12th January 2017
Once again we had breakfast in the bar, then Ferran left for work. He left me along the main road from Verges, to the next city to the north. My plan was to hitchhike across the border to Perpignan in France. I was due to arrive at my next Couchsurfing host in the evening, so reckoned hitching town to town in short hops would be a fun way to spend the day. The temperature was barely above freezing as I stood on the outskirts of Verges, with my thumb out and my backpack at my side. I had written ‘Figueres’ on my sign, the city I hoped to get to first. An elderly man in a rusted jeep soon pulled over, and brought me to my first stop. He spoke rough English: just enough for him to understand my travel plans; both long term and short. He drove fifteen minutes out of his way to drop me at what he thought would be a suitable place to hitch from; a petrol station, on the outskirts of Figueres, just before the ramp onto a motorway heading north. He told me that most of the cars heading onto the motorway would be going to Perpignan, so I wrote that on my sign, and waited.
For over an hour I stood by that petrol station, hoping that somebody would take me. Only about a third of the cars passing the station were taking the ramp onto the motorway. I looked at the maps on my phone; it seemed that somebody driving north could be heading to many different places, not just Perpignan. As the sun climber higher towards noon, the temperature rose quickly, and I took off my jacket. I looked at the bus timetables on my phone, and decided to get myself a bit further north, where I could attempt hitching again once I was clear of the French border.
I walked down the street from the petrol station and around the corner, from where a local bus took me to the Figueres train station. From there I boarded a train to Cerbere, a seaside village just north of the French border. I considered taking another train straight to Perpignan, but doing so would have me arrive in the city long before my Couchsurfing host was ready to take me, and I’d be left hauling my heavy backpack around for hours. I decided to keep hitching, and walked away from the train station towards the village centre, just as the Perpignan-bound train was departing. I walked a few minutes along the winding coastal road that divided the mountains from the sea. It was hot now, and I sweated in a t-shirt. I wrote ‘Banyuls-sur-Mer’ on my sign, and waited in a suitable spot.
I didn’t have to wait long before a dirty, white car pulled over. I threw my bag and sign into the back seat, and jumped into the front. As we took off along the twisting road, perched atop a series of sheer drops to the water below, I noticed a strong smell in the car. I looked at my driver’s hand on the steering wheel. It was holding a joint. The man took a drag.
“Bonjour!” he said, exhaling thick smoke. “Ca va?”
“Ca va” I replied, considering what I should do. “Parlez-vous anglais?”
We were flying around blind corners and sharp bends, with the drop into the sea never more than a dozen metres to the right of the car, and no protective barrier separating it from the road. Obviously the sensible thing to do would have been to politely ask him to pull over, thank him for the lift, and waited for someone more sober to come along. It was about a fifteen minute drive from Cerbere to Banyuls. I decided to take my chances.
The man, despite everything, was very friendly. We chatted in my broken French about ourselves.
“Moi. Étudiant” I said. “Ingénieur. Et vous? Votre travail?”
“Something something construction” he replied. “Something something la maison.”
“Ah oui” I said. “Construction; la maison; je comprends.”
He told me he was going to Banyuls to buy cat food (or maybe buy a cat, all I know is he used the words ‘acheter’ and ‘le chat’), then was heading further north, where I was looking to go. He offered me a lift, but I politely declined, told him ‘merci beaucoup’, and got when he pulled in for the shop.
The man who took me from Banyuls to Perpignan was fully sober, and spoke good English. He was a recently retired lawyer for the Perpignan rugby team, and was familiar with Ireland, having been in Dublin for many matches and conferences. We chatted about the current states of the Irish and Perpignan teams. Perpignan has dropped from the top division of French domestic rugby to the second, he explained, and it won’t be climbing back up for a long time yet.
He drove quite far out of his way to drop me right at the door of my Couchsurfing host.
“I’m retired” he said. “I have time!”
I rang the buzzer outside of the concrete apartment block, located on a cramped, grey street, a half-hour bus ride north from the city centre. The main door opened, and I entered, ascending the narrow staircase up to the third floor. A very young girl met me halfway up. She spoke no English, but beckoned me to follow her. She brought me into a small, cluttered apartment, and closed the door behind us. Using my limited French, I found out what was going on. She was Sabine, eleven years old, the daughter of Muriel, my host. Muriel would be home soon. I thought it was quite trusting of Muriel to leave her eleven year old daughter at home to greet a Couchsurfer.
Soon Muriel, her partner, and her older daughter returned home. She spoke a little English, slightly better than my French. None of the rest of the family spoke any. She gave me a tour of her apartment, and instructed me to make myself at home. She gave me a spare key, and sat me down for dinner. After, the adults drank premixed martinis at the kitchen table, while the children watched French cartoons on an old cathode ray television. Muriel then sent Sabine to clear her room. I would be sleeping in Sabine’s bed for the next two nights, while she slept on an air-mattress in her sister’s bedroom. I asked Muriel about her Couchsurfing experience, intrigued by such generosity from a family who clearly didn’t have a lot of money. She and her family use Couchsurfing as a way to travel to places that may otherwise be beyond their means. Next month the four of them were going to spend a week Couchsurfing in London. I told them that if they come to Ireland in a year’s time, when I’ve returned from my travels, I would host them in my family home in Dublin. Muriel repeated my offer in French to her family, and they excitedly grinned at each other and thanked me. I imagine I’ll be taken up on this at some stage.