|Sign at an abandoned border checkpoint|
A few weeks ago I crossed the Spanish-French border. One moment I was buying a can of Coke at a Spanish petrol station, withing spitting distance of France, having a nice chat with the cashier. A mere ten minutes later I found myself in what seemed to be a different world, my command of Spanish suddenly rendered useless, forced to find new ways of relating to my surroundings.
Naturally, the same thing happened when I entered Italy the other day. But now the experience, if you can call it that, took on an extra dimension. For days I had been cycling a narrow coastal strip that might well be the most affluent region I will visit on this trip: the Côte d'Azur. In Nice I cycled an endless boulevard lined with picture-perfect fin-de-siècle luxury hotels. In Cannes I witnessed the madness that is the annual film festival—people thronging the streets, a horde of cameras trailing a cluster of scrawny actresses. In Monaco I shared the road with Ferraris and Lamborghinis sporting tiny four-character license plates, working themselves into a rage in the winding streets of the principality. And then, as you emerge from a long and dark tunnel, it's all over. Just like that. You're in Ventimiglia, the first town this side of the border. The word grim doesn't even begin to describe it. And it seems as though Ventimiglia knows it's an ugly duckling, for the town tries its utmost to get you to the other side as quickly as possible. But after that the glitter and glamour never return.
|Theme park France: a drive-in boulangerie|
Now, this is all rather trivial, of course. But it's the trivial things that remind me of the fact that with each border crossing I'm getting farther away from the theme park that is Western Europe. That's not something to get worried about. In fact, I'm yearning for a change of scenery. But it will take a few mental border crossings before I feel wholly at ease with having entered the real world.