My girlfriend Vanessa and I are headed to France tomorrow and we’re nervous…and excited…and ready…and feeling all the feelings. There’s a lot to unpack, both literally and figuratively, and we wanted to share that with you, our friends, family and others. So we decided to interview each other about our travel plans, hopes and dreams. This first part will live here on Out & About, check out the second half, which will publish later today on vanessapamela.com.
Hi! This is a bizzaro format we dreamed up wherein we interview each other, but we are both the interviewers and the interviewees! It’s gonna be so fun for everyone! Okay so first things first – what’s up? Why are we conducting this interview? What are we doing?
Vanessa: WE’RE GOING TO EUROPE FOR THREE MONTHS!!!!
Alley: V & A do Europe! I wanna call us the AV Club. It’s nerdy but that’s how I roll.
Anyway, we’ll arrive in Paris in early August and stay with my dear old friend Sarah and her partner Scott for a long weekend before Vanessa heads off to WWOOF on a couple farms and I start heading north toward Amsterdam on my bicycle.
We will meet back up in France in late August/early September and will spend a couple days in Bordeaux before starting the Camino de Santiago portion of our trip. For that month and a half we will walk a route that is approximately 550 miles from the French border to the Atlantic ocean.
After that we’re hoping to still have enough time and money to be able to check out either southern Spain or Barcelona before heading back to Paris where my bike and a late October flight awaits.
We’re splitting up for the first portion of our trip and as Alley said, she’s going on a bike trip and Vanessa is going to WWOOF on some farms. Alley, what does your bike route look like and how did you choose it?
A: I’ve only been on one multi day self-sustained bike trip and that was at the Oregon Coast last summer for about 5 days. So this will be pretty new and adventurous for me, especially since my French is pretty much non-existent.
As for the route it’s actually not quite set in stone. There’s the Eurovelo routes and they have a website which has the most major cross European routes mapped. I could follow a series of them to roughly reach Amsterdam but I also made a bunch of routes, some based off of other people’s routes and rides, on Ride With GPS, a locally based Portland company that has route planning, turn by turn directions, etc. I was introduced to them in a bike touring class I did at Gladys and really like it. There’s also a bunch of other mapping services I have consulted including BikeMap and ViaMichelin, and other European based services that might even prove to be better than RwGPS, but are new to me.
I’m sure I will use a combo when I am actually on the road but I also wanted to leave myself some freedom. The friends we are staying with and Paris did a 3 year bike trip several years ago beginning from home, going east, and then down the east coast of Africa, so they know about changing plans and just taking it day to day. I am more of a planner for sure, but I know there will be random things I want to see, people that will tell me what routes are best or a town or campground I shouldn’t miss etc. So I want to be open to that.
So the short answer, after that very long one, is that I’ll be going up through Belgium and then the Netherlands. I do want to ride along the North Sea coast at some point but might take the inland road on the way up because I hear those headwinds are brutal.
I will be camping some of the time and some of the time hopefully staying with people from either Warm Showers (sort of like Couchsurfing for cyclists) or Vrieden op de Fiets, which is a Dutch organization where you can stay with folks in a spare bedroom, caravan or garden cabin for cheap if you are traveling by bike, foot, skate or canoe…
And Vanessa, you’re going… WWOOFing? What is that?
V: So, as readers may or may not know, I’m not much of a cyclist. The idea of bike camping for a month does not appeal to me at all, even if the route includes a Pride festival in Belgium. But volunteering on a farm in Southern France has always appealed to me, and with WWOOFing, I can do just that.
WWOOF is an organization that stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, depending who you ask. People who “WWOOF” (affectionately and bizarrely called WWOOFers) are basically volunteers on organic farms. In exchange for a certain amount of physical labor (usually 4-6 hours, 4-6 days a week) you get a place to stay, food to eat, and a chance to meet local farmers, their families, and other volunteers from all over the world.
Tell us about the farms you will be working on.
V: My plan right now is to WWOOF on two different farms in France, each one for about two weeks.
The first farm is a berry farm, and the woman I’ve been in touch with there runs it with her kids. There may be other folks in the picture too, but we haven’t communicated extensively so I don’t know much else yet.
Here’s what I know for sure (I think!): I’ll be there for two weeks. The farm is in the Haute-Savoie region, near Lake Geneva and the border of Switzerland in Southeast France. I’ll be working with berries, harvesting in the fields and making jams in the kitchen. And I am going to be staying in a caravan!
I know even less about the second farm. I think it’s a homestead style spot that is just getting started. There are horses. It’s also in the mountains.
One of the things I like about WWOOFing is that you’re often diving into a situation without knowing much about it upfront. I’ve learned that I really enjoy doing things like that; my results and enjoyment have varied, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it again and again.
So even though we’re traveling together for a lot of this adventure, we’re also spending some significant portions of time apart. Which means we’ve gotta ask the Number One Question Women Are Asked When They Embark Upon Solo Travel… are you scared to be traveling alone?
A: Although it’d be nice to have a traveling companion I actually really like traveling alone, and on a bike it means you can always go on your own pace. Sometimes it can even be easier to make new friends when you are alone because you kind of have to!
I know a lot of people are afraid for safety, and while I do think it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings, I think it’s pretty safe. Despite being a woman and a queer, both of which can be dangerous in this world, I never let that stop me from doing what I want to do. The world is scary but you can’t live your life being scared. Cycling in the summer in this region is quite common and I know many other people who have traveled this way alone and have had overwhelmingly good experiences. That said, I will trust my instincts and stay safe. I will also get a French phone sim card when we land so I should have service for the most part.
V: I’ve written quite a bit about traveling alone as a woman, and I’ve thought about it even more. My thoughts have evolved over the years, but my initial response is the same: no, I am not afraid to travel alone. I think it’s super irritating that this is the first question many people ask a woman who is traveling solo, but it’s a question that is rarely ever asked of men. And I think it’s delusional to think that women are somehow “safe” at home and suddenly “in danger” when traveling or hiking or adventuring, because as any woman in the United States in 2017 will tell you, “home” often doesn’t feel very safe at all.
That said, I also think it’s not useful to ignore the realities of the world. Yes, as a woman I have sometimes felt uncomfortable traveling solo, just like I’m sometimes uncomfortable walking down the street, sometimes uncomfortable waiting at a bus stop alone late at night, etc. It fucking sucks but it’s reality. I think the best we can all do is take reasonable precautions and look out for each other. I’d also be really interested in continuing this conversation with other women, because I think it’s important to note that race, sexuality, and other factors can play a role in how safe any of us feel in any given place.
Okay, so once Alley is done with her bike trip and Vanessa is done WWOOFing, you guys are going to meet up and hike the Camino de Santiago? Tell us about that route and what made you decide to walk it?
V: The Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James in English, is “a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.” From my understanding (and please, correct me in the comments if I’m embarrassingly getting anything wrong!) it used to be sort of exclusively a spiritual pilgrimage, but has evolved into a series of popular long-distance hiking routes that tons of people of all levels of spirituality embark upon every year. The cool thing about the Camino, in my opinion, is that there are so many different routes a pilgrim (yes, everyone who hikes the trail is still called a pilgrim even though it’s not just a spiritual pilgrimage anymore) can take. We’ll be taking the French route, which is 550 miles total and is the most popular one with first time pilgrims. Another really cool thing about the Camino is that some people hike it multiple times, exploring different routes each hike!
A: I can’t remember when, exactly, we heard about the Camino for the first time but shortly thereafter we met a lesbian couple from Spain while visiting my alma mater in Northampton, one of whom had walked it and it just sounded like a really nice way to see a country I had never been to.
V: That’s so funny because I actually don’t remember learning about the Camino that way. I remember being in the room when we had the conversation with that woman, but I do not remember internalizing anything she said about the route! I first started hearing about the Camino because when I’d tell people I was planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), many of them asked if I’d ever seen the movie The Way, which is about the Camino. I don’t think the PCT and the Camino actually have very much in common, aside from the fact that they both could be characterized as Very Long Walks, but life is weird like that!
Then it just became a thing Alley and I both knew about, and it was appealing that there are more “comforts” than on the PCT – beds, restaurants, etc. Al had never felt particularly called to embark on a five month long distance hike like I wanted to with the PCT, but the Camino sounded like a thing we could do together. For context, I had planned to spend this summer hiking the PCT, which is a 2,650 mile trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada along the West Coast of the United States. I hiked 454 miles but then decided I no longer wanted to continue. Once I realized I wanted to stop hiking the PCT, a friend from the trail said, “You should just go hike the Camino right now. I think you’d love it.”
Alley was already planning her bike trip in Europe, I had (mostly) all the gear I’d need, and we both had the time and money to go for it… it felt, to me at least, like the universe was definitely telling us that now was the right time to walk the Camino together!
A: To be honest, I am not as much of a hiker as Vanessa and I am a little nervous to be walking 15-20 miles a day for a month. The first day is the most intense as it takes you over the Pyrenees mountains, so it has the most elevation gain on the Camino, and it’s pretty far to the first town in Spain, Roncesvalles. But I’ve got some comfortable trail runners and am up for a challenge. I am also ok with taking breaks, and perhaps even the occasional bus. But I will definitely walk the final 100km so I can get my completion certificate. But the idea is to walk the whole 500 miles, and even the next 50 to Finisterre and the ocean. I definitely want to reach the Atlantic and dip my toes in.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of the interview publishing later today on vanessapamela.com.