People along the way

Hm.  Beautiful day here in Santiago but I was both a bit overdressed and overloaded with experience so have returned to the peace and cool of my hotel room.  The urge to try to pull so many seething thoughts and feelings into some sort of order won out over temptations to see more buildings, to just lie in the sun somewhere and soak it it up, or to get on the bike and cycle to Padrón.

I could feel a pressure wave building: partly the sheer load of experiences, both today’s, and from the whole adventure.  Also, from the way that it’s been a chance to think back over at least the last 32 years, perhaps all I can remember of my full 59, all those experiences too. That pressure was like an humid onshore wind meeting mountainous ridges and this is the resulting precipitation.  The ridges were the graniticly hard realisation that time is precious, as it always is, but also that it was in precious short supply as geographical dislocation that has been a vital part of the pilgrimage,has only a couple of days to go; really only some waking hours left. Beyond those first ridges lurked the dark one: that mountainous reality that once I’m back, huge backlogs of academic work will impinge with no “sorry, I’m away” excuses left.

I needed to write something to capture something.

Of course, I could be writing or doing so many things to try to pull things into order: there’s a nearly finished blog post I started writing while waiting for the monastery to open in Samos, there are umpteen other blog post ideas that I’ll be sad to leave in that state, there are things l’d like to start doing with the data, with numbers, and talking of numbers, there are 2,333 ‘photos I’ve uploaded over the last 34 days, many of stunning buildings or funny sights and only a tiny fraction of them have appeared anywhere on the site.

However, I think the priority is people and connectedness.  As I said this morning, doing this alone, except for the lovely divertissement week with J, was a key part of the trip.  However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t meet people along the way.  I think literally two people have been not very friendly: the camp site receptionist near Giverny and a hotel receptionist in, hm, oh yes, Puenta la Reina.  Literally every other contact with anyone, from buying food, asking for directions, asking to stay, has been done with at least smiles and many people have been helpful and warm, way above and beyond any reasonable call of duty.

I think that’s been slightly more true in Spain and is part of, by then, my being visibly part of the pilgrim hordes (100,000 pilgrims a year currently according to the wikipedia entry on Santiago), but people were really friendly in France too.  I wonder if my linguistic helplessness in Spain has also elicited this kindness.  Hm, my competence in French is pretty low and interestingly it became worse as I got further south, particularly after leaving J and cycling on.  Accents changed and what I said, short, simple things that I’m sure were no different from the things I’d been saying earlier, got blank looks and often had to be repeated.  The process was bilateral: I increasingly simply couldn’t parse properly things that were said to me and said, embarrassingly as I look back on it now, at one point “Ah!  Un Euro vingt” in response to something I’d heard as “Un Euro vent” (English pronunciation of “vent”, not French). The vowel sound really was completely different.  I must have sounded such an idiot: an nearly monoglot Brit telling a French woman how to pronounce here own language.  She smiled aimiably enough though and just took the change!

There were two lovely experiences in France though, both “coffee moments”.  The first was in a campsite run by Brits in Chef-Boutonne.  It was the second Brit owned campsite in a row and largely occupied by Brits and I confess I was wondering if I belonged.  I asked the couple in the mobile home if it was OK if I pitched my tent quite close to them so my extension cable would get me electricity from the electricity pump (that’s what they look like!)  I think it was Louise and Mike but I’m terrible at names.  She was effusive that of course it was fine and insisted on making coffee for me and we got talking. Mike had had MS for some years and had to stop being a self-employed electrician as a result and Louise had decided that they needed to change things, had given up working for the local public sector where she said that every time another person went she found she had more to do and no more pay.  They had bought the mobile home and had been on the go for three months and were only very reluctantly pointing back to the UK having had a tremendous. A combination of the MS and severe post-fracture arthritis meant that Mike had both exhaustion and a lot of pain and he was a lean and wrily observant to Louise’s big determination to mother anything that would let her (me!)  We talked about France, about the collapse of the morale and meaning of the UK public sector as all three of us, from very different positions, had seen it, and about loving the travel we were getting and Mike insisted on getting the electric bike he used off the bike rack on their mobile home, putting the battery pack into it, and getting me on it.  It was a scream: a real punch of acceleration and power. I think electric bikes will improve a lot more in the next year or two, but if too much hard pedalling is not your thing: give them a serious look.  Louise and Mike transformed that day.

A day or two later, in another campsite, a French man was offering me coffee again. This time I was, and I regret this now, more overfaced by the thought of making conversation with my seemingly ebbing French and his zero English and I declined but the gesture again lifted things and led to a very happy evening just doing my washing and watching French families and friends playing petanque with a real appreciation of their warmth (and some stunning skills with the boules).

I was actually reminded of how little I’ve written about people by meeting my two “Italian friends” again today.  The younger man had apparently seen me here yesterday but said I was obviously concentrating so hadn’t alerted me and I hadn’t seen them.  They still had their very nice Bianchi bikes and those still seemed untouched by road dust. They must wipe them down daily.  By contrast I’ve let Toto acquire what I see as a noble patina of dust that is probably adding to the weight (OK, just kidding about the weight, and cyclists will be glad to hear that I have cleaned and oiled the chain and jockey wheels at least twice a week!)  They had lost their bike trailer and the younger one had a top on whereas he’s more often been naked from the waist up showing off an amazing collection of tattoos including one that seemed to me to have hints of the Virgin Mary with more than a nod to much that might have come out of Hammer films rather than the Bible.  It was cool this morning, or perhaps he too wondered if it was a bit provocative for the cathedral square.  We talked again.  They’re from Viareggio and have ridden all the way from there.  They’re off by bus to Barcelona tomorrow and will work out how to get back from there, they think by boat for the next hop.  He is going to walk the entire Camino from his front door to the Cathedral here again next year.  The older man (not father I don’t think, age gap not enough?) speaks very little English but I thought the aim to walk it next year was in the singular, not the plural.  We all agreed that the last four/five days have been tough on bikes and they too got off and walked up O Cebreiro and they claim everyone does.  Not so, I’m sure my friends there, who have already figured and whom I talked to for only a couple of minutes, made it to the top without pushing but I wasn’t going to say that in our mix of English with my occasional words of Italian!

There was the lady from Madrid who was so shocked to find I was on my own and had come from London on my own even though she to was doing some stretches of the way this year alone.  There was a lady from Ireland in Rabanal.  We stayed in the same hotel and almost literally bumped into each other at the curtain into the small church with the iron gating there.  We again only talked for minutes.  She’s doing the Camino in a series of lumps, this was at least her second year, I think more.  She wasn’t too proud to have taken the bus some of the way on the Meseta she said (the proud bit is mine, she was simply straightforward about it, no sense of it having a pride/shame angle for her, just reality).  We agreed that the endless, vast, nearly flat, bone dry, dusty, cereal fields felt crushing to us.  She said she came from Irish dairy farming and found myself remembering living from 6 to 11 one house from the cattle grid to a mixed arable/dairy Warwickshire farm and how much of those years I spent wandering across those fields.

There were the Dutch men who dubbed me “yellow man”.  There was the lovely woman in the bar in St Jean Pied de Port who jumped at my questions about she and her mates at the bar talking in Basque and the politics of Basque separatism as they, (her mates joined in happily returning from their fag break outside), saw it and about how they saw its future both in France and Spain.  They felt the repression was very much not over and, though I think they thought violence was not helpful, I’m sure they wanted radically more independence.  I’ve had a similar conversation here about Galician autonomy and not neglecting the Galician language.

On the divertissement J and I had lovely conversations with two successive hotel owners and bizarrely it turned out that the first couple had stayed with the second couple before they had bought their place and when they were just contemplating running a gite (partly to esape from some horrific experiences he had had threatened, by the sound of it, by a sort of mafia in Marseilles when they had been too successful with their shops).  Apparently the local gite accrediting agency, or someone like that, had pointed them to stay with and talk with this second couple whose house J had found through no connection at all between the two.

Right back in England I had a lovely hour or so in he local pub near the camp site in Doddington with the temping barmaid doing it in her local in the summer vacation while doing a psychology degree, and with the landlord talking wisely about the challenges of being a publican and how it has changed.  He was drawing on his adult experiences as well as having been born to publican parents.  I remember passing a young woman the next morning who was my first pilgrim I think: very young 20s with rucksack and staff and something about her determination that I’m sure said she was heading for Santiago.  Boy did she have a long way to go.

So many colourful pilgrims from St Jean Pied de Port on as we became a visible human stream.  All sizes and shapes of humanity.  People walking but pulling trailers, with or wihout children in them.  People playing music (not my idea of what a pilgrim should do but I never saw frowns). I the last few days, people singing.  A constant mix of languages, most often English/American (with quite a lot of recognisable Australian and Irish accents too). Increasingly, Spanish, but many other languages.  I was hugely amused, I think it was pulling out of Carriónd de los Condes to hear an emphatic “Well, it’s not as if you love him is it?” and then I was out of earshot.

Yesterday, no, the day before, I thought I saw two people arguing, the gesticulations were quite intense, then I saw that a third was filming this on her camera and grinning from ear to ear and I was 99% reassured that they were staging something for film or photos and no real rage was being expressed.  I speeded up again feeling a little foolish.  I’m sure there have been arguments and falling out amongst groups and couples along the way, it would be quite unreal had there not been, but they do seem to have been very little in evidence.

Among non-pilgrims I’ve met the Brazilian man, in his young 30s I’d guess, who was in France having started in Lisbon.  I think he’d bought his heavily laden bike there.  He was going to go all round Europe this year and then on round the world.   I met a young Californian lad waiting for the ferry in Royan who had crossed the US by a mixture of methods I think, bought a 15 Euro bike on Ebay in the Netherlands and was cycling down to Spain to have a good time there camping rough and charging his electronics with a portable solar power panel.  He was aiming for Biarritz in two days from there.  If he did that, he’s superhuman but I think he was.  He was aiming then to go through the Pyrenees to have a birthday bash in Barcelona.  If he did Royan to Biarritz in two days then perhaps he can fly through the Pyrenees but I think the Tour de France and Vuelta a España pros might struggle with the kind of schedule he was setting himself.  He thought the Pyrenees would be easy compared with Normandy as in the Pyrenees you were in proper mountains so there would be hairpins (true but wasn’t that true for me with the climb up from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncevalles: some of that was just damn long, hard, pretty straight climbing).  Whatever he did end up doing, I’m sure he enjoyed it, he seemed to have irrepressible positivity.

I rode along for perhaps 10km south of Royan with “Brian the snail” who had given up his job as a video editor with Sky, rented out his house, and was living on the income and wondering why he’d stop doing this really.  He was camping in municipal camp sites and keeping under 30 Euros a day if I remember the accountancy rightly.  You can check his blog, and see the Brian mascot who travelled with him in his handlebar bag at .  I’m not sure if he’s on course for the birthday meet up that I think he was planning with a mate who has emigrated to Spain some years back.

All good.  No profound conversations about religion or “why”: I wonder if walking pilgrims have more time for those.  For me that would have felt intrusive as all of these overlaps have been pretty fleeting.  Hence my “profound” conversations have been with myself and mostly I think I’ve been reasonable company.  A bit moody as ever, a bit prone to panic and despair, but sometimes surprisingly observant and tolerant.  Of course, I’ve also had conversations here so some real friends came along in that way!


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