I’m sitting at the breakfast table at our AirBnB at the edge of the town of Carcassonne. This is the table where Bob and I had an epic battle of Croque-Carotte last night after dinner. Croque-Carotte is a game for little kids whose rules are apparently something like Chutes and Ladders; you command four plastic rabbits as they climb a plastic hill, but, once in a while, a hole opens up under your rabbit, dropping it into the darkness under the plastic hill and making it start over, presumably. The box says that the game has 4 out of 5 stars for luck and 0 out of 5 stars for thinking.
Bob and I opened our new bottle of Jack Daniels and wrote our own rules. Landing on another rabbit knocks him back to start. Falling through a hole is death to the bunny, not a “start over.” When all your bunnies are dead, they can be resurrected as zombies, coming up through the holes in the ground and staggering the wrong way down the hill. Touching a zombie bunny is death. Any bunny that has made it to the top of the hill is a queen; she can resurrect a zombie bunny of her own team but is killed by enemy zombies. And more rules of this kind. Many more.
When we pulled out this game off the shelf, I set up the camera and put it on a 10-second timer. Bob said we should look like the excited kids on the box, so we tried it, and, for some reason, the picture worked perfectly. We played Croque-Carotte for hours, inventing new rules every few minutes. I treasure Bob’s plaintive comment, very late in the evening, when I finally crushed his puny hopes and dreams: “You zombified my Bunny Queen!”
I met him in Barcelona on 10/31, at the Generator hostel, an excellent hipster crash site near La Sagrada Familia. We bought burritos at a place where the burrito guy spoke excellent English, where you could pay using a credit card, and where they had moved beyond cash registers – customers feed bills and coins into a chute on the front face of the counter. Barcelona is a modern marvel, vast and incredible beyond the dreams of a place like Santiago or Burgos or Leon.
And then we walked to La Sagrada Familia. The horrendous west façade and a swarm of tourists were the first things we saw, along with the omnipresent cranes and scaffolding, but the building is still stupendous. The sign said that the next available tickets were for six in the evening – more than three hours away – but we shrugged, went through security, approached the ticket counter, and were given tickets that allowed us in immediately! We didn’t know why we had gotten a special privilege, or even whether that’s what had happened, but we were delighted to be allowed inside while the sun was high and the stained glass glowed.
The entrance is on the east side, through the breathtaking Gaudi-designed façade. The interior beggars description. We took dozens of pictures, rode the elevator up one of the spires, tried to figure out where the enormous central tower is going to go – theorizing to our deep amusement that the huge cubical scaffolding, which leaves no room at its base for any construction, will allow them to build it from the top down – and then, as we left, found the basement, where there is a museum with some of Gaudi’s drawings, models, and his fantastic inverted catenary string visualization tools.
The cathedral is scheduled to be finished in 2026. We will have to return.
We walked south into the Gothic Quarter to get a couple of beers – maybe 20 minutes or half an hour of strolling while we discussed the Catalan flags that hung from the wrought-iron balconies of the apartments. Bob had landed in Barcelona on the same day as more than a million pro-unity demonstrators clogged the streets, making international news, but Bob hadn’t heard about this and booked a walking tour in the old district, somehow missing the entire event! The tour guide should have put his own profit aside and said something like, “Although a walking tour of the old district would be a good experience for you, you should know that an important and globally unique outpouring of public joy is happening right now that you would probably enjoy much more.” But that isn’t what happened, so there’s nothing to do but move on.
We sat at an outdoor table near some propane heaters and drank our Estellas while the light faded. When Bob said he was in the mood for Italian food, I checked TripAdvisor and found “Macaroni,” a nearby restaurant that was well reviewed. Bob was surprisingly familiar with this part of town (near the Picasso Museum), so we set off to find the restaurant. Our pasta was delicious, and the décolletage of our friendly waitress was charming and very French. As we paid for our meals, half a dozen kids in Halloween costumes swarmed into the restaurant. Our waitress had nothing to give them. One of the kids shouted through the door of the kitchen, demanding that his father come out to admire him and his friends.
The street had a few bands of happy kids and their parents, but the surge of trick-or-treaters ended almost immediately. Some teenagers were in Halloween regalia, but they were mostly self-absorbed and on their way to parties. We stopped to gawk at a machine that was embroidering the word LUST onto a billed cap (a promo item for a local porn company, we learned later), and Bob bought a hat for his friend, Nancy, that had BAMFTR embroidered on it. (“Bad Ass Mother Fucking Trail Runner” – an inside joke.) Then we caught the Metro back to Generator and called it a day.
Our train left the Sants station at 7:20 in the morning, forcing us out of bed before 6:00. The instructions in the email that accompanied my PDF tickets said that a hard copy was required at the station, but luckily a young woman behind the desk at Generator was profoundly helpful and printed this for me as though being useful and kind were the most natural thing in the world. The streets had occasional groups of tired, drunk young people, on their way home from all-night parties. We found our platform, car, and seats without incident, and were in Perpignan before 9:00.
In the Perpignan station, Bob gave cheese and crackers to a black guy who may or may not have been homeless – he was so well spoken, and so tidy, that he didn’t fit the pattern, but his eagerness for the food was unfeigned – while I figured out the details of the car I’d rented. I had apparently screwed things up by renting a car from an office near the airport, instead of at the train station. No big deal. We would walk the 15 minutes into town, see the sights for an hour, and then catch a taxi or bus to the airport to pick up our car at 11:00.
The palm-lined Boulevard Charles DeGaulle was absolutely deserted. No restaurants were open, no cars were on the street – it was as though the village were two weeks into a virulent plague. Also, Perpignan has almost nothing to look at. We walked through the old part of town to the church, which was an unremarkable slab of vertical bricks, with buttresses that Bob thought were entirely decorative but which I thought were doing real but ugly work. Then we started trying to figure out how to get to the airport. Taxis were not to be found. Buses were running, but when we compared the posted schedules to the numbers of the buses that were going by we couldn’t make them correspond. So we walked the kilometer to the tourist information office, next to the canal, and found that it had a metal shutter pulled over the door. The sign said that it was open for convenient hours every day of the year, almost, except Sundays, Christmas, and November 1st. November 1st? What the hell?
We knew that it must be possible to get from the train station to the airport, so we walked back down that long boulevard again. Have I mentioned that we were carrying everything we owned all this time? As we walked up to the station, one of the only taxis we’d seen all morning pulled up and disgorged a passenger. The driver asked us if we’d called and requested a taxi, but the way we wrung our hands when we said “No” seemed to sway him; he threw our bags in the trunk and off we went, to the address I showed him from the email on my phone.
This address was for a Dollar Rent-a-Car on an access road near the airport, but, when we got there, there was no Dollar sign anywhere, there was no street number corresponding to 253 Rue Etienne Bobo, and besides, the rental places that were clustered there – Hertz, EuroCar, and so on – were all closed and locked. After a moment of despair, we decided to go to the airport proper, where there were sure to be living human beings. The fare was 35 Euro by the time we were dropped off.
We approached the EuroCar desk, because someone was sitting there, and told him that we had no reservation, no. He had no cars, he reported regretfully. We said that we had had a reservation at Dollar, but Dollar n’exist pas, c’est dommage. Mais non! He told us that we could talk to the Hertz guy, who was also the Dollar guy! After a few minutes spent talking to this friendly person, we were given a perfectly acceptable car, which was parked outside in the lot. It had been a stressful few hours.
Bob did the driving on the way to Collioure. Everybody from this part of France had apparently decided to use their November 1st holiday – the Day of the Dead, of course, and no, I can’t explain why this hadn’t occurred to us earlier – to descend on Collioure to soak up the cuteness. The village maintains four parking lots on the surrounding hills, all of which were full. We drove slowly through all the rose-colored houses and then on, winding along the Mediterranean, to the next village, where we were finally able to park the car. We had an expensive but perfectly delicious and 100% French lunch at a café overlooking the harbor. We were surprised to find that we had ordered steaks – chosen only because they came with “frites,” a word we understood – but it went down well with the bottle of wine we had accidentally ordered when we’d tried to order two glasses of vino tinto, I mean vin rouge. We couldn’t stop ourselves from speaking mangled Spanish to the amused waitress, a good-looking woman in a sheer top, who called us “amigos” when we left.
When I booked us a room at the Hotel Templiers in Collioure, I knew it was charming and old, crammed with art from the Fauvists and locals who had made the village famous 100 years ago, but I hadn’t been aware that its bar was Patrick O’Brian’s favorite place to relax, and that he had met Picasso there, where the two men agreed that O’Brian was the right man to write Picasso’s biography. What a lucky break! The woman at the hotel’s desk had never heard of O’Brian, though. No one in the bar had heard of him, either. There were no pictures of him on the wall (although there is a picture of Picasso, posing with the owner). Even the woman at the tourist information office had never heard the name before in her life. What the smoking sulfurous hell?!? This is like going to Stratford on Avon and having people answer questions by asking, “William Who?”
We walked up and down the breakwaters in the harbor, watching with amusement as a little sailboat capsized in the stiff breeze and then repeatedly failed to right itself, as an aluminum skiff nearby tried to assist. Bob accidentally soaked his shoes while testing the temperature of the water. We had dinner at the Hotel Templiers, of course, admiring the art on the walls and watching Real Madrid getting its ass kicked by Tottenham on the TV in the corner.
The following morning – yesterday morning! – we walked the hills around town, looking for the grave of Patrick O’Brian and his wife, Mary. I had found a description of the cemetery that said it was near a roundabout above the village, and I only found one such roundabout on the map, so that’s where we went. After exploring every one of the roads that branched off from the roundabout and finding nothing, though, we admitted defeat and walked back into the village, where we packed our bags and settled our account. Bob is paying for practically everything he possibly can, by the way, to lessen the amount he will owe me when this is all over; a good plan, as long as we are careful to record everything he spends, without fail. I had rechecked my phone, back when we were within the hotel’s wifi range again, and found another roundabout, not too far from the one we’d just explored.
That was it. We took pictures of the grave and observed sadly that it seemed to us to also be the grave of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. We need to somehow ensure that there is a painting of O’Brian on the wall of the bar, and, ideally, a bronze of two figures on the breakwater, one a large man with his hair in a queue and his hat athwartships, pointing out to sea, while his slight companion in an old wig ignores the pointing figure and instead bends over a handkerchief in his palm, in which is rendered an anomalous bronze beetle.
The drive from Collioure to Carcassone is unremarkable except for being drier than we expected. Motorways without detours through villages, all the way. Carcassonne is famous for its medieval walled city, but Bob and I have hardly glimpsed that part of town. We have been too busy with housekeeping chores, relaxing at cafes, and being lost.
We parked the car in a lot at the edge of the village and walked in, stopping at the Tourist Info center for a map and directions to our AirBnB. We had lunch in a fine square whose central fountain seemed worthy of half a dozen photographs. We wanted vin rouge, but our waiter said that they were out, and that we had to drink rosé. What? Bob thinks this is possible, and that the waiter was making the best of a bad situation, but I think it’s impossible that a French café might run out of red wine, especially since there were two grocery stores within a hundred yards, and that the waiter was just screwing with us for some unknown but fundamentally nefarious reason.
We met Jeanne, a profoundly charming French woman of about 60, next to our AirBnB at precisely 3:00. She rode up on her bike and air-kissed our cheeks as blood dripped from her hand onto the stones underfoot. It was nothing, she said. She had been bitten by her parrot. Our apartment has an excellent location and two bedrooms and a big sofa and an ill-equipped kitchen and Croque-Carotte – we couldn’t ask for more.
When we retrieved the car from the far side of town we had a hell of a time trying to drive to the AirBnB – the maze of one-way streets kept pushing us in the wrong direction. We drove past the parking lot where we’d begun the effort four times before deciding that the only way to get there was to go completely around the village in the wrong direction, an expedient that finally worked.
And now I had better use my phone to find a laundromat, so that we can attend to that chore and then, finally, achieve the ambition I’ve had for the last 35 years and actually visit the medieval city of Carcassonne! We’ll have been in town for almost 24 hours before we finally get there.
Bob, in the lower right, admires La Sagrada Familia.
Spiral staircase in one of the spires.
Gaudi designed upside-down, using weighted strings to find the right shapes for load-bearing curves.
A cat in Perpignan watches Bob with anger and revulsion.
Our room at the Hotel Templier was not part of a bordello, despite its appearance.
A bronze frame is mounted on a pole at the quay in Collioure.
Patrick O’Brian may have sat exactly here, reading his newspaper.
Patrick and his wife, Mary, lived on this street before moving to the edge of town.