I am staying over for another day in Conques where, surprise, it has started to rain lightly. The weather continues to be a grind and the hills are higher and steeper than I expected, but that is the trouble with expectations. They have a way of jumping up and biting you. Physically I am doing fine. Uphill is slow, but manageable. Downhill is not a problem. Many folks have knee problems in the descents. I touch wood and have no issues at the moment. My blood glucose numbers are fine each morning.
My traveling companions are leaving today. I shall be very sorry to see them go. They have been gracious, friendly and hugely supportive. Daniel has already arranged for my accommodation tomorrow night about 20 kms down the road. He has even organized that if I get too tired I can call ahead to the gite and they will send someone to pick me up on the road. The improvement to my French since my arrival has been profound. I still fail to understand a discussion between two French-speakers, or when I get tired, but it has improved immeasurably. Cassandre has been a big help in this.
Daniel and Arlette Borzakian have walked the chemin together five times since 2004. They are the kind people who took me under their wing when I went entirely the wrong way out of Estaing a few days ago. Their first pilgrimage was from Arles to Santiago, the southern-most route in France, then in reverse from Santiago to Le Puy en Velay, then from Seville to Santiago and the Portuguese route to Santiago and this year from Le Puy to here. They are also experienced hospitaliers, scheduled to volunteer at one of the religious gites in St. Come d’Olt in July.
Daniel told me that the reverse part in Spain was difficult because the return route is unmarked – no yellow arrows. He said that it added about 300 km to the walk, because he got lost a lot. In France the GRs are hiking routes and are therefore marked in both directions.
Let me tell you a little bit about some of the pilgrims here. You already know about the family with the donkey.
There is a Dutch couple here, about my age, who started from home near Utrecht and are walking to Santiago. They are camping out, so staying here overnight is very unusual for them. A brother- and sister-in-law are accompanying them with a caravan, so if they get tired, they get a ride and return in the morning to where they finished the day before to continue their pilgrimage.
I mentioned the Belgian from Antwerp earlier, last seen a few days ago in another gite. He has shown up here and is ecstatic. He is exactly half-way in his journey of 2600 km and is feeling confident about going on for another 8 or 9 weeks all the way to Santiago.
I meet Catherine, a very pretty blonde pilgrim from Oakville, originally from Belgium, travelling with her friend from Belgium. She tells me that she knows exactly why she is here. She is here to add balance to her life. She finds Canadian suburbia a little confining and makes these pilgrimages to help restore her.
I meet Nicolas Dubuc, who runs a shop here where he creates beautiful glass beads. And plays Chinese music in the background. He is tall, big, good-looking, black hair and the beginnings of a pony-tail. He spends six months here, from April through September, when the tourist season ends. Then he spends the next six months touring the world. He has cycled through Africa, travelled through China and Mongolia, next year it will be South America. He loves meeting people, exchanging stories and learning what geological marvels exist in their part of the world.
As I am walking back towards the gite, I meet two pretty young women, Fanny Cosnard from Switzerland and Juimie Desroches from Quebec. The last time I saw them was in Aumont-Aubrac at the Ferme du Barry. They have been traveling together and have just arrived here. We greet each other like old friends and I ask them to join me for a coffee or something at one of the small bars here. We sit outside and we talk – actually, I talk. We end up discussing relationships and we have a deep and fascinating discussion. Both are amazed that I have been married for so long and, I assure them, still happily married.
They are both a little concerned about marriage. It seems frightening and dangerous. Given the divorce and separation rate, I am not surprised by their concerns. I tell them that one reason our marriage has been a success is that we both respect the other person. That does not mean that we never disagree or miscommunicate or get really annoyed with the other person (who is being unreasonable) or have what the politicians refer to as “open and frank discussions”, but we do always end up sorting out whatever it is that is the immediate problem. I also trot out the old cliche, “it’s not about meeting the right mate, it’s about being the right mate”. I suggest that when they are in a relationship, short or long, always look for the signs of respect. In my opinion, it’s an accurate measure of whether the relationship can last.
At dinner I sit with François-René Duchable, a concert pianist. He is perhaps 60, small, intense, hands move constantly and his hair is wild. He has played in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary, but after years of international travel, now limits his concerts to northern Europe.
I am also tapped again at dinner to do the English reading at the pilgrim service in the abbey. I do it, again apparently being the only English speaker at the ceremony.
When I return to the gite to go to bed, I meet Mike from Sydney. He is perhaps a little younger than me, lean, tall, looks as if he has led a hard and interesting life. We talk for perhaps half an hour. He tells me that this is his third time on the camino. First one was the Camino Frances, the same one that I walked five years ago. He said that he was elated (“pumped” was the word he used) when he walked into the square in front of the cathedral in Santiago. The second walk was from Seville. He described it as a month of flat and boring and when he arrived in Santiago, he was so disillusioned with the crowd in front of the cathedral that he had to leave. It was just a party. This is the third one and he is really questioning why he is doing this. He volunteers that he is an atheist “from a mostly atheist country” and is starting to think that this really only works if you have some kind of faith. We discuss this for a bit, come to no conclusion and both head off to bed. We both have a long walk tomorrow and having looked at the guidebook, I think that I am in for an interesting start to the day as I climb up out of another gorge.