The things I carry.

Traipsing down the laneway late last night in my rubber boots, on my way back from a moonlit horseback ride, I am laden down with: a huge butternut squash (a gift from Marie’s garden), a jug of lamp oil, and a fist full of candlesticks. I feel like Baby, in Dirty Dancing. I carried a watermelon.

I revive the fire in the stove with icy fingers (I should have worn gloves!) and I reflect on the things brought, the things left behind. I’ve done this dance many times, deciding what makes the cut, trying to see the future and know which items I will laugh about later, tossing aside unused, and which I will wish I had thought to bring. I remember once standing over my messy, open suitcase next to the bag check in some airport, crying into piles of clothes and trinkets, hastily trying to decide what to cast aside to lighten my rejected suitcase, to decide which memories could go in the trash, which items were irreplaceable, while the lineup behind me moved around my inconvenient pile, huffing their frustrations.

Things brought:

  • Two fancy bars of soap, dressed with rose petals and poppy seeds, and a bag full of bath bombs
  • a large rubbermade storage bin, for use as a bathtub
  • not one but two pairs of overalls, one black and one yellow
  • your old blue t-shirt, which no longer smells like you in the least
  • a single feather earring, bought on the beach in Liguria, the mate existing somewhere else in the world with an old friend
  • a ukulele I can an only kind of play

Things left:

  • A spare towel
  • any sort of attractive footwear at all
  • an extra pencil
  • a can opener

I guess you can never do it right. But as Molly Beer pointed out in Yak Meditations: A Traveller’s Burden, “if we have everything we need when we begin, I reason, to what end is the journey?”

To the water hole

Today I walked to the spring with my cat. The thing about going for a walk with a cat is, you’re really only going to get to go where the cat wants to go, unless you’re okay with losing your cat. So although there is a beaten path between the caravan and the well, I ended up bushwhacking, getting slapped in the face by branches and slipping in the mud while my cat slunk through the underbrush, making his own path, awed as he is to be in “the wild.”

It’s usually only a five minute journey, but after about twenty, we were still spiralling our way there, me a few yards ahead, pausing every few seconds to make sure he was still coming along, waiting as he sat down to clean his normally white paws each time he stepped in a puddle.

As I filled four jugs of water, he laid down on a patch of moss and I guess he liked it there, because he was not prepared to move, no matter what tactics I tried to lure him back in the direction of the caravan when I had finished filling. Cats.

It’s slow living, being in the woods. This morning I bumped into Francis on my walk. He needed a hand cleaning one of the sap tanks, now that sugar season is done. So I found myself inside a big metal vat, scrubbing and rinsing with creek water, which he handed down through the hatch in a bucket. Why not?

I continued on my way, following the rapraprap of a woodpecker, but was sidetracked by a small pond. Frogs dove for cover as I approached, and from the edge I could see hundreds of eggs, clinging to sticks, the edge of the pool, or just floating in gooey clumps. I’ll have to remember to go back tomorrow.

Found some feathers, saw a deer, spotted the woodpecker, sat in a field, wandered back, drank some flat beer. And it’s not over yet.

Strange times.

It’s been a week since I moved to a hundred acre maple forest in rural Quebec. First it was was chop wood, stay warm. Boil tea, stay warm. Bury myself in blankets, stay warm. Try to embrace the cold while my bare ass hits the seat of the outhouse first thing in the morning, then light the stove to stay warm. But the rhythm has changed, since the sun came out. I now have an outdoor kitchen, with a two burner cookstove, a jug of water, and two basins for washing dishes. I have a solar shower hanging from a tree, behind an old white curtain, the result of which is finally clean hair. I slung my hammock between some birch trees, and can read in the sun while my cat snuffles around, following deer trails here and there only to zoom back at top speed at the slightest sound of anything.

At night, sometimes we sit by the fire up at the camp drinking gin and sugar water, boiling the last of the sap under the stars, or sometimes I curl up with a book by the light of my borrowed oil lamp. I can no longer see my cat’s breath when he meows for food in the morning. Coltsfoot are pushing up through the soil, turning their sunny yellow faces towards the April sun. My laundry, washed in a bucket early this morning, flaps in the breeze.

The other day I was sitting on a patch of moss, my cat beside me watching the dust trails in the sun, slanting through the trees in that golden, late-afternoon kind of way, and I had that feeling, that everything is so strange. It’s so strange, to be here on my own, when a month ago I was paying three dollars for laundry in an apartment with gleaming hardwood floors and original light fixtures. So strange that my legs are sore from riding horses in the woods, my shoulders sore from hauling buckets of sap, but that I’m finally sleeping well. I feel optimistic, that someday I’ll find my little place in the world. It’s not here, soon it will be time to move on. But it’s somewhere, near water, and it will have trees and fires and bookshelves and oil lamps, and I’ll see the stars at night, and dig in the dirt in the day…

“… beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.“ – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Indulgences.

My best friend gave me

all her “women” for my journey.

A big stack of poetry collections,

to work through in the tearful nights,

building strength as I build endless fires,

for the endless cold.

I dog-eared a few pages,

and made notes in margins,

but it’s only pencil.

In the mornings, I read rupi kaur,

and push open the dirty curtains

to let the sun come up

through the frosted windows.

I brew tea on the propane stove

because the fire takes too long and I’m too cold.

But at night,

by the light of candles, flames dancing

in the draft,

I read Sylvia Plath.

And I let the darkness settle

where it will.

Hello from far away.

Today I drove just under seven hundred kilometres with my cat in the passenger seat to a trailer in the woods in Quebec.

The further east I drove the more the temperature dipped, and as I pulled into my new corner of the world, everything was covered in a thick wet blanket of white. Good thing I had my snow tires removed last week.

Up the muddy, snowy laneway until a rusty old trailer came into view. We’re here, I said to Murray, who had finally squeezed himself onto my lap, sandwiched between my legs and the steering wheel.

Through the door, with the classic creak and bang of any old trailer door, was a wood stove, a table, a little kitchen area, a bed. With numb fingers I lit a fire, then scrambled back and forth to the car to unpack my now very meagre belongings, as fat snowflakes settled over everything that wasn’t moving.

First order of business, find water from the “beautiful natural well” where my water for cooking, washing and drinking will be hauled from for the next month or so.

Followed the sign for eau in faded blue paint, through the muddy woods to a small wooden shed. Inside was a murky black hole with dead frogs in the bottom. Texted Marie, who rented me my hiding place a few weeks ago.

Just sweep away the cobwebs and dunk your bottle bottom first. It’s perfectly fine!

… maybe boil it first, just to be safe. But I’m sure it’s perfect!

Good. Great. This is what I wanted. The adventure(?) begins.

Ligurian Sea Love.

Cinque Terre, 2015.

I stepped off the train into the station at La Spezia, and consulted the picture of her I had saved on my phone. We had never actually met, but solo travellers have a way of seeking each other out. Since we both wanted to see Cinque Terre, we had arranged through an online forum to spend the weekend there together.

A girl in a very short skirt and high-heeled ankle boots stepped off the train, wheeling a suitcase behind her. I felt underdressed in my ripped jeans, tank–top and backpack. Hi! She trilled, throwing her arms around me, I’m Ali! It’s so funny we have the same name!

Her heels and wheely suitcase didn’t fare well on the tiny, cobbled streets that twisted there way up the cliff that is Manarola, but she didn’t seem to mind as she tittered on about a strange man on the train who wouldn’t stop harassing her for her phone number.

We wandered around and around, my backpack growing heavy on my shoulders as we wound our way up in search of our hostel, which we finally stumbled upon, at the very top of a steep hill, after walking for about thirty minutes. I don’t think she stopped talking the entire time, but I kind of liked her.

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We dropped our bags in the dorm, which held three bunks, six beds, and she decided on a pair of trainers, in place of the heels, to go exploring in. We meandered our way back down towards the harbor, admiring the colourful houses tucked into the side of the cliff, and the sparkling blue water that came into view below. There was something magical, quaint, and anything but rushed about this little village. I was charmed.

After a seafood dinner with a spectacular view, we decided to see what we could find for late-night fun. We soon passed a small pub, with music spilling out onto the street, and ducked inside. The pub was a few steps down from street level, and was dark but cozy inside. The music we had heard from above was coming from a dark corner at the front of the room, where a man with dark skin and thick dreadlocks was playing a guitar and singing with a deep but cheerful voice, next to a grey old man with a beard on a stand up bass. We ordered a beer, took a seat and got to chatting.

Not only did we share the same name, but we were both from Canada. More than that, we were both from southern Ontario, a strange but comforting coincidence. We talked about what it was like being abroad on our own, the people we had met so far, and the beauty we had seen that day. We had witnessed the most amazing golden sunset, one that I will never forget.

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Before we knew it, a very energetic man sprang onto one of the tables near the front of the room, flute in hand, and joined the melody while leaping from table to table, dancing and grinning as he went. We both burst out laughing at the intensity and sheer joy with which he worked his flute and the room, high notes piercing the stale pub air. There was something utterly contagious about his joy, and we couldn’t stop laughing as he twirled around the room like a pied piper.

Soon he climbed down from the tables to take a break and headed towards the bar, where at some point, a birthday cake had been brought out to celebrate someone in the room. The cake was cut and pieces handed out to anyone and everyone. The pied piper himself handed me a piece of cake, saying Welcome! as he did. Thank you, I said, taking the paper plate and fork with a smile.

We stumbled back to the hostel feeling content, having glimpsed such a lovely moment among the locals of this very small village. Want to go for a swim tomorrow morning? I asked her, feeling inspired to make the most of the sea before our morning departure. How early? she asked warily, I’m not really a morning person.

Let’s go first thing, while the harbor is still empty.

The next morning, I dragged my new friend out of her bunk, and we headed down to the harbor, climbing up onto the rocky pier and looking down into the sapphire waves as the crisp morning air nipped at our bare arms. I hadn’t packed a bathing suit, having assumed that October was too late for swimming, but I slipped out of my jeans and t-shirt anyways, discarding them on the rocks, and leapt out from the cliff. The freedom I felt in the split second between the rocks and the waves was bliss, and I felt all the uncertainties about uprooting myself and moving to Italy melt away, as the water came up and over me. I broke the surface and laughed.

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It was then that I fell in love with the sea.