Category Archives: Live Like You Mean It

The Space Between.

The last two weeks in Tanzania were packed to full capacity with firsts. It was my first time in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, the first time I’d seen my husband in four months, I had my first taste of fragrant, fleshy custard apple fruit and several first hours of predawn, head-splitting breaths above 5200 meters on Mount Kilimanjaro. It was my first time seeing giraffes, hippos, and lions roaming (or most often napping) in the wild. It was the first time I got so close to an elephant I could see a coating of dust on his long eyelashes. It was also my first time seeing an elephant dry humping a fallen tree, but I’m saving that story for later, when I’ve had time to sort through the jumble of intense, bright memories of Tanzania that currently resemble the mental artwork of a madwoman.

In the meantime, I am back in Istanbul. With the rush of the last pilgrimage in Africa behind me and the next pilgrimage in India hidden away behind a fog of uncertainty in the form of a delayed visa application, I am suspended mid-quest, with too much time to think and doubt and reconsider.

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A few years ago while backpacking in Laos I had the misfortune of being talked into tubing in Vang Vieng by my new husband. The ritual, which has since been banned was less about tubing down the slowly moving river and more about drinking shots of local whiskey, spray painting pink penis stencils on fellow wasted Westerners, and then trying to have sex with them before you were too drunk to remember the approxiamate location of your genitals.  In what I assume was an attempt to exact revenge on the Western locusts that descended on their village, the locals had built a flying trapeze, a waterslide and a zipline using little more than kitchen string and leftover plywood from a birdhouse project. The water slide was closed when we arrived because a Swedish backpacker had slid headfirst into a rock and killed himself just four days before.This was not the first or even the second time this happened and though the accidental deaths were a total bummer, the party was otherwise totally awesome so the tubing continued.

I found the whole thing unsettling, but was also tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because I  felt mortified rather than ecstatic to be partaking in this Asian Spring Break. In an effort to  prove that I was as carefree and brimming with stupidity as everyone there I climbed to the rickety trapeze ladder. I had watched as dozens successfully jumped off the edge,  turning into screeching human pendulums swinging back and forth with jungle-covered limestone cliffs providing a green screen for their acrobatics before falling two stories into the water below.  If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I walked to the edge of the platform and stepped off, holding on to the bar as tightly as I could, though I forgot to straighten my arms and as they jerked straight I let go and fell sideways into the shallow part of the river, injuring my pride more than anything else.

I am a great leap taker. I cartwheel into the unknown wearing a blindfold and juggling bananas, much like I did on that rickety trapeze in Laos. I throw myself into a new adventure in academics or travel or relationships with certainty and enthusiasm and I am fearless when I start.

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After finishing my Freshman years with a 3.98 GPA, I received an invitation to join the Honors program. The program would allow me to create my own course of study, merging whatever disciplines my heart desired into one unique Major. I would be the Frankenstein of my academic monster, merging Journalism, Philosophy, Russian Studies and anything else I wanted.  I could mesh Music Theory and Astronomy and spend my college career investigating the existence of celestial melodies. All I had to do was turn in a graded  essay from the previous semesters, which was fantastic news for me as I had many such essays including one with an impressive A+ and the words “thank you” written on the front page.

I am an expert beginner, but just when all I have to do is give myself over to the inertia of what I’ve started, I pause. I let go of the trapeze bar and I fall into the space between wanting the thing and having it. I never turned in the essay and as a result I never joined the Honors program.

I have ended up in the space between so often that I recognize the signs of an upcoming slip, which is why I was alarmed when I woke up in Istanbul two days ago with the symptoms of an impending fall crushing my ribcage, feeling restless and uncertain.

There are two of me fighting for the controls. One, the great leap taker and dreamer is just warming up. She wants to give every second of the next eight months her undivided attention and all of her energy, she wants to write a bestselling book and to start revolution in travel, to get a movie deal and win an Oscar for the script she wrote, no for Best Actress, no for the music score composed entirely of the melodies of stars, she dreams of grandeur, of saving the world, of saving puppies from runaway horse carriages and runaway carriages from whatever it is they are running from.

Then there is another me who says “Who are you to write a grocery list let alone a book? Who are you to save the world? Why do you get to listen to stars? How come you get to live out your fantasy?” And then she goes in for the kill, “You already have so much, why do you need more? Don’t be greedy, leave these dreams here for someone else, they don’t belong to you.”

That last bit, that’s the one that delivers the fatal shot. It confirms what I have always suspected—that I am a fraud, that I am taking what life has to offer under false pretenses. If only my friends, my readers, my professors, my boss, my husband, my cat knew who I really was they would never give me their love, a job, a soft purr, their praise or their endorsement.  Before I decided that having an above average college experience was not for me, I  met with someone from the Honors program. They told me  they wanted to be sure that the stellar performance of  the candidates during their first semester wasn’t  a fluke so they waited to see how the second one went before inviting students to the program. I left the meeting convinced that my third semester would reveal how abysmal my academic abilities really were and I preferred for that to happen without the pressure of being an Honor student.

I have gained a lot of wisdom since my college days and certainly since my brief stint as a failed trapeze artist. That part of me that creates and yearns and leaps knows that I am no fraud and that my dreams are my divine right, but I still hear the voice of that other me at important moments like this, when I am past the first enthusiastic leap and in danger of tumbling into the space between. Do you know how maddening it is to try and convince yourself of something half of you doesn’t believe? It’s like trying to win at poker against yourself—inevitably you end up calling your own bluff.

I spent that first day back in Istanbul locked in the apartment wearing sweatpants and alternating between crying, pacing and watching inspirational videos in hopes of finding the key to getting myself to the other side of the abyss. The crying was not helpful, nor were the sweatpants with the baggy knees especially when I happened to pace by a full length mirror. The videos didn’t do much for my spirit either as all they really offered was a prediction of there being many battles ahead which I will either win or lose, but should really try to win.

Defeated, lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling I pictured myself as a tiny sun hovering above the world with billions of other little orbs emanating light and floating around. I saw this pack of firefly souls and then I imagined my orb’s light going out and by seeing the darkness it left behind I was able to appreciate that my light, even if by a tiny fraction made the world brighter. Before you roll your eyes, know that I threw up in my mouth a little just writing that, but if you’ve ever sat in an apartment in a foreign country with the curtains drawn and cracker crumbs stuck to your dried up tears, you know that spiritually bankrupt beggars can’t be choosers, at least not when it comes to what New Age-y vision motivates them to finally take a shower and leave the house.

Walking down the street I started thinking about what would be lost if I gave up on the big plans I have for myself and I came up with a long list that included making a friend laugh so hard she peed a little, strangers thanking me for inspiring them to walk, my cousin calling me to say that if it wasn’t for me drilling my “follow your heart” mantra into her skull she wouldn’t be deliciously happy and living in Vienna and my dad telling me I’m his best friend. Everything on the list had this in common— it made someone else feel good, even if they soiled themselves in the process. My heart’s greatest whims are always in service to others, that they bring me pleasure at the same time is a fantastic plot twist.  On the milelong scroll of my wants you will find the odd self-indulgent item or five, but these are not the things I am afraid of never attaining, it is not their imagined loss I mourn when I am in the space between, crying into my pajama sleeve.  I would love to wake up at the Plaza Hotel someday and order champagne at seven in the morning, but if I get to do the stuff that’s at the very top of my list, I won’t have time for that sort of nonsense. Fine, I might be able to find a sliver of time for that particular bit of nonsense but you get where I’m going with this.

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The realization that ultimately I am driven by a desire to contribute and give back rather than to simply take was my ticket out of the abyss and it left judgmental nemesis-me stumped. How could she continue calling  my dreaming greedy when what I want is to make travel more accessible for others? How could walking around the world be asking for too much when it encourages others to ask for more?  How could a journey that has already changed my life and the lives of others not be destined to continue with the same magic ability to transform and connect?

I started my pilgrimage around the world as I always do, jumping headfirst into a new adventure,  but as I am swinging over the space between the hopes I left with and their fulfillment somewhere in the distance, I’m starting to think there’s no abyss at all anymore. In fact, I think I might just take a leisurely stroll to the other side. You guys coming?

Weekends With Torre

SATURDAY, 10 AM

Sitting on the toilet lid, I adjusted my towel and the angle of the phone so that it looked like I was naked on the john. I smiled and waved at the camera and satisfied with the result, hit “send to contact.” In a musty hotel room on the other side of the bathroom door, the lucky recipient of the toilet selfie, author Torre DeRoche sat on a bed with a bag of frozen peas tied to her left foot when her phone signaled the arrival of a picture message. Normally I would not recommend sending what appears to be a nude photo taken mid-bowel movement to someone whose professional endorsement you’d like to attain, but in my defense, she sent me one first.

That was Saturday and the start of our second day in Piacenza, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets filled with well-dressed Italians riding around on bicycles or walking their groomed dogs. Torre and I were pausing in Piacenza indefinitely after after she’d hurt her foot on our third day of walking the Via Francigena together. The two of us had met only once before in New York and though that first encounter had been pleasant, it was not indicative of the kind of bond we would form after just a few days. I’m talking about the kind of bond that makes one comfortable eating canned tuna on the floor in front of another person, which is what I have a recording of Torre doing and it goes like this:

“Can you tell us what we’re doing here Torre?”

“We are eating tuna on the floor.”

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SATURDAY 12 PM

Torre’s pained hobble to the corner café for cappuccinos made it clear that we would need to extend our stay by at least another night.  Now we just needed to let the management of our accommodation know. The problem?  Our place was less hotel and more abandoned residential building with neither a reception desk nor even other guests, as far as we could tell.

“I can’t get through,” I had been calling the only contact number we had without success while Torre and I lunched on baguette, prosciutto, mozzarella and white anchovies in our room.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we just stayed here and they discovered us like a week from now?” Torre asked, reaching for the jar of anchovies. “Shit!”

Anchovy oil spilled all over the tablecloth and we jumped up to do damage control; Torre tried to mop up the mess with napkins, while I grabbed a box of salt and poured a mound onto the table. I had hoped it would soak up the oil but mostly I created an additional mess to clean up.

We looked around—our hiking clothes were hanging off chairs and bed posts, the table was covered in bread crumbs, salt and oil slicks and the hotel’s white towels had streaks of puke green from Torre’s leaky bag of peas.  What could we possibly say should someone from the hotel open the door right now?

“One more night?” Torre’s high pitch was meant to feign innocence to the phantom hotel employee we were both imagining in the doorway. But of course, the evidence of her complicity in our domestic chaos was too strong for any person with the gift of sight to overlook, even an imaginary one and we collapsed in our chairs with hearty, sidesplitting laughter. Every time I thought I was done, I saw a normal person walking into the absurdity of what had become our status quo and though I felt bad for them, I couldn’t help letting out another stream of giggles as I pictured how uncomfortable and scared they would be.

For the rest of the day, every time a hiking boot found its way onto the bed or another towel was stained green, one of us raised an index finger and repeated, “one more night?”

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SATURDAY 3PM

Once the sending and receiving of naked bathroom photos had lost its appeal and boredom began to set in, I came up with the idea to go and find us a board game. Several books and toy stores later I hadn’t found so much as a deck of cards but before coming home empty-handed I decided to sneak in a visit to the Duomo, Piacenza’s 12th century cathedral. I must have lost track of time as I wandered among carved columns, boxes of calcified relics and empty confessionals because by the time I stepped out into the street, I had received another message, with a more joyful and somehow more naked Torre.  The appeal of the toilet selfie hadn’t been lost after all and I ran back to the last toy store I visited and took a photo next to a toy bathroom set to the horror of the store clerk and the children.

“On my way home now,“ I added.

“Is that a tiny toilet next to your head?” Torre wrote back.

 

SATURDAY 7PM

Torre sat at the table soaking her foot in a pasta pot. The water was laced with green crystals, which had dissolved and now smelled like we were embalming her appendage rather than healing it.  This was ironic because though Torre had asked me to buy her Epsom salts, what I brought back (with no hidden motives) were salts meant to banish unpleasant foot odor.

Breathing through my mouth, I told Tore about what I’d seen in the Duomo.

“There was this glass box with a what I think was an actual body just dressed to the nines.  Do you think that’s possible, that there’s an actual person in there?”

“Probably.”’

“That’s so weird, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. Whoever’s in there is wearing gauzy gloves and I think you can see his finger bones!”

Our dead saint discussion was interrupted when we heard a key in the door.  The moment we had been imagining had come, the manager was here, and not only was the room unrecognizable but it also smelled like death and Torre sat with her foot in a cooking pot.

“Bonjourno! One more night?” The phrase we had been practicing all day came out of my mouth before I could think of anything better to say to the man surveying us with curiosity. This was absolutely the exact situation in which I preferred not knowing what was being said. We handed him fifty Euros and took some fresh towels in case we ran out of things to ruin.

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SUNDAY 10 AM

Torre woke up the next morning feeling much better and we decided to branch out and have our coffees two long blocks away at an outside table on a pedestrian shopping street. While we were on our first taste of cappuccino foam, the Piacenzans sitting around us were well into their morning wine, a Sunday ritual I’d noticed in other parts of Italy.

We were enjoying watching the kitten-heeled female population of the city weave in and out of our line of vision when I blurted out the following: “What if you’re just a figment of my imagination and I made you up so I don’t have to be alone anymore?”

Torre turned and stared right at me. I felt my stomach drop. Like a lovesick schoolboy, I said too much too fast and freaked out the object of my affection by crossing a line that even she, who eats tuna on the floor, respected.

Finally Torre spoke. “Can I just tell you, I’ve already thought the same thing about you? Sometimes when we’re talking, it feels like I’m talking to myself.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to go see the dead guy in the Duomo after this?”

“Sure.”

 

 

SUNDAY, 12 PM

It just so happened that we showed up to leer at the body of a respected saint in the city’s holiest place during Sunday mass. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while we shuffled past pious Italian grandmothers, but our anonymity, had we any in the first place, was lost when I almost knocked over a statue of Jesus along with the velvet roping meant to keep idiots like myself away from the son of God.  To be honest, the assault on Jesus was not even the most wrath-inducing thing about our appearance at the service. I think that honor went to our tank tops, Torre’s short shorts and my floor-length yet transparent skirt.  When to the relief of the congregation we made our exit, we noticed a sign on the door showing two figures wearing pretty much our exact ensembles with a big X through them.

“So now that we’re done with our naked romp through the church, want to get some gelato?” This time it was Torre who said what I had already been thinking.

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SUNDAY 3PM

If you were upset earlier because you weren’t planning on reading about bathrooms today, don’t blame me, blame my friend Stefano—the original toilet selfie messenger and the man who was coming down from the north of Italy to spend what remained of Sunday with us. Earlier in the week Stef had sent me a birthday greeting with a photo of himself smiling and waving, bathed in the unmistakable fluorescent lighting of a bathroom. Stef’s face showed no signs of embarrassment or even awareness of there being anything strange about sending someone a shirtless salutation from the toilet in the middle of the night.

Stefano took us to lunch in the Piazza Cavalli, and we filled him in on our adventures and showed him the slew of photos he had inspired over a plate of parmagiaono, bresola and arugula.  Stefano is an incredibly caring and giving man, and not just when it comes to photography inspiration and his lightness diluted our madness in a very psychologically sound way as we talked about books and ligaments, love at first sight and gelato.

 

SUNDAY 5PM

Torre’s foot began acting up again so Stef and I sent her home while we scoured the streets looking for the one pharmacy that’s open on Sunday to get our patient some Arnica cream and some painkillers. This should surprise no one, but we made a detour to the bathroom of a café to check in with Torre via a text message.  At first we couldn’t decide what was worse, explaining to the staff why we were piling into the single bathroom together or letting them find a suitable explanation on their own. In the end we decided it was best to leave something to their imaginations, though this approach may have been more suitable when Torre and I had been selecting our church outfits.

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SUNDAY 10 PM

After dinner at a tavern sharing plates of local specialties like ravioli with stinging nettles and spinach we said long and warm goodbyes in front of our empty apartment building.

Torre and I had decided that on Monday we would look for a used bike to buy so she could ride alongside me while her foot got better. It was an inspired plan and we were optimistic as we were getting ready for bed.

I thought back to lunch when Stefano had been telling us about a scene in a memoir he was reading. The author, a woman traveling through Australia met with a spiritual man in a cave who said to her, “Do you know why we are here? Because we have planned this meeting between us millions and millions of years ago.”

The idea that we choose what happens to us in this life really appeals to me. It’s a way to gain back some control when you feel powerless. It could be an incentive to trust that even in the worst of times, there is a deeper purpose that your eternal self put there, assuming of course that your eternal self isn’t a masochist asshole. In my own life, I have had a thousand moments that were too perfectly timed and effortless to seem anything but orchestrated, like this meeting with Torre and our weekend in Piacenza. Lying in bed, I could picture the two of us billions of years ago, two spirits hovering over a couple of beach chairs, bronzing our souls in the eternal sun of the pre-life.

“Hey, you know that lifetime where we’re both writers and you’re Australian, but raised by Americans and I’m Russian but raised in the States?” I’d say.

“Yeah?” Torre would ask, turning over to get a bit of color on her paler side.

“I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if instead of our original plan you came out to Italy when I’m doing that walking thing and then we ended up stuck in this Italian town for a few days eating gelato and bonding over bathroom humor?”

“That’s so weird, I was JUST thinking that.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Poisoned in the Pyrenees

Bent in half, knee-deep in what I swore was snake-infested grass, I couldn’t stop throwing up a mélange of baguette, pâté, and cheese, the latter being the culprit behind what had just become the worst case of food poisoning I’d ever experienced.   As another wave of nausea peaked and found its release, I imagined that in a dusty Spanish village some five miles away two dogs were also violently ill and wondering what kind of a person, on a spiritual pilgrimage no less, poisons two hungry, nursing mutts.  The same kind of person that buys dairy products from an unrefrigerated caravan on the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees.  I swear that in both cases I had the best of intentions.

It was only my second day on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage that would take no less than thirty days to complete, walking East to West across Northern Spain and ending at the steps of the 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the rumored resting place of the remains of Sant Iago – the Apostle St. James.  Although the Camino can be started in Madrid, Seville, Lisbon or even St. Petersburg, the traditional route, established more than a thousand years ago is called the Camino Frances and it starts in France, at the foot of the Pyrenees in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

The day before, my cousin Anya and I woke up at dawn and with the inn keeper’s farewell blessing of “Buen Camino!” we walked down the cobblestone Rue de la Citadelle, our metal walking sticks giving a satisfying, rhythmic clank with each step. Other sleepy-eyed pilgrims emerged from doors of the albergues, or pilgrims’ hostels and one by one, we walked through the Port d’ Espagne—an ancient archway on the other side of which the Camino began. With that first step, I was hooked. Within a hundred more, I knew that my exit from the Way of St. James would not be a graceful one. I have never been one to know when to leave a party, and I had a hunch that what I was about to experience, would be better than all the parties I’d ever lingered at, combined.  Anya was having a different reaction. With her first step, her feet began to hurt, within a hundred more she was ready to hurl her stick at me.

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“This is impossible,” she moaned with every step that followed, occasionally breaking up the monotony with “How far do you think we’ve walked?” and other variations on the “Are We There Yet?” game.

In response I belted out things I’d normally despise people for, like “Can’t you feel the strength in your body? Let that guide you!” and “Mind over matter!” and a whole bunch of other aerobics instructor nonsense with exclamation points.  And so the hours passed, her complaining, me rallying as we made our way surrounded by hazy, early-morning peaks and green valleys dotted with drowsy sheep.

When Anya and I first concocted our plan to walk the Camino  months before over Skype, I had no idea that I would be the cheerleader on the journey. If anything, I expected that Anya, seven years my junior would be the one running up mountains. But I guess we were still strangers to each other in many ways, coloring in the gaps that can only be filled by shared experiences with what we imagined would be there. It had never been just the two of us before, let alone just the two of us crossing a mountain range, edging closer to a magnificent and terrifying unknown.

I left Russia for New York with my mom and dad about a year after Anya was born. Understandably, she has no memory of the year we spent together in a two-bedroom apartment along with both sets of our parents and our shared grandmother. Luckily, I do.  I remember doing what I thought could pass for a cartwheel in the apartment the day Anya was born, just from pure joy of finally having a live doll to play with. I remember stroking her nose with my index finger to get her to fall asleep.  When she was learning to walk, I remember accidentally (I swear!) getting her finger caught in the door and how she howled with the pain and I, with the guilt. I loved her before she could control her bowel movements. Her first memory of me is that of a relative from America who came to visit every summer.

 Me and Anya

We grew up, separately—for the most part. When I was an unruly and angry teenager visiting Russia, Anya was a lonely little girl who unsuccessfully, desperately tried to get my attention. Later, when she came to New York now a teenager herself, we were too shy, too guarded to really connect. Then her parents got divorced and she moved with her mom to Moscow, far enough away from the apartment we shared for that one year, so that I never really got to see her on my trips back home. In the years since the divorce, both her parents remarried and had children. My parents, having never fully recovered from their first foray into parenthood, had no more.

Now we were crossing the Pyrenees together, entering Spain and making a seemingly endless descent into Roncesvalles.  We fell dead asleep in the monastery in a roomful of snoring strangers,

Our second day began much like our first—I, looking at every tree as if I’d just been given the gift of sight, Anya as if each tree hid a mortal enemy. We stopped to have breakfast in Burguete, one of several Spanish villages romanticized by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises.  We ordered egg bocadillos—Spanish hero sandwiches and added some pâté and the locally made sheep cheese that I had bought from a caravan the day before.  The sandwiches were delicious.

For every one of my cheerful exclamations about the beauty of the morning light, the charm of a distant cowbell or the unexpected flash of red poppy in the fields, Anya had a complaint about the state of her exhausted body, the weight of her backpack, and the increasingly uphill direction of the path.  We made a rest stop while passing through a tiny hamlet, empty, save for two very hungry dogs with distended nipples that spoke of motherhood. After spending the morning unsuccessfully trying to infect Anya with my positive outlook, I finally had had enough when she said she was feeling nauseous and suspected that she had food poisoning.

“How could you have food poisoning?! We ate exactly the same thing today, and I feel fine! “ I barked, as I fed what remained of the cheese to the two dogs. Anya bit her lip and we began to walk up the path. Karma moved with lightning speed here on the sacred road of St. James. Less than half an hour after I chastised Anya, nausea hit me like a ton of mold-ridden bricks of cheese.  In another fifteen minutes, as Anya began to make a miraculous recovery, I couldn’t walk.  I collapsed on the nearest log, fittingly enough, right next to the grave of a pilgrim who died on that spot some years ago.  Hard as I tried, I could not help wondering about the role food played in his demise.

It took a good hour before there was nothing left for me to expel, save my spleen. All the time smiling pilgrims would walk by and with a cheerful wave of their hand wish us a “Buen Camino!” As politely as possible, Anya shooed them away, knowing exactly how it felt to be miserable in the face of such enthusiasm. She also gave me what remained of her water after I’d depleted my own supply, and let me lean on her as we began to walk again. Every ten feet I would crumble to the ground and sit there, completely helpless and hopeless. Then Anya would pick me up and we’d take a few steps until, as if my bones were liquefied, I’d be a sweating pile of mush on the ground once more. So it went, until we reached a road that cut through the pathway of the Camino.

We had two choices. We could spend the next few hours walking that last couple of miles, following the route of the pilgrimage in a painfully slow tempo or we could catch a car and be there in ten minutes.

“What do you want to do?” Anya asked.

“I can’t take a car, not on the second day, please can we try to walk it there?”

Anya had every excuse to flag down a car—my inability to walk without her help and my probably needing a doctor, for starters.

But then Anya cast some light on a part of her I didn’t know yet, the part that instinctively knew when she needed to be on my side, no matter how much my side  needed to have her head examined.

“Right. I’ll carry as much as I can but we have to throw out some of this stuff,” she said, opening up my backpack.

“Come on! Two pairs of jeans? Where are you planning to wear these? One has to go—choose. ”

“Keep the red ones. I’m planning to fit into them by Santiago.”

“You’re carrying jeans you can’t wear?”

“Yes.”

“Fine.”

After some bargaining, we settled on leaving a pair of jeans, shoes, a sweater, and some lotions behind. The majority of what was left in my bag Anya stuffed into her own, leaving mine about about the weight of a kitten.  And then we walked.

That night we said yes to the first albergue we saw in Zubiri and splurged on a private room right next to a bathroom, just in case.  Once I began to feel better, bursts of laughter and snorts shot out from our open window into the back garden as we tried to outdo each other with disgusting jokes about my bodily malfunctions of the day.  I couldn’t stop thanking her for standing by me but she kept dismissing my gratitude with a wave of her hand, scrunching up her nose, saying she knew I’d do the same for her.

In Russian, you call your cousin your “sister once removed.” Most people don’t bother saying the whole thing and just refer to their cousins, as sisters.  So that is what we told everyone on the Camino we were, omitting the “once removed” bit. We don’t share a set of parents and we grew up on different continents, but we do have the same hair and to our shared disappointment the same muscular, peasant-stock legs.  To the shared disappointment of the other pilgrims, we knew all the words to the same Russian lullabies and squeaked out the higher notes of Queen as we walked through the city streets of Leon and Burgos, the vineyards of Rioja, and the endless shimmering, bleached wheat fields of the Meseta plateau. And just like I imagine real sisters do, we had moments when we would stare at each other, a look of disbelief on our faces that said “I didn’t realize it was possible to be this much of an asshole but you have proven me wrong.” We even spent a day walking separately, though never really losing sight of each other.

 Me and Anya 2

Along the way, we began to figure out why with the ocean between us, the age gap, the miniscule amount of time we’d spent together, we were still so insistently trying to burrow into each other’s hearts. One afternoon Anya confided in me that with both of her parents now busy with new families she didn’t know where she fit in. “I don’t have a bed anywhere.  Either house I go to, I feel like I’m intruding”.

“I know the feeling,” I said.  Leaving Russia at age eight had left some gaping holes in my own understanding of family.  Even in New York, the house where I lived with my parents for a decade was traded in for a lovely apartment once I moved out as an adult. The truth is, our family had been splintered for generations. Our grandparents got divorced years before either of us had been born and our grandfather moved to a city a twenty-four hour train ride away. We’ve all ended up so far apart, like pieces of a board game that get misplaced over time. What Anya and I realized, was that we were still trying to play the game, wanting so badly to know what it’s like with a full set.

 Me and Anya 4

When we started our journey, we had been warned that the third day of the Camino would be the hardest. The adrenaline of the first two days leaves your body; you realize you’ve overexerted yourself and the reality of the hardships ahead sink in. Some pilgrims even head home. For Anya and I, the third day was a breeze. The cheese incident had not only tested our resilience, but it gave us the something that all but guaranteed our success. Every person’s pilgrimage is different but what made it possible for each of us to face our individual trials, both physical and emotional was the certainty that there would always be someone there, who without judgment, without hesitation was ready to shoulder all burdens equally.

As I had predicted that first day, my exit from the Camino was not a graceful one. After three days of shameless, uncomfortable to watch crying in Santiago, as we said goodbye to friend after friend, and the realization that this was the end of our time together hit us, Anya and I took a photo as we boarded a plane for Barcelona, where we would catch separate flights to our respective realities. I, in my red jeans, with a new tattoo of a scalloped shell that symbolizes the Camino swollen on my ankle, our lips and teeth stained with wine, puffy-eyed, with our hair caught in the wind, we look less like two pilgrims at the end of a spiritual journey and more like two escaped in-patients pausing on the tarmac before being wrestled to the ground by burly nurses.  But mostly, we look happy. We look like two people who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in that moment, like two people who found the home they’d both so desperately been missing, 3000 miles from the place where they were born.

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