indeed circa 850. Even now, we disagree. The point is, however, that whatever the true number, it sure as shit wasn’t 1000. But what can you do? It’s much easier – and much nicer – to call that interminable decent Les Milles Marches than Les Huit/Sept-Cent-Cinquante Marches. It just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
Anyway, we did eventually reach the bottom, whereupon we collected our car and headed back to the cabin. Only, no we didn’t. We had to get dinner first. Now, there were more than a few restaurants in Villefranche which not only looked great, but also smelled delightful. But we remembered that we had seen, from the road, a beautiful little village set into the mountainside.
Earlier, Charlotte had asked Martine, if she knew anything about it. Eus, it was called, she told us, and yes, it was fucking gorgeous. And so forsaking the culinary delights that were before us, we embarked upon visiting Eus, there to eat and explore.
But it is now 4:22 in the morning, and this piece is super fucking long. Also, I have nearly exhausted my liter of wine.12 And so, I shall resume next time with our adventure in Eus, and all that followed. Until then.
- The bus ride was quite pleasant, much better than the Chinatown buses I’m so used to. I could charge my phone, the seats were comfortable, the driver was professional. We made one pit stop along the way. Most people ate, I had a Spanish beer. At the border, the police checked our passports and looked for bombs. Obviously, there were no problems. [↩]
- More on carsharing later. [↩]
- Have I written about pastis before? It’s an anise flavored liquor, basically the French version of Greek ouzo or Turkish raki. It’s served – about a shot’s worth – over ice and with a side of water. You then add the water to your glass, however much you want. Without the water, it has a thick gray, almost greenish, color. With the water, it clouds up to look like, well, a cloud, actually. Anyway, it’s fucking delicious and refreshing as all get-out. It’s no coincidence all these hot Mediterranean lands have some version of it. The point is, I love the shit out of it, and it’s my go-to drink when in the south of France. I even used to buy bottles of it during the summer in New York. [↩]
- If any of my classicist friends should chance to read this, I would here like to express my love for the genitive (Greek) or ablative (Latin) absolute. We just don’t have an equivalent in English. For everybody else, I shan’t bother to explain because a) it will take too long and b) I’m sure you don’t care. If somehow you do, there’s a the hyperlink… [↩]
- Jules Verne’s Robur le Conquérant. I love Jules Verne, period. But I especially love JV when I’m travelling. I mean, so many of his stories are adventures about seeing the world, or even, other worlds: Le Tour du Monde, Cinq Semaines en Ballon, Voyage au Centre de la Terre, De la Terre à la Lune, Autour de la Lune, and so on. This one takes place in an airship that travels the globe. Reading this stuff while you’re travelling is the most perfect thing ever. The only book that matches this, for feel, is Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., most of which takes place all over England. This I read during my semester in London, and believe you me, I devoured every word of it. Fuck. Washington Irving is the first true American author, and he’s bloody gorgeous. This is also the book, by the way, that contains the stories of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkle and The Spectre Bridegroom, all found, purportedly, amongst the papers of that revered Dutchman Diedrich Knickerbocker. [↩]
- Technically not their apartment; I guess a friend was letting them use it. [↩]
- In the states, I’d say “farmers’ market.” And it was. But my impression was, here in France, in these small villages, it’s just “the market,” like it was in olden times. [↩]
- The next question is always, “so what happens if you eat dairy?” When, on the last trip, Charlotte’s dad had asked me this, I answered with a bit of French slang, which I’d learned from Charlotte: “Chiasse d’un autre monde.” Which more or less translates as “the shits from another world.” Not the sort of thing I’d ever normally say, but the French seem to love this sort of talk (cf. Monty Python’s Holy Grail where John Cleese-as-Frenchman uses all sorts of bodily function-based insults). Anyway, Charlotte seems to find this hilarious, and keeps wanting me to use it to tell every last person who asks what happens when I have dairy. But I’m way to embarrassed… [↩]
- So yeah, this interlude will be about wrestling, and feel free to skip it, non-wrestling fans. [↩]
- I digress into this brief history, only because it will become relevant when I come to my carshare experience in Spain. [↩]
- Who, apparently, is some kind of big deal. [↩]
- Back in Berlin, I went grocery shopping today. For 11 & change, I got a loaf of bread, a package of bratwursts and loads of fresh veggies. I love Berlin, and I love my ‘hood, Neukölln. [↩]