A Boring Monday in Carcassonne, France

Franco famously stated in the ‘60s that, “Spain is different”; I suppose he meant different from other Euro destinations or different from the Spain you thought you knew. Within Spain there are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “twin” cities, or perhaps Barcelona and Madrid are like stepsisters; they have the same mother, were raised apart due to a nasty divorce but only one of them inherited the family’s good looks. Both are geographic and emblematic centers; one the country’s capital and the other the political core of the Cataluña region and, as many may know, a separatist political party has been active there for many years, but the consensus is that these separatists are a minority population scattered around villages and small cities while the residents of Barcelona identify with Spain.

Barcelona is aesthetically pleasing with wide boulevards, palm trees, and stylish baroque facades and contrasts sharply with Madrid; they even speak a different language there. Madrid was heavily bombed during the civil war and the rebuild was cheap and not well considered; the narrow streets can’t accommodate the overload of vehicles much less pedestrian traffic. Madrid’s wider open areas of main avenues and plazas are mostly residential or business districts and there isn’t much to stimulate a visit or even bother with a look around. Madrid is landlocked and dry, rain is rare, while Barcelona is always wet and much too humid.

Staying at the Soho house (we are members and have stayed here on a dozen occasions) there seems to be a platoon of young, good looking hip foreigners assembling to discuss tech business around the lounge and bar areas. I feel a twinge of jealousy, wishing I could turn back the clock, start over again and take another crack at life. I’m so old, I remember when I moved to Spain, the internet was still a new technology and almost no one had a router at home. The fact that these young people are even members here means they have cash. The Soho house is not cheap, and although the fees are not exclusive; I doubt there are any EFL teachers here.

We are on our way to a town in France so that I can complete an identity check for a new bank account with HSBC. The bank has no branches in Madrid and a week ago I woman in Buffalo, NY set up a zoom call with me and after 40 attempts with an Adobe app which should have been able to verify my passport photo and cross reference a real time selfie, failed miserably. I was horrified every time I held up the phone to take the selfie; I looked at least 10 years older; my checks were swollen by shadows and with the dark background and harsh light I looked like Boris Karloff. It was supposed to be the last step to set up a premium account designed with ex-pats in mind, but the technology let me down, and so, I find myself on the road heading to a branch in France to do things the old-fashioned way.

At first sight of Carcassonne, you think to yourself, wow look at that, look at that castle and the ramparts, the oldness of everything, medieval vibes in the air but with a Starbuck’s. Then you get beyond the walls, go for a stroll, see the restaurants, the bored looking attendants in the souvenir shops, the retired folks peeking around the corners, and you realize you’ve been here before although this is your first visit to Carcassonne.

History is for sale in places like Carcassonne. It’s all new yet so familiar, and if you’ve travelled extensively around Europe, it all starts to look the same. But what is one to do? If you have a castle that serves no purpose, and you can earn a few bucks from it; then why not restore the place and take in some tourist money. For serious history buffs, the nerds who do the research wanting to know what’s what about what, I’m sure could have a field day here. It’s all the same after all, everything blurs together and the only way I’ll remember this place will be when I come across the 3€ refrigerator magnet I bought from a bored local.

It was cold in Carcassonne and the wind was fierce. Lunch at a non-descript “bistro” in the main square was oddly full at 1pm and the diners weren’t all tourists either, some locals mixed into the group and what they were doing up there on the hill beyond the walls is anyone’s guess. I ordered a local specialty called cassolette, a pot of beans with a large link of pork sausage and a roasted duck leg. It was bland and had the texture of clay. Dessert was a scoop of pistachio ice cream, overly sweet with a layer of tooth pasty syrup running through it. Our hotel reminds me of the Overlook from The Shining, worn out carpeting with a faded art deco print, no one seems to be staying here although a few elderly tourists turned up for a Michelin starred dinner that took three hours to serve. The wine was good, and the morsels served on too large plates were delicious and the waiter stopped by the table six times to offer bread. Bread and more bread, too much bread.

Cassolette of clay flavors.

I woke up on a Monday morning in March in Carcassonne with no pressure to do anything or be anywhere. I’m lucky; I think I control almost 100% of my time. I basically do whatever I want, whenever I want. Riding the Ouigo trains around Cataluña and France, I watched my wife searching for tickets to Istanbul; she commented on a planned summer trip to cruise the fjords of Norway in August as well as our upcoming ski trip to Val d’Isere, walking the Camino de Santiago, a visit to Stratford upon Avon for a dose of Shakespeare and another visit to northern France soon. As fortunate as I am, I still find some way to be annoyed with my life. We have to move to a new apartment that is within spitting distance, so the stress level is relatively low compared to my past experiences. Only now, grandma and baby-brain will be even closer, we will have less space in nicer digs, but I will be unhappy. And I’ll dream about being back in Carcassonne or anywhere except home.

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