Reflections on the Camino

I was honored when Laurie, of The Camino Provides, asked me to write about what “the Camino provides” meant to me.

In all honesty, I put this task off for a long time. I didn’t believe that I could actually put pen to paper and articulate how much the Camino provided me. But, when I sat down to think about it, and reflected on my life in the half year since the Camino, I knew that I finally had the answer.

It has been exactly six months since I started my Camino. Notice, I anchor to my start date, because I don’t believe that my Camino has ever really stopped.

I began on June 1st, 2015. My Camino took me from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela in 18 days. In those 18 days, I walked and I talked, I laughed and I sobbed.

I sweated through the Meseta, and shivered in the rain in Galicia. I drank too much red wine, and ate too many Spanish tortillas.

I got lots of blisters, and I made lots of friends. 

I cried too many times to count. I also smiled too many times to count.

I pushed myself to my limits, both mentally and physically, and all along the way, the Camino provided me with all of the tools I needed to keep going.

The Camino provided me with open hearts to connect with every day, and open minds to share stories with.

The Camino provided me with the comfort of community, and a sense of purpose, in knowing that I was never alone along The Way. It gave me peace, in the form of the nature and beautiful landscapes that surrounded me, especially in the mountains of Galicia.

It provided me with shoulders to lean on when I limped, and the hands of complete strangers to bandage my blistered feet.

It provided me friendships with incredible people from all over the world. The Camino gifted me Peter, Nadja, Mundo and Austin, among many others, who all now hold a very special place in my heart.

But, the Camino doesn’t stop providing when a peregrino reaches Santiago. Instead, during the months after your journey, it slowly molds you until you realize that you, at your core, have somehow become a better version of yourself.

Since my Camino, I have become more patient, I love more openly than ever before, and I have developed an incredible amount of faith in myself and my capabilities, as well as in the kindness of others.

Most importantly, the Camino provided me with the conviction that I am the creator of my own path, my own happiness. By pushing me to my physical and mental limits, the Camino taught me that my state of mind is not merely a product of my environment, but rather, can be whatever I choose for it to be. We cannot be defeated, we simply choose to feel defeated. Likewise, we can choose to be happy.

And just like that, these last six months of my life have been the happiest I have ever been. I know the Camino played a part in that.

To everyone who has already completed their Camino, and is now on the Camino of life, I hope my words brought back beautiful memories.

And to those peregrinos, like Laurie, who are looking forward to their journey, my heart warms at the thought of all the things the Camino will provide you.

Buen Camino,

Pauline

Camino

Santiago de Compostela with my Camino family

Slow My Roll

I have spent the last ten days in Kraków, camped out on a couch at my aunt and uncles’, sleeping, reading and watching Netflix. Yes, after weeks of bouncing around from city to city, Seville to Córdoba to Granada to Barcelona to Warsaw to a wild wedding here, it was time to slow my roll.

The truth is that every once in a while we all need some TLC and to just chill out. For months, when I wasn’t traveling, I was at least planning my next travels. I was barely sleeping, insisting that I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And, I had half a dozen books on my kindle, untouched.

So here I am, attempting to do nothing. Quite honestly, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to. I don’t really remember how to do nothing. Binge-watching Netflix has no appeal to me, especially since I’ve already finished Orange is the New Black, and sleeping-in is overrated.

That’s why I’ve broken up my rest with exploring this gorgeous city, visiting it’s museums, taking walking tours of the historic neighborhoods and treating myself to ice cream.

I believe in something I call the hometown effect. It’s when you live in a city, or you’ve been to a place so often that you’ve never visited it. I’ve lived in Chicago all my life, and hadn’t gone up the Sears Tower up until a few years ago. And similarly, after visiting Kraków year after year to see family, I still couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. So, I found a free walking tour of the Old Town and another of the Jewish neighborhoods and I tagged along for the day, strolling through the cobblestone streets, checking out the castle and even learning about the former Jewish ghettos of Kraków.

I took myself to the chocolate drinker-y yesterday, the literal translation of “Pijalnia Czekolady.” Yes, that’s a thing. A gorgeous cafe in the city center dedicated to drinking hot (or cold!) chocolate. Not the powdered kind that you dissolve in milk, but the real melted down chocolate that is so thick that you’re actually a little sick after drinking it.

There you have it, that’s what I’ve been up to the last week or so. I am resting. I am on vacation.

But let’s be honest, I am me. I’ve got one eye on plane tickets, and one foot out the door. Only a matter of time until I’m off again!

 

Beautiful streets of Kraków

When It’s Not All Fine and Dandy

I thought it would be dishonest to pretend like everything is sunshine and butterflies when you’re a woman traveling alone, so I decided that I had to share a moment that was unpleasant and in all honestly, a little scary.

I believe that people are good, I genuinely do. But, I’m also not naive and I know that there are people out there with bad intentions.

After my evening trip to Portofino, mentioned in my previous post, I had to take the train back to the town where I was staying. That’s how I found myself in a rather unsafe situation. I was a young female at an empty train station, traveling alone at night.

I pulled out my wallet to buy my train ticket at a vending machine, and a Moroccan man suddenly appeared and stood next to me, against the machine. In a mix of Italian and broken English he started asking if I was an American and tried to convince me that the machine didn’t take cash and I needed to use my card.

I looked him dead in the eye and told him to leave me alone. For the first time on my trip, I felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t afraid that he would physically hurt me in any way; he was scrawny and slightly inebriated. I was, however, very aware that he was going to try and rob me.

I proceeded to buy my ticket with cash, which of course worked just fine, and the man would not let up. He kept coming closer and closer to me.

Little did I know that there was another man at the station, a large older Italian man, who I believe was homeless. Upon witnessing my altercation with the Moroccan, he got up from a bench on the far end of the station and came over. At this moment I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but I presumed it wasn’t going to be good.

To my surprise, the man started telling the Moroccan off in Italian. He blocked him from me and proceeded to walk me to a bench to sit with him. He had a kind face, and for some reason I knew I was safe with him.

His name was Antonio and through a mix of basic English and made up Italian, we started getting to know each other. He asked where I was from, asked about my travels and told me that I really ought to be more careful. He noticed that I was still distressed by the situation, so he tried to lighten the mood by telling me he use to be a boxer and that he was going to protect me.

When my train finally arrived, he walked me to my platform. Upon seeing that the Moroccan, now joined by two shady teenage boys, had followed me onto the train, Antonio got on the train too and sat in front of me. For the next hour, we chatted some more and he made sure I got off safely at my stop. He gifted me a handful of mint bonbons for the road, and I thanked him dearly for coming to my rescue that night.

You see, most of the time people are good and they are kind, and they will help you.

The town of Portofino by night

Portofino at dusk

As Luck Would Have It

Growing up, one of my favorite songs was an old Polish track from the 60’s about a town on the coast of Italy, Portofino. When I realized it was only an hour away from where I was staying in Cinque Terre, I knew I had to go see it.

I dropped my backpack off at my apartment, hopped on a train and figured I could catch sunset and grab dinner in Portofino. I had been told that the town was about a mile away from the train station, and figured I could just walk there.

So, off I went on the scenic walk along the coast in the direction of Portofino. And then I kept walking. And walking. And walking. After about an hour, I looked at the little blue dot on my Google maps and realized I was only about halfway to the town.

Turns out, that when the Italians tell you that something is about a mile away, they really mean more like five miles and that you really shouldn’t try and walk there.

It was rapidly getting dark, and the coastal road which wrapped around cliffs and lacked proper sidewalks, was not the safest place to be at night. There was no way I was going to make it to Portofino walking, and there was no taxi in sight.

I decided it was time for drastic measures, so I stuck out my thumb and tried my luck at hitchhiking. If it makes you feel any better, I only did it when a Mercedes or Porsche passed me by. So, of course, it was totally safe.

To my surprise, no one wanted to pick up a small blonde girl standing alone on the side of the road. Defeated, I kept walking.

Suddenly, a small neon green car stopped right in front of me, and a young woman hopped out to take a picture of the view, while a man waited in the driver’s seat. I glanced at their license plate: PL. They were Polish. I laughed at my luck and hollered over to her in Polish, asking if they were by chance heading towards Portofino. She smiled, happy to hear her own language, and said yes. I asked if they had room for one more and they certainly did.

Their names were Ola and Kamil. They were returning from a ski trip in the north of Italy, and had decided to take the scenic route home. The three of us chatted the entire ride to Portofino, and explored the town together. Afterwards, they even drove me back to the train station, for which I was very grateful.

I strongly believe that God has a funny sense of humor, and is always looking out for me when I travel. What are the chances that right when I needed it most, a car happened to stop in front of me, with a couple who happened to speak my language, and who just happened to be going to the same town I was headed to?

Portofino in itself was disappointing, but I suppose that’s what happens when you build something up in your head from a song. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that some higher power is looking out for me during my travels, always getting me safely to my destination.

Kamil, Ola and I

Yes, I took a selfie with Kamil and Ola in anticipation of writing about them. They did, after all, save me.

Easter at the Vatican

To wrap up my eleven day Italian dream trip, I managed to acquire a ticket to the Pope’s Easter mass. And by acquire, I really mean I called Mama Kulka who then worked some Polish networking and within days had tickets ready for me to pick up at the Vatican. The line, “let me call the Vatican,” was used somewhere in this contact chain, which made it all sound very official and important. Illuminati confirmed.

Upon arriving in Rome, I realized that this was the big leagues and it was time to go big or go home. If I was already here for Easter Mass, I was damn well going to see the Pope. I arrived at the Vatican at 6:45 am, about 4 hours before mass started, wearing hiking boots because I knew shit was about to get real.

I got in line behind people who must have been there all night, and looked around and realized I was in for a bad time. It was Easter, but everyone had suddenly forgotten how to be Catholic. There were nuns pushing through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea, old men with canes jabbing at anyone who got too close and groups of pimpled teens with their church groups discussing seating strategies like generals discussing a war plan.

The group of high schoolers with their church group were the actual worst of all the Easter offenders. I eavesdropped on the most intense seating strategy, overhearing one say to another, “It’s going to get rough, but you make the call and you go for it. If you get separated from the group, don’t look back.” I wasn’t sure if we were at the Vatican or Vietnam.

After the security checkpoint, I booked it to the aisle seats with a group of Loyola University students I had met in line, who were all studying abroad in Rome. Together we waited about three hours for mass to begin, shivering in the rain and taking turns cuddling to keep warm. You’d be surprised how comfortable you get with strangers when you’re huddled under one polka dotted umbrella for a few hours.

Through mass, I was freezing and wet, and too short to see over the sea of umbrellas. I was starting to doubt why I even wanted to be there in the first place, but suddenly the rain stopped and it was time for the sign of peace. Everyone in the crowd was cold and soaked, but in that moment they were all smiling at one another, shaking hands and hugging. They had come from all over the world to celebrate their faith, and that is a beautiful thing.

After the mass, Papa Francesco made his rounds through the crowd on the Pope mobile and happened to stop right in front of me. Needless to say, I fan-girled over him like tweens do for One Direction.

Overall, Easter mass at the Vatican was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. It was a blessing to share such a special moment with believers from all sorts of walks of life, who all braved the rain and the cold to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord, together.

Yes, I absolutely did fan-girl over Papa Francesco.

Yes, I absolutely did fan-girl over Papa Francesco.

A Will and a Way

I have spent an incredible last two nights in Cinque Terre, a cluster of five coastal villages in Italy carefully built on cliffs that overlook the sea. All of the villages can be reached by train. In fact, from the first village to the very last one, it’s only a fifteen minute ride. But, where is the fun in that?

Instead, I decided to do the coastal hike between all five towns. It’s an easy eight miles doable in five hours, including the time it takes to stroll through each town eating gelato.

Once I decide to do something, it needs to be done. So you can imagine my disappointment when I was told that the hiking trails between three of the five villages were closed due to damage. But, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

You see, when the Italians tell you that you cannot hike all five villages because the trails are closed, you say, “I ain’t no bitch,” and you lace up your hiking boots.

I knew that aside from the scenic coastal trails, the easy winding roads that hug the sea, there were also secondary routes between the villages. These routes went up and down through the hills of Cinque Terre. So, I turned my back to the ocean and began my steep ascent up, not knowing just how exhausting and exhilarating this hike would be.

You climb and climb, and you pant and you sweat. Then you stop and laugh because it’s impossible to be unhappy in such a beautiful place. Just when you think you need Jesus, a church appears on the trail, and when you’re dehydrated and dying, a stream is there to quench your thirst. You chase lizards the entire way, because you miss being ten years old with your brother and you miss the feeling of having a lizard slink across your hand.

Along the way, when I started doubting that I could do it, I met a quirky and wonderful girl named Fiona and the two of us pushed each other to make it to the end. After a grueling seven hours of climbing up and down fifteen miles of steep hills, I was sweaty and exhausted, but most of all, proud.

I came to hike the Cinque Terre trails, and that’s exactly what I did. Granted, I had to do it in fifteen hilly miles instead of the original eight, but hey, it was worth it.

shoes

I have bought many shoes in my lifetime: cute heels, flats, wedges and sandals. But between them all, this has to be my favorite.

On Strength and Weakness

I set out on my 11 day adventure to Italy hoping that I would learn something about myself, because that just seems like something people do on this kind of trip.

In these last few days, I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses.

First, I discovered that taking what life throws at me and making the most of it, is one of my biggest strengths.

I arrived at the train station in Bologna and headed straight to my Bed & Breakfast. I had booked it all in Italian and was rather proud of myself. Upon arriving, I learned that the confirmation was just that of my request to book, not an actual reservation and there were no available rooms for the night. In retrospect this was all very valid, because I don’t speak any Italian and have no business booking things in a language I do not understand.

But, it was all okay because at that moment I remembered that I had an orange in my pocket. So I ate it, and it was really good. Then I strolled through the city, taking it all in, until I stumbled upon a hotel.

I got there and took my pants off, because wearing jeans is the actual worst. That brings me to my lesson on my weaknesses.

I looked at my calves and was horrified at how big they were. I mean, have you seen my calves? They’re ridiculous. Then I looked lower, and was disgusted to find that my usually perfectly pedicured feet were beaten up, calloused and missing a toenail.

It was right then that I realized that I need to be more grateful for my amazing body. These two legs just carried me about 26 miles in the last three days. That’s about the distance of a marathon! My calves are big because they are strong, and my feet are beat up because they work hard to keep up with everything my eyes want to see.

I still have about a week to go on this journey and lots more to learn, but I think this is a pretty good start.

DSC_2083

Just going to leave this here to save you the effort of scouring my Facebook for a picture of my calves.