1000 times happy

The smell of petrol mixed with the musty stench of Aymeric. On the back of the quad, I tightened my grip as we snarled around the bend into a crisp mountain breeze. The view opened up. Infinite lush green Pyrenees. I could finally breathe.  

“This afternoon we go to the neighbors” Aymeric had mentioned while we wrangled another bundle of sticks on the muddy shores of the glistening creek. It’d been five days since I’d arrived at the farm, my second volunteer location. Sawing trees and hammering posts was taxing physically, but far more than my lats and traps, I ached for social interaction.

Less than a mile from the front gate, we turned off the main road onto a thin path. Under a thick canopy of forest, past a fern-covered floor we rode. At a rustic two-story home, the dirt came to an end.

“Bonjour!” out of an open kitchen door, a mother and child emerged. “David will be here soon” she said in French. Down the steep hillside behind us, a tan shirtless man galloped toward. Gasping for air through his big white teeth, he squeezed out “Hey! Nice to meet you!”.

At the center of the table, a block of creamy camembert cheese, “from the neighbor’s”, a vine of juicy purple grapes, “from the garden”, and a jar of golden honey, glowed in the afternoon sun. David poured me a local amber ale, to celebrate the success of hauling wood, another backbreaking task. “This is from the brewery in St. Girons” Aymeric noted, as we sipped from the terrace, enjoying the rolling peaks.

Sweet, yet subtle. “This honey is amazing!” I said. “It’s from my bees, I’ll show you!” David exclaimed excitedly.

The air vibrated in all directions. Just inches from the row of four wooden hives, we crouched, entirely unprotected. “So, these bees can escape?” I posed the obvious question nervously. “Yes, see.” David removed a piece of wooden siding revealing a glass panel with a small slit at the bottom, and thousands of black and yellow creatures with wings.

“What made you want to keep bees?” I asked. “They’re very important to nature, and many are dying.” David said thoughtfully. “And, they’re so interesting.” He proceeded to explain their traffic to me.

“See how this one is flying toward that flower for pollen, and how that one is going toward the water near the tree. These ones are receiving the supplies and bringing it in to make honey.”

“A hornet it’s called. They capture the bees and shred them with their teeth.” “Look, this one here just got one of my bees! See him carrying it away to eat on that tree!?” In just three minutes, David completely reshaped my perspective of biology.

Without a single sting, we walked back toward the house. At a patch of rice, we paused briefly. “I try two different kinds” “One short” He held out a small green pod in his left hand “And one long”, another in his right. “Very interesting.” I said to him. “Yes, but I did not produce enough for my family.” he said in his first somber tone. “I will do better next year!” He perked back up immediately.

Back at the terrace, we continued chatting. “I used to be a city guy. I’d spend my money on clothes and parties.” “My mother is from Vietnam, and a few years back, I visited.” “I learned about self-sufficiency.” He spoke with passion. “Are you happier now than you were in the city?” I asked. “1000 times happy!” He flashed that smile of big white teeth.

From the kitchen, a child began to cry. “I must go my friend but come back any time!” David hugged me and said goodbye. “Au revoir!”, his wife shouted from a second-floor balcony.

The sound of child’s laughter, and the flow of the creek. The scent of wet grass, and lemony pine needles. “Tylah!” the boys yelled out while chasing each other around the lawn. On the terrace, Krystal welcomed me with cake and coffee. With a need to socialize now satisfied, I too felt an immense sense of happiness from the simplicity and beauty of life in the Pyrenees.

LeBar: The Barcelona Laundry Cafe

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"Ah yes, there's a place just around the corner" "I'll write it down for you" the friendly Spanish hostel worker said from the front desk. He slid me a card on which he'd written "lebar". I thanked him even though he'd clearly misunderstood. I was looking for a place to wash my clothes, not my sorrows. With a pack filled with laundry, I entered the breezy Barcelona streets.

"Surely there's gotta be a laundromat around here" I thought. "Lavandaria", I translated the word. No Wi-Fi, no maps. I roamed without direction. Through a window, not far, I spotted a stack of washers. Above, a neon sign read “LeBar”.

On one side, a stack of steel drums, and on the the other, a chic cafe with contemporary decor. Lofted ceilings, and massive windows supplemented the industrial light fixtures which draped. “Laundry Bar” spelled out in an elegant tile mosaic entryway. At the back counter, a selection of snacks and drinks, and a welcoming face.

"She might be the best one yet" I wrote about the charming barista who served me a San Miguel caña after assisting with my clothes. I snacked on "chips" and guac, while watching the bubbles and passersby. The sun poured in from outside. The people were all smiles. I closed my journal, folded my clothes, thanked the barista, then headed for the park. With its ambiance and offerings, LeBar made the chore of laundry feel more like a treat.

Beber, Fomar, Follar: The Barcelona Language Exchange

“Got any plans for the day?” Justin, my hostel bunkmate asked, as I unloaded my bag. “Not at all.” I said. “Well I’m headed out to explore the city, want to join?” He followed. “Absolutely.” I agreed. After three weeks in rural France, I was itching to immerse myself in a social scene.

Through the alleyways and parks of notoriously sunny Barcelona Spain, it began to rain. We sought refuge in a café. Inexperienced with tapas, I let Justin do the ordering. Un plato con papas. One of various slices of bread with mysterious toppings. Another, with some sort of fish. After dos cervesas y un mas tapas plato de poblanos, we took the check. 44 euro. A tourist trap. Beware.

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Back at the hostel, the food sat heavy. I attempted to nap, but the noise and steam which seeped from the streets won out. I took a cold shower instead. I was back.

I sipped my San Miguel, a local brew, while lining up the winning shot. It sunk, to no applause. I’d expected the hostel life to be lively, but that Friday night at Bed and Bike, was silent.

Justin and I had signed up for “free pasta night”, but the quiet vibe of the place seemed increasingly bleak. On Meetup, I discovered the language exchange.

We were a few minutes late, but it wasn't a problem. At the door of the train terminal bar, we exchanged three euro for a nametag and a drink token. "Tyler" "Learning: Spanish" "Speaks: English" mine read. From the bar, with our beers, we scanned. Only a handful of people occupied the vast airy room.

“Shit, there’s no-one here” Justin said. Then, at an otherwise empty table, I spotted them.

I don't remember the intro, but before I knew it, the conversation was flowing. Mainly English, with small bits of Español, the more I talked to Yolanda, the more I wanted to know. Her fair skin, and big white smile, brown eyes, and lush blonde hair. She was intoxicating, but also welcoming, in a uniquely "maestra" way.

Music, movies, activities, travel. We covered a plethora of topics. My Spanish was awful, but it was fun to try. I had a lot thrown at me, so I told her I'd remember three things of her choosing. On a piece of paper, she wrote the terms. I read them aloud:

“BEBER (TO DRINK)

FUMAR (TO SMOKE)

FOLLAR” (TO FUCK)

The table erupted with laughter.

“Thank you all for coming. We hope to see you next week!” the organizer announced. Somehow three hours had past. Joined by Justin and her friend, Yolanda and I emerged into the night. “Let’s get food.” she suggested. I agreed.

At an Italian restaurant across the street, we ordered pizza and again chatted freely.

She told me that she models, and that she’d do a shoot with me. Under a light rain, we did the hug and kiss thing. There was an undeniable connection as her cheek rubbed mine.

In the excitement of the night, the idea of exchanging contact information never even crossed my mind. With her friend, I watched her disappeared forever under the yellow street lights. We never did meet again, and my Spanish is still hopeless, except of course “Beber, Fomar, and Follar”, which I’ll never forget.

BlaBlacar to Barcelona

Effortlessly, she toggled between Spanish, French, and perfect British English, with bits of Russian in-between. While piloting her yellow Nissan Juke through the French Pyrenees, Carmen charmed us out of our seats. Out the window, castle Foix, rustic villes, and rugged peaks. But, as my second BlaBlacar journey progressed, jammed into that tiny back seat, I began to feel sick.

No, it wasn’t so much the motion, as the ever-impending doom of our fate. “This is my first time as a BlaBlacar driver” “This is actually my boyfriend’s car”, Carmen’s charm quickly turned to alarm. With each incline, the engine redlined. “I don’t know why it keeps doing this when I put it in low” she said.

At a hairpin turn, she jumped into the other lane. Like a formula one driver, blindfolded and drunk, no, wasted, she went for a near fatal pass. The oncoming traffic swerved, and the horns echoed into the canyon, that we very nearly launched toward. “Woo, sorry about that.” she said, then carried on with Aymeric, the Spanish douche, to my left.

Dressed in a matching track suit, with a “just do it… later” phone case, the Spanish frat boy was twenty minutes late. In the car, he seemed unaware of the dangers of the madwoman behind the wheel, instead opting to persistently flirt with the stuck-up Parisian girl up front.

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“Barcelona 137km” a sign read. My stomach filled with dread. “We may end up down there” I stared very seriously at the bottom of another cliff.

A river carved out a canyon. The shadows danced through the trees. I cracked the window. The crisp mountain air offered a slight sense of relief.

Through Burton, a tiny mountain town. And finally, through a quick border checkpoint. Accelerating into turns, and down steep grades. Constantly fidgeting with the dash. “Barcelona 100km”. About an hour left.

“Northwestern Spain looks like the American Southwest” I noted on my phone. Forested peaks turned to piles of rock and sparse, shrubby trees, as we exited the Pyrenees. More than once, we passed an ancient fortress city.

As the roads flattened out, I exhaled a massive sigh of relief. “We may actually make it” I said in my head. At a roadside café, we stopped for a bathroom break, and Carmen bought us coffee. “It’s called a cortado.” She said. “It’s very popular here in Spain.”

With the red brick of Barcelona on the horizon, Carmen highlighted several must-see sights. “Guard your valuables” she warned us of potential pick pockets. One by one, she let us out. And after two of the most terrifying hours of my life, I emerged into the Barcelona streets.

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WWOOFing at Le Chateau: Au Revoir

October 4th Day 4

“Travel Diaries tend to be introspective, but you should try instead to write about the things you do and see.” A tip from the editor.

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15:25 on this absolutely gorgeous day. Not a cloud in the French blue sky, as I stare, again, through the gaping window. The air is still, but the bees drift through. We’ve just finished lunch on the lawn. Today, outside’s in. My hands are sore, but the work has never felt like a chore.

Down the old staircase, greeted by the sun. In the kitchen, the table was set with breakfast. Hermine had returned. More yogurt, baked pears, and granola. Coffee to wash it all down.

To begin the day, Hermine had us gather wood for the stove. And then, we uprooted several plants to store them in the barn ahead of winter. Before eleven, we’d reached the end.

 “Who is this man?” I whispered to Minha. The door opened, and Hugo, the husband, emerged.

With a jagged jaw line, a tweed blazer, and a swoosh of white hair. Before he even spoke, his origin was clear.

Hugo was most definitely a Brit. And as morning turned to afternoon, over lunch on the front lawn, he exuded character and wtt. A magazine editor of over 30 years, who loathes computers and works exclusively in print. As we enjoyed another fresh meal of beet, carrot, pear slaw, fresh greens, a pallet of couscous, goats cheese, and bread, Hugo and I chatted about my desires to write.

“Travel Diaries tend to be introspective, but you should try instead to write about the things you do and see.” He said.

With Hermine away from the table, I asked Hugo how’d they met. “Well, Hermine came to London for a weekend trip nearly 50 years ago, and we met entirely by chance.” “Aside from the time she spends here in recent years, we’ve lived in London ever since.”

As we packed up the picnic, he asked “What brought you to France?” “I too have fallen for a French girl” I said. I briefly recounted my story of Flora. He seemed fascinated by the romance.

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After lunch, I took a stroll through the nearby village. Minha asked to join. I would have preferred to go alone, but I couldn’t say no. The streets were empty. The sky was too. Around the bend, and through the alleyway, deep shadows contrasted the bright white stone of the homes. Through a wooden gate, a petit yellow fiat sat in the shade. Basking in the sun from a balcony, a French Flag draped. History, and character, at every turn.

In the afternoon we returned to the garden and completed a few more simple tasks. I sat down to write until tea time. Hugo’s advice looped in my mind.  

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Lunch on the front patio, tea was served out back. Through the open shutters, Hermine handed me a cake to deliver to the table. Her bright yellow shirt glowed in the afternoon sun, along with her smile. She’s particular, sure, but she’s kind at heart, and I’ll always be grateful to her for allowing my stay.

Before dinner, I roamed the grounds one last time. My last evening at the Chateau. Minha prepared Kimchi pancakes and noodles for the table. And we completed the trifecta, of a third meal outside, this one, under the stars of night.

Hugo and I picked up our conversation on writing. “You’ve got a book in you, you know” He said. We talked about his travel books, and how he’d written them. Back in my chambers, I searched his name. He’d downplayed his accomplishments.

Before bed, and after billiards, Minha gifted me a back of Korean treats. Spicy noodles, milk candies, and a can of kimchi. As I sorted through, I discovered the homemade card with a lovely illustration of our first trip to the village.

In that empty room, filled with cobwebs, I thought about my time at the chateau, as I drifted off to sleep.

October 5th: Bon voyage

Watching the sunrise while waiting for the bus to arrive.

Watching the sunrise while waiting for the bus to arrive.

A fit of church bells marked another morning. My alarm was set for 7:30, but 7:00 marked the end of a mostly sleepless night. My mind always races before I take a leap. To the first rays of a fiery orange sunrise, I stuffed my bag with a few last items.

In the kitchen, I signed the guestbook, chatted briefly with Minha, then realized I was out of time. Together, with Hermine, I rushed toward the gate. “Write to us !” Hugo shouted from a second story window. I thanked Hermine for everything, and she pointed me to the bus. Au revoir Chateau de Sacy. Merci beaucoup!

WWOOFing at le Chateau: Days 2 & 3

October 2nd Day 2

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“Over a now steady drizzle the occasional bird sings. All day, it’s been chilly and grey, and just after we finished our afternoon tasks, the rain began. Aside from the chirps and drops, it’s silent, and soothing. There’s a nostalgia to it.” I wrote in my notes.

“Where are the pockets?” I asked. “This is a different game” Hermine explained the rules of “3 ball billiards” to me and Minha. I’d seen a table like it only once, in my Korean dorm during EPIK orientation. Funny the things that bring you back.

We’d just finished a rather bland dinner of an egg and potato omlet with bread. The day was much the same. Cloudy, grey, and uneventful. In the morning, I trimmed the ivy around the Chateau. Shortly after, it began to rain.

Confined inside, for the rest of the day, Hermine did her best to keep us occupied. In the kitchen, we cracked walnuts and pealed pears. With the smell of burning wood from the stove and the chill outside, it felt sort of like a holiday.

The Merlot was deliciously dry. Hermine poured our glasses tall and offered seconds as she explained the game. The mood loosened. She wasn’t nearly as uptight.

Minha went first. I contemplated my angle. As the Merlot soaked, from across the table, I searched for a sparkle in her eye. Then, I realized, I can’t lie. We finished a best of five. The whole day was a reminder to get out and socialize.

October 3rd, Day 3

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“Would you like some coffee?” I asked. In the kitchen, Minha and I rummaged for breakfast. Hermine had mentioned the night before that she would be in Paris for the day. She left a short list of tasks to complete on the table, in French.

Pleasantly breezy, with sun, I sawed branches and wrapped them into bundles with chord out in front of the barn. Minha worked in the garden. After half an hour, we were done. We saddled our bikes around eleven, and rode toward le ville.

Behind a crumbled old façade, a small market hid. “Carrots, onions, potatoes” we gathered the items from our list. The last task for the day.

We spotted the bar on our way back. A wall of tobacco products on one side, and a few handles of drafts on the counter. The Affligem biere was refreshing in the afternoon warmth. The place was empty. We only stayed for one.

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With the place to ourselves, I took the opportunity to explore the Chateau. Through a foreign corridor, I entered a door at the right. It creaked as I pushed. Dust fluttered through the daylight. A bed, a bit messy, a shelf of books, even messier, and a harp, were inside. No televisision, or computer, like a room from a museum, trapped in time.

In that rustic French kitchen, Minha and I sat sipping noodle with kimchi for dinner. She’d brought them with her from home.

Around ten, when I went to bed, Hermine still hadn’t returned.

 

 

 

Escaping barcelona, A day trip to the sea

I woke up twice, stressed out of my mind. Didn't sleep at all from 3am-5.

Under the light of my phone, I searched for my credit card, and booked the flight. An immense relief. Until my alarm rang, I finally slept, deep.

I thought he was arrogant, obnoxious, annoying even. But after two straight days alone in the city, I reached out to Justin in desperation. "Yo, still in town?" I asked. "Yeah" he said. "Busy tonight but headed to Tossa de Mar tomorrow for a day trip." "You're welcome to tag along if you’d like". "Hell yeah!" I replied.

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For the first time since arriving in Barcelona, I woke up with purpose. The 12-bunk dorm was silent. I was the first to rise. Out into the empty streets, the breeze felt fresher than before. The horizon matched the brick of the Arc, that I leaned up against, waiting for Justin to arrive.

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At the station, we purchased tickets, 12 euro each way. Along the Catalan Coast, we wound into the hills, as the sun rose above the Mediterranean, to the east. On the edge of stone cliffs, with mountains in the distance, before even arriving, I was blown away.

Into the quiet town of Tossa de Mar, we arrived around 10:45. In the visitor’s center, we took a peak at a map, and a list of attractions. A castle, the sea. We decided to wander the cobblestone streets.

With no agenda at all, we sipped cortados from a table on the beach. On a boulder in the water, we sparked the spliff.

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Led Zeppelin's Dyer Maker, mixed with the sounds of the sea. Tobacco, coffee, thc. "I'm jealous of myself right now" I said aloud.

The golden rocks we sat on, stretched on as far as I could see. Above, a forest of trees. Cacti mixed in, a lack of humidity. The refreshingly brisk water, which splashed at my feet. Turning from pure blue, to green, to a transparent aqua marine.

We stumbled back to shore and began to explore.

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Up the hill, toward the castle walls. From the perch, you could see it all. A Spanish village trapped between rugged mountains and the med sea. Sailboats in the distance. Families enjoying the beach. We stopped at a local grocery and grabbed a bite to eat.

A baguette, a pack of ham, some cheese, and two San Miguels, each. My total was around 5 euro.

On the cool sand of a secluded cove, we sat eating sandwiches, and sipping cervesas in the pleasantly warming sun. With my new straw hat covering my face, for about an hour, I thought about nothing, aside from getting tan.

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“Amazing place isn’t it!?” A Dutch couple made conversation. We turned down their offer of Heineken. “Cheers.”

Back in town, I enjoyed a gelato from a stand. We found another beach. More sun, more sea.

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Two more beers at 50 cents apiece, and a block of camembert cheese. Five more euro. I was pleased.

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Up a set of rugged dirt switchbacks, we rose toward that lookout tower we'd seen. From above, the white buildings of the town had a special sheen. Another picnic, and a bit more spliff. We chatted with an old Belgian couple from the side of the cliff.

With one hour left, we circled above the town in search of one last view. The sun hadn't quite set, but it threatened, projecting a warm glow against the stone of the castle. Below, the waves crashed, washing away the anxiety I'd felt. The trip felt new. I was wrong about Justin, he's actually a pretty good dude, and quite knowledgeable too.

Until the night before I’d never even heard of it. A two-hour bus ride from Barcelona, it isn’t the most popular destination. But, as I sit here in my mountain dorm, I so long for the sun soaked Mediterranean. Tossa de Mar is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

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WWOOFing at le Chateau: Day 1

October 1st ’18

Day 1

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Victorian couples dancing. A man playing some ancient instrument underneath a tree. A horse drawn carriage. These gaping shutters, which interrupt the 18th century wallpaper and give way to a bright blue sky. A crisp autumn breeze. It’s 4:57 pm on my first full day here. And it’s still very difficult to believe.

The morning bike ride into the village to fetch vegetables for lunch. The pleasant interactions with locals when I lost my way. No service. The bells that ring ever hour. There they are now. The foraging through the garden. The history of the streets. The freshness of the cuisine. The delight of tea time, with a sweet gingerbread treat. The simplicity. Sitting at this desk, watching the clouds drift, while listening to classical music. Is this a dream?

The chapel bells rang out across the fields, signaling the first glimpse of sunrise over the hills. I peeked outside, then drifted back asleep to the melody.

“oooh hooo oooo hooo” “Tyler, it’s almost ten o’clock’ Hermine called from outside my door to wake me. For the first time in 48 hours, I’d finally slept. “okay, I’ll be right down” I said. The kitchen door was open. The table set for one. A mug for coffee, a glass jar of muesli. A bowl of homemade yogurt. Apricot jam sourced from the garden. Bread.

“You’ve got time, but when you’re finished eating, you should go to the farm for the produce.” “I have to run an errand, but take a bike, and the bag when you go.” She handed me three coins to use as payment.

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The rusted old barn door opened to a dark room filled with cobwebs and worn out old bike. I sorted through for fifteen minutes, before finding one that I could ride. I took a glance at the map, then set out on the country road. A field of yellow flowers on my right. Tall tan stalks of corn on my left. Above, a pale blue sky, the same color as my cranky old bike. At a cluster of houses, I rechecked the map. No cell service. I was lost.

I friendly looking man walked past picking up trash. He didn’t speak a word of English. But tried his best to help. A few blocks over, on the other edge of the village, I asked another man for help. Again, no English. He pointed in the opposite direction. “Excuse em moi monsieur” I approached a third. “I’ll be right back, let me get my glasses.” He said. Then, finally, I found the farm.

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I rehearsed what to say from the translator on my phone, before ringing the buzzer. “Bonjour, I’m here to pick up the vegetables” I said. They didn’t understand. It took three tries to complete the buy.

On the ride back, the chain popped off the bike. I put it back on, then it happened again. I shed my jacket and hat as I walked on the side of the road back toward the chateau.

“Oh good, you’re back” “It’s time for lunch. Sit.” Hermine met me at the door and shuffled me to the table inside. Bread, Cheese, a cranberry ginger pear mixture, and an extra place setting. Hermine prepared the salad with the vegetables I’d just delivered. “Minha will be right down.” She said.

“I wonder what she does with all of these?” I made small talk with Minha, the new WWOOFer, as we gathered chestnuts that had fallen from the trees. “In Korea, we call these Gunban. Have you tried?” We talked about my time in Korea while completing our afternoon tasks.

We broke for tea time. In the upstairs flat, Hermine showed me to the desk. “You requested a desk right?” I was pleased. For the next hour I wrote.

The sun was beginning to sink, and the temperature dropped. Hermine gave us instructions and sent us off. Our assignment was to pick up milk from the dairy farm.

Le Laitier

The cars buzzed past on that narrow road. Again, the chain popped off the bike. Barely five minutes in, Minha and I were left stranded in the waning light. And we were lost.

The map Hermine gave us was more of a satellite image, with nameless streets and roads. We wondered through an intersection, with a light, around the block, one of five, and then found the empty green hillside, and the barn on top.

An old pickup truck, faded sky blue, occupied the dirt drive. The place was silent. Someone shouted inside.

Behind a stack of hay, and shadows, a man appeared. Wearing a striped work shirt, and messy hair. He waved at us. I held up the empty jug. “WWOOFERs”. We said “Oui”. “Par ici” he signaled us toward a door on the side.

The heavy scent of unpasteurized dairy clogged my nostrils, as Minha and I approached. The man handed me a carton of eggs. “Vos oeufs” He said. “Le carton” He asked for the jug in my other hand.

At another door, he again signaled further.

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No windows, and an elevated conveyor belt on both sides. Webs of hosing hung from the ceiling. The milk man hit a button, and the first cows stumbled in.

He took a wipe and cleaned the utter. Then attached the hose underneath. He waved at us, Minha went first. He put me to work on the other side.

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The smell of mud and manure mixed with milk. From the source, he filled our jug. I handed him the coins. “Merci! Au revoir!” He said and sent us on our way. We made it back in the very last rays of light.

WWOOFing at le Chateau: Arrival

She added two logs from the tall stack, into the wood burning stove. My eyes danced around the room in an exhausted excitement. Two flights and a layover through the night. I unloaded my bag from the cab around nine.

I was too enthralled on the plane to dare of sleeping. That moment, Atlantic blue became patches of green and brown, behind a sea of puffy white clouds. Farms, and hills. scattered clusters of rustic roofs. Few roads. A river carved through the land, the Seine. A divide overhead. Half sun, half clouds. A band of rain on the horizon.  

I spotted the Eifel tower as we began to descend. No customs, no border check. An airport. A bus terminal. A ride through the outskirts. A village. A church. A train. A cab. Narrow roads. Dark. A beanie, a scarf, and pajama pants, Hermine.

The iron gate slammed shut. Down a white gravel path, we walked toward the shutters’ yellow glow. To the staircase through the foyer. An ancient mirror on the second-floor landing, the attic loft on the third. I ducked my head as she flicked on the light, revealing four small beds and a slanted room.

“Tyler, would you like some wine?” She asked persistently, as if it wasn’t the first time.” “Uhhh yes, I mean oui” “Please” I looked down at the table. An earthy orange soup, a loaf of hearty bread, a pungent cheese. I sipped the Merlot.

I’d found the place online. Through a suggestion from a friend. I made a quick profile (Name, bio, photo) and paid a small annual fee. We exchanged a few messages, in English. I booked a flight. A month later, I arrived. And now, Hermine sat across the table from me.

Madeleine, the other WWOOFer, sat to my left. Orange hair, freckles, from the states, 19. “So, you must wake early to catch the shuttle.” Hermine said to Madeleine. Then, she explained to me that it was her last night. Much of the dinner was quiet. “Bonne nuit” Hermine said, “I’m off to get some rest.”

In the attic, Madeleine and I chatted. “There are some good books up here, to help pass the time.” “It can be boring when it’s just you and Hermine.”. She gave me tips on how she’d survived her week at The Chateau. We talked about her gap year, and her plans to study horticulture once she returned to the states for university. Her sense of adventure and curiosity intrigued me. We exchanged emails. We said goodnight. Finally, I went to sleep.

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Rejection at the Alhambra

“My phone provides the only light in this dark twelve bed dorm. This patch is itchy. I can barely see.” I scribbled in my journal in illegible ink. “10/30/18”

The walking tour began at 10:30. More statues, another cathedral, more streets. It ended around noon. I left the group to find something to eat.

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She wore an autumn yellow sweater, knit, brunette hair, rich, and a red flower, on her ear. I followed her into the café after a brief glimpse, from across the street. A tiny place, with three tables all sharing the same booth.

She spoke Spanish. Her brown eyes looked native. “Are you from here?” I asked. “No” she laughed. “I’m British”. “Oh, what brings you to Granada?” I inquired, now with even more interest. “I’m… Well, I was an au pair.” “You were?” I followed. “Yes, I came here to be an au pair, but I’ve been here for a month, and I’ve had enough.” She said.

“So, what’s next?” I asked. “I don’t know to be honest. I’ll just be happy to be in England.” That accent…

“When do you leave?” I had to know. “I’ve got a cab to the airport in 45 minutes.” “What a shame we’ve just met.” I confessed. “It is.” She agreed. “But, if you’d like, I can show you a few spots before I go.” She offered. We finished our food and took to the streets.

Out of the town center, the cobblestone roads grew steep. “This area’s called Albaicin” she said. “It’s quiet now, but at night it’s happening.” “Although, sometimes I like to come up here and sit in silence.” I snapped a photo of her from her favorite spot, Plaza Mirador de San Nicolas. “Ah, I am going to miss this place.” She said. “I understand.” I did.

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Back down toward the center, I walked her to the cab. “Let’s keep in touch. I’ll grab your number.” It was her suggestion. “Well, I guess this is it. It was really nice meeting you.” I said. She opened her arms wide. And I went in for a kiss.

The city fell silent, and the sunlight dimmed. Abruptly, she turned her head. “Oh no, I’m not like that!” She exclaimed. She was leaving, I’d probably never see her again. No regrets. We laughed awkwardly, then parted ways.

Toward a café, I went. I had to recount those events.

The breeze picked up as I looked for a place to sit. The clouds got thick and grey. Past a construction site. A gust of wind. The particle entered my eye. I brushed at it. It got worse. My vision began to blur. “Ouch.” became “Shit!”

Toward the visitor’s center I’d just passed, I retraced my steps. In the bathroom, I flushed franticly in the sink. It didn’t help. I stumbled downstairs, with my face soaking wet. “I have something in my eye” I said to the women at the counter. “What?” they didn’t understand. “My eye. Mi ojo!” I tried to explain. They could tell I was in pain.

A discussion ensued between them. “Okay, I’ll take you to the clinic.” The younger woman said.

She held my arm and guided me blindly through the rainy streets. Looking down with my good eye made it easier to avoid the urge to scan the scene. Stones and puddles. Splashes and concerns.

No insurance, unable to speak the language, and losing vision. When we arrived at the first clinic, I again tried to flush my eye in the restroom. Again, it only seemed to get worse. There was a two hour wait. We left to try another place.

“What can they possibly do at a general clinic?” “This is bad.” “How much will they charge me?” “It doesn’t matter.” “I’m not willing to go blind just to save a dime.” Again, we sat, waiting.

We talked about Granada, about my interest in photography, about how I’d come to visit southern Spain. I thanked her repeatedly for her generosity. She said it was no trouble, she had no one to get home to. She lived alone. Then finally, “Tyler, it’s time.”.

An elderly Spanish man with white hair and a long white coat ushered me toward an observation seat. An Optometrist. What a relief. The woman explained to him what happened. He examined for a bit, then flipped up my eyelids and began scraping. He added some anesthetic drops, then patched it.

“Corneal abrasion from woodchips”, the diagnosis. “Wear the patch for twenty-four hours and use the drops for five days”, the prescription.

As for the price? The doctor said through translation, it’s normally 100 euro for the visit, but because I was a guest in Spain, he saw it fit to charge me just 45.

Saint Marie, I never did get her name, walked me back toward my hostel, The Granada Inn. I thanked her and gave her a big hug. She returned a motherly kiss.

Back in my bunk, I called my Dad. I hadn’t talked to him since beginning my trip. I had so much to say. I didn’t even know where to begin.

Rejection hurts. Corneal abrasions do too. But nothing scares quiet like a memory. So much can happen in a day.

Seville: Crawling to the end

The lyrics from the singer, sounded more like howls from a perverted cat. The thunderous clatter of Flamenco steps. The robust dancer in a red Spanish dress. We didn't pay to get in, but the price of admission seemed to be the pain in my head. At intermission, we left.

Out into the narrow Seville streets. Past an empty bottle, then a smashed orange. I began to remember the night before.

I’d been hostel hoping across Spain for 19 days. And while I’d gotten of to a strong social start, in the second half, I found myself turning down invitations. “I’m going to a language exchange; would you like to join? “You should come check out this Halloween party at my hostel!” I kept opting to wander the streets alone instead. I was getting burnt out on the monotony of the perpetual open end. But with just two nights left, I found a sense of urgency, if only slight, and a motivation through two new friends.

During the day I’d met up with that girl from Barcelona. The one from Workaway. She’d messaged me. We strolled the gardens of the Alcazar. I tried to imagine it as the set of Dorne.

There was a dullness to that muddy fall sky. The leaves were dying. Winter was indeed coming. The mood wasn’t quite right.

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Back at the Hostel, I contemplated calling it an early(er) night. But instead forced myself to give “Free Sangria at 7” a try. The girl at the front desk, and a guy behind a bowl of fruit filled wine, were the only ones on the terrace, when I arrived. I accepted a cup and hurriedly sipped. “You want another my friend?” The Columbian volunteer offered while pouring one for himself. I agreed. Another backpacker arrived.

“I’m from Australia, but I’ve been traveling across Europe for the past ten months.” She said. We talked about where we’d been and what we’d done. I was amazed at how comparatively short my trip had been.

“Hola amigos!” Another guy walked in. “De donde eres?” He asked me. “The United States” I said. I’d become increasingly hesitant to try their language.

He transitioned to British English and laughed. A hobbyist of languages, Ethan had studied Spanish in Columbia, French in Paris, and German in Berlin. He’d come to Sevilla to become fluent, in just two weeks. “That’s it!” “Travel with purpose!”. Listening to his story sparked the thought. I contemplated ideas for future trips, while replenishing the cup.

Upon squeezing to return to my seat, it occurred to me. Through the course of my conversations I’d failed to realize that the table had filled in. To my right, two girls and two guys. Two more in front of me. At the counter to my left, a few backpack clad travelers, checking in.

Talk about Cambodia, Workaway, Hostels, experiences. The 35-year-old Austrian, the 18-year-old high school kid. Two Americans my age. The first I’d met in weeks.

The bowl reached an end, and a group gathered to go out. I was tired from the day. I’d had enough. Bed.

Next to a sharply dressed Spanish man, about 65 if I had to guess, I sat with my journal at the table in the bay. The smell of rain met my coffee, as I recapped another day. Somewhere toward the end, my friends from New Hampshire rolled in.

“What are you guys up to today?” I asked them. "We’re planning to go check out the cathedral once this rain stops.” Mike said. “Is it cool if I join?” I persisted. “Yeah, for sure dude.” He said. Into the freshly bathed streets we went.

I’d seen a lot of places on this trip. Everything was beautiful. I’d always wanted to visit Europe. Yet it somehow managed to exceed my expectations. But, aside from catching the Eiffel tower at sunset, La Catedral de Sevilla was my second monumental source of amazement.

At a corner store, we each bought 40’s. 1 euro 50. Down an empty stone street, we walked toward the canal. There, we sat sipping and discussing our trips as the rowers and tours scrolled past the Venetian scene. They talked about their Croatian road trip. About partying in Split.

A pub crawl was mentioned. We walked along the canal as the sun set. Just barely catching Plaza de Espana as it turned golden. Another breathtaking monument. The city’s filled with them.

 

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Some chicken, a loaf of bread, a bag of salad mix. We split the ticket. 2 euro each. Back in the kitchen, we rushed to finish our beers before progressing toward two more cups of free sangria. We found a pub crawl that began at ten.

On our way out to the uber, I intercepted a girl from check in, convincing her to come with.

Another view of the still city, sparkling yellow from the streets. “All you can drink mojitos” for the first hour. Carefully, I walked the line, as the lights threatened to blur.

At the bar, I ran into a guy I’d chatted with at my first hostel nearly three weeks prior. My third cross country encounter. Small world.

The Aussie girl who’d joined us from our hostel was loud. I switched my interests to the quiet dark-haired German at the bar. “I’ll get you a drink.” I offered, as if I was doing her a favor. Outside, we kept our conversation going toward the second spot on the crawl.

The promoter passed out shots upon entry. I could barely take mine. I lost focus on the girl and joined Mike and Joe in the beer pong line. Watching Spaniards play beer pong was like watching a middle school dunk contest. They reached halfway across the table, but still couldn’t make a shot.

The ball bounced all over the place. My mind did too. Through the window, I saw the “pizza” sign. A slice wasn’t enough. I added a falafel gyro to the mix.  

No wi-fi, no friends, no service. I took a peak at the map without success. I headed out into the streets, gyro as defense, and hoped for the best.

With an empty wrapper in the empty streets, I skipped and ran and stumbled toward a direction unknown. A few empty bottles. Not a single person. After what felt like an hour, I spotted the park.

The spot with the Plaza served as an oasis of direction. A familiar place to reference. I snatched an orange from a citrus tree and triumphantly launched it into the streets.

The common area was empty, and the hallway was dark. Against all odds, I found that bottom bunk.

“Tomorrow I leave Seville. The next day, I leave Spain."

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Capileira: In the clouds

Last night was Halloween. Aside from the eyepatch, I didn’t participate. Since leaving the farm in France, I’ve been bouncing around cities of Spain. A week in Barcelona. Three days in Malaga. Three days in Granada. I thought I’d enjoy the freedom of hostel hoping. The people I’d meet. The English they’d speak. But instead, it’s become quite mundane. Tapas, cervesas, backpackers, and busy streets. “Where are you from” “What brought you this way” “Germany, England, Australia” “I’m on holiday”, all the same. I craved adventure, I craved authenticity. I couldn’t waste another day.

The city was quiet as I walked toward the stop. All the tourists in my dorm were hungover from a night of drinking. As usual, I wasn’t entirely sure which bus to board, but I guessed correct. On the horizon, the Sierra Nevada dominated, like a massive white dome.

November 1st, 2018

The bus wound back and forth, through the increasingly mountainous terrain. I've never suffered much from motion sickness, but today, I found it difficult to refrain. I contemplated getting off early. At one of the many stops we made. The towns looked cool, all of them, but I was determined to make it to the end.

The last spot on the map, I caught my first glimpse from the bottom of the canyon. Bubion below it, and Capileira in the clouds.

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The smell of wood from the chimneys burning up white smoke against the green mountainside. The sounds of the cows. The chickens. The absence of people. The silence. The narrow corridors, the roofs that make me crouch.

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The snowmelt on the cobblestone. The vast valley in the distance. The cliffs. The emptiness. The blue sky. The clouds. The deeply snowcapped peak. This little bar. The classic tunes. The Spanish conversations. The soft smiles. The gentle laughter. The slowwww pace. The Alhambra, it's native. The chorizo. It is too.

Cities make me anxious. Mountain towns make sense. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Canceling my reservation for Seville. Done with cities. Nine days left. Spend them in Spanish towns. Authenticity.

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The clouds rolled in, not over. In another bar, they just lit a fire. It's packed with people. No tourists. No English. I'm drunk and full for four euro. It's great.

Thought I'd take to the trail, check out the next town, just 1km down. But then I remembered the museum. I zigged up and zagged down. Couldn't find it. Oh well.

In the distance, I saw a head. A man with a backpack emerged. I followed.

I had no idea where it went, but the trail out of town brought peace. For the first time in Europe, I hiked. Massive jagged boulders reminded me of Savage River. That mound of white in the distance brought back memories of Colorado. Not five minutes in, and I felt cured of all anxiety. I haven't been living my life. This trip is a learning process.

I zoned out entirely. I slipped. Down the slick green mossy grass, I flipped. With my camera in hand, I jabbed the soft ground without letting it touch, and somehow landed in stride. A green stain on my elbow is all that remains. No pain. Good at falling. Can't wait to ride.

Objective: clear view of the peak. I kept going. Twenty minutes later, I'm sitting, criss crossed, on a smooth rock. The bells of the goats supply the only sound, aside from the occasional bark of the farm hound, and like water, and the river, far below. These Spanish slopes are an arid green at their base and mid, with a frosting of white on top. Various shades of yellow, red orange, and green fill in-between. The grass is golden.

Yeah, there's a slight buzz from those cañas, but my infatuation and gratitude come from this scene.

My favorite day of the trip. A day in the clouds.

Cities are the same. Seek authenticity.

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Abroad in NYC

During a recent visit to New York City, I planned to go to Central Park, to walk The Highline, to photograph the Plaza Hotel. Following six weeks in Europe, I was looking forward to speaking English, to ordering a “big salad”, to getting “dollar pizza”, to visiting the stadium, to running into Casey? Or better yet, Joe? But I ended up spending half my time in Chinatown, and it wasn’t wasted.

I was staying with a friend of a friend. We’d never met. I’d only exchanged a few messages with her, and it’d been over a week. I’d looked at Airbnbs and hostels, but they were outrageous. “Fifty dollars a night for a place to sleep!?” I thought to myself from my 13-euro bottom bunk in Granada Spain. I reached out to an extended family member to no avail. I was out of options, “she did tell me to let her know if I ever visit the city…”.

Without reluctance, she agreed to host me. Severely jetlagged from a cross Atlantic flight, and wasted off a lack of sleep, I stumbled out of the cold, confusing streets of Brooklyn, around 2am, which was nearly ten where I’d started the day, in Malaga.

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Without consideration, I threw myself into the vacant bed. Her roommate let me in, she was out partying. Still completely dressed, I finally went to sleep. About an hour later, the light burst on, and she stumbled in. Her eyes were wide, and she wanted to talk. It was the natural thing to do, given that we’d never met before. But all I wanted to do was close mine.

Her alarm rang before the sun came up. It was barely 7am when we boarded the "E". Across the Hudson, it rattled, and shook. “This area is cool, or you can ride all the way up town with me.” She said. I took her offer to leave.

Out of the station, there wasn’t much to see. I bought a new deodorant, mine had been confiscated, and began wandering the streets. A Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn. The city was silent, the cafes were vacant. But then, the signs began to change. From “Vegan friendly”, and posh boutiques, the windows now displayed hanging geese, and a strange language. Unbeknownst, I had entered Chinatown.

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Suddenly, I didn’t care about sleep depravity. I entered a market. Every item was strange. Mine was the only western face. “Have I traveled through time!? No, this is different.” I left the place and entered a bakery across the street.

“Coffee” I said, making a sipping motion. I pointed at a pastry. It turned out to be filled with chicken. Interesting…

With the rest of my coffee, I again returned to the streets, making just one right at the corner, and disappearing from that strange alternate reality. Now past signs for “Luige’s”, and “Spaghetti”, I strolled through a much quitter, Little Italy, and progressed toward the Empire State Building on the horizon.

The air was crisp, and the sky was spotless. It was a beautiful day to walk through the city. I stopped at a little café in Greenwich Village. Ate a pastry, drank more coffee. I needed energy. I was crashing.

The chill had warmed, as I approached the parade. “Oh yeah, it’s Veteran’s day.” It occurred too late. But it was okay. The streets were filled, and the flags flapped in the breeze. The towers, new and old stood still, and the colorful trees in the parks swayed.

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I found “Koreatown” around two in the afternoon. A few buildings with Hangul writing. Familiar food, but I wasn’t quite in the mood.

I grabbed a slice of dollar pizza at the next corner. Then, two more, at a place one block over. At a standing table, I engaged in conversation. The tall Jewish man who towered in front of me wore a striped sweater. “I like your sweater, very American.” I said. He was from Israel. Said he’d lived here nine years. That he loves it. That I need more time to experience the whole thing.

“I’ve just spent six weeks traveling Europe, and this city is the most overwhelming piece of my journey.” I said.

The younger guy, about my age, joined in out of my periphery. “I’m from London, and this city is just massive comparatively. It’s overwhelming!” He agreed. I took one last bite from the folded piece of pie and tossed the paper plate.

I met the girl I was staying with for a mid-day drink. On the train, we returned to Brooklyn. I’d had an amazing day, but it was time to sleep.

“I’m going to a show on Broadway, you should go explore Times Square” she suggested. Although, it sounded mandatory in every way. The sun set as we reentered the city.

I wandered around Times Square for a few minutes. Total chaos, fine to see, but not a place I wanted to hang around in. My condition was deteriorating. What began as just fatigue, was now spiraling toward full on illness, as symptoms multiplied rapidly. At a place just off the square, I stopped to sit and eat. The Pho was fine, but the clientele were predictable. A couple dates, a few families. Mostly people visiting the city. I left the place craving warmth and energy. The kind I’d felt earlier in those Chinatown streets.

By the time she headed home, I was, again, soberly wasted, and undoubtedly sick. Another sleepless night, this time from the couch (my suggestion), I searched for a hostel to rest at instead.

After dropping my bag at an industrial hostel in Bushwick, I again boarded the L line.

In that bakery window, I sat, up against the cold glass, eating a fresh red bean bun, and sipping ginger tea. After six weeks of travel, my immune system had finally begun to fail me. I watched the foreign faces in fascination. The clothes they wore, their expressions. I returned to the cold air, and finished my tea on a park bench, across the street.

Numerous pick-up games. Some of the kids looked ready for the NBA. In a pile of rusted leaves, an old man squatted in the corner, reading a paper. The symbols on the page matched those of the storefront in front of me.

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Through the market, I wandered, in search of a pharmacy. The sunlight illuminated the produce in a flattering way. I bought a large carton of strawberries for $2. Felt like I needed the vitamins. Seemed ridiculously cheap. Through large crowds of men and women, young and old, all Chinese, I weaved my way through the streets.

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The comforts of the tea were long gone, and again, the cold began to bite at me. I descended into a basement noodle house, that was my guess anyway, again, there was no sign of English in the writing.

Toward a table, the man gestured. I sat. Next to the strange characters on the main menu, a few things were translated, roughly.

The man returned from the kitchen, “noodles?” I said. He shook his head. Two conversations took place, quietly. A couple of teens, with interesting looking phones to my right, probably students. Two middle aged men sat in front of me. Until that sharply dressed American joined us, I was undoubtedly the only person in the room unable to speak Cantonese.

“Where am I?” I thought, peering into the cooler behind me at the foreign refreshments. A metal bowl of piping hot noodles slid onto the table, delighting my senses, with its steam.

I took my time and enjoyed every bite. Then paid at the front. The man seemed surprised when I tipped him. “$6 total, not bad at all”. I walked a few blocks and suddenly found myself in a different country.

A visit to the new tower, and the magnificent mall beneath. Then, the  The National Museum of The American Indian. Again,  I craved frangranced steam.

Down the street next to Wall, buzzed a lengthy open-air market with various cuisines. From Venezuelan, to barbeque, all authentic. Every option looked delicious. I stopped at a tent serving arepas. Under the famous bull statue, I inhaled the corn pocket with avocado, plantain, and black beans.

It was cold and dark as I walked through Battery Park, past The Statue of liberty. At a bench, on the Hudson, I watched hordes of commuters pile onto the ferries. Brooklyn glittered across the water. A whole different city.

The next morning, before heading to the airport, I visited a Bushwick area café.

Tuesday, November 13th, ‘18

Headed home. The trip ends. 45 days. The artisanal bulbs emanate just enough bronze light to make visible the steam, which drifts up from the cups of coffee. Two walls are an aged, red brick, which clearly used to be free to the outside. The other two are a historic crème tone. Gentle tunes play from a small vintage box, accompanied by the sound of wet tires which pass by through the open windows, and the rain. Rather than generic “hello’s”, it seems everyone here is a regular, they’re all addressed by name.

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It’s a cash only café, with a simple menu. 6.50 for a large coffee, and an everything bagel with cream cheese. If I ever come back, I’ll try the Kombucha on tap. Or maybe the CBD latte.

I’ve been sick and jetlagged since I got to this city two days ago. I’ve been traveling for over six weeks. My body aches, and before coming here, I was feeling burnt out. But, there’s an unexplainable energy to these streets. There’s the people, the cultures, the diversity. And they’ve been friendly!

Of all the cities and places I’ve visited in the past 6 weeks, no individual one towers quite as high as NYC. This city is alive, it’s an entity.

 

 

 

24 hours in Paris

Le Louvre, Notre-Dame, the canals, the literary cafés, Shakespeare’s books, Le Tour de Eiffel. I sat in the top bunk of Generator Paris, my first hostel in Europe, for an hour, browsing that screen, before finally throwing myself off the metal ledge, and into the streets. With the cathedral in my maps, a 3.7 km walk away, just five minutes in, I found myself entirely overwhelmed with the scene. Wobbly cobblestone roads, cavernous alleyways, white facades that took my breath away, and that glorious sky between. “French Blue” it occurred to me.

My first peak of the city, from the rooftop of  the Generator Hostel .

My first peak of the city, from the rooftop of the Generator Hostel.

Past sidewalk cafes, and flamboyant displays. Through clouds of cigarette smoke, which wisped through the shadows. Through mopeds. Over waterways. Another turn. Another magnificent sight. I would have believed it were infinite, if I hadn’t just come from the countryside.

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I tried listening to music. Nothing fit. I took the buds out. Another layer of the city flooded in. Passionate conversations, as if everyone were debating, but civilly, at a table, over coffee, at seemingly every café. The bikes, some buzzed, some chimed. The rustling leaves that clung to the trees, in the warm afternoon breeze. Into a love affair with France, I began to fall.

The cathedral was nice, but amongst the rich and vibrant life, which radiated from the streets, it was merely another site. I was there maybe ten minutes, before going back outside.

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But then, the heat set in. I’d walked over six miles, and I’d barely eaten all day. With very little water, and a growing exhaustion, I looked for a place to rest. I took a photo of some colorful banners which hung between the buildings.

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An angry Parisian attempted to scold me. Suddenly, a negativity. It’s a city.

At a café, overlooking a massive mural, I sat and replenished with a salad and water. After which, I felt quite a lot better.

Nearly 4pm. Time to decide. “Go back to the hostel and rest, or stay until the Louvre becomes free (6pm)? I thought it over from the streets. Shakespeare’s books, then no direction. I purchased a collection of short stories by Fitzgerald, but more importantly, I shared some English with the British employees. An incline in the streets.

At Pantheon, I watched a group of kids play soccer. At GAP, I bought a striped T. I was empty. I stopped at another café. It was finally 6, but I had no more to give. Over eleven miles walked. “I’ll go toward the Louvre, and then decide”.

Across the Seine, I caught my first glimpse of the Tower. In the distance, it summoned. Commence the half hour metro ride.

Out of the station, I turned left, and behind, there it was, dominating the horizon. Through a marble courtyard, packed with crowds, I worked my way toward the iron beast. Although slightly off center, I found a quiet view, through a gap in those ancient trees.

On the lawn I sat. The sun began to sink. I took a photo, then my curiosity shifted, to that smoke in the corner, which drifted into frame. About ten feet in front of me, a blonde and a brunette, sat chatting. I watched them purchase beers from the vendor, and an idea came to mind.

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I signaled the guy. I approached them with a bottle of champagne. “Bonsoir” I said. “Do you mind if I join?” “I’ll need help with this bottle”. They smiled and welcomed me.

We watched the sun set together. Kim and Louisa, from Germany made pleasant company. Our conversation didn’t last long. I didn’t bother to ask for their information. But, having interactions, and putting yourself out there, is always time well spent.

Before the lights began to sparkle, I made my way back to the station. An hour later, I arrived at my hostel. I wanted to call it, but that desire to explore the rooftop deck persisted.

In my 10-bed room, co-ed, several others had already turned in for the night. It was silent. I was surprised. But then, a friendly Egyptian man entered, offering me a bottle of water, a banana, and his hand. “I’m Ehab” he said. “I’ll be your friend”.

Not a smoker or a drinker, at the bar, Ehab and I shared only conversation. However, I will still tipsy from the wine. And of course, there was that view, so intoxicating. Rows and rows of lights. The tower with its rotating strobe.

38, with a wife, and two kids, Ehab wasn’t who I expected to meet. He works in IT, and travels so frequently, that he carries to passports to fit his visas. He told me to visit him if I’m ever in Egypt.

After a game of foosball downstairs, he left for bed. Halfway to the elevator, after deciding to do the same, I said goodbye to Ehab, and moved toward an interesting pair instead.

Ash, a cute blonde, and Kayla, her plump friend. “Do you mind if I wait here, for the line to die down?” I said. My face was probably red. Another pleasant chat. They told me about their week-long visit from Australia. I returned to my room a half hour later. No regrets. What a day.

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A soft orange sun struggled against the white facades, as I made my way out of the hostel, and began another day. Across the street, I entered a cafe. “A cafe sil-vous-plait”. I love that phrase. From a table in the window, I opened my notebook and recapped the events. I returned to the hostel, packed my bag, and set off for the train. Thus, concluding, my 24th hour in Paris.

Off to Lyon, to meet Marie.

The seventh day

October 7th, 2018

In this alleyway café, sipping an espresso spiked milkshake, and listening to the rain. “Okla skate et snow shop” is across the way.

From the station in Toulouse, after five hours on the train, with my large bag on my back, and the small one in my hand, I took to the streets in a light, chilly rain. Burnt orange brick, and eclectic cafes.

Just a few streets in, the signs began to change. From “Crepes” and “Charcuterie” to “Ha Long Bay”. A hot bowl of Pho promised warmth and comfort on this chilled and clouded day.

From “Crepes” and “Charcuterie” to “Ha long bay”.

From “Crepes” and “Charcuterie” to “Ha long bay”.

“But would Vietnamese food in France be any good? What other options would I miss?” I’d drifted nearly 100 meters down the street before stopping in my place. I turned around.

It was empty when I sat down. But, in the short time it took my soup to arrive, all five tables became occupied, in that small café. Amongst French banter, a familiar phrase. “Do you speak English?” I heard her say. The fluently French Vietnamese waiter said “Yes”.

“Is there room for one?” she asked. He scanned the room nervously. Through a mouthful of hot noodles, I said “You can join me.”.

For the first few minutes, we didn’t speak. But that was mainly because I was too busy slurping every drop of fresh Vietnamese broth. Hell, I barely stopped to breathe. When she went to order, I caught her accent. Her origin became a mystery.

“Where are you from?” I probed with simplicity. “I’m from Spain.” She said. “Valencia, on the Mediterranean Sea.” Full on Pho, with a completely empty bowl, I crumpled the soggy 20-euro bill in my hand, then shoved it away. I’d been ready to pay, but with this prospect of conversation, I decided to stay. “Un café sil vous plait.” I flaunted one of my two French phrases to the waiter.

We talked for another twenty or so. We started with our origins. Then, about our travels. She said this was her first time in France. She worked for a government agency. I told her I’d only been here a week, but that I was already considering ways to extend my stay. “Hotels in Spain are always hiring English speakers.” She said. “Interesting.”

At the conclusion of my cup, I got up to get going. “It was nice talking to you.” I said. “Yes, enjoy your trip!” She replied. And then, I returned to the rain.

Through the puddles I reached that intersection again. The spot where I’d decided to turn back. “Dammit, we should have exchanged contact information.” I said in my head. “Will I regret it?” I asked. Then, took 47 more steps back to the café.

She fumbled her fork as I swung open the door. I must have caught her by surprise. I slid her that soggy train ticket, with my email smudged on it. “In case I come to Spain.” “Hasta luego.” We exchanged. We both smiled. I again wandered the streets until I found another café.

I’m still sitting here, and it’s still raining. After three straight days of warmth, today reminds me that winter is on its way. Which brings me back to that sign across the street. “Okla skate et snow” + “Hotels in Spain”. What if I find a way to stay?

One hour ‘till I leave for The Mill.

The streets of Toulouse, “the pink city” on this rainy autumn day.

The streets of Toulouse, “the pink city” on this rainy autumn day.

Twelve Days in Ariège

Twelve days in Ariège

The Main House

The Main House

October 7th, 2018

Arrival

“Standing in this eerie medieval town, in the last light of this already dim day, waiting for this stranger to arrive and take me back to his farm. I’m terrified, and tired, but excited, and alive.”

Against the cold stone façade of that vacant pharmacy on the corner, in that desolate town, with no sign of anyone, let alone the guy from the volunteer farming website (WWOOF). A chill in the air. The looming threat of night. An unmarked white van approached and stopped abruptly at my side. The window rolled slowly.

With a tight buzz, and a wiry grey and yellow beard, Louis didn’t quite fit the mental image I’d built of him through our brief conversation on the phone. Although, his voice was friendly and welcoming. He opened the door for me, and I tossed in my pack. Immediately struck by the clutter. Mud, dirt, wood, and scratches. The interior was a mess. And so were his camo pants. All signs pointed to a hard life.

We stopped for “petrol”, then disappeared from the main road, off into the forest on the right. Winding tight, around the corners, and through that infinite canopy of dense acacias. About twenty minutes from town, Louis turned onto a tiny court. Bumpy and steep, the van shook, and my first view of the farm appeared beneath.

A cool air, dense with moisture and smells of vegetation greeted my nostrils as I let the angst drift away to the sounds of the creek.

Up uneven stone steps, Louis guided me to the 17th century building once used as a mill, now called The Main House. Inside, Alice, his wife, prepared dinner in their rustic kitchen. At the table, two boys, 6 and 9, sat playing with Pokémon cards, while waiting to eat. Neither spoke English, but they smiled and waved at me.

Across the lawn, Louis showed me to the guest cottage. Another old building, complete with an open living area, a kitchen, a bathroom, and two lofted bedrooms up a set of steep stairs. I dropped my bag, changed, and then returned to The Main House to eat.

The mattress, alone in the empty loft was pleasantly firm, I was exhausted, the air was cool, and it was dark. Following a delicious dinner of orange autumn soup, fresh leafy greens, and a local amber ale, all organic, at just past 21h, I returned to my new cottage to sleep. Aside from a brief interruption at 3:00 to pee, I awoke twelve hours later to my alarm. The best rest I’ve had in weeks.

Waiting in the waning light.

Waiting in the waning light.

October 8th, 2018

Day 1

Morning

Through a light fog, I walked the path to The Main House, where Alice greeted me. “Coffee is there, and your plate is on the table. Here are some biscuits and jam. Help yourself to anything you see.” Three wafer biscuits with butter and apricot jam. I thanked her and set out to complete the tasks I’d discussed with Louis.

Across the lawn, and toward the steep, misty walls that naturally fence in the property. I pulled the stakes from the soggy ground with ease, and wrapped the caution tape which strung them together, into a pile. “These boots were a great purchase” I thought to myself, as they kept the rain-soaked vegetation from touching my feet.

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I cleared the roof of the chicken coop. Then, ran my hands through the thick grass to wipe them clean. After finishing both tasks, I returned to the cottage and sat outside, listening to the creek and the birds, while inhaling a few breathes of le herbe.

This place seems to be a sort of paradise. It’s mystic. It’s unique.

Written from that table in the vacant cottage living room, around noon.

Afternoon

Today, my first day of work, I moved a few logs, and held them in place from the opposite side of the chainsaw that the burly stranger pushed toward me at arm's length. At times it was a bit scary, and I felt awkward, especially when I stood there, not sure what to do. But, Louis’ cool. He talks about interesting things. He's a dad for sure.

He says tomorrow will be harder, but maybe I'll have more to do. I think I should stay a while, try to grow it into something. I'm supposed to borrow the car tomorrow evening to go have a beer with the BlaBlacar driver who drove me out here. Could be interesting.

Who wants to read about a week of work? Tell them about that time you lived in the Pyrenees for three weeks. Or hell, maybe three months, three seasons...? Who knows, let it happen. Write the chapter. Live libraries.

The food is amazing. Although, I should probably watch what I eat. Na, fuck it. It's delicious.

 

October 9th, 2018

Day 2

the shop

the shop

Up the muddy forest trail, I held on to the back of the quad in a yellow 9:30 light. "When I move my head, you do the same." Louis shouted over the accelerator, that he seemed only to increase.

We loaded the trailer full of logs for the fire and scouted the forest for a straight acacia tree. "We'll try this one" Louis settled, through the hand rolled cigarette in his mouth.

He "explained me" the process, and then directed me to safety. He seems to be responsible with these things. W

With steam from his back hitting the rays of light, he began his precision strike. Measuring, and angling, as a photographer would his subject, Louis was strategic with his cut, and it caused the tree to fall perfectly. "Punta!" I exclaimed at his success. "Punta!" He returned.

Over another fat cigarette, we discussed the next moves. Six two-meter sections of tree made 13 fence posts. Louis let me do some of the splitting, a task I was thankful for. He'll use these for the fence, but he says they could otherwise sell for €2 apiece.

At 11:57 with a deserved layer of sweat covering my face, we began our lunch break. Around 12:30 Alice and Louis left for a meeting at the school, and now it's 13:11, as I’ve just finished my raid.

Some almonds, some cashews, an apple, a piece of cake, even a couple of grapes. I brewed a cup of coffee just to take a break. And I noticed something interesting, in-between stuffing my face. For a family of four, they keep surprisingly little food, yet they eat quite a lot. Internally I processed. "How could this be?" "Ah, it's because they eat fresh local foods. I see!"

Sitting at my table now, waiting for them to return for more food, and trying not to fall asleep. In other news, I'm really torn about what to do next. A large part of which involves Gabi. She's never felt like some perfect match, or my "dream girl", yet I absolutely love the way I feel around her. She makes me lighter. Even now, I feel heavy, and sometimes I like it, it's me, but she has shown me that other way. I guess I don't have to decide just yet, but I kind of feel like it's looming over me.

 

October 10th, 2018

Day 3

A generous serving of homemade soup, a massive chunk of quiche, three different kinds of cheese, two rips of fresh baguette, butter. "Oh Lord, please!" I begged inside, not to vomit as I stumbled back toward my bed. You see, I'd been impatient while they were gone, and another heavy lunch proved to be too much for me. In my misery, I laughed at how ridiculous I've been eating. "That's it, I'm done." I told myself. This morning I had a banana, one cracker, and one cup of buttered coffee.

Yesterday, after my stomach settled, we got back to work in the forest. We finished a few more posts, getting 17 as a final count from that one acacia tree. We measured the perimeter of a temporary pig pen, then placed the posts at a ten-meter spacing. We didn't get to it 'till 1430, and we were finished by 17h. "I'm feeling tired, let's take it cool." said Louis.

On that hill where the Vegetables grow, I sat in the sun, and watched the clouds roll over the thickly forested peaks. I roamed the property with my camera in hand. It truly is a special place, a majestic place, a place of unexplainable beauty.

It was 7pm before I messaged my friend. The one that drove me from Toulouse. We were supposed to get a beer, but he wasn’t feeling well, and it turns out, Louis’ car is a manual. He gave me a brief intro on how to drive it last night, and he says he’ll have me try today. He really is a great guy. Alice’s great too. I really like this family.

But, after two full days, and three nights, spent tucked away in this little piece of paradise, I’m itching, no exploding, to get out and explore. I want to meet people. I want to build a life. I’m unsure how long I’ll stay, but I want to know what it’s like to live in the Pyrenees. Perhaps today will bring opportunity.

9:26am

18:08

“I don’t wanna love you anymore”

Twice this year, I’ve fallen for a girl, and neither one makes sense. For the past 8 weeks, Gabi has consumed me, but today I thought of Flora Marie.

What we had was fleeting and tiny, microscopic in dose, but monumental in impact. Often, I think about how we barely knew each other, and how we only saw each other four days in four weeks. But, let’s face it, she’s the reason I booked that flight to Paris.

On Saturday, I was in her home city, with no way of contacting her, and I was instead with another girl, named Marie.

This morning Louis moved slow, the kids are sick, he barely slept. It would have been understandable if he were grumpy, but instead, that was me. We began in the forest, roping off the perimeter of the fence, and then clearing a path for the posts. On a steep, muddy slope, he fell multiple times, and I fell once, awkwardly on my knee, as we pushed to uproot the grotesque roots of a rotted old tree. I’m fine, but the knee is a bit tweaked.

When the path was cleared, we got the bell. A 30lb piece of iron, with one long handle on each side. At first, I wasn’t sure how we’d use it, then Louis instructed me. “Inhale up, and exhale as you slam”. Like a piston, we hammered in three posts.

It feels good to work hard, but it’s exhausting. And after several days without social interaction, I’m beginning to feel drained.

Not to be lost in this venting, is the quality of Louis’s conversation. He talks about life, about self-sufficiency, and a shit load of conspiracy. Although, his views seem realistic, and he’s made me think.

Aside from an appreciation for individuality, we also share a passion for writing. He’s written at least two novels from what I’ve gathered, and I can tell when we talk that his desire still exists, but he’s chosen to suppress it, partially to build something more concrete. I get it. He’s a father, and a husband, and maybe I’ll be those things too, but right now, I’ve gotta get this book out, because it festers inside of me.

After three hours of work, we returned to the terrace, for a lunch in the sun. The boys joined us. Apparently, Wednesdays are half-days in French schools. The way it should be.

They’re both sick, and I’m afraid I may be contracting it. I feel a bit lethargic, and my throat isn’t quite right, but it hasn’t affected my desire to eat.

Links of sausage, the finest quality, and a broccoli cauliflower dish, with a thin layer of cheese. Louis offered me a Stella to drink. After lunch, I talked to Gab. She shows no emotion on the phone. It’s frustrating. For an hour and a half, I slept, and I likely could have gone longer. Louis left for town, and he told me I could relax, but I felt bad. So, I got to work on rebuilding those uneven steps.

I want to pull my weight around here. I know I’m not paid, but they give me food and a bed, and they’ve accepted me as part of their family. However, I do need more. I need friends. I need the unknown. I need possibility.

Tonight, I’m meeting Sebastian for a beer at 21:30. With this virus going around (which he says he’s just had), I should probably just sleep, but social interaction outside the confines of this farm has become my number one priority.

Holy shit, I left Texas eleven days ago. I’m nowhere near ready to leave. I have so much more to experience. I’m sick of leaving things unfinished.

 

October 11th 2018

Day 4

Fed the chickens. Sawed wood. Chopped it. Gathered stones from the riverbed for the steps. Made a faggot, three. Break. Leftovers for lunch. We ate late. I was starving. And then, we went to the neighbors.

The sun of the morning had turned to clouds of blueish grey, and the temperature dropped while we ate. A slight chill in the wind, helped to mask the scent of Louis, as I sat on the back of the quad, with his hoodie in my face.

Around the corner, for the first time in four days. The view opened, and a sense of freedom escaped.

On a road to the right, a small cottage hid. Another rustic renovation, with a young couple, and a kid. They smiled and waved from their dining table on the terrace. We continued by.

Through a lush path of forest, with ivy and ferns. We passed an old DeLorean, and then reached roads end.

Another young mother sat at the table with her baby. I wasn’t even sure why we were there. Galloping down the hill, an odd-looking fellow appeared. “Hey, I’m Anthony.” He said to me, shirtless, with a smile of big white teeth. And then, we began moving the wood.

With the quad on the front patch of mountainside lawn, Louis dug into the land with a trailer full of wood behind. Eventually, the wheels caught, and we unloaded it into the barn up top.

A garden of fruits and vegetables served as our backdrop, but none of them seamed to explain that scent. No, it wasn’t the scent of tomatoes, or strawberries, it was most definitely something more distinct.

“Do you grow le herbe?” I attempted through Frenglish, to no avail. “weed?” I simplified to Anthony. The light turned green. “You know, if we work fast enough, maybe we’ll have time for a beer and a joint.” I became a wood moving machine.

Louis stayed for one beer, and then he had to leave. From that terrace, overlooking a wide vista of green mountains, Anthony and I shared a nice joint, indeed. “Come on, this way, I’ll show you my bees.” He led me up the steep hill behind the terrace, toward the place where he housed the honey making machines.

Around us, the air buzzed, as we crouched behind the line of four houses. We studied. “So… these can fly out?” I asked, nervously. Then Anthony explained their traffic to me.

 

“See how this one is flying toward that flower for pollen, and how that one is going toward the water near the tree. Okay, now these ones are receiving the supplies, and bringing it in to use for making the honey.” “A hornet it’s called. They capture the bees and shred them with their teeth.” “Look, this one here just got one of my bees! See him carrying it away to eat on that tree!?” In just three minutes, Anthony, the half Vietnamese Frenchman, who harvests honey, completely reshaped my understanding of biology.

On the way down the hill, he showed me his rice. And he spoke passionately about how he’d learn from his mistakes and produce much more next year, for his family. Back at the table, he spoke about his lifestyle. He commented on how even self-sufficiency requires some money. “We need it for gasoline, for taxes, etc…” I used to spend money on clothes and going out to eat” He talked about his former life in the city.

“Are you happier here than in the city?” I asked him. “1000 times happy!” he smiled at me.

I thanked him for his hospitality and got up to leave. As I walked down the path, with the house at my back, his wife shouted, “au revoir!” from a second-floor balcony.

“Bonsoir”, I exchanged with another neighbor on my walk back toward The Mill. Then, down the gravel entrance, I returned.

The car was gone. Only the creek broke the silence. It was a welcomed return, like coming home.

Inside, I shared a brief, but pleasant conversation with Alice, brewed some coffee, then returned to this table, to write.

 

Stop worrying about Gabrielle.

 

October 12th, 2018

Day 5

 I’m sick. Well. More like I’m going to be sick. I know it’ll get much worse. For three days of travel, I barely slept, and since then, I’ve lived with these sick kids. Oh, and I’ve worked my ass off.

In fact, it was more hard work on the stone steps, until 19h yesterday evening, that explains the mud stained to this page. I finished the job this morning. I took ownership of the project, and even used some creativity. If you look carefully, you should see that the bottom step looks like a finger, pointing toward the second. I thought it was cool.

 Speaking of cool, Alice told me to be it this afternoon. I feel guilt not working, even though I’ve well exceeded my max volunteer hours of 25 for the week. My back is killing me from all the labor. And as this cold comes on, I feel achy and weak.

I’ve got several podcasts downloaded, and I’ll at least try to get some sleep. It seems doubtful right now, but I really hope to beat this cold quickly. This weekend represents more opportunity to get out and meet.

 18:17

It’s Friday evening, and I’ve got nothing to do. I know, I’m not feeling well, or I wasn’t… I’m not sure. It really felt like I was getting sick. Maybe I was just exhausted.

These past eleven days in France have been a chapter. Maybe two. But I came here to avoid nights like these, where I’m just passing the time. I want to be out, interacting, meeting people, living true. When is the research done on a subject? When is the chapter full?

I ate cookies for breakfast. Had two cups of coffee. And then there was that disgusting spliff.

 

October 13th, 2018

Day 6

It’s Gabi’s birthday. I’m feeling a bit gloomy on this beautiful bright Saturday. After five days of work on The Mill, today represents my first escape.

I thought surely, I was getting sick, but this morning I woke up feeling great. Perhaps it was this opportunity to explore that pushed me through. Or maybe it was that concoction of essential oils that Alice mixed up that did it. The rest likely helped too.

Away from that dirt driveway, Alice began to accelerate. Around that first corner, where the neighbor lives, and out toward the main road, for the first time since I’d come in. Past Rimont, a quaint little village, and down the road toward St. Girons.

 As we approached town, the congestion began. Crowded streets, police, and no place to park. Suddenly, we’d gone from the country to Paris.

Alice stopped “I’ll let you out here, the market is that way.” I thought she’d come with.

Fresh produce, handmade crafts, cheese, beer, grapes.

 I stopped at one of the first tents and bought a knife, handmade in the Pyrenees. Louis told me it’d be good to carry for work in the forest.

Through the rows of tents, with a few alleyways in-between. I roamed for an hour or so, unsure of where to go. Not hungry, with no desire to caffeinate. I thought the market was cool but felt little need to elaborate.

Around town, I searched for Wi-Fi. And finally, at the tourists’ center, I found it. Those photos from Gab, and a message from Sebastian. My only hope at a local friend.

He agreed to meet but “after lunch” he said. It was barely 12, and the brewery I’d suggested didn’t reopen ‘till three.

Back through the market, I wandered again. Past the hippies with dreadlocks, and incense. Past the couples, the families, the friends. I still wasn’t hungry, but an emptiness lurked, so I stopped at a falafel taco truck to fill up.

Under the clock tower of the old chapel, next to the lazy river, on the side of the canal, I enjoyed my meal, alone. Then, again, I roamed the streets. Now lunchtime, the crowds had disappeared. Past café’s and down alleyways. I saw no-one, all the same. Mid-day in Europe, it’s a solitary place.

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 Finally, I found an open café. “A café sil-vous-plait” I said to the waitress. She’s cute. And, as I sit here at a table now, I’m thinking of ways to ask her out.

 

October 14th, 2018

Day 7

This page is damp, my clothes are too. There’s condensation on the windows, but, it’s finally crisp outside, and despite a night of intoxicated sleep, I am too. Well, I am a bit drowsy. Those pancakes are setting in. The French do a lot of things well; breakfast isn’t one of them.

Yesterday, I was frustrated, but you already knew that. I’d spent a full work week on The Mill, and on my first excursion to town, I struck out.

After hyping myself up at the end of my last entry, in the St. Girons cafe, the waitress’s shift ended, and she left. Franticly, I fumbled with a handful of coins, dumped a pile on the counter to cover my coffee, and rushed out into the streets.

No sign of her out front. Only an old woman walking her dog down the street to the right. I peaked around the left corner in one last try. And there she was, only a few storefronts ahead of me.

“Excusez-moi” ‘I didn’t get your name” I shouted from down the street. “I’m sorry?” She was hesitant. “I’m new to town, and I don’t know anyone.” I replied in a normal tone, while matching her stride. “Oh, I’m new too. I’ve only lived here a few weeks.” She said. “What brought you here?” I asked. “

“I finished university, and I came for work.” her

“Oh, I see. Where’d you move from?” me

“Marseille. You know it? It’s a city by the sea.” her

Ah yes, that made sense. Her tan skin, her Mediterranean face.

She still seemed hesitant. Maybe I wasn’t her type. I gave her that piece of paper that I’d scribbled my email on from the back corner of my notebook before I rushed out the door of the café. “Here, in case you want to contact me. I’ll be here for a couple of weeks.” I told her, and then we went our separate ways.

Back at the visitor’s center, I waited for my Wi-Fi access to renew. I checked my messages, then walked toward the brew. In gym shorts and a t-shirt, slouched across his tall, wiry frame, I spotted Sebastian lurking toward me from down the street.

He was ten minutes late, but I’d been enjoying my music, and the brewery still appeared to be closed for the mid-day break. I’d been warned about this sort of Ariege defiance of punctuality by Louis.

“Well, I guess we’ll find another bar.” I suggested. The next one was closed too. Finally, where the bustling market had been held just an hour before, we found one open bar, on a now otherwise eerily vacant street. The Affligem biere was great, but the sticky floor and miniature billiards table didn’t quite satisfy my craving.

We checked the brewery again. It was still closed. Out of ideas, Sebastian offered to take me home. On the way back, we stopped in Rimont. None of the stores were open. We explored the only street. A lonely place. I’d struck out again.

The kids were playing near the creek in the afternoon sun. “Tylah!” they shouted as I came down the path. “Comment ca va garcons?” I asked. Adam, had Gabriel wrapped with a rope at the waste. I couldn’t hide the laughter from my face.

Louis greeted me from the porch, it felt like I was home. In the kitchen I chatted with Alice about her finds at the market and snacked on some grapes. “Our friends are running late. They should be here around eight.” Louis informed between swings of the axe as he chopped wood by the pond. I felt obligated, even though he told me not to worry, so I joined in. And after a few swings of le hache, I felt a lot better about the day.

 I called my mom. I complained. Not too bad, I don’t think, but I hate when I call her to vent. She only hears about the bad moments, and this experience has been great.

Toward the end of our call, the friends arrived. “Oh, thank god, we can eat now.” I thought. I’d missed Alice’s cooking on my day away. And the sun had set. It was getting late.

I joined the group at the terrace table. A hip, middle aged man, with a white beard, white hair, round glasses, black heavily polished Chelsea boots, and skinny jeans, and his much younger wife. A thin woman, with high-top converse, and a friendly, yet slightly horseish face. And they began to drink…

I used that lighter trick to open my Heineken. Those sesame toast sticks helped suppress my hunger, as I felt the effects of my first biere after just a few sips. Around 9pm my bottle was empty, and we had yet to eat.

“Okay, the snacks are gone, and their beers are nearly finished. If I open another now, I’ll only delay the food. I’ll just sit here and wait.” I told myself. But, 20 minutes past, with still no mention of food.

Louis was too busy playing DJ to care. “Have you heard this? It’s Tom Waits. He is American guy. Very good.” He raved.

The cold, damp air seemed to seep through my polyester jacket, which trapped up against my wool shirt. I was growing irritated. Louis offered me a joint. My irritation sank.

Now fascinated by the scene, I pressed record, and let the conversation play. Louis’s eerie Tom Waits tunes played in the background, as a steady rally of noisy French conversation took place amongst le femmes.

“It’s problem of girl.” Interrupted the older man. “I never would have guessed.” I laughed. “That’s the difference you know, we like people, or we don’t. But, the girls. They want to know why they like people or they don’t.” Another thought-provoking, if not slightly sexist observation from Louis.

“Build characters.” The idea came to me. Suddenly, I felt the responsibility, and realized this conversation as another research opportunity.

I began my podcast with flattery. We’d warmed up with banter, and now, I could tell, Louis was ready to speak. “So, how did your English get so good?” I asked him. “Well, like I told you, I didn’t pay attention in school. It wasn’t until I started working in photography with English speakers that I began to learn it.”

“Ah, I see. And where were they from?” I followed.

We talked a bit about accents, and then I dug a littler deeper. “So, the photography you did, was it mainly studio work?” I sat back and let him speak.

About his path from Studio Assistant, to Photographer’s Assistant, to Photographer, then Videographer. “Wow. You know, you were living out a very common dream.” I said.

“Yes, but it wasn’t mine.” Louis explained to me how the underbidding that came from passionate young talent drove him to frustration at the end. We talked about how it’s cool that passion can prevail, and about how it worked out for him.

A fascinating conversation, after another twenty minutes, my stomach began to rumble, and I was consumed by the hunger again. I opened another biere.

I chugged it quick. “Maybe we have to finish the beer before we can eat.” I hypothesized, grabbed another, then quit. I was falling asleep, while approaching the outer reaches of the notorious black hole known as the spins. I couldn’t drink anymore. I didn’t want to relight that joint. “I forgot to turn the heater on in my place!” I shot up from my seat. I had to say something. Alice read me perfectly. “You want to eat!?” And finally, at 23:53, we began the feast.

“Tyler, your plate.” She piled it high. Sticky white rice, with an Asian broccoli carrot slaw, and mouthwateringly tender caramelized pork, in a sweet, savory sauce, piled on top. For the next ten minutes, I didn’t speak, no-one did, as our mouths only opened to chomp. I looked at Louis in a shared admiration, we both smiled through mouths filled with food.

As a finishing touch, he brought out the key lime pie. I nearly cried. And after the most delicious meal of my life, I went straight to bed.

17h16

A tender chunk of chicken, with a heap of creamy potatoes, drenched in homemade brown gravy, smoldered in the crisp autumn sun, daring me to burn my mouth again, as I sipped my merlot, savoring that taste. “Sunday chicken is a French tradition” Louis informed me. “Fuck it, I’m going back in.” I couldn’t control the craving. Once again, I barely stopped to breathe, as I inhaled every crumb on my plate.

 With that hike, off the table (Sebastian decided it would be “too rushed”) a desire to lay in the sun instead, seemed completely okay. I filled my daypack with my notebook, my kindle, some coffee, an apple, a banana, and the hammock. Before heading into the forest, I served coffee to Louis, Alice, and their friends. “Ahhhh, okay. We’ll keep you!” He said as I approached with the pitcher. We’re cool, me and him.

Up that trail where we’d worked on the fence, I hung a left, instead, toward a foreign patch of forest. The quad tracks fizzled off, and the ground became thick. Thorny ivy and sticky ferns grabbed me, as I worked toward that patch of light, through the dim.

At a small clearing, the sun poured in. I shed my shirt, and soaked it in. As I set up the hammock, a solid blanket of white clouds rolled in.

A chapter of “Letters to a young poet”, and then two of “living with the monks”. I re-read days seven and eight, searching for a reminder to continue.

The writing is still shit, but I have to say, it allowed me to relate. “Two weeks in Ariege” I’ll stay to live and write the end.

The wind picked up, and the leaves rained down. In a storm of Autumn, I packed up the hammock, and returned to The Mill.

I’m so incredibly lucky to have this life. It’s all a dream. An absolute thrill.

 October 15th 2018

Day 8

18h37

All night I tossed and turned, to the heavy sideways rain that barraged the guest house. For the first time since arriving here, I slept like shit, and this morning I felt it. “Ca va?” Louis greeted me from his chair on the terrace. He said he slept poorly too.

At breakfast I avoided the junk. Opting for a plain Greek yogurt, with a bit of local honey, a few walnuts, a banana instead. Around ten, we finally boarded the quad. Louis dawned a new trench jacket, and from where I sat as we sped though the forest, with his hood and white beard, his resemblance to Obi-wan Kenobi was exact.

“Punta” was the word of the morning, as Monday seemed to taunt Louis even more than me. With the taste of an infected throat on my tongue, and a lack of strength, I tried to keep myself from sliding down the steep, muddy ground. I fell once, Louis fell twice. But, after three and a half hours of work, we finished the posts, and moved on to fencing the pen.

Another fresh soup for lunch, paired with bread and cheese. The cheese is at times overwhelming, but I enjoy trying local things. Louis asked if I needed to rest. “No, let’s knock this out.” I said.

We unrolled a second roll of sheet wire, completing the last 100 yards of the pen. All that’s left is to attach the posts, but that requires a tool that Louis plans to borrow from a friend. I’ll be gone by then.

The day was soggy, and my mind was foggy, but I made it to the end. I respect this family, and I want to earn my place, even if it is only for a few more days.

I looked at transport options of Barcelona. It looks like a Friday departure makes the most sense. No, it won’t quite be two weeks, but I feel like twelve days would make an adequate end.

It’s no longer awkward. I now consider Louis and Alice friends. Okay, I’m tired. Hell yes, I wrote again. 18h 55

21h02

Filet mignon, cooked medium, with pasta, and a creamy sauce. You guessed it, homemade. Damn, I’ll miss this food.

Adam, the nine-year-old boy kicked my ass at checkers. Apart from when they speak exclusively in French after I’ve scarfed down my food, often before anyone else, I feel very comfortable in their home. What a great family.

“New video from the 1975” flashed on my phone as Adam and I finished the game. I let the video buffer before leaving Wi-Fi to return to my place. At the cottage table, I pressed play, and it all came rushing back.

Her leaning up against the outside wall of my room, in the evening sun, nodding her head to the tune. I’d been looping “love it if we made it” all day, and I was stoked that she felt it too. But then, there was so much more to feel. I grabbed her mid chorus and kissed her to the beat. “That was smooth” She said. And now she returns to my head.

Physically, she’s half a world away. Mentally, I have no idea what to think.

 

October 16th, 2018

Day 9

Louis’s grumpy, understandably so. He’s new to this farming thing, and apart from Alice’s help, he’s doing it all alone. As far as I can tell, he has no current source of income, and soon it will get cold. This place is beautiful, a paradise, but it’s a lot to take on. He has never, not even once, directed his frustration at me though. He’s a really good dude, and I know he’ll pull through.

My impacts have been small, but I’m happy to have helped a bit. With the fence nearly up, soon he’ll be able to get his pigs. Although, still 18 months from maturity, he’ll have to find other ways to make money to live.

Despite a frustration that was immediately clear, as I ate another breakfast of yogurt, with Alice’s homemade chestnut jam, the sun outside looked brighter. That sick taste in my throat has mostly subsided. As soon as I breached the Wi-Fi perimeter, my phone began to vibrate wildly.

Meredith “Did you see the 1975 are playing red rocks!?”

Gabi “How r u?”

Flora. “Hey! How is France treating you? When are you leaving?” Finally.

While moving floor boards from the basement to the guesthouse, I chatted with Gab. “Can I come stay?” She asked. “Yes” I said, not entirely sure what she meant. She talked about details. I was surprised. It sounds like she wants to come visit, and to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel.

It’s a beautifully blue, crisp autumn day. Soon, we’ll go fix the fence in the forest. Tomorrow morning, they’ll be away for the car repair.

Trying to enjoy every minute of my last days here. 11h02

October 17th, 2018

Day 10

My legs feel rotten. Every inch of my body aches. When my alarm rang at 8:30, I felt as if I'd been beaten to a pulp in my sleep. But then again, it evaded me. I tossed and turned all night as my legs pulsed with pain. In the shower this morning, I struggled to stand, and the water at my feet failed to drain. When I flushed the toilet, used tissue shot through the shower drain. Adding a mental frustration to the pain.

While Louis and Alice were away this morning, all I managed to do was eat. Lemon cake for breakfast, endless handfuls of mixed nuts in-between three cups of coffee. And still I felt nothing but defeat. When I came here, I wasn't sure how long I'd stay "until you have a breakthrough, or until you break", it’s a quote from “living with the monks”.

 Tuesday morning began with sun. After a tough day of work on Monday, I slept deep without bud or brew. For the first time in days, my legs had a spring of youth. And despite an evident frustration from the breakfast table, which radiated from Louis, I began my first task with gratitude.

Moving stacks of floor boards from the basement to the guesthouse was a chance to listen to music, and an opportunity to lift, but nothing excessive, just enough to build some strength. About twenty stacks, of about twenty pounds each. By the time I finished, my arms felt great, but it was barely 10:30.

 Over at the car, I checked in with Louis. After over an hour, he was still struggling to set the spare tire free. "Punta!" "This system is shit!" He steamed. But, within five minutes of arrival, he finally got it loose. "Okayyy!" He exclaimed, his mood had significantly improved. "We'll go to the garbage dump and look for metal to make the thing for the pigs to drink." We unloaded several heavy loads of trash, and then lifted two hot water heaters into the back of the truck.

Back at The Mill, we unloaded the metal canisters, and Louis began working to make one of them into a trough. Unsure of what to do, I stood in the sun, soaking up the rare valley rays. It was 12:40, if I remember correctly, when he decided it was time to eat.

The fillet mignon was somehow even more tender leftover. Perhaps it was the setting of eating in the sun.

 After lunch, we were all stuffed, and I laid down briefly on the living room sofa, a suggestion from Louis. 

"Okay, we'll help Alice move some furniture" he said. I reported to the basement. It was around  2pm when we began moving things.

Four plush chairs, one antique mirror, a heavy bag, two dining tables, two sofas, a mattress, sixteen dining chairs, two decorative chairs, a billiards table, and other random boxes. By the time we'd decluttered the room an hour later, my body was beginning to feel weak.

"Okay, I guess now we'll go in the forest." He said. It was just after three.

Off the main road, and up the trail that climbs to the top of the trees, I held on tight with my tired arms, as Louis throttled the quad toward the outer reaches of the property. We'd come out here on my very first day, just to drop some posts and see, but since then, there'd been no mention of the area. For the past five days in the forest, we'd been working on that same patch of fence, and after yesterday, we were nearly complete. So, when we arrived at this virgin ground, I began to wonder just how much he expected of me.

The initial tasks were easy, well nothing's easy on the side of a muddy slope. But, walking through the trees wasn't so bad, and that's all I really had to do at first, when he sent me to retrieve the rope. "Okay, we'll retrace the posts" he said to me. Again, the task caused no need for worry. But then, the work began.

He got the chainsaw out, and I hauled the smaller fallen trees. Then, he chopped the larger ones up, and we took turns hauling chunks all in excess of 50 pounds up the hundred-meter stretch of steep mud, to the street. He said his neighbor would come to retrieve them. And when he arrived, we got to pick each stump up again, this time to load onto the trailer.

About two hours in, it was 5 pm, and I'd worked about five hours, the max amount of volunteer time. But Louis showed no signs of ending the day. We forgot a tool at the house, so we rushed back on the quad. And while the ride was fast and fun, I told myself that come 7 pm, I’d be done.

With the new fence perimeter traced, we began hauling the wooden posts we'd made, into place. At six meters apart, we didn't have to carry any too far, but the terrain was tricky, and I was feeling the end of the day. I brought the first one down from the trailer, and for the next hour, we hammered seven into place.

At the bottom of the slope, I leaned on the smashed top of the last post. Louis rolled another cigarette and began to contemplate. "What do you think, should we do four more?" "Well it's pretty dark." I said. Thank God, he agreed. "Okay, you're right." He said. "We'll leave those for tomorrow." A mix of dread and relief. "Oh, but wait, I won't go without some firewood." He dealt more grief.

The chainsaw blared once more as the sun melted into an orange and purple mix that splashed against the yellow leaves. While he cut logs, I hauled the equipment up toward the quad. The iron bell, used to hammer the posts, the drill, the extra posts. And then, we began carrying the wood.

He attempted to joke, but I'd had enough. "There are two more smaller ones down there" he pointed at two massive chunks. On the first one, I nearly fell. And with the second, every inch of my body burned like hell. "It's fine, it's the best work-out of your life" I told myself. But then, came the rope.

The logs were way too heavy to carry up the final slope that met the road, so Louis suggested we give them tow. He tossed the noose down to me, and I wrapped the first log with relative ease. Before it'd even gone a quarter of the way, it dug into the ground, and I had to scramble up the hill to free it, on my hands and knees. With the second one, he had a new suggestion. "Tie the knot higher, so it doesn't hit the ground" I argued that this would make it less secure. A problem that he didn't seem too worried about.

Sure enough, the log slipped out, and rolled right into my leg, pinching the bone above my ankle between its force, and that of its twin, next to me. "Fuck!" I yelled, slightly in pain, but mostly in frustration. "Is it broken?" He asked. "Shit, I hope not." I returned with anger.

I sat there, smoldering for a minute, and then it all came out. "Look Louis, I really respect what you're doing here, and I want to help you, but today has been very inconsistent with every other day. This is too much. You're overworking me." He apologized. He knew he'd fucked up. The ride back down was awkward, and dinner was too. In anticipation, I smoked a joint, and drank two brews.

 Yesterday he broke me but today my respect was renewed. He wasn't disappointed that I didn't work this morning, and he was apologetic about the plumbing issue. This afternoon, instead of working, I accompanied the family to a nearby natural attraction. A massive cave that you can drive through. Out in front of it, we ate a picnic of goods from the nearby market, and on our way back to The Mill we took the scenic route through the colorful autumn hills.

"You need the rest, we won't work today." "You're awesome" I told him. And I really meant it.

All afternoon I've laid in bed. And while I haven't slept a wink, I'm grateful for this opportunity to recover. Tomorrow's my last day of work and I still haven't made it clear that I'm leaving a day early. I'll tell them at dinner in a few.

 

October 18th 2018

Day 11

 Morning

A moodiness filled the valley, blanketed by a heavy mist. Yogurt, coffee, four wafers, a few cashews, Nutella, and honey. I did slightly better at breakfast today. I met Louis in the workshop, and we lifted our first item. The empty hot water heater. It didn't cause me much pain.

We swept the floor clean of insulation, and then set out into the soggy forest. To trace out a power line for the planned electric fence, Louis stomped a path up the face of the hill. I followed in his footsteps with the meter, trying carefully not to slip.

350 meters later, at the original pen site, we paused. He rolled a cigarette. "We'll unroll this wire" he said, and then we began. My task was quite easy, as I guided the fence down. We unrolled another, and he discovered that his posts were too short.

Throughout my time here, I've watched the frustration mount. Louis's a great guy, and I feel for him, but I have to say, I'm glad to be leaving.

In his forest green trench, with rubber boots to his upper shins. With his shaved head, and whitish beard. The smoke from his cigarette floating into the wind.

He cut a dot of skin open on his head, as he unrolled the wire mess.

Through the fog, we raced, up to the top of the fence. We'd forgotten the bell, and we needed a few posts too. He said "you can chill here in the warmth if you'd rather not go" but, I wanted to help, and I'm glad I did. With no trailer in tow, the ride up was wild, as I held on from behind the Jedi master, Louis.

As we loaded the posts, fog filled the path, creating a white wall, framed in only by the canopy, now yellow. Back at The Mill, Louis parked the quad. My last morning of work on The Mill came to an end.

 For lunch:

-an omelet with diced potatoes, and a thin crust.

-a hearty salad of leafy greens, nuts, pear and vinaigrette

-fresh bread

-Camembert cheese (my favorite so far)

-sheep’s cheese

-one Stella Artois

 I ate with them, I drank with them, I smoked with them, I worked with them, we talked. For twelve days, I lived with a French family, on The Mill.

 "On the five" that song I discovered during those few days of listening to Alt Nation in Texas. The one I looped infinitely during my arrival to France. It sounds old now, like it's from a different chapter. And this, the close of another.

 Oh yeah, that's right, I'm sore as fuck.

 Afternoon

On the eighth strike against the third post, the bell rung with a high pitched "ting". "Well, we broke it" said Louis. "Want to see how to weld?" He asked. I said, "yes please."

Back in the workshop, he explained to me how "arc welding" works, and then he did his thing. "I haven't done this in a while." He prefaced. Through the mask, I watched the steel melt down and when he stopped the gun, it glowed bright red. He shaped the wound and left it to cool.

"Coffee?" I suggested. "Yeah, you know I normally don't take coffee in the afternoon, but that sounds good."

We took a fifteen-minute break to sip coffee and eat freshly baked cake. Now we're headed back out to finish putting these posts in the ground.

My back is killing me, and I'm almost entirely out of energy, but it's my last afternoon at this mystical mill, and there's no reason not to enjoy it, because I know I'll make it through.

"We finish this one, and just one more, then you'll never have to touch a post again." Louis said. "Wow, you must really be excited to finish these posts." I guess I gave my last bit of effort. He was impressed. I tossed the bell aside, for the last time.

 Evening

Brown water filled the sink, as I shaved one last day of work from my face.  We hammered out those two posts, and then called it a day. On the way back to The Mill, I walked, instead of riding behind. At the creek, I stopped, and walked straight in. My Bean Boots submerged to the ankle, without a drop of water getting in. I stared at them as the mud washed away.

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It's quiet now out on the terrace. The kids and Alice are away. Louis's inside, I think, which leaves me here alone, to think.

There were some close calls, like when I ripped a chunk of my pinky finger clean off, by thrusting it right into those metal teeth. The time I fell awkwardly on my knee, as we were attempting to uproot that tree. The endless lifting, of things often far too heavy. The time I hit my head on that tree. The countless splinters. And, the scariest of all, when that 50 pounds log fell and pinched my ankle between two chunks of tree. But, after eleven full days on The Mill (eight of working), I'm leaving here tomorrow, feeling healthy.

It's been an incredible experience, and it's one I'll always cherish. That time I spent two weeks in the French Pyrenees, chopping wood, and lifting things.

The things I've learned/been introduced to:

-chopping wood (axe)

-sawing trees (chainsaw)

-making fence posts

-welding

-building steps

-fence building

-driving a quad

-lifting heavy

-smoking spliffs

-eating cheese

-being self sufficient

-living sustainably

-the French photography industry

-parenting

-philosophy

-French politics

-French cuisine (yum)

One last dinner tonight.

Tomorrow morning, I leave.

 

October 19th 2018

Day 12

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 Leaning against my bedroom window, smoking one last spliff. An earbud in my left ear, and the creek in my right. Breakfast, with Louis's mother consisted of yogurt, a banana, and cheese she brought from the Alps. It's good!

I shaved the remains of that attempted goatee. A weak mustache, and douchey soul patch. I better not get IDed to buy a drink.

I didn't sleep great, I'm groggy, but it's fine. I never sleep the night before a new place.

Alice hasn't mentioned it this morning, but last night she said we'd leave at 9:30, but that'll probably be more like 9:43. The French have a nice pace. It works for me.

While I ate my breakfast, the boys left with Louis. I guess that'll make the goodbye a little easier.

Although I've done a few Google searches, up until now, Barcelona's been little more than an abstract place on a map, much like The Mill was before I got here. But I've experienced so much in two weeks.

It's time to go now. Time to ride another road. Another song begins. The creek's drowned out by a deep, mellow tone. Let's go find the high notes.

Live libraries.

Oh shit, I have twenty minutes to pack!

Jeanne, from Noviembre.

Sat snuggly at my side in the valley of that small sofa, up against the back wall of a Spanish café, she explained to me why we had no choice but to eat the horse. I pretended to consider her advice, but my look was undoubtedly dumb. Jeanne was up against her mother and sister without assistance, as I sat there uselessly twiddling my thumbs. The game dragged on for over an hour, but no-one seemed to mind. Just a family on vacation, enjoying a game of chess, after a long day of sights.

October 27th, ‘18

4 weeks since leaving.

Out of the crisp morning air, and into the metro inferno. My ticket wouldn’t work. Another quarter mile to the service desk. My back already screamed for mercy, and I hadn’t even made it to the bus stop yet.

A tattooed beaut emerged from behind the glass. Her smile helped ease my stress. I took the metro to the bus. An older woman insisted I have her spot. “Spanish people are so nice” I thought. But then, there was that guy at the airport.

Since booking the flight to Malaga 24 hours earlier, I’d finally felt relief. A day away, in the sun, not staring at that screen. I checked my online itinerary a few times, but it was in Spanish, and I was sick of trying to do things on my phone. I had the departure time. Everything seemed fine.

As the bus arrived, I checked the email again. No ticket to be found, I figured I’d just go to the kiosk to check in. It didn’t exist. “Ryanair tickets” the desk at the back read…

   *  I looked up from my journal in that café called Noviembre, and admired her, again. *

Distracted by the gorgeous girl in front of me. I moved tables (I had my own 4 top) when they walked in. All three smiled. She hasn’t stopped. Her face is cute, but sharp, almost slightly mean, but then again, somehow sweet. Her hair is about shoulder length. It’s brown, with natural, healthy waves. Her skin is flawless, with an authentic tan that seems native to the Mediterranean Sea. Her tattoos are plentiful, yet entirely complimentary. All greyscale, and incredibly neat. Immaculate detail in her face, and on her sleeves. She’s the most beautiful yet. I never want to leave.

*I continued recapping my flight, although cautiously keeping her in sight*

… “Hola” “I just need to check in for my flight” I said. “Okay, that’ll be 60 euro.” He replied. “But haven’t I already been charged?” I inquired. It turns out the check in fee is the same price as the flight. Be aware when flying Ryanair.

Initially I was pissed. No, more hurt than mad. The giant airline corp. taking advantage of the unassuming traveler. The corporate giant crushing the little guy.

But as I settled into my spacious exit row seat, finally releasing the tension from my pack, I abandoned the frustration with it, and slammed the door on the overhead bin. It was over. It was done. No use in stressin’.

Over rustic mountains, we began our approach to Malaga. A surprisingly large airport filled with consumerism. Not what I wanted to see. Luckily, I found the shuttle to the city center with ease. From the coastal market, toward the old town. A new maze.

Past the old fortress city. Through the cobblestone alleyways. I got a bit lost, as always. But I found the place. The long-haired Italian guy named Leonardo welcomed me in. “Welcome to the jungle” the sign in the lobby read.

I got tapas next door. Un...no. Dos Canas, dos tapas, quatro euros. Not bad. Comprised mainly of rice, one with curry, the other red sauce, and both with small portions of meat. I filled up on bread. Then, I took to my new bed. Friday night, with a rooftop deck. I was determined to socialize, but I just couldn’t rest.

I gave up around eight. I got a McDonald’s “American Coffee” instead. After a month of small cafes, the medium sized brew gave me a kick. I returned to the roof, on a mission to interact. Past a group at a table, I walked toward the edge to scout. But before I’d taken my third step, two friendly guys offered me a seat and a beer to drink.

Michael’s originally from Poland, he’s got short blonde hair, and a square shape to his head. His handsome bearded friend is called Rich. He’s from England. Both are now Norwegian citizens.

We talked about travel, then hit the streets for more tapas. Night one in Malaga. Two friends.

October 28th, ‘18

I’d devoured the toast, and my smoothie was down to its last sips. I slammed the journal shut. My recap was finished. I looped the line in my head, while trying to resist staring too hard. “Desculpe. Me ecanta tus tatoos.” My best attempt at a Spanish compliment. “if it goes well”, I thought, “I’ll ask where they got them”.

I gathered my bag and took two steps toward their table. I stumbled through the first line. “I’m sorry?” they said in unison, with no idea what I’d just said. “Your tattoos. I like them. Did you get them nearby?” I blurted out in panic. “Ah, yes. We all got this one yesterday”.

Up close, I could tell the two younger ones were sisters. Jeanne, 23, a skater chick, with bangs, and pink overalls, Chuck Taylor’s, had been hidden by her beautiful older sister, Clemence. They spoke French. From Switzerland.

They showed me that tattoo shop on maps. I thanked them for their help. I left.

Down another historic corridor, toward the parlor, I went. Finally going to get that reminder to keep trying. But the guilt built with each step. “What a hypocrite.” “You’re going to get a tattoo to remind you to experience, and you just walked right out of what could have been!”. Such neglect.

About half a kilometer away, I stopped abruptly in front of another café. I pulled out my notebook and ripped a small piece from the last page. I scribbled down my Instagram and email, then marched back toward Noviembre.

They were waiting for their bill when I arrived. I slipped inside and dropped the paper with a line. “In case you want to go out later.” I said. Their hip mother insisted I sit.

“There’s this food festival we’ll go to after this.” said the skater chick. “You can join us!” “Absolutely.” I replied.

The one called Clem was stunning, but as we walked the same path I’d just gone alone, it was Jeanne that I hit it off with.

I held my camera for comfort, and it sparked a conversation. Hers is nearly the same. It’s a Nikon FG. I use an F3.

She’s a preschool teacher for pay, but with her free time, she skates. She started at 18, kinda late. But she fell in love with it, and she competes. She wears a brace around her wrist for the broken thumb, and a plastic cast around her ankle from that time she shattered her leg. She says she still can’t quite put her left foot straight, yet she still skates. A dedication I so greatly appreciate.

The food fest was a bust, so we walked to the beach instead. We stopped for a drink. She insisted to pay. We laid in the sun. The sea was quiet. Small waves. We skipped rocks into the Gibraltar Straight.

I’m not quite sure how, but from then on, my presence was implied.

From the beach, we returned to the streets. We aimed for the music museum but found tapas instead. In another narrow alleyway, where pink Spanish facades basked in the rays, we dined in the breeze. Jeanne sat next to me. Another implication seemed to be building.

We began with sangria. The booze went to our heads. The tapas were expensive, but they didn’t seem to mind. “We’re Swiss, we’re rich” they joked. I tried to pay. They wouldn’t let me.

In the music museum, I thought of places to make a move with Jeanne. In that theater, behind the curtain. Behind the instruments from the Pacific. But no, I had to resist.

In the interactive room, Clem played guitar. A familiar tune, by “of monsters and men”. Onto an adjacent drum kit, she proceeded to shred. She’s ridiculously impressive.

Jeanne insisted she had no music ability, but that gentle piano melody she played with nerves, said the rest. She’s humble, also talented. I like it.

We popped in another shop. A lack of sleep. That sangria, mid-day. My eyelids began to weigh.

“Mom says it’s okay for you to go rest” Jeanne translated my release. “You can meet us for dinner?” She asked before I left. I agreed.

I tried to sleep, but there was no point. I was restless. I went up to the rooftop bar around 8:30 pm. And as I expected, I found Mike and Rich, my Norwegian friends. I chugged a “san miguel” with them. “Have a good night guys” I said. Then, I set off to find those three swiss chicks.

I scanned the message from Jeanne and saw the name of the restaurant. But I didn’t see them when I peered in. I read again. “They had no seats, we’ve gone down the street.” She’d said. Without service or direction, I somehow spotted them through the entrance.

They were tired, I could tell. But that didn’t prevent them from smiling when I sat. “We can go for a drink after?’” Jeanne suggested as I picked at their leftovers. They insisted.

A few doors over, we sat sipping spritz, on a patch of artificial turf. Around us, the streets buzzed with passersby. We were all exhausted. And everyone’s drinks were finished. Jeanne suggested we order another. “You pick.”

With two goblets of amaretto, a local beverage, we exchanged broken English. “Damn she’s cute.” We’d just spent the entire day together. “What is this!?”

My heart raced, as we got up to leave. Clem and the mom sunk back, leaving Jeanne close enough to pull in for a kiss. But I couldn’t. Not with the audience.

“Breakfast tomorrow?” She asked. “Of course,” I said. I turned back to watch closely as Jeanne and Clem giggled, and disappeared into the sea of yellow lit cobblestone streets. It sure felt like we could have kissed.

I turned the corner and headed for bed. The crowd of people outside the hostel had other plans. “Tyler!” Rich and Mike yelled. I guess they’d changed their minds about staying in.

At a trashy college type bar, I accepted two shots, then dipped. The 19-year-old South African girl may have been attractive, but I had absolutely no interest. I devoured a falafel wrap, then an empanada, then finally, I went to bed.

October 29th, ‘18

I was excited to see them. I needed to catch up on writing. I returned to Noviembre an hour early.

I sipped a cortado, and cracked open the journal, at another empty table. I filled the last page as they filled the seats. Once again, Jeanne sat next to me.

After breakfast, we bounced around a bit. Popping in a few shops, and meandering our way through the eclectic streets. We elevated our strolls to the Alcazabar, an ancient Morish fortress city. Sun and smiles, with vistas of the mountains, and the sea. As the clouds brewed, we entered the Picasso museum. We’d just breached the doorway when it began to rain. Lucky. Although, I wouldn’t have minded running through the wet streets with her. With them.

In that café restroom, our fifth of the day, I rushed, to take a piss. Opting not to wash my hands. Seeking a chance to go for that kiss. We’d just lost a game of chess, an hour-long struggle, that included more quality conversation, and close proximity on that tiny couch. It at times felt like a snuggle.

“Was that brush of the hand on my thigh intentional?”

“Was I a part of this game?”

“Or were we only playing chess?”

I heard the door swing open. My heart pounded out of my chest. “Perfect timing” She said. “It was planned” I confessed. A brief pause. The opportunity passed.

Jeanne pleaded to stay for another cup of tea. It was easy to convince. We talked another hour, and we finally took a group pic. It’s shit, but I love it.

Outside, in the night, we said goodbye. It was brisk. “Stay in touch” they said. “’I’ll come see you someday” I made the promise.

Three big hugs. A brush of cheeks. No kiss. I turned around three times to admire them as they disappeared into the darkness.

Saying goodbye to them was the hardest part of the trip. Far greater than the crush I have on Jeanne. Or the infatuated admiration for Clem. Is the love I have for those moments I shared with them.

This morning the sky is pastel blue, matching the color of my new Spanish shoes, and the air is crisp. In just 3 days in Malaga, a season has changed, and I've borne witness. last night I didn't drink, opting, finally, for rest. I woke at 7 am. I showered and dressed.

Determined to catch up on writing, I hit the streets in search of a cafe. The yellow sunlight brushed the tops of the paint. Gentle reds and soft white. Blues on the buildings, and an infinite blue sky. Europe in the morning. It's quiet, it's slow. No horns or cars, just a few bikes, and a couple passersby.

Looping those same tracks, those ones that characterize this portion of the trip. I thought about just how much I've lived. With one more flight to book, and a few more hostels to expense, I'll likely go home with around 3K, but the money just isn't important. The connections I've made, those, are priceless. 

 

Jeanne, from Noviembre. Playlist:

Beige “Yoke Lore”

Teenage Bones “Noirre”

New Highs/New Lows “Charles Brand”

Nothing but our love “JR JR”

Wake The Dead “Nassau”

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