The Remise Door. Calais

Tuesday 11 October 2005

“Hey,” I said, “There’s another car salesman sticker in the back window of that car.”
My companion grunted unsympathetically and shifted the red Mégane we’d hired up into sixth. After two hours at the wheel, she’d gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road and felt ready to overtake trucks and schoolbuses just as the dual carriageway ran out.
“You’re supposed to be describing the scenery to me,” she said, reaching over and fumbling around in the glovebox. She’d found that the Mégane felt most comfortable cruising at about 150 and was reluctant to let it drop to too low a speed because “it’s a diesel and they like being revved up.”
We were driving north from Barcelona up into the Pyrenees to be at the wedding of a couple of friends: she’s Australian but has lived in Barcelona and nearby mountains for years, he’s Catalan. Right now they’re living at his parents’ place up in the Cerdanya, a place I’d never heard of before.
I was expecting lots of hillclimbing and general cragginess, but once you’ve got up into the mountains you go through a really long tunnel (you folks at home think it’s a long haul from Southbank to Burnley – ha!) and once you come out the other side find yourself in this pretty green valley with meadows and cows and little villages dotted around. Then someone stops your car and relieves you of 9 Euros for driving through their shiny new tunnel and when you wind down the window realise it’s suddenly 15 degrees cooler outside.
What you can’t see amongst all the picturesque countryside is the French border which runs diagonally across the Cerdanya, and has done for 400 years, just to be difficult. Then, to be even more difficult, once you’re over the border into France you’re suddenly back into Spain again, a tiny little island of it called Llìvia which has also been that way for about 400 years, before heading back into France again. And because we’re dealing with France here, they speak French on one side of the border, then revert to Spanish 100 metres down the road. The family we were staying with was Catalan but lived on the French side – I suspect most of the locals speak Catalan but you’d never get the Francophones to admit to tourists like me.
My companion had just finished a bout of Italian lessons in London and so was pronouncing what little Spanish she knew as thought it were Italian. I suspected I was lapsing into a ropey Catalan accent when attempting to pronounce anything non-Anglophone.
“How do we order coffee again?” she asked, finally finding what she wanted in the glovebox.
Dos tallets, si us plau,” I said as she bit into the large xoriço we’d bought before heading off. We’d grabbed the sausage and a large, strong goat’s cheese from a market before picking up the car in Barcelona and had been taking chunks out of them from time to time along the way. By the time we returned the car it was going to be very stinky.

Not that we cared too much. We had actually reserved a small, cheap 3-door to get us out of town but we got traded up, which was a nice result after arriving at the car hire office to find a hot, grumpy queue spilling out onto the pavement. A tall Australian in front of us was talking into his mobile phone, “typical Spanish fuckup.”
This wasn’t quite fair: progress had been blocked for some time, and would continue for the next hour, by three idiots camped on the front counter. The first was a dense, leathery German girl loudly complaining that they had lost her reservation, despite paying in advance. Funnily enough, she didn’t have a receipt or booking number to show them, either, and the staff were too polite to call shenannigans and throw her out (hint for readers: try hiring a car and see if they’ll take your money up front).
The second was a hapless Frenchman who had managed to prang his VW while trying to get out of the car park. The third was an insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) in a denim jacket that had fallen into a Bedazzler who spent a solid 45 minutes complaining about the car she’d ordered, the slightly better car she actually got, the nib of the biro with which she had to fill out the paperwork, the pot plants in the car hire office, her shrivelled-up husk of a husband slouched lifelessly next to her, homogenised milk, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over.
When my companion reached the counter (sorry! as a non-driver I had to leave all the dirty work up to her) the staff were so relieved to have a customer with real, tangible documentary evidence of a reservation and a valid driver’s license that they immediately traded her up to a better auto, then invited us to cross a nearby eight-lane highway to the car park…
…where the exact same process was repeated as we waited to collect the car. The Frenchman was gingerly backing out his newly-distressed VW – almost ramming a concrete pillar in the process – despite his girlfriend assisting him by dancing in circles around the car and flapping her arms.
Meanwhile, the insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) was pacing back and forth, sequins dimly flashing in the subdued light, haranguing the attendant about the colour of the car, the fuel tank lid being on the wrong side, wrong shape of steering wheel, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over, before finally shoving the dusty remains of what used to be the man she married into the driver’s seat while she settled into the back seat and warmed up to nag him all the way to Thessaloniki.
Just as we were figuring out how to start our shiny new car (hint: big round button labelled START) the dense, leathery German girl rocked up and unsuccessfully tried to push her way to the front of the queue. They people ahead of her were sympathetic but unable to oblige.
“I’ve been stuck back there for two and a half hours,” she whinged.
“Good,” they said.
Sorry about getting a bit distracted there. I had intended to describe my holiday as succinctly as possible, but no matter. Here’s a photo of the Cerdanya.