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Upon our arrival, we discovered that there was no shortage of world at the super-secret, unmarked SNCF bus stop.

“There must be at least a hundred people here”, remarked one of my Aussie companions.

“I hope we’ll all fit”, nodded another.

I silently thanked her for putting that thought into my head. This had never once occurred to me as I sat across from the station, my hopes of getting to Spain seemingly evaporating with each Non. I had not allowed myself to think that, after spending almost 30 hours without real sleep or food to get here, almost breaking my neck to catch my connection out of Montpellier, nearly getting kicked off of that train for having an insufficiently French MasterCard, narrowly avoiding an aneurysm in the face of the incompetence of the “Information” staff, and just barely stopping myself from disemboweling Mr “No Change for You!” and selling his entrails to the nearest brasserie, that I could possibly have gone through all of this in order not to get a seat on the bus.

Which is to say that my gleefulness at my young Australian companion’s words was somewhat restrained.

“Wait a second”, interjected the guy who didn’t speak French, “How many seats in a bus?”

“Well, it’s four to a row”, I replied.

“Plus the extra two seats in the middle of the back row”, one of the Aussies chimed in.

“And it’s, what, 20 rows to a bus, right?” I added. “That would be room for 82 people.”

“So we might be all right.”

“Isn’t it 24 rows?” asked I Don’t Speak French.

I agreed.

“So then there are 102 seats.”

“So we’re fine!” one of the Aussies summed it up.

At that point, another Aussie noticed that a second bus was pulling up. There would definitely be more than enough seats, I concluded, sighing with relief.

This was the best news all day. At that moment, I couldn’t think of any place I would rather leave than Perpignan.

I checked my pocket to make sure that the hard-won ticket was there and joined the queue in front of the baggage hatch to hand over my suitcase. That done, I joined my travelling companions at the back of the bus.

As it turned out, no one ever asked for my ticket, nor anyone else’s, come to that. In other words, I had gone through the orgy of frustration with the most unhelpful and incompetent railway employees in France just for the privilege of spending seven euros that I could have just as productively used as rolling papers.

The excitement in the bus was palpable. After all those hours of uncertainty, of wondering whether we were at the right bus stop, and, indeed, whether the bus we needed actually existed, we were finally on our way. Spain beckoned!

We occupied ourselves scanning the darkened landscape for signs that the border was near. Given that there are no border controls within the European Union, we had to rely on other things, in particular the language of the signs. Behind me, two of the Aussies were discussing the strike that had shut down the French economy, and the French railway system, more than once in recent weeks. One of them wondered what the whole thing was about.

“Sarkozy’s trying to gut their super”, I explained, having just spent a few hours on trains reading the latest on the strikes in Le Monde, Libération, and L’Humanité. “All along, the workers have been saying that all they want is to sit down and negotiate a fair arrangement, but Sarkozy won’t even answer their letters.”

The fact is that I was quite excited to be in this part of the world at this particular moment in history. All over the world, from Washington to London, from Paris to Berlin, from Madrid to Athens, governments were using the global financial crisis – for which the perpetrators, deregulated investment bankers gambling with the socioeconomic wellbeing of the world, were richly rewarded – as a pretext to impose harsh “austerity” measures, decimating hard-won wages and benefits, and destroying essential social welfare protections right at the moment they were most needed. In essence, the holes ripped in national budgets by the trillions of dollars in taxpayer spent to restore the profitability of the financial sector were to be paid for by shafting the rest of the population.

However, there was a difference between France and Spain and the US: In France and Spain, workers were doing something about it. Workers in the US have, by and large, forgotten how to go on strike. Unions are virtually nonexistent in the private sector, and the leadership of the unions that do exist are generally happy to rubber stamp ever greater concessions in wages and benefits. The union bureaucracy in the US are as afraid of strikes and other militant worker action as their supposed adversaries, the owners.

Not so in France. In France, when government and business get together to screw workers sideways, working people fight back, and shut down the economy. Whatever inconvenience I might encounter as a result of that, I was too impressed to feel put out.

As I pondered this, another of my companions spotted the first Spanish-language sign. A cheer went up in the bus: “We are in Spain!”

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Perpignan is for fuckersThinking about it, “fuckedness“ is truly a matter of degree. In the two days between starting my trip from Erlangen to Barcelona and my first full day there, I had ample opportunity to experience various degrees.

I experienced the first degree of fuckedness – where you`re fucked, but don`t realise it, or things can still be fixed fairly easily – at about 9 AM at Gare de Lyon in Paris. After staring at the table with the listing of all of the departing trains and not finding mine for about 20 minutes, I went to the information desk, where I discovered that the train had been cancelled, and I would have to wait for another one at 10:20 AM. This did not seem so bad. I could relax a bit, check my e-mail, and experience the joys of sitting still for a bit. I didn`t have to be in Perpignan, by the border with Spain, until around 5 PM. This cancellation was a blessing in disguise!

Unfortunately, however, I ended up having to run after all, because my train to Montpellier was leaving from a track that was rather far away from the rest of the tracks, almost hidden, and it took about ten minutes to find it. Even so, I found my reserved first-class seat, which had a point for my computer, and a window clean enough to take pictures through. The trip was comfortable and blissfully uneventful.

The second degree announced itself in Montpellier. There was one train leaving for Perpignan, the French town on the border with Spain from which I intended to take a train to Barcelona, but it was one of France`s high-speed TGV trains, and required reservations. The queue at the ticket counter was at least a hundred people long, and my only way to get to Perpignan in time was leaving in ten minutes. Despite there being six windows open, the queue didn`t seem to be moving at all. I looked at the people in front of me, and briefly, but seriously, considered knocking them out of the way one by one. Of course, they had no way of knowing that they were standing between me and my last hope of getting to Perpignan today, but fuck ’em. I did, wisely, reject this option upon realising that several of them could easily kick the shit out of me, and that an arrest would likely further delay my progress towards Perpignan, and ultimately Barcelona. (more…)

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