Crossing a line

By James Robertson-Hirst | 07 Mar 17
Hike path at Pixabay

We arrived in Spain late on Saturday.

By Sunday night I had a sore throat and by Tuesday I couldn’t get out of bed. By the time my partner drove me to the medical centre we were both anxious. He had never seen me so helpless, and I had that anxiety that grips you when you are sick and a long way from home. The doctor we saw was Catalan, kind and very clear. You have the flu, she said, it is particularly bad this year. Take paracetamol and rest. As I slept, the weather turned bad and the sun that had come through the windows each morning was replaced by clouds and rain. I had so many plans for those weeks. I wanted to get out and explore Catalunya, take the train to the historic sites like Hostalric and Besalú. I wanted to go to the Costa Brava and see the snow in Andorra. But all I could do was wait. I woke up each morning and almost immediately went back to bed. Alone all day I browsed the internet and read the papers online, worrying about what was happening in the United States. A man who many had dismissed as a joke, a ridiculous buffoon, a reality star, was now the president. We were told not to take the racist things he said seriously. It was just talk, a kind of theatre to please his followers. The US is a civilised country, after all. Once he was in power he would pivot, he would be constrained. That was what the papers said.

In the last week of my holiday I was well enough to get out and I took the early train from Girona towards France. People had told me about the walks you could do on the cliffs on the Costa Brava. The very last Spanish town on the line is Portbou, and it nestles on a cove below the high dark Pyrenees. Steps lead down from the station into the town. It was cold and waves crashed over the sea wall and the tourist office was closed. A lone man washed sand off the walkway and I asked him about the walk along the clifftops. He looked doubtful and said something about the road being very wet. I switched on the GPS on my phone and it directed me up some steps at the end of the beach. On the hill at one end of the town is the cemetery where Walter Benjamin is buried. A Jewish philosopher and intellectual, he fled Nazi occupied France and arrived in Portbou in 1940. There is a sculpture there that commemorates him.

When I told my friend that I was going to Portbou she told me about the wind, how it drove people crazy. I asked her if she meant the tramontana, the evil wind that comes across the mountains in summer, that Garcia Marquez wrote about in his short story of the same name. She nodded and said something in Spanish I didn’t understand. It was winter now, but the wind was just as fierce. It came rushing up the stone cliffs from the sea. I climbed the steps above the town but before too long I had lost the path and was walking up the side of the road, staying out of the way of cars. Stepping off the path and out of the wind, I took refuge behind a bush to pee. It was then that I heard a woman’s voice close by. Zipping up I looked around but there was no one there. It seems I had begun to imagine things. The road zigzagged up the side of the mountain and the day grew warmer. There was still no sign of a path but I hoped that if I climbed high enough I would eventually find it. In September of 1940 Walter Benjamin and a small party left Port Vendres in France to take a local path through the mountains to Spain. Benjamin was unwell and found the journey difficult. The path was little more than a gravel track between boulders and the way was steep. He had to rest frequently.

Below me the Mediterranean was blue green and flecked with waves. I stopped to take a photo and stumbled across what looked like a rough track across the cliffs. Someone had placed flat brown stones in layers to form a kind of path. I wasn’t sure if it was the right way to go but I followed it anyway, the wind whirling around me. I liked the idea of crossing into France by foot, of moving across a line that could not be seen. A border is a construct, an idea, but it can matter a great deal which side of the line you are on. Benjamin’s guide left him when he was in sight of Portbou nestled on the Mediterranean. He had crossed the border. He and his friends planned to make their way to Portugal and then to the US.

After a while the path widened and I found that I was on a ridge above a pine forest. I was out of the wind now and again I heard the voice, this time more clearly. “Continue for 200 metres down the hill,” it said. I reached into my pocket and sheepishly turned off the GPS. A small village nestled around a bay below me and I realised that I had crossed the line. I was now in France. A sign indicated it was thirty minutes walk down the hill to village of Cerbère. Walter Benjamin managed to cross the border into Spain but he never found sanctuary. The dictator Franco was now in power. Benjamin was arrested and told he would be returned to the French authorities. That night he took a fatal dose of morphine.

After his death he was honoured and there are plaques throughout Portbou that celebrate his life and writing. One of his most famous quotes is: “There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I read that morning that the president of the United States had issued a travel ban and was turning back refugees from seven countries. The ridiculous buffoon, the one we thought was a joke, now held the power and was doing exactly what he said he would do. It is no longer entertainment. It has become real.