Saturday, November 2, 2013

Making Magic

Is this real life or am I caught in a Fairy Tale? 

Upon returning from Paris last week, I came down with a bad cold/sinus infection. I stayed in bed, nursing myself back to health with antibiotics, tea & vitamin C. As soon as I felt better, I decided to take advantage of my remaining school vacation days, and I set off to travel the region of Languedoc Roussilon and the Pyrénées Orientales.

For the first two days, I went easy on my body. During the day, I visited medieval villages and tiny towns with cobblestone streets. I sat at cafés; reading, writing in my journal, 'philosophizing' with strangers. At night, I returned to Perpignan, where I met up with my colleagues and their friends/family. Sodara, the colleague that invited me out, introduced me to his friends as 'his assistant' a.k.a. 'the yoga teacher from Chicago'. We listened to live jazz in the streets until the police shut it down, played Halloween trivia at an English pub, and even went dancing! I made three new girlfriends: Mathilde - 14, Lily - 10, and (princesse) Lena (she was wearing a plastic tiara) - 4. All of them (and especially the princess) reminded me of why I want to work with kids. To little kids, even the most ordinary things can seem magical.

By Sunday, I'd had a few days to rest. Feeling recharged, I decided to go for a hike. I consulted my guidebook, 'The 50 Most Beautiful Hikes in Languedoc Roussillon". On a whim (and because it seemed like a nice hike) I chose to take the train to Banyuls-sur-Mer (south of Perpignan on the Vermeille Coast), and from there to hike up to the coastal town of Collioure. I packed my backpack (3 liters of water, sunscreen, camera, raincoat, hat, lunch, guidebook, journal), laced up my hiking boots, and was off.

An hour later, around 11 am, I was getting off the train behind a young couple, who judging by their gear were getting ready to hike as well. I saw the man take a trail map out of his bag and unfold it. Even from a distance, I could tell how detailed it was compared to the barebones map in my guidebook. Suddenly I felt ashamed and embarassed that I'd come all this way to hike and I didn't even have a proper map. What if I never found the trail? It took me a good 30 seconds of standing around like an imbecile before I worked up the courage to ask the couple if I could see their map. Of course, they were not at all annoyed, and they were more than happy to help me find the trail. It turned out we had planned to hike the same trail to Collioure (the Grande Randonnée 10) and they invited me to join them. We hiked together for entire 5 hour journey to Collioure, stopping after about 3 hours to eat our picnic lunch. Etienne - 24, is studying marine ecosystems at the University in Perpignan, and Ginette - 30, is finishing her masters in elementary education. They hike often, eat organic, and organize workshops for students at the university to learn to fix their bikes. I was delighted to learn about the bike workshops - I really need to learn how to fix a flat!

Anyway, it didn't take long on the trail before I found myself breathless- literally & figuratively. Literally, I haven't exercised in two months so I'm totally out of shape and I was still stuffed up from my sinus infection so it was hard to breath. But it was the sight of my surroundings that took my breath away. I can't find the words to describe to you how beautiful it was. I was standing on a mountain, surrounded by massive trees, shimmering boulders, and vibrant colored wild flowers. To the east of where I was standing - the vast and glimmering Mediterranean sea - bright blue & crystal clear. The coastline, dotted with multicolored sailed boats, resembled a post-impressionist painting. Two the north of me - two massive stone towers that once served as fortresses. To the west of me, a chapel - Notre Dame de something. And to the south of me, maybe 200 meters away, the most spectacular white horse I have ever seen; it was standing serenely in the center of the mountain, snacking on wildflowers. I took photos, which I will upload and post as soon as I have the correct device to connect my camera. But the truth is that the photos don't come close to capturing the beauty and magnificence of the scene. It was powerful. I felt high! (and given the distance we climbed, I quite literally was)! Again, I caught myself wondering, is this real life?

During our descent, we made our way through the vinyards. Despite the harvest having ended, many of the vines still had grapes. I went to one of the vines and cut off a giant cluster. I popped a grape into my mouth. The result? An explosion of sweet, fruity goodness! It was the perfect afternoon snack. I laugh when I envision what the three of us looked like walking along that trail. Exhausted, sweaty, dusty - with huge smiles bearing purple-stained lips. Happy and carefree, skipping and singing and letting the juice drip down our face. At one point, an older couple passed us, and the woman asked if it was a good idea to eat the grapes off the vine like that - "there might be preservatives" she warned. We looked at one another, giggled and skipped on.

We finally made it to the town of Collioure. First thing we did was empty our backpacks of the litter and plastic we'd collected on the trail (Etienne is a big environmentalist, and he believes that if everyone picks up a little more garbage than they bring in, the result will be a cleaner and healthier planet). Then we made our way to the beach. It was evening, but the temperature was still warm (maybe in the high 70s). Etienne put on his speedo & snorkeling equipment and went for a dip in the sea. Ginette took a nap on the sand. And I just stood, once again stupefied by the sheer beauty of the scene before me. Something about this beach was magical. It felt like something out of a story book - and more precisely - a fairy tale. Perhaps I owe that impression to the Royal Castle situated beside me. Or maybe it was the little girls in front of me pretending to cast magic spells. Perhaps it was simply the magnificence of the sun setting over the water that took hold of me. Whatever it was, it was powerful. It did not feel real. And yet it was. It was magical AND I was there living it.

Between the sand and the water, there were many small stones. I wanted to find a heart shaped one to send home to my mom. As I looked through the sand, I felt called to pick up certain stones, and when I did, I had the bizarre impression that the stones were talking to me. I know you think I'm crazy, but at least hear me out. So I had the impression that the stones had something to tell me. And while they didn't speak in the traditional sense, here is what I understood:

I (the rock), like you, traveled a long way to get here. My journey began long ago, in a far away place. When I began my journey, I didn't know where I would end up, or how I would get there. I simply knew that the wind and the waves would take me where I needed to go. Throughout my long journey, I have gained a lot of wisdom. It was not always easy. Trust me, I watch a lot of boats go by, and there is no such thing as 'smooth sailing' 100 percent of the time. I have been carried away by strong currents, and I've experienced terrible storms. When I washed up on this shore, I looked and felt very different from when I started my journey - luckily I'm smoother around the edges now. And while it may seem boring or lonely to you - my life here as a rock - I swear to you I am so lucky. I get to bear witness to many a magical moment. Be it a sunset, a kiss shared between lovers, or children building sandcastles. I am an observer. I feel very lucky to be one. And so are you.

It made perfect sense. Whether the rock had truly imparted wisdom onto me, or I had this realization on my own and attributed it to magic rocks, I honestly don't care. I loved the message. I felt reassured of my journey. Some people might feel anxious or uncomfortable at the thought of being 'alone'. I bet the rock isn't bothered being by itself - or rather with itself. Nor am I. I know that if I, like the rock did - let the wind and the waves (and my own intuition of course) steer me - I will not only gain wisdom but I will continue to experience magical moments...Magical moments, interesting people, lasting memories, enduring wisdom. I know and I knew that that's what my journey had in store. So when the sun went down, I went with Ginette & Etienne to get ice cream near the board walk, and then we said our goodbyes. We exchanged contact information, and I assured them that I'd see them at the bike workshop.

After saying goodbye to my new friends, I walked along the cobblestone streets and into some of the little shops. I bought myself a scarf and a beach hat from one shop. Then I went into a wine store to see what I could find from the region. Two backpackers came in after me. I had my eye on a bottle of red from a chateaux in Collioure. The multicolored label is what caught my eye. As I picked it up to look at it more closely, one of the backpackers spoke: "That one's really good - we tried it last night at the restaurant". Boom. Beginning of a 20 minute conversation in the wine shop. It turns out these two guys (who I would guess are between 23 & 25) just finished the Grande Randonnée 10 - a trail that traverses the Pyrénées from the western coast to the eastern coast. It took them over 2 months of hiking and camping. WOW. They said it was a life-changing experience. I felt embarassed to tell them that I hope to do a 10 day hike across the Pyrénées, but they were incredibly encouraging. They asked what I was doing in France and complemented my French. I could have gone on talking to them all night, but I had a feeling the shop keeper was getting annoyed with us so I bought the bottle of wine, said goodbye, and left.

I had no idea when the next train was, so I wandered back to the station leisurely. A train arrived 2 minutes after I got onto the platform. Perfect timing! One stop after Collioure, the doors opened and the train car was innondated with middle school boys dressed in identical uniforms. Boyscouts! They had hiking boots and backpacks on; they chatted excitedly with one another about their recent adventure. By talking to two of the boys next to me, I learned that they had just finished a 3-day hiking/camping trip on the same trail as the young men from earlier.One boy said it was really difficult, and the other boy said it was exhausting but incredibly rewarding at the same time. They were cute kids.

When I arrived back to my room in Perpignan - after a shower and dinner of course - I unpacked my backpack. In one pocket, I found some stones that I had taken from the beach. Remembering what they'd taught me, I knew I had another adventure ahead of me. Tomorrow morning, I thought. Not sure where I was headed, I packed a backpack: pajama pants, a raincoat, a fleece, my mini umbrella, a headlamp, a swiss army knife, toiletries, a travel sheet, pillow & blanket, a travel towel, a novel, my journal, my wallet, and my phone. The next morning at 7 am, I got out of bed, got dressed, and rode my bike to the train station. I walked up to the ticket machine. Tapped 'immediate departures'. Where will I go? CARCASSONNE caught my eye. About two and I half hours on the train, with a changeover in Narbonne. DONE. I still had my bike with me.Where could I lock it that it would be safe for a few days? Than it hit me - my bike (who's name is 'Omar' by the way) would come with me to Carcassonne.

I had some time in Narbonne before my next train, so I used that time to figure out where I would spend the night. is a great site that I highly recommend. Anyway, I found a place slightly outside of Carcassonne that got excellent ratings. I decided to call. A British woman - whom I later learned is named Tracy - answered the phone. Thankfully, they had beds available, so I made a reservation. Tracy asked me how I was going to get there, and I told her by bike from Carcassonne. She gave me detailed instructions for the route, which she than texted to me as soon as we got off the phone. I had a really good feeling about this place - SIDSMUMS - as it was called.

I arrived at the station in Carcassonne around 11 am. I wasn't rushed to get to the lodge (I had no plans afterall), so I decided to wander into the center of town. I found myself in the heart of the open air market. Remembering that the lodge had a large kitchen where guests could prepare their own meals, I decided to buy some fresh ingredients: apples, grapes, clementines, cucumber, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, beets, lettuce, onion, cage-free eggs and gluten free bread. I stopped at the super market for some beans and milk. Now I was set to go!

Right as I was getting ready to leave the main square, I spotted some guys walking around in t-shirts that read 'Action Contre La Faim' (Action Against Hunger). About a week earlier, one of those guys (Julien) had stopped me on the street in Perpignan, trying to sell me on the cause and get me to donate. I didn't donate, but we had a nice conversation anyway. The following day, another Action Contre La Faim guy (also named Julien) stopped me, and I told him I already spoke to the other Julien. Then the other Julien appeared, we said hello, embraced as the french do, and said goodbye. So naturally I found it funny to run into them a third time unexpectedly, but now in a completely different city! I walked up to Julien #1, who I could easily recognize at this point. We spoke for a few moments and agreed to meet up during his lunch break. To make a long story short, I had a very nice lunch with Julien and the rest of his team. We got along well, and it was fun to spend some time with people my own age.

The team invited me to stay with them in their villas that the organization was renting for them, 20 minutes outside of Carcassonne in a village called Caune-Minervois (which I learned makes amazing wine!). I called Tracy to let her know I'd be arriving a day later than expected. I then spend the day exploring Carcassonne La Cité (the medieval city and fortress in Carcassonne that was restored by the same architect that restored Notre Dame in Paris). In the evening, I met up with my new friends and we drove to Caune-Minervois, where we cooked dinner, drank the regional wine, and stayed up late chatting about everything from non-profits and politics to movies and food.

The next morning, the team headed off to Narbonne and I back to Carcassonne. I hiked along the river and whenever I felt like it, I stopped to read or write in my journal. In the early evening, I finally went to SIDSMUMS. It was everything I expected and more. It had all the charm that you would expect from a vacation home in the French countryside. It was located in a tiny village with a post office, a boulangerie, a church, and one restaurant. It was surrounded by vinyards. The lodge itself consisted of a house with three bedrooms (each containing several beds), several bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, and a living room (filled with travel guides, novels and boardgames). Outside the house was a rather large garden, with hammocks and patio furniture like reclining chairs and picnic tables. There were also four log cabins that are used to house guests in the summer months.

Tracy & her husband Peter were among the nicest strangers I've ever met. Within the span of 10 minutes, they felt like close family friends (actually, I think they reminded me of Susan & Eric F-H). I could not believe how accomodating they were for their guests. They were continually shuttling people in and out of Carcassonne in their old vans (since it was a little bit of a hike to get there without a car). When I mentioned my interest in hiking or biking along the Canal du Midi, Peter gave me his map and sat down with me to explain the route. They spoke to me about their children, about the other guests (that I would later get to meet), about my adventures in France. And one of the best parts of talking to them was getting to play with their little dog.

My night at SIDSMUMS, as you might have guessed, was just wonderful. I was sharing a room with two 22-year old Canadian english teaching assistants (doing the same program as me in different parts of France), and an older French woman named Michèle who is studying wine making. I exchanged contact information with the Canadians, and Michèle who took a liking to me invited me to visit her at her home in Nîmes. I also met three British guys who were working on building a vacation home in the village. But the most interesting person by far was Greg. An American from San Francisco originally, he just completed the "Freedom Trail", a 40-day hike (roughly) from Northern spain into the Pyrénées. He had a very interesting story to share, not only about his experience on the trail, but about his life otherwise. We exchanged words of wisdom and encouragement. He reminded me of my Omega Teen Camp friends, and I told him to look into Omega, although he's not interested in returning to the US anytime soon.

A good night's sleep at SIDSMUMS, and I woke up to the realisation that my fairy tale vacation would soon be coming to a close (like this blog entry need's to). A warm shower and two cups of coffee later, I was off. My backpack was bursting, not only with all the stuff I came with, but with 2 liters of water and all my leftovers from the market that I planned to make a picnic out of along the Canal du Midi. And out I rode. Past the vinyards. Into Carcassonne. Past the train station. I picked up the trail running along the canal. GORGEOUS. Real life? I don't know - it felt more like moving through a painting. A painting that captures all five of the senses. The vibrant reds & oranges of the trees, the crunch of the fallen leaves under my bike, the tickle of the breeze on my skin, the smell of wood burning in a distance. Autumn in the air. I couldn't envision a more perfect way to spend that moment. I rode for about two hours along the canal before stopping to picnic. I picked a nice sunny spot, overlooking the vinyards. I first set out everything I had, and then began to eat. I savored the fresh taste of local, organic food. I felt deeply grateful for that moment. I was able to clear my mind of all thoughts except for those relating to the present moment. That is rare for me. It was magical.

I took out my journal. Normally I wouldn't copy something from my journal onto a post, but I do want to share this. I wrote:

I am so grateful. This is exactly what I need at this point in my life. I am incredibly blessed to have this opportunity. And incredibly lucky to have family and friends who so selflessly support me in this endeavor. I hope they know how much I appreciate them letting me do this, as well as how good this has been for me. I also have a wish for all my friends and family, no matter how old or young they are. I wish that they would take the time to have a little adventure. Maybe even spend some time traveling on their own. Or doing something a little scary. I want them to discover the magic that exists out there!

As you can clearly see, it was a magical week for me. From hiking in the Pyrénées to the beach at Collioure to the medieval city to the vinyards and great local wine to the SIDSMUMS lodge to tiny villages to riding my bike along the Canal du Midi to eating local organic food to meeting awesome people to jumping on trains and going wherever I feel like to having nothing at all to worry about. I would call that magical. But I realized something on my journey back to Perpignan with the ever faithful Omar. Every moment has the potential to be magical if you allow it to be. There is no reason why life can't or shouldn't contain elements of fairy tale in it. Why not treat yourself like a princess or wear a tiara once in a while? (thanks to Lena for that inspired idea!). Why not take a longer, more scenic route to get home? Why not make spontaneous plans once a while, just because something strikes you as a good idea. I am not at all saying to be impulsive; rather, be more open to following your intuition and breaking from the familiar or comfortable. Channel your inner rock: be courageous, be strong, and let the wind and the waves carry you away.

 Breaking Surface by Mark Nepo

Let no one keep you from your journey,
no rabbi or priest, no mother
who wants you to dig for treasures
she misplaced, no father
who won't let one life be enough,
no lover who measures their worth
by what you might give up,
no voice that tells you in the night
it can't be done.
Let nothing dissuade you
from seeing what you see
or feeling the winds that make you
want to dance alone
or go where no one
has yet to go.
You are the only explorer.
Your heart, the unreadable compass.
Your soul, the shore of a promise
too great to be ignored.

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