I’m still in Montpellier. Next to studying beaucoup de Francais and working on articles for the online magazine TheatreArtLife, I do a lot of walking through town at night. I love wandering around aimlessly, listening to people speak in French, with me just floating through the conversations, soaking it all in.
Each night, all the street cafes are bustling with customers. Everyone enjoying each other’s company, a few glasses of good wine, and the warm autumn nights. Temperatures are still surprisingly mild.
Ever since a friend alerted me that one of the pieces of street art I photographed is from the famous ‘Space Invader’ I’ve also made it my goal to find as many of his subtle, little pieces as possible. So far, I’ve already found more than a dozen…
I love the lights in this city at night. The many hues of warm yellow and orange. And the colors of the sky, changing from a bright blue at sunset through the most amazing palette of dark blues until they come to rest in an intense purplish black.
After a night of rumbling thunderstorms and quite the lighting effects show, the sun is (almost) out again today. The entire Occitanie region seems to be resisting the arrival of autumn with all its might. Temperatures have dropped but otherwise it is another brilliant day, contrary to the deluge that had been predicted by the weather services.
Good for me as I am exploring the hiking trails around St-Guilhem-le-Désert. This is an incredibly – dare I say cute? – little mountain village. Apparently, it is called ‘le Désert’ because when they were building the village many many years ago in this hot, quite unforgiving climate, it felt like labouring in the desert.
Nowadays, St-Guilhem-le-Désert is quite famous with the pilgrims who set out on the Camino towards Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Because here, in the church, a little holy treasure can be found. Allegedly, Saint Guilhem was given a splinter of the original wooden cross of Jesus Christ for safekeeping. Now, pilgrims and tourists alike come in troves to look at the little piece of wood.
The village itself has only 200 inhabitants. However, each year approximately half a million people make their way through here. Luckily, today St-Guilhem-le-Désert was quite deserted (unintentional pun). I enjoyed walking through the narrow alleys for a little bit, then set out to hike up the mountainsides encircling the little community.
The view from above was worth the walk as you see. High up on the left you can also spot the remnants of an old fortress in which Saint Guilhem apparently once hid when his village was under attack.
Back in the village, I couldn’t help but notice dried silver thistles (Cardabelle) hanging on almost every door. When I asked why, I learned something fascinating. No matter how long these dried thistles have been dead, about a day before rain comes, the leaves encircling the flower begin to roll up. Thus, people in the village always know without a doubt when rain will come.
A bit more hiking and contemplating… to the Pont de Diable which stretches over the Hérault river. The sky is pressing down today. It wants to rain, yet somehow it doesn’t. Instead, the air is becoming ever more humid, feeling almost solid and laborious to breathe. My weather app tells me lightning is only 8 km away. Please get over here dear storm, so we can get it over with and clear the air!
I went on a hike today after school to contemplate what to do… The little villages and surrounding landscapes were a bit distracting though. They were so gorgeous, I had to keep interrupting my thoughts to take a picture. Horrible.
At this moment in time, I really have no idea how to continue my Wonderweg. The only thing that seems clear in these puzzlingly unclear times is that I won’t find employment any time soon.
3 of 4 weeks here in Montpellier are already over. My French didn’t improve nearly as fast as I’d hoped it would during this time. I am wondering if I should sign up for one more month of language school to do it right and invest as much work and time as I possibly can?
On the other hand, the Spanish border is only about a week’s hike away from here. It’s immensely tempting to get back on the trail soon and see where it will lead. Then again, the trail won’t be going anywhere. I don’t need to rush. Weather is another consideration. The rainy season will be starting here any minute now. However, the further south I’ll hike, the warmer and drier it should stay… Money is another thing to think about, as it will run out soon… even though I always keep everything as low budget as possible…
My hike today surely did not bring me any answers. But it was a beautiful afternoon. The clouds were hanging low, the air was heavy and sensuously humid. Almost as I remember it from when I lived in my homes in Hong Kong and Macau. The landscape… as you can see… was a feast for the eyes. I am exhausted now, satisfied, happy, and as clueless as I was this morning.
Currently not much news from the hiking front. I am still in my temporary home in Montpellier, taking steps rather metaphorically and mentally at this point. Today, a major step in my life though: I have started reading my first book EVER in French! Only fitting for a Wonderweg that this book is full of little wonders! ✨✨✨
At this moment, I am not yet contemplating how and where to pick up the trail after Montpellier. But this journey is bound to stay adventurous…
Weekend steps… this time I’m just leisurely exploring around the neighborhood. So many cozy corners. Art and the memory of art can be found everywhere. Buildings, streets, and alleys are stunning. Good food and drink is available on every corner (No Liam. Don’t look. Keep walking). Street artists are doing their makeup, getting ready for a day of enlivening the streets. Everyone is out and about. Every seat in every street cafe and restaurant is taken. People are celebrating life, meeting friends, breathing the still comfortably hot autumn air.
I wonder if they know how lucky they are to be living here? This must be my favorite town to date. And it’s not just the place itself but its immediate surroundings as well. Everything is only a short drive away: the ocean, the Camargue, the Pyrenees, the Provence, the border to Spain… ☀️
I made my way to Sète today, where I spent all afternoon walking and exploring. Thankfully, there weren’t many tourists. A rare opportunity to enjoy this (usually bustling) fishing port city a bit more peacefully. The locals lovingly call Sète the ‘Little Venice of Languedoc’. Rightfully so, since it sits right at the ocean, is the starting point of the Canal du Midi and, like the ‘real’ Venice, has canals running through it like a network of veins (albeit fewer and rather larger ones).
The cool thing is that many hundreds of years ago, the first villagers decided to name their village Sète based on the word cétacé which means cetacean (marine mammal). I like the way they were thinking! 🐳
I found and tried the local specialty here as well. It’s called Tielle and is a little pie filled with spicy octopus in a just as spicy tomato sauce. I found a small store which sells their Tielles fresh from the oven. One is enough, I thought. I sat gazing out at the canal whilst nibbling on my Tielle. Oh… my… God…! How delicious. I forced myself to eat slow and savour it. Immediately after, I thought, “Ah, whatever, screw it,” and ran back to the store, laughing, asking for a second one. What a feast. When I finally stood in front of the store owner’s counter a third time, like an over-excited kid asking for another lollipop, the lady started to laugh and gave me the third Tielle for free.
I loved Sète. The strong scent of the ocean was invigorating. It was great to walk along the canals (oh, btw, just yesterday afternoon they had a dolphin sighting in one of those canals!!)
The town itself had a rough yet beautiful fishing village charm. Ocean-inspired street art was everywhere. Even the chapel of La Salette sported ancient (and incredibly colorful) wall murals featuring oceanic wildlife. Last but not least, overlooking the town as well as the ocean, the Théâtre de la Mer (where this year at least they held the Cinéma de La Mer) was a treat to see. It is just an unbelievably picturesque performance venue. If they need stage managers next year, I’m in! 😆
We hiked through a forest of vocabulary and grammar again at the Alliance Francaise in Montpellier. I was exhausted after. It’s only a few hours each morning, but my brain needs to get used again to studying… and to actually retaining information.
Besides learning and opening my mind, I do enjoy collaborating with my classmates. Usually, when I’m working backstage for a show, I am immersed in an international team, a show family. I love connecting with all those people from a myriad of backgrounds, listening to their thoughts and experiences on a daily basis. I miss it with all my heart. At the school now, we are only working together in the classroom for a few short weeks, but it’s still heartwarming to connect with people from other cultures again.
The four of us come from all corners of the world. Harry is British and lives in the UK. Nadja is Brazilian and lives in France. Sangee is born in Nepal and lives in India. Every day, we discover a bit more about each other’s world and its fascinating.
Sangee, especially, inspires me a lot. He is 24 years old and a monk in a Buddhist monastery in India. He told me that up until a few years ago, they focused exclusively on religious and spiritual studies in his monastery. But, due to their culture, every now and then, a monk who is the oldest son in his family has to leave to take care of his parents. Those who did in the past, entered life outside the monastery completely unprepared and clueless. Thus, Sangee’s monastery now makes sure to teach their monks as much as they can about the outside world. The monastery provides classes for them in the sciences, history, geography, and other subjects. And, their elders encourage the young monks to travel the world and study cultures and languages. In this way, if they ever have to leave, they will not be entirely lost in the “outside” world.
Sangee already speaks Buthanese, Hindi, Nepali, and Tibetan. Recently, he has travelled through England and has studied 4 weeks of English. His grasp of the language is already phenomenal. This is now his 2nd week of French. Without any prior knowledge, his French is about the same as mine even though I know far more vocabulary since this is my 3rd atttempt at learning the language.
Sangee and I have many wonderful conversations during our breaks. Also, through our exercises in class, all of us learn a lot from each other. Today, for example, Sangee told us (in French!) about the Indian human rights movement and about Babasaheb Ambedkar who campaigned against social injustice towards the untouchables.
I have to say, besides loving to learn from each other, Sangee also reminds me of my life and travels around Asia. His soft-spokenness and calmness, everything about him, reminds me of how much I love living there. It triggers an ache, a longing, as well as a feeling of happiness in me to be able to spend a little bit of time with this lovely, inspiring man.
Carcassonne. On the photos it looks almost unreal, like a Playmobil castle. Yet when you walk towards its gates, it towers over you. An age-old behemoth, steeped in history. Once you get inside, it is even more humbling how vast the space (and bustling village) sheltered behind its ancient walls is. Apparently, it took almost 1’000 years to build the entire fortress. Imagine that…
It’s my second time visiting this historical gem. This time around, I also learned some fascinating things about the region. I had no idea, for example, that the Languedoc region has its own language: Occitan. All Occitan speakers use French as their official and cultural language, But Occitan dialects are still used for everyday purposes. And it’s an interesting dialect, curiously sounding very much as if it has both Spanish and French elements.
I also learned about the amazing culinary specialties of the Aude part of Languedoc, where Carcassonne is located…
There is Hypocras, a tasty aperitif which is made with wine, sugar, herbes, and honey. Deeeliciiious.
Le Cassoulet. Not a food in my opinion but a bomb of calories and energy!! It is a typical mountain region dish with the purpose of re-energizing hard-working outdoorsmen and women. Made of white beans, sausage, and other meats which are all cooked together for hours in a glazed terracotta casserole pot until they simply melt in your mouth… seemingly becoming more solid again on the way to your stomach… where they do re-energize you yet also sit like a stone. Fantastic!
Then, there are other things like duck thighs; crêpes with goat cheese, herbs, and honey; and a creme made from chestnuts.
Overall, this region (and France in general) is going to be my undoing. Everything (and I really mean everything) everywhere is so unbelievably delicious. And I am discovering more every day. Whenever I go into a restaurant, I want to order the entire food menu. Let’s not even start talking about wines. By the time I leave Montpellier, I’ll be a balloon. Good thing I’m walking.
Thankfully, after a huge home-made Cassoulet, exploring Carcassonne turned out to be a whole day of walking as well. I checked out all the cozy corners… climbed around on city walls and fortifications… whilst imagining the rich history of this place… the many feet who have tread on these cobblestones before me… the many people who have lived and died here. Just incredible.
Two of my favorites: Croque Monsieur and Tarte de Framboises. Wherever I am in the world, when I see either one, I need to taste it. This morning, I found both in the bakery. Aaaaaand… that was breakfast sorted.
Today is a day of anxiety. Moderate. But, yes, I do have those, too.
As I walked around my neighborhood, I was (as every day since I arrived in Montpellier) baffled by the number of homeless people. Why are there so many? While I felt helpless faced with the sheer number of outstretched hands, it also put things in perspective and showed me how lucky I still am. Yes, I am currently homeless, too (and soon I’ll be completely broke). But, I am still able to rent a roof over my head for a little while. I’m still standing, I’m still hiking, and I do still have and see abundant hope and opportunities.
Whilst shopping for the weekend, I looked around, and became so aware of all the masks again. It has become normal for me now to put on shoes and mask before leaving the house. How quickly has our world changed. I miss seeing people’s faces. I miss being able to read their facial expressions. I miss being able to shake their hands, to be able to fist-bump them. And, more than anything, I miss hugs and kisses. We seem to become ever more remote from each other… The other day, I had a drink and an awesome conversation with one of my classmates. When we said goodnight in front of the pub, he gave me a spontaneous hug. How wonderful that was! And how rare. How can something that used to be so normal now have become so rare?
My sense of loneliness is excacerbated by my language problems. By not being able to express what I feel in French. I understand so much when people talk. I understand even more when I read. But, getting sentences out is like looking for pearls in a mountain of oyster shells. Only every twentieth shell seems to produce a word. I need to get better at finding more of those pearls. I know, I know, it’s all just about going out, meeting people, overcoming the awkwardness, and talking anyways. No matter how horrible my grammar currently still is.
I am also wondering what I’m doing. Hiking across Southern Europe, going to French school now, continuing the hike after. Sometimes, I fail at staying in the moment. I fall out of it. All of a sudden I am overcome with worries about where it all might lead, if anywhere at all?
Then, I sit myself down (to a Croque Monsieur and a Tarte de Framboise for example). And I tell myself, “You can’t let yourself be overcome by these worries. Yes, everything is uncertain right now. Yes, you don’t know when you’ll find a job. Yes, your money might run out soon. Yes, you are in the middle of a pandemic (and a 6-month hike) without a health insurance. But, you are on the right track. You are proactive. You are taking steps. You are learning. You are alive. Just keep on going. One step at a time. Cross those bridges when you get there. Don’t try to cross them all at once now. They haven’t even been built yet. And it’s ok to have bad days. You’re entitled to those, too.”
Sipping my coffee, I feel a bit better (or at least determined to not give up) already…