The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sleeping in a Fortress

Here is a long overdue continuation of my travels through the South in late April/early May. I will try to catch up on everything soon so I can start posting about what's actually happening right now. ;)

Saturday, May 2

We arrived in Carcassonne in the late afternoon, with plenty of daylight to spare. Like many French towns, Carcassonne has an old quarter and then a newer section. However, because of the nature of Carcassonne, the "old quarter" is really a self-contained fortress on a hill, set back a couple of kilometers from the modern town. The train station was in the center of modern Carcassonne, so we had to walk a bit to make it to the old city, where we were staying. However, it wasn't exactly difficult to find this time, because all we had to do was head towards the castle on the hill, which was pretty hard to miss.

Carcassonne is a medieval fortress, still in really great condition, considering, and looks like something right out of a fairy tale. Consequently, it's a pretty big tourist attraction, mostly for French people with young children, I think. It's probably one of those "stay-cation" destinations for French people; something charming and educational and not too expensive. The whole of the old city is now a sort of tourist wonderland, full of restaurants, crêperies, little shops, and plenty of souvenirs. It consists of a castle keep within a walled city, so it's sort of a castle within a castle. Our hostel was within the walls of the fortified town, so we were actually sleeping in a fortress. I amused myself by imagining that I had done quite well in choosing the accommodations, as we would be quite safe in case we were besieged by Sarasins or PETA activists.

After throwing down our bags, we wandered around looking for a place to eat. I think we circled the fortress three times (it really isn't that big) before finding a little burger place. Since I was used to the massive cheeseburgers at my favorite stand in Berck, I just ordered a single instead of a double like Daniel. It turned out to be a pretty puny burger, though, so when I saw a little restaurant that said it served a lot of salads, I decided to get one to round out my meal. Thus began The Snack That Wouldn't End.

We sat down outside and I ordered a salad, but Daniel got crème brulée because he'd had enough dinner and just wanted to dessert. We think it was at around this point that the waitstaff's collective heads exploded. For those of you not familiar with french gastronomic practices, they take the courses of the meal quite a bit more seriously than Americans (or really just about anyone else) do. We have some ideas about courses here (bread, followed by salad, followed by main dish, etc.) but let's face it, they're really more like "guidelines." Not so in France. My friend Adil used to watch me eat lunch in the school cafeteria with great interest and more than a little criticism. He thought it was crazy that I'd start with the bread (they eat it with the cheese, which has to be last, right before dessert) and that I'd take bites of things willy-nilly instead of eating all of one course before moving to the next. Thus, I postulate that our strange order combo caused them to write us off, and could explain our experience there. I suppose we'll never know.

Anyway, after we ordered our food came relatively quickly, so that wasn't the problem. It was after we got our food that things sort of went downhill.... very, very slowly. Daniel ordered coffee but it took forever, maybe half an hour, for him to receive it. Then the waiter simply refused to look at us for about an hour. We were desperate for the bill because the sun had gone down and there was quite a chilly breeze in the air, but alas. We asked for the bill twice before it actually came, then we had to wait for him to acknowledge we were ready to pay (even though I'd been waving my bank card around for 45 minutes or so), then we waited for him to bring the portable card machine, then he actually *left* the machine on the table and went to do something else, so we had to wait for him to come back. When he finally came back to run the card, he turned the machine to Daniel to enter the PIN, even though I'd been the one waving the card around and asking for the bill. When I told him it was my card, he gave us a shocked look and said, "C'est pas normal!"

If there's one thing you can say about the French, it's that they usually don't hesitate to tell you what's on their mind. This "frankness," shall we call it, is usually something I appreciate, as I can be rather frank myself. Still, even for me, that "frankness" crosses over into "just plain rude." I think I have some sort of subconscious rule that keep me from being offended by people from other cultures, because it didn't really bother me much when he said that, I just thought it was absurd. If he had been American I would have ripped him a new one, or at least said something defensive. I suppose when it's someone from another culture, I just feel like there's such a gap of understanding that there's no point in being offended. In a way I feel more like an observer of the situation than an actual participant. Whatever the reason, I guess it's for the best. I don't think there's much point in getting huffy in a situation like that, and I didn't feel like getting into an in-depth conversation about gender stereotypes and relations with a 60-year-old French waiter, I was cold and tired and just wanted to go back to the hostel. So that's what we did.

The next day we went to see the castle-within-the-castle part of the fortress (complete with audio guide!) and once again people thought we were crazy when we expected them to perform some kind of job. On our way into the castle, the ticket-taker guy seemed really suspicious of us, as if he didn't know why we were trying to get into the castle. He looked at our tickets, and looked at us, then back at the tickets again, slowly. Then his eyes seemed to scan the ramparts and towers around the castle.... honestly, I was half-expecting him to signal someone in the tower to take us out. I mean seriously, his job is to take the tickets, that's pretty much all he does, right? So why was it so strange to him that we were giving him tickets and expecting to go into the castle? I dunno.

The tour of the castle was okay; it had some great views, but the audio guide was less than satisfying. I wanted intriguing stories from the middle ages, but instead they seemed to talk mostly about the project to restore it. After that, we mostly wandered around the town a bit; we were pretty lazy. We went to the train station to buy tickets to Barcelona (what fun that journey would turn out to be) then came back to the old city and had dinner. Daniel was brave enough to try the regional specialty Cassoulet, but I didn't think it looked that tasty. It's sort of a bean stew with duck and sausage in it... didn't look appetizing.

That night we had some roommates, an Australian couple named Phil and Fiona. They were really nice, and at first I was glad that they were older (mid-50s, I think) because I figured that would mean less noise... not so. They weren't drunk and giggly and annoying like young people sometimes are, but they weren't quiet, either. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of someone trying cut down a fossilized tree with a chainsaw. It turned out that was just the chorus of Phil and Fiona's unconscious breathing. They both snored all night in a sort of duet... when one of them would stop, the other would start. I usually don't have any trouble getting to sleep or staying that way, but Phil and Fiona's Petrified Logging Operation kept me up for a while, and had me in a bit of a seething snit in my bunk. I must have dropped off eventually because I awoke the next morning only slightly out-of-sorts, and no longer planning their regrettable yet unavoidable demises.

We checked out of the hostel and headed into town for the oasis of free internet at MacDo while we waited for our train. Little did we know that another transportation odyssey was about to begin...

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