Walk Gently

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walk gentlyI’ve always loved Paul’s outburst to the Corinthians, urging them to “run in such as way as to get the prize.” But in these last few days I’ve been thinking about that in a new light.

I tried to step up my game last week, wanted to keep up with the European 60-year-olds, and pulled a couple of 20-miler days with something like a 30-pound pack, food and water included. I did OK, rubbed some new blisters, sweat out any remaining toxins and had only one hysteria breakdown when I couldn’t find gluten free food in the small no-restaurant, no-grocery-store village where I’d stopped for the night. All in all, I thought I’d stepped up to a new level. But then my feet wouldn’t stop hurting.

After a day of rest and a short Monday, I was still hobbling in flip-flops, and I discussed the problem with some veteran walkers. “Take another day off,” they advised, “or get a taxi to carry your bags.” To my grimace, they added, “If you injure yourself now, you won’t finish.”

The I-haven’t-yet-checked stat backing up their warning was that only 3% of pilgrims leaving Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French Way actually make it to Santiago. Yikes…

I dumped some extra weight (down to just one hiking outfit now) and took another slow day. Today I’m resting in a yurt in a campground with a swimming pool, a trampoline and trees. Not bad.

I think about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim and his progress sometimes. Am I getting distracted, having too much fun on this journey toward the cross? Or are fun and rest part of the pilgrimage too?

My conclusion is that, more often than not, it’s better to stop, bandage the feet and call a friend. I want that prize, yes, and that’s why I’m making sure I stay in shape to finish.


Loving the French

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Friendly French 01
Even donkeys get a friendly hello.

The French are a delightful, friendly people who love to engage, make little jokes and walk down and back up very long hills just for bouquets of flowers. Indeed, I wish I knew the language and culture better than I yet do, but for now here are a few tips on loving the French:

Say hello

French people say hello all the time but only once a day to each person. Be attentive! Say, “Bonjour!” when you first meet anyone, when you enter a shop and even when you pass an elderly couple (or anyone) in the street. Always say hello to waiters or shopkeepers before anything else. The second time you see someone, it’s nice to say, “Ça va?” And if you see someone in the evening, you can say, “Bonsoir,” even if you’ve already said, “Bonjour.”

Get used to French time

Rural French shopkeepers tend to open from around 8 a.m. – 12 p.m., close for lunch, then open again from around 3 – 7 p.m. Sundays they might close entirely or just open for a morning window.

Friendly French 02
Hikers didn’t just stop to shoot a shot on the way past Saint-Chely this rainy day. They gathered around the proprietor for stories and jokes. All shook his hand with warm thanks when leaving.

If you find this annoying, ask the shopkeeper who runs the place morning to night, seven days a week, and maybe you will suggest he or she should close more often.

Use and buy graciously

I haven’t asked, but I don’t think the American motto of the customer always being right carries over to France. If you want to try on a shirt, ask first. If you stay the night at a hostel, fold the linens you used and wash and dry all your dishes.


You can tell a French person from a distance by the smile wrinkles. Crows feet sprout from even many of the young. While Americans might stretch their cheeks outward when they smile and get those vertical cheek lines, the French tend to smile upward, squinting their eyes into mirthful little half-moons. The lips, puckered a bit to make the tricky nasal sounds, might curve up or down or twist both ways. I’m suspecting a capricious sense of humor, but I haven’t figured that out yet.

Friendly French 03
I’ve no idea why the French like to laugh at me.

What I have noticed is that they love to talk about others. I have just to sit in a restaurant, and already several pairs of eyes are usually studying me and sometimes quietly muttering possible nationalities. When I order my food, conversations about gluten intolerance ripple outward. Once, after just surviving a stressful string of telephone reservations, the other guests at my hostel began repeating my script – “Je m’appelle Lainie. Je suis une pèlerine.” – hyper slow and giggling.

When I made sounds of   indignation (I am so articulate), they laughed even louder and told me I spoke really good French. It was not true, but it was, somehow, sweet.

I love the French.

Reserving ahead: The great debate

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pilgrim mural 01a
This stunning depiction of pilgrim life was part of a wall-length painting by Herve Vernhes in the Notre Dame des Pauvres, Aubrac.

To book or not to book? This is the question that preoccupies many a pilgrim and conversation on the way.

On the one hand, not-booking is freedom. You get to stop in whatever village you want, whatever lovely gîte (pronounced zheet) you like with whomever lovely person you met throughout the day.

On the other hand, booking gives you the comfort of knowing you will have a warm, food-filled (if you go for demi-pension) and not-too-expensive place to sleep each night.

For me the deciding factors are French holidays.

The French love to vacation in families and groups. As cool as this is, it means one large group can book out an entire gîte for a night, skewing the normal pattern of openings. This Sunday, the day before Lundi de Pentecôte, the entire 96-bed dormitory at the Abbey in Conques is booked out.

(Quoi? Comment est-ce possible???)

(Il est possible, mon ami.)

I would not have eaten cheese off a roof tile had I not booked ahead at Fabienne’s fabulous Gîte d’étape Pélerin in Liris.

Usually, traveling alone, I don’t book. I am free. I am rogue. I figure nearly everyone has at least one spare bed if not an extra mattress to pull out. Traveling this way, I can stop when I’m ready, visit the listed gîtes personally and pick one where I feel a good vibe.

Reality is sometimes less elegant, though. I usually arrive at the intended village exhausted and hungry at around 1 p.m., can’t always find a village map, and the épicerie (grocery store) and tourist office are both closed till at least 2:30. Not having a cell phone, I either sit and wait, swallowing the remaining crumbs of gluten free bread and calculating how late I’ll arrive at the next town if all the places are booked and I have to set out again at, say, 3 – or else I badger a stranger for a call to one of the listed gîtes. Might as well have asked someone I knew to do that the day before, right?

But then again, freedom…

Finding the way

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The way 01The ways of St. James follow city streets, trails, mountain pathways and farm roads. These meander north, south, east and west in their generally westward quest toward Santiago, Spain. Every seven or so kilometers, the Via Podiensis way sends pilgrims through villages with toilets (wc) and drinking water (eau potable). Almost as frequently it directs them to ancient churches and holy places.

So how do we know the way?

The way is symbolized by the scallop shell, which you can see on markers embedded the streets, on walls and on official signposts telling the number of kilometers to the next town. More often, the way is just marked by a yellow stripe on a tree, sign or fencepost. Even more often, the way is marked by the red and white stripe of the Grande Randonnée 65 (GR65).

The GR 65 is a French walking trail that generally follows the same route. Occasionally, the ways diverge, but most pilgrims follow the GR 65, as it is the better marked and usually more direct route to the next destination.

The flag pointing right directs you to make a right turn, while left means left. The X (pic coming soon!) is a dare to just try and leave the trail and get totally lost or mired in mud.

Right sign  Left signx sign

Here you have a choice… Comfort or adventure?

the ways

This is obviously a dare…

way temptation

Why pilgrimage?

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Sauges 02Before leaving home, I came up with many reasons to explain this spiritual wilderness venture to friends and strangers. Few made any sense.

I asked others on the trek. Many answered “pilgrimage,” and that seemed to explain everything. One traveler who had already walked three times from Le Puy said: “It’s not something I can explain. You must understand it with your heart.”

When I speak to the French, however, I get the feeling that the question is not “Why go?” but rather “Pourquoi pas?” The sheer joy of seeing ancient and natural places, of relaxing among fellow travelers, of walking rain or shine and, yes, of moving toward God seems to be reason enough.

All that said, I can only really speak with certainty about my own reason:

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul.”

Leaving Le Puy with a blessing

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Le Puy 05The way, camino or chamin out of Le Puy leads straight down the cobblestoned hill from the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral.

I highly recommend waking up for the 7 a.m. pilgrim’s mass, even if you are not religious. The service is lovely with some singing in Latin, and the pilgrims are invited to gather around the statue of St. Jaques to receive a blessing and token gifts. You can also leave a prayer on a slip of paper and take someone else’s with you. The “other languages” box included English, German and Chinese on a cursory glance. I am praying for you, Janet.

Le Puy 01

Thirty or 40 pilgrims gathered the day I left, and I heard there were 100 the day after. Many took the opportunity to make acquaintances, take pictures and even pair up for the first day of travel.

Sharing food, making friends

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The best way to get any help or information on this trail is to make friends. If you know as little French as I do, you will need friends. A great place to start is the center for the Friends of St. Jaques (St. James) behind the cathedral in Le Puy. I learned about this group when I bought my credential in the sacristy.

At 5:30 p.m. that day the association hosted a gathering for pilgrims setting out the next day. About 14 pilgrims came, most in their 40s to 60s, and we ate cookies and drank chilled wine together. I hardly understood a word of the conversation, but I was still supplied some very useful information as well as a slip of paper listing cheap places to stay.

Years ago while traveling in Central Asia, a friend, Katy, told me if you want to make friends, share your food. I have come to believe this is a world-wide principle. Since I’m gluten intolerant and packing most of my pasta and bread out of Paris, I don’t typically share the meals I cook for myself, but I like to cut up apples and cheese on a plate or break up a bar of chocolate for the table to share. This prompted a “you are nice” from a woman who’d barely spoken a word of English to me before. A cup of tea with lemon can open the floodgates.

In general, you might need to ask for a lot of help, especially when calling ahead for reservations, so be as generous as possible. It always comes around.

“Cast your bread upon the water, and it will come back to you,” as Solomon so enigmatically recorded some 3,000 years ago.

Food 011 Food 02 Food 03

By the way, what is this fruit?