The thing about Spain is that it isn’t France.
I don’t mean this in a terrible way. Except that I do. In a sense.
Spain itself was wonderful in spirit. They stay up late and aren’t up until at least 10am business-wise. They have siesta, which means that, after you eat lunch, fucking just relax and take a nap already, will ya? And when you enter a cafe that is open beforehand for breakfast, the people are slowly sipping a shot of one thing or another, or slipping it into their coffee.
These people are my people.
It’s the complete opposite of what most pilgrim lifestyles are. Which is really part of the problem.
After “finding” myself (which was the longest Hide & Seek game I’ve ever played), I was apt to sit back and relax, enjoy the atmosphere, and, honestly, get this new habit I adored so much to stick around. I was afraid it was leap out the next window, like Peter Pan’s shadow. Just because I suddenly felt at home one day didn’t mean it couldn’t slip away if I didn’t practice every day, if I didn’t remind myself that I was worth coming first in my life.
Obviously, I wouldn’t be doing that in correct situations. I wouldn’t be putting myself first if someone had a heart attack in front of me and I was perfectly capable of calling an ambulance, not trapped under a rock and suffocating from a nearby fire smoke.
As it was, I was relaxed and wanting to enjoy myself as much as possible. I felt I finally understood my current position: I had absolutely no time limit, and I had all the power to go as long as I wanted. I could do what my body was capable of and just take a rest day as needed. Wanted, even.
It was a wonderful realization.
However, plans were somewhat changed as they do.
Spain…was not France.
I was warned, in a way, several times as I got closer to the border.
A British couple I stayed with said that Spain was a large party, that I would enjoy it immensely as there were so many people to meet and speak with.
I expected a larger amount, but I did not expect what actually came about. There were so many people along the way, I wasn’t quite sure if I would ever be alone. Typically, I would use the walking itself as an excuse to be alone, to be in my own thoughts, enjoy the scenery, or just plain have a moment where I didn’t feel as if I had to entertain. Walking with Ludo or Kath had been wonderful as we somehow managed to just work around each other’s ways. If someone went ahead or dropped behind, there was no butthurt–we slide in and out of each other’s peripheral vision throughout the day, sometimes only seeing one another if we stopped in the same town. Usually, we’d plan it out to see a friendly face at the end of the day, and have lunch together, but there wasn’t a need to fulfill a meter of seeing the other daily. We’d ebb and flow as needed.
Now, I was surrounded by the hype of people’s first week on the trail, those first meetings and bonds that would most likely carry one through the Camino, the realizations that I’d come to ages ago.
And it was forever noisy.
5am and in fifteen increments from thereon in, people getting up to start their day while I wanted to sleep at least another two hours. The plastic bags still haunt my dreams to this day.
Every cafe along the way was plastered with people, to the point where one was frequently sitting along the wall on the ground if you wanted a tea or something to eat for second breakfast.
And if you wanted to immerse yourself in nature, forget about it. People passed every two minutes, usually talking with someone or wanting to talk. I wasn’t bothered by this as much, but it was a distraction after coming from an area where you could go two hours, maybe even all day, without seeing another human being until you got to your destination.
I don’t think any of this would have bothered me as much, honestly, if the dynamics of the trail hadn’t also changed.
I was originally told that there were no reservations along the Camino Frances, that it was all first come, first serve. I found this quite amazing, thinking of how fit I’d become, especially after the Pyrenees. It was thought that I would manage to get where I was going easily as my pace and stamina was trained by the time I got to Spain.
This was not at all the case.
All gites (now called albergues) could have a reservation with the exception of municipals, which were filling fast due to the amount of people on the trail.
And the process was cold-cut-processed, nothing compared to the warmth of the private gites we found in France, with owners eating along with us, asking questions and bringing about a welcoming I’d been beginning to expect because it was one of my most favorite things at the end of the day. I’d arrive at the gite, they’d tell me to take off my shoes and set down my pack for I was home, then offered up drinks. After I’d had a moment to transition into a more relaxed state of mind, they’d show me my rooms, the payment coming later after I’d properly settled in, sometimes until after I’d taken a shower.
You take care of yourself, mostly, in Spain. While you get the random areas that are more like France, you are typically considered a customer that is to figure it all out on your own.
In France, you would randomly spot where people have created a donativo, filled with drinks and, often, snacks, especially during stretches of long walking periods between towns that have no cafes or grocery stores. It wasn’t unusual to find a lone basket filled with figs/cantaloupes/apples/plums, a note attached saying “Please enjoy, Pilgrims!” The spots were sometimes filled with pictures and sentiments to keep you walking with a spring in your step. Every so often, the owner would be there to serve you themselves and chat, tell you stories or give you news to prepare yourself.
In Spain, they had vending machines.
It isn’t that Spain is bad, I told myself. It is simply different. Not a bad different, just different.
This became a more understood reality as time passed. The Camino Frances had way more people, yes, and the feel was changed due to this. The towns and communities in France were the support for the small amount of pilgrims that passed through; they were more involved and, ultimately, a part of the pilgrim’s life. In Spain, there were so many pilgrims that this was an almost impossible task. One couldn’t pay that close attention to individuals unless they limited themselves to that small reserved number. And, thus, the pilgrims themselves were the support system, carrying through the times when one would maybe rely on a local instead.
These changes took some getting used to. Particularly while talking to the newer folks along the trail who were incredibly impressed with my walking accomplishment. I would wave these impressed remarks aside because I was the same way when I met people who had walked from Germany or Switzerland my first week. It seems impressive until you realize that you are just as capable of doing what another did after a month or more of walking.
But, I will admit, part of the struggle was that feeling of being special taken away with the other thousands on the trail. With the limited amount of people to see daily, you do feel a bit like one in a million, especially with the lovely treatment you receive at each of the gites. After finding yourself surrounded by hundreds of folks with no special treatment, you kind of deflate and feel like another slug on the trail.
And so, I trudged along, finding that there were several other people who had brought their ukuleles along their walk, that I would need to keep walking along to find another albergue as every space had been reserved despite me arriving before 2pm, and me ultimately feeling as if I were drowning in constant noise, awake or sleep.
Because while in Spain, you generally all share huge dormitories where at least twenty percent of the people snore while, in France, you had your own room to enjoy without any night noises.
And yet…this was a good smack for the ego.
Being treated like a goddess for doing something well over 200,000 people do a year isn’t exactly healthy. It starts out as a humble gratitude, but it was becoming an expectation that one shouldn’t really be expecting. Having a warm place to sleep and a shower (even if not warm) should be enough. And you can survive if you’re not given a sweeping welcome into where you are spending your night.
Plus, Spain was cheaper.
Cheap enough that I was getting good wine for only one or two euro.
A whole fucking bottle.
Otherwise, like in France, it was for free with the pilgrim meal.
I…drank a lot on the trek.
I’m sure you’re all astonished.
Also, the albergues were cheaper as well. You had to buy your own meals, but I frequently only paid five to fifteen euro rather than the twenty-five to forty euro in France.
If I was being completely honest with myself, a large part of this was also that I had to start fresh over on my Camino experience. With the new me came the fact that I wasn’t with Katherine and Ludo anymore, a comfort zone for every night and while walking on the way. The thought of mustering up the courage to get close to a whole new group was a daunting task for me. I wasn’t used to sharing this much so often, but also taking on the stories of others. There is an emotional energy that is given in these instances, and I was feeling quite okay being alone for a few days to recharge from the previous couple of weeks.
I was just having second thoughts of being alone when the population of the trail tripled within twenty-four hours.
I came to all of these conclusions within those first hours of walking in Spain to the next couple of weeks that followed. And I changed my mind daily on how I truly felt. I was constantly re-calibrating on what I wanted from this experience when it felt more commercialized than my time in France.
Most of the people helped with my transition.
By my third day on the Frances, I was managing normal talk with the people around me rather than avoiding eye contact for fear of having to explain my story for the umpteenth time. I’d realized how ridiculous it sounded for me to walk on and keep to myself because I was exhausted from making friends. Selfish, insipid, and ridiculous.
And it turned out to be just what I needed.
One thing about the trail after getting into Spain is how many people speak English as their first language. I’d been so used to hearing nothing that I could understand that I’d blocked out all side conversations. Now that I’d passed the Pyrenees (wherein I felt I was in The Sims as all of the different languages were blending in together in rest zones along the path), it was much more obvious how I was more afraid of starting conversation because I was expected to. After five weeks in France where I knew I wouldn’t really have to speak as I couldn’t always speak with everyone I met and a smile/hug would say everything needed, now there were expectations of the extroverted behavior I used while in theatre or choir. Once I understood that I already knew how to do all of those things, I mentally smacked myself for building it up to something it wasn’t. I’d led myself to believe that I needed time off from people for the sheer want of being lazy.
I took the day walking past larger groups, still, as it was still unsettling to have so much chatter while sitting on hills with views, but I was more apt to start conversations and stick around to chat rather than moving on ahead so I could have time to allow my brain to have the quiet it’d constantly got before.
This was how I met another person who played the ukulele.
I’d sat down for lunch after accidentally passing over the “large” hill for the day (another thing I’d noticed about Spain was that the guide book made all of the hills/mountains look a lot worse than they actually were–I can’t decide if that is because it was actually easier or because France had gotten me so fit that I coasted through them all with no preamble) and noticed three people chatting in English. I remember thinking it was odd that I could overhear stories now and should be paying attention as some of the best character material came out in conversations people didn’t think were being overheard.
These folks were talking about the typical Camino experiences, which, while typically repetitive, tended to be told in different ways depending on personality. For instance, someone who is trying to impress someone will talk about their blisters in a stronger light than someone who is looking for empathy, or attention, or simply advice.
The Americans who gave me some of their food in the Pyrenees passed by and we chatted for a while before noticing a dead animal sitting in the brush just a few meters ahead of me.
They got on their way and I started packing away some of my things.
When one of the people got up to leave from the group beside me, that left a woman and a younger man who debated about eating lunch just yet. The woman said she wanted to stretch going down the next hill, and the man situated his bag in a way that caught my eye–I noticed the end of what I thought was a uke poking out of the front.
“Excuse me,” I said, too excited to be thinking, “I don’t mean to be rude and interrupt, but is that a ukulele?” I pointed to his pack.
“Yes, it is!”
This got us discussing how wonderful it was on the trail, how he’d already met two others with ukuleles on the trail and he’d played in the Pyrenees for some folks, and then he noticed my own uke. We continued to talk while his mum (I found out) got her items together and went on a bit further as she claimed to walk at a much slower pace than everyone else. After sharing my little book of songs, we started down the trail together, talking the whole time.
It felt nice to make the connection. I was laughing at myself inside since I’d been purposefully trying not to do what always came so easy to me.
We spent the next few hours chatting about life and what we were doing in it. His name was Gabriel, he’d been playing the uke for a few years, and he was originally located in Chicago, but was in France for a time. With his time ending there, his mum had come out to visit and they decided to do the Camino together. He did theatre, which wasn’t much of a surprise as he had the personality and air of someone at ease in the limelight. He was my age and had travel stories to keep me amused.
We sat down in the middle of the downhill to wait for his mum and played the ukulele together, where people sat and listened. It was wonderful for me to listen to someone else play for tips on my own playing. Strumming was my weak point as I was always focusing so much on singing. Two things at once and I am apparently a mess. It was good to get a feel for someone else’s playing while I played, even if I tended to just take the lead.
We got to playing ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, which pleased the crowds passing by, and a woman came up after we were finished, eyes bright, saying she was thankful for coming across us.
“I’ve been having a hard day,” she choked out. I’d seen her earlier on the trail and had spoken with her; she was from Minnesota as well.
I took her hand.
“This is just the beginning, but you’re going to finish,” I said. “You’re going to finish today, and then you’re going to finish this whole trail. We’re women from Minnesota. We’re strong in more ways than one.”
We clasped hands for another heartbeat, me smiling at her, her nodding as her eyes changed to that of one taking on the challenge.
That night, we met with another person who had a ukulele she’d brought along. After dinner, we put on a decent show with all three of us. I played worse than the guy, better than the other girl. Everyone enjoyed it.
It was that day that helped me conclude that Spain wasn’t so bad, that I was finally used to the integration from France. I was on my own and surviving, even if I was missing my original core group’s dynamics from weeks prior.
That’s when it hit me. I was doing just fine, randomly meeting people and move on. And I was feeling so comfortable with myself, I didn’t feel that fear of wondering if I’d be judged if I were to do my own thing. The voice that typically crept up to warn me that my independent behavior could be considered bad taste had seemingly quit the job.
Listening to myself and what I wanted to do was not only okay, but a good thing.
Pamplona was the next day, only about fifteen kilometers away. I woke up on the later side, stretching and feeling warm from my own heart. I found that most of my clothes I’d washed had been blown away in the morning rain/wind, so I sighed and re-did the washing that had littered the dirty ground. Hanging wet clothes from the back of my bag wasn’t anything new. Then, I walked ten kilometers in a couple of hours and took a nice detour by a river, ordering a glass of wine to lounge in the sun.
This, I thought, is the life. This is what life is about. Experiencing and taking the time to enjoy. I’m so tired of that working mindset, where the bar of one-hundred percent is really two-hundred percent. My gods, what if that is really what America is? A country where the work percentage bar has been risen to have people work harder with no energy for life? Spain and France seem to have figured it out quite fine with mostly thriving economies…
My cheeks now as warm as my heart, I walked the remaining five kilometers and found a newer hostel, one that had just opened that year. I sighed and relaxed in my bed, writing for a bit and taking a nap. I wandered the city afterward, finding a grocery shop and buying a bottle of wine.
Yes, this was the life.