Walking on the Chemin de Compostelle, Week 3 (and a half): On beauty and the act of welcome


As I’m approaching the end of my over 3 weeks walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port, I’m starting to notice a few things. First, that I don’t know how I’ll be able to cope with having to go back to a normal amount of food per day (as opposed to here where I can easily have two breakfasts (and have never eaten so much baguette in my life), a lunch break, sometimes an ice cream break, cake if I should feel like it and, of course, a gargantuesque dinner. None of it matters if you walk 35 kilometers. Second, as it is for many things that run on their own time, that it both feels like I’ve been walking for an eternity and that it has lasted only a glimpse, and I don’t want it to end. I’m lucky enough not to end with a collection of blisters (I’ve seen feet that could have gone through wars) so I could go on walking, but if I were to continue on this way to Compostella, I now know why I would go. For the people you’ll meet and the shared moments.It is the first time I do a hike in which the main attraction isn’t the views and the landscape. I mean, it has been beautiful (more so in the beginning and again in the last part, as we walked through the Bearn region, the Pays Basque and came nearer and nearer to the Pyrreneans) but mostly what I’ll be bringing back with me (if I succeed to stay clear from bedbugs until the end) is the amazing spirit of welcome and generosity of some places I’ve stayed on the way. Those “gites”, often run by ex-pilgrims (or pilgrims, I don’t know if you really loose the identity once you’ve stopped walking, I would bet if you ask them they will argue you are changed for ever) are opened doors and cosy places where I’ve had amazing food and wine(of course) but mostly the ability to hear people and their stories, laugh with them, share an evening. In one of the last ones I’ve stayed, in Navarrenx, a self proclaimed “Maison philosophale” run by an alchimist who had posted lessons and motos everywhere, i was nicely summarized:

from L’alchimiste, in Navarrenx

“L’accueil, c’est ouvrir grand sa porte et n’attendre personne”

The act of welcome is to open the door wide and not to expect anybody

And that is what those people do, everyday each season (which stretches from april to november), preparing food and making tired pilgrims feel at home on the way, not really making much money out of it, but becaus they like to give without expecting anything else thant the chance of meeting someone for a while. 

And there is no price to put on those moments spent together, just the certainty that we did meet, and that as I’m walking away I’ll try to keep my door and heart as open as theirs

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Just a dash of creepiness – suitably dark reads review

I have a taste for the morbid, the thrilling, the creepy, the frankly darker-than-dark. I don’t know where it stems from (my  siblings would probably say from my utterly satanic nature, but they can talk, I’m pretty sure they can’t come too close to a crucifix without combusting themselves) but I just love myself a very creepy book, from time to time. But a good one, please, and happily so were the two last ones I read – both easily desearving a spot at the top of this gloomy category.

First (in no order, so maybe last, but this is not a post for Biblical quotes): Under the Skin, by Michel Faber.

I know, I shouldn’t. I will very soon not have anything left to read by Faber, and since he has said he won’t write any new fiction after the tragedy of the death of his wife I won’t even have the hope of waiting for the next published book. But I couldn’t help myself and picked Under the skin up.

This is about Isserley, a woman picking up hitch-hikers in lonely Scottish roads, with a very deliberate set of criteria motivating her choice. What happens with the hitch-hikers, and what underlines Isserley’s otherness and pain well, you’ll have to discover by yourself but safe to say it is…not for the faint hearted (not because it is gore, it is precise and understated but still dark) and are in for a trip across moral boundaries, and a reflection on humanity and self. It might put you out of any thoughts of hitch-hiking in dark Scottish roads, but it’s well worth the read.

Secondly,The glister, by John Burnside

In the small town of Innertown, built next to a abandoned chemical plant that has poluted the woods and lands around and gives cancers to the population, teenage boys are disapearing. Nobody knows if they are leaving this cursed place of post-industrial despair (at the verge with a dystopian post abocalyptic landscape, but not quite) or if they are dead. And the local constable, who ought to fight for the truth, has been bought.

Leonard, a teenage boy who has lost his best friend, tries to find the truth while watching his father died, living his teenage life of loveless sex and violent friendships, befriends the town’s loner and a mysterious character called “the moth-man”.

I suppose it helps to be a poet by trade to write so beautifully about chemical waste-lands and gruesome events. But this is indeed beautiful, with a poetic rythm, and manages to be a moving portrait of adolescence, without cynicism, as a last stand before adulthood – because adulthood, in Innertown, is corruption or slow disapearance and death. And there is no way out.

At the end, if you expect a clear demarcation between good and evil, a just punishment, a revelation, you should read something else. Burnside won’t give you absolution or just one answer, instead you are left with a myriad of possibilities, the freedom to choose to interpret those and a haunting vision of those grey, polluted woods and the boys who aren’t there. 

So, beware, those are haunting reads. But who minds being possessed when the ghosts have such poetic beauty?

N.B I’m currently walking along the Camino de Santiago in Southern France, with limited internet acess. I may not reply to comments right away but I’ll be delighted to read them and reply whenever I can

Some treasured gold you’ll find in unlikely places – The suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

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definitely not my copy, which looked as if an army of backpackers had stomped on it with the full force of their combined body and rucksacks

If you’re anything like me, you are currently slipping your 3rd cup of coffee of the day – despite it being 10.05 a.m, but I woke up early and had to do some stats, the horror! so everything is forgiven – and your hair has started self-dreadlocking on its own volition, because it does not agree with the constant changes in humidity levels I put it through. (Picture one of these bits of dry bushes flying in the Desert, like:

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an entirely faithful portrait of yours truly – missing the coffee cup

Well, maybe not that exactly. But if you are any-other-thing like me then you are probably fascinated with crime novels. I read them on bouts of 3 or 4 in a few days, like an addict, with the same amount of love for every sub-genre, from the Nordic noirs to the quaint English Miss Marple style, the dark and violent American thrillers, the food-obsessed and funny Italians, the metaphysical and historical meanderings of Fred Vargas (French), the Chinese, and even, recently, the Lao. Continue reading

​Sabai Sabai living : Thoughts on Laos

I’m writing this from a hammock. I know it must be just about the douchiest sentence to utter, and I apologize for anyone reading it after a hard day’s work. It’s the blogging equivalent to that facebook friend posting selfies at the beach in the Carribean in the middle of February. Well for once, I get to be just that instead of the one reading about it at home, and boy do I enjoy it! I’m not at the beach – some things don’t change – I’m in a bungalow on a small Island on the Mekong river, in South Laos. It is just about how it sounds, probaly the most laid back place on Earth.

We’ve been in Laos for almost two weeks, now, and after Myanmar, it’s been refreshingly…quiet. We arrived in Vientiane, the capital city, on a sunday at noon, and thought we had just wandered into a ghost town. And this is not only according to South-East-Asia-Capital-Cities standards, it would even be considered quiet if it were a small provincial southern French town, on a sunday afternoon when everyone is napping. So compared to Yangon or Bangkok, you could talk of a culture shock. But Vientiane has the charm of a half-forgotten colonial post along the Mekong river, with its white villas and bushes of colorful bougainvillea, its small french cafes (with real, good coffee, can you imagine?, after two weeks of diluted filter coffee in Myanmar, we might have reached nirvana at our first stop in a Boulangerie that afternoon), and, when the Vientiane population comes out of their nap on sunday evening and go for a stroll on the river banks to explore the stalls of chinese clothes and lao street food at the night market, it also looks like a very leisurely town. Of course, it can’t be that simple, and there is more to it than just a pleasant apathy. There are new investors, modern supermarkets just opening, even some (small) trafic jams when it gets busy. In short, and despite our first impression, for Lao standards, this isn’t a quiet town, rather a busy metropole, as we discovered shortly after.

From Vientiane, we went to Luang Prabang – an former capital city (as capital cities tend to change with every new king or government, in the region, we tend to visit a lot of “former capital cities”), with the faithfull help of the night bus, our eternal friend here (which has the two major advantage of sparing one hotel night and gaining one day for visiting, with just the minor drawbacks of not getting the best sleep ever, but in a country with good coffee, who cares?), and realize you can do an even quieter version of Vientiane, with magnificient temples, all of it surrounded by a lush jungle of hills and muddy waterfalls. There too, the spirit is that of a refined art of farniente in which it is very easy to slip into: why would you do so much in one day? it is either too hot, or too rainy anyway, just have a break in a cafe and then maybe go to see a temple, if you’re not tired, in which case, well, you could have a lao-style-salad or a fruit shake at the market stalls, or a nap, there’s really no need to rush. 

And somehow, for us, who usually fill every minute of the day with occupations, to make sure we’ve enjoyed it, or that it was worth it, it is the easiest thing in the world to do nothing sometimes, or very little. Slowly, we have come to the South of the country (with the help of other night buses, all of which had engine problems that enable interesting stops in the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours, enough to enjoy a stretch of dusty road and the sound of the driver and its helper making stomp-like concerto somewhere underneath the bus – how that managed to get the bus going for another 200 kms we might never know, better not to wonder too much, those things have their own rules). It is – if possible – even quieter. Only this morning, as we were on a boat to reach this small Island on the Mekong – did we get a reason to get our blood worked up a bit, as the boat driver drove us to another Island and tried to ask for more money to go to the right one. While arguing (it did only take about ten minutes, and once he realized we wouldn’t give him any money, he quickly gave up with the sort of half smile that said “well, I’ve got to try, it’s only fair game”, we realized how uncommon it had been – in fact, it was the first time in this trip (though it was the 3rd time for a girl next to us, for whom it was beginning to be quite annoying), and had becomed so unlikely we almost didn’t know how to get angry anymore. A good sign for a country, surely, that it is so laid-back you don’t remember how to work up a temper. And now, in a hammock with my book, watching the reflection of the sun on the Mekong, I think about how easy it is, in fact, to naturally do nothing, and how natural it would be to just let the days slip in this small Island.
Well, (un)fortunately, we still have Cambodia to discover and a few things to do, so we will have to leave and come back to the frenesy of our normal days. But a bit of Laos, the gold and red of its temples, the slow progression of the Mekong and its peace will stay with me.

Slow meanderings and shimmering, musical beauty. The piano tuner by Daniel Mason, book review, #aw80books Myanmar

​I have an audiobook hangover that I can’t seem to shake of. All because of this book. I’ve changed country, started a new book, and yet the melancholic, slow pace and the exactitude of the descriptions  of this book’s narrative voice are still in my head. A lot of what I see Isee through “the Piano tuner”, now. So beware, this is a powerful book
A book I haven’t exactly read, but listened to, on boats, on public buses, every where on the roads of Myanmar. And I think it is a book extremely well fitted to the audio form. It is very slow paced, very descritpive, it sometimes reads like a oral tale or a long prose poem. I don’t know if I would have liked it so much in written form, or in any other context. But it was just the perfect book to listen in this last week.

This, as the title depicts, is a story about a piano Tuner. Edgar Drake, a quiet, happily married man  who is commissioned by the British Army to travel to Burma to tune an Erard Piano in a outpost of the British Armed forces, a small village of the Shan States, because the Officer posted there, Dr Anthony Carol, a mysterious man but very successful with the local population, has requested it. Drakes leaves England – half reluctantly, half drawn by an irresistible attraction to this exotic Land he doesn’t quite understand himself, and discovers the enthralling beauty of Burma, at the time of the third Anglo-Burmese war. The rest of the story, as well as Major Carol’s motivations and character, couldn’t be discussed here without spoiling the plot, but it is safe to say it involves a woman, war and politics, and music.


I’ve just discovered that Mason, the author, wrote this after traveling to Myanmar – which is absolutely not a surprise to me: he is incredibly skilled at depicting the atmosphere, the colors, the scents, in short Myanmar. In fact, it was almost erie to listen to one of his depictions and see exactly what he was writing about – the vegetation, a woman under an umbrella – a few minutes after. A strange game of deja-vus between the book and real life, as one turned to the other.

So if you want a trip to Burma without leaving your sofa, read this. This is a shot of every color you might find there, from the Thanaka powder the women paint their faces with to the shimmering glances of pagodas in the distance. And more than that, it is also a great story of attraction and love and conflicts. The only annoying thing, probably, is that it was written by Mason when he was still a medical student. Now, that kind of statistics, much like olympic athletes winning medals at 19 years old, is just showing of really. But when the result is “The piano tuner”, it’s worth it.

Nothing but grief

I’ve been, as yet again (and the fact that I even have to write the words “yet again” in this context says it all) floored and crushed by the string of violence and utter monstrosity of the events in Nice, and Baghdad, and the violences in Turkey, and…It’s getting too long and too grim to list them, and they occurred in a couple of weeks. Weeks!
More than ever I hate that the first feeling when the news alert pops in is a sort of disgusted “oh, not again”, as if this succession is expected somehow. And the political discourse, and the awaited raise in xenophobic or racist reply, and the violence building up.
Mostly I’ve been thinking on a loop about the people – the children – who lost their lives and about their families and friends. And about how there must be mountains of grief and sadness I can’t even grasp. So much suffering that can’t be expressed but becomes everything. And sometimes I think about the fact that someone actually drove a truck with the intent of killing as many people as possible, and the atrocity of that shocks me into not being able to think any more.
It’s been days feeling this way and not finding any words to write. But somehow as I was trying to write today about trivial things, and books I recently borrowed or bought for my next travel I felt I couldn’t let it pass and just go on. Even if not writing about it absolutely doesn’t mean not thinking about it, even if writing about it absolutely doesn’t help. Even if I have been loving reading about something else, like other people buying books and reviewing them, and that has helped me in these moments utter despair in humanity. Somehow today I can’t do just the same, it will probably come back tomorrow.
This just helps me to stand still for a moment and grieve, because I’ve been grieving almost constantly but never truly in the past days, always thinking about it when I had a minute of calm but then letting the daily life go by. Which is no way to grieve at all.
So stop.
And cry.
And try to rekindle hope and conviction in humanity’s tolerance and love.
That’s all I can do today.

 

Who let the dogs out (in the lake)?

Physiotherapy advise number 167 after randomly turning your knee ligaments into cauliflower was supposed to be swimming. “very good”, “a must do” as I was told by both the surgeon and the physical therapist. So, dutifully, I tried swimming a couple of weeks (well, actually a lot more than that now) ago. I just made it sound like I’d do this only for the sole purpose of obeying to my therapists, like a dutiful patient when I was actually experiencing severe withdrawals symptoms from “not having been in a lake for 3 months”. I have weird addictions.

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an Ode in transit: bus stations

I sometimes feel like I enjoy the in between times more than the destinations. Some small symbols of travel (but not airport terminals,  never those) where it is the nothingness of the place, its latency, that makes the place poetic, in a potential way. That might be why I like bus stations so much. Not the city ones, but the central bus stations, with their gazoil and urine smell (it is the same everywhere, there is just an added smell of re-fried snacks when you are in India or Africa), with the glazed, empty looks of people waiting, people sleeping in banks. The strange community of people having not enough money to go by train or plane. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in bus stations.I should have kept count, but then again, when you are in one, you don’t count any more. The bus comes when the bus comes.

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Dudenblitz and other translated pleasures

I’ve had a busy week (partly because of essays and presentations, partly because of meeting friends in bars and going to concerts and theatres, so I can’t complain too much),  and so, for my first relaxed weekend day today I… went to a bookshop (surprising, I know).

I had a good excuse for it: the need to find more books in German (it’s not book addiction if it helps you learn a language, you see? actually I could use that excuse in any language, now that I think of it, bookshops, here I come!). And I did fulfil that mission (book haul may be coming, but it’s going to be a very Germanic one, if you’re interested). Continue reading

The ways of the world

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An rare example of a blue sky in February, and no snow at all (the Mont-Blanc doesn’t count)

About two weeks ago, I went for a small bicycle tour in the countryside around Geneva, enjoying a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in February, something so impossible it sounds wrong even as I am writing it. I passed by a road I’ve passed by many times, by an old and respectable graveyard, in one of the most respectable communes  of Geneva – and by respectable, here, I mean more than well of, you only have to look at its golf course. I knew that in this quiet and well polished graveyard lies one of my favourite authors, if not my absolute favourite author, Nicolas Bouvier. It is ten minutes away from my house (though my neighbourhood is far less fancy) –  yet I had never been there. I don’t know why, probably I was intimidated. Or not prone to sentimentalism, after all, graveyards and tombs are much less important to me than books, the real legacy.

In any case, this time, I entered. And went to say thank you.

Because I don’t think there is one author (and writer, and photographer, and iconographer, and…) that shaped my life as much as Nicolas Bouvier. 

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Nicolas Bouvier (on the left), Thierry vernet (on the right), and the Fiat they travelled the world with (Copiright:www.swissinfo.ch) 

He was born in Geneva on March 6 (which incidentally is also the date I’m writing this), 1929, in a respectable family. He studied there but was – since childhood – obsessed by the idea of travel, of far of places and discoveries. Only this turned out into more than a few meanderings over an atlas in an attic. And, after a first escapade to Istanbul, he left Geneva in 1953 with his friend Thierry Vernet, a painter, on an old and quiet frankly temperamental Fiat to go to Belgrade, and from there, all the way to India.

From this 2 year long journey through Asia, he wrote a book called “l’usage du monde”, “the ways of the world” as it is translated, which also contains the ink drawings from Thierry Vernet.

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Thierry Vernet’s ink drawings

This is the book that always comes to mind when I have to reply to “what is your favourite book”, “what book would you take with you on a desert Island” and other horrible questions. 

Because it is everything: First, it is a fascinating story about two young men of 25 going into a journey almost nobody had done before and that you couldn’t do any more nowadays (they crossed Irak, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, amongst other, making this book also a testimony of an era of relative peace and stability in the middle east, a sad reminder of a lot of things destroyed since that time). They have a glorious amount of travel misadventures, like car problems in the middle of the deserts, getting stuck for a whole winter by the snow in Tabriz, Iran, trying to earn a minimal living by writing and painting in Yougoslavia, Istanbul and everywhere else. They had a number of great encounters, from gypsies and truck drivers to painters and famished intellectuals of the communist Balkans, and so much more.

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It is marvellously well written, it is one of the truest books I’ve ever encountered, because it stems from a conscious desire of Bouvier to “become transparent”, to stand as little as possible in the way of the reality of the experiences lived. He is lyrical, but never romanticises the reality he is faced with. He manages to translate the feelings, the lights, the smells, the noise of countless atmospheres crossed, from summer in Yougoslavia to winter in Iran.

It is so much more than a travel-book, even if Bouvier would say it is mostly that. He was happy to be a travel-writer. It is a book about the experience of beauty, the search of self in a changing world, the quest for artistic validity and honesty, and at the same time a wonderful story. 

It has shaped my views of travel, as a way of undoing, an exercise of subtraction:  “Travelling provides occasions for shaking oneself up but not, as people believe, freedom. Indeed it involves a kind of reduction: deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper, the traveller finds himself reduced to more modest proportions – but also more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight.” As a necessity, as well, for I don’t know if I would have had the same drive to actually go out into the world, to travel as much, had I not fallen in love with it in Bouvier’s books before. And a necessary reminder of what it would teach me, and what it has indeed taught me.

So I owe a lot of the most striking moments of my life, at the top of public buses in rural India or even just at home reading, to this man of the world, buried a few kilometres away from where I live now. And I felt like saying thanks, two weeks ago but indeed any other day, for what he has brought to the world.

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To quote him, for a change – though I have not been able to find the translation for that paragraph – but it is about the moments of intense beauty that you sometimes experience and their importance as the foundation of existence:

“Finalement, ce qui constitue l’ossature de l’existence, ce n’est ni la famille, ni la carrière, ni ce que d’autres diront ou penseront de vous, mais quelques instants de cette nature, soulevés par une lévitation plus sereine encore que celle de l’amour, et que la vie nous distribue avec une parcimonie à la mesure de notre faible cœur”