As an à la carte spirit, I have an aversion to package deals. I’d rather do my own selecting, thank you. Yet I recently had to put my à la carte attitude aside to attend an Aikido “summer camp” in Montreal, taught by master Christian Tissier. The venue, a private college, didn’t excite me, although the photograph of a brightly lit dormitory room looked decent. The camp organizers called it a “high standing facility” which my brain, in a moment of optimism, translated as “renovated.”
The registration form for campus housing allowed a person to select vegetarian or regular meals. These choices signaled that cafeteria staff weren’t familiar with gluten intolerance and that the food might be more institutional than innovative. I considered finding another place to stay so I would have more control over my diet and, therefore, my energy level. But that would have meant commuting to the college and shopping for groceries, leaving me less time to relax between classes. What to do? I e-mailed the organizers about gluten-free options. After a few days, I received a reply that the kitchen could accommodate my request, but could I bring my own bread? Sure. I also packed snacks and some of my favorite teas.
I arrived late on a Wednesday afternoon, just in time to sign in, receive my welcome packet of a t-shirt and chocolates, and bring my luggage to the dorm before dinner. My assigned room, with exposed pipes, drab grey furnishings, a broken desk lamp and a heavy door whose lock clicked ominously, reminded me of a cell, somewhere between prison and convent. A voice in my head said, “I can’t stay here.”
With nowhere to go, I needed to reconfigure who “I” was in the moment. To reset, I looked out the windows and felt the breeze on my face. With dinner approaching, I didn’t have time to dwell on the disconnect between a stellar teacher and a sub-par setting. I made my way down several linoleum covered corridors to a cavernous dining hall, where half a dozen other Aikido folks sat at a table near the cafeteria. I grabbed a tray and pushed it by the various stations, most of which had desserts or processed food I can’t eat. At the hot food section, a man filled a plate for me with barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables. As I handed over my meal ticket, the kitchen manager told me I could either have what they served or they’d make me a gluten-free plate for lunch and dinner. I just had to ask. For breakfast, I’d need to bring bread.
As we ate, one man commented that the cashier wouldn’t allow him to take a cookie and fruit. We laughed. It didn’t matter they had prepared more food than we could eat and not everyone took a cookie, either. Dinner ended quickly because our first Aikido class started at 7pm. After that workout, I showered in the shared bathroom. The tired, tiled stalls lacked lighting, perhaps to discourage students from lingering. Without being able to see much, I had no desire to take my time. As I toweled off in the cramped space, I mentioned the darkness to another Aikido camper.
“At least there is water pressure,” she said. “Last year, there was no water pressure.”
She must have enjoyed the Aikido enormously to have returned to the dreary dorm. As I put on my pajamas, someone knocked at my door. One of the organizers had a question. Then, he showed me how to open a small window above my door for cross ventilation.
“Last year,” he said, “we had people who stayed across the hall and they were very hot. Your side of the building is cooler, so we made sure to only put people on this side.”
“Thank you,” I said. I appreciated his kindness. Indeed, everyone on the organizing team had been friendly and welcoming.
It wasn’t until I hung my sweaty uniform by the window to air it out that I found a context for the situation. Suddenly, I was back on El Camino de Santiago, draping my clothing across a bunkbed in a charmless room. Indeed, if I had been assigned a private room with a mirror and sink during my pilgrimage, I probably would have been ecstatic, not dispirited. Perhaps the online photo had planted a seed I shouldn’t have let bloom in my imagination. That is one reason why, when I walked El Camino, I didn’t read about what I’d be seeing in the upcoming days. I wanted to be surprised and to take things as they came, rather than suffer disappointment after a buildup. Would the same strategy have worked here? Before going to sleep I took a closer look at the t-shirt I’d received. The front featured the sponsoring dojo’s logo. An illustration of an Aikidoka holding a bokken, a wood training sword, graced the back. The shape of the figure wearing traditional Japanese flared trousers, and the position of the sword, reminded me of a cloaked pilgrim with a walking stick. I chuckled.
The next morning, I brought bread and some of my favorite tea to breakfast. I took a tray and got some hot water from a machine, one that also dispensed coffee, then selected some fresh fruit. The female food server asked me if I wanted scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns. I told her I’d have eggs and hash browns only. The fellow behind me asked for another helping of bacon. The server refused.
“He can have mine,” I said. “I didn’t take any.”
She shook her head. At the table, we rolled our eyes and made light of it. What else to do in the face of institutional irrationality? At dinner that night, someone said he wasn’t allowed to have juice, a bottle of water and a soup.
“Is there a quota on liquids?” I asked. “I wonder what they would do if someone only wanted to eat three pieces of cake for dinner. What would happen?”
Everyone burst into laughter. Camaraderie – 1. Cuisine – 0.
“I don’t want to be the one to try,” said an organizer, someone who could easily defend himself if attacked physically. How could a table of practicing martial artists be cowed by cafeteria staff? It’s as if we’d been turned into children, helpless in the face of rigid rules. It turned out that the guidelines for a “complete meal” had been posted in tiny print, in a poorly lit area, by the cafeteria entrance. In short, it said: you can have this or that, but not this AND that. What adult would expect to see such a thing?
The next morning, trying to sustain lightheartedness in the drab building, I ferried my bread and bag of green tea to the dining hall. I took a tray and prepared to get a paper cup for my tea. The elixir of life, a.k.a. the machine that dispensed coffee and hot water, had vanished. I panicked. What would I do without my tea? As I chose a yogurt from the refrigerated section, I noticed hot drink cups stacked by an electric urn in a different location. There was just one urn. It dispensed coffee only.
“Est-ce qu’il ya de l’eau chaud?” I asked the cafeteria worker in a feeble French accent.
“Non,” she said, without a smile or an apology.
“Really,” I repeated. “There is no hot water?”
“No.” She pursed her lips. “They took the machine.”
That hot water is something a kitchen could prepare without a special machine didn’t occur to them. I brought my breakfast (more scrambled eggs) to the table. I mentioned that I could not believe they did not have hot water. Someone suggested I heat water in one of the half dozen microwave ovens outside the dining hall entrance; that hadn’t occurred to me. It might sound strange, but tea made with water brought slowly to a boil has a fuller flavor than a tea bag steeped in nuked water. In the amount of time it took me to walk out of the cafeteria, heat the water and return to my seat, my eggs had turned cold. Aside from the bread I brought, which I could not toast in the cafeteria, there wasn’t much to eat. The small yogurts had too much sugar. The greasy bacon and sausage didn’t tempt me. I needed calories before vigorous morning practice. I needed a Plan B.
I found a supermarket. I bought plain yogurt, bananas, a wedge of brie, and real jam and stored them in a kitchen down the corridor from my room. Unlike the cafeteria, it had a toaster I could use. And a gentle breeze. Along my pilgrimage, the fresh air often washed away a difficult experience or a sleepless night. The same turned out to be true on my Aikido Camino. Sometimes little things make a big difference.
P.S. Our final dinner, at a downtown restaurant with exquisite food, felt redemptive.