Saturday, June 20, 2015

Two Years Later

It's hard to believe, but it was two years ago today we walked into Santiago de Compestella after carrying a 13-14 month old Kepa on our backs for almost 500 miles. It remains the greatest experience of our family's life, and we can't wait until Kepa is old enough to walk the Northern Camino.  But since that is quite a few years off, we've had to continue to occupy ourselves with other types of continual journey and evolution.  As promised, since we don't do "the Book of the Face," we are back for our annual update.

We still walk almost every day, usually about 4-5 miles but sometimes up to 10 when we can find the time. Kepa loves it and looks forward to it. Sometimes we stop off at a family dive bar (only in New Orleans can those words go together!) near our house called Down the feels a bit like stops on the Camino.  Kepa very rarely (like maybe once a month?) gets to ride in the pack any more though, he's just too big.  Thank God for Bob strollers.

We are amazed (shocked?) to realize Kepa still remembers the Camino. We are sure that will eventually fade, but for now he still picks up his camino stick, walks around, and pretends to hike.  When we watched the new Camino Documentary that came out in the last year (more on that in a moment), he stared at it intently for an hour and a half.  And then he wanted to watch it again the next day.  When asked if he remembered, he replied with a tone that implies, why are you asking me that, as he said "yeah, en camino."

Two movies that are at least semi-Camino related came out this year.  The first, a documentary called Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago may be the best Camino film we've seen yet.  It has its faults, and certainly romanticizes a tad at times, but it is a well-made movie and (separately) one of the most accurate depictions of what the Camino is really like we've ever seen.  Far better than the Martin Sheen movie, The Way.  If you are the type of person who liked this blog at all (and that still baffles us!) then we highly recommend this documentary. One of the six pilgrims featured is a French woman walking with her four year old. Her reasons and experience look far different from ours, but it was still interesting to see a child featured. The other movie isn't really Camino related at all, more hiking.  But Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, may be the best hiking/journey/transformation film we've ever seen.  This is a tired, over-done genre (we've talked about that while critiquing The Way in the past).....and Wild manages to invoke pretty much all of those cliches only in order to defuse them.  There is some really annoying (and obvious) product placement for Snapple and REI, but other than that, it is sublime.

We are still in close contact with Marian, our Basque lady friend, and keep in fairly good contact with the Double-A's in Texas, Kim and David from England, and Joan from Catalunya. Kim is recovering nicely from her cancer and Marian is busy building and running Casa Rurals in the Basque Region.  Let us know if you want to rent one from her, she'd appreciate it :)

In non-Camino news, we remain active and busy (though broke) as we try to keep updating and fixing our 1885 house in the Irish Channel of New Orleans.  Brittany's academic book came out this year (a comparison between Spain and the U.S. South), Todd has an academic article (about Sofia Coppola's road-movie Somewhere) in December, he does monthly movie reviews for a tiny magazine in Houma, and Todd and Brittany have been busy on a couple of other joint writing projects. Mary Ann has now been living in New Orleans for a year-and-a-half and got her own apartment, about a mile from us, last August.  She seems to like it here, when she has time and energy to enjoy the city. Her job really is working her hard.  Todd still commutes to Thibodaux, and Kepa rides with him for daycare three days a week. Brittany is still working in New Orleans.  Kepa is working on potty training.  He's both late, and slow to take to it.  Let's hope that isn't still a topic of conversation this time next year :)

Brittany's mom passed away suddenly in December.  Her Aunt and Uncle are still Frenching it up on the West Bank of New Orleans.  And even Frencher than that, the paperwork has finally come through for both Brittany and Kepa's dual French citizenship. Now Todd is the only non-international in the house.

If all of this typing hasn't yet put you to sleep, here is our year in pictures:

Our plan had been to take the year off from travel in order to save up for a Basque trip in the Summer of 16, but Mary Ann rented a house for a week over July Fourth at Folly Beach just outside of Charleston SC and invited us along (it was her trick to get a family vacation).  Charleston is our second favorite city in the nation, has a great food scene, and Folly Beach is the (rare) beach that matches our family vibe.  So we agreed to go along.  On the way we spent the night in Nashville in order to eat at Rotier's and then see Gillian Welch, our favorite musician (along with Dylan of course), at the Ryman.  Mary Ann sat with Kepa in the balcony (planning to leave as soon as he was a distraction) and we had great seats.  But Kepa made it three hours glued and mesmerized.  After 11 hours in the car, a 2-year old stayed up for a seated concert until 11 PM.  We are in shock.  And thank goodness they played his Camino bedtime song: "The Monkey and the Engineer" The next day we stopped off in Orangeburg for one of our two favorite BBQ joints in the world, Duke's.  It was Kepa's first experience.

Upper Left: Dave Rawlings Machine/Gillian Welch at the Ryman, The Rest: Duke's
Folly Beach is one of the things that makes Charleston great.  It's literally just around the point from the mouth of Charleston Harbor, making a great, great American city also linked to a pristine, natural beach that feels untouched.  And, as yet, not run over by condos and tourists and retirees.  Folly Beach is still a funky beach.  Our place was right on it (you could walk out on the beach).  Pivo and Kepa had a particularly good time, but it was an amazing trip.  Usually we are the type always on the go, diving head first into foreign culture, when we travel.  While we have fond memories of eating curried goat at a locals-only restaurant in Ocho Rio, Jamaica and standing butt naked getting beaten by sticks in a banya in St Petersburgh Russia, coming a year after the most on the go trip ever (the Camino) it was nice to put our feet up and chill.  It also helped keep the trip on budget.

Folly Beach SC
While we mostly went low-budget in Charleston, we did have a lot of fun.  We ate some amazing fresh tacos at a dive on Folly Beach, made a trip to the heart of Gullah country for an amazing lunch, and one night Todd and Brittany splurged and ate at Husk.  Sean Brock is helping to reinvigorate Charleston cuisine (once one of the most important food areas in the USA) and the restaurant is sublime.  We particularly enjoyed the pigs ear lettuce wraps and the oysters.  We are sad we didn't have the nerve to try his infamous Husk Burger, but we couldn't quite get ourselves to order a burger at a fine dining establishment.  That said, we've made it a zillion times out of his amazing cookbook and it is now our standard home burger.  It is fantastic.  Husk was one of the five finalists for the 2015 James Beard Chef of the Year (along with Nola's Donald Link) and it is well earned.  All of this said, it was also quite refreshing to realize that while we LOVED Husk, and hope to go back, it would probably not quite crack our top-5 restaurants in NOLA.  Just when we thought we over romanticized our hometown, outside experienced reaffirmed our love of our hometown.

Bri in front of Husk
The rest of the summer was mostly reserved for teaching summer school and working on our research/publications.  But we did take time out to (yet again) do the NOLA Running of the Bulls and local Bastille Day celebrations.  Kepa quite enjoyed himself at Bastille Day:

As usual, our biggest Fall activity is hosting tailgates for Tulane football.  This year was a particularly fun yet challenging year because for the first time in almost forty years Tulane football moved back on campus, to brand new Yulman Stadium.  The tailgating scene on the quad is some of the best we've ever seen anywhere in the south, and that has made gameday much more fun. Alas, the team couldn't quite match the new enthusiasm, going 3-9 for the year.
You'll Love Yulman Stadium.....Kepa does!!!!!
A picture of Brittany and Kepa at Homecoming also got snagged by Tulane and placed on their homepage, where it still lives about 50% of the time.  We think it is a phenomenal picture.

Bri and Kepa on Tulane's Homepage
And if that wasn't enough time in the media spotlight, footage of our tailgate krewe got used in a commercial for Tulane football!
Bris is front and center, but Todd was off meeting Kepa and MaryAnn at the parking spot, so they missed out! 
We also had fun at NOLA's Oktoberfest and celebrating Halloween.  Kepa went as a cowboy.  We trick or treated at tailgating (Halloween was a gameday), but Kepa didn't seem to mind.  Overall, though, he had even more fun picking out and cleaning his own pumpkin the weekend before.
Pumpkin Patch Lovin' Cowboy
XMas consisted of doing most of our NOLA Family traditions---going to see the decorations at the Roosevelt hotel, caroling in Jackson Square, Christmas in the Oaks at City Park.  It was a lot of fun to see Kepa old enough to really "get" it.  He was in awe on Christmas day.  His biggest gift was a teepee (with lights inside) that Brittany and Pivo spent days sewing.
Upper Left: Kepa in the window at Sucre. The Rest: The Tee-Pee
We all had a really good Carnival season with nice weather (though really cold on Mardi Gras Day).  Kepa had a blast at the parades and Mary Ann joined a faux dance troupe, the Oui Dats, who dress as Marie Antoinette's and march in two parades.  Todd and Brittany are still in Krewe du Vieux.  Our family Mardi Gras Day costume was all of the characters from Pixar's Up, but at the last minute Kepa rebelled about some of his costume, so he doesn't look SO much like Mr. Fredrickson.  Kepa doesn't watch tons of TV, but he has his father's obsession with the things he likes, which, for Kepa, are: Singing in the Rain, Toy Story, Up, Peppa Pig, and, above all else, the almighty Smurfs (the original ones, not the recent movies).
From Upper Right, Counter-Clockwise: The Family on Mardi Gras Day, Kepa enjoys a oversized tooth brush thrown from a float, Mary Ann in her Oui Dat costume, & the family at the Irish Channel St Patrick's Day Parade

Some family celebrations included our dear friends from South Carolina, Scott and Nicole, visiting. Nicole's Kazakhstan adoption blog is one of the best reads we've ever had and her political blog is pretty awesome too. They are kind of our heroes.  And in June, we celebrated our stupid ol' Kenne-Day celebration again.  Any excuse for Fried Eggs, French Fries, Chorizo, and Bacon.....Right?
Scott, Nicole, Bri, and Kepa on the left. Torta de Santiago from Kenneday on the right.
Spring is also Festival season in NOLA:
Left: The family races to finish turtle soup at French Quarter Fest, Top Right: Boudin Stuff Fried Chicken from Patois also at FW Fest, Lower Right: Kepa blows his bubble gun at Jazz Fest
The biggest family news is that Mary Ann is considering using the money she got for selling her house in Virginia in order to buy an apartment in Donostia in the Basque Country.  Basically, we convinced her that our retirement dream was her retirement dream.....meaning we will all get to enjoy it sooner.  We are mostly skipping travel this year in order to save money for a trip to the Basque Country next year, and, fingers crossed, to buy the apartment while there.  Wouldn't it be awesome if next year's post included pictures of our brand new Basque House?  And we can't think of a better childhood for Kepa than 9 months a year in New Orleans and 2-3 months in Euskal Herria, all while holding a French citizenship. It will give him a lot of options and life experience that we all could have only dreamed of being raised with.

So two years out of Santiago, we're still trekking on, even if a bit closer to home.  Kepa says hi.....

Friday, June 20, 2014

One Year Later

Wow.  So it's been a year.  One year ago today this sad and sorry lot of New Orleanians made our way into Santiago de Compostella, dragging a 29-pound 14-month old on our backs.  A lot has changed in a year, and a lot has stayed the same. More than anything, we remain amazed at how much of an impact the Camino still has on our lives.  So we thought we'd do a one-year update post.

First we're going to update you on our year, and then some updates about the people we met along the Way of Saint James.

A lot of things related to topics from this blog have been in the news in the past year.  First, in late July of last year, three days after our final blogpost, a train derailed on festival day just outside of Santiago, killing 80, including some people on their way home from pilgrimage.  A sad way for too many lives to end. More recently, the New York Times Magazine put out a knockout piece about Elena Arzak, who embodies everything we love about food, culture, and being Basque.  Speaking of the Basques, we also recently discovered this funny, kick-ass blog by a 22-year old Basque-American in San Francisco that is entirely about what its like growing up Basque in America.  Last week, Spain was in the news when  the King, Juan Carlos I, abdicated, and questions about the future of the Spanish monarchy linger over Spain. While we are by no means pro-monarchy, it is worth remembering that in a twist of historical irony, it is Juan Carlos (helped by Basque terrorists) who restored democracy to Spain after decades being ruled by a fascist dictator.  Only the Spanish!  Two days after the abdication announcement, the Spanish national football team suffered the worst World Cup loss by a defending champion in history (5-1 to The Netherlands) and then followed that up with another 2-0 loss (to Chile).  Game, set, match.  Even more pressing, however, is news that Miley Cyrus humiliated herself by trying to be "cool" as she waved a Basque flag in Catalunya's Barcelona (insert eye roll).

This spring we were contacted (both on this blog and by email) by a grandfather, father, and mother, and 2 year old little girl who were planning to walk the camino this summer.  In the end, they had to bag their plans because of trouble getting off from work. But there is at least one wee one out on the Camino this June, although by the looks of their clothes and the chariot (and the fact that they are using a chariot to begin with) I'm betting they started in Sarria.  Though that is a worthy feat in and of itself.

A lot has been going on in Casa Kennedy too. Brittany's book--which compares Francoist Spain to the Jim Crow U.S. South--is in the final stages of preparation for publication with the University Press of Mississippi.  G-Mom moved to New Orleans in December and is living with the rest of us until she moves to her own apartment in August. Todd and Brittany have written an article together--comparing the U.S. bayou film Beasts of the Southern Wild to, you guessed it, the Basque film Vacas. We've planted a back yard, totally demolished (and begun renovation on) a bathroom, and re-hung tons of moldy dry wall around leaky windows.  But the biggest change is that the 29-pound package we carried on our backs for 500 miles across the North of Spain is now 31 pounds and he walks/runs, talks, and, you know, does stuff.  Here's the K-man now....

On the left, Kepa in a Gillian Welch t-shirt rocking out at JazzFest in May.
On the right, he's checking out G-Mom in April
Kepa, who was born two months premature, is still a bit behind in the talking stage, but he's coming on fast in the past few weeks.  Meanwhile, in every other way he is at or ahead of most milestones.  And the talking is getting better.  He speaks Spanish with his mother and English with everyone else. And although he can't yet count in English, he can count to three and say goodbye in Basque.  Now that's a man with his priorities straight!  He may be one of the most happy-go-lucky baby's I've ever met.  He eats a pretty wide range of food, loves going for walks (well, are you surprised?), and is usually actually happy for naptime/bedtime.  Did we hit the baby lottery or what?

In the fall came football/tailgate season.  Tulane actually managed to win some games and made their first bowl in over a decade.  We went to all 6 home games, an away game in Houston, and the bowl game in New Orleans----Kepa made it awake and happy to 1 AM for the bowl (say whaaat?).

On the left, Kepa en route to his first game of the season.
On the right, Brittany carries Kepa in the pack through the French Quarter the night before the bowl game.
You'd think, by looking at him, that he's really used to riding in that pack or something!

At Christmas time we all went to Virginia to help G-Mom move, and we also went to see christmas lights at two zoos---Houston (while going to the football game) and Memphis (on the way back from Virginia).  For having spent all our travel time/money on the Camino, we got to have a pretty active Christmas!!

Rotating clockwise from top-left: K. at Christmas day dinner, B. and K. looking at the ducks at the Peabody in Memphis, K. helping pick out a Christmas tree, & T. B. & K. at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans at Christmas time.

With Spring in New Orleans comes Mardi Gras.  Kepa had a blast.  Carnival is a much more family oriented event than tourists imagine (outside of the French Quarter anyway).  Parades, beads, bands.  Kepa wants to join a band.  It's like his favorite thing.  Well, that and Singin' in the Rain.

Our February craft project: A Mardi Gras parade ladder in Tulane blue

Kepa enjoys his first active Carnival season, and G-Mom enjoys her first ever!

In June we decided to solidify a Kennedy family tradition----June 3 is "Kenneday."  OK.  It's Cheesie.  I'm not going to defend it.  But at least let me explain it, and it might seem a bit less off the wall (and definitely more sane than, say, walking five hundred miles with a baby across the north of Spain).  We don't really celebrate Valentines Day, nor Mother's or Father's Day (yeah, we're weird.....just always felt like odd, slightly forced holidays to us).  And June 3 was Kepa's due date--before he decided he wanted "out" two months early.  And when we were on Camino, June 3 was the first time we found Tarta de Santiago in Carrion de los Condes. So we've decided to have a family holiday every year now to commemorate that day.  Bri made a tarta de Santiago and we made a dinner out of our favorite camino meal: Chorizo, Bacon, French Fries, and Fried Eggs.

Kenneday Feast!!!!!
Meanwhile, the Camino unexpectedly led us to make some life long friends and relationships.  As we discussed in our "rearview thoughts" post last summer, we really came to love our Camino family.  Sadly, many of them we never exchanged information with and will probably never talk to again the rest of our lives, but it is amazing how many of them we are still in contact with.

We exchanged Christmas cards with The Double A's, the girls from Texas A&M girls we posted a picture of on the Camino.  Amber, who just graduated this Spring, almost met up with us in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, but alas it fell through.  Troy, a guy we knew on the camino who walked with them, did manage to meet us last November.  We had a fun meal with him here in New Orleans.  It felt really odd (but good) seeing a Camino person in NOLA.  It was like worlds colliding.

Troy, Kepa, and Brittany at Company Burger
Joan, the incredibly intelligent, articulate, and generous Andorran man that we spent a lot of time with early in the Camino remains in touch.  We sent him some Mardi Gras bling for his grandsons, and he sent us some beautiful books about Andorra.  He was, before retirement, a very important person high up in their government staffing there.  He has become a dear friend and we hope to visit him in Andorra one day.

Joan, G-Mom, Bri, and Kepa outside a pilgrim's hospital last summer
David and Kim, the English couple we walked with every day for the first week before we left them in our dust (haha) have also stayed in contact, and sent us a lovely magnet from their home region, Suffolk, at Christmas.  David is a Church of England vicar and Kim is a school nurse.  Sadly, Kim had a double mastectomy in December and is only recently back to work.  We wish her much strength in her recovery!
David, Kim, Bri, and Kepa in Torres del Rio last May.

Marian, the head of the older Basque ladies who basically adopted Kepa (and by virtue us) for the entire 500 miles has been the most in contact of all.  She knits things for Kepa, Skypes with Brittany, and sends along Basque coloring books and story books.  She's also gone back to re-do small sections of the Camino with friends.

On the left, Villar de Maserife last June.  On the right, Marian in Villar de Maseriffe a year later.
The most surprising connection may come from Yamada, the Japanese man we befriended (and talked about on the blog) but who spoke barely a word of English.  We mailed him a Christmas card and a CD of New Orleans jazz music (he likes jazz) and he responded by sending us a DVD of his camino pictures.  It's well worth a watch through if you are Camino obsessed, and the Kennedy's are big time stars in this film---appearing at least five times.

It's been a long road, but we've learned a lot.  I think we really worried 1) what Kepa could get out of this experience at such a young age & 2) if we could enjoy such an experience while carrying a 13-14 month old the entire way.  Both worries have proven unfounded.  The camino has proven to be one of the most unique and influential bonding experiences of our lives, and it effects all of our personalities to this day.  We still walk daily when we can, and Kepa still seems affected by the experience---whether or not he actually remembers it.  He definitely still remembered it in December when we decided to watch Martin Sheen's The Way, and he instantly, before the first shot of the camino was over, ran to pick up his Camino stick and walk around the room.  To this day he seems enthralled whenever we look at Camino pictures on the TV, but I think it is more curiosity (recognizing himself but not remembering) than it is actual memories.  But there is no doubt in our minds that his happy-go-lucky nature, his adaptability, his varied food tastes, his happy demeanor, all have a TON to do with the Camino.  One acquaintance described him last fall as "seeming like he's always happy, looking for the next party."  And he is.  And we think the Camino taught him that.  Diversity, uprootedness, community....they aren't bad things.

Kepa learned many things.  Including his love for pork products.  Chorizo anyone?

We ate at Pesche again in May, and it instantly snapped us back to what is great both about the Basque region/Spain and NOLA.  We still think that, someday, we'd like to try our hand at the Camino Norte.  And Brittany and I would like to do the Frances again starting all the way back in Paris.  But that is all a long way off.  In the meantime, it is more house work and school work.  And more bringing up Kepa.  Maybe a short trip to the (American) beach and a few festivals in NOLA.  Looking forward to continue to keep on keepin' on.
Moving forward along the Mississippi

Monday, July 22, 2013

Coming Full Circle (and Coming Full Stop)

So it has been a long, long road since the first blog post.  And I didn't even realize that I was making a (really cliche) double entendre when I just referred to all of this as a "road" :)   I can't really imagine why anyone would still be reading this, but our "hit" numbers are actually up.  So while this began as, primarily, a means of creating a record for ourselves as well as letting family know we are safe......this blog has now grown into something that has found a readership across the globe.  If our Camino has brought anyone their own share of joy, then I am immensely grateful....even if I am surprised.

But it now comes time to close this blog and retire back into our normal lives of people that don't understand technology.  We've actually really enjoyed this blog, but, if anything, it has worked to make us more confident that we don't want to embrace Facebook, et al.  That has been one of the great lessons of this Camino.

Our Camino has come full circle, and now it is time to come full stop.  Last Saturday we took part in a family tradition by taking part in the 7th Annual New Orleans Running of the Bulls (this was our fifth year).  You see, only in New Orleans would people be crazy enough to re-enact the famous Basque festival of San Fermin by running through the streets chased by roller derby girls dressed as bulls and armed with wiffle bats.  This year took special meaning as we were able to wear real, authentic neckerchiefs and waste sashes.....purchased in Iruna/Pamplona.....where we stepped off for our camino on May 21st 2013.  Here is a look at the fam -->
NOLA Bulls 2013. Authentic sashes and Euskatel Euskadi tshirts.
While it is done mostly in jest, the NOLA running of the bowls goes to great pains to be as "authentic" of a simulacra as possible.  The length of the route is the same as that in Iruna.  They do the same blessing before the bulls are released.  Some signs are in Basque (though less every year).  Even the style of the billboards is the same:
Tounge in cheek, and yet oh so serious
Look out for the bulls!!!!
This was Kepa's second year running.  Last year, G-Mom was supposed to watch from the sidelines.  When Bri and I finished, we found out Kepa and G-Mom had participated....stroller and all.

The fam in 2012. Check out Bri's Basque flag cape.....and just how little Kepa was!
This event is crazy in the way that only New Orleans can be crazy.  As the NOLA Running's logo states, simply, "porque no" ("why not?").  We love that idea.  The question isn't why?  The question is why not? And for a family that likes beginnings and ends, what better end than an event that practically embodies the spirit of New Orleans yet is based upon the location where we stepped off on our camino....and in the spirit of "why not?".  We are the people that carried a baby across the north of Spain after all.

The next day, we attended New Orleans' Bastille Day Festivities
I heart pommes frites!!!!
Off with his head!  Hey, Marie Antoinette was a great film, so porque no?
Where else can you celebrate a Basque tradition one day and a French national holiday the next?

All of which brings us to think about how, no matter how sad we are to be done with our Camino, no matter how much we wish we were still walking, New Orleans ain't bad.  For our money, it is easily the greatest city in North America (sans Montreal/Quebec, which we haven't been to so we are open).  And it is here that the lessons of the Camino will live on.  To embrace local and regional, music, art. To keep moving forward, never staying still.  Eyes on the horizon because no worth pilgrimage has a real destination in sight. Yet, in spite of that, to take pleasure in symmetry, order, tradition, and beginnings and ends.  Even cycles have beginnings and ends in which they move on to the next cycle.  This camino (and this blog) may be over, but that only means on to the next thing....hopefully armed with what we've learned between Iruna and Fistera.

It is that means of tradition and symmetry that made us want to attend mass at Santiago, that made us want to eat our last meal in Madrid at Botin's, that made us want to do so many of the things we did.  Next week, before my mom returns to Virginia, we will take what is left from the Barbie money---the money my mom made from selling her year 2 Barbie, which paid for our rental car in Euskal Herria---and use it to eat dinner at Donald Link's new restaurant, Peche.  As readers of this site know, we have a deep affection for Link (who knocks the socks off of Emeril and John Besh btw).  But this restaurant is extra special.  It, too, is about beginnings and ends.  This restaurant was first inspired by Link's interest in the ways they cook fish in Uruguay, and his desire to bring that to Louisiana cooking. But the restaurant really took shape when he took a food trip with Susan Spicer to Euskal Herria, to study the open flame wood grills used at places as divergent as cheap beach fish shops in Getaria on up to the now infamous Etxebarri.  He then brought this knowledge home and created Peche.  Which he hopes will demonstrate a brilliant fusion of the basics of Louisiana and Basque cooking.  A fitting end indeed.

The night we reached Santiago Bri and I each drank a shot of patxaran---the great Basque liquor which we drank several times in Navarra and which we have smuggled back to the states every trip for years---and a shot of liquor de hierbas---a famous Galician 5 herb liquor (first brewed by monks in the Baleric islands) which we had in Galicia.  To beginnings and ends.  To happy trails for all our readers. Cheers.  Salud. Or, more fitting for us, Osasuna.

Osasuna one and all.  And Eskerrik Asko for reading.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why walking the Camino is like having a baby (sort of)

If you're expecting some great introspection and philosophical musings on parenthood and Caminoing, you need to find another blog (and for that matter, another Brittany--those of you who know me know I ain't that kind of gal). But, it's summer in our house, and I'm having some major deja vu right now. See, last summer was our first as parents, and a great deal of time was spent, on my part, recovering physically from pregnancy and childbirth. Now, post camino, I am making a similar physical recovery and can't help but notice the similarities. What's horrifying is that one month of carrying Kepa on my back did what 7 months of pregnancy did. Shudder. Now, were both worth it? Absolutely. But, I noticed there were not many people in our age group walking, much less women. So, mine is a unique perspective, I think.

So, without further ado, why walking the Camino is like having a baby.

1. Lingering weight gain: Yes, I walked 500 miles and gained weight. Miraculously, it's about the same amount of weight I was left with after Kepa was born (after being pregnant for only 7 months). Back on Weight Watchers I go. However, it's not just the weight gain. My body shape changed from both dramatically. I'm left with a bigger midsection (from the fluid retention carry the pack/baby). Physically, I feel very different, and I'm sure it's going to take some time to get back to my old shape/self. I teach MWF, so that means I only need to fit into three decent looking outfits come August.

2. Foot enlargement: Again, horrifyingly enough, I actually didn't experience this with pregnancy. My shoes still fit (mostly), but my feet have swollen, flattened out, or something. I also have numbness in a few toes. I am hoping time, and some pedicures, will work this out.

3. Hunger + thirst: Yep, your metabolism goes into high gear during Caminos and pregnancy. I had both, and I am still drinking water constantly (and peeing constantly, which I did throughout my pregnancy). I am seeing a 75% success rate and not stealing food off of Kepa's plate. Check back with me.

4. Pregnancy/Camino Brain: I have a lot of stuff to do, school wise and work wise. But, my mind wanders and I come up with lists comparing the Camino de Santiago to Pregnancy, which I MUST blog. I was a babbling idiot toward the end of my pregnancy (waiting for the We are all feeling the mental shift of being off the Camino. No one can seem to focus on anything, and conversations often lead back to Camino (must like the early months of parenthood when you are all-consumed by the baby).

5. Miscellaneous Aches/Pains: Stuff hurts. Not the same stuff hurts all the time. You're asking a lot of your body, and it responds in weird ways. Most mornings was spent on the Camino comparing what hurt and what didn't versus the day before. If you were a student on mine in Spring of 2012, you should remember my complaining to you quite well (sorry about that).

So, there you have it. None of this is to say that these things were not well worth the physical demands, but these demands were surprising (in both cases).

So, just to recap:


is pretty much like doing


The good news is that our little pilgrim is VERY close to walking on his own, thus I will be retiring from being a pilgrim vessel very soon.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Thousand Pictures That Are Probably Not Worth a Single Word :)

This blog was always thought of, primarily, as a means for us to record our experiences, kind of an e-journal to go back to, and, secondly, as a means for close friends and family to keep tabs on us, our whereabouts, and safety. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, some people kept reading.  You are obviously masochists. These masochists exist, apparently, not only in the USA, but in 27 countries that have hit our page.....including repeat visitors from Russia, Spain, France, Canada, and Barbados. For the few die-hards out there who, for reasons beyond sanity, want more pictures than the ones that got edited into the narrative of this blog, we have created a flickr page with over 1500 pictures. You can, if you have nothing better to do, experience the entire Camino (virtual reality style anyway). The pictures are grouped in sets for each day of the Camino and can be found here.  Thanks to all of our crazy readers who are still out there, both the ones we know and the ones we don't know.

Step in, sit down, order a cafe con leche, and enjoy some pictures

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rearview Mirror Thoughts on the Camino

So now that the Camino is in the rearview mirror, we thought it worthy of a post to discuss a lot of the major issues/disagreements/elements that are discussed on most camino blogs and forums.  By no means are our experiences or opinions cemented or "correct", but now that we've actually done the camino, we thought it a good time to at least throw our two pennies into the discussion.  I'm sure at times it probably sounds preachie. It isn't meant to.  It is hard to write one's opinions for a whole post without sounding know-it-all.  There are a thousand ways to do the Camino.  None are "correct."  But the most important thing one can do before the Camino is research, looking at other Camino blogs to see what worked for others, what didn't, and what the opinions are of those that have done it-----if only so you can begin to develop your own opinions.  So here comes ours:
Nearing the Galician border. It's a long trek, but a worthy one.
Did we like it?  Why? Let me begin by saying that the Camino was one of the greatest experiences of our lives. We appreciated almost every aspect of it, physical, emotional, time together as a family, time away, a chance to get to see (and interact) with parts of Spain we'd otherwise never get to see or interact with.  It really was tremendous.  We said before we began that people that do this tend to be uber religious or uber hippie-backpacker, and that while we respected both we weren't really either.  Having finished, we can honestly say that while the camino isn't for everybody, it defies categorization. If it looks appealing to you, I think you'll be glad you did it.  If it doesn't look appealing, however, then don't expect to have some transcendent moment as you enter Santiago that makes it all worth while. And that is the other thing, everyone talks about this being a life changing, transcendent experience. For us, it wasn't.  Perhaps that is because, for many, the lessons they learn about letting go of technology and embracing culture, were, for us, less lessons learned and more lessons reinforced.  Being the people who abhor the Book of the Face and stayed at a local hotel and took local transportation (instead of a tourist resort) in Jamaica, we already had those opinions/lessons. This trip simply reinforced (and expanded) what we already thought.  For that, we are eternally grateful.  And we had much to learn (and hopefully we did) from our Camino.  But we never had that "transcendent" moment people wax on about on blogs.  But like I just said, that is ok, we weren't really looking for that.  Coming into Santiago, hearing the bagpipes, and making it to the square to meet people we'd walked with for a month........was one of the most exciting feelings of accomplishments of our lives.  Walking to the point in Fisterra was among the most introspective.  The camino did, in fact, provide.  It just wasn't a lightbulb going "snap."

Would we do it again? While we had an amazing time, we still don't get the Camino obsession some people have, such as the people who do this 5, 6, 7 times, and are active on forums year round year after year.  That isn't a knock on them, more power to them.  I am glad they find satisfaction in doing such. I hope they keep doing it.  But I do have to at least wonder if there isn't something to be said about the difference about learning lessons from the camino and employing them into one's every day life (as best they can), as well as employing them in other types of travel, versus those who feel they can only live the camino on the camino.  We may want to do the Norte someday a long way down the line because we love Euskal Herria. And if Kepa grows up and doesn't hate us for having drug him on this as a baby, and if he twisted our arms to do the Frances with him as an adult or adolescent, we'd consider having our arms twisted. But on the whole, we don't want to live a life of Camino de Santiago.  Travel is one of our great passions and it comes at great financial sacrifice.  We usually can afford a major trip every other year, and even that comes at the price of delaying much needed home repair, small trips, going out to eat, etc.  Heck Brittany hasn't had coffee in a coffee shop in almost 3 years. With that in mind, there are too many other places, locations, cultures, and things that we want to dive head first into rather than repeating the same events.  In fact, I think that is a lesson of the Camino.  For those who feel the camino was a transcendent experience for them (something I can't quite say), then shouldn't part of that transcendence be to take those lessons of embracing the unknown, embracing the difference, diving headfirst into other cultures......and apply those lessons to the rest of the world? Or even the rest of Spain?  As someone who wrote (and someone who is married to someone who wrote) a dissertation about destination-less travel, we just feel that Santiago isn't the destination.  Neither is Fisterra.  And you don't have to be walking across the north of Spain to achieve the lessons you so loved about your camino. Just our thoughts.
Somewhere between Montjardin and Los Arcos.  Purty, ain't it?
Investing in the Culture (subtitled, You Are in Spain Damnit!)
O.K., I know we are biased.  One of us is a peninsular Spanish professor, we all absolutely adore both Spain and France, and all of us consider the Basque Country the spot we'd be happy to spend every single day of the rest of our lives if jobs, family, nationality etc permitted it.  Biased we are.  But I think we can say, without bias, that the single biggest problem we had with the camino was how un-invensted so many people are in relation to the culture that surrounds them. You don't have to love Spanish culture--to insist upon that would be to follow our own bias.  But when you walk the Camino you are in Spain.  Speak spanish as best you can.  If you can't, it isn't that hard to learn the words for the major types of foods you want to order.  If you ever go to a country and don't know how to say "hello", "goodbye", "thankyou", and "please".......well, don't do it again.  You also should be able to count as high as the number of your party.  I (Todd) am about as bad as languages as anyone we know,  but I can do the aforementioned, because it is important.  But, really, this isn't about language.  It is about the culture.  I am shocked by how many peregrinos didn't want to eat local food (pasta night after night?  Really?!?).  Who didn't even know Santo Domingo's cathedral housed chickens, or that Astorga was the center of European chocolate trade for a century.  People who never tried to interact with locals.  Many people didn't even know what the word "Basque" meant (much less that the people around them weren't speaking Spanish), or that Galicia might be slightly Celtic.  I'm not saying it is bad if you, sitting at home, don't know (or care) about these things.  There are many things about many parts of the world I don't know about.  And some I care more passionately about than others.  But if you are devoting a month or more of your life to walking across Spain........... know something about it.  Don't be the woman sitting in Donostia ordering Californian wine and asking "What is Basque?".  Don't be the man on the plane to Jamaica asking "what language do they speak in Jamaica anyway?".  If resort travel is your cup of tea, fine. There isn't anything wrong with that and it isn't our place to be judgmental anyway. But then don't go on the Camino.  You aren't walking through Disney world.  These are real people, a real culture, a real food culture (one of the best in the world), real history, real artifacts.  Come back hating Spain if you wan't.  That is ok.  But come back having experienced Spain.  Far, far, far too many peregrinos do the camino in order to immerse themselves in their imagination of "camino" culture.  That is fine, in theory, but too often they imagine a shallow, depthless, postmodern imagination of camino culture.  Camino culture, by definition, involves many layers and depths, all influenced by the many peoples and cultures that make up, and have made up, the Iberian peninsular.  Learn about it.  More importantly, interact with it.  If you prefer pasta to chorizo, great.  Doesn't mean you shouldn't be eating chorizo while you are in Spain.  And while we're risking sounding too harsh, let us add that it would be nice if more people could be a bit more respectful of those who do this for religious purposes.  Those weren't really part of our reasons for going (much at all), but if you can't be respectful of those who are......if you don't at least have the ability to respect the dedication and tradition of those who do....then why camino?  There are many hikes one can do that aren't built on that tradition. I felt really bad watching religious pilgrims be made to feel self aware for being religious.  And lets face it, regardless of your religious beliefs, touching St James at the end of a 500 mile walk and seeing the incense burner swing can be one of the most spiritual moments of your life.
The city fences in Samos. Everything about the Camino is unique. Most of it is special.
Albuergues and Food
We liked the albuergues.  We really did.  It gave us a chance to meet many people we otherwise wouldn't, and to help foster a camino family.  That may have been helped by the fact that (because we had a baby) we got to interact more with the proprietors, and also by the fact that (again, because we had a baby), we had a private room more often than not.  But I also think that people's 120% dedication to albuergues is occasionally short sighted. Many pensions and hostels can be just (or almost) as cheap, and you aren't losing a camino experience by choosing to not be kept awake by snoring every single night. When we got to Palais de Reis, they had mistakenly reserved us only beds in a massive dormitory (difficult with a baby), so, instead, they got us a room at a pension across the street. The price? The exact same it would have been for three adults at the albuergue. I agree that if you are staying at a fancy hotel every night you aren't exactly living the camino experience.  But I'd equally say that the camino experience isn't defined by how much snoring you listened to.  There hasn't been an "authentic" pilgrim since the middle ages (if there was one then), so don't obsess about chasing a shallow, postmodern image. And as for the food at Albuergues, some of it is AMAZING.  The albuergue in Calzado de los Hermanillos offered rabbit and quail (are you kidding?).  The one in Uterga was better quality than most restaurants.  And the food is always cheap, and that is mucho important.  But a lot of the albuergue food is bad....bland.....and the lowest common denominator of Spanish cooking.  Even dishes that can be good elsewhere, are not best defined by most albuergue food. And the tapas at the bars along the route (after you leave Euskadi anyway).  Let us just say that the now overly commercialized camino culture has largely taken Spanish culture out of the food you encounter.  So go find it.  It can be found just as cheaply.  It is well worth doing.

And I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of reserving beds a day or two in advance.  Don't do the entire thing (spontaneity is important), but the days of not planning the Camino at all are over.  It is a sad, sad loss.  But this is much more popular and much more commercialized now.  If you want the "old" camino (by that I mean the way you imagined it from 1970-2005) then go walk the Norte.  I wish the Frances weren't so crowded or commercial, but it is.
Descending into Galicia.  One of the last moments where you still might be partially alone.
The less you carry the better, but carry lots of socks. We found the light weight, quick dry gear to be worth the money. We walked in an unseasonably cold May and June, and we are still glad we didn't take our jackets. You work up heat as you walk.  Walking poles (of some kind) are a must, but you don't necessarily need fancy ones (unless you have knee problems).  Get the right pack that fits you the best. It is invaluable.

Foot Care
There are a thousand opinions on foot care, and ours are in the minority.  But we also didn't have a single blister the entire way, so I'd at least take our strategy into consideration.  We all had pedicures before we left, we think you want to go soft not hard......and you want to get rid of callouses that create hotspots. We also found the right boots that fit us well and wore them for close to a 100 miles before we started, breaking them in well.  They weren't the heavy, high top hiking boots.....but they fit, and were comfortable.  And they were well broken in.  We all had good socks and lots of them.  Never wear socks more than one day at a time, and if your feet get wet change socks.  Period.  Brittany is a big fan of rubbing her feet down with Aquaphor each morning. (or Vaseline if you can't fine Aquafore) (Edit: Brittany thinks Aquaphor is like Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I've gotten to the point where I think it will cure anything).  Mary Ann is a big fan of putting a compede over any hot spots.  Find what works for you.  We all think that if you do get a blister, popping it and sewing it back up (as recommended on many blogs) is a downright stupid idea.  But to each their own.
The modern symbol of a peregrino. Or a commercialized logo. Depends on perspective.
General Health
The biggest dirty secret of the Camino is getting sick.  You are tired and rundown while sleeping in dorms and using communal showers.  Think about it.  We managed to avoid getting sick (until after the Camino, in Donostia anyway), but that was helped by having a private room.  Be prepared.  It is a reality for most on the Camino.  And weight loss?  Don't count on it.  Todd lost close to 10 pounds, but Mary Ann and Brittany each gained weight (2 lbs and 9 lbs respectively).  Yes your metabolism rises, but so do your hunger levels.  And albergue food isn't exactly low calorie.

Walk every day, but realize that walking won't get you trained.  The problem isn't walking 15 miles (even with a pack).  It is walking 15 miles (up and down hill, on uneven roads) and then getting back up and doing it again tomorrow.  And the next day.  No one has time to walk 15 miles a day day in and day out to train, and if you were doing that you might as well be on the Camino.  But walk as much and as far as you can, and make sure you walk at least one 16 mile day with full pack before you go.  The Camino is a humbling experience.  Yes people do it well into their 70s.  Yes it is doable and not killer.  But that doesn't mean it is easy.  Many, many peregrinos show up thinking it'll be easy because they are runners, or in good shape, or walk every day.  It's going to be tough.  Get over it.  We, carrying a baby, left a woman who runs marathons in the dust.  And many 70 year olds left us in the dust.  Being in good shape helps (a lot) but this is different from any other activity you've ever done. Not necessarily more difficult, but different.

Camino Family
This is a category that really surprised us.  One of our biggest fears ahead of time was a Camino Family, because so many people online seem so obsessed with it.  We really feared the latchers on who are basically using the Camino as a way of making the friends they don't have back home.  And those people certainly exist.  But it really, really, really is awesome how you meet so many people from so many age ranges and so many nationalities, and you see the same people every day in a different location.  All going through the same thing, all having similar joys and difficulties.  The ones we like best were the ones that would seek you out every day, walk with you a while, and then move on.  Others met people they walked with the whole way, and that worked great for them too.  In all cases the best ones are the ones that start skeptical, not desperately seeking out a Camino family, but then finding it.  And when you have it, it makes your day so much more enjoyable, bright, and fulfilling.  Among many others, here's looking at you Joan from Andorra, the two British couples (David and Kim and Reg and Felicity), The Double A's & Troy, Terri from Canada, the girl from Normandy, our Welsh buddies walking for charity, the Basque couples who loved Kepa, the group that we lovingly and jokingly referred to as the "beggars misfits and thieves," the french nuns, the Asturians, the Irish youth, Mr. Valadoloid, and our Japanese friend Yamada.  Oh and the Italian dude with the cart.  We, literally, couldn't have caminod without you. That is the truth.  And while we are on this, most people on the camino are over 50/60 or under 25.  We were an odd exception that fell between that gap, and that led us to have many, many friends on both sides of the age divide.  I wish more people in the older group reached out more to the younger group.  You are on camino together and you have a lot in common.  If the camino can transcend nationality, it should be even easier to transcend age.
B. and K. with Yamada in a fancy tapas bar in Santiago
Walk at your pace.  Finding a walking partner that wants to go the same distance is more important than finding the walking partner that is your best friend.  Some days, 30 km isn't so bad and worth it.  But do that every day, and you lose the camino IMO.  Better to do less of the camino at a pace you'll enjoy than to rush through the entire thing.  You'd be better off to not do the entire length of the camino (what is that anyway?) than to do it all at a crazy-fast pace.

Everyone has an opinion about each of the "options".  I can say that going over Montjardin, it proved to be easier and prettier than we expected......and upon talking to others who went the low road, I think the high road may have actually proven an easier route.  Not common, but in this case I truly think it true. After Sahagun, we really liked the Roman road.  If you are going to be bland, meseta, monochrome, at least be in the middle of nowhere, not walking next to a highway.  We might only feel this way because we got good shade from clouds that day however.  The Samos route before Sarria was one of our favorite stretches of the entire camino, and even if it was 6 km longer it allowed us to see the monestary, allowed us to avoid the super steep hill on the main route, and allowed us a quiet day of peace with just a few friends..........something about to be totally lost when you hit Sarria and the hordes of tourists arrive.
Taking the high road over Montjardin.  We convinced the nuns to take the low route and then found out that we think the high route is easier (and prettier). We feel guilty.
Weather/Time of Year
I really think that May/June or September/October is the way to go.  With the late spring, May/June proved to be not so perfect, but we actually wonder if the meseta would have been too hot otherwise.  Which makes Brittany think that September/October is the way to go.....although Todd fears there would be less flowers then and the meseta more brown.  Either way, I'd heavily recomend against July/August.....besides the crowds, I literally can not imagine the meseta in that kind of weather. Don't get me wrong, I went to military college, I'm sure I could do it (sans baby).....but why would I want to?

Where to start/stop?  What about the Meseta?
Where to start is a very personal thing, and there is no right answer.  Don't listen to people who get into arguments about whether Saint Jean or Roncesvalles is the "real" starting point.  The Spanish do Roncesvalles because why would they go to France to walk to Spain?  Many Europeans start in St Jean because it is the traditional gathering point before crossing the Pyranees.  But, traditionally, those Europeans would have started from their homes (wherever that may be), and many still do.  Many others start in Le Puy (France) or Pamplona (Spain).  Start where it feels right for you.  The only plug I will give for St Jean is this.  Those first three days (St Jean to Pamplona) are supposed to be among the most, if not the most, beautiful of the entire way.  Even those who talked for weeks about the misery of the cold and snow when we all left St Jean around May 19, still said that the first day out of St Jean was their favorite day.  And if you start after that, you lose that, and for what? The meseta?  We actually liked the meseta far better than we expected (though the mild temps may have helped).  And there is something to be said about the mental efforts of making it across it.  And if you bus across it (as many do) you will lose the people you've been walking with.  But, for me, if I was going to "not" do a part of it, it would be the meseta, not the beautiful Basque hills.......because even if you aren't Basque obsessed (like us), at least the landscape and food changes day to day. That isn't true in the heart of Castilla y Leon.  But there really isn't a right answer, and the best answer would be to have the time to start where you want and not have to skip. Alas, that (time) is a luxury many don't have.

As for where to stop.  I'll be honest.  If we ever did this again we will stop in Sarria.  The massive crowds and race to the end (as well for a bed) took all of the fun out of the Camino.  It is hard advice to give someone to stop there the first time, because you want that cathedral experience.  But logically speaking, I'd recommend stopping in Sarria.  Or else busing from Sarria to Santiago then walking to Fisstarre.  But if you do that you won't get the Compostella, and it is easy advice to give once we've already walked all the way to Santiago and gotten our compostella.  So we understand full well why most wouldn't follow this advice.
About two days before Sarria.  The days from Laguna de Castilla to Triacastella and then from Triacastella to Sarria (by way of Samos) were two of our favorite days the entire way.
Again, a personal decision and no right answer.  We had planned to walk it, then got to Santiago and decided not to (though we did bus to Cee and then walk from there to Fisterra). The one thing we will say, is that the arguments against it are not as strong as those who make them claim. Everyone claims it is a modern invention to keep people walking and to make more money.  Sure it is.  So is the entire Camino Frances. It was all reinvented in the 1960s to make money.  So that is a weak argument.  As we see it, there are four categories of people who make pilgrimage 1) christians who believe James really was found in Santiago 2) christians who scoff at the idea James was found there, but think it a worthy tribute anyway 3) non-christians who do it because of the tradition and culture of the camino & 4) non-christians who do it for reasons not tied to the tradition......essentially, to walk.  If you are #4, then why not walk till you can't walk any further, isn't that kind of what you are doing?  If you are #3, then why not follow what most middle ages pilgrims did, by walking to the end.  I mean who, in the middle ages, would stop 3-4 days from an ocean they had never seen? In fact, the entire tradition of the scallop shell comes from pilgrim's bringing back evidence they had made it to the end (the coast).  If you are #2, then you must realize that the primary reason the catholic church claimed James in Santiago was as an excuse to drive out the moors, and the secondary reason was that it represented, allegorically, the end of the known world.  Based on that thinking, why not keep walking to the literal end of that traditional known world?  That leaves only category #1 where it actually makes sense to see Santiago as the stopping point.  That isn't to say that you need to walk to Fisterra (we didn't).  In fact Santiago felt right for us.  And that is all that matters.  My point in this diatribe is just to say that Fisterra shouldn't dismissed as quickly as many peregrinos dismiss it.

People who start in Sarria
I'm not part of (large) group that hates, complains, and constantly whines about the people that start in Sarria.  Everyone should do what their time, health, and finances allow.  And there is nothing wrong with starting in Sarria.  But what did annoy me was that the people who start in Sarria act like they are doing the same thing.  They aren't.  Starting from Sarria is a really awesome walk, that allows you to see and interact with a lot of great cultural tradition.  But it isn't a camino.  There is no "real" starting point for a Camino, and I don't want to get into an argument about imaginary lines.  But a Camino, to me, does mean walking further than you usually might on a hiking vacation, totally losing yourself and your mind in the Camino culture, and removing yourself from the world around you.  It takes most pilgrims a week to even start to lose themselves.  5 days may be a worthy feat, and I'm not saying it isn't worth doing.  But it isn't a camino (to me), regardless of whether or not they will in fact give you a compestella for having walked 100 km.  All of that said, as annoying as the hordes of people, crowds at bars, lack of isolation, was..........and it was intense enough that if I ever did the camino again I would stop in isn't fair to blame and be mean to those who start there (and I saw too much of that).  The entire camino has gotten more crowded.  We are all a part of that.  Don't blame the person who wants to do something (walk from Sarria) that most wouldn't even think of taking on.
The 100 km marker, just out of Sarria
I think doing it on a bicycle could actually be more difficult than on foot, so I'm not one of the peregrinos who thinks they are getting off easy.  Try riding a bike straight up a mountain.  As someone who used to tandem to work every day, I can attest that is pretty darn hard.  That said, I do bemoan just how many people do it by bicycle.....particularly Spaniards.  They are missing out on their own culture.  It isn't that it is easier (it isn't).  It is that you move too fast, you whiz by the culture you don't partake in it.  And it is all over before you really lost yourself in the camino.  And you too often have to take the roads, usually missing the best stretches of the camino.  I'm not against doing it on bike.  But it, to me, just isn't a camino.  Going by horse (which many make fun of) may seem even easier, but it isn't about that for me.  They actually go slow and take in the experience.  They don't whiz past it.

Because we had a base in the history, architecture, and such, we decided against the weight of a light guide with maps, the ubiquitous Brierley guides. I think I speak for all of our group when I say that if we ever meet said John Brierley, B is going to punch him in the face. First, there are a ton of times when he uses the words "slightly undulating" to describe enormous hills. He also is SUPER cheesy in his description of certain things cultural and historical, and the maps are not that accurate (the roads out of Sahagun particularly come to mind). Some of his stages are a little odd, and the fact that SO many people have the guide means that the towns he says to stop at get very crowded. Toward the end, we were stopping at some of the towns just before he suggests and finding less people and better accommodation. We had a Rother guide in Spanish that was OK, but in the end, for a Spanish guide, the Anaya touring guide was the best (excellent maps) and G-mom bought an Everest Guide (by José María Anguita Jaen) that we have been reading to follow along. This guide came with neat day by day cards that sit in a plastic sheet that can hang on your bag so you aren't constantly digging the book out. I think a Kindle or Ipod/Phone with books may be the ticket: we just didn't think of it. Really, though, I can't recommend the Anaya guide enough. Our friend Joan had it, and I liked the stages better, the maps (especially the elevation ones) were excellent, and it had good historical info but wasn't too heavy.
Our trip across the meseta was greener than depicted in the guidebooks. Every camino is different.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Doin' It (With a Baby)

Our camino was, without a doubt, a unique one compared to most who walk it.  While that is true, in one way shape or form, of most everyone who makes pilgrimage, our version of a unique camino was one we wore on our shoulder.....or more literally, our backs.
Kepa gets some playtime in a field about midway through the camino.  Lots of hand sanitizer after this :)
That isn't to say we are the first people to do this with a baby.  At all.  As we mentioned already, a 4 month old went last winter and a family of 3 (plus 3 donkeys) was doing two caminos back to back this summer. We met a 2 year old and a 9 year old (both doing the camino by bicycle) and we met a family with three kids (ranging 16 months to 6) who walked the camino, but started in Sarria.  There are blogs (in English) of people who have done this with several babies in the past, and an entire section of the Spanish guidebook is dedicated to doing the Camino with children.  A family apparently intends to do this with a 1 and 3 year old (in buggies) next summer.  We were/are hardly trendsetters.
Kepa eats a cracker on the Roman road to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos
That said, while all of that is true, doing the camino with a baby is certainly not a common thing.  Doing the entire camino with a baby is even less common.  And because the nature of the camino means that you run into the same few hundred people multiple times (the people who started anywhere from, say, 2 days ahead of you through 2 days behind you), rather than meeting everyone who is currently on the camino, that means that taking a baby is all the more unique.  And it seems even the more unique to those you meet because most of them have never considered that you could do it with a baby....or, that if you could, that you would.
One of the few times Todd carried him on his back, in the evening around Pontferada
People's reactions to us began skeptical and ambivalent, and we felt the judgement. However, fairly quickly, it turned positive. People's primary concerns seemed to stem from their own worries that the baby would be sleeping near/with them (keeping them awake) and a worry for the baby's safety.  It led to question after question after question.  Upon hearing that we had actually thought (and planned) for most of their concerns, we universally received support and encouragement.  Kepa became a celebrity (averaging 10-20 photographs a day).  Everyone knew who we were.  We often arrived in towns to waiting groups to applaud us as we arrived (and on a couple of occasions greet us with a pre-poured beer).  People became very invested in seeing "the famous camino baby Kepa" finish.  We were, quite frankly, shocked by how much attention the baby garnered.  At times it was flattering, and at other times slightly horrifying.  But it was non-stop.  And we were also shocked by just how invested people were in this.  It came to go well beyond simple fascination and "that's cool" for most people.  Some people got really invested.  One Irish man wept openly in Fromista because he thought what we were doing was so "moving" and "important."  A Spaniard who was walking his 6th camino declared this "the Camino of Kepa" and proceeded to introduce us to everyone he met.  A group of two Basque couples became so invested in Kepa that they are now trying to get us to Skype.  A Japanese man collected over 70 photos of Kepa and cried upon leaving him in Camino (the man cried, not the baby). Kepa was given more gifts than we can count (more on that below).  Time and again, Spaniards called us "valiant" or "heroic".  Others told us how "special" this was.  To be honest, none of this seems to fit.  We don't think we accomplished some great feat by taking him.  As is usual for us, we had a crazy idea that we followed through on.  It brought us closer as a family.  It was fun.  It was culturally eye opening.  And carrying a baby certainly made it more difficult.  But, while we feel a great feeling of accomplishment for having completed the Camino de Santiago in general, we don't feel that our journey was somehow more "important" or a bigger achievement simply because we had a 14 month old in tow.  It just wasn't (for us).  But we are glad that we could engender those kinds of emotions in others.  If our actions could (shockingly to us) engender those kinds of happiness and emotions in others, then that is awesome.

But the most scary question we got over and over was people excitingly asking "I just realized you can do the camino with a baby!".  And that led us to think we needed a post about our experiences traveling with a baby, that deals with what worked, what didn't, and our advice on how to do it with a baby.  Because, more than anything, our answer to the above question would be this.......Yes, you can do a certain type of the camino with some babies.  And that isn't the same thing.

A few things worked to make this work, and they all were essential.  That isn't to say that you have to have the same advantages to make this work, but you had better have at least an answer for each of them, or else we wouldn't recommend doing a large chunk (or more) of the camino with a small child.

1) Really this should be labeled thing number 1, 2, and 3. The biggest, most important, non-negotiable advantage we had was Kepa.  He is a happy, amiable, adaptable child who almost never cries, is happy walking 6-8 hours a day in a pack, and, upon meeting a stranger, thinks flirting is a good idea no matter how tired or hungry he is. We did not have a single negative experience with an albuerge or peregrino in relation to the baby........had Kepa not been Kepa, this would have been far from true.  Meanwhile, you can't get fulfillment in doing something like this unless your child seems happy.  Kepa was, and that made it great.  But if he was unhappy it wouldn't have worked.  More importantly, it wouldn't have been fair to him.

2) We had a great pack/carrier for him (Deuter Kid Comfort 2) and we got him used to walking in it for months and months before we the degree that he was excited to see it.  The couple with the two kids who plan to do this next year plan to do so with buggies/strollers (as did the family we met who started in Sarria).  Straight up, I wouldn't recommend it.  I think it is a no-go.  It would pose a relatively major problem every single day of the camino, and there would be certain days you just straight up couldn't do it.  And even if you could, staying on the road and avoiding the path, you would usually be missing the best parts of the camino.  I just don't think you can do a large chunk of this camino with a buggie.  And before you ask, yes we are familiar with athletic buggies.  In fact we own one (try walking every day on the uneven streets of New Orleans without one).  They are great things.  And it is only because I know how awesome they are that I'm even as positive about not doing it with a buggie as I am.  If I thought you'd try even a single day with a regular buggie I'd laugh out loud.  We are more open about an athletic buggie, but we still just don't think it would work. However, if that is something you want to do, we recommend researching 1) people who have done it and 2) people who have done the Camino with carts and paths the bikes take. Just a personal note: pulling a cart is FAR easier than pushing one.

3) Having an extra adult.  This is not a 110% must, several couples have done it before with one adult carrying the baby and the other the clothes/pack/etc.  But I can't imagine having done it that way.  Kepa plus pack ended up weighing near 30 pounds.  And then, at that point, you have two people (Kepa and the person carrying him) who can't carry their own stuff.  That left us with 2 people carrying for 4.  Tough, but doable.  Try 1 person carrying for 3.  And yes baby clothes weigh less, but add in diapers, food, a toy or two, gifts (you'll get plenty), formula or bottles, etc etc.  If you are still breastfeeding, that would help, but that isn't going to make or break the deal.  Having G-Mom along was a huge, huge deal.  And not just for carrying.  One of the toughest things about doing this with a baby was not just carrying him.  Imagine getting into the town at 4 PM when every other peregrino does some laundry and collapses into a nap.  Maybe has a beer.  Now imagine arriving with a wide awake, just woken up from a nap, happy and roaring to go 14 month old.  Picture it.  That is your reality.

4) Brittany being fluent in Spanish and French and knowing some Basque, and G Mom and I being at least basically conversant in Spanish.  You don't need to speak the language to do the Camino (although it helps), but I can't imagine doing this with a baby if you didn't.  The baby brings in so many specific questions and issues that need explained and discussed.  And you can't make advanced reservations (see #5) very effectively in English.  You just can't.

5) A willingness to make reservations.  Yes, we know the best way to do the camino is to walk until it feels right, without plans, etc.  It is.  It really is.  But you can't do that with a baby.  We never booked more than 2-3 days in advance (allowing us to stay flexible....see #6), but we really felt we needed to know we had a bed.  And in the new bed race that the overly commercialized camino has become, people were getting turned away from albuerges left and right.  Add in that you walk slower with a baby (more weight, more stops, etc), meaning that you get into town later than everyone else, and you'd have serious, serious trouble getting a bed.  We wanted to be able to reserve a private room in a private albuerge (only a couple of euros more than a dorm bed in a municiple albuerge), but even if you think your child can handle a dorm room, and even if you aren't worried he might bother others (or, more likely with our child, be bothered by others' snoring) still need to book ahead.  Which means no municiple albuerges, and it means knowing how far you are walking each day 1-3 days in advance.  Not ideal, but with a baby really hard not to do.  And to be honest, you should consider this even if you aren't walking with a baby.  The Camino Frances has gotten that crowded and that commercial.  If you have romanticized notions of caminos past and no plans, then do the Norte or the Portuguese.  But with a baby, the reservations are particularly a necessity.

6) A willingness to stay flexible.  Twice Kepa took a cab (once we all went with him, the other day just G-Mom...B and I walked).  Both times we would have walked through the weather ourselves.  Both times we had to be willing to be flexible because of the baby.  We were determined to take no electronics....then we spent 180 euros on an out of date iPod touch in Pamplona so that we could use Skype to call ahead and make reservations.  Whether or not the iPod Touch is essential for your camino with baby, the willingness to be flexible and go against our deep seated wishes and plans was invaluable.

7) A baby who sleeps through the night at least 98% of the time and eats everything.  We had both.  It would be difficult if we didn't. Even with this, Kepa still had a bad dream and woke up once at 3 am (oddly enough the night before walking into Santiago--his nightmare was that it was going to end!!!)

8) Research, research, research.  Most peregrinos could stand to do more research before they camino.....but with a baby it is essential.  We bought him top of the line rain gear (so he wouldn't get wet). We bought ourselves super light weight clothing (weight matters all the more when you plan to carry double).  We knew how albuerges worked.  We knew the major towns we wanted to stop at.  We knew how all of the little details worked.  With a baby, this was invaluable.  If you want to know a lot of how we did this with a baby, see our pre-Camino post titled "Wait, you're taking the baby?"

9) A willingness to be gracious about fame, even when it can be annoying.  You are, literally, choosing to make yourself the Paris Hilton of the camino.  Like it or not, you just are.  You are going to be asked a thousand questions (where did you start? does he sleep through the night? how old is he? is he happy? how do you pack his nappies?) over. and over. and over. and over.  You are going to be given tons of gifts.  And then you are going to be asked those questions again (at the end, other peregrinos were asked these questions when people were too sheepish to ask us).  You are going to be given or offered tons of gifts, some of which you may not really want your baby to have and all of which you will have to carry with you.  You are going to be asked to pose for photos many times a day.  And it is going to happen when you are tired, exhausted, climbing a hill.  It is going to happen when baby is napping, or starting to fuss a tad.  And you are going to have to be reasonably ok with all of this, gracious, and smiling.  And never mind the reasons of being gracious because you are in another culture, a guest, etc.  Yes we believe all of that: Tony Bourdain taught us well.  But that ain't nothing compared to the big "because."  You need to accept these gifts, answer these questions, and smile for pictures because these are the same people you are going to be relying on to make your camino a success.  No camino can succeed without help, but that is 120% true with a baby.  Imagine showing up at an albuerge with a baby surrounded by surly peregrinos?  We never had even a HINT of a problem at an albuergue....but that is largely because all of the other peregrinos loved us, would vouch for us, and were genuinely excited to see us.  It also didn't hurt that Kepa is/was a ham and will flirt the second he sees a camera.  You don't have to be a fan of being the Paris Hilton of the camino (we certainly don't like being famous), but you at least have to have a personality that is capable of coping with the fame and attention.

10) Spain is baby friendly.  Lots of parks.  Diapers are cheap.  Milk bottles (though heavy) are a euro a piece for a liter, and don't have to be refrigerated until opened (can you believe that?). Baby food and formula was also cheap (but flavored so we didn't give him that exclusively lest he get used to Maria cookie flavored milk). Yogurt also doesn't have to be refrigerated (but this is only available in the baby section). Also, the best thing ever: Dinosaur cookies. These are fortified cookies that taste awesome. I actually recommend them even if you aren't a kid on the camino: the extra B vitamins are good and it's a tasty snack (we got a few peregrinos addicted: here's looking at you, Double As).
Bri and Kepa enjoy a swing overlooking Hontanas.  Spain has parks everywhere, even the smallest burg.....and most of them have the baby swings (the baskets meant for babies).  The best parks were in Navarra and La Rioja.  Galicia came next.  Castilla y Leon dead last, because baby swings were much more rare there.  But parks galore.
If you have all of those 10 things going for you, or a good answer for why you don't, then you can begin to consider taking a baby.  If it is right for you, then we are a big fan.  It was one of the best decisions of our lives.  Some reasons it is great to take a baby:

1) While we weren't always enamored with the fame, we did like how it caused us to meet and get to know more people than we imagined.  We didn't really think we'd be into the whole "camino family" thing, and we still aren't in terms of the peregrinos that use the camino as a chance to try to make the friends they don't have back home (whole other rant).......but we did surprise ourselves by how much we enjoyed the idea of meeting, getting to know, and seeing the same people day in and day out in different locations.  We'll talk more about this in a future post about rearview thoughts on the camino, but what is relevant here is that we met a lot more people because of the baby.  People's initial reactions ranged from skeptical to excited, but everyone was curious.  And that is a great conversation starter.

2) We got to better appreciate the local culture.  One of the biggest negatives of the Camino (IMO) is the disconnect from the culture peregrinos walk through.  They talk to an international consortium, but rarely a Spaniard (and even more rarely a non peregrino Spaniard).  They eat mostly crappy versions of Spanish food at albuerges (though occasionally the food is great at an albuerge) and they don't even know about the culture through which they walk.  Now, granted, we were always going to have a better situation with this by virtue of having traveled to Spain beforehand, B being a spanish professor and knowing the culture, our research, and being foodies.......but more than any of those advantagous was Kepa.  We got to meet, talk to, and interact with locals more than any other peregrinos did.  In fact, we often spent more time getting to know the locals than we did peregrinos.  The Spanish adore babies (Richard Wright got it right), and Kepa is a major door opener.

3) Far and away the biggest advantage was time together as a family.  Everyone talks about the advantages of the Camino being a slower pace of life, getting away from technology, forgetting the real world, embracing your experience, etc etc etc.  Now imagine doing that with your baby.  Kepa came 2 months early amidst a major kitchen renovation followed by a lot of drama at our jobs.  The first year flew by.  We loved him and loved spending time with him, but it flew.  The Camino changed that.  24/7 with the baby and nothing to do but spend time with him while seeing him discover great and new things.  Priceless.

4) Kepa's personality.  While I don't believe the numerous peregrinos who were convinced he would remember this, and while I don't necessarily believe the numerous peregrinos who claim he achieved some kind of divine blessing by having done this (although I will say him reaching out and touching St James unprompted was purty darn spooky)........We do firmly believe this will have a lasting impact on him.  He may not remember what he saw and did, but this trip expanded and cemented his personality traits of being happy and adaptable, of liking interactions with strangers, of eating a massively wide array of foods.  This trip didn't create those traits (and couldn't in any baby) but it sure as heck expanded and and cemented them.
G-Mom and kepa meet a Galician horse
And, in honor of Sofia Coppola's film The Bling Ring, lets talk about the bling.  Be prepared to be a major celebrity.  As people that abhor celebrity culture, this was a bit surprising to us.  I mean I guess on some level we knew it would happen to a degree (if what we were doing wasn't somewhat unique, why keep a blog?) but we just never remotely imagined how big it would be.  Kepa was, quite literally, the most famous baby in northern Spain for a month.  People whom we had not yet met came up to us knowing his name, age, and that we were professors from New Orleans.  Multiple people whom we met when Kepa was with another one of us, proceeded to go apesh-- crazy when they found out, yelling "OMG you're the baby people, everyone is talking about you!."  Multiple friends openly cried when we made it to Santiago.  Kepa is on at least 50 facebook pages, probably more, including the pages of people we never even met.  He was given gifts like you wouldn't believe.  In fact, lets list them:

1) At least 20 chupa chups (Spanish suckers).  We think more.
2) 3 different times he was given an entire bag manzinetas (a name we invented), kind of like a baby puff.
3) A walking cane in O'Cereibro
4) A Scallop shell from Finessstarre
5) A pilgrim's cross necklace that was found on the ground by another peregrino (he felt it was divine intervention)
6) A stuffed dog which we named Estella (after the city)
7) A stuffed polar bear that played Christmas music
8) A fancy white-chocolate sucker
9) twice he was given free bowls of ice cream
10) On one occasion he was greeted by the cafe owner with two beers (we assume they were for us?)
11) Milk for his bottle (whenever we tried to buy some from a bar, they always insisted we take it for free).
12) A miniature lobster pot with lid (to quote the shop owner in broken English, "babies like to go bang bang")

And most of these gifts came from Spaniards, mostly shopowners.  One guy at a shop turned away other customers so that he could spend more time with Kepa.  He made it on several facebook pages for stores and hotels and bars (advertising that he had been there).  It really was (and is) insane.
Kepa checks out his new walking stick in O'Cereibro
A few examples of where you can find Kepa's celebrity on the interwebs.....

The blog of two welshmen we saw from Laguna de la Castilla onwards, one of whom kept a blog because he was walking for charity.

The blog of a man from Houston who we saw the first week of the Camino before we got out ahead of him (and, apparently, before his wife had to abandon the camino).

The Facebook page of the store in O'Cereibro where the owner gave him his walking stick.

And the Kepa fascination crossed boundries, from Spaniards to peregrinos, from young to old.  Spanish men are just as into the baby as women (a big cultural difference from the US).  A 15 year old Spanish boy was the most inquisitive at all early in the camino.  Some of the peregrinos who began the most skeptical, ended the most enamored.  Joan, our Andorran friend, treats him like a grandson to this day.  I honestly believe that, had we succeeded in getting Kepa baptised in Santiago, we would have had fifty or so peregrinos turn out for the ceremony.....and that is with no good way to advertise it.
Kepa getting denied his compestella.  You have to be old enough to answer a question or two and write your name to get one.  But they did add his name to Brittany's
Speaking of which, we came really close to the baptism.  Brittany's Spanish led us to be directed to the most amicable of priests, who was very open to doing it.  We had been told that other pilgrims had attempted and failed, but we came really close.  And the one who succeeded was a Spanish lady, so I think language is a big help.  So is the paperwork.  All the paperwork you need is -->  A letter from your parish priest giving permission to be baptized elsewhere (this can be faxed) and the baby's birth certificate.

For all of the talk on camino forums of people not being happy to see a baby, we did not have a single negative comment or experience, with the exception of the Dutch Evangelicals who run the albuergue near Montjardin, and their problem was less with the baby and more that we planned to sleep in the same bed as the baby......which they deemed too unsafe to let us do, while continuing to repeat "it is your camino".  Well, it obviously isn't our camino if you are saying we can't do it-----which is fine, but don't try to act like you aren't saying no when you are.  But that is ok, not being able to stay there caused us to take the high road over Montjardin, which was easier and more enjoyable anyway. But, literally, other than that we did not have a single adverse reaction to our face, nor a visible indication that any were going on behind our backs.  Peregrinos and albuergue owners alike were exceedingly helpful, kind, gracious, and happy.  Some (not many) had baby beds and/or high chairs.  Ask.  You'd be surprised.  It probably helped that we had the 10 things going for us listed above, and it definitely helped that we booked ahead (allowing them to choose where best to put us, often in the attic room, or the lone room downstairs, etc).  But people were helpful and excited, not negative and doubting.  Universally. If you are one of the many people who helped us along the way, and you somehow find this blog, thank you, thank you, thank you. Gracias and Eskerrik asko, while we're at it. We couldn't have done this without the help of so many.

If you are planning to do this, we found the following albuerge's particularly helpful with a baby --->
 ~Albuergue Camino del Perdon in Uterga.  This woman actually called ahead and upgraded our albuergas the next three days based on what she knew and how it would be for a baby.
 ~Pension Parque del Edro, a private pension (but reasonably priced) with a beautiful baby set up
~Albuergue Via Trajana in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, on the roman road option after Sahagun
~Albuergue la Escuela in Laguna de la Castilla (this was our favorite albuergue experience of the whole trip, baby or not btw.  And you are just short of O'Cereibro, meaning you'll catch it early in the morning sans tourists instead of spending the night in Galician Disney).
Kepa hangs out with his new friend Oscar in Laguna de la Castilla.  Oscar gets to meet peregrinos every night, but not usually his own age.

To end, we thought we'd also share some of the items we loved, didn't use, wish we'd had on this trip.

1. We lost the sling in St. Jean--turns out, we didn't miss it. We carried Kepa and set the pack down at dinner. If you want to do luggage transport, you could send along a small umbrella stroller for the evenings. We didn't use the transport service because it took away our flexibility (we had to follow our luggage). 

2. I would have LOVED a fabric high chair thing that attaches to chairs (see here). High chairs were not common in Spain, and I would have gladly taken the extra weight.

3. We bought baby bug spray and never used it.

4. We brought a sippy cup and never used it. He wanted the bottle, and the camino is not the time to try new things. We needed at least two large bottles, and the Spanish company Suavinex makes these little tabs that dissolve in water and sanitize anything in it. This item would be great for sanitizing hydration bladder valves. You can buy bottles and these tabs at any pharmacy.

5. The tie on strings for toys were indispensable. Best thing ever. Todd only had to walk back to get something (his stuffed dog) once.  I can't imagine without this item......

6. We did not bring an infant travel bed. But, if you have a baby that needs continuity and is smaller, this travel bed would be great.  We didn't think it was worth the weight (at all).  But if your child really needs the continuity of the same bed every night, or if you are even more scared of the idea of co-sleeping than we were (which is saying a lot), then this is a good option.

7. The splat mat. This is one that would be great for non-baby Camino use. It weighs nothing, is a good size, and is great for picnicking, putting food on outdoor tables, etc. 

8. All of Kepa's REI clothes were great. They washed well and dried very quickly. 

9. A light weight muslin blanket. We used this to shield him from the sun when napping, a light blanket at night, etc.