The stories of a couchsurfer

John, Perpignan

Friend & John

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling. Of being on the train from Barcelona and finally crossing the border back into France, reading the signs at the train stations as we went past written in the French language.

Feeling of relief and satisfaction washed over me. It’s not that I ever seriously thought that I wouldn’t get back to France, but after having one eye on it for the best part of my Spanish (and to some extent, even the Portuguese) trip, it was a great feeling to be back. I could communicate again, albeit at a lesser standard than my mother tongue but when compared to the level of communication that constricted me so much over the past six weeks, it could have just as well been considered fluent.

I had envisioned possibly passing through Andorra as it was, geographically speaking, the logical place to do it, passing from Spain to France or vice versa, and I’m not sure when I’ll ever go back to Spain. But my time was starting to run thin. I never like to constrict myself during my travels to planning constraints, but this one was an exception – watching Le Tour de France.

By this stage Le Tour had already been through a number of stages but specifically I wanted to get back to Rousset-les-Vignes to fulfil my dream of watching it live in the French countryside. This is only a week or so away so I made the decision instead to come direct to Perpignan, just north of the Spanish border. It also made sense with the transport connections, as simply organising transport for passing through Andorra would have been an adventure in itself.

Perpignan was originally intended to be visited on the way to Spain, not after, but time constraints with the date that my friend was arriving in Madrid meant that it had to be skipped until now.

It is the most southern major French city and consists of a metropolitan population of around three hundred thousand. It’s not actually situated on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, but a twenty or so minute bus ride will get you there fairly easily. Some great beaches too, or so I hear.

The thing is, I never really had the chance to see. I didn’t have the chance to do much. Such was my haste to get back up through the south of France that I only stayed one night here in Perpignan. It’s for that reason that I have to apologise for not being able to take and post photographs of the city for you all.

I was, however, lucky enough to find a Couchsurfing host in the form of John. I actually only confirmed John hours before I was scheduled to take the train from Barcelona and that would certainly make him one of the latest organised Couchsurfers.

Normally, I would give up in my search for a Couchsurfer perhaps the night before arrival or the morning of. At this stage, I would generally start a search for hostels or other options. This time, however, I didn’t bother. I’m not really sure why but I was never in stress of the situation. I think the the prospect of soon returning to France had me in such a gleeful and carefree mood that I would have been just as content to sleep in a park for the night in the balmy southern night. That and the fact that I had friends to call upon in nearby Montpellier, if required.

John was an American guy who came to France to study the French language in order to become a teacher. Not too dissimilar a story to myself, excluding the teaching part. Prior to this he had spent a fair bit of time in Russia for a similar purpose but had become so disenchanted with the lifestyle there that he decided he needed out.

As excited as I was to finally be able to speak the French language and communicate again, it was quickly shot down when I met fellow student John. Admittedly, he had already been in France for roughly six months to this stage, but his French was at a level better than mine – and he hadn’t even taken three years of French courses prior to his journey here.

I’ll admit to feeling some jealousy towards John. But he was just another in a series of similar cases that I had met throughout my trip. English speaking people that had moved to France and seemed to pick up the language in a flash while I languished behind. It’s always a kick in the guts when that is observed, and I can’t help thinking that there is something wrong with my learning process or my learning ability.

Give credit where credit is due though. I admire John for his bravery in not just making this move to France seemingly on a whim, but his move to Russia prior to that. Here I am, complaining about Spain and my complications with the people and the language there, while John quietly goes along with the flow and integrates himself into a different society, learning a different language with a different alphabet.

No doubt he had complications along the way, but he just seemed to take them in his stride and go with it. Why wasn’t I able to do that? Why did (do) I expect so much more? Are these things something I have the right to complain about, or should I just sit down, shut up and observe? I am on a journey of cultural discovery, after all.

Perpignan itself is a nice city that appears generally clean and safe. It acts like a much larger city than the three hundred thousand population would suggest, with a few large squares that play host to bustling bars and shopping. The people here seem to be pretty active too, with the streets generally thriving with life and sociality.

It is not a city that attracts too much tourism and this was actually a refreshing change after being in the tourist mecca that was Barcelona. Most of the buildings were quite old, without being historically ancient, but were stable enough on the inside. I never, during my brief visit, got the impression that this was a place I could envision living in. It was just that touch too small and was so far away from everything else.

It’s funny how quickly perception changes. A train ride from Perpignan to Paris probably only takes around four hours or so. This is nothing in the realm of Australian travel, but now I couldn’t stand the thought of having to do that if I wanted to visit Paris from time to time.

Then again, maybe it was just too close to Spain for comfort. John genuinely was loving life here in Perpignan though, and always had a smile on his face. He introduced me to his friend and together we had a couple of beers in the centre the night that I was there.

The following day he and his friend were planning on going to the friends’ mother’s place to use the swimming pool as it was another typically warm southern Europe day. They invited me and I figured I had enough time.

I regret accepting that invitation. Not because the pool itself was bad, or that the company were bad – John, his friend and her parents were lovely hosts. It was the bus ride there. Absolutely packed with loud people heading to the beach, I had to try and cram myself and my backpack in on there. I then became detached from John and his friend as they squeezed up to the back of the bus while I got trapped at the front.

It seems the bus driver was on his first day on the job too because he consistently missed stops or didn’t open certain doors for people to descend before attempting to take off again. This was inevitable met with a cry of protest from half of the bus.

Time and time again.

So it was that, almost predictably, the bus went straight past our intended stop. When he finally did pull over, somewhere metres down the road, it took me an age to retrieve my bag and squeeze back through the mob of people packed like sardines that he attempted taking off without giving me the chance to descend.

I got out in time but my blood pressure was through the roof at this stage. Nothing a relaxing swim in the pool couldn’t fix, however.

That or the fact that, finally, I was back in France.

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