Acts of Bird

I think it was Paul Theroux who said that the worst thing that can happen to a travel writer is that nothing on a journey goes wrong. If that’s the case, then based on what happened before we even left the ground in San Francisco, we’re in for a fruitful trip, at least as far as this blog is concerned.

Anne-Claire graduated from her master’s program on May 19th, and after a few days with friends and family, we launched into moving mode, shoving just about everything we owned, save the few items in our backpacks for this trip, into a storage container that was picked up on Thursday afternoon. We said our last goodbyes, swiped a dust rag over a few final spots in our (now former) apartment and headed up to San Francisco to spend the night with a friend.


The whole week felt like one long slog of nonstop goodbyes and preparations to finish the last few pages in this chapter of our lives. Sleep wasn’t a priority, especially Thursday night, as I wrote a final few emails to shore up business before we left the States. Still, I suppose my body felt differently, as I woke up at 2:30 in the morning with my head planted in the crook of my laptop and a few hundred repetitions of the letter “y” on my screen thanks to my nose. Whatever I was trying to communicate would have to wait until the morning.

Getting to the airport was easy, and we boarded our first flight to Newark more or less on time. As we waited on the tarmac to take off, a few shrieks came from far in the front of the plane. A wave of cries followed, reaching an uncomfortable volume when the high school girls’ soccer team just in front of us caught sight of the stowaway:

Flapping vigorously, the pigeon looked out of breath passing over the aisle with its beak held partly open. It did a few laps back and forth with the flight attendants making a few half-hearted attempts to snag it before it would take off again. Finally, a passenger managed to capture the bird, to which we all applauded. But apparently, it’s not OK to take a bird across the country, so we had to pull out of the queue for takeoff and head back to the gate, presumably to toss the bird to a befuddled gate agent. That meant we needed more fuel and another round of safety checks, and I watched as our Newark arrival time on the flight map in front of me ticked closer to our departure time for Paris. Two hours behind schedule, we were finally in the air.

When we landed in Newark, Anne-Claire and I snuck off the plane with a raft of fellow passengers trying to make an even closer connection to Delhi; the flight attendants had asked that they be given way by everyone else and we figured we were in the same predicament.

I’d been preparing a rebuttal to the defense that our errant pigeon fell under the “acts of God” section of our passenger agreement, should United try to use that defense, absolving themselves of responsibility for our tardiness. Alas, my zeal turned out to be unnecessary, as we sat in the waiting area, succumbing to another delay of about an hour, though this time, I doubt a feathered frequent flier was to blame.


Name Change

A thoughtful graduation gift for Anne-Claire from a good friend

It’s summer, and that means Anne-Claire and I are traveling again. I’ll say first that the DNA of our trip this year is a bit different than last year’s. Our time is about a month shorter for one, and in that period we plan to visit 3 countries, not 10. As such, I figured Crossing Borders – a provisional name I came up with last year that ended up sticking – might be not be as fitting.

After playing around with a few possibilities, I decided to borrow from the French. They have this great word – “Terroir” – used to corral all the different aspects of making wine. Oenophiles, take note – I only occasionally reference good wine on this blog and usually with the ham-fisted grace of someone who rates bottles based on the quality of the company I shared them with, not the grapes or the vintage or the levels of tannins.

That gets to why I chose Terroir as the new title of this blog. The temptation in English is to ascribe its meaning to an obvious cognate like “terrain” and think the French are just referring to the soil in which grapes are grown. While that’s pretty important (so I’m told), in reality the word refers to the rain, the humidity, the sunlight that went into making a specific vintage, whether there were fires nearby as the vines bore fruit – in short all of the tiny factors that go into giving a wine its taste and character. Perhaps the greatest influence on the terroir comes from the winemakers themselves, who bring a lifetime of experience to bear on each batch. Without them, no line would exist between sour vinegar and a killer red or a crisp white.

In the same way, I’ve found that the people you meet define the character of a journey as well. I still gawk at the structures we humans have battled gravity to create, I marvel at the unique sights, smells and sounds found in the natural world, and I get swept back in time as I touch stones put in place by our ancestors thousands of years before my existence was even a possibility. But it’s the thrill of catching a glimpse of people’s everyday lives and sharing in them in some small way that fuels my drive – perhaps addiction – to travel: the 6-year-old girl who shared nothing in common with us save our humanity and yet had no fear in crawling onto Anne-Claire’s lap in a dusty river town in Mali, lifting our spirits midway through a grueling 24-hour travel day; the hours-long dinners we shared in a tiny village in northern Spain stretching into the night as the sounds of children playing ricocheted off the centuries-old town walls; and the sight of an old friend and her new child who, despite a horrifically stacked deck, still find a way to happiness.

Again, we’re setting out with the same goal – to meet and observe and interact with people on their terms. We fly into Paris, head south to visit a family in Aix-en-Provence and then east to Cahors to visit another family. The bulk of our trip, however, will not be spent on high-speed trains, but rather walking slowly on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. From St. Jean Pied de Port, we’ll hike the 500 miles (or as many as we can before flying home from Lisbon on July 5th) over the Pyrenees, through the Basque region of Spain and across Castillo to Santiago in Galicia.

The construct of this hike does strike me as a bit artificial, that is, taking a route that millions have walked before us for literally centuries, so I’ll try to avoid comparisons with our rather unconventional Ireland-to-Niger trip last summer. It’s not with a deliberate spiritual journey in mind that we beginning walking “the way.” But I do hope to share the same rich, unexpected experiences that people-focused travel can bring through regular updates on this blog.

I’ve been mulling over the possibilities for what to do with this online space since returning from Paris last fall. Selfishly, I enjoy the opportunity to evangelize a bit for the richness that travel can provide, and I truly appreciate everyone who takes the time to read what I write. So my goal is this – to provide one person’s opinion of what the terroir of travel really is. With our hike on the Camino as a springboard, I plan to launch into gear reviews and travel tips, as well as travel logs from interesting places as often as I can get to them, always with an eye on what matters most to me as a traveler – people.

Oh yeah, be sure to tune in a day or so and I’ll explain just what the heck is going on in this picture.