To tell the truth, I was reluctant to leave Barcelona, especially this close to Christmas. I loved it far too much. We had a room in the gothic quarter in a beautiful hostel. It had a balcony with a Spanish flag that fluttered over the cobblestone streets below. We’d spent days wandering around Gaudi’s masterpieces. We’d roamed around looking for bullfighting, but the sport wasn’t in season. The chill of winter had not impeded our love of al fresco lunches with sangria, tapas, and little sandwiches with ham and cheese. We’d walked all the way to the top of a mountain outside the city to see the castle and big World War II era artillery that looked out over the ocean. We’d stopped to see the Olympic stadium. We’d gone running though the city along the waterfront and past the old churches. And we’d attended the opera Cendrillion performed in French at one of the resplendent opera houses with red velvet seats and gold trimming. I could have lived in that world forever.
But life presses forward with or without my permission or blessing. I’d quit a terrible job in a bar and gone to Europe for three weeks because I was young and because wanderlust is a part of who I am, and I was compelled to seek out the challenges of traveling into the unknown with little plan or forethought. Eventually, I had to return. The only plan we had made for three weeks was to book a flight into Madrid and a flight out of Paris. It was the one stipulation and the time was going much too quickly.
I knew very little of France except what most American’s know; the French are famous for their food, wine, and impatience with American travelers who can’t be bothered to learn their language. My limited Spanish had gotten my through Spain and the people seemed to appreciate my efforts, but I feared it would not be so in France.
Getting to France was also a challenge. I was not completely sure of the best mode of travel. The receptionist at the hostel politely told us that everyone went by train. We went to look at the routes at the train station but found no more clarity. As Americans, we were used to clearly defined borders and restrictions on travel, even between neighboring countries. But Europe was different and we could not understand the map. The Catalonian influence of the area mushed the distinction between French and Spanish and we could not be sure if we were traveling into France or simply moving to another part of Spain.
The self-serve ticket kiosk seemed to be malfunctioning but when we spoke with a ticket agent he simply pointed us back to the kiosk. We finally decided just to get on a train and take it to the last stop. We bought our tickets and sheepishly asked someone in the terminal if the town we’d selected, Latour de Carol, was in France. He politely told us that it was, but we were not sure he understood what we were asking him, nor that he had ever heard of Latour de Carol.
It was Christmas Eve morning and we had no idea where we would end up. We boarded the train without any idea where we were going. The ride was smooth and pleasant with beautiful views of the countryside. We were glad to be on the road, even with no clear idea of our destination, and we started to relax again.
As the train pulled into the station, however, I started to worry. The signs were in French, but I was still not completely sure I was even in France. More importantly, the train station was little more than a small building with a parking lot. There was nothing else except a narrow road leading away from the station. A couple people got off with us and drove away and then we were alone. With little choice, we hitched up our backpacks and started walking down the middle of the street, following the signs that indicated the town was still another three kilometers down the road. It started to snow and as we walked I saw nothing more than a few houses that appeared completely boarded up. There were no signs for places to eat or spend the night, and I became concerned that I would be spending Christmas Eve back in the train station or sleeping under a bridge somewhere.
At last we arrived in the town as dusk was setting it and the sun, which was providing no heat and little light, was sinking into the Pyrenees Mountains. It was a very small, quaint little place. We walked to the town center with a Christmas tree lighting up a circle of cobblestones and French flags. The one sign of life was that someone had left a chalkboard wine menu outside of a bar—literally called “Le Petit Bar” —that displayed the choices in delicate cursive writing. But the bar was closed and everything was completely silent. The temperature was dropping so we pushed on.
At the other side of town we found, at last, a small pizza shop with three people inside. There was a cook with greasy black hair and a toothless grin, a plump middle-aged waitress, and tall blond patron with thin metal-rimmed glasses. The patron was leaning on the counter and greeted me in French at the door. I did not understand a word he said. I asked if he spoke Spanish, thinking it more likely than English this close to Spain. His Spanish was worse than mine and he spoke it with a confusing French accent. His English was about the same as his Spanish.
Between our three languages, we managed to communicate in a limited way. He was shocked that we were American. He owned the ski shop next to the restaurant and rented ski equipment to vacationing Russians, but he could not remember ever seeing an American in the town. We asked if he knew a place to stay for the night and he said he would check. He pulled out a flip phone and spoke loudly for several minutes before abruptly thrusting the phone into my hand and telling me to talk to his friend, “Brenda.”
Caught off guard, I said hello.
“’ello? Americans? Yes? You come here now?” said the woman’s voice on the line.
“Ok,” I said
“I will come for you. Just wait a moment.”
“Ok” I said again, not sure what I was getting into or what else I should say.
“Ok, bye-bye.” The line clicked off.
While we waited, we ordered a pizza to fuel our hungry bodies. The cook offered to make us the day’s special instead—a dish involving cow tongue. We were tired from the day and not feeling adventurous so we stayed with the pizza. The cook obliged although I sensed he was appalled at our poor tastes. Looking back, I regret not being worldlier. The pizza was unusual, as I recall, but not bad.
The door burst open, bringing a cold draft indoors. A woman in a parka came in and spoke to the people inside in a manner that suggested they all knew each other in a neighborly way. Then she insisted on coffees before setting out. The coffees were served in the traditional French manner: tiny cups of espresso with a teaspoon and a small brick of sugar on the side. And then we piled into a minivan and drove off with the woman back through the town, up a side street, over a stone bridge, past an abandoned stone church and into evening.
We were not in the car long. The woman pulled off into what appeared to be a small closed-down resort. There was a kind of lodge in the center with a large dining room and movie room. Several individual cabins spread across the grounds. We worked out a price that was higher than we would have paid elsewhere, but fair considering that we got our own cabin on a beautiful ski resort that was not technically even open. It also included an elaborate breakfast of lychee nuts, yogurt, fruits, cereals, different juices, coffee, breads, pastries, and meat that was similar to bacon but served as a large, thin slab. It was less greasy and had a tougher jerky-like texture.
And then the woman disappeared, leaving a cellphone number if we needed anything. We never saw her again. We were completely alone, surrounded by mountains with a resort all to ourselves. Feeling energized again and free of the weight of uncertainly and our heavy backpacks, we left our things in the cabin and walked back into town. We found some baguettes at a bakery that was just closing its doors for the next few days. Then we found a convenience story to buy other snacks and some wine. We returned to the cabin and turned the heat up as high as it would go and wrapped ourselves in blankets. It took a long time but we started to feel truly warm for the first time that day.
We spent the rest of the Christmas holiday wandering around, never seeing anyone, taking photos, and then coming back to warm up in the cabin. We had no cups so we drank the wine straight from the bottle and laughed as we rehashed our adventures while trying not to spill crumbs from the baguettes over the floor. And we were content to simply exist in that abandoned world of snow and mountains and each other’s company for a while. It was quiet. And we still had the noise and excitement and lights of Paris to look forward to.