After I was ill, last week, I retreated to the lockdown house for a few days. It felt different this time, no despair, no frustration, just a lovely place to rest, as it always has been. I took the nice neighbours Ruth and Elaine out for a meal to say thank you for all their help. We drank champagne on an airy restaurant terrace overlooking the ripplings of gorge edges and then miles of flat plains towards Manosque and everything was light and happy. They detoured to drive me home through the thickly fragrant air of the full bloom lavender fields, where cars stopped at the edges to get out and take photos of these solidly purple stretches. It meant I was late for the rest of the days plans; nothing important, merely to make macarons and have a swim. A simple task of playing with egg whites and piping bags, making frivolous food that, once filled with buttercream and lime curd, is all about the sensations of crunch and smoothness rather than dense nutrition and flavour. The sun was almost setting and I decided to swim in the fading light, sleepily buoyant with the remnants of lunchtime drinking. The light on the water matched the colours of the sunset sky, orange and pink, caught and framed in the darkness of the pool edge, and I slipped into liquid warmth, enveloping me like velvet, like cream, like bliss.
I hadn’t felt like this for months, I realised. I hadn’t enjoyed simple beautiful moments of pleasurable sensations, so wound up was I in the pandemic, in my lack of freedom, in my loneliness.
And so, when I started walking again a week ago, I decided to try and remember joy. There aren’t many moments that need turning around in this journey, it’s a completely enjoyable experience, but that is mostly passive, hidden under a layer of muscle pain and insect bites. Joy is not the right emotion when you’re gasping for breath, sitting on a faintly uncomfortable rock that is the only chance of shade, dripping in sweat while mosquitoes hover greedily.
Perhaps it wasn’t joy that I could decide to experience but contentment. When I was almost at the top of a hill and it started to rain, except that I’d decided to walk without my rain jacket this week and had a momentary panic about getting wet, before soothing myself with the facts that I would get wet but not cold, that it was temporary, that I wouldn’t suffer or be in danger. Then I could walk in the rain and enjoy it, the glistening of droplets on my tanned skin, the gradual wettening of my clothes, the refreshing change in temperature.
Or when I came to the lake edge one evening, after a full day of climbing down from the cliffs, tired and in pain, to find the stony beach full of people. I decided not to feel nervous about making a camp in front of others, or washing myself in the lake water, and settled for the night with a couple nearby until past darkness and some others sleeping on the beach further down, playing guitar and drinking wine.
The most joy has come spontaneously this week, from the wonderful scenery I’ve been walking though. Gorge, mountains AND lake! All in one glorious combination! How can I possibly walk here and feel anything else!
One interesting hangover from the lockdown experience is my changed perception of time. In order to make a journey of this size, to keep motivated in a project where the targets are invisibly far distant, you have to stop counting the days, you have to let time go, stop measuring your achievements in relation to minutes. Every increment of progress has to be good enough or you will break yourself trying to jump to the top of a wall that is the height of a house and can never be achieved in a single bound, no matter how stubborn your brain.
It’s not about the strength of my body but the chafing of my mind, trying to race faster than my muscles could ever permit, thinking ahead to the Pyrenees, the camino, winter on the Atlantic coast, Britain and home. Home, the awaiting dream where I can hug people I love and replenish dormant friendships. But in the blink of an eye I am back here, in south east France, surrounded by arid oak forest and the chirping of cicadas, having walked five miles so far today and there are months of further effort before I can get there.
In lockdown my days were endless and I felt every hour, I kept a list of days to mark my progress, ticking tasks completed against each one as the only way to distinguish them; now I have to learn to ignore them again, to let my internal minute counter go blurry and vague. If I don’t, then I’m trapped in an endless emotion of “Is that it?” as I count another day of 14 miles, as I trace inches of progress onto my map while the blank space ahead never seems to shrink.
France introduces a mandatory mask rule from Monday, in the enclosed spaces of bars, supermarkets and shops that I’ll be visiting. It’s interesting to see the half adoption of coronavirus measures – waiters with masks under their chins, people pulling masks out of their pockets to wear for five minutes before pulling them off again, hand sanitiser at the entrance to a supermarket used by about half the customers. We’re all learning how to do this, how to move around each other safely, to mix again but without poisoning each other. Anyone could be the bad apple, with invisible rot only appearing days later.
I hardly touch anyone, hardly mix with people for more than minutes at a time. It’s been nice to make connections though, to meet other walkers on the popular route I’m following for a few weeks. I chatted with a guy for an hour outside a supermarket the other day, our wooden walking poles marking us as being of shared sympathies. He’d been sent home from a job in a Swiss ski resort as soon as pandemic precautions started, all shut down, jobs abruptly lost, suffered the indignation of going home to his parents and had now escaped to travel again, working out what his future holds.
We all suffered, in different ways, and now we are emerging, in those countries with reducing infection rates, working out what has changed and how we need to adjust ourselves, perhaps all in need of some small joy in a world where it feels increasingly scarse.