Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
leopard
It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


Nov 24 2013

The Plastic Question

The girls seem to have forgiven me for breaking the news about Santa Claus, but this means that their Christmas wish lists are now addressed specifically to me. At least the dialogue has changed. I always felt uneasy perpetuating the you’d better be good because Santa’s elves are watching myth. Our discourse now is a more rational one about how many toys you really need and the santa_on_a_springdifference between having things and doing things. Last year we took a trip over the holidays, so the gift booty was limited to just a few items before we left and one or two things to open on Christmas day. De-facto and I kept repeating how the biggest present was the adventure we were having together. Short-pants bought into this idea completely. Buddy-roo was happy to have the trip, but felt her Christmas had been a little thin.

It started, this season, with Short-pants’ initiative to create her Christmas list, delivered to me with a disclaimer that it was a long list so I’d have choices; she didn’t expect to get everything she’d asked for. She’d written down about a dozen specific book titles, plus a Spanish dictionary and an herb book (?). Short-pants is always the easiest to shop for; a few balls of yarn and a book and she’s delighted. But that’s her chemistry. She slept on a mattress on the floor, and kept her underwear and socks in shoe boxes for the first two months we lived here. When I finally got her a bed and a dresser she threw her arms around me in appreciation. About the bookshelves I bought for her, she said, “Mama, that was more than I ever imagined to have in my room.”

Once Buddy-roo saw her older sister’s note on my desk, she needed to write one, too. The objects of desire on her Christmas wish list are considerably different: a Barbie dream house (with an elevator), the Playmobile castle (at 197 euros: ouch!), an iPod Touch, an iPad Mini, and a dog. For her birthday, just last month, we gave her a the simplest iPod, the iPod Shuffle, pre-loaded with songs I knew she’d like (Best Song Ever) or that I thought she should like (Bohemian Rhapsody). My strategy is to inch her into the technological gadgets, stretching our budget, and her attention span, as long as possible. Last year for her birthday she begged for a manual typewriter, which was no simple task to procure. The reason she still uses it as that she doesn’t have so many other toys to distract her. But despite her love for this new little iPod – it’s great to see and hear her with her earbuds on, rocking out with herself – she always asks for more, bigger and better. It’s in her nature. She always wants what she doesn’t have.

We’ve tried using her hunger for things as an incentive for doing her school work, but it always backfires. The reward we promise isn’t based on grades or scores, it’s about being responsible about her homework, bringing home the right bright_ideabooks, getting started on her own each night without whining or dilly-dallying. She starts out all excited, inspired that simply by being conscientious she might get that dollhouse, or that gadget, or a dog. Three days later, fatigued by the effort, she gives in to her lazy impulses and proclaims that she’ll never get what she wants because the work is too hard and it’s not fair and we’re the cruelest parents in the world.

Which was fine with me in the past because I didn’t really want to give her any more gadgets or any more toys with little plastic pieces, and our apartment was too small for a dog. But now I actually would like to have a dog and here in Barcelona we live close to the mountain, which means a great, open, outdoor place where a doggie could run and frolic and do what dogs are supposed to do. But we can’t reward her current school behavior so at the moment we are pet-less.

~ ~ ~

Two new friends from Buddy-roo’s class have invited her to work with them on an exposé for extra-credit. The subject they’ve chosen to explore: the large toxic plastic island forming and floating in the Pacific ocean. Her research involved collecting images for their poster board – leave it to Buddy-roo to volunteer to do the easiest part – so I set her up at my computer and she clicked on Google images to search for pictures of the floating plastic. What she found was disturbing: a mass of plastic containers, bottles and bags, partly deteriorated by the salt and sun but never fully degradable, pressed together in the middle of nowhere by ocean currents, forming a continent of debris that is killing the wildlife around it and bleeding toxic chemicals into the sea water and into the fish that are eaten by the fish we eat.

We scrolled through the images, selecting the ones she wanted to print and show to her schoolmates. She was disgusted by the volume of plastic garbage that has accumulated. She kept scanning through the images, horrified by the photographs of animals choked by or wrapped in pieces of plastic. It was the turtle whose shell was malformed – it looked as though it had a Barbie doll waist because it had grown within the ring of a plastic six-pack carrier – that made her cry.
Nat_Geo_ocean_predator
“Those poor animals,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “how can we let that happen?”

I didn’t have an answer.

It must have stayed with her all night, those images, that question. The next day, on the way to school, she brought it up.

“How come they keep making all that plastic? It’s killing the animals. Why don’t they just stop?”

“It’s all about money,” I told her.

It made me think of The Graduate, when Benjamin, who has no idea what to do with his future, is cornered by one of his parents’ friends offering unsolicited advice: “One word. Plastics.

“Money?” she said.

“I bet you the men who run those big plastic factories were outraged about the pollution on the planet when they were ten years old, just like you are. But then they grew up and got jobs and got married and had families they had to support. Little by little they forgot what they knew when they were ten, and they started taking jobs and making decisions based on how much money they could make, because they wanted buy their kids what they needed: food and clothes and toys…like big, expensive dollhouses, made out of plastic.”

We walked along quietly. I could tell she was thinking about it, weighing her anger at the mounds of plastic in the ocean and what it was doing to our environment with her ardent desire for that overpriced plastic dollhouse.

“If you buy me that that castle, or that dollhouse,” she said, “I’ll play with it for years, and I promise to recycle it.”

We’d arrived at the gate of the school courtyard. She reached up and kissed me before running in to find her friends. I watched her as she joined their circle, opening her school bag to show them the images we’d printed, field_of_princessestelling her friends, I gathered, about the research she’d done. You could see the anger and sadness on her face. She was animated, outraged. But is she outraged enough to stop asking for plastic toys?

Are any of us outraged enough to stop using plastic? Even if we are, can we slow or stop its production? Could we function in this plastic-wrapped society without ever touching plastic? The throw-away economy promised us convenience and delivered. But what do we do, now, with the environmental mess it’s created? That’s another question I can’t answer.


Nov 7 2013

Home Away from Home

I needed a knife to test the cake, to see if it was done. The oven door open, I reached behind me, to the top middle drawer in the kitchen island, an automatic gesture after using that kitchen for twelve years. My hand landed on cardboard boxes of biscuits, crackers and grains instead of the cutlery tray I expected to find. The drawer is no longer the silverware drawer. I had to clear the old memory and replace it with new information. Our tenant has made himself at home in our apartment, as he should. Part of that includes organizing the kitchen to fit his logic. I don’t mind and many of his alterations are improvements. But even after several days of operating in the re-arranged kitchen, I couldn’t override my old habits. I kept reaching into drawers and cupboards and finding something other than what I’d reached for. Those mental pathways are etched in my brain like deep ravines.
red_autumn_leaves
We’d driven into Paris in the late morning, managing to avoid the rush hour and also to get to our street before it was infested with the pedestrian tourists that accumulate around lunch time, making it impassible. It was all familiar: turning the key in the street door that opens into the cobblestone corridor with the leafy courtyard – now with red leaves that I love to see every year at this time – up four flights of stairs to our door and into the apartment that for so many years, until two months ago, we called home.

Because our tenant is heroic and also a good friend, he understands that from time to time we want to come back to Paris, to see people and stay connected. He organized a trip last week that would coincide with our desire to come visit, so we could stay in the apartment while he was gone. One of our objectives: to collect another van-load of personal possessions to move to Barcelona. Buddy-roo was thrilled because it meant that she could celebrate her birthday with her old gang of Paris friends. She’d had a very small party with a few Barcelona friends before the school break, involving hot dogs and pony rides. We had a family celebration at the country house; she’d been a good sport about spending most of her actual birthday in a car. She’d been missing her Parisian friends – me, too – so I organized for her a little boum (that’s a French dance party) and invited not only a handful of her friends, but their parents too.

By the time we carried our things up to the apartment, I had only a few hours to run errands and shop, decorate for the party, set up the music playlist and bake a cake. I found myself running at the familiar Parisian pace: a brisk walk without time to spare, to the department store, the pharmacy and the grocery, before running home to crack eggs in a bowl and cook up a cake. The cake pan wasn’t anywhere to be found, not even in its usual spot, so I had to rifle through a box of kitchen stuff stashed behind the couch. Luckily I’d hidden the birthday candles on the top shelf of an obscure cupboard, so Buddy-roo’s cake had candles to blow out.

We were still downloading Ylvis from iTunes and blowing up balloons when the doorbell started ringing. The younger guests batted the balloons around the room while the older guests congregated around the kitchen island drinking wine and telling stories (completely unaware that the contents of its drawers were completely changed). It felt good to be withpeace_flowers old friends, good to touch base and stay in their circle. It felt natural to be there; and why shouldn’t it? It was our home until just recently. We haven’t been gone long enough, really, to feel like strangers when we return. Yet standing there I knew something had already shifted. It still felt like home, but I knew it really wasn’t.

The rest of the week ran at the same pace, with dozens of errands and appointments. I saw the beauty nurse and my coiffeur. The girls saw their pediatrician – a gentle, lovely man who is part Groucho Marx and part Ghandi – because we needed a health certificate from him for their Spanish residency. It was worth the two hours spent in his waiting room because he is a wonderful man and the girls love him so. And it never hurts to have a check-up. If we stay in Barcelona, we’ll need to find new doctors and care-takers, but for now it’s good to inject a little of the familiar into all the change and tumult in our lives these last months.

Moving is a messy experience and doing it as we have, in small bites, a trip at a time, has its benefits except each time is just as messy as the last. By the end of the week, the apartment was turned upside down, again, with boxes and bubble wrap strewn about, several packing tasks concurrently half-completed and the clock ticking down fast before the return of our tenant and our departure back to Spain. There wasn’t enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do – my ambition to sort through that office cabinet or empty that medicine cupboard was greater than the time allotted. Or I stopped trying to do it all and just let it rest while I slipped out to my favorite café to sit on the corner stool and smile at the barmen while my children paraded around the bar in their thrown-together Halloween costumes.

De-facto can pack a car like nobody’s business, and in his usual fashion he bull-dogged every box and basket and table and chair that had been designated for this trip into the small van we’d hired. The girls are used to it. They don’t even blink at being squeezed into the back seat with suitcases stuffed beneath their feet. Nine hours later, they took their places in assembly-line form, unpacking the car and getting things on the street, into the elevator and into our apartment. bottles_cans_in_order

It must have been after 10 pm when we’d brought in the final box, and though I’d risen at 6 am that morning to finish packing and cleaning what used to be home in Paris, I had to start unpacking right away. I needed to put the kitchen right, adding the second wave of dishes and utensils that hadn’t been essential when we moved two months ago – things like my mother’s pancake-batter bowl, my favorite serving platters, the champagne flutes – but now would make the kitchen complete. This snowballed into an entire kitchen cupboard re-org, but when I was done, later than midnight, I had the feeling that the kitchen wasn’t so funky after all and maybe it was starting to feel a little bit like home.

There’s still a lot to do to pull our apartment together, furniture to purchase, pictures to hang and shelves to fill with books and objects d’art. But for the first time I had the feeling that this apartment in Barcelona could be home, that it felt good to be here, good to be at home away from home.


Oct 29 2013

A Fall Fix

It was strange to be driving north, away from the sunny skies into cloudier cover and cooler temperatures. When the windshield wipers were required, De-facto and I glanced sideways at each other in the front seat, no doubt thinking the same thing: why are we driving away from the better weather? balloon_bcn_buildingUsually, for the Toussaint fall half-term break, it gets a little warmer and a little sunnier as we drive south toward our country house. This will take some getting used to, going the other way.

The drive is almost twice as long from Barcelona as it is from Paris, though we are a family for which time in a car is not a burden. Our children have been weaned on long car drives, so if they do ask, “are we there yet?” it’s only to mimic a conversation between Donkey and Shrek on their journey to Far Far Away. De-facto’s sister made us a few playlists, years ago, and these have become our standard driving music. We all know the words to the songs, and the order of the tracks, by heart.

We stopped at the Supermarket just off the highway and picked up some staples we’d need for meals for the few days we plan to stay in the country, and still made it to our old stone house before dusk closed in. It’s always easier to open the house in the daylight, though it hadn’t been officially closed yet. De-facto was here for an overnight in September; he couldn’t remember if he’d left the electricity on or not. If it had been shut off, we didn’t know if we might arrive to a mold-ridden refrigerator. It’s happened before, when the last people out forgot to leave fridge door open before cutting the electricity and closing the house. It took hours of cleaning with a scouring pad and a lot of cursing, not even under my breath.

The fridge had been left closed, but it was nice and chilly inside, thanks to a steady flow of electricity. I removed the inedible food that had been languishing for weeks and restocked it with the groceries just purchased. We’d cleared our most of the furniture from the main room of the house before leaving in August – if moving to a new city weren’t enough, we’re also in the process of renovating the country house kitchen, a project that after many years I’d finally convinced De-facto to support so I wasn’t about to give it up no matter how bad the timing – so the room was empty but for the ancient appliances. We’d have to move the table and chairs back into the kitchen so we could function for a few days.

“Quick, everybody,” De-facto shouted from upstairs, “Bring cups!”

I had no idea why he wanted us to bring him cups, but his appeal was urgent, so I scrambled around, trying to remember where I’d stored all the cups when we’d dismantled the kitchen at the end of the summer. After opening three ladder_up_to_walldifferent boxes, I remembered we stashed them on the shelves in a back room. I grabbed three, and the girls and I ran upstairs.

A large paint bucket, placed on top of the wardrobe in our bedroom to catch the drips from a minor leak that emerged last year, was filled to the brim with rain water that had leaked in and accumulated over two months. It was too full for him to move it. Cup by cup, in assembly line form, we emptied enough of the water until he could lift it without spilling the contents and carry the bucket to the bathroom to dump it out. The wall behind the leak was soaked, as was the floor and the carpet beneath the wardrobe. The ceiling between the skylight and the wet wall was covered with black splotches of mold. When it rains, it pours. In our case, inside.

The leak was no longer a minor one. We wondered if the kitchen renovation project would be stalled while we replaced the roof instead. But our neighbor, who’s prepping the walls and ceiling for the new kitchen cabinets, stopped by and peeked upstairs at the at the skylight and the ceiling. He returned minutes later with a ladder and some tools and found the problem that had eluded De-facto on his roof-top romps over the summer. Within an hour, he declared the leak repaired. Since his proclamation, a few days ago, it’s rained with significant force, and the bucket remains dry. The fix, at least for now, is a good one.

~ ~ ~

I was missing the autumn. It’s my instinct, about now, to put on a sweater. Barcelona’s warmer weather hasn’t required it. I’m not complaining – I’m looking forward to the milder winter ahead – but it wasn’t until Short-pants and I went out for a walk down the lane and into the woods that I remembered how much I relish these few October weeks, just after Indian summer and before the gray, windy November days settle in. The leaves, though not as vibrant as in New England where I grew up, are still a colorful range of yellow and gold hues. The air is crisp, the wind not yet cool, but brisk, gusty. All of a sudden I’m somewhere else: raking in the yard of my childhood home, under that old split-leaf maple, and then jumping into the pile of leaves; or climbing up the bleachers at a home-team high-school football game; or walking up the brick sidewalk near my college campus, smelling and feeling the end and the beginning of something, all at once. Autumn is for me the most nostalgic season of the year. Each season has its good memories, but the fall conjures my favorite ones.
grapes
Not just from my childhood, from this country house, too. Though this fall’s busy schedule didn’t permit it, in previous years we’ve made mid September weekend trips to harvest the grapes and take advantage of the last days of Indian summer. (A few stray bunches grapes remained on the vines this year, it would have been a good harvest. But instead the birds enjoyed the fruits of my labor.) We make it a point to come every October, taking advantage of the school break to enjoy a few more country days before we close the house for winter (when we leave the fridge door wide open). When the kids were little we constructed some very frightening Halloweens here, and it was by far better to trick or treat down the dark and spooky country road then to make stops the places we’d planted candy in our Paris neighborhood. It’s not fancy, our country house, but it’s a (mostly dry) roof over our heads near open fields and wild forests. It’s the source of good, strong memories from every season, but the ones in the making right now – a leaky roof and a leafy walk – gave me just what I needed: a quick fix of fall.


May 30 2013

In-Flight Etiquette

She side-stepped through the aisle with a young child in one hand, another child in her arms, both her shoulders burdened with multiple bags: a purse, a carry-on, a diaper pouch, a bag of toys and books. The standing child, maybe four years old, stared at me with round, brown eyes. The carried child was kicking wildly and had already started to fuss. The woman inched toward her designated seats just as these precariously perched bags fell to her elbow and the child in her arm began to cry.
eye_up
Like many people, I roll my eyes when a family with kids comes down the aisle, willing them to continue past my row and far beyond to the nether regions of the plane. A beat later I remind myself what it was like, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo were young babies and we toted them with us to the states to see family or to go on some wild adventure. Short-pants took her first consecutive steps – becoming an official toddler – in the Charles de Gaulle airport lounge while waiting to board a flight to Johannesburg. De-facto and I were determined that having small children wouldn’t hamper our travel habit, so we were those parents, the ones dragging their children on flights to far-flung places, the source of many eye-rolls by many other passengers, I’m sure.

That’s how our girls learned to be good travelers. But even the best-behaved children reach a threshold on an airplane. I survived many long flights because of the kindness of strangers who’d entertain one child while I took the other back to the bathroom, or who just played peek-a-boo for five minutes so I could manage a few bites of my dinner. This is why, after I permit myself the inward groan with the rest of the passengers, I swallow hard and offer up a big smile that’s meant to entertain the child and reassure the parent. Or, as I did on last week’s flight when I discovered the woman with the two children in tow was seated behind me, I stand up and offer to help stow bags or distract the kids while the parents, already visibly exasperated, settle in.

~ ~ ~

The man sitting directly in front of me pushed his seat back so abruptly that my papers and books fell to the floor and I am certain that had my laptop been open on the tray, it would have snapped in half. My belongings spilled beneath the seat and across the aisle. He was oblivious to the chaos he’d created. I stood up to gather my things and tapped him on the arm.

“Sir,” I said, “You have every right to put your seat back, but it would be nice if you’d turn around and check with me first, so I could be prepared.”
respect_peace_nature
His grunted apology was half-hearted. But I’d won the respect of the passengers around us and after this I noticed several lovely social exchanges occurring, brief but civilized acknowledgments and non-verbal negotiation of your-space-and-mine prior to seats pushing back to a reclining position.

If I ran an airline I would make etiquette part of the flight attendant’s on-the-runway security announcements. I’d include a segment on how to share space in the overhead luggage racks, and how to remove bags from those compartments in a non-hazardous manner. It would include where to put your elbows and how to share a row with other passengers. It would also include extremely specific instructions about make eye contact with the passenger in the seat behind you before pushing your seat into a reclining position. I might also add this: Be nice to parents traveling with children; they feel worse about their crying child than you do.

(I’d also tell the pilot and the purser to be short and sharp with their intercom interruptions, especially if it has to happen in two languages. I don’t need a rundown of the duty free boutique specials, nor do I care to hear a long-winded explanation of our flight path. Just shut up please so I can get back to my in-flight movie.)

~ ~ ~

An Australian friend used to make a yearly trip back and forth between Perth and Paris with her young children. Once she and her husband were assigned three seats together and one solo seat ten rows further back. She’d asked a passenger if he would switch seats so they might sit in two pairs, one adult with one child. Her offer was an aisle seat for an aisle seat, and still, the young man refused to move.
svp_ok
“Look at me.” She spoke politely, but insisted he make eye contact with her. “I understand that you don’t want to move, and that’s okay. But someday, if you ever have children of your own, I just want you to remember me.”

Ten minutes later he came up and tapped her on the shoulder and agreed to change seats.

I relish the lengthy, quiet privacy my trans-Atlantic flights permit, and I am so glad I don’t have to travel with toddlers anymore. But I open my heart to parents enduring long flights with their young children, and do my best to support them, even if it’s only with a smile to convey that I am not annoyed, even if maybe I would prefer not to have screaming kids nearby. It occurred to me too late on the last flight – but it might come in handy next time – I could help one of these frenzied moms by offering to take her fussing child on my lap, and let him kick away to his heart’s delight, right against the seat back reclined just in front of me.


May 5 2013

In our Nature

I stuck my head out the bathroom window to see the girls playing in front of the house. Buddy-roo was prancing in the grass as Short-pants paced in a circle with her hands up in the air. They talked to each other in exaggerated voices, though occasionally Buddy-roo would assume her normal tone to bark an order at her sister, directing the theater of their play. Or the other way around, as each took turns in and out of role, suggesting the next step of their game, pure improvisation as children do best.

I watched for several minutes, looking down on them from the second floor of our country house, observing the choreography of their make-believe, catching pieces of dialogue.

“…and now my wings are growing back.”

“Penelope’s mechant attempts to block your entry to the sacred circle have failed, thanks to my powers.”
country_house_gate
I could not contain a pollen-induced sneeze – spring in the country – and both their dirty blonde heads turned upwards toward the upstairs window in which I was perched.

“Mama!” This shout came in tandem, with glee. Even after just 45 minutes, it’s like they haven’t seen me in days.

“We’re playing fairies!”

“Look at my wings!”

I listened to the convoluted explanation of their play, which to be honest wasn’t that interesting but their animated exuberance deserved my attention. It was impressive, this lengthy and specific scenario, conjured up from nothing except the wildflowers bloomed in the tall wet grass on a partly sunny morning. That’s one of the reasons I love coming to the country house; there is no better stimulant for their imagination then a little bit of nature.

Not that they don’t tumble into their imagined skits and games at home in Paris, but here in the country it happens more often, for longer and with greater detail and depth. They disappear for hours in the fields and forest, running back into the house and throwing themselves against me, their clothes and hair cold and fresh from being out in the springtime air.

~ ~ ~

There are lilacs across the road, in full bloom this week. The bush is tall and unruly; we never quite get to pedicuring the trees and bushes on that part of our property. The dark lavender flowers look like a fireworks display gone awry. I stand at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes and smiling at the purple blooms. My mother had a lilac bush, pruned regularly and evenly, that tickled the posts of the front porch of her house. It was, along with a bed of daffodils near the road and row of peonies on the side yard,lilacs_up the announcer of spring. These early flowers preening in their finest glory on that first sunny May morning, when we’d step outside and see and smell that spring was fully upon us and the summer was at its heels.

Just looking at the sloppy lilac tree across the road puts me instantly on my mother’s porch and back into my own childhood, when I would run off beyond the farms and the woods behind our house, out of her sight, into my own world of fairies and forest friends, conjured up by the best playmate in the world, mother nature.

Many years ago, I took one of my elegant Parisian friends to visit my mother. She was charmed by the country surroundings and wanted to know what my childhood was like. Instead of telling her, I showed her the circuit that used to occupy me for hours: from the back porch, crossing the side yard, beyond the pond, through an apple orchard and a vineyard, into the forest and back out into a clearing around a large pillbox-shaped water reservoir, against which you could throw stones to simulate the sound effects from Star Trek. Then back into the woods and down a steep slope to cross the creek and climb up again to Wagon Wheel Springs, named so by my neighbors and I because of a wooden-spoked wheel they lay in the debris nearby, through a field of tall grain, arriving on the other side of our house and landing, happily, on the stoop of our front porch. Last month, after reading one of my posts about walking alone on the Camino, this same friend wrote me a message remembering that visit and our hike through my childhood.

“It must be in your nature,” she said.

~ ~ ~

“I’m not going to be back for a while,” Short-pants ran into the kitchen, breathless, spitting the words out quickly. “I heard a bird calling my name.”

She dashed out the door and disappeared. I had my hands in mozzerella and ricotta so I couldn’t move to the window to see which way she’d run to answer the call of her avian suitor. I realized I didn’t need to know. In Paris, I like knowing which direction she’s gone. In the city, she has destinations. She walks to school, she walks home. She walks to the boulangerie to get a baguette and back. There’s a start and a finish, and she’s still young enough that I need to monitor both points. Here in the country she has her own forest and several fields, a big lane to run down and baby sheep to visit and birds to answer to. I don’t need to know which direction she’s run because they’re all good.

~ ~ ~
table_out_back
Yesterday friends visited for lunch. They came with a pack of kids. We were eleven around the tables set up out back, on the terrace of stones, in the sun. Four adults were outnumbered by kids of ages ranging from 5 to 12, the youngest among them a set of twins. In Paris this would be an uncomfortable guest list. At the country house, you just pull out another table, add another place and make an extra quiche. After the meal, the kids escaped from the table and disappeared into field and forest. The only time we had to involve ourselves in their play was to caution them, when all seven were at the same time swinging, climbing or perched on our rickety old swing-set. From the table where we lingered with a bottle of rosé – an announcer of summer here in France – we could see that the metal structure might topple at any moment. A word of warning and the children scattered themselves to other places in the yard and beyond, the swing-set only one of a dozen places for them to run and play.

Yet another reason why we have a country house: so I can take another wedge of cheese and refill my glass of wine, in the company of good friends, with my feet in the grass and the sun on my back, while my children occupy themselves, elsewhere. This, I guess, is in my nature, too.


Mar 31 2013

And in the End

I’d given up being organized by the time I got to this part of the Camino. At the beginning, I had to think through my itinerary in order to squeeze it into our family schedule and wrap it around my birthday celebration. But during these last two weeks I was very much in the groove of landing where I landed, sorting out stopping points and sleeping accommodations when it was time to stop or time to sleep. I had all my gear all the time – despite the pre-Camino back injury I never needed to use a bag transport service – this meant I was at liberty to call it a day, or continue on, whenever I wanted.
menacing_sky
After Santiago, I’d heard, there were fewer places to stay and many might still be closed for the winter. I called ahead to a guest house/albergue in Augapesada, 11k from Santiago, to be sure it was open. This would be a respectable distance to walk given a mid-afternoon departure after the pilgrim’s mass. The sky was a threatening shade of gray, and I wanted some assurance of a bed under dry cover. The next option wouldn’t be for another 10k and I wouldn’t make it there before it was dark. I’m told you can always knock on any door that has a shell on it, along the route, to ask for help,or shelter. I think that’s to be saved for a real emergency, not for poor planning.

The gray clouds turned out to be much more than threatening and I arrived at the front door of the albergue thoroughly soaked, apologizing to the proprietor for the mud I was about to drag in. He was unperturbed about my wet backpack and my dirty boots, and showed me not to a room of bunk beds, but to a room with a princess canopy hanging from the ceiling, draped over a big bed with a thick, quilted cover. After a hot shower, I was invited to make myself at home in the salon in front of the fire while his wife did my laundry and cooked me dinner. I ended up being the only boarder that night, and it felt a little bit like I was in the tender care of surrogate parents.

The next morning, my host asked how I’d slept. “Como los meurtos,” I said. Like the dead.

Apropos, since this part of the Spain is called Costa da Morte, or the death coast. The pagans believed that this is where souls went before ascending into heaven. Before Columbus and Magellan proved that the earth was round, it was believed that this was the end of the world, and to go out to sea beyond the horizon would mean sailing over the edge to your death, the ultimate end.

I was merely prolonging my ending, continuing from Santiago to Finisterre. I knew another end was in sight, at the coast, but I also knew it would take a few more days of walking to accept it. That’s the thing about poles_markerendings, they’re hard to accept. Even when you know what’s next. At the end of a trip, you’re sad that it’s over, but you know what you have to do: go home, do your laundry, get back into your routine. When you finish a big project, you grieve at the end of it, even if you’re a bit relieved. Maybe you don’t exactly know what’s ahead but you have an idea, and soon enough the next assignment, vague at first, takes shape. But when you come to the end of your life, you don’t know what’s next. Is there a heaven? A next life? Is it just the end – that’s what my mother thought – before an eternity of nothing?

Funny, this Camino, a religious path for so many people, turned out to be an existential one for me. Someway along the way, between O Cebreiro and Portomarín, I kind of wanted to know, like, why we’re here.

I’m not the first to ask this question and I won’t be the last. And it’s not that I haven’t asked it before, although I’d wager it was a more intellectual query. This time it had a different timbre. Walk 500 miles across the north of Spain, you have some time to think, maybe about things you thought before, but you think about them longer because you don’t get interrupted. This presents an opportunity to pursue a string of thoughts much further than usual. And that’s how I got here, during the last days into Santiago and the days beyond, toward Finisterre, with this what’s the meaning of it all story. I imagine this sounds ridiculous and navel gazing to those of you reading this, but truly, you do get a little crazy, walking for fifteen days by yourself.

Maybe it was the rain. After five rainy days in a row, even though I’d surrendered to it, even though I didn’t even try to stay dry, even though I knew everything I was wearing would be soaking wet by the time I got where I was going, I still had to ask myself, why are you doing this? I suppose with so much time to think about it, that very simple why expands to a larger, metaphorical and then metaphysical why. Every step I’ve taken from the French border to the coast of Spain is very meaningful to me now. But in a hundred years, nobody will know or care. In the end, what’s the point? Why are we doing this walk on the planet? Why do we even bother?
camino_cross
The religious view on this, one I respect as comforting to many but unsatisfying to me, attributes it to the will of a higher being. But why? The reincarnationists would have that we live over and over again to learn our life lessons. But why? Scientists say we are the product of a big bang that over billions of years led to life forms that crawled out of the muck and evolved into the sentient creatures we have become. But why? No matter which I might believe or understand to be true, the reason for the time spent on this earth – at least for me – is still unanswered.

This isn’t the question I started out with, in those early, organized days of the Camino, when I wanted to walk and think about how to make the most of the rest of my life after a milestone birthday. I imagined that the question would evolve, and it’s true that several questions emerged along the way. But the more time that passed, and the more I played by this land where you land playbook, the more I landed back this unanswerable question.

I walked 90 more kilometers beyond Santiago, more than half of that in the rain, the other half with the threat of rain. I slept in a damp, drafty, heatless albergue, on a bunk crammed in a room of snoring, coughing pilgrims. I found dryer, comfortable shelter, too, like the one with the princess curtain, or another, where I was all by myself in a room of eight beds. I navigated trails of deep mud, hopped over puddles nearly the size of a pond. I walked alone the entire time, the only pilgrims I passed, but for those I met at the albergues, were the ones coming the other way, returning to Santiago. This was the perhaps the most isolated leg of my entire trip. I experienced moments of private euphoria as never before, and moments of aloneness that were neither good nor bad, just profound. Every night I was relieved to remove my pack and take off my boots. Every morning, champing at the bit to put my pack back together and and set off for the next day’s walk.
careful_on_the_moors
I landed in Finesterre on Good Friday. I crossed the moors that morning in the fog. I could smell and hear the ocean before I could see it. As I descended the wet, sandy and rocky slopes to the coast, the Camino gave me a last rain shower to make sure I got wet, one final involuntary baptism. That night the procession of the Saints, the Spanish tradition for celebrating Easter, passed by the window of my pensión, a parade of cloaks and hoods carrying saints and crosses like a funeral march to mark the end that comes before a new beginning.

The next morning, a huge surprise and a great gift, outside my window: sunshine. The real deal, with blue sky and good clouds, the kind that don’t portend imminent rain. This morning’s walk a very quick jaunt, just three kilometers to the tip of the cape of Finisterre, truly the end of the (old) world. I found a smoother rock amongst those on the craggy cliff and sat on it, thinking, meditating, talking to myself, watching the surf crash against the shore. So violent, its arrival, as if the water itself was surprised to encounter this outcropping of land.

It was still early. I was ahead of the tour buses that, in a few hours time, would crowd the parking lot on the other side of the lighthouse. I sat alone on those rocks for a good half an hour before a few random pilgrims came along – some I recognized from these last days on the route – and found their own perch. Quietly together, we looked out at the horizon.
surf_at_finisterre
At the end of it all, there, looking out at the ocean, I could only shrug at this notion of why. But there’s another question, the one that follows naturally, one that absolutely did get answered for me during my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I may not know why we walk this earth, but I think I know how:

Go a little bit slower so you don’t step in the mud. Look up, so you don’t miss the beauty. Smile whenever you can, it’s contagious. Be kind, kinder still to those who aren’t; they need it the most. If you need to be snarky (because it is therapeutic) do it under your breath. Take everything that is offered to you and be prepared to give away what you have, because other stuff will come. Figure out how, even if it’s hard, to be grateful. It’s better for you than being angry.

Throughout the Camino, but especially here, at this ending point, I couldn’t help but think about my parents. They both loved to travel, and though they never would have endeavored this pilgrimage themselves, they would have appreciated my journey, my mother especially. I wished I could see her and tell her about it. And I knew that if I was missing my mother that much, my little girls were probably missing me something fierce, too. It was time now, I knew, for me to go home.

I pushed myself up off that rock, my perch at the end of the Camino and the end of the world, and picked up my pack and my poles, and made my way back to town, and the next day, back to Paris, to my man and my girls, to see if I could practice what I preach. This time, though, I did look back, so I wouldn’t forget how far I’d come.


Mar 28 2013

Ultreïa

As I came out from under a canopy of trees, the skies opened up. The rain had been steady all morning, something like a constant sprinkler, but now it came down in sheets. In just minutes, I was drenched. During the days before, the rain had been gentle or playful, intermittent, volleying back and forth with the sun. This morning it was unyielding. The wetness was inescapable. I have rain 20130329-203023.jpgpants and a Gortex jacket, but this kind of rain finds its way under your sleeves and seeps into your clothes. I pulled the strings of my hood tight, closing it around my head. I leaned in to the rain and the wind, focused on my muddy boots. One foot in front of the other, step by step. Just a little further to go.

The night before, at dinner, a new friend – I appreciated having some company after so many days of eating alone – asked if I ever listened to music while walking, and if it might be interesting to listen to Oliver Schroer‘s recording, Camino, on my final leg into Santiago. He’d learned about Schroer from one of my blog posts, and even downloaded the album for himself. I haven’t listened to the music function on my phone at all during the Camino. I carry the earbuds only to transcribe, in the evenings, what I may have dictated during the day using a recording app. A string of words will come to me and if I want to remember them, I have to capture them quickly. These little snippets become aural markers of the route; musings with the sound effects of my footsteps, birds and dogs and passing tractors. Other than that I’ve tried to leave my phone in my pocket, except to take an occasional photograph. I prefer to be present – sight and sound – with the walking experience.

It wasn’t until this very wet moment that I remembered his suggestion to have a soundtrack to accompany me into Santiago. Ahead there was a tunnel under the highway. I stopped beneath it, set my backpack down on “dryer” ground and dug deep inside to find the plastic bag with my earphones. I selected the music, figured out how to tuck in the wires and keep (hopefully) electronic things dry. When I emerged from under the overpass, the rain pounded against me, almost horizontally.

The first song started out jubilantly. It made me smile, buoying me as I ventured out from the cover into the downpour. But the chords soon turned minor and introspective, matching the somber rhythm of the relentless rain. It was kind of a perfect storm: a violin playing in a minor key, every note enhanced by the acoustics of ancient churches along the Camino, played by a man who died of the same disease as my mother. This, on the last day of my way to Santiago, another ending. It wasn’t my intention when I put the music on, to put myself into a state. But there I was, marching along, dripping, drenched, so wet that I didn’t even try not to get wet anymore. The rain 20130329-205738.jpgdripping off my hood into my eyes, the rain dripping from my nose and eyelashes. The rain, the music, the end, all of it dripping together. That’s when I began to weep.

Why was I crying? I wasn’t sure: I thought I was glad and proud to be finishing the Camino. Then I recognized it, the feeling. It was grief. I was grieving the end of this walk, a journey that I had been planning and looking forward to – and in the midst of – for over a year. I was grieving some part of me, a part I don’t need anymore, but a part I was used to. I was grieving, again, good people who’ve passed on: my mother and my father, grandparents, my friend Dilts and the pilgrim I hardly knew, Mark from Michigan, the one who shared his olives with me the day before he died. Another friend called Bomber. Not that we were close, but that it’s recent and he was young. A whole list of people who now live only in the world of memory. The violin played on, track after track. My tears indistinguishable from the rain.

~ ~ ~

For the last week I’d been toying with the idea of continuing on the Camino, after Santiago, to Finisterre, the furthest outpost of land on the European continent, the edge of the old world. The Camino extends beyond Santiago to the two coastal towns of Finisterre and Muxia, 90 kilometers further. When I planned this last leg, I estimated 12 days to Santiago, but I bought a return ticket a few days later, a buffer in case I needed a day midway to rest, or for an extra day in Santiago, to go to the pilgrim’s mass. When I found myself making better time than I expected, going further, all the way to the ocean, became a real possibility.

Ultreïa means to keep going, or literally, still further. The term comes from Latin, it’s heard in a French song about the Camino, and I heard it and saw it written in various forms along the route. I had understood it as an encouragement to keep going, to go further than you think you can. As I approached Santiago, I felt this call, Ultreïa. Since I am not particularly religious, the Cathedral and its pomp and circumstance and the sin-expiating power of the compostela carried less weight for me than simply making the journey. If anything, it made more sense for me to end this pilgrimage not at a big church, but instead at the western coast of Europe and the Atlantic ocean.

scallop_shells

The Camino was originally a pagan route, and the Christianization of the region involved incorporating this ritualized road of the Druids and the Celts who were here first. I also heard that the original St. James pilgrims had to walk all the way to Finisterre first. To prove that they’d done so, they had pick up a scallop shell, distinctive to the area, and bring it back to Santiago. This is how the shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage. Nowadays it’s given to you when you start, or you can buy them along the way. Most pilgrims attach the shell to the back of their backpacks, like a badge, worn with pride.

~ ~ ~

It was raining too hard to even unzip my rain pants and reach into my pocket and pull out the map to check the distance to the next hamlet where I might find a café or bar to rest and dry out, or at least have a break from the rain. I kept walking and hoping – nearly praying – for a place to stop. Finally, a corner turned and a small casa rural with red and white checked tablecloths on the tables. I stood at the bar, unable to speak. The owner tried to offer me something in Spanish, and in English. Then he understood that I was too moved to speak or too wet to answer, or both. He left me alone for a few minutes so I could compose myself.

I wanted caldo, but it was only noon and the cook didn’t come until one o’clock. The proprietor said he could make me a sandwich but otherwise the kitchen was closed. Ten minutes later, he appeared with a bowl of soup. He must have heated it up himself. He poured me a glass of red wine and pointed to the heater where I could put my wet outer clothes to dry. I have insufficient words to describe my gratitude in that moment.

I could have stayed there. He had rooms. I could have checked in, had a warm bath, pulled myself together and hiked in the last 8 kilometers in the morning. It would have been an entirely reasonable solution, given the weather. But after the soup, and then a second course once the chef arrived, and a bit of time to rest and ready myself, there was no question. This was the day I was to arrive in Santiago. I was too close. I could go further still. Ultreïa!

~ ~ ~

The violin music was the right serenade for the walk through the initial urban sprawl of Santiago, I wish I’d thought to use music while traversing the outskirts of other larger cities along the route. It eased the discord between pilgrim and progress. The rain was merciless, but now I was laughing at it. As20130329-200155.jpg I approached the entrance to the city center, it let up slightly. I walked up the first narrow street into to the medieval part of the city, and just as the top of the spires of the cathedral came into view – I kid you not – the sun came out. Briefly, barely, but it was a brighter light beaming through a thinner cloud.

A bagpiper droned in the street, standing under an arch, playing a somber but celebratory march as I came around to the entrance of the cathedral. I’d stood there once before years ago, as a tourist, never imagining I would approach this grand stairway having walked 500 miles to get there. Strangers congratulated me. A tourist wanted to take my picture (“look, a real live pilgrim”). I wanted to laugh and to cry, so I did a little of both.

The next day, my Latin inscribed compostela in hand, I went back to the Cathedral. I’d heard my father’s voice in the back of my head, “You’ve walked this far, go to the mass.” I found the pew where he would have sat, a third of the way back on the left side. I tried to think of the last time I was at a Catholic mass. Maybe at someone’s wedding, years ago. I certainly don’t go to confession anymore; I’m not convinced that the priests’ sins aren’t worse than mine. I have little faith in the Church, a mixed-faith upbringing, and questionable faith in my daily practice. But I was still comforted by the familiarity and the rituals of the mass. It reminded me of my childhood, those long, boring services, about which my father used to say, “it’s a good time for thinking because nobody interrupts you.” So I sat and I thought and I meditated, and I stood up and I sat down and stood up and sat down. Just as I was getting restless like a kid in church, it was time for communion. I remembered how my father would give us the knowing nod, and we’d follow him up to the priest, take the host, and then follow him out the side door to the parking lot so we could get to the ski mountain or to the lake and to our little sunfish sailboat. De-facto‘s father used to pull the same stunt, sneaking out after communion. So I gave a knowing nod to both of our fathers, 20130329-175842.jpgand took my cue just as the others in my row stood up and moved to the center aisle, I picked up my pack and poles and scooted out, around the back of the church, nodding goodbye to familiar faces and fast friends made during the last days, and slipped out the side door.

I’d been to the Galician tourist office that morning, they gave me a walking map to Finisterre. I had to hunt around a bit, to find the first marker, indicating the route out of Santiago. Just at the edge of the square, between the city hall and the Parador, I found it. A bright yellow arrow, a familiar friend, pointing west, pointing me further still on my way. Ultreïa!


Mar 23 2013

The Higher Road

I hadn’t met a single pilgrim on the road for three full days. Not that there weren’t any – I saw four people the very first day – but there weren’t many. For two nights in a row I was the only person staying in a pensión. The third morning I saw another place setting at breakfast, but I headed out before he or she came to the table. The only people I conversed with were hoteliers and hospitaleros, and barmaids at cafés along the way. I relished the solitude. Hours alone, just the sound of my footsteps and the swish-swish of my wet-weather pants. Nothing to do but walk and think and talk to myself out loud.
20130324-184617.jpg
Except I’d catch myself thinking sour thoughts: remembering a difficult person, hashing over an unpleasant memory, or thinking about a conversation I’m not looking forward to. When I noticed this, I’d correct it, taking a deep breath of fresh air or focusing on the stunning vistas around me. I’d try to think about something good, like De-facto and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how lucky I am that they would give me the space and time to do the Camino. Then, some kilometers later, I’d catch myself again, trudging through the bad stuff.

Why is that? Why is it that when my mind wanders, it meanders so easily to ugly thoughts? I’m not saying not to address or confront the difficult situations in life. But to fester with them, which I’m adept at, is really a waste of valuable mental capacity, not to mention that ever-precious commodity, time.

It makes me think about how important it is to pay attention to my train of thought, to be mindful of altering the ratio of “time spent thinking” in favor things positive and productive.

~ ~ ~

Coming out of Villafranca del Bierzo there are three routes, accordingly to the Brierley guidebook that I carry. The lower road snakes along the Route N-VI, passing through lots of little villages and hamlets. While easier on the knees – you don’t have to climb up and down any hills, or navigate rocky, muddy, or snowy trails – it’s not easy on the soul. You walk beside the cars and trucks, often sharing the road with them. It can also be dangerous; once when the path was merged with the road, I was in such a Camino zone I almost didn’t notice the oncoming car. 20130324-184532.jpg

Another route is marked in the guidebook by a series of green dots, indicating an alternative scenic route, generally more forested and the furthest away from traffic. On these routes, you have to carry all your water and food. No counting on a village café to buy a bocadillo or have a bowl of caldo and you can’t be certain of finding potable water. This particular green-dotted route, called the Dragonte, is 25.1 kilometers of nature and no civilization, crossing three mountains, up and down. It would be gorgeous. It would also be rigorous. Given that ten days ago I was flat out with a bad back, and how tricky the weather might be, I knew I couldn’t risk it. Especially since hadn’t seen another pilgrim on the route since the first afternoon.

The third route, to the north, is called the Pradela. The guidebook warns of its steep incline, and suggests that it is a challenging path, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the route in the middle of the valley with all the traffic, which could be as dangerous, if not more, than being alone on a ridge in a forest by yourself for 13k, the distance until the first hamlet. I knew better than to take the uber-scenic trail. I didn’t want the low road. This one, the higher road, seemed just right.

It started out with an sharp, steep slope. For at least a hundred meters it felt like I was climbing a never-ending staircase. Eventually the slope became gentler, but it still headed upwards, taking me to and along a high ridge that peaked at 930 meters. I had sun and clouds that 20130324-184550.jpgday, and lots of wind. I was high enough to have incredible views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, with the trail I didn’t take. As the path gradually dipped back down toward the main road, it weaved through a forest of ancient chestnut trees with thick trunks and wise expressions. I was in the zone, like a runner’s high, so I stepped off the trail and wandered between the trees. I sat in the hollowed-out trunk of a grandfather chestnut tree, and thought about only good things.

~ ~ ~

On the first day back on the Camino – now already a week ago – I came into a tiny village and saw a young woman walking out of a café-bar carrying a beer. She set it down on the table on the terrace. She said hello to me, in English, with an American accent.

“That’s a good idea,” I said, eyeing her beer. I unhooked myself from my backpack, setting it on the chair of a nearby table so I could go inside and get one, too.

“Maybe you can tell me,” she said, “how much should I tip here in Spain?”

“I don’t tip them at all,” a brash voice coming out of the bar answered before I had a chance. It belonged to a guy, probably in his early thirties, shaved head, a bit of a swashbuckler. I couldn’t tell his origin, maybe Brit, maybe Down Under. He set his glass on another table, across the road, but he didn’t sit down.

I explained to the young woman the my policy for tipping in Spain: rounding up to an even number and then adding a little bit more, especially now because the economy is in rough shape and these people are scraping by, especially in the winter with so few pilgrims on the route.

“They’d make some money if they weren’t all closed,” the guy yelled from across the street, pacing back and forth. “Think I can make it back to Astorga tonight? I’m gonna walk back and take a bus to Madrid where things are happening. I’m sick of this. Nothing is open.”
20130324-184625.jpg
I wanted to ask him exactly why he’d started the Camino in the first place. But we were headed opposite directions and any suggestions I might make, soulful or reprimanding, probably wouldn’t register. I opted to keep quiet. Besides, it was my first day back on the Camino. Who was I to be a know-it-all? (At least out loud.)

It’s easy to be righteous. What’s harder is to let people be in their own place on their own path in their own problems. To observe, not in a scrutinizing or judgmental way, but in an observant and curious way, the kind where your silence might actually be more useful than your advice.

~ ~ ~

I lost track of the days of the week. I know the date, only because with every sello, or stamp, in my credentials, the barmaid or hospitalier is obliged to add the date. At first I tried to keep count of how many days to Santiago, but then I realized it involved keeping track of the time. While it may not be something I can do permanently, at least this week I can take a vacation from worrying about when and where I have to be next. So, it could take two more days, it could take four days, it depends on my feet, my back, the weather. I’ve walked in the pouring rain for two days now. It can make you walk faster. Or it can make you stop early for the day.

I’ve made good time, better than I expected, but not because I’ve been in a hurry. It happened more than once: I’d set off in the morning gauging where I might like to finish the day, thinking about a walk of 18-25k, targeting an albergue or a pensión marked in the guidebook. I’d get there, only to find everything shut tight. One day I walked 36k, passing through four villages that I hoped would have accommodation, but nothing was open. I found myself cursing them, out loud to nobody, for being closed. It made me think about that guy I met on the first day. I’m glad I didn’t say anything to him. I hope he’s having a good time in Madrid.
20130324-184649.jpg
The minimum distance you must walk to qualify for a compostela is 100 kilometers. People who don’t want to walk the whole distance of the Camino, or who can’t take the time, will start in Sarria, 100 kilometers away, and walk the four or five days it takes to get to Santiago. In Sarria, the volume of pilgrims increases, noticeably. All of a sudden, the luxurious days of walking without seeing a soul are over. My solitude has been abruptly interrupted.

The first morning out of Sarria, I ducked into a roadside café to rest my feet for a few moments. After days of being the only person in just about every bar I stopped at, I was surprised to see tables crowded with pilgrims and a line to use the bathrooms. There was a buzz of conversation, and then the ritual of pilgrim questions: Where are you from? Where did you start? Why are you doing the Camino?

I wasn’t really in the mood for this chatter. I wanted to shout out: What are all you people doing on my Camino? I’ve done the whole Camino Francés, from the beginning, in St. Jean Pied de Port, and I’ve been walking for days, over high peaks and through a foot of snow!

But I didn’t. I’ve spent too much time walking, and thinking, about the higher roads, and how to take them. I softly answered the questions, and asked a few of my own, gently moving into the company and companionship of others, on their own paths but for the next few days, next to mine, as the road, high and low, draws us all nearer to Santiago.


Mar 13 2013

Step on a Crack

It was raining at the top of the mountain. Short-pants klunked toward the car in her bulky ski boots, cold and drenched but smiling after a morning of skiing. Buddy-roo and I had skipped the sporting activities of the day. She’d turned her ankle running in the yard of our country house earlier in the week, and my back was flaring up a little bit, so I opted to sit it out with her. The first day we took over a table in the mountaintop restaurant and I even jumped on an open wifi signal and scratched out a few work messages. Her foot hadn’t improved, so I dropped half of my family at the ski lift that morning and took Buddy-roo to a local doctor in the village who sent us to chalkboard_skiierthe nearest hospital in the valley to get an X-ray. The visit was efficient, if not unsatisfactory in that the image showed no evidence of even a tiny fracture, so there was nothing to be done – according to the radiologist – but give it a rest and wait and see. A troubling prognosis, especially since our plan was to go to Barcelona the following week, a visit which would include no small amount of wandering around the city to explore it.

I wasn’t pleased to miss the skiing. At one time in my life it’d been an every-weekend pastime. I even lived in Switzerland for two winters, skiing to the chairlift from my door, whenever I wanted. These days it’s a once-a-year excursion, at best. But I appreciated the experience Short-pants was having, on the slopes alone with her father, exercising her skiing muscles and getting a few days to catch up with her younger sister, who, last year proved to be a more confident skier.

De-facto set about loading their skis in the car, Short-pants sat down sideways in the car seat with her feet out the door to remove her boots. She was wet and exhausted and could barely bend over. I squatted down before her, carefully. I unbuckled the boots and opened the wide flaps so she could extract her foot. The first boot slipped off with a gentle tug. The second was more persistent. I pulled at it, meeting resistance, so tugged harder, giving it a real yank. The boot snapped off into my hands, accompanied by a bolt of excruciating pain in my lower back, upwards to my shoulder and down the ground through my leg. I threw the boot down on the ground and leaned against the dirty, wet, car. Fuck.

Later, after lowering myself gingerly into the passenger seat, our car wound down the mountain roads and the tears streamed down my face. They were not so much about the physical discomfort – I new the pain would pass eventually – but more about the consequences of this injury on my plan to return to the Camino Santiago in a week’s time. I couldn’t imagine walking 250 kilometers, let alone with nearly 10 kilos of weight on my back. I couldn’t even think of bending over to tie my hiking boots. I’d have to postpone the walk. But until when? The spring is already filling up with work engagements, or preparations for same. I’d cleared these weeks specifically to walk, and to finish. Though the Fiesta Nazi, an avid Camino fan, reminded me that every time I “finish” I’ll start scheming another leg of it that I want to do, from Le Puy, or to Finisterre, or the Route del Norte. But I have had my mind set on finishing the Route Francés this year, while I was in the middle age of fifty.

“Sorry you hurt your back,” Short-pants’ gentle voice from the backseat. I realized she might feel responsible since it happened while pulling off her ski boot.

“Just wait,” I said, shaking my finger in the air so they’d know I was joking, “until I find out which one of you stepped on a crack and broke my back.”

Buddy-roo giggled, but Short-pants was quiet.

“Hey,” I pulled the visor down and looked at her in the mirror, “this isn’t your fault. I should have known better.”
angels_burden
Even though you can tie my back injury specifically to a physical incident – it happened once before pulling up carpet, or this time tugging off a ski boot – I believe that I’m be pre-disposed to such an injury if I’m off balance in my life, or trying to carry too many things. Dr. John Sarno, a specialist in rehabilitating people with chronic back problems, wrote a book, Healing Back Pain that I’ve read more than once and always resonates with me. There is an emotional component that contributes to back issues. Whenever mine flares up, I know I have to pay attention to something.

We returned to our country house, where I remained horizontal for a whole day while Buddy-roo acquired a pair of crutches at the village pharmacy so she could hobble around. I can’t say this was a horrible punishment. Short-pants served me tea, and De-facto rubbed a special anti-inflammatory pommade my back. He cooked all the meals and the girls did all the dishes. I got to stay in bed and read and write and play Subway Surfer. My back survived the seven hour drive to Barcelona, and each day I have less pain and more mobility. Buddy-roo is still hopping on crutches – she’ll probably have to get another X-ray – but I’m very much on the mend. The Camino may still be within close reach. I have a few days to decide.

It’s might be better left for early May. I could carve out two weeks then and the weather will be warmer and possibly dryer. It’d be during spring break, so that might be easier for De-facto. We’ll see how I feel, later this week, when I need to decide whether to fly to Léon and bus to Astorga and begin my walk again, or whether I drive back to Paris with the family. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time, which is in itself a good reminder, and certainly a preparation for the Camino ahead, whenever it happens.