Monday, December 1, 2008

Just about a week left!

After our Thanksgiving feast on Thursday, I got to spend Friday evening with the German stagiaires to celebrate Stefan's birthday, and here's an awkwardly staged picture of everyone. Starting to the left, there's Claudia, Olivia (who's actually French, and has taught in Germany), Stefan, Peter, Bettina, Johannes, and Franziska. It was another multilingual evening, as Peter, who was visiting, doesn't really speak French, so we alternated between French, English, and German all evening, which was really cool.

Saturday morning was cool--I got to teach a bit in Sophie's French class. The material was nothing new to me (intro to theatre of the absurd, and a close reading of the beginning of Godot), but I had no idea how the lesson would go from a linguistic point of view. I actually had a really nice time chatting with the students. They picked up on a lot of Beckett's humor and general philosophy just from reading the very start of the play. As always, I find their thoughts and interpretations so interesting. I found myself quite grateful for this opportunity; I really enjoyed it.

On Saturday night, Vanessa and I met up with Lindsey and Josh again for some adventures in Paris. We went to a fondue restaurant in Montmartre where they serve wine in baby bottles. The place was really busy, and there were a lot of other Americans there, so we chatted a little with the people on both sides of us. One girl told me she goes to Skidmore, and I said a lot of my people from my high school went there, so she asked who I knew--so I mentioned my brother's good friend Anthony, and it turns out she knows him! I thought that was just the funniest thing. I think the context of the baby bottles contributed to that...

I have really wanted to go to the Opera Garnier here, but tickets for operas and ballets were a little out of my price on Sunday night I went to see a little chamber music concert with performances by the some of the Opera's orchestra members (percussion, flute, clarinet, piano). The building is just stunning, from the outside and from the inside. It's actually the building that inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera. Here's the outside at night.

Here's the main staircase. It's so impressive!

And, of course, the performance room was magnificent. I had an impossible time taking a picture that could do it justice. It's all red and gold, and incredibly ornate. Coincidentally, the music of the evening was largely 20th century American pieces for percussion, so it was really modern and experimental. It was really interesting, and there was a pretty thorough description provided of each piece before its start, so it was cool to have a point of view from which to interpret it.

Tomorrow will be another performance adventure--Vanessa and I are going to see a French production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew at the Comedie Francaise. I'm really looking forward to it!

Today was a rather festive day, as Christmas markets are springing up around Paris, so Marta and I spent the morning at la Defense, walking through a huge variety of little stands selling all kinds of things. Definitely started getting us into the holiday spirit.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Le Thanksgiving americain

Last night, I hosted a little Thanksgiving party in my apartment, and I think it turned out quite well! I planned it with a couple of the other American teachers in Paris, Vanessa and Chelsea, and the three of us took care of the food--all without an oven, I am proud to say. We did end up seeking out some cooked chicken from a store, but otherwise, we did pretty well. Here's the basic run-down.

We had salad with veggies and cheese...

I made steamed veggies with olive oil and tarragon (which any Beckett fans will be glad to know is "Estragon" in French)...

Chelsea made stovetop stuffing, and Vanessa went on a search for cranberries (much harder than you would think...) and managed to find something similar. They were little red berries in a section of jars labeled "Condiments insolites"--essentially odd condiments. Turns out they went pretty well with the stuffing.

Vanessa made some delicious Southern-style mashed potatoes, which were a huge hit.

I thought of how great it would be to make a pie or something, but that wasn't possible without an I mixed up some apples with cinnamon and sugar, a la inside of an apple pie.

We used all of the big plates we had, so the bread was displayed in a skillet. Classy.

I don't have pictures of everyone, but here are a few--this is (starting from the left) Stefan, one of the German teachers, and Marta and Lukas, the two Polish teachers I live with.

On the American side of things, here's Vanessa, Josh (Lindsey's boyfriend), and Lindsey, who's teaching in Amiens. Also, if you look really closely, you can see the Condiments Insolites jar.

One of the things that was coolest about the evening--besides the obvious interesting cultural conversations about holidays and celebrations--was the use of languages. It was truly a bilingual evening--Lindsey's boyfriend doesn't speak French, so a lot more English was spoken than would have been otherwise, though the majority of the conversation was in French. We were changing back and forth constantly, which was a great challenge. Overall, a wonderful evening with really interesting people!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cemeteries and Christmas Decorations

Today, I spent an eerie but interesting day in two of the most famous cemeteries in Paris, Montparnasse and Pere LaChaise. I didn't actually end up spending a great deal of time in either of them, as they were difficult to navigate and somewhat overwhelming.

I started at Montparnasse, mostly because I had to go see Beckett, but I got the added benefit of seeing the shared grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (two French writers). Then I found the grave Beckett shares with his wife Suzanne. It is so modest, as I had expected, yet there are fresh flowers on it (as on Sartre and de Beauvoir's), so it is sought out by visitors. I did a lot of thinking about how much time I spent studying his works for my honors thesis, and it somehow struck me that he was a living, breathing man. Of course, I know this quite well, but standing there in the middle of Montparnasse, he felt more real to me than before. I think generally being in Paris has made me think more about the life he lived, in addition to the works he wrote.

Then I went to Pere LaChaise, where I ended up achieving even less because I didn't have a map and the cemetery is enormous. I wandered around for a little while and took pictures of a few striking graves, like the one pictured here. It was kind of weird wandering through the tightly packed cemetery and taking pictures of graves which remain somewhat anonymous to me. It's really interesting how people want to be remembered, and how their memories do live on. In both cemeteries, I saw monuments with the word "souvenir" which is the French verb "to remember." Because it also exists in English as a more trivial word, I find I sometimes forget to consider it with the amount of meaning it merits in French.

I stopped at Oscar Wilde's grave (English writer), which is covered with lipstick. People come and kiss his grave, which I think is such an interesting tribute. I can't help but wonder how that began. Someone had left a beautiful blue rose on the top, and I couldn't resist taking a picture. Wilde is one of many famous people from the US or the UK to be buried in Paris--I'm sure there is an interesting story behind each of them. I happen to know Beckett's, but not many others. Overall, a very thought-provoking day.

In other, more pleasant news, I have pictures of the decorated department stores I mentioned! This is the enormous tree in the center of Galeries Lafayette, which is stunning. The outside of the building is also really cool; it lights up at night.

Right next door to Galeries Lafeyette is Printemps, another department store, and I think they compete by default every year for cooler decorations. Galeries Lafayette is much more traditional, and Printemps is bright and modern. I found the windows particularly hilarious, especially when considering the Christmas/Holiday scenes in Macy's windows in NYC. They alternate between bizarre scenes for kids, like bears with bubbles here (there were also models in space), and really intense high-fashion scenes. Amazing how many similarities and differences there are in the way our two cultures handle the oncoming holidays.

An additional note--I finally posted some albums on Facebook (with only a small fraction of my pictures, as you can imagine), for anyone who wants to check them out. If you're not on Facebook, but want to see them, let me know and I think I can figure out a way to do that--though I plan to eventually post everything on a site everyone can see.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Parisian Weekend

As we have started to realize that our time in Paris is rapidly coming to an end, we have made up our minds to "profiter"--essentially, make the most of--the time we have left. On Friday night, we went to the Louvre. It's the fourth time I've gone since I've been here, but I still feel like I have so much left to see there! Friday nights are cool, because anyone under 26 gets in for free, so it's pretty busy!

After that, we walked along Rivoli to reach the Champs Elysees, since Paris is officially decorated for Christmas. This picture is a street off of Rivoli. All the lights are so festive!

Last night, we had a nerdy, touristy evening, which is really unusual for us--but we figured, why not? We ate at a creperie restaurant, and then took a boat ride along the Seine. It ended up being more touristy than we would have liked (not surprising, of course), but we got some lovely pictures of the Eiffel Tower! Excuse the perspective on this one, but I was trying to get the water in, too...

Anyway, hopefully I'll be taking many more pictures around Paris in the next couple of weeks, which I will most certainly post!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mummies and Shakespeare

Everything has been pretty busy lately—lots of teaching, lots of running around Paris, etc. I did take a weekend to visit Madeleine in London, which was wonderful! She is working there as the program assistant for the Drew semester abroad. I got there on Friday night, said hello to the Drew folk, and then she and I went to a pub for a traditional fish and chips dinner to start off the weekend.

The next day, we did a Shakespeare walk with London Walks, which was cool. We got to see where the Globe and other Renaissance theatres stood, and hear about the archeological stuff they are doing now to learn more about them. Our tour guide was awesome, and did many dramatic recitations of Shakespearean monologues, and even sang some songs. After that, we walked around to see some of the main sights—Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey, etc. After a quick stop back at the flat, we went out for an awesome Indian dinner before catching a show called “Waste.” It was an interesting drama about the conflict between the public and personal life of a brilliant, aspiring politician, and essentially chronicles his downfall. It was full of the quick quips and wordplay I always imagine as being characteristic of English plays in performance.

On Sunday morning, we went to the British Museum, where we saw the Rosetta Stone, mummies, and an interesting HSBC exhibit entitled “Money” with lots of old money and information on how coins have been produced over time and such. That afternoon, we went to an awesome department store called Liberty, where we had tea and scones. Then we just shopped around that and other department stores, which were all particularly adorable with their holiday decorations.

On my last day, Monday, we began our day in Camden, which is really interesting. We spent a while at the markets there—they had a really cool variety of things for sale. After a delicious lunch in a pub where one of Madeleine’s friends recently got a job, we went to the British Library, and had an awesome time looking at their collections. They have incredible manuscripts, including Beowulf, Shakespeare First Folios, illuminated Bibles from as early as the 600s and 700s, pages from DaVinci’s notebooks, writings of Mozart and Beethoven, journals of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, the Magna Carta, and the list goes on. They also had a really cool exhibit going on called Taking Liberties, about peoples’ fights over time for the freedoms we have today. Really thought-provoking.

I returned to France on Monday evening, and taught for the last couple of days. Today was free, so Vanessa and I met up for a fun Parisian day. We had lunch in the Marais, got delicious hot chocolate on Rivoli, and did a little department store shopping (more holiday fun). Apparently the Champs-Elysees is lit up at night as of yesterday, so I’m looking forward to checking that out, as well as other festivities!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Le changement est en marche

(Change is in progress—from a message from Jean-Pierre in Angers about the results of the election)

Vanessa and I had returned from our trip to Spain just in time to catch all the election news in France. It was weird going into it, because everyone here acted like it was absolutely certain that Obama would win—and yes, if France was voting in our election, it would have been a landslide. We had a hard time explaining to French people that it was a lot more up in the air than they realized.

Around 1:30 in the morning (our time, of course), I found myself getting frustrated with hearing nothing but exit poll numbers, and decided to go to sleep for a while. By the time I woke up early the next morning, the news was in. Vanessa and I decided to go celebrate at a restaurant called, appropriately, Breakfast in America. We found ourselves the only Americans there, surrounded by French people wearing Obama shirts. We enjoyed some pancakes, American coffee (rather than the espresso you’re handed when you order “café” in France), and a diner-like ambiance. We spent much of breakfast staring at the reporter outside holding a microphone connected to a machine in a suspicious-looking plastic bag. He was young and awkward, but taking his job very (perhaps too) seriously, so he was interesting to watch. As we had secretly hoped, he approached us when we stepped outside. Since he heard us speaking English, his first words were, “I am journalist. I make reportages. Can you comment?” We gave our two cents, without ever figuring out what paper/news source he came from.

I spent a little time with the Germans one night, which began with them asking me about the elections, and morphed into a discussion about the state of the world. It never ceases to amaze me how much nuanced information Europeans know about all the other countries in Europe, and often about the rest of the world. We actually got to talking about games that are played in our respective countries, and we played one of theirs—you go through the alphabet and, for each letter, you name a country, a city, and a river or lake (and sometimes a mountain) that start with the same letter. This obviously put me at a great disadvantage, as in Germany “Geography” is an entire subject on its own, and it is perhaps under-taught in the US. However, we were mostly discussing France, so I was able to hold my own. We didn’t continue with the game for too long, as we were all tired, but still, I found myself thinking about how we play games like that in the US but with the names of movies or celebrities, not geographical landmarks.

I had a proud day in Sophie’s French class on Saturday. Beforehand, she and I were discussing the elections, and she complimented me again on the improvement she’s noticed in my speaking, and asked if I’d mind speaking for ten minutes or so about the elections. As I had already spoken with her class a bit about African-American history, I said ok, only a little nervous. In class, she told them they could chat among themselves and formulate four questions for me, but they had to be questions they couldn’t find answers to on the internet (like no statistics, no specific factual questions about what happened in various states). She said they should take advantage of my nationality to ask me philosophical or sociological questions, the answers to which could serve them on the Bac. The questions they came up with were really impressive (do bear in mind that this is a class that is being given two years to complete one year of high school because of academic difficulties). I made note of them (there are more than four because they opened up into larger discussions), but in French, so bear with my English translations—they sound better as the students originally phrased them.

- Is the election of Obama an example of “positive racism” or affirmative action?

- Will he change perspectives on African-Americans?

(I talked about some states being so staunchly conservative that we won’t see sweeping change in the immediate future. I told them that one of my friend’s boyfriends was taking people to vote in Louisiana, and as an Obama supporter, he heard some incredibly harsh commentary, including the “n” word. I explained the concept of the word, how many Americans refuse to say it, and how sometimes referring to it as the “n” word is the safest way to go, because it has such a terrible history, and some people react strongly to it.)

- This led to an impressive question—one of the boys asked if people don’t ever call each other by the word in modern slang, and I acknowledged that he was correct. I tried to explain that there is a difference between minorities using the word among themselves (sort of a re-claiming or re-defining of it) and a white person saying the word out loud (referring back to its historical use).

- Will he renew or reinvigorate African-American identity?

- Is the election of someone so different (young, black, democratic, rather inexperienced) a commentary on the weaknesses of the American system? In other words, does it indicate that Americans regret where their former approach has led them?

- Do Americans have too much hope in what Obama can do?

The discussion went on for quite some time, with Sophie sharing her opinion from time to time and encouraging them to keep asking questions. By the time we were done, 45 minutes had gone by! I was so proud that I was able to continue a rather complex discussion in French for so long with high school students. And, perhaps more than anything, I was impressed with the maturity and perceptiveness of the students, in asking complicated questions about a country other than their own.

I spent Monday in an all day pedagogy class with French first-year teachers. It was so cool to spend the day in the midst of discussions about teaching literature, since that’s really my home terrain, even though it was, of course, in French. I did more listening than contributing, but I learned a lot. One of the most striking parts of the day was a discussion about where they would be placed in the following year. As a teacher in France, you can basically be sent anywhere in the country from one year to the next, and obviously young teachers get the least consideration for their preferences (it’s all based on a point system which is based on seniority). There was a lot of concern from teachers who had certain places in mind, and especially those who live with someone, because it all seems like it can be so up in the air. You have to play your cards right with your choice-making, and even then, it may not work out in your favor. When some of them asked me about the American system, and I explained the differences, they joked about expatriating. Then I reminded them that in France, once you are officially a teacher, it means you have passed a competitive exam, and you can be certain that you will have a job somewhere (the number of teachers who pass is the number of open jobs that year)—whereas, in the US, a lot of people find themselves with certificates but no job. That made them feel a little better about their situation. Overall, I find myself wishing the US had higher standards for teachers, as France does. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to leave schools with pretty impressive candidates to work with.

Finally, today, I began three two-lesson units with different classes—about the elections! With one class, I’m talking about how the elections have been presented in the news and media. With another, I’m making a link between the elections and the Harlem Renaissance (they love saying “jazz and soul” and “jazz and blues”), in terms of African-American identity. And with the last class, the most advanced, I taught a bit about the Civil Rights Movement today, and tomorrow we are going to compare part of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech with part of Obama’s victory speech. Should be interesting!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

On the Camino

At last, here is my journal from the pilgrimage. I did a lot of writing while we were away—at least a couple of pages each day—so I’ll try to condense it all here and give you a little day-by-day synopsis.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 25 – Arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port
We left Paris on a midnight train, and neither of us managed to get much sleep. I found myself nervous about how many details were yet to be figured out (some transportation stuff, all of our lodging—pilgrim hostels don’t allow for reservations), but really excited about being surrounded by a new language and a new landscape. I was constantly attempting to learn new phrases. What I found surprisingly difficult was dealing with the Spanish pronunciation—I guess I am more used to the Spanish of the Americas than I have considered.
We arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port (in the South of France) pretty early in the morning, and went to the Pilgrim Welcome Office. The greeting was everything I could have hoped for—the woman who spoke with us provided us with lots of information, encouragement, and some warm tea. We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, which is lovely and found ourselves perplexed by a language we kept seeing everywhere; it took us a little while to figure out that it was the regional language, Basque, which is still very much alive in the area (which includes parts of Spain and France). Signs were mostly in Basque with French beneath them, and we found a Basque bookstore. Incredibly interesting. We were pretty exhausted so we went to sleep early, to get ready for the adventures ahead.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26 – Taxi to Pamplona
Before leaving St. Jean in the morning, we had breakfast with the other pilgrims, who were taking off for the hardest day of walking in the entire pilgrimage (we weren’t going to start walking for a few days, so we couldn’t really commiserate). We spoke with some people from Switzerland, one of whom had hiked 635 km to get to St. Jean! We thought it was a starting point for most people, which it is (the start of the Camino Frances—there are several possible trails), but a lot of people hike from their home countries or from elsewhere in France in order to get to St. Jean. That Swiss guy complimented us on being the first Americans he has met in France who actually speak French, so we felt proud. We went to say goodbye to the woman who had welcomed us, and took off for Pamplona (who kissed us and remarked that we were cute and brave).
Since it was Sunday, we had basically no travel options except a taxi, but it was cool because we got to see the Pyrenees, where we otherwise would have been hiking, and we got to hear about the Basque language from the driver. Turns out everyone learns it in school and it is even the language used for announcements in the airports. He said it’s such a fascinating language because its roots are almost impossible to trace.
When we arrived in Pamplona, we did a lot of useless wandering (since most things are closed on Sunday), but eventually found an albergue (pilgrim hostel). It seemed to mostly house Germans, but obviously everyone is welcome. We just ended up being the minority, linguistically. We stayed in a room with two German girls who had actually met online and decided to walk some of the camino together; they hadn’t known each other at all otherwise, which was fascinating to us. One of them spoke fantastic English, and she explained to us that she had worked for years on an American army base in Germany, where she had an American boyfriend. They left the base recently, and her boyfriend passed away—so this was the first time we heard a “this is why I’m walking” story. We also met a 71-year-old German man who has walked and biked all over the world, and remarked that the reason this pilgrimage is so unique is because you truly meet people from everywhere in the world. Additionally, we met a guy from Holland who began the camino there and has been walking for three months already. As Vanessa put it, he walked out his front door—and kept walking. He thus did a lot of the camino completely independently, whereas starting from a designated city like St. Jean gives you access to the yellow arrows which point you in the right direction, and cheap albergues to house you. I give him a lot of credit. Besides wondering how people had randomly free months to spend walking the camino, I think we both went to sleep that night really impressed with the courage and spirit of the people we had met.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 27 – bus to Leon
We had to wake up at 5:30 to leave for Leon, and we had to take 3 different buses to make it there—but we accomplished it all without a hitch! We had several successful interactions in Spanish throughout the day, including the purchasing of the bus tickets, the finding of the correct buses (even getting off at the right stops was not always easy), and explaining our traveling situation to the man at the Benedictine albergue where we stayed (you’re mostly supposed to be walking in order to be allowed to stay in the albergue, so we had to explain that we only had so many days in Spain, and we were going to start walking soon).
The city was lovely, with a beautiful cathedral. The albergue itself was particularly interesting. The rooms were packed—we slept in a room with about 50 other pilgrims, and there was an equally large room next door, also full. We met a fellow American named Chrissy from Maryland, who has found herself with a degree she is not sure how to use (in Divinity) and who is exhausted from several years of working at a camp for troubled girls. She’s not sure what she wants to do next, so that’s why she’s walking.
The albergue is run by Benedictine nuns, so you only pay what you can (a few euros suffice). They also invited us to the evening vespers and a special pilgrim benediction, and we went to both. We were pretty proud of how much we could understand in the prayers, and we got to pray aloud in Spanish with the other pilgrims, which was foreign but very cool for mostly everyone. They read a list of the countries we all came from, and it was pretty impressive! The man from Pamplona was right when he said the camino draws people from all over the world.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28 – bus to Sarria
We left for our last day of traveling by bus, which was long, but fine. We continually impressed ourselves with our ability to understand what we hear and express ourselves, however elementary our phrases are. We saw some beautiful landscapes, several pilgrims on the camino, and lots of camino arrows! When we arrived in Sarria and followed the camino to reach the albergue, we looked down at the shells in the sidewalk (yellow arrows and shells are the two indicators of the camino for pilgrims). We remarked on how many people had walked along this otherwise unsuspecting sidewalk. The camino really has such a life and presence to it.
We decided to vary up our albergue experiences, and chose to stay in a nicer private one (still under 10 euro for the night). We were in a nice little four person room, which seemed refreshing…until we realized that there were no outlets in the room, the albergue doesn’t offer breakfast in the mornings, and we really had no way to meet other people. We paid 4 euro the night before for our crowded room, but there was a real sense of community, and an unlimited supply of bread and coffee in the morning! Ah, well. Also, the power-saving lights in our nice little room shut off every 15 minutes. That was pretty irritating as we got into bed for our nightly writing/reading time.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29 – walk to Portomarin
The weather was a little drizzly in the morning, but we got off to a nice start for our first day of traveling on foot. As soon as we left Sarria, we found ourselves in forests and rural farming areas. The views of the countryside were breathtaking and the entire day was incredibly peaceful. The most exciting event was passing a herd of cows on the path. Cows are so big up close, it's a little scary. Overall, though, I think we’d both say it was a really pleasant, calm day.
The experience of walking was really powerful. I kind of developed a new sense of the terrain as something infinitely larger than myself, yet something I still was able to traverse. It was such a wonderful feeling, for example, to see Portomarin from a distance, and then suddenly find it right before us. We met some French friends at the albergue, which was really nice. We met an older woman who had been walking for almost 60 days (ironically, we had seen her earlier in the day when we stopped for coffee, and she had shared some bread with us—but we didn’t realize we all spoke French at the time, so we had an awkwardly silent exchange), and a couple who had just started walking like us.
Vanessa remarked that she knew I was on board for this over the summer when I said we could have our very own Canterbury Tales, which cracked me up. It made me think, though, about how many stories Vanessa and I have already exchanged—how conducive this type of travel is to the telling of stories (even the bus part). There is really nothing else happening but the traveling itself. I even thought of how many people we have met have introduced themselves with a short story about who they are and why they are walking; we rarely learned anyone’s name, but we always learned something somehow more personal. It’s almost like stories are, in this context, something of value that everyone wants to share and receive. So rarely, otherwise, do we make time for the telling of stories.

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30 – walk to Palas de Rei
Our second day of walking was more trying. The ground was damp from the rain last night, but the cool air was nice for starting off the day. I find that I love the peace of the early mornings as we’re walking. As we hesitated in getting back on the path (we lost track of arrows when we went to our albergue), we ended up meeting a nice man named Peder from Slovenia. Together, we crossed a rickety bridge, and as we expressed our fear, he replied, “Ah, you like your life?” After the epic bridge-crossing, we said farewell and continued on our ways.
We continued the tradition we began the previous day of stopping for a little café to break up our morning. Unfortunately, it poured all afternoon, and we arrived in Palas de Rei soaked and disgruntled in our ponchos. We re-encountered our friendly French couple, which was nice. We heard that the shower water was cold, and also the four shower stalls were wide open and facing each other—so between that awkward situation and the fact that we were already cold and wet, we opted to forego taking a shower for the day. And anyway, we were just going to be putting the same dirty (and now wet) clothes on the next morning. We put our pajamas on, and we were unable to move from our sleeping bags for the rest of the evening. I finished up reading A Thousand Splendid Suns and moved onto the French book that I picked up in Portomarin the day before.

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31 – walk to Arzua
We didn’t get a whole lot of good sleep last night, because there was a rowdy group of Spanish teenagers sleeping in our pretty crowded room. We decided they were either a school group or random locals—they didn’t seem to have much respect for the camino or the pilgrims, so we figured they had just begun to walk somewhat recently.
We stopped for our first real lunch along the way, which sustained us through the rest of what turned out to be a very long day. We had planned to stop short of Arzua, but we decided to continue the rest of the way there, taking advantage of the mostly sunny weather.
We walked for a while with a German guy (who we later came to refer to as “West German”) who had worked in NYC and whose wife is a teacher, so we had plenty of topics to discuss. We chatted (in English) about school systems, language learning, and about the election. We continued to run into the French couple; it feels so nice to talk to them in French. Dealing awkwardly with people in Spanish, it’s refreshing to be able to express ourselves in the tense and tone we choose, even if it’s still a foreign language.
We were both aching and tired as we approached Arzua. We met a man who is writing a story about Canadians on the camino, who we continued to see and hear about as the days went on. We arrived at the albergue, pleasantly surprised to find that the showers were really warm and the water pressure was strong—so that more than made up for the unfortunate shower situation in Palas de Rei. We took the best showers ever.
We heard about a bomb in Pamplona that had been set off by a Basque terrorist group, and we saw graffiti today comparing Galicia to Palestine. Those two things made us reflect on what we know about the importance of regional identity in Spain (as in France), but also how unfamiliar we are with the culture and conflicts of Spain. As much as we learn everyday about the land, we have so much left to discover about its people.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 1 – walk to O Pedrouza
After a night in a room of snoring old men (better than the teenagers? I don’t know), we woke up to more rainy weather, but it let up quickly. We walked along with another German (this one was, obviously, “East German”), and talked to him for a while. He finished up his contract as a consultant for international companies, and plans to move to Cambodia. In the meantime, he is walking to get away from everything, but also as a physical and spiritual challenge.
We took a break for lunch and continued our new tradition of Estrella Galicia (the regional beer) in the afternoon. Afterwards, we shouldn’t have had too far to go, since we decided to cut today a little shorter. However, we had trouble knowing what towns we were in, since they were really tiny and poorly marked. We were increasingly tired and it was raining pretty hard. We ran into two Canadians and an American who were also planning to stop in the same town as we were (O Pedrouza). As we figured, we had overshot it by 4 km, and the next town with an albergue was 12 km away. We turned back, which was obviously discouraging, but clearly the best choice.
It was interesting to be around an American, as he was only the second we had encountered. It was refreshing to hear his accent and even his slang, of course, but there was something characteristically American about him—in a bad way. As we watched him confront people in his awkward Spanish (which may have been worse than ours), there was something in his bearing which seemed to affront people and lead them to respond sarcastically and harshly to him, something we have not yet encountered. We were proud of ourselves for our interactions with Spanish people, even with our linguistic limitations, which seem to show them enough respect that they respond with sincerity and kindness.
Looked like another long night with the Spanish teenagers in our albergue.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2 – walk to Santiago
Waking up was tough this morning; I got very little sleep last night because of the group of teenagers—they were chatting and turning lights on all night. I had a conversation with one of them earlier in the day, who confirmed that they are indeed on a school trip, though I was left wondering how the logistics were working out with so many of them.
In honor of our last walking day, we had a “Café Che” before we took off—coffee with milk, cinnamon, and whisky (though I would guess that no one actually orders it in the morning). We also split a Tarta de Santiago, so we started off strong. We did a whole lot of uphill walking at the beginning, but the weather was nice, so we couldn’t complain.
We got frustrated during a rather flat stretch with no camino signs, and nothing interesting in sight (I think I had actually been warned about this portion of the camino, and how disheartening it is). We felt like we weren’t moving anywhere, until we finally reached Monte de Gozo where we stopped for one of our staples—juice, “zumos.” We each bought bottles to take with us, but the woman at the counter offered us glasses and insisted we sit. We got to see the adorable baby she cares for, but unfortunately found ourselves able to say nothing more than “hola” repeatedly. We continued our trek and Santiago at last became visible. We finally made it into the city, and left our stuff at a cool hostel with incense, music, and interesting decorations. Felt very homey. We then went out for a celebratory meal. What a feast—red wine, a selection of local cheeses (Vanessa remarked, “You know what’s cool about these cheeses? I think we met all the cows responsible for them.”), a mysterious something that we think involved octopus (regional specialty), I had prawns in lime, honey, and garlic sauce, Vanessa had pork belly, and we split a salad of asparagus, tomato, and mammoth hunks of goat cheese.
Tired, full, and being pursued by an ominous cloud (Santiago is said to be the rainiest city in Spain), we went back to the hostel, and saw our West German friend along the way! Hopefully we’ll have more reunions tomorrow. For now—it’s reading and sleeping time.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 3 – day in Santiago
We began our day by wandering around to do a little bit of souvenir shopping. We each wanted a little something with a shell on it to remember our experience, but it took us a while to find anything other than really cheap, touristy stuff. Then we went to the cathedral, took some pictures, and looked for the pilgrim office. We heard some French speakers, so we asked them to tell us where it was, and we headed over to get our pilgrim credentials (for walking the last 100km). Then we went to the pilgrim mass. It was cool so see so many people who looked dirty and tired like us, and we were pleased to hear the words “pererinos” (pilgrims) and “Etados Unidos” (US) in the sermon.
The climax of the mass would be when this enormous (seriously, as big as a person) incense thing came down from the ceiling, and 5 men worked together to swing it from side to side all the way up to the ceiling while really dramatic organ music played. Everyone was taking pictures. We actually got videos of it.
On the way out, we ran into this Spanish man from our hostel, who had been really distressed about the fact that we went to sleep early yesterday—he kept popping his head into our beds to see if we were awake and to wish us “beautiful dreams.” I managed not to see him right away, and I yawned, which was not the best thing to do, because he proceeded to pretend to yawn in return and remark, “My God. So many hours. I don’t know why. Why?” This continued for the rest of the day and into the night. In the evening, when he was bothering us about being in bed before he was, Vanessa looked at him and said “My God,” as he had earlier (in a kind of hilarious accent), and then hid in her sleeping bag. Good times.
In other news, we chatted with a Canadian guy named Stefan, who was pretty cool. We met a nice American couple from California, who has actually walked the camino before, but followed a different route. They were nice and lent me a book (about the camino!) because I finished the one French one I had picked up, and couldn’t find a bookstore with French or English books in Santiago. We also met a Spanish man named Carlos who works with young children, but was just getting really worn out, and asked to take some time off to clear his head. He’s continuing on, like many pilgrims, past Santiago to Finisterra. Vanessa and I stayed up reading for a while, and went to sleep. The next day we returned to Paris; we found we had really missed France, though we had an incredibly interesting adventure through Spain. Truly an authentic, one-of-a-kind experience. We’ve discussed possibly returning to do other parts of the camino in the future, or at least considering hiking elsewhere. It’s such a great way to get to know an area and to meet interesting people.