Travel Blog 8: Smells Like Green Spirit
Most architecture is older than the people who live both inside and around it. But what does it do to those same modern people to exist in a modern context among structures built for a time well before they came around?
Bordeaux is one of those places that life continues on through the hollowed-out hive of structures built well over 300 years ago. I imagine them like ants, having burrowed in and made holes for their many boutique shops, bistros and cafes. The city center is a UNESCO world heritage site for its blanket of lingering 17th and 19th century architecture. Yet, Bordeaux is like an egg. The outer ring of the city bears a skyline full of cranes and construction, building up the city’s outer shell. Those new buildings are like so many of our current age, stark, grey, modernist, glass and steel. They will become apartments and office spaces, more bland operations.
The inner part of the city, the old town, bends around the Gironde River in one big parabolic frontage, like one giant panorama of unbroken history. This is the yolk of the city, where the heart lies. It’s a shame that gold is full of small shops dedicated to tourists like me. It must have been a strange time for the locals just a year ago, when their town was devoid of travelers. This city was for them only. Now us tourists clog the streets as one great mass. So many don’t wear masks even when walking in such crowds. Pandemic? What pandemic?
But more on colors. The Gironde River appears silver on a dull, cloudy day. When the sunlight breaks through, the river becomes brown, just a shade lighter than Willie Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s the color of the dirt below.
Perspective is like that, where the brightness and tenor shifts upon the light. The mind hangs itself on particular emotions, lets them color everything and everyone. Being alone, I wonder what that does for my perspective. How does solitude color the world? I’ve eaten French patisserie for the first time, and I can appreciate the flavor, the texture, the colors, but without being able to share the experience verbally with those closest to me, the taste seems to fall from my mouth like there’s a leak in the bottom of my palette. Thoughts come to mind, sit there, mature, then die like grapes unpicked from the vine.
I had my taste of Bordeaux wine, first from the Cite du Vin, a modern wine museum in Bordeaux I would describe best as a Hershey World but for wine, or even more similar, for those who’ve been there, the Guiness factory in Dublin. Similar to the latter, you spend a pretty penny for some cutesy descriptions of wine’s history and wine making, then you are guaranteed a single glass of the fabled drink and from a high point. I burnt the tip of my tongue on some morning coffee, so I drank my wine with a certain numbness in my mouth.
It’s hard to say it was good, or more apt to say “better” than I’ve had before. I’m the type of person that likes to let the alcohol run down my throat, the taste kissing my tongue. I’m a terrible person to taste whiskey with. Wine is only slightly better. Drinking alone, I can pretend to not what I’m trying to sense. Taste, smell, texture, as if any of it could mark me. I did try and take a wine tasting class, but unfortunately I found it cancelled—the hard way. Still waiting to get my refund.
It’s pretty exhausting to travel by yourself. It’s mentally taxing just keeping all the times and dates and locations you need to be and when in your head, and this is me only placing the orders for tickets four days or less in advance. I’m doing a lot of walking, of course, and if you’ve been keeping up you can tell I have the kind of attitude that says I need to see everything I can, so I often stretch myself thin, whether intentional or not.
I’m two weeks in, and soon, I hope, I’ll be in San Sebastian, Basque country. Their regional language is incredibly niche and ancient, so it’s unlikely anybody expects a tourist to speak it. I know very, very little Spanish however, so we’ll see how well that goes.
But worse than the physical depreciation, there is really a growing sense of isolation. Despite me staying in hostels 90% of the time since late June, I’ve only really had meaningful conversations with a total of two people. Some hostels, like the one I stayed in while in Paris, have created cubicles out of their old dorm rooms. The rest still maintain the old bunk-style dorms. And yet, for the most part, conversations don’t flow between strangers. Part of it might be the language barrier, but I too wonder how much of it is COVID. There is not a constant flow of people in and out like there might have been in the years before the pandemic.
Or perhaps it’s just me. There is a good chance that I’m not very apt with striking up conversations with strangers (some of you might think this odd, considering my past job experience). I also get very anxious in awkward situations, and when you barely speak the language of the land, such situations are more likely to occur.
French love to dine with friends. You can see so many of them together at the small tables in the cafes, sharing a drink. Tenderness and public displays of affection are also common enough to make an outsider feel equal parts warm inside and extraordinarily jealous. I’ve seen so many amazing things, but my only sense lingering in my mind says it would be so much better to share these things with somebody I know.
But things still might change. Early tomorrow morning I’m leaving France and I’m entering Spain. It’s going to mean a 5 and a half hour bus ride, and a prayer that they will let me in. Cases are rising in Spain, though in some parts more than others. Catalonia, in particular, is seeing a huge rise, and local governments have already curtailed nightlife activities. It might put a wrench into my plans to visit Barcelona, but that’s what I signed up for with this trip. I’m also now considering traveling north out of Spain back into France for a jaunt so I can make it to Italy overland and avoid those pretty high regional flight prices. We’ll see what happens, won’t we?