The Devil’s Bridge

What is it with the Devil and bridges? Across Europe, many bridges bear tales of having been built by the Devil or with his help, usually in exchange for the first soul to cross them. The legends then commonly relate a double-cross: an animal is lured over the bridge to spare from damnation, it is hoped, the next approaching human.

In southernmost France, close to the eastern stretch of the Spanish border, the people of the cherry-growing town of Céret called upon the Devil to build them a bridge over the River Tech, then sent a cat across first to fool him. (In some versions, it’s an engineer who enlists the Devil’s help). But the townspeople feared the consequences of the deception, and shunned their new bridge.

I came across the story of Céret’s Pont du Diable last week, during a visit to Languedoc-Roussillon accomplished by many stumbling legs of train and plane from Berlin. It was an odd, still unassimilated journey: over-freighted with expectations and already emptied of them, sensible given the circumstances and frivolously quixotic. Too brief and intense to accommodate the distances travelled.

We’d planned the trip to this borderland where, regardless of lines on the map, France, Spain and Catalonia overlap and bleed into one another, to test the air of a perhaps future life. To visit a mediaeval fortification tower with a small house attached, set on the edge of settlement below Catalonia’s holy mountain, with a river running close at hand. Projected onto the walls of winter’s cave, these layered metaphorical prospects had loomed vastly seductive, and the plan had gathered a momentum to itself that drove deeper than straightforward wanting or reasoned choosing.

Once non-refundable bookings had been made, and the elaborate, tenuous chain of travel connections hooked together, the momentum evaporated. At no time during our stay did it return, though we still tried to slip our lives for size into the pockets of the place. The precision with which a sense of purpose animated this journey, then left it to sag abandoned, nudges me to wonder what it was for, other than to teach the cost of overacting on a Christmas-fed impulse. Whether a long, embroidered, four-day detour from one corner of Europe to its opposite just to close a door was, in some way presently closed to my understanding, necessary.

The Devil and bridges, the Devil at the crossroads. We encounter the Devil at places which are neither here nor there, which exceed the limits of our expectations, where a journey and a choice have to be made. The legends of the Devil’s bridges speak to the Promethean qualities of civil engineering, feats of drawing together what in creation has been placed apart, in order to travel further. In tarot, among the principle meanings of The Devil, Arcanum XV, is entrapment in the shadow: seizures of mass hysteria and scapegoat-hunting in the outside world; the twisting and wrenching of inner demons. Thus the Devil is held to be a tricky card to interpret, as he shows a different face to each person and circumstance. Meeting the Devil on the psychological plane points to confronting one’s shadow, and lo behold, it is often exactly at the point of making choices and journeying onwards that it looms large, demanding acknowledgement because we are hell bent (if you’ll allow the pun) on moving on and putting it firmly behind us.

At home, the distance between myself and the meltdown of my world feels about as thick as a house brick. Which, I’m aware, isn’t much; and is only a feeling. On journeys, that distance feels thinner, weaker and more transparent than one wall of the clear plastic bag in which I’m obliged to carry my toiletries. The weightless freedom of the carry-on passenger is her acute vulnerability. Privileged travellers, who choose where and when they go, can well resent any sudden reminders of this condition, brought on by severe delays or cancellations, and complain that they have been reduced to the condition of refugees. As long as choice remains theirs, refugees they are not. Yet to travel in the contemporary world is to pass through non-places, where willing and unwilling voyagers – tourists, business travellers, refugees, deportees, migrants, traffickers and trafficked – haunt each other, brush against each other, breathe each onto opposite sides of the same sheet of reinforced partition glass. Bleed each a little into the experience of the other, and feel for a spell that what distinguishes them is the shadow of pure accident, flimsy and arbitrary as clear plastic.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, many Spanish Catalans fled into Roussillon, fearing reprisals from Franco’s victorious army against their prominent support for the Republican cause. The traveller by train up Spain’s eastern coast into France today, crawls through the border tunnel between Port Bou on the Spanish side and Cerbère on the French side. Awaiting the onset of a zingy new TGV serving Barcelona, most trains out of Spain only go as far as Cerbère, and passengers using the line are still subject to a byzantine rule that, if they have travelled out of Spain to Cerbère, they cannot then catch the train back to Spain from there, but must either hike or take a taxi the seven kilometres back to Port Bou. The antique Talgo train, which makes one daily trundle from Montpellier to Cartagena and back, clunks to a complete halt at the border for a wheel change: French and Spanish railways operate on different gauges.

In this slow-motion betweenland, backwashed by the western Mediterranean into the first flush of the Pyrenees, bypassed laws are strictly enforced. Flying from Berlin to Barcelona, the EU open border policy operating in continental Europe meant that we didn’t have to negotiate a passport control. Disembarking at Cerbère and again on the train back through Port Bou three days later, our documents were sedulously checked by French and Spanish border police. Port Bou is the place where, on 26 September 1940, Walter Benjamin was found dead in his hotel room, following a long, arduous journey out of Nazi-occupied France, and the refusal, underwritten by the Franco government, to authorise his transit visa across Spain, which would have got him to Portugal and from there to the USA. Benjamin’s death is commonly counted a suicide; it is as possible that he overdosed accidentally on morphine, and naturally there are mutters of a Stalinist plot. His name was transposed on the death certificate and so his Jewish origins erased; grace of this clerical error Benjamin was buried in Port Bou’s ‘proper’ hilltop cemetery, reserved for Catholics and other Christians. When his five-year concession ran out his remains were transferred to the common grave. A memorial stone in Spanish and apparently faulty German carries Benjamin’s maxim ‘There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

On the last day of our trip, we left very early in the dark and freezing cold to catch the first train in the long chain of the journey homeward. That train failed to arrive. Nothing was admitted or explained; it simply disappeared from the announcement board about twenty minutes after it was due, several hours ahead of when the station is staffed. Barring the usual fateful suspects like illness, crime, or other acts of nature / god, this was about as wrong as our journey could go. It turned on solitary links in slender provincial public transport services, and one missed connection meant we would not be able to make the rest.

Talking to the other stranded travellers, we learned that SNCF (the French national rail company) will pay for a taxi to your destination when a train doesn’t show up. A call was placed, and we huddled in the car park to wait. We got colder and colder, having misjudged the weather and packed too light, and steadily more in need of toilets, as the station no longer provided them. I’d spent enough time pacing around to locate the paired doors on the platform, painted over in grey, bare of the familiar isotypes. When you are overtaken by basic physical needs that you cannot readily meet, and are accustomed to satisfying such needs without having to think too much about it, the known world shapeshifts rapidly into a sullen, meaningless blur. The reasoning, autonomous, self-determined self is summarily deposed by the relentless hammering of the animal body. It’s the same squalid, unwelcome reality as drives police kettling operations. We of course were free: nothing and no-one prevented us from walking out of that situation back to the nearest comfort zone; except the binding imperatives of uncertainty and the journey home.

After forty or so minutes interminable waiting, then a half-hour taxi ride down fog-bound motorways, we arrived at Perpignan station, now officially rebranded as the centre of the universe it briefly became for Salvador Dalí, in a mystical vision of 1963 which he later committed to canvas. When I got back from the loo to the departure board, my husband was smiling – as the taxi driver’s parting words to us had hinted we might have reason to. The Talgo to Barcelona was running an hour and fifteen minutes late, and we were poised to catch it with forty whole minutes to spare. Enough time for coffee in the warm, cavernous station bar, decorated with tiles bearing Dalí’s melted watch.

In David Mitchell’s novel number9 dream, a character has this to say about nightmares:

‘In my homeland, it is said nightmares are our wilder ancestors returning to reclaim land. Land tamed and grazed, by our softer, fatter, modern, waking selves …. Nightmares are sent by who, or what, we really are, underneath. “Don’t forget where you come from,” the nightmare tells. “Don’t forget your true self.”’

The lesson of the crossing? Never get out of the boat, perhaps. Or that the breathless euphoria of being without weight, without an anchoring place on the earth, bears the shadow of hollowness, haunting, ready deprivation. Or that there are the same number of choices as there are in the best legends and nightmares, but that it takes more than the self-determined self to choose.

In truth, I am waiting for a place to choose me. Uninhabited until the invitation comes, I cannot say for certain who I shall be then.

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