I leave the Ferme Gaineko Etxea before 8. There is heavy fog below us in the valleys and the tops of the trees are just above the fog, making for a surreal and quite beautiful image. I am heading for Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, just about five years and one month later than planned. This was where I intended to start my pilgrimage walk in 2007. It didn’t happen because the airline lost my backpack and I waited in Pamplona for five days until I realised that their promise of; “It will be there in the morning” was nothing more than empty air. By the time I came to this realisation I did not have enough time to get to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port and walk back to Pamplona, so I started from where I was.
This is beginning to feel like closing the circle. I have walked from Pamplona to Santiago, from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Chely d’Aubrac and from Saint Chely to here. From Saint Jean, Pamplona is only four days away and will complete the 1500 kilometres from Le Puy to Santiago.
After about an hour’s walk, the young German cyclist whose name is Dietmar, pulls up beside me and starts to walk his bike. We end up walking together all the way into Saint Jean, another four hours. The walk is mostly level between hills that get higher and higher – but still no mountains. Although we are not very high, the tree line is just below the top of most of the hills. They are green on top and often I can see cattle grazing in the high pastures. It would be nasty up there in a cold rain or with wind.
Dietmar wants to talk. He has been riding for three weeks from somewhere north of Bordeaux and today is his last day. He has a train out of Saint Jean late this afternoon. He is from Minden and he is pleasantly surprised that I know where Minden is. Not far from where I was stationed in northern Germany, there is a place which is a natural focal point for any invasion force from the east. It is called the Minden gap. He wants to know if most Canadians know about Minden. I have to break it to him gently that only Canadian soldiers of a certain age who served in the north of Germany would know Minden.
He is a very young-looking 35. I guessed him at 20 to 26. And his is a depressingly familiar story. He was in architectural school, then dropped out because of family illness. First his mother, then his father got ill and eventually died. By this time he had a job running a machine making cigarillos. He tells me that it’s a good job, although his interests are history and geography. Seems like an awful waste to have someone like this making cigarillos.
He talks about how he sees parallels between the chemin and life. I agree completely. Every day on the chemin is a miniature slice of life. At one point he asks me if I would prefer to walk alone. It’s a very caring gesture, because sometimes people really do need to walk by themselves. But I don’t at the moment and I get a strong sense that he wants to talk. Part of this, I recognise, is that this is his last day and he doesn’t want it to end. I know exactly how that feels.
When we finally arrive at Saint-Jean I drop my backpack at my gite and walk down with him to a crossroads where we sit and have a beer. He still has to find the station and take his bike there, so we hug each other and he heads off to the train station. I meet Francois near the church and we hug each other. Hard to believe I ever called him weird Harold. He seems to be less sad and quite willing to talk with people.
Saint Jean is named because it is at the entry to the pass to Spain. It was heavily fortified with a still-standing wall because it stood between the country to the north and all potential invaders from the south – and there were many. There are dates like 1527 and 1620 on some of the tiny buildings lining the main street in the old town inside the wall.
I go back to my gite, L’Esprit du Chemin. It is a very different operation from the many more commercial gites. With the exception of the owners, everyone here is a volunteer
from elsewhere. At the moment, there are three; Katherina from Germany, Wilhelmyne from Holland and Judy Gayford, the president of the Calgary chapter of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims. All three speak excellent English, as does Huberta, the gite owner, which makes my life a little easier. Today is Judy’s last day as a volunteer here.
I have picked this gite on purpose. Five years ago when I was planning my first trip on the camino, I intended to walk from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, I booked a bed here in this gite for the first day of the trip. The the airline lost my backpack and everything I had, including where I was staying, the phone number – everything. So I guess the bed went empty. Anyway, they were very upset and sent an email to my address at home, telling me, correctly, that this was not the act of a pilgrim. So for five years I have waited to get back here, explain what happened and offer to pay for the missed night. Huberta tells me that I can put a donation in the box, only if I like, for the missed night. Which is what happens and all is forgiven.
I ask if I can spend another day here, but they are already fully booked for tomorrow. My name goes in the book if there is a cancellation. At dinner they have a lovely ceremony. Huberta asks that each of us say who we are, where we are from and something about our own experience on the chemin. We are one from Ireland, one Northern Ireland, two Americans, five French, two Dutch, two German, one Dane about my age, one Canadian. When it’s my turn, I tell my story, then read that little passage from my book and ask another pilgrim to tell it again in French.
Dinner is lovely, all cooked and served by the volunteers, who join us at the table. Later that night, I am lying in bed in the room shared by the Irishman and the Dane. The Dane, Erik, mentions doing UN duty in Somalia, I mention doing UN duty in Cyprus. He asks when I was there. I tell him the summer of 1968. He was there at the same time as a platoon leader in the Danish battalion while I was the Deputy Commanding Officer of the armoured reconnaissance squadron. He remembers – I find this astonishing – that my unit’s name was the Fort Garry Horse.
So we served together 44 years ago, we never met, and now we are here sharing a room in a gite in Saint Jean Pied-de-Porte. Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
If I can stay here tomorrow, I will. This is a lovely gite, very special. If not, then I have to decide to either go to another gite if I can get a bed or head out to Roncevalles by one of two routes. I don’t have to decide until morning.