Saturday, October 29, 2011

Le Cafard

Homesickness hit us and hit us hard. I never imagined that the 330-plus days of our adventure abroad would be non-stop champagne cheer and mindless mirth, but I definitely didn’t think the blues would hit us quite so early on. The French have a fitting expression for feeling down: to have le cafard, literally, to have “the cockroach.” Yes, we’re now feeling that always-inconvenient melancholia, tinged with some serious mal du pays (homesickness) that rears its ugly head without warning. Have we had our fill of cold medieval spaces and lonely, abandoned stone villages? Everything in the Lot and the Dordogne was touched by the savagery of the Hundred Years’ War between the French and the English in the 14th and 15th centuries. Might visiting so many places that witnessed sieges, starvation, plagues and pestilence be darkening our outlook? Perhaps the total absence of others to provide even a bit of people-watching diversion is bringing us down. Or is it the loneliness of being disconnected from the rest of the world, day after day after day? We’ve taken multi-mile hikes along ridges above the Lot (including one that had us cross the river over an abandoned railroad bridge) where we passed not a soul and have wandered through hamlet after desolate hamlet with every single window shuttered and barred. It’s turned cooler, with gray skies and a thick, high cloud cover – never a good thing for lifting one’s spirits. Maybe we’re just in a temporary trough of the normal vicissitudes of travel. To put it simply: we miss our children and we miss our country – it’s le cafard.

In my last post, I waxed poetic about the picturesque town of St. Cirq Lapopie – and indeed, it is lovely, but it is also very lonely. It became clear after just a day that St. Cirq was like everywhere else in the Lot: in the off-season, it is boarded up and empty. We arrived in St. Cirq on a Saturday, the one day of the week blessed with some activity, but those wandering the streets were day-trippers. We discovered that we were two of the handful of people actually living in the town. And while our medieval stone house is charming, it has no heat, retains the cold in its brick and stone walls and we’ve spent hours stoking the fire in the cast-iron stove attempting to cut through the cold. It’s no wonder they eat belly-warming crocks full of piping hot cassoulet with sausage and beans and gulp goblets of deep purple vin noir de Cahors in these parts. Downing the stuff has certainly helped us ward off the nighttime cold. We wore our fleeces to bed on the chilliest night, threw additional blankets on top of the duvet and saw our breath the next morning. What gave us the courage to abandon the shelter of our blanket pile was the prospect of the semi-warm kitchen that would result from toasting our morning bread in an open oven and boiling water for coffee on a gas flame.

In addition to no heat, our enchanting icebox has no Internet. There were weeks on end when I sprinted through the business rat race at home and yearned for just one full day of disconnected peace and quiet. But now that we’re completely away from it all – and have been for weeks -- we both realize just how much we depend on being connected for the latest news, sports and weather, iChatting with the kids, and generally keeping in touch. Joe has always remarked that I use my laptop more than anyone he knows, so it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me. Why didn’t I recognize, especially since we’ve been abroad, that I depend on my Mac for so very many things: the weather, currency/temperature/ mileage conversions, language translations, online banking and bill paying, emailing, travel research and reservations. I suppose I allowed the romance of the road and the allure of the remote countryside to blind me to my very real and practical need to be connected. In our search for connectivity, we’ve become like compulsive smokers who furtively huddle in the shadows outside shuttered cafes and in McDo (McDonald’s) parking lots to give our Internet-addicted selves a fix from the outside world. Has it really come to this? I’m afraid that indeed it has. One late afternoon in St. Cirq, Joe cowered from the elements on a stoop in front of a closed cafe with free wifi to get his dose of the wider world. The grumpy old Frenchman putting out his trash across the street didn’t much like the look of Joe’s iPad (or maybe it was Joe) and glared at him, hoping this would send him scurrying. But Joe was connected and he wasn’t leaving his post so easily. The geezer then came over, waving his hands and grumbling, “Qu’est-ce que vous faites?” over and over. Joe tried to show him that he was just checking the sports scores, but the Monsieur was having none of this and continued his gesticulating and creating a scene. Joe finally gave up his hallowed spot and came back home, defeated. We’ve now learned our lesson. No more wireless-free abodes, be they hotels or home rentals, and we need to be especially careful about the isolation factor of where we decide to stay. Further along on our trip, we may opt for a desolate, bucolic location once again, but it will be a deliberate decision and it will simply have to have Internet.

We left St. Cirq after a week of shivering nights and headed further south, driving deep into Cathar country. Over the past several years, I read two novels about the Cathars and one non-fiction account and decided that I must visit the departments of the Tarn and the Aude in which this shameful period of French history took place and with which I had become increasingly fascinated. The 13th century Albigensian (or Cathar) Crusade was a military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III (what irony!) to eliminate Catharism (a dualist offshoot of Catholicism that broke with Rome, believing that all parts of the material world were evil) from the Languedoc region of France. The bloodthirsty massacre, which takes its name from the southwestern city of Albi, was conducted with abandon against the Cathar heretics and spared no one – men, women children and the elderly were all slaughtered. And when Catholics refused to give up their Cathar neighbors, one religious leader (a monk!) famously declared, "Kill them all. God will know his own."

So, despite knowing that immersing ourselves in the brutal extinction of the Cathars might not be what we needed to brighten our moods (the barbaric stories of the Cathar genocide could bring the happiest souls to the brink of depression), we plowed on ahead towards our destination for the day: Caunes-Minervois, just north of Carcassonne. We stopped and hiked up the steep Cathar hill town of Cordes-Sur-Ciel where the heretics of the region took refuge and then took a break for lunch in Albi (home of Toulouse-Lautrec) with its austere and imposing red brick Sainte Cécile cathedral, unlike any other church in the world (Joe thought the cylindrical exterior of its nave looked like the space shuttle ready for launch). Sainte Cécile was built after the Cathars were wiped out to remind others thinking about defying Rome who was in charge. We got back on the road and drove further south up into the Montagne Noire (the Black Mountains) and then down to the narrow-streets of the village of Caunes-Minervois where our Internet-enabled hotel awaited.

Our home for the next three nights was the unique and difficult-to-find Hotel d”Alibert. As soon as we saw that the ancient townhome recommended highly by Rick Steves and TripAdvisor was in the heart of the medieval quarter, we knew we were in for more logistical difficulty. Joe deftly squeezed the car down the tight (but deserted) streets and waited in the car while I checked us in and asked where we could park. The affable but quirky owner, Frederic Alibert (you can't check into the hotel from 2-5pm because Frederic is napping -- it says so right on the door), finally let me in through the French (!) doors of the hotel’s restaurant (the front portal remains inexplicably locked both inside and out almost all day and night!). Frederic showed me to our large, bright room with plenty of heat (things were looking up) and then we wound down the dark spiral stairs and through a couple of stone arches to the barn-like garage at the back of the building. After demonstrating how to twist, turn, tug and then push the huge double wooden doors open (each door had its own particular set of gyrations to execute), he told me to walk out through the alley, make a right, then another right and yet another and there I would find my husband sitting in the car. “Sacre Bleu,” I thought, “just wait ‘til Joe hears where he has to drive to get the car into the garage.” I gave Joe the good news first – we have a big, warm, bright room but we have to drive through a medieval maze in order to park the car. As always, Joe masterfully negotiated the alleyways of Caunes-Minervois and guided our grey Skoda and all our belongings into the barn at the back of the inn.

The coda to our arrival in Languedoc is this: there we were, yet again, in another deserted medieval town with no means to communicate with the outside world. “Yes, the hotel has free wifi,” Frederic confirmed when we asked, “but I’m afraid it is not currently working; there have been some problems.” We took our devastated spirits up to our cheerful room and that’s when le cafard attacked with a vengence. It was a tough night of frustration and reflection and figuring out how to rally. 

1 comment:

  1. Damn this is well-written. Damn, it covers a) the scene and locale with b) the local flavor, not sparing the degree to which local urchins of any age can be odious, and it c) even connotes the mood and emotional state of the story's protagonists in accurate, empathetic ways. This woman is a genius of a travel writer! Call the Frommer guides at once! A new star has been born, and is rising, cafar and all, in the travelwriting firmament! Brava!!!

    xxx Danforth Prince.