For most of us just getting through our busy days is an achievement. Our goals are limited by jobs, child rearing, housekeeping, money and that eternal taskmaster: time. Our plans are mundane: holidays and home improvements. Our wildest dreams extend only as far as winning the lottery, or some other random gift of luck. For most of us that is enough. For some of us, however, these daily challenges are not enough. My friend Anja is one of those people whose dreams extend beyond the daily grind. She also dreams of winning the lottery. It’s what she would do with it that is different. That and the fact that she isn’t going to wait for her lucky ticket to get out there and make her dreams a reality.
Anja is a musician, singer and teacher who started playing at the age of four. If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, then it is no surprise that Anja moves audiences’ hearts and minds when she plays her harp. I’m sure she had a natural talent for music, but it’s the hours of practice and playing – on stage, in public squares, markets, nursing homes, and hospitals, as well as yoga and meditation centres – that make her the accomplished artist that she is. Anja is a familiar figure around West Cork (and all over Ireland) walking with ‘Sean’ the harp strapped to her back, or playing on the streets of our towns.
You would think that would be enough. But Anja and Sean needed bigger challenges, so in 2010 they set out from Clonakilty and headed out of town, powered only by Anja’s strong legs and Sean’s golden notes. The ferry to Roscoff was the only form of public transportation that they took on their journey as they travelled through France and Spain. Anja and Sean walked for nearly four months, over 2500km to Santiago de Compostela. The goal was to walk and play every day like the travelling harpers of old, as they followed the ancient pilgrim paths.
That would be enough for most of us, but as soon as Anja got home she started talking about her next trip: walking to Rome. The old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” certainly applies to Anja and Sean, but they have subtly changed it to: “How do you get to Rome? One step at a time!” This time the challenge is greater still: 3,200km through Ireland, Wales, England, France, Switzerland and Italy; following three ancient pilgrimage paths. Anja expects to be on the road for five months. That’s five months carrying Sean (10kg) and a back pack containing only the bare essentials (another 10 kg maximum!). As is the tradition with travelling musicians and pilgrims, Sean and Anja will be playing for their supper and a bed for the night, relying on donations and the kindness of strangers.
There are less than 1000 people who have walked to Rome since the 1980s when Canterbury cathedral started keeping modern records. As you might expect, there are not many women who have walked alone, either to Rome or over the Alps. Anja may well be the first female harper to ever cross the Alps on foot. She is certainly the first woman from West Cork – but not the first person – to have walked to Rome. Days before she left she discovered that in 1492 blessed Thaddeus McCarthy had also made the pilgrim’s voyage. There is also a story that Lady Carberry travelled over the alps, though it was with an ox and cart, following Hannibal’s, not the pilgrim’s path.
Anja has been surprised and delighted at the support she has received as word of her trip spread through out West Cork and beyond, from money and places to stay; to radio interviews, and offers to play from yoga centres to music venues.
Last Saturday, March 24, friends and family gathered in O’Donovan’s hotel to have a last cup of coffee and a hug before Anja and Sean took off. Some walked the first leg to Timoleague with them. I preferred to go only as far as the town’s edge to wave good bye to my brave and strong friend, who has shown me that sometimes you just need a destination and the determination to take that first step – and the one after that. As Anja says: One step at a time.
If you would like to follow Anja and Sean as they walk to roam you can get all the news and updates on social media: