“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.

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

 

Sunshine and Daily Selfies; 5 Things I Miss About the Camino

It’s officially my first snow day of the season: school is cancelled and there’s less than 2 inches outside (a false alarm, but I still got a snow day out of it). I have a stack of books on my coffee table, packets of hot chocolate in my cupboard, Netflix opened in my browser (I just started watching American Horror Story, on the recommendation of a teenager I work with. I’m not sure yet if this was a good idea, or a bad idea).

But before I get to any of that, it’s time for more Camino reminiscing. That walk has been on my mind a lot, lately. Last week I bundled up and went out to a park to do a long walk, and I was surprised by how good it felt. And surprised by how sore my legs were. I realized that it had been over a month since I’d walked more than a mile or two, and man, I could feel it. I think my Camino legs are officially gone.

Maybe it was the walk, maybe it’s the cold weather, but I started doing some research into the Camino del Norte, another pilgrimage route that runs across the northern coast of Spain. It’s more physically challenging than the Camino Frances (which I walked last summer); there are many more hills, many more ups and downs. But the route is supposed to be gorgeous; much of it involves walking on a path that has the mountains directly to your left, and the ocean directly to your right. I can’t imagine a better scenario.

So while I’m dreaming about a *possible* 2015 Camino (we’ll see, we’ll see), I’ve also been nostalgic for last year’s Camino. I wrote a post a few months ago, called ‘Endless coffee, top bunks, and delirium; 7 things I miss about the Camino’, and now I’m back for round two. Here are 5 more things that I’ve been missing about the Camino lately.

1. Sunshine

I already wrote about how I loved being outdoors every day on the Camino, but you know what I really loved about that? Being in the sun. This is such a catch-22, because spending hours in the sun can be so dangerous. But I can’t help it, I love sunshine, and I always have. My mom saw a photo that I posted on this blog, while I was on the Camino, and her comment was something along the lines of: “Your skin!!! Wear a hat!!!!!!!” And I did, sometimes. I was religious in my use of sunscreen on the Camino though, and one of my favorite memories was standing, sweaty and dirty, in a farmacia (pharmacy) and trying to speak in Spanish with the woman working behind the counter (I knew about a dozen words, so I didn’t get very far). I was pointing up to the sky (to indicate the sun), then pointing down to my skin (to indicate that I needed something to cover it from the sun). She walked me over to a shelf full of tubes of cream, studied my skin for a minute, then thoughtfully picked out a bottle.

So, I wore a lot of sunscreen. And I loved (almost) every minute of being out in the sun. I walked the Camino at the end of June and the entirety of July, and I lucked out with a mild summer. There were definitely some cloudy days, but lots of sunny ones as well. Some days were hot, and some of the very hottest were difficult… but I still loved it. I feel so much better when I’ve gotten a daily dose of sunshine; I feel energized and healthy. And this is probably #1 on my list today because we’re in the very middle of winter, there is snow on the ground, and the days have been very gray. So I’m dreaming about a sunny Camino.

Sunrise on the Camino

 

2. Eating endless food (and bread) and not really gaining any weight

I may have mentioned that I was about 5 pounds heavier when I returned home from my trip this summer, but not much of that was Camino weight. Well, maybe a pound (but most of it was due to the 10 days in France, post-Camino, where I ate entire meals of bread, cheese, and wine). I already wrote about being able to drink as much wine and coffee as I wanted, but I have to say, it was sheer joy to eat whatever I wanted on the Camino and not worry about it. I’m not a fanatic when it comes to food and my weight, but in my normal life I try to eat healthy foods and stay active and avoid my very favorite things (like french fries and sweet candy).

But the Camino wasn’t normal life. I was walking a ton every day, so I let myself indulge, and eat whatever I wanted to. It took me awhile to get into this routine (old habits die hard), but by the end of the trip, I was stopping at 10:30 am for a huge plate of french fries and a tall glass of coke, just because I wanted to. I almost always had a bag of gummy candies stuffed somewhere in my pack, and I could eat an entire basket of bread before my three course pilgrim’s meal (and then ask for a refill). All of this eating meant that I didn’t lose any weight as I walked 500-miles across a country, and I was okay with that. But as soon as the walking ended, my appetite, unfortunately, didn’t.

It’s taken months to get back to my “normal” eating habits. I may have lost a pound or two… but then again, some pants are still a little tight. Oh, those glorious days of bread and cheese and french fries! It’s a compelling reason to walk another Camino…

Lunch on the Camino

 

3. The opportunity to take a selfie every morning.

I know that I can take a selfie every morning if I wanted to. But what would it show? Here I am, standing in my kitchen, about to leave for work. Every single day. There’s simply no need to take a picture like this. But on the Camino, I took a photo of myself every morning before I began my walk (there were only two days when I forgot, so I took selfies along the path, instead). I had this idea before I began the walk, and the entire purpose was to keep track of my photos. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to remember which photos belonged to which day, so I decided to take a photo every morning, to separate one day’s walk from the next.

And even if the selfie-taking was a solution to an organizational problem, it’s now become something more. It shows me. It shows me on this walk: the first photos of my pale skin and tentative smile, the later photos showing confidence and happiness. My hair gets a little lighter, my skin gets a little darker, I become more relaxed. Some of the photos are bad (these are all taken approximately 30 minutes after I have woken up… often from a top bunk in a crowded albergue and after a fitful night of sleep. I spend 5 minutes in the bathroom brushing my teeth and splashing cold water in my face, and then I put on my pack and walk, so I’m not exactly looking my best)… but I love that I took them. And I wish I could once again have the opportunity to take a different photo from a different city or town or village every single day.

4. The kindness of strangers.

I think that anyone who has walked a Camino might be nodding their head about this one. There are kind people all over the world, and certainly kind people in our every day lives. But sometimes it takes a lot to see them, or notice them. And sometimes we’re so caught up in the busy-ness of life that we all forget to stop and help someone out. Or we forget to stop and be kind.

But on the Camino there is just so much of it. It took me about a week to get into the habit of sharing whatever I had. I think the first person to show me true kindness was Ibai, and I suspect it’s one of the reasons that I took the time to walk with him and get to know him, and then try to stay with him until the end. It was the end of my second day of walking, and I was setting up my keyboard at a picnic table in the courtyard of my albergue. Ibai walked over, asked if he could sit down, and offered me an orange. There was such genuineness and simplicity in this gesture, but I think I’ll always remember it. I took the orange and then we started a friendship.

And all along the Camino there are moments like these. People help you out with the bigger stuff (when you’re in pain, when you have horrible blisters, when you need directions, when you’ve run out of food), but they help with the smaller things, too. They offer you the bottom bunk. They ask, sincerely, how you are doing (and they expect to hear a truthful answer). They open up a bag of cookies and insist that you take one. And then you, in turn, begin to offer what you have. Your time, your ear, your extra Moleskin, your bag of cherries. It’s beautiful.

Cherries & Croissant

 

5. The people.

Oh, I miss the friends that I made: my Camino family. This post has already gone on long enough, and I could easily write another 1,000 words about the people I met on this Camino, but I won’t. All I can say is that the connections- whether they were people I walked with for 100-miles or people I talked to for 10 minutes- the connections were so much of what the Camino was all about. I miss those people.

Last Night in Santiago, Camino Family

One Year Later

This new year kind of crept up on me. I guess being in Italy and attempting to navigate an unclear friendship/relationship didn’t give me much room to do my normal ‘end of one year, beginning of another year’ reflections.

I still haven’t really given it much thought, except to say this: It feels good to be in 2015.

2014 was an up and down year. The words that come to mind when I think about last January are ‘cold’ and ‘quiet’. I started this blog, and wrote about taking a single step towards… something. My serious relationship had just ended, I didn’t know what direction my life would be taking, and I had no idea what to do to move my life in any direction. So I began to dream about the Camino, and of how alluring it would be to simply follow arrows for a long, long time. Move myself in a physical direction, and determine the figurative one along the way.

The first half of 2014 was filled with preparing for the Camino. Did I do anything else? Maybe, but all I can remember is spending hours on my computer, researching gear and reading blogs. Of walking in endless small circles on an indoor track at the Y, and later walking in loops through a park. Multiple trips to REI, Amazon boxes delivered weekly to my doorstep.

And then the summer came around and I was on the Camino, and I was finally moving. It was beyond what I expected, and I’m still processing that walk, still kindling the flame of energy that it gave me, still working on how to continue “walking” the Camino in my every day life.

In the months since returning from the Camino I’ve been a bit restless. I’m home, I’m back into my routines, but I’m anxious to figure out the next steps in my life. That feeling continued straight up until the end of the year, right up until I left for Italy.

Since returning? I’m sure it’s too soon to tell, but it feels good to have just returned from a trip. It feels good to be in a new year. It feels like I’m ready to start moving again.

Road Trip, USA

 

This year feels like an open book, like I could take it anywhere I want to. Soon I will start to fill in the images of what this year will look like, but right now the pages are blank. The only thing I see are possibilities, but nothing certain. Will this be the year that I finally start to write the book that I’ve been dreaming about writing? Will it be the year that I switch jobs? Will it be the year that I move out of my apartment? Will it be the year that I walk another Camino? Go back to France for another writer’s retreat? Do a US cross-country road trip? Will it be the year that I go on lots of dates? The year that I meet someone to settle down with? The year that I make a dozen new friends? Where will my travels take me this year? Where will I go?

Last year, as 2013 changed to 2014, I was in my best friend’s apartment. I was in a daze, trying as hard as I could to be happy, but struggling. We watched a marathon of Harry Potter movies and as we toasted the New Year with a glass of champagne, I remember thinking, “In 2014, I want to feel alive.”

And as 2014 changed to 2015, I was in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, with a man at my side, a plastic cup of wine in my hand, thousands of people packed in around me, and fireworks exploding overhead.

Alive.

So here we go, another year, an open book. This blog started as a place to write about my Camino, but I think it was really a place to write about my life. So have no fear, the blogging will continue. Thanks for reading and following along, I hope I can continue to share some good stories with you this year.

Broken down and smiling

I’m back from Italy, and the return has been quite a welcoming. This morning I dragged myself out of bed after an incredibly deep sleep, loaded my work bags into my car, cleaned the falling snow off the windshield, and then my car wouldn’t start.

I sat in the driver’s seat of the car, turning and turning the key to see if something would catch, watching the snow quickly filling up the windshield again, and I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to Italy at all. Maybe I should have stayed at home and spent more time with my family and friends. Maybe I should have used the money that I spent on the trip to save up for a new car.

Maybe. But I’m glad I didn’t.

Italy was interesting. I’m sure there’s a better word that I could use, but it’s the best I can come up with. I didn’t go to Italy to eat amazing food or to see beautiful towns and cities, or to bask in the glow of famous art and architecture. I got to do all of that, but the reason I went to Italy was to see what the connection with my Camino friend was all about.

I don’t think anything about getting to know this friend was ever going to be simple, and it’s not just that we live in different countries. He’s leaving in a few weeks to travel around the world, so the possibility of building something with him, of having anything concrete, was always very slim.

And knowing this made the decision difficult for me. Why even see what there could be if I was almost certain that there wouldn’t be anything?

But the thing was, I was almost certain that there wouldn’t be anything. Almost. If I’d been totally certain then I wouldn’t have gone. I would have gotten my car checked out before it left me stranded, I would have spent time with my oldest friends, I would have relaxed and had a peaceful vacation.

Instead, I traveled thousands of miles to see if what I felt could have some greater meaning for my future. I think I have my answer- which is no- and maybe it wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. But it doesn’t mean, not for a second, that I regret going.

The trip was beautiful, even if it was a bit different than what I expected or hoped for. There was this one moment in particular, when I was feeling down and sad. I was in Florence, standing in line for the Uffizi Gallery. I’d already been in line for an hour, and noticed a screen that said the wait would be an additional 3 hours. I was freezing, I was conflicted about my feelings, and for a moment, I wondered what I was doing there. In that line, in Florence, in Italy.

And then a woman came by and asked if I wanted her ticket, which was a reservation for a timed entry that would let me into the museum immediately. I bypassed the line, walked through the crowded galleries and then suddenly was standing in front of the bust of a Roman Emperor, and I recognized it instantly. I’d studied this bust of Caracalla in my freshman year art history class, and for some reason had been captivated by him. To stand in front of this bust rather than study a photo in a book reminded me of why I travel, of the places I had vowed to visit when I was young. Later I gazed up at the Duomo, I studied Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and I felt awed.

I had lunch with my friend in a tiny restaurant overlooking the Arno river and the Ponte Vecchio. Somehow I had the perfect seat: my view was nothing but river and bridge and beautiful buildings and sea gulls flying by for the bread that the owner of the restaurant was throwing out the window.

Later we watched the sun set, and I leaned against a stone wall and stared out at the buildings of Florence, the city blanketed in a soft pink light.

So this morning, as I was shivering in the cold snow, cranking my engine while a guy with a tow truck banged on my car and lights on my dashboard blinked crazily at me, I didn’t wish that my life could be any different.

I’ll get my car fixed. Eventually I’ll buy a new one. And one day, maybe years and years and years from now, I’ll go back to Italy. I’ll stand in the Piazzale Michaelangelo and look out over the city and remember the last time that I’d been there. The time when I went to Italy to follow a gut feeling and take a risk and to see about the possibilities of my future. I think remembering this time will always make me smile.

Bust of Caracalla, Uffizi Gallery, Florenceseagull and ponte vecchioDuomo, Florence, Italysunset florencesunset over Florence skyline

Scratching off my Map of the World

There’s this poster tube, wrapped up in newsprint (a travel section of the New York Times), resting against the wooden blanket chest in my bedroom. It’s been there for over a year- just sitting there, ready to be unwrapped, ready to be opened, ready to be used.

The poster inside the tube was a birthday gift that I bought for my ex-boyfriend. In May 2013, he was still my boyfriend, and I had stumbled on a great gift: a 23×32 inch scratch-off poster map of the world. You grab a coin and scratch off the countries you’ve visited; after years (months?) of travel you’ll have spots of bright colors scattered across the map to reveal all of the places you’ve traveled to.

I loved the map and thought it was perfect for my ex. In his twenties he’d been on a quest to visit all 50 US states, and since he only had Alaska left, I knew that he would soon start to travel internationally. When we were together, we often talked about all of the places on our “lists”: our dream travel destinations around the world. We planned the places we would see together, the adventures we’d have.

The map was for him, but I knew that in the coming years, as he scratched off countries, I would inevitably be part of some of those travels.

I ordered the map well in advance- his birthday was in August, and I ordered the map in early June. I needed the map early: I’d be driving up to Vermont- where my boyfriend lived- in early July, then flying to France for a month, returning back to Vermont for several weeks in August before finally coming back to Philadelphia. I planned to wrap up the map, leave it in Vermont and have it ready to give to my boyfriend when his birthday rolled around in August.

These details are important because the map never arrived. Well, it did, but not in the way I expected. June was a flurry of activity as I finished work and visited friends and vacationed with my family and got ready for France. Around the end of the month it dawned on me that the map had never arrived, so I asked the handyman of my building if he had happened to see a poster tube arrive in the mail recently (the handyman is the partner of my landlady and they live in the main part of the house that my apartment is connected to. It’s a confusing and quirky building and mail gets mixed up, quite a bit).

The handyman looked at me, squinting his eyes. “No, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that… no.”

“You haven’t?” I asked, trying to clarify. “It was probably this long,” I held my hands a few feet apart, “and it was a map of the world.”

Recognition sparked in his eyes, quickly followed by a very, very guilty look.

“That was for you? There was no name on it, just the address, we didn’t know who it belonged to.” He shifted on his feet, uncomfortable.

“You have it then?” Already I knew it was a futile question. My handyman has a heart of gold, but also, at times, a careless attitude and complete lack of reliability.

“Well, you see, we didn’t know who it was for. And it had been raining, and the map was wet. It was soaked, it was ruined.”

He wasn’t done yet, so I waited.

“And we scratched it off. We scratched off all the countries.”

I stared at him for a minute. I pictured it in my head: a rainy evening, one too many beers, a scratch-off map of the world at his fingertips.

“It was a gift,” I mumbled. I didn’t know what else to say.

He promised to order me another one, to overnight it. But it was the weekend, it was the 4th of July holiday, I was leaving for Vermont in a few days. I knew there was no way I would get it in time but he ordered the map anyway. It arrived at my apartment the day after I left for Vermont.

So I didn’t have the map ready for my boyfriend’s birthday, but I figured I’d just give it to him the next time I saw him. At the time, there was no way I could have guessed that I would never see him again (that is just a slight exaggeration: I saw him only once after that summer, and at that point the map was the very last thing on my mind).

I returned home in August, my relationship ended, the map sat, unopened, in the corner of my bedroom. All other traces of my relationship were tucked away: photos, stray CDs and books, notes and a stack of letters, a wooden cribbage board. I swept through my apartment and gathered up every reminder, packing most of them away in a box in the back of my closet.

But I left the map in my bedroom, because I didn’t know what to do with it. It was too late to give it to my (now ex) boyfriend, I didn’t want to give it to anyone else, I didn’t want to throw it away. So I just left it there and figured that, eventually, I’d figure something out.

And I have. It took about a year, but finally I figured out what I want to do with that map.

That map is now MINE.

Initially I thought that keeping it for myself would be too hard, that it would remind me of my ex-boyfriend, of all of those unfulfilled plans and dreams we’d had together. But time is a funny thing. I haven’t forgotten those plans and dreams- I probably never will- but they just don’t matter as much anymore. Because I’ve moved on. I’ve moved past that time, and life is about all sorts of new and exciting things again, and not about what I was supposed to share with someone else.

And besides, the map sitting in my bedroom? That’s not the map I bought for my ex-boyfriend. That map was a soggy mess, scratched off by a drunken handyman and now buried somewhere at the bottom of a trash heap.

My map is new and untarnished. My map was overnighted and expressly delivered. My map arrived a day late for my ex-boyfriend, but maybe it was never meant for him at all. Maybe this map of the world- a map full of countries waiting to be visited and scratched off- maybe that map was meant for me all along.

Spain, France, Iceland: scratch, scratch, scratch. And that’s just the beginning.

airplane view

How to adjust to life after a Camino (or any powerful, incredible experience)

As if I know how to answer that question. Yes, indeed, how do you adjust back to regular life after a powerful and altering experience?

I thought it wouldn’t be so hard. Before I left for the Camino, I was reading a lot of blogs from people who had walked, and something I noticed was that many people had trouble readjusting to regular life. I don’t think I’ll have a problem with that, I naively thought. I’m going to be so fired up about my experience that I’ll be able to make the changes I need to make. Or else, I’ll be so drained from all of the travel and movement and stimulation that I’ll want to come back home and just settle in.

I wanted to settle into my regular life for about a week. I cherished the early morning hours of lounging on my couch and nursing a cup of coffee. I loved seeing my friends and my family, I loved being able to cook for myself and eat lots of vegetables.

But then it got old. Fast. And all at once, about a week after I got home from my summer travels, I wanted to be back ‘out’ again. I wanted to be anywhere: on another Camino, traveling through Africa, exploring more of Europe, hunkering down in a small Spanish town and meeting the locals and learning the language. I wanted to hop in my car and take a cross-country road trip through the US, something I’ve dreamed of since I was 16. I wanted to spend a month on the coast of Maine, I wanted to spend a month crashing at my best friend’s place in Virginia.

I wanted to keep experiencing things. I wanted to keep experiencing life.

It’s a little over two months since I’ve returned home and I’m slowly getting used to this regular life, again. The intensity of the Camino has begun to fade a little at the edges, it’s no longer the first thing I think of when I wake up in the mornings. The seasons have changed and I’m accepting that I’m here, and no longer in Spain. When I first came home and strapped on my pack to go on a hike, I was frustrated that I couldn’t summon up my Camino feelings. What am I doing wrong? I thought. I have my pack, I have my shoes, I’m hiking through the woods, why can’t I feel like I did on the Camino?

Because real life isn’t the Camino. It’s taken time, but now when I put on my pack and go on a hike, I enjoy the hours for what they are: a hike through the woods of a nearby park. It’s easier, in some ways, to be more content with where I am; the incredibly restless feeling that I had in August and most of September isn’t so present.

And yet, I can’t just come back to life as if I never walked the Camino. I had that experience, and it affected me. So… now what?

Over and over I think about the words I heard repeated so many times during the last few weeks of my pilgrimage: “Your Camino begins when the walking ends.” And for me, this is, I think, where I’ve finally encountered my biggest challenge. I loved my Camino so much, and as I think I said once before, in some ways it felt like the easiest and most natural thing I’d ever done. I knew, without a doubt, that it was the best decision I could have made for myself this past summer. I was happy and filled and energized. I was pushing myself and getting out of my comfort zone, I was examining the lessons that the Camino was giving me, I was thinking about where I wanted to take my life when I got home.

Here were some of my thoughts- when I was on the Camino- about what post-Camino life would look like:

I’m going to go on dates, all of the time! It won’t be nearly as scary or as awkward as I fear it will be! (How many times on the Camino did I have a coffee or a lunch or a drink or a dinner with a good looking European man? These guys just appeared out of nowhere, and it was such a confidence booster to know that I could socialize in this way. But now that I’m home? Where are all the good looking European men?? Why do I suddenly feel so awkward again??).

I’m going to be active, and do so much more! Join clubs and groups, go out to bars and restaurants, meet new people everyday! (The Camino makes you believe that, like dating, this could be possible and so easy. Because on the Camino, meeting new people everyday is easy. In real life, this takes effort. A lot of effort).

I’m going to write a book! (I knew this with certainty on my third day of walking. I still know this and believe this, but now that I’m here, needing to sit down and actually write, I’m faced with the obvious but very real truth: writing a book is hard, hard work).

So here’s the thing: I know that accomplishing anything- dating and falling in love, making new friends, writing a book- it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. The Camino, if you let it, teaches this to you better than anything: I walked 500 miles across a country this summer. It still feels incredible to write that. Is it true? I really walked 500 miles?

I did. Each day I had to put in the work and the effort. I knew that I couldn’t get it all done in a day, or a week. It required time, and work, and sweat, and tears, and pain. I think that maybe anything worth it in life requires these things. So this is what is filling my mind these days: how to sit down and take the first steps with the next big thing in my life. How to live in the moment and let go of the endless planning and the worry and just take a risk and go for it. How to put in the daily steps even though the ultimate destination is still very, very far away.

I did it on the Camino, and completing the Camino is proof- if I need it- that I can accomplish something big.

So, how do I adjust back to normal life after the Camino? I’m not sure yet. Some days are great and fun and I love my routines and my home and my community; I love watching the falling leaves and grabbing a drink at Starbucks and cooking in my old and quirky kitchen. But some days my mind is filled with what comes next. I feel like I’m back in St Jean Pied de Port, holding my newly purchased walking stick that doesn’t feel comfortable in my hand just yet; standing in the middle of the street in the town and looking out into the distance and wondering if I’m going to be able to complete this journey.

Here’s to first steps: scary and hard, but absolutely worth it.

first steps out of St Jean Pied de Port, Francesign at beginning of Camino Frances

 

“We’re going to see a sunset”; Day 35 on the Camino, Cée to Finisterre

It’s a late afternoon, early fall October day, 65 degrees of cloudless skies and warm sunshine. I’m sitting at a picnic table in a local park, a cup of Starbuck’s carmel apple cider within arms reach. I’ve got my “Camino writing setup” here: wireless bluetooth keyboard connected to my iPhone. I haven’t used this keyboard since the Camino, and my fingers are getting used to typing on it, again.

It’s fall in Pennsylvania, and these might be the last days of sitting outside in the sunshine. The last days until next year, that is.

I had an entire summer of sitting outside in the sunshine, typing away with a drink by my side. Actually, if anything was missing from my last day on the Camino, it would have been more sunshine. But I did have the sun when I most needed it, and here’s that story (the very detailed, extremely long story. You’ve been warned):

I can’t remember what time I woke up and started to walk on my last Camino day. Early, I think. Even though we didn’t have far to go- only 11 km to Finisterre- there was a lot I wanted to do with the day. I wanted the early start not only to keep up with my routine of the previous 5 weeks, but also to enjoy as much as I could. To soak it all up, because I didn’t know when, if ever, I would be back.

Which meant, of course, stopping as soon as we could for the first cafe con leche and croissant of the morning. Emma had left before us so it was just Sonal and I as we walked away from Cée: through the town, past the beach, and over to the other side of the little cove, to Corcubión. Less than a 2km walk, and the perfect time to stop for coffee. As we were leaving the cafe and walking back to the Camino route, we saw our hospitalero from the night before coming towards us. We greeted him with a smile and he stopped directly in front of us with a stern look on his face. Reaching his arm out and opening his hand wide, he muttered, “The key, please.”

Whoops. We’d been given a key when we checked in the day before, and I’d been in charge of it. We’d never needed to use it and I’m still not sure why we had it, but I’d forgotten all about it. Sheepishly I routed around in my pack and placed the key in his palm. “Gracias,” he growled, and walked back to his car. The night before, Sonal, Emma and I had been convinced that he knew we’d taken wine glasses to drink by the water. It seemed as if he’d been waiting for us when we’d gotten back to the albergue, watching us with a suspicious eye.

Sonal and I walked away quickly. “How did he find us?” Sonal whispered. “Do you think he was driving along until he saw us?”

“I don’t know but I feel like he’s always watching. Lets get out of here!”

Giggling, we left the town of Corcubión, climbing up a steep, narrow track, through tall trees. We walked along a road for awhile, then noticed a small path leading down to some sand. Taking a detour we explored a tiny, private beach, where the blue-green water lapped onto the shore, where I found smooth pieces of emerald sea glass.

We headed back to the road, following the Camino onto a path that hugged the side of a hill, leading us on a high route that paralleled the water. Parts of this walk had great blackberry bushes lining us on either side, and we stopped every few steps to pick the ripest berries, their juice dripping down our fingers.

Closer now to Finisterre, we talked about stopping again for coffee if we passed a cafe. About 2km from Finisterre we ran into Emma, who was sitting on a stone wall on the side of the Camino, just before a beach.

“I was waiting for you guys,” she told us. “I decided that I didn’t want to walk to Finisterre alone. Is it okay if I join you?”

“Only if you’ll agree to stop for some coffee, first.”

Just ahead was a bar that overlooked the ocean. We grabbed seats outside and drank our cafe con leches and ate our tostada, and waived Mo-mo and Silka over when we saw them passing. When we finished we took off our hiking shoes and our socks, and walked down to the sand. The beach would take us the final two kilometers into Finisterre, and I couldn’t imagine a better way of finishing the walk: in my bare feet, walking next to the ocean.

The day had become increasingly cloudy, and as we posed for photos, standing on the sand with our packs and big smiles, we worried about the chances of the day clearing up. It’s tradition for pilgrims to head to the lighthouse once arriving in Finisterre, and camp out on the rocks to watch the sunset. “I think we’re going to see a sunset,” I said. The others nodded.

We finished our walk on the beach, wiping the sand off our feet and putting on flip flops, and then walked up to the road. All at once, I remembered that I had a note in my phone about a place to stay in Finisterre. I’d read about it on a blog months before, and I’d copied the information down, stored it in my phone, and had completely forgotten about it until that moment. I don’t know what made me remember- Camino magic? Albergue do Mar was the name, and we walked up the road, rounded a corner, and there it was, looming in front of us. Three stories, big balconies, right next to the ocean. We walked in, doubtful about the chances of there being any beds left. We were early- it was only 11am- but this was the kind of place that filled up fast.

We asked about beds and what do you know? There were four left. “We’ll take three of them,” I said with a smile. We were lead upstairs and into a room and given the two sets of bunk beds closest to the floor-to-ceiling windows that had a view that was nothing but ocean. This time, for the last time, I requested the top bunk. After spreading out my sleeping bag and climbing up the ladder, I laid on the bed and stared straight out onto the ocean. A 10 euro view. Amazing.

We changed into bathing suits, thinking we might go to the beach if the sun would ever come out, and then walked into town. We found a bustling seaside restaurant and sat down to one of the best meals I’d had in Spain: a menu del dia lunch of pulpo, fresh seafood paella, ice cream, more baskets of bread than I can count, and two bottles of wine. We were at that table for at least two hours- I think we waited for our paella for nearly an hour- but it was perfect. This was the end, we had walked to Finisterre, the ‘end of the world’, and there was nothing more that I wanted than to sit there with my legs stretched out, sipping a glass of wine, and talking to my friends.

And then, just as we were paying the bill, Emma looked up at the sky. “I see blue. I see blue! The sky is clearing!!” We immediately headed out and walked 20 minutes to one of Finisterre’s beaches, the clouds moving out as we moved towards the ocean. And five minutes away from the beach, the sun came out for the first time that day. We cheered, and when we got down to the beach, we sat on the sand and let the warmth of the sun wash over us.

“This might be just what I need to be able to go into the ocean.” I walked down to the water in my bathing suit, not convinced that I would make it in. The day, despite the sun, was cool, and the water even cooler. But standing at the water’s edge, feeling the sun on me and looking out to the expanse of the ocean, I knew I had to do it. So before I could talk myself out of it, I jogged into the water, to my knees, to my waist, and then I dove under.

I’ve always loved the ocean but this was about something more. When I dove under and let my feet come off of the ground, it meant that I had walked until I literally couldn’t walk any further. It was something I didn’t realize I needed to do until the day before, when I saw the ocean. Not only was I walking to the ocean, but I was going to walk into the ocean. My final Camino steps.

I popped out of the water, sputtering. Sonal and Emma were on the shoreline cheering, and then just as quickly as I went into the water, I ran back out. Too cold! I dried myself off as best as I could with my super absorbant, super small REI towel that didn’t even fit around my waist, and then sat on the sand and watched as Emma swam in the water. And then, as if timed just for us, clouds rolled back in and the sun disappeared.

We headed back to the albergue and showered. While the others rested I took my journal and headed out to a bar around the corner, where I ordered a cafe cortado (an espresso shot with a dollop of milk, it was my first of the trip and I think it will be my afternoon coffee drink if I ever make it back to Spain), sat outside, and wrote all of my thoughts about the last day.

I’d told the others I would meet them back at the albergue at 7:30, and that I would pick up some food that we could take up to the lighthouse. I stopped by a small supermercado, picking up two baguettes, a bar of dark chocolate, a bag of potato chips, three peaches, and two bottles of wine. When I met up with Sonal and Emma they nervously asked about the wine I bought (in only a few days with them I’d earned the reputation of being frugal- why buy a 6 euro bottle of wine when you can get a perfectly good one for 2 euro?). But on this night I splurged: 12 euros for a bottle!

I loaded up my pack with all of the food and wine, plus most of my other things. Even though I’d taken my ‘last steps’ when I ran into the ocean, we had another two kilometer walk up to the lighthouse. I still wanted to feel like a pilgrim. So with my walking stick in hand, we set off, climbing on the path that ran alongside the road, walking through fog and mist and thick, heavy clouds.

Every five minutes or so we would turn to each other and say, “We’re going to see a sunset.” Doubtful, dubious looks on our faces, but we kept repeating those words. “We’re going to see a sunset.”

Closer and closer and then we were there, at the 0.00 kilometer marker. We posed for more photos, nothing but thick clouds behind us where there should have been an ocean. The lighthouse was just ahead, and around the corner we’d find the rocks where pilgrims set up to watch the sunset.

I looked to the others one last time. “We’re going to see a sunset.”

We walked past the lighthouse, Emma anxiously climbing the stone steps up the side of the rocks. I looked at her face when she got to the top and she was beaming. Sonal and I arrived behind her, and there, out across the ocean, was the sun. It was straddled by thick lines of clouds, but it was there, a band of glowing, orange light spreading out over the water.

We settled on the rocks and opened the 12 euro bottle of wine, poured it into small plastic cups and stretched our hands out to toast, everything illuminated by the golden light. We broke our bread and talked about the Camino: about our experiences, the things we learned and the things we would take away from the journey. And then, as the sun began to dip down towards the horizon, we became quiet.

At first so much ran through my mind: my first, nervous steps out of St Jean Pied de Port. Those beginning days of walking, the people I had met, the friends I’d said goodbye to. The wonderful moments and the harder moments. Arriving in Santiago. It was all spinning around in my head and then it stopped, and all I thought about was something Rudy from Chicago said to me, about three weeks before. We’d just sat down to dinner in San Nicolas, and I swept my hand around the church. “Can you believe this?” I asked him. “How did we get so lucky? To sit here, in this amazing place, with these beautiful people, to eat an incredible meal. Why do we get to do this? Why do we get to be here?”

Rudy’s face was beaming and he nodded as I spoke. Then he tilted his head back and looked upwards, up to the heavens. “All you can do,” he said, “is be thankful.”

I sat there on the rocky cliff at the edge of the world, watching the sun set over the ocean. Lower and lower and just as the last sliver of sun disappeared, I smiled.

“Thank you.”

Corcubión, Galicia, Spain

In Corcubión, looking back towards Cée

Walking to Finisterre

The last 2km to Finisterre

Albergue Do Mar, Finisterre, Spain

Room with a view

Paella lunch, Finisterre, Spain

The best lunch

Marker 0.00, Finisterre, Spain

At the end

Rocks, sunset, Finisterre, Spaintoasting the camino, Finisterre, Spain

The toughest, the prettiest, the luckiest.

I’ve been thinking about this blog post- the one I’m about to write- for weeks. It started to form in my mind as I was doing all of my post-Camino processing: thinking about the things I experienced, the people I met, the lessons I learned. Some of what kept coming back to me were the things people said to me while I was on the Camino, things they said at the end. And things that I told myself on the Camino, things I told myself at the end.

This could be a long post.

I was called, several times, three different things on the Camino: tough, pretty, and lucky. Someone called me the prettiest. Someone called me the luckiest. No one called me the toughest but sometimes it was implied that I was one of the toughest.

And I was a bit uncomfortable each time I heard these words.

And I often denied it. “No no,” I’d protest. “I’m not that tough. Really. I’m not sure why I’m handling this walk so well, but it’s not because I’m tough.” I didn’t even know what to say about being called pretty. And lucky? Well, maybe I agreed with that one a bit. But it was always about more than just luck.

You’ve probably gathered, through reading my posts while on the Camino, that I didn’t struggle with this walk in the physical sense. I had some aches and pains, but they were minor. I sailed through the majority of the walking, not feeling the pain in my body like the majority of pilgrims do. I was always, from day one, a fast walker. I must have sometimes been an amusing sight- this somewhat petite, compact girl swooshing up the hills, her socks swinging wildly on the back of her pack. I would often get into a rhythm and just go, my mind far off, zoned out, in some sort of semi-flow state. It became a bit of a joke by the end that I somehow always missed stuff. At the end of the day people would talk about the things they’d seen on the day’s walk, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Sometimes it was just about a grove of trees, or things growing in a garden, but later it was the bigger stuff. Did you see that cathedral? they’d ask. What cathedral? I’d say. Somehow I missed the official 100 kilometer marker- I have a photo with a 100 kilometer marker but it’s not the “real” one, as I later found out. I missed the ‘Santiago de Compostela’ sign as I entered into the city (don’t ask me how, I walked right past it). I missed the first glimpse of the ocean as I walked to Finisterre.

People- myself included- thought this was hilarious. It’s not like I wasn’t taking in the space that I was walking through, because I was. In a big way. But sometimes I would just get into a zone and I could only see right in front of me. Or I could only see what was far beyond. In any case, when I got in these zones I was a walking machine. I could plow through kilometer after kilometer and even at the end of the day, I’d felt like I could just keep going and going. I loved the walking.

But does that make me tough? I think some people thought so. The Korean boys all joked that it was impossible to catch me, and sometimes they tried. I walked the Dragonte route- three big mountains- and every time someone heard that I did this they had a big reaction. “Wow, you’re tough,” they’d say. Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m not that big? Is it because I was out there alone? Is it because I never fully attached myself to anyone, and insisted on doing this by myself?

And isn’t this tough, in some ways? Shouldn’t I be able to say that traveling alone to a foreign place to walk 500 miles across the country is tough? That, at least in some part, it requires a bit of toughness?

Because it does. It does for everyone that completed this walk, everyone who attempted this walk, everyone who walked even just one little portion of this walk. It takes some toughness.

But I’m not the toughest. People were battling out there. You can’t call me tougher than that 75 year old Frenchwoman I met. Or tougher than the mothers and fathers out there with their children. Or, for that matter, tougher than the children. In fact, I think I could probably go through just about every single person I met on the Camino and find a reason that they were tougher than I was.

And yet, that’s not what this is about. I wasn’t the toughest person on the Camino, but the truth is, I was tough to do that. I’m tough. It’s a hard thing for me to say, but there it is: I’m tough.

And here’s the next one: I’m pretty. This one is also so hard for me to say. Always- growing up, in my regular life, on the Camino- I see so much beauty in people. So many pretty girls and women all around me. Women who have it all together: the hair and the makeup and the clothing and the demeanor. All of it.

I’ve never had that. I make sure that I’m at least satisfied with my appearance, that I can appear in public and not be embarrassed (although, quite frankly, there have been a few close calls), but that’s about it. I don’t often try to make myself look very pretty, and I prefer to just blend into the background. Not to be noticed.

But on the Camino, people noticed. I was walking- fast- down a rocky hill one day and came upon two Frenchmen. The older one turned around when he heard me approaching and called out to his friend: “Attention! La jolie fille nous passe.” The pretty girl is passing us. It made me smile (and I think I startled them by responding with, “Ah, merci beaucoup!”), but it also caught me by surprise. I was just referred to as ‘the pretty girl’? Really?

The day after I arrived in Santiago I ran into two people I’d seen time and time again on the Camino, a Spanish girl and her brother. They were probably both around my age, and neither spoke much English. On the Camino I always gave them a big wave and a bright smile, and they always smiled back. That was the extent of our interactions, until we saw each other in Santiago. On that day, in Santiago, I spoke for a few minutes with the girl- saying hello, saying goodbye. I was about to walk away when she said to me, “There is one thing I must tell you. We think,” and here she pointed to her brother, “that you are the prettiest girl on the whole Camino.”

I had no idea what to say, and I think I just stared at her, mutely shaking my head. “Yes,” she continued, “you are! Even my brother thinks so, so it is true.” Her brother was staring off into space, probably not understanding a word of the conversation but most likely would have been mortified if he knew what we were saying. “We refer to you as the pretty American, with the pretty smile and the pretty eyes.”

I still didn’t know what to say, and probably just protested for awhile and then said goodbye. But this, too, surprised me. The prettiest? Not by a long shot. There were some very, very pretty girls on the Camino.

But this was another Camino lesson for me, just like needing to be able to admit to being tough. I am pretty. I’m not the prettiest, just like I’m not the toughest. But I am pretty. On the Camino, my hair wasn’t always clean, I had an extremely uneven tan, I wore the same dirty clothing every day… but I was pretty. I almost always wore a smile, my face was usually bright and shining. And I think there was probably some beauty in that.

I’ve already written about being lucky, maybe the luckiest. I don’t know. Once, on the Dragonte route where it had been raining off and on, I said aloud that I just wished the sun would appear. Less than a minute later there was a small break in the clouds and warm sunshine poured down on us. Vicool turned around, gave me a look and said, “Angel asks for sunshine, Angel gets sunshine.”

Luck? Coincidence? Maybe. But I think it goes a bit beyond luck. I already talked about the Camino providing and I still believe that’s true, but it’s also more than that. I prayed to God while I was on the Camino, and as I moved closer to Santiago I had more and more conversations. I was provided with what I needed- by the Camino, by God, by a few guardian angels I suspect I have working for me. I was lucky, and I’ve asked myself time and time again why, but really it doesn’t matter. I tried to never take my luck or my walk or each day or any of the trip for granted. I tried to appreciate as many moments as I could while I was on the Camino, I tried to practice gratitude. And maybe that’s why I sailed through the kilometers, or had a shining, happy face. Maybe that’s why I felt like so much good was coming to me. Maybe.

So, the toughest, the prettiest, the luckiest? No, not really. But I am tough, and I am pretty. And I was so, so lucky.

nadine walking to finisterre

The Camino’s not done with me yet; Day 33 on the Camino, Negreira to Olveiroa

I’d thought that my Camino had ended in Santiago. I was continuing on to Finisterre with a friend, but when I last wrote from ‘the road’, on the first day’s walk out of Santiago, I said that I felt like I was on a long walk to the beach with a friend, and no longer on the Camino.

Oh, famous last words. If the Camino could laugh, it was laughing at me then. She thinks I am finished with her? Has she not learned anything on this walk?

After that first day, walking from Santiago to Negreira, I felt like it was a sort of ‘in-between’ experience: I was still a pilgrim, and it was a Camino of sorts, but very separate from the journey I had just been on. My pilgrimage was done.

But things started to change on the second day. Sonal and I walked to Olveiroa and met so many other pilgrims on the way. It reminded me of the beginning of my Camino, that first week out of St Jean when everyone was new and eager and forming friendships and connections. Maybe it was because we were new to each other, and there weren’t many of us on the road. But suddenly it felt easy, once again, to meet people and to make connections.

We stopped at a quirky place for a second breakfast: a family’s home, the patio and grounds opened up for pilgrims to stop and have a drink or a bite to eat. Hammocks were stretched out between trees, picnic tables and multicolored adirondack chairs were scattered across the lawn. I was excited to find this place: a Camino gem. But just before Sonal and I arrived a group of loud Spanish pilgrims, probably in their early 20’s, had descended on the place. We’d been trying to move away from their group for the past two days but they always seemed to show up wherever we were. We hesitated outside as the Spanish group took over, and just as we decided to leave, an older woman came out of the house. She gestured over, motioning for us to come inside.

We did, and settled into cushioned chairs in a quiet room off of the kitchen. High, wooden beamed ceilings, antique furniture, old musty books, black and white photographs on the walls. I couldn’t figure out what this place was: a family’s home, it seemed, but also an establishment for pilgrims. The mother was bustling around the kitchen, a daughter came out to take our order. Our coffee was served with little orange flavored pastries, and our tortilla was warm and fluffy, with a basket of soft, crusty bread. When we finished I signed the guestbook, and I wrote that it was like a small paradise: unexpected and magical.

And unexpected and magical are the words that I would use to describe the rest of my experience on the Camino.

After a long day’s walk we arrived in Olveiroa, and as I walked through the bar to find the hospitalero to check in for the night, I noticed Richard, a British guy we’d met earlier in the day. I stopped to say hi and sitting with him was someone I’d known from my “real” Camino (as I thought of it at the time). Since I’d started walking to Finisterre nearly a week after arriving in Santiago, all of the people I knew had already moved on, or gone home. “Everyone from my Camino is gone,” I kept saying. So to run into a familiar face, even if it was someone I didn’t know well, felt a bit mystical. I was walking to Finisterre, he was returning from Finisterre. We greeted each other with a strong hug, and later, stayed up late into the night- each of us, I think, clinging to our last Camino moments.

And that night Sonal and I made a new friend, Emma. She had walked the Camino Frances six years ago, ending in Santiago, and vowed that she would return one day to complete the walk to Finisterre. She kept her promise and had started out from Santiago the same day as Sonal and I did. We talked with her that night, sitting around a long table outside of the albergue’s bar, as the stars came out and the air grew cool. People kept joining our table, sliding up chairs, laughing at jokes, pouring shots of hierbas from a tall bottle. We toasted, all of us. I looked around the table and marveled at the combination of people sitting with me: a pilgrim who had left St Jean on the same day that I did, but who I hadn’t talked to until the very end of my journey. New pilgrims I had just met that day. A pilgrim who had walked six years ago and had just returned to complete the journey. And my friend from home, a brand new pilgrim two days into her walk, but someone I’d known for 20 years.

So many different connections: so unexpected, so magical.

As I drifted off to sleep that night- top bunk, muffled snoring from the corner of the room- I realized that my Camino hadn’t ended after all.

“What’s next, Camino?” I asked. “What comes next?”

Olveiroa, SpainBreakfast stopLunch stopYellow arrow on the Camino