Hey there folks,
Foremost I would like to thank Michael and Kathryn from the Heart, Mind & Soul Project for hosting me at lunch today here in sunny Albuquerque. These two wonderful people were passing through my beloved New Mexico – of course we had to meet as fellow writers and volunteers are wont to do! Good conversation and better company is always on the menu.
That having been said, I have about a dozen drafts flitting about the place this moment – nothing is really worthy of being published I’m afraid.
That’s what happens when you are your biggest critic. Writers, amirite?
Whilst enjoying victuals this afternoon, Michael, Kathryn, and I swapped Camino stories – the two are quite well-traveled (the best kind of company) – and I was asked about my first Camino back in 2014. Rather than relate the conversation verbatim here, might I instead, dear reader, have you enjoy the following piece I penned shortly after Camino Primaris?
I’m not certain if I wrote the following for a contest or just because, but, all the same, enjoy it, eh?
“Everything about you has to be epic, doesn’t it,” She laughed.
“You know me,” I grinned, “the ordinary isn’t for me.”
On a whim (much to the chagrin of my then partner at the time), possessed by a need to answer some of Life’s greatest questions, and mostly because I could, I departed for the mystical city of Santiago the summer of 2014, beginning my own El Camino de Santiago. Me being me, I decided my Camino would be something completely extraordinary, something I would remember for the rest of my life. Rather than beginning in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port as the majority of my countrymen, I wagered beginning in the sleepy Swiss village of St. Antoni (birthplace and hometown of my father) would be most befitting and poetic. It’s only 2000 kilometers, I reasoned.
For two weeks I had marched through Switzerland and France, enjoying the beautiful Alpine countryside, the locals, the food, the wine, the whole shebang, as I plodded forth to the Spanish city. Even though my feet were little more than lumps of wood that occasionally oozed blood and pus from numerous blisters, the beginning of my journey was definitely worth every moment.
It was in my second week, having averaged around 20 kilometers a day, I decided to make a push day of 35 kilometers. The idea was to save a day’s march by leapfrogging a recommended hostel and going to the next town over – Les Setoux. Unfortunately, the idea was a great one on paper, but the execution left me sorely and soundly weathered.
I was unused to the great distance, the terrain was mostly uphill (I climbed from the Rhone River to an elevation of approximately 1200 meters that day), and it rained many times. By the time I reached the small village, the sun was setting – any chance of genuine rest seemed gone for the day.
I stumbled into the village, following the signs (all in French) directing pilgrims to the local gite. A brass plaque commemorating the efforts of American servicemen during World War II was proudly displayed in the middle of the town square, a piece of home I found comforting. A few meters more (the gite is always at the end of town on a hill…) and I could relax at the advertised gite-restaurant for a few hours before beginning my solitary journey anew.
With great relief, I swung open the door to the small French restaurant, the pack heavy upon my shoulders, my wet hair matted against my face, a pitiful sight to behold.
The aghast French seemed to agree with that sentiment, a hush falling over their ensemble as I pushed my way into the warmth.
“Bonjour,” I said, exhausting my knowledge of French. Good day? I had walked 40 kilometers, uphill, in the rain, without saying a single word to anyone all day and the first thing I say was good day? Truly I was mad.
“Madame,” replied an older woman. Clearly she couldn’t see I was a male; the long hair did have its drawbacks at times. She took a second look after her mate gave her a nudge.
“Pardon,” she stammered. “Monsieur.” I nodded my kind regards despite her shortcomings.
“Eh, pardon, is this, um, gite detape? Saint Jacques?” I stumbled through French like a drunk; little wonder the French didn’t like Americans.
A woman at the back stood up, nodding her head at my garbled question. “Yes, yes, this is the gite. There are plenty of beds for you to stay the night.” Clearly my French was so bad this woman decided to save me the embarrassment amongst strangers.
I nodded my acceptance, clearly mad beyond saving, my wet hair a tangled mess that heightened my frightening appearance.
“Allemagne?” she asked, clearly thinking I was German. Crazed look in my eyes, blonde hair, bad French – obviously German. Gites had to ask a pilgrim’s nationality for their own record keeping process. Camino was a very strange place, after all.
“Non,” I replied.
“Ah, Autriche?” Nope, not Austrian either.
“Non,” I said. “American.” Her reaction was quite humorous. An American? Here? Is he lost? Does he know Americans don’t walk Saint Jacques this far out? Her face spoke volumes as she attempted to decipher who and what I was.
She asked me a dozen rapid-fire questions, trying to learn about this peculiar American who had stumbled into her gite. The French behind her were abuzz as well – I was the first American to pass through. The woman who mistook me for her gender was chattering to her husband, pointing at me and proclaiming in very swift French something about me being impossible.
I later learned over dinner that it was considered very unusual to have non-Europeans this far out on Jakobsweg. Plenty of Germans made the trek, as did the Austrians and Swiss, but Americans? It was unheard of to these quaint villagers.
Dinner was your typical French fare with at least a dozen pilgrims around the simple wooden table. Many of them were French, enjoying a few days on holiday before going back to their 30-hour work week. The lone Austrian and myself represented the foreigners – we quickly became the objects of scrutiny to the French.
The Austrian, Robert, started from his home near Innsbruck and had been walking for 7 weeks. He was accompanied by Pascal, a Frenchman, who had also began the trek from his front door two weeks prior. The two had been companions for a week at this point, Robert enjoying Pascal’s odd sense of humor and native tongue, whilst Pascal simply enjoyed having a companion on the trek. Curious about my origins, Pascal asked the standard pilgrim questions.
“Where do you come from in America,” he asked, his English somewhat slow and punctuated by his delightful French accent.
“New Mexico, best state in the Union, by golly.” His eyes lit up at this for his wife, a Swiss (from my mother’s canton, no less), had lived for several years in New Mexico. In Albuquerque. A few blocks from my current apartment. A small world, we both agreed, and toasted our good fortune to meeting that night.
“And today? Where did you begin?”
“Chavonnay,” I replied. The charming village on the Rhone, right before the mountains, and rain. Oh the rain.
He turned, incredulous, and started calling out in French to the table. “He started today in Chavonnay!” A rush of excited French started asking me if that was indeed correct. I was startled to be sure and frankly didn’t know what the fuss was about until one of them pulled out a map and excitedly showed me.
“He says you have walked too far today,” Pascal said, translating for me, as the eager Frenchman showed me the map. “He says you’ve walked almost 45 kilometers. Mon dieu.”
“Oh.” Oh was right. I was apparently terrible at reading maps. “Well I didn’t mean to.”
Pascal translated, the French having a good laugh at my naivety.
I was such an oddball at this table. Here I was, the only American, who didn’t speak a lick of French, being included into this table as if I was an old friend. We shared our tales of travel, of customs, of history with one another, knowing that tomorrow we would all have new adventures and companions to share with, to start anew.
The young American, the one who looked like a drowned rat, was now chums with all at the table. Little was I aware that I would walk with both Pascal and Robert for the remainder of my Camino.
For the first time, and certainly not the last on my 3-month voyage, Pascal spoke those immortal words. “You are crazy. You are not a typical American.”
“No,” I replied, sipping my wine, happiest I’d been in years, “no I suppose not.”