Today it starts to rain lightly just before I leave this lovely old convent and the warmth of the people here. So I have to put on my rain jacket and rain cover for the backpack, which means that in less than 10 minutes the rain stops. It stays overcast. After about 20 minutes I have to stop and take off the jacket. It is just too hot for walking. The chemin today will be about 20 kilometres, of which 17 are between a narrow canal and a larger river which is, as I discover after about half an hour, a larger canal.
It is a section of the sea-to-sea canal, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, cutting off hundreds of miles of sea journey and the ever-present threat of pirates or hostile action. And it was built just in time to be made superfluous by the invention of the steam engine. I wonder if the investors ever recovered their money.
The path is dead flat, paved and almost straight and has alongside a long parade of very large trees, plantane in French. I think of them as camouflage trees because of the trunk, which is a mottled pattern of grey, brown and a very pale green. Looks like perfect camouflage material to me. I shall have to find out what plantane is in English. After about three hours of this I am almost – almost – wishing for a hill. A little one would suffice. Mud I am not missing.
It starts to rain again, fairly steadily and I have to put my rain jacket back on. At about 1 PM I arrive in Espalais at the gite “Par’Chemin …”, run by Vincent and Sylvie. The welcome is genuine and Sylvie, with a big smile, asks me if I would like a basin of warm salt water for my feet. Yes I would. I dump my backpack, take off my boots and settle into an easy chair under the huge overhanging roof with my feet in the basin. It is heaven.
Vincent speaks excellent English and I ask him where he learned it. Well, from age 5 to 13 he lived with his parents in the US. While I sit with my feet in the basin, he tells me a wonderful, terrible story that I have to share with you. He is Swiss, Sylvie is French, grew up about 10 kilometres from here. Vincent, late 40s, was a successful HR director for a large international organisation after working for 14 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross in war zones. He was well up on the ladder of success, without any clear intention of climbing it.
Then, without warning, his father, a successful international public health researcher, committed suicide at age 77. He left a letter explaining that there was a line between high creativity and madness and he thought that he had crossed the line. Then he stabbed himself through the heart. The family was stunned. Vincent decided to go for a long, long walk on the chemin de Saint Jacques, all the ay from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago hoping to make sense of his father’s apparent act of madness. He also decided to wear a mohair shirt that for him symbolised his father as he walked.
On his walk, he saw this farmhouse in this tiny town of Espalais. He describes his reaction as a “coup de coeur”, literally a blow to the heart. He stopped, discovered no-one here, had a picnic in the overgrown garden and went on. As he walked he thought about how he could convert this old farmhouse into a welcoming stop for pilgrims. He had noticed a “For Sale” sign as he left the property. But it seemed a pipe dream. He had a job, a career and he did not have the kind of money that would be required to give everything up to realise this dream. So he walked on, thinking about his life and its meaning.
When he arrived, finally, in Finisterre he took off the mohair shirt and set flame to it. (It’s a tradition that once you get to Finisterre, you destroy, by burning or throwing in the ocean, something that you brought with you for that purpose. Perhaps it’s symbolic of turning over a page in your life.) Of course the shirt, being mohair, smouldered, just wouldn’t burn. So he tied knots in the arms and whirling it over his head, threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he went home to pick up his life.
At home in Geneva his mother asked; “What are you going to do with your life?” He told her about his impossible dream. Then she said; “When your father died, he left some money. I think that he would have liked you to have some of it. It might help you”. A gift from both his father and his mother, it was 10,000 Euros less than the asking price of the property in France.
When Vincent enquired about the property, the owner wanted to know about Vincent’s plans for it. It turns out that the owner’s father had for years provided a welcome for pilgrims, never a gite in the commercial sense, just a place that welcomed pilgrims on the way. It had been for sale for five years, but as the owner explained; “I have been waiting patiently for the right buyer”.
He was financially comfortable, still owns a lot of land in the area. He wanted someone who would carry on the tradition of welcoming weary pilgrims as they made their way towards wherever they were heading. So the property changed hands about 18 months ago.
Since then Vincent and Sylvie have created a little paradise here, providing a warm welcome to pilgrims as they travel. And the price is “donativo”, or pay what you can. They want to create an environment, not based on a certain price or expectation, where they respect the pilgrims and honour their needs, the pilgrims respect the effort and welcome of these two delightful hosts. And each side gains from the exchange. There is an opportunity here to rest, to reflect, to meditate or to discuss one’s problems without fearing the judgement of someone else. Just a place to be. I think that they have been successful in this intent.
As both of them read the “Life’s Lessons Relearned” from my book, they exclaim as they read each one, “That’s exactly it, that’s exactly it!” I am simply overcome with emotion as I embrace them both and I tell them; “It’s not often that I fall in love with two people at the same time”. And it is true. If there is any place on the chemin where the best of the spirit of true human fellowship shines brightly, this is it. This is true spirituality in action. She is weeping with emotion, I am close to tears.
I ask how they ended up together. Vincent tells me that they have a common acquaintance, Steff, in the village. One day Steff asked Sylvie, who had dropped in, if she knew the Swiss guy. She said; “No”, he said: “You have to know the Swiss guy” and brought her here to meet the Swiss guy. She had been interested in the use of the property in former days and was glad to see it being put to its new purpose. They met a few times, then Sylvie decided to go for a walk on the Camino, perhaps having a life change in mind. He drove her to Toulouse, she got a train to St. Jean Pied de Port and walked towards Santiago. She got as far as Leon where Vincent met her. They came back here and decided to see how well it would work to be together. That’s Vincent’s story.
Here is Sylvie’s version: A year or so earlier, she had had a boyfriend who was a realtor. She asked him to let her take a look at this house, which was on the market. She walked through it and felt a powerful connection to the house, but had no interest in buying it. She already had a place elsewhere. One day she met Steff in the village and he invited her back to his house where he was welcoming some pilgrims. She had had a friendly breakup with her boyfriend just two days before. They then came as a group out to the Swiss guy’s house and she felt her heart tug as she turned into the driveway and realised that it was THIS house. Vincent was not here at the time and they sat in the garden until he came home later.
He invited her to see what he had done so far and she was impressed, and looked forward to meeting him again. There was a special connection to Vincent. They met a few times, each becoming a little more interested in the other. One morning she woke with the urge to walk the Camino, which had not been in her plans at all. He offered to drive her to the train in Toulouse where she took the train to St. Jean Pied de Port and started walking. At the station as she left he told her that he would be waiting for her, so he was already sure.
A few weeks into her journey (they had been messaging back and forth) she had to cut her journey short to return to France. She was in Leon and he drove 800 kilometres to pick her up and bring her back. By this time he picked her up in Spain she was pretty sure that he was the guy for her. By the time they got back to this house she was sure.
My take on it, a year later, is that it is working just fine. And by the way, both Vincent and Sylvie have read and approved their version of the story.
I tell them that I see in them the same kind of relationship that Carroll and I have. We have more than 54 years, they have one, but I expect that this is a relationship that will pass all the tests to which it will be put. There is evident mutual respect and affection and self respect as well. With both, this ought to work just fine over the years.
One of the things that Vincent did was to order a huge table to be put under the overhanging roof. He went to a mill about 30 kilometres from here and asked for a board 6 metres long, 1.3 meters wide and 8 cm thick. The mill owner said; “You’re from the city, aren’t you?” Vincent said that he was. The mill owner then said that if he were able to provide a single board, it would be prohibitively expensive, so they settled on three boards that would do the same thing. Vincent sanded and varnished the surface and put it on two huge oak stumps as a base and as a sign of the rootedness of the place. He tells me that this table is a signal of his intention to stay. I am sitting at this wonderful table as I write. With the light wind, it is just cool enough that wearing my fleece, unzipped, is just right.
With my full permission, they will take my life’s lessons from the book, translate them into multiple languages and post them on the walls of the gite. I will, when I get home, send them an autographed copy of the book.
Some people come in whom I know and I convince them to stay, so we are about a half dozen now. There has been a fete for the past four days in the village and four or five locals have arrived for a visit. They stay for a drink, so Vincent is being accepted here. That is very important for him and for Sylvie.
It has become overcast and quite dark and, about quarter to 6, a long series of regular loud explosions, each followed by a whistling sound, can be heard. So far about ten minutes. It sounds like something pretty heavy being lofted into the air. It’s louder than a 105, less loud than a 155 artillery round. If this were Canada, I would assume that someone was doing avalanche control. Someone explains that they are firing warm air – I am unclear how it is packaged – into the clouds to break them up and avoid the hail. I gather that hail is sufficiently common in this area that this makes sense. Does it work? It doesn’t hail. After a brief hiatus, it starts again but much closer. It gets very dark and it rains but it never does hail.
At dinner we are 11 people, including people I have met several times: Nicolas, the French guy who speaks excellent English and Mark, the guy walking from his home in Antwerp to Santiago. With us are Pierre and Marie Kirschner from Hochstatt, near the German border. He is a great big guy, big features, huge hands, dark, very funny, huge laugh as well. Later in the evening he picks up a guitar and plays … CCR, There’s a Bad Moon Rising. I never expected to hear that here, and I have to tell them all the story about that song being the night flying theme song for my helicopter unit some 40 years ago.
Even later a shy young man offers us a nursery song in Occitan, the ancient language which was spoken in Languedoc … and apparently still is. I go off to bed quite late, almost 11, feeling loved and loving.