September 25th, 2016 – The Journey ACTUALLY Begins.
(First day of three silent months.)
Today is D-DAY. I depart for the biggest trip of my life!
Introspective. That’s how the last month has been.
Emotional. That’s how the last week has been.
ON MY PERIOD! That’s how the last 24 hours has been.
The only thing I can compare it to is the emotional instability and neurosis during an impending death.
Make sure my will is up to date? CHECK.
Make sure the winter tires are on? CHECK.
Make sure I’ve asked for forgiveness from ___ & ___ & ___ & ___ & ___ & ___ & ___ & ___ & ___ & ___? CHECK.
Make sure my daughter has a back up for walking down the aisle? CHECK.
Don’t think about leaving my dog behind? CHECKish
Knowing that I’ll be away from home and unable to speak for three months hadn’t really hit me until my TO DO list was complete. WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO? I even began telling a few people that I loved them in case I end up like Emilio Estevez in the Camino movie called The Way. (I grew up in a funeral home. Death is always at the forefront of my mind. Creepy way to live, right? On the up side, I tend to not leave things unsaid for too long. That’s not always a good thing though.)
Tucker The Wonder Dawg dropped me off at the airport. He let my daughter drive. Telling “The Goose” (her nickname since Australia) that I loved her were my last words to be spoken until Christmas. Then following that up with saying goodbye to my walking companion, my silence companion, my truest bestest friend, made my eyes leak.
(Cheeky bugger. He always has to ruin the shot by screwing around & sticking out his tongue or doing rabbit ears.)
It also made me realize that I have set up my life in such a way that 98.7% of any “friends” I have, never really made any effort to connect before I left. That’s not a cry for pity. It’s an awakening. I keep things pretty private. Thankfully, my daughter and I are finally at a point in our relationship where she doesn’t think I’m a complete idiot. (70%) Otherwise, I might have been hugging the Uber driver goodbye at the airport.
The nice lady from United Airlines who checked me in must have felt sorry for me being the “special” guy who can’t talk, because she gave me a plastic bag they use to wrap skis in for my branches (AKA walking sticks) and then entered her employee code into the system to make sure I didn’t get charged for any baggage.
After letting the customs officer know that I couldn’t speak, she wanted to know how long I would be travelling for. When I wrote down 85 days she reacted so strongly that I thought I might be getting sent to the Latex Lab! Then, when I told her I was walking the Camino, her face lit up like her shift was over. Turns out that I’m doing something she’s always wanted to do. WHEW! No visit to the “orrifice.”
On my first flight, (Toronto – Newark) I sat beside a millennial who talked to his girlfriend on his mobile phone well after everyone else had turned off they’re electronic devices. Rules? He don’t need no stinking rules! (He also sat with his legs wiiiide open and well into my section. Pretty ballsy for a little skinny dude. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore, so with one swift and subtle move I sat upright and opened my legs nice and wide. He looked up at me with his, “What? I didn’t do nothin'” tude, but I think he got the point.
On my connecting flight to Paris, they upgraded me to the bigger seats and I ALMOST had the entire row to myself. That is until Little Miss Hypochondriac arrived AFTER the plane door closed. PSYCH! I was soooo close to sleeping on my overnight flight! She then had the nerve to ask me if I would consider moving move to cattle class because there was an empty front row that I could have to myself. She wanted MY row because she could keep her bag of medicine by her feet. (I ended up getting whatever kind of hellish cold she had. Gotta love recirculated airline air.)
After landing at Charles Dugal airport in the darkness of early morning and without any sleep, I made my way to the train that would take me to downtown Paris. As I was walking through the turnstile, I felt someone touch the backside of my leg. Barely awake, I realized, only after security got involved, that some dodgy guy tried to sneak through with me. “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” I’m pretty sure is what the officer said in French.
As I was walking around the massive Gare du Nord railway station, I managed to survive my first gypsy scam. A couple of ladies in their 20’s walked up to me and one asked if I spoke English. I nodded yes, so she asked me to sign some sort of petition. I noticed that there were only two signatures on it, both in the same handwriting. Then, I suddenly became aware that her companion had circled around behind me. I shook my head “no”, then while attempting to walk away, the girl actually yelled at me and slapped me with the petition. “Thieves. Thieves. Tramps and Thieves” was the song running through my head. Because I’m a judgmental jerk and because I can think of a song in almost any situation. “I’m sittin in a railway station, got accosted by the Gypsy nation… ewww-woo-hoo” See – told ya.
I then walked about 12 km’s to my first accommodation, which was only about 5 KM’s away. Getting completely lost in a city you’ve never been in, where THEY don’t speak English and YOU don’t speak at all, is FANTASTIC! I’d recommend it to anyone! And everyone knows exactly where you need to go. The problem is that only 30% of them are directionally abled.
The first thing I noticed about Paris is that there is a ton of graffiti. The second thing – there’s a ton of non-whites. Probably true of most cities, but I had built Paris up in my mind to look like some Woody Allen movie – beautiful white people strolling down beautiful non-graffitied streets with white white stone walls and the only thing people were painting were white canvasses.
My first B&B hosts EVER, turned out to be – ready for this – a semi retired evangelical pastor and his marriage counsellor wife. NOT FUNNY GOD! NOT FUNNY AT ALL! (Okay, maybe a little bit funny!) However, their place was absolutely beautiful, as were they. Gracious hosts with classy taste and a comfortable bed. Exactly what I needed after being awake for 48 hours. (Their adult kids have struggled to continue with their parent’s faith. It’s amazing how many times I hear that about “ministry families.” Makes me wonder what THAT math is all about.)
Paris – here I come. Leaving the walking branches and backpack at the flat helped make me feel like I had far less of a tourist-target on my back. So I walked. And walked. And walked. And walked. It’s what I love doing the most in a new place. I don’t like taking tours or laying on the beach. My ADD needs stimulation.
The first place I went to was Notre Dame Cathedral. Interestingly, outside the cathedral was an old woman with a brutally hunched back, shaking a cup and begging. Location. Location. Location.
As I walked through the doorway of this ominous and archaic building, on my right was of course a pretty decent sized statue of Jesus on the cross. Not sure what came over me, but I was completely ambushed by emotion. I’m not a Catholic. I despise how much wealth The Church has stored up here on earth, while those outside it’s walls starve. And I’m definitely not a huge fan of how they’ve put “holy” men on pedestals. (There are a few other issues I have but just because my family were originally Protestant planters sent from Scotland to Ireland to piss off the Catholics, doesn’t mean I need to keep up the family tradition. Besides, I’m not anti-Catholic, I’m anti-religion. I think I just miss Jesus.)
And then I read a message from Pope Francis. BRILLIANT.
And then I wept. Openly.
And then I was asked to leave Notre Dame by a priest. Sort of…
I noticed a priest who was sitting in a room reading a book behind a big desk, waiting for people to come and confess. He looked bored and lonely, sitting there all by himself with nobody’s life of temptations and lust to listen to. I felt bad for him, so I went into the room, smiled and sat down in front of him. After I indicated that I couldn’t speak, I pointed to the english version of the printed prayer of confession sitting in front of me on the desk. I read it silently and then bowed my head. The priest prayed for me in French. (So I guess he could’ve been ordering take out for all I know. By the way, do they call it “French” onion soup in France, or do you just order onion soup? “Would you like onion soup monsieur?” “Is it French onion soup?” “But of course, you stupid American fool. SACRE BLUE!” Now say it in your best Inspector Clouseau voice. Out loud, I dare ya!) During his 17 second prayer, I just prayed for him. After all, I wondered what he’d done to have earned this horrible penance, having to be the tourist priest. UGH! The next thing I know I heard him say Amen and then “Au revoir”. Surely he wasn’t asking me to leave after only a two minute visit? I must have misunderstood. So I kept my head bowed and kept praying for him. Once again, but this time much louder and more forcefully, he said “AU REVOIR!!” Dude, really? You ARE kicking me out. C’mon man. It’s not like there’s anyone behind me. Your book was THAT amazing was it? I know it wasn’t the Bible you were reading, because in the Bible it says that love is patient and praying with someone is love. You must be cramming for finals in priest school. Needless to say I was not a happy camper and although converting to Catholicism was never going to be an option, now I’m going to become a Muslim just to pissoff Father Au Revoir. My beautiful fantasy that this place was about the guy hanging on a cross by the front door, was brought crashing down to earth by – man.
Speaking of museums, I went to the Louvre. It was closed that day because of a 350 year anniversary of science stuff. Stupid nerds!
“Goodbye Mona Lisa
Though I never saw you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself (up on the wall)
While those around you took selfies.”
I also wasn’t allowed to go into the Eiffel tower either, because I was carrying wooden walking sticks. Who knows. Maybe Interpol had just issued a warning about Branch Bombs! (Although, after walking by the nightclub that was just recently attacked by terrorists, I can understand there being even less tolerance than usual in France.)
So I walked around killing time, waiting for my train to leave for Biarritz. I noticed a bunch of people taking pictures of a golden statue of what looked like flame. So I went over to see what all the hubbub was about. Turns out that the road below the flaming statue goes into the tunnel were Princess Diana was killed trying to escape scum. Never did get what the flame was all about.
I decided to enjoy a final Parisian sidewalk cafe experience. It’s the perfect thing to do for an amateur sociologist with ADD – face the pedestrian subjects with your back towards the cafe.
I had heard for ever that Parisians were snobs. So far, the only snob I’ve come across was Father Au Revoir. Everyone else has been incredibly pleasant and helpful. Maybe it’s because of the whole “Special Ed” phenomenon. I wonder if it’s similar to how I smile and stare at “handicapped” people or babies? None of us would just stare into the eyes of complete stranger. (Unless you’re eight beers in and liquid courage has made you INVINCIBLE and God’s gift to women.) Do I keep eye contact longer with those I don’t fear judgement from? I guess there’s so much potential for the negative or abrasive to be communicated through words. Then, to make up for me not talking, I make sure everyone feels at ease with the perceived innocence of a quiet smile and presto! There’s instant safety.
Sometimes, after people realize that I can’t talk, they treat me a bit like a baby. Sometimes they talk louder and more exaggerated. Sometimes they stare. (I’ve caught a few.) Sometimes they explain things to me that any adult would know already. (Although in my case there’s a good chance that I needed it explained anyway.) My silence has been magic at times. A bit like the way a baby gets everything they want. For example, during my final night in “civilization” I decided to visit a bar in a hip, trendy place in Biarritz, France. It’s a seaside town near the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains that Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and legendary Canadian broadcaster Drew Marshall have all holidayed in.
Anyway, at one point the bartenders asked me why I couldn’t speak. I explained and then I guess because I wasn’t a threat (another big dude with a bigger ego) we hit it off. These two guys were a lot of fun and kept making sure I was a lot of fun as well. They must have poured me an entire bottle of vodka (and soda) throughout the night and when I went to pay my bill, they only charged me 6 Euro. That’s like $9.00 CAD which is equivalent to one fancy shooter back home.
As a result of that night, and how I felt the next day, I have decided that this will be a dry trip. 🙁 I know! I know! Trust me – I KNOW! Included in every meal is WINE, even in the hostels! There’s also a fountain flowing with free wine just outside of a town called Estella. But I have to do this. At least until my birthday. Then I’m going to celebrate the end of The Camino and 50! So why a dry Camino? A few reasons. 1/ I don’t think I’m an alcoholic, but I am certain that I have used alcohol far too much and most certainly as a coping mechanism. 2/ I don’t like who I become in my mind when I drink. I don’t get aggressive. I don’t get loud. I don’t become “that guy” that everyone hates. I just tend to allow a particular train of thought to travel through my head when I drink and the more I drink the harder it is to get off at the next station. That’s all I’m saying about that for now. 3/ I don’t want to accidentally talk because of alcohol!
NEXT TIME ON CAMINOCONFESSIONS: I sleep off a hangover on a park bench, have a complete emotional breakdown, begin the hellishly beautiful ascent into the Pyrenees Mountains, walk into a shepherd’s stone hut in the misty mountains and see the Lithuanian girl I sat across from on the train – turns out we share the same birthday!