Meeting France – Ancient Agde, doors, doors and doors…

Now, where was I?

Ah yes. I had decided that, while the final decisions were being made about which house to buy, I should take myself to some seaside town of picturesque dimensions. Especially given it was still summer. Have some sort of holiday, you know.

I booked myself the cheapest room I could find online, and after the sojourn in Nîmes betook myself to Agde. This involved a longish train trip by very fast train, otherwise known as TGV. I don’t know what that stands for, but many train trips tend to be by TGV.

Très Grande Vitesse?
What on earth is Australia waiting for?

I do have a query of the French system, though. For some reason, getting a ticket works like this: you go to a large room and are given a number. You wait. You watch the board as numbers flash thereon. You wait. You watch the half dozen employees behind counters dealing with people whose numbers come up. The staff seem very relaxed about it; the customers seem to have taken up Zen. Actually, it’s like going to VicRoads to renew your licence …. Anyway, eventually (and you haven’t missed your train because of course you got there very early, given this system) you get to talk to someone, who ends by giving you an enormous ticket the size of something you’d use on a plane, and probably even comes in its own pouch unless you say you don’t want one. And then you’re supposed to stick the ticket in a machine near the platform and have it stamped thereby, though I don’t think they care too much about that part of the process.

All of this pertains even if you have bought online.

Now, I’m sure this could be improved upon, time-and-motion-wise. Also, I’d like to know why there are so many self-serve machines around the stations. What are they for?

Also – and this needs further research, as I may be entirely wrong – it looks as though the penalty for being found without a ticket is … buying a ticket. I observed something like this on the train, the players being an inspector and a young woman with a child. Things got awkward because she claimed to have no money at all on her, at which the inspector looked perplexed and a little lost. It is possible I have misunderstood everything, of course. But I do think there is merit in this approach, or would be if that is indeed the approach. Somehow, it seems an improvement on fining people more than they can afford, having possibly got them in a headlock and wrestled them to the floor, as can happen in Melbourne.

So, I arrived in Agde and trundled my bags over to the taxi rank with the address of my hotel clutched between a couple of spare fingers. The taxi driver I queried thought that was hilarious and pointed the two or three hundred metres over the bridge to my hotel. Those among us over three years of age will pick that this was an unusual gesture among taxi drivers and that he had very genially done himself out of a possible 70 Euro fare he could have picked up by circumnavigating the town twice or thrice before arriving at the hotel.

What a nice man.

I clattered down the street and over the bridge to my hotel. Two bags on wheels make an awful lot of noise on uneven pavements that are frequently cobbled, incidentally, and patrons at pavement tables outside cafes found my amplified progress most interesting.

Later, I was to discover the possibility that my hotel may very well be the back end of the medieval complex belonging to the local 12th century church/cathedral, St Stephens. But a little work remains to be done, sadly, before can truly live up to its potential. [Note: I am not mentioning the name of this hotel as it may just be that matters have improved since I was there. Who knows.] To the left here is the door to St Stephens.

I arrived in the gloomy reception area and looked around. It was entirely empty of anyone but me, and no-one came for a long time despite my plaintive calls. While waiting, I took in my surroundings. There was plenty of architectural indication of this building’s great age – stone arches and an ancient font, for example – but also contrary signs that someone, sometime, decided to go for a different feel. There was a lot of vaguely ochre-ish orange, for example, on the stairwell and many walls. There was also a gloomy, dark carpet, whose colour I think was blue-ish though my brain seems deliberately to have forgotten it. It helped to make everything darker still.

Eventually, someone came. Unfortunately, this was the woman who did the rooms and served the breakfast. She could speak neither French nor English. Later, I discovered she probably speaks Serbian. This is of limited use in Agde. Troubled, we regarded each other. She tried being helpful and pointed at the bookings ledger; some time passed before we both realised it was open to a page from sometime in 2009. We found 2014, and my name, and she looked relieved. I gathered she now had to rush off to clean my room, so I sat on an armchair.

While I sat, a large (both tall and wide) young man entered. Then came a man and a woman who seemed to be in charge. There was another language issue, since the young man did not speak French and these two didn’t speak German, as he did. This woman did speak a version of English, however, as he did too. More confusion arose as the type of room he required was discussed – it seemed they thought he and I were together.

Eventually, all came clear. He went off with the key to Number 17 in hand, and I was given the key to Number 18.

The woman-in-charge picked up the larger of my two bags and led me up the stairs, along a corridor, up another set of steps, around the corner and up one more step before we arrived at my room, at the end of another dark, dark corridor. I mention darkness in particular, as, possibly to save energy or money, corridors were lit only by movement-sensitive lighting. This meant that you would walk into blackness until it suddenly burst into light, then proceed into blackness again. The lights did not always come on when expected, either.

My room was basic, but had a shower. The toilet was down a dark corridor and up and down a couple of sets of steps.

Here perhaps I could comment that there doesn’t seem to be the same restriction on water temperature as in Oz. In Australia, or at least in Victoria, the limit is around 42 degrees C. In France it comes whooshing out at a scald-level, sometimes without any waiting at all. In this particular shower, I think the taps were the wrong way around as well, and twisting them a millimetre either way in adjustment could make all the difference between bathing and boiling. Strangely, there was a notice on the wall apologising to customers for having to wait for the hot water. Maybe others had been perplexed by the placement of the taps.

However, showers and taps usually are a little idiosyncratic, and we all have to work things out until we reach a comfort level. The main problem was that the bed wasn’t really a bed. It was a fold-out couch, and just a little too short, I found, when wriggling downwards in my sleep later on and discovering my feet hanging over the edge. There was a little balcony just outside the window, which gave onto the view of the bridge and the river. Kinda nice but kinda noisy at the same time. Especially in the mornings and especially late at night when there was either band practice in the dungeons of the café next door or when one person would put on his/her favourite loud music for two minutes until someone else turned it down. And repeat. [Many months later I discovered the cafe/restaurant/bar next door is in fact a music venue, with a complex noise-abatement procedure that fails occasionally when someone opens the wrong door. But at the time, the disembodied bursts of music were simply a mystery.]

Yes, I should have complained about the bed and asked for another room. I know. I’m just not good at complaining. So I withstood it for a couple of nights until I discovered it was actually slightly more comfortable on the other side of the ridge in the middle.

By this stage in my travels, I felt it would be nice for a change to have some company. I considered this. I did after all know that the man in Number 17 was alone and spoke English. So I dropped a note under his door. Dear Number 17, I began. I noted that we were both there alone and proposed we should go out for dinner together, while assuring him I had no further purpose in mind. Well, I am after all 60, and he, I found out later, is 35. I signed it Number 18, with my name and phone number.

It was evident I had frightened the poor boy, for there was no answer so I took myself out to view Agde by day and then to dinner alone that night. Chilli prawns, if you must know, at a café/restaurant chosen mostly because I was holding the map the wrong way up and couldn’t find the much-recommended upmarket place I had discovered online.

Agde is ancient and fascinating. There are some distant Greek beginnings, the rumour goes, with a tantalising find of ancient statues to prove it. A bronze ‘Ephebe of Agde’, dated to the 4th century BC, was dug from the local sands, and then some early Roman bronzes – of a child and Eros – were found about 15 years ago. They had been lost in a shipwreck. Agde itself dates from the 5th century BC and was a Greek colony of Phocaeans from Massilia. So Wikipedia says. The ancient town is unique because the local building-stone is black basalt. I wandered around for hours fascinated, you might think oddly, by doorways. I attach pictures of these, so you can judge for yourselves why they were of interest. If you concentrate, you will also appreciate the trompe l’oeil, painted on the side of some houses, that took me by surprise.

But at breakfast next day there he was, my German-speaking neighbour. I said, ‘Hello Number 17,’ and he looked pleased and said something like ‘You must be Number 18,’ so we had breakfast together and rather too many cups of coffee. Or at least I did; he didn’t seem to have a limit. He thought the owners/people/managers of the hotel might be Slavic, according to the language they were speaking.

Turned out A is Polish but lives and works as an engineer in Germany somewhere near Frankfurt. Home suddenly became very cold – around 10 degrees C, he said – and what with that and a month of working very long hours, he thought three days in the south of France would be the thing to do. So he too found the cheapest hotel on offer online, hopped in his car and drove the twelve hours or so it took to get there.

Now you see why I want to live in Europe. In Australia, you drive twelve hours and you’re in … Australia. We had many conversations about this.

In fact, we had many conversations. Since he was Polish, this included discussions about the war. Actually, during some repartee about our hotel I described Fawlty Towers (you can probably see the link) and A laughed when I mentioned the ‘Don’t mention the war’ episode.

Speaking of war, A mentioned Gdansk, which was a free city between the wars, independent of either Poland or Germany. Germany, however, used the presence of some German ethnics within the city to declare it German, and the takeover began. People killing the parents of children their own children had gone to school with, and so on. Gdansk became Danzig.

We noted the similarities with Yugoslavia, and then with Ukraine.

And arising out of ‘Don’t mention the war’, A told me his grandfather had said so little about the war that family members were understandably concerned something nasty was being hidden. But one day not many years ago, A was walking with his grandfather and was told the story. A’s grandfather had had a stall outside the Warsaw Ghetto and had not only sold goods to the Jewish people held there, but had also been a conduit for Jewish-made goods to be sold outside the Ghetto. He and others were also in a secret group, and would dress as Reich officers, complete with counterfeit ID papers and so on, to travel to Paris to take news to the Free Polish fighters stationed there.

‘But why didn’t you tell anyone?’ A asked his grandfather. ‘I did,’ the old man said. ‘ In the 60s, someone asked me about the war, and I told him some of the history. But soon after that, people who had been involved with me simply disappeared and never came back.’ So my friend’s grandfather decided not to tell anyone else about his war, until well after Poland emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and that day when he found himself walking with his grandson.

There is something chillingly reminiscent of Animal Farm in this tale. Well, the other way around, really.

And also in the story A’s mother told him, of her days as a student. Student anti- government political activity was not allowed, and neither was handing out flyers or pasting up posters. But kids did all this, of course. One day, A’s mother was arrested, and endured the full light-in-the-face treatment for two days until released. Others of her friends were not so lucky. They, too, didn’t come back.

Anyway. A and I had dinner together, as proposed, and concluded it was a bit ‘meh’. Not the fine French dining we had hoped for, though this wasn’t the upmarket place I had searched for earlier. I still didn’t know where that was. Discussing our hotel, we griped a little.

The next night, after we’d done some strolling around and A had demonstrated the probable link between girth and steins of beer (he downed three in about 15 minutes), I groped my way upstairs to get ready for another foray into town for dinner. When I came down, he was at the table in the little courtyard area in front of the hotel’s front door, deep in conversation with one of the many people who seemed to have something to do with running this establishment. Every now and then, hotel guests would wander up and ask about places to eat in town, and be vaguely directed with some waving of hands. Dinner was not on offer, in general, at this hotel. We, however, had been invited to eat with this man and his family, which seemed to have expanded in numbers for the night. Several generations were represented, mostly chatting and arguing on the large swinging couches under a canopy taking up about a third of the courtyard.

I wasn’t keen, myself, on having dinner with hordes of people I didn’t know, of whom only one seemed keen on the idea. However, A had had by then his three steins and now a couple of glasses of wine. He and our new-found host were both insistent. At some stage here, while discussions ensued among the many, A explained to me that the family was gypsy. The dishes began to fill up the table – brought by the host’s wife and daughter–in-law and by the occasional granddaughter – while a rather complex discussion began between the three of us. Complex because our host didn’t speak English, but spoke German. So he conversed with A in German and to me in French. It took him a while to work out that I was Australian and not Canadian (so yes, I have a goodish French accent, but it’s not because I am Canadian). I think he had had a few wines by himself and then with A before I had emerged. Occasionally, he would bellow something in Serbian (yes, that’s where they originated) across the courtyard or to his wife when she sat down. Often, as the evening and the wines wore on, he spoke to me in German and to A in French.

For a few minutes I was proud to think that some of my third form (Year 9) German had stuck. Until I realised he was speaking of his daughter and not his doctor. This would explain his keen interest in the number of countries lived in by his daughter. Not his doctor. Luckily all I had done in reply was look interested.

The food was superb, by the way, which we told them often. Better than we had been able so far to find locally. We were sorry for all the other hotel guests out there looking for something tasty.

Ah, our host said, rolling his eyes. They were not ready yet to serve food. They had just spent all their money making the hotel leak-proof and habitable. His foolish son, our host said, indicating the offending offspring, had bought this hotel for him when he’d been told what was wanted was a hotel in Paris!

But, we said, you could even serve it in the courtyard … No! he said, we’re not ready. I would be ashamed. It would not be polite. Eventually we were silenced on this topic, and I thought of my not-bed and the dark corridors, and gazed on this meal: their real talent. Or, at least, the matriarch’s real talent. Though, to be fair, the patriarch was the talented demon responsible for some of the pickled elements of the meal.

The conversation went on, in its several stages and languages. This gypsy family has lived in various parts of Europe, and many members still do live in other countries. They began in Serbia, but have been in France for thirty years. But things are changing – where once he felt welcomed, now he does not. There is muttering about outsiders, and as a gypsy he feels it.

Yet with family, he said, who can complain – he has five children and even has at least one great-grandchild! (I felt inadequate, with no grandchildren at all and only the two sons to my name.) I can see the truth of this. At 55 he has a fleet of women cooking and cleaning, and tiny children to lisp adoringly into his ear. And a son to buy him a hotel and then renovate it.

On the other hand, such a struggle it is to ensure this hotel pays. Agde the old town is left ignored and scruffy while Agde Plage (the upmarket seaside end some kilometres away) soars. What is one to do! He implored the heavens and smote his breast. We all drank more wine in sympathy.

And so the evening wore on until, while A and I were having our own chat, our host decided it was time to move on. Oblivious to the numberless wines he had imbibed by then, he gathered up his wife and a few grand and/or great-grandchildren, climbed into his sturdy Merc and drove off.

It was never entirely clear where any of this family actually lives. The patriarch, clearly, lives elsewhere, thought not far perhaps. I assume the woman-who-does lives on the premises, and possibly so do the granddaughters of the family – the daughters of those who booked me in. They – the hapless hotel-buying son and his wife – don’t live there. I got this from their fiery-eyed son later on. I haven’t the faintest idea where the great-grandchildren live or with whom. I don’t think we met their parent or parents, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Nobody is married in this group, A informed me. Well, neither have I ever been, I informed him back.

Unnoticed by most is, of course, the fact that the women keep the place going. Not that they have the training or the skill, unfortunately. I do wish the grand-daughters had been asked about this role – they wear their moods on their face as do most teenagers, and often this mood is surly. They are likely to change the rules on a whim. I suspect one day one of them was left with the burden of breakfast-provision. This was the day she unilaterally decided breakfast wouldn’t happen until 9am. No, she was unmoved by the appointment with the agent I had at 9, and no, she didn’t think breakfast was available anywhere else.

Actually, it was.

In the end, there was no appointment that day, due to the storm of the night before and rising floods. These are common in Languedoc, and why my house is on a hill. More on this feature of the area in my next blog.

Another time, one of these interchangeable surly teenagers seemed to be lying in wait in a darkened corridors, specifically to ask whether my towels were being changed often enough.

A and I wandered happily all over old Agde, saw the Canal du Midi and its ancient and apparently famous loch with three openings, saw swans (which he was surprised to learn that to Australians these are entirely the wrong colour) until he ran out of weekend and left for the 12-hour drive back to somewhere near Frankfurt.

Shortly after his departure I was caught by the inevitable. The light didn’t come on when it should have in the penultimate corridor before my room, and I had forgotten

about the one step crouching there in the shadows. Over I went, banging my knee and skinning it. Clearly, under the thin carpet was ancient stone.

By then, I think, I was fast becoming the last and sole guest. This meant that it was even more difficult to sneak out to a meal without being hauled back to be fed with the family, this time by the patriarch’s daughter-in-law. This in turn meant that, once more, I felt unable to continue being furious about falling over upstairs. Or about the bed. She also, apparently, has been or is in the market for a house, and was therefore happy to give advice and tell me that what I was doing was all wrong.

There’s always someone.
Next blog, more food and some flooding.

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