Category Archives: Spain

What’s In a Name? Misheard Lyrics On the Camino.

A fellow pilgrim snapped this photo of Christine pointing out Venus to me, as we watched the sun set over the wheat fields of the Meseta plateau, or as we call it– the Bread Pan. Two weeks of round the clock contact can make or break a friendship, luckily for us it has been the former and we now know and accept each other in all of our imperfect glory. 

We spend most of our days singing, belting and humming. Sometimes it’s a chorus of a Beatles song at dawn, paling into silence along with the stars once we realize the chorus is all we actually know. Occasionally Christine puts up with a rendition of Gangsta’s Paradise, and unfortunately I do know all of the words to that gem. Ever so often we will manage to go through a song in its entirety, like Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You  though this is also unfortunate for the pilgrim whose broken body won’t carry him out of earshot fast enough. We have sang everything from Gershwin to Rihanna in varying degrees of off key-ness and it has been oh so fun.

One of my favorite things about C is her complete inability to properly identify the names of musicians, actresses, or songs while still enthusiastically conjuring up what she must suspect are completely wrong identities for all three. Luckily, I have become an expert at deciphering the actual person or lyric or song title so that when she says “Trombone Guy” she means “Piano Man.”

The other day when we were trying to think of a Michael Jackson song to sing she beamed and said “Annie Get Your Gun!” Not so much the name of a song by the King of Pop as the name of a Wild West themed musical from the 1940s.

“You mean Billie Jean?”


That actually happened. I know, it’s amazing. Both, that she confused an 80s classic with a mid-century one and that I was able to figure it out. Allow me to demonstrate the workings of one sun stroked  pilgrim’s mind.

First, C though of Jeanie instead of Jean. Jeanie became Janie and that brought her to Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Because Christine loves musicals more than she loves Aerosmith and Mr. Jackson combined, the word gun triggered the memory of show tunes and sharp shooting Annie and yet another gleeful, completely inaccurate title. To know her is to love her. 

It’s wonderful to be able to read someone that well, and in just two weeks no less, because really our friendship, though promising was still in its infancy before we came here. That gift, the gift of timetraveling to sisterhood via unapologetic musical butchering is one I’ve only ever found while hobbling my way to Santiago. 

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.


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.

 Me and Anya 3

“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?”



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.

Lessons From the Camino, Part 3

When I was preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago, I imagined a perfect narrative for my journey.  I expected that I would first be challenged physically– out of breath and close to madness in the summer heat, with feet that looked like they had gone through a meat grinder. Then I would rise above the discomforts of the material world and take on the hurdles of the emotional one.  I pictured days of crying over the spilled milk of my youth, asking for forgiveness for my anger, my ignorance, for the cold and cruel rejection of a boy’s offer of a dance, for the envy I felt when a friend succeeded where I had failed to even try and of course, for failing to try in the first place.  Once I was granted pardon, which I assumed I would, I’d arrive in Santiago, my body shattered but my heartstrings finally perfectly tuned.  Isn’t that the classical story of any quest? You travel, you suffer but you trust that it will work out and when you cross the finish line, it does.  I expected this. I was ready for this. This was exactly how it was meant to play out.

Except it didn’t. The sensation of peace that I expected to find at the end of my journey I experienced almost instantly.  Before my left foot formed its first blister, l  was free of the weight of past decisions. There was no drawn-out atonement for my sins, no carving up of old wounds. I was even spared the misery of the physical burden of the pilgrimage. I was exhausted and sweaty but I  loved how my body ached at the end of each day, I reveled in the feeling– a reminder of what I had already accomplished, a temporary memento of the day’s climbs and slips. It all seemed so easy, like I got a free pass, like I took a shortcut somewhere. And I had to ask– what’s the catch?


Two weeks in I realized that I hadn’t wormed my way through a spiritual loophole after all. It was when were staying in San Bol, a unique pilgrim’s hostel that sits alone at the edge of a wheat field with no other people or houses for miles in any direction. By that point, “we” was no longer just Anya and I.


Apart from Melanie, who was instinctively maternal despite being younger than me and Paul, whose kilt got its own post, there was also Lucas, a thoughtful twenty-one year old Brazilian. What made San Bol a favorite destination for pilgrims was a magic spring whose waters had been rumored to heal sore feet and more.  We lounged here in the afternoon, taking turns dipping our feet into the icy water, Anya brushing my freshly-washed hair, all of us happy and eager to become a more intimate circle of friends as we passed a bottle of wine around.


The hostel itself was tiny with five bunk beds on the main floor and a mattress in the attic. There was also a round stone room just big enough to seat all of us for dinner and where the owner served us paella from a skillet that took up nearly the whole table.  After dinner, once we were all done cleaning up the owner left us the keys and drove home. Alone, without electricity and full of excitement we decided to forego our beds and sleep on the hay mounds that edged along the field. We were an invisible speck of life, giggling into the darkness as we climbed into our sleeping bags and eventually dozed off.

I woke up  while it was still dark and walked out into the middle of the field. The Milky Way was directly above me. a diagonal swipe of stardust extending from the upper corner of the sky all the way across to the horizon. Everything was perfect.  Paul’s sunburnt nose, Anya’s laugh, Melanie’s blond pony tail, the way Lucas scrunched up his nose when he was thinking, my own laugh, my own sunburnt nose and scrunched up face, all of it was exactly as it should be. The whole world was one breathing, gyrating ball of perfection and the closer I looked at each miniscule part, the more beautiful it became. “If I could spend eternity in a moment, I’d choose this one,” I thought.


And then my heart dropped. In two weeks this will all end. These perfect people will scatter. This journey which brought me so close to the person I’ve always wanted to be, will end. This road will forget me.

From that day on, I counted every kilometer left to walk as if I were counting the remaining hours of my life. I was horrified when we began to make better time. I joked about becoming a recluse, living in a room wallpapered with photos from the Camino, reliving the best moments out loud to no one.  Walking into Santiago, clutching Anya’s hand was both brutal and poetic and I will be haunted by the unique bittersweet flavor of that moment for the rest of my life, I think. But I figured out what my challenge was, why everything was alarmingly easy for me. There was a lesson here that was tailor-made to fit the contours of my emotional pitfalls.


Sometimes You Have to Let Go

I am still struggling with this one. I have spent years hanging on to people and places that I still wish I could bottle or carry in a locket around my neck. These were experiences that were so intertwined with the fabric of my life, that I feel naked without them.  But I am learning. I can’t say that I let go of the Camino with dignity and grace once it was over. To be honest, I walked away in sobs, with a tattoo of a scalloped shell– a symbol of the Camino de Santiago now permanently emblazoned on my ankle. And in fairness, I have decided to spend a year walking around the world, which some might consider the opposite of moving on. But I prefer to think that it is because I have been able to let go of the perfection I found on a road in Spain that I can picture myself reclaiming it on roads thousands of miles away.

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