Anna’s Camino: Currahee

I’ve been finding myself a little more emotional than usual lately. I’m overtired from working long hours, and many things (maybe too many) about my life are feeling rocky, unsure. But part of the emotionality is stemming from something very simple – we’re 13 days out from the day my friend Jakob gets married. And though I’m overjoyed for him to have found the woman of his dreams, to have everything that he’s hoped for come to fruition, there are some complex emotions tied up in the thought of missing the wedding of this man who essentially became my brother and my other half on the Camino.

It’s difficult to adequately put into words what it feels to form a bond with someone that you barely know, under circumstances you can barely understand. When those circumstances happened on the other side of the world, and sometimes seem like a dream, that also takes its weird toll on your sanity. But when all of the parts of the experience combine to create something that shakes your life to its core, that too can leave some scars. The bottom line is that I found love on the other side of the world, with a few souls that were met quite by random. People that I know will be in my life from this day forward. People who, in no time at all, came to mean the world to me. And my heart hurts to know I can’t be there for the wedding of someone I barely know, but know I’d jump in front of a bus for. It’s a strange time to be me (but then, when is it not)?

What’s really weird is going back through the photos from the Camino, trying to piece together just when it was that Jakob and I became friends. And there, in the photos, I see that it was the 2nd day of walking together. In memory, I thought that maybe it was a week of getting to know each other. In the real world, a week would be crazy fast. I don’t make friends easily. It takes me months to trust someone enough to be friends, never mind comrades.* But time is different when you’re walking to Santiago de Compostela, and there, in a photograph of a perfect sandwich, lies a memory of one silly conversation about Band of Brothers, and one foolhardy agreement to keep on walking that afternoon across the longest stretch of the Meseta. By the end, we were bonded in a way in which only the road is capable.

Maybe it’s only in my head, or my heart. And there are a hundred other small memories of our walk, and of when our fellowship was rounded out by our third brother, David. But there was a deep magic in our shared footsteps, a closeness that Jakob would probably attribute to St. James, and David to something rational, like exhaustion and hormonal fluctuations. I think I’ll just stick with love.

So to both of my brothers from another mother, if you’re reading this, I love you (even when you wake me up eating Oreos in the middle of the night, or let a cow attack me, or laugh at me for getting the hottest Pimento de Padrón and feeling like my face is going to melt off at the dinner table). I might not be much of a world traveler at the moment, but whenever you need me, whatever I can do, you have the promise of my sword. And to Jakob, who is about to undertake another wonderful journey with its own set of challenges, keep running up that hill. I’ll be shouting “Currahee!” for you on this side of the pond. ❤

*NB: According to Etymology.com, the term comrade dates back to the late 16th century, and is derived from the Middle French term camarade, relating to the Spanish term camarada. While comrade now means “a friend or trusted companion, esp. one with whom you have been involved in difficult or dangerous activities, or another soldier in a soldier’s group” (via the Cambridge Dictionary), I find it particularly telling that camarada meant just “chamber mate.” Given the close quarters shared by peregrinos at night, as well as the difficult activities undertaken together during the day, both old and new terms fit very well.

Red, White, Blue & BBQ

When I was young, Independence Day was my favorite holiday. Every year on July 4th, my entire family would get together at my paternal grandparents’ house for a particular type of barbecue that is known as a “pig pickin’.” I can’t think of a food I love more than Eastern NC barbecue, so as far as holiday eating went, this day blew every other food-related celebration out of the water for me. But there’s more to it than that. There was a rhythm to the day that hasn’t been repeated for any other holiday in my life. It created its own kind of romance, and now that it’s gone, its own kind of melancholy.

The party actually started the night before, on July 3rd. Granddaddy would start cooking the pig that afternoon in the garage, so by late evening, parts of the pig would be perfect for snacking. Mum, Daddy, and I would go to the town’s annual street dance, where my mom would invariably complain about the fact that my dad had never taught her how to do the popular dance that everyone else in the area knew, The Shag. She’d be feeling left out and a little sulky that he wouldn’t dance with her. He’d go around and make small talk with everybody who wasn’t dancing. I’d run around the crowd with my friends, and we’d get excited when the Electric Slide came on for the umpteenth time (not even a little embarrassed to admit that I still do – I love group dances).

After the street dance wrapped up around 9pm or so, we’d head over to check on the pig at my grandparents’ house. My dad and his brothers would come over and drink beers, and when I was little, I’d get to run around in the front yard and catch fireflies until way past my bedtime. When I was older, in high school, I’d invite a friend or two over and hang out in the front yard, or at the community center/beach a few blocks away.

July 4th morning was only to be outdone by Christmas morning. There was always some excitement to preparing for the 4th, and my mom would always go out of her way to buy me a fun new outfit. Something red, white, and blue, and if I could get my way, sparkly. There were special hair ribbons, and colorful socks. Even though hindsight is 20/20, and those late 80s/early 90s clothes were hideous, I always felt special when I put on my special new duds.

We needed to be at Granddaddy and Nana’s house by 11am at the latest, so we could drop off whatever my dad had cooked for the party (deviled eggs, potato salad, a jug of his particular hot sauce recipe, maybe a couple of pies that Mum had thrown together last minute – chocolate and lemon, probably). Then we’d walk a couple of blocks down to East Main Street, to catch the annual 4th of July parade – my town’s crowning glory. In my dad’s youth, my town was famous all over the state for having the best Independence Day celebration. By the time I came along, the parade was still beloved, but not that exciting.

Unlike parades in New Orleans, where the floats are huge and colorful and throw you goodies, the 4th of July parade in Belhaven, NC, was much more laid back. My favorites were always the floats of pretty girls, dressed up in evening gowns. Sometimes they were beauty queens from surrounding towns, sometimes they were just girls who were sponsored by local companies, but I was always envious of the dresses. Plus, they typically threw candy – who doesn’t like candy? When I was little, I was very optimistic, and assumed I’d get my chance to be one of them, but that never happened. I was in the parade plenty of times, though. When I was 12, my softball team won a championship, and the team rode a float. Then, once I got to high school, I was in Air Force JROTC, and I marched in the drill and colorguard teams for every parade in a tri-county area. I definitely got my fill of parade appearances.

After the parade, we’d all head back to Granddaddy and Nana’s to eat barbecue. Nana was always in the house most of the time, her nerves frayed to the max from having so many people in and out of the house, and having been up all night fixing side dishes. Sometimes one of their old buddies from Granddaddy’s Army days would visit, bringing his wife and two poodles. Nana and the wife would sit in the living room and chat, fawning over the dogs while the party went on outside. Granddaddy was the people person, invigorated to have so many friends and family over. He loved grilling (and drinking), and this was his day. Every single 4th of July for my entire life (and probably before), he wore the same shirt – this very soft, knit, short-sleeved shirt that looked like an American flag. It was hideous, and on anyone else it would have been a joke, but for some reason on him it just looked jaunty and appropriate. In my memory, he was all smiles.

Enormous amounts of barbecue consumed, Daddy would be content to stay at his parents’ house, but Mum and I would always get bored and want to go downtown to the festival. The town always had a full lineup of activities for the day, with a beauty pageant, jet ski races, musical acts, face painting, helicopter tours, free rides in the electric company’s bucket truck (in the bucket), craft vendors, etc. Some years we’d also have a little carnival, with a Ferris wheel and other assorted rides. Most years, there was no money to go buying things. But we’d look at everything there was to see, and sometimes my dad could spare the change to buy me a snow cone. I always hated the texture of the ice, but loved having a crunchy, sweet rainbow to hold. They were also specific to the 4th of July festival – there was no other time or place to find a snow cone. I remember one year, my mom bought me a roach clip with pretty colored feathers from one of the vendors, so I could put it in my hair. I was so pleased by that stupid thing, and I think it tickled her that she had the chance to buy something naughty for a completely benign purpose. I had no clue what a roach clip was, just that the feathers were beautiful. By late afternoon, I’d be tuckered out, and we’d either go back home or back to my grandparents’ place to rest and recharge before the fireworks show that evening.

Now that I’ve lived elsewhere, the fireworks show back home seems pretty rinkydink. But when I was a kid, I was enthralled. I still adore fireworks shows, despite being annoyed at having them happen too often near me, freaking my poor cats (particularly Munky) out. It seems like they’re always setting off fireworks for some festival or other out at Waldenberg Park, which is less than a mile from me. The fireworks are visible over the river from my front door, which is lovely, but also highly annoying when you’ve got pets who think the world is ending every time a car backfires.

Even though I’ve seen some big, amazing fireworks shows in the years since leaving home, one of Belhaven’s shows is still in my all-time Top 5. The fireworks get set off from a barge out in the middle of the creek. Typically it’s one explosion at a time – oooh, ahhh, ohhh, oooh, ahhh – followed by a grand finale that looks similar to the main body of a New Orleans fireworks show. So, like, 30 seconds of a few bursts at a time. It’s nice enough. But one year, the show had just started, and one of the firemen who were in charge of the show accidentally set off a chain reaction. The entire fireworks stack caught fire, and the guys had just enough time to jump into the creek before the entire barge went up at once. It was the shortest fireworks display my town had ever had, maybe three minutes long. But it was GLORIOUS.

I have so many great memories of the 4th of July. But nothing lasts forever. The last 4th that I remember clearly was my last one with Granddaddy, between my junior and senior years of high school. I was waiting tables that morning, and missed the parade and the pig pickin’. My glasses broke midway through my shift, so I couldn’t see as well as I’d have preferred. I’d also crashed my car the night before junior prom, and was rebuilding it myself over the summer as a sort of punishment. But after my shift, I was invited to a party on the other side of the creek, and I’d requested to borrow my Granddaddy’s truck, so he came to pick me up. He was suffering from macular degeneration, and was probably too blind to be on the road. But he was stubborn, and this had been his town for the last 40 years or more, so he knew the way from his house to the restaurant where I worked. I drove him back to his party, then took off to my friend’s house. In my memory, there’s a deep sadness to this moment. I don’t know if I felt that way at the time, or if I inserted that emotion after the fact. I don’t regret not spending more time with him, because we were together often. But when he died a few months later, I was blindsided. We all were. What I wouldn’t give for one more 4th of July with him.

When Granddaddy passed away, I asked for two things – the onyx and diamond ring that he’d always worn, and his American flag shirt. I didn’t get the ring, but when my Nana dug the shirt out of the closet for me a few months later, she gave it to me like it was the silliest piece of trash. At first it smelled like him, and I’d bury my face in it when I was sad. It’s still in my closet. Sometimes I think of giving it away, but I can’t stand to think of anyone else wearing it as a joke, or treating it with disrespect.

I’ve tried moving on, tried finding a way to celebrate Independence Day again, but it’s nearly 20 years later, and I have yet to figure it out. Every year, this day rolls around and I’m heartbroken and angry and I don’t have it in me to be in the presence of others. I feel similarly on Thanksgiving, but tend to be able to power through (though to be honest, I prefer to cook myself a feast and spend the day alone, watching movies, drinking champagne, and eating all the green bean casserole). But July 4th is harder. There’s no magic solution. When Granddaddy died, so did the barbecue. It’s never been the same. I’ve been home a handful of times to visit with family on the 4th, but there’s something missing when my uncle cooks the pig. He chops the whole thing up too fine, and doesn’t leave any pulled pieces on the side. He doesn’t understand how to get the skin crispy, and leave it with the chopped bits to add crunch and fat. And his sauce is way too mild. The whole package is lackluster. It doesn’t have that special touch that Granddaddy added. And maybe it’s not about the barbecue. Maybe that special touch was just the way he smiled at me when he was making me up a plate, or maybe it was a combination of things that go away after childhood – the magic of catching fireflies, getting a new outfit, loving without reservation.

Tonight I’m working my second job, writing this at the front desk, and I can’t stop crying. I tell myself that I just have to make it to 7am, then I can go home and hide from all the revelers. But the party has already started here in New Orleans. Like all holidays, it started a few days ago, and has been rolling along all weekend. I work on our music street, and the bars are rolling with live music. People are still out in our pool, partying it up. I’m tired. I miss my grandfather, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There will be no barbecue tomorrow. Even if I could stand to see other people, everyone will be grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. What’s the 4th of July without barbecue? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Abracadabra

It’s fitting that today’s Daily Post prompt is “Illusion,” because I’ve been mulling over the inaccuracy of my physical projection for a while now, and was thinking that I’d like to try to write about it today if my brain allowed. For the last ten years or so, I have been struggling with not looking like myself. It’s difficult to explain – maybe impossible, I don’t know. It’s not tied into what I wish I looked like, or even when I think I could look like with some hard work or plastic surgery. Those are both normal feelings that I also experience. This third thing is something separate. It’s more a feeling of knowing what I look like, then looking in the mirror and being surprised (and sometimes horrified, though mostly just irritated) to see that the person staring back at me is not me, at all. For awhile now, I’ve wondered if it’s a mild form of body dysmorphia, and since I do have a couple of other anxiety-related OCD symptoms that all started roughly around the same time, it fits my overall pattern. Eventually, I’ll need to talk to a therapist, but first I’ll write this blog post.

The best way I can explain what happens to me is this: imagine that you’re Joseph Gordon Levitt, and you’re used to seeing your boyishly handsome JGL face every day when you look in the mirror:

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Damn! Joseph Gordon Levitt, via The Daily Mail.

Then one day, you wake up, look in the mirror, and see this:

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Joseph Gordon Levitt as a young Bruce Willis in Looper, via IndieWire.

You’re obviously still you, but not you, too. It’s disconcerting (also, one of the reasons that I just couldn’t get comfortable enough with Looper to love it the way that everyone else seemed to). Imagine that this happens all the time. Some days you’re you, other days you’re a version of you. Sometimes this shifts over the course of the day, or an hour, or between glances in the mirror while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning. In an effort not to lose your mind, you learn over time to not get too attached to your face, and move on with life.

Then one day, you realize that this phenomenon has begun to extend into the rest of your life. Suddenly, it isn’t just an simple illusion over which you have no control, but some other, more insidious kind of spell, gradually wiping out the you that is and replacing it with a cut-rate, bargain basement you costume. But this doesn’t shift or change. Your body isn’t the shape it used to be. It’s apparent in the mirror, and to the touch, and in the way you move. Your chosen plumage changes to accommodate, and is chosen out of necessity, rather than whimsy. Necklines get higher, hems get longer, shoes get shorter, pants get stretchier. Suddenly, people start calling you “ma’am” and even though you’re not a matron, you begin to feel like one. Now when you look in the mirror, that ever-shifting face has one aspect that has stopped changing – the light behind your eyes has dimmed.

If you’re still reading and over 35, this might sound familiar, because I’ve moved on from talking about body dysmorphia to a more common shared experience – the intersection of age and complacency. From where I’m sitting, it looks like there are three general paths to image as we age. There are those lucky few who stay in touch with themselves and continue to find fashion that fits their lives and personality. There are those who grasp at straws, wearing things that no longer work for the time or their personality – these people give off the impression of always wearing a costume, even if the costume is quite bland. And then there’s the rest of us poor schlubs, confused and tired, often wearing something that fits our bodies, but not our spirits.

At some point in the last three years, I decided that the outer appearance I had been attempting to cultivate no longer matched who I was, and I stopped wearing pin-up dresses and high heels. (Just the thought of those things makes me uncomfortable, honestly – who was that girl?) But I forgot to keep working to make my outer me match my inner me, and ended up with a closet full of the equivalent of sweat pants. Now it’s not just the mirror that tells me I look terrible. It’s my life. I’m not projecting my authentic self, and no one can see me anymore.

I feel like this is deeper than an age thing, or even a cultural thing. It’s spiritual. It’s magical. Our clothing and jewelry have power. They tell stories, they offer protection, they open up portals for us. There’s a reason it’s called a “power tie,” a “business suit,” a “church crown.” We are not that far removed from our ancestors, buried with sacred amulets and specially-sewn grave clothes. It’s time that I remember this, and follow that thread back to myself.

I Dream Of…

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite TV shows was the 60’s classic, I Dream of Jeannie. While I enjoyed the humorous plot and puzzled at the maladjusted love story between Jeannie the genie and her human “master,” Tony the astronaut, I mostly loved the show for its costumes and interior design. It only recently occurred to me what a huge impression the show must have had on my tastes. From collecting old, illustrated editions of Arabian Nights to having a distinct taste for embroidered silks in rich jewel tones, comfy floor pillows, and mid-century mod furniture and paintings, it all lines up with the looks that fascinated me as a kid.

Even though I was pretty sure I’d be moving out of my apartment this year, I’m getting ready to renew my lease, after all. My landlord only raised the rent by $10, and I haven’t been able to find anything available in my price range (something between “free” and “flat broke”) in a safe neighborhood. So I’ve decided that if I have to stay in my studio apartment for another year, I might as well make the best of it. What if, instead of thinking of it as a shoebox – tiny, cramped, inconvenient – I think of it as a magic bottle – still tiny, but full of possibility and romance, a place where my dreams can come true?

The first thing I’m going to do is redo my bathroom. It’s the tiniest room, and the easiest to make look totally different with just a few touches. I bought a fun/funny vintage shower curtain a few months ago that’s covered in a cartoon jungle theme. It lifts my spirits, and I intend to keep it for future use, but it’s time to make some adult decor choices. I found this shower curtain on Poshmark that fits the overall look of my house pretty well. It’s originally from World Market, but I got mine brand new and unused, for $11 – awesome deal.

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Geometric Multicolor Shower Curtain, from World Market – $29.99 (unless you get lucky, like me!)

Next up is new towels and a bathmat, a little piece of art, a medicine cabinet, a corner storage rack for the bathtub, a basket for under the sink to store towels, new bathtub handles, and a plunger.

I’m thinking strongly of buying Turkish bath towels, since they’ll take up much less storage space, and be so much easier to wash by hand than traditional terrycloth towels are. The last time I had to wash the towels, I had blisters on my fingers the next day. I’m not sure where I’ll get the bathmat, but the last one was $5 from H&M.

As for the art, I might end up making a collage, or framing a cool postcard. The piece that I currently have hanging in the bathroom is just that – a pretty vignette from a postcard I had sitting around.

The idea of a medicine cabinet just popped into my head yesterday, while walking around the local reclaimed building supply store. I have so little storage space in the room, and almost no counter space, but every inch is taken up by bottles and tubes and brushes. Maybe if I can find a small enough medicine cabinet to hang on the wall, I’ll get just a little more space. I’ll do some digging and see if that’s a good solution. This is reminding me that I also need to see if there’s a way to fix the cabinet drawer, which makes this terrible screeching sound every time you pull the drawer out.

As for the toilet, the flap needs to be replaced, and I really would love to have a decent plunger. I’ve been using the cheap, pointless plunger that came with the apartment when I moved in three years ago, but it’s time to move on. Which reminds me – I would LOVE to have a new cat-deterrent toilet paper dispenser, and a toilet paper holder that I can stack rolls in for later.

Oh well, that’s a lot of dreaming and planning for one little room. I’d like to have this done by the end of July, so I’ll update you guys once the bathroom is pulled together. I’ll even take some before and after pics, so you can see how it turned out.

Anna’s Camino: Day 19 – Burgos to Hontanas

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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There’s some surprisingly awesome graffiti all along the Camino Francés, but this simple piece was one of my favorites.

For awhile after I left Burgos, I didn’t pass a single person, not even a local out for a morning jog. It was early, but not so early that I shouldn’t have seen at least another pilgrim or two on the way out of town, so I worried that perhaps I was headed the wrong way. But the road markers told me I was going in the right direction. My optimistic side told me that maybe there was a reason I was leaving the city alone. If this was the start of Part 2 of my Camino, then perhaps it needed to mirror the start of Part 1. I resolved to enjoy my status as a once-again solitary peregrina.

In stark contrast with earlier days, I had no set goal in mind. As I started out, I resolved to walk as far as I wanted to, and stop when I was ready. I briefly checked over the map to see what was out there, and how much distance there would be between towns, but otherwise I kept my thoughts as light as I wished my backpack could be, and got a move on. The day was crisp and cool, a proper fall day, with just a few pretty clouds in the sky. Taking those two days off had done me good, and my body felt revved up and ready to go. I practically bounced down the trail.

 

As I walked, I enjoyed the little signs and symbols left behind by those who had walked before. There was one amazing work of rock art that reminded me my birthday would soon be here, and I felt flush with pleasure as I realized that I was alive and in a really great place to be enjoying that fact. I also saw another solitary poppy – my second of the trip – a reminder that St. Francis was there with me. Later, I looked back that that photo of that late-season poppy and realized that it was also a sign of a very special day. I couldn’t have known that when the flower first appeared, of course.

The first obstacle of the day was hitting a construction area that had destroyed the path markings and greatly confused the area. It looked like a crew was in the process of building a new road and overpasses, but the site was abandoned. Conflicting signs pointed two different directions for the Camino, and I wandered around for a few minutes, getting my bearings and looking out for notes and signs left behind by other pilgrims to mark the way. Some helpful soul had made a Camino arrow out of larger rocks, something that I’d seen before down the trail. This was the first time that it was amazingly helpful, instead of just one more thing to walk by.

After successfully navigating the construction zone, I put my headphones in, and sang along to The Edgar Winters Band at top volume, since I was pretty sure there wasn’t another soul around for miles. Then I rounded a curve and saw a trio of Spanish teenagers out for a walk, giggling. I froze for a second, then laughed along with them. It was pretty silly, after all. They wished me a Buen Camino as we passed.

It wasn’t long after they disappeared from view that I heard the gunshots. I quickly took off my headphones and froze there, listening.

I’ve lived in New Orleans since I was 17, and though I’ve been lucky to never witness gun violence, it certainly does happen here. I am always cautious of who might have a gun, who looks angry or is raising their voice, who might have a reason to make a bad decision and hurt those around them. To make things a little murkier, I also grew up in rural North Carolina, where everyone has a gun or two (or ten) in the house. Even though I was taught how to safely handle firearms as a child, and then taught to shoot as a teenager, I have never liked guns. I don’t like the look or feel of them. I hate the sound of them. I don’t like seeing them in a hand or on a wall, whether modern or antique. I understand that they’re useful in some cases, but that doesn’t make me dislike them any less. Even so, a lifetime of hearing them go off has given me a certain pragmatism, I guess. My initial fear at the sound of a lone gunshot eased off as I heard a few more. I could tell that whoever was shooting, it was a rifle. It was a gorgeous fall morning, on the weekend, and I could see there were woods just up the hill. I quickly decided that someone must be hunting. There were a few more gunshots, nothing, then a few more as I got closer to the patch of woods. I wasn’t worried about gun violence by that point, but I was worried that someone might mistakenly shoot out of the woods and hit the lone hiker. I was happy to be wearing a bright pink jacket, so at least I’d be visible if I went down.

All at once, a big, shaggy labrador retriever bounded out of the woods, then another, both wet and muddy up to their underbellies. The dogs were soon followed by a group of rugged, handsome men with their rifles broken and dead ducks slung over shoulders and carried on strings. A few more dogs trotted along. One big, golden dog had a duck clamped firmly in his jaws, and practically danced along next to his owner, his eyes so full of joy that I couldn’t help but want to congratulate him for being a good dog. The whole thing looked like a scene out of an Eddie Bauer catalog. I was simultaneously saddened by the carnage and oddly attracted to the conquering heroes. There was a certain pastoral romance to the scene. The men walked down the trail ahead of me for awhile, until they reached their parking lot. I walked on, trying to wrap my head around it all. After all, duck is one of my favorite dishes.

Later in the day, I ran into Terry again (of course). We walked together for maybe an hour, talking about her time in Africa in the Peace Corps. It turned out we both really like Afrobeat music, so she told me about a couple of concerts that she’d been to in years past. Along the way, we picked up a third hiker, Annie (not her actual name) a young woman in her 20’s who had been struggling to keep up with two other pilgrims. The other couple kept up their speed and were out of sight before long. Annie walked on with Terry and me, and when Terry got to Hornillos, her intended destination, Annie and I kept walking together for a nice part of the afternoon. I wish I could remember her real name, because we had a great talk. I really liked her. She was in the process of moving to another country for a job, and was walking the Camino, then going home to pack up the rest of her stuff and make the final trip to her new life. I loved how practical and driven she was, and remember wishing that I had a little touch of that in my scattered life.

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Before long, we got to the little hamlet where Annie’s two friends had told her they’d bed down for the night, so I walked with her to the albergue where they were waiting. They invited me to stay with them, but it didn’t feel quite right. I had the energy to keep going, and I thought of how nice it would be to meet back up with Natalie, if I could only work a little harder at it. So I grabbed an Aquarius and sat with them for awhile, enjoying their albergue’s little garden seating area, and took a look at my maps. There was a town not too much farther down the road: Hontanas. Something about it sounded right to me as I rolled the name over my tongue – Hontanas, like Bananas, like Anna Banana, like me. It was just right. It’s weird thinking about it now, since I certainly didn’t understand it then, but I had a very strong gut feeling about Hontanas. I needed to be there. Mind made up, I traded out my sneakers for Tevas to revive my tired feet, strapped my pack back on, gave my trio of new friends hugs goodbye, and kept on keeping on.

By the time I reached Hontanas, I was absolutely battered. Every step was a monumental effort. Even with sunblock on, all of my exposed skin was a couple of shades darker. It was taking everything I had just to not drop my pack and sleep right where I was. It would be sunset in an hour or so, so I fervently hoped that this was where my gut had been insisting I go. Luckily, the sign that I was supposed to be here was loud and clear. Right there at the edge of town is a Tau, the pilgrim’s cross, the symbol of St. Francis. As soon as I saw it, I knew I’d find whatever it was that I was looking for just down the street.

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The hermitage of St. Bridget, Hontanas.

I don’t remember if I went looking for Albergue El Puntido, or if I found it by accident, but if it was the latter, it was the luckiest of accidents to have. The albergue has a restaurant and bar, ample outdoor seating, and even a little general store for basic needs. I went in and bought a bed from one of the hospitaleras who was manning the bar, and went about getting tidied up from the day. I showered, got my bed set up as quietly as possible, since there was already a guy sleeping on the bottom bunk, and pulled everything out of my bag that I wanted to have laundered. It was a little late in the day, but the hospitalera was still willing to wash things for me.

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Talk about a pilgrim tan!

All of the major things taken care of, it was now time for the best part of my afternoon – a beer. Taking a cue from English Mark, I asked for the largest mug they offered, then took my ice cold treat out to the front of the bar, where a gaggle of pilgrims was already congregating, drinking and talking. As soon as I came out of the front door, I realized that Nestor, whom I’d met in Pamplona, was sitting alone at a little table opposite the door, writing in his journal. We’d only barely met, but there was something so familiar about him that seeing his face made my heart leap. I softly called out hello, not wanting to disturb him too much, then headed over to the larger group of pilgrims. Out of the din of conversation, one thread rang above the rest – a woman, speaking English with a southern accent, her voice dancing with friendly, playful notes. Well, whatdaya know, an American! I took a plunge that is completely out of character with my personality, and just pulled up a chair at her table without asking if I could join. It was a “What the hell, let’s try it!” moment that paid off in a few ways.

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Didn’t take a single photo of El Puntido or my new friends, but I did take this snapshot of the recycling pile out behind the albergue. With the way our night went, I’d say this was about a week’s worth of bottles, lol.

Dena was a charming, vivacious Tennessee native, currently in the process of leading the table of pilgrims in a game of 20 questions. I joined in, and began to make guesses towards the common goal – what did Dena do for a living? Another woman from Nashville, Cherrie, sat to my left. She stayed out of the game, since she and Dena were friends. Between my failed attempts to figure out Dena’s profession, Cherrie and I shared stories about our pets and all of the animals we had met so far on the Camino. The other two people at the table were both guys – Josh (not his real name) an American from California who’d hurt his leg, taxied ahead for a rest day, and was waiting for his parents and uncle to join up the next morning, and Jakob, a German law student. Eventually, we were joined by Alison, a serious, athletic young woman from Colorado, and Nestor, who had packed up his writing and come over to join the fun. We drank beers and talked and laughed until the sun went down. I finally had the courage to ask Nestor why he’d had a black eye when I met him, and it turned out that he’d been mugged for his watch in Barcelona before even starting his pilgrimage. When the group expressed dismay, he lightened up the mood by sharing another disastrous vacation story, about how he’d gone out hiking on a mountain without the proper clothing, and had almost frozen to death after misjudging the terrain. It was evident that Nestor’s special talent was finding the humor in almost any situation, and he kept the table laughing with his cheery retellings of vacation mishaps.

We sat around, soaking in the fellowship (and the beer) until someone mentioned that we should probably let the hospitaleras know if we were going to order dinner or not. I remember feeling total panic – of course I wanted food! What would I do if no one gave me a pilgrim meal? Ack! Chairs were quickly pushed from the table, and one by one we sought out the hospitaleras to obtain sustenance. Jakob and I were the last two at the table with Dena when she finally broke her silence and cleared up the mystery of her job. It had been at least an hour and a half, and way more than 20 questions, but no one had figured it out. I remember finding something so charming and genuine about her laughter as she informed us that she was a real estate agent. To this day I still have no clue how none of us figured that out.

While I had many wonderful meals with fellow peregrinos over the course of my walk through Spain, I can say with absolute certainty that nothing came close to beating dinner in Hontanas. Something brand new began to blossom in me at that table. There were layers to the magic, of course. We were all tired. We’d all been broken down a little by now, and I know that I was in a space where I felt more comfortable and unafraid of being my genuine self. Most of us were solo, except for Dena and Cherrie, who were walking together. Some of the other pilgrims had walked in with others, but no one else was part of a dedicated pair. We were all a little buzzed from afternoon beers, and feeling comfortable after hours of pleasant conversation. By the time we were seated at the albergue’s long farm table, plates of warm, delicious food in front of us, wine flowing, we were all old friends. Alison and I started talking about Game of Thrones, Nestor and Jakob jumped in, and we were off! Dena and I talked about pack weight, and what was and wasn’t necessary in our bags (she couldn’t live without her skincare routine, and I couldn’t live without my PJ pants). We emptied all of the wine, requested another bottle, then eventually Nestor bought us another one. Dinner was long done, the rest of the dining room empty and clean, by the time the last hospitalera on duty came over to suggest that we all go to bed soon. It was after 10pm, about two hours after my typical Camino bedtime. Oops 🙂

On the way up to bed, I realized I’d forgotten about my laundry. I discovered it in a basket at the bottom of the stairs to the dorm rooms, freshly washed, but still wet. I hadn’t realized that there wasn’t a dryer when I’d handed the things over to be laundered. Feeling like a total idiot, I went out to the back patio and draped my clothes across one of the available clothes racks. There was no way it would dry by morning, and I glumly reconciled myself to walking in cold, wet pants the next morning.

Alison and Jakob were staying in my dorm room, and we all finished up our nighttime routines as quietly as possible, while still shooting each other knowing looks and stifling giggles. It was like being part of some secret in-crowd. I went to bed feeling satisfied, and woke up feeling thirsty and slightly hungover. As expected, my pants were cold and clammy off of the clothesline. Still, I felt pretty good. As we were standing around, packing up and getting ready to head out, no one wanted to say goodbye. Josh waited out front of the albergue for his other family members to arrive, and he and I started to talk about funny t-shirts we’d seen. I told him about my favorite t-shirt from back home, and showed him a professional photo I’d had taken in the shirt. He was blown away – it turned out that one of his best friends owned the t-shirt company, Buy Me Brunch, that I’d gotten the shirt from. It was a smaller company, so it was a fun realization for both of us. I shared the photo with him to send to his friend, and soon after, walked on for the day on my own, for my second day as a solo peregrina.

An Attitude Adjustment

There’s a new employee at my part-time job, and they’ve got a defensive streak that really makes them unpleasant to interact with. This has created unnecessary turmoil in my life lately. Of course, I’m treating it as an exercise in learning how to filter my language to avoid unnecessary drama while still attempting to get things accomplished with difficult people. But more than that, I’m choosing to use it as a lesson in letting go, on a couple of levels – in letting go of expectation, negative emotion, and memories of things that are just not that big of a deal, in the scheme of life, the universe, and everything. In other words, I’m giving myself an attitude adjustment.

The other day, my coworker was nearly 10 minutes late, which might not seem like much, but is a big deal since there’s only one of us at a time. Whoever is manning the desk overnight can’t leave until their relief gets there, which is a problem if that person has a day job (as all of the night auditors at this hotel do). The person didn’t bother to call to let me know, so when they finally walked in, I was already late to Job #2.

On my way out the door, I asked if they had my number and explained that from now on if they’re running late they should call to give a heads up to whoever is working the desk. My coworker immediately started making an excuse about a car broken down, with an offer to show me photos of the car that had broken down, to which I replied, stupidly, “I don’t care.” Not meaning “I don’t care about your problems,” but rather “I’m not your boss, you don’t have to prove that your car was broken down.” It was an unfortunate turn of phrase, and I regret that I didn’t realize immediately that what I’d said could potentially be hurtful.

It didn’t hit me until later that I’d said something that could be interpreted a different way if you didn’t know me, so when I saw my coworker today, I explained myself and apologized for using the phrase “I don’t care” when we were talking. The person rolled their eyes at me and snorted. Awesome.

Of course, also today there were several things that a couple of our newer employees had mistakenly done over the last few days that I had to spend about an hour fixing last night. Part of my job is to fix the problems on reservations, but also let the morning shift know what’s going on. When I let my coworker know what had gone on overnight, they started passing the buck immediately. Keep in mind that this person is brand new. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know how to do something – it’s expected. But instead of “Oh yeah, I might have messed that up,” or “I think that was so-and-so who did that, but I don’t know how to fix it, could you show me?” all I got was “It’s so-and-so’s fault. I was training him and he did it wrong. Etc.” Mind you, I have no clue why a brand-new employee who doesn’t know the reservation system is training another new employee, but that’s out of my control. Also, if you’re “training” someone and they do it wrong, as the trainer, you should be equipped to correct the problem then and there, or at least leave a note so someone else can fix it instead of waiting for the night auditor to catch it in passing.

Oh well. It’s not my fault that this place is crazy, and there’s nothing I can do to fix the crazy. It was that way before I started, and it will be like that long after I’ve moved on. The only thing that is firmly within my control is letting go of the angst I’m feeling over working with people who are not interested in accepting responsibility and taking advantage of the opportunity to learn and excel. This is my part time gig, not my career. It’s not my life, and it has very little bearing on my future, other than helping me pay off credit cards. It is within my power – and indeed, my responsibility – to watch my language, and never say things like “I don’t care” again – because obviously I do, very much. But it’s up to my coworkers to accept apologies, and to volunteer to learn things that will help get the drama and shambles under control.

It is also within my power to spend all day tomorrow looking for writing and editing gigs, so that if I have to keep working these long hours, at least I can do so from home, where I can control the quality of my surroundings and work output.

My Camino Playlist (2015 Edition)

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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Considering all the cats I petted on the Camino, I have to think that Mr. Schweitzer was on to something…

There are many controversial subjects among pilgrims and prospective pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago: raincoat or poncho, backpack weight, shoe type, best bedbug prevention, pants or skirt, and the list goes on. If you’ve ever asked yourself “is XYZ a good idea?” chances are that there are a few forum threads on XYZ, and equal numbers of people saying “Of course!” and “Hell no!” We humans are a difficult bunch.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from walking the Camino started to get drilled in before I’d even boarded the plane to Paris, through reading tons of Camino journals, blog posts, and forum comments. Pretty early on, it became obvious to me that this journey was mine to make, and mine alone. It’s one thing to pay attention to advice, but it’s up to the individual to decide what’s useful and proper in their situation, and what is merely interference (no matter how well-meant). Just because someone else insists that their way is the only right way – especially when they’re knit-picking you about things that aren’t life or death – doesn’t mean they’re right. In fact, it seems to me that when people try to bully you into accepting their inconsequential choices as your own habits, it’s usually out of fear, and the subconscious belief that having others conform to their whims will somehow validate their life path. In other words, don’t believe everything you read. Make your own decisions. Walk your own damn road!

When you know yourself and your proclivities, sometimes there are choices to be made to ensure comfort and happiness that will go against the grain. Have the courage to do things your way (but don’t be too proud to admit when your way kind of sucks in the end). Deciding to do things my way meant that I wore sneakers instead of boots, despite some strong advice against it. I went with my gut, knowing how miserable I get when my feet are hot. It worked out splendidly, and I’ll do it again. I also wore thin, dual-layered socks, rather than two pairs of thick socks – another fantastic choice that I have continued on later hiking trips. I wore leggings instead of pants. I used a poncho and a raincoat, and threw them both away (insert mad laughter here)! Another thing that I knew I’d be doing from the outset, despite the naysayers, is listening to music. I just don’t operate without it.

On the various Camino forums I frequented prior to leaving on my walk, there were some hot debates about music or no music. Some people argued that it was unsafe to walk around with headphones in, blocking out the noise of oncoming traffic. That’s valid enough, and you should always be aware of your surroundings when listening to headphones, no matter where you are. But I found that a stronger contingent of the “no music” crowd argued against it for spiritual reasons, with the idea that doing anything besides walking and listening to the sounds of nature around you would interfere with the pilgrimage. At first glance, this seems like an OK point. However, for some reason, this thought was seldom shared as a kind suggestion, but rather as a bold insistence that if you weren’t walking in silence, you were doing it wrong. Needless to say, that’s one concept that got pitched out of my window early on. While I often did walk with nature as my only soundtrack, and I also spent a lot of time getting to know my Camino friends as we walked, I also had times when my music was the only thing that pulled me through. Singing is one of my preferred forms of healing and meditation, and I had some beautiful moments out there, singing along to Petula Clark and Neko Case, barely managing to put one foot in front of the other. Some days I knew that the notes had helped pull me along to my destination.

I have a Camino playlist on my Spotify account, and it’s been growing since 2015. Before it gets too big for me to remember what the list originally contained, I wanted to write it down here. Aside from this playlist, I also listened some albums that were already on my iPhone, including a Petula Clark greatest hits album, a Spotify playlist that my boyfriend made me when we first started dating (including several songs by my all-time favorite band, Dry the River, who as it turns out, broke up around the same time I walked into Santiago de Compostela *argh*), a couple of albums by Miranda Lambert, a few songs by Fela Kuti, “Aguas de Marco” as performed by Elis Regina, Ween’s White Pepper album, and Chicago II. The following list was my official Camino playlist, though. Most of the songs therein were chosen for their messages, and all were chosen for the fact that I like to sing along. This will give you a little taste of how eclectic my tastes run (though this isn’t the half of it – I also love nerdcore rap, speed metal, Brazilian pop, Afrobeat, 40’s jazz, 60’s pop, 80’s English ska, and bluegrass).

  • Price Tag – Jessie J, B.o.B.
  • America – Simon & Garfunkel
  • Scenic World – Beirut
  • Graduate – Third Eye Blind
  • Free Ride – The Edgar Winter Group
  • Spice Up Your Life – Spice Girls
  • Saint Simon – The Shins
  • Voce Abusou – Maria Cruza
  • Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) – Shakira, Freshlyground
  • Show Your Colors – Genevieve
  • Go Places – The New Pornographers
  • We Owned the Night – Lady Antebellum
  • Some Days I’m Golden All Night – Josh Rouse
  • I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers
  • Millennium – Robbie Williams
  • Flowing – 311
  • Dancing Song – Little Comets
  • Cool Change – Little River Band
  • Brave – Sara Bareilles
  • Show Me Love – Robyn
  • Takin’ It to the Streets  – The Doobie Brothers
  • Front the Least – MC Frontalot
  • Gypsy – Shakira

The list has since grown to include a number of other just right (to me, at least) songs that say “this is the way” to me. Thus far, these include:

  • God Gave Rock and Roll to You – Argent
  • Try Everything – Shakira
  • Wise Up – Aimee Mann
  • Solsbury Hill – Peter Gabriel
  • Je Joue De La Guitare – Jean Leloup
  • Kyrie – Mr. Mister
  • Give A Little Bit – Supertramp
  • Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In – The 5th Dimension
  • The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot
  • Dreams – The Cranberries
  • Ramble On – Led Zeppelin
  • Spirit in the Sky – Norman Greenbaum
  • I Go to Extremes – Billy Joel
  • Serenity – Godsmack
  • All This Time – Jonathan Coulton