My Travel Plans for 2017

2017 is already shaping up to be a good year, and it’s only just begun. Somehow, incredibly, I’ve already got my summer plans figured out.

This is unprecedented.

Last year, in particular, I had such a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do, and I became frustrated by my indecision. I have this somewhat unique opportunity to spend two months of my year doing whatever I like, and I was letting myself become stressed over the decision. I felt ridiculous. And yet, I went back and forth a dozen times, wanting to do it all: wanting to return to my favorite places and experiences, and wanting to try something brand new. I wondered if I should travel to some place other than Europe, I wondered if I should stick closer to home.

You already know what I decided (England, France, Spain, Scotland), and it ended up being the perfect balance of all the things I was craving out of my summertime adventure.

This time around? A few weeks ago I decided to see what flight prices to Paris might be like for June/July. And what I discovered nearly took my breath away: the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen on round-trip, direct flights from Philly to Paris in the summertime. (Well, that’s not entirely true, I got an even cheaper flight back in 2003 but that was a long time ago).

So I did something a bit out of character- I ran into my bedroom, grabbed my wallet from my purse, and before I knew it I had purchased the flight.

Then, I shot off an email to the owners of La Muse (the writer’s and artist’s retreat I visited last summer), and asked about availability. There’s been talk of a few of us from last year reuniting again in July, plus there was an attractive holiday discount being dangled around. The next day I got an email back- “We’d love to have you return!!” and before I knew it, I had myself booked in a room for three weeks.

And then, after a week of browsing through Airbnb apartments in Paris (which was way more fun than I ever expected!), I found a tiny little space on the 7th floor of an old building in St Germain, that has a balcony with views to the Eiffel Tower.

This year, there was very little of the indecision that I’ve had in the past. There are still so many things I want to do and so many places I want to travel to, but for whatever reason, this year’s choice felt easy. I’m going back to France, and I’m going to spend the entire summer there.

I love France, you already know that. Each of my trips to Europe these past four summers have included some time in France (and a mandatory jaunt through Paris, even if only for a day, like this past year). I can speak French- not well, but I improve the more I have the chance to speak. I studied abroad in Toulouse back in 2000-2001, and at the end of that year I said to myself: “This could be a problem. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I have a feeling that instead of going to new places, I’m always going to want to come back to France.”

And it could almost drive me mad, the thought that I was existing in the world and Paris was existing too but that I was not there.

Some people, when they travel, will always want to go somewhere new, and I can understand that. “Why return to the same place when you’ve already been there? There are so many places in the world to explore!” they say. I think I will continue to travel to new places throughout my life, but I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that I’m a creature of habit. When I find something I love, I don’t often get tired of it. I can go back- again and again- to the same things and places and learn to love them more fully. And I experience so much happiness when I return to a place that I love.

And so, I’m going back to France.

The trip is going to have three parts- La Muse and Paris, but what would a summer trip be without some walking? You knew this was coming. But instead of squeezing in a trip to Spain, I’m going to stay settled in France, and try a couple weeks on one of the Camino trails through this country. My plan, for now, is to walk the Le Puy route, which cuts a sloping line, east to west, sort of through the southern half of France. I’ll begin at the start- in Le Puy-en-Velay- and walk as far as I can in two weeks. I’ve heard that this is the most beautiful and popular Camino route in France, and that some parts may be challenging but I suspect that it’s nothing I can’t handle.

A walk in France isn’t a walk in Spain; there will be some big differences. France is more expensive, I’ll need to make reservations each night, there won’t be nearly as many people on the trails (though I sure had a large dose of isolation on the San Salvador!), and most of the people walking will be French.

The walking will kick off my trip, then I’ll take a train to La Muse and continue work on my writing and my memoir. The summer journey ends with a week in Paris, and this feels just right. It’s my favorite city in the world, and I certainly have more exploring that I need to do there. But settling into an apartment in the heart of a city that I’m already familiar with gives me the chance to just… be. To drink coffee on the little balcony and stare at the magical views. To make my way to a different café every day and scribble away in a notebook. To keep writing in a city where so many greats have gone to write. To wander, to roam.

It’s going to be a very French summer, and I have to tell you, I’m so excited for it. 2017 already feels like it’s going to be a big, incredible year, and having this trip half-planned sure helps. So as they say in France: Bonne Année! Let’s all make it a good one.

You Can Always Come Back: Blue Skies and Final Days

Yesterday, I was thinking about how long it had been since I’d seen a cloud in the sky. It feels a bit as though my entire time here has been under a perfect blue sky, and that is nearly true. But then I remember the last thing I posted here, how the weather was chilly, and I remember that yes, there were clouds. There was wind, there was a cool stretch.

It feels so long ago, that first week when I was settling back into life in a small French village in the mountains, remembering how things are done, relearning how to do them, discovering that some things aren’t the same at all. I finally felt settled, another week passed, and now here we are, almost at the end.

  
How is it possible that my time at La Muse is almost over? It makes me feel a little panicked, and I think, “There’s so much I haven’t done.” It makes me feel a little sad, and I think, “When will I come back again? Will I ever come back again?”

I even thought about canceling my Camino, and just staying here. But it’s impossible- the rooms are all booked, which is great news for La Muse and probably the right kind of news for me, too. As much as I want to stay here and never leave, I also want to settle into the next thing… which happens to be Spain and tapas and lots of walking.

I still have four solid days here, and in addition to my regular brainstorming sessions at Le Roc, the long hikes, the chats with the other residents, we also have an “excursion” down to the ruins of a Cathar Castle (we’re tacking on a lunch in a Michelin starred restaurant, too!), and a concert and all-village fête on Saturday night. Tomorrow Vera leaves, so tonight we’re all meeting on the terrace for a goodbye drink. Last night we had a reading, two nights before we had more goodbye drinks for Kelly. 

  
There’s a really good group of residents here, though I have a feeling I might say that about nearly any group that spends time at La Muse; everyone here is creative, and serious about their creativity. But then you have a great and unpredictable mix of the rest of our personalities: introverts and extroverts, loud and quiet, soft and hard, vibrant and calm. On a few nights I’ve stayed up until the bitter end, talking and singing and laughing with those who remain on the terrace, long past the time when the stars have appeared in the sky. Usually I’m in the “second wave”, not leaving first, not staying until the end. But some nights I slip out as soon as my dinner is finished, the last sips of wine drunk. I sneak cookies upstairs- we’re not supposed to have food in the rooms- and I read a book or write in my journal or work on my story. 

The work I’ve gotten done here has been difficult to measure. The bulk of my book is written, I think, but it is so very rough, and I’m still struggling to decide what, exactly, I’m trying to stay. So there is still an awful lot left to be done, but I’m feeing good about it. I’ve had the space here to really delve into the heart of this story, and to my surprise, I discovered that I might not want to really share too much about certain parts, and that I have a whole lot to say about others. And just like last time, the most important work seems to have happened away from my desk, away from the computer. I take the 10 minute path up to the top of the mountain and sit on my large, flat rock and stare off into the valley- the Pyrenees lining the horizon- and after an hour sometimes I just know in my gut what I need to do, what I need to write.

I went on an epic hike today; I wanted to get one full, long day of walking in, a sort of “Camino” training day (because in less than a week, I’ll be on a Camino! Hard to imagine right now….). Lets just say that maybe it was a bit too much. I headed for Latourette, which is just another village tucked away in these mountains, though it is not close. Last time I was here I’d seen signs for it, trails that led there, but it always seemed impossibly far away. But now that I have hiking experience, Camino experience, it seemed doable. The first half was great- up and down and through these mountains, stumbing on tiny villages that weren’t much more than a few houses and a really old church along with some crumbling stone ruins.

  
I made it to Latourette and sat on a bench and ate some snacks and rested my feet. Then I continued on, following a path that I assumed would sort of take me in a big circle and back to Labastide, but the further I walked, the more I realized that it might not have been so smart to follow an unknown trail. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going, and even though I was always on a marked trail, I had a bad feeling that it was taking me away from where I wanted to go.

  
I kept walking though, hoping that the trees would open up and I could take a look at the landscape and get my bearings. The sun was hot, the air was humid, it was getting later, I was feeling more and more unsettled. Finally I turned around, walked back to Latourette, and followed a road that I knew would lead me to a village that was not far from Labastide.

I stumbled back into the village, my legs feeling like jelly, just as dark clouds gathered in the sky and a little rain began to spit down. It’s still overcast now, the first not-blue sky I’ve seen in what feels like weeks and weeks. The kind of sky that makes it easier to sit inside and get some writing done.

Already I can feel myself begin to move away from this experience, my thoughts starting to turn towards Spain, and the Camino. But I’m still here for a few more days and I want to really sink into these last moments: write what I can, wander through the village, sit up at Le Roc, hang out with Homer the dog. And I tell myself the same thing that I did three years ago, as I was preparing to leave: you can always come back.

  
  

  

On the Terrace, in the Sunshine

I’m writing this post from the terrace of La Muse, sitting on a bench in the sunshine. Sitting in the sun is the only way I can work outside today- it’s downright cold. 

Well, that’s probably an exaggeration. But the high today couldn’t have been much more than 60 degrees, but with the strong wind, it feels even cooler. The day has alternated between dark gray clouds, sprinkles of rain, periods of sun, always the strong wind. But it’s felt almost perfect to me: just what I needed to stay inside this morning to write, and just the right temperature to go for a small hike in the afternoon. And now, a blog post on the terrace in the sunshine. 

  
I’ve never really explained how things work here (have I?) and since I’m a solid 9 days in, I figure it’s about time. Most people, when I explain that I’m spending 3 weeks at a writer’s retreat in France, ask about the structure here. “Are there lectures or workshops, is there a teacher?” No, no, and no. It’s all pretty unstructured, it’s one of my favorite things about this place. You apply for a spot- a room, essentially- by sending in a resume and an explanation of your work. If there’s an open room and it seems as though you’re serious about your art, you’ll be offered a spot. But then the rest is up to you: La Muse provides the beautiful room and the stunning, almost magical scenery, and you work on your art.

There are now several places to stay in the village: The Big House (where I am, and the orginal home of La Muse), The Mews (the other half of the Big House that used to be the home of the owners of this whole thing), Cottage #1 and Cottage #2, each with two bedrooms. Right now every single room is booked, so there are 14 of us in total. Sometimes the residents all gather together, if we organize a communal meal, or do a reading, but mostly people are on their own to do whatever they want. 

Some people stay and work in their rooms for the entire day. Some (ahem) go off for long hikes. Some work on the terrace or hang out in the library, some work late into the evenings or early in the mornings. But often we come together for dinner, eating with whoever is around, and most of us eventually congregating on the terrace to finish the night.

  
Once a week you’re driven down the mountain for a bit of sight-seeing but mostly so you can hit a grocery store and stock up for the week. There’s a house in the village where you can buy fresh eggs, a constantly running water source with what might be the best water I’ve ever tasted, a truck that comes through the village two times a week selling bread and basic supply of fruits, veggies and canned goods. There are between 30-40 residents who live in this village, and many of them are well into their 80’s. But I see them out, all the time, tending to their gardens, walking slowly up and down the sloping streets. They congregate when the bread truck arrives, chatting as they wait, lingering as they stock up on supplies. For many, it’s the social highlight of the week.

  
I’ve found a good rhythm here, though it took me awhile. I wake early to eat breakfast on the terrace, then I go back to my room for several hours to work. I take a lot of breaks and do a lot of puttering around- it’s hard to sit still and write for hours on end. I break up my time by walking up to Le Roc-  a viewpoint at the top of the moutain- going on water runs to the source, hand washing laundry, straightening up the few possessions in my room, reading a book. If it’s a cloudy or rainy day (we’ve only had a few), I’ll stay in my room and write. But by mid-afternoon (at the latest!) I’m ready to get out and hike. There’s a network of trails that run through the village, so all I have to do is strap on my pack, walk out the door, and I’ve got several great paths to choose from. 

  
My family and friends have asked me: how’s the writing going? Are you getting much done? The answer is… it’s going okay. I’ve had some great stretches of writing and have started to work out some of the structural stuff for the book. But I’d by lying if I said that I was spending all day writing, getting a tremendous amount of work done. I can’t, or maybe it’s more that I choose not to. Just being here and soaking up this experience is so important to me; it’s good if I can get a lot of writing done, but what’s even better is what I’m remembering from last time: that I feel so inspired and creatively energized. After a week, my writing feels as strong as it’s ever been. I’m having great conversations about the creative process, today on my hike I memorized a poem. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. 

Last night the residents all gathered in the library for a reading, to share some of what we’ve been working on. I read a short part from my book, something I wrote last week. It’s the first time I’ve ever done something like this, the first time I’ve shared anything from this book I’ve been working on. And it was scary. But it also felt good. The idea, the hope, is that eventually I can get something published and have lots and lots of people read my story. Sharing just a very small piece of it felt like a good start.

Walking through Fields of Thorns

It took me several days, but I’ve finally gone hiking. I thought it would be the very first thing I’d do, that I’d settle into my room at La Muse, look out the window, and promtply run out to the green hills.

  
And I wanted to- oh believe me, I wanted to- but for nearly all of this first week at the retreat, I’ve been fighting a cold. At first I thought this was a good thing, that it would give me more time to write, but mostly it’s just been frustrating. I want the energy to write and to go hiking.

My energy has been coming back, and so for the last two days, I’ve gone out to explore the mountains that I fell in love with three years ago.

Like so much else here, the memories come flooding back, and it almost amazes me what I can remember. As I hiked up the steep, rocky hill on what I call the “Lastours view” hike, it hits me with such a strong sense of knowing: there’s a spot coming up where I like to stop and rest. The spot with the tree that’s just tall enough to provide some shade, the one that casts its shadow over a rocky wall that’s the perfect height to rest against- ah yes, there it is. I’m out of breath, and like I always did, like I probably always will, I stop here and drink some water. 

  
After that first hike I began to think that I wouldn’t exactly be having adventures out here this time around; that I’ve already done all of the hikes, that I know this terrain. But then I found myself setting out yesterday, not exactly sure where I wanted to go. I stopped by the source at the bottom of the village to fill up my water bottles (I love that there’s a place to get water that’s actually called ‘the source’ and it’s the first thing that people say to you when you arrive here: “Have you been to the source yet?”). Then, since I’m already down here, I decide to follow a nearby path that winds up and out of the village, the one that heads towards the lake.

I don’t want to walk all the way to the lake today (I haven’t been yet and there’s talk of a group going later in the week), but I know that the path will connect me to a track that can take me over the mountain. So I venture off, gradually making my way up and up on this shaded and narrow trail through the woods.

Almost immediately, I’m not having much fun. There are trees and bushes on either side of me and spiders have cast their webs across the trail and with nearly every other step, I’m walking staight through the stringy webs. I wipe against my arms and legs constantly, trying to rid myself of the invisible strings.

Soon the path curves and opens up and I remember this from last time: it’s a wide and grassy path, hot in the sun. This time, too, it’s hot in the sun and the path is rather wide and grassy, but it looks like it hasn’t been maintained in the three years since I’ve been here last. Wildflowers and weeds shoot up from the ground and take over the trail almost to the point where it’s hard to know if you’re still on a trail or not. And really, this wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t stalks of thorns, too. Fields of thorns, as I came to call them, endless fields of thorns.

  
To be fair, I’d been warned. Another resident, the film editor, has been hiking a lot. He’d arrived a few days before the rest of us and only stayed a week- he’s already gone. But on his last full day he hiked up to the lake, taking the same trail out of the village that I was on now. I asked him about the hike and he gave me some tips, adding, “Oh, if you have long pants, you might want to wear them.”

He said his legs got a little cut up but he really didn’t mind, and that was it. I didn’t think much of it, just assumed that there were a few overgrown sections, that it probably wasn’t that bad.

Let me just say: I should have worn long pants. By the time I got out of the field of thorns, there were scrapes and cuts all over the bottom half of my legs. I’d been careful, too, moving slowly, stepping high, knocking branches away with the end of my stick. But it didn’t matter, the thorns were everywhere. Little nettles were, too, their tiny sharp ends wedging into my socks and shoes and jabbing against my ankles.

“Never again,” I muttered to myself as the path finally joined the road and I walked on towards the mountain top. 

But then the longer I walked, the higher I climbed up towards the ridge of the mountain, the dryer the air felt, the stronger the wind- the annoyance and pain of the first part of the hike vanished. All I was left with was that incredible feeling of freedom and space, the kind of strength you feel when you’ve made it to the top of something.

  
  
I love being back here. I ended my hike hot and sweaty and had to pluck a tiny needle of a thorn from the heel of my foot- but I love it. I’m trying hard to spend time inside, at my desk, but I also can’t resist what is sitting outside my window. Already a week of the retreat is gone- a week!- but I still have two more. And I have a feeling that there are several more adventures waiting for me. 

No Sugar Tonight in my Coffee; the first days at La Muse

Yesterday morning I made myself a small pot of espresso, heated up some milk in the microwave, mixed it together and added a spoonful of what I thought was sugar. It was salt. 

This is a pretty good way to describe what my first few days at La Muse, the writer’s/artist’s retreat in the south of France, have been like. I was here three years ago and some things- many things- are exactly the same. The village dates back to sometime around 1000 AD, and the house where I’m staying used to be the chateau of the village in the Middle Ages. So, things have been here a long, long time. Of course nothing has changed.

  
In some ways I imagined that I would walk back in here and slip straight to the past, to exactly how things used to be, to the same person that I was when I was last here. I could pick up wherever I left off: journaling in the mornings and gazing out at the mountains and marveling over my explorations while I hiked. I could access the same thoughts and excitement and spirit. It would be immediate, and seamless.

But instead, I walked back in and was hit with such a powerful sense of familiarity, but also of difference. The trees are taller, they change the view from the terrace. I walk up two sets of stairs to my room and not just one, I listen for the sounds of my friends but I only hear the voices of strangers. I go on a small hike and pace back and forth, searching for the turnoff of the trail. Eventually I find it; it is much further down the hill than I remember. I reach for sugar and I grab salt.

I don’t quite have the same sense of wonder that I did the first time, either. It reminds me of my experience with Paris: I entered the city and knew exactly where to go, and what to do. If Paris felt like some sort of temporary home, then La Muse and Labastide do, too. Returning to a place you love is a special kind of experience; it reminds you of where you’ve been, it reminds you of where you are now.

There are 14 residents here, it’s a big group. Many Americans, two Germans, two Australians, one Irish woman and one English woman. One is a film editor but all the rest are writers. This feels a bit daunting to me. I know I’m working on a book, but others are too. Without knowing all that much about their projects, I still have the sense that their books are these real, concrete, serious things. So different than my own, which just seems to be a bunch of words at the moment. Some of the residents have already published, I get the sense that many of them know what they are doing.

  
Or do they? Maybe we all give off that sense to each other. If I let myself see past my own doubts, I see that others have them, too. It’s a fascinating experience to be back, once again, with a large group of creative people. We’re all still feeling each other out, and as usual, I’m content to sit back and observe the group quietly. But already I can start to see where I fall within the mix: Vera and I have similar writing schedules, we often work and take breaks at the same time. Hilary is introverted, like me, and we take walks down to Le Fenial for coffee. I pour over a large hiking map with Will, pointing out my favorite trails.

I thought I might be able to jump right back into this experience, to hit the ground running with my writing, to feel at ease around the other residents, but (and really, this should come as no surprise to me), I’ve needed time to settle into this. And I’m getting there, I can feel myself beginning to sink in. My room is beautiful, and I’d forgotten how much I love watching and listening to the swallows swooping around outside my window. I’ve been wandering through the hills (a mild cold has stopped me from taking on big hikes, but it’s probably just as well in terms of getting into a good writing routine), and I’ve returned to Le Roc- my beautiful spot on top of the mountain with views that seem to stretch on forever. Homer, the resident dog, has accompanied me both times, and I love this. He runs fast and far ahead, but always circles back to make sure that I’m still coming. And when we get to Le Roc, he finds a cool spot in the shade while I write, and when I’m done, we walk back to the village together.

  
I love that I have three weeks here, that I can spend these first days adjusting and settling in and finding my routines- the routines of three years ago, but also the routines of today. I’ll mix them together and come away with a brand new experience, and I can’t wait to see what it will be like.

  

Paris and London, Art and Memories

I’m on a train heading down through France, on my way to the writer’s retreat in Labastide. There was a little excitement just now, though not the kind that you want: a bag was left in the middle of the aisle in one of the luggage areas on the train, in car 6 (which, incidentally, was just a few rows behind where I was sitting). The conductor and the staff made multiple announcements, searching for the owner, and someone came through our car to ask if the bag was ours. The next announcement threatened to stop the train if the owner couldn’t be found, and before too long everyone in car 6 was being asked to take our things and move up to the first car. We did, the train began to slow down, and just as we settled into our new seats (I think in a first class car- more room!), we were told that the owner of the bag showed up. 

It wasn’t until the announcement that they were going to stop the train that I began to worry; I’m not typically a worrier, I don’t like to dwell on stuff that could go wrong. But for just a few minutes this had me a little rattled. It’s all the stuff we see on the news, the things that are happening around the world, the warnings of friends and family before I left for this trip: “Be careful!” they all said. “Europe’s not as safe as it used to be.” I don’t think that anywhere is quite as safe as it used to be, but that also doesn’t mean it’s so dangerous that we shouldn’t leave home. Still though, this was a reminder of how unsettling the world feels right now. In the past I might have just been curious about what was going on; this time, my mind jumped to the worst.

In any case, the train has picked back up to its regular pace, the conductor assured us that everything is fine, and the journey continues. 

Or, maybe it’s just not a great morning. Last night I started coughing, and woke in the middle of the night to a sore throat. A few days before- in Bath, actually- the woman in the bunk below me was sick, and was coughing and sneezing quite a bit. “Oh no,” I thought. “The last thing I want is to catch whatever she’s got.” It probably hasn’t helped that I’ve been moving around constantly, that I’m not getting enough sleep, that my meals are a bit erratic and that I might not be eating quite enough fruits and veggies (but the scones! And the crepes!)

So I’m drinking tea and orange juice and I think this was the first time in my life that I was in Paris and didn’t drink any coffee. It doesn’t seem right, somehow. In fact, all of Paris felt a little… different. I was there for under 24 hours- arriving around 2:00pm on Sunday afternoon, and I left just after 7am this morning (Monday). It was such a short time in the city and really I was just kind of passing through. Different than my other trips, even if the others were on the short side as well- this one was just a quick stopover. But for being in such a big, grand city, it was all rather simple. I grabbed a few metro tickets, easily got to my hostel, checked in and stored my luggage then went back into the city, stopped by the place with the best baguettes to pick up a jambon/buerre sandwich (ham and butter, my favorite), then over to the Musee Marmottan, to see all the Monet’s. This was a new museum for me, I liked that even on a short trip I could see something new. 

Back to the hostel to get my key, up to my room to have a shower, then back out in the city to wander around. This was when all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep: it was chilly and raining and I was exhausted. But it’s not a trip to Paris without seeing Notre Dame, so I walked over, checked out the new Shakespeare and Company cafe, bought a crepe, then headed back.


There’s so much of Paris that I’m not familiar with; every time I go I stay in the same hostel, so I know just one area really well. But there’s something to be said for this- for maybe the very first time, Paris felt sort of like another home to me. It was easy, and effortless. It was like I stopped by to see an old, good friend. And I thought, once again, of something I realized after my very first trip there, when I was 20: Paris isn’t going anywhere. It will always be there, waiting, welcoming me for however long I want to stay. I like that.


I never got a chance to write about my other days in England, but they were great. Rushed and fast and maybe a little too much for someone like me (who wants time to sightsee, AND time to hang out in cafes and write). But I saw a bunch of stuff that meant a lot to me to see- things that are sort of on my unofficial ‘list’ (you know, the things in the world you always assume you’ll get to do/see one day. Lately, I’m realizing that I’m never going to see this stuff if I don’t actually plan a trip and make it happen… obvious, I know, but I guess I just feel that I no longer quite have all the time in the world for all the things I want to do).

So I saw Stonehenge, and I really loved it. In London, I went to the Tate Britain and spent a long time in the Turner rooms- JMW Turner was the first artist I ever really studied, way back in high school, when I was 16. (Come to think of it, I wrote a paper on Notre Dame for that class, too!). Whenever I’m in an art museum I check to see if there’s a Turner, and I was overwhelmed by the number at the Tate. And then I saw another painting I recognized- in another connection to high school, my English class was reading Hamlet and there was a depiction of Ophelia on the cover of our books. When the books were handed out to us, a boy across the room exclaimed, “Nadine! This looks just like you!” Everyone started laughing (maybe because Ophelia was floating down a stream to her death), but the boy was serious. I blushed, and ducked my head. At the time, I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not. 
But then I was walking through the halls of the Tate and came across this painting and I started smiling, almost laughing, at the memory. 

The final connection to high school was also during my day in London; an old friend lives there, someone I haven’t seen since I was 18. She invited me over to her family’s apartment; that evening, in the square down below, the neighbors were having a communal bbq. It was an incredible evening: everyone spread out on blankets and chairs in a beautiful garden, a DJ playing tunes (a Beatles song was playing when we walked in), the smell of charcoal, kids running around, twinkle lights in the trees. Standing at the grill, my friend leaned over to me. “They don’t know how to grill stuff here.” And as predicted, the men around the grill watched as my friend flipped her burgers, then put down rounds of bright yellow pineapple. “American,” she explained, and the men all laughed, then asked if she could help them with their food.


Later in the evening, after lots of drinking, people started dancing. But it was the strangest sort of thing- it was like a wedding. There was line dancing and the Bee Gees and even the Macarena. That one brought everyone out to the floor. I was standing by another American and he kept shaking his head. “Don’t they know that no one dances to this anymore?” He gestured to the crowd. “Welcome to Brexit.” It was a combination of every age group: little children, a few teenagers, twenty and thirty-somethings, parents and grandparents. They were swinging their hips and waving their arms and smiling and laughing. England might be a bit of a mess right now, but on that night, in that square, it seemed like everyone was in it together. 



Next up, I’ll be checking in from the south of France!

To Summer, To Travel, To Time

The great summer trip of 2016 begins in less than a week, so I thought it was about time that I check back in here with an update. And the only update I really have has already been said: I leave in less than a week!

Does time seem to be moving fast for anyone else? Like, really really fast? Until only a few days ago I was convinced that it was still May, that I had over a month to plan and prepare for my trip, that the days are continuing to lengthen, that summer was still far off.

But all of a sudden it was summer, and work had ended for the year, and the only thing that was looming before me was my big trip. I should be used to this by now, it’s been my pattern for the last three years: work ends around the middle of June, and I promptly hop on a plane for Europe.

So why does it feel like this trip is still weeks and weeks away? Last year, on the first day of summer, I was doing this:

I’d already been walking on the Camino for a few days, life at home felt like it was another world away.

My trip begins a bit later than usual this year, maybe that’s part of it. Or maybe it’s just that life is speeding by so fast that I yearn to hit a pause button, and give myself some time to catch up.

But there’s no stopping time so here we go. I think that finally, in these last few days, I’ve accepted that summer is here. I’ve gone to a baseball game and drank a coke slushey and had a dish of ice cream and spent a day at the beach. I’ve stretched in the lounge chair on my porch with my feet in the sun and read a book that I was too busy to finish months ago. Two days ago I went on a 10-mile hike; tomorrow I’ll try for 12-miles. This is the most hiking I’ve done in a long, long time, and well, it’s about time.

And then next week, I’ll leave for Europe. My first stop is England, something I don’t think I even mentioned in my Summer 2016 blog post. It sort of got lost in the shuffle of my mind, and stayed lost until just a couple days ago. But- oh yeah!- I decided to fly into London because it’s been a solid 15 years since I’ve been there and I thought it could be nice to do something a little new.

This photo is from my last trip to England, all those years ago:

My friend reminded me that our original plan was to spend a few days in London, then head to Stonehenge. But in 2001, Stonehenge was closed for 5 1/2 weeks because of foot-and-mouth disease, so we went to Liverpool instead (and honestly, this was probably my vote all along… Long Live Ringo!).

It’s a bit crazy to think back to that trip- parts of it that feel like a lifetime ago, other parts that are so recent in my memory I could swear that I was just there. Wasn’t I just there? Leaving notes for our friends on scraps of paper at the hotel lobby because this was just before any of us had a cell phone; crossing the street at the wrong end of Abbey Road (and causing quite the pile up of traffic in order to get a photo); battling a cold on the train to London and the endless cups of tea to soothe my throat; noticing that a small magnolia tree was growing in the front yard of the house where George Harrison grew up.

These memories are creeping in because I finally sat down and planned some things for my three days in England. I focus on these details for a moment- there’s a Jane Austen Centre in Bath! I can finally make it to Stonehenge!- but then an email pulls me into another part of the trip. It’s from the writer’s retreat in southern France- our host has forwarded a suggested shopping list so that we’re not overwhelmed when we arrive and are whisked off to the grocery store. And then I think back to my time there three years ago, and how I was overwhelmed, and didn’t buy quite enough food. Will that happen again? What will the village be like- will it be just as I remembered, or will there be changes?

And what am I like, this time? Three years wasn’t all that long ago, and yet, I know that I am different. And certainly, I’m different than I was 15 years ago, on that first trip to London and Liverpool.

Different, and yet… still me. Always me.

There’s more, too: another Amazon package arrived at my door, it’s a guide to walking the West Highland Way. And then I need to push the days in England and the writer’s retreat from my mind, and focus on Scotland. Scotland! I know nothing about Scotland! Shouldn’t I learn something, shouldn’t I do some research? A friend warns me about the haggis, and I wonder if I will try it.

And then, finally, in the very back corner of my mind, I remember that I’m also walking a Camino. That I’m returning to Spain. I’ve barely given it any thought, because this is the thing that feels the most familiar, the most comfortable. Other than breaking in a new pair of shoes, I haven’t done much in preparation. I have all my gear, I know where I’m going; this is the thing that I don’t have to plan for.

But remember just two years ago? My fretting and my fear in the weeks before I left for Spain that first time? Wasn’t I just memorizing the Spanish words for ‘I’m allergic to nuts’ and wondering how, exactly, I was to go about hand-washing my clothing?

Ah, time. I still don’t know what to make of it, of how quickly life is streaming past, yet of how far I’ve seemed to travel in what feels like very fleeting moments. I know that in August, I’m going to be back here at my computer, in my apartment, marveling over how fast the summer just went by.

Of course I will. But I’m not at the end yet, I’m only at the very beginning. So, here’s to summer! May it be the best one yet.

Round Three.

Plans for Summer 2016 have been made! But here’s the truth- I’ve hesitated to talk about the long, long process of figuring out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. There are probably a few reasons, but none more than this: it feels a little ridiculous to spend so much time (publicly) fretting over how to spend my two months off. Because… I get two months off! Every year that I stay in the job I currently have, I am increasingly grateful that the work I do affords me time off in the summer. It’s a luxury that most people simply don’t get. I was pretty intentional about choosing this particular job in order to have the two months off, and like nearly everything in life there are trade-offs. But I still recognize how lucky I am, and for having this job at this particular time in my life: my family is healthy and I am healthy, I have no kids and no commitments or obligations that keep me state-side. And, for better or for worse, I have no partner to worry about. I can do exactly as I please.

It’s an amazing opportunity, but sometimes I feel a little self-conscious talking about yet another summer in Europe. But I work hard, and maybe never harder than I have this year. And for vast stretches of time during the 10 months of the year that I’m not traveling, my life is pretty simple. I have hermit-like tendencies. I am very, very careful about money; if I weren’t, I’d never be able to travel like I do.

Where am I going with this? I’m starting to ramble again. I’ve missed blogging, but as ever, it’s because my focus has been so wrapped up in writing this book. I’ve slipped just a bit from my weekly word-count goal in the past month, and I blame spring and sunshine and all those blooming trees out there. Makes it hard to get my butt in the chair. But here I am, with a simple and easy lemon cake in the oven and the last few fingers of wine in my glass and I am going to tell you about my summer plans, the ones I’ve worked hard for, the ones that I sometimes agonized over.

Here is my main problem this year: I want to do it all. I already wrote a bit about maybe buying a new car and driving across the country, I wrote a big list of travel goals that included Guatemala and writer’s retreats and long hikes. I want to do it all! (and don’t we all?) I tell myself not to think too big, that I can’t possibly do so much with only two months off, that I shouldn’t try to do it all, that there will be time for it all, one day.

But still, I couldn’t settle down or settle into a decision about this summer. I took the cross-country trip off the list, Guatemala too, but the other things were still up for grabs. I knew that I wanted to spend some of the summer focused on my book, so a writer’s retreat was high on the list. But- and if this comes as a surprise then you need to go back and read more of this blog, maybe from the beginning– I wanted to do another Camino. How could I go to Europe and not also go on a long walk?

I figured out a way to do both of these things, a very doable way to do a writer’s retreat and a Camino, and I thought that I should have been satisfied, that I immediately should have scooped up a flight. And, can we talk for a moment about flights? About the deals that I saw come and go? About the $500 round trip flight between Philly and Milan that pretty much worked with my schedule? Every day for over a week I checked to make sure that the deal was still there, until it wasn’t, and I never bought the flight.

Because something was holding me back. In the past few years, a little travel bug has nudged its way into my head and my chest and most certainly my legs and my feet, and I have a growing list of places to go, things to see, paths to walk. So while another writer’s retreat in France and another Camino in Spain would make me happy beyond belief, I still hesitated. I wanted something new, too.

All those thoughts of not trying to do it all, having time ‘one day’? One day is right now. I’ve been telling myself this for a long, long time, but it always bears repeating. One day is right now.

This isn’t leading up to anything epic or earth-shattering. I’m not quitting my job, the book is nowhere near finished, no radical changes (not yet anyway). But I’m going to try to do a lot this summer, a combination of things that seems just right, so right that now I certainly am happy beyond belief, at the thought of getting the chance to do it all.

There are three parts to Summer 2016. The first is another writer’s retreat, which takes me back to La Muse, the same place where I spent three weeks in 2013. When I was there the first time, I had that deep and knowing feeling that one day I’d return. But I also knew that in order to return, I’d need to be in a different creative place. That first trip was simply about learning to call myself an artist. I didn’t have a dedicated project to work on while I was there, I knew I loved to write and take photos but I’ve never really been serious about it before. So those three weeks in southern France were more about the experience of entering a different kind of world, a world where I could start to consider myself an artist, where I could learn what it takes for me to feel inspired and focused, to give me confidence moving forward.

And in the past three years, I’ve moved forward. Slowly, slowly, one small step at a time. I’m returning to La Muse as a writer, who is working on her book.  How great does it feel to say that? Pretty great.

During my last retreat I would spend a few hours a day writing, but otherwise I was out in the mountains that surrounded the small French village of Labastide-Esparbairenque. I took long hikes and hundreds of photos, and more than anything soaked up the inspiration and beauty of where I was. This time around, there will surely be more hikes (photos too), but I also have a big project to work on. I’m excited to see what kind of progress I can make on the book with three solid weeks to do nothing but write.

Terrace-La-Muse-Labastide-Esparbairenque-France

Terrace of La Muse, July 2013

 

The second part of my trip will most likely be another Camino. Nothing is set in stone yet, but that’s also the beauty of a Camino… nothing really needs to be decided until I arrive. I’ve gone back and forth dozens of times on this, too: if I walk another Camino, which one do I want to walk? Return to the Frances? A path in France? In Portugal? My thoughts ran in circles until finally I stumbled on something that felt just right. Start in Leon (a city about two-thirds of the way towards Santiago on the Camino Frances), and walk about 5 days on the San Salvador, a short Camino that extends south to north, from Leon to Oviedo. I passed through Oviedo last year, when I left the Norte to go down to the Primitivo. So now, I’ll make my way back up to Oviedo on the San Salvador, and from Oviedo will continue north up to the point of the Norte where I veered off last year. If the timing works out well, I should have a dozen or so days to finish the Norte and arrive in Santiago.

I’m sure that explanation was super confusing. Basically, all you need to know is this: I’ll have roughly 17 days to walk a Camino, I’ll be back in Spain, I will drink cafe con leches, and it will be beautiful.

Map of Camino del Norte

This map doesn’t show the San Salvador, but imagine a line extending from the Frances up to Oviedo. From Oviedo I’ll follow that dotted line to Aviles, and then continue on towards Santiago.

 

And finally, the third part of the trip gives me something brand new. My return flight to the states is out of Glasgow, Scotland, and I’m leaving about a week at the end of my trip to walk the West Highland Way, a popular long-distance footpath in the Scottish Highlands. This area of Scotland is rugged and remote (though the path itself could be crowded in August), there could be lots of rain, and there will definitely be lots of midges (small flying insects that will certainly be a pain). But what I’ve read and seen of this 96-mile route is nothing short of stunning. I’m only going to have 5-days to walk this path, and while it’s doable it’s also going to be challenging. But after a summer of hiking in southern France and walking a Camino, I hope that I’ll be in tip-top shape for the Highlands.

west highland way

Photo by Bart vanDorp  / CC BY

 

Big plans, exciting plans. Plans to do it all, at least all that I want for this moment in my life. And I can’t wait to share it all here.

In the footsteps of Monet and Hemingway; Day Two in Paris, and the end of my Camino

Japanese water garden, Giverny, France

I’ve been trying to write a post about the last day in Paris and the end of my trip, and I’m reminded of why I loved writing in the moment so much: writing about something that happened several weeks ago … Continue reading

Crêpes and Cathedrals; Day One of Post-Camino traveling, Santiago to Paris

This is going to be a disjointed post; I thought about not publishing it at all, but I wrote the first half while I was in Paris and I like reading the immediacy of it. In fact, I loved writing that way while I was on the Camino: in the moment, from cafés and bars and sometimes the high perch of my bunk bed in a crowded albergue. But I’ve been home from Europe for over a week now- nearly two weeks- and the ‘real time’ of this post is no longer real. I’m not in Paris (however much I wish I were). I’m home and I’m writing about Paris and some of this I wrote while I was in Paris and some of it I’m writing from where I am at the moment… at a small round table in a Panera cafe, drinking an iced cafe mocha that was supposed to be a hot mocha despite this 93 degree heat, but I didn’t have the heart to tell the sweet and kind barista that she had made me the wrong drink. I don’t even really like chocolate coffee drinks, but this was something I used to order when I was 22, the year after I graduated college and wasn’t sure what to do and would spend time writing at a Panera in my hometown.

So I came here today, because I think I wanted to sort of recapture those feelings I had when I was 22, at least a little. I wrote a lot about France back then- my time abroad- and writing felt like this thing that was so full of possibilities, that had no limits. I didn’t think much about what I was writing and I didn’t share it with anyone and I only wrote for myself, and it was probably the easiest writing I’ve ever done. So I thought I would recreate the scene a bit and write about Paris and see if I can keep writing like I did when I was young(er), keep writing like I did on the Camino.

So here are some thoughts from Paris:

This could practically be called the 32nd day of my Camino even though my Camino ended. I’m counting it because I was following yellow arrows, in Paris, inadvertently, because I took the metro in the wrong direction. I shook my head at myself because I felt like I should have known better. When I realized my mistake I got off and switched platforms and tried to go in the right direction, but I wasn’t fast enough and almost got caught in the closing doors of the metro car. I should have known better about this, too. But I was flustered, maybe not used to traveling this way after walking for so long, maybe still half asleep, my body moving slowly. Whatever it was, I decided I needed to get out from under ground and find some fresh air, regardless of how far I was from my hostel. Far is sort of a relative term for me these days.

I started walking and soon came across yellow arrows. I think they could have been Camino arrows- maybe- and in any case they made me smile. I’m not sure how far I walked, but it didn’t feel too far (what is ‘far’, anyway, after having just walked across Spain?), but I was tired. I AM tired, I think I need to tuck myself away somewhere and spend all day in bed. But first I have this fast trip in Paris. It’s a little difficult to be in this city that I love so much and to feel so tired, but I’m trying to reframe the experience and just enjoy it how I can. If that means meandering around aimlessly, stopping a lot on park benches, finding a chair by the Seine and settling in for awhile, sitting in cafés and drinking coffee… I think that’s a fine way to spend time in Paris.

Leaving Santiago was easy and hard. In some ways I really felt like this Camino ended well and that I was ready for the end, but it’s always hard to leave something you love. And hard to leave people you’ve grown fond of. I have this scattered family all over Spain right now: they’re days before Santiago, in Santiago, on the way to Finisterre, on the way to Muxia, on their way home. I got to say goodbye to some but there are lots still out there, still walking their Camino. So in many ways, I wish I were still walking, too.

But leaving wasn’t as hard as it was last year. Maybe it’s because I was able to come back, and it showed me that if I really want it, I can always go back. Leaving Santiago doesn’t have to mean leaving forever, leaving the Camino doesn’t have to mean leaving forever. I don’t leave these people forever, either; the best parts of my day were the messages I received: one from Jill, wishing me a safe journey to Paris. One from Nicolas, telling me that he is 40 kilometers from Finisterre. And a comment on my blog from Krysti and John, two friends from last year’s Camino. We haven’t been in touch for a year, but they told me that they’d been following my journey this year since Day One. I was standing at the luggage carousel in the airport in Paris when I read that, and I had the biggest smile on my face.

It was right around this time when I looked up and noticed an older man and woman across the room, waving at me and pointing to the corner. That was when I saw what I was waiting for: my walking stick. How this couple knew that I was waiting to pick up my stick I have no idea, they must have seen me checking it in Santiago. There it was, in oversized baggage: my tall wooden stick, covered with a fluorescent green wrapping. Getting it to Paris wasn’t as much trouble as I feared; just 20 euros to check a “bag”, 7 euros to wrap the stick.

So maybe that’s another reason this feels like a Camino day- I walked through the streets of Paris with my pack on my back, the walking stick in my hand. I found my hostel- the MIJE, my home away from home- and put my stuff up in my room. I’m in a shared room, but right now there’s only one other person’s stuff next to a bed on the lower level. I’m on the second “floor” at the top of a narrow set of heavy wooden stairs. There are six beds up here but maybe I’ll luck out and have the space to myself.

(later)…

It turns out I was the only one in my section of the room, and I was grateful for it. I had been wishing for this, wishing I could have a single room somewhere. That I could just have an early night and settle in, curled up on my bed with my phone and some wi-fi and a Twix bar. I got to do this, but that came a little later. First I had to spend a few hours in Paris.

I remained tired throughout the day. I thought that maybe I should have had a plan, that I should have picked one thing I wanted to do and forced myself to do it because I was in Paris and even though I think I’ll always end up coming back, I never know for sure how long it will be until I return to this city. But instead I walked for far too long down the Rue de Rivoli, stopping in one shop after another looking for a plain and cheap t-shirt. Shopping was the last thing I wanted to do but wearing a fresh t-shirt was the thing I wanted the most, so I forced myself to do a little shopping. (I came away with a 5 euro blue t-shirt from Forever 21, which might be considered a little sad considering I was in Paris, but I was satisfied. I just wanted something clean and new).

And then I did the only thing that I ever really HAVE to do when I’m in Paris, and that was to walk by Notre Dame. It’s one of my very favorite places in the world, and it’s one reason I like staying at the MIJE so much; Notre Dame is just a 5 minute walk away. I stayed in this general area the entire night: sitting on a bench behind the cathedral, occasionally admiring the architecture, watching kids play in the park. When I was hungry I walked a short distance to the Ile Saint-Louis and found a small crêperie. The restaurant was narrow, the kitchen off to one side with a man flipping the thin crêpes by the front window, three tables tucked against the wall in the front room, and a larger seating area in the back. An older couple were eating in the front of the restaurant when I entered and I was seated nearby- feeling a little self-conscious being alone, but also comfortable in this small and quiet space.

I ordered off of their ‘menu of the day’- maybe I was still in the habit of pilgrim menus and menu del dias, or maybe I just wanted to eat a lot of crêpes. The first plate was a crêpe complet: ham, emmental cheese and an egg. A mug of cidre, a buerre/sucre (butter and sugar, simple but the best) crêpe for dessert. The crêpes were enormous and delicious and unlike anything I’d eaten for the past month in Spain. I ate slowly, dipping each forkful of my crêpe into the runny egg yolk, savoring the simplicity of the handful of salad arranged on the side of my plate.

I wandered around after dinner, crossing a bridge over the Seine to head back to Notre Dame. Families waited in line for ice cream, a man played an accordian, an endless wave of people snapped photos. I found a bench and settled in to watch the sun set, with the Seine in front of me and Notre Dame just off to my left. After a few minutes a young man approached me and began to talk. He thought I must be Swiss, I think I let him down by saying I was American. He stayed with me for ten minutes, telling me how he had just moved to Paris, that he loved this area of the city, that French wine was the best. I was polite but reserved and eventually he got the hint and left. Over the past month I’ve gotten used to talking to new people- it seemed as though I met a handful of new people every day- and for as much as I was craving company and connection at the end of this Camino, on this night- in Paris- I just wanted to sit quietly and watch the sun set.

And so I did. The night was soft and quiet and I was tired and satisfied and full. Full of crêpes, full of happiness, full of the Camino and everything I got to experience in this past month. So, one more day in Paris- one last little bit of travel and exploration- and then time to go home.

MIJE courtyard, ParisMIJE staircase, ParisNotre Dame, ParisCrêpe, ParisNotre Dame, sunset