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The Camino Journal

Chapter 3: May 28, 2004

Well, many more kilometers under our belts, and almost a month on the road, so it is time for another chapter of the great walk chronicle. The Camino (Chemin St. Jacques in France), is indicated by little red and white stripes, on poles, on the side of the road, anywhere. One gets good at spotting those little marks. On maps it appears as GR65. GR stands for Grand Randonee, which means Big Hike.

Let me mention a few things. First of all, even when I can get to a internet cafe, which are few and far between, the French keyboards are different than the North American ones. So I have to type by feel and then replace all of the wrong letters. But of course, now I am getting somewhat used to the French keyboards, so everything tends to be a dog’s breakfast when I am finished typing.

There are two subjects that pilgrims spend a great deal of time talking about. Feet and food. Feet, because that is the part of your body that actually touches the country, repeatedly, many thousands of times in fact. Food, because after all we are in France and food is a big deal here. And I have to say, after all of that walking we are all building up a healthy appetite.

One thing about the lovely food we are getting.... vegetables are not part of the French concept. All least in the hearty country fare we are eating. So whenever we can get a vegetable or a salad, we are delighted. And the other thing about vegetables is, when we eat all of those French baguettes and cheese and heavy stuff like that, you get, how do I say it delicately – bunged up! So veggies are a welcome relief in many ways. Another thing about the French food experience is that the French ALWAYS eat at 7: 30 PM. Always. You can set your watch by it. The other thing I want to mention is French breakfasts. They just don’t have the concept here. For supper, if you are lucky, you get a huge five course meal with wine for about 10 Euros. Then the next morning breakfast, which consists of a bowl of coffee and a few slices of stale bread and a bit of jam – for 5 Euros; What’s wrong with this picture? I have figured out that if you want to really do well in Europe, food-wise, you need to have breakfast in England, 4pm cake and coffee in Germany, and supper in France!

Sometimes we are in a place with a kitchen where we cook our own food. The first time we were in a place like that, we went to a food store and went crazy on the vegetables. We were about to pay at the checkout, when I went back for a luxury – balsamic vinegar. I know backpackers are not supposed to carry glass bottles, but I simply could not resist the thought of fresh tomatoes with garlic and vinegar. Ahhhh. So then I was carrying that bottle.

FRED’S BRAIN

The other thing we got that day was pasta. We made WAY too much. (In fact, one of the amusing situations that came up again and again on this walk is watching Elena try to cook a small amount of food, just enough for four of us for one meal. Almost an impossible feat for her. Those of you who know her will appreciate the humour in this). The next morning, there was this mountain of left over pasta. I could not bear to throw it out, and I also happen to love fried noodles. My mom used to make them (hint: it is a BDS... a Butter Delivery System. Use lots of butter!) So I put the noodles in a plastic bag; Peter said, that looks like somebody’s brain. Almost immediately, a legend grew about Fred, and how although Fred had died, we were carrying Fred’s brain on the Camino. So into the backpack it went. Fred, the story goes, had bequeathed all of his chocolate to us if we would carry his brain on the pilgrimage. (Because chocolate is another staple food for us. We try to make sure always to have at least 4 or 5 bars on hand. Just in case... of virtually anything!)

So we set out, me carrying the balsamic vinegar and Fred’s brain. We had just finished a variant of the Camino along the valley of the Cele River. Spectacular gorges, steep cliffs, houses built right into the rock... all in all a fabulous few days. Gorges mean steep uphill climbs, which I was doing with Fred’s brain securely weighing down my backpack. We arrived that day at a preserved medieval fortress town called St Cyr Lapopie. It was beautiful but quite touristy. The gite we were staying in had a kitchen and – lo and behold, some BUTTER someone had left in the fridge. How good does it get! So the next morning we went to fry Fred’s brain. THE KITCHEN WAS LOCKED!!! Foiled!! But then I found someone with a key, and we were able to make this delicacy. My travel companions were skeptical, but everyone enjoyed dead Fred’s fried head! But we vowed never to carry cooked pasta around again.

The balsamic vinegar had a long life. In another town, I found a small bottle of olive oil, another luxury. Then Elena had the brilliant idea of putting the left over oil in the vinegar bottle. When you wanted salad dressing, you shook the bottle. Otherwise, you let them separate and just poured off the oil for frying. A little later, I added a whole bunch of left over garlic into the bottle. With the slow shaking and baking action of our daily walk, the garlic diffused its marvelous flavour into the bottle. A little later yet, I found some wild rosemary. I put some of that in the bottle as well. In the last few days, the bottle finally got sacrificed into some very tasty salads.

Around here, they eat huge quantities of duck. Foie Gras, roast duck, pate... These are ducks that have been force fed to fatten them up. It seems that almost every restaurant menu includes some duck. This appears to be a specialty of the Southwest.

HEAL HEEL!

I thought that somebody could make a tourist attraction called CAMINO! It would be a theme ride in the tradition of Disney. On the ride you would be on a treadmill, with a 360° movie of beautiful landscape playing all around you. Fans would blow the most amazing medley of smells in your direction, while somebody repeatedly hit your feet with a 2x4. You would be under heat lamps the whole time, but every once in a while, someone would throw a bucket of cold water on you. CAMINO! EXPERIENCE THE WONDER! FEEL THE PAIN!

Peter said the other day “Actually, the Camino is really easy, apart from the walking and carrying your pack!” That about sums it up.

Pilgrims are constantly talking about and obsessing over their feet. You could say, we have sore feet. But that does not do justice to the almost infinite variety of foot pains we humans can actually experience. It seems like EVERY PART of our feet is capable of feeling a large variety of intense pain. So you start trying to figure out if there is anything you can buy to ease those pains even a little bit. Elena suffered massive blisters from her orthotics. She laughed at me for getting two different kinds of shock absorbing insoles in a place called Cahors. Now she is a preferred customer of ‘The Pharmacies of France’! I am sure that pharmacists call ahead to the next village to give the pharmacists there a heads up about this pilgrim who will gladly pay a king’s ransom for a little foot relief. “Ahhhh oui, Madame, you arrrr zee customeure about vee haff hearrrrd!!! Entrez, entrez!”

Thankfully, some of the purchases have paid off in terms of blister relief.

IT’S CHAUD TIME!

At the beginning, we complained a lot about the cold, the rain, the hail, etc. Then suddenly, it got hot - very hot; but it was not as hot as last summer, thankfully. Last summer the temperatures got up to the high 50’s. That is life threatening, and many older people did die. But it is hot enough for pilgrims with blisters. Now we try to get up at about 6am, to be on the road by 7. If it gets warmer, which it probably will in Spain, we will make that earlier. I love to sleep in as much as the next guy, but it is just much harder to walk in the heat of the day. If we start early, we can more or less get to where we are going by not much after lunch. Then we can put our feet up, tend to our blisters, do our laundry, and attend to other details before 7:30 (suppertime) rolls around.

MUSIC, MOISSAC

I have managed to get into quite a few larger or smaller churches to play. There was St. Sernin du Bosc, a tiny chapel in a forest clearing... very basic, with no closed windows. So there the sound included the many birds and insects of the neighbourhood. Occasionally, there is an acoustically beautiful church, but they have piped in recorded music – that is always a great frustration for me. It feels as though the space by itself was not sufficient – they had to pep it up with a soundtrack. I have found this very bothersome... At the grand end of things, there was the Cathedral in Moissac, a fantastic grand space with an echo time of about 4 seconds. It was there that this whole adventure started, actually. Years ago, Peter and Diane were at Moissac, when they heard someone playing his flute in the church. They listened, and later met this man eating his pilgrim lunch by the cathedral steps. They talked, and it turned out he was on the Camino de Santiago, and was trying to play in as many places as he could. Peter came back from that trip and told me about the experience. He said “Wouldn’t it be great if you could do something like that with your fiddle one day.” And the plan was born. So it seemed particularly important and appropriate to play in Moissac. We had the name of a Father high in the church hierarchy there. I got to see him, but I also happened to wake him up from his afternoon nap. He was grumpy. But he suggested that the morning would be the best time to play (We were hoping of course that he would let us in after closing at night!). So the next morning, it was into the cathedral for an impromptu concert. The sun streamed through the windows as I played, and the whole experience was magic.

Later that day, we were eating a celebratory supper in a restaurant that had been recommended to us by a local butcher (it seems that he had lived and worked in Montreal for a while, and knew Guy LaFleur!) The menu in this restaurant sadly was not enough to feed hungry pilgrims, let alone Guy LaFleur. It was a namby-pamby nouvelle French cuisine place; that basically means that the plates are HUGE and the portions are TINY. This is so that there is a lot of place left over on the plate for the chef to do groovy garnish and sauce paintings. Jackson Pollock, look out! In case you chefs are listening, I say “Bring on the piles of food, and do your painting at home, ok?”

The evening’s excitement was provided by a fantastic thunderstorm, which continued throughout all of the meal and our walk back to our hotel. When we got home, we found - OOOPS - we had left the window open! When we stepped on the broadloom carpet, it actually splashed up like a puddle. And everybody except me had left their shoes out on the balcony to air out. Much mopping, drying, wringing out, and toweling went on that night!

Right now, we are taking a rest day in a place called Aire sur l’Adour. The hateful thing about this place is that they have the whole town wired up with speakers; all day long they blast Celine Dion and Euro dance mixes at you. You simply cannot get away from it. It is like being surrounded by a cloud of poisonous gas. Give me the blisters and the foot pain any old day!

In parting, the pilgrim’s toast: ULTREIA It means something like, you can go on, you can go farther... you can make it. And this is what I will now attempt to do.