Sheep, Shit, Love

Posted in Prose on November 21, 2017 by 1writegirl

I spend the next eight days on a sheep farm in Galicia in a Workaway volunteer situation. The idea is you spend 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week helping with chores around the place and in return you get room and board. My host, Steve, is a 68 year old English man. He has lived here for 15 years after retiring from a career as a helicopter pilot, then living aboard a sailboat with a girlfriend for three years in the Mediterranean. He bears a slight physical resemblance to John Cleese. He has approximately 60 sheep, including 6-8 new lambs. His companions in the yard and house include four cats, an old dog called Widget, and about 15 chickens.

The big old stone farmhouse is a mess. Not just old and falling apart, but dirty and  messy, with stuff strewn all over, clothes, books, trash, food. The floor is half torn-up linoleum, half wood boards, and every surface, high and low, is coated in grease, dust and animal hair. The kitchen in particular has so many layers of grime and filth on every surface that I can’t begin to guess when it was last cleaned. Possibly never. I wonder if he’s one of those people who thinks, “Why bother? It’s just going to get dirty again anyway.” There are two stories, the upper contains bedrooms, a small sitting room and a kitchen, while the downstairs is one large room with a wood stove, a television and a huge old fashioned sofa and chair, outside of which is the beginning of a new-old room undergoing renovation into what will be the new kitchen and dining room. The bathroom is upstairs, but outside on the porch.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so fucking cold at night, but it’s November now, there’s no central heating, and Steve leaves the front door wide open all the time, even at night, so the cats can “come and go.” In the evening – after the chores are done, the sheep put away for the night and the chickens have flown up into the branches of the huge walnut tree in the front yard to spend the night – he lights the wood stove downstairs, prepares something for dinner, and turns on the television. There he sits for the rest of the night, chain smoking Chesterfield cigarettes, drinking wine, and watching quiz shows and crime dramas. Funny he doesn’t smoke all day, then chain smokes at night. If I want to be warm, I can either join him downstairs or fill up the hot water bottle he gives me and retire to my bedroom where there is a warm down comforter on my bed. The first night I do the latter. The second night I do the former, and on the third day Steve offers me a space heater for my bedroom, which I gratefully accept. After that, I spend a couple of hours with him downstairs each evening, where we watch tv in companionable silence and chat amicably but sparsely, both of us being on the reticent side and there being no compelling thread between us, which is how it usually is with me and other humans. By ten or so I say good night and retreat to my room, where I turn on my heater and read in bed. Twice he tells me “don’t leave it on all night”.

Steve whistles when we put the sheep out in the morning and when we collect them in the evening. On my first day I recognize the tune “The bear went over the mountain,” and another one, though I can’t identify it, sounds vaguely Christmas-y. Each morning I shovel sheep shit on the floor of the building he calls the shed, but is actually a barn. I think my back will break, mostly because the shovel he gave me is so short that I have to work from a bent over position to separate the layers of hard dried shit from the metal floor. I use my legs as much as possible. I ask him afterwards if he has considered putting some hay down to absorb some of the moisture and perhaps keep it from sticking to the floor. He says that would require a lot of hay, which would be hard to come by, and besides “it warms you up, which is no bad thing.” Then I ask him if he has a longer shovel, but he doesn’t.

On the second day, after shoveling, I rake leaves in the front yard, then Steve comes to get me to steer his broken down car while he tows it with the smallest tractor I’ve ever seen to the mechanic. Something wrong with the transmission. Then I rake more leaves and wash dishes. Tonight he is taking us to dinner in a nearby town, and he’s paying. I decide I’m going to order anything I want from the menu, including a cocktail. It has taken me less than two days to realize that unless you are staying in a very posh house and fed gourmet meals, the Workaway volunteer gets the short end of the stick in these situations, assuming the host would have to pay someone at least €10 an hour to do what you’re doing.

We have dinner in a nearby town with three friends of Steve, a British couple (well, the man is English and his wife is from everywhere) in their early seventies I think, and a Spanish guy, probably in his 40’s. He is trying to improve his English, Steve says. He is very animated throughout dinner, especially when he learns I’m from California. He seems enamoured of California, though he’s never been there. He has been to the US once, and visited two places only: New York, and Baltimore. I asked “Why Baltimore?,” and he said because he was making a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe. He is the second Spaniard I’ve met who has made a documentary about a famous American (the other American being Spielberg).

Steve complains about previous volunteers boiling a whole kettle of water for just one cup of tea (“what a waste of electricity,” he says) or not knowing how to wash dishes properly. He likes to wait till there’s a bunch of dirty dishes before washing them, and says many volunteers use too much soap and hot water. I wonder if he is, in an indirect way, chastising me. The problem with washing dishes here is the sink is just big enough for the dishpan he uses to wash them, but there’s no room to rinse them and no place to set them to dry. So basically you just have to wash a few, rinse them in the same dishpan, then towel-dry them, one at a time, putting them away before washing some more. It’s really impractical, but he’s lived this way for 15 years, on his own and with others. I’d like to clean the bathroom but I’m afraid he’d say I’m using too much water. I mean really, how much electricity can it possibly take to heat a kettle of water? I am washing my underwear in the shower at night and drying it in front of my little space heater. Steam rises from it when it gets close to the fire.

Last night I got an email from Marian with the words from a speech given by a woman whose son had died. I find I prefer to say someone died, which is the plain truth, instead of the more often used euphemistic expression, someone “lost” someone. I did not misplace him, like a set of keys. He did not wander off, nor get left behind. He is not coming back. I read it during a quick break from farm chores, not realizing what it was, and thinking I could go right back to work. Instead, it brought me to my knees. If Steve noticed I’d been crying when I returned, he didn’t say anything.

Today, after shoveling, Steve takes me on a walk up in the hills. After we get back to the farm I go and sit in the fenced pasture where the mama and baby sheep graze, trying to pet the little ones. But they’re all afraid of me, all except for Orphan Annie, who Steve lets me bottle feed 3 times a day, and two older lambs called Zeba and Wonka who were also bottle fed until just recently. These three let me pet them, and Annie even sits on my lap foru awhile. She has a birth defect in the form of perpetually weak muscles in her neck, preventing her from lifting her head up all the way, which is likely the reason she couldn’t suckle properly, and her mother rejected her.


The next morning Steve is whistling that Judy Garland song from The Wizard of Oz, then the Oscar Meyer bologna song, and the Xmas song again. Later in the barn while shoveling he whistles two or three more Christmas caroles. Finally I ask him, “Are you looking forward to Christmas?” to which he replies, “No, I’m not a Christmas sort of person.” This evening it is the theme from Popeye.

I sit in the pasture with the mothers and lambs again the next day and Annie falls asleep at my feet. I don’t pick her up and put her on my lap like yesterday because she has poo all down her back leg and I don’t want to get it all over me. Finally I can’t stand it anymore and scoop her up on to my lap. Clothes, like hands, are washable after all. At one point all the sheep stand straight up and look in the same direction so I follow their gaze and see a cat, not one of Steve’s. I guess because it is a stranger they are wary of it, even though it is just a cat.

After I feed Annie her second bottle this afternoon, I give some corn that I have in my pocket to the rest of the sheep. They all crowd around me trying to get to it and in the commotion with muzzles everywhere one of them eats through the headphones hanging down the front of my jacket. Now I have to listen to my audiobooks out loud till I can get another pair.

One day the sheep manure has so much urine mixed in with it that it is equivalent to diarrhea. This makes it a lot heavier thus harder to pick up. When we are closing up the shed I tell Steve that was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. He looks at me blankly. “What was?” “Shoveling diarrhea for 2 hours” I say. He doesn’t reply. The next day he leaves me to do all the shoveling on my own. I think it is revenge for my comment the day before though thankfully the manure is a bit drier today, making the task slightly less odious. Steve whistles “You are my Sunshine.”

One day after I’ve been here about a week, Steve decides to let all the sheep go out together in the morning rather than separate the new mothers and babies. Zeba and Annie stop in front of the gate to their former pasture and wait. Even after all the other sheep shuffle on past, following Steve, they stand there and wait, just the two of them, looking at me expectantly and bleating. The look on Zeba’s face… “What’s up? I’m confused, this is where we’re supposed to go.” Who ever said sheep are stupid? I feel a pang of love for her and Annie, and Wonka too. I also am quite fond of Franko who comes up to me whenever he sees me to have his cheeks and neck scratched. At first I thought it was just because we were in the barn so it was a matter of proximity but this afternoon I spend an hour or so with the flock while they are out grazing, just to keep an eye out for foxes and dogs as Steve is a tad worried about the new lambs being so exposed, and Franko comes up behind me while I’m sitting on a rock. I feel a hot breath on my ear and startled, turn to see him just standing there, his face about an inch from mine. He just gazes lazily into my eyes and when I reach up a hand to scratch him, he doesn’t even flinch. Later I ask Steve if he was a bottle fed lamb, but he wasn’t.

The day before I leave, Steve releases all the sheep together again except for Annie, Zeba and Wonka. When I’m giving Annie her bottle Zeba and Wonka keep getting under my feet as they try to butt in, like they always do. Even though they are considerably bigger and presumably older than Annie, they go for the milk like they’re babies. I’m pushing them away when I get all turned around and suddenly I lose my balance and fall. I topple onto Zeba, and she just lays there, not moving and staring off into space. She has that glassy eyed look like an antelope whose windpipe has just been crushed by a cheetah. For a moment I think I’ve killed her. Later, thinking about it, I start to cry. I spend the afternoon in the fenced pasture with Annie, Zeba and Wonka. I know it’s ridiculous but I’ve bonded with these little creatures in the space of a mere week.

Tonight the main flock of sheep don’t come home. Several times until well after dark we go looking for them, to no avail. It would seem Steve’s anxiety was well founded. Annie, Zeba and Wonka spend the night in the pen alone. I check on them a few times, worried they’ll be lonely at best, and freaked out at worst. They are definitely unsettled.

The next morning there is still no sign of the flock. We take the trio down to the small paddock and leave them, but later I come back down on my own to tell them goodbye. I kiss the three of them again and again and hold Annie, who licks my cheek the way a dog would, for a long time. I cry.

Steve drives me to the train station in Valenca, Portugal. We exchange very few words, typically. He kisses me goodbye, the European double-cheeked airkiss, as empty of substance as Annie’s kisses were full of it. All day I think about the missing flock of sheep, and from my hostel that night, I email Steve and ask if they returned. He writes back to say they did, and none the worse for wear. That night, I think about Annie, Zeba, Wonka and Franko. I miss them already. I don’t miss shoveling.

Recommended reading: Deep South, by Paul Theroux.





Mental Meandering in Seville, on Seville

Posted in Prose on November 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

Plaza de Espagne:
A magnificent square. If in Seville, must see. Built into the walls are tiles representing each region of Spain, portraying scenes of battle, peasant life, the clergy and monarchy. Some tiles represent wars with Moors.

One tile at Avila shows a female soldier.

Alicante tile has elephants and dark skinned half naked women bearing water pitchers on their heads (slaves?) And animal heads on stakes (horse, ox).

Overhead are white (marble?) busts of famous men and two women identified as Isabel la Catolica, and Santa Teresa. Continue reading

On Light

Posted in Prose on November 4, 2017 by 1writegirl

I wrote in yesterday’s post that I’ll go through the rest of my life doing the same things most other people do, and even some things that they don’t, but I’ll do them differently; like walking, but with a limp. Then today, a bad day, a really bad day, I realized what an understatement that was; at least from today’s perspective. From today’s perspective, that limp is more akin to Quasimodo’s hump. I wish I could say I expect more good days than bad.

Before arriving in Spain, I spent two weeks in Bretagne, France with a dear friend of mine and her new husband. I haven’t written a post about that time because I feel that to do so, at least now, would be to violate her privacy and the trust she places in me every time she allows me to be privy to her secrets, some of which manifest in the form of life in real time. What I did encounter that surprised me and which I feel I can reveal was the story her husband told me, after we went out to dinner with his mother, about his parents. Because I found it so interesting and because it gives one pause and reason to see light at the end of one’s own tunnel, I will tell it to you here, in abbreviated form:

His mother, let’s call her Louise, raised by father and stepmother. Louise’s mother died in childbirth. At the insistence of her maternal grandparents she was handed over to the care of a nursemaid while her father went “abroad.” He returned when she was three years old with a new wife in tow. Louise was 12 years old when her stepmother revealed to her that she wasn’t Louise’s real mother. Louise went to father to ask if this was true, told yes, and furthermore, “it should have been you that died that day, not her.” This helped to explain why she had felt for her entire life like her father was angry with her.

Louise’s maternal grandparents owned an island near St. Malo off the coast of Bretagne. When her mother died, her father was allowed to continue living there but the island was put in trust for Louise. When Louise came of age, she went to England where she found work as secretary to the French Consul in London. She continued to let her father and stepmother live on the island, which they did till he died. Step mother stayed on a few years then moved away.

Louise married the son of the French Consul, call him Pierre, who, as luck would have it, was always cold and distant toward his wife and subsequent three children. Turns out Pierre’s mother tried to kill herself when he was a boy, and to make matters worse, on two occasions she tried to take Pierre with her. When she was older and he was grown she finally did commit suicide.

Someone had an affair. Was it the consul? The consul’s father? Pierre? I wish I had taken notes, or had a better memory.

The kids grew up, Pierre drank himself to death, and Louise lived on her private island alone until the isolation became more than she could bear, at which point she sold it for an undisclosed sum of money and bought a house in St. Malo, the same St. Malo from “All the Light We Cannot See.” A mesmerizing town. Louise, now around 70, a charming, if somewhat abrupt, woman. Or so it would seem. Who knows what’s really on the inside?

Sleepless in (approximately 31 km outside of) Seville

Posted in Prose on November 3, 2017 by 1writegirl

When you don’t have much money (I say “you” but of course, I mean “I”), traveling to foreign lands, especially alone, where the language, currency, culture etc is different, is a humbling experience. You stay at the cheapest hotels, hostels or local rooms you can find, where things like WiFi, toilet paper, soap, even a toilet seat, can’t be taken for granted. You don’t typically eat at restaurants (except in parts of Asia where it’s cheap and easy) but instead buy inexpensive, tinned items (sardines and crackers for instance) or fresh portioned food, like ready-made salad, yogurt, fruit and nuts, at grocery stores, that you can consume in your room or as you travel, and won’t weigh you down. When you get an invitation to eat with a local, you take it, which means you’ll be eating things you may have never seen, much less been served, as a meal. If you’re dependent on public transportation, you hang out at bus stations for hours sometimes because it’s a local holiday and the schedule is reduced, and a taxi to cover the 20 miles to your destination would be a splurge you can’t afford. (You have to pick your splurges wisely). You ride share (BlaBlaCar here in Europe, what a great invention) when possible if it’s less expensive or will take you places public transportation won’t, even though it means three adults sharing the backseat of a compact car (you’re one of them) and the guy next to you prattling on for six hours non-stop (thankfully in fast French so you can be forgiven for never so much as uh-huh-ing), which is preferable to being in a car full of strangers who speak your native tongue and like to play the getting-to-know-you game. (The British, much to my relief and appreciation, tend not to fall into that category, refraining from asking intrusive and personal questions when meeting a stranger (“So, what do you do?”, “Do you have children?”), and instead make conversation about the world at large, where getting-to-know-you means your take on world events; anything personal you may care to reveal without being prompted, and in your own good time. My friend Enza from Canada is like that too, and I think it is one of the most endearing qualities a person can possess.)

The upside to these humbling experiences is of course the authenticity of the encounters, the proximity to what makes your destination unique – what makes Spain Spain, for instance, or Thailand Thailand. Money is insulating, or at least it can be and we often use it in that way. It allows us to travel in the style to which we are accustomed to living, which may be vastly different to the country in which we find ourselves. It also forms a barrier between us and them. We, the tourist, consume; they, the locals, provide. The relationship, when money is changing hands, feels artificial and to some extent anyway removed from everyday (Spanish, Thai, etc) life. In my ideal world, I’d be traveling for the most part with a companion and we’d have our own transportation, probably a motorcycle, but otherwise I wouldn’t change much. Or so I think now, from the vantage point of someone without money. I’m sure I wouldn’t mind eating out more often, if only to indulge in some of the regional dishes that I can’t sample by way of the supermarket.

I’m headed south, where my first overnight stop is Bayonne. I passed through here with John in July, but it’s dark when I arrive so nothing looks familiar. At my little room in an apartment, the WiFi code is the longest I’ve ever encountered – 26 characters. My hostess is an older, very friendly woman, who points me in the direction of the only place within walking distance where I can still get something to eat on this late Sunday evening – a pizza place. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I allow myself a calculated splurge: the cheapest pasta dish on the menu and a glass of house wine, coming to just over €10. Back at the apartment I try to get online again but she has turned off the modem and gone to bed. Thankfully I booked my bus ticket to Bilbao before I went out.

The next day, Bayonne to Bilbao, then another bus overnight to Seville. I love the fact that being in the EU I don’t have to display my passport at border crossings, which hardly seem to exist anymore (Actually they’re still there, but they are dark and quiet, as if in hibernation. They can wake up at any time circumstances dictate.) I still have to keep track of my time in Schengen countries of course, but I get to decide where and when to move around within that framework.

I arrive in Seville late morning on a Tuesday, Halloween in fact. My grandmother, were she alive, would be 109 today. It’s warm, which I welcome after a chilly October in England and northern France. After one city bus and lots of time waiting I catch another bus out of Seville to a smaller town where my ride is waiting for me – Antonio, the boyfriend of the woman who has rented me an Airbnb cottage – and 10 minutes later I arrive at my lodging for the next week, in a collection of houses off the highway in the arid countryside between two towns. Being from California I’m used to Spanish style homes – ochre colored, single story squarish houses with red tile roofs – and the landscaping too feels familiar: citrus trees, bougainvillea, jasmine, palm trees. My “flat” is an attached but very private set of rooms on the end, with its own entrance and a large front porch. Inside are dark hardwood floors, comfortable furniture, and a large soft bed, on which I lay down almost immediately to rest my eyes, as my father would say. I wake up three hours later. Dusk is approaching as I wander outside. The abuela of my hostess greets me, and though she speaks no English and I precious little Spanish, she conveys that I am welcome with kind eyes and grappling, gnarled hands. Like grandmothers everywhere she speaks the language of love. Three dogs size me up and when I take a seat at the table inside I see a grey dollop of fuzz out of the corner of my eye, darting into the kitchen. This turns out to be a four week old kitten, found less than a week old wandering around an abandoned property nearby, presumably having just opened its eyes and gone in search of food. Nobody knows what happened to its mother. They took it in, christened it Misha, and it is the tiniest, spunkiest, cutest little creature I’ve ever held in the palm of my hand.

The next day Arantxa (the txa pronounced sha) takes me grocery shopping, and on a “tour” of the neighborhood. I meet a woman who runs a small store out of her house, like a corner 7-11, as well as the parents of Arantxa’s former boyfriend. As is sometimes the case, the relationship with the man ended but that with his parents continued. On the way back she tells me it is her dream to travel around the world also, alone with just a backpack, but next summer she’ll be getting married and she doesn’t know now if it will happen. I suggest she may be able to travel with Antonio, but she dismisses the idea by saying, “He is all the time working,” then adds wistfully, “I think it is best to be alone, like you are doing.” We talk about the pros and cons of traveling alone, and I too am wistful when considering the big picture, and what I hope to attain as a result of all this wandering. I agree with her in principle that one is easier than two to feed, shelter, transport, but I tell her also that unless you make friends easily (she does, she tells me; I don’t) you will find yourself alone much of the time – eating, sightseeing, or whatever it is you do when you travel – which can be immensely broadening at times as well as unspeakably lonely at others, much like life in general. As honestly as I can I disabuse her of the notion that as a woman, particularly with very restrictive finances, you can go wherever you want whenever you want, alone. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t push boundaries and challenge ourselves culturally or politically (or any other way), it is to say we should take calculated risks, and personal safety especially for women cannot be taken for granted anywhere, less so in some places than others. It is to say that even the most solitary among us are social beings if we are to be found within the “healthy” range of the mental health spectrum. It is to say that when my grief counselor diagnosed me with “Major Depression, Severe” a year and a half ago because the DSM does not categorize grief as a mental health condition, I had no idea at the time that this meant I’ll go through the rest of my life doing the same things most other people do, and even some things that they don’t, but I’ll do them differently; like walking, but with a limp. It is to say that so much depends on age, experience, expectation, perception, resources and personality.

That night I hardly sleep, due to one or more pesky mosquitoes that buzz in my ear every time I nod off. Three days later and I’ve yet to get back to Seville to explore. This is partly due to lethargy – easily attributable to several nights of insomnia, fruitless mosquito hunting, a late night glass of spirits under a full moon, sore muscles, a sleeping pill, and a lingering sense of disappointment after learning, first, that the plan Johnny England and I had to ride down through Greece and into Turkey in November is now off the table as he can’t get away like he hoped, and second, that Ingrid’s plans have changed as well, and she won’t be able to host me in India after all – and partly due to bad weather and a bout of my recurrent need to hunker down as it were, to be alone for a bit, quiet and contemplative, without any agenda. I wonder too if these mosquitoes are a different sort, if they carry a venom to which my body is not familiar, because not only do the bites endure and itch for days, but I feel run down, achy and listless too (more than usual).

Periodically one of the dogs, Lola, a pit bull mix by the looks of her who reminds me of my friend Jenn’s dog, comes to my door to greet me. I open the door and pet her while she licks my hand and wags her tail, her whole body wiggling. Today she sauntered off after one of these encounters only to reappear an hour or so later with a huge dead (or so I tell myself) rat in her mouth. Now see, this is what I’m talking about. How are you going to get that in a five star hotel?

A magnificent book, recommended to me by my dear friend Kathy: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Farewell, My Lovely

Posted in Prose on October 22, 2017 by 1writegirl

The hostel in Plymouth is called Staykation. A 20 minute walk from the train station, it’s located in the Stonehouse district on Union Street. The young man who checks me in has what, at the moment, is referred to as “learning difficulties.” (Give it a week and that will be considered offensive or otherwise inappropriate, and a new term will take its place.) He ends every sentence by addressing me as Madam, and though he asks me for ID he’s unable to use the office printer to make a copy of it, so I go around behind the desk to try and help. Fortunately for us both it’s simply a matter of the machine needing to be turned on. Then he doesn’t know how to process my payment by credit card, so I try to help him with that one but all we manage to do is charge my credit card 43 pence. I suggest we wait till his supervisor returns a bit later to complete the transaction and he quickly concurs. He shows me to my room upstairs which has two bunk beds and 4 lockers. I scatter some clothes on one of the bottom bunks to mark it as taken but I needn’t have bothered as it happens – I’m the only female guest so the room is all mine. There is a small kitchen right outside, stocked with the necessities but also some perks, like tea, paper towels, hand soap, even a bit of coffee. I’m surprised to see a tv on the wall and a washing machine in the corner. The bathroom has soap, a hand towel, even a bath mat and shampoo. After I finish paying downstairs I walk down the road to Aldi’s supermarket to pick up some food for dinner. The cashier greets me with ‘hiya’ then immediately lapses into terms of endearment: “there you are, my lovely,” “just sign here please, my sweet.” When I return to the hostel I pass the clerk on the stairs, who has overcome his need to “madam” me (I’m no longer a stranger?) and greets me in almost identical fashion.

Once or twice a man from the neighboring room pops in and out of the bathroom but otherwise I have the upstairs area to myself. The next day when I check out I ask the owner if I can leave my backpack in the lounge since my ferry doesn’t leave till 10pm, and he graciously agrees. During the day I walk around Hoe Park, the Barbican area (which according to the hostel owner contains the few remaining buildings in Plymouth that weren’t destroyed in the Blitz of WW2) and Sutton Harbor.

By late afternoon I’m flagging and sit in a park a short distance from the hostel before returning to collect my belongings. I’m making notes in my iPad when I hear a voice, and look up to see a young man, a boy really. He tells me he needs to get to the hospital to see his mother, but he is short 80p of the bus fare. Would I give him 80p? I know I’ve got a bit of change, as well as a 10 pound note which I’m hoping to save. (Travel tip: when leaving a country you may visit again, or whose currency is widespread like the Euro, try to hang on to the equivalent of at least ten dollars for next time, for bus fare, a cup of coffee, whatever in the event an ATM isn’t readily available at the border and you can’t use a credit card.) I silently debate whether to set my iPad down to get out my wallet and fish around for coins. I seriously doubt his story, and wonder what he is really planning to do with the money. I mean, what can you buy with 80p? But I don’t have the heart to deny him such a small request, so I rest my iPad on the bench beside me and dig in my pocket for my wallet. He asks me where I’m from while I’m doing this. I tell him and he says the Americans he has met have all been great people. He hopes to visit some day. I say I’m glad to hear it, hand him a pound coin and tell him he is a good son. He smiles and thanks me, then to my surprise leans in and kisses my cheek. As he does so I think instantly about my phone in my pocket and wonder how adept at sleight of hand he’d have to be to lift it; my iPad next to me would be an easy swipe. If he took either of them, would I run after him? I picture myself, a 53 year old woman, in pursuit of a fit teenage boy, tackling him from behind and wrestling my electronic device from his hands. He retreats, smiles and walks away, and even as I pat my pocket, feeling my phone, even as I glance down to reassure myself my iPad is still there, I am ashamed of myself. Although we live in a world where my fears weren’t unrealistic, they are not justified. The vast majority of people are mostly good, and if we stop believing this, we stop doing the little things, never mind the big ones, that validate our connection to others, our commonality. It’s not just their humanity at stake when they need help thus reach out and risk rejection, it’s our own.

Back at the hostel I change into my motorcycle gear so I’ll have less to carry on my back. The owner asks me where I’m going and when I say Brittany, tells me he bought a cottage there; he’s going to live there when he retires, in a year and a half. “If I still can by then,” he growls. “We’ll see what this lot comes up with,” referring to Theresa May and the as yet unsettled terms of Brexit. As I walk out to the street he points to the building directly across from the hostel. It’s a magnificent old hotel and theatre, several stories high with turrets and statues and tiled scenes of the Spanish Armada across the front. It was damaged in a fire years ago and the owner, who subsequently went to prison on drug charges, is out now and wants to demolish it and build cheap (as in shoddy) housing. “He can’t though,” he says, “because it’s historical, see?”

As a pedestrian boarding the ferry, at least from Plymouth to Roscoff, I am subjected to the same sort of security measures as if I were in an airport. I have to remove my coat, my bags go through an X-ray machine, and I have to walk through a metal detector (if that’s what that is). Whereas all the times I was on the bike with John, wearing the same clothes, carrying the same baggage, we never once were put through any screening. We simply rolled right on to the ferry after showing our ticket and passports. It makes no sense, and serves to reinforce the notion that so-called security measures are bullshit – random, inconsistent and meant to convey the idea that they make us safer without doing anything of the kind. If they can instill us with fear that our lives are in constant danger and we need to be guarded and protected at all times, we will get used to these practices which invade our privacy and violate our civil liberties. Before long, we’ll forget they ever existed.

After we debark at 8 the next morning, I look around for someone to ask about the bus. The travel websites I visited all claimed you have to have a paper ticket in order to catch the bus to Morlaix, and the only place you can get one is at an official French train station, making it impossible for someone just off the boat from England. Luckily, when the bus shows up at 8:55, the driver accepts cash.

The man behind me, a young Frenchman, only has 4 euros on him, as well as a few pounds. He taps my arm as I start to move away. We had chatted briefly at the bus stop about the possibility of buying a ticket on the bus as neither of us had purchased one in advance. “Can you help me?” he asks. I give him €3, enough to cover what he’s short then go and find a seat. When he passes me he stops, and holds out a ten pound note. “Here,” he says. “You can use it on your next trip to England.” I could, yes, but it’s too much. I tell him so, and he pulls a handful of change from his pocket. “Take it,” he says, trying to empty his hand into mine. I tell him I’ll take two pounds as I pick through the coins. My stomach growls loudly as the bus pulls away. I sit back, close my eyes, and wonder how soon I’ll be able to get my hands on something from a patisserie.

Speaking of lovely, I recommend the book The Seas by Samantha Hunt. Her prose is concise, poetic, insightful, daring and fresh.


Posted in Prose on October 16, 2017 by 1writegirl

I leave John in Brighton to attend to business and catch a train for Devon, to spend a few days with Mark before John is ready to ride again. Mark is heading off to the US (Fresno California) for a visit with a friend in about 10 days. She is recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed my mother. I remember how quickly she went after she was diagnosed, and I hope Mark’s friend is in one of the earlier, more treatable stages.

He’s shipping his bike over, planning to ride around the Pacific Northwest and the western states before heading south to Baja Mexico and from there Central America. “Care to join me in Belize this winter?” He asks. He knows I was bummed when I learned he wasn’t going to India as he had previously considered doing from November to April, because I’d hoped to be able to visit him there in late November or early December, after John and I have completed our ride. “Maybe,” I say, although I know nothing at this point about when I’ll be returning to the US and thus that part of the world.

He’s working on his house, getting it ready to rent out, and scrambling to find a tenant. Over the next week we ride around a bit on the 1980’s BMW he’ll ride on his trip, and I read, walk and write while he’s busy sawing, fitting, arranging and painting. He finds a tenant at about the same time as John calls to let me know he won’t be ready to leave again till early to mid October. Mark tells me I’m welcome to stay on and house sit for him when he goes, as the tenant isn’t moving in till the mid to latter part of October. I accept his offer gratefully, as accommodation is expensive in England, as is eating out.

One evening I come back from the village store to find a friend has dropped by, a woman called Ingrid. They are having a cup of tea and talking about places they’ve traveled. I sit with them for awhile then go into the kitchen to fix dinner, an asparagus in cream sauce pasta recipe I found online, but finding no asparagus at the market I’m substituting broccoli. I ask Ingrid if she’s staying and she says no at first, then after a while she changes her mind. She’s a tall blond woman, a few years older than me, and she exudes warmth and perceptiveness, as if she’s seen many strange and wondrous things and is hoping for more. She is so skinny that I wonder at first if she too has cancer or some other ravaging illness, perhaps anorexia. It turns out (after I’ve known her longer, the subject of weight arises, and I’ve confided in her that I was anorexic for a few years) she has always been naturally skinny without any interference or complications (“I do eat, really I do!”) She does in fact eat the entire portion of pasta she’s served, and generously proclaims it to be delicious. She once co-owned and managed an Italian restaurant so I appreciate the compliment.

She, too, has been to India, and more times than Mark. She’s been going for about eight years now for a few months each winter, and purchases clothes, handbags and blankets while there which she brings back to England and sells over the summer. She is eking by. She asks about my plans. When I tell her about riding with John she asks, “And then?” I say I don’t know. “Come to India,” she says. “Maybe,” I say, heartened by this, my second invitation in the space of a week to visit a warm and exotic place this winter in the company of someone who has knowledge of the area.

Before I know it Mark has gone and I’ve got the house to myself. It’s the first time I’ve been alone for weeks, and I need it. I call my grief mentor, who lives in Las Vegas, and tell her about some paperwork I received from my attorney’s office. It took me right back to the moment when what has happened became my reality and all those emotions that I’d experienced – shock, disbelief, rage, hatred, anguish, remorse, helplessness, sorrow, and feelings that don’t have names for them so far as I know, but are dark and ugly and wretched and bring to mind maggots and cobwebs and tight crevices and scalding water and flayed skin and what it might feel like to lay trapped under a burning tractor trailer – were upon me once again, as if we had never even briefly parted ways. She understands – her daughter, slightly younger than Jackson, was killed in a freak auto accident eight years ago – and knowing this calms me. She doesn’t say stupid shit like, “just breathe,” “don’t think about it,” or one of the worst offenders, the pseudo-philosophical “everything happens for a reason.” I want to strangle people who say that last one, then tell their relatives “everything happens for a reason.” Instead she asks me if she can do any of the paperwork for me, or if she can contact someone back in California who can act as my advocate to get it done.

A few days later Ingrid invites me over to her house for dinner. She tells me that in India, grief, especially for a child, is treated with much more respect and compassion than in Western cultures. You aren’t treated like a pariah with a contagious disease, nor are you expected to “get over it,” “buck up,” or by all means “keep it to yourself.” You don’t cry alone, she tells me, and you cry for as long and as much as you need to. A shrine to your dead child isn’t considered creepy, it’s considered natural. She takes my hand. “Come to India.”

I’ve decided to visit two friends in France while I’m waiting for John, so I book a ferry crossing, train ticket and accommodation at a hostel in Plymouth. As I leave Devon I regret that I didn’t get the opportunity to sample scrumpy, a home-brewed cider version of what we Americans lovingly refer to as rot-gut or moonshine. Maybe next time.

If you are looking for an eloquent and interesting read that blends history, travel writing and memoir, I suggest Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, by Richard Grant, a Brit who emigrated to the U.S.

The Grand Alps Part Two

Posted in Prose on October 7, 2017 by 1writegirl

Graeme, Johnny England and I come to the end of the Route des Grandes Alpes in Nice, where we turn left and ride into Italy, camping for the night at an extremely crowded and cramped campground that has no grass whatsoever as far as I can tell. The ground beneath out tents is covered in a mesh-like material that, while likely intended to make staking the tents easier, proves quite difficult to penetrate with our small flimsy pegs (included with the tent, they’ve done the job so far but after half of them are bent and smashed by the rock John uses to anchor them, he regrets having left behind the larger, sturdier ones he bought separately last time.) It’s dark and late after we get settled and the nearby restaurants are closed, so we make do with cheese sandwiches from the on-site snack bar, generously offered to us and prepared by a shy girl who could pass for 14 or 15 (and may well be), and cold draft beer. Her English, though broken and elementary, is better than our Italian (nonexistent) and we are grateful to her not just for the meal but for the way she, like the French, trusts us both to pay the bill whenever we get around to it (any time before we check out the next day) and to volunteer an itemized account of our consumption.

The next day we ride east back to France and spend a few hours in the very charming border town of Menton which it was too dark to really see the night before. There is a soft pastel theme to the color of the buildings and we notice elaborately painted borders around many windows, giving the illusion from a distance of shutters and railings. I’ve never seen this done before and wonder why, in the land of shutters and balconies that France is, they would bother with this deception, artistic though it may be. We ride up into the hills where I spot a wild boar running into the bushes and the view, when we can find a place to safely pull over on the windy narrow roads, is lovely. When we ride back down we walk around the town before walking across the main road to a stretch of rocky beach and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, no longer warm from summer’s heat but tolerable, at least for a few minutes, to a wimp like me. 63A90F97-D1F0-469B-AEE6-D4B39B48D37F

After lunch we head back into the mountains and begin our return to England, which entails some new roads and some backtracking, although scenery from the bikes appears different when viewed from the opposite direction. We don’t find a campground until dusk, and it is gated. Coincidentally a man comes walking along behind us and using a key card opens the gate, explaining as he does so that we’ll need to speak into the intercom next to the gate to be helped if we want to check in. John pulls the bike up to the intercom facing down the driveway, and I press a button. When a voice finally asks “Oui?”, I offer my usual recitation (“We are three people, two motorcycles and two tents, is there one place we can share for tonight?”) to be told it is too late, reception is closed. “We have to go in to turn the bike around,” John says, and I begin to convey this in French to the box but stop talking when I can’t come up with the word for gate. “Laissez le…” John either assumes I’m finished or he’s too tired to care because he takes off down the driveway and Graeme follows. We get to the bottom of the hill, turn the bikes around, and start up again. The gate has closed.

In a matter of 30 seconds we have ascertained that there are two tents up, several vacant spaces, and a row of dark RVs around the outside. The man who let us in with his key card is standing in front of one of the tents so I approach him and ask his take on the situation. He tells me what he paid (€9) and suggests we stay and square up in the morning. He points in the general direction of the bathroom. I walk up the driveway toward the reception office on one side and a large house on the other, on the off chance a campground staff member has materialized, but both buildings are dark and shut up. A big black dog with a muzzle on is resting in front of the office. His legs are crossed in front of him and he lifts his head as I approach, then cocks it to one side. Poor thing, I think, having to wear a muzzle. Probably a barker.

We set the tents up quickly and not for the first time, in the dark. We’re hungry by now, and think about riding back into the town a couple miles down the road for something to eat, but realize we have no way to open and close the front gate. We decide I’ll ask the man who let us in. I walk over to his tent but he is no longer sitting outside it like he was before. I walk up to the tent and say, “Allo? Excuses-moi.” Silence. I listen for rustling or snoring sounds, and hearing none, repeat my query. Nothing. I do the same thing to the other tent, which is equally devoid of any sign of life. I return to John and Graeme. “Maybe we can just walk somewhere close by,“ I suggest. That’s when we explore the campground for the first time and realize that the entire place is surrounded by an 8-10 foot high barbed wire fence, with an even higher rock wall in the corner closest to the main road. The RVs along the perimeter and a few scattered trailers near the bathroom are all vacant. The odd piece of dry laundry, pegged to clothesline hung between a tree and a trailer awning, flutters in the breeze, as if the occupants left in a hurry and only took what mattered most.

On the far side of the campground parallel to the main road we stop and gaze longingly up at a small food truck parked in the lay-by. It has “pizza” written on the side and we can see its lone occupant, a woman, busy preparing food. We can hear faint music. I call up to her but my voice is lost in transit, and eventually I give up. “Where’s John?” I ask Graeme. He’d been standing beside me only a moment ago. Graeme points to the far end of the property and the high white wall. I squint, and can just make out John’s figure scrambling up it. “Jesus!” I say. Seconds later he’s standing next to the pizza truck. He walks to the edge of the grass and peers down at us. He says something but we can’t make it out, so he ambles down the hill and stops above the wire fence, grinning. “What’ll it be?” We each want something different but we compromise and pick one pizza to share. “And beer,” adds Graeme. John climbs back up the hill, goes over to the truck, and begins the transaction, but moments later he’s back. “I’ve got no more euros,” he says. “I’ve got some,” I tell him, and throw him my wallet. With the light from his phone he digs through it, only to discover that I too am out. Graeme returns to his tent to see what he can scrounge up, but returns empty handed. By now the woman working the truck has ambled over, curious. She calls down in French, asking if she should make the pizza. I explain to her that we’ve just realized we have no cash. She looks at me, then Graeme standing next to me, then finally at John. “Between three of you, you have no money?” Her tone carries disbelief but no judgement, and we all sort of shrug our shoulders sheepishly. In the darkness I can feel myself blush. There is a moment of silence during which I accept that we will go to bed hungry and acknowledge that it won’t hurt any of us to do so. Then she herself shrugs and asks how much our order will cost. John quickly calculates the total for a large pizza and 3 beers and tells me, then I tell her. “Twenty euros.” She says we can get the money from the ATM in town in the morning, and leave it in her truck, which she leaves parked on the premises overnight. I gush out my gratitude for her kindness, to which she replies, “Nous ne sommes pas sauvages, n’est pas?”

It feels like hours later when John finally hands the pizza over to me up by the front gate then returns to the wall by the road and climbs down. I tell him how impressed I am by how casually and skillfully he scaled the wall. (Secretly I’m turned on by it, but keep this fact to myself.) The pizza is delicious, with a thin crust, tender pieces of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, carmelized onions and real cream in the sauce. We scarf it down in minutes.

The next morning, though it’s easily 9:00 when we get up, the campground feels even more like a ghost town/prison yard than it did the night before. The two tents are still there but they have no occupants, and both the office and the house by the gate remain closed. The only living presence we encounter is the dog, whose muzzle has mysteriously disappeared, skulking around the grounds like a soldier doing a perimeter check. We begin to wonder how we are going to get out. Finally one of us spots an open door of an RV and I approach it to find a man sitting inside listening to his radio. I explain that we can’t get out and after a bit of back and forth, he agrees to call the owner for us. I assume this means that a campground staff member will physically show up and go through the process of registering us, taking payment, etc. Instead, the owner informs the man that it will cost us €21 euros for our site, and instructs him to collect the sum then use his key card to let us out. I explain that we have no cash, which once again inspires disbelief, then amusement; finally the man agrees to let John and Graeme leave to get money from the ATM while I stay put as collateral. He then tells me to come back and get him when they return.

While they’re gone I charge my phone in the bathroom and gather up the last of my things. On my way to and from the bathroom I encounter the dog, who has, for reasons known only to him, taken a sudden and fairly dramatic turn in the direction of distinctly unfriendly. He snaps at my ankles. He growls. He barks briefly before growling again. “It’s okay,” I say as calmly as I can manage, and perhaps a tad indignantly. (After all, one, I’m an animal lover – can’t he smell that or something? and two, minding my own business.) “I’m not going to hurt you.” As if. I look around for something with which to defend myself and see neither a rock nor a stick, bearing in mind that, except for the man inside his RV with his radio on, I’m completely alone in the “prison camp” as we’ve come to call it. I’ll have to kick the dog if it comes to that, or possibly shove my cell phone charger in his open mouth should he leap through the air, fangs bared, going for my throat. Fortunately he gets bored with scaring me and wanders off and I’m able to return to the road where I wait halfway between the gate and the RV, close enough to hear the bikes but far enough away from Dog Vicious. Finally the guys return, we pay the man and leave money in the food truck for last night’s dinner, and we are on our way.

We spend the next two days and nights on Lac de Castillon, camped at the Camping du Lac campground in Saint Julien du Verdun which has closed for the season. There is a barricade at the entrance but it’s our good fortune that it is only wide enough to keep out full sized vehicles. We can just squeeze through on the bikes. There is evidence that the campground has only just closed – there is still hot water, for example, and toilet paper, as well as one or two trash bins that contain plastic bags as well as a bit of rubbish. We set up our tents behind the only outbuilding present on the “green” (which is actually brown) to lessen the chances of a village resident spying our presence and reporting it. Honestly, I can’t imagine they would care, or why, but we are determined to remain unnoticed as much and as often as possible when we are “wild” camping. Then we hurry to take showers while they are still hot, convinced it’s just a matter of time before they run cold. As it happens, we have hot water for the duration of our stay. We ride around the deep, turquoise lake and over to the Gorges du Verdun, with knockout roads and views that we can’t believe, again, we’ve stumbled upon. BE8453DD-1805-4921-A272-F756B7024B5A

We ride northwest and spend three nights, the longest period of time at one place yet, in Laragne-Monteglin. We choose this place because John has good memories of hang gliding here more than a decade ago. We stay so long because Graeme is having mechanical problems and needs time to fix his bike. From here we’ll need to ride with purpose to get to England by September 12, when both John and Graeme need to be back. We ride around till John sees a road that looks familiar, which we follow to the campground where he stayed all those years ago. We check in, but even before we pick our site we see hang gliding in progress at varying stages, and John stops to chat with an older man with a small caravan and a hang glider out front. He turns out to be a retired NASA engineer from Florida named Don, who now spends winters in Florida and the rest of his time hang gliding around southern Europe for the most part. While Graeme works on his bike, John shows me where he used to take off and land, and we do a bit of exploring around the area.  840B4111-FC9D-4EFB-BF9B-DEA7A5E43B49

Before we leave Don invites us to join him hang gliding in Spain in October; it would mean collecting John’s car and glider and borrowing Graeme’s trailer to tow the bike. John is sorely tempted, I can tell, missing those years when he practically lived in the sky weekends and holidays. He hems and haws though, reluctant to commit or refuse. For my part, I’d definitely be interested in giving it a try. As we get on the bike Don hands John his card, then waves at me. “You come down to Florida next time you’re in the states and I’ll take you for a flight,” he says. “Guaranteed.” I thank him, and say I will.