Chapter 2: May 15, 2004
Well, the adventure has started. We are in a remote part of France on day ten of the big walk, the Camino de Santiago, known as the Chemin St. Jacques here in France. I have been surprised how remote this area feels. There are many villages, but most consist of a few houses, some adjacent farms, and no stores. Lots of cows (I talk to them.) Most definitely no internet cafes! I had had the naïve idea that I would be sending daily reports from the road. Right! It is day ten, and this is the first opportunity I have had to email anything.
The alternate name of this walk could be The Phenomenology of Pain. Every day, something else hurts terribly. The most critical thing is of course the feet and the knees. You could say, this is two months of showing your legs who is the boss (turns out they are!). In any case, we have got into a routine of getting up around 6 or 7 in the morning and walking about 20 km or so before we find a pilgrims hostel (called a gite), and collapse for a wee rest. Our packs and boots have come off, we have showered, and, at least for the first few days, our main concern at this point is drying off our wet clothing and gear. Often we pass out at this point in the bunk beds. We are just not used to all of that fresh air and exertion, not to mention the pain. Sometime later in the afternoon, someone from the establishment comes by to collect our money and stamp our pilgrims’ passports. We obtained our passports after a bit of a tussle with some snitty nuns at Conques, but these passports can be obtained in advance as well. They contain some official business about conduct and comportment, a stamp from the place you start, and many empty spots for subsequent stamps.
If we are lucky, there is a pilgrims’ meal. Always at 7:30 pm. Seems you can set your watch by it in France. They know that pilgrims get incredibly hungry and so these meals are a deal. Usually they are 5 course affairs... soup, appetizers, main course, cheese and dessert, with a bottle of wine included, for 10 euros. Believe me, at that point in the day we have worked for it and we dig in heartily, even the girls, who had it in the back of their minds to walk hard and lose a little weight. Oh well...
We started our trip in a beautiful little place called Entrayques on the Truyere River. The friendly host at the hotel told us which way to walk to get to our first destination of Espeyrac. Unfortunately, he confidently told us the wrong way. It was supposed to be a short first day of 10 km. After we had walked straight up a hill for 9 km and got rained and hailed on numerous times, we found that we were now 11 km away from our destination. In other words, the morning’s efforts had resulted in a distance of negative 1 km. Call it training!
It has been one of the coldest years on record here in France. For a week before we arrived, there had been flooding – on the train trip down from Toulouse, we saw many washed out roads. Now we are mostly freezing. The weather changes 20 or 30 times a day. You can sometimes just stand in one spot and change your clothes for a half hour or so. As the hot sun came out you peel off things. By the time you are done it starts pouring again, so you get out the rain gear. Ahhhh, nice and dry. Whoa - here comes the sun again... You get the picture. Everywhere is drenched. Paths have become burbling streams. Most of the first six days, we were walking through heavy slime, usually up and down large hills. It is actually surprising that no one slipped and broke their neck. But it would not be a pilgrimage if there were not some measure of suffering involved, I suppose.
We came into the medieval town of Conques in a brief bout of sunshine after a couple of days of rain. Wow, what a place. My friend Peter has been raving about it for years, and he was right... it is spectacular. In the evening we went in for an advertised organ concert; suddenly, a large group of French school children walked in. (I knew there had to be locusts; there was every other kind of tribulation after all!) The kids lined up and started singing prepared pieces. It got quite surreal when the music they sang was “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”! Rather than being a proper concert it was the funky friar who is part of the monastic order there giving a demonstration for the kids. He was obviously enjoying himself, laying on a bit of “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “The House of the Rising Sun”. After people started leaving, we decided to get my fiddle and the recording gear and to try to sneak in. Remarkably, the doors were open and no one was there It was ten pm. I set up the recording gear and I played for an hour in the candlelit church. The audience was my three travel companions and many dimly lit saints. It was pure magic. I was not just playing my violin in this church; I was playing the church itself with my violin. It felt like the largest instrument I had ever played. Playing a note was like sounding a gong. The sound bloomed out of the first attack, and then subsided only slowly. My violin filled that place remarkably.
The next morning, we actually met the funky friar Frere Jean Daniel who had been entertaining the children the night before. I had also played in the church in the morning; he heard about it, and was very disappointed to have missed it. As we were leaving the square, he intercepted us, white robes flapping in the breeze, a pile of sheet music in his hands. He said “So – you are the violinist... I brought some music we could play together.” I told him my thing was more improvisation, and he jumped right on that - “Let’s improvise!” Wow – an improvising liturgical organist. What a rare beast! So in we went again and had us a jam session... fiddle and organ, him upstairs, and me downstairs. We improvised for about 25 minutes. I walked around the whole space while Frere Jean Daniel was standing at the organ above, leaning into it.
One of the people in the church at the time was an old fellow, who got out his cell and started checking messages and intently operating his phone. I thought “How rude. There is obviously music going on, and this is a church, and do you HAVE to do your phone thing right here?” Then I realized that the man was following me around with the phone held in the air. Turns out he had called his relatives in Portugal and was excitedly sharing our music with them. He was forgiven, although it was still pretty weird to be followed by somebody pointing a cell phone at me like a space beam from planet 9.
The next good playing session I had was in a much smaller place called Faycelles. We got there about noon, and had a bread, cheese and chocolate kind of lunch in front of the church. The church was modest but looked acoustically promising, and we decided to stay for a playing session. This was not as spontaneous and easy as it sounded. My violin was deep in my rucksack, and to play, I had to empty out my pack entirely – which meant of course repacking from scratch every time when I had finished. I got really good at packing. The violin was inside the sleeping bag, inside a plastic bag, surrounded by clothes and gear, all in more plastic bags. That meant that unpacking was not a slick operation – it was messy, the rustling of gear and bags was noisy, and I was prone to strewing underwear or socks in the general area if I was not careful.
Afterwards, the parish priest came and invited us to his place for a drink. Pere Alain Delbos loved an appreciative audience, and that day, we were lucky enough to be it. He was the most amazing Renaissance man. His place was more of an estate than a house, properly speaking. It was perched in the prime spot over looking the beautiful Cele valley. I half expected knights on caparisoned horses to ride up. The place included a restored 15th century manor house, a tower and the house where he had been born and raised, with its balcony looking over the valley. He showed us all of that, and his fossils, and the medieval manor he had restored, and his family wine cellar... and on and on and on. He kept thinking of another thing he could show us.
Terrific! I’m sure we could have stayed with him that night, but we had it in our heads that we had to press on and get to Beduer, which we thought was a good 10km away (In fact it was only 2!) So we hobbled the last few miles that day and slept in a very rustic gite – basically a converted horse barn. Swallows flew in and out, you could smell the horses... I think they removed the manure, washed the floor and put in bunk beds – that was about it. One of the other pilgrims wore battle fatigues, many gold chains, and did a lot of pushups. We secretly called him Rambo. He left the next morning at about 4am, turned all the lights on, and generally made a ruckus. Oh, what the long-suffering pilgrim has to put up with! Peter got into bed that night, and no sooner were the lights out, when Peter came crashing through his bed to the floor. He actually tried to repair his bed by flashlight; when he crashed through the frame the second time, everybody in the hostel was giggling, even Rambo! When Peter complained the next morning, the proprietor just told him he was too big! No mercy for the pilgrim!
Chez EricThe next day, we had a real problem because there was no food to be had. On Mondays and certain holidays French stores are simply CLOSED. For love or money you cannot buy anything after noon, food included. We optimistically stopped in a hamlet called Corn, but there was no corn in Corn. So we gnawed on our last scrap of bread and chocolate and limped on, convincing ourselves that we were not hungry. At a certain point, the path was unclear and we asked a local. WELL! He invited us in and gave us the best lunch ever. He was a friendly Belgian called Eric, retired from the Christian Metalworkers Union. He kept thinking of more food he could bring out. It was heaven. Then he provided us with baseball caps and ponchos from the Christian Metalworkers Union and even got a rustic walking stick for Peter. I ended up playing the fiddle after lunch as well. Unexpected things really do happen here all the time.
Life is very basic in a lot of ways. You just want to survive until the next destination. Then you want food. A lot of food. And you want not to have blisters, and you want a good nights sleep so you can do it all over again in the morning. But the scenery is spectacular and incredibly varied. They sure pack a lot into this little country. That is why the French are so proud of it, I guess!
That is all for now, folks. Wish us luck, and dry feet, and lots of flat stretches...