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…
The first week of school at the Alliance Francaise is already done. It was fun and tough. Frankly, I am far more exhausted now than if I had hiked all week. No rest for the wicked, though. This afternoon and tomorrow I’ll need to write several articles. Then, on Sunday, I’m planning to explore the countryside around Montpellier. After so many metaphorical steps nurturing the “wonder” side of my journey, it’ll be nice to “wander” again and see blue skies. A plus tard, bon week-end, et rester en sécurité mes amis x
Phew, I’m busy 😅. But, in a very good way. Until Montpellier, my days were filled with putting one foot in front of the other, doing my best to stay in the moment, spanning the distance, and writing. Which was fabulous in and of itself. Now, for just one month, I treasure the fact that I have a little home to relax and thrive in. My days are filled with learning Francais at school, doing homework, writing articles, meeting people, soaking in some culture, going on excursions, and watching the odd series before going to bed.
School is going well. I wish I could do more than one month to really get my French to almost fluent. But, I’ll need to be careful not to get too far into winter to not get into trouble once I reach the Pyrenees. So, just one month it will be and… damn… it’s already passing way too fast.
There is a beautiful cafe here called ‘Le Gazette’. An organic cafe, cozy, roomy, with live music as well as quiet corners to get some writing done. If I’d live here permanently, I would definitely be a regular! The food is delicious, too. Last night, I had the best Ceviche and the absolute best Creme Brulee of my life in there! What a fabulous end to a fabulous day.
In the afternoon, a small group of us aspiring French speakers had gone and taken the classroom to the river. Instead of practicing tenses, we practiced shouting French obscenities at the elements as we canoed and pretty much rocketed down the awesome Gorges de l’Herault. Breathtaking landscape and so much fun. I haven’t laughed this much in ages. Due to the hot summer the river was way too low and we kept getting stuck on rocks or the current was pushing us underneath low-hanging branches. I shared a canoe with my classmate Cedric, and we could both hardly breathe after a while, because we were laughing uncontrollably. Even today, my arm muscles are ok, but my stomach muscles still hurt from laughing so hard.
It was a good day. I slept well in my little rooftop sanctuary, got up early, downed two coffees, and went to school. I am in a class with four other people. We are from all over the world: Tibet, England, Colombia, Switzerland, and me from Germany. My French definitely is the worst 😂 Lots of work ahead.
Now doing homework on the couch while sipping from a glass of French vin rouge. Tonight’s sunset over the rooftops isn’t all that bad either ☺️
Sooo… I will stay in Montpellier for one month. And this morning is my first day of school… uuuaaahhhh… but let me start from the beginning…
I’ve made the spontaneous decision to replace smoking feet with a smoking brain. I am taking a 4-week intensive French course at the Alliance Francaise to finally be able to speak the language better. And, to hopefully also better my chances in the future when I apply to circus companies and shows that prefer that you speak French as well.
Et voila, school starts in one hour and I am a bit nervous because the class I’m joining has already done 50 lessons, and my French is, quite frankly, tres horrible! (Sorry, no accents on this little iPad).
I’ve also quite spontaneously rented a little rooftop apartment for a month. It’s in the center of town, old, cozy, super quiet with a view over the rooftops. I can’t even describe my absolute delight when I settled into my little temporary sanctuary last night. Ever since last October, when I lost my home, I haven’t had a space of my own. I couldn’t retreat anywhere where I can just be me. All those things we ususally take for granted… eating breakfast when and for as long as I want, listening to the music I like without earphones, binge-watching a series for as long as I want without earphones, stretching on my couch, hopping around naked (singing and screaming if I like), leaving things lying around, opening the window when I want, and shopping for my own little fridge, choosing my favorite foods, trying new ones, and just feeling home.
Last night, I did all that (except the binge-watching). And it was pure happiness. Being able to unpack my bag and hang my two t-shirts into the bedroom. Being able to cook (!!!) and enjoy a meal of my favorite spaghetti and a good glass of wine in my (almost own) home.
So yeah, I’ll enjoy this little haven for the next 4 weeks. I’ll also spend time at the beach which is only a stone’s throw away. I’ll find a favorite cafe to sit and write in, and I’ll work hard on Le Francais.
Check out my place as well. The house is awesome on the outside. If you look closer, you’ll see that the entire front isn’t real. It’s a street art mural. It looks even better in real life. The apartment is simple but has everything I could possibly need.
As for hiking, the Wonderweg is still on! It will just see me blabbering more confidently in French after the course is finished on September 26. The idea is still to head further West through France, Spain, to the Street of Gibraltar and then onwards to Portugal. I still have about 2’500 km ahead of me.
For this next month, I’ll most likely post a little less since my brain will be fried. But, I’ll still keep you posted about my adventures wandering and wondering around Montpellier. Probably every second day.
It’s time to share a map again, now that the third leg of my journey is done: from Grenoble to Montpellier. It was a mix of hiking and traveling by car, since during the last week I was lucky to be able to catch up – and catch a ride – with a couple old friends.
All-in-all, I have now been on the trails for almost 2 months, hiking from Brugg in Switzerland towards Portugal. So far, I have covered a distance of 500 km. 100 km were trains and cars. 400 km were tackled entirely on foot. Three days ago, I finally reached the Mediterranean Sea at Saintes Maries de la Mer. A real highlight of my journey!
Here some random observations and practical thoughts so far:
Feet: are ok now, but… oh boy. I can recommend to anyone who has spent years living in flip-flops like I did, to do a lot of smaller hikes before embarking on the big one. My feet took ages to acclimate to being in closed shoes again, all day long. Also, the heavier your backpack, the more strain you put on your knees and feet. Knee problems can easily be avoided by using walking sticks. But, the feet feel the heavy load all day long. This is one reason why I am strongly considering leaving behind even more of my stuff. I am at 12 kg now, but would love to bring it down to 7 or 8 kg. Will need to see what to do…
Gravel paths: the worst!!! So many hiking trails have gravel on them. I’ve come to hate those paths. They absolutely kill my feet. No matter how thick the soles of my shoes are, after a few hours I can feel every single sharp rock.
Water: is a real problem when you hike through the Swiss and French Jura regions in summer. I brought a water filter but was never able to use it, because all creek and river beds were completely dry. I ended up depending on the kindness and close proximity of farmers. In Switzerland, where everything is closer together, this wasn’t so much of a problem. In France, the distances between any settlements and farms are much farther apart. Sometimes more than a day’s walk. Additionally, many small restaurants along the way are currently closed due to Covid19. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it feels like to be thirsty and to be afraid, not knowing where the next drop of water will come from… and when. It all got a bit better once I came through the Rhone valley and the Massif de la Chartreuse. But, since it’s a very hot summer, the water situation remained precarious throughout.
Walking alone: overall no problem. Each day seems to just fly by. After a few hours my feet start hurting and I need to take a break. But, ten hours of walking pass by so fast, even with pain. Which is something I need to be consciously aware of. It’s better to pace myself and not do too many hours in one day. I haven’t listened to any music yet. I love the sounds of the wildlife all around me and of the wind gently, or sometimes not so gently, blowing through the trees and over the meadows. And, I enjoy my own company. However, what I do struggle with is my homelessness. If I did this hike knowing I have my own little home base to return to somewhere, I would feel more at peace. As it is, I do not know when and where I’ll find my next job. So, I also do not know when I’ll have my own little private space again. I miss having an actual home. That’s why, sometimes, I wonder if I should have bought an old car, so at least I’d have a home on the road. A little mobile space that’s mine. But maybe that’s also something I need to learn: to be ok without that. In essence, camping has so far never been a problem, but it has been stressful nonetheless. I am the kind of guy who loves to have his little quiet sanctuary somewhere to retreat to after a hard day’s work. And, somehow, a tent in which I always have to anticipate people, deer, cows, wild dogs, etc. disturbing me, just doesn’t quite measure up.
Covid19 considerations: I always have my face mask in my pocket, within easy reach. As soon as I get close to too many people at once, I put it on. For their protection and mine. In Switzerland, social distancing rules were followed in some places and not in others. Some people wore masks, some didn’t. It seemed to be different in every single farm, village, and city I walked through. In France, the preventive measures so far seem to be in place everywhere. Most people seem to be quite disciplined when it comes to wearing a mask as well, even out on the street. I am surprised the numbers in Southern France are going up so much, because everyone I see is being so careful.
Horse flies and tics: I just really hate them. So far, thankfully, I have found every single tic that was crawling around on me before it latched on. Grrr. Tenacious little buggers!
This is all I can think of right now. I’ll stay in Montpellier for a little while. It’s just too beautiful here to leave quickly. And, after so much forest and nature (which I love) it is great to feel so much vibrant city life and culture around me (which I also love). More about the next steps in tomorrow’s blog post!
Here a few heartfelt thanks:
Big thanks to Maggi and Abel for picking me up close to Avignon. Thanks for letting me stay at your place for a few days! It was so peaceful and I loved our conversations! Thanks Lionel for driving so many hours just to come see me. I loved exploring Uzes with you and was glad we had a chance to catch up after so many years. Thank you Ute and Jim for giving me a ride to the Camargue. How awesome that we had a chance to meet and then hike for a couple days together through the beautiful Camargue! From now on, every time I hear someone burp loudly I’ll think of those strange flamingos, of the weird sounds they make, and of our bird watching adventures! Mylena, how awesome to meet you upon my arrival in Montpellier. What a great day! I could have continued forever. And thanks so much to Evelyne at Villa Stella. Thanks for sharing delicious fruits and coffees with me and for inspiring me with great conversations.
And, thanks to all of you who read this, for being there. Writing these posts is as much a means of letting friends and family know how I am, as it is a means for me to not feel so alone on the road and stay connected with the people I care about and with the world in general. Thanks for your support!