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Couchsurfing France: happy landing in Montpellier

After a long day of travelling I had finally made it to a place where I knew I had a bed for the night. The Southern French sun was still shining brightly and warmly. I was also quite excited to be in a city that had held a place in the back of my mind for past 16 years, ever since as a seven-year old I’d watched the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup quarter final between Man United and Montpellier on the telly. The image of the Montpellier kit of blue and white shirts and bright orange shorts had forever stayed with me and whenever I thought of France as a young boy I thought of the city that I actually knew nothing about. And whenever checking foreign football results and league tables I had always looked out for Montpellier, even through the difficult years that they struggled through the lower leagues. I certainly never expected to end up in the city.

I left the train station and found a truly beautiful little town. The streets were as clean as anywhere I had seen before; not something you would expect in a land inhabited by the French, I know. In front of the station trams ran off in all directions as people in designer sunglasses dodged between them. The only shops on view were those selling the fashions of the top designers and all the locals seemed to have been on a mad shopping spree shortly before my arrival, as everyone was dressed and presented immaculately. I knew I wasn’t in Montpellier just to people watch and enjoy the sun, so I headed across the street and into a picturesque little park where designer mums played with their designer children and designer dog owners walked their designer dogs and picked up their designer dog poo, placing it in designer carrier bags before depositing it into designer rubbish bins. I felt a bit out of place, but only until I found the part of the park frequented by the down-and-out drunks. There I could blend in.

I took a seat on a bench and sent a text message to Marie telling her where I was. She didn’t take long in arriving. A very tall girl with dark flowing hair and a less than attractive face. The first thing she asked after greeting me was if I spoke French.

“Un peu,” I replied.

In school I was taught that ‘un peu’ meant ‘a little’ but clearly I had been taught wrong. What it really meant was, ‘yes, I’m fucking fluent!’ I know this because for the whole half hour duration of the bus journey home Maria spoke to me in nothing but her native tongue. If there was something I didn’t understand she would explain it in another way. Another French way. The problem was that I had shown her early on that I could understand a bit of her language – and it really was just a bit – and now she wasn’t going to make any effort to speak English. I decided to take a stand, and replied to everything she said in French, in English. She understood my language a lot better than I understood hers, and if I was going to have to listen to French I wasn’t going to speak it as well. As we walked in through the door of her flat I was starving and hoped she would soon offer me something to eat. Instead I was offered something better; an opportunity.

“I suppose you are tired. If you like, you can stay here and get some sleep, but I must go out now to help feed the homeless. It is something that I do every week. You are welcome to join me if you wish.”

The saintly Marie-Amelie

The saintly Marie-Amelie

Of course I wished. I knew only too well what it was like to be cold and hungry without a place to sleep but I was doing it purely through choice and could always give up my challenge and go home at any point if I so wished. These people that Marie helped out were genuinely needy and didn’t have anywhere else to turn. Throughout the journey up to this point I had been wanting to give something back, to help people in the same way that so many had helped me, and now the chance had presented itself. I was stinking, tired and starving but just had enough time to change my clothes before we were back out the door. Back on the bus and with Marie still talking to me in French, I asked her if she had ever been to England. Her answer surprised me.

“No I have never been to England and I never will. I hate the English people. I hate the English language. I hate the English weather. I hate the English food. I hate everything about England.”

She wasn’t joking, either. How could you hate so many things about a place you had never seen with your own eyes? I mean, I didn’t particularly like the French language; disliked the arrogance of most – not all – French people, especially when dealing with English people; and didn’t like French food; but I had been to France on a number of occasions previously and had the right to an opinion formed after seeing the place for myself. And, despite all of those things, I still quite liked France and had personal friends from all over the country. Marie had no right to hold such views about England until she’d seen it for herself. Feeling offended by her anti-English tirade, I decided to tell her how I felt about her own wonderful homeland, leaving out the bit about me actually quite liking the country. It was all fun and games. I ended my rant by saying the only reason I was in the country was because I had to complete the challenge for charity, and that people should have to sponsor me more just to set foot in
such a land. I didn’t really mean it, I’d had a fantastic time in Lyon, for example, but there was something about the way this girl spoke that really got under my skin. From this point onwards I also refused to understand any French, replying to everything she said with, “Je n’e comprends pas.” In the end she got the message and although still saying everything first in French she would eventually repeat in English. I had won the first battle.

We got off the bus and walked the rest of the distance to the warehouse where everything for the night was to be set up, and as we walked she went one step further in our discussion over whose country was shitter. She decided to play the Chirac card, telling me how much she missed him and how he was the only one who truly stood up for France and all things French against the Anglo-Saxons. Yes, she really did refer to us as Anglo-Saxons. I then gave her the upper hand back by losing my cool and replying in a tone of war rather than respectable argument. This would do me no favours in a debate contest. I told her that ever since Chirac had stood up and walked out of a European trade conference simply because a Frenchman had addressed the delegates in English, I had had no respect for him whatsoever and actually despised him to the core of my stomach. I was being truthful. There is something about that pompous buffoon that makes me want to make paper effigies of him and set them alight in the street.

“No, no, it is good that he did that,” she said. “Because the French language is becoming less and less important; foreigners don’t learn our language any more. We must save it.”

“Everyone in France will always speak French, won’t they?” I asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Then worry not. There are more than enough French speakers in the world. The last thing we need is any more.”

I could see I was getting under her skin in the same way that she had mine and I started to feel that the tide had again turned and I was now in control. The thing confusing me the most though was why this girl, who hated the English and everything about them so much, had invited an Englishmen into her home to spend the night. Why would you invite the enemy to share a roof with you? I figured that she didn’t really mean everything she said and that she probably just enjoyed a patriotic argument and a wind-up and was entertaining herself. As was I.

We arrived at the big warehouse in the industrial estate and I was introduced to two men and three women, all of whom looked like the close-to-retirement workers you find sat on checkouts in Tesco. I was immediately put to work putting biscuits and sweets into little plastic bags before tying them shut. I wanted so much to help myself to a couple of Digestives but suspected it wouldn’t look too good if I got caught. Marie told everyone that I spoke French, but after a couple of minutes when they realised just how bad my grasp on their language was, I became quite unpopular. They just grunted random sounds at me from time to time, pointing with their eyebrows at whatever task needed doing. I was feeling pissed off and wished I hadn’t come along. The French were treating me like a dog. And not their own family pet dog. No, I was the neighbour’s dog that crapped in their front garden. At 7pm we finished loading all of the stuff into the back of the large van and drove off to a car park in the centre of the city where the local poor and homeless were waiting for us. They looked no different from the people you see sleeping in doorways in any English town or city. Scruffy hooded jumpers, combat trousers, skinny dogs on leads, facial expressions that warn against crossing them. At the same time, the appreciation for the care we were offering shone through in their smiles. For two hours we handed out cups of soup, sweets, biscuits, hot chocolate, coffee, bread, cake, books, socks, and even the occasional sleeping bag. My job was to pour the coffee and ask each person the question, “Voulez-vous sucre?”

Most of the people were so friendly and grateful; a lot of them even thanked me in English after hearing my giveaway accent. There were single mums who brought their little boys and girls along; kids in rags who probably had no food at home. They happily took the biscuits and thanked us politely. I felt for them as I remembered back to my childhood and the times when we had no food or money. When my sister and I used to ask why we only had a bit of bread to take to school when our friends had crisps, chocolate bars, biscuits and cartons of juice; wondering why instead of taking a drink in we had to take an empty cup to get water from the tap. I looked at the mums and felt a pang of pain for ever asking my parents why we didn’t have what they would have so loved to have been able to provide for their children. Had we been ungrateful? No. Just children with children’s questions. One guy I met was an Algerian who had spent most of his life in various parts of South London and who loved the fact that I was originally from Eltham.

“London is my real home,” he told me in a South-London-of-North-African-origin accent.

I was finding it hard by now to concentrate on anything the people were saying to me as I was feeling faint from hunger myself. The acid in my stomach was burning and I worried I would throw up in front of everyone or even worse, pass out. When the Algerian told me this was all he had eaten since breakfast I wanted to tell him he was lucky to have had any breakfast at all; it was more than I’d had. As I thought about things I realised that my temporary situation was actually a lot worse than some of the people collecting food. Not all of them were homeless; a lot were just poor and living off of benefits and at least had a little money to get something to eat. I had nothing and was feeling it. I thought it best to keep this thought to myself. After all, I wasn’t going to get any sympathy from anyone here and it wasn’t sympathy I craved, it was food. I had chosen my path, no matter how idiotic it now seemed. As the evening wore on I could see that my French co-workers were warming to me. I was getting a lot of smiles from the old ladies and thumbs-ups from the men. They had seen that I wasn’t just there to make myself feel good; I was prepared to work hard. We finished serving at 9, said goodbye to the not-so-hungry hungry and headed back to the warehouse to wash everything up. It took a long time but when it was all done we sat around a small table as a group to a meal of quiche, French bread and pâté. As I stuffed the food down my neck, Marie filled everybody in on what I was doing and why I was in Montpellier. They were amazed. I fielded their questions in French and gained some respect. All of a sudden the English guy who had been getting in the way earlier on was now the most popular person at the table. The only thing they couldn’t understand was how it was possible for a human being not to like wine. As I was wiping my plate clean with the last piece of bread, I was asked where I was heading after Montpellier and how I planned on getting there. I told them that I needed to get to Spain, probably Barcelona, but didn’t know yet how I was going to achieve it. Then the latest generous offer was put in front of me. In two days time, on Wednesday morning, one of the old ladies, Marie-Amelie, would be driving to Spain to do some shopping and would be more than happy for me to come along for the ride. I’d had a nice meal, met some nice people, helped some people a lot more needy than myself and had sorted out my path out of France. All in all it had been a pretty decent evening.

It was coming up to midnight when we walked through the door of the flat. Marie told me that she would be leaving early in the morning for university but would leave me a key and a map of the city so that I could get out and do my own thing during the day. I told her that I would really prefer it if she started speaking English to me and she said, “No problem.” If I had known it was going to be as easy as that I would have said something right at the start. My bed for the night was the settee in the living room with a blanket to put over me, but after the day I’d had it felt as though I were staying in the Honeymoon suite of the Ritz; minus the beautiful new wife. As soon as I got my head down I was off and away into dreamland. I woke fairly early the next morning. When I say I woke what I mean is I was woken, by the loud play session going on in the school playground that Marie’s living room overlooked. I got up and had a look around the flat, as you do, and found it to be fairly typical for a French home in as much as it was filthy. Clothes were thrown all over the place, rubbish hadn’t been put in bins, and crumbs covered the kitchen table. The sun wasn’t shining as it had been the day before and it was quite grey and windy outside. This didn’t mean that the locals left their sunglasses at home or even in their bags though.

The streets of Montpellier are really quite exquisite. The 19th Century buildings are built of old Mediterranean style brickwork with very delicate balconies hanging off of the sides. The roads and pavements are paved with sexy little slabs that give the effect of a pedestrianised shopping centre. The women all seemed a bit too high maintenance for my tastes; exceptionally beautiful but far too expensively dressed. It was all Gucci and Armani. I let out a loud laugh as a woman of about 35 came out of a building in front of me, threw her scarf behind her neck in dramatic fashion, pulled her dark glasses down over her eyes and strode briskly off into the distance leaving in her wake the strongest aroma of perfume you are ever likely to smell. Only in France. When we had been watching the Spurs vs Man United game two days earlier, Sebastien had made the quite correct statement that Wayne Rooney could only be English. You could never look at him and mistake him for a European, that was for sure. Well, in much the same way, this woman could only have been made in France.

About a year earlier, whilst on a journey through Bosnia with Vanja, we had met a girl from Barcelona in the hostel we were staying at who had told us, “If ever you find yourself in my home city, send me an email and I will give you a place to stay.” Vanja had built up a better relationship with her than I had, so I asked her if she would contact the girl and find out if the offer still stood. Marie came to meet me at the free internet centre and with her she brought a friend with long dark hair and dark eyes. She was from Morocco, studying in Montpellier, but her real wish was to get to England as she had a real love of everything English; including the people. As I talked to Amira about my home country, the look of disgust grew ever stronger on Marie’s face to the point where she eventually said, “Why don’t you just leave France and go and study in your wonderful England, then?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or not, so I did anyway. The two girls took me on a tour through the Moroccan district of the city where we stopped off in a little Sheesha café for an extremely sweet Moroccan tea. Afterwards, we strolled through the city’s tourist spots, passing the city’s impressive 17th Century cathedral, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Montpellier, chatting the whole time as I now had an ally in my fake hatred of all things French. Amira agreed that the French people were rude and arrogant, that French food wasn’t filling and was overpriced, and that the language wasn’t as beautiful as native speakers would have you believe. On the other hand, she was happy living in France and felt she owed the country a debt for allowing her to come there to further her studies. I was sad to say goodbye to Amira later that evening, mostly because I was planning on trying to pull her. Oh well.

That evening Marie showed me some of her photo albums she had accumulated on her travels. She had been to places that were high on my own wish list, countries like Belarus and Ukraine. She had actually travelled around Europe quite a bit and I started to find her a lot more interesting a person. Underneath her fervent nationalistic views was a real traveller, open to new cultures and experiences.

Woken early again the following morning by the bouncing of basketballs and the whistling of teachers, I was thankful for this natural alternative to an alarm clock, as I had to get ready to move out of Montpellier. After showering and packing my bags, Marie walked me to the place where I was to meet Marie-Amelie; the same car-park where we had fed the homeless. The weather was perfect again – sunny and hot – and when we met my chauffeur for the day at 10:15 she was standing outside her little red Renault in a pair of designer sunglasses. I said goodbye to Marie, knowing I would never meet her again, stuffed my bags into the boot of the car and strapped myself into the passenger seat. The first challenge of the day was actually getting out of the city as all of Montpellier’s taxi drivers were on strike and blocking the city’s exits. As well as that, the local radio DJ told us that the hospitals’ doctors were also threatening strike action for the near future. The previous evening before bed I had had yet another debate with Marie, this time about how there was always someone on strike in France and how you could never make plans in advance because you never knew who was going to be disrupting your day with their demands. Marie disagreed with my (again fake) view and told me that it was a good thing that people went on strike because if they didn’t they would never get better conditions, money, or benefits. Here was proof that the next generation of French worker was going to be no different from the current. But let it be said here, I am all for striking if there is an injustice that needs drawing attention to. I wish it was something we did a bit more of in England.

The drive to Spain was gorgeous. We went through vineyards, past chateaux, through the Pyrenees, and alongside row after row of green fields with little buildings flying the Catalan flag. It was exactly midday as we crossed over the border and into Spain. The drive had been mostly silent, other than the odd conversation started by Marie-Amelie in French that I’d always cut off with a, “oui”, a “non”, or sometimes just a blank expression. I wanted to chat but my French let me down. Marie-Amelie didn’t feel comfortable just dropping me off in the middle of nowhere so we drove for an extra half hour into Spain until we found a small town with a train station, Figueres. I don’t care what the sign at the border with France had said; this wasn’t Spain we were in, this was Catalonia. Whilst trying to find the station we stopped and asked several people for directions and not once received a reply in Spanish. Also, every sign was written in Catalan with the Spanish translation underneath. It was 12:50 when I kissed my driver on both cheeks and waved goodbye.

Kris Mole’s book has been taken on by Valley Press and will be available as a paperback before too long: this is your last chance to buy the much cheaper eBook copy by visiting:

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