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Because equilibrium is a full-time job
I'm not complaining, mind you. Still, my day is booked from 9 am to 5:30 today.

Okay, I have booked a walk with a friend AND a massage in there.

Yesterday, at the end of the day, I looked at my Toggl, the software where I keep track of what I do and how long it takes me to do it, and...it was at just over 10 hours. What was I DOING? I spend a couple of hours getting my next door neighbor into the VISTA program, that federal government program that pays you almost nothing to fight poverty. Five years ago, I used it to create a great network, learn Salesforce, get some in-depth experience working for nonprofits and meet some of my best friends. R is ready for a life change, and so I'm helping her with Salesforce. The other day, with a flash of insight, I suggested she might want to get a VISTA thing, never imagining she would be actually open to it. Bam, the minute she said yes, "the universe moved too."

I have three prospective projects that all moved to the "send me the invoice so we can get started" phase, and I spent time on the phone with the clients and then time in my database getting the work set up there. And I spent all kinds of time playing with apps I would be using to work with them. One of them involves a job I've never done before, moving the structure of one database to another. It's a very geeky thing to do, and I've always wanted to learn it. Yay! I spent some time on my upcoming certification study group-- I'm facilitating.

I've got three webinars saved in my "watch later" folder. I've got about ten country-themed slide shows I want to post to SlideShare and then embed in the worldstouch web site. And today, I need to finish the little report I promised to a partner on The Event Calendar for WordPress. I'm lovin' it and I didn't think I would. I'm a Google Calendar kinda gal, but this puppy will make beautiful event pages, a nice list for the sidebar AND let you post to google. I'm sold.

It would be dishonest not to say that twice yesterday, I got into g-chats with friends and didn't hurry them with just the basics before I signed off. That, mostly, was my life "before." No time for lingering encounters with friends. I used to say, "Work, yoga and sleep" was all I could get done. That wasn't strictly true, but I did get pretty proficient at the Art of Neglecting. I actually had a dream this week about inviting people over and having about an inch of dust all over the floor. If I were fastidious, I'd probably think it was already almost there. I'm neglecting laundry that needs to get folded, the last tendrils of my finances from the weekend that didn't get done.

Okay, I'm also going to stop with the judging. What gets done, gets done. What matters to me is the quality of my relationships. That is my star that, as my Grandma James used to exhort me, I hitch my wagon to. 
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JF and I just spent three weeks driving to and around Newfoundland, camping, staying at bed and breakfasts and with friends. I found myself thinking, just like in the days of yore, about the process of travel, about the technology of travel and about the sheer joy of it.

One of the new things I did on this trip was to keep a kind of audio journal using the voice memo function on my iPhone. The only problem with that, I learned after I got home, was that iTunes stores the memos with indescipherable numbers and disregards the neat little titles I put on every memo. Which means that if I want to download them to my computer and then bring them into Audacity to string them together and then post them to SoundCloud, I have to RENAME each and every one of them, and then, when iTunes tells me it can't FIND the audio file, go in and re-hook the link to the new, renamed file. I have 47 of them. Tedious! Oh, Apple, why do you have to be such a pain in the ass? Over and over again, it just doesn't do what it is supposed to, or it makes me jump through forty-seven hoops to get there. Why does iCloud only take SOME of my photos in my photostream and not all of them? Why does my iPhone show not a single music file that I have in the iTunes folder. I did SO want to access my old yoga tape while I was traveling and the Music App is just empty. Why IS that?

The other thing I did was to take notes with the "Notes" app. The difficulty with THAT is that the voice to text function, which is linked to Siri, doesn't work unless the phone is connected to the internet. Isn't it connected? It's a PHONE, right? Wrong. Once we got to the outer reaches of Maine, Verizon went on vacation. And pretty much stayed there the whole time we were in Canada, even though I'd paid for a reduced-price International Roaming package. Once I got to St. John's, it came on, like a little miracle, and I took a phone call from my daughter. I've been holding my breath to see what that was going to COST me, and it turns out the whole episode ran about $10-15, which wouldn't be bad if I'd actually had service. Still, I don't think Siri would work, since I didn't sign up for the amazingly expensive international data plan.

So, taking notes, I got to practice the two-thumb approach to writing text on the phone. I won't say I'm actually any good at it yet. I'm still slow, but my accuracy has improved a little.

Then there was the problem of keeping the various devices I had with me charged. The USB socket (on my radio panel) would charge my phone but not my iPad. The backup battery I'd brought was next to useless. It took hours to recharge and then was good for one iPhone charge and half an iPad charge before it went dead. So much for the promised 8 charges! The other problem device was my Nook. I needed quality time with an electrical outlet to get it back up to reading capacity, and when you're camping, electrical outlets are few and far between. There might be a way to get a campsite with electric and then somehow plug in a power strip. We weren't that equipped; plus, we liked the cheaper rates for just plain tent sites. The Nook refused to play with any of the on-board sources of power. It wanted mainline electricity or nothing. It does hold a nice charge when it gets one, though, and would take me through several days of reading before crying for an electricity fix.

Jean-Francois had a solar charger with us, and it apparently worked well for his phone-- but not the iPad, not the independent backup battery and not the Nook. That left the cigarette lighter socket as a source of power. I could charge my iPad using that socket, but since we have an electric-powered cooler, we pretty much needed that socket to run the cooler when we had food in it. JF has since bought a splitter that would let us plug in the cooler AND another device, but we'll see how powerful it is next time we're on the road. As it was, the iPad just took FOREVER to charge, something I've never noticed before since at home I have the luxury of a couple of outlets that I can use all-night every night.

Jean-Francois is MUCH more into on-board technology systems than I am. He has several cameras that need charging, photo cards that get full and need to have the photos and videos stored someplace with ample storage (1 Terrabyte sounds good to him.) He also has a backup battery that worked better than mine, as well as some sort of system that would send photos and videos to his iPad for viewing. It might even talk to a television; I'm not sure.

Somebody might want to point out that if we spend so much time RECORDING our trip, when do we get to just enjoy it? My only answer to that is that documentation is a big part of the fun for both of us. I love being able to "bring people along" on the trip through Facebook. I get to a wireless connection (provincial parks, Tim Hortons, McDonalds, tourist offices, to name a few in Canada) and post yesterday's pictures to FB. I post no more than, say, 5-- and only really good ones: no blurry photos, no photos in need of cropping or color balance or out-of-whack contrast. JF and I agree about being ruthlessly discriminating about photos. With today's ability to take a million photos on an afternoon, it's essential to keep only flawless photos, or to crop or balance them until they ARE flawless.

I love putting together a slide show from the trip and inviting friends in for an evening of wine/tea and slides and talk. I keep the slide shows themselves to 20 minutes, 30 minutes at the absolute max. I pick the most artistic and beautiful photos, the funniest or most emotional videos, a good map and some sort of logic that is probably not chronological. "This happened and then that happened" tends to the tedious. I want insight, cultural, ecological, horticultural, technological. I want to share what we learned as well as what we laid eyes upon.

Discussion question: So the short answer is that we travel so we can share, both on-site and at home. What sorts of technology do you travel with and what lessons have you learned about dealing with it? 
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I've been thinking about balance. Mostly because I'm definitely out of it. Working LOTS of hours, sometimes spinning my wheels doing it so that the forward motion feels more like driving a rutted road where I have to swerve right and left just to avoid being bounced into a ditch. Eating the wrong things and then not liking the way my body is looking in that mirror I glance at from time to time. Exercise? Not enough. Not enough yoga, but also not any of the walking I need to be doing to be comfortable on the Compostella trail in a few short weeks.

So. I walk into yoga this morning and my lovely yoga teacher, Abby, says, "So, today we're going to be working on balance." She goes into the way our sense of balance deteriorates as we age-- not making clear, I think to myself, that we can counteract that loss of balance with practices that maintain it for us-- and offers to take us through some yoga poses that will help us practice balance. I am thinking, "Universe? You reading my mind? Wait, you ARE my mind. My heart and soul."

Of course, this is the way it works, has always worked for me. I am in need of a life lesson. Maybe it's one that I have actually already learned once or twice...or many times...but one that I need to re-learn because I know this is not working for me, the way I'm living right now. I'm not in the present. I'm not honoring this vehicle of my soul; I'm taking it for granted, all the while, actively not listening to that voice of my body and all that other stuff telling me in subtle and not so subtle ways that I need to get back on the path, just bring my attention back to the here and now, just turn myself in the direction of the light.

It isn't really particularly difficult. I had this revelation once in a therapy session. I paused and looked at my therapist and said, "It's just like I simply turn around where I'm standing. I'm looking up at that mountain I've been pushing this heavy stone up, pushing and watching it roll backwards down so I can push it up again... and then I just turn myself around and there, in front of me is the mountainside, the forest, the ocean in the distance...all beautiful and all mine. All I have to do is turn around." She gave me one of those enigmatic smiles that therapists practice in front of mirrors. They never say, "YES! You GOT it. Finally!" Just that smile.

The other offering Abby made via the Universe today was to tell us that NEXT week, she'll be addressing the question of sitting all day long. Which of course is what I do. It's my job. I sit in my, yes, it's ergonomic but still, chair. I look at my two computer screens and do my virtual work. Whoa. Balance and dealing with sitting in a chair.

What can I say, but, hey Universe. Thanks. I needed that. 
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I want to take notes on the weekend I've just had-- wishing I could spend all morning just writing about it, but not having that luxury. [Update: I ended up having enough time to get the range of my thoughts down here before Time To Go To Work.]

The power went out at our house on, must have been some time on Friday, but it's hard to remember exactly when. I know it was out by the time we had check-in at work, because I did the whole thing with my phone. Zoom worked, but not the video and audio at the same time. I stayed in HipChat, our internal chatroom cum water cooler, all day.

Having the power out meant a few things all at once: I had two weekend guests, women arriving from different parts of the state, who had planned to attend the same yoga workshop I was attending, planned to stay with me for the weekend, who needed to be alerted to the situation and left to decide what they wanted to do. Both of them decided to come ahead, though there was a lot of calling. Renate had to leave Asheville before we'd know whether the Friday workshop would be cancelled or not. Louise had to pack her warm sleeping bag.

One of the things I noticed fairly early was that all of the automatisms of living in this house were disrupted. I reached for lightswitches that wouldn't go on, thought about putting things into the microwave that didn't work, kept for probably 24 hours thinking I needed to put the coffee on and reaching for the on-switch.

We had several amenities that weren't given to everybody who lost power in the area: we had hot water, though we didn't fully realize it until Sunday morning. I had slipped in to use a little of what we thought was the hot water in the tank to warm the cold from washing dishes in cold water, but it wasn't until Louise used the hot water to warm her feet on Saturday night that we finally got it that the mechanism down there didn't need electricity. We had the gas stove and so could cook. We had the woodburning fireplace, though some had gas logs to take the chill off the air. We had the fact that it really is spring, and so not freezing cold during the days. We thought more than once that it would have all been so much harder if it HAD been freezing.

We hadn't been able to get out of the house on Friday to buy the groceries we would need to accommodate two guests for the weekend, but Renate brought lots of lovely stuff to eat, which we enjoyed Saturday for lunch and again Sunday for lunch. We'd managed, on Friday, to sweep the floors and make the beds and scrub the bathroom sinks and toilets, but other than that, we couldn't do much in the way of preparing for hospitality.

So there we were in a workshop about Yoga for Healthy Aging with the famous Baxter Bell, talking about strength and stress management, flexibility and agility, the skills he says are useful in the process of growing older.

On Sunday morning, one woman, getting out of her car, began complaining to everybody about how she had no idea how she looked because her house was too dark to see herself in the mirror and how hard it was in general to be without power. While we, following the basic precepts of seeing adversity as an opportunity, and deciding on an adventure instead of an ordeal, went from workshop session to workshop session, and then to Bonnie's for lunch and then to Song Circle and back home again, with few bumps in the road.

I had my phone, managed to keep it charged by thinking ahead where I could plug in the charger at the yoga institute, and could get an email out to the Song Circle, asking for a volunteer to provide a venue, since ours (the planned location for the Song Circle on Saturday night) simply wasn't going to work. My mantra on Sunday morning was "Strength and Capability," and I found several occasions to step up to that particular plate.

No internet (except on the phone), no electricity. Carl came over yesterday afternoon and lent us his generator so we could re-cool the stuff in the fridge, which hadn't suffered too much since we also stayed carefully out of it, knowing that the closed door preserved much of the chill in there. We vowed to buy a generator and to have more oil lamp oil in stock.

More than anything, though, it was a time out of time. It was an almost complete break with my "real life," a chance to revisit the little rituals that surround my every waking moment in every day. Which at the same time was supported, shored up, by the yoga and the workshop. Nothing we didn't more or less know, sinobial fluid in the joints which keeps them moving and unstuck, maintaining equilibrium when things are not going well, how happiness isn't the goal but equilibrium, the ability to be agile and flexible in the face of ordeal/adventure, adversity/opportunity. Baxter had had his own adventure just arriving, but he was funny and silly and very good at his job, which was to be an entertaining and gentle teacher of the simplest kinds of yoga practices.

In this time of reevaluation of my direction, this was exactly what The Doctor ordered. Funny, that. More than once, the Universe showed itself in control of the big lumps, leaving us to digest and adapt so that the small things could be enjoyed, relished, and celebrated while we dealt with as much skill as possible with the consequences of the Universe-ordered reality.

Louise and Renate, our guests, showed themselves as go-with-the-flow kinda gals, no complaining, no getting floppy and distracted and crabby, just present and in good humor. JF, with one lapse when he realized his phone was dying, got dinner on the table Friday night, a beautiful meal, kept everyone in candles and flashlights, built the fires in the fireplace, and got after the downed trees with non-electric tools (of which he doesn't have many) and a borrowed chain saw. His trailer had a tree down on it; we had a huge branch blocking the front sidewalk, and the bushes in the driveway kept us from getting the car out that first day. Turns out that JF has a solar-powered battery charger, and so got his phone up and running on Sunday.

I got the venue for Song Circle changed and we didn't cancel it, which lots of people in our situation would have not hesitated to do. But the Song Circle is deeply essential for me, and so everybody went with that flow and we had a lovely, passionate evening of singing and eating and just being together. Louise and Renate fit right in.

When I got home from the workshop, my impulse was to curl up in front of the fireplace with my book until bedtime, but JF had spent the whole day dealing with downed trees and didn't feel like cooking and there was no way to cook, really, unless I did the previous night's dishes, and so I moved right into Housewife mode. I got trash and recycling out to the bins, the dishes done and the laundry folded while there was still enough light. I tried to start a fire (telling myself that I'm pretty good at this task) but closed the damper thinking I was opening it, and so filled the place with woodsmoke, at which point JF stepped in, and I opened both doors to clear out the smoke. Everything, of course, takes longer without electricity, so the dishes went on forever. I also got all the pieces in place to work today from somewhere with power and wifi.

I was getting a really great dinner on the table when the lights came on. There was a moment of disappointment, just a fleeting passing feeling of losing that pioneer world where I was a heroine and a powerful being of strength and capability. Then the fridge light showed a beautiful cauliflower which went with carrots into a mashed veg dish, and I could see to chop it up before it went into the pot of boiling water.

Everything clicked back into place. The Universe was done with that particular Dance with us. Not entirely done, because there is still wood to be chain-sawed and stacked and dried for future fireplace fires.
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So I came here to write about my werid weekend and I ended up getting celebrity distracted. The piece about the Kiwi law students doing a parody of some nasty song about women-- the law students' parody was pulled from YouTube but the celebrity nasty piece stays. Ain't that just the way it is?

Now I do want to get to this strange blur of events that constituted a string of what now appear to be poor decisions on my part. Poor decision number 1, deciding to drive to the beach alone in the car. This was not supposed to have been in the dark, any of it, but I had no idea that my eyes, after the sun goes down, stop favoring my good eye and start acting like my eyes are created equal. Which makes for a sort of sharp image in the middle (minus the astigmatism) and a fuzzy wuzzy blur of light surrounding it. And then my operated eye got tired. So I put on my glasses, which was even worse. This went on for about an hour or so, through unpopulated North Carolina, turning roads, cars with headlights coming coming coming...so I have to focus on the side line just not to get totally blinded. And they pass, and then I get a little respite, and then another one comes.

I probably should have been terrified. My words to Heartsong came back to me, "...a danger to myself and others..." But nowhere to stop, really. No one to call, really. Just keep going like a drunk driver who KNOWS she ain't right, but there IS nowhere but the destination, so pay attention and just get there, you can have feelings about this later.

Interlude of wild loveliness. Sand, walking on the beach, sound of the waves, walking out into an ocean warm warm perfectly warm, food, talk, reading, talk and talk, good friends, gin and tonic that didn't make me sneeze, sleeping well, walking, key lime pie. Watching Jean-Francois turning happy happy in the surf as he swims and I remember he was a swimmer in his youth. How do we lose stuff like that? We could fill our lives with stuff we love. Why don't we?

Indeed. Sunday came and I started thinking about the drive home and my partial blindness. I asked Susie what way they go home, somewhere near us? Because it would be nice to have company even in two cars, just to make sure I don't go through that lonely blind feeling. But they don't go that way, so I decided -- another one of my bad decisions -- to cut my visit short a day and come home with JF on his motorcycle and me in my car, just to have that backup.

Hindsight: Caryn and Carl are coming home today and are in one car. One of them could have driven my car, I could have stayed the full time I had planned. We'd have seen them...because we knew they were there, we knew Bonne and David were there, but it was so weirdly hard to all get together. I had a think about why that was, and it occurred to me that we get into BEACH mode, staying in our house, walking across the street to the beach, walking back to eat or read or nap, walking back to the beach. It's like we're hypnotized by the sound of the waves and don't feel all that social, even though later we know we're more social than we were acting. It's just a beach thang.

More hindsight: Bonnie and David's daughter Laure needed a ride to Raleigh, so far from the beach, and I could have driven with her today instead of coming home with JF yesterday. If I'd known. If I'd called. Or visited or gotten out of my beach thang.

And then came the ride back yesterday. Hot. Yes. My air-conditioning in the car passable. Listening to Radio Lab. Doing a kind of dance with my iPhone so I get to the next podcast without having always to pass by Alan Watts, who I love but the phone keeps playing the same podcasts over and over and over. Is THAT why I missed the turn? How could I miss the turn? I don't know the way home...we don't go to the beach all that often. But I thought I was actually looking for it.

I wasn't using the iPhone talking map thing, I was going on the printed-out directions, which are clearly inadaquate for a semi-blind person. That was another poor decision. I don't like the way the talking map interrupts and plays over the podcast or story I'm listening to. So many silly, stupid flaws...

The Universe does not like silly, stupid flaws. Or rather, the Universe doesn't give a damn, but you don't get to escape the consequences. Which is that when I realized we were on the wrong road, it was nearly Charlotte and about 60 miles West of where we should have turned and an hour and a half from home.

Which put us on the road for the torrential rain. And nightfall, which occurred just as we were approaching High Point. Which meant again that I was on the road under conditions that should have seen me OFF the road.

I'm not even talking about Jean-Francois' reaction(s) to the whole situation. Or my projection of what seemed to be his reaction into my own well of lost plots. Old stories revived and relived. Resentment. Frustration. NOT rolling with the punches. Me and him. Him and me. Where is the travel adventure mentality when you really need it? Somewhere back before cataract surgery and somewhere beyond it. No doubt.

Shit. Just when you think you have achieved a modicum of enlightenment, WHAP, right upside the head. You ain't there yet, sister. Just keep your eyes open and stop grinning at yourself in the mirror. You ain't all that.
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Tristesse translates into "sadness" in English, and maybe that can sum up what I'm feeling this morning. The trip was just too short; I left my guy over there when it only makes sense for us to be together; the kitchen--having been occupied by Raf--needed an hour of rehab before I could make coffee; there is admin work that now cannot be put off another day...oh, and what the hell am I doing with my life, anyway?

It could be rightly pointed out that walking every day for several hours, even for just a week, tends to turn one's perception of life upside down. I already know the part about the freedom of having almost nothing for long periods of time-- one change of clothes, no makeup, just a few toiletries, a couple pairs of socks and underwear that you wash out every other day or so.

I was less familiar with the constant attention to my body and its various parts. I know the feeling somewhat, having spent the last couple of years doing yoga regularly, because it is true that for that hour or so a day, you have nothing to think about but your psoas and your hamstrings. Still on the Compostela, at least for me, I was continually aware of how my feet were feeling, how my knees were working, what was happening with my shoulders, my upper arms and my lower back. It turns out that the backpack I used, one that has been around the world, that was on my daughter's college semester in Europe, that has been in the family for decades-- actually supported my back rather than in any way pulled on it. The one day we spent walking without packs, at the end of the day, my back felt WORSE than it did the rest of the trip with a snug wide padded belt supporting it.


I spent quite a bit of time working with the various mantras of the Deepak Chopra meditation series, particularly the one for the Action Chakra of the solar plexis and the Detachment one where you let go of the results of your actions and just put one foot in front of the other. I like the idea of having a mantra for the day, and going through the seven laws of spiritual success one by one. I spent hours in a meditative state, walking, being aware of my body in the present moment, just observing the scenery, just breathing and repeating my daily mantra. Part of the rationale was just not to THINK, not to cogitate and analyze, simply to BE.

I loved the whole historical aspect of the walk. The symbols-- the scallop shell everywhere, the crosses and churches (though we did not, as others did, make it a point to visit every historical church.) The visit to the Pilgrim's hostel at Villeret-sur-Apchier was a high point because the hosts had made the whole pilgrimage in the spirit of their Catholicism and came back enlightened and willing to share. They were particularly into the concept of Welcoming (Accueil in French), and how people need to feel welcome, how they need to be given comfort and sustenance as they travel. That's the place where there were two massage machines as our disposal-- one for the feet and one for the back. What a grand pleasure that was! They also got everyone singing the traditional song of the pilgrimage and explained "Ultreya," which is a kind of watchword or password meaning, Go Farther and has a companion expression that means "Go Higher," but I couldn't find that one with a cursory Google Search.

At one point, Jean-Francois talked for at least an hour, maybe more -- we were walking, so no track of time-- about how the Compostela of Santiago trail figures into the history of Europe, how it was used for political purposes by Charlemagne and over several centuries to encourage the Spanish to rise up against the "Moors" (who were quite settled in) and to take the country back for themselves and Christendom. There are temptations to make parallels to modern times, and while we discussed how these comparisons can be made, we agreed that today's situation is more complicated. It is true, however, that France is in the midst of its own "immigration crisis," and like most peoples of the world, when the percentage of foreigners reaches a certain level, the locals turn ugly for awhile. Assimilation is always slower than public opinion and people do tend to hate change, especially cultural change.

Nowadays, there are aspects that make the pilgrimage more of a modern experience. The presence of the wonderful red-and-white trail blazes is one. We found that the first several days were particularly well-marked, with x marks for routes that should not be taken and funny little turn signs for those that were going in a different direction. They were so reassuring, so ever-present, so much of a touchstone for me. Every time you pass one, there is this great feeling of being on the right road. When we left the trail one night to go to a hostel that had been recommended (and where JF and I both probably acquired our bedbugs), I almost cried the next day when we came back to our red-and-white blazes. You wander off, but it's is so comforting to return to the path.


There are also services that will transport your luggage to your next hostel every day of your trip, if you choose. It's about $10 a day and of course you need reservations at your stops. We chose to do the trip without reservations, and we had no trouble finding rooms and beds in dormitories. On the one day we decided to try the system, it worked perfectly. You leave your bags with the money in an envelope on top and head out for the day. When you arrive at your destination, there they are. For people who can't manage to reduce their backpack weight to 10% of their body weight (we were told that is the optimum weight to carry for long distances), this is perfect. All you take with you is your daypack with water and lunch and camera. And raingear!...if there is rain in the forecast.

We had about four or five days of rain, biting cold, fog, and even hail. The trail was muddy, slippery and often treacherous. At Sauges (pronounced Sowg), one of our fellow diners bitched about how disappointed he was not to have been able to see the scenery because of the low clouds and rain. Nobody reprimanded him but I'm sure others, like me, thought that a pilgrimage is NOT about, or at least not primarily about the scenery.

So here is the routine: You rise in the morning fairly early (it is a vacation, so you might fantasize about sleeping in...but no...) for a traditional French breakfast downstairs in the communal dining hall: crusty baguettes, butter, jam (often homemade by the hosts) and coffee with milk. There were some variations-- our BEST hostel had four kinds of cake, juice, cereal, homemade yogurt along with the regular "petit dej." You tie your shoes, hoist your backpack and head for the trail. You might stop at a village for some lunch-- I once had a great mushroom omlette at one of the little roadside snack places, or you might break out the provisions you've brought. For us, that was often sausage and bread with some chocolate for dessert. You walk. You take pictures. You chat with the people zooming by you in the fast lane (we were always in the SLOW lane!) You take a bio break, a water break. You walk.

At some point in the afternoon, we usually got an idea of how far we could go that day, so we would sometimes call ahead to see if they still had room. Sometimes, we just showed up. We'd leave our shoes at the door, deposit our packs where they told us, and hang out waiting for dinner. Folks would filter in over the course of the early evening until about 7-8-ish, which would usually be the beginning of the communal evening meal. Dinner was alway at a long table with everyone around it-- no little individual tables for the French! And it was not a menu affair, either. You were served the stately and sumptious succession of French courses one after another-- maybe you'd start with a salad, maybe a soup, then you'd move to the protein (sausages, chunks of meat in sauce, lamb) and vegetable dishes, then invariably to the cheese course, and then dessert or fruit. Often at the end an herb tea. There was no choice, exactly, though a couple of places the cheese tray way so amazingly stocked with different cheeses that you HAD to choose, you couldn't taste them all.

The conversation around the dinner table was animated, friendly and warm. The French, unlike us'ns, have absolutely no trouble with an hour and a half evening meal, and no prob keeping up a running combination of jokes, teasings, passionate declarations, and general reflections on life, the universe and everything. The microphone bounces from one to another. Side conversations split off and then re-converge. I think it will be sort of sad when we get to Spain and we won't be able to have this cachophany of dinnertable talk as fluently as we do in French.

After dinner, everybody heads for the bed, also fairly early. Beds can be either in regular hotel-like rooms or in dormitories with up to 19 or 20 beds in a room. This is also one of those conventions that are not much in our American experience. When was the last time we slept in a room with 10 or more people? At Scout camp? Certainly not as adults. Nobody on the trail seems to find this a great inconvenience, though the next morning, the snorers are apt to be teased. Few people have real trouble sleeping with a snorer or two in the room. Which is great for us, since both JF and I snore, apparently.

We invariably begin to define just what a pilgrimage can be for a modern hiker. It is NOT a week's worth of just hiking. It isn't a vacation, either, not really. You do vacate your mind of the normal workday world, but you ain't sitting on a beach by any means. There is just no way to escape yourself, your running mental stories, your self-doubts and anxieties except by simply walking on and on. It is the combination of the long stretches of daily silence, solitude and physical effort with the evenings in happy conviviality around solid, homemade, garden-fresh food that makes so much of this pilgrimage a magical experience.

We came back with two great recipes from the trip. One is from the land where we walked and is called "l'Aligot." What I love about French food is that quite often they have the most commonplace recipes-- scalloped potatoes, for instance, around which they have created a whole mythology-- what its regional origins are, when it is supposed to be eaten, what particular ingredients are essential, what is supposed to go with it and what is so out of place it must be rejected. JF and I had one collossal argument once because I wanted to make Spoon Bread to go with the Cassoulet (a pork and beans dish). He was adamant that Spoon Bread does NOT go with Cassoulet. Aligot is a mashed potatoes and cheese dish, typically (I was told several times) a winter dish, served with fat sausages. As per usual, there is a whole THANG around this dish. Everyone knows it comes from the region around Aumont-Aubrac and that there is a particular cheese, the Thom of the region, that is used and another, Cantal, that can be substituted if you don't have access to the regional thom. In order to be successful, the mixture needs to be so well mixed that you can lift a spoon of it up a yard, and the string of the cheese doesn't break. There is a certain way to beat the potatoes and cheese that one of our local informants explained in detail.

. aligot

The other recipe we tasted in Marseille and it is part of the "new" cuisine, where all these innovative chefs come up with wild new ideas of foods that are riffs on the traditional foods. It's a quiche, only there is a layer of MINT at the bottom, just on top of the pastry, and you use goat cheese in place of the usual cow's cheese. Of course, in France, the kind of cheese that is "usual" is still very specific-- I think there are two kinds that are supposed to be used in tandem, but this new recipe breaks from the tradition and the result is transcendant.

We stopped walking a couple of days "early," as we had projected a 10-day walk and ended up with only 8. One of the main reasons was that we want to start from our last place next year and so the place needed to have access from the outside world-- train or bus, so we can easily GET to our new starting point. But the defining reason was that I had fallen into a vat of bedbugs at our last stop and was covered with angry itching scary bites-- 27 bites that JF counted. They were hot, surrounded with a kind of yellowish ring, and one of them had a blister that seemed to be getting bigger. I had some cortisone anti-itch cream that I'd thrown in for mosquito bites that was incredibly handy for just taking the edge off the crazy-making itching. My discomfort was one thing, but more important was the feeling of responsibility to other travelers not to be bringing any of these unwanted little travelers along with me. You can never be SURE whether they are in your bag, in your clothes or just in the bed you vacated unless you can see them, and until they grow up to adulthood, they are damnably difficult to see.

While these nasty critters are a part of many international traveling experiences, they are NOT part of the American experience much (though JF tells me that he read a piece about their resurgence, especially on the East Coast.) We associate them with low-life, dirt, nastiness, and foreigners. Many folks I know, just with the POSSIBILITY of bedbugs, would cross off the trip from their options. So it's important, I think, to put them in their place-- not minor, but not the most important part of the trip.

I had all sorts of emotional reactions to my plight-- our plight, really. I didn't want to feel like a failure. I didn't want to feel as though I were a plague vector. I didn't want to abandon our plans. I wanted to get on the first plane home to America. I wanted to take the first bus/train out of town to Marseille (which is what we did end up doing.) JF had an amusing reaction. As we were pondering what to do, he said, "I'd like to go on, but only if you can do 20 kms today." We had never done that many. Our maximum distance was 16 k, roughly 10 miles, at the end of which one of us was totally exhausted. I was adamant that I would not be able to do that. So we decided to go back to Marseille, to hot water washeterias where we could stuff even our backpacks in the machine. After, I said, "Why did you come up with that 20 k thing? You knew I couldn't do that." "To allow you to save face," he replied. For some reason I have yet to fathom, projecting an impossible goal and declaring it such, so as to facilitate the decision to cut the trip short was supposed to sooth my misgivings about quitting. Go figure.

I have another post in the works for the WHOLE bedbug story, along with history, links to other sites, etc. But that is really the jist of it for our purposes here today. We came, we acquired, we quit...and did the laundry.

And meanwhile, we walked and walked and walked.
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I've been the target of a BUNCH of spam the past week or so-- four or five spam comments a day. So I'm going Friends Only for awhile. I don't much like that option, but this is ridiculous.
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