Category Archives: France

A Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim.

A Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim.

6:30 AM


Since I started walking nearly four months ago I have woken up in almost a hundred different places. Can you believe that? Probably not, even I can’t and I’m the one who lived it! But I bet you can believe that I wake up every morning, groggy and confused and ask myself “Where am I?”  The answers I’ve received so far have included a graveyard, a château, a school infirmary, a mattress on the floor of a hospital, a parish house that looked more like a frat house, a stranger’s couch, a private room in a Franciscan monastery, a caravan, a tent on a roof used to dry peppers, a fish farm and a lavish hotel suite.



7:00 AM


Wait. First, I need to make sure I look like I plan on bringing sexy back today.



All set. Now we can go, following the signs for the trail which can be found on trees, rocks, and even on the ground.


This is my favorite time to walk—when the world is still cool and hazy and the sun has not yet commenced its daily efforts to melt the skin right off my face.


9:00 AM


10 kilometers later my caffeine addiction needs to be addressed and luckily for anyone I might cross paths with on this day, I usually reach a village with a café right around the same time. Sometimes I get to work on my fresh pastry withdrawal at the same time.




9:30 AM


Walking alone is great. It gives me time to think about big, important things like my own mortality and what I’d like to have for lunch. Better than walking alone? Walking with someone who will dance for me on command, like my cousin Anya and my friend Stefano.

10:00 AM


Horses, baby goats, baby ducks, donkeys, sheep, lhamas, stray cats– if it’s at least a moderately cute animal, I’ve tried to rub its face. You know that immigration form you fill out when you’re entering the U.S. where you’re asked whether you’ve handled livestock while you were abroad? Does cuddling with donkeys count as handling?  Also, does a domesticated deer count as a farm animal? Finally, can anyone give me some advice about surviving a year under quarantine?



11:00 AM


You might even bump into pilgrims whose rain gear matches your shirt!


11:15 AM


Stealing is another common term for this kind of fruit picking.


12:00 PM



 Just kidding, I’m still walking.


1:30 PM


Sometimes lunch is an elaborate feast with a cheese plate and cured meats and even fizzy cocktails that will take the sting out of your feet.



Other times it’s a picnic in the fields.


Or a loaf of bread eaten with your hands on the side of the road. True story.


Sometimes it is followed by a nap.



2:30 PM


Yeah, you will. It’s walking. Walking is the thing that happens next.


5:00 PM


Before I can take my boots off I have to go see a nun about a stamp. On the Via Francigena, like on the Camino de Santiago a pilgrim receives a passport, a paper document that gets stamped wherever you stop for the night. The pilgrim’s credential serves two purposes. First, since pilgrims often get to stay in special places not made available to other travelers, a passport is their ticket in.  Secondly, the passport is proof that a pilgrim has made the entire journey.  This will be important in Rome.


Depending on the person looking over their passport at the Vatican , a pilgrim could be questioned about missing stamps and asked questions like “Why don’t you have a stamp from the 23rd of June?” And then the pilgrim might say something like “Because I fell asleep with my face in a bowl of warm spaghetti and the waiter left me that way until morning.”


Along the Italian segment of the Via Francigena, pilgrim’s hostels are much more common than in either France or Switzerland.  These houses are usually run by former pilgrims and include a dormitory, showers and a kitchen. Some even stock groceries for pilgrims to use as they like.



6:00 PM


Starting with myself and then moving on to everything I wore. One of the greatest motivators for getting to an accommodation early is having enough time for your clothes to dry in the sun. Otherwise you end up wearing cold, wet hiking pants at dawn or carrying soggy (and heavy) clothes in your backpack. You might even meet a nice, innovative German couple who will fashion a clothing line out of shoelaces and walking poles for you, like I did.




8:00 PM


I love improvising a meal with other pilgrims whenever there’s a kitchen available or going out together when it’s not.  This is the time to really get to know each other via enthusiastic and exhaustive descriptions of your injuries as well as by sharing your blister prevention action plan.


Once talk of the physical hardships of the pilgrimage is over, the dinner table conversation usually gets very personal. WIthin an hour of learning someone’s name, I might learn about the most painful moment of their life, their divorce, their loss, their shame and they will learn about mine. Intimacy and trust come more easily here than in our respective homes. And what’s more, these confessions are not simply the result of the anonymity that comes with travel; many of the pilgrims I’ve met have become like family to me.


11:00 PM

Despite being exhausted down to the last eyelash, falling asleep is not easy. In the words of Dr. Seuss,  “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

I know quite a few people for whom the idea of walking up in a hundred places in the course of as many days is a nightmare. I know just as many who would  give up a year of their life rather than spend that year getting up at dawn and putting on a pair of hiking boots, but I wake up each morning barely able to contain my excitement and my bewilderment. My reality is a generous helping of my wildest dreams and I can’t wait to start living it each morning.


Snapshots from the Via Francigena Part 1

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?

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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…”


Calais, 30km


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.

The Beginning.

I have been struggling. Not just with the blisters and the heat, both of which have been a daily nuisance, but I have been struggling with what to write first. After just ten days of walking I already have a million stories to tell and while starting to write one about weeping through a pilgrim’s blessing in the crypt of the Canterbury Cathedral I would get caught up in another about spending the night at the Abbey of Notre-Dame. While that story was still in its infancy, a third crept in about St. Benoît and how I spent the afternoon arranging the flowers at the altar of his church in his hometown of Amettes.


In addition to my indecision, I was suspicious of everything going just a little bit too perfectly and I was afraid of jinxing myself. I needed something to go wrong so I could finally be free to write. Luckily for me and for all of you, there was Sunday.

The day started out as flawlessly as all the others.  I had breakfast at a small chicken farm where I had spent the night in a room with French doors that opened up into a garden of peonies and lavender. Colette, my host gave me a card with the prayer of St. Benoît after I told her how touched I had been by his story as an outcast who desperately wanted to be a part of the Church but was repeatedly refused entry, once because of his rusty Latin.  As I fastened the straps of my sack, Colette brushed off a scalloped shell, a symbol of pilgrimage, and told me to attach it to my bag “so everyone knows you’re a pilgrim.”   An hour later I was walking through fields of young, green wheat, where hares and butterflies went about their morning rituals and horses followed me along the edge of their pen until I stopped to stroke their long, warm noses.  Walt Disney’s hand could not have embellished the scene any better.


Ten hours later, after losing my way and my hat on a windless and cloudless day, I looked like a drunk, sunburned toddler as I stumbled towards Camblain l’ Abbé along the side of a tarmac road.  Here is something I bet you didn’t know—after you’ve been walking on pavement for a day, stepping into cow dung feels luxurious and you will look for an opportunity to repeat the experience.

When I finally made it to the village, I found myself at the doorstep of a fantastic start to a horror movie.  Imagine the heroine of our film limping her way towards an empty Catholic school for boys where she had been told she could spend the night. Finding the door open, she enters. Everywhere there are life-size statues of Jesus and saints whose eyes she can feel following her as she makes her way from one hall to another, passing dark classrooms, including a science laboratory that may also function as a torture chamber later in the film. There is not a soul in sight as she weaves in and out of unlocked doorways, until finally she finds herself back at the entrance. Dropping her heavy rucksack, she decides to try her luck outside and just as she exits, a dark-haired priest in his long black robes appears seemingly out of nowhere. “Oh! Father, I have been looking for you,” she says relieved. “I have been following you the whole time, ” he replies. Or maybe he says, “I’ve been trying to catch up with you” or “ I’ve been behind you.” I’m not exactly sure because our heroine’s French, like St. Benoît’s Latin is a little bit rusty. If I haven’t made it clear yet, I am the heroine and I promise you that I am not making any of this up.

I was shown to my room and once I saw cabinets marked “pharmacie,” and the illustrations of broken bones and sprained muscles, I realized that I was going to spend the night in the school infirmary. “Make yourself at home, dinner is in half an hour,” said my priest and left me to my creepy abode.


Now alone, I crawled to the shower, which was just about the right size for a malnourished, young boy.  I had many thoughts while I scrubbed a day’s worth of sweat and sadness off of my body. I wondered which side the priest would choose in the battle that would play out in the halls of the school that night and decided that he would fight the good fight with me. I also thought about what to wear to dinner. While I could not match the formality of the priest’s robes, I could match their color scheme and used the last of my energy to pull on a pair of black sweatpants and a white t-shirt.

And then I realized that I forgot to put on underpants. I collapsed on one of the two metal-framed beds and began searching for excuses to go commando. I know it doesn’t seem like much of a task, but in that moment asking me to take off and put on a pair of pants may as well have been asking me to dismantle and then rebuild a brick house.  If you don’t believe me, may I suggest you take a break from reading, strap thirty pounds to your back and go walking in the sun for ten hours. I’ll wait.

Is it ever okay to show up to dinner with a priest sans underwear? Is it better or worse to do so while on a spiritual pilgrimage? Will this anger the creepy statues and set them off on a killing spree?  If no one were the wiser what would be the harm? Before I made the final decision to throw myself into eternal damnation, the priest appeared at my door holding a tray with a plate of fried chicken and macaroni for one.  I cannot begin to express how stupid and relieved I felt as he placed the tray on a rollaway hospital table and disappeared again.

What remained of the evening I spent in my bed listening to the priest whistle as he patrolled the halls. My feet ached down to the bone and I really wished the “pharmacie” cabinets had not been locked.  But even as I lay there incapacitated, barely able to sleep as my imagination ran wild with thoughts of my demise, I was already writing this story.  Even though I was exhausted and in pain, a part of me had lit up with inspiration and in the morning, having survived the night unscathed I pulled out my laptop.

As much as I cherish the manicured, jasmine-scented moments of this pilgrimage, I also love the parts of it that are messy, like last Sunday.  Wayne Dyer once said that we are like oranges, when we are squeezed what comes out is what’s inside of us.  Sunday wrung me out like an old dishcloth and I’ll be honest, what came out first was a trickle of expletives in three languages, but what came next was inspiration, humor and a need to create something.  Imperfect, uncomfortable and even painful travel experiences give us the opportunity to redeem ourselves that we just don’t get with the Disney version. And given that I was prepared to forego my skivvies during dinner with a priest, I could use all the redemption I can get.



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