New Shoes and a French Hike

I have been very busy at school these past few weeks. They keep us busy with little bits of work every night, not enough so that we are swamped, but just enough to keep us doing well. I am very intent on learning as much as I can, so I try to do little bits of homework each night to improve my writing and spelling (and my accents, which I still cannot remember!) The snow has faded and has been replaced with very nice temperatures, around 8 and 9 C. I don’t really KNOW exactly what the temperature IS, because I don’t yet have a handle on the Celsius, but I know that it snows at 0 and BAKES at 35 (the temps we lived through two summers ago…) so for February, 8 and 9 and 10 is nice.

Last Saturday our excursion to Bordeaux was cancelled because of the half inch of snow. The bus company did not want to send out the busses in the case of accidents. On Sunday, however, we did have an excursion to San Juan de Luz, a coastal town that I had been to in the summer of 2003. It was a gorgeous trip through the country to get to the town. We had signed up for it on a whim, seeing the beautiful picture posted on the door of the office of foreign students.

“Randonnee!” The sign proclaimed. We didn’t know what a Randonnee was, but the town looked beautiful and the trip was very cheap. We knew that Sundays in Pau can be a bit boring, so we decided to go. We were excited and the few of us that had signed up climbed on the bus and enjoyed beautiful scenery and a little bit of the town as it coasted by past the windows a couple of hours later. We were excited to visit this town, and watched the shops as we went past, glad to see that some of them were open, even though it was a Sunday. My friend Laila was wearing a brand new outfit and was excited to be headed to a new town to sightsee and do a little shopping. Laila came to the US from Brazil when she was 13. She has thick hair and calls me things like ‘babe’ and ‘hon’. And she likes to shop, a lot. She showed me her brand new shoes the second we got on the bus, and I had told her that I thought they were GREAT new shoes for a day in a new town.

The bus seemed to be heading OUT of town though, before it stopped. We were slightly concerned with this, but as it began to climb a huge hill and wind in and out of tiny country roads we were excited that perhaps there was another winery, or some neat touristy thing at the top of the mountain. We arrived, the bus stopped, and we gazed below us, at the town of San Juan de Luz as it spread out beneath us. Tiny houses gleamed in the sunlight, roofs of spectacular colors shimmering like jewels in a long forgotten lake of some distant fairy tale, the kind where mermaids are nice and will share their treasure with you. The town was very small beneath us and the rain clouds that were coming in off of the mountains made the view quite distracting. So much so that we didn’t see the leader of the group changing her own shoes.

There was a despairingly long path leading down the face of the hill and into the forests that separated us from the tiny French town. A VERY long path. I snuck a glance to the other people in the group. Some were lacing up running shoes, some were stomping out hiking boots. No one seemed to be wearing brand NEW shoes, like Laila, nor fake converse All Stars (paid for during the SOLDES, 4 Euros a pair!) like myself.

Worried now, I pulled out my trusty little yellow dictionary. Of course, my friends and I had signed up for the excursion thinking it was simply a tour of this town and another in Spain. “Randonnee” the little dictionary innocently proclaimed “drive; ride; walk; hike.” My brain attempted to process those words as the occupants were shuffled onto the deserted forest ground, and the bus doors firmly shut. Hike?

Laila was trying not to get her new shoes muddy while at the same time reaching for her camera to take a picture of the beautiful town, the obvious, to her, reason the bus had stopped so far out of the way of the quaint streets and little, tame shops. She grabbed my arm and turned in quiet surprise as the bus threw itself in gear and back up quickly, heading down the windy mountain road.

“It’s a HIKE, Laila.”I said, and she laughed at me, at first, until she noticed the others hefting their backpacks onto their shoulders with determination and following the leader through the undergrowth that clawed at their feet, like a tide rising to drag them out to sea. The town was MILES away.

We followed the leader for quite some distance through trees and forests and mountains, keeping the view of the town and the spectacular sights in the foreground, hoping that a trick of the air made them seem quite further away than they were. Eventually we were amongst the trees, which made it hard to SEE the town stretched out before us, and I convinced myself that this was a GOOD sign, that perhaps it would just jump out of the forest like a jack in the box and scare us all silly. “Here I am!’ It would say “Come shopping!” and we would laugh with delight and scrape the mud from our shoes and join it for tea in a nice, pleasant, climate controlled cafe.

But it did no such thing. In fact, before we knew it we were somehow in a residential district on the outskirts of town and the leader of the group was squinting at street signs and regarding her map. She had left the path behind, and we were finishing our hike in a suburbia that had quickly become hell. Our feet hurt, we were hungry, and every French car that drove past seemed to contain a driver who most certainly did not understand why a French woman was leading a scraggly group of tourists through the neighborhood. And it had begun, of course, to rain.

Three hours after the bus had left us on that muddy forest path, we arrived in the center or San Juan de Luz. We DID at last scrape the mud from our shoes and settled on benches that seemed very appropriate to the location. The woman in charge looked us all over as we collapsed gratefully and pulled out the sandwiches we had brought, expecting to eat them sitting beside the water, enjoying the view.

“We meet the bus in 30 minutes.” She said, not at all unkindly. We hadn’t complained much during the hike. Most of us had been too tired to mutter more than simple words under our breath. The woman gave swift directions. “Over there. Find a bridge, then take a turn, and find the bus.” Before we could even remember how to tell her in French that we didn’t understand, or manage to ask which direction to turn, she had pivoted and vanished into the crowds on the street. Laila sighed into her sandwich which was no good anyway: it was soggy with the rain, and stood up on her now muddy and broken-in new shoes.

“We had better head that way. Find a bridge, or something.” We laughed, and we did.

We found a souvenir shop that happened to be open on Sundays and I bought some items with the Basque symbol on them. I did NOT buy any shoes. And that was all the time we had in the French Basque country. The bus found us and we climbed back aboard. Once upon it, I frowned and looked at the schedule. There was another town on the list.

Our bus took us across the boarder into Spain, to a town called Hundarrabia. I vowed silently to watch the leader and see if she put her hiking shoes back on. If she did, no way was I going to get off of the bus, adventure or no adventure! She left her regular shoes on, however, and we got off the bus in the center of town. The day was cold and everything was closed because it was a Sunday. However, we ended up walking around and taking pictures of the buildings and trees that looked like fingers spread out into the sky. We made Brenda practice her native Spanish and all bought pastries to eat. We met the bus and were back in Pau by 7 PM on Sunday night. We were exhausted and none of us felt much like walking anywhere, so we all went home.

My mother has always taught me to treat each experience like an adventure, and to learn from it. I have generally thought that this was good advice. I certainly DID learn a lot on this trip, and I saw things I had never seen before. Tiny houses, shimmering like diamonds, trees with fingers that reached heavenward. It had been quite the day to see new things. Even so, I would like to add one small piece of advice to hers, however wise it might be on its own. It’s all nice and dandy to have adventures all of the time. But look up words you don’t know BEFORE you leave on them. At least that way you can take along the right kind of shoes.

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