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.

Memorable Moments of 2016

I always get reflective at this time of the year. For years I would journal on the very last day of the calendar year, looking back and reminding myself of all that I’d done (or hadn’t done), what went well in the year, what hadn’t. And then I’d set my sights forward, making lists of goals and resolutions and plans. A new year has always had a touch of magic to it: I still love the idea that I’m starting from a blank slate, that I hold the pen that writes in the story of my next 12 months.

But before we can get to the future, lets look back at the past! I’ve never written a ‘best of’ post, have I? In any case, I’ve been thinking about all that I’ve done this year, and I thought it could be fun to do a round-up here on this blog, going month to month. There were some things that went wrong, maybe some months where it felt like I didn’t do too much, but I’m going to keep this post happy and positive. These are my memorable moments from the year, along with some of my favorite photos. (And, in case you don’t make it to the end of this post: a great big thank you to all of you. I’m still astounded that there is anyone at all who reads this blog, much less people who have been coming back for years now. My blogging slowed down this year, but I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. If anything, I want to make blogging a more regular part of my routine for 2017, so I hope you’ll stick around).

January


I kicked off the year in Washington DC, a place I visited multiple times in 2016. I have several very good friends who live in or around the city and so I find myself there a lot: for art museums, baseball games, concerts. And I ended the month in Fort Royal, Virginia, where I met up with a friend for a winter weekend of wine tasting. But aside from these trips, the month was cold, and quiet. I made a few trips into Philly to hunt down the city’s best coffee shops, but otherwise I was tucked into my apartment and doing the tough, but gratifying work of writing my memoir.

February


Another cold, winter month and the few photos I took reveal simple activities: I wrote, I hit more coffee shops, I baked bread, I went on a few long walks when the sun came out.

March


More walks! More coffee! Art museums in Philly are pay what you wish on the first Sunday of the month, and at least once I year I get into the city to see my favorite works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This year I waited in a long line to get free tickets into the Barnes Foundation, a museum that holds an extensive collection of post-impressionist and early modern paintings. It’s an outstanding collection, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a winter Sunday than in the gallery of an art museum.

This month also held my first big trip of the year: a four-day camping excursion on Cumberland Island in the state of Georgia. It was an adventure, to be sure: I’d never been camping on my own before, and never for more than one night. I bought myself a new sleeping bag, a little camp stove, and loaded up my car and drove 12 hours down to Georgia. I took a ferry out to the island and crossed my fingers that this camping thing would work out. And it did. The weather was stunning, I explored all over the island, saw wild horses and armadillos and the ruins of old mansions.

April


The weather began to get nicer this month, so I took advantage and was outside as much as possible. I went on a far-too-long walk along the Delaware & Raritan Canal (I think it was about 18 miles? My feet were throbbing at the end and I had a small blister forming on the ball of my foot but it was a good to get back outside), spent a weekend in Frederick, MD with good friends, spent time with my family and kept chipping away at my writing.

May


I usually love the month of May but this year it seemed like it rained constantly. Did the sun come out at all? My pictures show beautiful days only at the end of the month, when I drove out to Cleveland over Memorial Day weekend to visit my sister. When it wasn’t raining I spent as much time as I could at my local park, hiking on the trails and getting ready for my summer adventures.

June


The end of work, baseball games, beach trips, hiking, a bridal shower for a good friend. And at the very end of the month, I set off for my 7-week summer in Europe, which I kicked off in Bath, England. I spent a day wandering through the city, finding my travel legs, and hanging out with Jane Austen.

July


It’s hard to pick the highlights from the month of July: on the 1st of the month I was at Stonehenge, on the 31st of the month I was dragging myself into Oviedo to finish the Camino de San Salvador. In between I had three mostly glorious weeks at La Muse, the writer’s and artist’s retreat in the south of France. If I had to pick a favorite moment from the month it would probably be sitting up at Le Roc with Homer, looking out over the mountains surrounding Labastide.

August

Look how dirty my leg is!!


Lots more walking to do this month! I started things off with 9 days on the Camino del Norte, then spent a week in Scotland, hiking the West Highland Way. Both trips were incredible, but by the end I felt ready to come home and spend the last month of summer with family and friends.

September


I checked an item off my bucket list this month: I officiated the wedding of two good friends! Afterwards I joked that I might make this officiating-weddings-thing a side-gig (anyone need someone to marry them?), but all joking aside, it was an incredible experience. The rest of the month was about transitioning back into work and enjoying the fading days of summer with long hikes and a couple trips to DC.

October


My mom and I took a little trip up to Concord, Massachusetts to see Walden Pond and (most importantly) Orchard House, which is the long-time home of Louisa May Alcott. I wasn’t supposed to take any photos inside but when no one was looking I snapped a photo of the desk where Alcott wrote Little Women. It’s my favorite book of all time, and after the trip I felt re-energized and excited about getting back into my own writing.

November


November had a couple weekend trips: one down to Maryland and Virginia and West Virginia- with a quick hike in Shenandoah National Park and a visit to Harper’s Ferry, and a day trip up to NYC to reunite with a couple friends from my summer at La Muse. There was election day madness and a relaxing trip home for Thanksgiving, and lots of walks and hiking as I took advantage of some mild fall weather.

December


This has been a quiet month. I’ve seen friends, baked lots of cookies, and spent the holidays with my family. Since my summer travels I’ve really struggled to get back into my writing, but I think I’ve set myself up with a good plan for the next few months. I’m ready to get into a new year, and I’m ready to see what I can accomplish in 2017. 2016 was, overall, a fine year, but now it’s time for something even bigger and greater.

Happy New Year, my friends, and I will see you all soon!

“When despair for the world grows in me…”

For the past week I’ve been thinking- every day- about what to post here on my blog. I write mostly about walking and traveling and sometimes about coffee, and I will certainly keep writing about those things.

But it just didn’t feel right to come back here and write my next post about Scotland and pretend like the election never happened. I don’t write about politics here, but I do write about my personal experiences: I tell my stories. And what’s going on in the US and my reactions to it are very much a part of the story of my life.

When Donald Trump was elected to be the next President of the United States, I was horrified. I didn’t believe it could actually happen, but that also doesn’t mean that I wasn’t worried and anxious all through the election cycle.

Because sometimes I saw how it could happen. I live in a liberal area (a county outside of Philadelphia, PA), have liberal neighbors, a mostly liberal family and mostly liberal friends. But when I opened my ears, even in my very liberal area, I heard people speak of their support for Trump. And when I would drive just 30 minutes north, or west, I would start to see the signs. Navy blue with white block letters that spelled out: Trump. Pence. Make America Great Again. A week and a half ago I drove out to my parents’ house in Lancaster- a mostly conservative county- and I took back roads and I saw nothing but Trump signs.

It was always all around me- all around all of us, I suppose- but it was always easier to push the fears away and say, “There’s no way our country will elect him to be our President.” It was what I said when I traveled this summer: every other person who saw my American passport had a question or a statement to make about Trump, and my response was to groan and shake my head, but then to say, “But he’ll never be our President.”

It was easier to believe this. Maybe I had to believe this, because what was the alternative? It was something very, very difficult for me to imagine.

As a white, heterosexual, cisgender and able-bodied woman living in the United States, I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s been pretty easy for me to move through life and take advantage of the opportunities given to me, without having to encounter much- or any- resistance, or intolerance, or violence, or hate, or prejudice. For that, I am very, very lucky.

But I am a woman, and sometimes, I get very angry at the way I’m treated. And it’s been like that for a long time. I can remember this one night when I was in high school- it was late spring or maybe early fall and I was standing with a few other girlfriends on the sidewalk that was at the edge of a small college campus. A car full of guys drove by; the windows were open and they leaned their heads out the window and shouted at us- catcalled at us.

My instant reaction was to take a step into the street and shout back at the car that was, by now, far down the street. So I yelled, moved back onto the sidewalk, and my friends were staring at me with their mouths opened. I can’t remember exactly what they said, but it was something like this: “Nadine, it’s not that big of a deal. Calm down.”

Calm down.

My freshman year of college I was working a lunch shift in the dining hall- wearing a worn red apron and a paper hat that stuck like glue to the sweat on my forehead- and a barrel-chested guy  in a white t-shirt approached me. I thought he wanted a salad plate, but instead he bent down close to my ear and whispered something very, very crude. It was supposed to be a pick-up line, I suppose, but to shrug it off as an “innocent” pick-up line from a young and cocky college student would be to overlook what it really was. Sort of like dismissing something as “locker-room talk”. I stared at him, hard, but I was unable to say anything. So I turned on my heel and walked away and never forgot what he looked like.

A few years later we became friends, but in the days when we were still getting to know each other, he said something to me that took me by surprise. “You hate men, don’t you?” he’d said.

It couldn’t have been further from the truth. But I used that moment to remind him of what he had said to me in the dining hall. “I don’t hate men,” I said. “But I do hate the way that some men can sometimes treat women. With that one line, you made me feel unsafe, and embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry, and small.”

Had he heard me? Had he really heard me? To him, it was only ever a pick-up line.

When I was a sophomore in college I took a writing class called “Sex, Gender and Identity”. I was the youngest student in the class; there was always a long waiting list because students were always fixated on the ‘sex’ part of the course description, and not necessarily because they took the subject very seriously. But I did. The professor of the course would sometimes photocopy the papers I wrote and hand them out to the rest of the class as an example of what an ‘A+’ paper looked like. I’ve held onto these papers and when I read them now, I cringe at how bad the writing is. But there’s something else I notice in my words, something the professor had undoubtedly noticed, too: a passion. A burning fire. I cared deeply about the topics I was writing about.

In those days I spoke up. But in the intervening years, something has happened to that voice, and I realize that it’s become quiet. There are a lot of reasons for that, and some of them are complicated, but here’s one: I shied away from anger. I still do. Long ago I made a very conscious choice to be positive, to be kind, to be open and accepting and to spread happiness where I could. It’s so ingrained to how I live my life that I can see how I step away from negativity. I see a person who talks down to others, who is intolerant, who is racist, who is misogynistic; I stay away, and choose to keep them out of my life.

That’s how I’ve reacted in this election, too. It’s been hard for me to stomach. I tried to watch the debates but I had to turn them off because of the way Trump spoke to Hillary. I couldn’t stand it, so I shut it off. I turned away. I told myself that our country wouldn’t chose a leader who makes racist remarks, whose comments about sexually assaulting women he brushes off as “locker room talk”, who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, who threatens to turn back the legalization of same-sex marriage.

And when Trump was elected as our President, my very first response was to think, “Now would be a mighty fine time to move to Europe.” (Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d sometimes dreamed about moving to Europe well before this election cycle…)

But to move, to turn away, to flee, to take myself out of the country of my citizenship… it’s not the answer for me. I’m am American, and for better or for worse, I’m proud to be an American. We are powerfully divided, but this is my country. And these last few weeks have shown me and reminded me of what I so strongly believe in: Liberty and justice for all. That all men are created equal. To love your neighbor- all of your neighbors- as thyself.

I remember the young woman who stood up to sexism, I remember the 7th grade kid who stood in front of a classroom of her peers and recited Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech (now thinking this could be the reason I didn’t get invited to many parties…). I’ve never stopped believing in freedom and equality; I’ve never stopped working hard to provide a safe and welcoming space for every teenager that I work with, but the fire that I’d felt when I was younger? I feel it again. It should have never gone away, but maybe the important thing now is that it’s back.

And it’s back for a lot of us. I see it on Facebook and Instagram, I hear it from my friends and from my colleagues at work. For me, this is about love and acceptance- messages that are needed now more than ever as we’re seeing a trickle-down from the campaign and election of racism and sexism and bigotry. There are dozens of things that we can all be doing, and I won’t list them out here but I’ve read some excellent posts and articles and here are a couple links: Twenty Things You Can Do When The World Is Terrifying, Leaving is Easy/ Fighting is Harder.

The other thing I’m going to do- and have never stopped doing- is to get outside and take a walk. You all should. Breathe in some fresh air, notice the sky and the grass and the trees, clear your head. I’m also going to keep baking bread, and keep petting dogs, and keep smiling at strangers.

I’ll leave you with this beautiful poem that was shared by a friend of mine the other day: The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Like it was all a dream

I’m back! In more ways than one: back with another blog post, and back home in the US.

Back home, already? I was gone for 7 weeks- I did a whirlwind few days through Bath and London and Paris before spending three weeks at La Muse in southern France, then two and a half weeks in Spain, and then a week in Scotland. Before I left for my trip, I was overwhelmed with everything I had planned, with all the different parts, and I worried that it was too much. And when I started the Camino and then got sick, I still worried that it was too much. “Why am I going to Scotland?” I asked myself. “Why did I decide to do so much?”

But in the end, I have to say, I’m glad I decided to do it all. And the traveling and the unpacking and repacking of bags, the different bed every night, the connections and the directions and all the different towns and cities… by the time I got to Scotland it didn’t feel too difficult or too hard. In fact, I sort of felt like I knew what I was doing, even though I had never been to Scotland before. I felt like, maybe just a bit, I’d gotten rather good at this traveling thing.

That being said, it’s good to be home. In the last few days of my trip, I kept thinking to myself, “I only have to do this two more times. I only have to do this one more time.” “This” referred to showering in cramped and not-so-clean hostel bathrooms, to waking up in the morning and trying to be super quiet while packing up my stuff, to having to dry myself with my incredibly small travel towel that I should have upgraded to a larger size two years ago.

But it’s also strange to be home. Nothing has changed here, and I wouldn’t have expected anything to, and yet, when you’re away from home for a long time and have seen and done so much, you return and expect that the changes are at home, too. That everything should look a little different, should sound a little different and taste a little different. But my apartment is my apartment- a bit musty and cobweb covered but everything is in the exact place where I left it. My mailman waved to me yesterday and said, “Welcome back”, at Trader Joe’s the shelves are reassuringly stocked with the same familiar products, the sounds of cicadas come in through the screen door and it’s like background noise that has always been there.

I fell asleep on my couch last night around 7:30; I was trying to stay up as late as I could to beat jet lag, but I decided to close my eyes for a just a few minutes and of course that sent me into a quick and deep sleep. I awoke with a jolt about 40 minutes later and blinked my eyes and looked, confused, around the room. Where was I? Home? Why am I here? It was the strangest feeling, I struggled to understand that I was in a familiar place, and for a split second, it felt like all of my traveling had been a dream. Like I had been on that couch all along, and had only dreamed of the writing in France, the trekking through Spain and Scotland, the different lands, the new friends, the sunrises, the green mountains.

My next post should be back to the Camino, to finish telling you about that journey, and then I’m anxious to write about Scotland and my experiences there. I tried to write a bit in the last week of my travels but I never got very far. The faulty keyboard made it difficult, and to be honest, most evenings, I didn’t feel like writing. I sat in bars with a glass of wine and a hearty meal and watched what was going on around me and sometimes chatted with the locals, or other travelers. I just wanted to absorb where I was. One night, I set up my keyboard and iPad in the hostel in Glen Nevis and started writing a post but then a Londoner named Tony started talking to me and then so did a woman from Minnesota and then a man from Norway and so I folded up my keyboard and put it away.

But my keyboard is open again, and I’m so happy to return to writing, to telling these little stories, to processing my experiences and then looking forward to my next projects. It was good to be away, and now it’s good- in different ways- to be back home. Thank you all for following along, for your comments and emails, for any time you took to read what I had to say. I hope you’ll keep reading.

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.

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.

  

Springtime Notes

I’d just started typing a post- I had a couple paragraphs written- but my fingers must have been moving a little too fast because they hit a couple of keys at the same time and the post disappeared. I can only think that it’s been too long since I’ve blogged and I’m out of practice.

So, let me start again. I had just been thinking that two years ago, around this time, I was about a month away from my first Camino. I can remember those days so clearly: the training hikes, the trips to REI, the packages from Amazon. I can also remember the feeling of those days, the nervousness of what I was taking on, the quiet thrill of pushing myself and learning something new. I had no idea what I was doing, and yet, with each day, I felt like I was getting closer to something. As the weeks progressed, I added miles to my hikes, and weight to my pack. I settled into a pair of shoes that comfortably fit my feet, and I finally bought the right kind of socks. I remember how I would snap a bar of dark chocolate in half, and tuck the pieces into the outer pocket of my pack so that I could enjoy them after my hike. And when my walk was done, that chocolate was maybe the best thing that I had ever tasted.

Wasn’t I just doing this? How could it be two years ago that I was about to embark on my first Camino?

Time is flying. My days are just speeding by, and I’m constantly thinking that I don’t have enough time for all that I want to do. I blame most of this on the book that I’m trying to write, but it’s also more than that. Two years since the first Camino. Two years! The time rushes past whether there’s book writing or not, and I have a fear that the days are only going to keep moving, faster and faster.

Two years ago I was blogging a lot; in the month before my first Camino, I had a lot to say. But now? My next trip is just over 6 weeks away, and I think that so much of the writing I want to do is going to happen when I arrive in Europe.

Because what can I say that I haven’t already said before? I bought new shoes, I’m squeezing in training hikes when I can, several of my friends are on a Camino as we speak and I’m following their journeys with envy. Otherwise, time just marches on, the days here have been cloudy and wet, I’m wondering if this cool, damp spring is just going to slip into summer without me even noticing.

But today we finally got some sunshine: a full day of perfect blue sky and beautiful light, and I drove straight from work to my park and went on a solid, 7-mile hike. And something about the day reminded me of the days before my first Camino, when I just settled into those hikes and dreamed about what my summer might be like.

I daydreamed on this hike, today. I thought about all of my summer plans, how I’m attempting to do everything that I want to do, how I’m combining all of the things that I’ve grown to love in these last few years: travel and walking and writing and connection. I thought a lot about the future, too, how I wish that I could live all of my days enjoying these very things- the travel and walking and writing and connection. Maybe someday I can, maybe right now I already do, in whatever small or large ways I can manage.

I feel calm, thinking about my summer, which is a very different feeling than two years ago, different from even a year ago, when I wasn’t sure if walking a second Camino was the right thing to do. But now I just feel calm, like I’ve gotten myself on a good path and that I’m headed in the direction that I want to be moving in.

And that’s it for now, I think. I have a few ideas for blog posts- well, actually, I have tons of ideas but I’m just not finding the right kind of time- but in any case, I plan to check back in a few more times before I leave for my trip at the end of June. And then, with any luck, I’ll be writing a ton, and man, I just can’t wait. I can’t wait to see new places, to do more walking, to finish up a rough draft of my book, to meet new friends and make more beautiful connections.

But for now, here are my shoes, all of my Camino shoes. It’s time to break the new pair in!

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.

How we tell our stories (love on the Camino?)

A few days ago, I received an email from an online Camino friend. He was writing to tell me that he had just seen me in a movie.

“Ah,” I thought. “So they made the movie.” And then, “They included my part.” And then, “What in the world have I done??”

Let’s set the scene. I was 17km away from Santiago on the Camino Frances, two summers ago. I’d been walking with my Irish friend, and it was a long, hot day that seemed to never end. We’d had to walk much further than anticipated because all the albergues were full, but finally we found an albergue/pension on a quiet street just off the main path of the Camino.

You know who also found the albergue? A Swiss film crew. It was their last night on the Camino- they’d already been to Santiago, they’d finished filming, they were about to fly home. But then they heard that there was a couple staying in the albergue, and they didn’t have the love story angle for their film, and before I knew it, I was in a green plastic chair in front of billowing laundry and being asked questions about my Camino relationship.

Now, before I get to what I really want to write about, I need to set a few things straight. I was never in a “Camino relationship”, not really. I didn’t have a love story to share, I wasn’t even sure how I had ended up in front of a camera, but then again, that just seemed to be the sort of thing that happened on the Camino. And I remember that on that night, I was overwhelmed, and I probably thought to myself, “Well, why not just tack this onto the list of things that the Camino has thrown at me?”

This happens on the Camino, it’s something I continue to marvel at: how so much life is crammed into each and every day of the walk, how time seems to alter and bend. You meet people and after a couple days it feels like you’ve known them for years. You walk through ever changing scenery and you sleep in a different bed every night and there is just constant motion, constant community, constant stimulation.

And when I sat down for the interview with the Swiss film crew, I was so saturated with Camino experiences that I simply couldn’t keep up. I was still trying to process things that had happened to me weeks before, so I suppose I just sat down on the green chair and thought to myself, “The Camino provides?” and then started answering questions.

I think I’ve only ever told one person, maybe two, about this interview. Because once it was over, it was sort of tacked onto the list of “things that happened on my Camino that I don’t really have time to think about, or understand”. I was so close to Santiago at this point that all I really wanted to do was walk. I couldn’t really think about anything else. (And in fact, the crew asked if I could find them in the morning before I left, so that they could get a few shots of me walking. But when the morning came, I slipped out of the albergue quietly, and headed off towards Santiago).

And that leads me back to my reaction, when I found out about this movie: “What in the world have I done??” It’s not nearly as dramatic as that, I can’t imagine there’s much more than 30 seconds or a minute from me, or from my Irish friend (who was sitting next to me during the interview). But I have to laugh a little, and wonder what, exactly, I was portraying in that film. And what, exactly, the filmmakers wanted from us, how they chose to shape and edit words and images so that they could tell the story they wanted to tell.

They wanted a love story, or at least a piece of one. And my story wasn’t a love story, but I suppose that my Irish friend might have answered differently. And, as you readers of the blog will know, I was caught in my own eternal Camino question: be alone, or stay with others? Ultimately I began that Camino alone and I ended alone, but all along the way, it was a struggle. And I was still struggling with it, right up until the very end.

I remember one question that the interviewer asked us, he said something like, “So, I have to ask it: what happens next with you guys?” And my answer was something like this, “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get married, or maybe we’ll never see each other again.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was wondering where they came from. I knew I would never marry my Irish friend, but the thing is… hadn’t part of me wondered? Hadn’t part of me wondered at every person I met, every good-looking European guy (and there were so many on that Camino!) who stayed close to my side, who wanted to walk with me, who offered me a hunk of cheese? Love wasn’t exactly part of that Camino journey for me, and yet, it was also in nearly every step I took. There was a point when I had wondered about my Irish friend: “The Camino provides!” they say, over and over, and suddenly there’s a beautiful 6 foot 4 inch man who wants to walk with me, who listens to the same music as I do, who recites poetry, who buys me gummy candy. Maybe I could marry him, I thought.

And maybe that’s what you see, when you watch this film. Maybe that’s what I portrayed, when I answered the questions. Maybe that’s what the filmmakers want you to see and believe.

But that’s only one small part of the story, and it’s a part that’s not entirely- or even remotely- the truth of my Camino. In the past few days, I’ve thought about this a lot, I suppose I’ve been thinking about this all fall and winter, as I’ve worked on my book. What story am I choosing to share? What version of the truth am I deciding to put down on the page?

Once I was having a discussion (or was it a fight? I could never tell the difference) with my ex-boyfriend. I’d just explained my point of view on something, the way I was feeling, how I’d reacted to something he’d done or said. And he exploded, crying out, “But that’s only how you see it! That’s not what happened!!”

What? It was what happened, it was my experience of what happened, which makes it a version of reality.

There are a lot of different versions of the way things happen, the way we choose to remember something, they narrative threads we pick out from our lives, how we arrange things so that we can tell our stories. I think of how, somewhere out there, I’m a very small part of a Camino film, and how it’s telling some sort of story of my experience. One that I might not even agree with. And I think about how, right at this moment, I’m in the thick of writing another version of that story, a larger, more fleshed-out version. But already I wonder, “Is that really what happened? Did I really feel all of those things, say those things? Was that my experience?”

It was a blast being interviewed for a film. It captured something, some small part of my story- one that was reality or imagined I’m not sure. And it’s also been a blast writing this book. It’s been difficult and mind-numbing and even excruciating, but a blast. I’m capturing something. And it is my wildest dream that one day, you might be able to read my story, however I choose to tell it.

Because it just wouldn’t be right to talk all about a Camino film and not share details with you, here is some information: http://santiagoelcamino.com/dvd.html