Peeking at Peaks in Py

The next stop on our European odyssey was Py, a tiny village1 in the Pyrenees. First, though, we had to get to France! After saying goodbye to our hosts in Girona, we hopped on the bus to Perpignan, on the French side of the mountains. The driver chatted away to me as he hauled our bags into the belly of the bus. (He quickly figured out that my command of Spanish is only slightly better than my command of North Baffin Inuktitut, and proceeded in French.)2 When I explained that I grew up in the US but currently live in Morocco, he immediately shifted to darija and spent the remainder of the trip trying out various Moroccan Arabic phrases on me and watching my reaction, despite my protestations that I only spoke “shwiya, shwiya!” (A little!) So that was entertaining for one of us.

Upon arriving in sweltering Perpignan, and after devouring one croque monsieur each, we remembered that our day’s adventure was only beginning. You see, this trip marked an important milestone for Erin. She was going to drive a manual transmission car for the first time, in a rental car, in France, into the mountains, with only two practice sessions (in Morocco) under her belt. Our conversation several months earlier had gone something like this:

Me:  Hey Erin, do you know how to drive stick shift?
Erin:  No. Why?
Me:  Well, the only rental cars available in Perpignan are manual.
Erin:  Oh.
Me:  How would you feel about learning manual, then driving a rental car for two weeks in France?
Erin:  Um.
Me:  Great, then it’s settled. Don’t worry- you have plenty of time to learn.

And then we booked the car and put off driving lessons until the last week before our trip.3

Here are some things we did in the first two hours with the rental car:

  1. Sat in the car, in the rental company garage, for fifteen minutes and familiarized ourselves with every setting and feature. Erin tested the gear shift a bit, and I located the car manual, just in case.
  2. Stalled out while navigating the rental company garage.
  3. Emerged into the the terrifying upper world, full of traffic signals and impatient rush-hour drivers, and successfully made our way to the highway. Stalled out twice in traffic.
  4. Drove toward the mountains, with high hopes and directions at the ready.4
  5. Watched our roads become increasingly narrower, steeper, and dustier.
  6. Made it all the way around hair-raising cliffside turns, steep climbs, and “danger! rock slide” areas, through small and large towns, past a forest fire, many fruit stands, and a few fishermen. We were feeling pretty accomplished until we rounded a corner and came face-to-bumper with a herd of cows.
  7. Watched the cows stand in the road ahead of us, not sure how to proceed. It’s not that we didn’t know how to deal with cows in a road. We didn’t know how to deal with cows in a road, on a mountain, when driving a rental car with manual transmission. Our facial expressions must have betrayed our insecurity, because the young lady who was driving the cows gave us the most withering look I have ever seen from a cowherd. A man lounged against a pickup truck on the other side of the cows, slowly chewing a piece of straw and and staring at us. At the cow lady’s beckoning, we eased forward as the cows ambled out of our way, except for the ones who ambled into our way. About halfway into the cow herd, we stalled out. The look we got from cow lady was now scorn mixed with pity. The cows looked on in silent judgment. Erin started the car again and we slowly rolled away across the bridge, and away from the scene of our disgrace.

Our humiliation, however, was soon forgotten. We arrived in Py5 and were greeted by my friend, Christel, who I had hosted in Tangier several months previously. Happy to finally be out of our death trap car, we settled down on the porch with Christel and enjoyed fresh apricot cake (which Christel had just pulled out of the oven) and tea (not from the oven) with a gorgeous 180-degree view of the Pyrenees in front of us. Christel’s “little house”, as she called it, was a beautiful artist’s cottage nestled into the side of a hill overlooking the village.

The next few days were occupied with nature walks,6 discussions about local history,7 jokes, cooking rice in Christel’s handmade solar oven, meeting the village’s resident cats, and even a visit to a secret hot spring. So secret, in fact, that I have sworn never to divulge its location, lest the tourists discover and ruin it. We picked cherries from Christel’s trees, had a dinner party with Michel and Jocelyne (the other two Couchsurfers who had visited me in Tangier with Christel), went skinny dipping in a very cold river, chased butterflies, visited an art installation in the woods, and took several long, luxurious naps in Christel’s cottage with the insects humming outside and Christel snoring gently upstairs.

And here is Christel’s “little house” from the outside:

From the inside:

Art supplies and related clutter:

Breakfast on the porch:

A moth in disguise:

Our goofy hiking shoes:

The top secret, top-notch8 hot spring.

Not pictured: skinny dipping. Sorry, kids.

More photos on Flickr:

  1. Py is so small that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. It is here, and it is lovely. []
  2. A dialect of Inuktun, if you were wondering. []
  3. The missing part of this story is my utter and complete cowardice in even attempting to learn manual myself. I enthusiastically proclaimed myself navigator and rental car DJ, giving Erin many reassuring looks and arm squeezes as she began her driving adventure. []
  4. Somehow, in all the getting-to-know-our-rental-car hullabaloo, we had neglected to pick up a road map of France. I used a combination of handwritten directions and saved PDFs from Google Maps. Pro tip: When traveling by car in a foreign country, buy a map right away. No, really. Right away. []
  5. And only stalled out once, on a steep hill, on the one-lane main street of the village, right in front of the village’s only bar/hotel/grocery store. []
  6. The village borders on a nature reserve, and I spent a large portion of our walks ambushing local insects to take photos of them, sometimes climbing up embankments, through thorns, or into muddy streams. Christel and Erin politely tolerated my odd behavior. []
  7. “Py” in French is pronounced “pee”, incidentally. We stopped giggling after maybe the third or fourth time saying it aloud. Because we are grown-ups. []
  8. Sometimes topless. []

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