I have now walked over 800 km and yet I am only halfway done with the Via Francigena. This first month of my pilgrimage around the world has come and gone in a blink of an eye and though I am so different from the person I was when I set out in June, it really does feel like I am only halfway through. A pilgrimage is like a prescribed course of treatment and though I can only guess which maladies this journey is supposed to cure, I know that I am not through taking my medicine yet.
Here’s something I’ve figured out recently— discovering new parts of yourself doesn’t mean that you can see yourself more clearly. As is often the case, answers just bring on more questions; when you realize you’ve been wrong about some things, you start to wonder what else you’ve been wrong about. I’ve always thought of myself as a city slicker, but now that I’ve hiked the length of a country and am about to cross the Alps on foot, can I really still call myself that? Or now that I’ve eaten my body weight in croissants in a month can I still call myself fit? And what about the fact that my pants are significantly roomier—is there even a word for someone who loses weight by eating baked goods? Am I an anomaly? Are there others like me?
Before I fall headfirst into a week of Swiss chocolate and steep mountains (hopefully not literally) I’d like to share some of the most memorable moments from the last month. None of these were life changing, but together they have carved out a path that I know will open up a whole other world for me.
Canterbury, 0 km
The night before starting the Via Francigena, I dreamt of bundles of fragrant eucalyptus, bunches of dusty miller, burgundy berries and blush pink roses appearing at my doorstep. I knew exactly what to do with them, making bouquets and filling vase after vase after vase. The sense of abundance swelled as more and more flowers appeared out of nowhere until mid-bouquet, I woke up.
That morning, standing in Canterbury Cathedral’s Roman crypt Colin and I received a pilgrim’s blessing from Canon Clare Edwards. As she lit a candle, Canon Clare explained that the rite is carried out here because it is the oldest part of the Cathedral and a blessing performed in the heart of the cathedral might have more potency. As a subtle, sweet smell from the white stock in a vase near the altar reached my nose, Canon Clare began to read:
“May flowers spring up where your feet touch the earth. May the feet that walked before you bless your every step. May the weather that’s important be the weather of your heart. May your prayers be like flowers strewn for other pilgrims…”
While Colin took photos of August Rodin’s “Les Bourgeois de Calais” I hid behind the sculpture and quietly dug into his half of the caramel chocolate bar we’d brought on the ferry over from Dover. Obviously, I wasn’t quiet enough because Colin busted me mid-bite and snapped a photo. Later, after it began to rain we rewrote and sang the Beatles’ “Yesterday” as “Four Days Ago.” The new lyrics were a tribute to our life back in New York without backpacks, blisters or soggy shoes. Our relationship has always been playful, and it is this ability to find lightness just about anywhere that has carried us through separations, health scares and family tragedies over the last eight years.
Wisques, 82 km
At the Abbey de Notre Dame everything is magic. Sister Lucie is a nun unlike any other, and not just because she makes jokes about there being vodka in my water bottle. She is warm and open and completely unaffected when I tell her that I am not Christian. Instead, she makes me pose for photos for a bulletin board in the Abbey. The other visitors staying here include Marlene and Christian, a couple of pilgrims headed in the opposite direction to Canterbury (more on them later) and Claire, a beautiful girl who is engaged but has a spark of wanderlust she can’t shake that terrifies her. In the morning she walks with me on my way out of the village and we talk about boys and love and travel. She reminds me of myself when I first realized I’d never be happy staying still and I tell her what I wish someone had told me when I was lost in my fantasies of adventure, feeling guilty for wanting more than the assigned trajectory. “You are not alone,” I say and she is visibly relieved. When we reach the end of town, she stops, ‘I can’t go any further with you, I’m scared I won’t find my way back.” We hug and part ways, at least for now.
Thérouanne, 95 km
I reach Thérouanne just in time for an afternoon break and walk into a large, airy café filled with houseplants and watercolor paintings, more like someone’s lovingly arranged living room than a stopover for strangers. The owner, and the only other person in the place is as carefully put together as her space and is in deep contrast with my sweaty, red face and dusty hiking boots. Madame Michelle Boulot Delvart takes no notice of my appearance and offers me a beer. We make small talk until I mention that I live in the States and her face lights up. “I was in the States once with my son. He was in a triathlon,” she disappears behind a door and then reappears with a heavy folder that she puts in front of me. Inside are maps of California, photos of her and her son, of Death Valley, receipts and brochures, all of it perfectly preserved for over a decade. In the course of an hour she goes through everything in the folder and I understand that this trip with her youngest child is one of her life’s fondest memories. Before I leave she shows me her back garden filled with rose bushes, jasmine, lettuce and raspberries and then she plucks a handful of lavender stems and hands them to me. The lavender has long since dried up, but I still carry the blossoms with me, a fragrant souvenir of an unexpected afternoon.
Amettes, 112 km
I am ecstatic as I walk through fields of wheat and poppies in the morning. I can hear this universal heartbeat made up of everything that buzzes and honks and sighs and aches and blooms and withers. It is all intertwined, a mess of imaginary wires holding the world together. I hear a plane above me and for a moment everything stops. I look up and see my eight-year-old self on her way to America staring down at this grown up version of herself through the clouds. I am both of these Mashas at the same time. I can feel what they are both feeling and just for a second, I know that everything good that has ever happened to me is still unfolding somewhere in the pockets of the universe, that no one I’ve ever loved has ever been lost and all of the horrible experiences of my life were no more real than a bad dream. And then it was over. The plane became just a plane again and I was alone in a field in France, dumbfounded.
Péronne, 200 km
In the hostel in Péronne I met Mayling and Andrew, two pilgrims from the U.K. walking as far as the Col of St. Bernard on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Of the handful of pilgrims walking the Via Francigena that I’d met so far, every one had already walked the Camino de Santiago, including these two. The Camino, it seems is the gateway drug for those of us with an addiction to thousand-year-old roads. Over a bottle of rosé and pizzas topped with anchovies to spicy sausage Andrew tells me about his career n the beading business. “It’s not as exciting now, “he says “but it used to be that we would find a bead whose origins we didn’t know and we’d go chasing after it around the world, eventually tracking it down to one man in Ethiopia.” I know think of him as the Indiana Jones of the jewelry business.
Seraucourt-le-Grand, 226 km
At the camping in Seraucourt I bump into Anna and Max, two German pilgrims that I first met at the very beginning with Colin when all four of us were lost in the woods near Licques. Even though we barely know each other, seeing them is like seeing old friends. We make pasta and salad and eat at a picnic table by their tent along with another pilgrim named James.
After dinner I invite everyone back to the little waterfront house I’m staying in for a glass of wine. We sit on the dock, James and I cooling our feet in the pond until the moon comes up through the trees on the other side. Though Anna is almost thirty years my senior, we giggle like a couple of teenage girls over nothing in particular while Max looks on, our stoic, paternal guardian. I love this moment. I love that we are strangers who will all remember this night, this moon and this pond exactly so. A sliver of time only shared by us and even if we never see each other again, we will forever have this common ground.