Well, That Was Unexpected

Real life is stranger than fiction...depending on which authors you read, of course.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Adventuring in lands of water and conspiracy theories

Adventuring gives me so many thoughts that can't be well distilled into other social media format, so, voila, le blog update. Also, I always feel like it makes my mom happy when I write more long form because she has said many times that she wished I would've been a writer...instead of the housing expert and now lawyer I am training to be. Yes, Amy Chua fans, it does appear that I am tiger-momming myself.

My little summer adventure started in London where I have two great friends, and I'm staying a night with each one at each end of my trip. Steve, who doesn't actually go by that name, told me that the day was going to be glorious and we would go to a barbeque with his colleagues. It was a beautiful day...one that was much like every day in Southern California. But in England it spawns this:
A Coachella-esque mass gathering in each of the city parks where people barbeque and drink beer and grill meat to celebrate above 60 degree fahrenheit weather and actually clap at the end of the day. I repeat, they clap for the beautiful day. As a Californian I couldn't decide if this was tragic or a beautiful gratitude we need to regain. Also, as a person who deeply loves cold weather and city life, I was wondering why there isn't some sort of citizen exchange program wherein I trade my US citizenship to a Brit and vice versa. Speaking of which, when you enter the UK there are signs that tell you that you need to apply for asylum ASAP when you get in the country and I was considering saying that this Donald Trump situation has made me realize that the melting pot America I was told to be so proud of is a farce and I fear that my countrymen are massive assholes. And Daniela is still in immigration jail. Anyway, I'm keeping it in mind for the tail-end of the journey. This desire to emigrate was not helped by the freakishly friendly Brits who helped me out each day--from the midriff baring white woman who painstakingly looked up directions for me at a tube stop partly because she was vexed that she didn't know her neighborhood well enough, to the black woman who saw me stuck at the tube stop exit and sacrificed like 3 pounds of her oyster card to help me get out of the station. Stop trying to seduce me, England...it's working. 

Anyway, Steve's coworkers were lovely and we first engaged in a conversation on a topic that we could all relate to: travel. They were actually telling me how much they love vacationing in the US. Yay! They also made sure to say they wouldn't want to live there. sad trombone. When I told them I was going to Slovenia to see castles and to Croatia to see lakes and Roman ruins , they were like, "but America has some of the best natural beauty!" and then they said, "oh right , but since you're from America you like going around to look at old stuff." And I was like, "indeed, despite the fact that there are societies in our country that are very old, the monuments and buildings are from colonial history of the last, young, 250 years."(Luckily no Brit can get self-righteous about oppressing native peoples. That's right, there's enough awful to go around.)

So they ask how long I'm staying (2 weeks) and then are like, "oh yeah, isn't vacation something crazy like 10 days in the U.S.?" sigh, to which i'm like..."if you're lucky enough to be in such a profession." They're like.."in Germany it is 30 days." I weep softly. Then one says, "oh, I heard they don't have any maternity leave, like when people have kids." And I say, "indeed, apparently lawmakers were very proud of themselves for passing a law that we have to get 12 weeks of unpaid vacation for babies and still retain our jobs." They say, "UN-paid?" I say, "yes." They say, "oh my gosh, then why does anyone have children?" and I say, like a knowing resident from some crazy backward land, "It is very difficult, but I have hope that our women will rise up and demand better." That's right, I said "our women will rise up." They nodded. You know, I want to be able to be proud of my country, but when natural beauty is your absolute best quality...you have failed as a human collective. "your humanity is terrible, but hey, at least you've got nice mountains and a canyon." facepalm. 

Anyway, on to Slovenia, which is a quiet treasure. The Irish lady sitting next to me on the plane said that there was some sort of Austrian conspiracy to keep Slovenia under wraps because it is an Austrian vacation favorite. Indeed--you can drink the tap water, the roads are incredible--but p.s. these speed-limitless auotobahn people are NOT messing around, they have delicious wine, they have Adriatic coastline but also Julian alps jutting into the sky, and the food is basically a German/Italian/slavic lovefest, which is damn good. then again, disclaimer: I never met a mushroom-heavy cuisine I didn't like. 

Speaking of cuisine, let me give you an insight into being a woman traveling alone (which I, a woman, love doing.) I go to a restaurant tonight where I am reading my book and eating some glorious slovenian sausage, mushroom soup, and sauerkraut--so quiet, so happy, so peaceful. This chef from the kitchen passses by and smiles, and then does so again like 10 times really creepily trying to talk to me. So, he thinks I'm cute. That's nice. I want to be alone. At the end of dinner, my waiter brings me a free grappa on the house. Now I have a dilemma. I really like grappa. But I am slightly concerned that my grappa has been roofied for the sake of creepy chef guy. So I split the difference and decide to drink half of it (which was sooooo good, damn it!) and then basically run toward my hotel, which is like a 7 minute walk away. My logic was : IF this drink is doctored, it shouldn't hit me before I can lock myself in my room and pass out--or I will pass out on a busy street where I am less likely to be violated. And I, while obviously adorable in my round way, am not even conventionally attractive. what do beautiful people do? well, get more promotions and have more positive attributes imputed to them by society in general, but STILL I say this distrust, which you are an idiot not to have, is totally unfair. If I had more energy I would start a campaign hashtagged #freethegrappa or something, but see Daniela above.

Anyway, tomorrow I am heading to the Plitvice lakes in Croatia. I AM SO EXCITED. I think it may have been over ten years ago that my heterolifemate told me a dude at her church had visited some place in Croatia that had like 8 lakes pouring over into each other. That was immediately added to my bucket list back then. AND I AM NOW GOING TO SEE THEM! The Irish gypsy woman next to me on my flight also said that the water in Croatia is the most delicious water in the world. She credits the Romans. I shall report back on the verity of this assertion.

p.s. did you know that you can download customizable portions of google maps into your phone for offline use? Life changing. Also, got major props from the Europeans for renting a car instead of using public transport...just in case you hadn't ever thought of it--especially good option with limited American vacay allotments. and freeeedom.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cranky humanitarianism and murdery playlists

I've been working with a law firm that does international human rights cases and civil rights cases. And it makes me cranky. Every day I read a new case and it's a new company I can't buy from, new food I can't eat, clothes I can't wear, and power driving authority figures with weapons to become their worst selves. and transport? Forget about oil companies, if you don't think they will rape, pillage, and kill everyone in their way to get  to their oil, you're wrong. If you're a person living where they find oil, between where they find oil, or basically in any way concerned with oil, you're just screwed. You should move immediately or commit seppuku to spare yourself whatever indignities the oil company's security forces would impose before your death. Even Canadian oil companies. I feel like once you've corrupted Canadians, all is truly lost in your industry.

But don't we all know oil companies are evil? I'm aware, I drove a prius when I could choose my car. I make baby steps. And I've been all over Free 2 Work's list of slavey textile manufacturers. So, I'm pretty good about buying clothes only from manufacturers with B grades and above for their distribution. (ps, thank you Jesus that H&M is one of them). And, frankly, over the years out of a distaste for consumerism and a deepening in religious philosophy, I've been living a simpler, less acquisitive lifestyle. But the things I do love, I like...really love. and I buy them a lot. I come from the loins of a man who eats Subway every day for lunch. every. day. we're a family that likes ruts.

Then, in preparing another case, I had to read, and re-read, a case against Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels. It's about how they basically allow and encourage their cocoa suppliers to enslave children.  So it's just awful. Everyone knows the chocolate industry is one of the worst offenders on the planet, but it's nice to live in ignorance. Ignorance is easy and delicious. At first I was like, "hey, I can just buy fair trade, chocolate, I'll just have to figure out which chocolate bars are made by these companies and not eat them, should be all good." you see where this is going, right? Like, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my general efforts. My pillow of self-righteousness is soft and large. And I totally forgot that Nestle is a huge conglomerate that owns everything. So I open my fridge to drink my most super favorite creamer, which adds daily (hourly!) chemical deliciousness to my life, which I look forward to every day and...I realize in horror that it is made by Nestle. And I'd just been immersed in tales of Malian children being trafficked and maimed and killed to work in the cocoa industry that supplies Nestle's chocolate. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

I just want to affirm that stories about maimed children taint deliciousness tremendously. consciousness is the worst.

Why do I have to make an effort to find things NOT made with slave labor? I should have to like really want slavey shit and go on dark internet places to have to find it. It's bizarro world out there in the global corporate economy.

Once when two of my best friends and I took a vacation out of spite to Siberia and Vladivostock (no seriously, we were living in Taiwan and I was like, "hey, we are so close to Vladivistock, we should go" and a coworker was like, "you can't, it's too hard to get the paperwork." And of course I was like, "game ON" as thoughts of Dostoevsky danced in my head. and then, you know I bribed the Russian consulate guy in Taipei, paid a bunch of fake fees and voila: communist housing, prostitutes, more fake fees, no smiling, white tigers, spinning wheels, red hair dye, vodka, troika dancing, women in short-skirted military uniforms and heels directing the plane on the tarmac, onion domes, and a working cannon. Russia.) anyway, we went out to see the people who were living off the land in Siberia. "living in the old way" or something. So there was this guy that we called Stepan the Hot because, well, right. This guy picks berries, herbs, and mushrooms from the forest, raises bees--from which he makes both honey AND vodka, made himself a fish farm, makes barrels from wood he cuts from the forest, welds iron stuff, builds houses, drinks the blood of weaker men, and is generally a complete badass. We kept saying that if the nuclear holocaust ever occurred we were heading straight to Stepan's house. People who don't use slave labor: Stepan. People who literally don't ever have to worry that anything they have was made by slave labor: Stepan. one guy in siberia. Stepan uses only himself and his hearty wife. *sigh* So. much. effort.

Just fyi, here is a list of ethical chocolate companies

In the midst of a bunch of my research on various human rights violations I was getting super depressed, but needed to like motor on with my research and I was wondering, "what's a good murdery soundtrack to motivate one as she's trying to clear-headedly present issues?"
I came up with MIA's Matangi--the songs Exodus and Bad Girls, in particular. Also, unsurprisingly, Rage Against the Machine, and Rise Against. Interestingly, usually when I would listed to these songs in other contexts they would amp me up. But when my head is full of the worst side of humanity, they are calming. Like, oh good, someone else is really angry about things, so I can just report on them. Thank you, Zack de la Rocha, for your rhythmic anger. If anyone has other suggestions, I'm in the market. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Reflections on El Camino de Santiago--Camino del Norte, Winter 2014

          Recently I’ve had what seems to be a flurry of people asking me about my experience hiking the Camino de Santiago. Since I’ve been meaning to write down a little summary of my experience ever since I finished the walk almost a year ago, this seems like a good time to get them written out while memory still serves and as it seems others are making plans for their own journeys.
          I hiked the Camino del Norte, a path that stretches from the Spanish/French border in Basque country and snakes the Northern Spanish coastline before turning southward toward Santiago. It is the longest of the Spanish Caminos and the toughest in terms of terrain. I admit I chose it entirely because I wanted views of the sea, which are even more plentiful than the guidebook said. There are multiple times in the first two weeks when you have the ocean to your right and a series of snow covered mountains to your left.
          If my insights and experiences are helpful, that’s wonderful, but I have a deep aversion to thinking my experiences are universal, so take from it what you will.

Quick Details:
Time of year: February-March (solidly the OFF season) If you were hoping to see almost no one, this is a great time to go. After meeting two fellow pilgrims the 4th night of my journey, we maybe saw 10 pilgrims in total for the next 21 days. And because of that, don't expect many albergues to be open, and many of the coastal services, like ferries are closed. 

Route: Camino del Norte, starting in Bayonne, France and ending in Santiago, Spain

Number of travelers: solo initially

Total days: 35 days, skipped seven sections in total because I had to get to Santiago to catch a flight.

Age: 35

Gender: Female

Citizenship: USA

On Purpose
           I had spent a month at a rustic spiritual retreat in Switzerland and a number of people there had done part or all of the Camino, which is how I learned of it. Having taken off a second year to travel and study for my LSATs (I know, what a spoiled asshole, but if it makes you feel better, I worked really hard and scrimped to save up money to travel for a year, which turned into two due to online consulting I was able to do while abroad) I found myself with time and my thoughts kept turning to the Camino.
            The Camino was an exciting prospect to me for a few reasons. 1) I love long walks. I’m the type who, wherever I live, likes to take meandering 5-10 mile walks to take in the city at foot speed. 2) I love being alone. Indeed, ever since I found myself relating strongly to the Julianne Moore character in The Hours who abandons her family to move to Canada to be alone and read, I’ve accepted that I need a lot of time by myself to be a tolerable human being.  3) I love spiritual reflection and meditation, but am easily distracted and had been yearning for a chance to get away for some hardcore meditation.  
             To anchor you in my spiritual geography, I guess I’m generally a Christian protestant. I attend a fantastic Presbyterian church when I’m in the San Diego area, but living abroad in Asia, where you kind of have to take what you can get, effectively robbed me of any strong denominational affiliation. My favorite spiritual writers are any of the Renovare crew: Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and then Henri Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Soren Kierkegaard, early Philip Yancey, early mystics, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. 
              Richard Foster is fond of spiritual disciplines and general suffering for spiritual benefit and I was also annoyingly intrigued by what he might mean and what sort of potential blessing and benefit might be in store if I undertook some epic pilgrimage. So I definitely had Christian spiritual purposes in mind, but it comes into play that I do not actually believe in certain of the blessings one might have in mind if they were strictly Catholic. I don’t believe in saintly blessings and I actually believe that I can confess to and commune with God at any time with no intermediary.
Lacking solid Catholic goals meant that my purposes were somewhat vague, but generally prolonged spiritual communion in beautiful scenery with a dash of adventure was what I intended.

On Expectation and Results
                Expectation and result did not exactly match up, but all for the best in my case. I think this is actually a pretty common refrain amongst pilgrims after they finish their journey, but I’m so hesitant to assume that my experience will be similar to anyone else’s that I echo what people told me beforehand, which was, “just go.” Maybe it will be just as you expect, maybe it won’t…but worthwhile either way.
                I expected beforehand that the journey would be one of really intense and ecstatic spiritual engagement. I expected profound solitude. I expected reverie in nature. I expected to work through my future goals and to take stock of my life to see if I was headed in a good direction, asking myself questions like, “Do I still really want to go to law school?”, “Do I ever want to have children?”, “Are there any particular amends I need to make?” My expectations were lofty. I expected to become physically stronger and thinner, to ponder societal injustice over glasses of red wine after feeling pleasant exhaustion, to read at least 5 books.
                The reality of my Camino was that I was, let’s say, a tad overoptimistic in how easy it would be to tackle the Camino del Norte in the offseason. I am skeptical of seasonality, I think it’s a delusion that stems from being a Californian. I think my physical reality was a little more treacherous than what I’ve heard from people on the Camino Frances, but certain essentials are the same.

                So in my days prepping for the Camino, I would take long 10-12 mile walks and hikes a few times a week and think, “this is so refreshing and exhilarating, I cannot WAIT to do this for a whole month.” What I was not accounting for was that these moments of solitude, that were such a refreshing change of pace, were taking place in the midst of a full and familiar life. I got done with my walk, got in my car or went into my warm, known house and often met up with friends or family. The Camino, however, is not known. (I’m sure doing it a second time brings out an entirely different crop of greatness and revelation, but I can’t speak to it.) My thoughts on the Camino were constantly peppered with “sweet Jesus, where is that yellow arrow? I hope I’m going the right way and do not end up sleeping on the street in the rain…”
                I was not able to account for full days of solitude and navigation. Full days of solitude were different, lonelier and more frightening, than a few hours per day of solitude. This was not a bad thing, it gave me a lot of respect for the desert mothers and fathers I was reading about on my kindle at night, and is its own sort of revelation. This experience was certainly heightened by the fact that it was offseason and offseason on a less traveled Camino (I, I took the path less traveled by…sounds so much more romantic when Frost says it than when you are stranded in some strange town in the rainy dark.) I literally ran into no other pilgrims on my first 4 days of the Camino and all the albergues were closed in France and Spain. The first open albergue I encountered was the hostel in San Sebastian. That means I had been sleeping in comfort, but it was comparatively quite expensive and involved a lot more uncertainty at the end of the day when I was incredibly tired, trying, with my super basic Spanish phone plan to find a safe place to stay not far from the Way. (As far as ongoing blessings, I experienced the inordinate kindness of strangers in both France and Spain. I am a woman’s woman, and the women I asked for directions nearly always walked with me where I was going and made sure I was taken care of.)
      So, for the most part I was literally in my own head, alone, for the first four straight days. It turns out my head is not a silent, peaceful place. The distraction I blamed on my phone and social media was lessened for sure, but my thoughts were also loud and random. I listened to music, to books on tape, to Spanish lessons, to my own breathing. Often I just focused on direction, but random observations, mostly mundane but sometimes profound, would flit in and out of my head. I got kind of sick of each of these activities.


       I expected to experience a lot of reverie in nature. While the views were often incredible, I wished I had given myself more time to savor them. I’ve heard that the Frances has some nice views, but that the act of the walk and the churches are more the attraction. The Norte has the natural beauty, but I didn’t have time to really soak it in because I always had somewhere I needed to get to before dark and being unsure of the upcoming terrain, didn’t want to get stuck on a hillside in the dark. If I were to do the Norte again, I would give myself a truly luxuriant amount of time and would try, to whatever extent possible, to allow myself to stay in more albergues at closer intervals. It became abundantly clear to me that I was going to learn lessons from the physical exhaustion I experienced, but that they weren’t really necessary. We ended up being so exhausted at day’s end and so concerned about getting clean, warm, and tending to our blisters, sore muscles, and feet that we often didn’t have time to sit and record our daily thoughts and reflections. (In the end there are lessons in that as well, but I’d be interested in what comes of a more relaxed journey.)
             That said, the more I walked, the more impossible it was for me to ignore my smallness. As part of a legacy of thousands to come before and thousands who would tread the same ground, I found my perspective being, well, I would say “righted” or certainly anchored in a grander scheme. Thinking of all those thousands of people and staring at the same ocean and the same mountains they did hundreds of years earlier, made me focus not on the purpose of my own life, necessarily, but the purpose of all life or the purpose of any life. Those thoughts lingered and returned more than any of my specific concerns, which just seemed like the right order anyway.


           I did end up becoming stronger, and indeed also lost weight, but happily that concern, which I find to be such a cancerous obsession in my own life and in American society in general, faded to a murmur as more primitive concerns became primary. I became incredibly thankful for the ability of my body to even take this journey, and it seemed ridiculous that I’ve spent so much time finding fault with it.

            I was traveling with someone for whom, until the pain of the average 1800 foot inclines and declines became apparent, it was very difficult to vary from the official route. I started out with a certain perfectionist strain as well, and felt very self-righteous about going the long way. The longer I walked, the stupider that seemed. Was walking 16 miles instead of 13 really going to inculcate any incredible wisdom? In my opinion, no. It seemed like unnecessarily subjecting myself to injury and the wildness of the winter nature. Pavement might not be pretty, but if it was a safer route and shorter, I always took it. My companion nicknamed me captain shortcut. He changed his tune after a bad, wet day when 3 blisters formed and ripped off and caused serious crippling pain. There probably is a sense of accomplishment from doing every step of the exact route, but I assume it depends on what you're trying to get out of it. (or send me a message in the comment section if there is some obvious virtue in it that I don't see, since I don't really believe in perfection.)


         I also made a list of all my friends and loved ones and designated people to pray for, and it was a lovely secret to pray for their wellbeing without them knowing.
         I was seriously disappointed that so many of the churches and chapels were closed along the Way. I found myself being pissed off at a Catholic church that would have spent so much money building incredible cathedrals, to the undoubted detriment of the poor at the time, and then close them off. It was immature. What I really was to see the pretty cathedrals and pray inside them. But early on it re-occurred to me that I was a freaking Protestant and believed God was everywhere and I could commune with God any time I wanted. And so I did. But I did deeply appreciate the feeling of legacy I got from praying in Cathedrals along the way when I was lucky enough to be able to do so.
          I can’t speak for anyone else but on a nearly daily basis I would ponder what a weird thing I was doing. Why did I think walking for a long time was a good idea? Why did anyone ever think it was a good idea? Why did I think God somehow appreciated physical suffering? Why was I intentionally putting myself in daily, compounding pain? I don’t have any great conclusions, but for whatever reason, I found the aftereffects of suffering in this safe manner, to be incredibly productive and rewarding.

Summary on expectation and results

              What I expected was to come to grips with some specific questions I had about my life, and what resulted was much more general. I ended my Camino and immediately noticed I had a marked increase in patience. I assume that is something that only really happens due to the long, mundane nature of the walk and the fact that I couldn’t force it. If I tried to force myself to go faster, I would injure myself. I came to understand that I would get somewhere when I would get there. And I had a strong belief that I would, in fact, get there. 
              I also found myself with a deep gratitude for nearly everything. Certainly every modern convenience. Hot water, cars, buses, electricity, Wi-Fi, the kindness of strangers, the time and effort my friends and family take to keep in touch; I was taking nothing for granted, I was so thankful for everything. It reminded me of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding “And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
               I would say the other really phenomenal change I experienced was a renewed sensitivity to emotion and other creatures. I find it difficult to cry, I am unsure as to why that is, but it just is. Whether it was some hormonal change from so much daily activity or so much time spent thinking and being at the mercy of nature, the elements, and the kindness of others, the result was that I returned home with a sense of peace of place that allowed me to be less selfish and engage more fully with others, including having more sympathy for the human condition.
I’m not even going to try to pretend that this condition didn’t fade, but I do think that some has stuck, and even the memory of those good changes is enough to get me into a better head space.

On Pacing and Scheduling

             People are very different and you really just have to know yourself. As far as daily walking pace, my companion walked faster than I did, but he liked to pause for long lunch breaks. I am one for slow, constant movement. When I stop, I don’t really want to get going again...because it hurts! So my pace was slow and I tended to eat as I kept walking, getting sandwiches from taverns and stopping only long enough to swig down my coffee with Bailey’s and get some water. My big stop of the day was for dinner and, on days when we walked separately, we typically arrived within half an hour of each other, the first to arrive being tasked with finding the tourist office to see if there was an albergue open and/or get Camino stamps.
             We were a little bit handicapped in our daily plans because so many albergues and hotels were closed—one day I had to walk 25 miles because the albergue that typically broke up the walk at the midpoint was closed. That saved me a day…yaaaay. I hurt so badly. So so badly. In fact, teh last blog post I wrote was the day after that day. Here's a link--spoiler alert, it involves a coffee-drinking dog. 
              I would have scheduled more rest days. I believe I took 3 rest days along the route and each of them felt soooo luxurious. I think when it really dawned on me that this whole pilgrimage was self-imposed and that it was for my own edification, it seemed hilarious that I had hemmed myself in with such rigid dates. In my defense, I wasn’t sure that I was going to find the journey profitable at all and was trying, on the front end, to hedge my bets, so that if I quit after, say, a week, I wouldn’t be stuck in Spain doing nothing for 6 weeks. I had heard from someone who did the Camino Frances that the scenery could be really ugly, and I didn’t want to spend 4 weeks walking amongst dry, brown ugliness. In hindsight I don’t think that would be an issue on any Camino.

On Companions

Part of my intention for the Camino was to have time alone. So when I met my first two fellow pilgrims I was afraid I might end up spending too much time with them and that I might miss out on some of the profound insights I, optimistically, assumed were imminent. Again, I can only speak to our unique circumstances on a little-traveled route in the offseason, but I ended up really treasuring my companions. I also found that, since none of us had chosen to do that route at that time because we wanted constant company, it was pretty easy to either overtly say we wanted to hike alone that day, or to trail off and indicate that we would catch up. We formed a little trio. One of our companions was with us for about a week before taking a day or two off in Bilbao, and then my other companion and I were together for a solid 21 days. I think we would both say that the best experiences were days when we mostly walked apart (maybe we started or finished together—lots of singing and trivia!) but then we reconvened in the evening to debrief, commiserate, find accommodations, and dress each other’s daily wounds. There were also some pretty critical times when the Way was not well-marked and we could help guide each other through. I, for example, got lost in a forest, and my companion stopped, dropped a pin in What’s App, and stayed put while I made my way to him.
If and when I do another Camino, while I might not actively try to find a companion, I would have no problem going with someone who expressed interest because there is so much time in the day to be alone that I found a companion helpful and comforting rather than annoying. It is also possible that it was because we had very complimentary personalities, but it reminded me of the best parts of relationship—sharing, supporting, encouraging. Indeed, if I hadn’t had a companion, I might not have made it as many days and as long as I did. The expectation that someone knew me, knew I was on the path, and expected me to arrive, was actually an integral motivator at certain times. That insight was also profound when I applied it in the context of spiritual relationship.

On Sustenance

        The food in Northern Spain is delicious for a day or two, but it becomes abundantly clear after a day or two that, at least during the low season, the one or two little bars that are open will be serving you some combination of cheese, chorizo, potato, egg, some shrimp if you’re lucky, and bread. At one point, in a larger town, I paid the equivalent of a full day’s food budget just to have a salad.
Wine is delicious, but heavy. Since Spain is relatively cheap, I usually just had wine at dinners, though may I say that when in pain, a glass or two of wine can really take the edge off of an interminably long uphill section. Also, if you're a coffee addict like myself, a coffee with Baileys costs about 3 dollars. it would really be a sin NOT to get one at every stop. 

On Language
        I love learning languages, have spent time in Costa Rica and Guatemala trying to learn Spanish, and have no shame, so I broke out my terrible Spanish on just about anyone who would listen. 

On Things—What to Take

        One of the most exhilarating things on the Camino is the act of throwing things away. I never knew how little I needed to subsist until I had to carry it all on my back. I cull belongings pretty regularly and the Camino just made me even more ruthless in not attaching myself to crap possessions! And since I would never want to rob anyone of the delight of sending things home or leaving things at various hostels and albergues and feeling the subsequent relief in your shoulders and back as your pack lightens, I will instead tell you what I couldn’t do without.
  1. My Camelbak bladder. I bought it in Bilbao and it was worth its weight in gold. I had been carrying water bottles, which was pure nonsense.
  2. A tiny sleeping bag. Worth the extra money—get the lightest, smallest thing you can find. They really aren’t more than like 80 bucks, and especially if you hike the Camino anywhere near the winter season—the albergues don’t really have heat nor do the monasteries along the way. They do usually have blankets, but they are cheap and often made of rough wool.
  3.  A cheap phone plan that works in Europe. I bought mine while I was touring around Seville before starting the Camino. You can get a chip and refill it at the convenience store in most towns. Calling ahead to discover whether albergues are open and then finding hotels and using data plan to find restaurants saved us a lot of headaches.
  4. Guidebook. I got the electronic version of The Northern Caminos and, while I was making notes the whole time about improvements I would have made, it was absolutely invaluable in helping navigate the Camino del Norte.
  5. Rain gear. If you go in winter, you must get rain gear, unless you have absolutely no time limit. I got a crazy huge poncho and backpack cover. The bonus is that tromping through the rain and puddles brings a childlike glee…at first.
  6. Hiking boots and soft shoes. From what I hear, this is specific to the Camino del Norte, but there were a number of dirt roads that were really wet and muddy and which required serious grip. (at one point I had to dig my boots out of a mud puddle with my hand. fun story…afterward) But then these were sometimes uncomfortable on long stretches of paved road, which is when a light pair of highly cushioned walking shoes would have been awesome. A really self-righteous and judgy French guy that walked with us for two days as we crossed into Guernica had some French leather supertough lace-up army boots he got at a surplus store and that he had waterproofed and swore by. Assuming the boots themselves don't turn you into an ass, might be worth looking into. His feet looked dry, to my great annoyance,  From what I hear from others, on the Camino Frances you really need the soft walking shoes and not so much the hiking shoes. It adds weight to have the two pairs, (and probably flip-flops or shower shoes for communal showering, but necessary on this path)
  7. Toe socks--I was all posh and asked my relatives for injinjis. they may look ridiculous, but I had far fewer blisters than my companions. 
  8. Advil. Pain, so much good pain. dull it. you have somewhere to get to!

On Finishing
       So, when the journey is the destination (possibly not the case for Catholics?), it turns out that the finish can seem a little arbitrary. Like, well, I had to stop at some point, so here we are. It was a little underwhelming at first. Santiago is just the designated end, but the result is what has been working itself out along the way, with every step. I stayed two days in Santiago, and ideally might have stayed for one more just to soak it all in…and heal. It is really delightful to go to the pilgrim office to get the compostela, to attend the pilgrim’s mass, and then to suddenly have no destination and realize you are creating your own new destinations, both physically and metaphorically. For me it felt like life was reopening in front of me. 
        My friend Beth once wrote a poem about a song that Louis Armstrong wrote for the Queen of England, a recording, a unique miracle of audio that got lost in an airplane crash. She said that, when asked about it, Louis answered, "There are other miracles, there are other dreams" which is a refrain I think of often when I am about to embark on something and might be a little sad that, once accomplished, I won't have that thing to look forward to anymore. There are other dreams. 


Saturday, March 01, 2014


I am near the end of my journey on the camino de santiago's camino del norte, I am in a cafe in Sobrado, waiting out a rainstorm only to see that the forecast for the rest of the day is a 100% chance of rain. Ah, sweet futility. As a bonus, please take a look at this hilarious "sculpture?" of a hipster pig made from cured pig parts and wine. I've been staring at him for 2 hours. He has a lanyard that indicates his name is Jacinto and that he is a volunteer with this local "comision de fiestas 2014." Indeed, party pig, indeed. The wine is made from a local grape called mencias and is super delish . (had to get one in for the foodies.)

 Last night I stayed at the monastery in Sobrado, which is attached to a lovely church. The only other pilgrim at this stage in the low season is a partially toothed man named Joseph, who has the requisite odour de pilgrim and has brought along his dog for the journey. It was me and Joseph and the dog in our room last night. I was not super excited about this, but was too exhausted to care or do anything about it. When we woke this morning--with the monks, at 7am, natch--we can hear that it seems to be monsooning outside. Now, one gift that the camino has given me is persistent enough rain that I had to buy full body rain gear (think the full body condoms in Naked Gun, but with a hole for the face and space for a monstrous backpack.). The amazing thing about full body rain gear is that it allows you to tromp through the rain with childlike abandon. This is mostly magical, albeit a little cold. The problem is that at some point too much rain obscures your vision (despite your super brilliant pre-camino move of buying contact lenses) and turns your path into a giant pool of lakes and mud. and while my body and backpack are nearly waterproof, my shoes are merely resistant--ie, subject to becoming fungal cesspools when plopped in mud. So, I am waiting for it to end and scouring my guidebook for a different path.

Joseph gets up to use the bathroom and walk his dog, looks outside and says "oh, we cannot walk in this" and leaves.  I had been listening, praying it wasn't as bad as I thought. I peeked outside. It was worse. Joseph returns with two cups of coffee. One for himself, and one...for his dog. He then says "I spoke to the Father and he says it is no problem for us to stay another night." He then proceeds to drink his coffee, and coax his dog to finish his own bowl of coffee. I said "I don't know what to do." Joseph says, "Tranquila..." and proceeds to stare at the wall while absentmindedly scratching his ridiculously well-behaved and adorable dog. It is clear to me at this point that Joseph is actually a Tim Burton character. He's the weirdo I found mildly scary who is actually super kindhearted and self-assured and has a firm grip on some of the great mysteries of life. He can teach me many many lessons about life quality .He carries a small transistor radio and a stick which he has adorned with feathers. He stares at the wall a great deal. He is a good dog owner. He allows enough time in his journey that he can "tranquilo." He is not walking on a 35 day pilgrimage to the airport in Santiago to catch a flight. he is on a journey with no particular end. Damn him. I hate recognizing this and knowing I am in no position (forgive me, knowing I am not in a WILLING position) to learn from him and embrace this. When I leave to find an internet connection to see how I can manage this part of the journey and, for the thousandth time, forget my hiking poles, Joseph runs to find me and says "just in case you do not return tonight." 

Joseph, I hope that someday I grow up to be like you. Until then, I have to walk in the rain. I have an airport to get to.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Margaret, are you grieving?

 Spring and Fall: to a Young Child
   Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
   Ah! as the heart grows older
   It will come to such sights colder
   By and by, nor spare a sigh
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
   And yet you will weep and know why.
   Now no matter, child, the name:
   Sorrow's springs are the same.
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
   It is the blight man was born for,
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

--gerard manley hopkins.

Even I am surprised by how regularly this poem comes to mind. It seems so often that when I am trying to pinpoint the root of a particular sadness that the line "It is Margaret you mourn for" clearly pops into my head as if to say, while I grieve for others, and I grieve for situations, invariably I am also mourning for myself, for past, present, and future events that have happened or that now will not happen (usually love). One of my best friends is losing a parent. Obviously I am sad for her because I love her so much, but I also find that part of me is preparing the grief I will feel when my own parents pass away. I see in her children the children I don't have, and that if ever I do have them, inevitably some of the most formative and beloved people in my life will be described through pictures and stories "your great grandpa held the record for piloting and surviving the world's highest plane crash, made nurses laugh on his deathbed, and drank whiskey the second he got home from open heart surgery," "your step grandpa was a police-scanner-listening, hard-liquor-drinking curmudgeon who was also a dog whisperer." I can't really bear to think of what I'll say about everyone else, and it probably isn't healthy to do so except to highlight for myself how much I care for them now. And of course, my life will also be summarized. Hopefully. But thinking about that probably is a very healthy thing.

I also find it interesting that when I recognize this feeling, particularly by this line of poetry, it's like a light at the end of the emotional tunnel, a cognizance and structure for me to get out and through, piecing together my coping and understanding. Seasons are changing, the cycle of life and death continues, the feeling of hope and loss of hope is made tangible.

I don't remember when I first read this poem and why it became so powerfully linked to my feelings of empathy (it's fairly obvious how it became linked to my feelings of mourning), but it resonates, and I wanted to save it and my associations in writing, because it's an ephemeral thought that floats in and out of my mind mostly when I'm gloomy, and sometimes when I have nothing to do but sit on hold with Chase bank. So I decided to catch it. There are many other poems that speak this emotional language to me. If I hold long enough I'll probably find them. Apparently the other plight I was born for was to be born in an era of automated phone systems. I mourn for us all for this, but in a much different, more Guy Fawkesian/ fight club way.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What I whine about when I whine about running

Marion, Alain, et moi
So I signed up for my second half-marathon, the Las Vegas half in November. Why would I do this, sane people might ask. It turns out that the amount of effort I have to put in to remaining merely fat and not tipping into the realm of people who need to be cut out of their houses is monumental and nearly insufferable, especially in the US where the food is made of bullshit. Ergo I need motivation to exercise—at the very least the guilt of spending money on an enterprise usually sparks like 25% more activity than if I didn’t have said guilt, and running is cheap, relatively safe, and an activity beloved by my father and one of my best friends. Also, the LV marathon in particular is supposedly really fun (down the strip at night), really flat, and really cold. All of these things appeal to my desire to “run” as lazily as possible. Interestingly, though running just for the sake of running and not getting anywhere still strikes me as a bowl full of crazy, it is also a perfect sport for the borderline introvert/extrovert. Running is a way to be alone but with other people, and instead of talking ad nauseum about nonsense like how we all work for pay and where we grew up and wow, how funny it is that we all like the same tv show, and, geeze, politicians all suck,etc. we can just quietly all bob past each other and like, give each other thumbs up or say “good job.” It’s a wonderful bubble of quiet togetherness and encouragement.
Since I’ve signed up for the “race”-- which I put in quotation marks because I literally don’t think the pace I “run” (let’s just use the word “go”) at would ever be characterized as a pace at which one is “racing” or running, unless it were a “race” against crawling babies—I’ve done a lot of physical activity other than running. Miles and pools of sweat on my elliptical, for instance. Hiking Cowles Mountain has suddenly become very compelling. But I had forgotten a critical fact about running: it is terrible. So, it’s been two weeks since I signed up for this half marathon and I’ve just now gone on my first run. My internal dialogue has a trajectory something like this, “I am a lioness of a woman for getting out and running…wow, it’s only been five minutes…man, this is unpleasant…ugh, my old high school,  why do I run here? Paris was a lot funner and colder to run in…this is so irrational…sunscreen is in my eyes, burning burning, how have we not invented technology to air condition the outdoors?….yes, Robyn, it does hurt with every heartbeat, oh Robyn how are you the dance master of conveying all human emotion…I hate everyone and everything, mostly the ancient greek messengers and that stupid village in the Mexican highlands that inspired the craze that inspired my zero drop shoes…my God, my God, why have you forsaken me…oh, endorphins…weeeeeeeeee…this is still awful, but not more awful than being in high school, I’m so glad I’m not young anymore…wow, I just caught my reflection and I look like Medusa…and…done.”

Luckily I have a modest goal: I just hope to finish before the course is being cleaned up. Why would this be my concern? Well, here is what I wrote to my actionmovie-fast, but supportive of my turtleyness friend, Lisa after finishing the Paris half marathon:

Well, I thought a full run down of ½ marathon day happenings would bore most everyone, except for you! So, as you knew, I was a little trepidatious about the half because of the lack of training and also my cold (which still hasn’t totally gone away, lamely). Anyway, 40k registered, and I think the final tally of starters was like 32 or so. We were in 5 corrals, split from your speed down to mine, mine going last. Dad says they took an inordinately long time to let each corral go, so the gun went off at 10am, but then my chip start time wasn’t until 10:55, which will figure in later. So I started running with two Americans I met who were going at a pace too fast for me, but I knew I would be walking some of it anyway and I figured why not try to go a little faster than normal to hopefully make up for when I knew I would be going slower. This was an interesting experience. First I got my runner’s high way stronger and earlier than usual (which is super sweeeet) but then it also made me thirstier and have to pee WAY more. Which resulted at the 5k mark in my running into the forest and pissing in a bush, and by “forest”, I mean more like a wooded park across from some French homes. I won’t be wearing my bright purple running pants into the 20th arronidssement again, that is for sure.

 Anyway, at around the 11k mark it becomes evident to me that I and the 5 other slowsters around me are in fact the last people still running and that there is a crazy police car weirdly close to me. I was thinking to myself, “do I have enough humility and commitment to come in dead last?” which was weird to me because, while I was very slow, I was still at like the 14 minute/mile mark which I was told would be slow but not like DEAD LAST slow. So I’m like actually doing better than I imagined with my cough, but I’m like having visions of this police car picking me up at the end and parading me around in front of everyone like “this woman here is the last place finisher…tell her what she’s won for this ignominious achievement” (besides what I imagined would be the mocking and chastising glares of other finishers.) so for a few kilometers I was thinking I should just foul out and like try some other race. But then a competing vision in my head was that of finishing and posing with my medal with my father, and that while I would be sad and ashamed for a few minutes, at the end I would say I finished a half marathon and indeed I had the cajones to deal with being last. So I soldiered on as they literally were dismantling the course around us. I caught up with Alain the other seemingly last runner and he was looking at the sweep bus, considering getting on. I said, “I think we are last” and he says “yes” and I say “do you want to finish?” and he says “yes, but I know I won’t if I’m alone.” And at this point I had another mental decision to make because I was getting a bit of a second wind but Alain’s jog was like my fast walk…a phenomenon that has heretofore never occurred, that of me being faster than anyone who isn’t injured or disabled. But I figured since my time was going to suck anyway, and all I wanted to do was finish, I might as well finish in tandem with someone and hopefully help him have a mental victoire as well. So we “ran” in together the last 7k, during which we saw a girl who had totally broken her foot and was being red crossed (I won’t lie that there was a little self-congrats that we weren’t insane enough to actually sacrifice our health). At around 19k we found Marion, who was a new mom and was walking it in because she hurt her calf and also didn’t want to be last.  So we all crossed the finish line, thinking we were last, but last together. First of all, that was incorrect because there were actually secret slowsters well behind us. Also, I finished at like 2:05, which meant that I did a 3:10-3:15, and when we looked at the results there were at least a few people who finished with 3:30 or slower. But they had actually stopped the timer at 4 hours from the gun. This is why my dad said that I got screwed for being honest. I was honest that I was in the slowest corral and so my time didn’t get posted whereas these other people who were in faster corrals finished slower but still within four hours of the gun. And that’s why I don’t have an exact time. So that sort of blows. But it’s not that big a deal. They at least acknowledged that I finished. It’s sort of shitty to know that if we’d managed to just get in like 5 minutes faster we would have been within the gun time. But c’est la vie. I’ve just finished with a super successful whirlwind tour of Paris, Switzerland, and Lake Como in Italy with the parents and I need to detox from all the pasta. So I’ll be running my usual course around the louvre and the Eiffel tower next week, It makes my dad suuuuper jealous.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pilgrimage to W.H. Auden's House and Grave in Kirchstetten, Austria

As I've matured (think wine and cheese) I've stopped pursuing any particular activity simply for the sake of its uniqueness. For example, I used to listen to godawful bands in my youth because I wanted to be "unique" and noncommercial. These days I'm much more comfortable embracing my preferences no matter whether millions of others prefer them, or only a few. For example, when I wanted to live in Paris, this was not unique, it is in fact the most visited city in the world. I didn't care. I wanted to live there even if everyone else in the world was going to come along. And I did, and I loved it. Now, I didn't think that my love for WH Auden was quite in the "Paris" realm of popularity, but neither did I think that I would be boldly forging a path that has virtually not been documented in the English language. Yet this is, in fact, what happened.

Now, I knew that Auden died in Vienna and was buried near his home, the first he ever owned, in Kirchstetten, Austria. I saw that this was a town outside of Vienna and it didn't cause me too much pause; I mean, it was documented on Google maps and I had read an article on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Auden's death which mentioned that it was an hour train ride outside the city. Very good, I found it on a Viennese subway line and felt confident. Now, the website for Kirchstetten the town, which has some info about the Audenhaus, is a little lacking, one might say, but hey, there is a website. Oh naive, Julie. I called the  main number to ask about the opening hours of the Audenhaus. Well, the city council says that there are no official hours, rather you are to call the family who now owns the house, specifically a woman named Brigitte whose phone number is given, and you arrange a time with her. Well, Brigitte isn't answering her phone. Time is of the essence, though, and I need to get out there whether I can be let into his study or not. This is seeming a bit peculiar, I mean, Auden isn't Shakespeare, but he is arguably one of the preeminent poets of the 20th century (I should mention a fleeting memory of when I visited TS Eliot's birthplace near St. Louis and it is in fact a factory, appropriately in the midst of a suburban wasteland, that now makes tanning beds.) Whatever, it's a small village, I'm thinking I can make my way when I get there.

The train ride is in fact quite straightforward and one is dropped at the doorstep of a tiny, wooden train station in the type of friendly, sleepy suburban town that I like to catalogue in my head in case I ever run afoul of the law and am so committed to life that I need to disappear, fake amnesia, and reinvent myself as a barmaid ala Edward Norton in the movie the 25th Hour. There is one bank. There is one bar. The bar is the only thing with anything going on. I gather my courage and ask where the Audenhaus is. I mean, I'm thinking it has to be the biggest thing that ever happened to this town, so they will all know where it is. First of all, I have to revert to my high school German, because in an Austrian  town where the local hotspot is a place that looks like an old mini-Cocos where people still smoke indoors, their English isn't great, i.e. it simply isn't existent at all. (I suppose here is where I give a begrudging shout out to my high school German teacher, despite dropping her class after two years because of general detestation in her direction.) It takes a relay of four people before the elderly cook comes out of the kitchen and gives directions to a man who then maps them onto a piece of scratch paper for me. I would complain about their lack of sufficiency except that it was becoming painfully clear to me that I was lucky that anyone knew anything about my very favorite, and, arguably the best poet of the 20th century...who had lived in their midst. Kirchstettenians were too busy drinking beer and smoking indoors on their lunch breaks. If Auden had lived here when he had written Musee des Beaux Arts I would have made the connection immediately. They "had somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on."

They assumed I was driving a car. I was not. I was making this pilgrimage on foot. a) isn't that how all the best pilgrimages are made? and uh, b) the rental car fees were way too expensive and the town looked tiny, and I'm a prolific walker. sehr gut, ja? nein! The locals were perplexed. The barman made me promise to come back and tell them if I was successful. I managed to say something about calling the polizei if I wasn't back in 4 hours. He clapped me on the back. Did I mention that this part of Austria is going through a heat wave? A heat wave that came on so quickly that my hotel's air conditioning unit broke under the pressure of the cooling needs of their patrons. Sweating profusely at night in a Hilton. This comes into play 3 miles later in a forest. Wait for it.

Anyway, I'm told to make a right at the fire station, denoted with a star on said featured map, and then other vague arrows that I, again, very optimistically, assume will become clear along the path. The street opens up to a scene which reminds me of nothing more strongly than the vista in the Shawshank Redemption in which Red hitchhikes up to the hay field in Maine where he finds money and directions to Mexico. I might be melting, but at least there is great promise ahead. My "map" tells me that to get to Auden's house I take a right; to get to the church where he attended service and was buried, I take a left. I want to take a lot of time with his remains, so I decide to head for his house. Thus began the long death march from hell, something he might have written about from Nanking (that's how he wrote it, not me.) Now, in reality, while his house is, in fact, hard to find, it's not quite as hard as if one had, say, a real map. A map that had a few extra accurate forks in the road, say. But I didn't, so after 3 miles of incorrect treks through a forest during which a small boy on a bike and a sunbathing woman finally pointed me on the right direction, I was cursing myself for clearly choosing the wrong VW Beetle-driving, loud-hymn-singing favorite poet. Another curious fact for me was that this alternate path was littered with references to some dude named Josef Weinheber, an Austrian poet who is definitely the town's favored son. So I now associate this rando, Weinheber, to a big Austrian suckerpunch. I feel this is also a good time to announce that I once had a Viennese lady on a flight tell me that the forests of Austria had no mosquitoes. A painful bite on my head would like to inform you that this is incorrect. More painful bites from rabid ants on my ankles would also like to attest to the fact that while perhaps not festering with mosquitoes, the Austrian forest is not a place you want to get lost on a hot afternoon. or any afternoon, methinks. I was also pretty sure that this was where my episode of Law & Order: International was going to begin.

Anyway, sunbathing lady pointed me down an overgrown forest trail that did, finally, lead to his house. And while Brigitte had not answered her phone, luckily her shirtless 15 year old son was happy to take a break from mowing the lawn in front of the trampoline to unlock "the museum." I am happy to report that this was quite a moving moment for me, to see where Auden worked and see his apperitifs of choice (gin!) and his house slippers and typewriter. I also left my mark, in the form of a pool of sweat that fell to the floor as I was toweling off in the room. Also in the guest book where I noted that the last visitors had been there a week ago. So...not the Paris of poet destinations. (But still enough to warrant a sign down on the main village road.  or even the 3rd main village road. or the 5th main village road.) Sorry, I'm still traumatized and have lines of salt all over my leggings.  Salt from the inside of my body excreted through my pores and dried onto my clothes like a Utah landmark. Everything about me smells bad right now.

Anyway, after bidding adieu to my favorite Austrian teen, I headed to the church where he was buried. This was a much easier prospect now that I had basically mapped out the whole village of Kirchstetten on foot. (Need a map? Message me.)  Again this yahoo, Weinheber, was the main attraction, but Auden got a shoutout on the church entry map. I like thinking of him going to church every Sunday and loudly singing hymns in this Catholic church, even though he was Anglican, in his slippers and sitting in his spot in the back. Since he did love it so much, I suppose it is appropriate that his grave is right behind the church and not even 10 meters from where he would have sat in the pew. His grave is simple and full of plants. I like that it is full of so much life. Sadly, that life includes lots and lots of scary black biting ants and so my plan to pay homage with hours of loving reading and lunch with my sir was cut short and I poured a bottle of wine, that I had trucked in lovingly from Vienna, mostly on his grave, partly in my mouth, left him a memorial cigarette, and proceeded to the one bar, which Auden also frequented, to read some memorial verses with cheap, delicious Riesling and the many villagers who had just finished their workday. The barmaid and the barman were both, in incomprehensible-to-me German, very happy to see me alive and said something to the effect of "it was there?!" Ja.