Narbonne is breathtakingly underwhelming at first glance. This is true of anywhere when one arrives by train. Angry snakes of cars trying to pick up and drop off family members. Enluggaged passengers taking up every available space – doorways, paths to doorways, emergency exits, pathways to emergency exits! – and roads and dust and dust and roads and dust, hot, hot dust.
And then you reach the canal.
Ah, the heart of the city – or perhaps, more correctly, its lungs.
We had decided to stay in a share apartment right on the canal. When we arrived, we were buzzed in the street door and unthinkingly walked right in. We found ourselves in a pitch-black hallway. Everything was completely dark; the stairwell, somewhere in front of us, invisible.
“What now?” said C.
“Is there a light?” I said.
This was our first time staying in a share house with Air B&B. We’d stayed in plenty of apartments before, but never with anyone. Was this a trap? Were we to be cornered in this dark hallway, murdered, eviscerated, butchered – in short, harvested for our organs?
(Because, if so, frankly the joke’s on them. No one would ever pay for this liver.)
A chink of light appeared at the top of the stairs, and a man’s voice called down.
He didn’t sound like an axe-murderer (yes, yes, I know. You can’t tell these things from a voice. But you have to rely on something) so we ascended the stairs, towards the light, towards we knew not what… and found ourselves in a pleasant French family home.
Our host was Severine, her husband Mr Severine, and the two petites Severines. It’s a beautiful apartment, and we had our own room and bathroom on the upper floor – the bedroom a kind of mezzanine built above a bathroom – as well as access to the terrace.
They’re a curious family, with maybe 100 words of English between them. Severine smokes non-stop. On the kitchen counter was a 250-pack box of cigarettes, which can’t last her more than a few days. The lounge room, by 9pm, was as smokey as a lounge bar.
It was Mr Severine who showed us our room, showed us where the lights were, demonstrated that the large towels were for us and the small towel was for the floor. Later he brought up a fan, explaining that the room was hot and had mosquitoes.
I watched from the bottom of the ladder as he tried to plug the fan in to a powerpoint on the mezzanine. Shirtless, he struggled to unplug the lamp and not knock his head on the low roof. And then I heard him scream.
“Are you okay?” I called up.
“No,” he said. “It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
He descended again in a hurry, holding the fan in one arm and leading the charge with his bare chest. He swiftly took the fan and himself back down to the living room.
Evidently the fan, having exposed wires, had short-circuited the entire power point and given him a mild electric shock.
And so we had no fan that night, that hot night, our first night in Narbonne.