Annoying the Germans, getting lost, and trying to live with an open heart
I’m annoying the crap out of the Germans. No. Let me correct that. It’s mutual.
Yesterday, the first pilgrim I encountered in the morning was a tall German striding like he was making a dash for the finish line. As he passed, he looked at me and sternly said, “Wrong way.” No smile. Nothing.
What the…? I was shocked.
Then this morning, a German woman stops in her tracks to interrogate me. “What are you doing?”
“I’m walking back to France,” I reply.
“The Camino isn’t set up to walk backwards,” she informs me. Her insistence provokes instant ire. Seriously?
She is mid-rant about how I’m doing this incorrectly when I interrupt her to say, “In the past, Santiago was halfway. I’ve already walked it once, so now I’m finishing.” Then, annoyed, I continue walking and say over my shoulder, “Buen Camino!”
I don’t mean it. Judge me if you will, but I could easily have substituted a swear.
This is really pissing me off. I’m clearly succeeding at the thing they insist is incorrect and not possible. Do they say it just to be right? To show they’re superior? What gives someone the right to comment on my path, anyway? It must have something to do with the German sense of order and discipline.
Whatever the reason, I’m not amused. I’ve worked too hard to overcome perfectionism to let myself be judged by a total stranger. If it keeps happening, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It is seriously infuriating.
I’m having breakfast and my first cup of coffee when the hospitalera introduces me to an huge group of Spanish pilgrim cyclists. She says proudly, “This americana stayed at my albergue three years ago! I taught her to say ‘thanks very much’ in Galician—and you know what? She remembered how to say it!” My host beams and says, “Go ahead!” The whole group of cyclists swivels their heads toward me.
I’m still sleepy and now crimson-faced from flattered embarrassment, but I manage to say, “Moitas grazas!”
A few ohhhs come from the cyclists, and I grin at them. Then I recognize a few! They’re the guys I met in front of Ruby’s hotel in Finisterre the day before. The one guy who teased me about speaking English bids me a good morning (perhaps I’ve redeemed myself?). I feel happy to see familiar faces.
Before I leave, I give the hospitalera a big hug and a final moitas grazas. She says, “Visit us again in three more years—and bring your esposo!”
Five minutes down the road, still grinning, I remember my walking sticks and go back to retrieve them. Then I’m out again on my own in the cool morning air for a long day’s walk. I can hear the whooshing hum of a dozen windmills lined up along the distant hill. Birds are singing in the sunlit forest. The sound of running water from an invisible creek gurgles through the trees. The road is flat and well-graded so each footstep crunches as I walk. I’m lost, then not lost. Confident, then uncertain of the way. I remember being here. Then I forget. Am I on the way? Was I here? Ah, now I remember.
This is what it’s like to walk the Camino backwards. I’m living in past and present all at once.
Before long, I hit the steep hill where Meg and I collected gorgeous blue-green rocks and—same as yesterday—I start bawling, just wordless uncontrollable sobbing. I miss her. It’s something deeper too. As I ascend this hill, the past is shedding like bits of dry skin behind me. My old, constricted way of living is sloughing off.
I miss living with my heart open.
When I came back from Spain three years ago, I resolved to change my life. Full of grand plans, I was going to see friends more often and connect more meaningfully. I was going to change my livelihood and start doing what I loved. Exercise was going to be a regular part of my life as a result of rediscovering how much I loved being outdoors.
But since that time, I’ve slowly shut down. I’ve become increasingly isolated from caring friendships, still not doing work I love, and struggling to show my true self to the world. Instead, I distract myself with screen time and swap my authentic self for the presentable, PC version I think everyone wants to see.
Change is hard.
It’s not that I’m back to square one. My marriage is renewed in a way I didn’t dream was possible, and maybe I am closer to doing more satisfying work. I just see a huge chasm between where I am and where I want to be. Walking on this very terrain reminds me that I’ve settled for less since I was here last. Walking over the land where I admitted aloud to understanding, supportive Meg what I really want in life brings it all back. I can’t pretend here. I remember. I want more.
As pilgrims pass me downhill, I try to look fine. I sniffle, but grin at them. I wipe my eyes, but say buen camino. There is more grieving to do, but I set it aside. Sometimes you have to just watch yourself make the same choices over and over again until you change them for good.
Fortunately, I have time to sort it out. I have weeks of walking ahead of me.
In the meantime, I notice as I walk that the whole region is in full-on springtime soil-preparation mode. Huge agricultural machines are out in force—tilling, spraying manure, dusting with lime, and filling the valleys with the sounds of growling diesel engines. Later in the day, the path is more level and for a half hour or more, I can survey the machines’ progress as I approach. Occasionally, I wave to a passing farmer. In the distance, I spot a lone pilgrim far ahead who–like me–is also walking east toward Santiago!
At one point, I get completely lost up on a hill above dairy country. About 100 feet back I saw a huge white sign stating in Spanish this is an alternate route of the Camino. Tracking helps me determine whether I’m on the trail, but I see no stick marks, no pilgrims ahead, and no sign of boot prints in the mud. The good news is being lost gives me privacy to go poo—which I desperately need to do—and successfully dig a cat hole in the soft soil.
Once relieved, I take stock: I’m lost, but not panicky. I know my way back, even if I don’t know the way forward. I’m okay, I reassure myself. Just retrace your steps.
As I stare at my map, I realize this is the exact same place that Meg and I got lost three years ago. I can even see the dairy and farm below where we sat and watched the cows rounded up by a woman on a moped. How uncanny to be lost in the same place. Is there a vortex here? Or some Galicia magic? I wonder if I’ll meet a witch on the way.
Maybe the Camino isn’t set up to be walked in reverse, but it can be done. At the white sign, I realize I just missed the turn and am on my way again.
The last few miles of the day seem interminably long as my body aches from walking on pavement. As I stop to fill my water bottle at a community fountain, the east-walking pilgrim appears beside me! I gather up my pack as he fills his bottle, and we are ready to depart at the same time.
Gesturing with his arms in a sweeping motion toward the path, he says, “Ladies first” in an unmistakable accent.
“No, no. After you,” I grin.
“Shall we walk togezzah?”
“I would love that,” I say. Yes, Heinrich is German. He is kind and curious, though embarrassed by his English skills. We’re headed to the same albergue. How novel to have a walking companion for the final two miles!
As many times as I’ve lived it, I always forget what a touchy mood I’m in when I arrive at an albergue feeling tired, hot, and hungry. Today is no different. I’m immediately offended that the barista insists on speaking English (insinuating that my Spanish isn’t good enough). She’s abrupt and terse. There are a litany of rules.
- No using the clothes dryer if you hand wash.
- No hanging clothes in the laundry room.
- No hanging clothes from your bunk.
Do they not care that we’ll walk around sopping wet tomorrow?
When I get a snack at the restaurant, the barista hovers and whisks away my plates before I’m done. Later, she sneers at me with disdain when I tell her the coin-op computer isn’t working. I’ve been anxious all day that I haven’t sent Mary an email in three days and hope she’s not worried. Anyway, I’m told there’s no fix for the computer. The reception here couldn’t make me feel less welcome.
The upside is that after laundry and a shower, Heinrich and I join another man in the bar where the three of us have dinner together. Despite my walking alone, I have actual dinner companions. In an additional twist of irony, Ralph is also from Germany. He is great company, speaks English flawlessly, and tells great stories throughout the meal. He’s a hoot. My spirits lift.
So I take back what I’ve said about Germans. They were my saving grace tonight.
Maybe my heart is more open than I realized.