Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Chatham to Tarifa Challenge

When thinking about the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge back in Santa Barbara I always thought about the African portion of it, forgetting all the while that we'd have to drive down through France and Spain to get there.

The trip itself began under auspices that boded well. The rainy weather had broken and picking up the car had proved to be as simple as using an ATM card. When we saw the blue Volvo with its cheeky California license plates at Chatham Freight Yard it was like opening a Christmas present. Now it's four days later; I'm tired and bedraggled and haven't made it out of Europe.

Leaving England was easy: two roundabouts, turn south, keep going till you pick up the M2, then follow it to Dover - lots of lovely signs in English saying "Ferry this", "Ferry that" and off we went to France.

Northern France, as seen from the Peage (their pay-as-you-go freeways), is as interesting as a drive through the San Fernando valley on the 101. All the on ramps lead to slab roofed, brightly lit gas stations complete with mini-marts offering plastic wrapped sandwiches, candy bars, ice creams and large, throwaway cups for sodas or instant lattes. Many of the same chain stores illuminate their road side existence with identical signs to those found in America, "Toys R Us", "Ikea", the golden arches of McDo (pronounced McDough), perhaps the most popular restaurant in modern France. It is disturbing to see the country becoming a Franco-American mass market culture, though perhaps it is just the culture of all expressways.

At Limoges, we left the Peage to join Route Nacional 21 toward Perigueux. It was a welcome relief from the faceless, homogeneity of the freeway: small towns replete with the essence of France: "tabac" signs, boulangeries and boucheries. Parts of the road were so straight I could hear my mother's voice saying, "Oh! This must be a Roman road." This was the region where the French still hunt for elusive truffles with trained pigs and force feed their geese to the hilts in order to create the richest foie gras. The landscape was as rich and subtle as a well crafted cheese.

At the Spanish border and we made a decision to stay in Donastia, a Basque town I'd stayed in some years earlier. There's a big difference between arriving in a town afoot and quite another by car. Apparently the city's cacophonous labyrinth of streets was exclusively designed for miniature horse and carriage teams that seldom made left turns. Once we found a hotel, and the irritation of navigating the city streets had subsided, we strolled to the center of town in search of bars. Donatia's bars are, as far as I'm concerned, it's crowning glory - not because of the drinks, as they're quotidian to say the least, rather because of the tapas. They line the bars on little plates and each of them is a gourmet's delight. One of our delicacies was an eggplant/anchovie combo that would have had even the most picky connesieur lipping his lips.

It was the Epiphany the following day and Catolico Spain was on holiday. With everyone huddled in their houses with friends and family the going south was made easier, even in traffic mad Madrid we traveled straight through with the smoothness of a goodbye handshake. It helped alot. The two previous nights had been difficult. Trygve was still nursing a hacking cold she'd picked up in New York and netiher of us had had much sleep. The stress of constantly driving and then finding our way around clogged cities in search of elusive hotels was taking its toll. Several times the journey erupted into button pushing arguments based on trivial matters. With superhuman effort we smoothed out the wrinkles crossed the
Spanish plain, then the Sierra Nevada by night and finally made the Costa del Sol and its inelegant profusion of overabundant tourism.

Now we are at Tarifa, the southern most Spanish city with tickets for tomorrow's ferry to Morocco and the start of our African adventure.


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