Travel

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche . . . White Night—French for sleeplessness. It sounds almost celestial, doesn't it? A vast, shining stretch of emptiness, a field of untouched snow, a freshly laundered sheet floating over a soft, welcoming bed.  

Mais non. A nuit blanche is a very dark, lonely sort of hell. But it is inevitable, this desperate return jet-lag, the body crying for food, coffee, bright lights, a farmers' market, a castle reach at the most inconvenient times.

 

Wide awake at one a.m. the day after our arrival, with just a handful of restless hours of sleep in reserve and still trembling from the stress of twenty-four hours of travel (white-knuckle driving in Paris morning rush hour traffic; white-knuckle queuing in a snaking line of hundreds for a flight leaving in two hours; white-knuckle bouncing along jet streams in a hot, cramped metal tub; white-knuckle winding through dark forests to return at last to our windswept island), I crept downstairs to the moonless dark of the living room—littered by luggage and still chilled from our absence—to wait out the nuit blanche with a movie and hot, buttered toast.

 

The afterglow of our journey lit my way and warmed my skin, freckled and peachy from days of hiking in the Dordogne. The region, resplendent in its sultry, tempestuous arrière-saison, had graced these fortunate travelers with October sunshine and a few welcome splashes of cleansing rain. I powered up the slide show function on my Nikon and took another journey, this time with knuckles unclenched.

 

I had fretted and fretted about this trip, shredding myself with worries about money, my flight claustrophobia, our sick cat, the resurgence of an Icelandic volcano, pilot strikes in France, not writing, oh, the list of the legitimate and the bizarre goes on and on.

 

The unfolding of my heart and mind, the releasing of the tension that had built since we hit 'Confirm Purchase' on those airline tickets back in April, began the moment we landed and continued as we explored anew, physically and intellectually, this place that means so much to us, to our individual and joined pasts, to our future.

 

But it was the present that captivated me, for I finally allowed myself to revel in it. My senses were gleefully pummeled by the taste of duck confît, the sight of pre-historical troglodytic dwellings beneath medieval castles, the wine-drenched scent of a village draining its fermentation tanks, the touch of acorns raining on my head from a sudden breeze, and the sound of French syllables swirling from all the mouths around us, including our own. I was grateful for the vulnerability and challenge of adapting to the whims and whiles of the different, eager as a hidden language revealed itself and poured out in a tumble, and delighted when a shopkeeper exclaimed, "Oh, I thought you were French!" As a traveller, I am renewed, replete with wonder and prismatic joy, able to see past the smallness of my worries as I open my heart to the newly possible.

 

There is linear time, real time, the actual days and weeks spent away. But then there's travel time—the sense that you've been gone for ages, because of all that you experience during your sojourn. A traveller never returns home unchanged and that time travel is the distance between who you were when you left and who you are upon your return.

 

Yet, this time away returned me to someone I'd lost sight of during these past two years of change. To keep hold of her and not lose her againthat journey now awaits.

 

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

 

 

Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux, October © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The Journey of 1000 Lists: A Writer Travels

The lists that precede a journey. They begin in broad strokes, months in advance: where we will go, how we will get there, where we will stay, those travel Epiphanies that occur as we drain a bottle of wine or ramble along a forest trail. One year, while mapping out cycling routes in Burgundy, we realized we were meant to hike the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland. This year, while choosing a town in Burgundy to base ourselves, we decided it was time to visit Dordogne. Someday, we'll actually make it to Burgundy.  

A plan thus put into motion, the lists multiply, separate, fan out: packing lists; project lists; things to buy in preparation; things to do before we leave; an itinerary; do we want to end our trip in Paris, or visit someplace new? Which cat sitter did we feel most comfortable with?

 

Once scattered on the desk, pinned by magnets to the refrigerator, tucked into a book, the lists merge as the date of departure draws nigh. The big decisions are made. The small ones become a running stream of consciousness: which books to take (no e-readers here, thank you); which shoes—the shoes are everything, aren't they? What happened to the spare phone charger cords? Will Lola spend three weeks under the bed, or will this new cat sitter coax her out and love her a little? I probably won't get around to dusting the furniture before we go . . . Oh God, the milk . . . don't forget to dump the milk.

 

No matter how far in advance I plan—and I'm a planner, bless my heart—these final days are filled with last-minute urgencies and "did you?" and "don't forget!" and "what about?" Timing the loads of laundry, the paying of bills, the meals; must leave the laundry basket empty, the refrigerator hollow and shining.

 

Of all the things on my pre-departure lists—now list, singular, on the kitchen counter, beside the spare house keys for the cat sitter—I haven't planned for writing. Not sure how I feel about that. This isn't an intentional holiday from writing, though I haven't left the page for more than three consecutive days in over two years. Maybe I should.

2014-09-28 17.43.22

 

I will return in late October and head straight to a writer's conference. The query letter for my first novel is poised to begin its long journey through agent in-boxes. These past two weeks, since learning about a thematic competition for a novel that dovetails perfectly with the theme of my second novel, I have been frantically revising and editing, trying to get it into some sort of shape for a Gonzo submission by the September 30 deadline. Short stories written over the summer still need to find homes. I have work behind and ahead of me. I'm burned out.

 

Yet, this stopping business doesn't feel right. Perhaps it will, when I'm pulled out of this element and routine and settle into another. Days of hiking and castle-hopping in the Dordogne, nights of cooking simple meals in our gîte, drinking supple Cahors and sipping creamy-spicy Armagnac—that should be enough to pull me out of the exigencies of word counts and submission tallies. A break from social media will slow the mind-chatter that insists I should be out there, engaging, commenting, posting, liking.

 

It is time to lift my head and look around, to pull out of the world of my imagination and let another world suffuse my senses. It is time to use a different language, quite literally, so that I may free my intellect from thinking in one so familiar.

 

I've packed one blank book (though that's a bit of a cheat; I have a thing for papeteries and no doubt I'll stock up on Rhodia or Clairefontaine or Calepino). Perhaps I will begin journaling again. Perhaps I will write, simply for writing's sake. Perhaps those pages will remain blank, the Moleskine left forgotten at the bottom of my bag.

 

There's a story idea I've carried around for years. For the first time, I travel to a specific place with the intention of absorbing its details—the contours of land, the quality of light, the aromas of villages and fields, the accents and colors of people—so that I may recall them in the months to come as I sketch out the idea I intend to sculpt into a novel.

 

There. See? I do have a plan, after all. It's just not on my list.

 

Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. - Ibn Battuta

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. - Robert Louis Stevenson

We like lists because we don't want to die. - Umberto Eco

The Souls of My Shoes

"Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them." —Marc Jacobs  

It started out as a search for our hiking first aid kit, but ended as an epic closet clean out. I’m a Virgo; I can’t help it. I’m hard-wired to sort, categorize, and arrange. We have more containers to put things in than we own things to put in them. I have banned myself from The Container Store, for I cannot resist the siren song of baskets, bins, and boxes.

 

Stuff, however, I can mostly do without. I’m not terribly sentimental about things; I’ve moved too many times to become attached to more than a handful of keepsakes. My collections are contained in pretty jars (shells and stones from around the world), or on bookshelves (Austen and Dickens in those beautiful Penguin Classics Hardcover editions), in my iPod (hundreds of albums), or bound in archival albums (travels and life moments captured on film).

 

But every so often I let something go and mourn a little at its passing. Perhaps for the object itself. Perhaps for what it represents and the memories it holds.

 

Pulling this pair of shoes from its cubby, I admitted their time had come. The soles are disintegrating, the soft and supple leather has been worn irreparably thin at the toes, and on the sides where I pronate. I love these shoes. Comfortable beyond all reckoning, they have traversed Seattle, Christchurch, Paris, and Dublin in recent years, but mostly, they’ve just been my go-to shoes, the footwear equivalent of your favorite pair of lived-in blue jeans.

 

2014-09-06 17.24.28

 

These shoes appeared in my life in early 2007, on a day very much like today—a warm splash of gold at summer's end—in Christchurch, New Zealand. Which means it was February, not September, in that topsy-turvy shift of hemispheres. I recall telling Brendan, "I never want to work at another job where I have to “dress up.”" We were several months into our new lives in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I’d just finished culinary school and we’d bought a house in a village on the Pacific Coast, leaving Christchurch to make our way in the vineyards and olive orchards of the South Island's pastoral idyll. I’d found an office job, but it was all-casual, all-the-time. At a slaughterhouse, actually. But that’s a story for another time.

 

But never did I dare dream, when I made that declaration in a tony shoe boutique on a summer’s day in Christchurch, that I would find myself slicing away at my wardrobe, discarding piece by piece all those blouses and skirts, dress pants, and heels worn by the white-collar professional I had been, for a writer’s uniform. I don’t know what you all wear to the page each morning, but my current wardrobe, workout gear notwithstanding, could fit on the end of a pencil. Once the weather is such that I must remain indoors to write, I grudgingly don denims and comfy shoes before heading to a café. These shoes, specifically.

 

I have other shoes. Sure, I do. But I don’t have other shoes that represent a decision, a moment in time, a dream. A heartbreak. For never did I imagine that in less than a year after buying these shoes, we’d be back in the United States, looking for work, that our hearts would be broken, if not our spirits. Turns out, I did end up in one more job that called for the occasional pretty-girl tights and mascara, but I loved that job, and sigh. Yes. I do love the occasional dress-up.

 

These shoes walked, worked, wandered. I’ll never have another pair like them, for I will never be in that place again. It's the road I've already travelled, the road behind me.

 

Here is another pair of shoes from New Zealand, which I found in a tiny boutique in central Christchurch that no longer exists. 2014-09-07 12.33.14The building collapsed in a heap of stone and brick and beams and dust in the February 2011 earthquake. These are my dressiest shoes and I reckon they’ll be around a while. But I don’t have a thing to wear with them.

 

Aegean Dream by Dario Ciriello

Aegean DreamAegean Dream by Dario Ciriello My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are moments of pure magic in every life, glimpses of beauty no grief can tarnish, that live on in the sheltered niches and alcoves of memory. This was one of ours. Remember these places and their treasures, that you may find your way there whenever the darkness of the world presses too close. ~ Dario Ciriello, recounting a night swim in the Aegean, surrounded by bioluminescent plankton.

 

This quote comes late in Aegean Dream, Dario's story of the year he and his wife, Linda, spent on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos. Sounds like just the sort of reflection someone who lives on an island so beautiful it became the setting for the movie Mamma Mia can afford to make. But read it again. For there is such sorrow in Dario's phrases. By the time he comes to recognize this moment of beauty, he and Linda have already made the wrenching decision to leave Greece.

 

Linda and Dario had left behind a comfortable life in California to immigrate to Greece barely a year before. It was a bold move, but not a crazy one. They had spent time in Skópelos and Dario, a British national, had EU citizenship. They were assured by the Greek consulate that residency for Dario would be automatic and Linda would have no trouble obtaining hers once they were in country. They had thought through plans for small business ventures for soapmaking (Linda) and housepainting (Dario), as well as the opportunity for Dario to spend more time writing. They spent over a year in the planning, including intensive study of the Greek language.

 

Their motivation, besides envisioning a life in a whitewashed cottage, shaded by olive trees, perched on an island in the middle of the cerulean Aegean? Oh, man, I could have written this.

Why then fear moving to another country, shooting for the moon? Life was to be lived, and they knew how to do that in southern Europe, where people had time for family and friends, and didn't measure their worth by how many hours the worked. We knew there were risks. But the risk of growing old and having regrets because we'd been too timid to follow our dreams was the most frightening of all. What to others seemed like courage was, to us, necessity. It was survival.

Yes. This. ^^^

 

A year later they returned to California, on the edge financially and crushed emotionally. The same corrupt and convoluted bureaucracy that sent Greece into an economic tailspin and nearly took down the Eurozone not long after they left, slapped these two souls into a corner. Their only way out was to leave.

 

We're all familiar with the "Despite the infernal locals and all that annoying sunshine and cheese, we rallied and restored a medieval barn into the perfect home-within-a-vineyard residence in southern Europe" tale -- you know, those memoirs we love to hate: A Year in Provence, Under A Tuscan Sun, etc. We devour them like gluttons, unable to squelch our envy but helpless to stop building our own castles in Spain as we live vicariously through someone else's dreams come true.

 

But few of these stories have unhappy endings. It takes a very brave soul to admit when the dream has become a nightmare, it's time to cut losses, and move on. To turn back and reopen doors which you'd slammed shut and tossed aside the keys. It takes an even braver soul to release that story to the world.

 

Dario's recounting of their experiences is vivid and maddening, but fair. Funny. Honest. Reflective. There is so much affection for Greece and for the dear Greek friends who sheltered and tried their best to help usher the Ciriellos into the community and through the maddening maze of bureaucracy that you hold out hope it's not going to end the way you know it will (and this review is no spoiler-- even a cursory glance at the book's description lets you know what to expect). This is not a dump-on-Greece misadventure. This is the story of two smart, resourceful, courageous, and imperfect people trying to meet a culture on its own terms.

 

Aegean Dream hurt me with thousand tiny cuts. My husband and I left the Pacific Northwest for New Zealand just a few months before Dario and Linda left California for Greece. Our stories unfolded very differently--we had Permanent Residency and moved to a country where everything works with astonishing efficiency. I cannot fathom a place easier to immigrate to than the Land of the Long White Cloud. But we returned less than two years later, our hearts shattered. The how and the why shall become fodder for my own memoir that I'm still -- seven years after our return -- building the courage to write. But even though our circumstances were very different, our emotional journey has so much in common with Dario and Linda's. Aegean Dream was a cathartic and healing read for this traveler.

Others have had it far worse than us, and we count ourselves fortunate. Our trials have tempered us and made us realize how resilient and adaptable we are. We learned to live for the day, and to be happy with little. Would we risk such an adventure again? It's a question we don't dare ask ourselves.

A copy of Aegean Dream was provided to me by the publisher. My thanks to Panverse Publishing, founded by Dario Ciriello after his return to the United States. Now, there's a happy ending.

View all my reviews

Digging Deep

I have a theory how my fear of enclosed spaces began. I'm saving the big reveal for my memoir, but suffice to say, it's been with me since childhood. Claustrophobia flared only intermittently until May 15, 1999. Prior to this day, there had been some bad moments in high school, after which I tried cognitive behavioral therapy until I could enter an elevator again without turning into a puddle of scream.

After the incident in 1999, which involved a small plane stranded on melting tarmac in broiling-hot Champaign, IL, I canceled work trips to Europe and Australia. Within a few months, I got a handle on myself. My GP approved a flight-specific Ativan prescription. My next job involved domestic flights every two weeks and regular international travel and I got to the point where I stopped the drugs except for international flights.

There have been many bad momentscold sweats, bowels like molten lava, racing heart, certain at any moment I'll panic myself into a heart attack or my mind will shatter with madness. There was the awful time in Charles de Gaulle when I realized I'd packed the Ativan in my checked luggage. My first triathlon where the open water swim nearly sank my will. But I got through it all. Each and every miserable episode of icanticanticanticant.

Each flight is a compromise between my intense distrust of psychopharmaceuticals as a treatment for anxiety and fear of a full-blown panic attack. And I don't do elevators. I don't book a room at a hotel until I know the room can be accessed via a stairwell. I walked up and down fourteen flights after a surgical procedure. I'm serious. I don't do elevators.

~

Last year I experienced a series of panic attacks, some of which I chronicled here: Emptying TomorrowI've worked through this shaky period and I'm making peace with the underlying causes of my anxiety. Fear of my mind's evil machinations flutters just underneath my brain-skin, but I find fighting back is a good use of excess anger. My doctor agreed I had the power to overcome my own emotional betrayal. She suggested I add meditation to my healing toolbox.

But that goddamned claustrophobia. It clings to me, and I to it, like a bad marriage.

~

We cancelled a trip to Europe last fall because our unexpected spring move brought a change in finances. Dirty little secret: I was overcome with relief because I knew I couldn't get on the plane. I hadn't flown since the panic attacks started and the thought of compounding the whole stupid thing with a transoceanic flight was more than I could bear. We planned another trip for this spring, but I simply couldn't get my finger to click "Confirm Purchase" on the Iceland Air website.

My brain said it was the money. My heart knew it would simply stop beating once I started down the jetway.

 

icanticanticanticant

~

A couple of months ago, my thankless first readermy husbandsaid one of the things he appreciates most about my writing is my sense of place. You always know where you are in my stories, because setting is vital to me. It sets the mood and provides context, color, sound, scent, texture, and the backdrop to emotion and action. I want the reader to be immersed in my worlds and feel as much a part of them as my characters.

What Brendan said illuminated a dark corner of my mind. The moments of the most profound well-being I have ever experienced have come about while I'm out and about, experiencing. Nearly everything I've written is set in a place where I've travelled or lived long enough to be inspired, but not so long, it became routine. Not just the act of travel, but fully engaging in a unfamiliar community, fuels my imagination. To deny myself the opportunity to travel is to deny myself as a writer.

And I was hesitating, why? Because some broken piece of me is afraid that I can't cope with a transoceanic flight? A flight I've coped with countless times before? Seriously? SERIOUSLY???

~

A few weeks ago, I tuned in and turned on to the meditation programs I'd downloaded several months ago and then ignored. A soothing voice drips like honey into my psyche, helping me envision the plane as a place of comfort (snort) and safety and reminds me how blessed I am to make a journey most only dream of making. The Voice helps me create a place where I can lock away my anxieties. I enter a state of such deep relaxation, I fall asleep before I can finish even a single module. I'm still wondering what happens at the end of the flight anxiety-specific segment. I'm assuming I make it to my destination.

~

People. We're headed to France in October. Tickets purchased. A barn-now-cottage outside a village in deep in the Dordogne rented. Paris hotel reserved. And yes, the hotel has stairs to all floors. I asked before I booked.

 

icanicanicanican

Brendan & Julie, Languedoc, France, April 2011

Pitchin' and Moanin'

A Seattle suburb. A high-rise hotel. Each with as much character as a styrofoam cup. 2:16 a.m. I am wake. I don't know why. Then, Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep. Beep.

You've got to be kidding me.

"Hello, this is Emily at the front desk. How may I help you, Ms. Johnson?"

Fifteen minutes later, Dave sets up a ladder underneath the smoke alarm. I'm curled in a fetal position on the king bed, wrapped in thick cotton robe. The alarm emits several prolonged shrieks in protest before Dave wrangles it into submission and changes its worn battery. I wait for my neighbors to bang on the walls.

At last, I lock the door behind Dave and his ladder. I cue Bach on my iPad and turn off the light.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

You've got to be kidding me.

Parked on an overhang a few feet from my window is a giant exhaust unit. Every two minutes it clicks on, sounding like a Boeing Dreamliner making an emergency landing on my balcony.

3:16 a.m.  I am imprisoned in Egyptian cotton and chrome Purgatory, held hostage by insomnia.

In four hours and forty-four minutes I meet with an editor to pitch my manuscript. First editor. First time out. First pitch.

Four hours of sleep.

First pot of coffee: 4:30 a.m.

One of my writer's goals this year was to pitch. No pressure, no expectations, just give it a go. On the advice of a fellow Northwest writer, I signed up for a writers' conference she assured me was low-key, warm and welcoming, where there would be agents and editors and an opportunity to deliver a standard five-minute pitch.

The agents and editors at this conference represent writers and books in a genre I don't write, though a few have broad portfolios. I felt I had little to lose. But I wanted to be prepared and professional. I researched how to pitch, spent several weeks honing a few paragraphs, tried out my pitch on two writer buddies, revised and rehearsed it again and again. I came to the conference with my manuscript distilled to one hundred eighty words that I could deliver in one minute, thirty-six seconds. Yes, I had my pitch memorized. No, I did not recite it from memory. It's okay to bring notes.

I was assigned an editor of an independent press. Not just an editor. The publisher's founder and CEO. She was my first pitch. My second, an hour later, the founder and CEO of a New York literary agency. I expected to be nervous, keyed up, a little hysterical from too much coffee, too little sleep and no breakfast. I expected to have fun, to receive feedback, to walk away with another learning experience in my writer's kit, my skin a little thicker for the "Thanks, but that's not what we're looking for."

I didn't expect to walk away with two requests for my manuscript.

Rumor has it only ten percent of writers send in a manuscript after a successful pitch. And yet, writers are admonished, "Don't be in a hurry to publish. Don't submit too soon. Revise, polish, revise and polish again."

I'm not rushing to hit "Send" with attachments. I know my manuscript isn't ready. But after two days of excellent workshops on craft and a renewed sense of inspiration and ambition, I emerge from this conference with a solid rewrite and revision plan. And determination to be in that ten percent by the end of the year.

You can do anything, as long as there is coffee. Even if Dave changes your smoke alarm battery at 2:30 a.m. And a Boeing 787 lands on your balcony at 3:00. Sleep when you're dead.

English: Artist impression of Boeing 787-9 Dre...

Book Review: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeepers, what a tough review to write. It's that 3-star curse: "I liked it just fine, thank you, Ma'am." My literary passions were neither inflamed nor offended, but I was happily entertained. And sometimes that's all I need from a read: an escape.

And if it comes in a package of sublimely crafted settings that conjure from history's clouds the darkening heart of 1938-39 Europe, with characters rendered as precisely as wood-block prints ("He was about fifty, Stahl guessed, with the thickening body of a former athlete and a heavy boyish face. He might be cast as a guest at one of Jay Gatsby's parties, scotch in hand, flirting with a debutante.") and a quietly simmering plot, well, Bob's your uncle and I'm your girl.

My hesitation to wax more enthusiastic is that I've been gobsmacked by Alan Furst's novels. The characters smoldered, the plots stole the breath, the thriller in "historical thriller" sent the spine a-tingle. It feels as if Furst approached Mission to Paris with tenderness and affection, both for his beloved City of Lights and for his Cary Grant-inspired leading man, Frederic Stahl. The soft-focus lighting on the characters and setting may have smoothed the sharp edge of tension found in his earlier works.

This is cinema-ready, just like its colorful characters and picture-postcard settings. Settle in with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and enjoy the show.

View all my reviews

 

Delightful By Contrast*

Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it. ~ Henry David Thoreau
So much for taking advantage of a few hours' comp time. I managed to leave the office at noon as planned, but then I made the unfortunate decision to check work e-mail as my lentil soup warmed on the stove.

It’s now after 4:00 and my iPhone sits on the counter beside me. I‘m waiting for responses to several e-mails and phone calls, hoping to douse Friday afternoon embers before they spark into weekend fires. IT malfunctions prevent me from accessing the database I need to fix problems flinging themselves at my inbox. The frustration winds into knots that cramp my shoulders and throb in the base of my neck. The tension headache pulses just behind my eyes. This was to be my time to write, to reconnect with my manuscript. Instead I'll pound some random thoughts into submission and force them to coalesce into a blog post.

I’ve been thinking about the fine line between routine and rut. I've been thinking about it a great deal since returning from Ireland. Because I seemed to have escaped the latter, yet I now struggle to regain the former.

I’m pretty taken with my routines. I guard them jealously. These are the small bits of my day I can control while the rest of life swirls heedlessly around me. The precious hours between 4 and 7 a.m. when I write, run, contort my limbs into camels and plows; that hour before bedtime when I settle in with the book of the moment; the Saturdays when miles of pavement pour forth in front of me and I race to the finish, knowing a quiet day of writing is the only other item on my to-do list.

I started my manuscript in early July and quickly settled into a productive pattern: writing every morning before and most evenings after work, all day Saturday after my long run, a few hours on Sunday in between errands and cooking. I planned my writing around Brendan’s interminable work days, making the most of the little time we have together.

The beauty of a long holiday is the chance to step out of the well-trodden path that threatens to harden into a rut. Yet, one of the things I love most about travelling is the creation of a little world that only you and your travel companion inhabit - a world of private rituals and routines that shape your adventure and later, your memories.

Simplicity defined our Kerry Way routine. And in this simplicity we found our bliss. I would rise while the B&B was yet asleep and make a cup of dreadful coffee from the Nescafe instant packets tucked into the tea service tray in our room, then creep barefoot to the guest parlour to write. To write until I could smell bacon frying, to write until I could hear the dog barking, to write until footfalls overhead told me other guests were waking. Brendan would collect me and we padded with feet still sore from the previous day's miles to the dining room, our stomachs whimpering with hunger, forced to wait until the civilized hour of 8:30 to be fed.

After a breakfast of - wait for it - muesli with whole milk, soda bread slathered with butter and orange marmalade, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast (for her); scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage with toast (for him); a full pot of coffee, black, our work began. And what a job it was: to hike 12-20 miles along the Kerry Way to the next bed and breakfast, to a hot shower, a dinner of fish and chips or lamb stew and pints of Guinness and Bulmers, to reruns of American shows we've never seen, to that day's Irish Times and one or two pages of our vacation reads, and at last, to our pillows where hours of fresh air and hard walking led to instant, sweet, deep sleep. Rinse. Repeat. 180 miles. Eleven days on the trail, five more mucking about Co. Galway.

I showed up at the page every morning. Routine maintained. But the thoughts I thought I would have during those long hours on the trail  - of my  characters, their plot still in a tangle - I had not. I thought, in fact, of little else but my next footfall, for deep bogs, rocky climbs, meadows strewn with gorse marked our way. I thought of the hot shower and cool pint that awaited a few hours and many miles away.

In other words, I broke out of my rut of living days, months, years into the future, and explored the precious path of Being in the Moment. I let go. It almost hurts to look back at the photos Brendan and I took of each other along the way, for the peace and happiness we found is writ large in our eyes and limbs. There was nothing more on our minds at those moments than the quiet joy of being where we were, doing what we loved most, with the only other person we could imagine sharing the moment.

But one cannot spend the rest of one's life on holiday. Unless one is Sir Richard Branson.

So, it's back to the grind. Or not.

I wish I could have picked up where I left off, stepped right back into that productive pattern, that familiar routine. But life has gone a bit pear-shaped since our return. Our work schedules have yet to right themselves. Frustration distracts me. The diminishing light and cooling temperatures mean no more late afternoon writing sessions on the patio, my back warmed by the summer sun. I still have so many hand-written pages to transcribe into Scrivener that I'm producing little new material. I feel scattered and disconnected, as if an essential part of myself is missing. Left in the west of Ireland, on the side of a hill made of granite and covered in gorse.

Just yesterday, three weeks after our return, I felt a spark. I gave my brain free rein as I transferred early morning scribbles from September 16 into my computer manuscript. I stopped playing secretary to my notebook and returned to being a writer.

Which was my plan for this afternoon. Until I looked at that cursed e-mail inbox.

While I wait for my phone to ring, I may as well peruse our vacation photos. To see what peace looks like. Join me, won't you?

The Kerry Way Slide Show

*All of us, from time to time, need a plunge into freedom and novelty, after which routine and discipline will seem delightful by contrast. ~ Andre Maurois

Not All Who Wander Are Lost*

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

There was never a question that the celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary would involve passports. It was just a matter of where. I recall having plans to celebrate our 15th in Greece, but we found ourselves living in New Zealand that year, so we traded in visions of the cobalt Mediterranean for the reality of the cerulean Pacific. Not a bad deal. Greece is back on the table for our 25th. Italy sat at the tippy-top of the list for a long while. I've travelled it knee to toe; Brendan and I have been to the Veneto and Trentino together. But there is so much we want to do in Italy, we couldn't decide where to start. Italy got reshuffled back into the deck.

Southeast Asia was mentioned. Enchanted by Cambodia and Vietnam during his stay in 2005 as a Fulbright Teacher-Scholar, Brendan can't wait to return with me and I can't wait to go. But it requires more preparation and planning than we have energy for right now. Then there's that walking and whisky tour of Scotland we've mapped out, with a long weekend in Iceland on the way over. Maritime Canada. Mongolia. I've been after South Africa for some time now and I've just about got Brendan convinced, but not in time for this year.

At some point in early spring we realized we were over-thinking the whole program. If you know us, you know we'd pick up sticks tomorrow and move (back) to France. France forms the foundation of our dreams. It is where we both entered adulthood, Brendan working at a family-run vineyard and Cognac distillery the year after he graduated the University of Oregon, I studying at the University of Savoie. It is the reason we met, a shared struggle over Proust in Advanced French Literature. Brendan was completing his teaching certificate at the same university where I was finishing a double major after a year studying in Chambèry and a summer teaching in Japan. We've returned to France several times over the years, mostly together, on occasion alone.

When we moved to Seattle from New Zealand, we did not resume our former careers as a high school teacher (Brendan) and study abroad program manager (me). This meant no more summers off for Brendan and the drying up of my frequent flyer mileage account. We determined that for the next few years, given the demands of our jobs that zap time and energy for complicated journeys, we'd limit our travel to the one place we know we love, where every visit solidifies our desire to make a life there, someday: France. It is travel with a strategy. We keep up our language skills and culture specific know-how while scoping out long-term possibilities (I'm talking retirement here, people, nothing like a little 20 year vision). We visit a new region each time, staying in one place to really learn it, then end the trip with a couple of days in Paris. We even have "our" hotel in Paris. It is never work to plan, but it's an adventure from start to finish.

This year, for our 20th, Burgundy called. We decided to base ourselves in Beaune and bike the countryside, rent a car for a long weekend hop over the German border to visit friends in Freiburg, take a few day trips by train south to Macon and Beaujolais; we'd drink and eat and bike our way through one of the most beautiful regions of France we've never seen. Done deal.

So, we're headed to Ireland. Come Wednesday, our anniversary, we'll be lacing up our hiking boots and setting stride along the Kerry Way.

It's been a year of tremendous change and turmoil. Events exhilarating and exhausting have left us with such a need for peace, reflection and a complete unplug from our current of thoughts. One afternoon as we mulled over where to pick up the rental car, which weekend to dash to Germany, if we should bypass Paris to spend a weekend in Champagne, Brendan turned to me and said, "Let's go to Ireland." In that instant, I knew. I felt immediate peace.

By just speaking the word "Ireland" aloud, I feel my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax, my jaw loosen. I envision those long, quiet hours on a trail, surrounded by every shade of green, blue, gray and gold the fields, sea and sky can offer, the clouds overhead as creamy white as the sheep that watch us as we tramp through their paddock.

This will be our fourth trip to Ireland in ten years. We do the same thing, in a different area, each time. And that thing is The Walk. We surrender all planning to the darling, generous, efficient, tremendous team at Southwest Walks Ireland. We simply arrive when and where we are told. We rest and rise the next morning to begin days and days of walking. There is a map, we have our packs, we hike hill and dale, stopping to marvel, rest, eat, talk when and where we will, trusting we will find our way each day to that night's lodging. In the evenings there is a snug B&B, a warm pub, a steaming bowl of stew, a Paddy's over ice or a pint of Guinness with a head taller than my hand is wide. There is music, there is silence. And always, every day, there is the long, long walk. 

In the early days we stick together, chatting, bubbling over all the things we haven't had time to share in the rush of days and weeks when we hardly see one another. But soon we fall silent. Words are no longer necessary when your hearts are in perfect synchronicity.

Warm beaches on remote islands or ocean liners on the high seas don't interest us. We both rest best when we are in motion - it is a mélange of play and exercise that allows us to let go of the pressures and expectations of our everyday lives and brings us back to the sweet and simple people we are at heart. Walking our way through a holiday adds a significant dose of zen - there is nothing more meditative than the motion of one foot in front of the other for hours on end. And nothing more delightful knowing you do not walk alone.

This is a bittersweet journey. We embarked on our last visit, in 2006, just a month before we moved to New Zealand. An enormous adventure blossomed before us, dreams on the cusp of being realized. Thinking of all that has happened in the intervening six years just rocks me. Starting over more times than we'd bargained for. Saying goodbye far too often - to loved ones, to babies, to dreams. It is staggering.

We shared that last hike in Ireland with two of our dearest friends, two men as in love and committed as Brendan and I could ever hope to be, who had been together at least as long as the anniversary we celebrate now. We made plans during that hike that they would join us in New Zealand when their retirements were finalized; we'd open a café, have a small farm... One of those men is gone now, taken by cancer. Even after two years, my life will never be as bright without Peter in it.

Ireland is in celebration our lives together, this amazing adventure that we've lived in the 20 years, 5 months and ten days that have passed since our first date. It is to recapture peace that we have lost in a tumultuous year. And it's to touch that fragile, tender part of the soul that needs looking after, before you set it free to dream again.

 “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

*All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. - Gandalf, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Me and Mon Ombre

It's been a while since I've travelled alone. In another lifetime, domestic and international travel was integral to my job. It was a groove of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, car rental upgrades; a suitcase that was always half-packed with the essentials, just waiting for the next journey. Being home was the exception, the interlude between dashes to the airport. I've never regretted giving up the hassles of travel, particularly the post-9/11 frantic harassment of airport security and the dismal state of airline service. Happily my travels these days are mostly for holiday, on flights bound for Europe, hand-in-hand with the only person I can suffer to see me through turbulence and jet lag. Brendan and I are viaggiatori simpatici. We dream of the same destinations, push ahead with equal energy levels, become tired and hungry in tandem and bicker over maps and directions without really caring who's right. We always find our way.

But I cannot deny the certain bliss of traveling alone. Undertaking a solo journey abroad is like dumping 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on dining room table. It begins as a mission of intoxicating near-impossibility, but as you organize patterns and fit those first pieces together, you covet your independence and encircle your puzzle with protective arms, not wanting anyone to interfere with your reverie.

For a reverie it is. Traveling alone means slipping into a dream state, where anything is possible. With each encounter, snafu and discovery, the surroundings reflect you in a mirror that only you can see. This solitary state makes you vulnerable to the world and somehow floating above it. At any given moment, no one really knows where you are, what you are doing, tasting, hearing, seeing. The delightful and the disconcerting occur. During the private journey you rejoice and suffer alone.

Being a solo traveler is sitting in silence at a café on the Île Saint-Louis, sipping a chocolat chaud and watching the sun set Notre Dame aglow.

It is falling to my knees in the crypt of the Shoah Memorial before the tomb of the unknown Jewish martyr and crying alone in that vast, dark space.

It's being asked for directions to the Censier-Daubenton métro stop by a panicked looking Parisian elementary school teacher who has a gaggle of five-year-olds attached to him by a long strap; then being stopped a few minutes later on Rue Mouffetard by a grandmother, looking for the church where a funeral is about to begin.

It's lugging my suitcase up six flights of a stairs that curl like the inside of a sea snail shell, because I can't fathom squeezing myself into the tiny lift.

It's ordering a second glass of Minervois at a restaurant deep in the Marais, wondering if I'll remember the route back to the hotel in the dark.

It's running at dawn on the beach at Cannes with no one to keep watch over my shoes and socks while I wade in the Mediterranean.

It's meeting a vignernon and thinking how my husband would love this kind, gentle man who makes the most wonderful Armagnac I've ever tasted. And thinking, we'll meet again, and Brendan will be with me...

I fell into a deep sleep on the high-speed train carrying me from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Cannes on the Côte d'Azur. There was one change of trains, long into the journey. I awoke with a jolt when my iPod slipped from my lap and fell to the floor, jerking away the earpiece. I caught the tail end of the conductor's announcement of our arrival. In my jet lagged haze, I grabbed my bag and stumbled down the steps of my two-tiered car, knowing I had but a few minutes to make my connection. I climbed a set of stairs and crossed to the main terminal, looking for the departure quay. Then it dawned on me. This compact, bright, calm hall was not the hurly-burly Saint-Charles station in Marseilles. I had disembarked in the idyll of Aix-en-Provence. And my train - the one on which I should have remained - had just left the station.

Likely this wouldn't have happened had I not been alone. Then again, I wouldn't have the memory of those moments with the stationmaster, chatting about hunting wild boar in the vineyards of the Rhône, before being deposited on the next TGV that whisked me away to Cannes.

Feeling the Pull

Vacation is about doing things that you can't, won't, or shouldn't do at home; tossing routine out the window and letting loose the child you once were- the one who simply lives in the moment, the one who lives simply...the one who sleeps with abandon, who eats only when she's hungry, who anticipates with giddiness the day as it dawns, knowing it is full of adventure and play. For 2 1/2 weeks I didn't talk about work (not an easy feat when you work with your husband). I didn't run, swim or strike a single yoga pose. I didn't write, I hardly read. I remained untouched by and unconnected to the digital world.  I didn't swallow any cod liver oil, worry about my low iron stores, or my weight. I didn't care about paying $8 for a gallon of gas, $200 a night for a hotel in Paris, or splitting a $400 bill for dinner with friends.

I did eat chocolate. Every single day. I drank wine. Bottles of beautiful, rich, refreshing Corbières, Minervois, Picpoul, St. Chinian, Saumur. Even at lunch. I gorged on red meat, salmon, chèvre, fresh bread, Charentais melon and Italian gelato. I slept. Oh my, did I sleep.  Eight to ten hours of deep, peaceful, gorgeous slumber, hours past my usual 4:30-5 a.m. internal clock.

I did watch television. Our mornings began slowly, with thick, black coffee, and Télématin. The evening news came on at 8:00, just as we sat down to dinner after a long day's adventuring through the Languedoc. We munched and sipped silently, captivated by the exquisite Laurence Ferrari, the world's most divine news anchor (Hugh Laurie was a puddle of blush the evening Laurence interviewed him about his new blues album. It was a treat to see House squirm under the spell of a beautiful woman). We played "La Roue De La Fortune" - France's Wheel of Fortune, feeling smug and silly for correctly guessing the French word or phrase before the contestants. I never did make it through an episode of 'The Closer." Lieutenant Provenza's acerbic wit  just doesn't translate well in dubbed-French.

I played. The day's biggest decisions were which Cathar castles we would seek out and where to stop for lunch. Brendan drove, I navigated, and we made certain to stop and smell the coquelicots. There were hikes to ruins where the history whispered achingly in the ever-present winds. There were naps along shaded riverbanks, picnics in silent meadows, ice cream cones while perched on Roman walls.

I did speak French, to the degree that I lost my English words, where it was more natural to speak French with Brendan when we were in public, and Franglish when we were alone. It was easier to read Midi Libre than the International Herald Tribune. Easier still to let the newspaper slip away and simply stare into the distance, whether it was into the meadows outside Couiza or into the crowds passing our café table in Paris.

I did dream. In each village we wandered,  as we hiked the foothills of the Pyrénées, I wondered "Could I live here?" I dreamed of the hectares of vines outside Montséret or near Limoux that Brendan would tend, of the stone cottage with blue shutters in tranquil Minerve where I would write, of a cheery red front door in the village of Félines-Minervois that would open to our visitors from near and far, a cold pichet of rosé waiting on the table. I plotted a garden and my cycle route to work in Capestang, including a stop at Francisco's tabac for the morning paper. I planned for summers on the coast in Gruissan while Brendan toiled (happily, I should add) in the heat of the Corbières garrigue only 20 miles west.  I answered that question time and again with a definitive, exuberant, and wistful, "Oui, sans aucun doute."

Alas, vacation is just that. A break from what is, what must be, most of the time. I was grateful to return to my bed, to snuggle with Lola, to eat a simple meal of toasted quinoa and steamed broccoli (with a glass of Touraine, of course), to return to job I love, to see friends and colleagues, to hug my dad after he loaded my suitcase, heavy with bottles of wine and books, into his van. And hey. Vacation is paid for. I weigh less than before we left on our hedonist holiday, I'm back in half-marathon and tri training mode. I submitted a story for publication and I'm plodding through this post.  It's back to normal. At least for the part of me that is back in Seattle.

*Title from The Swell Season song, Feeling the Pull