Le Trek from Toulouse to Barcelona

My departure from Toulouse was a bit delayed due to interrupted sleep as a result of jet lag. I intended to leave Toulouse by 9 AM, get to the house of the family (Catherine and Laurent) with whom we were considering doing a home exchange with by 9:30 and then on the road to Barcelona by 10 AM. I looked at the clock at 8:30 AM and promptly rolled over and fell back asleep. At 10:30 AM I decided that I could no longer delay the inevitable and got up and dressed and out of the hotel by 11:30 AM.

I had been in communication with Catherine and she let me know they were up and expecting visitors around 10. Perfect. I wasn’t going to wake them up but now I was concerned that I was interrupting their day.

So after checking out I walked across the bridge as instructed by the gentleman at the front desk and encountered another bridge over the railroad tracks. Once again, a simple set of instructions was met with challenges. I opted to turn left before going over the second bridge/overpass and fortunately found the train station but not the Hertz rental desk. How hard could it be to find a big yellow sign? Once again I asked for directions from someone who was helpful (but pointed out that I hadn’t said s’il vous plait…ugh!) and I finally found the desk in a building NEXT to the train station and not IN the train station.

The gentleman at the Hertz counter could not have been nicer and it was really cute when he had me confirm that I actually wanted a car with a manual transmission. Yes, I do know how to drive a stick and prefer to in Europe.

So off I went in the little blue Peugeot toward Catherine and Laurent’s house for what should be a quick trip. After a few u-turns I finally found the house…a lovely pink, stone house, the style that can only be found in three parts of France. The inside was modern and cozy with good light. Catherine and Laurent and their two boys (ages 12 and 10) greeted me warmly and after a quick tour of the house, Catherine invited me to lunch.

I initially said no but when she insisted, I realized that saying yes was part of the adventure and a personal growth opportunity (I hate to impose). Please keep in mind that they spoke a little bit of English and I speak a little bit of French (all of us are bit modest about what a ‘little bit’ means). We had a truly delightful lunch that was a combination of French and English. It was perfect. My favorite part might have been my conversation with the 12 year old about books. Apparently he likes the same types of books as my daughter Rachel and I insisted that we become pen pals so that I can share more books with him (and have him practice his English and me, my French).

I couldn’t leave without a few pictures with them including one with me and Catherine, my new friend from Toulouse (by the way, they still want to come to the Bay Area so if you want to consider an exchange for August 5–20th, let me know; includes the car).

They insisted on presenting me with a souvenir Polaroid (thank you Fuji Film) of me with Catherine, Laurent and one of the boys (which reminds me, I need to order one of those cameras for Rachel).

I got back on the road about 3 PM thinking that I needed to change my plans and head straight to Barcelona. But when I saw the signs for Carccassone, I realized that I need to at least drive through and see what everyone was talking about. While driving through towards the Centre Ville signs, I was reminded of both Carpentras and Avignon. This was due to the narrow streets and one way roads and old buildings. I really couldn’t see what the big deal was as I was driving through. Charming, yes, but no big deal.

I decided that coffee was necessary and stopped at a little place to get a cup and some water for the road. As I was walking towards the shop, I was stopped by a gentleman who spoke rapidly in French (or Italian?). After a short period of time, I realized that he was telling me that he saw me driving by and watched me park and had to tell me how beautiful I was (or at least that is what I thought he said (let’s keep my dreams alive and assume that he did say that). I ended up having a 20 minute conversation with him in French and learned his name is Lorenzo. His mother is Italian and father is French. He grew up in Marseilles and works as an aircraft engineer for AirBus. He was pretty impressed when I said I flew helicopters. We exchanged numbers (he wrote his down and I gave him my card) and off we both went. And, no, he didn’t ask me for money and there was no damage to my car.

As I was driving out of town (on the phone with my husband) I looked up and saw this huge castle up on the hill. So that’s what everyone was talking about. I get it now although I didn’t get a chance to stop as I had already spent my Carccassone time talking to Lorenzo.

I tried meandering to other areas to see more of the sites along the way (without much luck) but at this point it was starting to get late and I was concerned about arriving in Barcelona after dark. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was not going to make it to Barcelona before dark nor before Cezar (they guy who was letting us the apartment) would be leaving to pick up Radhika from the airport. So, I decided to meander closer to the coast and see the coastal villages rather than just drive on the freeway. I stopped to look at the map to see where I could go and was approached by a clean cut gentleman in nice clothes.

The gentleman spoke Spanish and French but no English and from what I gathered, he was filling up his tank and his credit card didn’t work and needed 20 euros. I gave him 10 euros and drove away thinking that I might have been scammed (or not) but didn’t really care. If 10 euros was going to make his life better, so be it. His story was good and worth the 10 euros.

So off I went again and continued to drive until I was approaching the France/Spain border. I had been unsuccessful in finding any cool places off the freeway and on the smaller roads and was a bit frustrated to realized I still had a fair amount of kilometers ahead of me. At which point I decided it was time to brave the gas station.

For those of you who don’t know, I drive an electric car at home…a Tesla to be more precise. I haven’t filled up a gas tank in 3 years, let alone dealt with French gas stations, in French, with diesel. This was by far the biggest concern for me on the trip…not being embarrassed at the gas station. Guess what! It was a major challenge.

I pulled in with the pumps on the wrong side and had to turn the car around. Duh! I guess I now know which direction the arrow points.

I figured out how to open the gas thing on the car only to not be able to get the pump nozzle into the gas tank. I asked the gentleman in the car next to mine and he showed me that I needed to use the yellow one marked gazolin instead of the green ones. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea for diesel to be labeled green in the US and yellow in Europe!

He tried to get it to work and we both read the display and finally he went in and asked and it turned out that they couldn’t read my license plate from inside so I had to pay inside.

The gals inside did not speak English and refused to slow down their French and got pretty frustrated when I couldn’t answer their questions. Finally the gentleman who tried to help me and another kind gentleman managed to get the questions answered (how much in euros did I want to put in the car…how should I know? I don’t know how big the tank is and therefore can’t do the math on how much to put in). I finally got the tank filled, emptied my own tank, and got back on the freeway to take the most direct route to Barcelona.

The rest of the drive into Barcelona was pretty easy and I was going to arrive about 20 minutes before Radhika. A few things to note about driving in Barcelona.

  1. There are a lot of one way streets
  2. There are weird, circular intersections
  3. There are some weird streets with weird left and right turns
  4. Otherwise it’s a lot like driving in Paris

After getting an alternative address from Radhika and where to wait, I sat in my car, parked in front of a driveway, and proceeded to meditate for 5 minutes and people watch. Lots of people were out walking, both with and without dogs. It was a lovely night.

Finally Radhika and Cezar arrived to show me where to park. If you haven’t dealt with parking structures in Europe, let me tell you that they are frighteningly small and narrow. I bow down to Cezar because at one point I was going to hit a post and turned the car over to him and I could not believe what what magic he worked in that garage. Needless to say that on Thursday he will be getting the car out of the garage so I can drive to Marseilles.

And then we were off to dinner at El Tracaluz in the center of town (as recommended by my friend Lenna). And here’s the funny part…Radhika and I live 30 minutes away from each other in the Bay Area but last saw each other in Helsinki in December and had to meet up in Barcelona to get time together.

It was worth the wait. And now the question is, what city/country are we going to meet in next?

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