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Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Pyrenées: Hiking Pyrenees: Travel Routes: Hiking Travel Walking

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers

Col d'Aran Approach
Approaching the top of Col d’Aran.

(Please click on the images to see them enlarged)

First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

Third part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 3: Village In the Mist


(It has been ages since I posted in the blog, and many of my readers may no longer be checking up on it anymore. Forgive me for that. Those of you who still stop by, thank you! This post took me a long time to write, and in the meantime some big events happened in my life, including finding someone who has changed my life, quitting my former job, and moving south to Kobe. Still trying to regain my feet and start walking again!)

Mountains were the reason I had journeyed halfway around the world to these steep, verdant slopes of the Pyrenees. To spend the month walking. And so it was time to leave Lescun, no matter how much I had fallen in love with the place. Truth was that with the mountains looming right there outside my B & B window, apprehension reared its ugly head, and I wondered if I would be all right, both in how well my out-of-shape body could handle the rigors of the climbs, and, even more, in how I’d be able to keep myself stocked well enough with food that low blood sugar from my diabetes wouldn’t put me into mortal danger. There were some lonely stretches I would be walking through where immediate access to food wasn’t possible for several days, and they scared the hell out of me. It was different when I was younger and healthy, but diabetes changed all that.

I woke at dawn and hefted my pack stuffed to the extension collar with boxes and food cans and packages of mostly fresh food, like sausages, bread, cheese, and vegetables. I just might have brought more than I actually needed, and when the owner of the B & B saw my pack, he sniggered, asking me if I was planning on hiking to the Arctic. Certainly the pack weighed a ton, and all that preparation to go “ultralight” had seemingly come to naught; the pack was much heavier than what all those walkers of the Pyrenees I had seen online were carrying. I grunted as I lifted the pack from where it stood against the frame of the front door.

I left a note for Stewart, and stepped out onto the road. Morning sunlight cast a golden glitter across the fields and dew-covered walls and rooftops, and rose into the East with a silent shout that filled my heart with song. I whistled as I strode past the still doorways and windows, finally on my way. Finally walking!

Ah, that feeling of skirting empty fields alight with the singing of birds and the small, far off bleating of sheep! No one else was on the road, so I had the silence to myself, and I could hear my shoes scuffing the gravel underfoot, and the creak of the pack under all that weight. Off in the distance rose the shining white teeth of the high ridges, white and concrete grey in the sun. My breath puffed in white billows in front of my face, and I could feel that morning sun burn against my cheek, my forearm, and legs. It was the time of day when insects, still held in suspended animation from the night chill, slowly stirred, and awoke to the sun. I walked past their spherical eyes, reflected in their vision, and feeling the swing of my arms and legs leading me up the road, toward the trailhead.

D'Aspe Valley Foothills
Across the d’Aspe valley higher into the foothills.

After all the people at the refuge last night, this time alone left a feeling of suddenly being cast adrift. The sound of my feet scuffling the asphalt tapped against the silence as if I was walking inside a bell, and only my movement promised me that the stillness was real. When I reached the first steep proper hiking trail, my breaths and heartbeats thundered about my ears, and I broke into a sweat. The sun crept into the spaces between the branches, and slowly the day opened, with swaths of sunlight. The morning chill lifted, and soon dragonflies were skimming the meadows and crows were beating the blue air.

The overladen pack demanded heavy gulps of air and I was out of breath before I had even climbed to the ridge of the first foothill. A clinging humidity settled into the air, without a breath of wind. And as the sun rose, so did the heat. Not the soft-edged, wet heat of the mountains in Japan, but the sharp, prickly exhalation of the Pyrenean sun, burning on the nape of my neck, drawing out my colors, etching at my thoughts, sucking away the vapors and subterranean streams. I found myself gulping down the contents of one of my two 1-liter water bottles, and before I knew it, it was almost dry. I halted at the crown of a forested hill, elated at reaching a first milestone, but worried about having enough to drink.

Selfie rest stop on first foothill ridge.
Taking a rest atop the first summit between Lescun and Borce.

The trail descended into a green valley of grass and cows, stone farm houses scattered along a slow river flowing through. It followed an arbor of old beech trees, and led past an enclosed farmyard, pigs snorting and grunting. Occasionally, other long-distance hikers passed me as I paused to photograph the fields and stone walls. Everything seemed half asleep, and I felt as if I was milling about during an unannounced siesta. Across the valley the trail continued up a steep-sided mountain, rising into the blue sky, grass waving in the breezes and sunlight.

I stopped under a lone sapling, setting down in the straw, to have my lunch of saucisson, farmer’s bread, soft cheese (which had melted in the paper wrapping), and two plums. Sweat poured down my brow as I swigged from my remaining water bottle, which I had to conserve for the rest of the day. Down in the valley tiny figures of lone walkers inched across the fields, horses flicked their tails, and occasional crows beat their way from hilltop to hilltop. Few of the locals seemed about. Perhaps they were resting.

Lescun to Borce Forest Path
Lescun to Borce Forest Path
GR10 Marker
GR10 marker on the crest between Lescun and Borce
Borce Fields of Heather
Fields of heather crossing over to Borce.

Finished with lunch, I trudged up the hillside, feeling the weight of the pack with all the extra food I had brought. By the time I reached the top, I was again badly out of breath, and feeling just how out of shape I was. The trail wended through a high valley purple with heather, and a dark, rocky peak in the distance. Grasshoppers popped in different directions at the kicking of my legs, and zithered in the heat. The red and white painted trail blazers for the GR10 long-distance trail appeared at irregular intervals on tree trunks and embedded rocks, leading me across the mountain-top and down the back side, where the afternoon sun blazed against the hillsides and the air baked in the heat.

I’d run out of water, and my mouth grew dry with thirst. During the descent four young French walkers passed me, and when I inquired about water sources, one of the women offered me a drink from her water bottle. “Be careful of the streams here. There are lots of cows above in the mountain fields. You never know about the water.”

First View of Borce
First view of Borce after a scorching and thirsty traverse of the foothills.

That one swig helped me make it down about halfway to the town, Borce, sitting at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge, just below where I was walking, and where I was planning to stay for the night. But the thirst returned and after a while I couldn’t take it anymore. At a splashing mountain creek choked with moss-covered boulders, taking the chance that the moss and brush and leaves in the stream would filter out the baddies in the water, I filled my bottle with the cold water, and hoped for the best. I took a long draught, and felt so good at the clear taste, that I took off my shirt and bathed my head and torso in the rushing stream. Two walkers with a labrador passed me as I shook my wet head, and the labrador joined me in the water. I laughed as the hikers whistled to the dog and continued down the trail.

Borce seemed like a footstep along the valley floor. Amidst the looming green ridges east and west, a cluster of 18th century buildings huddled along the Gave d’Aspe River, with a narrow main street running through the center of the village, and houses with stone façades lining the street side. Most of the façades were painted a dun white, so that even in the shade, the streets glowed with an inviting brightness. The streets were too narrow for cars to easily pass through, so a hush hung over the village, broken by the sound of people conversing and laughing. Ahead I heard the clinking of glass and metal, and I came upon guests dining and drinking under an awning, outside a small restaurant. I put my pack down and wandered inside into the dark interior to inquire about a camping spot and the price of dinner.

The man at the bar counter looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a scraggly ponytail of dark brown hair tied back from his thinning pate, and a kind but bored look in his eyes. He gave me a wan smile as I came up to the counter, and nodded half-heartedly when I asked if he could speak English.

“Would there be a place to camp near the village?” I asked.

He nodded again and shook his thumb behind him. “It’s out back behind the church. It’s a little difficult to find, so I’ll show you as soon as I can get away from this cash register. Why don’t you sit and wait here and have something to drink?”

I took a seat at one of the oaken tables and asked for a beer. I spied the guests outside munching on french fries, so I ordered a basket of that, too.

As I waited, I gazed around the restaurant, and glanced outside at the families under the awning. The guests represented a mixed lot, vacationing families out for a drive in the countryside, dusty walkers stopping for the night in one of the refuges or gîtes d’etapes, and villagers, stopping by for an evening quaff. Most of them were French, but I could hear a few speaking Spanish, and one couple deep in a German discussion.

I discovered that a small grocery store occupied the back part of the restaurant, with basic offerings of fresh bread, milk, eggs, canned soups, vegetables, and various cooking items and basic household paraphernalia. There was even a makeshift post office, with sheets of stamps held in folders on a shelf.

The store proprietor finally lifted the bar entrance counter and announced he was ready to take me to the campsite. A woman in spectacles took his place and smiled at me as I headed out of the bar door.

The proprietor led me behind the building and up some stairs, through an old church courtyard. The path passed behind an old stone dormitory, and along a tree-lined path into a grove that overlooked the village. He showed me a clearing with a chestnut tree in the middle where I could pitch my tent. Grass, nettle, dandelions, and clover carpeted the entire open area. Beyond the fence at the bottom of the field, lay an enclosed field with two donkeys and several sheep. Beyond that stood a row of modern wood houses, where several families sat out on the verandas eating dinner.

Borce Church Yard Camp
Camping on the first night in the rear churchyard in Borce.

“How much for the night?” I asked. The proprietor shook his head. “It’s free. The church likes to support G10 walkers!” He smiled and left me to my business.

In spite of all the grass, finding a level site without rocks underfoot took some time. The best place ended up being right at the foot of the chestnut tree, with barely enough room to extend and tauten the guylines. By the time I finished setting up camp darkness had fallen, and I was too tired to fire up the stove and cook dinner, in spite of all the food in my pack. I closed up the tent and sauntered back to the restaurant to order a dinner of two baguettes with ham and cheese, and a big, cold glass of beer.

I sat out under the awnings in the terrace, with my chair facing the street, watching evening strollers and village folk. At the table next to mine sat two Danish women who were also doing the GR10. We spoke for a while, but they seemed more interested in one another’s company, so after I downed the last of my beer, I stood to wander through the night streets of the village, taking photographs.

The street lights burned with the yellow cast of sulphur lamps, giving the houses and alleyways a dreamlike light that made the village seem half imagined. A few windows hung open and I could hear the sound of laughter and conversation from within. I stopped by the church door where a grizzled man in a baseball cap sat smoking a cigarette. The door was locked, so I couldn’t venture inside.

Night View of Borce Village
Night view of Borce village.

Back at camp I sat in the entrance to my tent and watched the moon rise over the hills behind the village. In the darkness in the field below the donkeys shifted restlessly, and one of the sheep bleated once. It took a long while for me to fall asleep.

I woke at dawn and quickly gathered my things and packed up. Dew clung to the grass and my shoes and socks got soaked as I kicked through the field headed for the edge of the village and the trace of the trail. I passed one elderly woman leaning out of her apartment window, watering her geraniums.

“Bon jour!” she called out. “Where are you headed?”

“The GR10. Up into the mountains.”

“A good day for it. Please take care!”

“Thanks!”

Chemin de la Matûre
The Chemin de la Matûre trail cut into the side of the cliffs.

The trail started under a bridge at the far side of the village, and followed some stairs down to the main road that crossed the Pyrenees from France into Spain. It led across the road into Etsaut, the next village over. From there the trail followed the asphalt road toward the cliff-hugging Chemin de la Mâture, an access way hewn out of the stone walls of the Aspe gorge, originally built for transporting timber over the mountains for use in the French navy.

The cliff path started a half hour after Etsaut, first meandering through open woods, then the trail growing narrower as the rock face grew steeper, finally carved out of the sheer rock, with a rounded, tunnel-like wall on the left, and an open side to the right, dropping off into thin air above the gorge floor 200 meters below.

Again the heavy pack… Hefting it up the cliff trail at first followed the gradual walk along the paved road until this point, as the trail inclined gently along the cliff face. It began to grow steeper when the wooded verge dropped away, and the trail had to wind along the vagaries of the rock. The sun also pulled past the shadow of the cliffs and shone into the gorge, at first warming up the chill from the night, but as the morning wore on, grew stronger and stronger, until… at around ten o’clock, it had begun blazing across the length of the trail.

I hadn’t counted on the heat. While I was used to walking in the stifling summer heat of the mountains in Japan, where it was a damp, shirt-drenching kind of humidity; here the heat lacked the moisture, and seared the skin like an oven. Even with my aluminized umbrella, the heat sucked me dry of water, and I soon found myself guzzling from the two 2-liter bottles just to keep up with my need to drink. The thirst and the weight of the pack soon had me stopping for breath every hundred meters, and by noon I was beat. All the morning walkers passed me as I sat in the shade of a bush, trying to regain my strength. When I stood, I grew dizzy, and became disoriented. I thought perhaps it was low blood sugar, and tried to fix it with nuts and dried fruit, but the dizziness remained. At one trail sign I read what I thought was a warning for a trail closure ahead and that an alternate route had been put in, so I took that path, keen to get on my way up to the alpine regions. The dizziness continued, and I sat down on a log, flush with heat, and bleary-eyed, while I contemplated what route to take. Little did I know that I had read the sign wrong, and that I had taken the wrong route up a different mountain.

A family noticed my pale face and asked if I was all right. The mother offered me a swig of water and handed me a slice of carrot cake, telling me it had been specially made for her grandfather. I accepted a slice, but couldn’t eat it. It made me more nauseous. “Never mind!” the mother laughed with a big smile. “The bananas are still too young anyway.”

Shade On Col d'Aran
Arriving at the top of Col d’Aran, grateful for the shade.

They sat with me for a while as I rested. The husband suggested that maybe it was heat exhaustion, so they offered several swigs of their lemonade. I admit it did make me feel a little better. I decided to sit a little longer as the family told me it was time they moved on. The mother asked if I was okay to be on my own. When I nodded and smiled, she nodded back. “Okay. Well, you take care then. Don’t push it. We’ll stop for lunch at the top, and wait a little till we see you, all right?”

I nodded and smiled again, thanking her and the rest of the family. The son and daughter both smiled, too.

“Here is some more cake,” offered the mother. “Just in case. Even if you can’t eat it now.”

And they were off, headed up the trail.

The forest seemed to close about me after the sounds of the family had faded. The seething of the trees in the slight breeze. and the noticeable absence of birdsong, brought home the vulnerability of being alone and weak on a mountainside. I finally stood and hefted the heavy pack, ready to push on. I looked up the trail and winced when I saw the switchbacks continuing way up into the shadows of the tree trunks.

I took the slope slowly, placing one foot in front of the other, making sure to watch how I felt. The dizziness faded, but I still felt weak and disoriented. The switchbacks zig-zagged up the steep slope for what seemed like forever, and I kept wondering when the tree line would appear and the alpine path begin. But the trees never ended and the sun kept at my back, and later moved to my left, where it decidedly should’t have been. It should have been over my right shoulder, as I headed northeast. This was headed west.

The day turned blazing hot as the trail climbed, and I saw dozens of walkers hiding from the sun beneath bushes and trees. Luckily I’d brought more water this time… four liters’ worth… so I avoided yesterday’s dehydration. Still, it wasn’t enough to counter the heat. When the path leveled off and opened up onto a ridgeline meadow, I felt both the joy of having reached the top of a mountain, and the let down of facing the sun full-on. The path meandered along the rocky ups and downs, until I came to a wind-bent grove of oak trees. Other people had chosen this area, too, taking spots in the shade of the trees. Bands of walkers passed through, most of them too hot to make conversation, and pushing doggedly on.

I found a shaded clearing beside some boulders, and put my pack down. The dizziness had gone and and for a while it was joy seeing my pack lying there in the grass and the lift of the mountains on the other side of the valley from which I had climbed. From behind me came a lilting voice, calling.

“Bonjour! We meet again! It seems you are feeling better and have made it up the mountains.”

It was the mother of the family that had helped me earlier. She was waving from another shaded spot a little further up the trail. The family was getting ready to head off, but they came over to check up on me.

“Do you have enough water?”, the mother asked. “It’s really hot, isn’t it?” She offered a 2 liter pet bottle of water. The father smiled shyly, nodding.

I nodded back. “Thank you so much, but I’m okay. I think it’s the heat. It sucks you dry!”

The son and daughter laughed. The whole family laughed together. “We French love walking in the heat!”, said the son.

“Be careful,” chided the mother. “We’re headed off now, but you take it easy, okay?”

I nodded and thanked them. They picked up their packs and started down the trail. I watched them pick their way along the rocks underfoot and disappear beyond a small rise.

I sat back against my pack and closed my eyes. A breeze was blowing, and the tall grass and wild flowers whispered as they shook. I pulled out the sandwich I had bought at the bar in Borce and munched on it while gazing at the windswept forest.

White petals fluttered on the breeze under one bigger tree, drifting down to a puddle in a mud patch. Then the petals, in unison, lifted and spun together to the further side of the puddle and landed there, neatly along the edge of the water. Looking closer I realized they were butterflies, small, coin-sized, pinkish-white Adonis Blue butterflies, gathering around the water to drink. They spun and lifted and dropped with the wind, dancing.

Adonis Blue Butterfly Trekking Pole
Male Adonis Blue butterfly (Polyommatus bellargus) on trekking pole.

I finished the sandwich and stood up to continue down the mountain. By now, consulting the map, it was clear that I had climbed the mountain northwest of where I had intended to go, Mt. Aran. The trail made a loop back to where I had started in the morning, so I decided to return to Borce.

The early afternoon heat grew to its most intense, and soon I was feeling weak and dizzy again. I slowly made it down the trail, taking care to drink my water regularly, and stop to eat small bites of the bread and sausage. But the pack was still too heavy, and the air so dry it whipped away any vestige of moisture on my skin. In the early afternoon the last leg of the trail stretched out along a quiet country road looking out over pastures along the Aspe River. I overtook a very slowly limping, very overweight woman who had turned bright red in the sunshine, and stared doggedly at the road surface, determined to keep going.

I called out a hello and she cheerfully greeted me back.

“It’s hot, isn’t it?”, she observed. “Maybe not the best day for a walk.”

“Are you all right?”, I asked. “You seem to be having trouble walking.”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just need to catch up to my husband and son.”

They were no where to be seen. “Are they up ahead?”, I asked.

“I dunno. Haven’t see them since lunch time. They’re much fitter than I am.”

“Do you have enough water?”

“Yes, I’m good. Just need a bit more exercise.”

I didn’t want to bother her too much, so I was about to march on ahead, when she continued talking.

“My husband is a good man. He takes care of the family and works hard. He also loves mountain climbing and comes up here to the Pyrenees as often as he can. He doesn’t look at all like me. He’s in great shape!” She said this with a shake of her head and a voice of defeat, followed by a self-effacing laugh. Her hand gestured toward her body. “I’m an old blimp. Can barely walk!”

We walked together silently for a time. The road led gently down the hill. The sun baked the asphalt and heat waves slow-danced in the haze. Grasshoppers zithered in the dry grass.

“I think I will take a break and sit in the shade of this tree. The tree was but a sapling, barely casting a shadow on the ground. I watched her red-facedly hunch down onto the stone at the base of the tree and offer me a great big smile.

“Thanks for taking the time to walk with me. You head on down the trail and enjoy the rest of the walk.”

I waved goodbye and continued walking. She waved at me when I turned around a hundred meters on. Then I was alone again in the heat and silence.

Day Hiking Col d'Aran
Families day hiking Col d’Aran.

___________

I arrived back in Borce in the mid-afternoon, at the hottest time of the day. The dizziness and nausea had returned bad enough that setting up camp took twice as long as usual. I I didn’t feel up to cooking, and the interior of the tent was an oven, so I sauntered down to the bar, where I ordered two baguettes with cheese and ham, some celery soup, and a bottle of white beer. I sat eating and, using the bar’s dicey WiFi connection, writing on Facebook about the mistaken trail and my physical condition. Within ten minutes I got a private message from one of my online ultralight hiking group friends, Thierry, who was French and asked if I was all right.

“What happened?”, he asked. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. Got quite sick on the trail and couldn’t push hard enough.”

“Where are you?”

“In a village named Borce, on the GR10.”

There was a brief pause. “You won’t believe this, but I’m quite near you, in the town of Oloron-Saint-Marie. Why don’t I come pick you up tomorrow morning?”

“Oh, that isn’t necessary! I’ll be fine.”

“It’s really no problem. Rest up and you can start again the following day. You can eat some real French home-cooking, too! How’s that sound?”

“Sounds great! What a surprise!”

“We ultralighters have to stick together, right?”

After he hung up I weighed my options, whether to buck up and stay on the trail, or take Thierry up on his offer. The idea of a bath and some company sounded great, and would be a welcome change to share talk with a fellow backpacker.

I returned to my tent and sat in the doorway, listening to the night. Animals moved in the darkness, and crickets chirped in the undergrowth. For a while I could hear some French pop music emanating from a window in one of the houses in the village, then it was hushed.
_______________

“Miguel?”

A grizzled man with a scraggly beard and wire-rimmed glasses stood stood in the doorway of the restaurant, the morning sunshine alight around him. I stood to greet him and we shook hands.

“Thierry.”

Thierry In Borce
Thierry In Borce

He was older than I had imagined, more my age, and a little overweight. I thought he would be athletically super fit and forthrightly confident. Instead a shy man with a hesitant smile and thoughtful gaze greeted me.

We sat at one of the rickety tables and ordered French-style big cup coffee. “Did you eat breakfast?” Thierry asked. When I replied I hadn’t, Thierry ordered a ham baguette for himself. I ordered the tomato and cheese baguette.

“Is it okay that we speak in French? Sorry my English is not so good,” Thierry apologized. “I should have studied harder in school!” We laughed.

“I was so surprised when I realized you were hiking the GR-10. And passing right near where I live!”

“Imagine my surprise when you said you live in Oloron!”

“Are you hiking the entire trail?”

“No, though I wish I was. I’m just doing the western third, to Gavarnie.”

“That’s a nice stretch! I’ve not walked up in the peaks. I’m more a lowland, long-distance walker. I especially like the Camino de Santiago.”

“You’ve done the Camino?” My eyes lit up.

He smiled. “A number of times. It’s one of my main reasons for living in Oloron.”

“I dream of walking the Camino.”

“It’s a special trail. You should definitely try it.”

“And I take it you do it UL (ultralight style backpacking)?”

We both nodded enthusiastically. “Of course!”, we said in unison.

Thierry indicated my backpack. “I’ve always wanted to see one of the new Gossamer Gear Mariposas. Nice-looking pack! May I take a look at it?”

“Of course.”

He picked the pack up and grimaced. “What in the world do you have in here?! It weighs a ton!”

I laughed. “Not at all UL, is it? Now I’ve lost the respect of my peers!” We laughed together. “I was worried about food,” I explained. “Most of the weight is food.”

He examined the pack and nooded quietly to himself. After putting it back down on the floor, he pursed his lips and declared, “I’m going to have to get one, too.”

We finished our sandwiches and coffee, then headed out to the edge of the village where his car was parked. The sun was already bright and strong, and the sky blue and free of clouds. We drove along the Aspe Valley road, moving smoothly along the rises and curves, with few other cars to slow things down. Thierry asked about my travels and talked a little about his own long walk across Romania the year before. He’d done some serious walking.

Then he asked about the year before, 2011, and the disasters in Japan. It was an unexpected question, and purely innocent, just curiosity and concern, but it stopped me short, and words caught in my throat. I sat very still for a long while, then tried to brush it all away with a light summary. “Oh, what a year it was. I’ll never forget it.”

Thierry glanced over at me from his driving. “I hope no one you know was hurt.”

How could I explain to him the weight and grief that still very much lodged in my chest, and how enormous the sense of loss and horror stood towering over me, and everyone I knew who had been through it? How could I describe the devastation up north, or encounters I had had with those who had lost everything, or the absurdity of upturned houses and cars thrown atop apartment buildings or fishing boats suspended in treetops? Or the utter emptiness of coming upon a ruined house and in what was once a little girl’s bedroom, finding, out in the rain and snow, a floor still neatly laid out in a circle with photographs of the little girl and her friends, that she must have been looking at when the tsunami hit? Or the terror of standing in your home as the earth rocked the concrete walls and dust drifted down from the corners while a woman screamed next door? Or months of daily big, following earthquakes that had me so tense everyday that I slept with my clothes on and kept emergency supplies right next to my bed? I couldn’t get it across, of course. Not really. Not with any sense of authenticity or recognition. And so I sat there in the car, devoid of words, and suddenly realizing how the weight of last year still very much haunted me, and all the holding inside of all the emotions and fear and loss, and not having had anyone to express or share any of this avalanche of loss with, not even my family back in the States, had taken over every fiber of who I am. The car drove through the pretty French countryside, white clouds drifted overhead, the median lines slid under the car, and a man I had only just met had quietly asked me how the disasters had been.

I broke down sobbing. And sobbing. And sobbing. I couldn’t stop. It flooded out. Everything I had kept inside during the worst of it, everything I had wanted to let out to my faraway family, all the grief at what I had seen around me, the vast devastation, the surging of the second tsunami in the dark below, the terror during the second biggest earthquake, a major earthquake in itself, bigger than what had destroyed Kobe in 1995, and the shaking of my 75 year old volunteer friend as we sat though it, clinging to each other, the wailing mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and friends at lost loved ones, the silence in the rain amidst the ruins, and back home, the distancing and indifference and suicide attempt of my partner, who railed against me when we both most needed one another. It all came out. And Thierry could do nothing, but sit there, silently driving, and perhaps getting a true view of the enormous toll the disasters actually had, instead of the abstract, sterile screen clips that had portrayed everything as a kind of miniature moving diorama.

Thierry looked over and apologized. I shook my head. “It was terrible. It’s not something you should keep inside.”
_____________

Center of Oloron Sainte-Marie
The centre of Oloron Sainte Marie, at the confluence of the Gave d’Aspe and the Gave d’Ossau

Thierry’s apartment sat on a curving side street that he described as the “poorer part of town where the Roma live”. It reminded me of the stone façade apartment buildings of my hometown Hannover in Germany. The main door opened into a narrow stairwell and a courtyard out back, where we took some stairs to the second floor. Thierry’s apartment was small, but inviting and comfortable, with a sofa on one side of the living room, a large bookshelf, and a round dining table and chairs looking out into a courtyard filled with trees and potted plants. Thierry cleared a space next to the sofa and indicated that I put my pack down there.

“Would you like to take a shower?”

After the hot, sweaty hiking in the mountains, the word “shower” felt like ice cream on the tongue. Suddenly I felt grimy and unkempt, and the smell of my clothes overpowering. As if reading my mind, Thierry swept his arm behind him, indicating the bathroom. “If you like, please wash your clothes, too. Please don’t feel self-conscious, I’ve been dusty and unwashed, too, in my travels.”

I took out my shorts and extra t-shirt from my pack, then went into the bathroom to change and take that lovely shower.
_____________

Passing through Oloron a few days before, on my way from Toulouse to Lescun, had only given me a glimpse of the town, as I had boarded the highway bus at the station and the bus skirted the edge of the city. This time Thierry took me on a walking tour of his beloved town, as we followed an imaginary circuit through each of the town’s sections, each with its own historical and social characteristics. Thierry was a history buff, and was passionate about long-distance walking primarily for the chances it brings for him to interact on a personal level with the landscapes in which the events and facts he had read about took place. He even explained that, unlike most other ultralight hikers, he climbed mountains only because they happened to stand along the path of his historical walking tours. He’d much rather stay lowland and flat, than diverge from civilization.

Interior of Oloron Cathedral
Interior of Oloron Cathedral.

Once he started talking about the background of the town, he was on a roll, and for about 5 hours I listened to a steady stream of French that normally I would have barely kept up with, but for some reason I understood nearly everything he said, and he managed to impart a goodly understanding of the town.

Thierry was a surveyor and cartographer, and historical cartography was his passion. He worked for the city doing boring urban maps, but longed to work for a museum and spend his time mapping the past. He’d spent a lot of time studying the history of the Oloron area, and all the areas that had something to do with the Camino de Santiago.

We walked from his apartment in the Notre Dame district, the old artisan district, where a lot of the Roma (the Gypsies) now lived, and therefore made it, by association with the Roma, the poor side of town. This had at one time been the commercial center of the town and had housed the artisans, and brought money in trade with surrounding towns, including right across the border with Spain. It was the newest part of the town.

Oloron Sainte-Marie was divided by the three rivers that flowed through the town, two of which started in the Pyrenees, the Ossou and the Aspe, which formed the tributaries for the bigger Garonne River.

We walked from one district to the next, second into the Saint-Marie district, also known as the episcopal district and the oldest part of town, and later into the Saint-Croix district, the viscounty, where the nobles at one time lived. Along the way we walked up the town’s central hill to visit the town’s first cathedral at the top, Cathedral Saint-Marie, a beautiful Romanesque building that still retained some of its original interior façade painting. Thierry explained that many cathedrals and churches, if they could afford it, decorated the interiors with bright colors and elaborate imaging that had been lost over the years due to decay, so that today people had the impression that cathedrals are dark and drab. The Cathedral Saint-Marie was unusual in that the paint had remained largely intact and a visitor could get a feel for the rich blue and gold imagery that had brightened up the nave. Thierry and I wandered from one section of the cathedral to another, taking photographs of the walls and columns.

Following that we made our way down the hill south to the Church of Saint Croix, a plainer Romanesque church that had fewer, smaller windows and was much darker inside. Stepping inside, Gregorian chants playing over speakers, haunted the dim air and reverberated throughout the structure, moving within my chest and stilling the earlier grief. Both Thierry and I didn’t say much, and even desisted from taking photographs. I mentioned to him about atheist friends pooh-poohing the effect that cathedrals had on people, and how churches of all kinds should be eliminated. Thierry, an atheist himself, snorted, said, “But this is France!”, as if that answered everything.

From the Church of Saint Croix, we once again climbed a hill, up to the highest point of the town. At the top we skirted an old equestrian circle surrounded by plane trees, and leaves scattered in the wind that blew across the open space. Clouds had rolled in and rain pattered on the dusty ground, stirring up the smell of autumn and wet afternoons.

Fork In Oloron
In hills above the town of Oloron Sainte-Marie.

Thierry led me through streets of row houses where families sat on the steps outside their front doors and laughed, conversed, and watched the world go by. I waved at two mothers who smiled at me from a curb while their children played on the cobblestone street. Old walled gardens and timber-framed houses stood slanted along the street-sides and lanes, and pots brightened with geraniums and roses hung from balconies and eves.

We happened to pass a the open door of a small, history museum, the Maison de Patrimoine, which Thierry had never seen before. On a whim, we entered and found a creaky medieval house filled with historical exhibits from Roman times to the present. They had models of Roman baths and medieval butter churns and photos from the French concentration camps for Spanish refugees escaping across the Pyrenees from Fascist Spain. Until then I had had no idea that concentration camps existed in Europe before the Nazis, and that they were as bad as what the Germans had done. Thierry walked me through the history displayed, talking about a shameful aspect of French history that few people admitted to.

Oloron Gypsy Families
Gypsy (Roma) families hanging out in front of their apartments.

I was getting hypoglycemic from all the walking, and pretty sleepy after a long day, so Thierry stopped at a small restaurant where I ordered a sandwich and Orangina, and we took a break. We headed back to his apartment after that.

His girlfriend Corinne soon returned after we got home, and we sat in the living area, eating carrot cole slaw, fresh baguettes, white cheese, rotisserie chicken, red wine, and peaches. Corinne, too, loved long walks along the Camino de Santiago, and was taking a month off in September to walk alone. Both Thierry and Corrine had been divorced and had grown children, and they were starting life anew together. I loved watching them together, the easy way they interacted and seemed to accept each other. It struck me, going through my own divorce, how so much we took for granted and so seriously when we were younger, either held more preciousness, or else no longer mattered now.

It was difficult communicating when my French wasn’t good enough to get to detailed in the conversation, or their English only rudimentary so they couldn’t express what they wanted to share with me, but the interaction was rich enough for all of us to get a good idea about who we were and what we had experienced. Thierry was excited about showing me photos of his long walk through Romania the year before, so we sat at his computer poring through the photos, squinting at GPS waypointed maps, and talked about his ultralight equipment. The trip through Romania intrigued me, because Thierry simply followed the lay of the land and walked north, through some pretty dry and remote country. I had never thought about or been exposed to images of Romania, so it came as a surprise that it was a big, flat, dusty plain, much like the American desert West. That he had taken off across that, alone, without even assurance that he could find water, gave me new insight into a man I’d only known online. Here was a real, modern-day adventurer with an old spirit.

Thierry At The Bar
Thierry ordering a sip for himself and an Orangina for the hypoglycaemic me.

__________________

Dawn crept through the wooden lattice window shade after a long night fighting the slowly collapsing air mattress that Thierry and Corinne had set out for me on their study floor. It was 4:30 and only an hour left before Thierry would drive me to the nearby city of Pau, where I would catch the train to Lourdes, and from there take the bus to Gavarnie in the Park National de Pyrenees. I’d be skipping over a long stretch of the GR10 trail and do the last leg of my original hiking plan. I felt a mix of shame and relief, surer this time of my ability to handle the rigors of the walk. The apartment was still dark when I tiptoed into the living room and got my pack ready.

Thierry and Corinne soon blearily stumbled into the living room, and we sat at the dining table to drink coffee and eat rolls with jam and honey laced white cheese. We spoke of heading off on a new trail, and of meeting again. Then Thierry and I were off, throwing my pack into the back of the car and zooming along the deserted streets as the sun threw golden bars of light across the fields and roads. Mist still hung over the groves, and the road stretched straight ahead, like the hope I first had in imagining this journey.

Thierry and I said our good-byes at the train station gate in the offhand, slightly embarrassed way men tend to do, but with a genuine affection of a newfound friendship. I could see the envy in Thierry’s eyes as I hefted my pack and waved back. He pulled a hand out of his pocket and waved back.

“Thank you,” I called out. He smiled and called back, “Bon chance!” He turned on his heel and was off to work.

Sunlight bathed the platform so that the ground and sky seemed insubstantial. Time seemed to vanish and it was no one but me and silent doves winging through the shining mist. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. When I opened my eyes the train had pulled in and waited like some breathing beast, champing at the bit and snorting. There was nothing for it, but to jump on and let the beast take me away, riding on a great, mountain swathed whim.

Leaving Lescun
Leaving the valley overlooking Lescun.
Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Pyrenées: Hiking Travel Walking

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 3: Village In the Mist

(Please click on the images to see them enlarged)

First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

Fourth part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers


The tour bus zoomed up to the grassy verge of the mountain road and deposited me and a young woman with a huge pack sprouting camping paraphernalia that flailed about her as she swung on the pack. I grabbed my pack from the storage bay at the side of the bus and watched as the door hissed closed, a heavy sigh issued from the engine, and then the bus heaved off, heading for Spain on the other side of the Pyrenees just up the road. A quiet filled the wake of its absence, very quickly filled with the zithering of grasshoppers in the grass on the verge of the road.

Oloron Train
Train heading from Toulouse to Oloron.
Village of Lescun overlooking the road climbing up from the Aspe Valley.
Village of Lescun overlooking the road climbing up from the Aspe Valley.

A single road sign stood beside a smaller road that led up into the hills. The sign said, “Pont de Lescun”, with an arrow pointing the way. The young woman spoke up in French, “Hey! Help me with this pack!” Not even a by-your-leave, just an outright command. I thought of just walking ahead and leaving her to her own devices, but since this was the first person I had come across in the Pyrenees I thought it was bad luck to start off with sour feelings.

“What do you need?” I said in as wry a manner as I could muster.

“Tie the pup tent to the top of the pack.” The Quechua folding tent in the form of a disk, that was so popular among European travelers, hung from the back of her pack like a dead spider. I obliged, hoisting it on top and securing the cords to some lashing points.

“There you go.”

No reply. She took off without looking at me and started huffing up the road.

I followed, a little surprised that I had to start walking toward the little village of Lescun, that many had described as the most beautiful village in all of the Pyrenees, so late in the day. The road was steep and the air quite humid and hot. Within a few minutes I was breathing hard and sweating.

I could see the young woman up ahead, plodding along. When a car approached from below and passed me, it stopped for her and the driver asked if she wanted a lift. She accepted and threw her pack inside. She never considered me walking further down, and the car took off without further ado. I continued climbing in the late afternoon quiet, looking out across the river valley below at every switchback in the road, and the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains.

Lescun Abiding Tree
Lone tree overlooking the Aspe Valley.

I must have been walking for about an hour when another car appeared from below and stopped for me (this never happens in Japan). I bent over to look in the window and came face to face with a beautiful blonde woman and two children, a boy, about 9 or 10, and an infant girl. The woman gave me a huge smile, and in a thoroughly relaxed and cheerful way, asked, “You headed up to Lescun? (she pronounced it “LesCewn”, so, completely different from the “Lehkun” that I had thought it was) Need a ride?” Her accent was thoroughly British, with not a hint of French in it.

“I’d love that,” I replied.

She smiled, leaned over to unlatch and throw open the door, and raked aside some toys from the seat. “Hop in! Sorry about the mess.”

I opened the hatch in the rear, tossed in my pack, and then took the front passenger seat. I waved hello to the kids.

“Out for a walk?” the woman asked.

We started cheerfully talking about ourselves, me about my trip and where I was from, and she about herself, her family, and the annual summer vacation in Lescun and surrounding areas. Her energy was infectious and reminded me of the friends my parents had as I was growing up. Her name was Anuika, and she was here with her biologist husband who was researching mountain frogs that spawned in mountain water holes at this time of year. Her father-in-law was here, too, and the whole family was having a reunion. She loved Lescun and looked forward to coming every year.

She asked if I had a place to stay, and when I said I didn’t she recommended the gîte d’etápes (B & B) where her father-in-law was staying at.

The car droned up the mountainside, until soon we were driving in cloud. Occasionally the clouds parted, to reveal green rounded valleys far below, and brilliant breaks of sun-limned blue sky above. Lescun popped into view almost like an afterthought, one moment nothing but the road and thick clouds, the next, a tiny, rock-walled village center, with a gurgling stone fountain, a circle of crooked stone houses, and bands of sweaty, hardy-looking, but exhausted walkers in heavy, muddied boots, sunglasses, and sun-copper skin. Narrow, bumpy roads branched out up and down the village slope, just barely wide enough for one car.

“Here it is!”, announced Anuika. “The center of the village. To the left there is the town general store and post office. Up ahead to the left is the refuge, Maison de la Montagne, where you can have dinner. I’d go there first and reserve a spot. Down the road behind is the village restaurant, and around the corner the village church. The gîte d’etápe I told you about is off to the right, at the edge of the village. Just look for “Etápe de Belvedere”.

I stepped out of the car and said good-bye. Anuika gunned the engine and started to drive off before I frantically waved after the car. She stopped some way up ahead and asked what I needed. “My pack,” I said, laughing.

She rolled her eyes. “Oops! Thought you were just being very enthusiastic with your good-bye!”

Lescun Water Fountains
The center of Lescun where all the stores, restaurants, post office, and other village concerns are concentrated. This was the first part of the village that I saw.

I opened the hatch and pulled out my pack. I waved as the car took off toward the other edge of town. When it disappeared behind the stone wall lining the road, the closeness and tininess of the village, perched on a valley hillside, with clouds hanging huge and low right above the rooftops, and dark mountain walls rising unseen into the mists, suddenly seemed to close around me, and the copper, windswept visages of the walkers who were setting down their heavy packs, stomping the mud out of their boots, or bending to drink from the fountain, seemed like heroes descending out of legend. I put my own pack down, to join them, and for the first time on this trip, felt like I was among my own, ready to head into the clouds.

I reserved a spot for dinner at the refuge, then headed up the road to look for the gîte d’etápe “Belvedere” that Anuika had recommended to me. The road wound through the western section of the village, twisting and turning at the corners of lopsided farm houses, bowing under stone arches, sidestepping the watering trough, and skirting around along long, rose-festooned rubble stone walls. Sheep dogs slept in the courtyards, and old men wearing the traditional Pyrenean berets, black vests, and indigo farm pants, stood beside gate posts puffing on pipes, while watching the world walk by. The further I walked the more enamored I became with this place. Flowers everywhere. A distinct silence and, though cars passed by occasionally, a lack automotive sounds that called attention to the flurry of the wind or of birds calling in the distance.

Lescun Walker's Refuge
The refuge where I ate two dinners during my stay in Lescun.

I was walking along a wire fence, looking out across a billowing field of grass in which a simple old stone church stood, when I recognized the gîte d’étape. It was a small house with a terrace and a well-manicured garden in front. Behind rose the half-obscured base of the mountains rising into the clouds. At the gate a small plaque said, “Etape du Belvedere”.

I hardly dared to believe that they might have a space free, and that I’d be able to stay at such a wonderful place at the height of tourist season. Releasing the iron latch, I stepped into the garden and called up to the family sitting under a big parasol on an elevated terrace, eating an early dinner. A Great Dane came bounding out and welcomed me with a big wet muzzle and paws on my chest, almost knocking me over. Laughter spilled down from the terrace, calling to the Great Dane to leave me alone. A woman wearing a straw sun hat and back rimmed glasses stood at the railing, smiling.

The Gîte d'Etape
The Gîte d’Etape Where I Stayed

“May I help you?”

It being still early in the trip speaking French, my own words got stuck in my mouth, or else there were no words at all. “I look for a room for sleep?” I ventured.

“Ah, yes! A room? For how many nights?”

“One or two. I’m not sure.”

“OK. I have one room. The other, bigger one is already taken. Would you like to see it?” She sounded like I might not like it, but I nodded. “Yes, please.”

She called the dog to her side and asked one of the other family members to hold him as she brought me inside. She led the way up a narrow flight of wooden stairs, passed what she called “private chambers” and the internet desk, and up to the third floor, where she opened a heavy wooden door to a small bedroom with a mansard window overlooking the church in the field I had passed earlier. A big double bed took up most of the space, along with a small desk with a chair, a tiny sink, and a closet for my clothes.

“Is this all right?” the woman asked.

I couldn’t have been happier. One look at the ancient stone village laid out beyond the rooftops, the misty mountains beyond, the geraniums growing on the window sill, and listening to the creaky wooden floor, and I had been transported to the core of my mountain dreams. I gave a sigh of relief. My first night in this village would be quiet and without worries, I had a meal waiting, and the trip was starting off well. I smiled at the woman, “It’s wonderful.”

“Well, then, why don’t you settle in? We can talk about payment in the morning. I’ll bring up a blanket later. It gets cold here at night.”

And so she left me to my evening and unpacking. Not that there was very much. My camping equipment and clothes. That’s it. I sat by the window for a while, just gazing outside at the clouds drifting past and swallows whirling about in the evening air. The days of traveling from Japan finally caught up with me and, with about four hours until dinner was ready at the refuge, I lay down, set my alarm, and fell asleep to the sound of nothing but the occasional twitter of a bird. It was one of the quietest places I’d ever visited.

Lescun Church
A small medieval church stands as the central focus of the village. The ringing bell measure the daily portions of the day, and in the evenings it houses the town’s entertainment.

Dusk had long since settled once I woke. Mist had moved in and the church stood barely visible as a shadow in the gathering gloom. A few minutes after my alarm went off the church bells broke the silence and sent sharp peals of ringing through the air. The mist dampened the sound and it seemed to come from quite far off. The evening chill had crept into the room, so I changed from my shorts into long pants and a light jacket. I took some insulin and then headed off to the refuge for dinner. A crowd stood waiting and conversing outside the door as the cook prepared the evening meal. Most of the people were walkers, all dressed in nylon pants, fleece jackets, and big hiking boots. Listening in on the conversations, I heard mostly French, some Spanish (Spain being right across the border nearby), a little German and English. The conversations were hushed, maybe partly because of the great silence poised just out of arms reach at the edge of the village, or how close everything around leaned, making it impossible to speak without feeling someone was eavesdropping. I stood in one corner of the garden, gazing up at the darkening crags above, imagining what it was like up there, imagining the clouds muffling the sounds from the village below, and a cold damp sifting by the nose with the tang of iron. I imagined the tufts of grasses huddled under boulders, collecting dew, and the isolated, furtive rustling of shrews testing the coming night for anything out of the ordinary.

Street Lamps and Church at Dusk
Night falls on the village of Lescun.

A bell clanged and everyone’s attention turned toward the front door of the refuge. The wiry armed refuge proprietor, deeply tanned from time climbing the mountains, stood in the warm glow of the doorway, a big smile on his face. “Dinner’s ready!” he called out. “Everyone come take your places!”

The crowd filed inside, into a big common room with a low ceiling, wooden beams, long wooden tables, and framed, faded photographs of past climbers and mountain scenery. Big bowls of freshly tossed salad, celery soup, mashed potatoes, steaming ravioli, and whole loaf of slow-cooked corned beef stood covering the tables. Groups divided themselves among the tables, with booming laughter and delight at the dinner fare. I was seated with an elderly Australian couple, a beautiful French woman in her 40’s, and two Dutch women who were hiking for the first time. All of them were walking the GR10 from west to east, except the French woman who was hiking solo to the east. The mutual activities and love of the mountains, and just the relaxed way that hikers tend to see and do things, had us babbling with one another within minutes. After introductions, we spent the rest of the night regaling one another with our adventures and our walking plans and route information. I could say that people traveling and sitting around a meal telling stories is the most human of activities, and perhaps something that we all miss in our daily lives.

While refilling one another’s wine glasses and piling cuts of corned beef and mashed potatoes on each other’s plates, I listened to the Australian couple tell of their hikes around Mont Blanc and in Britain, to the French woman voicing worry about the waterless and chained cliff crossing she was facing tomorrow, to the Dutch couple telling how the walk from the west till this point had proved too much at first and they had taken a break before coming back to continue the walk now. But the best part was hearing the hilarious accounts of getting lost and encountering funny walkers along the way. With our heads full of wine and the glow of the incandescent lights shining in our tipsy eyes, we laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks and it seemed the night would never end. But it did, of course, when the proprietor announced that the kitchen was closing, and that it would soon be time for lights out for the refuge guests.

Most of the crowd was staying at the refuge, so I said goodnight to everyone and stepped out into the night. The village stood quiet under the great darkness, halos of lanterns glowing on house walls and under buttresses spanning the narrow alleys. I unsteadily made my way toward the gîte d’etápe, still fuzzy with wine, softly humming to myself as I walked. A cow lowed off in the distance, and the village church stood like a silent sentinel, its deeper shadow sharp against the misty shadows of the surrounding fields. No one was awake at the d’etápe when I creaked the door open, so I carefully stumbled up the steep wooden stairs, and tiptoed into my room. The window was open in my room, with the night chill spilling in. I lay down and gazed out at the dim rooftop outside, and soon dozed off into a deep sleep.

Lescun Misty Church
The Lescun church glowing in the evening mist.

Nothing quite wakes you up like a church bell ringing right outside your open window at dawn. And so it was that the clanging shocked me from dreams to wide-eyed wakefulness. I didn’t know where I was at first, until I saw a swift dart past the window and associated childhood memories of swifts flying around a church steeple and rooftops brought back images of Germany, and “Europe” was plastered across my thoughts. Morning mist wafted in through the open window, and deep silence infiltrated the room like a silent prayer. I held myself still, letting it wash over me until I felt still myself, my eyes taking in the ribbed wooden ceiling, the soundless gyration of passing swifts, the unmoving rooftops, the distant, dark, gaseous walls of the high mountains. And for the first time in a long time, after the onslaught of fear and worry following the Great Tohoku Earthquake last year, the words stilled in my head and I felt myself putting aside the iPhone and Kindle, and just waiting, not for anything in particular, and no move to act on plans, just waiting and sitting still. I fell asleep again, unconscious of time, the heaviness of fatigue that had seeped deep into my muscles and bones releasing, my breath pooling in my veins, the clench of anticipation relaxing, and long, slow inhalations drawing in the world… this ringing old world that seemed to have everything right, that took its time to remember itself for its own sake.

I woke again at 7:00, and groggily made my way down to the ground floor, where the gîte’s one other guest, an elderly man with thinning, white hair, sat at the big dining table, eating breakfast. He greeted me with a warm smile while buttering a slice of baguette. The woman who owned the place and I’d met the day before, bustled at the kitchen counter, preparing some juice and paté. She indicated a seat for me across from the other boarder and set a wooden bread board in front of me.

Lescun Gîte Window
Window of the ground floor of the gîte, looking out into the garden.

“Did you sleep well?” she asked.

I managed an awkward, yes, but couldn’t follow up with more information. Sensing my discomfort the other boarder spoke up, “Do you speak English?” he asked with a distinct British accent.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“My name is Stewart Freeman. I’m also a guest here.”

“Miguel Arboleda. Nice to meet you. I take by your accent that you’re British?”

“Yes, I’m here with my son, who is researching mountain frogs here in the Pyrenees. Doing a bit of my own research, too.”

“Mr. Freeman? You must be the father-in-law of Anuika, who actually recommended this gîte to me yesterday, when she gave me a lift on the road coming up to the village.”

“Why yes, that would be my son’s wife.”

“It was really nice of her to pick me up. Saved walking all the way up from the valley.”

“It’s definitely a bit of a slog. So, what brings you to Lescun? Not exactly the hub of the tourist trail.” His smile was friendly, with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s the starting point of my three-week walk of the ridge going south, following the GR10. Quite a few people told me Lescun was one of the most beautiful villages in the Pyrenees, and so far I really have to heartily agree.”

“Oh, Lescun is a special place. We’ve been coming here every year for the past 20 years. Magical little place.”

“Frog research?”

“Partly. But mostly for a family vacation with the kids. My son sort of half grew up here.”

“He’s a lucky man. The idea of doing wildlife research is a long-held dream of mine. I almost chose to study wildlife biology when I was still at university. Became an architect instead, mainly to work with green design. Are you a wildlife biologist, too?”

He looked at me with more interest this time, biting into his baguette. “Yes, I did research in Africa. Only recently retired. I’ve got a condition and a bad leg, so can’t get out much into the field anymore, but it’s nice to accompany my son into the mountains here to help him record frog mating songs. Keeps me on top of things.” He chuckled.

We got to talking about the kinds of wildlife common to this area. When I proved my familiarity with insect characteristics and species, the discussion got more passionate, and soon we were talking about mountain butterfly gliding, grasshopper leg rubbing, praying mantis wind movement, and differences in dragonfly wing patterns. It was rare for me to meet someone who could talk about insects at this level, and he was far more versed, directly, from the field, than I was, plus he had done research in the field in AFRICA! For someone whose dream it was to work like the rangers in the television show Dactari, or whose heroes were Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, this was like a dream come true.

After breakfast offered to take me out for a stroll on the local hill paths, and show me a path up to the ridge overlooking the village that made for a good half-round of the village. His leg gave him trouble, so we couldn’t walk far, but we managed to get out past the village boundary and along a path that led to a overlook sitting on a steep slope below which the village lay, like a tiny hamlet in an old fairytale. The grass and wild strawberries glinted with dew in the morning chill, and mist huddled in the valley below. Still sluggish from the cold, we peered at grasshoppers and butterflies and hoverflies, remarking on their coloring and special attributes. I felt like a child again, sharing something that I love with another person who knew exactly how I felt.

Lescun Wildflowers
Wildflowers on the verge of the trail.
Lescun Grasshopper
Grasshopper poised to jump.
Lescun Ferns
Ferns at the side of the trail.

Mr. Freeman began to feel the chill in his hip, so we decided to head back to the village. He had some “algebraic calculations” to work out, so he headed back to his room, while I headed into the village center to get my provisions for the first part of my walk tomorrow.


Preparations done, and my room scattered with my gear and food on the bed and window sill, I filled a lightweight daysack with snacks, water bottle, rain jacket, and camera, and set off for the trail Mr. had pointed out to me. I walked up past the point he and I had walked to, and past it, up, up along the steep slope, up to the ridgeline woods, far above the valley. Beech dominated the woods here, with many of them blackened from a recent forest fire. Heather covered much of the open grassy areas, with whizzing doilies of tiny white bees circling the flowers. Clouds moved lazily below, through the rounded valleys, and breaking along the ragged peaks, often in slow-motion snapshots of nebulous passion. I paused under wind-carved trees to let the reaity of the place sink in, often accompanied by the far-off keen of a hawk riding the wind on the higher ridges, or the lone buzz of a bee dipping among the clovers. I followed the path up, concentrating on the weave of rocks and foliage underfoot, the way my weight balanced above an outcropping, the rough dryness of lichen under my palm, the trickle of sweat and the burn of my breath from my exertion… all here, immediate, and yet far, far away in another land not my own. It was a disconnected feeling, one of entering a travel book one has read, and coming against the hardness of a land landing.

Lescun Path Out of the Village
The path leading out of the edge of the village, heading up into the hills above.
Lescun Bluff Tree
Looking back along the path leading up from Lescun.
Lescun Path Up
Path leading up from Lescun behind.
Aspe Valley Hikers
Two day hikers strolling on a path above the Aspe Valley.

The trail wound around the spine of the ridge, taking me up where the wind blew constantly, and the undergrowth lived in a world of endless shaking, and the light varied between passages of clouds and swaths of sunlight. In the wooded patches, shafts of sunlight beamed down through the canopy and burned through the shadows of the forest floor. I climbed through this gloom and finally reached the open crown of the ridge, where I stood for a long while, unencumbered, breathing alone, and happy, and knee-high grass whipped about all around me. More than reaching the summit of some peak, this is what walking was for me, an infusion with a place with no name, just a pair of eyes, of ear, of legs, and of lungs. I didn’t want to walk to capture anything, but rather to be captured myself, and included. The wind expressed everything I wanted to say.

Lescun Beech Forest
Lescun Beech Forest
Lescun Me Walking
Climbing up onto the upper ridge with the Aspe Valley below.
Lescun Aspe Silhouette
View of the Aspe Valley through the silhouettes of the forest above.
Lescun Light In The Woods
A stray patch of sunlight on the forest floor.
Lescun Burned Tree
Gnarled oak tree that was burned during a recent lightning fire.
Lescun Verge of the Woods
Emerging from the ridgetop forest onto the the crown of the bluff.
Lescun Heather
Big tossuck of heather, buzzing with hundreds of tiny white bees.
Lescun Dew On Funnelweb
Dew collected on a funnelweb spider’s lair.
Lescun Thistles and Mountains
Thistles waving in the wind overlooking the Lescun Cirque.
Lescun Peaks Above
View of the higher peaks beyond Lescun.
Lescun Village and Cirque
View of the whole village of Lescun and Lescun Cirque.
Lescun End of Ridge Walk
Coming down off the ridge to the edge of the village.
Lescun Entering Village
Taking the path into the village from the south.

Back down in the narrow alleyways of the village, I passed the refuge where I had had dinner the night before. I reserved another spot for tonight, then headed on back to the gîte. Along the way I passed a hand-drawn sign announcing a free movie showing “Cinéma Sous les Etoiles” (Movie Under the Stars) right next to the old medieval church, and I resolved to go see it after dinner. I returned to the gîte, packed my backpack for the start of the walk tomorrow, and lay down to write people back home and wait for dinner. The evening fell upon the village again, and I listened for the pealing of the church bell as the hours passed. The gabled roof outside my window gradated from brick red, to orange, to purple, before turning black in the night. Stars winked on above, and the sky again dwarfed the village, the silence and closeness of the stars humbling the name of the town, so that in looking up, I dropped my eyes in wonder. Lescun was a place that was daily reminded of its place in the universe, and happily so. It didn’t aspire to replace the stars.

Lescun Me
Grinning from the joy of walking in sublime landscape.

I sat at the same table at the refuge as the night before. This time only two others joined me… the other tables were all occupied by two big groups of Spaniards, all loudly engrossed in their own conversations. The two at my table, Michel and Lise were from Quebec, Canada, and were the only non-native people at the tables. They turned out to be a lot of fun, a couple who both loved photography, but had never hiked before, just up here to take strolls in the hills. We hit it off immediately and ended up getting drunk and howling with laughter at one another’s jokes. Dinner was rotisserie spring chicken with lentil soup and rolled-cabbage. We were all stuffed by the time we were ready to go. They also were planning to see the free movie this evening, so we agreed to meet at the church later when it started.

Lescun Cinema Sign
Sign pointing to the free outdoor movie showing later in the evening.
Lescun Church Rose
Roses outside the entrance to the church.
Lescun Church Nave
Interior of Lescun Church. The intimate size and asymmetrical layout give it a friendly and warm atmosphere.

I drunkenly shuffled back across the village, and in the dark walked beyond the village boundary up to the point Mr. Stewart had taken me earlier in the morning, and sat on the outcropping, gazing at the village lights below and feeling the chill breeze muscle up from the dark of the valley. No one was there, so I sang quietly to myself, “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor: “Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”

Lescun Street Lamps
The narrow streets of Lescun lit up by street lamps.

Though we’d separated 6 years before, thoughts of my former wife welled up. She’d have loved this place. I would have loved to have shown it to her. I didn’t know how my present partner would take this place. I couldn’t understand her; did such places move her? Did she fall in love with wild peaks, a vast bowl of stars, and untethered wind? Could she fathom why such places draw me? What did it mean that I always end up on such walks alone, and she never offered to join me?

The joy dropped out of the reverie, and I sat upon that lone outcropping, up there in dark, beyond the village bounds, weeping. Joy and sorrow mixed like a fine wine. And the dark drop beneath my dangling feet swirled with regrets and hopes.


Back in the village I strolled to the churchyard and found a free folding chair amidst the gathering crowd. Parents and children; grizzled hikers and women in sun dresses; teenagers stalking the edges of the space, conscious of one another, but uneasy; elderly people deep into a book; and my two friends, Michel and Lise, lazily joking among themselves until I sat across from them, when we continued our earlier banter and laughter.

The movie was supposed to start at 8:00, but as time went on and the crowd got restless, it never got started. The projectionist stuck his head out of the church window and announced that there were problems with the projector and they were working on it. I slouched back and tilted my head back to search the stars. A satellite raked across the star-peppered velvet and plunged into the horizon. Roving shooting stars, traveling with the Perseid pack, darted through the field of unmoving stars, and lost themselves in the darkness. Back here on earth, the periphery of my vision was lit up by candles flickering inside paper bags placed on top of walls, at the base of trees, on window sills, and along the periphery of houses, yellow stars dancing in the evening breezes. For a while I conversed with the beautiful woman sitting next to me, but my French was not good enough, and her English only basic, so we lapsed back into silence. Michel reached out to touch my shoulder, telling me they were retiring for the night. Soon only about half the audience was left.

The movie never made it to the screen, and the projectionist announced that the problem couldn’t get worked out, and apologized for making everyone wait. In typical French style people laughed and shrugged their shoulders, everyone taking it in a stride and joking about it. One by one the last of the moviegoers filed out. I strolled back along the alleyway, back to the gîte. Time to go to sleep anyway. I had an early start.

Leaving Lescun BW
Heading east from Lescun on the start of the GR10 walk.
Categories
Europe: Travel Journal Pyrenees: Travel Travel

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)

First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

Third part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 3: A Village In The Mist

Fourth part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers


Geneva had proved to be less enchanting than I had dreamed of since I was a boy. I had imagined white streets lined with big trees and fountains, sage do-gooders assembled at the United Nations to take on the world’s evils, mountains of chocolate, and people walking about with open-hearted egalitarian ideals printed on their t-shirts. Instead I found dirty, disorganized and harshly noisy streets, a marked discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots, tourist boxes of chocolate in kitschy gift shops, and the poor in their jeans and cheap jackets while the rich walked about in sunglasses and Luis Vitton handbags, all neatly separated by the Rue de Mont Blanc running right through the middle of it. On the second day I was mugged on the bank of Lake Geneva, by an Arab man who pretended to be asking about my background, announcing himself as Brazilian. He suddenly started pretending to play soccer with me, grabbed me, and knocked me off balance, while slipping my wallet out of my pocket. Luckily I immediately noticed what had happened and managed to grab my wallet back before he got away, but it shook me up badly for the rest of the day. All I wanted to do was get out of Geneva.

So on the third day in Europe I woke at 4:30 in the youth hostel, packed in the dark, and walked with my train ticket the 20 minutes to the train station. The train left at 5:30, just as the sun was coming up, and I was off, finally taking the next step toward the big walk in the Pyrenees. But first, for the first leg of the traveling, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse. It would be a very long day on the trains.

(I had to get up at 4:30 at the youth hostel in Geneva so as to make the 5:30 train heading for Lyon. It was a chilly morning, with mist hanging over the fields outside Geneva and northeastern France.)

Pyrenees Trip Train to Toulouse Me
Self portrait of me in the train window, just out of Geneva, on the way to Lyon.

(After two stressful days in Geneva, including getting mugged along the banks of Lake Geneva (but luckily I caught the pickpocket in time and got my wallet back), I was finally off toward the Pyrenees, ready for the long walk that was the purpose of the whole trip. Lyon was the first stop along the very long TGV ride first down along the eastern border of France to Marseilles, then west across to Toulouse, where I would spend two nights.)

Pyrenees Trip Arriving Lyon Station
Arriving at Lyon station after leaving Geneva.

(I’d always wanted to see Lyon. I’d heard many good things about it. Though I was only there for 2 hours during the wait between train connections, it was a bright-feeling city, with lots of trees and quiet back streets. I’d love to go back and take it in more slowly. There were also huge numbers of destitute Roma (Gypsies), too, though.)

Pyrenees Trip Downtown Lyon
Walking along early morning downtown Lyon, during a 2 hour wait between train connections.

I almost slept right through my transfer at Lyon, one hour into France. If it hadn’t been for an annoyed passenger whose seat I was still sitting in at Lyon station, I wouldn’t even have known I was in Lyon. I jumped up and frantically gathered my pack and photo bag, while pushing through the boarding crowd. I made it out just in time, as the doors of the train closed behind me.

With two hours to spare, I decided to take a stroll through the streets outside the station and see what this northeastern French city was like. I’d heard about its pleasant climate, good food, wine, and laid back atmosphere, but nothing compared to actually getting out there and seeing what I could for myself. It was only two hours, and still very early in the morning, so I’d not be able to get much of an impression, but just having my feet planted on the sidewalks and walking past the beige colored buildings would give me more of a feel than reading any book. I kept to a straight line away from the station and made an hour and a half loop, before heading back to catch the next train for Marseilles.

Lyon was a bright, airy city, with lots of tall plane trees and people who greeted you with a nod and singsong “Bon jour!” Away from the station it seemed very business as usual, with people getting ready for work and commuters boarding and getting off the buses with their brief cases and backpacks. At the station, however, there were Roma (gypsies) everywhere, begging and looking destitute in that way only people who are ignored and despised can be. Seeing these people made me realize that Europe still hadn’t shaken its medieval heritage, or maybe it was just more honest about its problems than Tokyo, where the homeless have all but disappeared after the local government swept them out of sight into northern Tokyo. Japan only seems to be free of poverty and injustice. No one wants to believe it actually exists.

(I never thought I’d ever see Marseilles. What presented itself upon emerging from the train station surprised me; I thought it would be more modern. The train station was boiling over with tourists, most of whom wore sunglasses, many with enormous suitcases. The biggest impact, though, was the heat. It seemed to envelope the entire city.)

Pyrenees Trip Train to Toulouse Marseilles
View of Notre Dame de la Garde from Marseilles station

Marseilles was a surprise. My only images of it come from movies from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, when Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery, Grace Kelly, and Cary Grant drove around too fast in their Triumphs, Sunbeam Alpine Sports Roadsters, and Austin Martins. I had barely an hour, so I stuck right by the station, but looking out over the city I was surprised by how vernacular the city was, without all the modern luxury buildings I was expecting. Notre-Dame de la Garde church stood on a hillock overlooking the town, while I hid as much as possible in the shade provided by the station entrance… it was stiflingly hot. Why anyone would want to roast themselves on the beach of the Mediterranean in this heat, was totally beyond me.

Back on the train, the rest of the day passed through the dry, baked landscape of Provence, with its huge vistas and long, rolling hills. For a few minutes the train stopped by in Arles, the town where van Gogh had lived just before he took his life, and where I had visited in 1988. Not much resembled my memories of that time. Instead I saw a train station riddled with graffiti, and many more apartment buildings than I remembered.

It was late afternoon by the time the train pulled into Toulouse. Since nothing had been online in terms of youth hostel information, I had to hope that the train station would be able to provide some information for either a youth hostel, or some other cheap accommodation. As always, arriving in a new town without a fixed place to stay always brought on tension and worry. I didn’t relish sleeping on a bench in the train station or in a park. Not at 52 years old.

(Toulouse is known as La Ville Rose, or the Pink City, because of its characteristic red brick buildings. In the harsh summer sun and heat, when walking along narrow streets, the pink color gives the streets a cheery and cooled-down effect. The writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote “The Little Prince”, was supposed to have had an apartment right around where these buildings are, though I didn’t know it at the time.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Red Brick Buildings
Characteristic red brick buildings of Toulouse.

(A city should have fun with its buildings. People live here, after all, and buildings express who they are.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Colorful Façades
Beautiful playfulness of French building façades.
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Main Street
View of Basilique St. Sernin from the main street, Toulouse.

(I love the way French people interact. There is a very strong sense of being in things together, and in general an insistence on showing respect and politeness, while at the same time often expressing a lot of passion. I was surprised (even though this was the 8th time I’d been to France) by how hushed people were on the trains, while being quite friendly and talkative at the same time. Very unlike the restrictive silence on Japanese trains (unless you’re in a drunken group) or the pell mell noise of American trains …though that was often a lot of fun.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Rue de Taur Couple
Couple walking down Rue de Taur, away from Place du Capitole.

I did manage to track down a so-called youth hostel (more of a youth center that also had accommodations), a somewhat run-down and very basic place, with hordes of noisy high school students roaming the hallways. Luckily the friendly manager of the place put me onto a floor of my own, away from all the noise. I deposited my backpack in the room full of empty bunk beds, and went out for an evening stroll into the city.

Little did I know that the area that I wandered ignorantly into was the poor section of town, so my first impressions of Toulouse, with all those hookers and drug dealers on the street corners, violent drunks sitting about on park benches, and hole-in-the-wall souvlaki joints made me feel alienated and vulnerable enough to forget about finding a nice restaurant to sit and write in, and just buy some groceries at a supermarket and head back to the youth hostel. I sat by the window of my room, staring outside at the street lights and listening to a drunk singing at the top of his lungs, and feeling very far from home. Such times make you wonder why in the world you ever decide to leave home.

(This is what first greets you in the streets of Toulouse, the pink façades. I love the uneven walls and lack of clean, straight lines. Very human.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Pink Street
Characteristic pink street in Toulouse.

(One thing I really miss by living in Japan: flirting. Men and women hardly make eye contact here, and sitting on a train can be a profoundly isolating experience in Japan. But in France, people flirted all the time. It made me feel like I was still attractive and that men and women actually lived in the same world. This woman above, while kissing her boyfriend, kept looking over at me and smiling. Being a man of course it went to my head, especially because she was gorgeous. But it ended with that smile and she never looked back. Which is just how flirting should be. A lot of fun!)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Jardin des Plantes Bridge
Bridge within the Jardin des Plantes, Toulouse.

(Cities that grew out of human dimensions, instead of the larger and more rectangular and open requirements that cars demand, have much more of a sense of intimacy. It is in such images that one can see why cities originally formed, the idea that by working and living together, more could be accomplished, and greater safety and supplies guaranteed.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Back Street Near Garonne
Back street in Toulouse, near the River Garonne.

(Little details the make up a city and give it character, like street lamps, color of façades, shutters, iron boot scrapers, sewer grills, and even manhole covers all make up something which either shows that the inhabitants care about where they live, or are indifferent to it, and thus help to promote how a newcomer might feel in the city. Toulouse was magical.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Street Lamp
Street lamp on a back street in Toulouse.

(What would southern Europe be without flowers?)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Window Flowers
Windowsill flowers in Toulouse

The next morning I met a young man from Britain manning the reception desk, and he waxed poetic about the beauties of Toulouse, and encouraged me to visit a few of the sights, even taking the time to draw a detailed map of the best places to go. Talking to him lifted my spirits, especially when I heard that he had taken his summer vacation off to work in Toulouse, because of how much he loved the city. I sat eating (an awful, carbohydrate drowned mishmash of Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, sweetened yoghurt, baguette with jam, orange juice, and chocolate pudding) breakfast with a warm and cheerful French woman named Caroline who had until recently lived in a yurt near the Pyrenees, and was now starting her life over living in the city. She sat on a couch in a simple cotton dress with her legs crossed, and spoke with a soft, comfortable voice that harbored no hurry or sense of strife, so that I immediately relaxed when we started speaking. Her warmth and courageous way of living melted away any last doubts I had, and with the constant succession of jokes, made me cheery enough to venture out again into the city, and walk all day long, viewing the beautiful architecture and delightful back streets.

(All the streets of the central and old part of Toulouse radiate out from this central plaza, the Place du Capitole. I love the way the owner of the bicycle just, on a whim, decided that this was where they wanted to park the bicycle, right smack-dab in the middle of the square. Street vendors had set up their stalls to the right of this picture, selling flea market fare.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Place du Capitole
The center of Toulouse, Place du Capitole.

(Wandering through Toulouse was a delight, because of all the tiny winding streets. You never knew what you would find around the next corner. This street led down past a beautiful courtyard, where a woman came out and greeted me with a big smile and asked if I was enjoying the city. I told her I thought the city was lovely, and she beamed. Further on, the street dropped down to the Garonne River.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Fork Street Building
One of many tiny, winding backstreet in Toulouse.

(I was actually not intending to take this photo, but without knowing it at first, I had been photographing the gate of the main police station (which was actually quite beautiful). I suddenly noticed the security camera and the two guards beyond the entrance, so I quickly swiveled to appear uninterested. This was the result.

If you look closely, gargoyles are usually carved quite crudely, without many details. This was done on purpose so that the exaggerated details would appear in better relief when seen from far below.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Cathedral Entrance Gargoyle.
Gargolye above the entrance to Toulouse Cathedral.
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Statue and Fountain
Statue and fountain on back street in Toulouse.

(Anyone who says that Europe isn’t diverse ethnically, hasn’t been in Europe recently. Minorities are a very big part of everyday society, and there is much more of a sense of integration than I ever felt in the United States. I saw a lot more mixed couples and non-whites were as common up in the mountains as anyone else. In America you rarely see blacks or Hispanics up in the mountains. There were lots of problems, too, though, particularly with the Roma (Gypsies). My French friend Thierry told me that several years ago France had attempted to flush the country out of the Roma, by shipping them all to Romania. Because Romania is part of the European Union, though, legally they couldn’t be kept out of France, and they returned. Some of the anger I heard from French people shocked me. It’s persecution at its worst. And the Roman that you see on the streets truly are destitute. It’s hard to look at.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Fontaine de Wilson Mother and Children
Mother caring for her children Fontaine de Wilson, Toulouse.

(Ah, French women! What more can I say?)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Women Talking
Two women strolling and conversing on a back street in Toulouse.

I walked all day, flip flops padding along the cobblestones and my eyes flicking from one architectural delight to the next, my camera constantly out. The old wonder of being an architect and seeing how historical buildings were assembled, what thought had gone into creating this space, why this color and that were chosen to work together, the magic that a certain use of materials can evoke, blossomed in the enthusiasm to look closer and take the camera out. The whole city, called La Ville Rose, the Pink City, reminded me that people could live together and express their creativity and joy in what they build. Everyone I asked about the city smiled and their eyes lit up before they proudly said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” When I ask people about Tokyo, the only response I get is, “Convenient.” No one lives here to live within beauty and pride at being part of it.

(This was as far east as I got in my walk across central Toulouse. It was a welcome respite from the oppressive heat. People lounged in the shade under the trees, reading, eating lunch, napping, and conversing.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Jardin des Plantes
Entrance to the Jardin des Plantes, Toulouse.
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Jardin des Plantes Chickens
Chickens grazing in the Jardin des Plantes, Toulouse.

(After a long, six hour stroll through the city and getting very hot, I finally swung around to the banks of the Garonne River. In the background you can see the Pont Neuf (New Bridge). It took almost a hundred years to build, planning started in 1542, foundations started to be built in 1544, and finally the whole thing was finished in 1632. I wonder what it was like having to live all your life next to all that construction noise!)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Garonne and Pont Neuf.
Walking along the River Garonne, with the Pont Neuf in the background.

(Tourists wandering through the Place du Capitole, Toulouse. It was so hot no one wanted to be out in the open for long. Thankfully there were small eateries on every corner selling cold bottled water.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Place du Capitole Tourists
Tourists wandering through the Place du Capitole in central Toulouse.
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Tree Framed
View of the spire of Basilique St. Sernin from between the trees.

You can’t visit France and not step into a church, so in my strolling through the city, I wandered into the churches that stirred my architect’s curiosity. After many years of one church after another (and in Japan, temples upon temples) one church begins to look a lot like another, but two of the churches here managed to evoke the awe that give a special place its otherworldly character. The Basilique St. Sernin and Toulouse Cathedral suppressed the urgings to dismiss the hubris that automatically arise in me when I see Catholic ostentation, and I walked through them filled with sorrow and gladness at the capabilities of humans, how much of the sublime and sorrow we bring about. The churches embodied this, whatever one might believe in or however much one criticized the history and actions of the Church.

Meditating within the hush and reverence of the two churches turned me upon myself and my purpose for taking this journey, until words fell away. It became apparent that it wasn’t so much about me stamping about discovering a new world, so much as about keeping my eyes and ears open and just letting time wash over me. I emerged from Toulouse Cathedral with a different pace of time. It didn’t matter so much how far I walked or whether or not my goals were met. I would just take this journey as it presented itself and walk when I could, sit still when that is what was asked of me, and let go when it seemed too much. It wouldn’t be worth it to travel if I gave in to loneliness and let that determine how I approached each day. I was ready to take the next leg of this journey… finally stepping into the mountains themselves.

(I love doorways and some of the ways doors were designed and built in churches always get me to stop and take a better look. Many of them tell whole stories.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Notre-Dame du Taur
Visitors merging from the Notre-Dame du Taur.

(It being France, churches were inevitable, and after a while many of them begin to look the same. But Basilique St. Sernin held me a little longer than most of what I have seen over the decades. The interior quite moved me.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Low Angle
Low angle view of the belfry and extrnal façade of Basilique St. Sernin in Toulouse

(The Basilique St. Sernin is a Romanesque church, predating the more famous and iconic Gothic style. Romanesque churches tend to be darker than Gothic churches, and more heavily built. The technology of buttresses hadn’t yet been invented, and so there was more limit to how high the buildings could be built, and the heaviness was due to the weight bearing limitations of the stone. Many Romanesque and Gothic churches collapsed in fantastic disasters when the structures were tried beyond the load bearing capacity and became too daring for the technology.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Nave Façade
Façade along the nave in the Basilique St. Sernin
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Pews
Pews in the Basilique St. Sernin, Toulouse.
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Holy Water
Basin of holy water near the entrance to Basilique St. Sernin.

(It is very expensive to maintain a cathedral these days, so much of the splendour and color of the past has been lost. Many churches were destroyed or badly damaged during World War 2 and the rebuilding didn’t match what had been originally built. In Germany, for instance, because so much had been destroyed in the bombings, many restorations had to use concrete instead of stone, because stone was so expensive, or simply that the original stone was no longer available. If you look closely at some of these restorations, you can see the stone painted in to simulate the original real stone.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Cathedral Pulpit
Pulpit in the Toulouse Cathedral

(Because they were usually built over very long periods, often centuries, and often collapsed or were destroyed during wars, cathedrals often were built in sections, with new master builders for each part. This necessarily incorporated different styles and ideas, the results being that asymmetrical spaces and uneven materials and colors all came together under one roof.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Cathedral Nave
Nave of the Toulouse Cathedral.

(Toulouse Cathedral is in the Gothic style, with its airy and lacy stonework. The interiors were, however, never this bright. The stained glass windows kept a much more subdued atmosphere inside, serving to add to the feeling of mystery and imagination. No matter how many times I see them, Gothic cathedrals always leave me in awe at what humans can accomplish.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Cathedral Ceiling
Ceiling of the Toulouse Cathedral.

(Buttresses, and later flying buttresses are what allowed Gothic cathedrals to get so tall and elegant. The epitome of stone technology.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Cathedral Buttresses
Buttresses on the outside of the Toulouse Cathedral.
Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Candelabra
Candelabra in the nave of Basilique St. Sernin, Toulouse.

(This church still used real candles, probably because enough visitors helped to pay for upkeep, but many of the churches that I visited in France during this trip were using electric lights disguised as candles. The effect was different.)

Pyrenees Trip Toulouse Basilique St. Sernin Devotional Candles
Devotional candles in the Basilique St. Sernin, Toulouse.
Categories
Europe: Travel Journal Pyrenees: Travel Travel

Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

(Please click on the images to see them enlarged)

Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

Third part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 3: A Village In The Mist

Fourth part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers


“In classical mythology, Pyrene is a princess who gave her name to the Pyrenees. The Greek historian Herodotus says Pyrene is the name of a town in Celtic Europe. According to Silius Italicus, she was the virginal daughter of Bebryx, a king in Mediterranean Gaul by whom the hero Hercules was given hospitality during his quest to steal the cattle of Geryon during his famous Labors. Hercules, characteristically drunk and lustful, violates the sacred code of hospitality and rapes his host’s daughter. Pyrene gives birth to a serpent and runs away to the woods, afraid that her father will be angry. Alone, she pours out her story to the trees, attracting the attention instead of wild beasts who tear her to pieces.

“After his victory over Geryon, Hercules passes through the kingdom of Bebryx again, finding the girl’s lacerated remains. As is often the case in stories of this hero, the sober Hercules responds with heartbroken grief and remorse at the actions of his darker self, and lays Pyrene to rest tenderly, demanding that the surrounding geography join in mourning and preserve her name: “struck by Herculean voice, the mountaintops shudder at the ridges; he kept crying out with a sorrowful noise ‘Pyrene!’ and all the rock-cliffs and wild-beast haunts echo back ‘Pyrene!’ … The mountains hold on to the wept-over name through the ages.” (Wikipedia/ Pyrenees)

I alight on the train platform, the stifling summer heat stirring up billowing heat waves from the afternoon platform pavement. Beyond lies the famed name of Geneva, city of the United Nations and CERN, Jean Calvin, Victorinox knives, and chocolate, now a confusing clash of 16th Century buildings mixed with modern glass and steal, and the lingering sweet odor of over-ripe garbage. Not at all what I expected. Already back at the airport everything had been so badly organized, and no one willing to help, with signs all wrong or non-existent, that it had taken three hours to get to the city center, instead of the twenty minutes the guidebook said it would. Now I can’t find the exit to the station because there are no signs for it. This would be my main experience with Geneva.

But it is only the beginning of the journey. I stay in Geneva only a few days, to get reoriented and to see a place I’ve wanted to visit since I was a child. Then it is on south into France, to the Pyrenées, for a longer, more intimate leg of the journey. It is still far away, but already I can make out the faint calling of the mountains. Perhaps I will find her there, where Hercules left her, broken and betrayed, and all alone. Or perhaps there will finally be peace for her, when I hear the echo of her name, Pyrene. It is a beginning. I have my pack, my shoes, my camera, and my eyes. For a month I want nothing more.

Geneva Jet D'Eau
The famous Jet d’Eau on Lake Geneva.
Geneva Old Town Street Restaurant
Noon street restaurants waiting for customers.
Geneva Parked Bicycles and Scooters in Old Town
Parked bicycles and scooters in Old Town of Geneva.
Geneva Old Town Façades
Old Town façades in Geneva.
Geneva Old Town Courtyard
View through the gate door into a Geneva Old Town courtyard.
Geneva Fair Hanging Out
Friends hanging out at the edge of Lake Geneva at the Geneva Summer Festival
Geneva Old Town Antiques Street
Small Geneva Old Town street with many antiques shops.
Geneva Lake Boat People
Tourists waiting for the Lake Geneva boat tour to get on the way.
Geneva Lake Faux Steamboat
Tourist faux-steamboat plying the waters of Lake Geneva.
Geneva Jardin du Anglais Mist
Strolling through the Jardin du Anglais alongside Lake Geneva
Geneva Old Town Lunch Tables
Lunch time outside in Old Town, Geneva.
Geneva Jardin du Anglais Timothy
Large Timothy growing in the Jardin du Anglais, beside Lake Geneva.
Geneva Lake Swans
Swans patrolling the edge of Jetée de Pâquis.
Geneva Women Chatting in Rue Basses
Women chatting in the Rue Basses area of Geneva.
Lake Geneva Marina
Sailboats moored at the Lake Geneva Marina
Geneva Lake Early Morning Lakeside
Early morning strollers taking a break beside Lake Geneva on Jetée de Pâquis.
Geneva Old Town Travel Antiques Store Window
Looking into the shop window of a Geneva Old Town travel antiques store.
Geneva Old Town Fountain
Fountain spilling water in Old Town Geneva.
Geneva Old Town Benches
Geneva Old Town tasteful bench graffiti.
Geneva Oak Tree Base
Oak tree base in the Parc de l’Observatoire, Geneva.
Geneva Museum of Natural History
View of the mammal diaramas in the Geneva Museum of Natural History.
Geneva Apartment Façade
Apartment façade in north Geneva, near the youth hostel.
Geneva Sparrow in the Youth Hostel
Sparrow stealing bread inside the Geneva Youth Hostel cafeteria.
Geneva Fair Sky Carousel
Spinning sky carousel at the Geneva Summer Festival
Geneva Fair Dance
Carefree spirits having a twirl at the Geneva Summer Festival.
Geneva Fair Carousel
Fathers watching their children on a car attraction at the Geneva Summer Festival.
Geneva Fair Water Bubbles
Children playing in water bubbles at the Geneva Summer Festival.
Geneva Fair Casino
Gamblers checking out slot machines at the Geneva Summer Festival.
GenevaFair Picking Hello Kitty.
Father accompanying his daughter buying a toy at the Geneva Summer Festival.
Geneva Old Town Waiting Dog
Spitz waiting for someone to return in Old Town, Geneva.
Geneva To France Street Sign
Geneva street signs pointing directions to France.
Categories
Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Walking

TMB Journey- Part 3

Bonhomie Evening Peak

All summer the miasma of diabetes had wrung havoc from my legs, rendering me at times incapable of taking a step without excruciating stabs of pain shooting through my thighs. So as the Tour of Mont Blanc trip loomed before me I worried that there was no possible way I was going to be able to complete the journey. The first steps up the foothills to the southwest of the Mont Blanc Massif filled me with apprehension, for the further I ventured away from connections with towns and up into the wilder region of the mountains the greater the risk of getting stuck up there. I had to grip my shoulder straps tightly and set my heart for the distance, telling myself I could do this and that I wasn’t going to let diabetes defeat my love of mountain walking.

Peter Doppelgänger
Tetes Nord de Fours
Going Back to Old Ways

All throughout the foothills surrounding the Mont Blanc range, especially in France and Switzerland, young families have returned to the villages to bring new life back to the old chalets and byways.

Aiguilles de la Pennaz
My Nearing Bonhomme

I moved much slower than I would normally have walked in days past, but, in spite of being out of breath and falling behind everyone along the way, the hills and slopes rolled by and by mid-afternoon I found myself gazing at the vista of the alpine crags.

Big Climb Near Bonhomme

The mountains grew bigger and bigger, almost frighteningly so, with a mass and ominousness that I had never experienced with the high mountains in Japan. At once both a sense of dread mixed with unutterable joy nagged at the back of my mind. It was all still too new to get lost in; even my photos felt tentative, as if trying out a grander horizon.

Last Climb First Day
Alpine Violets
End of Winter

As the late afternoon sun began to approach the line of peaks to the west and I still hadn’t reached the refuge where I hoped to stay for the night and no one else was in sight, I began to lose heart that I would make it. Clouds were gathering and it looked like rain. Breathing heavily I topped one rise and came upon this memorial to winter. Out of breath I plopped down on an outcropping and laughed like a man drunk.

Bonhomme Sheep

The Refuge de Bonhomme sat above a tumbling valley resplendent with emerald green grass on every rounded slope. Upon setting my pack down and scanning the panorama below, I witnessed the famed alpine sheep seething across a distant peak. For the first time I could picture the landscape the Heidi so adored.

Bonhomme Walkers 1
Bonhomme Ibex 1

All my life I had dreamed of glimpsing Ibex. They represented an almost deity-like symbol of the remote and legendary world of the Alps, a place where only intrepid mountaineers and hardy shepherds could venture. So when I finished my dinner and glimpsed a lone Ibex tossing his horns along a dark ridge, I grabbed my camera and stalked outside as fast as caution allowed. The Frenchman, Sebastien, who had befriend me over a beer, laughed and cried out, “What’s the hurry? They’re so tame you’re guarantied to see one! I just wonder about that bright red windshirt you’re wearing, though!”

Bonhomme Ibex 2
Bonhomme Walkers 2
Bonhomme Figure
Bonhomme Ibex 3
Bonhomme Meal 1

The refuge was so different from what you get in Japan. People sat around meeting one another and welcoming people they didn’t know. Two refuge staff members brought out guitars and sat on the kitchen counter singing songs to candle light. Outside night fell, turning the world blue while a powerful wind howled across the rooftop.

Bonhomme Distant Peak

I fell asleep to the pattering of rain against the bedroom window and the rise and fall of Sebastien’s breathing. The stout wooden walls felt solid in the mountain air and the bed a safe haven. I slept so deeply that I cannot remember that night.

Grass Chapieux
Descent Chapieux
Chapieux Puff

One thing I discovered as I walked was that you were never far away from at least a hamlet. To my surprise the Alps in Japan were much wilder and required that one be a lot more self-sufficient. I was able to buy fresh Tambe cheese and still-warm baguette at a local bakery near the bus stop here in Chapieux.

Chapieux Bus Stop
Villes des Glaciers
Villes des Glaciers Rest Stop

My first glimpse of an alpine glacier came here in Villes des Glaciers. At one time the glacier must have held an otherworldly spell over the village below, but today so much of it had melted away that mostly only orange hued rock remained. Throughout the walk I saw clearly that all the glaciers had melted away to but a fraction of their former grandeur. It was humbling to such powerful forces of nature burned away to nothing.

Aiguilles des Glaciers
Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Walking

TMB Journey- Part 2

Aig du Midi

Trying to keep up with developing the photographs for the blog really takes up a lot of time, especially the 800 or so images I took during my European trip last summer. I’m about a third of the way through the collection and hopefully can now get the images up to go along with more frequent posts. But I really have to find another way to work with the images, featuring fewer of them in the blog posts and more of them in a gallery. For now I’ll post what I have…

Dark rain clouds had followed me from central Switzerland and by the time I reached Martigny at the western edge of the country both the apprehension of nearing the might of the Alps and the prospect of crossing over into another country had manifest itself in the heaviness of the rain and the dimness of the daylight. There was a train I had to transfer to but in the rush to run down the stairs to the other platform I had accidently thrown away, along with my lunch garbage, my month-long Swiss Railpass. I realized my mistake moments before the train I had just disembarked from took off and, thinking that I had left the pass on the train, I ran back and jumped on the train, only to be trapped on board as the doors closed behind me. There was no pass on board and I panicked over someone possibly having stolen it. When the conductor came strolling down the aisle he laughed when he saw me, admonishing me for not having gotten off the train to make my transfer. He was sympathetic with the loss of my pass though, and offered to write me for free a ticket to my Chamonix destination. He then wrote up a new schedule for train transfers, but saying that I would arrive quite late in Chamonix. Resigned, I sat on the train till the last station and then rode it back to Martigny. The rain had redoubled, roaring outside the train window and filling the landscape with a depressing gloom. I felt really far away from home.

Luck would have it that back at the Martigny platform I discovered my rail pass inside the trash bin where I had thrown my lunch bag away. Relieved I crossed to the other platform again and found the cogwheel train that would climb up to Chamonix. Other walkers already filled half the seats, sitting with their packs balanced on their knees. I found a place between a gang of young teenagers from Britain. When the train lurched to a start they proceeded to smoke cigarettes and bombard the compartment with shockingly lewd stories and much-too-knowledgeable recounts of experiments with strong drugs. They were the noisiest people on the train and made it hard to concentrate on the passing scenery outside.

As the train gained altitude the cold set in. Even the train conductors wore winter jackets and stood on the platforms along the way swinging their arms to stay warm.

Chamonix huddled in a deep grayness, shot through with a wall of torrential rain. The rain was so strong it hushed everyone as they emerged from the station. The streets were deserted except for a few stragglers heading for the tourist information center in the center of the town. I followed these lone individuals and managed to get into the tourist center just before it closed. All the hotels were booked and those that had a room or two available were far too expensive for me. One place, however, a backpacker’s lodge called “Ski Station” took in travellers who had little money and who didn’t mind sharing rooms. THe tourist center agent got me a room there and then gave me directions to the nearest bank machine.

Here is where everything went wrong. I tried to use my American Express card, only to find that the bank didn’t take Amex. I had just enough money for one day of food and not enough for paying for lodging. Concerned I wandered around town seeking every ATM I could find and each one refused my American Express card. I ever stepped into a hotel and asked if they might change money there, but they, too, told me that they didn’t take American Express. After about the eighth bank machine I began to panic. With my need to take insulin and then necessity to eat afterwards I couldn’t afford not to have money. When nothing worked I walked up the steep hill in the back of the town to the backpacker’s lodge and presented myself to the caretaker, an elderly woman with an angelic smile and quiet demeanor. I explained my circumstances and, without pausing, she said, “No need to worry. You look tired and wet and are obviously a traveller. Put your pack down, choose a bed, and get yourself dried off. I’ll lend you a little money so you can eat.” Then she looked directly into my eyes, “Just promise me you’ll try to pay me back as soon as you can, okay?”

I was astounded! Hospitality still existed! What travellers dream of. I thanked her so profusely that she laughed and said, “Now you’re making me regret what I said! Go get dried off!”

I changed into dry clothes and then headed down into town to get something to eat. I found a small Italian restaurant in a tiny side street and ordered a cheap pizza with a beer. The effect of the fear of not having money still coursed through me and eating the pizza was like floating through a dream. All around me sat families and couples who laughed and reveled in tabletops of food and the sound of clinking glass and utensils rang in the yellow light of the lamps. I ate my fill, paid up, and strolled back to the lodge. The lights in my room were out already and I undressed in silence, pulled the rough wool blanket over me, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Ski Station Chamonix 2

The backpacker’s lodge, Ski Station, where I found kindness and selfless hospitality.

Aig du Midi

First view of the Alps on that bright, sunny, following morning. They were so high I had trouble believing they were real.

Day Walk Chamonix

The form and flora of the hills surrounding Chamonix town reminded me so much of the Japan Alps that it was like deja vue. Only the fauna, like ants and butterflies gave away the difference, and of course the sheer height of the peaks above.

Les Houches Start TMB

The start of the Tour de Mont Blanc began as a quiet climb through early morning mists above Les Houches, southwest of Chamonix.

Stepping Onto the Trail Above Les Houches
Categories
Europe: Photos Europe: Travel Journal Mont Blanc: Travel

Changing Trains

Fevey Lake Geneva

All summer it had been raining in Switzerland and only when I arrived in Zürich did the clouds break and the sun come out in full force. The morning I took the train from Zürich, heading west to Luzern, rain blanketed the landscape once more. With the rain the northern summer chill so reminiscent of my younger days in Germany also made itself felt, and for the first time since my arrival I felt I had returned to a familiar Europe.

I spent the hours on the train between Zürich and Luzern with my face pressed against the window pane, drinking in the green landscape. It was still hard to believe I was actually in Switzerland. Looking out at the gentle rolling hills, without a mountain in sight, preconceptions of what Switzerland actually was slipped away with each passing kilometer. The country actually had flat regions, where you could drive your tractor and set holstein cows grazing.

Luzern Bridge Couples

Of all the cities in Switzerland Luzern was where I hoped to discover the romance of a Swiss lake. In spite of the rain, the colorful banners of the Luzern Festival and the flags of the city and the aluminum and glass structures of the train and bus stations, coupled with a seamless merging of ancient stone clock towers and churches and low-cut, modern office buildings made the entrance into the city seem weightless and cheerful. I stopped by the tourist office and though there was a long line of travelers waiting to get information, the tourist information officer smiled when she looked up and seemed to take a liking to me, for she went way beyond simply telling me where the youth hostel was located, going into deep detail about the history of the city walls, the timing of the bells of the old city belfries, the memorial of the Swiss Roman guards who had died protecting Caesar, even the significance of the faded Dance of Death paintings by Kaspar Meglinger on the Spreuer Bridge spanning the lower half of the city’s portion of the river. When I voiced concern about all the people waiting behind me she waved her hand in dismissal, “They always ask the same questions!” She went on to explain that she had been born in Switzerland, but had grown up in California, on a vineyard. She also told me her last name, which was Dutch, and at my raised eyebrows, she shrugged, “My ex. What can you do? I figured that it was silly to break up on bad terms; after all we had loved each other at first! So I decided to keep the name.” We must have been standing there for twenty minutes, gabbing. I felt like Luzern had welcomed me with open arms, though the eyes burning into my back said otherwise.

Luzern Waterfront 1

After leaving my pack at the youth hostel just on the edge of town, I took the street car back downtown and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling about in the heavy rain. Students from all over the world wandered the streets, mostly in big groups, all taking photographs of the famous sights, especially the KapelleBrücke, a long, wooden covered bridge that spanned the wide Reuss River. From what the woman at the tourist office had told me the bridge had burned down several years ago, due to a careless smoker. Walking across the newly rennovated version now, I stopped every so often to stare at the thousands of names and messages scribbled in Hangul onto the wood by Korean tourists.

Luzern Arbor
Luzon Water Tower
Luzern Couple

The rain got too heavy to walk out in the open so I retreated to the market streets and hugged the storefronts to escape the downpour. Couples raced by, hiding under umbrellas and jackets, to disappear in coffee shops and clothing stores. I bought a hot pretzel at one vendor and stood nibbling at it under an awning while watching the water stream down over the cobblestones.

Luzern Bakery
Luzern Cheese

People often think that when it rains photographs no longer exhibit beauty, perhaps equating the dampness of the rain and the greyness of the skies with lack of color. But in the rain colors come alive where before there was just a dull stone face or strong shadows. When the water glistens on the surface of leaves or street lights reflect their neon colors in the puddles, rain can enhance the effect, pulling your eyes away from the stereotypical sunny skies to the ground or to hidden corners.

Luzern Sparrows
Luzern Duck 1
Luzern Duck 2

The romance of the lake came in the most unexpected way. I was just returning to the youth hostel, and had stepped off the street car, when two Korean university students stepped off behind me. They looked lost so I approached them and asked if they were looking for the youth hostel. We hit it off, and walking back to the hostel, we began to talk about our travels. The conversation never stopped. Khang and Yunho asked me to join them for dinner and when that still didn’t give us enough time to get to know each other we all took the street car back downtown to take a walk around the area I had wandered in all day. I felt like a university student again as we joked about, talking about girls, about dreams, about new places to travel to. We arrived at the edge of Lake Luzern and like a sea it spread out in the darkness as far as we could see. Boat and port lights, mixed with the squiggly strands of street lights, wavered on the dark water, while on every bollard at the edge of the lake couples held each other in the rain. Yunho, the youngest of us and out on his first trip outside Korea, sprinted to the edge of the lake and threw his hands in the air, shouting… and reflecting the feelings of Khang and me… “I LOVE LUZERN! I LOVE SWITZERLAND!” Then he ran back to me, his smile beaming from ear to ear, and asked in earnest, “Isn’t it romantic Miguel? Isn’t it romantic! Oh, Miguel, it is so beautiful!

Lake Geneva Sailing

Still floating on these words I woke at dawn the next morning and took the train west again, for Chamonix, France, the doorway to my mountain dreams.

Martigny Rain
Categories
Chiba Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings

Alpine Journey 10: Stepping On Ants

It’s been exactly two weeks since I left Switzerland and returned to Japan. It’s hard to believe that I was actually out of the country. Like a dream I stepped onto the plane back at the end of July and headed west. Then a month followed as if passing through a curtain, glimpsing a wider world that I had almost forgotten went on every day outside the borders of my awareness. Europe manifested itself as a walk-in memory; so much like my childhood in Germany, and interactions with people so much closer to how I naturally expressing myself. Travelers actually made an effort to lean across tables to talk, women flirted with me (unlike in Japan where no one ever makes eye contact with you… you’d think no one was ever interested in others), the food was fresh and healthy even in the smallest, out-of-the-way towns, life moved at a manageable pace, everywhere travelers and townsfolk alike taking the time to sit and talk. And while the pretty towns and green slopes and millions of sheep and cows got monotonous after a while, there was something about the way the populace valued what they had and insisted on remembering what is important about a community that stayed with me throughout the trip.

I promised myself on the last night in Zürich that I would remember the revitalized spirit I had started feeling throughout the trip and would do my best to keep the momentum rolling, but the moment I landed in Narita Airport and felt myself get drawn right back into all the predictable weight of the culture… all the girls on the trains preening themselves in front of mirrors and putting on makeup, the boy staring at me whose mother just laughed when she noticed and encouraged his feelings by telling him that I was “strange foreigner” and “he’s funny-looking isn’t he?”, the endless “salary” men in their ubiquitous suits no matter how hot it was, the glaring pachinko parlors and cheap roadside car dealers with their flourescent flags and flashing neon lights, the mass-produced, developer houses at arms-breadth from one another that tried so hard to be western and all like mind-numbingly the same… a huge anger blossomed inside me and a deep resentment at having to return, plopped right back into everything that I want so much to extricate myself from.

Hardest was returning home to this apartment. I unlocked the front door, stepped inside into its tiny confines and the muffled stillness of its humid air, turned on a flourescent light that made all my sad belongings jump out starkly, reminding me in their silence of the months and years of stagnation and just how much unneeded junk I was weighing myself down with. The door thumped closed behind me and there I was, alone again, with no one to talk to, no family, no friends, no one to even have the possibility of meeting if I decided to take a walk around town. It wasn’t that I didn’t have people who cared about me, but that there was no possibility of getting together with any of them. The contrast to a month of meeting people every day in Europe hit me hard. No one even called to say hello.

Except for four days when I had to spend time teaching junior high school students in the south of the prefecture the next two weeks found me holed up in my apartment, growing ever more down and losing motivation even to get up and go to the store to buy food. Just the sight of yet more processed Japanese food left me with no appetite. Turning on the TV depressed me with its childishness and constant, unhealthy focus on young girls and the same, self-satisfied celebrities. Walking on the streets and constantly standing out, never, ever being able to get away from the label of being a foreigner, had me cursing under my breath at strangers. Being in Europe allowed me for a while to blend in and remember what it is like to feel part of a group. And then opening my eyes to the apartment reminded me of what I had still to do and hadn’t done. Sleeping swept it all away and I could forget for a while, so I slept in until noon and ate cereal and scanned the internet for word of release. The lack of exercise, after a month of constant, hard walking, slowly began to raise my blood sugar again and reawaken the problems with diabetes, the sluggishness of my blood physically bringing me even more down.

I knew I couldn’t continue like this. I had to buck up and overcome the sense of dislocation. But to what? I realized in Europe, strongly, that Japan is not my culture, that no matter how long I live here, how well I know it, how fluently I speak the language, how much I try to soften my criticisms, the Japanese will never count me as one of them, as they don’t count themselves as part of the rest of the world. I can struggle till I die from hypertension and am incapacitated from depression and yet Japan will never let me be one of its children. I fit right in in Europe. I’ve struggled to fit in here in Japan since I was a boy, even wanted to become a Japanese before I left to study in the States, and therefore the idea of leaving it behind hurts, deeply. It’s like giving up on my identity. The humility and frustration of never being accepted by the culture in which I grew up, which has gone so far as to shape the way I think and act, makes the ground feel unstable. Where is it that I can go to feel that I am finally “home”?

I’m sure other people also feel this way and that most people spend their lives wondering what their place is. But when someone can’t even claim a certain culture as their own, as the template for their sense of belonging and for how they act and see the world, what do they turn to? When people ask me, constantly ask me, “Where are you from?”, what should I answer? Is it important? It feels important. Or at least the sense of safety and kinship feel as if they could relieve this fight-or-flight tension that reisdes in me. I watch other people so comfortable in their clothes as “Japanese” or “American” or “Chinese”, never really questioning it, and listen to their self-assured proclamations, “I am Japanese! We are different from you!” and wonder what they are referring to. Does it have something to do with the bonds of a moeity? Does the identification protect you from the bad spirits of the world? Does it make you bigger than you are as an individual?

The trip to Europe planted seeds for a lot to think about. And to consider what my next step is. The connection between places became apparent the other day when I was walking back from the supermarket. I glanced down at my feet and realized that I was about to step on a colony of ants at the side of the road. In a flash I saw myself at the side of a road in France, avoiding another colony of ants there. I am neither here nor there, and yet in both places at the same time.

I think my next step must take courage, a willingness to pull up roots once again and seek better ground. And perhaps that is the fuel of my own flame. I don’t really know yet. But I know this, though. I want the next step to be light and simple, without unnecessary burdens. Travel light. And that I am willing to take the chance to live more on my own terms.
_____________________________

I have about 850 photographs to go through so the Europe photos will be a little while before I can get them cleaned up and uploaded. I’m designing a gallery to go alng with them, so hopefully they will be worth the effort.

Categories
Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel

Alpine Journey 9: Familiar Haunts

It is raining here in Zürich. An appropriate ending to a rich trip. Tomorrow the plane leaves for Bangkok and further on to Japan. Needless-to-say my emotions have been swinging this way and that, trying to come to terms with the discrepancy between the satisfaction of the lifestyle I’ve been living for the last month and that of the frustrating term in Japan. I know for certain now that I have to find a way out of the way I’m living there. It’s been eating at my soul for too long.

The constant encompassing of tourist holes is also affecting me, too, though. When I took the cog train to the top of the mountain, Gornergrat, above Zermatt, at 3100 meters, I found a shopping mall there! I stood there dumbfounded; couldn’t people let go of their need to purchase things and just stop for one moment to let the mountain be? Appreciate it as it is?

And that’s the thing about Europe, and the Alps, and a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I had a conversation with a Japanese couple the other day, in which we were talking about why people in Japan don’t hold precious their historical and environmental heritage in the same way as the Europeans. While walking along the gallery of huge mountainscapes in France I kept muttering to myself, “People are really full of themselves here.” By which I meant that there is an undisputed assumption that the Alps are beautiful, that the old villages are quaint, that the food is delicious, that life is “sane”. Never does anyone question the very idea of turning the mountains and villages, people’s lives as a whole, into a viewing stand, or letting the old things die away. It is like an enormous museum, which to me, are dead places, things which are not allowed to alter into something new. And that’s what tourism does here. It clings to antiquated ways without letting the images turn.

So I will return to Japan with a different sense of what the Japanese see in the world and how change is an intimate part of the way they live. The mountains there are not museums; they are living places and people are a part of that. Perhaps I can learn to feel the same way, more or less.

Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Travel Walking

Alpine Journey 3: Stumbling Above the City

This is my second day in Zürich and I had my first official walk in the hills in the afternoon. The day was searingly hot and all the people outside were sweating and getting lobster red sunburns (except for those great number of Swiss who seem to have permanent suntans and are in incredibly good shape- I’ve never seen so many people who so consistently look so fit). I took the train up into the hills overlooking the city and walked along the ridge to the south of the city. I was shocked by how similar it all was to the hills of Japan, especially to a very popular walk west of the metropolitan part of Tokyo called “Takao-san”. The only big differences were the number of working dairy farms complete with cows wearing bells, and the stunning views of the huge and turquiose green Lake Zürich. Unfortunately the haze in the air was so bad that the Alps remained invisible. I was hoping to see The Eiger. Because the cable car was closed for today I ended up having to walk down a very steep trail to the bottom of the hill at the end. And there I found that my thigh cramps had returned. I just hope my legs are up for the Alps!