Solo Journey

Linda Quest By Linda Quest, 4th May 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Personal Experiences

The author travels alone, for the first time in her life, to challenge herself after a break-up. Hiking across the beaches and cliffs of the French coast around Calais, she finds unexpected inspiration and personal renewal in the ruins of World War 2.


“Dumped, fired, fat and fifty” I muttered, feeling sorry for myself as I drove along the E40 down the soggy Belgian coast heading toward the Nord-Pas de Calais for a long Ascension holiday weekend in 2012. “How am I going to fill a lonely four days?” All I wanted was a little sunshine and seascape to distract me from mourning my breakup a month earlier, just before my 50th birthday. I was being fired from my job in Brussels too …but that is another story and any feelings I might have had about it were eclipsed by the anguish of losing my love.
Sam and had I traveled together - a lot - and every single moment had been a sheer delight, even when I’d had a bad fever in Edinburgh and he had dragged me anyway on the craggy climb up to King Arthur’s seat. And now there would be no more travelling with Sam. He loved someone else. Not me. That happens. And so, and so…does that mean no more travelling at all? I will show what I am made of, I will travel BY MYSELF and I will have FUN, FUN, FUN and that will prove that I AM FUN, probably a lot more fun than HER. Now, alone in my car, I was having my doubts about how much fun I could have on my own. Would I end up drinking too much wine and crying all day and night in my hotel room?
Nord-Pas de Calais is the northernmost region of France bordering Belgium, with the white limestone cliffs of England visible just across the Channel, and the “Chunnel” running between Calais and Dover. This part of France had belonged in centuries past to the Netherlands and was still known locally as the French Low Country or French Flanders. Sitting at the crossroads of Northern and Southern Europe and the British Isles, it was coveted territory and had been fought over and occupied many times throughout history, most recently by the Germans during WWI and WWII.


I swung into the hotel parking lot in the village of Coquelle on the outskirts of Calais. Check-in was a breeze and my simple but adequate room was reassuring. I changed quickly into some warm and comfortable walking clothes before I would get too tempted to barricade myself in the room, and hiked toward the beach in nearby Sangatte. All the little cottages lining the streets from the hotel to the sea presented themselves adorably with an abundance of flowers smiling out from their gardens. I couldn’t help but smile back even though I wanted to feel sorry for myself. Every few hundred meters stood sad but proud memorials in stone and metal, to citizens lost in combat or resistance during the 20th century wars, each of their names lovingly engraved in plaques. I stopped to read each one, subdued by the not-forgotten sacrifices this tiny village had endured during occupation.
The beach was wide and sandy…and nearly deserted. Yay! Got it all to myself! I walked for kilometers watching the ferries trundle back and forth between Calais and Dover, feeling alone, but not lonely; nothing to do, but not bored. I felt peaceful, alive and in the moment. It felt restorative just to breathe fresh sea air and to feel the damp wind whipping my hair around. My heavy heart began to lighten.
The next day I packed my backpack with tea and fruit and sushi and headed South toward Cap Blanc Nez (Cape White Nose), a chalk cliff rising over the Pas-de-Calais (Strait of Dover). The cliff is topped with an obelisk commemorating “English-French cooperation” during WWII. It’s a panting climb up from the parking lot but worth the breathtaking view across the white-capped blue water to England on the other side, and surrounded on the land side by rolling hills of emerald green fields alternating with blazing yellow rapeseed, dotted by little villages like nearby Escalles. Today there were plenty of people up on the cliff revelling in the beauty and significance of the place. Most of them were families, many completely absorbed in each other, ignoring me and talking loudly. The occasional other lone traveler would flash me a quiet “yes I am alone too” smile. Two well-dressed couples power-walked together, deep in discussion about how much they had paid for their furniture and cars and vacation home renovations, what deals they had gotten where.
Cap Blanc Nez seemed like the perfect setting for a kiss, except for all the people around, and no kissable companion at my side. If not a kiss, how about some sushi, then? Yeeeesssss, I eased myself onto a rocky perch as close to the edge of the cliff as I dared, nibbling my sushi, with everyone who walked by wishing me “bon appétit” and commenting that a sushi picnic was a “bonne idée”. One little girl’s father pointed Dover out to her and told her that was where the English people lived. “Cou-cou les anglais!” shouted the little girl with all the sincere affection of a puppy wagging its tail. Her dad and I laughed. I began to realize . . . without a travel companion, the sights, sounds, smells and textures of everything I encountered were richer, more real, more personal, more meaningful. Time went by more slowly, and I was fully alive in the present and savored each sensation.
These cliffs had served as lookout points for the occupying Germans during WWII and were pocked with abandoned bunkers, and craters from the shelling during the allied invasion. Nothing had been changed or removed, and nothing had been preserved either. I took a walk along the top. Today the scene is so peaceful, overgrown with velvety grass and innocent flowers where men and machines and mud and blood had once predominated. Cows grazed, people walked briskly by, smiling. I felt again a deep sense of reverence for the ghosts, for the young men on both sides who had given their lives here, fighting desperately for their countries, crying for their mothers. And today it was all overgrown and we were all friends. Nothing bad lasts forever. Nothing good lasts forever.


For the next three days I hiked all up and down and across the bunker-studded, flower-covered grassy clifftops of Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez, eating out of my backpack. It rained, it shined, it blew, it chilled, it warmed. The rapeseed fields were heady with a sweet and earthy perfume. Away from the roads I could hear the wind swishing through the young wheat in a mystical sigh… “hush…hush…”
Each day the wild flowers on the cliffs seemed more and more alive! They seemed to have lovingly conquered the bunkers and were holding them down, quieting and healing the awfulness of the past with their sweetness and innocence. Life grows back. Scars grow over. People smile again. Children and dogs run in and out of the craters, laughing. The air is sweet, the sea is singing. How the soldiers must have wished they could have seen this beautiful place on vacation instead of at war.
There was an old German tank left over on a farm. The farmer had created a huge manure pile up against it. Haha! People can recover from great loss with humor.
I spent hours on the shore at low tide inspecting barnacles and snails and rock formations. One lady dug a trilobite fossil out of a cliff wall with a pick and let me hold it. Some rocks along the tidal line were covered with green seaweed that looked like hair, making them look like the back of a sea monster. I kept petting them. There is life everywhere and it is abundant and beautiful. And this life will go on even if humans kill each other. It goes on even if I am boo-hooing over my miserable little romantic traumas.
On the last day I came across a cairn someone had built on the beach. A tower of smooth flat rocks stacked up on top of each other, just there in front of the sparkling sea, just for me. The trailmarker. The milestone. I know I am on the right path. I can do this.


Break-Up, Calais, France, Renewal, Travel

Meet the author

author avatar Linda Quest
Born in the US, I lived in Europe for 28 years before returning home. Currently in Norfolk, Virginia. I teach, research and write about management, but use these pages for play!

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author avatar Nancy Austin
11th May 2015 (#)

Your travels sound amazing.

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