Yeah, it’s easier to get out of Munich than it is to get out of Salzburg but they still don’t make it that easy to get to France, specifically Clermont Ferrand which lies pretty much straight beyond Switzerland. I wanted to hire a car but they wouldn’t let me without a source-of-all-evil card. I wanted to book a train but they told me I could take one to Paris (?) change there and arrive just before Christmas. Or I could take one through Switzerland with 5 changes and a 5 hour lay-over in Zurich station at 2am. For the price of a small car.
No no. It was back to the coach for me. A mere hop and skip to Lyon, via Strasbourg or somewhere over that way, and then an devilishly early train to Clermont Ferrand to wait outside the station with the piss-stained, beer-swilling tramps for Guillaume. And while I waited, I indulged in my first proper French pain au chocolat and coffee. Heaven. Truly, heaven in culinary form.
And so the French immersion began. I was the sole Rosbif (though not sole English speaker, clever Frogs) at Guillaume’s birthday weekend and had to swiftly engage the linguistic side of my brain. Don’t let’s forget that I am working with an A-level in French that is nearly 10 years old. Though I surprised myself with how much I could understand, forming sentences… I could but stand and gape. By the time vaguely comprehensible phrase had formed in my head (riddled with mistakes), conversation had moved on. Most frustrating, but a challenge. And I do so like a challenge. Plus 3-year old Nils was in attendance and his French was more or less on my level. We talked about a grandpapa tortoise who ate the babies and then went flying amongst the stars.
I’m not normally one for team sports and my hand-eye coordination is embarrassingly bad but after a pleasing and delicious picnic on the river bank, a round of ‘Ultimat obligatoire’ was announced. Arse. Frisbee? In a team? With people relying on tactics, agility and catching? I had a rush of flashbacks to being 13 and forced to play a ‘fun’ game of rounders with everyone I knew from school. Putin. But, though my form was predictably weak, I kind of enjoyed it. Surprised myself and pressed on to partake in climbing, water polo, pool and fusball too. I’m still crap at these.
Delicious weekend amid a crowd of lovely Frenchies and grappling with the lingo again but onwards, ever onwards. Hopped a 7am train bound for Perpignan. Took 6 hours to go through all the gorges and tiny cities on the way to Nîmes (from where denim comes – ‘De Nîmes’), a quick train change and then a couple of short hours to Perpignan where I was to test my couch surfing legs.
Grabbed a coffee in one of the lesser of the weird-assed cafes next to the train station to check. No, actually it was a beer. Long journeys demand proper refreshment. One of the local gents in there asked me if I was English. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Shakespeare was great. Great,’ he said; ‘I’ve got some more ideas you can take back to England with you if you like? Do you have some paper?’ I know what’s coming. Sure enough, the paper came back with some peculiar poetry about death on it. Politely excused myself and went for a wander around town.
Only it seems that this dude was in good company in Perpignan. Meander around and you will easily find crazy odd-bods. Not sure why they congregate here. It’s a lovely little place, despite these people, suffused with dog shit cos the Europeans think it’s as disgusting to pick up dog poo as we Brits now think it is to see smears of the stuff over our pavements and in our children’s eyes. When I reached the centre, I found a pretty little historic centre with diverting shops and casual bars.
Settled myself to wait in one of the bars at the Place de la Republique, for the couch surf contact. I have had my reservations about couch surfing, based largely on horror stories and some of the utter weirdos I’ve met that have promoted it. But by the same stroke I’ve met nuff normal, really interesting people who swear by it and you have an amount of control over who you request to stay with or meet. Anything once, as they say.
Turned out swimmingly as the couch surf bloke was the nicest you could possibly hope to meet, a pharmacist who has lived in Réunion, among other places, and took me along to a soiree with his friends at their new snack-bar business venture. That’s the best bit; getting to meet the locals and see the city proper immediately. He and his pals will be welcome chez-moi the next time there is a chez-moi.
As I waited in the bar, two French mecs came up to me and asked if I was travelling. What about the large backpack and city map gave it away? Sure am, I told them, and joined for a few drinkies. The pair were from Brittany and holidaying in the Pyrenees-ish region for a couple of weeks. Would I like to join them for a couple of days camping in the mountains? Why the devil not.