Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27, 2014 -- Montpellier, France

I spent a good part of today getting from Girona, Spain here to Montpellier near the Mediterranean coast of France. I am sitting in the youth hostel writing this, but I’ll have to go to a free WiFi in a fast food restaurant to upload and format the pictures and text, because like many things in this hostel, the WiFi is out of order. The credit card machine is also out of order, so I had to pay cash when I checked in. The vending machines probably are working, but they are sold out of beer! They do have orange juice and Coke, but who wants to drink that junk? I can’t wait to take a shower. I have no confidence that the hot water heater will be working.

I spent my time on the trains staring out the window at the scenery except when we were standing in a station, when I read. Most of the trip was over coastal planes except near the Spanish-French border, where we went through the edge of the Pyrenees. The train took tunnels through the few low mountains along the coast, but I could see snow glittering in the sunlight on the distant higher peaks. In addition to the snow-capped Pyrenees, I also got an occasional glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea.

Riding an almost empty train in Spain
The first train from Girona to the border was almost empty. I had an entire rail car almost to myself, as you can see in the selfie above. The later trains in France were fuller but were never cramped. One advantage to taking the regional trains is that there is more space. Second class in a bullet train is just as cramped as flying economy minus the seat belts.

The Spanish regional train was one that stops at every single village between Girona and the border. Most of them are so small that they don’t have a train station, just a platform on either side of the tracks and a shelter to get out of the rain in bad weather. The only way to buy a ticket is to purchase it on the train from the conductor. Below is a photo of one of the train stops that I snapped through the train window. No, the building across the street is not the train station. The only thing resembling a station is that little graffiti-covered shelter on the platform.

A train "station" in Northeast Spain
One of the cities that looked to worth a visit on a future trip is Beziers. I snapped a photo of it as the train was approaching the station, and the glare in the photo is the reflection from the train window.

Bezier as seen from the train window
I also had time on the train to reflect on some of the people I met at the Girona hostel. One was a retired Italian merchant sailor who spoke no Spanish but fairly good English. He claimed to also speak Turkish, and I took him at his word. He seemed to be living at the hostel and said he was taking courses in Spanish and having his teeth worked on at a cheaper price than he would pay elsewhere in the European Union. He spent his days wandering around the lobby, talking to anyone who would listen to him and to some people who wouldn’t, taking a break from time to time to go out into the street in front of the hostel to smoke a cigarette. He said he was 66 years old, but felt much older, which he blamed on the cigarettes.

The hostel was also full of young Erasmus students. Erasmus is an exchange program among universities, which I also took part in the year I studied in Grenoble, France. There was a whole group of Mexicans Erasmus students, whom I placed immediately when one of the young ladies didn’t understand something that was said to her and replied ¡Mande! To my knowledge, Mexicans are the only Spanish speakers who use that expression to request that someone repeat a phrase that was not understood.

There was also a young female student from Portugal, who spoke perfect English. When I mentioned that I planned to be in Portugal in late summer and was going to brush up on my Portuguese in preparation, she said I needed bother. She claimed that everyone in Portugal speaks English, especially in the south of the country. I will see in the summer, because my flight home leaves from Lisbon.

It was interesting to see the one language change and the other not when I crossed the border. On the Spanish side, all place names were in two languages: Catalán and Spanish. On the French side, the sides were in Catalán and French. Part of Cataluña lies on each side of the border, but on the French side one hears mainly French spoken. On the Spanish side, the spoken language is mainly Catalán.

I was a bit concerned about changing trains in Perpignan, France, because I only had five minutes to make the connection. I needn’t have worried. When my train arrived, the other was already waiting on the other side of the station platform, and the conductor on the first train was kind enough to point that out to me.

One last note is about the friendly, open manner of the people here in the South of France. They seem almost like the Spanish and quite different from the reserved attitude of the French farther north. They even tolerate my lousy French, whereas in the north of France, when people hear me mumbling in French, they usually immediately switch to English.

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