Gone Away / Posts
Contact Followers

Letter from Montpellier

When last I left off, I was getting myself ready to have dinner with Marlene in Madrid on Wednesday night last week. We met near my hotel, and despite her joking about Spaniards being late and how I should wait a few extra minutes for her, she was right on time. I’m not particularly fond of Spanish cuisine in general, and most of the items on the menus there are not words I remember from the vocabulary lessons in my high school Spanish class, so eating well there can be a bit of a challenge. I don’t have access to a scale, but based on the way my clothes are fitting me, I’ll bet I’ve lost several pounds during my five days in Spain. But Marlene hooked me up.

First, we went for a couple of cañas (little draught beers) at a nearby bar that was decorated with a bull-fighting theme, with stuffed bulls’ heads on the wall and photos of hospitalized matadors, which was all gory and interesting at the same time. Then, we went to a place that specialized in cuisine from the north of Spain, which is where she comes from. The restaurant had rough wooden tables and chairs and served food family style, so I really enjoyed the ambiance. And the food wasn’t bad either. We ordered three dishes, a salad, an appetizer, and a main dish, but the waiter told us (in other words, he told Marlene, and she told me) that he would bring the salad last, because there would be too much food for the two of us, and that we could just cancel the salad if we were full. That turned out to be a good thing. All the ingredients ran together for me, but the dishes included lots of potatoes, spinach, fried eggs, and the main dish definitely had fried veal with a heavy cream sauce. We couldn’t finish the two dishes we ordered, and, like I said, I enjoyed it all, and we canceled the salad. After dinner, we went for a long walk to work off out fatty dinner, and although I had already seen many of the places we walked past, it was nice to see them again at night.

The next morning, I decided to take a day trip to Seville. I used my Eurail Pass for the first time to take a round-trip on Spain’s high-speed trains, called AVE. The trip was about two-and-a-half hours in each direction. The fact that the Atocha train station in Madrid was the sight of a terrorist attack six months ago was actually not at the front of my mind until I went to the boarding lounge and found they were x-ray scanning all the luggage and handbags that went aboard the train, something I had never seen during any of my rail travel in Europe. I guess they weren’t taking any chances, and after I’d traveled around Spain a bit, I realized they were doing it on all the long-distance trains within Spain.

But, anyway, back to Seville. I arrived around 12:30 p.m., so I had about six hours to see what I came to see and get back to the station, which I turned out to be about right. I bought a tourist map in the station and set out on foot. Seville is quite charming and beautiful, and most of the sights the tourists come to see are within walking distance of each other. The cathedral, which is supposed to be the highlight, was enormous, and is reported to be the largest Gothic structure in the world. I was more impressed by the Real Alcazar, which was at various times occupied by various monarchs. Sometimes it seems like, if you’ve seen one European palace, you’ve seen them all, but this one, with its ornate tiles and its use of colors, particularly yellow, was different enough to make it enjoyable. Another thing I enjoyed was the Parque de Maria Luisa, with its fountains and pools, but it didn’t make the highlights on my tourist map, I just stumbled upon it. Overall, I think making Seville a day trip was a good idea. I enjoyed the sights, although I wore myself out a bit after several hours of walking without really taking a break. After about four hours, I was really exhausted, stopped for a beer, and continued, but less than an hour later, I had had it, so I caught the next bus I could find back to the train station. That put me there a little early, but I didn’t have it in me to walk the rest of the way.

One last night in Madrid, and after such an exhausting day, I did very little. I got back to my hotel room around 10:30 p.m., took a shower, and went out for a couple beers at a nearby pub. I had to get up early for my train the next morning, so it couldn’t be a late night. By Madrid standards, midnight is not a late night.

I caught my train the next morning to Barcelona, which is about five hours away. That put me in the city in the early afternoon. In Barcelona, I had decided to book a youth hostel rather that a hotel. It wasn’t so much about the money, because it really wasn’t much cheaper than booking a one-star hotel with no bath, which I will discuss in more detail later. But I figured that, since I was traveling alone, that I’d run into fun people to hang out with at a youth hostel. Well, that was true. After I checked into the youth hostel, which was basically a dump with dormitory beds, I made my bed (which turned out to be important, I’ll mention why later), took a shower, left my bags in my locker, and went out to see the city and the beach. After a couple hours of just walking around, I decided to come back to the hostel to rest a bit before going out in the evening.

What happened later was the kind of evening I only ever have when I’m abroad. I got back to the hostel at about 6 p.m., and the only person who was back from the beach was a guy named Mark, an American student at the University of Minnesota, who is currently doing a semester abroad in Toledo — Spain, not Ohio — and we started chatting. When I asked him where he was from, he said “The United States.” I said, “No shit; where in the U.S.?” He said, “Have you ever heard of Minnesota?” I said, “I live in Arizona.” He said, “I didn’t think you were American. You sound Irish.” That was definitely a first for me. Anyway, almost everyone in Mark’s study abroad program was also staying in this youth hostel this weekend, and his plan was the same as mine, to rest up a bit and then go out for the evening. So I asked if he minded if I tagged along, and he had no problem with that. So about 8 p.m. I met the rest of the group, which turned out to be about a dozen people. First, we went to one bar, and then another. Mark, as it turned out, is the type of person that likes to start fights when he gets drunk, and being about six-foot-four, he was also the type that was able to back it up. A street performer decided to hit him on the head with a plastic hammer when he walked by, to get a laugh out of the audience, and Mark got so upset that he shoved the performer a few minutes later as he walked away, knocking his hat out of his hands and sending all the coins he had collected all over the place. Mark’s personality would manifest itself again a bit later. However, several members of the group decided to do a pub crawl, which actually seemed like a good idea at the time. So, pub to pub we went. Eventually the organizer of the pub crawl was getting a little angry that I had decided not to participate officially in her pub crawl and instead just to follow the crowd from bar to bar and buy a drink when I got thirsty. She told me that if I wanted to get into the next place, I’d need a hand stamp, and she wanted at least five euros. Since the other participants in my group had paid fifteen euros, I jumped on this deal, since it would also include free sangria at the next place. Basically, the rest of the night was dancing and drinking, the dancing being out of character for me, and then we finished off the night with more dancing at a disco until about 4 a.m. I’m not sure I’d ever been in a disco before, but I hope to be able to hear again in a few days. After we left disco, our group, which by now was down to about six people, started heading back to the hostel, which was located near Las Ramblas, a boulevard — actually a group of connected streets in a nearly straight line — that leads from the old port to one of the city’s central plazas. I’d been to Barcelona before, but I had never stayed out until 4 a.m., so I was a bit shocked that the walk back to hostel was basically a gauntlet of prostitutes, all of whom were black. Not one on every corner, but one every few feet, on both sides of the street. One time I must have made eye contact because one of them walked up to me and said “vamos” — “let’s go,” if I remember my Spanish correctly. They were not really subtle. One offered a member of my group a blow job for a euro. He did not take her up on it. But we made it back to the hostel with the same number of people we had when we left the disco. Now, remember how I mentioned earlier I had made my bed? Well, making my bed had clearly identified my bunk, and having staked my claim, I simply climbed into my bunk and attempted to sleep. By contrast, Mark had really done nothing to identify his bunk as his, and so, by 4 a.m., someone else was sleeping in it. So Mark woke up the guy in his bunk and start yelling at him, but the other guy wasn’t listening. After several minutes of waking up everyone in the place, he finally gave up and went to sleep in another bunk — the bunk above mine, in fact — a bunk that he should have known belonged to someone else already, because it had a towel on it, which was more than Mark himself had done. But, for a solid hour or two, we were all able to sleep somewhat peacefully. Sure enough, though, the Portuguese student whose bunk Mark had taken came back from his night at the disco at around 5:30 or 6 a.m. He went berserk, and Mark, who was still quite drunk and had been asleep for a while, after several minutes of waking up the entire dorm again, gave him back his bunk, because the towel was still there, and then, a few minutes later, decided he was going to come back and start pushing the Portuguese guy around. Now, I was trying to sleep in my lower bunk, roughly two feet from all this, and it looked like a fight was going to break out any second. Everyone in the dorm was starting to get angry, one had proposed calling the police, and I decided at this moment that there was no way in hell I was going to spend another night in the youth hostel. I managed to get about two more hours of sleep, had breakfast in the hostel, and walked around the neighborhood for not more than about ten minutes until I found a one-star hotel with a single-bed room and a bathroom on the hall (which is why I was able to make the price comparison above). I was able to check into the hotel at 11:30 a.m., after which I was able to actually get some sleep.

Despite all of this, I was able to make it to the beach Saturday afternoon, although I took the bus both directions instead of walking, lacking the energy to make the trip on foot. And I even made it to a pub Saturday night, but for a much more low-key evening of half-pints of beer and watching sports on the big-screen TV. I never saw Mark or the rest of the group again. It may have been just as well. I had hoped to have one really fun evening in Barcelona, and I had accomplished that. I could enjoy spending the other evening recuperating.

After a solid night of sleep in my one-star hotel, it was Sunday morning, and I got up to find out there was no water in the hotel. The desk clerk said the problem would be fixed in twenty minutes. Even if I hadn’t been in Spain and was instead somewhere where twenty minutes really meant twenty minutes, I wouldn’t have had time for a shower and make it to the train station in time to catch my early train to Montpellier. So a shower would have to wait until France. And since the hotel didn’t start serving breakfast until 8 a.m., my breakfast was going to have to wait, too. I gathered my bags and headed for the subway, which, at 7:45 a.m., was packed with prostitutes, the likes of which I’d seen two nights earlier, who had finished their third-shift jobs. There were also quite a few people hanging their heads over the trash cans and puking. And there were a number of bums just sleeping. And then there was me. I made it safely to the train station, presumably because the others were preoccupied with their own problems. I grabbed a coffee and croissant at the train station while I waited for my train to depart.

The trip to Montpellier was uneventful, other than arriving just a few minutes late. I checked into my “residence” for students, which is just a very simple, partially furnished apartment, but it’s a lot cheaper than a hotel for two weeks. As it turns out, a number of other students from my language school are also staying in the same building, so I’ve been running into some of them. I also have an internet connection, which is quite convenient.

After getting a good shower and some more rest Sunday afternoon, I met Thierry, my French instructor from last year and again this year, for a couple beers at a bar, and he had some other students with him, so I got to meet some new people.

This morning, I started my French classes again, in the same school where I studied last year, Odyssea. I’m taking classes for two weeks, in the mornings only. It was great to see some familiar faces: the director of the school and her husband, and two of the other instructors all said their hellos. The first day of class was a little difficult, because I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to or speaking French for the past year, but I think I’m at the right level and I’ll get back in the swing of it in a couple days.

The weather has been absolutely perfect here, and so, immediately after class, I went to the beach with a bunch of my fellow students, and I was there all afternoon. Most of the current students are German. I think the fact that Ryanair has such cheap flights from Frankfurt-Hahn airport to Montpellier has had a lot of impact on who comes to school here, because not only are most of the students German, but they all seem to come from the same parts of Germany, usually no more than a couple hours’ drive from Hahn. Most of the evening I have spent on the computer, a lot of it writing this letter. It’s late, and I have class tomorrow. You’ll have to wait for another update!

Curt Gilman
Curt Gilman