Douane, France

The Cote-Vermeille is the name given to the strip of French coast, extending for about ten or fifteen miles from the Spanish border at Cap-Cerbere to the point where the hills turn inland to enclose the plain of Roussillon, which is backed by the eastern buttress of the Pyrenees. The ports and resorts of the Cote-Vermeille are five in number. Cerbere, Banyuls, Port-Vendres, Collioure, Argeles-Plage. I traversed this area on numerous occasions by road and rail, winding in a dizzy manner up and about the rocky hills, or boring through them in a series of tunnels, between which open glimpses of blue sea and vineyards. Excellent wine is made here for local consumption, and as the basis of the various aperitifs to which the generic name of Banyuls is given. The life of the soil continues right down to the sea: there are vineyards which the spray must drench when the wind is high, and poultry, scratching for scraps on the beaches, among the marine gear and the litter, unconcernedly wet their scaly claws in brine.

The second time I went this way was just after the ratification of the international agreement respecting non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Between Port-Vendres and Banyuls the bus was stopped by two gendarmes, who inquired conventionally where we were going, and whether we had any volunteers on board. These questions were answered with a little hilarity, and we continued on our way.

But to Cerbere I went by train, for no bus runs beyond Banyuls. As I bought my ticket, my eye fell on a hand-written notice, announcing that no through bookings beyond Cerbere could be made. For Spain, I had been told, a special endorsement on one’s passport was now required, and complicated visas must be obtained. Nevertheless, the volume of traffic across the frontier was still necessarily considerable: Red Cross ambulances, manned by enthusiastic English people, animated by that strange mixture of sincere compassion and enjoyment of other people’s troubles which gets us such a bad name for hypocrisy on the Continent, where we are not understood, must be allowed to pass, and business men had legitimate interests in both countries. Only a few days before, one heard with a delightful sense of insecurity, a business man wellknown in Roussillon had been thrown into a Spanish prison, merely for carrying a reassuring letter from some Spaniards to their relatives in France. But at the moment Spain was not my objective: determined to see France to the last inch, I was bent on visiting the point outside Cerbere where the road to Barcelona enters Spanish territory.

Cerbere itself is of no interest: a station of enormous size, a custom-house, the offices of customs agents, a few boats drawn up on a squalid beach. Coming out of the station, the sight of some wretched afflicted creatures, a man and woman and a child in rags, devouring bread and cheese with the voracity of starving animals, and of the waiting-rooms converted into Red Cross depots, induced a vivid sense of the pathos and the cruel madness of the civil war. The tunnel through which the train runs between Port-Bou and Cerbere must seem like the gates of Paradise, and the dirty little French town look like Heaven, to many a poor devil hunted from his dwelling for some reason he has never grasped.

The international road, which at Cerberes has descended to sea-level, winds in a series of terrifying zig-zags up a desolate hillside outside the town. Somewhere up there, I knew, the frontier lay: Frontiere espagnole, a signpost remarked casually, in confirmation. I trudged up the long ascent, past a cemetery and a solitary deserted cottage, traversing an invidious and wind-swept region which one cannot be surprised that no one wishes to inhabit. What a desolation the proximity of frontiers produces, over and above that arising from the natural situation of such barriers! It is symbolic of the greater desolation that arises from all the folly of distrust and jealousy between nations that they stand for. There is something terrifying, too, in the diabolical mixture of casualness and rigour, like a veiled threat of violence, with which the whole idiotic business of passport scrutiny and cross-examination is invested. It is as if the people who arrange these things (who cannot really be suspected of such subtlety) were aware of the superior psychological effect that a hint of power has over the display of its material instruments. Psychologically there is no need for armed forces or big guns at frontiers; there is a battleship in every dirty smudge on the wall of the douane, as there is a prison yard and a firing squad in every grease-mark on the official’s tunic.

At last the douane disclosed itself, on what appeared to be the last uphill stretch of road. A signpost abreast of it gave the distance to the frontier as two-fifths of a kilometre. A bevy of officials issued from the building, and on hearing my request to be allowed to visit this mystic terminus, divided immediately into two camps, and proceeded to debate the matter. An ill-favoured gentleman in civilian dress was in favour of my being turned back without hesitation, if not forthwith thrown into a dungeon. A good looking young man, dressed in a smart new uniform, and smoking a cigar, was for leniency and moderation. It was clear that I was the first sightseer, the first person without definite business,legitimate or illegitimate, to transact, who had come this way since the imposition of the new regulations, and that as such I constituted something of a problem. At last the handsome young official detached himself from the group and came towards me. He had no authority to allow me to proceed beyond the spot on which I stood. In any case, if I went further, I should do so at my own risk. If he permitted me to go as far as the next corner, would I promise to return?

The wind, on that last section of the road, blew with terrific force. I reached the corner, rounded it: and there, on the exact crest of the hill, a piece of wire stretched across the roadway served to indicate the frontier. On the other side of that was Spain. A road precisely similar to that by which I had ascended, except that it was surfaced with a different metal, ran down to the Spanish custom-house and Port-Bou. Only a romantic imagination, I dare say, could have detected any essential difference between the landscape over which I looked and that which lay behind me; yet perhaps it was a little browner and more sombre, a little wilder and less cultivated. I put two feet across the frontier, assisted by a gust of wind which hurled me forcibly against the barrier, and turned away.

Just around the corner I came upon the young official who, when I disappeared, must have regretted his complaisance, and had followed me. Would I do him a favour? he asked, putting an arm about my shoulders and giving me a reassuring pat. He was in his first position of responsibility, today was his first in his new post; seeing that the new frontier regulations had just come into force, it might occur to his superior to pay a visit of inspection at any moment. Therefore, if I would not mind accelerating my departure. . . . I assured him that I would not mind at all; and, indeed, I had some notion of the awful visions of official reprimand, court of inquiry, diplomatic representations, ruin, and dismissal, following on a solitary Englishman breaking his promise and getting himself involved in some sort of incident, which must have crowded through that young man’s mind during the few moments while I was out of sight.

Returning to the custom-house, the wind was so strong that it made us stagger. “Does it always blow like this up here?” I asked.

“Oh, this is nothing,” said the official. “Just a little breeze. Sometimes one has to do this last bit on all fours!” He showed me a quick way down the mountain, and we parted with mutual compliments.

Back in Cerbere I found myself assailed by raging hunger. It was was well past my usual lunch hour, and the “little breeze” had given me a tremendous appetite. Cerbere, as a place to eat in, did not seem promising; there was not a restaurant to be seen. I applied to an indigene for information, and was directed to the station buffet. I made my way thither, full of the most gloomy anticipations respecting stale sandwiches, to be eaten standing, in intense discomfort. To enter a gigantic room, in which people were sitting at tables, actually consuming hot food, was some alleviation. I sat down. After some time a waiter, without asking any unnecessary questions, brought me hors-d’oeuvres and wine. The pate was delicious: the repast that followed must, I should think, have been designed for Spanish refugees who had not eaten a square meal since the outbreak of the civil war. Course followed course in bewildering but delightful succession. Some two or three pounds of olives, sardines, anchovies, herrings, potato salad, egg mayonnaise, and pate were followed by a risotto, or arroz, I suppose one should say here; then came a dish of duck braised with olives; and after that, as a bonne-bouche to revive a flagging appetite, a mutton chop with fried potatoes. I ate heartily of everything, from hors-d’ceuvres to dessert. From time to time the door opened, and fresh arrivals came into the restaurant. Whenever this happened a sound like the first stirrings of an approaching gale in the tree-tops of some far off Roumanian forest swept through the room: it was caused by all the French people in the restaurant whispering “des Espagnols!” to their neighbours.

Near me sat a well dressed man with a pale, intellectual face, and a piece of sticking-plaster above one eye; tired out, he dozed, watched over by a muscular young Spaniard, his servant or body-guard. In the centre of the room was an entire Spanish household, widow and several children; the servants came in later from the canteen, where they had been eating, to explain the reckoning to their mistress. I saw them afterwards descending from the local train at Banyuls, surrounded by innumerable packages of bedding and household utensils, mistress and children, servants and the servants’ children, going to start a new life in a foreign country, or perhaps only visiting their summer villa. Mean while the Paris train departed, freighted, let us romantically suppose, with human hopes and fears, and left me still eating.

When I got back to the hotel where I was staying, an acquaintance invited me to tea. Such is the tonic effect of frontier visiting that I was able to cope with this repast, which included toast and the delicious local honey, as if my lunch had been a mere aperitif. The tea was very good, as it usually is nowadays in France. All over the country, at any reputable hotel or cafe, you may be sure of getting excellent the an citron. Tea with milk is another matter. Unboiled milk, which in any case is seldom procurable in the south, is probably best avoided there; and boiled milk in tea is an abomination. They have a strange way with cows in these parts, confining them in unlighted dungeons, like dangerous wild beasts, and reluctantly ministering to their base appetites with an occasional forkful of dried grass. There were supposed to be four cows immured somewhere in the village of three thousand inhabitants at which I was staying at that time; but I was unable to discover anybody who had ever set eyes on them: I think they were monsters. But the Frenchman, that marvellous horticulturist, is generally a poor hand with livestock. His frugal nature grudges the amount the creatures eat; and while the policy of poor food, hard work, a quick end, and cheap replacement is of doubtful wisdom where slaves are concerned, there is no doubt of its folly in the case of animals.

But I was saying that the tea in France is good: it is a pity that the coffee does not attain the same high standard. It is true that it is never as bad as it often is in England, for the French appreciate the necessity of making the infusion really strong; but apart from the nasty habit of adulteration with chicory, which is sometimes practised, the fact that the bean is almost always over-roasted, prevents the result from being entirely satisfactory. What is more surprising (for the supremacy of French coffee always was a baseless legend) is that the Frenchman’s skill and subtlety with salad-dressings is not at all what it is traditionally supposed to be. The use of oil of arachide instead of olive oil is common even in places noted for their cuisine, and the occasional substitution of lemon juice for vinegar appears to be unknown. Of course there are places, as there always have been places, to which these reproaches do not apply, and anywhere you will be respected rather than considered a nuisance if you insist on getting what you want; but the fact remains that in most French restaurants, whatever may have been the case before the War, the standard of skill displayed today in dressing the salad is far below that employed in preparing an entree or a soup. Alas for popular belief in the unapproachability of the French cuisine in these two matters! If you want a perfect cup of coffee or a perfectly dressed salad you must not look for it in France, outside of the most expensive establishments; you may seek it with more chance of success, perhaps, in Vienna, in America, or in a private house in England.