Even though my Europe trip in 2010 obviously preceded the one in 2011, I am writing this thread about the first trip after having already completed and published my account of the second. Apologies for any confusion this might cause, and I recommend that new readers start with this topic (Travel France 2010) before going to Travel Europe 2011. To be consistent, I will keep to the diary style as closely as possible, writing in the sequence of time, place and reflection with which the trip unfolded, something I can do by sticking to the notes written on scene and following the photo/video record I made back then. When it is necessary to deviate and, say, jump forward in time, I will use italics and parentheses to indicate as such. For those unfamiliar with my current novel in progress, The Perfect, and its connection to this travelling research, I suggest you glance over the first two section of The Novel in Progress; The Perfect page on this site.
The trip proper took place from August 9, 2010, when I landed from New York’s JFK in Toulouse via Paris, through August 28, when I took the train from Avignon back to Paris and then back to JFK. Originally, I intended to continue on, doing Part 1 (The Cathar regions of France and northern Spain) and Part 2 (Switzerland, Austria and Germany) in a single trip. However, even before I left, I knew my 95-year-old mother’s physical condition was very poor; she no longer spoke and could barely move. We had exchanged good-byes earlier. But as the end did not seem imminent, the family agreed that I travel as planned; they would keep me posted on any major changes. Mom passed over on August 27th, and thus my journey was divided into two sections, a year apart.
I journal daily. Looking over the entries for the month prior to departure, July 10 to August 9, it’s interesting what had my attention during that preparatory period. Following are a few snippets from the couple dozen pages I wrote during that month, reorganized to make better sense. In the journaling process, insights never come packaged neatly; more likely they swoop in at odd times and from various directions, only later coming together in a pattern.
Preparing a realistic itinerary can be challenging enough; effectively coaching oneself through its execution is even more so. As I travel primarily by car through unfamiliar terrain with limited knowledge of the local language, staying oriented and alert is not optional. In addition to preparing the spreadsheets with times and costs, the maps from country level to street level, the computer and camera equipment, the clothing and footwear for different climates and terrain, etc., I find it essential to frame a few key concepts in advance: words or phrases I can use to re-center myself, recorded in places I’ll happen upon them at those inevitable times where exhaustion, distraction, or discouragement might strike.
The concept of a “Grail Pilgrimage” was one such key phrase, and quite relevant to the material I was researching. My protagonist in The Perfect travelled to southern France to find the treasure of the Cathars, so I had to feel with honesty and reality that I too, by following his footsteps, was going in search of the Grail, whatever that might turn out to be. As I had learned in the Parapet adventure in Istanbul in 1999 and in Glastonbury, England in 2009, I had to be in ready condition, relaxed but keenly attentive, especially to the “cracks” in the obvious around me.
Serendipitously, I was prompted to order the book, Paths of the Christian Mysteries: From Compostela to the New World by Virginia Sease and Manfred Schmidt-Brabant, an item that had been on my research list for years, so that it came in just before I left. It became my primary new reading material just prior to and during the trip. (Those familiar with the medieval road of pilgrimage to Compostela in Spain will recognize that many of the places I visited, from Toulouse to Comminges, are located on that famous trail.) [In a way quite eerie, that book contained material on most of the many threads I was exploring for the novel’s background. Too many, in fact, to enumerate. So just an example of the synchronicity: on the second trip in 2011, when in Dornach, Switzerland, I one day found myself standing in front of an office with Virginia Sease’s name on the door. When the chosen path is correct, it’s as if everything conspires to confirm it.]
I’ve been asked why second-hand accounts (books, movies, other people’s experience) don’t satisfy as research. Why do I feel like I have to go there, to experience these places for myself? Psychometry is a form of extra-sensory perception in which knowledge of events and history surrounding an object can be acquired by making direct physical contact with that object. Extra-sensory or just extra-observant, I certainly derive additional layers of information, some of them subliminal, when in proximity to the locations and objects of my story. Being there makes ideas, sometimes whole scenes, pop in that weren’t before, often pieces of the puzzle I was previously missing. It used to freak me out; now I expect it.
Silence the undertoad
Undertoad is my onomatopoeic (it’s what it sounds like) name for the critter within that constantly warns: you can’t do that. He’s a croaker and a choker and tries to pull me under when I an exhausted or things seem to go awry. For this trip, it came to me that I had never been on the road this long before–and by myself. The undertoad would have me panic; the antidote to him is “due diligence.” Yes, I could lose my passport; so make a copy and keep it in my luggage. If I find myself still worrying about a detail I’d tossed aside as unnecessary, I’d reconsider and spend the time (and money) to come up with an option just in case. Nothing quite rebuts the undertoad’s dire projections like a viable option, or two.
In that hectic last weekend before departure, especially with my mom’s condition so fragile, I had to invoke my favorite quote from Henry David Thoreau, not as an injunction referring to some nebulous future, but as a joyful confirmation of my present adventure: I was indeed going “confidently in the direction of my dreams.” This was it! I was living the life I had always imagined.