Café Oc: A Nomad's Tales of Magic, Mystery, and Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France

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The Practice of Paying Attention: The Millions Interviews Beebe Bahrami

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Award-winning writer and anthropologist Beebe Bahrami is the author of the travel memoirs Café’ Oc and Café Neandertal as well as several travel guides, including The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Moon Camino de Santiago. Her essays appear in BBC Travel, Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Perceptive Travel, and other publications.

Her latest book, The Way of the Wild Goose: Three Pilgrimages Following Geese, Stars, and Hunches on the Camino de Santiago, published earlier this month by Monkfish, recounts her inner and outer journeys through southern France and northern Spain, where she encounters wild nature, ancient roads, quirky pilgrims, wise locals, and mysterious folklore. In The Way of the Wild Goose, Bahrami embarks on a quest to find out why the goose has become associated with the medieval Camino de Santiago and how its symbol came to preserve a universe of pagan, pre-Christian lore. Her walk on the ancient roads in France and Spain ultimately led her on a journey into the Self.

Anne McGrath: Why is it so important to you to be clear about why you walk the Camino? 

Beebe Bahrami: When I first started the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, I really didn’t think about my intentions. They came into focus as I was walking. There is something very powerful that happens when you simplify your life and you just carry what you need. You get down to the basics of walking, eating, sleeping, and showering, if you’re lucky. This paring down makes other things happen inside and around you.

The idea of intention presented itself to me as I was walking and started paying more attention to my surroundings. I thought about what was coming in but also about what I wanted. It’s a fascinating alchemical process that sets into motion. Later, when I walked other trails, it was clear to me at the beginning that I wanted to set an intention for the walk, to think about what I wanted to learn. It doesn’t mean that initial intention will necessarily stick, it’s just a good starting point. Often the process of walking a particular Camino will present itself with another intention:  you thought that was important, but here’s what’s really important.

AM: This notion of being flexible and open to detours and sidetracks is a recurring theme in the book.

BB: When people planning to walk the Camino ask me for advice—how much should I plan ahead, how many kilometers should I walk each day, what should I carry—I tell them they can plan as much or as little as they want to get them to the place where they feel ready to walk. But when you arrive at the Camino, prepare to have all those plans dashed. As soon as you show up, everything kicks into motion. You think you have plans, but the Camino has its own plans for you. You just don’t know what will happen when you show up and flexibility is part of staying present in the moment and seeing what’s really happening instead of trying to forcibly fit what unfolds into a preconceived idea.

AM: The shape-shifting goose in your book is described as both a guide and a symbol of the Camino. Did you land upon the goose idea before you embarked on your journey or did its significance arrive as a revelation during your walk?

BB: This was part of the wild goose chase. When I first started walking the Camino I had no idea about following signs except for the physical ones—arrows and scallop shells to let me know I was still on the trail—but then I started meeting pilgrims, especially from Spain and France, who said they were following a more initiatory, spiritual, esoteric path. One of them mentioned following “signs of the goose” and it made no sense to me.

Then it kept coming up—the goose. I repeatedly met people who also talked about looking for signs of the goose, or mentioned the three-pronged foot imprint or the goose itself. I realized I was dealing with a huge bundle of metaphors and symbols that had a long association with the Camino and the cultures through which the trail passes. So I decided the next Camino I went on I would start paying attention to this.

The three-pronged foot imprint is engraved in stones along the path, in some churches there are geese and ducks associated with the goose quest, and there is a whole body of folklore. I realized I’d stepped into this beautiful well of European folklore that has not disintegrated with the modern era or with the official versions of spirituality that Christianity layered over. The folklore is alive and people are still engaging with it.

The goose went beyond being a sign for me. It became this embodied being that is also a guardian and guide on the trail. You look for her signs and she guides you.

AM: The confidence you gained from your pilgrimages led you to what you described as a move from fear-thinking to trust-thinking. Can you talk about how this manifested for you and for others on the path?

BB: Everyone arrives on this unknown path, you’re meeting people from all over the world, you don’t know where you will sleep that night. It’s amazing to realize that no matter what, all your needs will be met, often in much better ways than you could have imagined. After such struggles I would realize that the way things unfolded was perfect and I would not have wanted it to be any other way.

You start carrying everything you think you need and the more you walk the more you realize you don’t need half of what you are carrying. You get rid of half and then further on you realize you still don’t need half of what’s still in there. You’re lightening up with what you think you need in your backpack, and all the while locals and pilgrims are helping you to find food, shelter, support. It’s a very generous and giving world as soon as you step on the Camino. I think that’s a big part of the magic and why so many people keep wanting to go back. It’s a great environment to let go of fear thinking because people are there to help, even before you ask.

AM: The paring down, the trusting that there are enough resources to go around, these are things that I, and other people fortunate enough to have good health and the ability to quarantine, experienced during the pandemic. There were so many things I used to think I could not live without that I no longer need. Part of it is also a result of aging, for me.

BB: People on the path often say the Camino is a metaphor for life, that everything that happens on the walk is a concentrated version of what happens in life. What you just said about the pairing down is a great example of that. A pilgrim would say that’s a pilgrimage. The process of letting go of things you don’t need—that’s a pilgrimage.

AM: You wrote that when you travel with a companion “fellow travelers become mirrors to each other for what the path is pulling up from inside us each.” 

BB: As a travel writer I largely travel alone because I have less protection against the world I’m in—I really have to speak to locals, ask for help, and locals are more likely to speak to me. On the Camino you’re referring to I was walking with a close friend from my hometown in Colorado and she and I were going into a more remote part of the trail in France. We were amazed each day how one of us would be mulling over something in our mind and when we would voice it we found that we were consistently having similar thoughts. I would be thinking about my relationship with my mother and my friend would say, “That’s really interesting, that’s what I was just doing.”

There is something about the meditation of walking, being in nature, having all that space and time to process your life that amplifies connections. My friend and I were processing our lives in the same rhythm, very much in tune with each other. Some people say there is an energy on the Camino that creates this synchronicity. It brings people who need each other in that moment to each other.

AM: When you return to your regular life and routines how long does the magic of the Camino stay with you?

BB: Because I’ve been walking it for almost three decades, it’s with me all the time. But I remember the first full trek. Every day I kept bringing up that experience of being present, trusting, listening. I would remind myself to look and listen before I reacted or tried to find a solution. I would wait, take a Camino frame of mind, and trust that something right would come along.

The simplification of life stuck with me right away. When I got home I realized I did not need three quarters of what was in my closet or in my house. I did a purge. I gave things away. To this day, I question very carefully what I need before I buy something new. I think of what I can do with things to put them into an experience or share them with someone.

One of the hardest things is that when you come back from such an experience, you want to be able to share all your epiphanies and transformations, and not everyone in the life you return to wants or necessarily needs to hear it.

AM: Do you find more places sacred since you have embarked on these pilgrimages?

BB: I think I do. Walking the Camino cultivated the practice of paying attention and the pandemic drove home the idea that everywhere we are is sacred. As sacred to me as the Camino is, with these many layers of human and natural presence, it is everywhere. When I couldn’t travel due to the pandemic, I started making a practice of paying attention to where I was going when I walked my four to five miles each day.

I was influenced by the work of Martin Shaw, a mythologist and storyteller in England. He spoke about going to the same place in nature every day during the pandemic, for something like one hundred and one days. He went there and just listened. I thought, I’m going to do that on my walks. I’m going to walk the exact same path each day and listen. Shaw said that at some point in the one hundred and one days, the land should start telling you its stories. He said we need more stories of the land and less of the landowner.

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