Jul 25, 2014

Fiesta de Santiago!

St. James the Apostle is commemorated on April 30 in the Orthodox Church, but western Christians celebrate his feast on July 25.  This is a huge feast in Spain -- if you hunt around, I'm sure you can find videos of the fireworks display at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Earlier this morning I finished watching a six part documentary called The Naked Pilgrim: The Road to Santiago.  The host, Brian Sewell, is a British art critic and a lapsed Catholic who had done the Camino forty years ago.  He never mentioned why he had done it when he was in his early thirties, but one of the goals of this journey was to speak with pilgrims and learn why they were walking to Santiago de Compostela. (It was moving to see how his own brusque agnosticism became less certain the longer he travelled.)

I don't remember when I first heard of the Camino, but I had filed it away as "Interesting, maybe later."  I had forgotten about it until one day in mid-November 2009, I read an article about it in The Walrus.  By the time I was done reading, I had decided I needed to do this.  Six weeks later, I was on my way.  If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to read Walking the Way.  If you don't have a few minutes, bookmark it and read it later.

Jul 24, 2014

Reveries of a Solitary Walker

When I walked the Camino de Santiago in January and February 2010, one of the most precious aspects of the experience was the solitude.  I'm not an anti-social person, but I do enjoy my own company.  I found that walking for hours on end by myself gave me a chance to do a lot of reflection.  By the end of the day, I'd be ready to sit and write in my travel journal for a bit and then possibly find internet access to upload photos and write a blog entry.  My days began and ended in prayer, and that was a very good thing.

There were also days when I had company.  The three days I spent walking and talking with Javier (a bank manager from Madrid) led to some great conversations.  I learned a lot about botany from Šárka in the time we spent together.  Jan and Michaela, Pascal, Antonio and Arancha,  Luis, Joseba, Regina and her brother - all people I walked and ate and laughed with.  Although I hate to say so because of all the goofy newage stuff that's been written about the Camino, the depth of the bond that forms between pilgrims in a short time is remarkable.  And yet...

The days I walked in silence are the ones I gained the most from.

The Camino is not very busy during the winter months, and from everything I've read so far about walking to Jerusalem, I will meet even fewer pilgrims.  Once I reach Italy, there may be a few who are travelling the Via Francigena to Rome, but from the Balkans onward I don't expect to see anyone but locals.  My early diligence in studying Turkish and Italian has waned, the French I learned in high school is three decades behind me, the snippets of liturgical Greek I know let me keep my place in church services, but Macedonian and Albanian?!?  R-i-i-i-ight.  I do have some basic survival phrases written out, so I won't starve or freeze, but I suspect meaningful conversations will be few and far between.  Even the lexica I've downloaded to my smartphone will be too cumbersome for a fluent discussion.

Oh yes, I'm bringing a smartphone on this trip!  This is mainly so I can give periodic reassurances to my family that I'm still alive, but this thing is an incredible piece of equipment.  When I began working on my master's degree in 1996, my computer was slower and had less RAM and two orders of magnitude less storage space than my BlackBerry Q10.  With a 64 Gb memory card onboard I can load up on music and podcasts and lectures to keep myself entertained, and I've got the Kindle app installed on my phone.  I'll have at least 3G data access available to me whenever I'm in range of a cell tower, and in western Europe I'll probably be picking up LTE.  Then of course there's always WiFi.

Hmmm.  As Melvyn Bragg and his guests pointed out in the programme about The Philosophy of Solitude, being alone is not necessarily the same as being solitary.

Apart from acquiring occasional GPS fixes, I'll be leaving my phone on flight mode almost constantly.  I may check email on a daily basis, but don't expect me to be keeping up with FB, Twitter, G+, Flickr, Instagram, etc.  I do intend to update this blog several times a week and that will be automatically reposted elsewhere, but I'll be incommunicado for six months.

I'm no Rousseau, but I hope that at least some good will come of my long solitary walk.

Jul 16, 2014

Calculations and Re-Calibrations

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”
James 4:13-15

I'd been reminded of this truth while preparing myself for walking the Camino de Santiago almost five years ago.  This came to mind again recently because I have re-evaluated my plans for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There have been a number of reasons for this.  The deciding  factor was the issue of the length of time I would be in the Schengen Area following my original plan.  While the 90 day tourist visa would be fine for a non-European walking the Via Francigena, my plans included a minimum of an extra thirty days beyond that -- walking from Rome to Bari and then following the Via Egnatia across northern Greece.  I looked into getting a long stay (National) visa so I wouldn't have to worry about deportation, fines of thousands of Euros, or being banned from entering the Schengen Area for up to five years.

In order to apply for a long stay visa within the Schengen Area, one needs to provide an address: a hotel reservation, or family residence, or perhaps something arranged for by a sponsor.  This I cannot do, since my goal is to be in a different location every night.  Most North Americans planning to spend more than three months in Europe are likely there for one of two reasons: school or work.  There were a few other requirements predicated on this assumption which I simply cannot meet.  The hefty visa application fee is non-refundable, so I attempted to contact two different consulates in Toronto to get advice, even if that was to forget about it.  I was rebuffed by both, although the Italian consulate was at least politely unhelpful as opposed to rudely incredulous.

Rather than take this as an indication to give up on my crazy dream of walking to Jerusalem in time to celebrate Pascha in 2015, I've refined my plan.  Within the next few days, I will be buying a ticket for a flight leaving Toronto on Oct 8 with a 24 hour layover in Ponta Delgada before arriving in Paris.  From Paris, I'll hop a train to Switzerland and begin walking to Rome from there.  I expect to arrive in the Eternal City by mid-November.  No matter how long I stay, I know that I will not have spent enough time there, and the 90 day deadline will still be running.  I'm hoping to do an overnight trip to either Florence or Naples from my base in Rome, before continuing on to Bari.

Once I leave Italy, the timer stops until I re-enter the Schengen Area at the Greek border.  That means I can take a few days in Ohrid without feeling rushed.  Perhaps I'll see the New Year in from Thessaloniki, before continuing on to Istanbul.  Once I'm there, I'll have about a month to kill before continuing on my way to Jerusalem.  I could simply leave Toronto a month later, but I'd like to avoid snow while crossing the Alps on foot, and Istanbul is as good a place to rest and relax as any.  (Although..... round trip flights between Istanbul and Beirut are quite cheap.  Perhaps I'll be able to see my Lebanese friends after all!)

In order to arrive in Jerusalem in time for Holy Week (which follows the western Christian celebration by a week in 2015), I should be leaving Istanbul by the third week of February.  Orthodox Christians begin their journey of Great Lent on 23 February in 2015...

So, there is the revised plan.  If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this.