During the last few months, I didn’t get out much except for short walks around the neighbourhood. Work was intense, and the weather was just too grey and wet for me to want to go on big excursions.
However, as soon as spring kicked off here and the days got longer, warmer, drier, and sunnier, I took a week off to go where it was still cold, grey, and wet: to the fjords of Norway.
What brought me there initially was a concert by Ludovico Einaudi I just didn’t want to miss. Then, I figured why not leave Oslo straight away and head to the area around Bergen to explore some of the far larger fjords in the west of Norway a bit.
It turned out to be an amazing trip. Each fjord I visited was more beautiful than the one before it. Especially the Naeroyfjord, with a ferry trip from Gudvangen to Flam, was absolutely, mesmerizingly beautiful and invigorating. Even more so since the sun came out for most of the day, bathing everything in a crystal clear light, enhancing the hues of white and blue all around me to an eerie brilliance.
It was my first time ever traveling to Norway or the European North in general, and I’ll most definitely be back. For hikes, road trips, and boat cruises around even more fjords. And to explore other northern countries as well.
In addition to the landscape which was almost unreal in its beauty, I loved the general atmosphere in Norway. There was a distinct politeness, calm, and relaxedness which felt like blessed relief. Time seemed to slow down and whatever stress I felt still lingering from the months of working before soon vanished without a trace.
Everything seemed so easy, quiet, accessible, and open-minded. I never quite felt anything like it anywhere else during my abundant travels through many countries around the world. It was simply enchanting.
The Wonderweg has gone (and still is going) through some massive changes. It has always been just as much of an internal than an external journey. Two months of hiking have brought me from Brugg in Switzerland to Montpellier in France. A city I immediately clicked with on so many levels. Which is why, as most of you know, I decided to stay a while in the beautiful Occitanie region to learn French. Then the second lockdown hit us, and my little temporary home above the rooftops became ever more a sanctuary filled with thoughts and sunsets.
This is for the best in more ways than I thought. Hiking with heavy backpacks is cancelled until further notice. For weeks now, I’ve been in pain every time I lifted my right leg to put on my pants or socks. I thought it was just a twisted muscle. Or me getting old. Or muscle fatigue due to not moving enough with all the Covid restrictions. But it wasn’t getting better. Rather, gradually, it got worse. It turns out, somewhere along the line of jumping over rocks like a gazella whilst carrying a twelve kilogram backpack, I’ve given myself a hernia, or possibly two, on my right side. I’ll have to be careful with this since I can’t currently afford an operation. I have no social security or health insurance. Hopefully, the hernia(s) will not get acute before I find a job and have a chance to get insured… fingers crossed, this should happen some time within the next 1-3 months.
My industry being dead in the water, plus all the personal upheavals that started long before Covid, got me thinking a lot of where to go from here professionally as well as personally. In which direction am I going to point this new life I am forced to start from scratch? I have quite a few thoughts and ideas of complete changes which I’ll gradually share with you here…
I’d also like to introduce you to my new partner in crime: JoJo. A twelve year old street cat who was found starving in an alley with severe gum infections four weeks ago. After a few weeks at the vet’s and after getting all of his teeth pulled, he slowly got better. I’ve decided to take him in. JoJo has been with me for a week now and is getting attached to me incredibly fast. In this short a time he has gone from hiding under the bed and only slinking out to quickly eat a bite, to lounging on his new cat tree, watching pigeons, and suffocating me at night by snuggling close and pressing his entire body onto my face. What can I say, I love the little rascal to bits already. From here on out we are partners on this journey.
Keep following us, if you’re interested in a more internal, South of France-based journey. Less mountains, but lots of palm trees, sunshine, and change. Lots and lots and lots of change. There will also still be hiking in the future. I’ve tasted how great it is to walk long distance and will surely do more trips. At some point, I definitely want to do the final leg of the journey I had planned: from the Strait of Gibraltar to Odemira in Portugal. But, for the moment, there will be no physical exercise for my legs beyond walking and swimming until I get this hernia taken care of.
Also, first on the agenda for JoJo and me is to find a place to live for ourselves in Montpellier. Because this little haunt is only ours until the middle of January 2021. What a year. The journey through it and beyond it definitely warrants to be called a Wonderweg. A journey full of developments, changes, and wonder… on an exponential scale.
And… lockdown continues… Yesterday’s election results in the US were an unexpected boost. I was so happy to see democracy in action. People voting and making their voices and needs heard. So now, hopefully, finally, one of the largest countries on Earth won’t be governed by a raving narcissist anymore. I am usually not voicing my opinions on politics much. And, honestly, I don’t want to give a monster like Trump any space in my head… because we created him. We gave him way too much space in our collective heads as well as in all the media, even though he doesn’t deserve a second of our attention.
On a personal level, lockdown is proving hard for me yet again. I have too much time on my own again. I am alone with too much pain again. And, as I try to process an accumulation of trauma, I need to stay alert so as not to be consumed by it. As I work through it all, I realize I have spent way too much time throughout my life smiling, taking care of others, being the strong one, and being ok, whilst inside of me turmoil was raging. In order to overcome, I need to have the courage to be vulnerable. I need to allow myself to have needs, too. And there has to be the honest admission: Yes, I can function. Yes, I am strong enough to weather through it all. But, no, I’m not ok. I will be some day. But, right at this moment, I’m not ok.
However, I am also lucky and so thankful for all the kindnesses I’m experiencing. Like my dad, who always has my back. Like my therapist, who knows I currently have no money and who has offered to do weekly sessions with me for free. “You need this right now. I’m worried about you. And I trust you. You can pay me when you’re back on your feet again. And I know you will be soon.” Her faith in me as well as coming to my aid means more than I will ever be able to express in words. Then there are my friends who embrace me as I am, and let me know they’re happy to have me in their lives. There is my current employer and friend who trusts me and always lets me know she values my input. There is my teacher at Alliance Francaise who writes me a worried message to see how I’m doing when I don’t show up for Zoom class. There is the entire team at Alliance Francaise, who are so helpful and human. They do and care far more for their students than their job description requires. And then there are my “neighbors”, the pigeon couple. They fly back into a little alcove across from my balcony every evening to cuddle with each other and spend the night together. The sight of them loving each other so deeply and authentically always warms my heart.
In the meantime, I’m not idle either and try as best as possible to give myself a kick in the butt every day. I don’t always succeed. But mostly I do. I aim to give myself a healthy structure. Every day, I go out for that one hour we’re allowed to, and walk. I write articles for TheatreArtLife. I photograph. And I try to pamper myself a bit whenever I have the chance. When I just need to collapse on the bed and do nothing at all, I let myself do that, too. I study French intensively. Zoom lessons, mountains of homework, plus additional grammar books, Duolingo, novels, and graphic novels. Thankfully, I stocked up on books just before lockdown. I miss the weekly book flea market underneath the sycamore trees, in the Esplanade Charles de Gaulles in Montpellier. And can’t wait for it to reopen. There is something magical in the way the light reflects off the sycamore leaves onto the literature beneath. There is a reflective calm as well, as people browse through the knowledge of the ages, as they enjoy the cover designs and imagine the worlds waiting behind those covers.
One such world I brought with me into lockdown: “Le Petit Prince.” I’m enjoying it all over again in French, the third language I’m reading it in. “C’est une folie de haïr toutes les roses parce que une épine vous a piqué, d’abandonner tous les rêves parce que l’un d’entre eux ne s’est pas réalisé, de renoncer à toutes les tentatives parce qu’on a échoué… C‘est une folie de condamner toutes les amitiés parce qu’une d’elles vous a trahi, de ne croire plus en l’amour juste parce qu’un d’entre eux a été infidèle, de jeter toutes les chances d’être heureux juste parce que quelque chose n’est pas allé dans la bonne direction. Il y aura toujours une autre occasion, un autre ami, un autre amour, une force nouvelle. Pour chaque fin il y a toujours un nouveau départ.” So very true.
Just one hour a day to go out is not enough. I try to make the most of it though and keep exploring the old part of town. There is still so much street art to discover. So many cozy corners, too. One place I visit every day is a square close to the big UNIQLO in Montpellier. On the square are four of these gnarly old giants. In the evening, just about the time I finish with my French Zoom classes, these trees are literally bursting with birds. You already hear them from hundreds of meters away. But when you stand just underneath those trees and close your eyes, the choir of birds fills your entire existence. Definitely one of the better open air concerts I’ve been to.
Other than that, there is really not much new. I am charmed by the Carrefour around the corner from where I live. It’s supposed to close at 6pm every night. Last night, I went there 5 min to six without realizing and was firmly reminded by a security guard inside that they’ll close in 5 min. But, many had come in late just like me, so the employees in the store just kept on working until the flow of customers ebbed somewhat. Today, when I walked past at quarter past 6pm they were again still open with long lines waiting. No one seemed to be really bothered by it and the police didn’t care either. That’s my kind of place ☺️
Speaking of police. They leisurely patrolled the streets on bicycles today, chatted with each other, did random checks of curfew papers, waved, and greeted “bon soir” as I walked past them. Another moment in time which made me smile. In the empty alleys, a guy played fetch with his Golden Retriever. I ended up crawling under the parked cars with both guy and dog to help them fish out the balls they had lost. Then, as I continued on my rounds, the sky darkened, and those beautiful old street lights turned on. They bathed everything in the warm, golden light I love so much here at night.
Now, “Les Exercises de Grammaire” are calling for me… I guess, I better answer those calls… 🧐
It is interesting to see what happens psychologically when you hike. When I left Switzerland in Juli, I was in the middle of healing from heartbreak and betrayal and also in the middle of trying to overcome all the practical and emotional challenges this subsequently led to. I figured, the best way to positively process my trauma as well as the added uncertainty brought on by Covid19 was to be on the move.
Nature has amazing power. During my hike, with few exceptions, it was just me and meadows and trees as far as the eye could see. I spent hours talking to myself in the forest. Having whole discussions with myself, in an attempt to process all that was twirling around inside my head. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I screamed, sometimes I cried, and other times I was just quiet, letting it all flow through me and appreciating the beauty nature offered me along the trail.
Overall, hiking across Europe wasn’t a bad idea. Even though all the practical and emotional challenges I faced at the beginning of my journey are (for the most part) still as acute and present as they were in July.
Which is why now that I have decided to make a longer stop-over in Montpellier, the grief and pain has become harder to deal with. Being on the move helped to keep my mind occupied. During my 2 months of hiking, I was far too busy dealing with physical pain, toe problems, finding shelter for the night, finding food and water, finding the trail, etc. to get really depressed.
Now, even though I am busy with studying French, little side jobs, and writing articles for TheatreArtLife, everything is consuming me again. Since about a year now (or rather two), I’ve been in an emotional roller coaster much akin to the rising and falling of the tides. When I move to avoid these tides, I seem to be ok. Not moving now, I encounter the neap tides during which I feel mostly ok. At other times, spring tides come rolling in with the power of a tsunami, and I feel like I am drowning over and over again. Thankfully though, these particularly high tides seem to come at lesser frequencies. They are still there and they are still awful when they hit me, but I know I’ll somehow be able to keep my head above water.
In many ways, staying still in Montpellier turns out to be far more turbulent than being on the trail and hiking through unchartered territory. But I do realize staying was a good decision. Actually, it was the only sane decision. Because I can’t keep hiking to the end of my days to avoid the tides. I need to let them crash over me as they come and I need to work through them to be free, and to become my old, confident self again. Trauma is there to be overcome and to be conquered, not to be buried.
There is still a ways to go, but I now also have 3 more months in this beautiful haven of a town. I will do my best to take it all in stride (and at times, I’ll invariably fail). I’ll allow myself to stay still. To curl up in a little corner and lick my wounds, to breathe, to cry, and to take all the time I need to figure out what to do with my life from here on out since it feels as if I need to start completely from zero again.
But I know it’s not healthy to live only in my head. While I do not want to be on the trail every day just now, the emotional processing needs to be balanced by something. Thankfully, there is much to explore that is only minutes away from my flat. Just today, I ventured into the outside world and went on a wonderful walk after school to discover more of Montpellier’s street art. Over the next few weeks, I’ll surely continue getting to know my surroundings here even better. I’ll go and take walks on the beach which is only 30 minutes away. I’ll walk along the river Lez. I’ll venture into every single little alley in Montpellier’s old town. And I’ll keep going on excursions throughout the Occitanie region, too.
Then, in January, who knows. I might well continue my Wonderweg and keep hiking for a while longer until I find a job. And, hopefully, by that time I’ll be able to enjoy hiking for hundreds of kilometers much better, because my heart will have recovered a bit more and the tides won’t feel quite so high anymore. It is definitely easier to put one step in front of the other on dry land as opposed to trying to wade through the deep water of inner turmoil.
Is it a good sign, that I am dreaming of the Pyrenees, the South of Spain, the Strait of Gibraltar, and Portugal? Is it a good sign that I am savoring French delicacies and already looking forward to Paellas, Sangria, Chorizo and so many other foods I love? Is it a good sign that I care about how well my French is developing and that I am putting a lot of hard work and effort into it? Is it a good sign that I enjoy laughing with my classmates at the often outrageous mistakes we make? I think it is. I am still broken, but I am slowly mending and becoming stronger at the broken places. I will never be the same again. But I am slowly learning to love life again with all my heart.
Since I remained pretty static in Montpellier lately, I’ve posted a bit less. Static physically that is ☺️. I did not find time to venture outside of Montpellier and go for any hikes because I was far too busy with school and everything else. What I did manage after a very intense last week, however, was to take a breather and visit one of my best friends in Paris for two days in the beginning of this week.
I had to laugh when the train suddenly stopped about an hour after I had boarded on Sunday, and the conductor said over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen can you all please evacuate the train in a quick and orderly fashion.”
Hundreds of people did just that. Surprisingly good-humored and efficiently I might add. There we stood, freezing in the cold, whilst security did a rapid and thorough search of the entire train. Apparently, there had been a bomb threat. 15 minutes later we were all back on the warm train and continued our journey to Paris. This year never seems to run out of surprises…
Getting out at Gare de Lyon was as always a pleasure. It’s just such a beautiful old train station. But Paris was sooo much colder than Montpellier! It’s amazing what difference only 3 hours in latitude can make. Still, my friend and I did our best to enjoy, went for long walks around town, and even went to a wonderful Christian Louboutin exhibition at the Palais de la Porte Doree.
I’ve never been a shoe person and have always chuckled a bit when I saw people spending hundreds and even thousands of dollars on their shoe collections. While I would still never want to own more than two or three pairs at any one time myself, I do understand shoes on a whole new level now, after seeing the Louboutin exhibition.
Shoes are works of art. Extensions of your body, the lines amplify your natural elegance. Shoes are exclamation marks of beauty. They are statements of energy and sensuality. Quite incredible little accessories really. So much more than just things to walk with.
I never thought my hike would lead me to a greater understanding of shoes and a love of Christian Louboutin’s work. But here you go.
The sign in the entrance to the exhibition was especially inspiring. Louboutin grew up close to the Palais de la Porte Doree during his childhood. Every time his parents took him to an exhibition, the sign alerting visitors to not wear high heels was in the entrance. The red bar drawn across the shoe sparked Louboutin’s idea of his trademark red soles. Amazing 🌟🌟🌟
Over the last three days, the “What a Trip!” festival took place in Montpellier. A wonderful nature and travel-related documentary film festival. I went and saw three of the movies. Have you ever heard of the underwater explorer and photographer Laurent Ballesta? His work is incredible. I felt as if I was diving with him and as if I could sense every drop of water caressing my skin. He just published a new book, ‘Planete Mediterranee’. It’s absolutely incredible!
Another movie was about the French nature photographer Vincent Munier. I don’t think I have ever seen nature photography like this before. Vincent is so sensual about the whole experience. He somehow becomes one with the animals he photographs. He recognizes their souls and manages to manifest this in his photographs. See for yourself, here is the entire docu about him: https://youtu.be/lUJQRMeYFqM It’s an hour of your life you won’t regret!
The third documentary feature was just as fascinating. It was about a group of scientists and divers calling themselves ‘Under the Pole’, and about one of their expeditions in French Polynesia. On this specific endeavor, they were on a quest to learn more about corals. Amazingly, they found corals at depths as far as 150 m below the surface!!! Something that was long thought to be impossible and might show that corals are changing with their environment and becoming ever more resilient and adaptable. It’s a ray of hope for the oceans, for our entire planet, and for humanity.
Needless to say, traveling all over the world in a cinema at a time when traveling has become incredibly complicated if not nearly impossible was invigorating for a nomad like me.
Even better, to be able to see all this in one of Montpellier’s oldest movie theatres. Merci beaucoup pour ce voyage extraordinaire!
I’ve been sitting in this garden behind our school a lot during breaks these last few days, enjoying the last few rays of warm summer sun. Just in time, too. The skies are still blue, but temperatures have plummeted from 25 degress to 10 degrees this morning. Brrrr…
The last 2 days were also decision time, since yesterday was supposed to be my last day at the Alliance Francaise, and today was going to be the last day in my little rooftop sanctuary.
Hiking on or staying a bit longer was the tough question. Financially, hiking on would have been the much smarter decision. Plus, it might have gotten me to Portugal in time for Christmas.
I followed my gut, however, and prolonged my stay here… for 3 1/2 months!!!
Crazy, I know. But here it is. All-in-all, I’ll be studying French and enjoying Montpellier and its surroundings for 4 1/2 months. During that time, my aim is to get my French to at least nearly fluid. Spain and Portugal won’t run away in the meantime. And the new year can begin with exploring Europe further. Something positive to look forward to during not-so-positive times.
The 15th of January 2021 will be my last day of school here. If, until then, I still haven’t found a job, I’ll hike onwards along the coast of Southern Spain towards the Strait of Gibraltar and Portugal.
The Wonderweg surely is staying true to its name in more ways (or rather trails) than one. My mind is completely open. If I make it as far as the Straight of Gibraltar, I might just hop on a ferry and explore Morocco for a few days/weeks as well. Practice my French over there, too 😁… Or I’ll stay on the European side of the Mediterranean Sea…
Everything is uncertain… everything is open… scary and liberating both at the same time.
Which is fine… because… (in the words of the ever-inspiring Antoine De Saint Excupery)… ”As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.”
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.