Part IV: The French Sailor
We made it.
We fucking made it.
After rejecting a muddy cow trough for water (and later 100% regretting that decision), crawling hand-and-feet up a rock column staircase, making friends with European hikers, and Adrian almost getting kicked by a wild horse… we finally made it.
The clouds were finally below us. We could see above and beyond the horizon – we couldn’t tell if we were in France or in Spain. Were we in both? Were we in neither? Did it even matter? Like Isaac Newton, we literally were “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
The cool breeze cooled us down as we shared some victory shots and quickly finished our Spanish homework. Tomorrow we would be in Spanish class and our assignments will be due. What a strange thing to think of at this time.
I gazed at the hikers as we relaxed on the mountaintop. I found that we were the youngest out of them all – everyone was in their 40s and 50s. I was surprised by this. It made me realize that this hiking world I had just recently discovered didn’t matter the age, as long as one was healthy and in tune with the outdoors. It made me smile to see that.
As the hikers came and went, we stayed. We took a nap. We ate oranges. Talked. Everything that we could to embrace the heavens we sat upon.
At this time, I found the opportunity to approach Philippe and try to speak French. “Philippe, I would like to practice my French with you!”
“Huh? You speak French? Why yes, yes! Let us speak French!”
«Je n’ai jamais pas autre amies qui parlent en français. Je suis très contente que je découvre un amie qui parle en français!» I never have any other friends who speak in France. I am very happy that I discovered a friend who speaks French!
“Eh?” Philippe tittered in laughter. “Your accent, where is this from? I do not understand a word you say, no.” He continues to snicker. My face turns red and I sheepishly smile. Two years of French – all to make a Frenchman on a French mountain laugh. I gain the courage to say it again.
“Ah, yes, yes, that was good! I am happy to be your first French friend. There is no student who speak French at university.” My hope sparks. Maybe I can learn both Spanish and French while I’m out here.
As we descended down to the hills of Spain and arrived at the car, we planned our next sleeping spot for our final night. “There’s a village called Isaba,” Chris says as we fly through the roads, French rap booming through Philippe’s car radio. “We can spend the night there.”
“Sounds good to me,” I laugh. “Anything sounds better than the mountain.”
“What? No second night on the mountain? We could’ve just –”
“Frozen to death, fallen to our deaths,” Chris and I chant. Adrian smiles.
“Look! What’s that?” We all turn our heads to see a giant pool and river. No one was there – a giant cobbled waterfall supplied a natural river, which flowed forever down the gleaming forest.
“Ooo! A public bath!” Philippe says and quickly parks the car. “I will taste the water.”
We scratch our heads at this sentence. Philippe hastily tests the water by dipping his feet in. “It is not too cold! Let us swim.”
Soon enough, we were all jumping into Isaba’s public bathing pool. The water felt different for some reason. Healing. It was such calmness and tranquility that made us feel like we were in another mystical world.
I stared at that water. The memories began to flood in.
It was four months ago. I was driving to work at 8 am when my sister called me.
“Clare is dead,” she said. I busted into tears and called in sick.
Our cousin grew up with us as we would visit her every summer in Samoa. Clare was adopted by our grandmother. She was strong – twice as big and twice as tall as me, she would be my translator and introduce to me the culture of our heritage.
Once living with her on the islands, she taught me how dance, to wash our clothes in the rainwater we collected, and how to respect our elders by serving them food before eating ourselves. She lived with my family in the States for half a year before moving to help her sick, biological mother.
We later found out that it was her mother who didn’t look after her. Clare began to vomit, become fatigued, and her eyes became yellow. Her biological family did not take her to a doctor. Clare ended up induced in a coma, having three heart attacks and dying eight times.
What killed her was pneumonia. A treatable disease. A preventable death.
It made me mad. I sought comfort in a colleague at work. I lost my virginity to him, then quickly left for Spain. I found heartbreak as he never wanted a relationship, then soon became the boyfriend of someone else. The grief and heartbreak began to spill over. The emotions continued to flow.
It had been a month in Spain and grief would still surround me every night. My family was still mourning. It was common to cry to sleep.
She wasn’t supposed to die so soon.
The rivers continued to flow. My tears accompanied them. I moved my hand along with the rhythm of the stream. A lot has gone on these past few months. Just let it happen. Let it flow.
I looked up, my eyes glassy. It was Chris. He didn’t show pity. He already knew what I needed to go through. We were here to work on ourselves.
I wiped my eyes and began to smile. “Yes. I’m ready.” I finally said and followed him to the car.
We ended up knocking from door to door, asking the small town of Isaba for a place to sleep. All the hostels were booked; it was looking like the car would yet again be our second option. In the last hostel, however, a lady quickly told us that there was an apartment floor we could rent instead. We took the option heartedly and followed her to the apartment.
It was a beautiful place to stay. The boys, all of a sudden, became gentlemen and insisted that I, the girl in the group, take the queen-sized bed for myself. Despite resisting, I finally accepted, ending up what felt like a fairy-tale room.
That final night, we celebrated by going to the Spanish bars and eating pintxos and croquetas. Both Chris and I brought our legendary gameboards – Chinese Checkers and Chess. We had a hating to each other’s game; me being that he would 100% win chess every time and him being that chinese checkers took a million years to finish the game.
I continued my French with Philippe at the same time. Despite his snickers at my terrible accent, he was always patient and happy to see me practice.
“Jay, I hear from American students that they studied French too in high school, yet I never hear them speak it! You are the only one who I hear practice.”
“Yes! They are too shy. I am shy too but I don’t have much time in Europe,” I chug another pitcher of beer. “Philippe, have you ever done something like this? Climb the freaking Pyrenees Mountains?”
“No, no! But something big, you may say, that I have done is sailing”
“Yes! I live in the north of France, next to the water. It is really nice, yes”
“What is the longest you’ve been out to sea?”
“Longest maybe three days! Alone, yes. It is a very good experience, much like this one. It helps you to think, to grow, which is good.” I was amazed by this. Being out at sea is daunting. Committing to that alone at such an early age was crazy for me to think about. You know he experienced life-changing wonders.
Philippe expression changes. “Jay, I had seen you cry at the river, why was that?”
I grimace. “I was thinking of my late cousin. I think this experience has helped me, though.”
“Ah, I see,” Philippe says. You could tell he was all ears. A listener. “My grandmother passed away too, recently. It is hard, but, we must remember to think of happy, little things we had with them.”
He turned somber all of sudden and a tear fell out of his eye. The sharing of grief was emitted and I finally felt, outside of my family, a person who could relate to me. We understood each other’s internal battles. It was comforting to feel that.
“I’m sorry. It is hard. And I know you were close with her,” I finally say. “You’ve been so happy on this trip, though, and I’m amazed by that. How do you do it?”
“I try,” he forces a smile. That statement blew me away. Try? There’s a word called try? To be happy? All this time I wallow in my sorrow, yet felt too lazy to try. It made me realize that I had been responding to emotion, not managing it.
“You just helped me so much, Philippe,” I laugh. “I can’t explain it.” «Mais, merci. J’espère que ta famille va bien aussi» Thank you. I hope your family is also doing well.
«Pas de problème» Philippe becomes happier once more. “And yes, yes, yours as well!”
“Hey, I wanna join in,” Chris butts in after finishing a game with Adrian. “Philippe, can you teach me French?”
“Okay!” «Tu es un retard» (You are a retard) Philippe says and begins to snicker. Me, now drunk by all the pitchers of beer, join in the laughter.
“What does that mean? Does that mean hello?”
«Tu es un retard!» We both begin to wheeze. Adrian simply chuckles. The night continues on like this, Chris adamantly trying to figure out how to speak French while we all drunkenly play Chinese Checkers and Chess.
Here we were, back in Bilbao, saying our goodbyes as we returned to our apartments. We would see each other the next day for class – at the same time, we all felt a strange feeling to leave each other’s side after this epic journey.
As I returned to my apartment and washed off the mountains, I couldn’t help but just stare at the mirror. I had changed. Yes, I was darker from the sun and a bit skinnier from the hike, but…
I had changed.
I was no longer the same. I felt disconnected from myself. It was a different person looking back at me. I had grown.
Despite the unpreparedness, the dumb decisions we’d made, and the absolute lack of knowledge of how to backpack, camp, or even hike, I felt an overwhelming love for this journey. It was my crash course in the world of outdoor activities. It was enlightening; it had now sparked a burning desire to return to the mountains, the woods, and take on bigger trails and paths than ever before.
All of the experiences made, all the self-discovery and self-growth was only in part of the people involved. We had changed ourselves. We changed each other. And it was necessary – none of our existing friends and family were capable of doing that through the experiences we went through.
Our group became memorable. We had finally, conquered the Pyrenees Mountains, together. And our group name? Baby Theft.