November. I arrived in Font in just in time for the ideal perfect fall conditions which turned out to be the perfect timing for the arrival of what was to be the worst and darkest winter that has befallen northern Europe since the 1960’s. And so the story goes… I debated between waiting it out or going to the sun in Spain or even to Germany to get an early start to training for next year’s competition round. After a lot of procrastination and pro/con lists I had finally made a decision. I was going to Spain. Screw the rain and climbing alone and lets just forget about training for now. My good friend Claudia was in Spain and so was the sun and I wanted to see both.
The next day I went to drive to the only local Internet spot which I know of, a McDonald’s which is considerably different from the average Mc’d’s in the states. A little cleaner, more upscale but not enough to make me feel guilty for sitting freely in there poaching the internet. Claudia was going to get some good news! But, things didn’t go as planned. After being here for so long and having experienced so many epics, i have come accustomed to the way things work. I make a decision and sometimes, life decides otherwise. That’s OK. I mean, I don’t need the sun to survive. I don’t needddd dry rock. But friends… Hmm. Well yes, friends are nice.
My big red home on wheels decided to pee out of a spot which it shouldn’t be. A long trip to Spain was clearly not in our fortunes and mechanical talk replaced the awkward conversations gaps that are usually filled in by weather updates. Look out the window, it’s raining. Who cares. My van is raining. Again, who really cares. I am not quite sure if I cared. Besides, one never knows what is good or bad for them until later.
At the mechanics, the keeper who was a somewhat overweight man stared at me in his dirty overalls with the kind of stare that makes you feel 2 feet tall. I tried to brush it off and continued my one way conversation in broken french about my mechanical symptoms for what seemed like an eternity. He finally admitted after ten awkward minutes that he wasn’t the mechanic and the real mechanics wouldn’t be there until Wednesday. I wondered what was up with the dirty overalls and why he didn’t kick me out earlier. This started some kind of vicious cycle with other mechanics who I visited and I have concluded that french mechanics either don’t want to work, don’t like strange red vans littered with pine cones and lapis brushes or maybe, just maybe, they don’t understand British made vehicles that behold french engines. Eventually I gave up and fortunately, after a month, the leaking subsided to a mere dribble but I was not trusting the road worthiness of my van anymore and so we were to stay put in Font for the cold and wet winter.
December. I became accustomed to following random people around the boulders similar to how a cat chases a mouse. After some time I met some cool locals who became the sort of friends that you might actually hang out. Unfortunately it seemed as fast as they had entered my life, they disappeared just as quickly. Not remembering anything that I did that would be considered offensive I decided to not take this one personal. People come and go and then,well, we die.
Event after event stirred a mental struggle between wanting to stay and wanting the comforts of home and friends. At this point, spending the apocalypse and Christmas alone, seemed unbearable. This proved to be my hardest time in Europe. Ditching the van and the European dream seemed more inviting than all the sandstone boulders that Font could have offered. But somehow, barely, Font won. We stayed. And thankfully, things only got better.
It was now very cold, very wet and I was getting warnings from older french ladies about a killer that was nearby that had tied some poor girl to a tree and well, must i go on? That shit is bad for the soul to hear. I smiled politely as they spoke and watched them as they acted out the drama. I thanked them for caring and promised that I would not let any strange men into my van. I continued my day with a smile on my face, not because they gave me a huge bag of Kinder chocolate bars, but because they reminded me the kind of old ladies who say that type of thing that i have encountered throughout my whole life. Sure bad things happen but I am not about to start living with a mask of fear over me.
But there is a bit of truth in everything and in the end part of me listened and of course, part of me didn’t. I decided to change up my camping spot a bit more and one evening I stayed in a new spot. It could have been the heavy rainfall that made the atmosphere just plain spooky but something didn’t feel quite right. Sure enough, as I was delaying going to bed a random car pulled up: a man walking his dog. I immediately felt fear run through my veins for unknown reasons and i searched for all tools of defence that i had nearby. Knife, check. Heavy frying pan, check. Yes i am prepared..! Minutes later i hear the scuffling of feet outside my van and then a quiet knock. Shit… what did i get myself into…! He said hello and sitting as confidently as I could, i responded in the deepest voice possible, ‘hello’ followed by a rude, ‘what do you want?’ After staring at each other for a few minutes through a foggy window eventually he cowered away. I guess he couldn’t tell how tall I really was. Minutes later he drove off. Quickly after that, so did I, thankful to be OK.
January came around bringing with it more cold, snow and ice. It was freaking freezing. It felt like Montreal. It was so cold that the fuel in my stove, my main source of heat had turned to slush and failed to work. Days started late and ended early as the suns appearance was just that. We spent our days walking through the leaf covered forest and later huddled at the Fontainebleau library or at Bloc Age which became my place to go.
Bloc Age is a local co-op style gym which became my second home outside of my van. It had heat, water, dry holds. It is the kind of place where everyone knows your name and that brings a smile to my face the moment I enter. In the beginning I was known as the Canadian but now i am known as Thomasina which feels rather welcoming. There is a feeling of a second family. It’s small but packed with psyched and motivated climbers who support each other, something which I yearned. And it has Farid. Farid has a smile that reaches ear to ear and he climbs and plays a game of memory like a zen monk. He is surely one of my most favourite people of all existence. Sure playing favourites isn’t cool, but come on, its Farid. Magic Farid. “Do you know coffee?”…
And then there is Fred and Sandra. Fred is the El President du Bloc Age and a known legend in these parts. He’s cool enough to let a Canadian like myself buy a membership to their french co-op, looks pretty good for an old guy and wears some pretty dank dancing shoes. Sandra is owner of Gite Arbonne which is a gite beyond perfection nestled amidst trees, singing birds and has an aura of permanent love and acceptance within all of its pyramids. I don’t know how else to describe this place which has become a home away from home for more than just myself.
Sandra is a petite, beautiful woman with a wild array of dark curls that that alternate between being tightly braided alongside her head or propped up in a wild bun with random bits hanging out gently from the sides. When her dark smiling eyes look at you they bring with them a feeling of love free from all judgements. She is the one to blame for my still being here, otherwise a plane ride would of been mine long ago. We received a text from her on one of the coldest days in January that urged us to come to her house because it was too cold outside. That was the middle of January and currently it is March and we are… still here. The winter was long and my recurring questions of leaving were brushed off with ‘no, stay. if it isn’t you, it will be someone else and you are perfect.’ These are the kind of words that would make anyone feel welcomed. So the next few months our European lives improved drastically. The once dominating thoughts of leaving subsided to a mere whisper. Cedar has the 4 girls of Sandra to play with and is learning french. Christine, Sandra’s mom who the kids call Kiki, has since become my Kiki as well.
As it got warmer, thoughts of returning to van life entered. As much as I love living with my adoptive family, it is their house and surely it isn’t cool to stay here much longer. It was around this time that my big red van decided to take a final plunge towards eternal death. While blue, black and grey smoke sputtered through the exhaust, the motor decided to run in a sort of unreliable cutting out sort of fashion. Every attempt to drive it ended up in some sort of adventure that I was pretty tired of. To fix it would be the price of 2 plane tickets and so the dilemma to stay or go reentered my thoughts. The good weather was about to come here as were the World Cups which I had wanted to do. To leave without having had a chance to climb much outside seemed almost too sad a story to fulfil as did passing up the chances to do the World Cups, something which was drifting from my thoughts before they had even started. But reality was knocking at my shoulder. I hadn’t gotten permission to compete yet. I couldn’t go climb as I wanted because my van was dead. How was I to buy a new van when my bank account was in the negative. My feelings fluctuated between despair and a baseline of acceptance.
One morning I was having a bit of a hard day and was in a bit of a foul mood mainly because of the situation with van and not having the freedom to climb where and when I wanted. As i looked at Sandra I apologized for my crankiness and she looked at me with the deepest respect and said in her sexy french accent, “I know who you are” with a gentle smile that reassured all insecurities inside of me.
So the past few months, rather, my whole European stay has given to me many opportunities to be free of the chains of unhappiness, stress and self loathing when things don’t go my way. This freedom is more powerful than any send because it’s liberating and only becomes stronger with more and more practice. Some days accepting what comes is easier than not. I can shrug it off, breath and keep walking or I may drown in it. In the end it is up to only me.
So, despite my dead van and the inability to climb where and when I want, I am truly grateful for my stay here. Sandra and BlocAge have been my saving graces beyond imagine. I didn’t buy a plane ticket home yesterday nor did i buy one today. Even though some people have told me that I am the most unrealistic person they know, I don’t care. I may not have any money. I may not have a car. I may not have a way to get to the competitions that I signed up for. But… I am not ready to stop. I got ideals. And in my back pocket there is a some kind of dream. And those dreams are powered by some sort of faith in something that I know nothing about but fully trust. And the more i distress from everyday events and random “reality” checks, my life improves. I breathe, I relax. I can look up and see the trees touching the sky. I hear the birds talking. And those birds sing a song to me that says keep on truckin’ and keep on trusting. I ain’t lookin’ for some gold medal but I am looking to strengthen that little ball inside that is OK with things just as they are, climbing or no climbing, friends, or no friends, car or no car. I ain’t worried. In the reality that exist outside of the head, life is pretty dang good.