It’s four-something in the morning here in Paris. I’ve cracked open the tall, screen-less windows to let in the cool air. It’s still mostly quiet out there with the occasional truck passing through. I’m drinking an off-brand, terrible instant coffee but love the way each sips makes me remember the mornings I sat in front of similar windows drinking similar coffee during my summer study abroad in Tours with a host family around 15 years ago, which felt bonkers to write just now. Was it really that long ago?
I arrived yesterday after an overnight flight, which included about 11 hours of air time and then nearly 30 minutes of unexpected waiting for our gate while my knees throbbed and threatened to split open. I may have laid my head against the window for around two hours somewhere in the middle of the flight, but let me tell you, I did not sleep. I enjoyed the flight overall though because there’s something about being in the air that stirs up the writer within, and I journaled my heart out and finally studied my Camino guidebook deeply, learning how to read all of the many symbols on the otherwise complicated-looking maps.
Even before leaving LAX, my several hours at the airport crackled with the magic of embarking on a pilgrimage as friends and family and folks I don’t even know well all reached out with kind messages that instantly had me weepy. I had my first good cry when a loved one reached out to share how my first post affected her. I had the kind of conversation with another loved one that may not have been reached had I not embarked on this trip. It’s already working, my body whispered to me, the power of pilgrimage.
After finally disembarking, my travel adrenaline kicked in, and it took me around another hour to navigate the huge airport through customs and then the train station. From there, it was a sweaty hour to Montparnasse where I’d booked my hotel. Here’s what I wrote while on that train:
I'm sitting on the metro absolutely sweating through all of my clothes. It smells like if a bunch of people were hanging out in a crock pot. With the lid on. It's bad. Someone's sweaty arm keeps bumping into mine and every other seat is taken. At one point, I tried to give my seat to an older French couple who boarded, but the way the man looked at me when he said "we're good" made me wonder if I didn't offend him, like maybe he didn't think he was old enough to be offered seats on trains yet and I just went and ruined his commute home.
I just looked down at my bag and traced all my patches sewn on there: a US flag, a Belgian flag, and a Camino patch. I paid particular attention to how the flags peel off the velcro. And how when you're in Paris, you think thoughts in Parisian. That's not right. What I mean is, the magic of being here, including the sweaty stink of all these gathered, traveling bodies, makes ones mind leap a bit. You end up thinking about peel-off patches and the meaning of life. Maybe it’s jet-lag. But I keep thinking about how these flags represent our identities: for me, American and Belgian (third generation) and now, pilgrim. But the first two are peel offs; it made me wonder if it's really that easy to just strip parts of us away. Don't identify as American anymore? Belgian? I don’t know, maybe you can renounce your citizenship or add new ones or move to Canada, which Americans love to threaten to do... But just like the part that’s sewn-on when I peel off these flags, something remains even if we thought we ripped it off or out of us, like many of us have done with our religions or other beliefs we grew up with. Like I did.
Wow am I’m tired.
Back here in my room, it looks like my backpack barfed up its contents on every available surface. How will I do all of this when I’m sharing a room with a dozen others in a pilgrim hostel?
After the metro, I arrived haggard but happy just after three in the afternoon. The front desk folks were very nearly polite and seemed relieved that I spoke French when they saw me and immediately starting speaking English (thanks?) but they struggled for a minute, so I just switched. “Oh!” the man said, both relieved and surprised, “Are you Canadian?” This delighted my ego because it meant my accent is still pretty good. I confirmed I was American and his eyebrows disappeared into his hair. “We don’t get many French-speaking Americans,” he said. “You all mostly like to just speak English.” Yeah dude, I know.
After showering off my eau de travel, I felt almost fancy and went out in my black dress with pockets. It’s the “outfit” I think I’ll wear each day on the Camino after showering while my laundry dries. I’d watched one of my favorite movies on my flight, Before Sunrise, which is the second movie of three and some of the best writing and acting ever. They especially land for folks who have traveled across Europe while young or met someone they deeply connected with on the road, and I highly recommend them.
In this one, there is a scene shot in a cafe in Paris, which I decided I’d visit in the few hours I had to explore. It was 5 km (3.1 miles) away and took me just over an hour to get there, and I felt that light and happy I’m-in-France feeling pulse throughout my entire being. Because it’s not really that it’s Paris, but France, a place I once spent an academic year teaching part-time in the countryside that completely, beautifully split me open as a human. So when I walk the streets of any town or city here and catch earfuls of French conversation and the smell of fresh baguettes wafting out of a boulangerie, I feel all of it. I feel the time I spent here before, the new experiences, the way my mind stretched, the way I grew. And it feels like home. I feel like this in Senegal, too, because of my study abroad experience there (plus eight other visits) and a bit when I’m in the Middle East because of the year I spent teaching in Saudi Arabia.
Anyway. If you can’t tell already, my blogs will be a bit rambly and I can’t edit much as I go but also that’s why I love blogging—the immediacy of it, the writing in the short windows of free time and then pushing it out to live in the world in its funky, unpolished form. Hey, like me!
It was an exciting moment to find the cafe though my feet were aching in my almost-slipper shoes (but my hiking shoes would’ve made my feet hurt even worse, and I wasn’t about to use my croc flip flops as that would turn into blisters galore and probably an immediate expulsion from Paris). I loved the ambiance, claimed a small and worn wooden table, and ordered something where I ended up disliking nearly every bite but forcing it down because I was nearly shaking with hunger by that point, and also, it was 20 euros. Le yikes. But I won’t soon forget the feeling of chugging an Orangina over ice after that long walk in the sun. Pure bliss, so refreshing, and again, the orange juice/pop dragged up more memories from my previous experiences in France.
Alrightly, I'm packed and ready to go. I'm excited! I slept well (if waking up every hour to anxiety-check the time counts). I can't believe I haven't screwed up something hugely yet. I scan the room for a final, fourth time to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. I'm good. Wow! I open the door in my hotel room with GUSTO, I mean, we're talking IT'S A FINE DAY TO BEGIN A PILGRIMAGE energy and crack smash crunch—I look down and my charger and the adapter I added to it are on the floor, the adapter broken. Woops. I knew things were going too smoothly. Maybe this is a sign to be a bit more unplugged. I'm sure I'll find an adapter as soon as I get to St. Jean Pied de Port. If not, and my phone and laptop die, then maybe I go medieval and just follow the signs and trust I’ll find my way.
PS: stay connected with the pilgrim community over at my Camino Corner, where you can join a Camino-themed reading, writing, or meditation group.