Jun 4 2012

Trust the Road

20120604-183830.jpgThe long stone building stood adjacent to the Camino, like a ancient fortress, or a chapel – or both – offering protection to passing pilgrims for centuries. Inside, the cool air refreshed and inspired a mood of tranquility, a pause from the endless step-after-step of the road. Two men welcomed passers-by with gentle Italian accents, offering a bench to sit on, a break from the hot sun, cool water to drink and a tap to refill water bottles. I marveled at the nearly medieval setting: the vaulted ceiling like a church, the small, narrow windows set up high like a fortress, the furnishings like noble dining room. At one end, a rounded chapel, with religious images and artifacts of the Camino. At the other, bunk beds in a row against the wall. I’d read about this albergue in the guidebook I’ve been carrying by John Brierley, a mix of practical and mystical tips for walking the Camino de Santiago. The Ermita de San Nicolas is a small way station, without electricity and with only 12 beds. Brierley wrote that and if you can get a place on a mattress here you should consider yourself lucky.

It was just before noon. I’d walked since 6:30 am but with more breaks than usual, covering about 18 kilometers, less than the usual daily distance, which might range between 22 and 29k. I was in good form, though, not yet ready to stop for the day. I rested there for a while, just to take advantage of the ambiance, but before long I stood up, grabbed my walking sticks from against the wall and took to the road.

Just beyond the albergue, a stone bridge crossed the rio Pisuerga and I stopped midway and looked back. I wanted to keep walking, but there was something back there, something calling me, an opportunity to stop for an afternoon in the quiet and reflect, the serenity of the setting, the experience it might hold for me. I mulled this over for at least ten minutes, standing there on that bridge.
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A German woman, crossing the bridge, stopped to talk with me. I told her my dilemma. “If you are torn, then go back,” she said. “I stayed there when I did the Camino before, and it was a special night.”

That was all I needed, a slight nudge to break the equality of my options. I turned and walked back, against the traffic of pilgrims. Remarkably, in that 50-meter stretch, I met several friends I’d made over the last days. An American couple I’d bunked beside at the albergue in the one-horse town – literally, it had one church, one bar/restaurant, one funky but cozy albergue – of San Juan de Ortega. Just behind them, two Spanish guys who called themselves my dos Sanchos, after Don Quixote‘s sidekick, with whom I’d had a long, late lunch the day before in Hontanas, and then a picnic that same night when the older Sancho‘s wife and daughter showed up, like a pit crew, with a huge feast, an impressive spread of homemade tortilla, fried pig’s chin (very tasty), and an array of salads and bread and wine we shared from a wineskin pouch. The younger Sancho, whose wife will bring his horses to Leon so he can finish the Camino on horseback, urged me to go on with them, offering the promise of another pleasant lunch together. But I knew – and I was literally walking against the tide of pilgrims – that I needed to stay in this remote, roadside station. I waved goodbye to all these fellow walkers, such fast friends we’d become in such a short span of time, and retraced my steps to the albergue, presenting myself to Augusto, whom I’d spoken with before, asking him if it was too early to request a place in the ermita that night.

Yo te visto,” he said. He’d seen me stop and ponder my decision on the bridge. He took my backpack from me and carried it into the building, even though it was earlier than the usual hour for accepting boarders.
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I sat at the table while he explained the rules and procedures, nothing unusual from any other albergue I’d stayed at, except here there was no fee, only a donation if I was able to contribute. Because it was so early in the day and I was the first pilgrim to ask to stay, I had a very private shower, despite the communal bathrooms in the back, and washed all my clothes in a big basin and hung them on the line next to the red flannel mattress covers that were flapping in the wind, drying after being washed after the previous night’s pilgrims. I’d noticed them hanging on the line when I approached, they reminded me of my mother’s sheets. I longed to help fold them, but I’d learned right away – when I’d offered to help – that the guests were not to do any work at the albergue.

“A pilgrim’s work is to walk and reflect,” Augusto said. “Our work is to feed you and give you a place to wash and sleep.”

I spent the afternoon writing, reading and resting. I sat in front of the building, watching pilgrims come down the road and peek in. You could see they were impressed with its mystical quality but also intimidated by its solace and simplicity. But by the end of the afternoon, 11 of the 12 cots were filled. The last person to walk down the road, with the absolute intention of finishing her day here, the Romanian woman whose wisdom I wrote about in my last post. Our hug was fierce, we had not seen each other since we had that conversation on the trail, days before.

At 7:30 pm, our hosts rang a bell and escorted us to the rounded chapel-like end of the long room. Twelve chairs were arranged in a semi-circle. The two Italian men donned shoulder-length brown capes with large scallop shells attached, the symbolic uniform of their confraternity. They talked about the privilege of being in service to pilgrims, a long winded explanation in Italian – there were six Italian speakers staying that night – and shorter translations in English and Spanish. To symbolize this service, they produced a metal basin with a pitcher of water, and one by one, washed our feet. The gesture surprised and moved each one of us. We were then invited to be seated at the table, set for our dinner, lit only by candles. A huge bowl of pasta with red sauce – prepared on a gas stove since was no electricity in the albergue – was placed at each setting. As much as I love Spanish food with its eggs and pimentos and potatoes, the pasta was a nice change, served with a generous amount of imported parmesan. The red wine was plentiful, second helpings thrust upon us, good conversation and laughter, a hearty meal for belly and the spirit.

As the sun set, we prepared for bed. When the last pilgrim crawled into a bunk, Augusto blew out the one candle still burning. I did not move again until the morning, when the noise of breakfast-in-preparation woke me gently and I rose for a cafe con leche and bread and Nutella, before setting off again, slightly sad to leave but thoroughly composed, light-footed, ready to walk.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on my return trip to the Camino, I was at the bus station with an hour to kill between transfers, so I combed through my guidebooks and sketched out how I might walk over the next days. I calculated distances for each day and made reservations at charming little hotels and casas rurales, mapping out a very nifty little plan.

I have cancelled all but one of those reservations.

Each day, I’d realize that I wanted to stop sooner because a town had a certain charm, or I’d want to go further because I had the stamina to keep walking. I’d call to cancel my reservation with an apology, and I’d always find some other perfect place to sleep, in a room with a dozen others or by myself, it was always the right choice.
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I think it took me this long to surrender to the Camino. Plans are nice to have, but on this path they are unnecessary, or even burdensome. I finally learned to trust, fully, that wherever I end up, it will be the right place, that there always a shower, a meal and a bed. A Dutch man, doing the Camino on his bicycle, told me how he rode into a small town one evening and there were no beds available at any hotel or albergue. A local family took him in their guest room.

So I start off each morning with an idea of where I might want to end up, but otherwise let my feet tell me when to stop, or when to keep going. One day I walked 37k because it felt so good to be moving. The scenery is beautiful and I am fully aware of it – I am part of it. I wish I could live my life this way, trusting the road so fully, not trying to plan or control it, but just to be on it. Of course, I should mention that it took some clever planning to clear the decks so I could do the Camino. There’s the rub.

I was musing about all this when I came upon a small cafe-bar, deciding to stop off for a lemonade. There was an open wifi network there, so I checked my email. I was so immersed in the messages from home that I hardly noticed the four sloppy-drunk men at the bar, until one of them came over and pretended to be reading over my shoulder. I knew how to handle it: playfully rebuffing him at first, then, when that didn’t work, making a fiercer boundary until he left me alone. I managed it without a big fuss, but it interrupted my mood. I guess sometimes you can’t trust the road, at least not completely.
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But I want to. I want take this trust back home with me. I want to transmit it to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, this feeling of having faith in whatever unfolds, making the best of what is, realizing that among all the choices you have in any given moment, most of them will be exactly the right choice, if you show up for it fully committed. But I also want to help them understand when not to trust so fully what the road brings, how to set your own course, how to draw boundaries, how to protect your open, tender, heart while taking on four drunk men in a bar. Or how to trust the clarity of your own voice amidst the cacophony of others crowded around you. I want them to be able to trust the road, but also to know when to trust themselves instead.

It has taken me 18 days of walking and 400 kilometers – that’s 250 miles – to slow down enough to hear my own voice, let alone to trust it. I’m just over halfway to Santiago, and in a few days I’ll have to head home, and leave the rest of the Camino for another time, next fall or next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go back to the day-to-day of my life, to the bombardment of information, obligations and responsibility. Can I stay in this cool Camino groove? Can I bring its rhythmic calm back with me? Can I trust myself – and the road – and keep walking the walk?


May 31 2012

Camino Interruptus

I heard the sound of a car horn, honking at a random rhythm. Then I saw two heads sticking up above the windshield, and two sets of arms waving wildly as the little car sped down the country road. De-facto, it turns out, had rented a convertible to drive to Spain, and permitted the girls to unbuckle and stand for the last 100 meters in order to make a memorable arrival. It was cocktail hour on the terrace of my favorite casa rural, in one of my favorite places in the world, and many of my friends and family had already had glass in hand, kicking off the weekend celebration. It felt like the party had really started when Short-pants and Buddy-roo paraded in, and the enthusiasm that powered them from the car to my arms was loud and heartfelt.

I’d been kidnapped the day before, estuve secuestrada, by the Fiesta Nazi and two other friends, a.k.a. the pit crew. They’d reserved a triple in the same hotel as I had a single, we giggled through dinner and the next morning I hit the road for another day’s walk and they stayed on to visit the chicken church and other touristy things while I marched 23k to the next town, Belorado, from where they fetched me and brought me backwards to Navarra to the small village of Urdax where, remarkably to me most of all, I’d managed during the last few months to organize a big birthday bash that would last the whole weekend, with friends and family who willingly made their way to the north of Spain to celebrate with me.

In retrospect, this kidnapping was a smart strategy. Had I made my way back to the birthday gathering all alone, I might have been stunned by the sudden shock of so much company all at once. Easing back into a social scene with the pit crew made for a transition – with a crescendoing dose of hilarity – that was a manageable first step. Even so, when all my guests started to assemble, I was a bit shell shocked.

I did very little to organize the weekend, except for the Saturday night festivities – cocktails, dinner, DJ – but the weekend filled up fast. Groups formed organically, for hiking, shopping and wine tasting. People roamed and mingled, chatted and napped, rested up for the dining and dancing that appeared to please everyone but surely I was the most delighted. There was a moment, last winter, when I was so overloaded with work assignments and responsibilities that the idea of walking the Camino and also throwing a birthday bash seemed doomed to be only that, a good idea. Some force beyond me prompted me to start planning it anyway, and once the wheels were in motion it fell into place. The party raged. I stumbled into bed just before sunrise – not bad for a fifty-year-old bat – and prouder still that I rallied the next day to hike 9k with a gang of friends.

Not just the gang. In honor of this Camino birthday theme, the whole family hiked. That is to say De-facto insisted, without resistance from me, that the girls come with us on the group hike. Buddy-roo was game, and ended up walking in the front of the pack with the other 15 or 16 members of our hiking party, no doubt chatting the whole way. Short-pants was not so interested in this exercise, protesting that she wanted to stay in her room at the B&B and do homework and read. This is her comfort zone, she loves to write and work and getting her to do physical activity isn’t so easy. De-facto gets her on the basketball court on Sundays, inspires her to do pull ups on the bar in our hallway and gets an occasional sun salute out of her, but she is rather bookish. As she put it, “hiking is not my thing.”

We insisted. She made her Munch face and cried. She crossed her arms and pushed her lower lip out to a pout. But when she saw no other option, she put her shoes on and came along. Wordless at the beginning, we gave her space to seethe. Soon, she softened, still sad but no longer glaring at us. Conversations meandered, as did the pack of hikers, morphing into different clumps and pairs as the trail curved up and around. When Short-pants was tired, we stopped to rest. When she moaned that it was too hot, we plied her with water. When her feet hurt, we stopped and had raisins. When she wanted to turn back, we reminded her that it was a loop and we’d already gone halfway.

And then at one point, not long after the halfway point, she turned to me and smiled. “I’m actually enjoying this,” she said. “Now I know why you’re walking the Camino.”

It’s the thing you think you can’t do, that when you do it, makes you feel bigger inside. She was so proud of herself, at the end, when she’d done the whole hike. It made me even prouder of her. And I knew how she felt.

~ ~ ~

On Monday, after a weekend-long birthday fiesta, I hoisted my pack on my back and walked from our hotel to a little bridge where a yellow arrow points left (antes del puente, a la izquierda) and puts you on a Camino Baztan, a trail that goes from Bayonne to Pamplona where it joins the Camino Frances. Eventually a bus would be necessary to get me back to Belorado where I’d left off, but the joy of leaving that beautiful weekend on foot appealed to me.
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De-facto and the girls and a few other lingering friends saw me off, though the girls didn’t wave as wildly as when they arrived. A college friend who’d flown all the way from New York to attend the party, walked with me for the first hour or so before turning back to make her departure and leaving me alone, once again, on the yellow-arrowed trail.

This part of the Camino is the road much less traveled, I didn’t pass another pilgrim all day. I loved that there was nobody around, that I could sing and talk to myself out loud as I trampled through the green fields and forests, marveling at the beauty of Navarra, which is lusher and hillier than the part of the Camino I’d hiked last week and would soon return to. Then I heard the familiar sound of a sharp, high-pitched dog bark, executed on an inhale rather than an exhale, the signature call of the Fiesta Nazi. Sitting in the grass, waiting for me to pass – the car was parked ahead out of sight – two of my pit crew pals waited for me with a warm tortilla sandwich and a cool bottle of water. Stalking me one last time, they saved the day, as it was Pentecost Monday, and all of the cafes in the villages I walked through were shut and locked.

The next day, a bus from Elizondo to Pamplona and another bus that stopped in all the towns I’ve slept in on the Camino: Puente la Reina, Estella, Los Arcos, Logroño, Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Belorado, a redux of my walk so far. If you added a deep voice it could be like the opening credits of an HBO serial program, “Previously, on my Camino…” I saw bridges I’d crossed, roads I walked beside, a bar with wi-fi where I checked email, a clump of trees where I peed one day. It was a perfect way to return to the Camino.

Starting in again, I passed many strangers on the path, people who’ve been walking as long as I have but started later. It’s like you’re in a class of pilgrims, matriculating from town to town together, until you stop for a day, or five, and join a different class. This is my third time joining the Camino. All the familiar faces I came to know are ahead of me now. My shy side comes out each time, and it makes me think of the friends who came to my party knowing only me or my family, but who took the risk and put themselves out and ended up fitting in just fine with the rest of gang assembled. There’s a hesitation, a fear that is unfounded but nonetheless present, a social risk zone. I was grateful for the presence of these friends at my party, which informs me how the Camino might be grateful for mine if I’d just put myself out.

~ ~ ~

The terrain is new again: Where do I go? Will there be shade? Is there a fountain ahead or should I refill now? Will my feet be okay? When should I eat? Where should I sleep? The social aspect of the terrain is new, too. Who are these people and why are they walking? Will they be as friendly as the last set of pilgrim friends, and the set before? I’ve come to value the balance of being alone on the Camino, relishing it, and also appreciating the camaraderie with the others in this path, nursing their own feet and mulling over their own questions. The shared experience with fellow pilgrims is just as inspiring as the time alone to reflect.

I’m glad to be walking again. I spent the first day just getting into the rhythm with my legs, listening to the crunch of my boots on the stones of the path, the sound of my scallop shell slapping against my pack with each step. I’d exchange a simple, “Buen Camino!” with other pilgrims, but avoided any real conversations, wanting to get back in sync with myself. But when I came upon a Romanian woman wearing a broad and constant smile, it felt right to walk and talk together for a while. We started with the standard prelude: Where did you start the Camino? Where did you start off today? Until where will you go?

And then I asked her, “Are you walking alone?”

“No,” she said, seeming very content. “I’m walking with myself.”

Yeah, I thought, me too.


May 25 2012

Walking into Fifty

The Camino rises and falls from the hills of Navarra into Rioja, and my mood follows suit. The swing from elation or the simplest contentment – Camino bliss – to feelings of regret or frustration is a pendulum wide. What is it about me that thinks my Camino has to be perfect? I do this in the rest of my life, too, set up these grand expectations and then kick myself along the way for not doing it well enough, whatever it is. I forget that as a rule, things in my life are pretty damn good. Good enough, and then some.
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I arrived at the edge of a small town – it was Los Arcos – after walking 20k in the steady rain, steady when it wasn’t torrential, which it was on a few different occasions during the day. I was drenched, even with good rain gear, but not yet tired. I debated whether to keep going to Torres del Rio, about 7k further. As I came into the center of town, another downpour drowned out all thoughts of continuing. I’d reserved a sweet single room, it had a shared bathroom, but that’s why it was only 20€, this was a good deal not to be passed up and besides, even if I wasn’t weary, I was wet.

The room was the size of a postage stamp, with a narrow chastity bed like I had in my college dorm. Its best feature was a brand-spanking new space heater, over which I could drape my wet clothes for quick drying. After a hot shower, I sat on the bed and thought, what am I doing here? I should have kept walking. I didn’t feel like writing, reading or napping. I was restless, even angry at myself for stopping. It descended upon me, that sort of funk, the four walls of the already too tiny room closing in on me. So I did what any pilgrim who’s logged 20k during a day does, went out to walk some more, around the town.

A church bell rang, so I followed the sound to the main square. I pressed the door tentatively, not knowing if it was open or not – many are only open in the evenings for mass – and it swung inward and allowed me to enter. The first thing in view as you enter the church, its elaborate organ, the pipes painted blue and gold. My mouth gaped at the sight of it. In another church, on another day, I heard the organ being tuned. I wondered if this one sounded as rich as it looked. I walked to my customary place, 1/3 of the way back from the altar, to the left, and took a seat.

And then, tears. For no particular reason. Maybe for every reason. Tears for all those people gone, but not forgotten. Tears for all my disappointments, and for the people I’ve disappointed. Tears for the things I didn’t become, and for the things that don’t become me. Tears for being alone. Even though I mean to be alone, I like to be alone, these are tears that remind me, despite all the good company on the Camino, and in my life, I am alone – we are all alone with ourselves.

It’s been ages since I cried like that, with the floodgates wide open. It made me feel so much better.

Maybe all I needed was a good cry.

~ ~ ~

After all that contemplative crap, I needed a beer. There was a bar across the square from the church. The cast of characters inside a gang of pilgrims, people I recognized from walking, but hadn’t yet talked with and wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Heavy rock music was blaring, boisterous men strained to talk over it, mostly about themselves. I regretted the decision to stop there, but I’d already ordered. I read the blackboard beside the bar, advertising a pilgrim menu for 12€. I debated whether to stay for it or not. The rain outside made the decision for me.

A rope across the doorway leading to the cave of the bar was unhooked, and the assembled pilgrims filed down the narrow staircase one by one to the dining room. I took a seat at a random table and was joined by five others. Miraculously, the boisterous men opted out of the pilgrim meal service, or sat elsewhere. My table was a mix of nationalities, two lovely German women who would become important touchstones for me over the next days, a gentle Australian who’d walked the Mekong, two other German men, one of whom was an 81-year-old retired ship captain celebrating his rebirthday. Nineteen years ago – to the day – he’d fallen in the ice-cold water between two boats, and it had taken fifteen minutes before either crew realized he was not on either ship. He’d been rescued, and he remains in a state of gratitude, even after all these years, for what he called his second life.
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We alternated between private conversations and full table storytelling, and the dinner was accompanied by good questions, thoughtful answers and general spirit of conviviality. The ship captain wanted to treat us all to an after dinner digestive, I suggested the local (we were still in Navarra) specialty, my favorite patxaran. Our round red glasses klinked together festively, overriding any of my earlier angst about stopping and staying here for the night.

~ ~ ~

Each day a different path with different views, different thoughts, different moods. Up and down and around into another dusty town, backpacks laid in a row next to a fountain where pilgrims rest their feet and fill their water bottles, village cafes brimming with friendly hikers. Over the next days I would run into those dinner companions and check in. How are you feeling? How are your feet? How is your Camino? I’d stop and chat for a while, but walk on alone, and let my mind wander – I prefer to walk by myself – although once I spent a good part of the day’s kilometers beside a thoughtful Irishman, swapping stories. It wasn’t so much that we were talking, more like we were thinking out loud with each other, reflecting on reflections otherwise interior. It was one of my nicest days walking the Camino.
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Except they’re all nice. In the rain, in the sun, the cool morning or the brutal late afternoon heat. Every day is good, even when it’s not so good. You get where you’re going, and the right things happen to you when you get there.

Yesterday, another church stop, a needed break from the midday sun. As I stepped inside I heard music – often there is some kind of classical or choral soundtrack piped in – but this one was slightly imperfect, like someone was practicing. In one of the pews, an open guitar case lay just beside a pilgrim’s pack, and in the back of the church, in the dark, someone strumming. I sat, where I always go to sit, and listened, as the guitarist played song after song and then he started to sing. Sometimes, when I knew the words, I sang along, in harmony with him.

Tears came again, fast now; I am tender these days. The walk, the time this walk has given me, puts my real person closer to the surface. She is touched more easily, her joy comes as instantly as her pain. But I have made this walk just for this, to access her. This time, I can report, the tears were glad ones: I was so fucking happy, in that perfect little moment, the one I didn’t orchestrate or expect.

~ ~ ~

Today I turn fifty. Such a bold number, and it came up on me like lightening. The two digits sit beside me, not quite smirking, grinning. I grin back. I started the Camino with a question, something like how might I make the most out of the rest of my life. Along the way, thoughts about how to make less of it, how to simplify, weed out the unnecessary, make room for the things that deserve to be made the most of. Coming now to another turn, wondering how to make nothing of it, and let it make itself. I’m not even halfway through the Camino, but just starting to open up to what it has to show me. But I am right where I’m supposed to be, and I think understanding that is perfectly good enough.


May 22 2012

Still Walking

Any journey starts long before you walk out the door with your suitcase – or backpack – in hand. So it may be hard to pinpoint exactly when my Camino started. Was it the moment I decided to walk it for my birthday? The first time I heard of it? When I first read about it? I remember that De-facto and I took a vacation in Spain and Portugal some years ago. Passing through Santiago, we parked the car and visited the enormous, opulent cathedral. We saw pilgrims, apparently finishing their walk, and I think I might have wondered how could they possibly make that journey. I’d never felt compelled to walk 800 km just to get to a church.

On that same trip, interesting to note, we ended up in the Basque city of Vitoria, where I witnessed my first Basque fiesta. A man sporting a metal bull costume – and it was spewing sparks – chased the children around the town square as they squealed with terrified delight, and I thought, isn’t that an odd ritual. Not even a year later I would meet the Fiesta Nazi and she would start chewing my ear off about another feria, in Pamplona, and soon something else I never thought of doing became something I do.

Also worth noting about that trip to Spain: while driving around, De-facto and I decided that we should start trying to have a child, as I was getting up in years and who knew how hard it would be or how long it would take to get pregnant. Short-pants was conceived within a month’s time.

~ ~ ~

Lately I’ve been trying to meditate. This was a regular part of my life, along with Yoga and Aikido, when I was in my late twenties. Of course we go through different phases and fascinations over the course of our lives, and the discipline I surprised myself with during those years slipped away in my thirties, and the time required for parenting hasn’t made it easy for me to take back those practices with any regularity, despite the fact that now more than ever they would do me good.

It was a David Lynch video that inspired me to try it once again, and ever so gently – no grand proclamations here – I am trying to set aside 15 or 20 minutes here and there each day to still my mind. I’m not very good at it; my mind chatters away. But I figure sitting still and breathing deeply for a few moments now and then certainly can’t hurt and is likely to be restorative in some fashion. This is easier to do in hotel rooms and airplanes, harder to accomplish with the hundred household tasks whispering at me while sitting in my living room, but I’ve managed to at least start a habit over the last month. On the Camino it’s a walking meditation most of the day, but nonetheless I take the time to sit still and deliberately meditate, thanks to all the churches along the way.

And aren’t there some Churches? Many so grand and gilded, I stand awestruck at the altar, impressed by the opulent beauty, disgusted by the power and wealth embedded in the bejeweled reredos. I see just as much beauty in plain, little village chapels, homey and welcoming, peaceful because of their simplicity. Like the one pictured here, empty and unused but for the crude stone altar plastered with handwritten notes and pictures and stones and private pleas from passing pilgrims.

Whether you are pious or politically opposed, there is one thing you cannot deny: when you are in a church, large or small, magnificent or modest, there is a thickness in the air, an invisible weight hanging, magnified by the silence or by the distinct echoes of prayerful footsteps on stone floors. Within the thick walls of an edifice that for centuries has been the repository for the prayers of believers, you can feel the faith that’s suspended there, even if you don’t share it. Like a thick velvet blanket it drapes around you, lowering upon your shoulders and pressing your awareness down, calm, and within. In a church, I can meditate in an instant.

~ ~ ~

In 2004, Oliver Schroer walked the Camino de Santiago, carrying his violin, making a musical pilgrimage. He recorded himself playing in 25 churches along the way. This very short film tells the story of his walk, and the music that came out of it.

A good friend of mine, who also happened to know Oliver, introduced me to his recording, Camino, several years ago. I heard only the opening bars of one song, and went immediately to iTunes to download it. It’s become classic Sunday morning music in my household, but useful also in the workshops I lead, when I want to create a mood that makes people stop and reflect on their experience. Each morning, while readying my pack, I hear this song in my mind and I’ll hum along out loud. Once, in one of those cool, darkened churches, I took out my earbuds and plugged them into my phone and listened to him bowing fiercely on his violin. Looking up at vaulted ceiling, I wondered if this was one the churches that hosted his beautiful music.

Sadly, Oliver Schroer died of a form of leukemia in 2008, a year before my mother was diagnosed with the the same disease. Wherever they’ve both ended up, I hope the music is as beautiful as what he created while he was here. And I hope my mother can hear it.

~ ~ ~

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When I go into a church, any church, I always move to the left side and up the aisle, taking a seat in a pew about 2/3 of the way toward the altar. This is where my father preferred to sit, at this 9:30 position within the congregation. It’s comforting to be there, at what has always felt like our place in church. I think of long sermons on summer mornings, the patch of blue sky visible out the side door of that church, beckoning, and my father beside me, ready with his crisp, ironed handkerchief the moment I succumbed to a pollen-induced sneezing attack.

I’m not especially religious, growing up in a multi-faith household where neither parent was pious. But my father appreciated the quiet and the lack of interruptions afforded during the church service, and told me this many times, as if he was giving me permission not to be devout, but rather encouraging me to be contemplative.

Which is harder and harder to do these days, in this world that commands us to rush and run about and measure our satisfaction and self-worth by the number of things we get done in any day, rather than by the clarity and quality of our thoughts and actions. On the Camino, I have the luxury of little to do, except to walk, and a lot to ponder. I like this pace. I want to keep this pace, to walk through life rather than speed through it. Apropos of this, it’s worth reading the transcript of a commencement speech given by Nipun Mehta – this link, incidentally, sent to me by a close friend of my parents, both of whom seem especially present with me at this moment on the Camino – advising the 2012 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, as they “walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought…to remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

When my Camino started, exactly, probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m on it now. That I started, that I left and returned, that I’m still at it. That every now and then I try to sit still and listen, for the quiet thoughts – or the lack of thoughts – and then, I lift my pack up on my back, look down the trail, content, under the heat of the sun or even in the pissing-down rain, to know this most basic of pleasures: I’m still walking.


May 12 2012

There and Back

There it was, just at the moment I’d started to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn, the discreet yellow arrow pointing the way. If the trail is in an open field, scaling a steep hill or snaking through a forest, it’s hard to lose it. When the Camino winds through a town – even a tiny pueblo – the arrows can be tricky to spot. You have to pay attention. Not that much could go wrong. Some local would spot you – pilgrims, with their fat backpacks, wide-brimmed hats and walking sticks, stand out – and would gently correct your course. If not, enough time would pass without a yellow arrow or one of the blue-and-yellow shells marking the trail, and you’d retrace your steps easily. The Camino is well indicated. No compass required.

Before leaving, the Fiesta Nazi gave me a copy of the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (a.k.a. Dear Sugar), a memoir about a 3-month trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. This was a journey. She hiked from the southern part of California to the Washington state border, alone, carrying on her back a tent, sleeping bag, water filters, cooking gear, food rations and water. Her pack, much more than double what mine weighed. She had to make camp every night and cook for herself, and her trail was truly in the wild, with bears and rattlesnakes, and not so plentifully marked, often requiring mountaineering skills to determine if she was on course or not. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a luxury tour in comparison.

There was some irony in the presentation of the book, an inch-plus-thick hard cover volume (with a heartfelt inscription) handed over just as she was about to inspect the clothing and travel items I’d laid out on my bed. I had two long-sleeved shirts ready to pack. “Only one,” she said. I held up my nightgown. “Sleep in your clothes.” I tried to hide the travel-sized canister of hairstyling mousse and a half filled tub of sticky hair gel under a pile of socks, but she discovered them. “Can’t you get by with only one of these?”

She is, I might add, a card carrying member of Overpackers Anonymous; when we travel together each summer to Pamplona, her suitcase is packed until the seams stretch. But she is also a seasoned trekker, and along with another friend who guides and is no stranger to the Camino, gave me invaluable counsel to go as light as possible. I think that even with a full load of water (I could carry 3 liters) and any fruit or lunch I carried, I never had more than 9 kilos on my back. I managed to wear every piece of clothing I took, and never once wished for something I hadn’t brought.

Even if the Camino isn’t roughing it like hiking in the wilderness, it’s not without rigor. The first leg, a 25K trek over one of the Pyrenees mountains, is an early test. Climbing it is hard on the heels, the descent taxes the toes. About 6K of this I navigated in the rain, but I didn’t even mind. Already in the rhythm of one foot then another, I watched the sky quench the ground’s thirst, stepping over thick black slugs and keeping a lookout for little yellow arrows.

I learned when to start off each morning, not so early as to be with the throngs of up-and-out eager hikers, but not so late that I’d lose those precious cool morning hours. Around 8:30, I’d fall in with the slow trickle of pilgrims, moving along one-by-one or two-by-two. I’d find myself happily alone on the trail for long stretches, until I might come upon a couple of hikers, or else I’d be passed by someone with a faster gait than I, and we’d exchange a quick, friendly greeting, “Buen Camino!” and keep on at our own pace.

Once in a while it feels right to stay in step with a fellow pilgrim. The conversation usually includes banal but anchoring facts: Where are you from? Where did you start the Camino? How far will you go? Sometimes we’d divulge the reasons we’d come to do the Camino: the expectations, reflections, questions and decisions we carry with us as we walk. After a while, a stop under a shady tree for a rest, a snack, a drink of water, and one of us would move on, alone, without apology. There is a constant weaving in and out of being alone and having company, of solitude and camaraderie.

In the evenings I’d hunt down a café-bar on a small side street for a beer and a bite. If I wanted a little company, I knew I could stroll to the main square and spot the faces of pilgrims I’d passed or whom I’d chatted with briefly at a village fountain while replenishing our water bottles. I didn’t know most of their names, but after several days I started to recognize the cast of characters now so familiar and friendly, my pilgrim family. There’d be a sense of relief to see them, like oh good, you made it today, too. Everyone is rooting for you. And you for them, too.

We’d chat about the terrain, the scenery, the heat, our sore feet and other body parts not accustomed to 20+ kilometers a day for successive days. It was good to have the companionship, and also good to leave the laughing crowd behind and stroll to my pensione, usually a modest place, luxurious because it had its own bathroom (I haven’t opted for the dormitory-styled albergues, yet). I’d take the things I’d hand-washed and hung to dry in the late afternoon sun on my matchbook-sized balcony, and hum to myself as I prepared my pack for the next day, a day that, like the one before and the one to follow, had only one errand: to walk from one place to another. And even then, I could walk as slow or fast as I pleased, and I could change the location of my stopping off point at any moment along the way.

After five days and 115 kilometers, I’d probably just found my stride on the Camino, but I was preparing to leave it. All week I’d been answering the same questions, how I’d started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, how I hoped to do the entire Camino in several chunks this spring and next fall, how this first leg would last only a week, to Estella, after which I would return home to Paris for Short-pants‘ orchestra performance. I heard myself say this, again and again, noting that it was without resignation, and possibly even with a bit of pride, that I announced this priority.

“Is your daughter renown?” asked one hiker, surprised that I would interrupt my walk on the Camino to attend a concert.

“To me she is,” I said.

A few years ago I probably would have made the same decision, but not without complaint. Now it feels like it’s just a natural part of my Camino, to return to Paris for Short-pants’ recital, and then to go back and pick up where I left off.

So I am home. My feet are sore, but only mildly blistered. My legs tired, but stronger. My dirty laundry, washed and hanging to dry. The long day of travel – by bus to train to plane – well worth it to be greeted with the enthusiastic hugs of Short-pants and Buddy-roo (and De-facto, too). The concert: the string ensemble played three lovely arrangements. Quick and sweet. Not-always-in-tune or in-time, but as far as I’m concerned, a renown performance.


Apr 1 2012

By the Book

I sliced the eggplant into medium-thin slices, slimmer than the recipe suggested, but more to my bite-sized liking. De-facto would appreciate the efficiency of it; I’d only used one of the eggplants he brought home from the market. Not that our budget is so tight but rather he appreciates an intelligent economy of things.

The recipe called for baking the slices after they’d been breaded. After ten minutes in the oven they looked dull, melancholy. I quickly pulled out a frying pan and lined the bottom with olive oil. When it was hot, I dropped each of the austere eggplant slices in, smiling at the percussion of popping oil. I could sense the vegetable’s heavy sigh of relief, almost stunned at how close it had come to giving up its life to be a flavorless, mediocre meal. The infusion of fats would satisfy its desire to come to a tasty end, and frying made the house smell heartier. Now I was cooking.

Lately, though, I haven’t. The string of extended voyages placed De-facto as the primary care-giver for long stretches of time last fall and winter, and even though I always returned ready to roll up my sleeves, somehow the wooden spoon had been handed off like a relay baton. He’d gotten used to cooking dinner. In the absence of me taking the reins – or one of the reins as we’ve always shared this household task – he kept hold of them. Six o’clock would roll around and I’d ask not, “what do you want for dinner?” but instead, “what do you want to do for dinner?” A distinctly different question. If he’d answered with, “what I want to do is for you to cook,” I’d have complied without complaint. But since he seemed to be on a streak in the kitchen, I didn’t mind one less responsibility.

Except I missed cooking. He’d be at the stove braising a whole chicken before stuffing it and besieging it with potatoes and onions and vegetables. Short-pants would be standing on a small stool on the other side of the kitchen island, slicing mushrooms. I’d want to elbow my way back into that world of salt and butter and herbs, to cover my hands with flour and wince at the just-chopped onions on the cutting board. I didn’t complain, it’s a lovely thing to be cooked for and De-facto’s food fills the belly well. But I missed conjuring up my own culinary creative juices.

Reading Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is what stirred the pot. My friend the Pastry Ace, who also happens to be a pâtissière and chocolatier – I’m sure she could cook anything but those are her current specialties – loaned me the book last fall. As a chef, she loved the story of this woman’s kitchen history, and the detailed tales of meals well conceived and prepared on the route to opening the restaurant Prune in New York city. As an avid reader, she loved the wordsmithing and thought that I might appreciate the writing, too. Having now finished the book I can attest – it’s a delicious read.

It took me months to get into it, though. Not that the first words and chapters aren’t appetizing. But I think many mothers might appreciate this syndrome: little or no time to read for pleasure during the day when the brain is actually alert. Once the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, the laundry folded, and I’ve slipped between the taut white sheets of my bed, it’s pure pleasure to switch on that reading light and open one of the books on the pile. But not even two pages later, my eyes droop and I’m startled awake as the book falls open on my chest. I’m always disappointed not to be able to read further, but the intoxicating serenity of sleep descending makes me smile with my eyes half open as I lean over to shut off the light.

It means I’ll go months before finishing a book, although at any given time I’m in the middle of five or six. And when weekends are too busy, the books gather dust. Until this weekend; I sat in bed for hours devouring the pages of Hamilton’s memoir. Short-pants, who’s reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea for the tenth time – she’s an avid re-reader – climbed in next to me and we turned pages in tandem, wordless side-by-side as we consumed voraciously the words of our novels.

There are several passages in Blood, Bones & Butter that made me close the cover and hold the book close to my heart, like I had to savor it before I could read on. I’d open the book again, re-reading the paragraphs, admiring the combination of words that blended together, comma after comma, phrases pieced together to convey what happened to her and how she felt about it in perfect measure.

My sister gave me a cookbook for Christmas,
The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià, celebrated chef of El Bulli. I’d thumbed through its pages, treasuring the images of the ingredients, and the pragmatic rationale behind each menu. But it went on the shelf, with the other volumes of recipes, because as I said, I haven’t been cooking. That is until I was in the heat of Blood, Bones & Butter, when I pulled that new cookbook off the shelf, determined to use it. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” I told De-facto, stretching open the binding of the unexplored book. I flipped through its pages, again admiring the artistry of these simple meals – or so they were designated: the menus weren’t for Adrià’s Michelin-starred cuisine, but for the meals served to the restaurant staff prior to the dinner service.

And here it happened, what always happens. Inspired by a cookbook dish – in this case a menu – I realize too late that my kitchen is not properly stocked to prepare the recipe. I lack too many key ingredients even to fudge it. Cooking at this caliber requires advance planning, and my spontaneous return to the fold of kitchen service hadn’t include such a plan.

The most creative cooking is probably conceived when we must work with the limitation of what’s left in the pantry. The box of more-than-a-year-old lasagna noodles deserved some attention. There were two eggplants and just enough tomatoes to make a sauce. I called De-facto, who’d run out to do an errand, pleading with him to pick up some mozzarella and parmesan. I turned the oven on and pulled out that wrinkled apron.

The systematic chopping and dicing, the attention needed to carmelize something perfectly, the on-the-spot decisions to follow a recipe or improvise, it’s like an active meditation. Even when things go wrong and the pan is too hot or the croutons don’t transform into breadcrumbs as easily as you’d hoped, the problem solving required forces a mood of concentration and creativity that can be terribly satisfying. It’s nourishing for the soul.

At the table De-facto raved about the aroma and celebrated the novelty of something different to eat. The girls weren’t as inspired. Buddy-roo pushed the large noodle around her plate, eating the steamed broccoli that accompanied it, but laying her fork down on the rest.

“It’s just a big pasta,” said De-facto, “you love pasta.” She scrunched up her nose at the eggplant. It made me think of something my father used to say, when I refused his favorite delicacies, Welsh rarebit and pig’s feet. “You don’t know what’s good,” he’d say.

My lasagna wasn’t by the book, but it was good. It was a tasty change of pace from our habitual menus. It was good to be in the kitchen again. It was also good to finish a good book and return it to a good friend. Now if I could just open that new cookbook again, before I make the next shopping list, maybe there are a few good meals ahead.


Mar 4 2012

Just Us Girls

Feeling proud that I’d conducted the entire business of buying our train tickets in Spanish and not once reverting to French, I pointed the girls toward the train station café. Buddy-roo strutted ahead of me, pulling the miniature rollaway valise – my mother’s old weekend travel case – that I’d packed for all three of us for our overnight trip. I liked the idea of one of my daughters dragging that same little black case behind her, evidence of the good-at-traveling gene successfully passing from generation to generation.

It’s comforting to me, the sound of a suitcase rolling behind you. I like hearing muffled departure announcements in another language that you have to strain to understand, or can’t comprehend at all. I’m at home at a train station café with a perk-me-up-coffee or a celebratory beer, anticipating the voyage ahead. I love to travel, so did my mother, and her mother. I think I’ve succeeded at infecting my girls with the bug, too.

“Why isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“He has to work. But we get to play.” The timing of his job was perfect. The girls were on vacances scolaire, a two-week winter break. We’d headed south, making stops in France and northern Spain, before driving on to Madrid.

“I thought it’d be good to have a little excursion,” I said, “just us girls.”

I’d envisioned the three of us, mother and daughters, traveling light with only our curiosity and a change of underwear, winding our way through narrow and yet unexplored (by us) cobblestone streets. A friend suggested a day trip outside of Madrid. I figured De-facto could use a quiet night to himself – a projection of my own preference for solitude before a job starts, or so he protested, when I informed him of my desire to stay overnight with the girls in Toledo.

Except it wasn’t De-facto who needed the break, it was me. We’d survived, remarkably well, through several long car trips and the zipping and of unzipping suitcases in a different hotel every few days, but I was reaching my limit. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until we were at the station café, waiting for the call to board our train to leave Madrid. The girls battled fiercely about being next to or across from me, a good indicator that they, too, were over-saturated with our 24/7 companionship. My admonishments were met with pouty and insolent responses until eventually we sat at three separate tables. I questioned my sanity about being the sole adult chaperone at this ¾-mark in the vacation.

I looked at the barman and shrugged. “Una caña, por favor.” He nodded, knowingly, and poured me a cold glass of beer.

The train ride was just the ticket to distract them from their argument. The excitement of finding the right track, the correct coach and our designated seats obliterated the conflict that had caused such severe enmity. Thirty minutes later, our first view of the medieval walled city had them holding hands and jumping up and down. They were even good sports while we wandered in search of our hotel, a task made more challenging because of the maze-like pattern of Toledo’s narrow streets, and because we arrived at nearly the same hour as a public demonstration. We had to move fast or get stuck in (or run over by) the mass of marching protestors. I spotted a café-bar just ahead of the crowd; we sprinted to it and stepped inside, just in time to watch the long parade of chanting, banner-carrying protestors passing by.

“Who are all those people?” said Buddy-roo.

“They’re demonstrators. It’s like a manifestation in France, a political protest.”

“What’s a political protest?”

“They’re asking the government to change something that they don’t like.”

Redonculous,” said Short-pants. “Why don’t they just write a letter?”

I explained that many letters had probably been written, but in certain situations a collective demonstration is necessary to get the government’s attention.

“It sounds like a big temper tantrum to me,” she said.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes.” I reminded her of the picture of my mother at the ERA convention in the 1970s. That wasn’t a protest, rather an attempt to make a law that would protect the advances already made by the determined women who’d protested and demonstrated so that women could enjoy the same rights as men. “As women – at least in our culture – the two of you have rights that you’d never have if the women from two and three generations before you hadn’t demonstrated in the streets, just like these protestors.”

“You mean like all those women who couldn’t go to the stoning, unless they were dressed as men?” Buddy-roo said.

We’d stayed two nights at a small rural hotel in the north of Spain that had a curious collection of VHS and DVD movies. The Life of Brian, though perhaps not the most ideal family entertainment, was one of the few movies we could watch in English. There is a scene where the participants at the public stoning of a criminal are women (or Monty Python cast members pretending to be women) dressed up as men. We’d had to explain, several times, the significance.

“Yes,” I said. “But I hope you never find yourself at a stoning, dressed as a man or a woman.”

“That’s redonculous,” said Short-pants, “there are no stonings anymore.”

I didn’t tell her – not yet, I will when she’s a little older – that there are places in the world where stoning still occurs, without anything resembling a fair trial. Or how the rule of law – and its boundary with religion – grows blurrier in my own culture these days. I read with furrowed brow the news about proposed legislation to define the personhood of a just-conceived zygote, or attempts to restrict a women’s access to birth control and advice about reproductive health care. When the term slut is used unapologetically by a national media host to describe someone standing up for her rights to birth control, I wonder if something akin to public stonings – with women as the primary target – aren’t coming back into vogue.

Mostly, I worry that my daughters’ generation could end up with fewer rights than mine. It doesn’t impact them now, living in France. But what if they moved back to the United States? Would Short-pants and Buddy-roo would be willing go to the streets in protest to protect the rights achieved by generations of women before them?

We spent the evening wandering the streets of Toledo, sampling tapas at various bars. The girls had stayed up for the late Spanish dinner hour two nights in a row and no doubt this contributed to their ornery outbursts. My strategy was to get a feel for the city by strolling and snacking on enough tapas to feel like dinner. An early night would replenish the sleep in their banks and permit a better mood for tourist activities the following day. The girls are still just shy of the age to fully appreciate museums and churches, but I’d hoped to do at least a drive-by the cathedral and one of the synagogues and if possible peek into the El Greco museum. If I could squeeze in just that small taste of culture, I might be a bit less ornery too.

They resisted the idea, but once I dragged them inside, they marveled at the vaulted nave of the cathedral. While we’re not a church-going family, we respect the opportunity it provides for contemplation and prayer, so we found a pew, seated ourselves quietly and bowed our heads. After her prayer, Buddy-roo made the sign of the cross and looked up at the likeness of Jesus on the crucifix.

“Hey, that looks like Brian,” she said, recalling their (now favorite) movie. The two of them broke into a whispered chorus of the film’s closing song, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Too tired to protest, I hummed along halfheartedly, hoping – praying – that we always can.


Jan 21 2012

How to Flirt

“Antoine keeps dragging me.”

This is a turn of phrase I’m accustomed to hearing from my contemporaries, reporting about a wildish night out or even just what happened waiting for me to turn up at our favorite café for an afternoon beer. I didn’t expect to hear it from Buddy-roo.

Dragging is a classic example of Franglais. In this case a French word transformed into an English verb by adding -ing. My friends often do this with French words to be funny or sarcastic. Buddy-roo simply didn’t know the equivalent word in English: flirting.

This use of dragueur comes from the French cineaste Jean-Pierre Mocky and his 1959 film, Les Dragueurs, in which an unlikely pair of men, one a serial skirt-chaser, the other more reserved and eagerly seeking a wife, go out on the town in Paris, flirting with every woman they meet. It was called The Chasers when it was released to English-speaking audiences, and if you watch even a short excerpt of the film you’ll see that the title is apt.

The original verb draguer means to dredge or trawl. It’s also used to describe the task of minesweeping. But as a result of the film, the term is more commonly used to describe the act of hitting on someone. As a noun, a dragueur (or dragueuse) is the consummate flirt.

“What about Vincent?” I asked her. Last week he was Buddy-roo’s true love. “Or Ethan?” He was last year’s heartthrob, and it’s my understanding that kisses have even been exchanged between them.

“I still love them,” she shrugged, “but now I like Antoine, too.”

This all sounded too familiar to me, in that transparent, embarrassing way that your children mirror a part of yourself or your past. When I was going through the boxes I’d left in my mother’s basement, I found several diaries from when I was Buddy-roo’s age. I sat on the dusty chair under a single light bulb, reading the pages of dribble and cringing at the recounting of the romantic details of my life at age eight: how Kenny smiled at me in the lunch line, or how Billy said he loved me but I really loved Phil. Would Timmy hold my hand at the roller-skating party? Five pages later, the names were changed but the passion was just as fierce. How fickle, the flame of young love.

How do we learn about flirting? Is it something that just comes naturally? Is it observed or inherited? Short-pants can’t be bothered to think about the boys in her school as anything but classmates, while Buddy-roo intuitively creates a hierarchy of her romantic preferences. I’ve seen her in action. If those boys are dragging Buddy-roo, there’s a good chance they’re merely answering her coquettish call.

Should I talk to my daughters about flirting, its benefits and consequences? I know a bit about the subject. I was named biggest flirt in my high school senior poll and I’ve been told I’m not so bad at barstool banter. I’m a good wingman for my single friends; I’ll start a conversation and leave it for them to finish. One English summary of Les Draagueurs describes how the two bachelors think they’ve struck gold until “it becomes apparent that these two wily lasses only want someone to pay for their drinks.” That’s a motive I understand. It could be my epitaph: She only wanted him to buy her a beer.

My mother never gave me any advice about flirting. I don’t fault her for this. It wasn’t part of the logos of her generation. But I’m wondering if some kind of guidance isn’t appropriate. What would I say? How it’s fun but you have to be careful, how it can be hurtful to someone who takes you more seriously than you intend, or you can inadvertently hint at something you don’t mean to convey and get yourself in a sticky situation. How it’s a dance, but you have to be mindful how you step. Unless drawing attention to it only hastens the 50-yard dash Buddy-roo is already making toward the world of love and lust. Arming her with a bit of information could make her wiser – or just more wicked. Either way, I think we’re flirting with disaster.


Nov 18 2011

Bowing Again

I called first. Yes, the store was open all day, until six. Yes, they had archet d’alto. The woman on the phone – I learned later that her name was Odile – asked me a question that would save us both time: what was I willing to spend? We agreed on a range, which was even a bit less than I had expected to pay. I was glad to know I could get a good viola bow without breaking the bank. I am an amateur musician, so I do not need top-of-the-line. But I was once a decent violist, and mine is a fine enough instrument to merit a bow that will make it sing.

There is a feeling that accompanies you when you carry an instrument, a kind of musical legitimacy that is not only broadcast but that is confirmed within. Walking down the street with viola case in hand, I had a kind of visceral nostalgia – not just a memory, but a replay of the feelings of that long ago time, fierce and full-bodied; I could feel exactly what it was like to be at a rehearsal. The faces of all my orchestra friends right beside me, looking up at the conductor as he scratched his beard just before raising his arms and snapping the baton. Those boys I had a crush on, the ones in the horn section, I could see them all, under that one forever-flickering fluorescent light in the back of the rehearsal hall. I was right there again, with all the harmonies and hormones of my youth orchestra experience, all this just from holding the handle of my instrument case.

It’s been almost two years since my bow broke, ironically only a few months after taking my viola in to be totally refurbished after years of not playing it. Short-pants would practice for her lesson and I’d wish I could pull out my instrument and play, too. Sometimes the pieces she’s assigned have two parts and she’d beg me to play along with her. But without a bow, I could not draw any sound from my fiddle, so I would answer to myself that I must absolutely carve out a few hours the next week to go to a luthier and remedy the situation.

Weeks and months and much more than a year went by.

Last week, Short-pants was practicing a piece for her lesson, a simplified excerpt from the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. She was having a hard time staying in tune, partially, I determined, because she didn’t know the tune. I found a recording on YouTube, and sat her down to listen to it. This particular movement is one that almost always draws tears from me, which perplexed her.

“Mama, why are you crying?”

“Because it’s too beautiful,” I told her. I didn’t know what else to say. How do you explain the way music can move things around inside you?

~ ~ ~

Rue de Rome is lined with stores featuring cellos cases and hanging violins and other stringed instruments in their windows. I’m not sure how I would have known which store to go to had I not a specific recommendation from a friend who’s a violinist. One finds this often in Paris: an entire street dedicated to the same industry, be it stringed instruments or textiles or handbags. How one purveyor differentiates himself from another amongst so many is beyond me.

Odile had laid out six bows for me to try. She vigorously rosined each one while I tuned my instrument. I was worried about playing in front of her. I hadn’t played in a long time. Not only would the instrument be cold and closed, my fingers were rusty. I’d even forgotten to cut my nails. I knew this was silly. I shouldn’t care what this woman thinks of my playing, I told myself. It didn’t help, I was still self-conscious.

I picked up the first bow and positioned my fingers around the frog. I drew the bow across the open strings, just letting them ring. Then I started an old standard, Telemann’s Concerto in G, a piece that every violist has played at more than one recital. I lacked the nimbleness I once possessed; I stumbled through the sequences of eighth notes. No matter, I told myself, just listen to the sound.

“They are all somehow different,” she said, “and you can never explain why or how. You just feel it.”

How true. One bow seemed to make a sound more metallic, and another slid too swiftly across the strings. Another harbored some invisible inertia, even with more rosin it felt heavy, sluggish. The next one was good, okay, but it still didn’t feel like it fit me. And so on. I tried each bow, pushing aside the thought of anyone in earshot, immersing myself in the technical details of each bowing experience, analyzing it – but also feeling it – until I narrowed it down to two favorites.

Odile took my instrument and played for me with each bow to give me the experience of hearing them in use, not from beneath my chin but from a distance. Then she regarded my viola and asked if I liked those strings. And did I feel that the bridge was too high? I shrugged.

“Will you permit me?” I consented to new strings and the shaving-off of my bridge and watched her carry my viola up the stairs to the mezzanine where some artisan performed a magic fix. Fifteen minutes later, she handed my instrument back, and nodded at me to try the bows again.

There is a passage in the JC Bach’s Concerto in C Minor that uses all four strings in a cascading rhythm. With this in mind, I selected one of the bows, and let it fall back and forth on all the strings in long, heavy strokes.

“Push with your finger,” she coached me. I dug the bow into the string and used its entire length. The sound bellowed and danced around me, rich, voluptuous.

“Now try the same thing with the other bow.” I did as she commanded. I forgot that anyone else might be listening, but pressed myself into the notes, bonding with them, breathing them to life. So quickly was I lost in the music, even with my scruffy, out-of-practice sound. I was playing my viola again.

It was clear that the second bow was mine. Like Harry Potter’s wand had chosen him, I too had been selected. I ran my fingers along the polished wooden stick, pressed the taught horsehair up against my nose.

“Hello,” I whispered to it.

~ ~ ~

That night, Short-pants opened her music case and I opened mine, too.

“You got your bow!” she squealed in full delight.

I suggested we play the Beethoven piece; she could play the first part and I’d play the third, so our harmonies would be distinct. We rosined our bows in tandem, and sat side-by-side with bows poised upon the D-string. I looked over at her, prepared to start, except she raised her instrument and dipped it down, the way an accomplished musician knows to lead off an ensemble. We plunged in, stalled and restarted a few times, but soon found our way to be in sync. After only a few tries, we played the half-page of music together start to finish. De-facto and Buddy-roo applauded wildly. Short-pants beamed. And for all the reasons you can surely imagine, I smiled too, keenly aware of just how music can move things around inside you.


Jul 15 2011

Ages Away

We arrived on Day 5. The fiesta of San Fermin is not arranged by the day of the week; people don’t say Thursday or Monday; they speak of calendar days. It starts on Day 6 and ends at midnight on Day 14. This is how the bullfight tickets are numbered, it’s how we talk about when we’ve arrived and when we’ll depart. When you have a reservation at a restaurant, you have a compromiso for lunch at 2:30 on Day 11. That is, if you even dare to make a plan because inevitably the moment you must go in order to keep an appointment, you are in the middle of some other spontaneous moment you don’t want to leave.

Our habit is to arrive the day before the fiesta begins. We meet our landlord in a favorite bar across the street from our piso and buy him a drink. While sipping this first glass of rosado, we keep an eye out for a couple of strapping Aussies to entice to haul our bags up to the sixth floor in exchange for an invitation to return one morning later in the week to watch the encierro from our balcony. We’ve made a few friends that way, and given a few first-time-at-the-fiesta-boys a chance to see the run before they try. Most important, we’ve preserved our backs for the days of bar-standing and wild-dancing ahead.

There is a bullfight the night before the fiesta starts: the novillada for young matadors just coming of age. Our gang of early-arrivers gathers and greet and go to the bullring. It’s odd to see each other in regular colored clothing; it’s not until the next day at noon, during the opening Chupinazo, when the gun goes off that an entire city dressed in white ties red pañuelos around their necks, raises a glass or a bottle and the fiesta begins. The back balcony of the opening party we usually attend looks out at a cathedral with an enormous bell that rings only a few occasions during the year, this being one of them. After the noon gun, we race back to the back balcony to hear it toll. The sun is high in the sky, the Navarran hills peak in the distance, the fiesta has started but all of it is still before me: days of dance, drink and delight.

Later that evening, if we’re privileged enough to have a ticket to the bullfight, we migrate with the masses toward the corrida. There is kind of an electric buzz as everyone enters the arena, their white clothes still clean and pressed as hugs and kisses are passed around, warm salutations for those seated in the nearby seats, fiesta friends not seen since this time last year. The habitual questions: When did you arrive? When will you leave? Some people surprised that I can stay so long, until Day 12. Others, more seasoned, dismayed that I must leave before the fiesta is finished. Each year it pains me to leave early, but Short-pants celebrates her birthday on Day 13, and I refuse to dampen her party by not appearing. But now is not the time to think of my departure. I scan the bullring, a marvel of white and red, I think about the week ahead, a stretch of six days and nights with revelry and music and laughing still in front of me, it seems like plenty of time, the end of the fiesta for me is ages away.

The days of the fiesta pass. Some rituals are strictly observed and others spontaneously abandoned. Many fiesta friends, it seems, were celebrating milestone anniversaries this year. Mother Theresa, close friend and part of the cuadrilla I run with fêted her 10th year of attending the fiesta. A good friend was honored several times because this was his 50th consecutive year at San Fermín. Another counted this as his 40th anniversary. Then there were new friends who joined the debauchery this year for the first time, falling into our circle and marking (hopefully) the first of what might turn into their long run of fiestas.

Each day of the fiesta is intense, living a week’s worth of emotions in 24 hours, the highs and lows like a giant sine wave. I had moments of pure alegria: listening to those cathedral bells ring with friends on that back balcony after the opening gun; one afternoon happening upon a few people lying in the grass with their feet raised in the air against a fence, joining them and then, surprised to hear their voices raise together in Basque folksongs; dancing wildly until 3 am, or all the night and sleeping through breakfast; doubling in hysterics at jokes I didn’t even understand – something about the Bronze Age – just because the laughter of my friends was too contagious not to join them. The lows, of course, as crushing as the highs were exhilarating: a misunderstanding with a friend, a missed lunch invitation, a wave of fatigue so fierce that leaving the fun of the fiesta to sleep for a while is the only recourse.

Before I know it, it’s Day 12. At breakfast, I look up and down the table of friends and consider that soon I will have to leave them. All that nonsense about ages to go before my departure vanishes, in what feels like the single wave of a matador’s capote, the week has flashed by and I’m already saying my goodbyes. Polite nods to neighbors at the bullring, hugs across the bar to barmen who’ve served me well all week, tears and long embraces with friends I won’t see for another year. The sound of my suitcase wheels on the stones as I roll it down the street away from the fiesta while it rages behind me – this is the saddest ballad I sing every year.

A taxi ride to the frontier and a train ride to France is just long enough for two catnaps that allow a reasonably cheerful arrival. De-facto, who’s survived two weeks as a single parent, folds me into his arms. I get the run-and-hug-and-cling welcome from my daughters, who seem notably taller than when I saw them last. I return to the quiet of the country house, lingering morning cuddles in bed with the girls, the smell of a baking birthday cake in the oven. The boom-boom-boom of the fiesta seems far away, and it is, I suppose, until next year, when those six days will once again stretch ahead of me with all their promise, and the end of the fiesta will feel, once again, ages away.