Notes from a Hitchhiker
[ places - january 06 ]
8 June, 2005. Wednesday
Sort - Llavorsi - Tirvia - Ferarra
Coffee in the local tavern with the early risers, though they are strange early risers. They down shots of brandy with their coffee and the barman fills their glasses as soon as they’re empty. Their eyes are dark pools of alcohol and they pull hard on their cigarettes as though they are about to fall from the rock face of morning. Last night must have been a carnival night; the clowns are rough this morning.
Out on the road, the fifth car stops - a young couple driving a van on their way to work in the white water rafting company in Llavorsi. They speak no English but it is impossible not to be happy this morning. Everything is easy. The windows are down and the girl rolls a cigarette.
At Llavorsi, I take a side road with little traffic into the rocky hills. A woman of about 70 is digging in a brown field. Hunched, with spade in hand, she works the loam soil and a figure at the far end of the field that must be her husband disappears in a haze of brown heat. Their work is age-old prayer and curse. In love with drudgery and silence, there is no other option. When you do a thing well you are never conscious of the fact. Only when it is over can you look back and wonder with a little nostalgia at how well you were working without realising it at the time. This old couple will be dead before they know that they have loved each other.
Another van stops. A young man with RayBans and stubble brings me a few miles up the road to the turn off for Tirvia where a construction worker in a four-by-four picks me up. Country roads are always easy pickings for hitchhiking. He’s going all the way to Ferrara, where he’s building a new house. The narrow road clings to the side of the mountain and the valley drops away below us. There is a cluster of farm houses at the top of the hill that grow out of the mountain side like warts. The blue-grey slate roofs shine like mercury in the sunlight. The road climbs higher until we round the corner at Burg and make our way up the last stretch of road.
At the end of the line, perched at the head of the valley, is the village of Ferarra. It is busy this morning with men working on the gable wall of a new house with large glass windows looking straight down the valley. It looks like a cliff top lighthouse staring down into the ocean valley below. I sit on a rock and dangle my feet into the void while I eat my supplies. It is still morning. Nearby butterflies fly higher than the distant peaks and the jagged ridges cut the blue bacon of sky into an irregular cloth. Five valleys lie between the furthest peaks and my feet.
Walking into the village I find a man stripped to the waist washing himself at a tap beside his back door. He throws cold water onto his face and chest before coming to give me directions to Bernard Loughlin’s house - “escalia, left, fin, Oo! Oo! Oo!” - his hand sculpts a tortuous path over stones and he concludes with a definite “ahí.”
I walk through the village of 30 or 40 houses and knock on a door. No reply. Carrying on up a steep cobbled path, past vegetable plots, chicken coups, stables and stone houses, I find a front door that is open. It is Casa Terri where I will stay. The middle-aged woman greets me and takes me down a path, past the chickens and dogs, and points to Bernard Loughlin sitting on a cushion, his back to the slate mountain behind him, reading the Adventures of Augie May in the shade.
Bernard shows me around, saluting the villagers as he passes under the arch of the medieval spire. The arthritic stones are crumbling under the small belfry. There are two cobbled lanes, one stacked above the other, separated by drunken houses that are trying not to fall into the valley below. At the top of the village Bernard introduces me to Terri’s daughter who lives in a wood cabin in the middle of a small vegetable plot.
Have dinner with Pau Alemany, Terri and Terri’s partner, Pepucho. Pau is a painter who lives in a house across the valley. He is 37, with taut and sinewy features. He wears a fisherman’s hat and his eyes dart from side to side like a beaver’s as he spoons the oily spaghetti into his mouth. After dinner I sit in silence with Pau while the others wash up. I want to be moving, walking on the roads outside, but it is impossible to rush these people.
Pau studied architecture in Barcelona, Paris and Los Angeles. After that he lived on Venice Beach where he learned welding and carpentry. After graduation he worked as an architect but there was too much stress, too much talking on the phone, too many deadlines, too much speed. He gave it up seven years ago and early last year he finished converting a barn across the valley into a house and studio. I walk there after lunch.
Along the chalk white road you catch sight of the village from a lower angle and you see how it clings to the side of the mountain. There are old barns, family homes and ruined stables. Pau’s house is an impressively renovated barn. Long wooden beams support the high roof and once inside you feel as though you are standing in a village chapel. Canvasses are stretched out on tables, sketches hang like wanted posters from the wooden beams and his bed is in a loft high above the workshop floor. Huge glass windows look across fields and hedges, all the way up to Ferarra.
Pau has changed into a blue boiler suit, splattered with paint. He stops his work to let me in. Today he’s doing fabric cuttings for a series of “Taurus” bulls. Pepucho arrives and Pau boils a kettle with mint and nettles picked from the garden. We sit outside, put honey in the cups and drink for an hour. The mayor is cutting grass in a field.
“In summer,” Pepucho, says, “this place is paradise. But in winter, it is hard. Twenty below, last winter.”
Pepucho was an economics student in Madrid once upon a time but he left for a mountain village a hundred kilometres south of here when he was 24. He spent 20 years in that village raising and milking goats and making cheese with his wife.
“I am divorced now,” he says. “I left it all to my wife last year and now I am here.”
He has a lean wolf’s face and grey wiry hair. He smokes his rollies with great ceremony while Pau complements the picture of two monks on a break with his slow, deliberate movements. Only later Bernard tells me that Pau has been diagnosed with brain cancer. He built his house while he was being treated with chemotherapy, collapsing more than once while he was hauling beams into place. He lost the use of his left hand at one point but he finished the job.
Pepucho says that he first came to Ferarra 25 years ago. The grass was cut with a scythe then.
“The tractor,” he says, “is a new way of looking at these fields. I don’t like them. When I first came here there were three families left. The last original inhabitant of Ferarra died last year. He was eighty. Fell from a bale of hay in a barn. Eighty years old and still working in the barn. A good way to die I think.”
What must it have been like for the last three families living in this small village? Who did the children fall in love with? How did they fight? How did they work together, keeping watch over the long disused church? I try to imagine these people, the last outpost of generations, knowing that when they die, it will be the end of the village. And the end of the village has come. There are no original inhabitants left. Today 30 people live in the village. They have all come from the outside.
That night I walk down the road to Burg remembering what Pepucho said about the two horses here. They are wild and they stay out in the snow all winter, without shelter or food from the farmers. Now in summer their coats shine brilliantly and they look as strong as gods. But I cannot see any horses in the darkness and there are no lights from the valley below.
9June, 2005. Thursday
Ferarra - Espot - Refugio Ernst Mallefre
Outside Llavorsi a boy of about 20 stops in his three-seater car with a dog in the back seat. He’s from Rialb but he’s on his way to Espot today to do a day’s climbing. It is a thrill to feel the kilometres peel away behind us, knowing that I’ve already made it to my destination. He waits in the car at Espot while I buy some food in a corner store, before taking me into the national park. We walk together for half an hour. His dog runs into the forest chasing butterflies in the shadows. Weighed down with a rucksack and two bags of food I stop to catch my breath and say goodbye as he goes on ahead.
Walking at a snail’s pace, up the forest road, I grow smaller and the vertigo peaks closing in around me grow taller. An hour later I tumble in the door of the Refugio Ernst Mallefre where a Catalan girl, quiet and serious, takes my money and writes out a receipt. I try amid much confusion to ask her if there is another refuge free tomorrow night, but after five minutes of a mishmash of English, French and Spanish we are still unclear what we are saying to each other.
We pass the evening sitting on the bench by the gable wall of the refuge. She has a red knitted jumper, black hair, and a face that does not want to please. Her fingers move awkwardly over the fret board of a guitar as she learns how to make an F chord. She is waiting for a group of walkers to arrive from the next refuge. The silence is loosely strung - the evening going down, a chill comes and as the mountains darken.
Now the refuge is loud with the voices of the Spanish men that have arrived. They come to the table, dirty and loud, banging their fists on the wooden table. The girl turns on the gas heater for the shower and explains how I must turn it off but I don’t understand. “Call “MATTAY, MATTAY, MATTAY!” when you finish,” she says, singing out her own name.
I go to bed. It is still light outside.
11 June, 2005. Saturday.
Refugio d’Amitges - Espot - Esterre
A slow night at the refuge. Waiting by the door for night to come, but the summer evening goes on forever and it is almost midnight before it is fully dark. And in this waiting, your mind slows to other things. Where once a hundred thoughts collided with one another in a small space, now three or four fireflies weave between the trees.
At ten o’clock I give up on night ever coming and turn into the hut. Weak from the walk and the last of the food gone, there is nothing left to do but sleep. I open the blue metal shutters to let in some light and lock the door (I am the only one here tonight). Lying in the dark cell with cobwebs on the wet stone walls it feels like a monk’s beehive hut. The only furniture is the table under the window and the single shelf with food left over from other hikers - a tin of white beans, pasta, a jar of tuna pate, a magic wooden box and Herodotus’ Histories in Spanish. The stone walls are wet to touch and the air smells of centuries-old dust. The 10 wooden bunks along with the old horsehair rugs and the two ladders to the top bunks begin to disappear in the approaching dark. There is a funnel that goes through the wall for ventilation and through this port hole I watch the last blue leaving the sky.
Falling asleep I hear a scurrying noise. Little feet patter along the funnel and clay tumbles from the lip onto the stone floor. The port hole goes black, returns to blue, then goes black again, as a creature obstructs the vent and hesitates, deciding whether to come or go. Whatever it is, it falls from the vent onto the shelf and scurries along, stepping carefully on the plastic bags. It rips them open and I hear its jaws crunching the pasta shells. Sharp teeth clamp down on the hard wheat. The grinding makes a nervous music before fading to silence.
I try to fall asleep with the sleeping bag covering my face, but I suffocate while my companion finishes his pasta shells and makes a start on another bag of food. I imagine him feeding on my leg and throat while I sleep and each time I am on the verge of sleep a new sound makes me sit bolt upright like an electrocuted corpse while I strain to make out the figure on the shelf.
At five thirty the outline of the hut begins to take shape in the first grey light. When everything is packed I open the door and bravely charge past the shelf into the morning light. Peering back into the hut there is nothing to be seen on the shelf except shredded plastic bags and slivers of pasta.
Walking down the dirt track there is a pale colourless light over everything. I’m skipping along the route I cursed the day before. A deer is startled at the sound of feet and bounds down the valley in a panic, jumping from rock to grass to gravel. He weaves in and out of trees at great speed and comes to a dead stop on a boulder from where he turns around slowly to look at me from a safe distance.
Nothing human is awake at this hour. The air ripens as the sun rises a little higher. Yet it is still cool and I’m glad to be getting this done in the chill of the early morning. I stop an hour down the track to shit in the forest and note that my own shit looks no different to that of the sheep.
At Espot there is time for coffee and food; cakes from the bakery, water, fruit and a bottle of wine from the grocery store. The sun is furnace hot at midday as I trek down the road to the turn off for Esterre, seven kilometres away. Nobody stops for my outstretched thumb and I’m glad that they don’t. Butterflies hover over fields full of cotton flax. Moths and lizards crowd the yellow tinder ditches and the narrow valley falls away to the meet the river to the south. I take a collapse in the shade of a pine tree and survey the three hair pin bends below. Setting myself to sleep with wine and waking to sit by the side of the road I imagine I am the only hitchhiker with a bottle of red wine in one hand, a cake in the other and barely a thumb left over to signify my profession.
An elderly Dutch couple pick me up after an hour and we glide down the hair pin bends in a new air conditioned car. The old man turns to me and says with a smile “you like to walk but sometimes a car is good, am I right?” He drops me at the end of the valley where the main road runs beside a narrow lake all the way to Esterre. The cars go past like airplanes. The hills are small and modest, not the sharp peaks of the higher valleys. A van stops - a mountain guide, the second one to pick me up in three days. He is finished work for the day. We get into town at about two. I started my days work eight hours ago and now I’m finished. My driver has just finished a climb above Amitges and says he’s looking forward to a days sleep at home. He looks bemused at my thank you, shrugs his shoulders, saying “I was on my way here anyway.”
Of those that don’t stop some would never consider giving a lift to a stranger which is fine, but in others you see something failing them. They tap the steering wheel nervously as though they know something is not right. Something tears inside them. The thought crosses their mind: there is no reason why I should not stop. But another voice threatens them to keep going. They are not sure where the other voice is coming from. Soon hitchhiking will be illegal and that threatening voice will disappear without anyone ever finding out where that threatening voice came from.
In the village a crowd is gathered outside the church for First Communion. Uncles and aunts talk about nothing on the street. The air is filled with words. A girl talks to her grandmother in a doorway, there are shouts from the balconies, all the faces know each other.
I get to a bar at the top of a narrow street and sit down to write some notes. Silver beads hang over the threshold of ‘La Regina’, and when I enter a family looks up from the dinner table. The mother has a dirty white apron tied to her bowling ball body and her husband, who looks much younger and better looking than her, sits quietly with a chaste face while their soon to be beautiful daughter chatters to no one in particular. Words are shouted from ear to ear as though everyone is stone deaf. A corked bottle of champagne sits by the bread on the white table cloth and two other women, who must be the girl’s aunts, sit at a near-by table, also drinking champagne. They discuss something of great importance while the father remains silent, surrounded as he is by shouting women. I hear him once offer an opinion in a quiet voice. No one listens.
It gets dark outside - a down pour begins with thunder and lightning. The husband goes out on an errand. Standing outside the door he looks at the sky and shouts “agua.” There has been a drought all through Spain this summer. It is four o’clock. The thunder storm passes and the village dries in the sunshine as I fall asleep for fourteen hours.
12 June, 2005. Sunday.
Esterri - Vielha - Bordetia Esa
Wake at seven and my legs are still store. Outside the open window vapour rises over the forests and the shadows of poplars and sycamores stretch across fields wet with dew. The houses are still budding with sleep. One car passes. If you woke after a year of sleep you’d still be able to say it was Sunday.
Today I want to get to Vielha, 46 kilometres away, but there is no rush, there will be time to read on the roadside this morning. Twenty minutes out of town I throw my bags into the ditch and sit on the metal barrier on the wrong side of the road to eat my breakfast. The yellow village below looks like sawdust that has been swept into the corner of the valley. A silver car crawls up the incline and comes to a stop two feet in front of me. A head strains out the window and shouts: Where are you going? Valencia?
He must be taking the piss - Valencia is 400 away. No, Valencia d’Aneu, he says, five kilometres up the road. It’s too close. I thank him and go back to my spot to finish breakfast.
This is different from the old days when it was Warsaw to Budapest in half a day or Prague to Luzern in a day, or even Ulan Ude to Moscow in three days: this is slow and quiet. I have a map of this small corner of the world with all the valleys, rivers and lakes marked in. It’s like looking through a microscope. The groves of the valley become canyons and the road to Bordetia Esa is longer than the Trans-Siberian Railway. I travel slowly and not very far with locals who are going to the next village and both the place and the person do not care what I think, they just go on. If you wanted to get to the heart of something, it would be difficult to find anyplace better. Two or three lifts sees me to the end of the day, and in that time I listen to two or three different stories about the valley and its villages.
A four-by-four stops. Again he’s only going to Valencia d’Aneu - this time I take it. He drops me off at the top of the hill five minutes up the road. At the other side of the village I sit by a gate where there’s space for cars to pull over. The spire of the village church pokes through the trees and there is no one to be seen. A French man in a Renault waves his finger at me “no, no, no, I will not pick you up.” He smiles and keeps waving his finger. He will be still waving his finger when he gets to Vielha where he’ll fall asleep tonight muttering “no, no, no, I will not pick you up.”
A van stops. A tall skinny climber with black sunglasses and long straggly hair leans over and opens the door. His jaws are gaunt, his cheeks hollow. The van is full of ropes, boots and harnesses. He’s on his way to Vielha but he explains that he doesn’t like it much there.
“This side of the mountains,” he waves towards the Val d’Aran, “it is a different country from back there” meaning the Pallars. “Here, Val d’Aran is no good, all money, all cars and credit. In Spain everything is a car. A big car means you have a big dick, small car means you have a small dick,” he laughs.
“But here it is all money, they build houses and ski lifts. The king comes and it is all a fantasma. Casper! Yes, you understand, a fantasma, it is not real. And look at the chairs”, he points to the ski lift. “This year one new one here, next year, one over there.” His hands have round sores from frostbite. He asks for his roll of CDs from the glove compartment, puts on some Bob Marley, turns it up and sings along. He points to the Retodo Pass high above us where I slept on a rock yesterday afternoon. Cranes and clusters of new apartment blocks line the route ahead.
“In 20 years,” he says, “the people of the Val d’Aran will look back and think ‘Crazy! Crazy! Crazy! What have we done?’ All the houses here, and now with the price, these people buy a house and live in it for two weeks in the winter. All the houses are locked; all closed, no one there; two weeks in winter, that’s all. They live in Madrid or Barcelona and come here for two weeks in the winter. And the young people, they cannot afford anything.”
Half finished apartment blocks line the river banks, coaxed into the air by dozens of cranes. The lines on his forehead relax and he looks happier as he points out the peaks in the distance - Aneta, Manago, Curta. Each one is covered in snow. Distant and cold, they survive regardless of the mess below them.
Overtaking a camper van he says “I will buy a big one when I have something. I have a wife and two little children, so not good with the size of this” he waves to the back of the van. “When I get a big one, it will be enough, I will have everything.”
He picks up another hitch-hiker. Vielha is the end of the ride - a rich winter sports town. You can smell the money and tourism blowing in from the south. A cartoon map in the window of a travel agent shows a spider’s web of ski lifts suffocating the town.
At the restaurant there’s as much wine as you can drink and the waitress puts the bottle in front of me and nods as though she thinks I need it. I sleep in the pews of the church across the street where it is dark and cool inside.
The Albergue Era Lana is seven kilometres up the road. With the wine sweating out of my forehead I find the road north and as I’m about to put out my thumb a fat Moroccan kid on the slip road shouts over to me saying that he’s about to wash his car but he’ll drop me up the road when he’s done. He’s a chef in a restaurant in Vielha but he lives with his parents across the border in France. He wants to know if he might be able to get work in a restaurant in Ireland.
“So Ireland is in the EU,” he says, “and the Euro too. Imm, I think I’ll go to Ireland.” I ask if he can cook Moroccan dishes but “no, no, nothing Moroccan, I know nothing about Morocco. I came here when I was small and I studied French cooking in Biarritz for four years.” But he doesn’t like France. “The women,” he says, “are better in Spain; the food also.”
His friend runs the campsite in Era Bordetia and like all Moroccans he has other friends who run other things nearby. He drops me off at a petrol station where a girl with red dreadlocks points me down a small country, over a bridge and did she say left or right? I take the right. The road contracts to a lane with thick bramble bushes on either side. Tumble down farmhouses, both deserted and still in use, clutter the wild fields. Chickens are the only living thing in sight.
At the bottom of the lane is the Albergue Era Lana. A girl shouts “hola” from the tables outside the front door and brings me inside. She pulls out a chair, puts a beer in front of me and motions with her hands to take it easy.
“C’est plus tranquil, oui?” She has the look of every Spanish crusty - short hair, bone necklace, orange jumper, green pants, ear rings, sandals - as much colour mixed into one palate as possible.
The thunder storm comes at five o’clock. Like clockwork, there has been one at the same hour every evening for the last three days. The hostel is lost beneath the mountains. Music blares from the office and the girl sings along. The dogs by the door curl their ears and go to sleep and there is no one else staying in the empty house tonight.
13 June, 2005. Monday.
Era Bordetia - Les - Chaum - Fronsac - Moulis - St Girons
Pass an evening doubled up with stomach pains. The girl running the hostel shouts at me to come down for dinner and by the time I’ve made it to the table she is putting a plate of German sausages beside a bowl of spaghetti. She fetches bread and a bottle of wine from the kitchens. She has spent hours preparing this food and I won’t be able to touch a thing. Last night I could’ve eaten my own feet I was so hungry but tonight I’ll be sick if I have to look at those sausages for another second.
I’m the only one in the hostel this evening and the girl sits at a high stool waiting for me to taste her cooking. I force a few spoonfuls into my mouth before giving up. She looks at me sceptically as I try to explain that I’m sick.
Wake at six in the morning with the pains gone and the mountain stream loud outside the open window. It hisses with white noise while small birds sing like tape recorders in fast forward. The breakfast table is a still life of bread, fruit and jam. I sit into the frame while the girl moves from office to kitchen; yawning and stiff with sleep. With unstirred eyes and dishevelled hair she looks like a lopsided barn door. She opens the ground floor windows to let the mountains in. The dogs sleep outside the door, still murky in dreams of cats and bones. Thirteen euro she charges me and she won’t take any money for the dinner last night.
Heavy with bags, my feet fall on the lane and cross the little bridge that brings me to the main road. I put out my thumb. Fifteen minutes later a small shiny Renault stops. The driver with sharp jaw and gelled hair says he’s only going ten kilometres up the road. I’ll take what I can get. In silence he drives a silver box of flamenco music into the town of Les. At the far end of town I stand in a lay-by where a convoy of trucks is parked opposite a diner. They take off in formation staring down at me from their high perches. I feel like an astronaut cut adrift in outer space with little chance of ever climbing back into a car.
Down the road the police do a u-turn. With lights flashing they chase a 70-year old man into the lay-by and query him about his offence. They look eager to shoot him on the spot but he protests and they let him off reluctantly.
A narrow stretch of road follows the river as it squeezes through the valley on its way to France. Setting my bags by the side of the road I pass a bad tempered hour. A steady stream of cars blur through my eyes but nothing stops. A man waves his finger at me. An elderly couple pass at a walking pace, staring hard at the strange animal by the side of the road. Trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, ambulances and a hearse go by. A pause and then an open topped BMW flashes like rainbow lightning. A blonde haired woman throws her head back in the passenger seat; bored and beautiful. White leather encases the precious stone with tired eyes. One of these days a car like that, with a woman like that, will stop for me and I’ll be able to look at that dream from the inside. But for now I’ll have to guess that it might well be a nightmare.
A small van stops. A Spanish man on his way to Montrejau. He has a sad monochrome face that twitches with a smile as he tells me where he’s from and what he does.
“And do you live with your family in Bausen?” I ask.
“No, no, no,” he laughs. “That would be impossible, you know it is impossible. If I want to leave and take to the mountains whenever I want... no, no, no, that is impossible, I have no family. I am 39.”
He looks at me as though he has clarified something.
I get out at Chaum - four houses at a junction. A small road lined with beech trees leads to the village of Fronsac. Walking in the shade I enter a quieter world of birds and briars that widens with every footfall. The noise of the main road vanishes to infinity. No cars bother to come this way and the fields don’t expect you. At the edge of the village an old mansion lies behind padlocked gates. Further on there is a post office, the Marie, farmhouses and a war memorial with forgotten names at the crossroads.
Orchards are oozing steam. A man waters a flower box, a bicycle disappears behind a house and tilled fields burn under the sun. I stop by the cemetery - a small acreage of death with a path of white pebbles and austere graves. Freshly cut flowers lie beside a sepulchre. It is a comforting earthly place where death is put on show by the architects and priests. The dead go to sleep in the same houses they lived in when they were alive. The rich to their mansions, the poor to their hovels.
An army jet explodes through the sky. I am trying to get to St. Girons today, just 50 kilometres away. This jet will get there in about 60 seconds. It is midday and the road has been still for half an hour. A farmer drives a red tractor back and forth between two fields, bringing bales of hay from one field to the other. Time evaporates and the cities are far away. The dead of Fronsac lie north of here. They miss the summers before the war when farms were kingdoms, the world was full of snakes and ladders.
A car stops. A man going up the hill to St Pe d’Ardet. He drops me at the top telling me that there are not so many cars on my route, I should try to get to Aspet and go north on the bigger roads. Out in the countryside, the heat is rising. The grass is getting taller, the shadows cooler. Not a house in sight.
A small black car stops and a chubby neat man in a well ironed shirt and tie opens the door. A secondary school teacher on his way to an afternoon class in Aspet. In the mornings he teaches in St Beat, in the afternoons he drives over to Aspet. I ask him foolish questions in ladybird French. He travels this road everyday. He teaches Spanish. Yes, it is difficult to teach kids these days. There is a mulberry haze over the blue leaves and a lake behind a hill will not show its face. We crash in and out of sunlight.
He drops me off at a deserted crossroads outside Aspet.
Just as I put a sticky donut in my mouth a family space wagon with Spanish registration stops and a pretty middle-aged woman with red gypsy hair straps my rucksack into the passenger seat while I climb into the back to sit between two small children. They stare quietly as the giant crouches into their tree-house. The woman is from Milan but she lives in Pamplona. She’s driving her son and daughter around historical French towns for the summer, sleeping in the car at night and moving on to a new town every morning. She tells me that she is 43. She looks at me in the mirror with a stubborn eye that is fighting something, something that is just out of view. The little girl has her mother’s prettiness and the boy has someone else’s face. A dried sunflower rests on the dashboard.
She talks to the children in Italian and they sing the number-line in English. She will go back to Pamplona for the running of the bulls at Sanfermines but for now they travel on the small roads, away from the traffic. Each village we pass is deserted; and then, as if a cliché could walk on legs, a little boy cycles around a corner carrying two baguettes that are as tall as himself. She drops me at the village of Moulis, five kilometres from St Girons, where a French girl with the face of an elf picks me up. A child’s tape recorder lies on the dashboard. The ashtray is overflowing with cigarettes and the car is a mess of wires and plastic bags. Her hair is crow black, tied in a ball and shining like a mirror. The window is open and her pants billow in the breeze as she smokes a cigarette like a lollipop.
She drives into St Girons and searches for a tax office, eventually dropping me off near a church. The Monday market by the river is busy with wives picking out clothes and fruit. Below the bridge the weir sends cool spray into the rainbow air. The streets are full of ragged gypsy faces. A group of drunks drink cider by the riverside. There is a campsite two kilometres up river. The sunny path is lined with kids mitching school by pebble banks. Young girls try out their first spells on boys. They smoke like millionaires, bored with the wealth of time.
The campsite is on a hill overlooking the town with the foothills of the Pyrenees beyond. Clouds gather in the evening until the heat storm breaks with thunder and lightning. The rain is loud and heavy on the plastic roof of the tent and I am thinking of the person I will meet at the door of the Duomo in Milan on Friday.
The rain stops and I go into town for food. The streets are quiet and the old yellow houses have a tawdry beauty. Blue paint flakes from wooden shutters and the lace curtains are yellow with garlic and dirt. Through a first floor window I see a peeling wall, a bare light bulb and a book shelf - the air in there is ice cold and a woman sits by a door. In a Chinese restaurant I drink saké while I wait for the food. The little cup has a picture of a bare-breasted woman on the bottom that comes into swirling focus when the cup is full - she looks out at you with brown skin and parted lips. It reminds me of the English painter in Mauritania who said that wherever you see a Chinese restaurant in Mauritania you can be sure that there is either a bar or a brothel in the back room.
At the Café Madrid the barman is Leonard Cohen’s younger, less gifted brother, while his sister listens dully to a speech that the local actor is giving. A loud group drink Pernod and Ricard in the corner. The bar man comes around to fill each glass with a generous pour - a birthday, a homecoming, a going away, something - one man talks a lot while the others listen.
Home by the river. The rain starts again. The girl with the dice on her head sets up another throw. We play cards for as long as it takes to win everything on this earth.
Sleep is welcome but no relief.
15 June, 2005. Wednesday.
Avignon - Marseilles - Villenueve - Serre Chevalier
A long hot train ride to Marseilles where the red of the houses melts in the heat. The port has the sprawl and swill of North Africa. Broken and dirty, crushed and sore, heaving and boiling; there is a white rotting heat in the streets and a hazy mirage of static over the Mediterranean. The water licks the dirty edges of the port while the suburbs crumble away into the red countrside.
Provance passes quickly. Fields, fat and dizzy with green heat, forests on hills, old hotels, small stations, where the station master comes out for the one train of the day. His uniform dusty, his hat straight, his belly big with wine and meat. All this passes in a blur, a whole region passes in ten minutes. Later, we rise higher out of the farm land into the mountains. The air turns dark and cool. The plants are thinner. The colours are grey and blue and the air tastes of water. Mountain rivers flow beside us and snow peaks appear for the first time.
Onto Briancon with its old Napoleonic barracks, complete with garrets and stables for the louse ridden troops, standing square and flat on granite peak high over the town. You can feel the border here. Italy is over those peaks. Ancient armies have slept in the cold December high over the lights of Briancon, their horses neighing quietly in the dark. It is the last outpost before the march into the next battle and the next empire. Here is the limit of a nation, an extremity like a toe or a finger. Whispering from the rocks are flags, generals, invasions and retreats. The hairpin roads are lined with the bodies of soldiers, pushed back and forth by the tongues of two empires locked in a strange embrace.
Hitch hike down the road to Grenoble. The fourth car stops - a 23-year-old kid on his way home for supper. He tells me that he’s a professional skier and snowboarder. He goes to competitions around the world, makes a good living. But it’s a short career. “I’m near the end; there are young kids coming up now, taking over. Maybe I have two or three years left. I don’t know. I need to make all the money I can. But it’s good you know. It’s ku-elle. I get to travel around the world and everything is paid for.” We drive into the village of Le Bez-Serre Chevalier where he drops me at the door of the youth hostal. The sheet of paper on the door says something about it being closed on the 15th, which is today, but a man inside the foyer tells me it’s open. He has three long baguettes under his arm and the huge building behind him looks like an old deserted hotel. He leads me through the corridors, past a winding staircase. It was built in 1764, he says. There is a ghostly feel to the damp stones. We walk out the side door and up the village street to a small chalet where there are rows of bunk beds in the rooms.
Back in the servant’s kitchen of the old house I meet the two boys that are staying in my room - two Irish students, Fionn and Padraig. There’s also a Swedish girl, Orsa, a postwoman from Stockholm.
Walking at night, the ski resort is closed for summer. A boy and girl sit on a bench in front of the neon of a small closed down shopping mall. The last oily blue leaves the sky. Down the valley the high peaks extend like knives all the way to Briancon.
There is a half wafer moon tonight. A black cloud the shape of France passes over the mountains. A dimple star rests below the chin of the moon gives out a green glow. The church bell in the village of La Bez sounds across the valley. On the side wall are the names of the villagers who died in the first and second world wars. There are 20 names on the first plaque. Five of the surnames are the same. Six on the second. You can see the villagers walking to the church late at night sometime in 1918 and again in 1945. They sit by coffins that have been brought to the village, first by car, then transferred to horse and cart for the last few miles up the mountain lane.
Round the quiet village, history has deserted its desk and time crawls out its childhood window into the summer night. The wooden houses are crooked and strong. The beams and bolts will lock out frost and snow when winter comes but it is summer now and the night is warm.
16 June, 2005. Thursday
Le Bez - Serre Chevalier - Briancon - Montegeneve - Pinerolo - Turin
By ten I’m hitching back into Briancon. An old Frenchman picks me up near some construction work.
“Normally,” he says, “I never pick anyone up, except for pretty girls, but this time I stop because I thought you looked alright.” He smiles contentedly as he tells me his life story along the 10 kilometres into Briancon.
“Yes, yes, hi, hi, now I’m 72,” he says. At a guess he looks no more than 60.
“I work for 46 years of my life, from 14 to 51 in an electrical factory in Grenoble.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, production line, factory stuff. I worked enough. All my life. Now no more. Finished! Never again! I got through the other end and now I’ll never work again!”
His voice is easy. He sounds young. Last weekend he was hiking at 3,000 metres with his daughter. He spends most of his time either skiing, walking or cycling.
“Cycling was my passion. For years I trained kids. But so many drugs now, oooof! If I heard that a kid took drugs for a race, that would be it, never again, he would be out; I wouldn’t train him anymore.”
Coming into town he talks about his children. He says he has 20 years left to do nothing but enjoy himself and live in the mountains.
“I’m going to be happy now,” he says with shining eyes. No danger can come his way.
He drops me at the top of the col on the far side of town and shakes me hand.
“Take care of the sun today. Make sure you put on some sun cream,” he shouts after me.
Italy is seven kilometres away on the other side of the mountains. I’m stuck beside road works again. From the top of the col you can look down the narrow valley with squinted eyes to see the tiny farm houses shining like mirrors along the sides of the mountains.
A mechanic with ECT hair brings his dilapidated Renault to a screeching halt at my feet. His body is thin and scrawny, and his clothes are dirty with oil. He grips the steering wheel as though he’s strangling someone’s throat and his head twitches nervously like the second hand of a clock. The car is stripped bare; wires grow like shoots from the holes on the dashboard where the radio, air vents and cigarette holder should be. The floor is littered with screw drivers and spanners and the tool box on the back seat clatters every time we go over a bump. He laughs like a machine gun, until the bullets run out and there is an abrupt silence.
“No, 30 minutes.”
I ask him what he does. He says he repairs cars and ski lifts in the mountains.
“Yes, yes, ski lifts like that one,” he points out the window. “And the machines that make snow for the slopes, I fix them too. Mechanics. That’s it. Fix things,” he laughs again.
“You ever hitched before?”
“Yes, yes,” he says, his lips quivering. “For five years I lived rough around France. Hitched everywhere. But it would take longer than 30 minutes before some one gave me a lift. You see I’m not young. I’m not old either. But I’m not young. People don’t pick me up easily. Sometimes I’d have to wait five or six hours. I did that for five years but now, I’m a mechanic,” he stares at me and laughs.
A fly buzzes around us and he slams his hand onto the dashboard shouting: “Les mouches!” He laughs again and cuts out to silence.
He’s on his way to buy cigars and beer in Montegeneve, which is the first village across the border. Three or four euro cheaper, he says. The manic laughter continues as he takes the corners at speed. Beyond the metal barriers, the valley drops away to air and vertigo. He accelerates into every bend.
“Five hours I often had to wait for a lift,” he says. His face is a mixture of hysteria and depression.
At Montegeneve, we stop outside a hotel where he greets the barman who’s standing in the shadow of the font door. They don’t notice me walking away as they slap each other on the back.
I’m in Italy now and the border is 100 metres up the road. The high summer mountains are dusty in the heat and there’s nothing on the wide road. I sit on my bag and eat fruit in the white lay-by beside the road side restaurants. Everything is resting. The Italian flag is limp at the top of a pole and it is not quite Italy yet. It is just a handful of hotels and restaurants on the other side of the border. I eat peaches and throw the stones over my shoulder. Border towns are the preserve of outlaws, pilgrims and armies, and now that none of these come this way anymore, the town has long since been put into retirement. The few trucks that pass do not stop. They disappear around the bend in a cloud of dust.
A small delivery van pulls in to pick me up. The young driver hops out, opens the back of the van and tells me to throw my bags in. All the way to the turn off for Sistriere he talks to me in mangled, high spirited English.
“Just one week ago I picked up two Irish, just like you. I bring them to Turin. But I don’t like Turin. Big city, big people, the same as everywhere else. I go there for women and beer. But no, I prefer out here,” he waves his hands to the mountains. He’s headed for the Turin motorway, so he drops me off at the turn off for Sistriere where a serious and respectable French electrical engineer pulls over as soon as I put out my thumb. He talks quickly and I nod although I understand only about half of what he says.
Falling asleep in the passenger seat, we go into the high Alps, passing ugly apartment blocks, hotel complexes, concrete towers, ski lifts and miles of cable. Then the car descends into a quieter rural valley with farms, forests and no hotels or ski lifts.
“Do you like living in Italy?” I ask. He looks at me with a tired smile.
“Italy, France, Spain; there is no difference now, they are all the same.”
I am exhausted and I wake with a start each time I begin to sleep. He drops me off at La Villa Rosa where I get some coffee a dark café. The street outside is sweating in the heat. At the other side of La Villa Rosa the road rolls out into the Mantua countryside. I pick my spot opposite a garage in an old warehouse and look at the view ahead. The valley flattens out to low hills and a distant lake. There is an amazing green lustre in the olive groves and everything gives the impression of busy work.
I get to know the garage very well. The cars go by at speed. The faces behind the steering wheels are softer, fatter and wealthier than those further up the mountains. After two hours a Mercedes stops. My benefactor is the secretary general of the Torino Communist Party. He smokes a cigar, brushes ash from the sleeve of his expensive suit and tells me about the time he brought Christmas toys over to the families of the miners who were on strike in England. He enjoys this story from the old days. He’s just back from Denmark where he organised a meeting with the socialist parties who are in government in Scandinavia.
“There are a lot of important things happening at the moment,” he says. “And here in Italy, we’re making some progress. Things are bad, very bad with Berlusconi, but we’re making progress.” Right now he’s on his way to pick up his daughter from school. He was supposed to be there at four and it’s already twenty past.
“That’s why I go too fast now,” he says. He drops me by the turn off for Pinerolo. It’s straight on to Turin. I’m almost there, almost at my destination. There are five hours of light left. Torino is 50 kilometres away.
For two hours I stand in the heat at the end of the road works. The sun burns with a radioactive glare. There is a smell of melting tar and cars hiss past stuffed with eyes that stare through cool glass. Under green leaves, grapes grow drunk in the afternoon heat. Fields pulse with the sound of crickets and derelict farm houses swim through the heat.
Hundreds of trucks pass. Their eyes shout at me: “get off the road!” But I have to get to Torino. “Get off the road!” they keep shouting. I lose faith.
Someone always stops. If 300 cars pass I need just 0.33% of the population to be generous enough to give a stranger a lift. But I’m down to less than 0.33% now. I’m down to nothing. I’m getting sunstroke, choking on the exhaust of trucks and there is a battle between giving up and holding out for the principle of the 0.33%.
At five o’clock I give up and walk into Pinerolo - a weary soldier returning home after deserting his regiment. Where do I go now? Stay in town? Get a bus? A train? I have no idea. It is a peaceful market town, with flowers in the gardens, a school down a lane, churches on the streets, shops and pharmacies lining the footpath. A small town with small concerns. I’m trying to figure out where the large blue buses that are coming down the street are headed to. Some say “Torino” but they don’t stop. A boy sees me staring dumbly at a poster for the bus company and asks if I need help. He looks Russian or Croatian.
“There are buses but I’m not sure of the times.” He takes a leaflet out of his bag.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Here,” he says, pointing to the pharmacy across the road, “beside that building.” He looks at the times. “No there is nothing now for the buses, but it is no problem, you can get a train, there are a lot of trains. I can bring you to the station if you want.”
“I doesn’t matter, you can just tell me, where to go.”
“I’m in no rush. I have all evening. Come on, come with me.”
His is not a usual voice. You know immediately that he will not buy or sell you. He says that he’s in training for walking anyway. He’ll be going on a pilgrimage to Assisi with the “fra San Francesco.” He’ll walk 20 kilometres a day. He has a wooden cross around his neck.
“Here it is very nice,” he says. “I can show you around if you have time. I like it here.”
He’s 21 years old and he’s just moved out of the family home in the countryside to take up a new job in town with an electrical company. He’s living by himself for the first time. It feels like I’ve been picked up by Christ. His eyes are focused on something that lies behind the objects that are in front of us. They are resting on simplicity. He points out the theatre, the town hall and the barracks. Coming near a water fountain in the square he says, “are you thirsty, you should have a drink.” He pushes the handle but nothing comes out.
At the station he finds the times of the trains to Turin. The next one is the 6.45. He wishes me luck and walks out of the little station onto the street.
“Believe that others are just,” one discarded Gospel says, “or will be, and if it proves untrue, it is not your fault.”
The platform is cracked and full of broken green weeds. There is graffiti on the walls and the rails of the second line are coated in rust. Green briars sprout up from the sharp stones. The hitching is over for the day. It is back to timetables and tickets, arrivals and departures. I know I’m going to get to Torino tonight. The day is over and the victory is mingled with a little disappointment because trains are cheating. It’s one station to another. I know that I will arrive in Torino at 7.32 PM. Nothing more can happen.
The train comes in and the packed carriages spill onto the platform changing the station from an empty summer afternoon to noisy suits and feet, scurrying home after a days work in the city. After five minutes the platform is quiet again and I step onto an almost empty train, slumping into the seat, wet with sweat. All I have to do is sit here and I will be taken to the city. On the other side of the glass the countryside is still burning in the late evening heat.
We get into Torino at seven thirty. The rail lines branch into a thick web as we approach Torino station. Darkness is still a long way away. The city smells of fried onions and olive oil. The yellow bricks of the old buildings are coated in grime. No skyscrapers ruin the ancient skyline. It is crowded on the streets around the station. Workers are still trying to find their way home. They line up along each bus stop. The traffic is tired and bad-tempered. Bus No 52 takes me to a quiet leafy where I make my way up a hill. The houses are large and expensive and the view down to the river shows the old mansions covered in moulding ivy.
There is a small celebration on the balcony of the hostel. Frank, a 33-year-old Frenchman is moving into his new apartment in the city next week after living in the hostel for three months. There’s another French girl, an Italian and a Moroccan sitting in the dark. They have all been staying here for months. Omar, the tall Moroccan, smokes a joint. The table is cluttered with champagne bottles, cans and crisps. The night sky is lavender. The Italian translates the conversation for me.
“Wait, wait,” he says before beginning, “I must wait for the dictionary before I start.” He takes a deep draw from the joint before beginning in English. Everyone laughs.
The girl leaves. She kisses everyone but the Moroccan and he shouts “bastarda” after her, something to do with an earlier argument. Then he and Frank start shouting at each other until silence settles awkwardly over the table. The Italian, like Giovanni Ferri, is fat with smiles. “Cheers” I shout over to him. “Cheers,” he shouts back.
Frank talks about the “Lega” or “United” party, a right-wing political group that wants to cut the south off of Italy, draw a border below Rome and let the peasants in the Mezzogiorno fend for themselves. They are tired of paying for the south.
I write this up on the landing. There is a French school staying on the third floor. Girls scurry up and down the corridor in nightdresses trying to get into the boys room. The light in the landing stays on all night.
17 June, 2005. Friday
Turin - Milan train
Walking along the cool black arcade opposite the station I am weighed down with heavy bags. At a small park there are two homeless bums sleeping on a shady bench - one Christ-like with a beard, the other with crutches by his side. They sleep through the morning, sprawled like dogs. The traffic is loud on either side of the park. Passers-by look at them with mingled fear and contempt. Every conversation stops and resumes once they have passed the corpses.
There is a pet shop in the old arcade. In the front window are three kittens playing in a bed of crunched up newspapers. They fight each other oblivious to the stream of passers-by outside, burrowing under the bed of paper balls and banging against the window pane. Inside, the store is cluttered with bars, cages, claws, feathers, wings, tails, smells, squawks and screams. Two old sisters look after their prisoners with arthritic slowness. One sweeps the large chequered black and white tiles with a witches broom while the other reads the newspaper. Businessmen look in the door with a childlike curiosity and for a moment forget their purpose.
These are the last days I’ll have to watch the streets and the countryside from outside of the frame. The closer I get to Milan, the nearer I am to entering the picture. Once I keep my appointment at the door of the Duomo I will be firmly painted into the centre of the swirling crowd.
I do not like this place. People dress as though their clothes were bank accounts. Everyone is an image of an advertisement. What you wear and how you look is the most important occupation of its citizens. Dolce and Gabana have more influence than the schools or the art galleries. A boardroom decides what the people shall wear for summer and the foot soldiers follow orders.
A retarded girl sweeps the floor in a fast food restaurant. She is fat, her face red with acne and the side of her mouth contorted in a harelip. In this city she an untouchable. We have our own caste system, as cruel and mindless as the most primitive codes.
The stone figures along the walls of the Duomo tell a long story that no one can follow anymore - a pig with a starling in his mouth, an Arab face, Catherine of Aragon, the Bosch gargoyles, a pelican piercing its own breast with a sharp beak. The flying buttresses are cream white after a recent cleaning and from the steps of the museum across the square, the baroque geometry crowds the sky with a multitude of shapes and images, too intricate and abundant to absorb through the eyes alone. It overpowers you and repels you in its excesses. Swallows gather around the spires. The last of the day’s heat is simmering over the square below and the birds screech and swirl like vampires, turning in a single mass around one and now another spire, before scattering like quicksilver. I have 18 hours to wait before my appointment at the door of the Duomo.