Nostalgia in Portbou

Train in Portbou, 1960. Photogrpaher unknown.

A Catalan friend told me a few years ago how disappointed he was to be able to travel back and forth between EU countries without changing money. He missed the diversity of coins and notes, the lovely designs that communicated the spirit of each nation, the simple ritual that made him feel like more had happened than a slight geographic shift.

I was sympathetic to his aesthetic argument, but didn’t feel that particular loss as deeply as he did. Now, though, I have my own lost experience to add to the list. Trains from France to Spain along the Mediterranean coast used to stop at the border, high in the Eastern Pyrenees, while technicians re-jiggered the undercarriage to fit the Spanish rail gauge, which was different from the standard Western European one.

The whole train, often a sleeper, would — due to some obscure regulation — be emptied for this operation, which always seemed to happen shortly after dawn. The passengers would stand around on a tiny outdoor station platform suffused with cold, clean mountain air, drinking espresso and smoking in hastily donned coats, some blearily staring off into the mountains, others driven to flirtation by their fellow passengers’ disarrayed hair and lingering bed warmth.

The era of this ritual is now coming to an end. The recently completed Perthus Tunnel, dug under the Perthus Pass, accommodates a high-speed train service from Perpignan to Figueres that crosses the border in subterranean darkness, paving the way for an eventual point-to-point TGV service from Paris to Barcelona or Madrid. It will be faster and more convenient, few will miss the old service, and within a generation no one will remember it. Progress thus converts another of my cherished memories to an anachronism, moving me one step closer to my future as a being who only exists in the past.

This entry is part of my journal, published April 3, 2011, in New York City.