Chapter 4: June 7, 2004
Well, I wouldn’t have believed it a few weeks ago, but here we actually are in St. Jean Pied de Port, the last town on the French side. That means we have walked about 560 km so far... not bad, when you consider the shape our legs were in after the first day. Tomorrow we cross over into Spain, via the pass up through the Pyrenees. That is the big Kahuna on this walk. Actually it is not so big, when you consider really high hills...lots of stuff in BC is higher. But it is still the climb that makes most pilgrims knees quake just thinking about it.
After a month of walking you get into a rhythm each day. We get up at 6am with the birds quite often, or if we are staying in a gite with a lot of other pilgrims, with the sound of rustling plastic and creaking limbs as the other earlybirds try to quietly get up. When so many people are sleeping in close quarters, getting up quietly is futile. Maybe one person can do it, but by the time the second person starts to get up and organized, everybody basically wakes up. There is a herd thing that naturally kicks in. You go to bed when the group does. You get up with the group.
If we have demi-pension, then breakfast is included, and we have told the hosts the night before what time we want to eat... coffee, the more the better (it comes in big bowls) and bread and jam. If we are in a more rustic gite, we get our own breakfast, usually a yogurt purchased the night before and a bit of bread. Then we go looking for coffee. Lately we have been starting earlier and earlier, to beat the heat that is settling in here. Bars and cafes do not open before 7am, so sometimes we have to go without the coffee, always a sad occurrence. We had a string of days where we could not get our morning coffee. Elena and I began hallucinating coffee mirages. “Oh LOOK! A café!” It would turn out to be a few umbrellas on somebodies’ deck.
We fill our water bottles, and start out on the way in the coolness of the morning. We look for the red and white stripes that mark the way. By about 10:30, we are usually hungry and have a bite of something, maybe bread and chocolate. We try to get to where we are going not too late in he day. So lunch ends up being about 12:30 - bread, chorizo, cheese (getting into the Basque brebis cheese lately!) and our staple of staples, chocolate. Our favourites are the dark chocolate with orange peel, and the milk chocolate with whole hazelnuts (what Elena calls the chocolate with the big nuts!)
When we get into the town where we are going, hopefully not much later than 2pm, we go to find our gite, or accommodations, and then tear off our shoes as fast as we humanly can. The last few km, the shoes usually become instruments of torture. The other day, we had lunch by a mountain stream. I took my shoes and socks off and put my feet in the water, which was bone-chillingly cold. I got an ice-cream headache in my feet! But the next few km of walking sure were easier, cooled down that way. I couldn’t even feel my feet! In any case, the next thing that happens for us is laundry and showers. We wash socks and stuff... we have so few clothes that we cannot leave it even for a day. Then we usually bazzz out for a while. Lying down at that point is pure heaven.
If there is a good church in the town we are in, I might go to play and record. It is an extra effort, but it is invigorating as well. When I am in a sacred space, I let the place dictate the music I will play. I am doing a bunch of improvising, and a few of my older melodies, like the Lord’s Prayer, which sounds perfect in a lot of these churches. New pieces are also evolving... very prayerful and meditative. It will be strange playing another kind of music after this. When I play, we are often alone in the church. It is hard to record when many people are moving in and out of the space. The other day, we stumbled upon a wonderful Romanesque abbey called Sauvelade, and the acoustics were perfect. There was nobody there, so I set up and started to play. FANTASTIC sound. Then a few pilgrims came and went, and a few more. I played a bit for the ones who stayed and enjoyed it, and then had a long stretch of quiet. I had just started playing “A Million Stars”, when a large troupe of pilgrims walked into the church. They were older, about 25 of them, and I guess the last thing they were expecting was music. In any case, they quietly filed into the church and sat down in the pews, as if they were there for the concert. So I kept playing for them, and segued into “How Heart Came Into the World”. The singing bits sounded terrific, and for the final part, when it fades away, I slowly walked out of the church and closed the door behind me. Spontaneous applause! I hadn’t meant to give a concert, but there it was, spontaneous mini-concert in the middle of the woods in a Romanesque abbey somewhere in Southwestern France! There have been a few friendly playing opportunities like that, among small groups in gites, or restaurants. I never know when it will happen. One lovely evening was in a place called Montreal du Gers. We just had to stay there because of the name. The proprietor of the place, Marie Pierre, was the epitome of warm and welcoming hospitality. And with the good food, and the mix of people there that night, it seemed a perfect time to play. The dog also loved it. He sang along on everything!
A lot of the journey is marked by the people we meet along the way. We tend to see many of the same pilgrims again and again, all threading their way to Santiago. We generally move the same speed, when you average it out. Some days more, and some days less. And you learn that just because someone says they walk 30 km a day, does not mean they really do! Many people were talking that talk, but we would see them again and again. Of course there are the hardcore 35-40km walkers. You see them once and they are gone. But even then, they sometimes take a day off, and then you do run into them again.
An odd thing is that with many of the people you meet and talk to here, even if you have a long and involved conversations in the evening around the supper table, you do not exchange names. It is as though people doing this pilgrimage are leaving part of themselves behind – the part that had status, identity in society, etc. They are becoming purely pilgrims. It should be said that a lot of those pilgrims are older men, recently retired, who are walking their office blues away.
Some pilgrims, for better or for worse, you see only once. There was Leon, the snore bore. He came into a gite right after us on a rainy day, and made a huge fuss about getting a private room, or if not that, being assured that nobody would snore! Well, the Camino was obviously the wrong place for him. He actually kicked up such a fuss that a much older gentleman (who had walked 45 km that day!!) offered to sleep in the kitchen on a mattress, because he knew he snored. Well, when Leon went to the washroom at night, he turned on all the lights in the kitchen, kicked over chairs, etc and made the hugest noise imaginable. And he coughed all night long and kept everybody awake. The older gentleman had a sense of humour about it the next morning, but swore revenge if he ever met Leon in a gite again. The funny thing is, although we only met Leon once, we bumped into about a half dozen people who had had snoring related encounters with him. He was not making a lot of friends on the Camino! (Talking about snoring, I am building up quite a collection of recordings of people snoring. There are some pretty outrageous snorers out there...but of course not me! Never!)
There is Michel, a very charming retired French doctor, who is doing the Camino because he figures he has had such a charmed and happy life, that he wants to reflect on it and give thanks. I am sure that his life was stress, beepers, emergencies, etc. But now, he has a very Zen attitude. He walks every day, not booking accommodations, living simply and in the moment. We have shared some good walking time with Michel. He always says “Now, I am living!”
One of our favourite personalities is Pascal le Routard... Pascal the road dog. We met him, lean and cocky, with a rooster painted on the Coquille hanging from his pack. He was little confused about the way, and as we had a map and he didn’t, we set him straight and then shared a bit of road. Turns out that had Pascal lost his wife and kid in an accident, then his mother died, then he got fired. He decided to walk to Santiago to pray for everybody. Then he was going to walk home. Then he was going to walk to Rome, and somewhere else... I forget where! So he set out in the true spirit of pilgrimage, with not a penny in his pocket, walking every day, praying, living on the kindness of strangers. He would ask for alms at a Sunday mass to get a bit more money, and do odd jobs for people or pick a bit of fruit or seasonal vegetables for food when he could. In fact, it was during our walk with Pascal that we found (and enjoyed) our first of several wild cherry trees! He had very high ethical standards, and said he never stole anything, but would always ask. People were kind to him... people were also mean. In one village, a priest turned him away when he asked for a bit of bread and water. But Pascal kept going. We gave him food and money. Then we had some doubts as to the veracity of his hard luck tale – was he a smooth talking scoundrel with a gift of the gab. But later we saw him in the grocery store, buying good nourishing food and razors for himself. The next day we caught up to a freshly shaven Pascal who couldn’t stop talking about the fantastic feed he had had the night before. Pascal obviously had not eaten in some time! Now, whenever it looks like we may miss a meal, or go without something, we raise a toast (of water) to Pascal and wish him well. He passed us on the road some time ago, but he is fond of writing little notes to all the pilgrims and to the world in general. So we can keep track of his progress as we walk. I am sure he is cheering himself up. We found one friendly invitation written on a stump, inviting pilgrims to sit down and rest. Then, in another church, there was a rather desperate note from Pascal, who was not doing well. After that – nothing for days. We were worried about him. But just the other day, there was a more chipper note, and we figure he is eating again. Wish him well, wherever he may be! An interesting thing about Pascal was that from one perspective he could be seen as a homeless bum. But in fact he was a man with a plan – not only one but three pilgrimages to keep him going. And he had rigorous ethical standards that he applied to himself and others. I would say that in many ways he probably was more together and mentally healthy than a fair few who have houses and jobs and families. I think that is why he was so fascinating to us. The superficial picture and the deeper reality were at odds.
Then there were the cult guys in Uzan. Uzan was by far the most rustic accommodation we had on the entire trip. Uzan was tiny – just a few houses. But the large sign “You are entering Uzan” was about 4 km before the village. It was like Timmins! We had called ahead to reserve spots in this gite that was listed as ‘spartan’. Well, when we showed up, it turned out to be some floor space at the town hall, and a few foamies to sleep on. No shower. No food. The mayor let us in, gave us the key, and told us to shove it in the flower box the next morning! There were two bearded and somewhat hyper men in sackcloth shirts who were just getting their picture taken as we arrived. They invited us in for a picture. They told us they were doing the camino, but in reverse. When the mayor gave us the key, she said “Look out for those guys – they are from a cult twenty miles down the road. They have been chatting up all of the young girls in town (all three of them) and handing out pamphlets. Les cochons!” We thought that it might be good not to share our humble accom’s with the cult guys from Navvarenx. So we decided to scare them off. Peter and I got the blue ponchos, and put them around our heads like Babushka scarves. We told them we were from the cult of the blue cow. Then we started mooing, and I began doing Mongolian throat singing. The cult guys pretty much high tailed it out of there. They did try to give us pamphlets, though. To celebrate their departure, Peter and I played a messy game of floor hockey on the enormous town hall floor with an empty pate tin.
Now wish us luck, as we do the knee-crunching mountain stage tomorrow. We will probably get up at 4:30 AM, so that we don’t have to deal with the baking heat. Next time I write, we will be in Spain, where the accommodations are said to be much more simple, and the snorers are louder, and where we will be probably looking back on France as the lap of luxury!