The purpose of this travelogue is to give readers an idea what it was like for me to walk part of the Le Puy Route and what it might be like for them. I’ll be happy if people follow in my footsteps. Long-distance walking is healthy (unless you fall down), kind to the environment (unless you litter), on the cheap side (unless you insist on luxury). I have much clearer memories of travel where my feet have provided transportation rather than a machine. If I spend an entire morning walking through a forest, the look and smell and feel of it sinks in more deeply than if I’d zoomed up to a viewpoint in a car, spent ten minutes looking around, then zoomed away. Long-distance walks like the Le Puy Route, with its opportunities to share lodging and meals with other walkers, can also be great for the traveler who is solo, but not anti-social.
While planning this walk in 2015, I could find very little information in English about the Le Puy Route, and almost all my fellow walkers were either French or at least French-speaking. In the last two years, more material has appeared. I hope this encourages non-Francophones to pack their backpacks, get out their walking sticks, and make the journey.
I’ve changed the names of the people I met along the way to avoid intruding on their privacy, and of most of the places where I stayed in case any of my remarks strike an owner as a bit tart.
My train from Lyon to Le Puy-en-Velay is a pokey regional one with only three cars. Past Aurec-sur-Loire, it follows the Loire river. This isn’t the wide, stately Loire of the chateaux country, instead a young Loire of the mountains, tumbling over rocks. The slopes on either side are covered with a mix of light green deciduous trees and dark green pines. There’s only a single train track and no road shadowing it, allowing the trees to come as close as possible on either side. The train gives the impression it’s on a pleasant ramble through the countryside, making this a suitable prelude for my walk on the Le Puy Route.
At one stop, a grizzled man gets on and takes the seat next to me, though the train isn’t crowded and there are other places where he could sit by himself. He’s carrying a Bible. He reads the Book of Nehemiah, underlining passages. Suddenly he turns to me and asks, “Allez-vous à Le Puy? Are you going to Le Puy?” “Oui,” I say. Is this man on his way to walk the Le Puy Route like me, though in his case as a truly religious, Bible-toting pilgrim? I assume his first question is the opening to a conversation. Perhaps he’ll ask if I’m a Christian. Finding that I’m not particularly, he’ll try to convert me, jabbing a finger at underlined passages in Nehemiah. Instead, the man falls silent. Soon, he puts a handkerchief over his face and dozes off.
I turn back to my e-reader and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. This seems like an appropriate book to read before my trip in more or less the same region, on foot like Robert Louis Stevenson, though in my case without a donkey. While I’ll follow a different route, starting southwest rather than southeast, at least I’ll begin my journey at a point close to where Stevenson started his.
Checking the display panel in the train, I see that Le Puy is the next stop. Then bang, the city’s unmistakable landmark appears out the window, a huge, dark pink statute of the Virgin and Child perched atop a crag. My topo guide informs me that, in a swords-to-ploughshares transformation, the statue was fashioned from cannons captured by the French in the Battle of Sebastopol. It was the largest statue in the world until nudged aside by the Statue of Liberty.
Most of the other people getting off the train are equipped for hiking like me, with backpacks, hiking boots, and walking sticks. On the street, in the blazing heat, two Frenchmen ask a woman for directions to the Cathedral. I eavesdrop on her response since I’m heading in that direction, too. I follow the men up the twisting streets of le ville haute, the upper town. I don’t speak to them, however. Don’t say, “Hey, are you guys going to the Cathedral, how about we walk together?” My view of the French is that that sort of hail-fellow-well-met approach doesn’t go over well.
I’m cautious around the French. I go on yellow alert as soon as I arrive in their country. In college, I was supposed to spend my third year studying in Bordeaux. I quit the program and fled home after a few months, mostly because I was young and foolish and alarmed at being so far away from home, but also – I’ve always been convinced – because the French on the whole aren’t all that welcoming to outsiders. One of my memories from my time in Bordeaux is of the French not smiling very much, even the children. As an American, raised on a steady diet of smiles, from supermarket clerks to faces on the TV screen urging me to buy toothpaste, I found this disconcerting. My impression is that the smiling quotient has increased noticeably in the last ten years. Perhaps fast smiles have gotten imported from the U.S. along with fast food.
Nearing sixty, I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with the French. When I have an encounter with a French person, I either love or hate; rarely is my reaction neutral. I visit the country because it’s the only one in Europe where I speak the language passably – one legacy of those months in Bordeaux – and because of the love component of the love-hate. And at least in a loved-hated country, there’s a degree of vividness. I remember returning from several weeks in Vienna and realizing I had hardly a single memory of the people there. They were so muted and inconspicuous, which the French are not.
With many options for where to stay in Le Puy, ranging from hostels to posh hotels, I’ve booked a bed at the Grand Séminaire, located several stone throws from the Cathedral. In a restaurant, when I don’t know what to order on a menu, I choose the oddest sounding thing. I followed that philosophy here, to stay in the oddest sounding lodging, the former seminary attached to the Cathedral.
The seminary presents a large blue metal gate, which is closed. A sign, only in French, instructs me to push one of five buttons. Accueil seems the most likely choice. A woman’s voice comes on saying she’ll buzz me in.
Ushering me into her office, the concierge speaks to me very slowly, either because this is her way or to help a foreigner comprehend. My room has beds for three people, she says, but she isn’t putting anyone else in with me. Do I want dinner as well? I ask what’s being served, explaining I’m a vegetarian. My French isn’t up to the nuances of defining myself more precisely: “I lean in the vegetarian direction, though sometimes when I feel like it or if nothing else is available, I’ll eat a little chicken or pork, though I don’t want to eat a whole chicken breast or pork chop, and I never eat beef.”
The concierge dispatches her pretty young assistant to the kitchen to find out what’s for dinner. Pork, Mademoiselle informs us, returning to the office. I envision a huge pork chop on a plate and nothing else. The concierge asks if I eat fish. Yes, I say. She sends Mademoiselle back to the kitchen, which is apparently rather far away. Mademoiselle reports that the kitchen has agreed to prepare me fish. “You will eat with other pilgrims,” the concierge tells me…. I suppose that’s what I am now. A pilgrim, not a mere backpacker.
The room costs 21.70 euros per night, with 12 forthe dinner. I ask the concierge if the weather is supposed to stay hot like this. The mornings have been frais, she says, cool, with the afternoons getting warmer. After Wednesday, she’s unsure about the forecast.
The concierge instructs Mademoiselle to show me to my room. Our journey starts up a flight of stairs. The staircase is delightfully cool. I tell Mademoiselle I intend to spend the rest of the day inside since it’s so hot out. She makes a “Yes, I heard you” sound, but says nothing, and I don’t feel encouraged to chat.
We move along corridors and through doors. The Grand Séminaire is a place lost in time. Old carpets are spread over older wooden floors. Religious objects are scattered about like toys in a nursery after the children have grown: a crucifix, a framed photograph of a statue of the Virgin. Mademoiselle has trouble locating my room. At one point, she goes down a flight, telling me to wait, then returns. She says she hasn’t brought a plan of the building. This is her first day working here.
At last we find my room, which after that long trek is only Room 4, not Room 400 or 4000. I realize that if we’d just stepped across the courtyard, we could have reached it much more quickly. Instead, we’ve gone around three sides of the building.
The room looks recently repainted in a nice dusky yellow with blue on the door. Thank you, tasteful French, for not painting it institutional white or beige. It contains three rather grim single beds with no bedding provided, just mattress and pillow. Fortunately, I’ve brought my sleeping bag. A sink in a corner, with plastic flooring beneath. Immense old wooden bureau with mirrored doors. Two wooden chairs, one table, two mismatching nightstands. Above the bed I choose for myself hangs a small gold crucifix. Out the window, I see the big birch tree that stands in the courtyard.
I imagine a young seminarian arriving here for the first time, his mix of feelings. “I’ve joined a community and found a purpose in life,” he might have thought. “On the other hand, as a priest, I’ll have to take a vow of celibacy.” As a modern, I may exaggerate how heavily this consideration would weigh on him. Maybe the fact that he wouldn’t have a family of his own would loom larger in his mind than not having sex. The room, which he would have shared with two other boys, makes clear he would have had only a few personal belongings.
Leaving the Grand Séminaire, I wander down the hill. Le ville haute strikes me as a mixed bag. Parts of it are rundown and possibly not even lived in. Others are clean, fixed up, cared for. Cars squeeze up and down some of the narrow streets.
I reach the big level street clogged with traffic that curves around the base of the old town, laid out on the site of the former town walls. I ask questions at the tourist office. When I ask if I can find pharmacies and banks between here and Figeac, the woman assures me, “Ce n’est pas un desert. This isn’t a desert.” Still, she does say I should “take precautions,” and the only town she mentions as having these services is Saugues, which I’ll reach only after a few days of walking.
Back to the Grand Séminaire. A closer look at the interior suggests that only minimal changes were made to the building after it stopped being used as a seminary. Someone seems to have said, “Let’s not go to a lot of trouble and expense. The pilgrims can take the place of the seminarians with only a few modifications.” The communal bathrooms appear recently modernized. That may be the only major change. At the end of the corridor where my room is located, behind a door marked chapelle, I can hear people singing hymns.
With some time to fill before dinner, I sit on a bench in the big central courtyard, in the shade of the eaves. I have a view up to the pink Virgin and Child on their gray crag. Apparently one can climb a spiral staircase up the Virgin’s body and peer at the surrounding countryside through the points of her crown. I debate whether I want to pay the four euro entrance fee for the privilege. A bell rings on the hour, as it must have for the young priests in the making. Though the bell still rings, in the clock tower on the roof, the broken clock is forever fixed at ten to one.
When I told my friends back in San Francisco I planned to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, the conversation would go something like this. Friend: “Great! How’s your Spanish?” Me: “I won’t need any Spanish because the part of the Camino I’m walking is in France. You’re thinking of the Camino Francés,where most people go.” “But doesn’t the Camino Francésmean the French Trail?” “Yeah, it’s called the French Trail because so many pilgrims coming from France used it, but it’s actually in Spain. And I’m walking on something that isn’t called the French Trail, but it’s in France.”
As is the case for most people, the French Trail That’s Actually In Spain is the part of the Camino I heard about first. My French friend Denise showed me a photo album of the walk she’d made on the Camino Francésin the nineties. She described how she would spend the night in hostels along the route; how she’d met other hikers and walked with them at times. As she turned the pages of the album, showing me images of quaint villages and smiling hikers, a seed was planted. As someone who doesn’t like to drive and has even managed the rare feat for an American of never owning a car, a long-distance walk appealed to me. Instead of getting from Point A to Point B by the fastest means possible, I liked the idea of experiencing every detail of the line between A and B at the slowest pace possible, on foot.
Denise was lucky she’d hiked the Camino Francés when she did. Doing my research, I gathered that at this point, it was a good thing spoiled by its own success, overcrowded and over-publicized. To be the subject of a book by Shirley MacLaine and a film starring Martin Sheen was bad news for any place one might want to visit. However, I learned about other, less famous branches of the Camino system, including four main pilgrimage routes in France. The one that sounded most interesting was the le chemin de Le Puy, the Le Puy Route.
All my sources said that the essential guide to the route was a book called Miam Miam Dodo. This is French baby talk meaning something like “yum yum nap time” and alludes to the book’s two main concerns, food and lodging. A curious name, and also curious to me was that it was only available in French. My sources agreed one needed to supplement Miam Miam with a good map or a topo guide. Searching for a topo guide, I could only find ones in French – or German. The lack of information about the Le Puy Route in English either on-line or in printed form helped explain why more foreigners weren’t hiking it.
My sources said the best time of year to walk the Le Puy Route was the spring, when the weather was generally neither too cold nor too hot. Barely managing not to sweat even in the shade in the courtyard of the Grand Séminaire, I hope this hot spell is a freak that will soon pass.
Dinner in the refectory at seven-thirty. Signs tell me all the things I should and shouldn’t do, including, “Merci de nettoyer soigneusement votre table. Thank you for carefully cleaning your table.” An old man with a white beard appears. Clearly the cook, and the only person manning the kitchen. He asks if anyone speaks English. “We have an English speaker,” he says. He looks at me, apparently able to pick me out. I say, “Je peux parler français. I can speak French.” In any case, a tall man smiles and speaks to me in English. He invites me to sit next to him at one of the long tables. Good.
Sixteen people at dinner. All of retirement age, because with a few exceptions, who except retired people could walk the Camino at this time of year? All French. The English-speaking man is alive, sharp, witty. He’s the sort of French person who complicates – or I might say, enriches – my ideas about the French by making me think, “The French can be absolutely delightful.”
The French don’t seem keen on exchanging names, and I never learn this man’s. I’ll call him Pierre. Nor does Pierre introduce me to his wife. I spend most of the dinner thinking she’s the woman on my left, when it turns out to be the woman on his right. Pierre tells me that he and his wife are in their early sixties, retired. He asks what the retirement age is in the U.S. In France, he says, it used to be sixty, but the government has kept raising it, to sixty-one, sixty-two. I tell him he shouldn’t worry – in French, since I want to get in the swing of using the language. “At this point, the government can’t take away your retirement and make you go back to work.” Quick as Pierre is, he understands me, despite my weak humor and bad French. “You’re right,” he chuckles. “I should stop worrying.”
Pierre and his wife are walking the Camino for a week. He shows me topo maps he’s downloaded onto his phone. I haven’t done anything so techie, and don’t even have GPS on my phone, which is both cheap and old. When I show Pierre my topo guide, he says in truth, I probably won’t need it. He and his wife have walked the Le Puy Route before, and for the most part, it’s well-marked. I ask if they have reservations for places to stay along the route. Yes, he says, for every night.
The two women across from me are walking on their own. One plans to walk as far as Figeac, like me. Last year, she says, she did the Camino Francés with a couple who walked very fast. She makes the French pumping forearm gesture for “rapid, strenuous.” Walking the Le Puy Route by herself, she says she’ll go at her own pace. Unlike Pierre and his wife, she hasn’t made any reservations. I remark to Pierre, “It’s interesting how different types of people make different choices. I’d never do a walk like this without reservations.”
The other solo woman says she hopes to walk all the way to Santiago, which will take three months. “That’s very ambitious,” I tell her. She gives a Gallic shrug. “If I can’t manage to go all the way for some reason,” she says, “that’s all right. The important thing is to try.”
After dinner, supervised by the old cook, we clear the table and place dishes, glasses, and silverware in a big industrial-scale dishwashing machine. Earlier, the cook made a witty remark about how the men shouldn’t leave the clean-up work to the women. As if loath to be accused of shirking, the men do pitch in, though this means we really have too many hands for the labor involved.
Pierre shoots me a smile now and then as we work. Before parting, we compare itineraries. He’s printed his out and marked it with a highlighter; mine is handwritten and probably legible only to me. Since he and his wife are leaving tomorrow and I’m not leaving until the following day, it seems unlikely we’ll meet up.
Before going to sleep, I kneel down beside my narrow bed, lean my elbows on it, and clasp my hands together. I send a mental message to the Christ on the wall, letting him know that, despite what he may have been used to with the seminary students, I’m not assuming this position to say my prayers. Instead, to think over what I should be grateful for about today. While prayers may go unanswered, giving thanks is much more sure-fire. It’s rare for me to have trouble finding a single thing to be grateful for in a day. If necessary, I can resort to basics, such as having food to eat and a roof over my head, or even the things that did not happen, like not getting hit by a car.
I’m grateful for the woman on the street for her overheard directions to the cathedral, the concierge for speaking slowly and clearly, the young assistant for showing me to my room. I thank Pierre for inviting me to sit with him and talking with me. A smidgen of prayer does sneak in, that he won’t be the last absolutely delightful French person I meet on the trail.
Looking out the window of my room at seven, I see pilgrims with backpacks heading for the Cathedral to attend mass. It will be me turn tomorrow. Breakfast available until ten, so I dawdle. I take a shower. The hook that holds up the nozzle is broken. I check another stall. That one is broken, too. I assume this was done deliberately, to discourage guests from letting the water run.
By the time I arrive, the refectory is empty except for two middle-aged men sitting across from each other. I look for signs that I can join them. They say bonjour. They meet my eye once, twice. The signs seeming favorable, I sit down near them, though leaving a chair between me and the taller man. It turns out this man works here at the Grand Séminaire. Perhaps he’s the director, whom the concierge told me is a priest. I don’t screw up my nosiness enough to ask. I tell him, “I’m glad I’m staying here in the seminary rather than in a hotel. It’s the perfect introduction to walking the Camino.”
After this man leaves, I continue to talk with the other man, Albert. We switch to English, which he speaks very well. Albert isn’t in Le Puy to walk the Camino. Instead, he’s looking into turning a farm his family owns into an “eco retreat.” The old farmhouse and barn will run on solar power. For their own good, guests will be deprived of television, sugar, and alcohol. Albert doesn’t say why he’s staying at the Grand Séminaire. Probably because it’s cheap.
Albert spent many years in Singapore, working as an engineer. Singapore a better place for earning a living than France, he says. But he had missed the stimulating intellectual discussions one had with French people, above all with Parisians. “You can say anything you want in those conversations.”
Albert talks about the wave of country people moving to the cities in France during the Twenties, looking for work. Another wave came after World War II. “France is still living with the policies created after the war,” he says. It’s impossible to alter them because, even if the vast majority agrees a change is necessary (gesture of turning his glasses on the table to represent “change”), a small group will prevent it. Trade unions will stop the trains, turn off the electricity (gesture of switching off power). It isn’t only the trade unions that stand in the way of change. Businesses do, too. I think, So France is a country where people have stimulating conversations, but no one can actually change anything.
At ten, the old cook appears and encourages us to clear our places. Albert and I stop by the office of the concierge. Albert has to pay for another week’s lodging, I for my second dinner. I also need to make another request to be served something other than meat.
A box of scallop shells sits on the desk. I’ve already spotted these shells around town, usually tied to people’s backpacks. The shell is a symbol of the pilgrims on the Camino, as explained by the following legend.
St. James the Greater traveled to Spain to preach the Gospel. After returning to Judea, he was martyred by decapitation. His disciples placed his body in a stone boat that angels guided across the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and around the coast of Spain. Off present-day Galicia, a storm sank the boat (well, it was made from stone after all). The disciples feared James’ body was lost. Instead, it washed ashore intact – and covered with scallop shells.
Considered metaphorically, the grooves in the shell, meeting at a single point, represent the different routes the pilgrims travel to reach a single destination, the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. More mundanely, the medieval pilgrims used the shells to scoop up water and food.
I take a shell from the box. “You need to make a donation,” Albert prompts, without waiting to see if I do this on my own initiative, and despite it being plainly written on the box that a donation is requested. I take this as an example of the French making sure one follows the rules.
I run down the hill to reach a camping store before it closes at noon. I buy a few things I suddenly worry I may need, including a whistle and a small jackknife.
After purchasing some food at Carrefour, I visit the city museum. I enjoy the animated display showing how the volcanic plugs in the region were formed. Magma hardened in vents, then was exposed as the surrounding softer ground eroded. Le ville haute of Le Puy-en-Velay is draped over one such plug, with the statue of the Virgin at its highest point. In fact, as I learn, puy is the local word for one of these hills of volcanic origin.
A somewhat flowery text explains why these hills were sacred places first for pre-Romans, then Romans, then Christians. “Depuis la nuit des temps, les hommes ont craint et véneré la puissance des forces de la nature, considerant les lieux élevés comme des ‘axes du monde,’ points d’union entre le ciel et la terre. Since the dawn of time, man has feared and venerated the power of the forces of nature, considering the high places as the ʻaxes of the world,’ points of union between the sky and earth.”
I chat a little with an attendant in the museum. He says the hot weather is supposed to change Friday and drop to ten degrees. “Good,” I say; “This is too hot for me.” He makes a face that communicates that ten will surely be too cold.
My last errand is to buy my créanciale in the cathedral bookstore. The créanciale is a sort of passport for pilgrims. At each place I stay along the route, the proprietor will stamp it with an individual stamp. If I were walking all the way to Santiago, a créanciale full of these stamps would entitle me to a compostela, a certificate from the church authorities that I’d completed the pilgrimage. Since I don’t even plan to reach Spain on this trip, let alone Santiago, I buy the créanciale thinking of it as just another pilgrim trinket, like the shell, a little interesting and picturesque.
Afterward, I sit in a pew in the cathedral. I listen to someone play the organ and admire the crystal chandeliers. I fill in the blanks in the créanciale, giving my name, address, and so on. The second page contains an agreement to respect the spirit of the pilgrimage, the church, my fellow pilgrims, my hosts, and the nature I’ll pass through.Fine with all that, I sign my name in the blank space below.
I’m less fine with some of the text that follows, including the opening to the Prayer of Benediction: “Dieu tout puissant, Tu ne cesses de montrer Ta bonté á ceux qui t’aiment. . . . All-powerful God, you do not cease to show your goodness to those who love you. . . .” While I may not believe there is such a thing as God, I do have ideas about what God must be like if He/She/It does exist. And He/She/It wouldn’t be so small-minded and partisan as to show His/Her/Its goodness only to those who love Him/Her/It, but to everyone, including those who don’t love him, believe in him, or have never even heard of him, including Martians. I cross out this line and all references to God and Our Savior and Saints, whittling away at the creed aspect of the créanciale.
Returning my créanciale to its plastic folder, I open Travels with a Donkey. As I read, a question niggles. Skimming the first few chapters, I find my memory is correct. Stevenson has little to say about Le Puy – mainly that he has a sleeping bag made there. Even though he’s about to start a long-distance walk himself, he makes not a single allusion to the town being the starting point of a branch of the Camino de Santiago.
Some writers about the modern-day Camino system get a little gushy about how “pilgrims have walked these paths for hundreds of years.” Stevenson’s silence reminds me that between the medieval and modern-day pilgrims stands a long gap of forgetfulness and neglect. Pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela were at their height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. After that, what with the Black Death wiping out a large part of the European population and the Protestant Reformation condemning the veneration of relics, the pilgrimage business largely folded.
The revival of the pilgrimages didn’t start until 1879 – the exact year Travels was published. The Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela announced the discovery of over three hundred bone fragments buried behind the cathedral’s main altar. Surely, these must be the bones of St. James and a couple of his disciples! The Church boosted the pilgrimage to Santiago. Later, so did the Franco regime, first as a way to beat the drum of Spanish nationalism, with blue-shirted Falangist youth hiking from Roncesvalles; later, in the sixties, as a tourist attraction. In the eighties, the Council of Europe designated the Camino system the “First European Cultural Itinerary.” The Franco era shell emblems were redesigned to mimic the European flag, with yellow shells against a blue background. Thus the latest incarnation of the Camino was as a symbol of European unity, with the routes threading many countries together.
Another reason not to get too sentimental about walking in venerable footsteps is that the contemporary Le Puy Route is only an approximation of the one pilgrims would have taken in the Middle Ages, since no medieval equivalent of a topo guide has come down to us. The first mention of the pilgrimage routes through France and Spain to Santiago is the Codex Calixtinus from the twelfth century. It states, “Four roads meet at Puente la Reina in Spain and become one route to Santiago. One road goes through Saint-Gilles du Gard, Montpellier, Toulouse and the Somport Pass. The next is through Saint Mary of Le Puy, Saint Foy of Conques, and Saint Peter of Moissac.” That’s it for the description of the Le Puy Route, nothing but four stopping points many kilometers apart. Exactly how pilgrims linked them up is largely a matter of educated guesses.
At seven o’clock, I attend mass in the Cathedral. As a non-believer with a heavily edited créanciale in his jacket pocket, I sit in the back. In front of me is a tall father with a blonde daughter of eight or nine. She’s already so serious, rather pinched. A serious, pinched Frenchwoman in the making. A priest in a white robe addresses the crowd. I catch inviter, accueillir, pèlerins: invite, welcome, pilgrims. He assures us Christ will accompany us on our path.
The priest performs mass. I wonder if masses are tedious to sit through more than very occasionally. The priest tells us that if we don’t want to receive communion, we can cross our arms over our chest and only receive a blessing. I do neither.
The priest distributes a little silver medal with an image of the pilgrim’s shell on one side and on the other, the Cathedral’s statue of the virgin. I read that the original wooden statue was burned by anti-clerics during the Revolution, yet somehow the Church managed to convince people to venerate this new statue in its place. A nun hands out a card with a prayer written on it. I take the medal, but not the card since I suspect it will contain more words I’d feel compelled to delete.
We gather in front of a statue of St. Jacques with his characteristic staff and broad-brimmed hat. The priest asks people from France to raise their hands, then Belgium, Germany, Spain. No one from Spain. Maybe they prefer to walk their own Caminos. Nor are there any Italians. The priest moves on to Ireland (one), the U.K. (none), Canada (two, probably thanks to the French-speaking and Catholic Québécois). Moving south from Canada, he skips over the U.S., I assume because it’s short on both French-speakers and Catholics. Instead he inquires about Central and South America (none). The entire region of Asia has yielded up only one Japanese woman.
The priest offers us prayers that people have written on folded slips of paper, saying we can pray for these people on our walk. I gather the idea is that we should pray that their prayers are answered. I question whether, as a non-believer, I’m willing to get involved with prayers. I decide I am, that I can pray without necessarily becoming entangled with the God business.
One box contains prayers from French people, another from non-French. I take one from the non-French box since there are fewer of these, and I don’t want the non-French to be neglected. Finding the prayer is in Chinese, I put it back and take another. This is in German, which at least I understand better than Chinese. I get the gist, that the person – whom for no particular reason I assume is a woman and call Betina – prays to Heiliger Jakobus,St. James, that things go well for her family and that she returns from walking the Camino in good health. I slip the prayer inside my créanciale. Later, I tell myself I might as well have kept the prayer in Chinese, since it probably said much the same thing. Isn’t that what most of us pray for, good health and well-being for us and our loved ones?
The priest leads us in singing “Salve Regina,” after directing our attention to a placard with the words attached to one pillar. Mainly he sings while we listen, since the print is too small to make out easily. The ceremony over, the pilgrims collect the packs they’ve stowed along the side walls.
The Cathedral is built on a steep slope. At some point without my noticing it, someone has hoisted up the huge grill in the floor of the nave to reveal a flight of stairs leading down toward a blaze of sunlight. If I were making a film of a pilgrim walking the Le Puy Route, the obvious artistic choice would be to have him set off on his journey by these stairs. I descended them myself yesterday. They’re the most striking feature of the cathedral, spilling grandly downward in stages beneath its whole length. They lead toward a high Gothic portal framing a magical view of the town and the countryside beyond. Passing through the portal, one can descend another long grand flight of steps leading farther downhill. POV shot of the stairs, stirring music, close-up of the pilgrim tilting his face bravely toward the sun….
The mundane reality is that this morning, not a single pilgrim sets off by this photogenic route. For those carrying big backpacks, the steep stone stairs probably appear treacherous. People like me who are staying nearby and haven’t brought their gear with them prefer to return to our lodgings for various last minute activities. Munch a croissant, down a coffee, consider whether we really want to lug along that inflatable pillow – or perhaps we should just leave it behind for the chambermaid.
With my weak bladder, my last desire before leaving the Grand Séminaire is for another piss. Like a doughty pilgrim of yore, I then set forth on my journey, stepping carefully through the door in the blue metal gate. With the pale fan-shaped shell tied to my pack by a piece of string, I’m in full pilgrim regalia. I have my big pack on my back, and my daypack against my chest holding the things I’m most likely to need, including my water, MiamMiam, and topo guide.
I find rue des Tables, so named because this is where ancient vendors set up their tables of wares. Soon, I spot a silver shell embedded in the pavement. I follow these like Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs along rue St.-Jacques. A sign tells me that Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle lies 1522 kilometers away. Around me, Le Puy goes about its morning business. Three chattering kids head for school, ready for another hot day in shorts. A woman unlocks the front door to the Centre de Depilation.
At a T junction on the outskirts of town, I come to a large sign in three languages. This includes a warning: “Someone who pretends to want to help you tries to guide walkers and pilgrims off the official footpaths of the GR65. According to him, the way that he proposes is shorter, but it could get you lost in the middle of nowhere.” At the bottom, “Have a nice trip!”
Farther on, I turn off a paved road onto a path. I untelescope my metal walking sticks and touch them to French soil for the first time. I’m like a sailboat in its full state of sailboat-ness, with canvas unfurled and filled with wind.
This is only the fourth time I’ve backpacked in my life. My parents were devoted campers, but not backpackers. They wanted their spacious Hi-Lite tent to retreat to in the evenings and a station wagon close at hand. The first time I backpacked, as a teenager with friends, it rained on us. The second time, in my early twenties, my macho uncle had me and my cousin huffing and puffing cross-country and scrambling over boulders. The third time, in the High Sierras, the altitude bothered me during the day and the freezing cold at night. The fourth time – well, that wasn’t so bad.
That fourth time was over thirty years ago. My preparations for the Le Puy Route therefore involved buying a new backpack of vivid blue, a sleeping bag, and all the other accoutrements. It did not include much conditioning. All the material I read urged me to train for the walk four to six weeks before I started. After loading my new backpack with some ceramic tiles I’d found in a dumpster, I managed to get through four evenings of walking around and around Lafayette Park. After that, implacable boredom set in. I used the walking sticks even less, only once, clicking along on the sidewalk. I didn’t gain much insight into their use, aside from realizing, “Gee, when I’m holding these sticks, I can’t eat while I walk.” Telling myself I would do my conditioning in the field, I created an itinerary intended to give me only short distances to cover during the first few days. Chugging across the countryside of the Auvergne, I wait to see if this system will work.
I pass through farmland along level dirt tracks. A black and white dog appears, then his owner, an old man. “Bonjour,” he says, then “Bon route,” as if scripted by the local tourist office. The tracks are edged in places by wiry hedges sprinkled with white flowers. Is this hawthorn? The flowers emit a spermy smell, which sometimes mixes with that of cow dung. Rhythmic insect whirs. Bird song. Small white butterflies. Reddish volcanic rocks underfoot. A sign informs me these fields are planted with barley and rye, which reminds me of “The Lady of Shallot.” I can’t distinguish between barley and rye. Instead, I perceive the fields as either icy green or dark green.
Walking goes all right. A splitting fingernail my only complaint. Hot. Not much shade. Finally I stop in front of a farm building and unzip the lower halves of my pantashorts. I hold onto the bars of a gate as I make this sartorial adjustment. I find I can’t slip the tubes of fabric over my boots and have to take these off.
Later, I sit on the side of the trail to eat my lunch. I make the discovery that nature has few flat surfaces and it’s difficult to find places to put things where they won’t tip over. My backpack is my Modestine – that’s the donkey in Stevenson’s book, who carries most of his belongings. I scold my pack for constantly losing its balance.
A big German guy comes along carrying a big pack. A tanktop shows his massive arms. I peg him as a jock type, yet he also wears glasses, high fashion ones that in the U.S. at least would be very expensive. A beard covers his face a little irregularly. He tells me he lives in Stuttgart. He started his walk in Freiburg. “I trained for the Camino for a year,” he says. “Two days a week, I walked to work carrying my pack.” The pack weighs 17 kilos.
“Do they have trails like this in the U.S.?” the German asks. “Yes, in the national parks,” I answer. “But out in farmland like this, no. Americans have different ideas about private property. If this were the U.S., there would be No Trespassing signs everywhere.”
I ask the man how far he’s going. To Santiago, he says. “That will take you until the end of August,” I said. “No,” he says with Teutonic precision, “only until July 2.”
In a village farther on, I run into the German again. “I’m surprised I caught up with you,” I say. He tells me he took a nap. I wonder if he reproaches himself for not having made more progress. “Are you enjoying the village?” I ask. “No,” he says bluntly.
In the same village, I observe an oldish man with a walrus mustache walking a horse. The man wears a T-shirt saying “Authentic Cowboy” and cowboy boots with spurs. The horse has a Western saddle, with a horn. I overhear the man tell two women hikers that the problem with bringing a horse on the trail is finding places to lodge with it. Wanting to see the inside of the village church, the man steps through the door holding the reins, the horse behind. I take a picture in which the horse seems to be sticking its head inside the church. While I try to resist the temptation to take “clever” shots like this, I’m not always successful.
Farther on, the wind comes up. I have to tighten my hat cord under my chin to keep it from blowing off. The sky whitens. I’m having to spend much more time walking today than I anticipated. Back in San Francisco, I mapped out my daily itinerary using the times given in the topo guide for different segments of the route. Now I wonder if this was a good idea. Exactly how fast is the pace of the guide’s supposed “average walker”?
At this point, I feel I’m just trudging along without taking in much. Looking back, I see I’ve spent most of the day first curving around a hill, then moving away from it. One progresses slowly on foot.
I’m developing a red, sore patch on either side of my hips where the belt of my pack rubs against me. In the midst of much talk from other hikers about problems with knees and feet, I predict that for me, this will be my main problem.
I catch up with the horseman and chat with him. He tells me his horse is “a hundred percent American,” a cross between a something-or-other breed and another with an Indian name, Sioux perhaps. Yes, the man says, he does ride the horse at times, doesn’t always walk it. He’s only going as far as Roncesvalles, where his son will meet him with transport. “It’s dangerous to take a horse into Spain,” the man claims, without explaining why. Soon he turns off the trail into a farm where he’s spending the night. He tells me we’ll probably see each other again on the trail.
At last I arrive at Montbonnet where I have a reservation at my first gîte d’étape, the French term for a hostel in the country. I have to ask an old man for directions, calling to him across his farmyard. Up a driveway, through a gate. On the lawn, a couple I recognize from the seminary sits at a table with some other people. When I join them, they say hello, not much more. I turn my attention to the old man on my left, who is frowning over a French-German dictionary. He doesn’t speak French. Nor English, as I find. I do my best with my paltry German. He doesn’t seem to mind its paltriness, eager to talk.
The man says he lives near Hamburg, is retired. He’s already walked other parts of the Camino. All of the Camino Francés, and another Spanish route, La Vía de la Plata, from Mérida to Astorga. This time, he’s walking from Le Puy to the Pyrenees. He started his trip by riding a bike from Baden-Baden to Strasbourg, where he switched to trains.
The hostess appears. She has blonde hair combed straight down. She tells me to leave my boots and pack in the salon and only take what I need upstairs, like my sleeping bag. After I pay for the night, she stamps my créanciale.
According to the hostess, the gîte is a converted barn. She occupies the adjacent farmhouse. Later, I overhear her tell one of the guests that she always wanted to run a gîte. After an (amicable) divorce from her husband, that’s what she’s doing.
In my room, all but one of the six beds are already taken. I get the least desirable bed, in the middle of three. On a table downstairs, I noticed brochures for Clako, the anti-bedbug spray. I suspect I can smell Clako on my bed. Nevertheless, I make my usual bedbug check, pulling back the sheet to examine a corner of the mattress.
My feet hurt. They aren’t just tired in the usual way, not just the soles. The foot muscles are sore in some way I’m not used to.
In the salon, I pick out a woman with curly hair speaking English to a broad-beamed woman with dyed blonde hair. The curly haired woman is looking for something to read among the books on the mantelpiece. I point out The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, one of the few books in English.
We talk. I learn that Rebecca is married, with children. She met her French husband in Tahiti twenty years ago. They live near Aix-en-Provence. Rebecca is walking the Camino with her friend Sylvie, a neighbor, who also has children. Rebecca’s husband preferred to stay home with the kids.
Rebecca says she wished she’d thought to pack a book. This leads to our talking about what we had and hadn’t packed. She was amused to find I’d brought a whistle. I teased, “When you fall off a cliff tomorrow and don’t have a whistle to call for help, you won’t be laughing.” We agree the situation is different if one was walking alone.
Dinner a little skimpy. Green salad, sausages, lentils (a specialty of the region, which I already had at my two Grand Séminaire dinners), bread, and a local wine. An omelet for the German girl who, unlike me, had thought to request vegetarian food beforehand. After the hostess serves us, instead of eating with us, she retreats to her house next door. This isn’t what I envisioned on the Camino. We’re to clear our plates when we’ve finished and bring them over to her.
We come to the cheese course. I’m not a fan of these, but have a slice anyway because I want more to eat. “Dessert” consists of a bowl of fruit. “Come on,” I say to Rebecca. “I’ve been walking all day. I want a real dessert.” Rebecca says she craves cheesecake.
In a low voice, I ask if Rebecca wants to hear my latest theory about the French. The theory is that they’re awkward with strangers. Rebecca says, “You may be on to something.” She says she’s found most French people don’t know how to make small talk. For this reason, she’s stopped going to parties where she’ll encounter people she doesn’t already know. “I’ve had too many bad experiences of struggling to carry on a conversation.” Still, she says, she’s getting to like French society more as time goes on, though she doesn’t say exactly what she likes about it.
Sylvie passes on to the table a warning she received from the horseman, that a section of tomorrow’s walk is the hardest part of the route between Le Puy and Roncesvalles, with a long steep descent.
Albert told me I spoke French well. This evening, someone else says the same thing. That’s new, for the French to compliment my French. Since I’m sure it hasn’t improved, I wonder if what has changed is that, increasingly, the French are happy to find that any foreigner speaks their language, even badly.
“Do you think people will stay up late?” I ask Rebecca. Instead, everyone moves fairly promptly from dinner to bed. In our room, the German shows me a bag of things he’s sending home to reduce the weight of his pack. Madame has agreed to mail it for him.
Snores during the night. At around five, a single shriek from the German. The next morning, Sylvie tells me she heard this, too, from next door.
With a herd instinct, everyone in my room gets up at the same time, as we all went to bed at about the same time. Not much choice, in truth, with people moving about, dressing, packing.
The breakfast skimpy like the dinner, at least to my American eyes. “Where’s the cereal and scrambled eggs?” I ask Rebecca. I eat bread and butter, tea with a lot of milk in it, an orange.
Our hostess arrives at eight to check on us, then retreats, after telling us we need to leave by nine at the latest. I go to her house to collect my picnic lunch. I ask if she can mail to a friend in Basel my other topo guide, for the second leg of the Le Puy Route, from Figeac to La Romieu. I packed this just in case I decide to continue past Figeac. With those two sore points on my hips, I’m looking for ways to lighten my load.
The hostess is clearly reluctant to accept the mailing task, saying she wouldn’t know what to charge me. Too late I grasp that she took on mailing the German’s stuff unwillingly. I apologize and instead leave the book among the ones on the mantelpiece, hoping someone else can use it.
Later, I hear the hostess tell the woman from Quebec that the German gave her fifty euros for the postage. “That may be much more than necessary, or not,” she says. “Better to leave stuff behind than to mail it.” She says of the man’s request, “Ce n’était pas correct.” I have an idea that correct is a word used to strike fear into French hearts. They dread not being correct.
The gîte in Montbonnet was at full capacity last night. This prompts me to call the gîte where I’m staying tonight to confirm my reservation. Probably like a lot of people doing a long-distance walk or any other kind of traveling, my greatest fear is to find myself without shelter, and after that, without food.
On the outskirts of Montbonnet, a sign reads, “You’ve finished crossing the Deves Plateau and are approaching the wooded slopes of Lake Egg and the Gorges of the Allier.” The trail enters a beautiful pine forest. I see the man with the horse, now riding it.
Farther on, a steep rocky descent. As I rest beside a stream, the man and daughter I’d seen at mass in Le Puy come along. I say, “You were at the mass in the Cathedral.” “Ça peut-être,” he says. “That may be.” Why not just “Yes”? He says his daughter kept bugging him to take her on this walk, and finally they’re doing it, over five days. I like the girl at once, perhaps because she seems to like me. At least, she smiles at me. “You’re carrying a big pack,” I say to her. “I think your father put more things in your pack than in his.” This is exactly how my dad used to talk to kids.
The father says another, even steeper descent lies farther on. I have the idea the French are a nation of worriers, and that sometimes they want to make me worry, too. What good does it do to tell me that difficulties lie ahead? At this point, my only choice is to walk on to my next destination or back to my previous one.
I reach the village of St. Privat. I take the same picturesque shot with my camera that’s in my topo guide, with the gorge on the left and the les vestiges du Château high up on the right. Walking behind the old stone buildings that front the gorge, I find on closer inspection that the village is in fact rather careworn and empty. It’s like walking around the back of a film set.
I make the second descent. This could be slippery in wet weather, and even in dry weather, I wouldn’t want to attempt it without walking sticks. Still, compared to hiking in the California Sierras, it isn’t too alarming. Three women hikers move down the slope much faster than me.
After the trail levels out, a middle-aged Frenchwoman starts a conversation with me. “Where are you staying tonight?” she asks. “In Monistrol,” I say. “At which gîte?” “La Coquille.” “I’ve tried there,” she says, “but it’s full. Everywhere in Monistrol is full.” She sounds worried, in a controlled French way. She proposes asking advice at a house we can see from the trail. Leaving her, I hope the owners of the house will let her spend the night there.
I pass the small ruined tower of Rochegude atop a crag, a remnant of a castle. After making part of yet another descent, I look back and see the tower high above me. This is one of the pleasures I hoped for from this journey. This sense of moving from point to point over terrain, with landmarks approaching, receding.
The village of Monistrol d’Allier lies at the bottom of a gorge, strung along the river Allier. La Coquille is housed in a sleekly modernized old building. The hostess shows me to one of the bedrooms, where she’s written my name on a small chalkboard along with two others. Inside, I find a couple of stout middle-aged women lying in two of the three beds. Though they’re clearly together, they haven’t chosen the two beds on one side of the room, leaving me the bed in the middle. They’re looking at their mobiles, only their heads tilted up out of complete proneness. They don’t smile at me, barely return my bonjour. They’re so similar, they look like sisters. They tell each other how tired they are. I ask the woman in the bed next to mine if it’s okay for me to use the plug between our beds. “For the moment,” she says warily.
Passing the dining area, I see that six places are laid at the table. I hope the Sisters Grimm are eating out. At dinner time, I come down to find no one seated at the table – except the Sisters. Oh. Thankfully, other people soon arrive. A tall rangy German sits across from me. He has an enormous nose and bags under his eyes. I talk mainly with him, in English.
The Belgian to my right talks a lot, though in such a low, blurry voice, I have trouble following him. He tells a story about not packing a towel for his walk and having to find one in Le Puy that was small enough and not too plush and therefore bulky. He offers me some of his wine. The Sisters say little. On the other side of the table sits a charming French couple, beaming at everyone. People ask each other the usual questions: how far are you going, and so on. I start to forget who has given what answers, unable to keep track.
One man says he got lost. He walked a kilometer in the wrong direction, then had to walk another kilometer back to the point where he strayed. A hiker I’d talked to yesterday had done something similar. I wonder how these people can get lost when the route is so clearly marked. I’ve consigned my topo guide to my backpack, never consulting it.
This dinner more substantial than last night’s. Potato casserole, sausages. I take half a sausage, a little cautious about anything meaty. Later, finding that I’ve enjoyed the one half, I take the other. An apple tart for dessert.
Back in our room, the Sisters Grimm loosen up to the extent of returning my “Bonne nuit.” I think one even murmurs “Dormez bien.” During the night, one or both snores a little.
I like the hostess at this gîte a bit more than the first one. However, she too disappeared after serving dinner, never to reappear. Nor do I see her this morning, though I don’t leave until ten minutes before the nine o’clock check-out time.
Yesterday was a day of descent. Today starts with a long, steep ascent as I climb back out of the gorge on the other side. A long drop on my right, a steep cliff on my left, sometimes a wall made out of quarried rocks. I have a last glimpse of Rochegude tower atop the opposite cliff.
Reaching flatter terrain, I can see a gray blur of rain ahead, moving in my direction. I hurry forward, hoping to find a place where I can to put down my pack and dig out my rain gear, a stone or log. The rain hits, and I just dump my pack on the side of the road, unable to be too particular. Foolishly, I’ve packed my rain gear toward the bottom of my pack. Lesson for the day: keep rain gear accessible. I get on my rain pants. Also my big red poncho, though I can’t manage to pull it down over my pack, reaching behind me.
A man comes along wearing a Panama hat. I ask him to help me, in French, though he turns out to be American. We continue on the trail together. Melvin tells me he lives in Paris with his American girlfriend and works for a French company. Last year, he walked this part of the Le Puy Route, stopping at Figeac. This time, he plans to go as far as the Pyrenees.
Melvin – a person, not a vista or a village – becomes the centerpiece of my day. With frequent rainy spells, and the landscape shrouded by cloud, I don’t notice much about my surroundings. Melvin keeps me moving at a steady pace. I stay reasonably dry in my rain gear, though I wish I’d dug out my gloves, since the day is not only wet, but cold. Second lesson for the day: keep gloves accessible. We even encounter sleet at one point. Later, someone reports that the temperature had dropped today to five degrees.
Melvin and I talk about books. He turns out to be the best-read person I’ve met in a long time. I can’t mention a writer he hasn’t read. He has the vocabulary of someone who read a lot. He describes his girlfriend as “ebullient.”
Melvin and I spot a small hand-lettered sign nailed to a tree advertising mushroom omelets, and tarte aux myrtilles, blueberry tart. Later, we find a second sign, with another item added to the menu. Finally, near the entrance to a house, a third and last sign contains an even longer list, including some drinks.
A stout woman with purplish hair emerges from the house. She tells us to go to the chalet, pointing toward the backyard. The chalet is a big pre-fab storage shed. Melvin and I leave our packs outside since the rain has stopped by now. Like other people who come after us, we have trouble finding the door to the chalet. Not because it’s small, but because its improbably large, so large that it includes a window box. When we slide it open, the window box slides along with the door.
Nine other walkers are crowded inside, finishing their lunch. Some familiar faces. The couple from the Grand Séminaire that’s walking all the way to Santiago. The Québécoise I met in the first gîte. People could integrate us more quickly into the group than they do, or shift so Melvin and I could sit together more easily. At times, the French aren’t the most welcoming people.
Madame comes and goes, usually carrying a tray, sliding open the big door. A tortoise shell cat wanders about. Big sheets of cardboard cover the floor, and a stack of more sheets stands in one corner. I assume that when a sheet gets too dirty or scuffed up, Madame throws it out and replaces it with another.
More talk about whether people have reservations. I gather that those who don’t have them enjoy contending with this “danger.” One man cheerfully says he’ll sleep in a garage or a barn if necessary. He wears shorts, on a day that’s cold enough to produce sleet.
One man is from Lyon. I ask him if there’s a rivalry between Lyon and Paris. I have to ask Melvin the French for “rivalry.” The man says, “There’s a rivalry between all cities in France and Paris.” I observe that while that city has two rivers, Paris only has one. “Lyon has three rivers,” the man corrects me, because the French love to correct one.
I praise Parc de la Tête d’Or, the city’s main park. The Lyonnais makes some short remark in response. I tell Melvin that Lyon is worth a visit. “It’s supposed to be the gastronomic capital of France.” This is based on a line I remember from the old French language video French in Action. The hero of the series, Robert, is assured by the godfather of Mireille, the heroine, that Lyon “est la capitale gastronomique de la France.” I turn to the Lyonnais and ask if this isn’t so. Again he doesn’t say much in response. He won’t run with any of the topics I offer him. He smiles, is somewhat agreeable. However, as with most French people I’m meeting for the first time, I find it difficult to engage him fully.
I’m hungry, and hunger is the best sauce. All the same, Madame’s mushroom omelet strikes me as special. I ask Melvin what makes it so delicious. “Probably the quality of the eggs,” he says. The tart is also fantastic. It has an irregular, home-made crust.
Melvin has first one, then a second hot chocolate. This sounds good on a cold day, so I order one, too. The Lyonnais makes a smilingly disparaging comment about the Americans having dessert with hot chocolate (while he has wine with his). I say, “Les Américains ont des goûts primitifs. Americans have primitive tastes.” This seems like a good way to deal with his remark. To agree with him, allow the put-down, but make the tone humorous.
More sleet as Melvin and I descend a bare slope into Saugues. We visit a church that contains a life-size image of St. Bénilde, a local saint from the mid-nineteenth century. The painted statute lies in a long glass box, a small book open in one hand. I ask Melvin, “Can a saint have black lace-up shoes like ones I might wear?”
Tonight, my reservation is at La Ferme Buisson, the Buisson Farm. Melvin calls La Ferme to see if there’s space for him. Madame Buisson tells him he can sleep on the couch in the salon. That’s the last possible place.
At La Ferme, we hang up our wet clothes. Elderly but spry Madame Buisson gives me sheets of newspaper to put inside my boots to help dry them. I feel done in. Some muscle below my right shoulder hurts. Will it hurt tomorrow?
The pilgrims assemble for dinner. Besides Melvin and me, there are two Frenchmen; a German woman, Anneli; and Phil, a big bulky Australian with a coarse face, whom I’m sharing a room with.
Phil is what I call a Wall Talker, someone who works steadily at constructing a verbal wall, brick by brick. Admittedly, he does have at least one sensational story to tell, how he came to be hiking the Camino. He was touring Nepal when the recent earthquake struck, and he was evacuated to Kathmandu. However, he continues with the story relentlessly, not sparing us a single detail. How well the Australian embassy treated the Australians, how some Brits tried to stay there rather than at their own embassy. In the end, the Australian embassy flew Phil to Thailand. There, he was able to buy a ticket to France for two hundred dollars, since the airlines were providing huge discounts to quake victims.
Anneli to my left. She tells me she has four sons, all with children. She looks so youthful, I’m surprised to learn she’s also a grandmother. She teaches at a Gymnasium. I ask what she teaches. “German literature and philosophy,” she replies, “and physical education.” I think of my own gym teachers in high school. I doubt they knew much about either literature or philosophy.
I take to Anneli at once. She speaks English slowly, yet always appears to understand what I say. She asks me to pass her the salt. After she uses the salt, I use it, too, bringing us into alignment.
The two Frenchman sit across from each other to my right. Afterward, I say to Melvin, “I wonder if later they’ll complain to each other that the English-speakers dominated.” During dinner, I make some attempts to engage the men in conversation, but they aren’t too talkative. Most of the time, I speak with Anneli, leaving Phil to Melvin. I ask Anneli if she’s done other long-distance walks. Yes, the Via Regia in Germany. I tell her I’m trying to find another walk to do after Le Puy.
My second dinner on the trail contained more food than the first, and this third one contains yet more. According to Melvin, one eats best at the farms along the Camino. Soup, omelet, a potato dish, meat, cheese that Madame Buisson tells us her daughter made. For dessert, pistachio custards with a green tint. I ask Melvin if we’ve moved out of Lentil Land. Yes, he says. I say, “That’s just what I wanted on this walk, to experience moving from one region to another.”
The rain continues, and Madame gets wet on her trips between her house and the building where we’re staying. Earlier, Madame had said she expected a sixth guest. When it becomes clear he isn’t coming, she complains, “If he could call to make a reservation, couldn’t he call again to cancel it?” The miscreant is an American, and she asks Melvin and me if this is typical behavior in our country.
As she gathers up the dinner things, Madame talks with the Frenchmen. I catch a few things: that her daughter and her husband live below us, that her son also works on the farm, that recently he broke a bone in his foot getting off a tractor. She’s eighty. I try to ask if she was born in this area. I probably don’t phrase my question clearly, because it doesn’t get through to her. The French guys wash the dishes.
After dinner, we all pretty much go straight to bed. We’re on a country rhythm, getting up and going to bed with the sun.
I shower and pack while the others eat breakfast. Only one bathroom, so this seems the best way of assuring I don’t get in anyone’s way. I can hear Phil going on and on in the other room, and Melvin’s quick “Okay, okay” in response.
For breakfast there are farm-made jams and yogurt, milk from the farm’s cows. I use Anneli’s tea bag, another way of linking up with her. I ask what her secret is of aging well. She gives some charming response that, even as she says it, I know I won’t be able to remember exactly. Something about looking both inward and outward. “I meditate,” she says. “I imagine.” “You mean, visualize?” I ask. “Yes,” she says.
I do the dishes. Melvin gives Phil his shoe glue so he can repair his boots. He refuses to let Phil pay him. “That’s just an example of pilgrims on the trail helping each other,” Phil says. I exclaim, “I can’t believe you brought shoe glue, Melvin!”
I set off with Melvin. Phil overtakes us. I spend five minutes considering whether to let them go on without me, since I find Phil wearying. Besides, they want to walk a little faster than I do. Having exhausted the Nepalese earthquake, Phil launches into a string of stories about his outdoor adventures. One concerns taking a boat on an Australian river where a beautiful woman with a swimsuit top fed pork chops to “crocs” encountered along the way. He refers to this as “eco-tourism.”
Then my annoyance subsides. The landscape is muffled in low fog this morning, so it isn’t as if Phil’s endless talk is distracting me from interesting sights. I have a glimpse of his big belly through a gap in his shirt where he’s missed a button. He has two shells on his pack, whereas all the other pilgrims I’ve seen have only one. Maybe he thinks, “If one is good, two must be better.”
Anneli catches up with us, and I can talk with her and leave Phil to Melvin. Later, Phil and Anneli pair up and walk on more quickly. Good, because I only got partway through Melvin’s life story yesterday and want to hear the rest. Not that he took me through it chronologically, instead hopping around as the conversation dictated. This morning, I have him fill in some of the bits he hopped over.
To my mind, Melvin is more a Mid-Atlantic than a true American. His parents separated when he was four. His father lived in California, working for Westinghouse, while his mother was a lawyer for NATO, moving between New York and Brussels. Instead of having Melvin shuttle back and forth between the two coasts, looked after by nannies while they pursued their high-power careers, his parents decided it was better to have Melvin live with his grandmother in Stuttgart. His grandmother had him educated by tutors, always male and always British, since she was dubious about the present-day German educational system. Later, Melvin attended a private prep school in Massachusetts. His studies included four years of Latin and Greek and a “woodworking class” in which students made reproductions of Colonial furniture. After that, off to Cornell.
I’m surprised to learn Melvin’s grandmother is still alive, at ninety-four. She’s a Sudeten German, raised north of Prague. After the war, the Czechs seized the family home. She and her mother escaped over the border to Germany on a sled, carrying jewelry and other portable forms of wealth. Border guards fired at them. As a child, it had made a great impression on Melvin that his grandmother specified they fired seven shots. Pictured in my mind, the event is a composite of old movies, though in all of them, the people are fleeing out of Germany, not into it.
As a teenager, Melvin accompanied his grandmother on a trip to the Czech Republic, her first visit since she ran away over fifty years before. They went on a guided tour, since she was too old to drive and Melvin too young. As they progressed through the country, the grandmother kept disconcerting the guide by correcting his mistakes in rusty Czech. One of the stops on the tour was the town the grandmother had grown up in. Her family’s home was now a museum. The information available contained only a fleeting reference to the former owners.
To help me picture the scene of his grandmother returning to her former home, I use the final moments of another film, The Woman in Gold, which I watched a few months ago. I see Helen Mirren/Maria Altmann walk through her former flat in Vienna. It’s been turned into an architects’ office, but she sees it as it used to be; sees her father, sees the party after her own wedding. Helen/Maria smiles through the scene, though in the movie theater I, and probably most of the rest of the audience, cried.
I tell Melvin I find his grandmother’s story interesting and moving. I can imagine it as a film – except that no one would ever make such a film, no one outside Germany at any rate. The story doesn’t concern an Austrian-Jewish family fleeing before the war, but a Sudeten-German family fleeing afterward. His grandmother and her family are bracketed with the bad guys, and no matter how great their misfortunes, most people wouldn’t care too much about them.
Melvin knows lots of curious facts, such as that diamonds are actually fairly plentiful in the world, but that the supply is carefully limited to keep prices high. My response to many things he says is, “I’m amazed you know that.” I joke, “I bet you even know what a vernissage is.” For some reason, that word has always stuck in my mind. “I’ve heard the word before,” Melvin says, “but tell me what it means.”
I detect a little anxiety at the suggestion that he does not know something. I don’t feel he’s trying to impress me with his displays of knowledge. It seems more a matter of his relations with himself and with distant figures. Maybe it’s his parents he needs to prove something to, or his grandmother. Although he’s close to her, he claims she doesn’t have a very highly estimate of him by her standards. “I’m a poor writer, a bad shot.”
Melvin listens to my grab bag of ideas about the French with almost no comment. He doesn’t have anything bad to say about them, as he doesn’t have anything bad to say about Americans. It’s as if there’s some prohibition in him about criticizing. An electric fence he reaches, telling him to keep out of this zone.
Not that the French are all bad. Five motorcyclists pass us on the trail, coming from the other direction. In civilized France, each guy gives Melvin and me a sharp little nod of his helmeted head acknowledging that we’ve stood aside to let the group past.
We arrive at Le Sauvage, a revamped farm complex with a restaurant, a shop, and a large gîte. I’m glad I made a reservation because in the last few days, I’ve kept hearing people say they’ve tried to get one without success. When Melvin inquires if by chance there are any beds available, the clerk tells him she’s “desolated” to have to tell him no. Desolé one of those words that strikes us foreigners as delicious, like enchanté for “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” We relish the prospect of a country where people are either desolated or enchanted.
The restaurant is housed in a long stone building with buttresses on the outer walls. Entering, we greet some familiar faces, including a man from my first day in Le Puy. We join Phil and Anneli, who are having coffee. First Anneli moves on, then Phil. Melvin and I have lunch together. I finally make use of the plastic container I’d brought with me to store half of my pork chop and Melvin’s potatoes, intending to eat these later.
After lunch, Melvin gets ready to depart. He gives me his email, and I tell him I’ll write him. “I’d like to see you if I come to Paris,” I say. My mom was a great believer in Synchronicity, I tell him, and she would have seen our meeting as a perfect example of this. I say, “I’m not sure how I would have gotten through that day without you.”
I wish I could collect my favorite people I’ve met on this walk, Rebecca and Anneli and Melvin, and make the whole journey with them. Instead, I have to say goodbye, knowing I may not see them again later.
In the gîte, I find two pages of rules posted near the entrance. “Le gîte est un hérbergement collectif où il est impérativement demandé… ” A list follows of what is imperatively demanded of one in this collective lodging, including, “De fair preuve de civisme en general, to give proof of your general civic-mindedness.”
Since I’m the first person to arrive in my room, I choose what seems the best bed, next to the window. Other people arrive, say bonjour. They’re pretty quiet – I do like that the French tend to be quiet. Later, I sit in the communal area on the ground floor using the public computer to check my email. At another table, three people play cards. A man washes clothes in the sink.
At seven, I go to the restaurant for dinner. Fearful me (I start to say “shy, ” but it’s really more specifically that I’m fearful) has an impulse to sit at one of the empty tables. Then I realize we’re supposed to sit where places have been laid. At first I think I’m lucky that a seat is available across from the only youngish male guest I’ve spotted so far. He’s talking with a woman in her sixties. I don’t speak to either of them at first. Applying my awkward-around-strangers-theory, I decide it’s better to give the French time to adjust to my presence. I look around at the former barn. The roof is supported by rough-hewn granite columns. Contrasting with these are contemporary elements added in a re-do, walls of wood slats, a poured concrete floor.
I conclude the woman isn’t French, but another Québécoise, to judge by her accent. She complains to the young man about the extreme conservatism of the U.S. “But I do like New Orleans,” she says. “There’s music everywhere in New Orleans.” Eventually, I speak to the woman, confirming that she’s from Quebec. She has very blue eyes, brought out by her blue blouse.
The main course arrives. Beef. It isn’t just that I don’t like the taste of beef or have moral objections to killing cows. A couple of times when I’ve eaten beef after a long absence, it hasn’t agreed with me. I’ve read that you lose the enzymes to digest beef if you didn’t eat it regularly. I eat some of the gravy on slices of bread, trying to pretend this creates an adequate main course.
I ask the young man some questions. Where is he from? Dijon. I say that I’ve visited Dijon and that I used to have a friend who lived near there (Denise, who has sadly passed away). He doesn’t comment. Taking off from his telling the Québécoise he’d like to go to New Orleans to hear jazz, I ask if he likes music. Yes. Does he play an instrument? Yes, the piano. I say I play the piano, too. No comment. Does he play jazz? No, classical. Professionally? No. He says he’s tried playing jazz, but can’t. I point out that in the past, composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart improvised. No comment. Maybe he doesn’t know this fact. Maybe he’s a Frenchman who doesn’t want to admit he doesn’t know a fact.
I have my next question ready: who is his favorite composer? I don’t ask it, suddenly tired of generating a conversation without much help from him. I think of Rebecca saying that the French aren’t good at small talk.
The husband of the Québécoise arrives and sits to my right. From this point on, I talk mostly with them. My French doesn’t seem very good this evening, and the accents of the French Canadians, though not strong, give me some trouble. The Québécoise tells me they’ve already walked the Camino Francés. It’s more cosmopolitan than the Le Puy Route, she says, attracting people from a wide variety of countries. The first night, they shared a room with a Frenchman, a Bostonian who spoke some French, and a Canadian from Ottawa who spoke none. Because of the Ottawan, the group spoke English.
This bothers the Québécoise. “Canada is a bilingual country,” she says. “But what the Anglophones mean by that is that they’ll speak English to us and we’ll speak English to them.” I can’t help wishing these two would speak English with me, but her language chauvinism keeps me from requesting a switch.
I ask the couple if the French are welcoming to them. Yes, the woman says. From the perspective of territory, Quebec is a larger French-speaking country than France. The French appreciate its importance in maintaining the world presence of the language.
The English-speaking and French-speaking North Americans unite in disparaging the trop petit petit dejeuner, the too-little Continental breakfast. I ask Mr. Dijon what he eats for breakfast. Bread or a croissant, he says. He says he knows breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but still, he sticks to having a typical French one.
Toward the end of the meal, one of the waiters, Nichol, stands amid the tables and gets the attention of the diners. He announces he’s going to tell us some of the history of Le Sauvage.
Nichol explains that we’re in the former barn. He can remember cows getting milked here when he was a boy. He gives us lots of details about the property passing from one owner to another. President Chirac wanted to build an amusement park here – this prompts noises of disgust from the audience. When a group of people proposed the current project, with its restaurant, store, and gîte, they arranged a meeting with farmers in the area to see which ones wanted to be involved. Thirty signed up. These farmers are happy to have their products consumed locally rather than sent to Italy, Nichol says. For some reason, Nichol singles out Italy as a distant location, not California or Japan. He talks for a surprisingly long time. I like his not assuming we have short attention spans.
“Here in the Gévaudan, we don’t have the sea like the Côte d’Azur,” Nichol says. “We don’t have the mountains. What we have is the Camino.” Curious to think how this old pilgrimage trail, almost forgotten for centuries, has become a major source of jobs and income in the region.
Returning to the gîte, I sit in bed reading a little of The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, a Project Gutenberg freebie, like the Stevenson book. This seems appropriate to read while walking a pilgrimage trail, though it’s hardly a page-turner. I’m the first to lie down and go to sleep. People must be pretty quiet coming in because they don’t wake me. At least the French are usually quiet….
The first person to go to sleep, me, is the first up, at six. I take a shower. Downstairs in the common area, I tell a cleaner that I’ve left some things on my bed and that I’m heading off to breakfast. “Ça va?” I ask. “Is that all right? “Pas de souci,” the woman says cheerfully. “Don’t worry.” I feared I might get a French scolding for breaking some rule.
Though I was the first person up, my shower and some dawdling makes me one of the last to arrive for breakfast. Vacating their tables, some people bring the butter, jam and other things over to mine. I’m surprised, since I don’t think of the French as being particularly thoughtful toward strangers. There are cornflakes for breakfast, the inevitable baguettes. I see a big sack of baguettes behind the counter, like a sack of fertilizer.
It’s a coldish day, with wind driving the clouds. I pass through forests that remind me of Mendocino in Northern California, with a wilderness feeling to them. Lots of pines, their tips looking like they’ve been dipped in bright green paint. The trail is lined by wire fences held up by rough wooden posts, here and there a granite one. Yesterday, Melvin told me this was perhaps the prettiest stretch of the route, and I can believe it.
In the afternoon, the sun wins its battle against the clouds. The weather is perfect for hiking, cool-warm. At each step comes several small sounds: my day pack shuffing against my jacket; my boots and sticks hitting the ground; my scallop shell giving a tiny clink against my backpack.
Later, I come upon the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen – at least I can’t remember one that’s more beautiful. It’s like a tree in a fairy tale, a tree with magical powers. I was looking for a stone to sit on while I ate my lunch. Instead I just to plop down on the grassy bank so I can look at this tree while I eat. It’s a birch, judging by its white bark, though it seems unusually large for a birch, much bigger than the others I’ve seen earlier today. Near the ground, its trunk divides in two, and both halves are massive.
One reason for the beauty of the tree is the way it combines the balance and simplicity of its two equal trunks with the irregularity and multiplicity of its smaller branches. The wind slants these branches at more or less the same diagonal and gives the tree a voice, making it speak softly. A second reason is the isolation of the tree by the side of the trail, without any others growing near it. The third is the rich full light in which I happen to see it, and the fourth, a deep blue sky for a backdrop. If I’d seen this tree on a dim cloudy day, I might have walked by with only a passing glance.
This is the Day of Pansies and Broom. Sometimes the pansies are scattered among the grass, sometimes bunched together into bouquets. I keep taking photos of them, they’re so gorgeous. As for the broom, it crowds against fences, dots fields, is scattered among the trees. When the sun appears, it draws out the scent of the blossoms. If a particular day had its colors, like school colors or the national colors of a flag, this day would have the colors pansy violet and broom yellow.
Two women catch up with me as I’m taking a break. One asks if I remember them. Yes, I say. At first I can’t place them, though. “We stayed in the same gîte in Montbonnet,” she says. “You spoke with the Dutchman.” What interests me afterward is her tone of taking me to task for not having a clearer memory of them, though with a smile (for one thing, I’m thrown by her calling the German a Dutchman.) It’s as if everyone in France were a schoolmaster or mistress. Suddenly sitting beside a woodland path, I’m being chided by a schoolmistress. Apologizing, I say that I have only une petite mémoire, a little memory. “Moi aussi,” she says, “me, too.” Here’s another part of the pattern, that when a French person chides me, if I don’t bristle or contradict, he lays off.
Later, a youngish Frenchwoman gives me a small “Bonjour” as she comes up behind me on the trail. Farther on, entering a hamlet, I catch up with her. She asks me if I know where lechemin is, the Camino. I say I don’t; I’m looking for it, too; I only know we’re going in the right general direction. Leaving the hamlet, we coincide again. I ask if that was St. Alban we just passed through. No, she says. We keep converging, yet don’t quite become friendly, minimizing each interaction.
I see the young woman turn off toward a farm gîte. I do the same, wanting to see if I can buy a sandwich for tomorrow. This is Monday, and people have warned me shops are closed on Monday. I enter the barn after the Frenchwoman. She has an exchange with a young woman there, then leaves, now with neither of us saying anything to the other as we pass.
I talk to the woman in the barn. “Do you speak English?” she asks. She’s Dutch. She’s staying at the farm. I ask if I can buy any food here. No, though she says the bakeries will in fact be open Monday, at least in the morning.
“Where did you start walking?” I ask. “Amsterdam,” she says. “You’ve come from farther away than anyone else I’ve met,” I say. Her plan is to walk all the way to Santiago, which will take her five months. This encounter feels very different from the string of little ones I had with the Frenchwoman, with me and the Dutch girl making a fast, pleasant connection.
Later in the afternoon, as if to keep my opinions of the French from settling, I have a nice encounter with three French people, a man and two women. They identify some of the plants on the trail for me. I learn the French for broom, genêt. “You know a lot about plants,” I say. “We’re from the Jura,” the man says. “We spend a lot of time out of doors.”
I reach my destination for the night, Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole. In my thoughts, I’ve twisted this into Saint-Alban-Sir-Rigamarole. Tonight, I’m staying at a chambre d’hôte, the French equivalent of a bed and breakfast. I stop at a gîte on the main street and ask the proprietor for directions. He’s an alternative-looking guy. Unshaven, lean, tan, with hair close clipped except for a six inch tail in back. He holds a baby while he talks; his son’s, as he explains.
I spot the people from the Jura sitting at the table inside. Mr. Jura tells me they’re staying at the gîte. Also eatinghere. Laurent, the proprietor, invites me to join “my friends.” I ask what he’s serving, fearing more beef. The menu is green salad, pasta carbonara with mushrooms, and cheese. Deciding I can handle a little pork, I ask the price. Laurent says he’d recently decided to have an open price, between ten and twelve euros. Privately, this spectrum strikes me as pretty narrow.
I find my chambre d’hôte on a side street. As I approach the house, a woman emerges onto an upper porch. “Monsieur Pedler?” she calls down to me. At the front door, Madame Coston shakes my hand, the first hostess to do this so far on the trip. Would I like something to drink? No, thank you. She leads me up a staircase. The walls and even the ceiling are covered by a strange patterned wallpaper of dark blue. She shows me my room. “C’est – ” I struggle to find a word in my limited vocabulary – “accueillant. It’s – welcoming.” I force myself to ask how much it is, to verify the price quoted in Miam Miam. Are there other – ? Unable to think of the French for “guests,” I say “persons.” Six, Madame tells me.
The decor of this room is so particular, so far from that of a bland anonymous hotel room, that the first thing I do when I’m alone is examine every single thing about it. The walls are covered by a different wallpaper, this one with pink and olive-green flowers. Lots of grandmotherly bric-a-brac. An oil painting of white roses in a vase. On the dresser, an old alarm clock; Christ carrying a cross; a tortoise shell. My favorite item is a ceramic statuette of a boy and girl sitting on a bench with two rose bushes behind them. The girl holds an open book and has her ankles crossed. The boy has what looks like an artist’s portfolio under his arm.
Having finished exploring the room, I explore the town. Only a little, since I’m tired after walking all day. I come upon the war monument, a centerpiece of almost every French town. The dead of World War I take up two sides and most of a third. There are only seven names from World War II.
I return to the gîte for dinner. A sign on the front door promises “Accueil amical et solidaire.” I think this translates more or less as: “A welcome that is friendly and in which we stand with you against oppressive forces like big business and the ruling class.” In contrast to the other gîtes I’ve stayed in, Laurent eats with his guests, sitting at the head of the table. His wife Carine and son Samuel also join us. And Samuel’s baby, who spends most of its time in a baby seat placed at one end of the dining table. The son’s wife is absent for some reason, and Carine is often occupied looking after the baby.
Before we eat, Laurent leads us in a moment of silence. He then asks if anyone has something to say. A woman asks us to pray for the recovery of a sick friend. I’m pretty sure this is the woman I kept encountering earlier in the day. Later, she puts on a white jacket. I recognize the jacket from the afternoon, confirming that yes, this is the same person.
Laurent talks to us about “labelle énergie duchemin, the beautiful energy of the Camino.” He says the Camino is chargé (loaded with people) from the start of May until mid-June. After that, it quiets down. Then it’s chargé again in August.
The salad is of bitter greens with bits of fig and apple for sweetener. For the pasta carbonara, Laurent fries an egg for each person, placing it atop the portion. I don’t think fast enough to ask him to flip mine over. As an American, I’ve been taught to fear runny eggs like a gun pressed against my temple. I see three possibilities: the eggs are safer here, the French are less hypochondriac, or the French are more reckless. I make a note to myself to look into this question later. In the meantime, since all the other guests are eating their eggs without apparent qualms, I eat mine.
With a dozen people seated around the table, all French-speaking, the conversation is the sort that’s the biggest challenge for me. Now this voice speaks, now that, in different registers, with different intonations. Sentences go unfinished. Someone interrupts. Someone talks through a mouthful of food. Someone turns away from me so that I can’t supplement what I’m hearing by reading his lips. The subject keeps changing. Almost all I catch in the talk of the woman in the white jacket is that she’s from Paris.
I understand Laurent best, partly because I’m seated close to him. I learn that one of his parents is Andalusian, the other French. He addresses me as tu. I wonder whether this shows his Spanish side, since, unlike the French, the Spanish have moved away from using the formal “you.” Or perhaps this is part of the accueil amical et solidaire.
Laurent tells me he’s walked the Camino with his family. He points out on the wall some articles about this that appeared in a local newspaper. These include photos of him and his family on the trail, the son a teenager at the time. Laurent says the Spanish along the Camino Francés are very welcoming. I wonder if he’s implying they’re more so than the people on the French Caminos. He reports that few Spaniards walk the French Caminos, without offering an explanation.
On a side table stands an array of herbal preparations for sale that Laurent and his family have made from local plants. The bottles and tubes have charming labels glued on by hand. Laurent tells the guests that the mushrooms we ate that evening were ones he collected in the woods. If this meal finishes me off, who’s to say whether the runny egg is responsible or the wild mushrooms? The cheese course consists of several local cheeses. The woman across from me says the U.S. can’t make cheese. At least not good cheese, like the French.
Melvin told me he thought long-distance walking was addictive. Getting ready for bed, I do feel – I think first “pleasantly tired,” then cross this out and replace it with “not unpleasantly tired,” which is more accurate. And I experience that hard-to-describe sensation of having been out of doors all day, in the fresh air, surrounded by nature. My eyes have been filled constantly by the magical color green.
In the morning, I descend to Madame Coston’s dining room, swimming down through the odd but rather splendid dark-sea-blue wallpaper on the stairwell. After two nights in a former seminary and five in gîtes, I look forward to sitting in a proper dining room in a proper home. The walls of this room are covered with yet another paper. A glass-fronted cabinet is crowded with objets.
Three people are already seated at the table speaking German. Okay, I think, from French at dinner to German at breakfast. Isn’t that what I come to Europe for? Discovering that I don’t speak German, they switch to English, though the two Swiss, a husband and wife, seem more at ease in it than the guy from Frankfurt. I compliment the Swiss on their English. “I just finished writing my PhD. in English,” the woman says. “What it’s about?” I ask. “Bacteria in lakes,” she replies. “You could study the lakes here,” I say, “like Lake Egg.” Smiling, she says, “Frankly, I’m tired of the subject. One reason for walking the Camino is to give me time to think about what I want to do now that I have my degree. I don’t think I want go into research.”
The Swiss couple says they’re from Zurich. I say that Zurich is – magnifique, now speaking French because a French couple has joined us. Assuming the role of language liaison officer, I ask the French if they speak English. No, they say. Since at least the Swiss man speaks pretty good French, we stick with French.
The Swiss couple are walking all the way to Santiago. “How can you take that much time off work?” I ask. The man says, “I’m a substitute teacher. All I have to do is not take any assignments during this period.” The French couple say they can only walk for five days. As for the German, he tells us he’s doing the Camino on a bicycle. He’s taking a different route from the walkers, using country roads.
As so often, the small breakfast is big on bread. Fortunately my appetite for butter is holding strong. For me, bread is just an accompaniment to butter.
After the three German speakers leave, I continue talking with the French couple. Yesterday, they couldn’t find a place to stay in one village and had to go on to the next. “We ended up walking thirty-two kilometers,” the woman says. “Still, we don’t want to make reservations. We can always sleep out of doors if we have to. This walk is suppose to be an adventure!”
The couple is relaxed, chatty. I remind myself to take each French person as he or she comes. The French run too wide a gamut of types for me to meet them girded with only a single stance.
Today’s landscape would seem more beautiful if yesterday’s weren’t casting it in the shade a little. More pale dirt roads, more pine forests, more genêt. How to describe the scent of genêt? I think of it as a warm yellow one. This is because the sun brings out the scent, so my smelling the genêt is usually accompanied by the sight of it in blazing sunlight. As the Swiss woman, with her scientific bent, pointed out at breakfast, the volcanic rocks around Le Puy have given way to granite. The contours of the land are more rounded here.
Much as I’m enjoying lechemin, I wish it would sometimes follow a river. Occasionally it crosses one, but so far it’s never followed one.
When I tried to picture what this walk would be like beforehand, I imagined myself passing through farmland all the way, dotted with villages lying close together. A storybook French countryside. Instead, after that first day, I’ve traveled through what’s closer to wilderness. In my topo guide, I read that the department I crossed into yesterday, the Lozère, is the one of the least populated in France.
On earlier stretches of the trail, helpful yellow signs gave the distances to one or more destinations. I haven’t seen a single one of these today. At the dinner last night, someone explained that in each region the route passed through, a local association administered its section independently; for example, putting up different types of signs. Okay, isn’t this something else I come to Europe for, variation in an increasingly homogenized world? Still, I miss the yellow signs.
I pass an aire de pique-nique, a picnic area, next to some farm buildings. Pilgrims are sitting at several of the tables. After filling my water bottles at the water tap, I talk with two German women. I question the blonde one about her wheeled carrier. Earlier on the trail, I saw her pulling this with nothing on it and her pack on her back. “I have problems with my knees,” she says, “so using the carrier helps me. It works well on level ground, not so well on uphills and downhills.” That explains why she was carrying her pack when I saw her.
The brunette says her friend is the sort who weighs each item before putting it in her bag, taking only the absolute essentials. “Your bag looks heavy to me,” the blonde says. “Are you carrying a sleeping bag? My friend and I only have liners.” Standing up for my packing job, I say, “I’ve gotten rid of two books.” “Did you bring a computer?” the blonde says. “No,” I say. “I do have an e-reader, though.” The woman points to my real-book copy of Miam Miam, which I’d been studying. “Why don’t you have Miam Miam on your e-reader instead of carrying the book around?” she asks. By my silence, I admit that this would have been possible. She smiles and says, “On your next walk, I’m sure you’ll pack lighter.”
A half-hour’s walk farther on, I find a lovely mossy bank amid the pine trees where I eat lunch. I realize I can lean the pack against a trunk, then me against the back of the pack. Out in the woods, this is the nearest I can come to recumbent comfort. It’s quiet here, very peaceful. After I’ve finished eating, I linger for a while, dappled by sunlight and shade. If I were someone who takes naps, I’d be tempted to have one now. A cuckoo-like bird, or an actual cuckoo, sings two notes over and over, one higher, the other lower.
At last, I decide it’s time to move on. Hoisting it onto my back, I reconvert my pack from a pseudo-chaise into a piece of luggage. The hoisting is the worst part of carrying a backpack and makes me reluctant to take it off in the first place. It’s always a slight struggle to get my arms through the straps and the pack squared away on my back. I imagine Robert Louis Stevenson struggling to get his pack onto the back of Modestine. In my case, I’m the human voyager and the donkey combined.
I get my legs going again; my legs which are my form of locomotion on this journey. As I walk, I sing “The Happy Wanderer,” a song from my childhood. “I love to go a-Wandering, Along the mountain track, And as I go, I love to sing, My knapsack on my back.”
I consider what path through time led me to the physical path I’m walking at this moment. It starts with my parents taking me and my brother hiking and camping. I think of Koolaid hikes, where the reward for kids at the end of a hot, sweaty hike was a glass of Koolaid: a drink health-minded parents probably don’t let their kids drink nowadays. Campfire circles in national parks: sitting with other campers on a semi-circle of logs; slides casting onto a screen big images of squirrels and birds and flowers; the woods dark and mysterious beyond our sphere of light. We don’t see until we’re older how the dropped stone sends out ripples. I’m sad for a bit, missing my parents.
I reach a T junction. I look for a marker showing which way I should turn; those precious horizontal lines, one white, the other red, painted on a rock or tree or post. It comes back to me that while I was resting on the mossy bank, I didn’t notice a single person pass along the trail. Damn! I’ve done what I was surprised those other pilgrims managed to do earlier. I’ve wandered off the route.
I hurry back the way I came. I scour trees and posts with my eyes to verify there aren’t any markers and that this is in fact the wrong trail. The trail I’m on looks perfectly all right, like one other people have used. I can’t even recall the junction where I must have made the wrong choice. That’s the most worrying part.
Finally I reach a junction and realize that this is where I deviated. I thought that a small pile of stones someone had placed there was pointing down the road I’d taken. Maybe in fact it was trying to communicate, “Don’t go this way.” I changed the arrangement, lest it confuse someone else.
Yet if I hadn’t gone down the wrong trail, I would have missed the mossy bank. Also the moment of connecting with my childhood.
My mistake sharpens my gratitude for the markers. “Thank you for making these,” I think, “whoever you are, with your buckets of red paint and white paint.” I realize that once you veer off the route, unless you can retrace your steps to the veering point, you’re in trouble. The topo guide is only useful if you can figure out where you are. I do wish there were more big, unmistakable landmarks on this route. Something like the Pyrenees ahead or the Atlantic to one side, to orient me.
I reach La Ferme du Barry, the Barrys’ Farm. This is a larger, slicker operation than the Buisson farm, though also family run. One of the sons looks for my name in the appointment book. Only the first letter of my surname has been entered correctly. After the ʻp,’ there’s only wild guessing. Do Anglo-Saxon names pose as many difficulties for French people as French ones do for me? The son shows me to my room. A man has already taken another bed here. Uncharacteristically for a French person, he introduces himself. His name is Guy.
I spend a lot of time rummaging among my things, so much that I wonder if Guy is getting annoyed. For one thing, where’s my hat? I remember pushing it off my head as I came through the arched entrance to the courtyard of the farm, but the cord should have held it around my neck.
I ask the son if anyone has turned it in. He goes outside and climbs an external staircase. Returning, he tells me to wait. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for. Either someone has found the hat and turned it in or not. Finally a man comes down the stairs and holds out a hat. He says something like, “This isn’t my hat, so it must be yours.” Something that I believe is actually odder than that, a little challenging. Certainly not “I’m sorry, I took your hat by mistake.” I vaguely get that he’s trying to be droll, so I’m not ruffled.
Later, I go downstairs to have dinner. I look around the large rustic room, which contains a half-dozen long tables. Where should I sit? The nearest option is next to a man in a bright blue shirt at the table near the bottom of the stairs. I don’t sit there or at the next table either, wanting to see my other options. I decide the best choice, or the least doubtful, is to sit next to a man with a pleasant face at the table near the outer door. He and a woman sit on the far side of the table with their backs to the wall as if prepared to view some entertainment in the space in front of them. I won’t be sitting across from someone here, face to face, and that will make me feel less like I’m intruding. I ask the man if the place beside him is free. Yes, he says.
Shortly after I sit down, the host and chef, Vincent, comes over to me. He points out the man in the blue shirt, an Australian, and invites me to sit with him. I hesitate, putting my hands on my empty plate, unsure if Vincent wants me to take it with me. This gives the man beside me time to assure me it’s all right if I stay where I am. I tell Vincent I can speak French with this couple.
Another couple joins the first, sitting across from them. The two men are brothers: Bernard, the man I’ve been talking with, and Jean. Jean is the man who returned my hat. He tells me that his wife, Florence, pointed to it on the ground and said, “There’s your hat.” He tells me he has one that looks just like it, though he doesn’t explain why he kept my hat if he already had his.
Vincent, in his gray smock, goes from table to table showing guests the cheese he’ll use to make aligot, a regional dish. Later, he returns with a big pot of aligot, which looks like off-white taffy. He uses one wooden spoon to pull up a length of it, another to cut off a big glob that he dumps on someone’s plate. Aligot is made from cheese, potatoes, and cream, Bernard explains. When Vincent comes around, Bernard tells him he went to the pharmacy to get an anti-inflammatory for his wife Julie, who has a sore tendon in her foot. “I asked the pharmacist what precautions I should take while eating aligot. She told me not to drink anything cold and to eat slowly. Well, I followed her advice about not drinking anything cold, but I’m afraid not about eating slowly.” The aligot is accompanied by my arch enemy, beef. I put some gravy on a piece of bread, as I did at Le Sauvage.
Bernard and Jean are both tall and well-built. They look fairly close in age. I don’t ask which is older, knowing this may lead to an awkward moment of one of them asking, “Can’t you tell?” I see Bernard’s big hand holding his wife’s hand or placed on her leg. That must be nice, I thought, to have a man do that. At first, Bernard seems like my main connection with the group. Later, this becomes Jean. Jean even more interested in kidding around than Bernard, and I love to kid around.
I tell Jean about the cheese from Carrefour that has kept for five days in my backpack. I say, “It must have lots of preservatives.” I use préservatifs in one of those language moments of hoping this is a cognate and not a “false friend.” Jean tells me that the correct word is conservateurs, then asks if I know what unpréservatif is. Yes, I say. “Etbaiser?” he asks. Yes, I say again. Baiser means to fuck. I mention that one of the towns coming up on our route is named Condom. I say, “On ne dois pas baiser sans unpréservatif à Condom”: “One shouldn’t fuck without a condom in Condom.” Jean laughs at my joke.
I find Jean rather attractive, though he isn’t at all young, with lines in his face and tough brown skin. He has a fine neck and shoulders, like the fine antlers of a deer; that’s one of the keys to his attractiveness. White stubble on his cheeks, blue eyes.
Jean and Florence live near Béziers. He has a boat and likes to fish. Bernard complains humorously that earlier that day, Jean told the others to wait while he went off to fish. “He didn’t return for a whole hour, which is why we arrived at the farm so late.” Jean tells me, “I caught a trout.” “What did you do with it?” I ask. “Looked at it,” he says. “Then I threw it back, since it was too small.” He tells the story of catching the fish in a cute voice, high and soft and droll, and accompanies it with cute gestures; for instance, to show us the small size of the fish. “If I’d taken the fish,” he says, “that would have been one less in the river.”
The two wives grumble that the men are making them walk too far each day. At least they don’t have to carry their backpacks. They tell me about a service they’re using, La Malle Postale. This company transports people’s packs from one location to the next, so that they only have to carry day packs.
In my room, Guy tells me that his wife says he snores. His snoring turns out not to be too bad. No one has claimed the third bed in the room, which contributes to a peaceful night.