Melbourne – Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition

The view through the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia is reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. The light refracts in strange ways and distorts the image of the people and the traffic outside. I was here to see the exhibition: Van Gogh and the Seasons, so the image I captured as I entered the gallery was remarkably appropriate.

Water wall NGV

Life often seems to run in cycles or circles, just as the seasons return in sequence year after year. This exhibition links Van Gogh’s life’s work to the seasons. Nature was something of a preoccupation since the Romantic movement, and the exhibition begins with etchings and prints from other artists showing how they were representing the seasons, nature and farm workers. Then we encounter a series of Japanese prints which seem to be echoed in Van Gogh’s style where he painted with heavy outlines and filled in the forms.

Autumn/Fall

In October 1884, Van Gogh painted Avenue of Poplars in Autumn at Nuenen in the Netherlands. The sombre mood of the autumn trees is reflected by the lone woman walking the otherwise deserted road, dressed in mourning clothes. The shadows of the trees seem to reach for her as she seems about to cross a threshold marking her exit from the farm or village.

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June/July of that year describing his approach to painting the different light of the seasons:

“…I think Summer is not easy to express; generally, at least often, a summer effect is either impossible or ugly, at least I think so, but then, as opposition, there is twilight…

Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.”

Avenue of poplars in Autumn

His Autumn Landscape at Dusk painted a year later is more nuanced in his treatment of light. He wrote to his brother of his admiration for those who can paint darkness while observing that even in the lowest light there are still hints of things going on to maintain interest in the mystery:

“…it’s perhaps not superfluous to point out how one of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century has been the painting of darkness that is still colour.” – Van Gogh letters 21 Apr 1885

I found myself drawn into this painting, led by the path and the leading lines of the trees into the pool of orange and yellow that indicated the last fading light of sunset, following the footsteps of the woman returning to the village. I have learned a lot about photographic composition by noting the devices used by painters through the centuries. Here the horizon is placed about one-third from the bottom, and the path one-third from the left. The subject woman is backlit, providing an outline of her form which helps to draw us on in her direction.

Autumn Landscape at Dusk

These two paintings of Autumn – each with a path through the trees and a lone woman – illustrate that, on revisiting the subject, Van Gogh had developed further in his style, and produced arguably a stronger painting as a result. Here, in the second painting, he tantalises us with hints of things happening in the darkness – darkness that is still colour. And in Van Gogh’s life, even at his darkest hours, there was still some light, some colour.

But the cycles of life, like the seasons, never quite return the same. It is less a like a circle; more like a spiral. Some call this the hermeneutic spiral, in which we seem to return, yet we have moved on in our lives; we are older, we know more, we have more experience. It is one reason that people often return to a place they have travelled to, and in that return, the place is subtly different, or our approach to it is different. And we notice different things from the last time.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus talks about this process when he says that we cannot step into the same river twice – time, like the waters of a river, moves on. Our experience of a place is altered by the very fact of seeing it again – we see it with fresh eyes.

Winter

The 1880s were a time of transition for art, and the growing fashion in the Netherlands – notably the Hague School – was focussed on outdoor painting and capturing a mood rather than bright colour. I loved the simplicity captured in this sketch of a woman digging in the snow. A few lines were sufficient to convey the back-breaking work and the stoic determination to maintain a meagre living in the depths of winter.

Woman with a fork in a Winter landscape

The sketch below is called: Sketch of miners in the snow: Winter and was one of a couple of “small rough sketches” he sent to Theo. It certainly didn’t look too rough to me!

Sketch of miners in the snow

Spring

I loved Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as it depicts a town quite similar to several towns we passed through on our Camino in Spain. The town here is about 50kms from Arles in the south of France – and in those days it was a five-hour horse coach ride to reach it. The town is in the Carmargue region, famous for its marshes and particular breed of horses. The town is on the Mediterranean. This visit served to cement his decision to stay in the south of France. I found the painting interesting for four reasons: Firstly, the bold use of monolithic blocks of colour – and the towns in that area actually do strike you like that. Secondly, the composition with the horizon on the Golden mean. Thirdly the cool-warm contrast between the rooflines and the sky and between the town and the blue-purple of the rows of flax plants and possibly grape vines in the foreground. Fourthly, I looked closely at the brush strokes and found that it appears that Van Gogh was left-handed – although there are no direct references to that, and Cezanne himself depicted Van Gogh with a brush in his right hand. But if you look closely at the brush strokes on the flax rows, they appear to be flicking up from right to left, rather than the other way round. I saw similar right-to-left markings in the way he cross-hatched his trees in other drawings.

View of Saintes Maries de la mer

Summer

In the summer of 1888, when Van Gogh had moved to Arles for one of his most productive periods, he painted a series on wheatfields and haystacks. This Farmhouse in Provence shows something of the intensity of light that he was able to capture. In this period he often mixed the colours straight on the canvas, giving the paint a vibrancy as the pigments are mostly unmixed, so they almost shine with their own light.

Farmhouse in Provence

And yes the local stone actually does have a pinkish hue – it is a volcanic rock used in many of the local buildings in that area. I am constantly amazed by the accuracy of Van Gogh’s eye for light and for accurate drafting. In many cases you can go to the same spot and easily identify the same buildings today – I did a series of ‘then and now’ photos in Arles that I’ll discuss in a later post. Of the flowers, Van Gogh wrote:

“I know very well that not a single flower was drawn, that they’re just little licks of colour, red, yellow, orange, green. blue, violet, but the impression of those colours against one another is nonetheless there in the painting as it is in nature.” – letter Van Gogh to his sister Willemien 31 Jul 1888

One of the most striking paintings is A Wheatfield with Cypresses which contrasts the golden wheat with the deep green of the cypress trees – planted as a wind break against the strong dry Mistral wind that blows off the mountains – and then the blue of the distant hills. This one was painted in September 1889 at Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh stayed at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. This painting, so full of life and vigour, was painted just a year before his suicide. Somehow, in the turbulence of the clouds and waving cypress trees he depicts something of the turbulence and violence of the Mistral wind and perhaps reflects something of the turbulence in his mind at that time.

A Wheatfield with Cypresses

So Van Gogh’s life, like our own can be seen like the cycle of the seasons. Travel too, can be seen in this light – and like Heraclitus says – we never truly return to the same place.

The same is also true of our return home after we have travelled. Suddenly, we see our own place in a new light, we notice new things about it, and perhaps question or seek to change things in light of our travel. There may be no place like home, but there is especially no place like home when we have informed our experience of it through mindful travel.

I travelled to Melbourne quite specifically to see this exhibition – and was not disappointed – even having seen the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and several of his works in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Many of the paintings displayed were from private collections and this would be one of the very few public showings. With around 60 works it is well worth seeing. The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, runs until 9 July this year.

[NB: I was fortunate that since most of the paintings had come from French museums, hand-held non-commercial photography was permitted – so the photos I’ve included here are ones I’ve taken at the exhibition.]

 

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Packing for the Camino – Revisited

I had several comments on my previous Camino packing video, asking for a review once I had completed the Camino as to what worked and what didn’t work – and what would I take with me next time. So I have made a new video with this review in mind. My original pack was way too heavy – starting out at around 10kg. My new packing regime in light of my experience on the Camino has brought that weight down to just 6.35kg, which is far more manageable.

I’ll include my packing list below. But in the meantime, here is the video.

Lighten the clothes

I found that I had packed too many clothes last time, and didn’t account for the clothes I was wearing – I think it’s important to be able to go one full day without a clothes wash, as sometimes the weather won’t allow it to dry, or in some cases there aren’t the washing facilities to enable a full clothes wash.

Lighten the tech

I carried way too much tech on the Camino – the iPad, the travel hard drive and the camera all needed charging along with my phone. In the end, I found it was sufficient just to use the phone – oh and my camera. Next time I will leave the iPad and the travel hard drive at home, for a saving of 1.5kg. There are some who want to leave the phone behind too, but I like to have it for emergencies, and to book accommodation ahead where necessary. It is also a good way to stay in touch with family back home, who would worry about us on the road. The key thing is not be enslaved to the technology, but rather to have it available for use when needed. You can have peace of mind through having contact with others, as long as you are not glued to the screen when there are fellow pilgrims to meet and relate to.

Lighten the medical pack

I over-packed on blister care. You only need enough to last for a couple of days on the Camino as most larger towns have Farmacias (pharmacies or chemist shops), and many of the smaller places have automatic vending machines for blister care products, such as tape, band-aids, antiseptics, ibuprofen and paracetamol.

Lighten the ablutions

I found a solid bar shampoo – which washed my hair, my body and my clothes. Similarly, a pack of solid toothpaste tablets was much lighter than a tube of toothpaste – and lasted the whole Camino. You can be minimalist and still be hygienic 🙂

Little things that help

Safety pins – for hanging washing. The clothes won’t blow off the line, and if they’re still damp in the morning you can pin them to your pack to dry while you walk. And safety pins are lighter and less bulky than clothes pegs.

Fly-net – It was hard enough walking up the hills without choking on a fly determined to get some of your moisture. A fly-net over your hat can make walking much more comfortable!

Reflective tape – wrap it around your poles and on your pack to make yourself more visible to traffic in the dark – especially those early mornings. Several pilgrims have been killed because traffic did not see them.

elastic bands – keep your charging cables tidy, use them to keep bags rolled and clothes rolled within them. There are many uses for elastic bands!

spare zip-loc bags – to keep things waterproof (especially your credential and passport).

Camino pack

Camino pack

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Packing List

Your mileage may differ, but here is what I have settled on for my (revised) packing list. I’m happy for you to leave you constructive comments on anything I might have missed, or anything that you think was particularly worthwhile.

Backpack – Osprey 40-50 ltr, plus rain cover (medium)

Bum-bag – Active Leisure with two bottle pouches

Sleeping

  • padded sleeping bag liner (500g)
  • silk sleeping bag liner
  • blow up travel pillow (optional)

Clothes

  • one pair long trekking pants (and one to wear)
  • two merino base layers – long sleeve (and one to wear)
  • two pairs of hiking socks (and one to wear)
  • two pairs of sock liners (and one to wear)
  • one fleecy top long sleeve
  • one Goretex rain jacket
  • one pair waterproof overtrousers (optional)
  • one rain poncho (optional)
  • two pairs of mesh boxer shorts/underwear (and one to wear)
  • one sun hat
  • one merino beanie hat
  • one pair of gloves/cyclist fingerless gloves – for use with poles and/or for cold weather
  • one pair of ‘crocs’ sandals for evening wear
  • one pair of boots or trail runners – two sizes larger than your normal shoes

Trekking poles

  • one pair of poles – with rubber tips (NB: they are very cheap in most major towns along the Camino)

Water

  • your choice of water bottle, bladder or bottled water (the fountains are safe to drink from unless marked ‘agua non-potable’.)

Ablutions

  • one micro-fibre towel
  • one cake of solid shampoo
  • one bottle of toothpaste tablets
  • lightweight hair brush

Medicinals

  • tape and/or band-aids for blister care
  • antiseptic buds
  • sewing kit – needle and thread (for draining blisters)
  • ibuprofen (one card) painkillers
  • Imodium (one card) for upset stomach
  • vaseline
  • nail clippers
  • tweezers (in case of splinters or bee stings)
  • pocket pack of tissues
  • small sunblock lotion
  • hand sanitizer/wipes

Lavatory

  • one lightweight trowel (to bury one’s business)
  • some toilet tissue (in case of being caught short, or where toilet paper may be absent)
  • plastic bag – to dispose of used toilet tissue if used between formal toilets (don’t just leave it to blow around – bury it or carry it)

Tech (a personal choice)

  • phone with charging cable and plug (with Trek-Rite and Wise Pilgrim apps) and local SIM card or good roaming plan.
  • camera with charger and spare battery and SD cards
  • plug adapter
  • earphones
  • Headlamp (recommend 200 lumens)

Documents

  • Pilgrim credential
  • national passport
  • list of albergues with contact details and route/elevation chart (available at SJPdP)
  • visa card/wallet with some cash (ATMS not always available)

Utensils

  • lightweight knife and spork
  • corkscrew
  • 12 safety pins

Miscellaneous

  • Rock from home (for Cruz de Ferro)
  • notebook and pen (to exchange emails, make notes, record ideas etc)

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And that’s about it! Buen Camino 🙂

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If you’d like to read more about our Camino Frances in 2016, visit the index page here for all my Camino posts
or click on the link above 🙂

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12 Lessons I’ve learned on the Camino

It is now about 6 months since my wife and I completed our Camino Frances (time flies!), so it seems about time I took stock of some of the lessons I’ve learned and that I’ve gleaned from talking with other pilgrims. I have found most if not all of these to be things I’ve incorporated into my daily life.

Zero km marker
It’s important to know the ‘why’. This is one of the key lessons. Why do the Camino? I think this is the single most important factor in whether or not people complete their Camino. If you have that sorted, you will have what it takes to carry you through the hard bits – the difficult climb over the Pyrenees, or the long slog up to O Cebreiro, or to keep going when it’s raining and muddy underfoot and you are uncomfortable. It is all part of the journey. We met a few people who wound up not completing their Camino this time as they were not solid in why they were doing it, and so were unable to find the resolve within themselves to continue. It is unfortunate, and at least in one case, we were suffering our own doubts after crossing the Pyrenees and felt unable to provide the necessary encouragement for them to continue. In my case, at least part of the ‘why’ was to give thanks for a good life, and to take time out to consider my new life in retirement from the formal workforce – it is a big life change. Everyone’s reasons are different, but the key thing is the desire to see it through when the going gets tough. Anyone can walk for a day or two, but fatigue is cumulative and a walk that seems straightforward can prove challenging after 40 days. So the lessons around understanding why we want to do something will live with me for a long time to come, and it applies to everything we set our minds to do. This is not an original idea, it comes from a guy called Simon Sinek who summarises his key idea – ‘start with why’ – in this video.

We have too much ’stuff’. It seems pretty common that when people return from the Camino they begin decluttering. Ourselves included. Perhaps it comes from spending 6 weeks with nothing more than 2 changes of clothes, a backpack and a phone. And many people leave the phone behind. But the common thread is that you realise you just don’t need much stuff to get through life. There is a great wisdom about buying things – if you need it, buy the one best item you can afford. It will do the job well, last for years, and you will not be wasting energy and resources.

It’s about the relationships. In our daily lives, we dance around each other and there is a lot of ‘face’ maintaining activity as we get to know people. On the Camino we already have something in common – and we are reduced to our most basic appearance. We are removed from others’ expectations of who we are. In addition, we are removed from our expectations of others’ expectations of who we are. And this allows other aspects of our personality to come out. So it is easy to get real with people quickly. There is no time for long introductions, and our occupation or status is irrelevant – indeed those topics never arose. A casual conversation over coffee in Logroño quickly turned to why we were walking the Camino, where we were from, and who we are as people with questions of the meaning of life, observations of society and so on. The Camino has no time for bullshit. Several people we met briefly on the Camino remain in contact and are now firm friends. Although we each walk our own Camino, we have many fellow-travellers.

Dinner at Zariquiegui

The value of slow travel. We are walking across a country. What a privilege to be able to do that in our fast-paced world! I had read classic novels in which protagonists described a town as ’two days away’. I now know what that looks like. Every town is on a hill, so you start the day by descending, then crossing a valley, perhaps a hill or two, then you climb towards your destination. You look back and see the distant hills and think ‘I was there this morning – that’s what a day’s walk looks like’. And it is a great feeling. With life at walking pace, you see more, you hear more, you smell more and you touch more and above all you perceive more. And in the process you become more mindful of your surroundings. It is travel with all your senses. And you notice things – not just the sunrise over the mountains, but why that village is located there, and that piece of carved lintel that now forms part of a dry-stone wall.

dawn pilgrim

Forgiveness. There are several symbolic places at which there is a tradition of forgiveness – the Alto del Pardon (Mountain of forgiveness); the Cruz de Ferro – where you place a stone brought from home to represent your psychological baggage to be left behind at the cross, and so on. But what does this mean? I think it’s about having an opportunity to step outside our daily lives, and to learn to forgive yourself for all those failings you beat yourself up over. And it’s about tolerance and forgiveness of others. They have their journey to make, and like us they are only human with all the failings that that entails. The Camino is an opportunity to look into ourselves and find forgiveness for our own shortcomings, to take responsibility and to lighten up on ourselves and others.   

Alto del Perdon

Finding yourself. Some people talk about ‘finding’ themselves on the Camino. I wonder if it is more about ‘becoming’ yourself. I am yet to be convinced that there is somehow a core person wrapped up in onion layers waiting to be unwrapped and discovered, because that would imply that we are unchanging and unable to grow – a noun, rather than a verb. For me, identity is not an extractive industry buried under piles of tailings. Rather I see identity as a process of becoming. It is an additive process, built on the foundation of all the choices we have made through life to the present. Just as each step on the Camino takes us further along the path, or perhaps diverts us for a time, we are always actively engaged in becoming who we are. By virtue of engaging in such a journey, you are extending yourself, putting yourself out there – and in the process discovering more of the reserves you have within. In that sense, the Camino is truly a metaphor for life.

Cardeñuela

Real pilgrims don’t… judge other pilgrims. I heard several people say things like you’re not a ‘real’ pilgrim if you don’t carry your pack, or you take a bus across the Meseta, or talk or sing or whatever. I even saw a sign that said ‘pilgrims walk in silence’. I thought about adding a line to say ‘pilgrims don’t deface walls with judgemental sayings…’  Honestly, everyone walks their own Camino in their own way, and it is not up to others to judge. The author of the C11th Codex Calixtinus even talks about crossing the Meseta ‘of course by horse’. So I don’t think even they would have judged anyone for taking alternative transport at times. The only official requirement is to walk the last 100kms or bike the last 200kms. With or without a pack, it doesn’t matter.   

We are part of a long history. To undertake the Camino we are following in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims to Santiago. But we are also walking in Napoleon’s footsteps as he crossed the Pyrenees. And we are following Charlemagne’s footsteps as he sought to drive out the Moors. Here we walk through legends of El Cid and of Roland. But then you look down and realise you are walking on a Roman road – built 2000 years ago. we cross Roman and medieval bridges. But that is a drop in the ocean of time as we walk the flint hills used by neolithic farmers and paleolithic hunters and neanderthals and before them Homo Antecessor before even modern humans walked this land. It is land continuously occupied by hominids ancient and modern for 1.2 million years, even before Homo Sapiens existed. All these have walked beneath the river of stars. By walking the Camino we are writing ourselves into that history, taking our place in the story of Europe, and continuing the grand tradition. It is a personal story that we, in turn, will tell our children, our families and our friends. We too are pilgrims, and we walk our story.

Stone tools

People look out for each other. The Camino seems to attract a generally more altruistic kind of person, and we saw this demonstrated time and again. People would provide emotional support or would help out in practical ways – sharing food, or stomach settlers or advice on blister care, or where to find the best tortilla in Spain (thanks, Kristine). Several times we were brought to tears by the kindness of strangers – a blessing from a nun or seeing someone stay with an exhausted pilgrim left behind by their travelling companions. We saw countless small acts of kindness and compassion. After a lengthy career dealing with the very worst of human nature, the Camino restored my faith in humanity.

Learn to let go – sometimes things don’t go to plan, but there is usually a way to sort things out. There is a saying that ‘the Camino provides’. And that is true as long as you are open to what it provides. So one of the things we learned was to accept what happens and either put up with it or take action to resolve the situation.

Care of the self. Body lessons are vital. It is important to learn to listen to your own body and take note of potential problems. If you have a hot spot on your foot, treat it immediately – before it becomes a blister. If you are feeling exhausted or emotionally drained, give yourself a rest day. If necessary, take a bus or a cab to the next town, or have your pack carried forward by one of the backpack courier services, such as Xacotrans. People are generous on the Camino and always willing to help others in need. But to be able to help others, you also need to look after yourself. It is like the safety briefing on the plane – in the event of loss of oxygen, fit your mask to yourself before helping others – otherwise, you risk neither coming through. And the Camino repays this care with interest! We both lost weight – around 5kg each. But the big changes were internal. My cholesterol numbers were a bit high before I started the walk – the bad cholesterol was high and the good cholesterol was low. There are limited menu choices on the Camino so I ate the steak and chips and ice cream and drank the wine and had the cakes along the way. On my return, the numbers had completely reversed – so much so that my cholesterol was back well into the normal range. Walking is a very natural thing to do, but it was only when walking in a sustained way – more than an hour a day, did it become truly enjoyable, as though this is what the body is designed to do. By the end of the walk, we decided that we finally knew how to do the Camino, if only we could start over with the level of fitness and endurance we had at the end! And yes, on our return to Australia, my wife and I have both maintained a walking habit – which will prepare us well for our next Camino, and for our future travels.

tree tunnel

Learn to ask for help. This is something I’m not good at. We each walk our own Camino, but sometimes our own resources are not enough, and while I give help readily, I still find it difficult to ask for help – something I’m still working on.

There is no doubt that there are many other lessons to be found here, and as I reflect I will include them in future posts. And finally, a big thank you and hugs to all my Camino companions and friends – you have taught me so much and given so generously of your friendship. Buen Camino!
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If you’d like to read more about our Camino Frances in 2016, visit the index page here for all my Camino posts
or click on the link above 🙂

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Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂