I’ve been trying to write a post about the last day in Paris and the end of my trip, and I’m reminded of why I loved writing in the moment so much: writing about something that happened several weeks ago is a completely different experience than writing about it when the memories are fresh, when they’re all around you.
So I’ll start how I often do, with what’s around me in the moment: it’s just after 8am and I have a half finished cup of really strong coffee on the table next to me. I’m in my living room and despite the early hour it’s dark in here; the skies are a thick grey and rain drizzles and pours through the trees, onto the stone porch that’s just outside my door.
I’ve had a disjointed and crazy and wonderful few weeks since I’ve been home: a day in my apartment, a week on the road. A few days home again and a few days back out. Back and forth, home and away, over and over. I have one week left of vacation before I return to work, and at the start of the summer, I was tempted to pack in as much as possible: go to Europe, walk the Camino, come home and travel south for a wedding and to see friends. Then take off again- maybe California, maybe Maine, maybe an impromptu backpacking trip in the woods. I realized I was totally unprepared to do any of this, and what’s more, I didn’t want to do anything big. I wanted to sit still for awhile- and even though I’ve been back and forth and continuing to move, there’s also been so much calm in the past few weeks.
I moved so much on my Camino. We all do- anyone who walks a Camino- and I certainly moved last year, but this time? I was running, sailing, gliding through Spain. I could feel it- even in the early days of pain and fatigue and blisters, I pushed on, I pushed harder, I made myself move. And by the end, I felt like I was flying. I’ll write more- hopefully- about how I did this walk, why I decided to walk those long days and what I got out of it- but what I’m thinking about now is my mental state, especially at the end of the Camino.
My mind was strong. It was solid and confident and settled. I was so present in my moments on the Camino, but towards the end, I was also aware of what would happen when I returned home, aware of how I felt when I returned home last year. I’d thought about this as I walked, I thought about this during my conversation with Andrea, on my last night in Santiago: the Camino begins when the walking ends.
And I thought about this on my last day in Paris. I did a small day trip out to Giverny, the home and gardens where Monet spent the end of his life, and where he did some of his most famous work. I lingered over this trip- I could have rushed to the Gare du Nord and made it on the first train out to Vernon (a town near Giverny), I could have hopped on a bus that would take me with the first wave of tourists into the property, I could have tried to enjoy the gardens and the pond before the crowds would arrive. But instead, I lingered over my MIJE breakfast, I slowly wandered through the streets of my quartier and over to the nearest metro. When I arrived at the train station I learned that the next train to Vernon wasn’t for nearly two hours, so I walked through the streets around the Gare du Nord, and found a café near a church. It was on a bustling street corner but inside the café was quiet. I drank a café crème and wrote in my journal and chatted with a man delivering gallons of milk.
I’d become confident with my French- or, at least, confident in attempting to speak- and the attempts paid off. The delivery man laughed with me, tried to teach me a few words, told me I had a beautiful smile. On my way out, I passed a waiter who was standing alongside the bar, and dancing slightly to some pop music that was coming from the stereo. When he saw me he grinned, “Il faut dancer!” he declared. I shook my head, laughing. “I’m not good at dancing,” I told him.
I waved goodbye, and the waiter, the woman who served me my drink, the delivery man- they all stood together and smiled and waved at me and wished me a good day.
It was strange- in a way- to experience something like that in Paris. I love Paris, but Parisians are often rushed and reserved and formal and they just don’t seem to smile so much. Not at tourists, not at people they don’t know. But those moments in the café were different, and I thought about this as I rode the train out of the station and into the countryside: I could have sat quietly at my table and not engaged with the man delivering the milk. I could have smiled politely and not tried to speak. I could have kept to myself, and remained to myself, as I so often do. But I thought of my conversation with Andrea, the Italian, and I thought of what I resolved to myself, just two nights before: that I want to keep the energy of the Camino with me. I want it to shine through and into my life. Maybe I was already practicing this.
When I arrived in Vernon, a town about 5 kilometers away from Giverny, there were buses lined up outside of the station to deliver tourists to Monet’s home. But I chose to walk. Of course I did! There is a flat walking path that runs behind houses and past fields, leading straight from Vernon to Giverny. Most took the bus and several rented bicycles but a few others, like me, chose to walk. And when I arrived in Giverny, an hour later, instead of going to see the gardens, I first sat down to a long lunch. I’d heard great reviews about the restaurant which is part of the Hotel Baudy- just down the street from Monet’s residence- so I found a table on the terrace and ate like a queen: a glass of Bordeaux and slices of fresh baguette. Salad with goat cheese, salmon, broiled tomatoes, crème brûlée.
When I finally made it to Monet’s home, it was packed with people. The gardens were beautiful but so crowded. I walked up and down the rows, admiring the flowers, but I didn’t feel particularly overwhelmed with the beauty or inspired by the setting. But then I walked through a small underground passageway and over to the Japanese water garden and when I saw the weeping willows and wisteria covered bridges and the pond full of water lilies- all of that green- for a moment, it took my breath away.
On my return to Paris I felt full of a quiet energy and inspiration. Those feelings followed me to Shakespeare and Company, an independent bookstore on the Left Bank. I’ve been there before- maybe I’ve been there every time I travel to Paris- it’s my favorite bookstore in the world. As I walked through the stacks of fiction I saw a pile of slim paperbacks, a black and white photo on the cover of a man standing in front of a building. I picked up the book- it was Hemingway’s ‘A Movable Feast’, and I promptly took it over to the register and handed over some euros. My dad had just mentioned this book, when he was driving me to the airport before my Camino. “Have you ever read Hemingway?” he’d asked. “You would like ‘A Movable Feast’, it’s the memoir of his early days as an ex-pat in Paris.”
I’d had no idea. For as many times as Hemingway has ‘appeared’ in my travels these past two years, I’ve never read a thing by him. And yet, ever since I walked into Café Iruna last year in Pamplona, with Ibai and Mirra and Ji-Woo, I’ve felt some sort of small connection with Hemingway. I think maybe it had to do with being a foreigner in Spain- out on this strange adventure, stepping through towns where he spent so much of his time. When I was in Venice, this past winter, I discovered a bar where Hemingway had spent his time, stationed at a corner table in the cold winter months, working on a book. It was Harry’s Bar, and I made a point to walk inside. I’m not sure why, but suddenly it seemed like if I happened to be in the same places where Hemingway used to be, I should try to track down his favorite spots. Maybe I was trying to capture those same feelings that I had when I was gazing over the water lilies at Giverny: that quiet, energizing inspiration.
And this year, on my Camino, there were the words from a local, as I was sitting in a bar, writing: “Hemingway started like this, you know.”
I started reading ‘A Movable Feast’ right away- that night on the stiff, narrow mattress in my hostel room, the next morning, leaning against the concrete wall in the underground of the metro, waiting for my train that would take me to the airport. Twenty pages in and he writes about Shakespeare and Company, how he was shy and poor and had to ask to borrow books. I ate up his words as I read, and I realized- amazed though I probably shouldn’t have been- that I really like the way he writes.
And this is how my time in Paris ended, these are the feelings that I carried back with me from my trip this summer: feeling strong, feeling peaceful, feeling quietly energized, feeling ready to come home, feeling ready to write, feeling ready to figure out how to keep walking my Camino.