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Perpignon. The best place for business meetings

Goodbye, Perpignan. My superiors have seen to it that I have no reason to linger here...


 So that's what it is, Perpignan. I'll be damned. Three in one: France, Spain, and Catalonia, come together here under the hot Mediterranean sun. I didn't know it was possible. It's a place where you live both in France and Spain at the same time, on a completely legal basis. The wide, sandy beaches are just a few miles to the east and the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees with their ski slopes to the west. The world-famous resort of the Costa Brava is a 90-minute drive from Perpignan, while the hustle and bustle of Barcelona are less than two hours away. With a population of 300,000, Perpignan offers everything a retiree could want. Perpignan is a fabulous place: a mild Mediterranean climate, well-developed urban transport, as well as health care and services. What is important for ex-pats - is affordable real estate, renting or buying your own home. Perpignan has many supermarkets and specialty stores, similar to those found in any other medium-sized European city. Grocery prices? You'll only pay a dollar for a French baguette and five for a bottle of decent local wine. As for utility bills, they have not gone far from the U.S. average. The same goes for broadband Internet and cell phones. The art, architecture, and cuisine here are a chic mix of French and Catalan culture. But the people of Perpignan do not forget that they are French. Finally, after France and Spain joined the Schengen zone, Perpignan became the lucky winner of a million dollars a night at the casino.

It's noon, and I'm sitting under a colourful awning sipping coffee on the bank of a tree-lined canal. Midsummer, in what, but in defining the time of year, I am never wrong. Snow in winter. Rain is fall. Everything else is spring and summer. The local sparrows are cheerfully galloping in a thicket of ornamental shrubbery, cypress, I think. But I'm no botanist or florist. I don't care for the local beauties. The red-tiled roofs of the surrounding houses reek of comfort and security. I have little interest in the canal; I'm more interested in observing the environment and its two-legged inhabitants. You may have realized by now that I am in Perpignan, the southernmost frontier town in France. Did I forget to mention that I arrived without adventure? No, I did not forget. The adventure is just beginning, as a good detective story should. You may have guessed by now: here I must wait for the courier, the liaison, the messenger. He and he alone is destined to link my present with my future. Am I checking into a hotel? Nothing remarkable. The door is wide open, the doorman is not present, and why should he be when the door is already wide open. This says something about the hotel, but not about its guests. Standard lobby with standard chandeliers and the standard set of furniture: low uncomfortable sofas, so as not to linger, to match them low oval wooden tables with stains from spilled coke, a pair of figs in the corners. A couple of shaggy-haired teenagers were seated apart from the head of the family, sipping their beers and staring at their smartphones: what brings them here? The older one slaps his brother on the back of the head, clearly playing "shooters. A waiter habitually empties the ashtray of cigarette butts, wipes them with a wet rag. Desk porter on duty. He is short and overweight, which is unusual since receptionists prefer lanky, agile ones. On the other hand, he is friendly and good-natured, like a dolphin. And importantly, like any low-wage employee, he is in dire need of a tip. His English is terrible, but I can't help it.

- Bonjour, monsieur! How may I help you?

An answering smile, purely out of courtesy. I'm a tourist, I'm in a good mood, and I like everything.

- I have a room booked in my name.

- Just a moment. What's your name?

Um... Name? I have a dozen of them. But I'm afraid fatty only wants one. What is it?

- Giuseppe Garibaldi.

A puzzled look, which told me that the porter could not believe his luck: to see the famous Italian revolutionary alive. A few strokes on the keys of his computer and a broad smile, as if he had just announced that his horse had just arrived first at the hippodrome.

- Welcome, Mr. Garibaldi. Congratulations, number with a beautiful view of the city. I hope you like it here. Haven't you been here before? Would you like to order something? You don't have any belongings, I see, but you're light.

You're very talkative and curious. There are still such people of the "I want to know everything" breed. I was lucky enough to run into one of them.

- May I see your papers, sir?

Strange porter. If I call myself Giuseppe, I am Italian, and he has a right to address me as "Signore." What levity!

There's a bookmark on the passport, 20 euros. Not God knows what, but his pupils dilated, a sure sign of his greed, which is on the list of the deadly sins inherent in man regardless of age, profession or nationality.

- Are you from Palermo?

Oh, my eagle's profile. You can't step a step without being recognized.

- My grandmother on my grandfather's side is from there. Sunny country, and lemons and olives. And how did you know that?

- Oh, that's easy. You've already checked into our hotel chain, haven't you? It's permanent. You'll be recognized everywhere. Can you imagine how convenient that is? So, are you here on business?

I nod silently. What else is there to do? Not to discuss my pedigree or my travel voucher. I don't like to be recognized everywhere, the way this word-hunting, bird-talking type chirps. However, I did stay at the Carlton a couple of times. He's got the point there. Digital economy, damn it. The customer's in the palm of your hand. But it's not the Carlton. It's the Ibis Perpignan Centre eco-hotel. A five-minute walk from both the historic city center and the train station, painted inside, they say, by Salvador Dali himself (full name Salvador Domènech Felipe Jacint Dalí I Do-ménec, Marquis de Dali de Pouboll), who was often in these blessed surroundings. Say what you like, but the monument to the famous avant-garde surrealist, sculptor and our brother-writer is really magnificent. I am convinced: the way it is, the station is the center of the Universe, and the people on it are passengers arriving and leaving as in life.

- Breakfast between eight and nine. Buffet. Paella, seafood, yogurts, original pastries, fruit. Wi-Fi is included. Enjoy your stay and your time, Mr. Garibaldi!

I have with me a roomy leather briefcase with a notebook, a minimal set of toiletries, a Bible, which is used to encrypt and decode messages, and several disposable telephones. I carry everything of mine with me. The room is located in the middle of a long corridor on the third floor. It opens with a code key the size of a credit card. These days even private hotels don't use massive cast-iron keys, which pull out your pocket. The room, at first glance, seems perfect for my needs, if only... Unless it has hidden cameras and microphones. I've encountered this kind of hospitality more than once or twice. An idiot like me doesn't need too much attention. The first thing I do, therefore, is to make a thorough inspection of the room. I go downstairs and tell the porter that I asked for a room facing the square, not the backyard. The porter obeys me unconditionally. The new room is already on the fourth floor, next to the fire escape and the elevator. If I have a trap prepared, an extra precaution won't hurt. The room is clean. A flat-screen TV, air conditioning, toiletries. After showering, I throw on a cheap (free) robe that was hanging in the bathroom, walk over to the window and spend a few minutes looking at my surroundings. Nothing special. Still the same red-tiled roofs, the view from above. Sharp gusts of wind ruffle the neck of chestnuts. Sleepy provincial tranquillity, interrupted by the heart-wrenching sounds of a wounded saxophone. The street musician - there he is, down near the hotel entrance, clearly visible. So good, in fact, that you can see the handful of small coins tossed by passersby into a fedora placed neatly on a bench nearby. For someone, the melody of a medley on the theme of Petite fleur should set the mood for a romantic evening. For me, it's a sign, a marker. My arrival has not gone unnoticed.

Time to meet the courier. Seven o'clock in the evening. My favourite time. Time before dinner. There he is. Looks like a student, sports Adidas, a black baseball cap, shaded glasses.

- How was your trip? Any problems?

- I'm fine, thanks. Will you have coffee with me? Paella? - I suggested as we shook hands and sat under a palm tree on the terrace of the restaurant. - You won't regret it. Real, not instant, from a glass jar, as all of France drinks. And England too, by the way. Have you ever tried Andalusian coffee with honey and garlic? The most important thing in any coffee is a forged copper pot. I used to carry it around with me. I bought it once at a flea market in Jaffa.

Instead of answering, he opens a small leather folder and hands me two thin sheets of paper, followed by a thick packet.

- Read it and memorize it. I can't leave this with you. I have been ordered to get rid of it so as not to leave a trace. They'll meet you in Madrid. In the packet are documents, credit cards, an international driver's license, which may come in handy. You are a journalist with the London Evening Standard. You are going on a business trip to Argentina. Your job is to produce a wine brochure. Officially, of course. The rest is none of my business.

An ordinary young man, plain-looking, no distinguishing features. They usually start their careers in the corridors of the agency after serving in Her Majesty's army.

- Nothing, I don't know. It was worth chasing you out of London for nothing.

- I don't mind it, and I need a bit of a break once in a while. See the world outside the office on Prince Albert Quay.

- Well, if you do, of course. How about some eggs and bacon?

The best way to get to know a man is to feed him. The best way to get to know a man is to ask him for a favour. Not to do, but to ask. But I don't need a favour. And I don't want the messenger's friendship. That just leaves me with a treat.

- Coffee would be great. Thank you.

- Are you all right? - I'm just asking for the sake of decorum.

- Of course, otherwise, we wouldn't have met.

- Have you ever been to Madrid?

- Madrid? No, but I hope to someday.

- Is it really as bad as the letter says?

- I don't know. I'm just an intermediary.

You can see that. We finish our coffee in silence. The conversation isn't really clicking. And why should it stick? Office relationships don't encourage frankness. There is a protocol and instructions. After a few empty phrases, we part and hardly ever see each other again.

Goodbye, Perpignan. My superiors have seen to it that I have no reason to linger here. Good-bye, St. James's Church, good-bye, Saint-Jean Cathedral, which I did not visit. Farewell to the mighty walls of the castle of Jaime II the Just and Loving, father of a dozen legitimate children by four wives and as many more by mistresses, King of Sicily, Count of Barcelona and Girona, King of Aragon and Valencia, King of Sardinia and Corsica. Farewell and pardon, Your Royal Majesty. Business...

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