Back to France: the Journey

Hello again my friends,

I have decided to make this Blog launch effort simpler, and just continue with my narrative from the last place I left off in my email newsletter thread — and then will try to go back and fill in the gaps later. I need to get in the habit of using a blog instead of email. So I will try to follow the guidance of “Perfection is the enemy of progress” to keep things moving along…

It is now almost a year since I moved to Orkney, and left behind my Portland life for an unknown future. It has been quite the journey, but in the end I continue to believe that all things happen for a reason. I would never have predicted that I would end up in France, being welcomed and taken in by an extended French family I had never met, and leaving my little flat, family and new friends in Scotland behind.

Saying goodbye to Orkney was bittersweet. On one hand I knew it was time to go, for reasons I have previously recounted. But it was a brilliant chapter in my life — one in which I got to experience the beauty of an unknown place, an isolated rural location, the unique experience of living on an island (and thus being completely ferry-dependent), the long summer days and equally long winter nights. And I grew to appreciate both extremes!

Orkney unfiltered — this is one of my favorite photos — taken on the small island of Shapinsay where I lived.
A rainbow viewing at 9:30 p.m.
A late night stroll through the trees on the way back to my flat, from my mom’s cottage on the grounds of Balfour Castle.

As I prepared to leave, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a day on Hoy, another one of the Orkney islands, with a friend and her teenage daughter. The views were stunning and it was completely different than anything else I had seen or experienced in Orkney. It was a sunny but windy day, so the hike up the trail (about three miles each way) was breathtaking but at times quite unsettling. Sasha stayed close by my side and at one point I could only look straight down to focus on one step at a time. I remember repeating a mantra of “the path is the path” to keep anxiety at bay… some of the trail was pretty close to the edge of the cliff.

A friend recently shared this 1967 documentary from the BBC, capturing the story of the first men to climb the Old Man of Hoy. It made for a very interesting comparison! How times have changed…

A view of the sea and the sheep, as we began the hike up to see a view of the Old Man of Hoy.
The view was worth the climb!
And I was lucky enough to catch this passing seagull…

I also got to spend another day in Stromness, which is the town on the other end of the main island of Orkney that I continue to find so charming. Unfortunately their bookstore was closed on Sunday, but I managed a photo through the window. I also loved this sign on one of the buildings , which explains its former purpose back in whaling days. There is a lot of fascinating history in this town, as there is throughout Orkney.

A typical view of the old stone houses nestled along the shore.
How I wished I could have gone inside — both times I have visited they were closed.
Just a reminder of past events…

The trip back to France was the easiest one yet — on my third try I managed to finally figure out how to avoid changing train stations in Paris. Although it was a stormy departure from Stromness that morning, and Sasha and I had to stay on the deck outside to avoid her being housed in the kennels below. I learned after her last journey that she was averse to that experience— I think it was too close to the engines, so probably really loud. But it was only 90 minutes and we were sheltered by an overhang, and it afforded us a beautiful view. Especially watching how quickly the weather changed — these photos are from when we left Stromness (going past Hoy), and the view back toward Orkney as we arrived on the mainland in Scrabster.

The´start of the journey to the mainland…
…and the view back to Orkney when we arrived.

We then settled onto a local train for the four-hour journey to Inverness, where we took a walk along the river and grabbed a bite before our Caledonian Sleeper train to London. The overnight excursion was a 10-hour trip, but at least we had a bed — even if it was a small one which Sasha insisted on sharing. I did not mind the tight squeeze, as she has been just about the best traveling companion anyone could ask for. Calm despite whatever new mode of transportation she had to navigate, making friends on every leg of the journey, and most importantly — keeping me anchored.

This was actually taken after I got up, when she could take up a bit more room on the bed.
A view from our walk along the River Ness.
An explanation of the view — in English and Gaelic.

When we arrived in London the next morning, I immediately shed my down vest and scarf, and found a black cab to take us from Euston station to King’s Cross. We then had a quiet journey in a practically empty suburban train (going away from the city during morning rush hour) to arrive at the beautiful home of my high school friend Donna, who once again hosted us for a lovely respite on our journey. I cannot imagine continuing the trek without this 24 hour break. Nothing like constantly being on the move and navigating different forms of transport with a dog and a sore throat to make you truly appreciate a wonderfully welcoming port in a storm!

Donna moved to the UK almost 20 years ago after meeting her future husband at a conference in New Orleans. I have to credit Facebook with the reconnection, as she reached out when she saw on FB that I was moving to her side of the pond. On our last journey back from France, we stayed with them in the charming village of Sandwich near the SE coast of England, very close to where Sasha and I went through the EuroTunnel in a taxi. It was a wonderful weekend of reconnection. This time we spent a day with them in Speldhurst, about 40 minutes outside London. It included a long walk with the dogs at Penshurst Place, lunch at her local pub George & Dragon, and the best night’s sleep I had in a week. So it was a well-rested Kel and a well-exercised Sash who got back on a train the next morning.

Lunch at George & Dragon.
An afternoon stroll with the dogs — doing the loop through Penshurst Place in Kent.

And our final day continued: after the first train ride to Folkestone, we transferred to a cab to take us to Lille — about an hour past Calais where the EuroTunnel emerges. I became very enamored with Folkestone Taxis, a local company you can hire to take you through the EuroTunnel — dog included. Since dogs are not allowed on the EuroStar passenger service from London to Paris, this was the best option that I found. I had the same driver, Geoffrey, as the last two times we made this trip. He will always be fondly remembered for managing to help us miraculously make our connection in Calais the first time — despite a 90 minute delay through the tunnel — and also waited patiently with me when the UK border agents interrogated me on my return to Orkney in May. This last trip was rather uneventful in comparison, as once we made it to Lille it was a simple two-hour TGV train the rest of the way to Lyon.

And so now I am back in la belle France, moving a bit between Dominique’s (left) and Claudie’s (right). Dominique lives in the suburbs of Lyon, and her sister Claudie lives in a small village in the countryside, St. Martin d’Août, which is about an hour away. After spending three months here waiting out UK visa issues, it felt like coming home when I returned. I was welcomed back with open arms and hearts.

Dominique (left) and Claudie (right) — the anchors of my adopted French family.
Sasha recuperating from her train travel in Dominique’s garden, and a typical view of the countryside this time of year.

And as a final treat, my brother and his German girlfriend Susann arrived at Claudie’s on Friday evening, after fighting summer vacation traffic on the French autoroute for almost 10 hours, just to see me again before they wound their way back up to Orkney. After five weeks of traveling around Europe in their camper van — surfing, skating and visiting friends — it was good to see them rested and relaxed.

My little brother David, hanging out with me on Claudie’s terrace.

I was invited to spend Sunday with Claudie and Dominique’s family, at a fête for their brother’s 60th and brother-in-law’s 80th birthdays. Their mother is 94, and I have been continually impressed with her joie de vivre, charm and grace. She has five children, 17 grandchildren and soon to be 17 great-grandchildren. So I am still meeting the clan, one group event at a time, but with each new opportunity I am grateful to be immersed in this familial experience, with people who generally enjoy each other’s company and take every opportunity to celebrate together.

The family summer home in Tournus, Bourgogne, where big gatherings are often held.

After a lifetime of mostly solitary living, with challenging family relationships that often resulted in decades without any communication, it has been a blessing and a completely new experience for me to be accepted and embraced by this loving French family.

Next Chapter:

I leave for my third trip to the agroturismo La Tavola Marche, where I will once again experience five days of yoga by the pool in the morning (thanks to the efforts of Val Kardonsky), and evenings spent eating — and learning to cook — local recipes in this beautiful old farmhouse in the Italian countryside!

Stay tuned…


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