Via Tolosana: Epilogue – Know Thyself

La Commande – Pau – Toulouse – Paris – 896 kms in a BlaBlaCar 

“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply”  Leonard Cohen

A restless sleep, but I did dream. I wrote morning pages in bed this morning, because I could. I was up and going at 8am and M-H had laid out breakfast for us.  We ate while watching the Portuguese pilgrim depart, and M-H commented that this is how she usually spends her mornings: watching a stream of walkers exiting the little town.  It was so beautiful I was getting teary watching him disappear down the road. I feel so lucky coming back to such a lovely place to ease out of the way. I thought while having a bath the day before, you do need time for the way to leave you, just as you need time to leave the way. I was transitioning back into the road of my usual life. The terrain takes a turn for the more familiar, and then before you know it, you’re back on home soil. It is how it is meant to be.

The pilgrim in Oloron-Sainte-Marie park, Reiner, inspired and challenged me to always ask. To always be open. To always say yes. Marie-Helene thanked me for being open and saying yes to her offer.  She said she admired my courage in saying yes.  I assured her, it wasn’t a hard decision to make when she said she was living in La Commande.  I loved this place. It was such a gorgeous spot to come back to.

It was a slow morning, and at just past 11:00am, we left for Pau where I was to meet my ride back to Paris via Bla-Bla-Car.  Marie-H drove out of the town a different way to the one I’d walked in on, and I realised the little houses continued out quite a way along the road on this side, making the community seem bigger than I thought it had been.  We arrived in the small carpark in front of la Gare only about 20 minutes after leaving. I was still so impressed by M-H’s generosity in driving me. There was the funicular I love so much and the sound of the rushing river.

I met up with my ride, and it was a pretty uneventful return – a long 8 hour drive in a car back to Paris with a deux chevaux (Citroën 2CV) sighting.

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Getting to my hotel room, what greets me in the bathroom, but the universal bathroom decor of scallop shell to bring my pilgrimage to a close.

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The next day I took a bus through he ‘chunnel’ (Channel Tunnel) to London for a Huguenot Conference, also sighting another deux chevaux. My legs continued to feel for the road, they were tired and sore but I think they would have preferred to continue walking.

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Viola wrote to me – “I’m in Bilbao now, I’m travelling inside myself, it is hard and wonderful.” I knew exactly what she meant.  Travelling inside yourself is hard and wonderful, but as all the great philosophers agree, there is great wisdom in knowing thyself. What better way to have the time and the mental space to gather this wisdom than go for a very long walk.

After a week in London, I shot back over the channel to Semur-en-Auxios and Granville to visit two friends for another 10 days or so, before heading back to Paris to take a flight back to Australia.

On the last night of my epic via Tolosana sojourn, sitting in my room in the Hotel George Sand,  yes there is one (and it is great), about to repack my bags ready for the evening flight the next day, I was taking advantage of the super convenient wifi in my room (as opposed to the super inconvenient wifi I’d experienced along my walk), and what pops into my inbox:

Subject: Between Marciac and Maubourguet.

Yes, it was an email from Matthieu.

The End.

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Even back in the streets of Fitzroy, Melbourne, way- markers are not far away

Via Tolosana Day 3: Stone fruit, courgettes and faux pas

St Gilles to Vauvert 17.8km

It was quite hot and stifling in our underground room over night, so I didn’t get much sleep. Jacques and I had agreed to leave just before 7am, so I got up at 5:45am to write first. I got a page written around breakfast and packing. Viola was really tired, so had breakfast with us then went back to bed. For some reason it was a bit of a struggle fitting everything back in, but maybe it was because I was packing with an audience and a feeling like I didn’t want to hold Jacques up from starting walking. I made a cheese and avocado baguette for the road with an apricot and peach for snacks. It felt much better to have food to eat for the day.

Jacques and I set out just as the church bells struck 7 and we joked about wanting to leave just before 7am. It was a warm morning, but a beautiful one nevertheless. A taste of what was to come and of course entree into another song – Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. Once we had left the town, we crossed a disused railway line and then wove our way through orchards of apricots and peaches. Olive groves and vineyards appeared along the small farming roads complete with the odd tractor. The sun was not yet high enough to worry us and without really realising it, we’d walked for nearly an hour and a half. Jacques was very kindly (and patiently) assisting me to speak with him in French, and because it was the morning, my brain was fresh, and it wasn’t too hard and it made the time pass quicker.

St Gilles dogs – a beagle for Anita

We paused on the wall outside Chateau Lamargue, a big winery, and my friends from yesterday passed again. They were nearing the end of their walk and so were planning to walk a long way today. He was still keen on the walking, but she was saying that she might not do it again.

Resuming, we soon met the Canal d’Irrigation du Bas-Rhone Languedoc which we walked next to for several kilometres on an at times difficult dirt road. The stones were smooth like river stones, and came in all sizes making it important to choose your steps carefully so as to avoid a twisted ankle. Just before leaving the canal, we decided to have a break in the nearest thing to the Belle-vue on the signpost that we could manage. In reality there was no good place to stop, it was very dry and dusty, so we made do under pencil pines with the associated insect species – you know the ones I’m talking about!

Canal d’Irrigation du Bas-Rhone Languedoc

After this point we were to cross the bridge and double back for a short distance (probably to avoid the more direct route on private property). We then found ourselves walking next to a field of courgettes. Did I say I was in France? Zucchini doesn’t have the same ring does it? Turning again, the sun ripening the apricots, several varieties of peach and nectarine (including my favourite nectarine variety), was now fully on our backs. Most of varieties were perhaps a week away from my kind of ripe, but there was a fallen branch and I found a peach to my liking to feast upon. The track passed into a more shaded area and we passed some pigs – we could smell them and hear them rather than seeing them as they were behind a hedge. It took me back to days at the Royal Adelaide Show.

Peach tree

We ate lunch under a large tree in the shade near an old stone building. Bees buzzed overhead in the branches instead of cigales. For the afternoon, we passed bigger, more open farm land and then crossed a road and descended into an unusual cutting made into the clay. It made a trench of varying heights lined with varying sized stones again. Once again the way was found by picking your steps carefully. The smell of pine was heady and there were pine needles along the way also. In the stretches that were not shaded, the sun burnt my skin more each step. We emerged from that little diversion onto a plateau of vines, and we could smell sulphur. In the morning I had explained to Jacques how I had worked for pocket money in Renmark in the summertime as a teenager at first cutting apricots and then picking grapes. I explained how we’d cut the apricots in half and set them out on wooden trays that would stack up to 6 high before being piled maybe 50 high and sulphured overnight. The trays would then be spread during the day for drying. Those were the days, when Australia produced it’s own dried apricots and Turkish apricots saw out their lives in Turkey. Those were lovely summers with Aunty Carolyn and Uncle Don, and my cousins. They are very precious memories, and the reason I know the smell of sulphur a mile off.

Looking back for pigs

Interesting diversion

When I’m writing about this walking, it might sound like I skip along the road effortlessly. Jacques could attest that is not what I look like when I have walked 17 kilometres. Walking into Vauvert could be better described on my part at least, as shuffling – Cliff Young style. He at least was jogging, and he had an excuse for shuffling, he was 76. The other reason for me shuffling was that the copious amounts of stone fruit were taking their toll on my innards, and I’d been needing a toilet for a number of hours. I’m sensitive about number twos in the wild (there’s one for you Jo)! I might need to get over that before 6 weeks is done.

Humbling things happen though when you reach a town. One man had a water bottle, and offered to top mine up. Another woman who Jacques had asked about directions to Coleurs du Sud (our Chambre d’hotes) took our bottles inside to get ‘fresh’ water as Jacques put it – fresh for it’s temperature rather than the opposite of water from a stagnant pond. Her husband came out with a laptop to help with the orientation.

I like this asking thing. I don’t do enough of it. Maybe when I’m full of concerns or think that it is a reflection on my capabilities I find it hard to allow myself to ask. Maybe I just haven’t been very interested in connecting with people. Maybe this is a symptom of burnout. In the past I’ve preferred to work things out for myself and maybe there is conceit involved in this because very often I believe I will have the answer and may doubt if others could provide further value.  Or is it just that I trust my own judgement. Coming to a town, I’d be more likely to just follow my nose until I found what I was looking for, rather than ask. Certainly I think that the language issue has been bigger on previous visits. Now I’m much more likely to ask when something opens or closes, or where to find water for instance. Sometimes I think it is more about the pride I feel when I know I have worked it out for myself. It will be interesting to observe what happens over this trip – whether I use my opportunities to ask.

I had the fortunate experience of travelling around Australia some years ago with an opera company, Co-Opera from South Australia. I helped out with the driving for thousands of kilometres in addition to playing 40 regional versions of Puccini’s La Boheme. One of the things that made the trip a little more interesting for me, was keeping a look out every day for some form of Australia Post van or truck. Most days I wasn’t disappointed, and at random moments the red messengers would cross our path. I expect on this trip, the jaune (yellow) La Poste vans will serve the same purpose. They, because the French have more taste, and maybe more loyalty to their state institutions, do not yet have … “powering online shopping” written on them! I’m not always quick enough to snap them, unless they’re stationary (excuse the pun), but once again, I expect to see them most days.

La Poste – Vauvert

We arrived around 1.00pm at our accommodation and our hostess, Marie-Claude had us decant from our backpacks the bare essentials we would need for sleeping. Our backpacks were then stored in garbage bags next to our boots in the entry hall. Apparently this is a precaution many hosts take in order not to get outbreaks of bed-bugs. I haven’t heard of any bed bugs so far, so it seems like a bit of a rigmarole for nothing, but being a hostess myself, I understand the caution.

It was a nice room overlooking the street with two camp beds and a double. I was happy with the camp bed. Marie-Claude was keen to let me know that the bed is for sleeping in. I wasn’t to sit on it, read in it or in anyway be in it apart from reclined. There had obviously been previous guests who had come a cropper. The bathroom was down a small passage – sans door … racy! I’d just have to trust that Jacques wouldn’t walk in on me.

Traditional costume of the Camargue

Downstairs, they have converted their garage into a beautiful outdoor enclosed kitchen and dining area next to an enclosed patio with high brick walls and it was here that we were treated to anise syrup cordial. We’d later have our beautifully prepared supper there and petit dejeuner the next morning. Jacques and Marie-Claude discussed her work as a maternity nurse. I listened, but didn’t understand much. When the conversation moved to pets I pricked up my ears when Royal Canin was mentioned. You may remember I took a trip to Shanghai with a guy I was knocking around with a few years ago when I lived in Sydney. He was going for a job with this company, so I knew what it was about. When he told me that the job might involve several trips to France each year I said, that would be great. He’d never been to France, so I said don’t take my word for it being fantastic, he might hate France. M-C was enthusiastically telling us about how it is pet food specialised for the age and dietary needs of the dog. This fact sits amongst all the trivia I know that is usually of limited use to me. It might have got me extra credibility with Jacques and M-C on this occasion. What I didn’t know was their factory and the associated kennels were right around the corner from here. Who knew?

After we’d showered and washed our clothes, we were sitting around, letting our muscles repair and M-C offered to show us the pride of the Camargue … bull-fighting. Clip after clip on YouTube showing the bulls pursuing lithe young men who often ended up needing to escape by jumping Ninja-style over two fences. The bull in pursuit at times jumps one fence, ploughing into it with its legs. My sensitivities to these kinds of ‘sports’ which the animal apparently ‘loves’, not my words, have grown over the years. Apart from the fact I could barely stand still from the walk as my feet and legs were aching, I could also barely stand to watch it. I did out of politeness to my host, and for a few beautiful Carmague scenery films, but this was not the highlight of my Via Tolosana adventure.

It was a mutual pushing of buttons I think, because not long after I had felt obliged to stand up for 15 minutes in the same spot, I needed to sit down, and unfortunately literally put my feet up. The outdoor dining area contained outdoor chairs and M-C not being there to ask, I put my feet on one of the cushions. M-C returned to find my feet on the seat and I was in no uncertain terms told that this was not done in France and I was ushered to the chaise lounge outside. Oops. Even pilgrim’s feet don’t deserve a seat when they’re tired, not even for medical reasons.

Creativity Commitment

I am a huge fan of Julia Cameron.  I had known about her book, The Artist’s Way, for a decade before I finally bought it when living in Sydney. After a time on my shelf I began to use it.  It was always going to work for me. The way she weaves the experiences of her life, metaphors of human experience and the creative process into an illustrative and educative force for the budding creative had me hooked from page one. Being a collector of quotes and aphorisms from way back, I appreciated the signposts these lent to her essays.  It was with a knowing anticipation that I skipped along on a day each weekend from my little art deco apartment in Summer Hill to the patient arms of the staff at Sideways Cafe to discover what pearls she had for me. It became my retreat from the week to immerse myself in her words.  I grew so much in the two years I did this in Sydney.

I progressed with great determination and a quiet confidence that if I just followed her well-thought through writing exercises and activities each week, I might just free something inside me waiting for liberation.  Well, three and a half years later, and three and half of her books later (I’ve completed the twelve week programs of The Artist’s Way, Walking in this World, Finding Water and am part way through The Vein of Gold). My life is continuing to change.

I was looking over my old morning pages notes that include my weekly activities this week and at the point where I began working through the Vein of Gold in September last year, I made this commitment as Julia suggests:

I, Bronwen, realise that I am entering a rigorous inner process which will both test and liberate me. I commit myself to the three pivotal tools of creative self-care:
*morning pages
*daily walks
*artist dates

Looking back, this point coincided with a few turning points for me in a new commitment to self-care.  I had just received my long service leave pro-rata from my long time job (a provision I had already decided was going to facilitate the leaving of that job).  I had just begun going to sessions at the School of Philosophy and I had enrolled for a Vipassana retreat over the new year.  Pretty epic decisions as it turns out.  I must have had a real sense that there was certainly much more creativity on it’s way, if I could just put myself in the right frame of mind to receive it.

So, what does this have to do with walking for weeks on end in France? Well as Dr Deane Hutton of the Curiosity Show was fond of saying, “I’m glad you asked”.  Well, after getting to the Narrative Timeline in the Vein of Gold, I got stuck in my early twenties and have found it difficult to get through this time. I think this time holds great learnings for me.  But I also realise I need to make that commitment to creativity again in order to work through this.  I can see how each of the aspects of this commitment are present in my upcoming trip.

Morning Pages: There is a debate going on in my head about whether I do morning pages on this trip.  I use special spiral bound A4 notebook to write these pages.  This will add extra pack weight. It takes half an hour to write the three pages – on a quick day. I’ll either have to get up earlier in the morning, or it will delay me in the morning when I’ll probably be keen to get going.  It also may hamper opportunities to leave with other walkers if that becomes a possibility.  Julia recommends to do them as the cornerstone of your writing practice.  All other writing sits atop morning pages.  Can I commit to writing these as well as my handwritten journal and this blog? Will I even have the capacity for pages as well? This is in addition to walking up to 6-7 hours a day.  It is starting to sound like a new job (wink).  I have two days to decide whether I pack them for the whole trip, and another week to decide if I take them walking.

Daily walks: that’s taken care of.

Artist’s dates:  It dawned on me when I was working through the original Artist’s Way, in which Julia was extolling the virtues of an intentional date with one’s artist, that I had always dated my artist.  In 1986, I took a ten week around the world trip – the first of my long dates with myself. Even at home, I would take myself to theatre, film, op shops, art shops, art galleries, libraries, walks, rides, train trips, ferry rides and most importantly, trips to France.  My trips to France have always been my giant artist dates.  The freedom, awe and wonder I experience when I’m travelling there cannot be compared to any other part of my life.  My capacity to visit cathedral after museum after cafe after flea market is limitless, such that I feel at my creative peak en Francais.  When I am travelling I am so fully experiencing life in the now.

So to return to combine these three activities to fulfill a creative contract is to me, quite simply, just the way it should be.

St Jacques shell in Fitzroy, Melbourne