Welcome to Europe!
From Oklahoma City, we flew to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Here we had our last American meal before leaving the country: overpriced, soggy sandwiches and beer. The finest airport cuisine.
But it didn’t matter. We were so giddy to be on our way.
From Minnesota, we settled in for a long, overnight flight to Amsterdam. The double whiskey and cokes helped calm our nerves enough to sleep for a few hours.
We had been to Amsterdam before, back in April of 2014. It was post-chemo for Andy and post-hit-and-run for me. I joked at the time that the staples in my head were going to cause a problem with airport security.
The primary reason for flying to Amsterdam was because it was the easiest flight for us to get to Europe on stand-by traveler tickets. We didn’t know for sure what our first destination would be until the days before departure.
Our thinking was that if we could get anywhere in Europe stand-by, we’d save money on the long flight. Then we could catch a cheaper flight to get to our true destination, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the south of France. This is where we would begin our journey on El Camino de Santiago.
El Camino de Santiago
Early in our relationship when we were still in college, Andy told me about El Camino de Santiago or The Way of Saint James. It is an ancient Christian pilgrimage across Spain that attracts pilgrims of all sorts from around the world.
We watched the movie The Way together and I knew it was something I wanted to do someday. We even briefly entertained the idea of walking the Camino together and getting married at the end of the route at Finisterre, literally “the ends of the earth.” It was adventurous and romantic and I loved the idea of it.
We didn’t get married at Finisterre, but walking the Camino together became another item on our growing list of “Someday” experiences. Because when would we have a few weeks to spend walking across a country? We figured it was something we would only be able to do in retirement.
When the spark for the Quest began, the Camino was one of the first things we knew we had to include. Because it was going to be such a big undertaking, the Camino was what we planned the whole first part of our trip around.
A Whistle Stop in Amsterdam
When we landed in Amsterdam early in the morning, we were jetlagged and stiff from trying to sleep in middle-row seats. We collected our packs and found a cafe where we could get some coffee and get our bearings straight.
As much as we loved our visit to Amsterdam before, since we had been here already, we weren’t planning on doing much sightseeing. We were also committed to our backpacker budget mentality, and Amsterdam is not known for being inexpensive.
So Andy found a charming little capsule hotel where we could get some rest and sort out our travel plans.
We didn’t have any tickets bought, any reservations made beyond this point. We felt like we were free-falling.
That night, we went out for a dinner of burgers and fries with mayo (a must in Amsterdam). We were grabbing beers at a pub, trying to figure out our next steps. Andy realized he needed to finalize something with his 401k from the job that he was still technically employed at.
See, he had managed to accrue so much vacation time that when we left, he was still on paid vacation. He received paychecks through the first month and a half of our trip. What a bonus!
So he made a phone call to sort things out while we finished our beers. We laughed at the financial planner’s reaction when Andy explained that he didn’t have a new employer to roll the money over to. And that he was making the call from a pub in Amsterdam.
Back in our capsule hotel, we decided that we were just too excited to start our Camino journey to spend any more time thinking about it. We booked flights from Amsterdam to Charles de Gaulle in Paris. From here, we would take the train to Orly, on the other side of Paris. From Orly, we would take a flight, bus, and train until we reached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees.
This would mark the beginning of our journey to the start of Camino Frances–the French route of the Way of Saint James. The first big, exciting part of our Quest.
Next stop: France!
The next morning, less than 34 hours after leaving Oklahoma City, we boarded our flight to France.
When we landed, we found out that the train from Charles de Gaulle to Orly was shut down. We had to find another way to get across Paris and the window of time before our flight was quickly closing.
We knew Paris traffic was a nightmare, but we were out of options. We hurried out to the shared ride area with our giant packs and loaded into an Uber.
I was scared to watch (or even breathe) as our driver expertly maneuvered his way through traffic, honking and cursing other drivers who dared get in his way.
We made it with minutes to spare.
Our flight from Orly to Biarritz was just long enough to decompress from that Uber ride.
From Biarritz, we took a bus to Bayonne where we bought train tickets to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Once we were settled on the train, I was able to relax. The jetlag combined with the stress of the day and the gentle rocking of the train had me snoozing for most of the hour-long ride.
The Way Provides
We exited the train in St. Jean a little after 7:30 pm. In less than 44 hours after leaving Oklahoma, we had been to 2 foreign countries, taken 4 flights, 1 bus, and 1 train ride. What a whirlwind.
We wandered around the town for a bit, taking in its cobbled streets and charm. Our first scallop shell marker of the Camino!
We knew we needed to find a place to sleep and eat some dinner.
We didn’t have any reservations and our attempts at French were pitiful. This was going to be our second big challenge of the day.
Hostel after hostel displayed “no vacancy” signs.
Finally, a sign of hope. I saw a hostel sign written in Spanish. I could work with Spanish. Kinda.
We approached and this sweet woman greeted us warmly. She said that she didn’t have a bed available but that she had space in the garden out back.
Perfect! We had a tent! We could work with this.
We accepted her offer, explaining that we had a tent and sleeping bags. She thought we were crazy, but I think she was happy to help us.
She explained that she didn’t have any food to prepare dinner, so we would have to go out to find something. We needed to find an ATM to withdraw cash anyway, so that was fine.
Except it wasn’t.
By the time we found an ATM, our card wouldn’t work. After we made a phone call to sort it out, all the restaurants were closed.
It was a mess and we were stressed out, tired and hungry.
Luckily, I had squirreled away some snacks so we didn’t have to go to bed on empty stomachs.
We settled into our tent inside the ancient walls of the old city, looking up at the night sky.
Despite the stress and exhaustion of our day, it was exhilarating to be sleeping beneath the stars so far from home.
I was proud of the way that we worked through the challenges of the day.
I was thankful that we had the tent and all our camping gear.
I was grateful for this sweet Spanish woman giving us space in her garden.
This day felt like a good omen: that no matter what happened, we would be able to figure things out and everything would be ok.