Denis and I had reserved six weeks in the summer to travel to Europe. The details were thin until he suggested we walk from Santiago to Finisterre on the west coast of Spain, known as The End of the World. I was surprised and suspicious of this suggestion. I had walked the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage through northern Spain in 2011. Returning to Santiago and the coast has always been my dream. Walking with Denis wasn't part of it. Denis runs, he works out, he doesn't walk for the beauty of nature. So I said, “No.”
A pilgrimage is a journey that one takes for a reason: to be alone with spirituality, to recover from a difficult decision, to retreat from the demands of a busy life. The Camino is a "bank of challenges for your humility and your real lesson in spiritual and human possibilities." Denis needed encouragement to go on a one-mile walk, never mind a 10-mile daily journey. In the next few weeks, he began to propose walks and hikes. He never complained. We were officially in training and Denis was an equal partner on these walks. I was delighted. We were going to Santiago!
The plan came together. Copenhagen for a photoshoot would be followed by a sail through the fjords in Norway, coffee and checking out the art scene in Berlin, and visiting Denis's daughter Louisa in Munich—or some variation of that. Apart from our one-way ticket to Madrid, these were ideas. No reservations were made in advance. Adventures were in our future.
We are not novices; we had both traveled in Europe after college in the 1970s. My adventures included four girls carrying bright orange and yellow backpacks, wide-eyed dreams and Europe on $5 a day. We got to London and had two months to see everything. There were no reservations except a return trip from Paris to Boston at the end of the summer.
Seven countries later I was ready to return to America! I was twenty-one. When we arrived at Logan Airport, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and kissed the ground. A journey I will never forget.
Denis traveled from the Army on a 30-day leave and navigated the Greek Islands on ferries and a motor scooter. Ferries carried him to Crete, Rhodes, Mykonos, and Kos. On the last island he rented a scooter to find a castle in the mountains. Antimacheia Castle stood on a high hill as a beacon of strength. Details were available in Let’s Go Europe. No reservations needed!
Fifty years later we were excited as we approached the Iberian Airlines counter. We had two hiking packs, two overhead suitcases and two business-class seats! A bit of a splurge for us. Passports reviewed, bags checked and we would be on our way. The agent then asked us for our return tickets. We said we didn’t have any. To our shock, she said she couldn’t check us through to Madrid without return tickets. She also said she could not sell us the tickets and we had only 45 minutes to produce them! We just stood there and did not connect with what had just happened. Reluctantly leaving the counter, we sat in a quiet area and fumbled for a few minutes with our phones. Nothing. Finally, after a phone call, our Mac nerd friend found us an expensive return flight with ten minutes to spare.
When we stood at the lighthouse at the End of the World, the Spanish sunset on our face, the Atlantic before us and the gratitude of our time together, the stress of our flight arrangements felt far away. Denis encouraged me to stay on the rocky coast until I experienced everything I had dreamed of.
The "End of the World" is the home of an ancient pilgrim ritual to burn an item of clothing worn on the Camino. This further symbolizes leaving your burdens behind and pursuing a new chapter of life. For twelve years, the pink tank top I had worn for 37 days on the Camino had rested in my drawer. It even made it through the move to Newburyport after Denis and I married. Now I burned it in a protected cove near the lighthouse. My last thought was gratitude for my life, my children and Denis. This part of the journey went as perfectly as any walking journey could.
Denis and I met in 2012, a year after I first completed the Camino. It was one of those moments. We were both looking for someone to love and love us back. Six months later, he invited me to travel with him to Italy. A foreign language, a foreign currency, limited phone usage. I asked: "What's my second option?" We ended up traveling through wine country in northern California. We work hard every day to respect each other and deal with disagreements with composure, knowing that we love each other and are in this relationship together.
Copenhagen was a late addition to our journey. Denis had an appointment for an experimental art shoot on the rocky shores of Denmark. A few years before, while flipping through an L.L.Bean catalog, I had suggested that Denis would make a great model. He is tall and handsome, and his physique reflects his training in the gym since he was 12 years old. I thought he would look great in outdoor clothing. Denis heard "fitness model" in which you disrobe to your Speedo to show your muscles. After his first photoshoot, I was quietly shocked. The images were artistic and well done. I just wished it was someone else’s husband in the photo! My Irish Catholic upbringing showed through. Denis was not embarrassed at all. He spent much of his adult life in Germany, where comfort in the human body is natural. Now I’m used to it. Denis follows the work of a Danish photographer and they had planned an art shoot together while we were traveling. It was on the way to Oslo.
We stayed at the Hotel of St. Thomas in Copenhagen in a room so tiny that when you opened the bathroom door it hit the bed. We dined at the café across the street, and when we returned, Denis started to get chills. I switched off the air conditioner and covered him with one duvet then another. We are healthy people and I wasn't used to seeing Denis shake like that. We tried to talk about what was happening, but he could not have a conversation. I went to reception to find more bedding. During the night he started sweating and soaked everything.
Denis felt better in the morning and assured me it was just a cold. He got a haircut and we visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. We love contemporary art, but this art had limited interest for us. Fortunately, it was a perfect summer day. The museum grounds were beautifully landscaped and inviting, with live music on the lawn. Denis got tired, so he sat on a rock with a fabulous view of the ocean while I bought sandwiches. He was ready to leave, so we walked to the nearby station to return to the hotel. I had started having diarrhea that morning, but had not told him yet.
At the railroad station, he knocked on the toilet door and said, “The train is coming.” There’s no way I was going to shout back: “I have diarrhea!” So I shouted: "Thank you for the information, but I can't do anything about it."
We missed that train. Back in the hotel, both ill now, Denis's chills and sweats worsened and I spent the night in the bathroom.
On the day of the photoshoot, Denis had to be seen by a doctor. Denis is a physician’s assistant and with sore throat and weakness, he thought it was pharyngitis and would need an antibiotic. We didn't know if what we had was contagious, so we wore masks. In the emergency room, the doctor immediately told us to "take off those damn masks. We're not worried about airborne diseases here. I don't wear a mask and I see patients all day!" He said Denis had a virus that had already peaked; otherwise he was in great shape. He took a throat culture. It was negative and he tried to move us along. I thought I had a stomach bug and was not officially treated by the doctor. Denis asked if it could be COVID. The doctor dismissed the possibility and waved us away. He made us feel we were wasting his time.
We had escaped COVID for 3 ½ years so it wasn’t on our minds. Denis went from feeling good to feeling uncomfortable so quickly that he didn't make the connection until we were in the doctor's office. After being reassured that Denis was getting better, we felt psychologically better about continuing our journey to Norway. We had places to go. We would be able to see ourselves in the fjords on the boat when the symptoms passed. I’m an extreme optimist, and that’s rubbed off on Denis. Regardless of the situation, he now says: "Let's move forward" and I'm right there with him.
On the way back from the hospital, our taxi driver suggested taking the Pearl Seaways ferry to Oslo. All I could imagine were New England-style ferries: cold outside, cold inside, minimal meals. But he swore it was comfortable, so we made a reservation for the next day.
Denis missed his photoshoot. At the hotel he continued to sleep and sweat. I wrote in my journal: “My body feels queasy, mainly dealing with diarrhea, and a sore throat is beginning. My appetite is gone. The last two days were full of trips to the supermarket, pharmacy and doctor. I desperately need fresh air.”
The ferry turned out to be a cruise ship. Carpets on the floor, elevators, sparkling lights and above all warm! We wanted to use our time on the ferry to plan our trip to the fjords, but instead we could only focus on trying to "straighten up and fly right." This felt like a rollercoaster. One minute we looked forward, and the next we looked after each other's symptoms.
The attempt to hide our illness fooled no one, as Denis slouched and I lay on a bench in one of the many cafes on board. He had a latte and I had herbal tea. We looked at each other but no words came. Dinner was a lavish buffet. Denis ate a good meal that night and I pushed chicken around my plate until it was worn out. After slowly making our way to the cabin, we opened the door and could not believe our eyes. Bunk beds! Denis was too weary to climb and I couldn't manage the up-and-down cycle for my bathroom runs. The bunk looked as if it were 10 feet tall. I left Denis in the cabin and found the customer service desk and explained that we needed a different room. The representative said all the double rooms were full. I explained that we didn't feel well and would take anything we didn't have to climb into. She had a small room that they do not normally reserve, but it had a double bed. She was right; it was a very small but cozy room with a private bathroom. It was the first time we snuggled in a few days. I slept next to the toilette, and Denis was next to me.
Morning brought a calm sea and another good appetite for Denis. Unbuttered toast was my go-to. We sat in the dining room overlooking the ship's bow. For the moment we felt great! Oslo was so close we could taste it. It was an unusually narrow channel for the capital of Norway, with homes on both sides. Neither of us had ever been to Norway and were looking forward to it. The breathtaking cruise into the Oslo harbor inspired us. Denis put his hand on mine and smiled. “We’re going to be fine.”
When we arrived at our Airbnb, we fell into bed. I was under the covers in the bedroom, Denis was on the sofa in the living room. On the way we had managed to buy a few groceries, a pizza and throat lozenges. I don't remember thinking anything but how bad I felt. My sore throat and headaches kept me down. After 10 minutes or a few hours Denis stood at the door and said, "I can't swallow; I have to go to a hospital." I heard, "I have a sore throat." I asked if we could go the next day. He said, "We have to go now." That was frightening because Denis doesn't complain. I immediately got up and dressed to go. We held on tight to each other in the taxi.
The emergency room was full of college students who had attended a party the weekend before and were being tested for meningitis. After moving us from triage room to triage room, staff checked Denis' glucose levels. My turn produced little in terms of a diagnosis. I asked the nurse to test me for COVID-19. She looked surprised but did the test. In less than a minute she handed me a mask and said, "You have COVID!" Predictably Denis also tested positive. We were speechless. How did we miss this? Our admiration for Europe's healthcare systems fell a few feet. We had COVID-19 all along and probably left a long path of illness. We were horrified! In particular, I felt bad for the service desk representative on the ship, who had made our night so comfortable.
Back in the Airbnb we were relieved. Denis asked me what I wanted to do. I said, "I'm going home!" I was done living in hotel rooms and trying to pretend I was fine. I wanted to be in my own bed at home. Denis couldn't sleep that night and found us a flight home for the next day.
Denis and I strive to be kind to each other every day. On this journey, I realized what a great practice that is when you need each other to be strong and in control. We straightened up, put on our masks and talked to no one for the next 21 hours. Business class helped us to separate ourselves from the other passengers. It was after midnight when the Uber driver dropped us home in Newburyport, MA.
Thanks for coming on this misadventure with us. Leave me a comment so I know you're out there.