07.30.2012 (midday in paris)

Is it a cliche to love this place so much? (Do I care?) I’d like to move in; I’ll pay my rent in baked goods and alphabetization services. The padded bench I’m sitting on is quite comfortable: it’s almost like a bed. I could happily sleep here across from the piano (a Schindler) and the typewriter (of unknown make and time period). Perhaps this anonymous man, who is so unselfconsciously and passionately playing the piano, whose back is to me and whose face I have not yet seen, only his hands and red tshirt and leather jacket hanging over the back of the chair like it has been here before – perhaps he could wake me up in the mornings with emphatic chords on this charmingly out of tune piano. He’d be encouraged to stick around for music and ambiance purposes.

But anyways, regardless of my skillful and unkempt friend, I’d happily live in this tiny second floor library, a chess board and its mismatching pieces serving as my nightstand. And hundreds (thousands?) of old, torn books – whose earth tones reflect a time before glossy covers in fifty shades of anything – could serve as my roommates.

There’s a feeling that I live when I enter an old bookstore, a place that so earnestly (Earnestly?) and endearingly expresses a love of books. Seconds after entering I decide I don’t want to leave, and my mind begins to race: not with anxiety but rather with inspiration, with a desire to consume all of the knowledge and feeling that awaits on old, towering wooden shelves. It’s like sitting down to a feast when you’re starving, not sure what to eat first, overcome by appetite and excitement and gratitude.

I first came here ten years ago with my family. A family of nerds, I think I can safely and proudly say. I’m not sure I appreciated the place the way I do now, but I remember the rafters – I remember how tall the shelves and ladders seemed – and the cramped rooms and the dim lighting and the store’s ability to convey a sense of nostalgia even to first time visitors. I remember my father speaking fondly of his memories of the place, of visiting when he briefly lived in Paris over 30 years ago. Lucky man. I wonder if I bought anything? Maybe a book I never touched again, or something that entertained me throughout the rest of our trip, finished in the middle of a transatlantic flight. I wonder if I browsed the children’s section upstairs or searched for a more mature read on the first floor. Regardless of any of that, I’m back now. And my own memories and nostalgia amplifying the impression these walls and shelves and pages leave on my heart.

It is in a place like this where I feel comfortable in my questions and uncertainties. There is a feeling of promise, of potential, that one feels when surrounded by millions of words, thousands of ideas already on paper, ready for the taking, ready to inspire and influence. I am in the company of countless others who have searched for answers here, or used this space as a refuge from that search (it can be tiring). I am comforted by the intellect they leave behind, like layers of paint amassed over time, growing thicker with the passing of decades. It makes me want to write and read and breathe all of these books.

It’s a place like this that makes any ambitious plans for sightseeing melt away. The knowledge that sitting here for three house will be more gratifying than taking forty pictures of the Seine or the Eiffel Tower or the masses on the Champs Elysses. And it’s always a comfort to be so enamored with an experience or a place, for it serves as a set of clues, a way to understand what inspires me in hopes that the result my in some way serve as a clue to my future. I still don’t want to leave.

So I sit and the notes of the piano echo the excitement in my heart, providing an appropriately dramatic soundtrack for this moment — a gift on this last full day of travel, an unexpected burst of joy and culture and gratitude. As I’ve done too many times over the past seven months, I promise myself that I’ll come back here, if only to repress the sad fact that I’m just a visitor. Like a promise to a sick person: someday we’ll take that trip we’ve always planned. Someday we’ll go back. We’ll get our chance to see it again. Can’t you picture it? And the patient, bedridden, just closes their eyes, and smiles, and finds joy in the satisfaction that comes with those promises, empty but full of love.

the end.

For thirty eight days, I walked.

Each morning I would wake up, try not to be a crabby bitch to my father who so graciously shared his time and patience and experiences with me for five weeks, pack my possessions into a blue Gregory backpack, lace up my torture devices best friends hiking boots, chug a cafe doble, and walk. Somewhere between the coffee hitting my lips and the end of the first kilometer, I like to think that I became a pleasant person to be around.

On our first day I felt like a kid on her first day of school, high on endorphins and giddy from sweeping views of God’s Green Earth. We climbed roughly a thousand vertical meters and then descended steeply, blisters and fatigue appearing like unexpected and unwanted houseguests. The next five days felt (physically) like torture, each step a reminder of the silver dollar-sized blisters on my heels, a clear result of my own stupidity. (Or, perhaps, the fact that I was wearing brand-new socks and carrying a 25 pound pack.) The only thing that helped was walking long enough that I forgot the pain, or conning my father into giving me lessons on subjects ranging from Shakespeare, to history, to our family’s past. The man can tell a good story.

Then, finally, walking became a comfort. It was what my body wanted to do. It was a relief. My heels were no longer raw and my calves had gotten bigger and my pack and my boots felt like a part of me rather than a burden. Each day, after the choreographed dance of packing and coffee and breakfast, those first few steps felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt so natural to get up and go each morning, to move my body, to keep on the path towards our final destination.

And then – once I was fully and completely in the groove and I felt like I could live like this forever – we reached Santiago. It was unreal. We celebrated, we saw friends I never thought I’d see again, and I lent my voice to a rousing rendition of The Proclaimers’ “500 miles” at an impromptu pilgrim party outside a nondescript bar. A random Spanish man joined in. (He didn’t know the words.) Some of us were friends, some strangers, but we all joined together to celebrate the miles we had walked, the blisters we had nursed, the certificates we had received to commemorate on paper all we had done on foot. We celebrated our shared identity before it faded, before we turned into pumpkins at midnight, before some boarded buses the next day and returned to work and their old routines.

After two nights of “celebration”, my body was ready to walk again.

So I walked towards the sea. At first alone, or sporadically with new acquaintances. On my third and final day, I was joined by friends. Friends that had recently been strangers, friends whose conversation occupied my mind for thirteen uninterrupted kilometers of walking in the early afternoon over endless hills. As we climbed each hill we hoped to find a view of the ocean at the top, but instead were consistently greeted with more green hills, more grey clouds. At last, we saw what might be the sea. Was it the ocean or another cloud? It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Atlantic. We jumped and hooted and hollered and hugged and I yelled “hey mom!” due west. I felt like I was seeing the ocean for the first time.

Our boots finally made it to sand. It was grey, and chilly, and the Atlantic didn’t look too inviting. But it looked like the Atlantic. It looked like home. So, along with two friends, I dropped my pack in a conveniently located beachside restaurant, stripped off my stinky hiking clothes and hid them under a dinghy to protect them from the sky’s drizzle, and ran in, screaming like a little girl. It was refreshing and it made me feel alive and I couldn’t have been happier to be in the water.

We recuperated in the restaurant with red wine and a few hours of conversation with the owner slash bartender slash adorable old Spanish man. The next morning, we walked to the lighthouse at the end of the earth, finishing what we had come to do and relishing one last opportunity to lace up our boots. That afternoon, my dad came and picked me up in a rental car, freshly rid of his Camino beard. He looked different. Being in a car was weird. It was so easy, so clean, so fresh smelling. We stayed another night in Finisterre. It felt like an in between place, where pilgrims turned into regular humans, or at least tourists, and we all traded in our legs for wheels. Again, like Cinderella at midnight.

We finally drove away, covering mileage in a few hours that would have taken us weeks to walk. The coast disappeared in the distance and I said goodbye to the Camino: at least for now, at least physically. These sorts of experiences are impossible to hold onto the way we want to, like children refusing to give up a security blanket or a favorite toy. It’s denial, really. I didn’t want it to end, didn’t want to be in that car, didn’t want to wake up the next morning and not walk to the next town. But I’ve got to trust that the Camino has changed me, that I have absorbed certain lessons that I can hold onto without such a tight or fearful grip. Things that will stay with me regardless of where I go or how I get there. Because at some point, I have to go home. At some point, I’ll drive my own car again, and I’ll get a job (hopefully?) and I’ll regain some level of normalcy. I just hope that my own personal version of normal has changed since the last time I got in my own car, ordered a coffee in English, or slept in my own bed. All we can ask for, I guess, is that these experiences change us in lasting and positive ways, and that we can not only benefit from them, but share our lessons with others.