Stello est né le plus heureusement du monde et protégé par l’étoile du ciel la plus favorable. Tout lui a réussi, dit-on, depuis son enfance. Les grands événements du globe sont toujours arrivés à leur terme de manière à seconder et a dénouer miraculeusement ses événements particuliers, quelque embrouilles et confus qu’ils se trouvassent; aussi ne s’inquiète-t-il jamais lorsque le fil de ses aventures se mêle, se tord et se noue sous les doigts de la Destinée: il est sur qu’elle prendra la peine de le disposer elle-même dans l’ordre le plus parfait, qu’elle-même y emploiera toute l’adresse de ses mains, a la lueur de l’étoile bienfaisante et infaillible.
A 60 year old man driving a cabriolet in his swimsuit comes to pick you up at the airport, and you wonder why did you leave your comfortable room in the first place. Gilbert started talking to me with the same velocity as he was driving, ignoring the fact that I told him my French is pitiful. One line that I picked up though was “Un souris… un souris est… est une porte ouverte vers la rêverie!” (A smile… a smile is… is an open door towards reverie!). In the UK, I thought, no one would say that. The fear of embarrassing oneself is too high there for any poetic attempts. The British tragic sense is drowned in alcohol and asphyxiated in clouds of smoke, hidden behind kitsch outfits and decors, multilated into a tired and sarcastic grim, not converted into tears and lamentations like the French tragic sense. With this in mind, I started exploring this tiny southern village, walked up and down the narrow streets, with a dumb smile on my face all along, wondering if I could live my life in such a place, far from the madding crowd. Is uneventful happiness boring? Isn’t all happiness boring, in a way? After smelling all the flowers in the flower market and watching the two swans in the pond from the Plateau des Poètes ceaselessly rotating like some celestial bodies, I didn’t want to leave Béziers at all, and considered spending the rest of my trip right there, in the jardin “à l’anglaise”, paradoxically. But then, the guy sitting on the bench next to me turned to me and made a spontaneous declaration of love as I was reading Cyrano de Bergerac. He asked if he could kiss my feet. He wasn’t joking. I had to abandon Cyrano after only a couple of pages and move my (thankfully) unkissed feet to the next destination, Carcassonne.
I was disappointed in this commercial medieval town. In a nutshell, it was an expensive, 70 year old tourist-drowned Sighișoara. I walked around the town wearing my long gipsy skirt, holding a baguette and gracelessly chewing its crumbs like a hungry sparrow. I visited the fortress, which failed to impress me. Disappointed, I decided to go to the hostel early. It was part of a 13th century castle, a bit far from Carcassonne, in Malves.
I had to wait for a few hours before the reception opened, which I spent lying on the grass and watching the locals getting ready for a festival that they were having that evening. The time spent in Malves afterwards still feels like a strange dream, the kind that you don’t really want to tell anyone about because it feels too intimate to divulge. I was happy. Maybe it was the surrealistic nature of the festival, or the delicious local wine, or the coincidence of meeting another computer scientist from Manchester, or the lovely French girls with whom I have no idea what I spoke about. The next morning, I realised there were no buses to Carcassonne because it was a Sunday, and I had to go there to take a train to Toulouse. Sean (the Mancunian) was very kind and let me ride in the back of his motorcycle (for the first time in my life), and he dropped me somewhere near Carcassonne, where we had a very childish breakfast consisting of chips and ice cream. We said goodbye, promising to keep in touch, as people who meet in these circumstances always do. From there, there was a 40 minute walk to the train station. Everyone in the area hitch-hikes, and it is seen as something very normal and safe. However, I was too scared to do that, so I started walking. A car stopped next to me, and the driver asked if I needed a ride, but I refused it. Then, I regretted it, and thought I was being paranoid. Another car stopped, and this time I jumped in without giving it a second thought. The driver was a 50 year old Moroccan man, and at the end of the 5 minute drive, he parked the car in the train station and started kissing my neck as I was struggling to pull myself out of his arms. I know it doesn’t sound like something very scary, but I’m sure that the girls who have had similar experiences can understand the panic and the disgust that I felt. I ran away from the car and jumped in the next train to Toulouse, happy to leave Carcassonne behind.
Any adjectives I would try to attribute to Toulouse would diminish its beauty. It felt like a jewel, a radiography of a sensitive soul, with pink buildings, flowers and trees caressing the paved, perfumed streets, children chasing ducks on the banks of the river, a peaceful tidiness reigning across the city. My excitement did not pass unnoticed by the locals, and I received 3 compliments on the streets: “T’es très jolie”, “Vous êtes ravissante”, “Mon ami vous trouve très mignon, mais il est trop timid de vous en parler”. The latter came from a 16 year old boy, funnily. I went out with the three girls from my hostel room, and I felt very lonely as I was sipping my mojito. I have not hung out with a group of girls since high school. I found it painfully boring, so I went back to the hostel and slept. I spent two days in Toulouse, simply walking along the Canal du Midi, reading in the Daurade quartier, taking photos of the exotic plants at the Jardin des Plantes, haggling in the local market, and chatting with people at the hostel. I met a lovely lady who was doing a biking tour of France. We spoke about movies (I finally found another Almodóvar fan) and about romantic languages. I had to explain her that Romanian is not very similar to French, and that I had to make a sustained effort to learn it, but I noticed the French seem to live under the impression that once you speak a romantic language, you can speak all of them, and ignore the fact that Romanian is not entirely romantic anyway. Then, I packed and hopped on a bus to Bordeaux.
It felt a lot like England, and I thought I was starting to hallucinate and see similarities with London – mostly in the architecture. But I was assured of my mental sanity when I learned that Bordeaux used to be a major port for the British, hence the influences. It was undeniably uglier than Toulouse, but it had that kind of aesthetic ugliness, with symmetrical imperfections and dirty gems in the rust at every corner. If Toulouse is the ideal, Bordeaux is the reality. Beautiful and painful at the same time. I felt at ease in Bordeaux, as if I belonged there. I stayed at an Airbnb where I spent the whole evening chatting to my host, Gabriel. A man in his 40s whose wife left him 6 months ago, when he was working as a truck driver and was overweight. Now, he is fit and he works as a graphic illustrator. He is renting the room that his wife and daughter left empty to make some money to buy clothes that fit him. He had a very tragic life, and told me stories that nearly made me cry. I was very happy to meet someone so sensitive and kind. I hope he finds love again, more than I’ll ever hope that for myself. My final day in Bordeaux was rainy, and I spent it trying to translate Stello in English at a coffee shop. The quote at the beginning of this post is the first passage of the book, and I must have read it at least 30 times. I consider myself a very lucky person, which is why I tend to have an optimistic view on life. Reading the quote felt very familiar, as if I was reading about myself, and it fits perfectly with my journey to France.
The next morning, I took a flight to Rome.