Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Best Way to Fly Across France!

Four trains--four tickets. One is a Q-code on my tablet.

This is the way to fly to the Netherlands—screaming through the French countryside on a high-speed electric train: no security, show up at the station 10 minutes before departure, carry on everything and have all your stuff available to you during the trip, wide seats, easy to walk around, scenery, low-carbon footprint, AND I can have my knitting! 

Wide seats and legroom...what an idea!
It would have been cheaper and a little faster to fly to the Netherlands, but I really, really, really wanted to go by train. (A difference of about €50 and 4 hours.) I LOVE trains for so many reasons!

SO…I took four trains from San Sebastian, Spain to Utrecht, Netherlands on Tuesday. Oh, and a two-Metro-train station transfer in Paris. Twelve and a half hours of traveling, but what fun! The high-speed trains travel up to 300 km (185 mile) per hour.

I only had to walk about 20 minutes to get to the San Sebastian metro station where I could catch a commuter train to Hendaye just across the French border. To get down to the subway, I took three escalators—two of which must be the longest I have ever ridden. 

I had to change stations in Paris. Thanks to The Man in Seat 61, I had the instructions on how to do so in advance. It w
as a good thing I did my research because the normal metro route from Paris Montparnasse to Paris Nord was under construction. Since I was warned in advance, I knew I had to negotiate a subway change to make sure I did not miss my connecting train. But it was still a challenge.

Montparnasse was a beehive with people moving about with no apparent rhyme or reason. Negotiating the station would have been challenging, even if I had known where I was going. I kept looking for those “M” signs and they kept playing peek-a-boo with me. It was hot and humid, and my pack and bag were getting heavier by the minute. It is about a 750-meter walk from the train station to the Metro station in Montparnasse and I wasted valuable minutes looking for a ticket machine. Finally I just boarded a train, planning to play dumb tourist if a conductor asked for a ticket. In the transfer station, I did spy a ticket dispenser and so I felt better on the second leg of the journey.
The somewhat-elusive Metro ticket.
Paris Nord was not as busy and better designed so it was easy to find my platform. I boarded my Thalys coach in plenty of time for the third leg of my journey. 

This was a trip I had been waiting a year and a half to take. Some backstory: many of you know that I design book layouts as a “job.” A couple years ago, I began working on a book for the Solutionary Rail organization in the US. Their challenging goal is to electrify the Northern rail corridor between Chicago and Seattle. It is a fascinating project and I assisted in preparing their book, Solutionary Rail, for publication in the fall of 2016. In the chapter about rail electrification around the world, this route between Paris and Amsterdam was mentioned:

Belgium runs its rail network on wind power and has covered a two-mile canopy on the Amsterdam-Paris high-speed line with 16,000 solar panels that power the line.

Ariel view of the solar array train tunnel north of Antwerp, Belgium.

As soon as I read that, I thought, “I want to go through that tunnel!” And so, on Tuesday, I did. It is located just north of the Antwerp station and the train goes through it so fast, you have to be vigilant to not miss it! The main thing that distinguishes it from other train tunnels is that it has windows. 

I arrived in Utrecht twelve hours after I had left my hostel in San Sebastian. I only had about a mile to walk to my small, cramped lodgings near the university. I was ready for a rest!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Quest for Fiber: Chapter 11: Serendipity Too Blatant to Ignore

There are no such things as coincidences. This is a lesson I am learning repeatedly on my travels. The theme that I picked for my journey before I began was “Expect the Unexpected” because I wanted to keep my heart open to every possibility. Little did I know how profoundly this theme would manifest itself in the coming year. (Yes, I have been wandering around for over a year now, and I don’t see an end to it.) Believe me—the coincidences have been enlightening and thrilling. 

I could probably relate twenty or more serendipitous events since I began this sojourn, but then we would never get to the subject of today’s post. For now, I will mention a couple significant ones: 

Last July, I was standing in the stern of a ferry on my way to the Shetland Islands. Striking up a conversation with me turned out to be Catherine Henry, who mentioned that her husband (talking with friends nearby) was Oliver Henry, the wool broker for Jamieson and Smith, the main fiber processor in the Shetland Islands. I knew of Oliver from reading about him in various fiber books and magazines. She did not even know at the time that I am on a journey searching for fiber wherever I go. A few days later, I sat in Catherine’s living room, knitting with her and learning about the modern Shetlands. (Remember that ferry encounter…it is relevant to this story.) 

While walking the Camino de Santiago, I made a planning mistake and ended up in an unexpected albergue (hostel) one evening. That same day, Caitlin and Gerry Browne, made a different planning mistake and arrived in the albergue soon after I did. We were the only ones staying there that night. We shared a bottle of wine and great conversation. We planned to meet the next night again in Oviedo, but circumstances resulted in our losing track of each other. I was disappointed. Then out of the blue, while walking down a street in Oviedo a few days later, Caitlin called out to me. We reconnected, and they invited me to come visit if I came to Ireland. At the time, I had no plans to visit Ireland, but I later ended up there and spent two wonderful weeks in their cottage in Roscommon, Ireland. We have become great friends and in May I returned yet again to help with their annual Lamb Festival and demonstrate and teach lace knitting techniques. And all because we had all made planning mistakes on the Camino back in October!

Now for my story: On April 3, I boarded another ferry in Oban, Scotland bound for the Outer Hebrides. There were many reasons I decided to visit these islands, not the least of which was that their name just sounds exotic. I had settled in the bow of the boat and pulled out my knitting along with the hope that the five-hour crossing would be gentle. (I am not a very good seafarer—I get seasick at the slightest wind.)

Shortly, a woman accompanied by an older gentleman came over and asked about my knitting. It turned out that the gentleman was Norman Kennedy. I had not heard of him before, but I was about to become fast friends with him and Robin Baird. Norman is a famous spinner, weaver, and knitter. He was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and is Scottish through and through even though he has been living in the States since the 1960s. (And, in fact, he worked at Colonial Williamsburg, the living history museum in Virginia, for many years demonstrating traditional ways to process fiber.) He has a passion for wool and singing and the folklore of both. Also, with them was Margaret Bennett, a well-known folklorist and singer, who works to preserve the old songs and culture of Scotland. 

As it turned out, they were all on their way to the Outer Hebrides to present a series of free workshops on spinning and waulking (more on that later) in several island communities. And, in fact the first two events would be held just two blocks from where I would be staying in Castlebay! I could attend! And would it ever be magical for me!

But first, while on the ferry, Norman and Margaret both contributed the The Traveling Scarf

Robin looks on while Norman knits on the ferry to Castlebay.

On Wednesday, I watched Norman show us how to use a distaff and to spin on both a spindle and wheel. His hands moved smoothly and naturally as he drafted long segments of fiber and fed them into the wheel. 

He created some of the softest loveliest rolags I have ever seen from his carders. (Rolags are the results of carding wool—one technique to prepare it for spinning.) I have always been a clumsy carder but I tried his technique and saw that, with practice, I could—maybe, eventually—create nice rolags. It was a good lesson.

On Thursday night, they organized a waulking demonstration and ceilidh (gathering) for the community. First was the event I had been waiting for. I had seen videos of women waulking wool, and now I was going to participate.

Traditionally, when a bolt of wool fabric was woven, it would be lightly felted to make it warmer, as well as wind- and water resistant. First, the two ends of the bolt were sewn together making a long loop of fabric. Then it was soaked in a solution of urine and water to remove oils and encourage the fiber’s scales to expand. (Normally it is a smelly, messy process as you can imagine, but Norman was nice and soaked our cloth in a slightly soapy solution, which works as well.) Now the fabric was ready for fulling. A group of women would sit around a long table and pound the cloth and pass it to the person next to her, over and over and over. This would be a pretty boring job, but the women used it as a social and gossiping session and over the years special waulking songs were composed to make the time go by faster and synchronize the pounding. You can learn a lot more about waulking here.

Tonight’s demonstration would be more about the songs than the cloth, but Norman’s bolt did get sufficiently felted.

I made sure to get a place at the table with mostly local women who knew the old songs. I sat next to Norman and a couple young boys—about eight-years-old—sat across from me. One of them knew all the songs and proudly sang the choruses with his whole heart. 

After the waulking, we listened to some young local musicians play traditional violin music and one young girl perform the challenging sword dance. Then there was more singing. Of course, they were all in Gaelic and I just had to listen, but at one point, Margaret Bennett ask if any visitors would like to share a song as she looked directly at me. Normally, I am pretty reticent about singing, but I was having such a great time that I did volunteer to sing. Since many of their songs are ballads, I decided to sing a wistful cowboy ballad I had learned as a child, I’m Goin’ to Leave Ol’ Texas Now. I have to say, I managed a decent rendition.

And so, another “chance” meeting on a ferry turned into a remarkable and very special beginning to my trip to the Outer Hebrides. My sojourn there would continue to manifest magic over the next week.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Camino de Santiago Primitivo: Day 29

Day 29: Grandes de Salime—La Fonsagrada    16 miles

23 October 2017 

I awoke to a cold day 5◦C (41◦F) and wanted to get moving to warm up. But first, I was out of food; not even anything for breakfast. This sometimes happens on the Camino, no matter how well you plan. You know you need to stock up, but you go through village after village with no stores, or all the stores are closed when you are passing through. Now I had to wait until a store opened or I would have neither breakfast nor lunch. I thought I would have to wait until 10:00 am, which makes for a very late start. However, as I walked down the street looking for an ATM machine, I passed a tiny store that had enough provisions for my day, and it was open.

The walk started uphill, which is not the best way to warm up cold, unstretched muscles. The pea-soup fog was lovely in the village, but once I was on the highway, I felt truly unsafe, knowing drivers could not see me until the last minute. Once I left the highway, the trail became tranquil.

I love it when the fog plays peek-a-boo with the trees.

I start slowing down, literally, when I need to eat. If I wait too long, I become a bit stupid. Today was a case in point. When I started to get hungry, I decided to begin looking for a likely place to eat—preferably with a bench or table and a view. I kept hiking up and up, telling myself that if I did not find one around the next bend or over the next rise, I would just sit down and eat. And I kept going and going, for…about…two…miles! Now I was completely out of energy and my brains had fallen out of my pocket. I laughed as I argued with myself, “What are you expecting? A table overlooking the valley? Complete with a fuente (fountain) with cold water? And a spa for my feet? A masseuse?”

Finally, in frustration I sat down on the rocky trail—no bench, no view, no bloody masseuse. But after refueling and resting, I felt much better. Luckily, I never found a picnic table…I would have been livid if there had been one just past my “picnic” site.

Sergio had told us that today was going to be easy, and I believed him. I thought it was a good thing, since I knew it would be long. The weather was perfect—very Indian summer and hardly a puff of wind. Not too hot after the morning chill burned off; not too cold.

It was a longer, steeper uphill climb to the top of El Acebo than I had expected. Wind turbines were in sight all day and as I reached the top of the ridge, I was right next to them—they are HUGE!

Then it was downhill again, but not as hard as yesterday. Now I was running out of water! It was no longer 5◦! Where is one of those public fountains when you need it? I stopped at a farmhouse to ask for water. In the past, people were very welcoming to us pilgrims when we needed water. However, this woman was wary and said I could have “un poco” (a little). I was taken aback! When she returned with my bottle, she must have noticed my pack for the first time and realized I was a pilgrim, because she became much more chatty. 

It was here that I crossed from Asturias into Galicia. I would miss the horreos, the fabada, and the friendliness of the people.  
The rest of the day, I could think of nothing except how much farther it was to A Fonsagrada. I also fell into my usual mistake of looking at the map and deciding I was much farther along than I was. When that happens, and I see my miscalculation, I always get furious and try to blame the map, knowing that is really my own fault. When I finally got close enough for A Fonsagrada to come into view, I see that it is WAY UP ON A HILL—a steep climb all the way! I cursed the whole way into town, fighting back tears of anger and exhaustion. This had to be Sergio’s fault! I put my head down and one foot in front of the other. 

My goal: A Fonsagrada...if I could just make it up there!

A welcome sign...
the 0 kilometer marker!
My offline maps download on my tablet did not reach to A Fonsagrada and I learned later that it would have been a more gradual climb if I had taken the highway instead of following the Camino waymark arrows. That is what Sergio and his partner did, I found out later!

Once in the village, I was having a hard time finding Albergue Cantabrico. I rounded a corner and saw the back of a gray-haired man in a pulperia (a bar specializing in octopus) Was that Sergio? I looked again, and it was! I yelled, “THAT WAS NOT EASY!!” He put on his innocent French face like he did not understand. We laughed and he directed me to the albergue—and what a nice albergue it was. I would stay there for three nights…

But wine has the added side-effect of making me content with my life... and just a little sleepy...Buenos noches!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Camino de Santiago Primitivo: Day 28

 Note: This is a camino of gratitude for me. Each day, I choose something I am grateful for in my life and think and journal about it throughout the day. I will share an excerpt from my journal entries at the end of each day's post.

Day 28: Berducedo—Grandes de Salime    12.5 miles

22 October 2017 

Today turned out to be a beautiful walk, even if it was tough in its own way. It was a clear fall day which made the pumpkins in the fields and beside the road pop out with their orange color.

After a short, gradual, cold climb out of Berducedo, I was walking just below a ridge of more wind turbines. They seem to be everywhere in Spain. Now I could see where the Salime Reservoir was below me, but it was now a punch bowl of fog. 

An interesting fence of rock slabs topped with barbed wire. In the background
is the fog punchbowl, below which Salime Reservoir hides.
Through a fog peephole, I could see Grande de Salime (where I would eventually sleep) on the other side of the lake. But I had kilometers to go…

From La Mesa, I started descending and descending. It would be 8 kilometers of downhill—from almost 1000 meters all down to 220 metersa real knee killer. 

Part of the way was through a forest which was destroyed last spring in a massive forest fire. The multi-year drought here is taking its toll. It is usually raining a lot here at this time of year, but the drought continues. Nice for walkers to have day after day of fair weather, but not so good for the farmers and environment.

As I approached the reservoir, the fog slowly lifted and I had great view of the saphire lake to keep my spirits up as the trail played havoc with my knees.

Once I made it down to the dam to cross the Navia River, I spent some extra time resting and enjoying the views.

I crossed the dam and it was uphill again to a resting place. On the way up in the first kilometer, I met Claud, a retired neurologist from Geneva. It was not hard for either of us to stop at a nice hotel for beer and café con leche.

And again! The last 2 kilometers stretched itself into 4 or 5. I sometimes laugh as I imagine myself in some kind of Twilight Zone episode at the end of a day that does not seem to want to end. It is surely a phenomenon of tiredness coupled with the anticipation of the day’s end.

Despite my sometimes desperation to get to the albergue, I don’t have any desire to end my Camino or quit…in fact, I look forward to continuing.

Sergio, a veteran of seven Caminos, invited anyone who wanted to come to a local bar to eat together. The table ended up holding ten of us and we drove the patient waitress a bit crazy. She had lots of silver jewelry, nose rings, earrings, necklaces and a half forearm of bangles. She wore a lacy red blouse and looked exotic. She spoke most of our languages…Italian, English, French…well enough to help us through the menu choices. The problem was, we did not all arrive at the table at the same time. Peregrinos kept coming in and sitting down and adding to the order, including sundry drinks. She kept everything straight with a smile on her face. But at the end of the night she brought the bill and it was obvious that it was up to us to figure out who owed what! Luckily, I had opted for the €10 daily menu which brought me a nice cabbage stew followed by a delicious perfectly-baked cod fillet and fried potatoes, wine, and dessert. Sergio was in charge of the bill so I handed over €10 plus 1 for a tip. Sergio shook his head violently and tried to give the gratuity back, “No en Espana!” he said determinedly. (It is not customary to tip here.) Another (female) peregrina and I shot back, “Si, en Espana!” and I clarified that we had about driven the waitress crazy—she deserved it. As I left I found her and said, “Muchas gracias por su paciencia! Este mesa es muy deficil!” (This table is very difficult!) She laughed and thanked me. I hope I shamed everyone else into leaving a little extra that night.

It was not hard to return immediately to the albergue and turn in…another longer day faced me tomorrow.