Last evening while sitting in the church just prior to the pilgrim service, Jean-Pierre (the big Belgian) quietly asked me; “Is religion important to you?” I answered; “No. How about you?” He said; “Not now so much. It used to be very important.” And I wonder, of all the people walking this path, for how many is religion important? Certainly based on the numbers at the service last evening (about 40) and on the numbers who crossed themselves at the appropriate moments (2) there are not many Catholics here.
And many at the service were there because there was a little welcome with refreshments – that always gets people out – afterward. The church, we found out, was originally catholic, then Calvinist – they would not have approved of all the gilt and colourful statues, then Catholic again.
I had mentioned the Scots couple last evening. This morning at breakfast in the place I am staying there they are. They are Kevin and Linda Clarke of Stirling and they are riding from Le Puy to Santiago for a charity for Motor Neuron Disease, of which the best known in North America is ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. If you are interested their website is www.justgiving.com/Kevin-Clarke6.
I have a little experience with this disease. At the Hospice at May Court I had a patient with ALS, a delightful man able to speak only with his eyes and with the help of his wife, a sheet with all the letters arranged. She would point to a row. When she had the right row he would blink, then she would scroll across until the right letter when he would blink again. Primitive but effective.
They have lost two friends of their own age, just turning 60, in the past two years. They left Le Puy on what would have been the 60th birthday of one of the friends. We exchange contact information and off they go. I wish them; “Bon chemin.”
I am out of Navarrenx about 8:30 on a cool but promising morning. It’s overcast but the forecast is for partly cloudy, no rain. Just on the outskirts – which doesn’t take long – I overtake a young couple taking off their rain gear, which is too hot and unnecessary at the moment. I recognise them from the really nasty rainy day a few days ago. We speak and I can’t place her accent, so I ask where she’s from. “Nashville, Tennessee”. Well that explains the accent.
She is Genah (pronounced Gina) Loger and she is walking to Santiago with her French husband of almost two years, Jean-Francois. I ask where they met, expecting it to be here on the chemin or something akin. No, they met in Korea at a small remote Buddhist temple. He was there to learn and then teach martial arts. At one point he was a junior monk for about 18 months, then realised it wasn’t for him. She went there for a few days to relax. She was asked if she would stay and teach English to the monks. She stayed five years.
They were there together for two months before they spoke to each other, both of them very shy. He was no longer training to be a monk. Once they spoke she says that it was only days before she knew they would be together. They married in Nashville about 20 months ago. I asked her whether they had considered marrying in Korea and she laughs and says; “No, I wanted the whole white wedding dress thing.”
So that’s what happened. And today is his 30th birthday! I guessed her age but luckily I was wrong by four years on the good side. Always risky, guessing a woman’s age. Just a few days ago I did the same thing but guessed on the wrong side by four years. I think that I have been forgiven.
Today I walk on the road all the time. The chemin goes off into the woods but the word coming back from people ahead of us is that the trail is very muddy and they strongly recommend taking the road. Where the chemin crosses the road and I rejoin it, there is a little roofed structure with tables and benches and stacked cans of various kinds of pâté. There are my five French friends and while I am sitting there along comes Remi! We greet each other enthusiastically and compare notes. He walked the chemin this morning and is mud to his knees.
Out of Navarrenx the road is flat through farmland and rises lowly to a crest. On the crest the view is magnificent. Can’t see the Pyrenees, too much distant haze but the land drops away steeply into a huge flat valley, dotted with farmsteads and stands of trees. I walk down the road into the valley, talking to the cows and birds and horses – with bells on. That’s got to be annoying.
I am heading for a gite just short of Aroue. It is called the Ferme Bohoteguia. No, I can’t pronounce it either, but we are in Basque country now. We will see lots of ‘X’s and ‘K’s in the names. For example, tomorrow I will be staying just outside Ostabat at thhe Ferme Gaineko Etxea. Try pronouncing that. I am going to have to ask when I get there.
When I crested the hill just back, I looked at the extremely hilly country ahead and thought; “This looks like the Afghan hill country with trees” and the people are just as fiercely independent as those pesky hill tribes. The Basques speak a language which has some similarities to Finnish and Hungarian, but is not Indo-European in origin. There are lots of local languages, including Occitan and Béarnese, but these are variants of Indo-European languages.
When I am about half an hour from my destination I spot a little roadside restaurant, which is advertising to pilgrims. Finding a place like this is uncommon in France, unlike Spain, where the locals have figured out that the pilgrim traffic isn’t all destitute. Here I think that they are about 10 years behind, but they will figure it out … or they won’t. The French are pretty set on their style of life which, frankly, is pretty good as a lifestyle. They don’t take commerce too seriously, at least not here in the country.
I go in, order a beer and a sandwich and frites. While I wait, along come Genah and Jean-Francois. I thought that they were way ahead of me. They sit down and next here comes Remi. I realised after I said goodbye to him at the roadside stop that I didn’t have a photo of him, so I take this opportunity to remedy that fault.
While we are eating along comes the Japanese girl, Kieko, who is a friend of Genah and Jean-Francois. In she comes with her tin flute and immediately starts to play … and she doesn’t stop until the couple get up to leave. It is a little unnerving to have a conversation with a background, actually a foreground, of mostly Irish reels on a tin flute. I begin to understand how the Pied Piper got into so much trouble.
Kieko speaks English, very little French and plays her flute – I am speculating here – as a way to keep from having to converse too much. She does say that if she weren’t Japanese, she wouldn’t learn Japanese. It is too difficult with too many rules. She wants to walk to Santiago, but doesn’t think she has enough time on her visa and, if she doesn’t make it now, she won’t be able, financially, to come back for 10 years.
We three leave and I last see Keiko, playing her flute, walking slowly along a winding French country road. Remi walks with me as far as the ferme which is my gite, then walks on with a big; “See you in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port”. He will be there tomorrow, I on the next day, so we may well overlap. I hope so.
The gite is wonderful. It really is a working farm and the lady there is renowned for her hospitality. She is tiny, well vertically challenged, not lean and when her face is in repose it is stern. But it is a mask, behind which lives a wonderful sense of humour and when she starts to laugh, her face scrunches up like a paper bag. I have a photo of her close up when she can’t help smiling.
At dinner I sit with a dozen French and one Belgian, who has walked from his home. There is a lot of good humour and quite a lot of talk about what the chemin means. During the evening, I decide to get out my book and ask if someone can translate a short passage, which goes as follows: “I feel different from when I started this in mid-April, more at peace with myself. I know and accept who I am. Is there anything else? I still don’t know. Does it matter? I still don’t know that, either. The physical camino is over, but I think that the real camino is inside me, and it has just begun.”
Two people at the table take on the task and, when they have agreed and finished, I ask if one of them will read it out to the assembled people. They do so and I get a lot of enthusiastic agreement about what I have written. So it seems to strike a chord in these pilgrims … and I like that.
Then it’s off to bed in the dortoir, because it is going to be a longer walk tomorrow, about 25 kilometres.