May 18 2012

In Between

This, my in-between week, between tours on the Camino, I found myself immersed in the world of errands. While I was away walking, the constant churn of the rest of my life continued, and I was met, upon my return, with a few loose ends to tie up. Like taking Short-pants to the podiatrist to replace the shoe inserts that she left at the country house last month (she’s probably outgrown by now anyway) or passing by the Conservatory, in person, to make sure that the form for her re-inscription was correctly filled out, so that she won’t be refused readmission next year based on a technicality. A trip to the pharmacy to pick up a few goodies for my backpack, like an extra pack of second-skin bandages, miniature packets of moist towelettes, toothpaste in a teeny tube, and other tiny toiletry items compressed and compact, to lessen the space they take and the weight I’ll carry. At home, the paying of bills, the folding of money into envelopes designated for various helpers or babysitters, the catching-up of laundry, the arrangements that must be made so that our household will continue in my absence, without taxing De-facto, who does me the largest birthday favor ever by going solo for the time I need to walk the Camino.

Yet I felt I was moving at a slightly different pace. Gentler, more rhythmic, with a confidence that it will all get done, and that when I return to the Camino I will feel good, having taken care of the responsibilities I’ve tabled temporarily but never fully relinquish.

In this vein I remained buoyant, even stretching my erranding to such previously procrastinated tasks as addressing household appliances that have suffered our negligence too long. The supply of vacuum bags ran out weeks ago, requiring a repeated manual emptying of the last remaining bag in order to properly clean the carpets, and the bulb in the overhead light in the bathroom has been dark for even longer. This took me the dreaded BHV, the department store you love to hate and hate to love; you can buy just about anything you want there, from designer clothing to hammers and nails, but there are consequences. It’s an enormous store that seems to always be crowded and yet within the throngs of shoppers, you feel absolutely destitute in the search for that one item you’ve come to buy, lost in a sea of commercial choices without single guide to assist you.

This is where the team of green-vested salespeople should come in handy. They are numerous and poised around the store, usually in clumps talking to each other, though you’d wish they were seeking out lost and confused customers – plentiful at BHV – but usually it’s necessary to hunt them down. Salesperson is actually misnomer, as is customer service agent, a more accurate title might be proctor or hall monitor.

Remarkably, I found exactly the vacuum bags I was looking for, almost immediately, but it occurred to me to confirm this with the proctor on duty in the department. A few meters away, a green vested man stood behind an official looking computer terminal. As I approached him, so did an older gentleman, holding in his hands a package containing a set of attachments to a vacuum cleaner.

“Do I have to buy all of these?” he asked, “because I only want this one element.” He pointed to the largest attachment, the one that really matters.

The green-vested man shrugged.

“But I don’t need all the other pieces,” the old man said.

Non,” the green-vest pouted, “it’s only sold like this.”

The old man persisted. “Isn’t it at all possible to buy just the one part I want?”

Beh, oui, if you go to the service commandé, but then you’ll pay a 20 euro fee for a special order.”

The old man walked away, muttering about the waste inherent in this entire transaction. I expected the green-vest to turn to me, and braced myself for his gruff greeting. To my surprise, he took off after the old man, yelling at him for being rude, for his unnecessary words.

Granted, the old man hadn’t been particularly polite. But the green-vest had been equally uncivilized. Having been exposed to the Stew Leonard school of customer service (Rule #1, the customer is always right. Rule #2, if the customer is wrong, refer to rule #1) I was shocked to witness a store employee actually chasing after customer in order to scold him.

I followed them. By the time I caught up, the green-vest was ripping into the old man. They both turned, looking just as surprised as I felt to be standing there with them.

“How can you speak to a customer like that?” I said to the green-vest. “It’s the purchases he makes in this store that pay your salary. He may have been impolite to you, but he doesn’t merit a response like this.” (And I can’t be sure, but I think in the storm of my indignation I still managed to use the correct conditionel form.)

Both men stared at me as if I was insane. Which I am, because it is insanity to expect kind customer service in France. Not that you can’t find it, not that there aren’t plenty of thoughtful, helpful French salespeople. It’s just that you can’t expect it.

When the green-vested man started to shout at me, I turned and walked toward the escalator, confident that the vacuum bags I’d selected would fit my machine, certain that I could buy them at a cash register on another quieter floor, perhaps closer to the light-bulb department. On the escalator, I said, out loud to myself, “he could use some customer service training.” The man beside me chuckled. “It’s probably because he didn’t like the outcome of the election.”

Later, I wondered if all those errands had dampened my take-it-as-it-comes pilgrim spirit, that I’d piled on too much, entered too far into the realm of my regular life to maintain my cooler, collected pace. It’s true that by the week’s end, the symptoms of my usual departure stress started to surface. I’m squeezing things in to clear the decks to be away again – this time for a much longer stretch – and I’m feeling the pinch. I’ve heard people say that once you’ve done the Camino, there’s a before and an after. I guess for me, it seems, I’m still in between.


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.


May 5 2012

The Way

I woke up every hour, on the hour, all night long. It was the quintessential night-before-a-voyage restlessness, a low-grade worry that you’ll oversleep – that somehow the alarm you checked three times already won’t go off or else won’t wake you. Or just nerves, the kind that come before you’re about to do something you thought you wanted to do, until it was upon you and you wondered, what was I thinking? It could have been bit of residual jet-lag from last week’s trip to a different time zone. Excitement about the journey ahead. Or possibly it was the supermoon wreaking havoc with my sleep cycle.

I’d finished preparing my backpack – and weighing in at 7.3 kilos – at about 12:30 am. I shut off the lights and the glow from the moon flooded the living room like daylight. I tiptoed upstairs to check on the girls one last time. I’d heard Short-pants stirring earlier, I sensed she was still awake.

“Come, look at the moon!”

She popped up in bed – she’d been reading and probably had just turned off her light – and positioned herself to look out the skylight. The moon hung heavy above the rooftops of the city, any clouds that had covered it spread apart like a curtain on a stage. The official full moon is actually tonight, but last night’s dress-rehearsal was a good indication of its beauty and power.

We marveled at the big white disc, side-by-side, until the tiredness pulled her back to her pillow. I sat beside the bed and brushed her hair off her forehead. Her baby cheeks are gone, a young woman’s features are emerging. In the moonlight I could glimpse the face of her future.

We whispered back and forth – not that Buddy-roo, solidly asleep in the adjacent room, could have heard us. It’s just how you talk, in a whisper, when you’re up talking in the dark, in the middle of the night.

I thanked her for being my daughter. I thanked her for being so sweet and so lovely. I told her I appreciated her being so supportive of me going off to hike the Camino, how much that meant to me.

“You’ll have a good walk,” she said.

Later I slipped into my own bed, spooned myself around De-facto, putting my breathing in step with his. I tried to sleep but I could not still my thoughts. We’d talked about the possibility of him joining me on these first days of the camino. Why hadn’t we organized this? I’m not in the mood to be apart from him right now. What was I thinking?

Maybe it was that moon. Short-pants couldn’t sleep either. Or she came down to comfort me, sensing that I, too, wasn’t asleep. She crawled in to our bed and reached her long thin arm around me. Sandwiched between her and De-facto, I finally dozed, but only in short spurts. Her snoring didn’t help, but I didn’t want to escort her back to her room. I half hoped that Buddy-roo would come join us, too. I’ve never been an advocate of the family bed, but this once, I wouldn’t have minded.

This morning I stowed my heeled, fashion boots in the closet and laced up my sturdy, hopefully-broken-in-by-now hiking boots, hoisted my pack up on my back, but not before sneaking a peek at the sleeping bodies I was leaving behind and planting light kisses on dreaming foreheads. Why does it feel harder than usual, this time, to leave them?

I write this from a train, the TGV, slicing through the green landscape toward St. Jean Pied de Port, the gateway of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will hike over a mountain into Navarra and my adventure will begin. Or maybe it already has.

Not sure how technically present I’ll be, probably not so much. But if the spirit moves me, I’ll send an occasional tweet from the #camino or I’ll post a few words or an image along the way. It’s only a week, this first leg, a chance to taste the route before I must go back to Paris for some family duties for a few days, and then I’ll return to the trail. It’ll be a bit more back-and-forth than I’d like, possibly interrupting the flow of my walking experience. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing, to be able to touch base with my people. It’s not the usual way to do the camino, or even the ideal way, but apparently it’s my way.

What was I thinking?