Love, French Style

Posted in Prose on October 22, 2019 by 1writegirl

I arrive in Figeac by train a few minutes shy of 5 am. It’s cold and the sun won’t rise for another three hours. To my surprise this train station is nothing more than a platform. I’m desperate for a cup of coffee but I’m loathe to try and find my way from the station into the town in search of one; it’s dark, I’ve got my heavy backpack and a messenger bag besides, and who will be open this early?

I emailed my friend Enza last night to say I’d text her upon arriving in the morning, but I know already that it will be some time before she and Paul are free to come and get me. They had guests last night at their bed-and-breakfast which means this morning they’ll be fixing breakfast, cleaning up, as well as tending to the animals and doing the usual chores around the place. 

It’s after ten by the time they turn up. I’m curled up on a curb against a light pole in front of the station, on the edge of the parking lot. I stagger to my feet and hug Enza, who helps me put my bags in the trunk, then I climb thankfully into the warm car and greet Paul. It’s a short drive to their house, where after being shown to my room, I crawl into bed. I expect simply to rest and warm up. Instead I fall deeply asleep.

When I come downstairs I discover I’m not the only guest. The paying guests have moved on, but Paul’s brother and sister-in-law have arrived from Marseille. Enza introduces me to Jojo and Françoise, then while they are catching up with Paul, whom they haven’t seen in months, Enza takes me outside to meet the rest of the gang. We go see the chickens first, 6 or 7 hens and one rooster. They are used to people but still run when we get very close. Enza had a pet chicken when she was a girl (“You have to start young,”) and swears they can be affectionate, but you wouldn’t know it from this bunch. Even the old one, Hannibal (so named because they caught her eating her own eggs a few times), scrawny with thinning feathers sticking out at all angles, dashes for the bushes when we get within a couple of feet. Enza fills their food bowl with leftover spaghetti from last night, which they dive into. Over the next few days I will conclude that these are some of the most well fed chickens anywhere. They get to peck all day on insects, seeds and fruit from the nearby trees and chow down at least once on anything, and I mean anything, that the humans couldn’t be bothered to finish, including bananas, ham, bread, fish, zucchini, croissants, and gorgonzola cheese.

Next we meet Monsieur, the rabbit, from the few left behind by the previous owners when Enza and Paul bought this place. Like the old chicken, he looks quite thin, and when he turns around I can see he’s losing his fur, but he’s still very cute and adores being petted almost as much as  he does being fed. I ask her if they ever let him out of his cage to run around and she says she tried, but he won’t go. “Can’t you just pick him up and put him on the grass?” I ask. 

“I’ve tried, but he scratched my arms to pieces trying to get back in. He’s terrified of leaving his cage.” Apparently he’d never been let out when he was young and now he associates the outside world with danger. “If I had more time to spend with him,” she says wistfully. “Maybe I could coax him out.” 

We say goodbye to Monsieur and walk across the road and down to a field where two donkeys are grazing. They are Lola and Lana. Lola is older and has lived here for years. She is relatively docile, if not downright friendly. Lana was acquired right before Enza and Paul purchased the business and still behaves as if she’s never seen a human before this very moment, even though Enza visits every morning and sometimes twice a day, usually bearing carrots, apples or bread. Lola lets me pet her, but needless to say Lana does not, though she does take a carrot from my outstretched hand before bolting off. 

We return to the house by the back door where I meet the final two residents, the most recent additions to the family. They are Hermann’s tortoises (the only species of tortoise native to France) Enza has named Willa and Florence. While they are not exactly the kind of creature one generally associates with the words cute and cuddly, I am enamored of them instantly. During  my stay here I will ultimately be drawn to spend more time with them than the other animals, sitting and holding them one at a time while reading, drinking coffee, or talking with Enza and Paul.

I’m itching when we get back inside but don’t think much of it till I go to take a shower and discover about two dozen big red welts across my belly and on my thighs. Alarmed, I rush downstairs and show Enza. “Bedbugs!” I squeal. “No, not bedbugs,” she assures me. “I don’t know what they’re called, but Paul got bitten earlier too, and they come from outside. They’re in the grass or something.” She gives me a tube of ointment to rub on the bites after my shower.

At dinner I do my best to contribute to the conversation, which is an interesting mix of French and Italian (both Enza and Paul come from Italian stock) but give up after a time and settle in to just listen and scratch my stomach. Now and then Enza and I speak English to each other, and Jojo surprises us by plopping a few English words or phrases into our private conversation when the mood strikes him, which makes us all laugh. We eat pasta with wild mushrooms in a delicate cream sauce, after the soup course, before the cheese course, followed by the dessert course, of course! France, especially rural France, still takes food very seriously and the consumption of a meal is meant, figuratively speaking, to be no less than an extended, intimate conversation that goes on for hours. What, after all, could be a more constructive and valuable way to spend your time? This holds true especially when you have guests.

Enza allows me to help with the food preparation and clean up, but the next night when I offer to give her a hand she tells me Françoise brought the main course with her, and will just heat it up. Enza has made a salad for the first course, and Françoise has supplied a cake for dessert as well. A big pot is on the stove, and Françoise is stirring the contents. “What is it?” I ask. What delicacy ce soir? I wonder dreamily. Enza motions for me to follow her outside the kitchen. “How do you feel about tripe?” She asks. Yikes. I make a face, not a pretty one. “I’ll taste it,” I say, my tone less than enthusiastic. “I don’t like it,” she admits. “I’ve tried it before and DID NOT LIKE IT,” she says, clearly enunciating her distaste. “But it gets worse,” she says, and whispers, “Sheep’s feet!” I swallow hard. “What about them?” I croak. 

“That’s what Françoise is heating up on the stove! It’s a stew, a spécialité of the région,” Enza says, automatically speaking Franglais. “Marseille,“ she clarifies. As if it matters. I put a hand over my mouth. “I don’t think I can manage that,” I tell her, scratching my leg. “Me neither,” she says. “When she phoned to say they were bringing dinner and Paul told me what she had planned, I told him I wouldn’t eat it. But she’s brought it anyway. Now I feel like it would be rude not to eat it.”

I think about it for a minute, scratching harder, all over now. “Tell them I’m a vegetarian, “ I say, but as soon as the words are out I realize that won’t work. There was prosciutto in the pasta last night and I ate that with relish. “Can I be allergic?” I ask. “I mean, look,” I say, lifting up my shirt to reveal my inflamed skin. Enza rolls her eyes and grabs my hand. “Stop scratching!” she chastises me. Then, “Chiggers, by the way.” When I stare at her dumbly, she explains that is the name of the tiny insects that are eating me alive.

Over salad I’m distracted, trying to think of a way out of eating the stew. Finally I decide it probably won’t be that bad, if it has lots of sauce on it like most French dishes, maybe I won’t even taste it. When Enza stands up to clear the salad plates I whisper to her, “Just a spoonful,” and grimace. She nods. Moments later Françoise approaches the table, bowls in hand. She moves from one place setting to another, distributing great big, heaping bowls of stew one by one. She puts mine down in front of me with a flourish. “Et voilà!” I smile weakly up at her. When Enza takes her seat beside me I nudge her with my spoon. “What happened here?” I ask. She sighs heavily. “I know, I know,” she says under her breath, then gives me a look that says, what can you do? and shrugs. I notice with satisfaction that her bowl is just as full, perhaps fuller, than mine.

I taste it. Honestly, I do. I take a bite, in two different places. But it’s horrid. It’s gelatinous and squishy and chewy and gristle-y. I spend the next little while moving it around on my plate, separating it into two or three smaller portions and making a display of rubbing a piece of bread into the sauce. I lick my fingers, and sigh as if I’m full. When Enza moves to clear plates, I jump up with my dish and dash into the kitchen before Françoise has a chance to glance my way. Then I eat a lot of cheese, followed by Françoise’s dessert, which is, fortunately, an uncomplicated apple cake. 

Jojo and Françoise leave a couple of days later, and the table feels large without them. When Enza and I speak English now, I’m conscious that Paul is on the outside looking in, with nobody to have his own side conversations with now that his family is gone. It feels like we’re a couple of naughty schoolgirls speaking pig Latin. But when we only speak French, it’s so bad it’s funny: my accent isn’t too bad because I learned young, but my vocabulary is paltry given the decades I didn’t speak it at all; while Enza is only now, in her fifties, learning to speak it, and hers is the opposite dilemma to mine. I watch Paul’s face, which twitches from time to time, and wonder which really is worse for him: being excluded from the conversation by virtue of not understanding the language, or being forcibly included in a conversation that bears no actual resemblance to the language he knows and loves. I keep waiting for him to put his hands over his ears and start shrieking, “Arrêtez!” or perhaps even “Basta!” to make it interesting.

The night before I leave there is a tremendous thunderstorm. Enza and I stand at the front door looking outside as, each time a sheet of lightening flashes, the patio, the garden, even the field and road across from us are illuminated in a light so bright you wouldn’t know it was night. For all of one and a half seconds or so. Then it’s pitch black again. We each take a picture then declare that with the soft edges and other-worldly lighting, they look like Robert Kinkade paintings.

The next day they give me a ride to the Toulouse airport where I’m Florence bound. I thank Paul for his hospitality and his patience with me. Then I hug Enza hard. Every time I say goodbye to someone I love since Jackson died, the thought flashes in my mind that this might be the last time I’ll ever see them. My eyes fill with tears. When I walk away I remember that Enza is turning 60 next fall and she is planning a birthday party, somewhere in Italy probably. “You’ll come, right?” she asked me. “Yes,” I told her, “I will.” Now, I make room for this thought.

Return to Paris, Part Two: Encore, s’il vous plaît

Posted in Prose on October 20, 2019 by 1writegirl

We don’t do much our first day in Paris, both of us exhausted from our journeys, but that evening we venture out to dine in the home of Alice’s childhood friend Marina, who with her husband George has lived in Paris for over 30 years. Alice met Marina at the international school she attended while growing up in Iran. They are both of Armenian heritage and both managed to get out of Iran safely before the momemtum of the revolution took hold. They’ve seen each other on and off over the years, mostly during Alice’s visits to Paris, and they reunite with such ease it’s hard to believe it’s been close to ten years since they last met. 

Marina is a petite woman, with styled shoulder length hair, still rich brown in color (thank you Clairol? A genetic gift?), fashionably dressed and with obvious remnants beneath the large glasses and soft wrinkles of glamor and vitality. She gives me the standard French double-cheeked air kisses as if we are old friends, and chatters away while she leads us to their apartment, a short walk from our rental. Her husband George is waiting for us, and though less effusive than his wife, he is equally warm and friendly, clearly glad of our company. He’s an artist, his paintings hanging or placed upon shelves and surfaces throughout the apartment. They are quite good, some of them copies of famous works, like Girl with the Pearl Earring, others original. I see one I particularly like, of a young red haired girl, and wish I had the money to buy it from him. Yet none of them are recent, we learn. He has given up painting, just as he has given up leaving the apartment. He’s 92 and not particularly infirm, nor beset by dementia. Simply stubborn, Marina tells us: she has tried everything she can think of but he won’t be persuaded. 

Over the next few days, Alice and I develop a routine of sorts, getting up around 9:00 and leisurely puttering about the apartment in our pajamas, drinking coffee and chatting and eating something light before getting dressed and walking a couple of blocks to catch the metro to wherever we’ve decided to go for the day. We visit a small museum with a tapestry exhibit which Alice is particularly keen to see, and the Musée Marmottan, where I discover an artist I’d never heard of but really like, called Berthe Morisot, who was married to Manet’s brother. We go to the weekly flea market in Montreuil, smaller than the better known one in the Porte de Clignancourt, and as such more easily navigable to us. Alice buys gifts for friends and family, while I find two small trinkets, both inexpensive but unusual, one which will serve as my souvenir of the city, the other as a gift for Neighbor Jim. We are joined by Marina one day in Montmartre where we amble along the cobblestone streets, in and out of Sacré Cœur and around the Place du Tertre, watching the local artists at work until, tired and hungry, we wander into a crêperie for lunch. We go to Île de la Cité and walk past the damaged but never to be relinquished Notre Dame, so important to this nation’s history and literary culture, then cross the bridge into the Latin Quarter. We stroll through the Jardin du Ranelagh where we are both charmed by a bronze statue of a man standing over a crow with a large, what appears to be coin, in it’s mouth, taunting a curious, or perhaps just very hungry fox who has ventured close and is reaching up toward it. I later learn the sculpture is called the Monument Jean de la Fontaine and pays tribute to this famous poet and fabulist from the 17th century.


Jean de la Fontaine, a crow and a fox

On the sole rainy day of our stay, we visit the Galeries Lafayette, an enormous department store that is housed inside a glass and steel dome that is itself a tourist attraction.

Looking Up

One evening Alice and I take the metro across town to a restaurant Marina recommends, where I have a delicious confît du canard. On another, the three of us meet on a street corner and take a bus to a restaurant called Le Relais de Venise. It’s a steakhouse, for lack of a better term, that serves only one meal: a green salad with walnuts in a light dressing followed by pieces of steak covered in a “secret sauce” and accompanied by frites (fries) and whatever you want to drink. We get there at 6:30 to stand in line for the first, 7:00, seating (there are three seatings over the course of the evening.) We are the third or fourth party in line, and by the time the doors open exactly at 7:00, the line is winding down the sidewalk and into the street. We haven’t even been served yet when we see a new line forming for the 9:00 seating. We are given one round of salad but two servings of the main course, and to drink we choose a half bottle of house red wine, which is delicious. Our waitress knocks it over in her hurry to clear away our dishes and as a result, she brings us a new one. The meal is good, but I think it’s the novelty that accounts for the crowd more than the food itself.

The week passes quickly, and I find I wish we could stay on. Alice and I are surprisingly compatible; we are eating well; we are walking each day in a new and different neighborhood and I’m charmed by the same things I was charmed by 30 some years ago: the architecture, and the efficiency of the metro, where the buskers play Vivaldi on a violin, or even, occasionally, an accordion. The way art is insinuated into everything: the clothes, the shopfronts, the food. The manners, the language, the hats. The importance of flowers, and the melodic hum of people going about their business. I can imagine myself living here – not permanently, but for several months perhaps. It’s got its downsides like every place, of course. The cost of living is high, the homeless population is increasing, urban sprawl has hit, and the French have yet to embrace the dog owner’s responsibility of picking up after their pet. But after I’ve bid Alice farewell, as I sit at the Gare d’Austerlitz waiting for my night train to Figeac, I find I love Paris every bit as much as I once did. I watch several pigeons fly down from the rafters and make their way around the floor of the waiting area where I’m seated, pecking at crumbs, some too small to see, that sloppy human eaters have shed to the ground. I see one who is limping, and upon closer inspection I see it is missing several toes on one foot. I pay more attention and soon I realize half the pigeons are missing toes. I suppose this isn’t unique to Parisienne pigeons. All over the world, pigeons with missing toes are probably hobbling around train stations, parks, sidewalks and buildings. It must be hard making a living as a scavenger bird in a concrete world. But for some reason, I know I will remember them as living here, in Paris. As much as anything else I’ve seen, smelled, tasted or heard in this city, I’ll remember looking at these birds and being quietly moved by the sight of them, touching down and getting straight to work alongside the other, “perfect” pigeons, none of them long for this world, just trying, like all of us, to find their way.

Return to Paris, Part One: Arrival

Posted in Prose on October 15, 2019 by 1writegirl

My first stop after leaving the UK is Paris. I haven’t been to Paris since the 80’s when I was a young student traveling first around France, on breaks from studying at the Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, then around Europe in the aftermath of my tenure there. What is ironic is that at the tender age of 18, alone and in possession of very little disposable income, though I was robbed and almost raped on two separate occasions while visiting Paris, I continued to think of this large, impersonal city as nothing but vibrant, exciting and attractive. It personified, for me anyway, everything that made France unique and alluring: it was a culinary, cultural, linguistic, artistic and historical island that I found mesmerizing. Yet all these years later, as often as I’ve wanted to return, I’ve felt intimidated by the idea of going to Paris on my own. Thus it wasn’t until my aunt Alice, a former French teacher and frequent visitor to France, and Paris in particular, suggested meeting here that I seriously considered coming back. She first broached the idea five years ago, but circumstances contrived to prevent it from happening until now. We’ve never been particularly close, but I’ve always loved her and felt comfortable in her company. So it was with a sense of dormant anticipation that I emailed her over the summer and asked if she still wanted to do it, and it was gratitude I felt when she replied, Yes. It is a cautious though willing heart with which I now approach this at once stranger and friend, Paris.

I take a night bus from London, arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport early in the morning in order to meet Alice when her flight lands about 11:30. I don’t remember the airport being this big and quickly realize it probably wasn’t when I was here last. Still I have plenty of time to find the closest, and as it turns out, only place I can wait for her without having a boarding pass myself. I drink a cup of coffee, then another, before edging closer to stand there, alongside other anxious family members or friends as well as taxi and Uber drivers (holding iPads as often as poster board printed with the names of their incoming fares) until I begin to wonder if I could have missed her, or perhaps misunderstood where we agreed to meet. Hoards of people are gathered in the large waiting area as hoards more bustle through the massive, one way doors from Baggage Claim and meld into the crowd. At last I see her, walking slowly and looking tentatively around her, as if she too is wondering if we got our signals crossed. I wave to get her attention, anxious to reassure her, and push forward between bodies tightly packed together until I’m standing in front of her. We embrace, both of us relieved, exhausted. We follow the signs to the taxi stand where we are greeted almost immediately by a driver waiting for a fare. We give him the address of our Airbnb apartment in the 16th arrondissement, and within half an hour we are there. I follow the directions of our hostess, who emailed me yesterday to say she’d be unable to meet us personally at the apartment, and find the key, then we are in. 

It’s a two bedroom apartment in an old, six story building, two units on each floor. It has the air of a grand old dame, wearing the family jewels she has managed to hold on to throughout her lifetime as well as a bit too much powder and rouge, applied hastily and in dim light. The ceilings are high, the floors polished wood but coming unglued in places, the walls accented with scrolled woodwork in corners and above the fireplace and baseboards. The color scheme throughout is white and gold, regal and cool, the few bright or warm touches coming from the framed prints of classic French paintings on the walls. A faux marble bust of a Grecian goddess adorns the mantle while the fireplace below it is crammed full of white battery operated candles of varying size. We have been given strict instructions, among other things, not to “burn” the candles (Does she mean turn on? Could she actually think anyone would be stupid enough to try and light a plastic, wickless candle?) – they are “for decoration only”, as are the barrage of ornamental pillows piled atop our beds. Our other instructions include removing our shoes while in the apartment, not taking anything from the apartment (even the umbrella that appears to have been left out for us to use?), and telling anyone from the building we run into, if they inquire, that we are “friends” of the owner, who mysteriously refers to herself alternately as Sarah and Jennifer in the emails and texts I’ve received from her. 

Two chandeliers hang from the ceilings of the adjoining living and dining rooms, each with half its lights burned out. I wonder if this is on purpose, given the abundance of natural light streaming in from the double French doors looking out on to the street, until I find that two of the three lights in the bathroom are burned out, and conclude it’s more a case of thought-less than -full design. There is a dishwasher in the kitchen but its contents are dirty and stained, and the washer/dryer contains the pillow cases and towels, still slightly damp, that should have been on our beds or laid out for us (Only after a text from our hostess the next day, in response to our inquiry, do we locate these.) Though the listing claimed to offer breakfast among its amenities, there is none to be found. The fridge is empty except for a can of Red Bull and a jar of mustard, while the food cupboard is crammed full of miscellaneous items such as half eaten bags of pasta, cans of vegetables, packets of soup, candy and boxes of tea. All stuff, it would appear, that the previous occupant(s) have left behind, or that Sarah-Jennifer herself makes use of when staying here. The drawers are likewise packed with what look like personal possessions interspersed with what could also be guest amenities: plastic wrap, foil, and coffee pods for the machine on the counter. The other cupboards are laden with service for 20 in the form of wine glasses and outsize china, sharing space with delicate crystal and gold rimmed antique porcelain dishes that I’m afraid to touch, much less use. In the bathroom the medicine cabinet is brimming with someone’s partly used toiletries while the shower contains three bottles of half empty body wash and shampoo, and a big pink netting sponge hanging from the spigot. The trash can hasn’t been emptied. 

I am puzzled by the contrast between the stark formal living area, with its carefully arranged furniture and copies of Architecture Digest or the like on the coffee table, and the kitchen and bathroom with their casual, personal footprints. I feel like I’m sitting in a hotel lobby while I’m in the one, but eavesdropping uninvited in a stranger’s personal space, not sure what I’m meant to hear or see, in the other. Both my aunt and I find it slightly discomfiting, as if our stay here was last minute rather than reserved weeks in advance; as if we are displacing the owner, who is doing us a favor by letting us stay, rather than paying the exorbitant sum of money we did (or rather Alice did. Knowing how strapped I am financially, she generously picked up the bulk of our lodging costs) for the privilege of residing in this nice neighborhood in Paris for a week. Ultimately, we both make a sort of peace with our lodging situation, with its contradictions and somewhat shady nature, and vow we will not let it interfere with our enjoyment of this adventure together, our first and perhaps our last, so long in coming. 

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Five: The last day

Posted in Prose on September 19, 2019 by 1writegirl

Last night it got cold, too cold for me with my two lightweight sleeping bags. Mark in his Rab 750 was toasty, but I shivered all night long and barely slept. We were planning to end our walk tomorrow in order to return to Mark’s house in Devon with a couple of days to spare before the next phase of our journey together, but decide to make today our last day instead. Mark wants to service the bike, visit his father, and cut the grass among other things, so he doesn’t mind the extra day. 

My step is noticeably lighter as we start walking and grows increasingly more so, due in part to the psychological advantage of knowing this will soon all be over, and in part to the fact that I haven’t managed to time my body’s clock with our arrival at the precious few toilets we’ve encountered for two days now. I’m walking with purpose to the first toilet we come to. 

As it turns out, this ends up being the first town we land in, called Hungerford, and it’s almost noon when we get there. I am practically running down the street toward The Tutti Pole, located directly off the canal on the High Street. When we step inside we’re greeted immediately and asked where we’d like to sit. It takes all my self control not to scream “Never mind that! Where’s the toilet?!” We ask for a table outside, where we can shed our backpacks and not worry about them being in the way of other patrons. As we walk towards the patio a young man approaches us and asks if we’ve been greeted yet. I wave him aside and make a beeline for the first picnic table I can see. No sooner have I slipped my pack off than a third staff member appears, this time to hand us menus and tell us about the daily specials. Clearly this place prides itself on its customer service. I leave her in mid-sentence, unable to sit, or even stand, and wait. I dash back inside and through the door marked “Toilets” where I find not one, not two, not even three, but four whole toilets. It has been so long since I’ve gone that my body freezes up momentarily. I force myself to relax and breathe deeply, almost screaming then crying with relief when at last I am able to go.

Unburdened, I return to our table by way of the dessert counter, where I size up the possibilities. Outside, Mark is drinking a cup of coffee and pondering the menu. He decides to go with just a dessert. I tell him I’m having lunch followed by dessert. In the end, we eat the same things only in reverse. I’m eating cake while he has a sandwich. 

After lunch we find the train station and check the schedule of trains going to Bristol, thinking we’ll walk to the next town and catch the train there. But it isn’t as straightforward as we thought it would be. Perhaps because it’s the weekend, perhaps they are doing work on the track at some point, but the only way to get to Bristol is to go in the opposite direction, toward Reading, and catch a direct train from there. If we catch the next train to Reading, we’ll get to Bristol by around 4, which will get us back to Mark’s place just before dark. Our walk is over.

Two trains and a bus ride later, we are back in Bristol retrieving the bike from Mark’s friends’ garage. Karen greets us at the door with Jax like last time, only this time Jax is wearing a blue puffy collar like a life vest, a newer and more comfortable (so she says) version of the cone that dogs wear after surgery to keep them from licking or biting their stitches. He doesn’t look bothered, so she may be right. “Paul’s just out in the garden planting some roses” she tells us. Soon he comes inside and we make polite conversation, then we load up the bike and leave.

The next morning, back at Mark’s house, I like to think I’m just a little bit tougher, stronger, both physically and emotionally than I was when we began our canal walk. This may be an illusion, I don’t know, but now that I’ve stopped walking for hours on end, I have the sense that I could have kept going because I’d passed the tipping point. That is the plight of a softie like myself, a “poof” Mark would say: when we test ourselves, throw ourselves into something difficult and painful, the temptation to quit because it feels overwhelming, it feels like too much, is great, and depending on your situation – how much you’ve bitten off, what motivates you, how great the disparity is between how you are and how you want or need to be – you will turn back too soon, just in time, or too late. When I walked the Camino de Santiago five years ago, I willingly tolerated the physical pain, even craved it as an antidote, a distraction from my emotional pain. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way. There was no relief from the pain, there was only compounded pain. I ignored what I could until it would be ignored no longer, though ignore isn’t the best word. I was aware every minute of all of it, but parts of me, body and mind, took turns being numb, which is not to say pain free; it was simply a matter of degree. When I finally stopped walking I was not stronger; on the contrary, I was weaker, more damaged, further broken. On that occasion, I turned back too late.

The knot in my shoulder has dissipated and my feet feel almost normal. By stopping to rest and stretch every so often and concentrate on keeping my core as tight as possible as often as possible, I was able to avoid a recurrence of the lower back pain that escalated into crippling muscle spasms along the Camino. While I’m tired and desperate for a long sleep in a soft bed, I feel better overall for our several days’ walk along the canal. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, dear reader, I must go. It’s a lovely day here in southwest England, and Indian Summer is short lived in this part of the world. Now that I’ve put this all down on (metaphorical) paper, I feel inclined to get out there, into the fresh air and sunshine, and go for a walk.

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Four: Slow meets Sloe

Posted in Prose on September 18, 2019 by 1writegirl

When I get up this morning I feel rested, and even have the feeling that I’m growing stronger. This may be an illusion, but I cherish it nonetheless.The view from our campsite stretches for miles: lush, grassy hillocks, grazing cows and clumps of trees. Mark asks for some toilet paper then disappears for a long time. I need to go to but not that badly yet.

We pack our tents wet, as it rained in the night and the sun isn’t hot enough yet to dry them. My pack feels heavier as a result, and we haven’t walked far before that familiar knot under my left shoulder blade makes its presence known. When we stop for a rest, I change out of my sandals into my boots, hoping my feet are recovered enough to handle them, and that the difference in weight will be noticeable. My feet feel more comfortable in my boots today, and I cross my fingers they are broken in sufficiently to be able to say the worst is behind me.

As the day wears on however, the trail narrows, almost disappearing in places, and is filled with ruts and small holes. Several times I twist my ankle, but quickly right myself before I can go down. I’m glad I’m wearing the boots, as I know I wouldn’t fare as well in my sandals, but the twisting and turning from side to side means they are rubbing all my sore spots over and over. I feel the need to stop and rest frequently; we sit down at almost every bench we can, which admittedly isn’t often. Mark, damn him, is chipper, chatty and seemingly pain free. His only complaint is that he doesn’t have the patience for walking when he could be covering the same ground in probably a quarter of the time on his bicycle. If he ever decides to go along a canal again, he tells me, he’ll cycle rather than walk. I can appreciate that, though I find there to be something comforting, almost reassuring, about slow travel, as if by taking my time and observing the people, creatures and environment surrounding me, I’m expanding my world rather than merely passing through someone or something else’s. 

We go all morning and into the afternoon without coming upon a place to get food. There are blackberries growing all along the canal which we’ve picked and eaten as we’ve walked. I’m especially glad of them today, and for the pear I found yesterday along the way. We pass bushes bearing a reddish-purple berry I don’t recognize, which Mark identities as the Sloe berry. He easily recites his recipe for making Sloe Gin, which leaves me wondering if I can come by Sloe berries back home. I’d like to give it a try. At last we come to the town of Bedwyn, where we make our way to Wendy’s Community Cafe and Juice Bar. It’s located behind a playground and next to a neatly manicured lawn-bowling green turned into a croquet pitch. Several men and one woman, none of them a day under seventy-five I wager, are taking turns. The sound of wood smacking wood is broken by the occasional low murmur of cheer, comment or critique. The cafe is decorated in a combination Rastafarian/Hollywood/cute animal photo style, with a corner couch covered in cushions away from the main seating area. This is where we settle in to peruse the menu and chill before our food is ready. We both order the lasagne which comes with cole slaw and salad and is both plentiful and delicious. I expect to get a desert as well but don’t have room for more than a cup of tea.

We putter on for a few more miles before stopping for the night on the top of a lock surrounded by countryside. It is the first night we’ve spent actually on a lock, number 66, and we set up camp with a good hour or so of daylight still ahead. I revel in the feel of the thick soft grass beneath me as I lie down on the wide, green expanse, vast compared to the thin swaths we’ve carved out for ourselves along the canal previously. Nobody else comes around except for one person, a woman snapping photos periodically. Mark naps briefly while I scribble in my notebook, then we prop ourselves up against our packs and drink the beers we bought before leaving Bedwyn: Dinner. Soon the sun begins to dip and the air cools. In the waning vestiges of daylight we walk a short ways up and down the canal hoping to catch sight of the elusive water vole, endangered and protected, written about on the signs posted along the canal. It feels so good to walk unencumbered that it’s tempting to just keep going. 

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Three: A little sugar goes a long way

Posted in Prose on September 17, 2019 by 1writegirl

Again we awaken and set out early. There’s no point in having a lie-in in a tent when you can’t get comfortable, so sleep is limited, not to mention we are attempting a version of “stealth camping” given the somewhat criminal nature of wild camping here as previously mentioned. It won’t do to be seen crawling out of a tent next to a stranger’s houseboat at 9:00, stretching, then leisurely making breakfast. Our goal, as a unit, is to get up and at least packed, if not walking, before the boaters, dog walkers and joggers are out en masse. That way it appears we have simply paused for a few moments and are resting at the side of the trail. My goal, quite honestly, is merely to stand upright. Mark is kind and boils water for my coffee first thing, which helps.

I put my sandals on instead of my boots from the get-go today, having discovered yesterday that the pinky toe on my right foot screams less loudly without anything pressing up against it. The trade off however is the extra weight my boots add to my backpack, and the lack of stability; my feet tend to slide around on the grass more in the sandals which have less tread on the soles. I start walking, resigned to the pain I know is lurking in my immediate future. Much to my delight however, we soon come to a cafe by the side of the canal and we stop for a cup of coffee. Never mind that we’ve only just eaten breakfast, I get my cake (a lovely slice of shortbread layered with butterscotch and chocolate), having quickly learned you have to grab your culinary opportunities as they present themselves in these circumstances. It is so rich that, although I eat the entire thing, I soon wish I’d saved half for later. 

I waddle out of there and back on the trail, where the significant difference today is the appearance of a long series of locks fairly close together and on an incline. Here we can see how the boaters must take precise care in letting just enough water in and out of each section of the canal as they prepare to pass from one to the next. It is a slow tedious process for them to travel this part of the canal. Mark gives me a history lesson as we go about the origin of the canals and the early days when horses were used to pull, and I suppose guide to some extent, the boats from the trail alongside the canal. I look down at my feet on this alternately wide and extremely narrow path and wonder what it must have been like for the horses, and if it looked different back then.

Eventually we come to the small village of Honeystreet where there is a cafe and a pub to choose from, both right on the canal. We’d been told about the pub, called The Barge Inn, but it’s closer to lunch than dinner time so we opt for the cafe. It proves to be a good choice. We both order a panini which comes with a salad, chutney, and potato chips. I glance lovingly at the wide assortment of homemade cakes on offer, in particular at something new to me, a gin and tonic cake, but I decide one piece of cake a day is enough, and I don’t want to carry anything not absolutely essential. I could probably make a convincing argument – at least to myself and let’s face it, that’s all that matters – that cake is essential and worth toting on my back, but the miser in me wins out. We use the bathroom and fill our water bottles at the handy spigot on the patio meant for that purpose.

We carry on until about 5:30 at which point we come upon the Waterside Bistro and Pub; it is, according to what I’ve been able to determine on google maps, the last canalside eatery for miles. We have not passed any stores. There is a very small one here with basic essentials, so Mark buys milk for the morning, then we go upstairs to the pub and order a beer each. Neither of us is very hungry after our late lunch, but feeling the need to eat something with the beer and to stave off hunger later when we’re camped and settled, we buy a couple of packets of chips from behind the counter and nibble on those while we drink. We sit at a table by the window, from which we watch a soft spray of pinky-red roses spread across the sky. The throbbing pain shooting down my legs subsides as I sit quietly, to remain dormant until I stand up and start walking once again. It has been a warm day and the breeze gently drying the sweat on my brow is a delightful sensation, one of those simple pleasures we often fail to appreciate until we’ve experienced something difficult, physically or mentally, that encourages us to concentrate on something positive, no matter how small. 

Our beers drunk and chips gone, we move off down the canal just far enough away from the several boats and pedestrians gathered around the pub, till the boats are few and far between again. We pick a spot on the canal to set up camp, but at the last minute I spot a trail leading up the hill. I climb up it to find a field with a gate that is latched but unlocked and a sign that declares the land to be under the care of The National Trust. I wave Mark up and we quickly make a beeline inside, recognizing instantly our good fortune. We set up our tents, sidestepping the piles of cow manure that pepper the field, just in time to crawl in before it’s too dark to see without a flashlight. Though it takes me quite awhile to fall asleep as usual, I sleep almost completely through the night.

The Kennet and Avon Canal, Day Two: Please, just give me cake

Posted in Prose on September 16, 2019 by 1writegirl

Bleary-eyed, I sit on the bench by the canal and drink coffee made from single portion coffee bags I found in Tesco (I’ve been bemoaning the fact for years that nobody’s thought to invent them and at last, much to my satisfaction, someone – namely Taylor’s of Harrowgate – has). Birds are chirping in the trees around us. The nice woman who directed us to our camp site last night emerges from her boat, a floppy eared brown and white dog in tow. He comes directly over to me and wastes no time digging his nose in my backpack. His owner chastises him but he isn’t easily deterred. It’s my beef jerky that he’s smelled, I’m sure of it, unless he’s a fan of granola bars, which seems unlikely. He cocks his head to one side and looks up at me pleadingly, one blue eye and one brown. Sorry, I whisper as he is again reprimanded for his behavior. “Come on Dexter,” she says, her tone no-nonsense now, and off they go. 

The rain has stopped but it’s still cloudy and cool when we start walking, a little before 8:00. My feet still ache but I’m not as tired as I thought I’d be given my sleepless night. Mark is cheerful and says his legs are “a bit sore”, due to using muscles he doesn’t habitually use, being a cyclist more than a long distance walker. We pass pedestrians, many of them walking their dogs or jogging, some doing both, and cyclists, but they thin out the farther away from Bradford on Avon we go. We see day hikers but no other thru hikers. 

The boats have names like Snugglepug, Isabelle, and The Wanderer, with their license number and place of registration clearly printed on the side. Some are clean, freshly painted and tidy, with nothing on top. Others are decorated with homey touches, including plants and flowers along the top – entire gardens in some cases, full of color, scent and edibles – as well as neatly stacked firewood, tires, bicycles, and garden statuary placed, mascot-like, on either end. Some are decrepit and neglected, trash heaps on top of and alongside them. A few harbor downright junkyards. It is a neighborhood on water, some residents house-proud, others giving the former reason to wish they would keep up or just go away. We take note of the bridge numbers as we go, descending from 192 at the start of the Canal in Bath. When we see a sign for a store we follow it to a Spar’s where I purchase a packet of paracetamol, extra strength. 

About 11:00 or so we begin looking for a cafe alongside the canal where we can get a cup of tea and a piece of cake. I distract myself from thinking about the increasing knot in my left shoulder, pain in my right knee, and fire in my feet, with thoughts of cake. What kind will I have? I wonder. Victoria Sponge? Something chocolate? Or will I go for a scone with jam and clotted cream? Eventually, with no cafe in sight, we stop at a bench near a small park to eat the snacks we’ve brought with us – Mark his mixed nuts and fruit, I my boiled egg and beef jerky. It’s okay, I tell myself. We’ll find cake soon. Probably just after the next bridge. Or maybe the one after that.

Our break over, we continue on. My pack is lighter, it must be considering I’ve eaten three eggs and an apple since we started walking. So why does it feel like it’s getting heavier? 

Hours pass. We are in intermittently urban and rural territory now, with small towns or villages giving way to green pastures dotted with sheep or cattle, and vice versa. Places to find food on the canal, either store bought or prepared, are hit and miss. When we aren’t hungry, we come across a pub, when we are hungry, we come to nothing. We do not find cake. Someone we pass mentions a pub called The Bridge Inn along the canal at a town called Devises, a few miles ahead. We set our sights on that, figuring if we find a store first, we’ll buy something like noodles that we can cook up instead once we stop for the night.

I don’t know how many miles we’ve walked. That’s the thing about walking a canal. It all looks pretty much the same: water on one side, green on the other, a stone bridge every now and then. I find myself thinking we’ve got to be close to The Bridge Inn and wondering where I’m going to go to the bathroom if we don’t get to it before we (or possibly just I) collapse from exhaustion. This is one of the downsides of hiking anywhere but in the backcountry – public toilets are few and far between – so when you have to go, you may just have to hold it for hours. It’s all well and good for Mark, who can just turn his back between a couple of bushes. The passers-by and boaters in the area won’t even notice him. It’s more difficult to find a place where you can squat, naked from the waist down, unnoticed. When a stronger urge overcomes either of us however, the playing field is leveled and we are both, yes, that’s right, SOL. This is not, after all, India.

Finally The Bridge Inn comes into view, right next to the canal. We scout around before going inside for a place close by to camp when we emerge, knowing we won’t feel up to walking far at that point. It will be approaching dusk in any case. Once inside we plop down at a corner table and order two beers straightaway. I scan the menu for the cheapest items and decide on a fish cake mixed with spinach and convince the waitress to bring me a salad instead of chips. Mark orders fish and chips, heavily battered and greasy as usual. I have yet to see grilled fish and chips on an English menu (granted, I eat out rarely here and haven’t patronized an abundance of upscale restaurants). I admit I’ve learned to like mushy peas. 

We draw out our dinner as long as possible, both of us dog tired. Mark orders a second beer. I refrain, afraid it might not be safe with the handful of paracetamol I’m planning to swallow once I crawl into my sleeping bag. For the moment, I’m procrastinating as long as possible moving any body part with the possible exception of my hands, mouth and eyelashes. It feels so good to be still. At last we see the sun beginning to sink below the horizon and know we’ve got to get going. We ask for the bill and each make one last trip to the bathroom.