On the train. There is a woman hacking away to my right and behind me; - you can almost hear the mucus and rotting throat tissue peeling off the inside of her esophagus as these violent peristaltic spasms gratingly interject into our muted carriage soundtrack – half heard cellphone conversations from a couple of seats away, the persistent whistle of the train in motion, the rhythmic clank of the wheels on the track – HACK! HACK! – the sub-aquatic warble of Dani’s headphones gently leaking out of her ears next to me – HACK! HACK! PHLEGMATIC HACK!!
Outside the countryside rolls gently by in charcoal shades of grey, green, brown and blue. The hues of winter, the bare trees like so many spider veins bleeding into the body of the sky and the hack of the die hard smoker.
We are in 2nd class now, gone are the heady days of boozy trips to the bar carriage and lounging expansively in our luxurious dvd viewing booths in 1st class. Now we huddle around the hack, trying not to make eye contact with each other. Except for Dani and I we check it all out with the curiosity of outsiders. It’s a bit stinky and dirty in here and the two women directly across from us try hard not to notice the petite South African woman (my wife) feverishly wiping down the stained surfaces with a plethora of wet wipes that she seems to magic inexhaustibly out of the ether. The train was delayed at the point of departure in Toulouse and the frustration of the mad scramble to get into the train with our gargantuan suitcases is eclipsed only by the irritation of having to wait 45 minutes before beginning our tediously slow roll out of the grimy station and through the decaying poorer outskirts of Toulouse.
It is a slow train to Dijon – the entire journey will take us between 8 and 9 hours. Our first stop brings us back to Carcassone. The station and the ‘new’ city clamor style -lessly below the walled medieval city which Dani and I walked through in blissful awe a few weeks before. Perched condescendingly above us on its regal throne of rock and history, the Fortress City seems to sneer down at all this graceless noise as we glide through and onward toward Narbonne.
The countryside seems to be changing gradually now as the rolling hills have, in places, broken the shackles of those smooth shy shapes and begin to jut out in craggier, higher and bolder statements. More trees too – forests of them, fully leaved and darkly green in dogged defiance of the wintry climate graying the rest of the landscape.
Dani has passed one of the earphones to me and Dolly Parton’s plaintive plea to Jolene not to take her man just because she can greets my lonely ears. How weak and powerless we the ugly are (explains Dolly – she of the amazing ever-expanding boobs) in the face of the cruelty and wiles of conscious less beauty. Ag shame Dolly. Great song though.
As we wait to pull out of Narbonne Station I reflect on last nights fantastic adventure. After three great shows in Toulouse to packed houses, gushing praise and many curtain calls (though this seems the norm in France – a show is not a show unless you have been called back at least 3 or 4 times) we were rewarded with a deep sleep in on Sunday. When I finally spilled out of bed at about 1, I rushed downstairs to do some washing before Phillipe (lighting designer) came to collect me to go and watch the Toulouse versus Bath Heineken Cup Match. The game was a messy affair, played in freezing temperatures under a relentless downpour of fat rain and big hail. Though the beer in the pub and the fact that much of the best rugby was being played by South Africans – Daan Human and Sean Sowerby for Toulouse and Butch James for Bath – kept me happy throughout the slippery 3-3 draw. We were joined by Roberto an American architect who, along with his French girlfriend Marie, had come to watch the show (twice!) on Saturday. I enjoyed explaining the rules of the game to him between gulps of draught and proud exclamations of “He’s South African”. Later that evening Phillipe took us all (we had at this stage been joined by Dani, Marie, Stacey and a couple of other people including Pethso our tour manager and his boyfriend) to one of his favorite restaurants. One of his favorites largely because of it being an all you can eat type of establishment and so we ate till our bellies were swelling full and our eyes were heavy with sleep. Sated, we decided at the behest of Marie and Roberto to cycle home through the cobbled backstreets of Toulouse in the rain. How wonderful it was. ‘I feel like I’m twelve again!’ I yelled happily as we pedaled 3 sometimes 4 abreast, flanking each other and then in v formation but mostly just joyously pell-mell like a pubescent bmx gang, knuckles frozen but grins spreading warmth to our ailing extremities. And so it was that we took a nighttime cycle tour of the cathedral of St. Sernin, a huge Romanesque gothic cathedral built many hundreds of years back in honor of the martyr saint who was pulled naked and bleeding, tethered to a bull, through the streets of Toulouse. My uncle Steve had urged me to check it out in a comment on my previous blog- and I thought of you Steve as I sat on the saddle of my bike peering up at the impressive structure looming into the cold, dark and wet Toulouse night sky as the bells chimed their haunting consonance. Dani had been to visit the building before on one of her daytime jaunts into the city and she told me that it boasts an organ so grand that it boggles the mind and goggles the eye. I look forward to a return visit. All in all it was a great ride and truly the best way to explore a city in Europe must be by bicycle.
Roberto and Marie are lovely people and we look forward to returning to Toulouse and joining them on more bicycle adventures, home cooking (Marie is apparently a great cook) and a tour of their favorite haunts.
Die son trek nou water hier – as we ride along side the ocean toward Montpellier. The shadows lengthen and the light has taken on that magical golden quality that will have filmmakers setting up for an entire day just for an opportunity to shoot for an hour in this transient glow. That light splashes into our carriage now, bathing it in the warmth of another days death to be buried in night and resurrected again tomorrow. And on and on. So it goes. An appreciative nod to the great American master Kurt Vonnegut. Oh, and even the hacking lady has been deposited off noiselessly at one of the stops during my reverie.
It’s the following morning now in our little hotel in Dijon - nice bed, kak breakfast. We changed trains in Lyon last night for the final leg here and Dani and I threw caution to the wind and went and sat with the rest of the crew in 1st class. Oh the luxury. Dani is having a bath and soon we will take an icy stroll through this provincial town and home of mustard. Laters.