I like German words. “Waldeinsamkeit” – the loneliness you feel when you’re alone in the forest. “Gemütlichkeit” – the feeling of being surrounded by friends, in a cabin in the woods, as the wind and snow pelt the window, a small fire in the fireplace, a glass of wine in your hand, a bearskin rug under your butt. Or “Vorfreude” – the happiness you feel about something about to happen.
I am writing this in a café near the Gare de l’Est in Paris. It’s a wonderful and warm late spring afternoon, people are out and about, the coffee is hot and strong, and there’s a constant smell of freshly baked goods coming over from the boulangerie across the street. A guy plays “Blowing in the Wind” on an acoustic guitar, and the chatter almost lulls me into a nap.
I came here by train from Munich, Germany, eight hours of high-speed traveling across the plains and mountain ranges of France, thinking about the days and weeks ahead. Vorfreude.
My backpack is light. Two pairs of socks, Wrightsocks of course, two pairs of merino underpants, two t-shirts, basketball shorts for town evenings, loafers, a poncho. Add some hygiene and electronics, and you’re at five kilos. Much less than one tenth of my body weight, but closer to it (hopefully) when I arrive.
I walk for health. Mostly mental, some physical. I need the calm of a morning ascent, the feeling of accomplishment every evening when the few real tasks that matter, leaving and arriving, are finished, and the choice of company or not. I need time to sort my body, mind, and soul, and the Camino might do this for me, as my other hikes did, almost every year, without fail.
My work is highly structured, yet chaotic. I see death and despair every day, few stories end in a happy ending in the Emergency Department. The Camino is the opposite, few structures and forces, calm. Most interactions are happy ones, and there is a, usually tearful but mostly happy, ending.
The guitar player has stopped. My head is spinning with thoughts of hikes past and imaginations of the one to come. But it is time… my train to Bayonne isn’t waiting.
I bought ON shoes for this walk, but didn’t wear them in sufficiently, so I am wearing an old set of Merrels. I don’t think I’ll blister, but I can feel my right leg standing slightly crooked. This might be an issue, later. I stub out my Gauloises, another habit I will try to kick this time, take one last swig from the cup, pay, and leave.
This Camino is a spur of the moment one. Late March, looking over my overtime and vacation, it dawned on me that, despite habitually taking four weeks every year to walk, I still had enough to do it again this year. Google provided the necessary dopamine hit, thinking about doing something new, going to walk through Spain, and I booked my train ticket that day.
I told friends that I would go to France, get up one morning, drink lots of coffee, and walk to the beach. That’s all they need to know. My backpack, an old model Osprey Exos, had seen better days, but it’d do and was, and still is, the most comfortable backpack I have ever owned.
The train to Bayonne is empty, only an old couple sits across and two other pilgrims, from Sweden, judging by their language, down the aisle. One waves at me, smiles, the other does her very best to ignore me. Either way, that’s the Camino … you can, but you don’t have to.
The rumbling lulls me to sleep, and only the tapping on my shoulder by the smiley Swede, “Hej, my name is Inga, we’re here” wakes me after we arrive. I grab my stuff, it’s fortuitous to have all your possessions in one bag, and walk the short distance to my hotel. The sky isn’t friendly anymore, dark clouds are rolling in. Let’s hope it won’t rain. Tomorrow morning I’ll be on my way to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, but for tonight it’s a glass of wine at a wine bar along the Adour river, and bed.