Five years ago, lingering over a last glass of wine and aftertaste of delicious Basque cooking, I was savouring the ambience of a little courtyard restaurant tucked under the medieval walls of St. Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Calling for the bill, I jotted a few final notes in a little pocket notebook before returning to my lodgings for the night. It proved to be an unexpected life-changing moment.
The following morning I would begin walking the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James – to the great Romanesque pilgrim cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, 800 kilometres away. In just another week I would be celebrating my 70th birthday somewhere in northern Spain, marking the day far away from the press of business at home, focusing on the present while reflecting on life’s past and future.
The couple of days at a rest-house in St. Jean were to put jet-lag behind me and shift mental gear before setting out. Marie Josée, owner of La maison Ziberoa, had suggested having dinner at Paxical Oillarburu to try Basque cuisine. It’s a charming little restaurant overlooking a small square at the base of steps descending from the city wall. Pots of evergreens line the stairway down to the road, but above my outdoor table the vines on the trellis overhead were not yet in leaf. As evening darkened the sky I wrote in my journal that, pretentious though it was, I felt very much like the writer I’d often dreamed of becoming. Mellow with wine and good food, feeling very much at peace with the world, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, I was taken by surprise after the young waitress had handed me the bill when she asked shyly “Êtes-vous un écrivain?”(Are you a writer?). Taken off guard by the timing I reflected for a moment, then made a decision. “Oui” I replied.
Of course, changing course doesn’t always happen as neatly as we would like. This commitment to writing full-time was tested by necessary business taking me to Vietnam, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan and several times to China. It was another four years before I could store away my faithful old carry-on bag and focus on a book, articles and this website. This year I had intended to mark another milestone birthday somewhere on the Camino, but the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that. Still, every crisis contains seeds of opportunity and I’m filled with gratitude. Looking back on life’s story so far I feel like Canada’s answer to Forrest Gump – the simple minded but good-hearted movie character who finds himself present at many of the historic moments that define his generation. I don’t even have a “bucket list” any more – it’s all checked off, so every adventure from here on is a bonus.
I know little or nothing about football, other than that the fourth quarter of many games can be the most exciting. Tomorrow I start my 76th orbit around the sun and am thinking of it as kicking off the fourth and most exciting quarter of life’s game (it may go into overtime but I won’t count on that). I’m not sure how to extend the analogy by describing what position I’m playing, but I do recall someone once saying something about being an “offensive throwback.” But then, as I say, I know nothing about football.
Here’s to springtime and new beginnings!