Well, not a good night’s sleep. We are three in a room and the other two guys are fine, but I have a sodium street lamp about 15 metres from the window and it glares all night. It isn’t until the morning when someone asks how I slept – the universal question in the morning is; “Avez-vous bien dormir?” – and I say poorly and why, they ask me why I didn’t close the shutters. Because I don’t remember shutters in the usual course of events. It does, however mean that I can get up at night – twice – and head to the john without my trusty little LED flashlight.
After breakfast most of the others leave and I sit with Andre and Odile a few minutes. He tells me that one of the pilgrims asked him this morning why they don’t have any children. He refused to answer because he finds that type of question both personal and intrusive. He says and I agree that people need to respect each other’s privacy, and that includes the privacy of the people who have chosen to operate gites for the pilgrims. It is a matter of reciprocal respect for privacy. For many people this is a deeply moving experience and personal questions may be quite damaging.
I walk up the long hill out of Aire-sur-l’Adour and at the crest I see the Pyrenees on the southern horizon for the first time. They are big and there is a lot of snow on the slopes and summits. I will be seeing them for the next two weeks as I walk south and west.
I expect an easy walk of 18 kilometres and it is, flat farm land, cultivated fields, tractors doing their thing. I meet the four ladies from Lyon and we share a coffee by the side of the trail. I note that they carry small testaments with them – with 26 children among them, I am pretty sure they are all Catholic, which they turn out to be.
I walk with Valérie for an hour or two and we have a long talk about her first husband.. They were stationed in Germany and he had been gone for two months for an extended exercise in the Mediterranean. His aircraft was performing the safety role for night carrier operations, standing off to one side and something failed catastrophically in the helicopter. It really did fall into the sea and the crew was lost. It was 1998 or 1999. She was 30, with three children, four, three and 20 months. It was a terrible blow and yet at the same time, as the wife of a military helicopter pilot, she had conditioned herself to be able to handle it if the impossible happened.
That didn’t change the grief or the horror of facing life without her husband, but she tells me, in retrospect, it became one of the happiest periods of her life. She said to God; “Well, it is all in Your hands now. I don’t know what You have in mind, but there is nothing I can do to change it.” And that was the way it worked for a long time. She put her absolute trust in God and, for her, it worked and continues to work. After some years she found another man, also with three children and they have three more children between them for a total of 9, ranging in age from 18 to 20 months.
This annual walk for four days with her friends is, for them, total liberty. Andre back at the gite told me that he doesn’t approve of this 4-day pilgrimage and that when they walk together it is not a pilgrimage. In fact they don’t walk together, they walk mostly alone and the four days is the most that they are able to pull out of their busy lives. They are walking from their homes near Lyon to Santiago, four days each year. It is a multi-year commitment. They tell me that they understand that Andre doesn’t understand and that it is just his point of view.
We arrive together in Miramont , a tiny village, about 1 PM. We stop in the churchyard and I go off to find my gite and get rid of my backpack. It doesn’t open until 2:30 so I leave my pack there and go back to the churchyard where the ladies prepare their lunch. I sit with them and for a while lie back on the grass and almost drop off to sleep. About 2 they get organised, because they have another 14 kilometres to go and we say goodbye – another bittersweet goodbye.
I sit in the little courtyard of the gite, Maison Helene, until 2:30 when a woman, black-haired, opens the door. I tell her my name and she looks a little nonplussed. She checks her sheet, I am not on it. And she has no beds, not one. I know that a few days ago one of the hospitaliers called ahead for me, but something has gone haywire here. She calls the other possibilities in town. No-one has my name and no-one has a bed.
Now I start to get a little concerned. I know that beds right now on the chemin are a scarce commodity and not having a reservation could be catastrophic. My plans do not include sleeping out under the stars of which there will be few tonight. Possibility of rain. She asks if she could get me a ride back to Aire-sur-l’Adour and bring me back here tomorrow to continue. I actually don’t care, I just want to have a bed for the night. Finally she calls a place not in my guidebook, the 2010 Miam Mian Dodo. It is a farm gite a couple of kilometres off the chemin. Do I care? She calls, they have one bed left and it is mine.
Then she pours me an aperatif, gratuit, and her husband brings up the vehicle and he drives me a couple of kilometres on winding roads to my next spot.
Except he doesn’t. He drops me in the middle of nowhere at an attractive farmhouse that he says is the gite, bids me; “Bon chemin” and drives away. He is happy that he has been able to help a pilgrim. I schlepp my backpack into the farmyard and put it by the door. I try the door, it’s locked, I make friends with the dog and I sit down to wait. I find it strange that a gite would be locked at this time of day, especially since the phone had been answered earlier. I find it even stranger that there is no sign for a gite at the entry to the yard. That is a first. There is always a sign. As I sit here I get more and more suspicious that I am not where I am supposed to be.
So after some minutes I leave my pack and I walk down and then up the road – it is winding and hilly – for a few hundred yards until I see two men working in a barnyard. I ask them if there is a gite on this road. One of them – I find out later that he is Gilbert, a duck farmer and the owner of the gite – says; “Yes, it’s a little farther along, my wife is waiting for you, you will see the scallop shell at the entry”. What a relief! So back I go, pick up my pack and head for my gite. There on the right is the building, a woman is standing in front and I am here.
It’s a miracle. This is my bed of last resort. I have a double bed in a private room, glass patio doors looking out on a rural landscape, with an ensuite shower and beer in the communal fridge. The place is modern and spotless. There are four more people coming but they have not yet arrived. A shower, a quick wash of some clothes and I am ready for the rest of the day – which is what I am doing now.
The other four people have arrived. Two men retired from the French military, Guy and Christian and their wives, Agnes and Christina. Christian commanded an infantry battalion, Guy was a military engineer. They met at St. Cyr, the French equivalent of the Royal Military College, as young cadets. Christian is very tall and imposing, which reaffirms my belief that it is easier for a tall man to assume a leadership position.
Christine has tried to find me accommodation farther down the chemin based on available accommodation. My walk for tomorrow is less than 9 kilometres but more than 30 the next day. She tries a number of places but everything is ‘complet’. There are large numbers of walkers. They think it is because the 26 consecutive days of rain – of which I only got the last half – delayed the plans of a lot of people and they are all playing catch-up. Also yesterday was Ascension Thursday and another French holiday. A lot of gites are closed because of family events.
Dinner is at 7 at the farmhouse, just up the road 100 metres. Gilbert and Christine welcome us into their house, where dinner is set for all seven of us. We start with an aperitif, Floc de Gascogne, then foie gras with toast, several courses – and end with 30-year-old Armagnac. Now this is country living. And to think I could have been in a room in Miramont with several other people, one of whom would snore and no light of my own.