The Things We Carry

On Saturday, June 28, I stood in the foyer of the K & K Picasso hotel in Barcelona. I watched as my boyfriend’s brother Stewart stapled paper luggage tags to the suitcases he, his wife, his three children, and his mother brought with them for the twelve-night cruise upon which we were about to embark. I was stunned by the size and number of their bags–some taller than small children. And much wider. I tried to count them all but got distracted after I reached sixteen. Sixteen bags (or more). For six people. Three of whom were between the ages of 10 and 15 (which means they have smaller clothes than us adults). And it’s summer. (Summer clothes fold up much smaller than winter clothes.)

I was very curious as to what was in these bags. It was a twelve night cruise. Even if they wore a different outfit every day, and every night, I still couldn’t figure out what took up all that space. I wanted to ask, but I’d only met them the night before and didn’t think it appropriate to quiz them after just a few hours together. 

“Where are your bags?” my boyfriend’s mother asked me. 

Me and My Luggage

“Well, one is right there,” I said, pointing to my red carry-on bag which now stood in the midst of all the other bags like a dwarf in a forest. “And my backpack is over there,” I said, pointing out my 30 liter pack. 

“That’s it?” she asked. “For twelve nights?” 

“That’s it for three months.” I said, reminding her Michael and I arrived in Europe more than a month earlier and were staying for another five weeks after the cruise. She looked at me: her lips tight, her brow furrowed, not quite sure what to make of this woman she’d met less than twenty-four hours ago. I got the feeling this was not the time for a discussion about my minimalist efforts of the last ten years.

A few days earlier, while waiting for Michael to finish packing, I read with great fascination Ryan Nicodemus’s 21-day plan to minimize his life. Actually, it wasn’t the whole plan that drew my attention, but one thing in particular: the packing party. On Day 3 of his plan, he invited all his friends over to help him pack up everything he owned, as if he was moving out. Except he wasn’t. 

Over the next few days, if Ryan needed something, he found the box it was in (as all boxes were neatly labeled with their contents) and took it out. The idea was that anything he hadn’t pulled out by a certain time probably wasn’t something he needed anymore. He pulled items out each day until Day 10, when he found everything he needed was already out. 

I don’t propose everyone do this. Well, actually, I do. But I think the idea would overwhelm most of you. However, it is a great way to declutter a room. Or just a closet for that matter. Pack up all your clothes. When you wake up, decide what you want to wear and pull it out. Do this for a few weeks and you’ll start to eye things in those boxes that you know you’ll never wear again. Things you haven’t worn in years. Let them go. And that’s just your summer clothes. Do the same thing each season, pulling out what you need and donating or selling everything else. 

But me? I like minimalism challenges. And after reading Ryan’s post, I realized that, at that very moment, everything I owned was packed. It wasn’t all in the same country. Or the same state. But it was all packed. Two bags with me in Europe. Boxes of everything I’d used (or not) over the last two years were in storage in Asheville. Things I hadn’t touched in more than three years were packed in boxes in my parent’s barn in Poughkeepsie, New York.

And that’s when the idea struck. 

 Guess what I’m going to do upon my return to Asheville in August? And during my visit to New York in September? Hopefully, by the time Michael and I head off for another three-month adventure, I’ll have lighter bags (maybe even fewer?) and less stuff packed away around the world.  

Double-Take

This morning Michael and I saw the Cours Mirabou for the last time. Our taxi drove under the plane trees, past the Cafe Grillon where we sat for coffee and people watching nearly every day, past the gelato shop that we probably frequented a bit too much. We left Aix-en-Provence  and headed to Barcelona where, in two days, I’ll meet Michael’s family for the first time before we all hop on a cruise ship headed around the Mediterranean for twelve nights. (Tough life. I know.)

However, for five minutes today, there was a good chance we would meet Michael’s family with one less bag in our possession. 

Our Street in Barcelona

Michael and I arrived at our AirBnB apartment in Barcelona a half-hour before we were due to meet the owner. While Michael stood guard over our bags, I headed toward the small market down the street for some nourishment. Walking in, a two-year-old boy’s laughter filled the place as he pulled bags of potato chips from a box and ran them over to his father who was stocking the shelves. I smiled as I dodged the little boy and debated over ramen noodle choices before deciding to go with some sliced cheese instead. I was sad to see my purchase caused the interruption of the little boy’s game, but was sure it would resume soon enough. 

Next, I stopped at a bakery for a baguette. Now I possessed all the makings for what had been my daily lunch along the Camino two years ago: a bocadillo con queso. I walked out of the store thinking of Portomarin, a town whose church steps formed the setting for my lunch one day on the Camino. With my pack on the steps beside me, I tore my bread apart. I saw an Australian couple I had spoken to earlier and they graciously let me borrow their knife in order that I could slice the cheese for my sandwich. By the end of the Camino I wondered if I would ever again want to see a cheese sandwich. Yet here I was, two years later, about to enjoy that delicacy once more. 

As I walked back towards Michael, I saw a young man bicycling toward me. He was steering the bike with only his left hand, a backpack hanging from his right hand. But he had a slight problem: the straps of the pack were getting caught in his front tire. In the front pocket of the pack, something silver was sticking out and caught my eye. In that moment I recognized Michael’s Italian Stovetop Espresso maker, and realized the man was holding Michael’s pack. 

Michael’s Pack–with the telltale espresso maker

 

The bike slowed as the straps got more entangled in the front wheel. I picked up my pace as the man turned in front of me, pulling onto a side street realizing he couldn’t go any further. I caught up to him just as he got off the bike. I could now see   Michael’s water bottle in the side pocket. 

“Is that yours?” I asked pointing to the pack. He looked at me as if he didn’t understand. He squatted down to work at the straps, and I did the same, hiking my purse up onto my right shoulder, and tucking my cheese and bread under my left arm. The two of us spent a good thirty seconds calmly working together to free the straps. “Attends,”  I said, when he was pulling the wrong way and making it worse. I figured out what we needed to do to free the final strap and, pointing to where it was caught, said, “ici” (here). Having been in Barcelona less than an hour, I was till thinking in French. 

I thought to call out to Michael who wasn’t visible but whom I knew wasn’t much further down the street, but in that same moment I realized that would require him leaving all our other bags.

I now realize the thief probably just thought I was a nice girl who stopped to help him. But in one smooth motion, I slid the final strap out with one hand and slid my other arm through one of the shoulder straps, all the while hiking my own purse up on my shoulder using my elbow to hold it close to me. The thief just as quickly had his hand on the other shoulder strap. I looked him in the eye and said, “This is not yours!” 

“Esta mio! Esta mio!” he said, pointing to his chest. He wasn’t angry. He just acted like someone genuinely trying to explain the situation to a girl who was a little too slow to understand. 

“No,” I said, pointing toward Michael’s direction. “It’s my boyfriend’s.”

“Esta mio!” he said once more, pleadingly. 

“No it’s not,” I said, getting louder, standing there defiantly. I pulled a little on my end, and just like that he let out a big sigh and let it go. I slung it over my shoulder as he rode away. 

Five seconds later I walked around the curve to see Michael facing me, but standing across the street from our bags. He walked towards me smiling as if I was just coming back from the store. “Did you not notice your pack was missing?” I said, incredulously.

“What?” he said, looking down at the pile of bags, his smile quickly disappearing as he took in a sharp breath. I dumped the pack onto the ground. 

“Oh my God. The guy on the bike,” he said. 

“Yeah–a guy on a bike,” I said, the words tumbling out of my mouth. “I saw him down there with the straps of your bag tangled in his front tire.”

“Oh my God,” he said, putting it all together. “He distracted me. He was asking if I spoke Spanish, or English, and where the Picasso Museum was. I turned towards him for maybe ten seconds–”

“With your back to the bags?”

“Yeah, but–oh my God. In the blink of any eye! Someone else must have taken the bag. How did you get it?” he asked, the both of us still trying to fit the pieces together. “I’m having heart palpitations,” he said, putting his hand to his chest. 

As we figured, there were two men working together. The guy on the bike distracted Michael while the accomplice took the pack. The bike guy must have then turned around to catch up with the accomplice so he could grab the bag and quickly get away from the scene of the crime. Only he apparently wasn’t so skilled at stealing hiking packs–the ones with lots of straps hanging from them. 

And that’s where all the fates came in. That I left the bakery at just the right moment, that the straps stopped the cyclist just at that moment, that Michael had the silver espresso maker stuffed in the front pocket of his sack. 

We stood there looking at each other, stunned, going over the pieces again and again. 

“Do you know what’s in that bag?” Michael asked. I had no idea. Michael has more luggage than I do, and I’m mystified as to what it all contains: two carry-ons, a trumpet case, and the backpack. “My computer’s in there. My laptop. And my iPad. We might not have been able to go on the cruise,” he said. (Michael is self-employed and works on the internet. He would have had to spend at least a day reporting the crime, getting new equipment, etc.)

He opened his arms to give me a hug. “No, go stand on the other side of the bags,” I said. I still wasn’t convinced something wouldn’t happen again. 

A police car drove by and Michael waved them down. As he walked over to the car, I said, “No!” thinking, “Don’t leave me alone with the bags!” but just as quickly realized how could I tell him not to go talk to the police? 

He told them what happened, but neither of us could describe the thief with much more than his brown hair color and the fact that he was riding a bike. But at least they were made aware. 

Michael and I stood on either side of our circle of bags, legs a bit more than shoulder length apart, going over and over the details. 

Hours later, having settled into our apartment and gone out for a walk, I said to Michael, “I know you don’t believe in this stuff as much as I do. But I think that when you do good things, good comes back to you.” I explained how the previous day I met an ESL teacher for a coffee as I wanted to learn a bit more about teaching English in France. When it came time to leave, I insisted on paying for her lunch as a thank you for her time. She was surprised, but eventually agreed. 

“So wait,” Michael said. “You do something good, and I reap the rewards?”

“Well, it was a reward for me too, because I would have had to deal with you if that bag got stolen.” 

“You know,” he said, “I think you should join the Peace Corps so I can get some more rewards.” 

I laughed. For now, having all of our belongings in our possession was good enough. 

 

 

The Last Supper

A few days ago (or maybe a week ago?) Michael and I had a lovely meal at an Italian restaurant in Aix. As is common here, our table was outside. But instead of a large square filled with people, we were on a tiny side street–so tiny that if a car passed by, it very well could make contact with my knee. We relaxed with a glass of house red, then devoured our meals: penna arrabiata for Michael and gnocchi for me. The sauce on my dish was some of the best I’d had so, on Saturday, Michael and I tried to find the restaurant again, in the hopes that we could eat there one last time before I left for the camino. There was just one problem: neither of us could recall the location of the restaurant. Nor the name. And I have no sense of direction. And Michael claims to have a poor memory. A wonderful combination in this situation. 

But we both love to walk. And Michael loves to track those walks on the FitBit he wears on his wrist each day. So we headed out to 1) see if we would stumble upon it like we had before and 2) reach Michael’s goal of 15,000 steps that day. 

I recalled that after we ate there we turned a couple corners and found ourselves in the “student section,” as Michael and I have come to call it–a square populated with outdoor cafes by day, and with hordes of college students by night. (Aix-en-Provence is a city of about 150,000. Of those, about 40,000 are international students.) 

We roamed every street off that plaza, but had no luck. 

“Did you charge that dinner on your credit card?” I asked.

Michael’s face lit up. “You’re so smart,” he said. 

“That’s why you’re with me,” I retorted. 

“But why you stay with me, I’m not so sure.” (Maybe because he tells me I’m smart?)

We stopped on a street corner and Michael pulled up his credit card account on his phone. His iPhone (after many visits to the Orange store and one call to Apple) was now usable for internet in France. Mine? Nope. (After one visit to the Orange store, two calls to Verizon, one to Samsung, and numerous google searches.)

I thought I’d recognize the name of the restaurant if heard it. Michael read aloud the few places listed. Turns out I was wrong. Undeterred, Michael googled the location of each place and over the next hour we walked by each one, but no luck.

The next day we walked another part of the city. “We should have marked on the map every street we’ve been on,” I said. Michael preferred the wandering approach as opposed to my police-like grid search. I pulled out the map anyway, and we “wandered” in a certain direction. But still, without success. 

It was time for a break. So we grabbed a table on the Cours Mirabeau–an endlessly entertaining place for people watching. Or checking Facebook, in Michael’s case. (Not because he’s addicted to it. Just because he has internet, and I don’t.)

“Mike and Kristin think we’re breaking up,” he said to me as he stared at his phone. 

“Why do you say that?” I asked. 

“You posted that you’re going on the camino. Not ‘we’re’ going on the camino.”

What I posted was correct. Michael was going to stay in Aix while I headed over to Porto to walk the Camino Portugues. We’ve got three months here. What’s a few weeks apart? 

“Maybe we should take a picture of us together so they know that’s not the case,” I offered.

“Nah, let them think that,” he said casually, as the waiter delivered our oh-so-healthy snacks: a nutella crepe (for me) and french fries (for Michael).

“You know . . .” I said, rolling my crepe, “I don’t think we’ve taken a single picture of us together.” I took the first bite of my crepe and momentarily left the earth (nutella has that effect on me). 

“I blame you,” Michael said, with a smile. I rolled my eyes. Indeed, ten days had gone by since we touched down in Europe and neither of us had ever asked another person to take our picture. 

I devoured my crepe, then decided Michael was not eating his fries fast enough and I needed to help. 

Michael, a man who wastes no time on getting things done, called our waiter over and, in a combination of English, French, and sign language, asked the tall, gray-haired man to take our picture. Michael posted it to Facebook then and there. 

We returned to our apartment so I could finish packing. Michael decided to continue on as he was six thousand steps short of his daily 15,000 step goal. An hour (or two?) later, a message popped up on my computer. I opened it to see a video Michael took–of our restaurant. Complete with a hello from the waitress who helped us that night.

A minute later he returned to the apartment, like a man returning from battle–triumphant and exhausted. I greeted him with hugs and kisses and asked where on earth he found the place. “I walked all over, hon, and was on my way home when I thought I’d look down one more street.” 

“Which street?”

“You’ll have to see when we go there tonight,” he said, dropping his keys and a business card on the cabinet in the foyer. He quickly covered the card with his keys, then thought better of it. “I don’t trust you,” he said, as he put the card in his pocket. 

“Is it close?” 

“I’m not telling you.”

“Is it anywhere near where we were looking?” Again, he refused to give any more information. 

That night, we headed to Rue de la Masse. Mere minutes from our apartment, and no where near the student section. Michael paid for dinner. With his charge card. 

A Writer’s Block

“Will you be writing while you’re there?” 

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be blogging, and I’ll post them to Facebook.”

Ah, the best laid plans. 

Sometimes I wonder what it is that keeps us from doing the things that we say matter most to us? 

I have plenty of unscheduled time. Huge “blocks” of it during which I could write. And yet I have written hardly a word. 

Writer’s block: An extended period of time during which one could write but, for various reasons, does not. 

So what makes today any different? Perhaps that I have four hours on a train with no internet service. Thus, there is no further research I can do for my upcoming camino. Nor can I book my as-yet-unscheduled return flight. 

I read somewhere that what distinguishes a professional writer from an amateur writer is that a professional knows writing isn’t hard–but starting is. But isn’t that true of many things in life? I think of my decluttering clients and students. How often, once we get started, is a task not nearly as big as we, at first, thought it would be? And then we wonder why we didn’t start this sooner. 

So I have no excuses. I have simply neglected to start. 

Until today. 

To Market, To Market

The sun shone in a bright blue sky and Michael and I were delighted to have such idyllic weather for our first full day in Aix-en-Provence. The night before, our neighbor told us about the outdoor market that happens every Saturday, but the location didn’t stick with either of us. 

“We’ll just head out and find it,” Michael said. Were I on my own, I would have googled it first, then found the location on Google maps, then jotted down directions as to how to get there. But I was not alone, and if three months together in a foreign country was going to work, I needed to relax my ways a bit. So I grabbed a reusable bag from the kitchen of our furnished apartment, and off we went. 

Surprisingly, Michael is a man who likes to ask for directions–in spite the fact that his French is very minimal at this point. “It’s a good way to interact with the locals,” he told me. And to practice his French. He directed his question to a young woman who responded completely in French–and we understood her (a small pleasure). “La petit rue la. Et puis le deuxieme gauche.” 

Upon our arrival, the market stunned us with its size and variety. Rows of tents meandered around a large square, people perusing and purchasing all around us. Under one white tent, pyramids of spices of every shade of yellow and orange sat in bowls besides piles of herbs de Provence. Under another tent, green bins held vibrant purple eggplants and bright red peppers. Tomatoes, green beans, cherries, goat cheese–and those were just the foods we recognized. 

We jostled among the throngs of people, the word “Pardon” escaping my mouth as people bumped into me and I into them. Our first purchase, a half-kilo of cherries, reminded us to look around before we buy, as later we saw them elsewhere in the market for much cheaper. After that, we started to verbally note prices to each other, only purchasing once we knew what the “going rate” was for a certain type of produce. 

Wondering aloud about large pea-pod looking things, I said to Michael, “Let’s pick something each time that’s new to us.” I imagined asking the vendor how to prepare it, but the market was so busy I determined this wasn’t the time or the place for that, and made a mental note to come much earlier next time.

(photo by M. Weston)

“Eventually, we’ll find one vendor we like, and we’ll greet him by name each time,” said Michael. I, too, longed for that relationship as “the hunt” is not my favorite part of shopping. I want to find someone I can trust–for their quality and their prices–and just head to them each time. 

Atop a piles of melons chalkboards advertised “Melon sucre.” Sucre is the word for “sugar”, so I took this to mean “sweet melon”. The orbs were covered in veins similar to cantaloupes, except they were smaller and green lines divided the surface into even sections. One vendor had the melon sliced and available for tasting. The deep orange flesh was a bit softer and sweeter than that of cantaloupe. 

Shortly thereafter, we came to a tent whose tables were lined with customers, many of whom held silver bowls filled with produce. As they waited for their turn to pay, others picked through the produce. Michael doesn’t much care for lines, so he wandered over to the cheese man on the other side. While he tasted cheeses, I watched two elderly French women discuss the merits of each melon they picked up. They smelled them, turned them over in their hands. I picked one up, smelled it, then tried another. Once these women decided on one, I was going to ask them what their criteria were. As I stood watching, trying to recall how to ask such a question in French, they put down the melons and walked away. So were none of these good enough to buy? I wondered. 

The Perfect Melon? (photo by M. Weston)

Another woman went through the same procedure and, upon choosing a melon, I asked her how to select a good one. “First, it should be heavy,” she said as she held the melon in her hand and lifted it up and down. “Then you smell it,” she said holding her nose to its base. “Then you look at this end for cracks.” She pointed to the end opposite the stalk. “Mine doesn’t have cracks yet, but I’m not going to eat it until tomorrow so it should be good by then.”  I thanked her for the advice and decided the melon in my hand was a good choice. I picked up some tomatoes, and placed a couple handfuls of green beans in a silver bowl. Michael purchased his cheese, and then captured this image of me waiting in line. 

Today my melon is still not showing cracks. After reading about such things on-line, I have determined that may or may not be a deciding factor. The majority opinion seems to be in favor of weight and smell as guiding criteria. So tomorrow I shall slice open this foreign fruit. Look for the verdict in the comments section tomorrow:) 

Travel–Times Two

In February, my mother called to tell me a surprise party was being thrown for my grandmother’s 90th birthday the following month. It was to take place in New York, where she lives. That meant, in order to attend, I would have to hop a plane or drive twelve hours.

I called my boyfriend, Michael. “So Grandma is turning 90 and they’re having a surprise party, so I’m going to New York that weekend, whether you go or not.”

“Do you want me to come?” he asked.

“Well, yeah, but I don’t want you to feel like you–”

“Then ask me like you want me to be there!” he said.

So I started again. “Hi Michael. My mother just called and told me Grandma’s surprise birthday party is on March 22nd. How about we go up to New York that weekend?”

“That would be great,” he said. Since he had lived in New York City for nearly ten years and had talked about going back for a visit, we decided to spend a few nights in the city prior to the party, then head up to the mid-Hudson Valley for a few days with my family.

I opened my computer a few hours later and saw quite a few e-mails from Michael. He had already booked our hotel in the city. He had also sent flight options, leaving from the three airports closest to us. And he priced out a rental car. I could have cried I was so happy.

As a woman who has spent the better part of the last fifteen years traveling on her own, having someone else do the planning was monumental.

And it’s not just travel. Men who have a plan for a first date (how about we go to X restaurant at X time?) automatically score lots of points in my book. As a single woman, I have to decide everything in my life, so when someone else makes the choices for me, ah, that’s how I spell r-e-l-i-e-f.

That same joy overtook me again today. After hiking nearly seven miles, my friend and I reached the car. I checked my phone and noticed I had a few messages. Eurail passI opened one from Michael to see a picture of–what? Is that . . . yes, it is! Our Eurail passes! There they were, in his possession, and I didn’t have to do a damn thing to get them there. He has also booked our first month’s apartment in Aix-en-Provence, and checked us in for our upcoming cruise. And has documented all of this in an app we both have on our phones.

Well, now I feel like I’m bragging. And I am, of course. It is a good idea to give thanks for at least five things each day. And Michael is on that list most every day, and for that I am grateful.

Ode to a Porch

I sit on the porch, rain lightly falling around me. The roof over my head, the eaves hanging down, protect me–allow me to sit in the midst of nature, without the threat of bee stings, mosquito bites, or rain. I sit at the table facing one corner–the corner that looks out at the yard next door. The white picket bridge over the creek, a red leafed tree behind it, and beyond that a cherry blossom covered in white blooms.

The rain means outdoor work has stopped, so this afternoon I will not be bothered by the yard workers revving their motors to maintain a lush green lawn that no one ever uses. The renovation on the house across the alley has also stopped, the sounds of their machines replaced by the sound of rain falling into puddles.

I remember when my landlords first showed me this cabin. We entered the living room where a round wooden table dominated one corner. “That’s where you’ll eat during the winter,” my landlady said. I was a bit confused until we got to the porch.

porchI recall last summer spending mornings in the chaise lounge out here, eating a bowl of yogurt and muesli, my glass of water on the green shelf next to me. I didn’t sit at the table mindlessly eating while reading a book. Breakfast was the meal I ate mindfully–or at least tried to.

I recall packing lunches to bring to work, so I could eat quickly in the office, and thereby leave earlier in exchange for taking so little time for lunch. As spring blossomed I realized I needed a break at midday and drove home (a mere two miles) for lunch each day. I had time to cook if I wanted, or I simply took leftovers out to the porch. At the table birds provided my soundtrack, a book my entertainment, with commercial breaks provided by the squirrels.

I recall those work days when my lunch hour just wasn’t enough, when I wished I could spend the whole afternoon out here. Indeed I did on weekends, when I spent entire days moving between the chaise lounge, book in hand, and the kitchen: eating and reading the only tasks on my agenda.

There were entire months I ate every meal on this porch.

“So you’re going to lose the cabin . . .” my mother said when I told her of my plan to head to France for three months.

“Well, yeah. They’re thinking of selling the property in the spring,” which meant I could possibly be given one month’s notice to move anyway.

I was thinking how sad it is to leave this place. Of all the homes I’ve had since leaving my parent’s house, this, by far, has been my favorite. When I first moved in I would often stop what I was doing to reach out and lay my hand on a log. I loved that I could see so clearly what my house was made of. No insulation or sheet rock hiding its bones.

I realized today marks thirty days until my departure from this place. And today I am trying to change my thinking from “I only have thirty days” to “I have thirty more days!”