Chemistry

Fitou is halfway between two cities. To the south there’s Perpignan, about which I’ve written. Close to the Spanish border, one sees signs there in Catalan almost as often as in French. Perpignan is home to the Procession de la Sanch on Good Friday, in which men in robes and hoods parade solemnly through the streets in a 550-year-old ritual.

About 25 miles to the north is Narbonne, a city of 50,000 established by the Romans over 2100 years ago. It is far less popular as a tourist destination than Perpignan. Quite a few people I’ve met in France, when I’ve mentioned visiting Narbonne, have curled their lips and squinted. But I like Narbonne very much.

Yesterday I wandered through Les Halles, the covered food market. It isn’t huge as those places go but with a half-dozen cheese stalls and the same number of butchers, bakers and fishmongers, not to mention two shops selling only organ meat and another handling horse meat, there’s plenty to amuse a food lover.

At a wine bar where I stopped for refreshment and a small plate of local sausage, the owner described the wine I tasted with enthusiasm and pride. He also explained that the sausage was made just a few miles away by a man who mixes everything by hand. As it happened, the sausage guy and his father run a butcher shop just down the aisle, and the son walked by while I was enjoying his product. We were introduced and he told me that he makes around 600 pounds of sausage a week and yes, he mixes it all by hand. His forearms resembled bowling pins.

Narbonne was established in 118 BC at the same time the Domitian Way, the first Roman route into Gaul, was built. Hannibal passed through with his army (and elephants) a century before that. A remnant of the via Domitia exists. I can’t imagine that travel on it was easy on soldiers, horses or chariots.

There is a magnificent Gothic cathedral, magnificent especially considering that it is unfinished. Construction began in the late 13th century but halted 200 years later when it was determined that completion of the nave would have meant demolishing part of the city wall. Out of fear of English invaders, this plan was deemed unacceptable.

Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur Narbonne, Languedoc-Roussillon
Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur
Narbonne, Languedoc-Roussillon
Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur
Narbonne, Languedoc-Roussillon

To each his own, I suppose, but I don’t understand the antipathy toward Narbonne. Then again, there is chemistry between people and places just as there is among people.

As I sat at a café along the Canal de la Robine in the middle of Narbonne, marveling over how anyone couldn’t like this place, I thought back to the late 80s, when I went on two blind dates, the first in Chicago and the second in Los Angeles.

Canal de la Robine, Narbonne, Languedoc-Roussillon

In Chicago, a good friend said he had just the guy for me so I agreed to meet for dinner. The guy, it turned out, came up lacking in the personality department. It would have been more intellectually stimulating to eat Thai food sitting across from a six-foot-high stack of shoe boxes than it was to spend an hour with Marvin. I’ve seen run-over raccoons that displayed more mental effervescence than Marvin did. Marvin was the kind of guy who, when he enters a room, it’s as if two interesting people left.

A year or so later I moved to Los Angeles, and shortly thereafter a friend back in Chicago—not the same friend who set me up with Marvin because his credibility was shot—said he knew a great guy in LA who would be perfect for me. Sure, I thought. Set it up.

I arrived first at the Tex-Mex place with hopes high but a margarita as backup. A lone man arrived, stopped at the entrance, and scanned the room. I looked up and our eyes met, tentatively. He slowly approached. “Clay?”

I should note that I knew my date’s name was Marvin. It would be fair to wonder how the name would not have rung bells, raised flags, sent me running. But it is a measure of Marvin’s non-personality, the void that it is, that his name had aroused no such warnings.

Between the time Marvin walked through the front door and his arrival at the table, the memory of that devastatingly bad hour at a Thai restaurant in Chicago swept over me. I forced a weak smile.

“Well, this is awkward,” I said.

We laughed at the coincidence and ate quickly. Dessert? Oh, no thanks. Have to be at work early.

I never went on another blind date.

My point is that some of us might think a match makes sense—among people or between people and places—but there’s more to such things than thinking. I didn’t feel it with Marvin and quite a few people, it seems, just don’t feel it with Narbonne. The nice thing is that my connection with this particular city doesn’t have anything to do with anybody else. It’s mine and that’s enough.

That said, if you’re in this part of France and have a taste for horse liver, I know where to send you.

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