Camino Downunder is attending the world premiere documentary psychodrama “The Unlikely Pilgrims” at the Sydney Film Festival

On Monday, June 10 as part of the 2013 Sydney Film Festival will be premiered Australia’s first ever full length film as a documentary genre about the Camino de Santiago – specifically, the Camino Francés track commencing in the Pyrenees.

Although, the dramatic background is the Camino de Santiago from Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s far northwest; the narrative concerns three recovering drug addicts (two men and one female).  All three from Sydney are very fragile emotionally, psychologically and physically.  They are guided and advised by their drug and alcohol counsellor who is of Irish descent having previously walked the Camino Francés a number of times.  These three deeply flawed human beings are nonetheless transformed by their Camino experiences; but their extreme reactions on the Camino Francés have their genesis in their previous lives before getting onto this pilgrimage track.  However, their time on the Camino is existential.

Unlike the fictional American film The Way (previously reviewed by Camino Downunder in 2012), this is a unique film genre and it took 9 years from concept and filming in 2004 to its first public viewing this month in June, 2013. 

Information received is that this World Premiere on Monday night has already sold-out.

Camino Downunder will be reviewing this 90 minute film and will post the film review and critique in the Camino Downunder Blog.

To see the film trailer from the Sydney Film Festival site, click on the link below


Paris and the Camino de Santiago (le Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle)

For most Antipodeans (Australians and New Zealanders); Asians and non-Europeans undertaking the Camino de Santiago, their preferred arrival and entry point into Europe is Paris.

Most pilgrims and walkers fly into Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport, located to the northeast of Paris; making their way into the French capital for a day or two and then catching an early morning TGV train at Montparnasse railway station (the 14th arrondissement in Paris and on the Left Bank) and arriving 5, 6 or 7 hours later (depending on how many stops and detours between Paris and Bayonne (near Biarritz on the southwest Atlantic coast near Spain).

There at Bayonne, from SNCF – TGV they change to the local TER (Train Express Régional) going to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, commencing the next day, their Camino de Santiago journey up and down the Pyrenees, into Spain and all the way west to Santiago de Compostela.

Almost without exception, all these first-timers on the pilgrimage track (Camino Francés) are feeling  acutely their stress, showing great anxiety and mixed with overflowing excitement.  The first few hours walking from SJPdP dissipates their stress and anxieties because of the incredibly steep walk just outside the town, along the GR65.

The real, hard but exciting physical and mental work now begins in earnest.  However, let’s geographically rewind and take a closer look at Paris and its connections past and present for Western European pilgrimage.

Looking down rue de Sévigné and Compostelle 2000

Looking down rue de Sévigné and Compostelle 2000

If you are staying in Paris for a day or two and you’re not too far from the Marais district, Camino Downunder recommends you pay a visit to the headquarters of the local Friends of the Camino organisation for Paris and its region (Ile de France).

The local friends are called: «COMPOSTELLE 2000» and their shop, offices and meeting rooms (headquarters) are on the ground floor and in the terribly fashionable and elegant rue de Sévigné at number 26, postcode 75004 in the very heart of Paris and in its medieval centre, very close to Place des Vosges.  This district in the 4th arrondissement, was badly run down some four to three decades ago, but now: chic, urbane, vibrant and very Parisian.

The shopfront sign for 26 rue de Sévigné

The shopfront sign for 26 rue de Sévigné 

On their homepage they state the following:

 Depuis 1998, Compostelle 2000 apporte une aide personnalisée aux pèlerins et aux randonneurs partant pour Saint Jacques de Compostelle.
Compostelle 2000 organise de nombreuses activités qui vous permettront de vous préparer physiquement, matériellement et mentalement au chemin de Compostelle. 
N’hésitez pas à venir nous rendre visite au siège de l’Association…
It states that this organisation has been in existence since 1998; helping the independent pilgrim and walker, walking to Santiago de Compostela.  Furthermore, Compostelle 2000 organises activities which aim to help and prepare physically, materially (gear) and mentally all those undertaking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.  It explicitly invites all to visit them at 26 rue de Sévigné in Paris.
The author has always been very warmly received by the volunteers in this Paris office.  The Friends of the Camino Office have an excellent collection of both coffee table pilgrimage books, invariably from French publishers (some very beautiful) to French language guidebooks and maps for both France and Spain.  He does know how well the various volunteers speak English, but he can vouch for the fact that they all speak excellent and correct French – as you would expect from native speakers!  On his last visit at Compostelle 2000 he was given their large, round material badge and he, in turn, gave Compostelle 2000 the Camino Downunder material badge.
Material badges from Compostelle 2000 and Camino Downunder

Material badges from Compostelle 2000 and Camino Downunder

At Compostelle 2000 it is usual practice to obtain a «credencial» pass only to its bona fide and financial members.  However, the writer has been informed that Australians and New Zealanders arriving at their office would be able to get a credential pass without them being required to be paid up, financial members of COMPOSTELLE 2000 but in exchange for a donation.

Office hours are Monday to Friday, from 10.00 am until 12.00 pm and from 2.00 pm until 6.00 pm.  The two-hour lunch break from midday is very French, mostly observed outside the main cities.  However, because this Association is entirely manned by volunteers – they are entitled to a traditional two hour lunch break.  However, in Spain and certainly on the Camino tracks once 1.00 pm arrives, all shops (big and small) including food stores (but not café-bars serving the pilgrimage traffice) close until at least 5.00pm – this continues the great Spanish siesta tradition.

Compostelle 2000 stands out as a volunteer organisation because of the extraordinary and ground breaking work it does in supporting and assisting some very physically and intellectually disabled people to “walk” the French and Spanish pilgrimage tracks.  Each year, physically and intellectually disabled people from France are now included on the pilgrimage tracks: they are no longer excluded.  A modern and equitable society is ultimately judged by how inclusive it is to its disabled citizens.

Spanish society is also inclusive: some Spanish pilgrim hostels have special and dedicated rooms for their disabled citizens.  An interesting story: the writer and his wife in 2007 observed and at times walked several days with a group of 7 blind Spanish pilgrims and their 3 seeing eye  dogs walking the last 100 kilometres from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela:  only one in the group had very limited vision  and they were not accompanied by any seeing person.  One of the bind males in the group of both genders, wore a T-shirt and written in large letters were the following Spanish text: DEMASIADO SEXO, NUBLA LA VISTA (in English: Too much sex, blurs your vision)IMG_1281See photo below, on the right.

In France, we are talking about paraplegics and quadriplegics who are placed in a special seat which has just one wheel underneath and two extended front handle bars and an extended rear handle bar requiring two able-bodied persons to keep it upright and moving – one in the front and one in the back.  More volunteers are needed for supply, support and cooking.  And there are relay teams who then take over, after a number of days.  This contraption is a French invention, called la Joëlette – named after its inventor: a mountaineer and guide called Joël Claudel for his disabled nephew.  See photo of a Joëlette in operation.

Also in Paris, on the Right Bank and next to the Seine river is La Tour Saint-Jacques (Saint-Jacques Tower), not very far from the Marais and Compostelle 2000 – La Tour is also in the 4th arrondissement.  The Tower and church were built between 1509 to 1523 during the reign of François I.  Today, only the Tower remains and this landmark is in honour of St James; which subsequently has become the starting point for walking pilgrims from Paris to Santiago de Compostela via Tours on the Chemin de Tours or the Via Turonensis (la voie de Tours) and eventually getting to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port; more than 800 km away in the southwest.  In July, 2011, the Tour Saint-Jacques hosted a photographic exhibition featuring moving photographic works by Gabriel Díaz of the pilgrimage routes in Europe and all ending in Galicia, Spain.

Book review: Ailsa Piper’s SINNING ACROSS SPAIN – A Walker’s Journey from Granada to Galicia

Ailsa Piper presenting her text “Sinning across Spain” in Ariel Books, Paddington, Sydney in June, 2012

292 pages ISBN 978 0 522 86139 6

This text has been published in 2012 by Victory Books in Melbourne, which is an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing.


Sinning across Spain recounts the story of an Australian (Ailsa Piper) living and working in Melbourne, commencing with her airline journey to Spain via Rome during Easter, a Vueling flight to Barcelona and then on to Granada.  This was the beginning of April, 2010 until she completes the 1,200 km pilgrimage walk from the Spanish city of Granada in the south (Andalusia or Andalucía), to Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) in northwest Spain on Tuesday, 18 May 2010. The author continues for another 100 km walking to Spain’s Land End, (Finisterre or Fisterra) so that by Friday, 21 May 2010 she sees the Atlantic Ocean from that mythical and iconic shoreline in Galicia. In her own words: “thirteen hundred kilometres completed in forty-three days.  Approximately thirty kilometres per day” by being somewhat disingenuous when prefacing these truly impressive numbers “for those who like a statistic”. Ailsa Piper is quintessentially Australian and throughout her book she demonstrates being highly competitive in the great Australian outdoor sporting tradition that nothing is really too hard, too far or too long – she can do it.  And she is equal, if not better than all the other walkers she encounters on these pilgrimage tracks.  We do not know since her return if she is carrying any consequential injuries from her punishing kilometres per day in Spain.

My prep is normally exhaustive. For the previous year’s Camino Francés I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover, scoured websites, grilled camino veterans, downloaded Spanish podcasts…”

This text recounts the people whom she met as pilgrims walking the two pilgrimage tracks: the Camino Mozárabe commencing in Granada and then the Vía de la Plata at Mérida (the latter starts at Seville/Sevilla). In addition to meeting and relating to fellow pilgrims, the writer recounts the many hundreds of locals whom she had ephemeral relationships (sometimes lasting but a few hours), but no less profound and intense every day, all the way along. She also recounts in great detail her deep and complex relationships with these walking tracks, the natural and built environments, the flora and fauna encountered.  In a word, she shares with the reader her evolving relationships with both her temporal and spiritual worlds not only in Spain, but also her country of birth. The reader is taken vicariously on this journey when she moves between cultures, uses languages and makes linguistic connections.

…languages are one of my chief pleasures. I’ve worked with language all my life, as a writer, theatre director and teacher. I relish English and its vagaries. I speak enough Spanish to chat about the times if not the tides; have passable schoolgirl French; and enough Italian to know when I’m in a discussion that is going down a one-way street…

 Ailsa Piper’s chronological narrative recounts in detail her rollercoaster emotions and feelings with her three main pilgrim protagonists whom she meets whilst walking:

  • «Herr Theologie or Herr T» – Mr Theology (a German) at Moclín until Monterrubio on the Via de la Plata
  • «Amigo – Friend» (a Spaniard) first met on the Vía de la Plata after Mérida and before el Carrascalejo until Salamanca
  • «Il Capitano» – Captain and «il Soldato» – Soldier (two Italians) at Aljucén until Santiago de Compostela

Here, the reviewer will just focus on her problematic relationship with Herr Theologie.  We learn that this German pilgrim is 60 years old or maybe a little older and during his youth had been taught by Joseph Ratzinger (the current Pope).  The Australian and German have a number of heated arguments about religion, goodness and the nature of evil.  It is interesting Piper does not seem to understand the complex context when she comments on their philosophical discussions about “good and evil”.  This German theologian would have been born just after the end of World War Two: he would have been marked (if not scarred) forever by the collective guilt of his generation and his parents’ concerning the rise and fall of Nazism and the Holocaust.  It is a pity Piper did not join the dots or was simply not able to understand because of her Australian background.  At the end of her text we are informed that, “I don’t hear from Herr Theologie.”  Nonetheless, with generosity she adds: “I hope he is happy. And strong.”

Everyday in the late afternoon, throughout her walking journey she is phoned by a young gay couple from Barcelona called Leonardo and Ricardo whom she had met on the Vueling flight from Rome to Barcelona and at the end of her narrative, Piper informs us she now considers them like her adopted Spanish brothers.

Throughout Sinning Across Spain, Piper frequently goes back to her first pilgrimage experience in Spain on the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in September, 2009, six months earlier, during the European autumn period and throughout her southern pilgrimage recount, she makes reference to this most special of special Camino friends by using the word «Compañero» –  (waking) partner/team-mate. As she says herself: “One with whom you break bread.” Very soon into the text we find out that Piper is forever changed by her 2009 Camino Francés experience:

I came home to Australia knowing I was changed, but uncertain of what that meant.  I longed for the fractured Esperanto that is the language of that road.  I craved figs, sunflowers and dusty tracks leading ever west, but most of all I yearned for the journeys I had taken outside my body.

The reviewer believes that she would not have had a successful outcome on her thirteen hundred kilometres southern route without the experience and knowledge of the Camino Francés.  And it is precisely for this reason that if anyone from Australia/New Zealand wishes to emulate her achievement, they are well advised to have prior knowledge and experience of the Camino Francés and are reasonably well versed in Spanish – more proficient in the language than Ailsa Piper demonstrates in her narrative. It is true the Camino Mozárabe and the Vía de la Plata do not have the depth or breadth of infrastructure supporting pilgrims like the Camino Francés and if you are a monolingual Anglophone on those tracks it is not a good look and more challenging than it should. In a text such as Sinning Across Spain the reader inevitably commences a relationship with the writer because she is not only the subject matter, but the reader is like her vicarious walking companion or a type of guardian angel – forever present but never assisting and often judging her actions.  We see her close up and personal with both her strengths and weaknesses exposed.  Piper is an honest writer and every reader will appreciate that. With the exception of her date of birth: 1959 (source: Wikipedia) one is given constant information by the subject herself concerning her upbringing, her personal life, her interests, passions and values.


Born in Western Australia, growing up on a property in the bush; raised as a Catholic, sent to Catholic school, had an evolutionary falling out with her Catholic faith, but nonetheless is culturally, traditionally and emotionally deeply connected to Catholicism – her brain is hard wired to Catholicism even as a lapsed Catholic.  All this gives her both comfort and an object to admire and despise.  She lost her mother in 1995 when Piper was approximately 46 years old, her father is alive and Ailsa is ethnically an Anglo Celt and brought up in a monocultural, monolingual, homogenised Anglophone environment.  Even her first name of «Ailsa» reinforces her Anglo-Celtic heritage.  Ailsa is Old Norse (a North Germanic language spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia) in origin, a Scottish geographical name (an island in Scotland) and also Gaelic (either Scottish or Irish). She is married to the same man and their marriage allows both parties to pursue their individual professional interests, they have no children, she has siblings – she is older by two years with her brother Brett living in WA; has a sister; Piper lives in Melbourne which she adores, but did live in Sydney for a time and liked it. Her mother’s death 15 years ago is still felt as a deep loss, which she grieves and frequently talks about it. Piper does not know German, but can speak and understand some French, Italian and Spanish at a certain indefinable level, loves journeys, poetry and the theatre. She is passionate about walking in the Australian bush and walking in general. First time she does the Camino in 2009, Piper is meticulously prepared but in the following year, not so well prepared.  She cries and is explosive every now and then as a way of releasing her from an acute crisis or anguished moments on the pilgrimage tracks.  She walks too fast; too hard and too far each day – she even admits it; has a sexual attraction and feelings for a particular pilgrim, but does not cross the line between desire or lust converting to action.  She is also opinionated, judgemental, proudly Australian, with a big ego, coupled with high self-esteem.  She says of herself she suffers having too much pride as one of the original Seven Deadly Sins and she amply demonstrates that throughout her text.  She is also disarming and always on her mission: carrying the traditional sins of her financial sponsors and benefactors.  And most importantly she is loyal and faithful to people who have put their trust in her.

The reviewer is surprised she makes no reference to the honour culture of Spain (too much pride and shame – Don Quijote is a good example).  Honour is a form of collectivism based on social image or reputation.  Honour cultures (e.g. Spain) encourage the maintenance of strong family ties, social harmony and interdependence such as hospitality.  In this regard, Spanish people and Ailsa have much in common.

To fund her second pilgrimage she publicises in her Melbourne community and elsewhere that for a financial payment she will carry the traditional sins of her patrons, which she calls the “Seven Deadlies”:

  1. anger;
  2. greed;
  3. sloth;
  4. pride;
  5. lust;
  6. envy;
  7. gluttony.

She correctly informs the reader that this is what happened to some pilgrims during the medieval period.  When Ailsa Piper gets back to Australia and has her text accepted and published by Melbourne University Press, these classic, religious based seven sins become the perfect marketing and promotional angle.  That’s well and good and it is clever too. It is necessary in today’s world when you have to stand out and be noticed in an extremely crowded commercial market place – certainly in the book publishing world and more so when publishing Camino de Santiago journey recounts.  This is the commercial bottom line and is understandable. However, my problem with this is that these 7 x Deadlies are simply an anachronism because in the 20th and 21st centuries we are all globally and individually challenged rather by discrimination, racism, genocide, betrayal and treachery; breach of trust, abuse in all its forms, fundamentalism, poverty and starvation. Piper’s anger and crises during her journey are intriguing but understandable when pushed to one’s physical limits.  We know that loss frequently triggers anger.  Anger also arises after being insulted not only in honour cultures; including our intrepid trekker Ailsa Piper. However, Piper’s emotions and feelings in the text are always dramatic and makes for an engaging piece of writing.  But one thing we do know about all her ups and downs: the locals along the pilgrimage tracks always assist this Australian human walking machine… they invariably lift her spirits, offer her generosity and are accommodating to her needs and wishes and give her good advice.  And it is therefore understandable when she openly states that she loves Spain and Spanish people.  Invariably they were very good and generous to her.  And as a loyal person, she returns the favour. As previously mentioned we know that Pilgrim Piper walks incredibly fast, hard and long: is she sublimating her mother’s death (and her sister in law’s sudden death just before leaving on her second pilgrimage) through the catharsis of a long, hard and challenging walk?  We may never know.

Ailsa Piper’s on making linguistic connections and using languages.

Throughout the text Sinning Across Spain…and nearly on every page Ailsa Piper uses either an Italian or Spanish word and often has the English equivalent.  As the reviewer has more than 4 decades of formal learning and is passionate about the languages and cultures of both France and Spain, he did pay particular attention to the author’s constant use of those languages in her book.  Some of those Spanish and French words and expressions used were lost in translations and therefore meaning distorted. To be fair, she got most of the translations reasonably correct, but there were some glaring and unfortunate errors, which will mislead monolingual English native speakers.  In the context of returning a wish or a salutation Piper says that the English translation of «igualmente» was «equally».  Very simply: it should have been translated as: «Thank you, the same to you».  There are a number of other misleading translations.  Piper takes obvious pride in knowing and using her existing Spanish language skills: however, just because one has a working knowledge of another language, that should never give rise to linguistic hubris.  It is ironic that Ailsa Piper criticises her first pilgrim companion (the German Herr Theologie) because “His English, his Spanish and his manners were formal, products of his time and his education.” When the reviewer was doing his research into this book, he needed to consult with a number of his language colleagues who collectively have over 100 years of study in the Spanish language.  They summarised Ailsa’s use of Spanish in her text as demonstrating that she was showing off her modest but limited Spanish language skills.  Is this a harsh and an unwarranted comment? Ailsa is to be commended for using any Spanish, for so long as she is able to correctly and without distortion get her messages across the linguistic and cultural divide.  However, more humility would not have gone astray and an acknowledgement that learning languages including our first language is the quintessential never-ending journey during our lifetimes.  After all, in Sinning Across Spain Ailsa herself proudly proclaims that, “languages are one of my chief pleasures (…) I’ve worked with language all my life…” It is also a pity that the well-known Spanish television weather person Ana Belén Roy’s name is incorrectly spelt as Ana Balen Rey on pages 207 and 233.  When one is using and dealing with other languages and cultures it is imperative that greater care be exercised as a sign of respect for that culture.


Is Sinning Across Spain – A walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia a good read?  Definitely yes.

Does the reviewer recommend both arm chair travellers as well as prospective pilgrims obtain a copy?  Yes.

Will the reader be better informed, more knowledgeable, and have greater insights into modern Spain as a result of reading this text?  Yes.

REVIEWER: MARC GROSSMAN, June, 2012. email:   website:

  • The Way (

The Way: film by Emilio Estevez being released in Australia in April 2012

Emilio Estevez’s film THE WAY starring his father Martin Sheen had its world premiere in 2010.  It is being released in Australian cinemas in April and May, 2012.  To summarize in one sentence, the film recounts the story of an American father heading to a small French Basque town to recover the body of his estranged son who died in the Pyrenees during a snow storm whilst on the Camino de Santiago and decides to walk the Camino accompanied by his son’s cremated ashes.

THE WAY is the English equivalent of EL CAMINO in Spanish.  Most people in the English speaking world would better recognize The Camino de Santiago than The Way or its longer title The Way of St James.In The Way - a vertically panned close-up of the Pilgrim's Pass

Emilio Estevez is Martin Sheen’s oldest of 4 children.  The three other children are Charlie Sheen, Renée Estevez (who in this film makes a cameo appearance as Tom Avery’s [Martin Sheen] medical secretary) and Ramon Estevez.

Martin Sheen’s parents emigrated to the USA: his father (Francisco Estévez 1898-1974) was a Galician from north-west Spain, where the Camino de Santiago’s end point is the city of Santiago de Compostela and his mother came from county Tipperary in Ireland.  Sheen was born (1940) Rámon Antonio Gerardo Estévez and raised in the USA but changed his name to ‘Martin Sheen’ when he left the family home and moved to New York to find work as an actor.

In 2010 Sheen tells a news conference in Santiago de Compostela: “I’ve always felt the balance between the two cultures, I’ve never felt more Spanish than I did Irish and I’ve never felt more Irish than I did Spanish.  I love both countries, and both cultures had a profound effect on me.

It may be a surprise to some: Irish people and Galicians: people living in north-west Spain – having a distinct culture and language; much different from the rest of Spain, have something in common: they share having the same Celtic roots, they have a similar musical instrument (the bagpipe or gaita), the same sea – the Atlantic Ocean and domination by the Ancient Romans, Vikings and Saxons, but their native languages are different.  The Celts were the ones displaced and/or subjugated by the Roman invasions of Western Europe.  Generally speaking, Irish people and Galicians have fair or light skin, and sometimes light coloured eyes.

THE WAY sharply contrasts the main protagonist’s life (Tom Avery and played by Martin Sheen) in America with his life on the Camino track.  The film’s first scenes in Ventura, California are with a patient in his medical specialist practice and then playing recreational, social golf.  And whilst on a golf course he gets a call from the French Gendarmerie, in the French Pyrenees town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port saying that his only son has been killed in a snow storm whilst crossing the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago.

The medieval style map graphics are often seen during the film’s narrative as the walkers make their way along the Camino from the French side of the Pyrenees all the way to the rugged and beautiful Spanish coastline in Galicia at Muxía.

In the opening credits there are close-ups of the various stamps in the pilgrim’s credencial.   And there is a forward up look of the names along the track, places such as Los Arcos, Logroño, Nájera, … Sto. Domingo de la Calzada… This is in fact the back of the  pilgrim’s pass (see photos below) from the (French) Friends of the Camino de Santiago Office at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP).

In the train from Bayonne to SJPdP, Tom Avery has his first of many flash backs with his dead son… The father collects his deceased son’s belongings (backpack, walking gear, guidebook and map) and after cremation decides to walk the pilgrimage route with “his son” (the cremated remains) and not return home to California.

The father, takes his son’s pilgrim pass on his Camino and in the film there is a flash back when Daniel Avery says “Merci” on getting his credencial stamped at Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques in the old part of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  The first stamp is the unique big green looking stamp (see photo).

Universally known as the CREDENCIAL from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

At SJPdP Tom (Martin Sheen) symbolically, goes the wrong way twice after having stayed in the expensive Hotel Les Pyrénées.  The French gendarme (Capitaine Henri Sébastien) farewells him and gives him a small pebble saying that in a month’s time he will know what to do with it at Cruz de Ferro/Hierro (536 km from SJPdP and 224 km from Santiago de Compostela).

Tom Avery wears a bright blue jacket and the film viewer constantly sees the brand name THE NORTH FACE on the front and back – it is not a subtle sign – obviously aimed at promoting The North Face products (called product placement in movies).  In the film, Tom Avery’s son Daniel wears a Marmot jacket.  The writer prefers an Arc’teryx jacket (Canadian) for his trekking and hiking gear.  Everyone has their “favourites” and it is obvious some companies do better promoting their gear than others: there is much competition…

In the film, the father gets into Roncesvalles (signs in the Pyrenees read – Roncevaux in French) late and rings the bell at La Posada (in real life this small inn/hotel exists in Roncesvalles).  And immediately, Tom argues with the female owner because he is irritated that she denies the simple fact that he has finally got into Spain, and on her part she curtly corrects him for his cultural insensitivity by saying that he is in fact in Basque country.

After this clash of two cultures, Tom is suffering both hunger and insomnia.  Joost comes to the rescue and they go outside.  After eating the Dutch pilgrim’s food, Joost then offers him a sleeping tablet, if he’s not interested in smoking a joint.  In the morning, he awakens with blue earplugs in the pilgrim hostel.  There are screen shots of pilgrims getting ready to leave and there is a shot outside of the old Albergue Itzandegia in Roncesvalles.  Before leaving, the Dutchman (Joost) and Tom the American get their pilgrim passes stamped.

The relationship which the American and the Dutchman has at this stage is problematic and full of friction: Tom calls Joost from Amsterdam fat man” and the latter, quicker still, retorts with “old man“.  Tom wants to be liberated from Joost that day and says “my feet are killing me” but not before admitting to Joost, that the ashes he is placing at regular intervals along the Camino way belong to his deceased son.

When they part company at this albergue/refugio (pilgrim hostel) in the Spanish Pyrenees, a heated discussion soon arises around the outside dinner table between a French pilgrim and the Basque hospitalero/hostel warden when arguing about the French emperor Charlemagne (circa. 742 – 814) wanting to expand his empire by invading Spain…”… No Charlemagne had other ideas, to extend his Empire, he crossed the Pyrenees, but nothing worked out as intended… This is Spain… this is BASQUE Spain!!…He tortured the Basques of Pamplona…and allowed his men to have too much drink and relaxation with our women …and the Basque shepherds who lived around here…heard what happened in Pamplona…they slipped into the woods and we, WE BASQUES…killed them…

Then a French pilgrim interrupts his version of history “Sorry monsieur… but what I have read here (pointing to a small book in his hand) that is complete crap, d’accord…” and adding insult by correcting the Basque Spaniard’s accent for the name: “Roland“.  The Spanish Basque hospitalero  continues: “The French, THE FRENCH don’t want to admit that the death of Roland was because  of Charlemagne and Christians.”

Another pilgrim around the table says: “I thought it was the Arabs who killed Roland…

HISTORICAL NOTE: Charlemagne went into Muslim Spain 778 at first by invitation from the Muslim governor of Barcelona and then the agreement was unilaterally changed…

Subsequently, Charlemagne’s retreating army experienced its worst defeat at the hands of the Basques, at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778 (memorialised and heavily fictionalised, in the Song of Roland).  In French: La Chanson de Roland is a heroic poem which has survived to this day as a written manuscript, with about 4000 lines of hand written text and based on the 778 battle in the Pyrenees, near Roncesvalles.  This text was written in the late 11th century and is considered the oldest surviving written text in French literature.

The third person in the group: an emotionally damaged Canadian called Sarah, whom we later find out, was in an abusive relationship and decided to have her unborn child aborted.  At first she says to our protagonist she is walking the Camino to stop her chain-smoking habits…Tom says: “You sound really angry...”  She says “Sure, I’m angry… the end of the Camino is the end of my addiction…” Tom: “Spoken like a true addict..

The first stamp received at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

In Pamplona, Joost sees Tom and calls him over at his outdoor table where he is eating a meal:

…As long as I’m sitting here, I might just order some tapas…” says Tom,  but is corrected by the Dutchman “(Here), they’re called ‘pinchos’…

Tom does not want to hear a word about ‘pinchos‘ when he retorts with hubris: “I beg your pardon Joost, here in Pamplona they are called tapas” …Here is Pamplona it’s tapas, I’ve  just read it … you see… unlike the Dutch guidebook which may be directing you to the nearest party .. the American guidebook is designed so you don’t look like a clown… if you’re ordering pinchos when you really mean tapas…”

Tom demands that Joost be quiet as he calls the waiter over to order in Spanish:  “Señor … tapas por favor.

To which the waiter emphatically responds in Spanish: “¡Tapas! Aquí no hay tapas … no, no … tapas es más Madrid, del sur … ¡eh! … aquí estamos en Navarra.  En Navarra son los pinchos ¡eh!…los pinchos y las tapas parecen mismo, pero no lo es, la tapa viene con un plato grande ¡eh!… y los pinchos vienen con un plato separados, mas pequeñitos,  más trabajados  … una presentación … convertido en una tradición…  ¿Quiere pinchos? and Tom Avery shakes his head to show he does not want to eat “pinchos“, whilst putting on his dark sunglasses to hide his shame and humiliation at having lost face in front of Joost.

Before Los Arcos on the track, the fourth person : Jack (James Nesbitt) from Ireland joins the three others who is suffering from his own crisis: writer’s block….

The longer Tom is on the Camino, the fewer pre-existing certainties he continues to hold onto and Jack from Ireland says of Tom: “finally an American without an opinion;” in the context of a deep philosophical discussion about the nature of being a true or authentic pilgrim now and in the past…. a deeply insightful discussion.

When they get to León, Tom shouts his three fellow pilgrims one night’s accommodation in the sumptuous, exquisite and very expensive Parador San Marcos, which in medieval times was a pilgrim hostel.  They each have their own private rooms and all the luxuries of a 5 star exquisite and exclusive hotel…Sarah has a pedicure, manicure, luxuriates in a bath whilst drinking champagne but they are deeply lonely, isolated and disoriented that night, so they spontaneously and unsolicitedly come to Tom’s room and replicate what they have been enjoying to the hilt for the last 4 weeks or so: the joy and happiness of being with other people, sharing a common aim of walking the Camino, a common space, all the while learning and growing.   True happiness is not luxury or material possessions.  This is a very special scene which resonates for all ex-pilgrims on the Camino.  The realisation that staying in luxurious accommodation is isolating, alienating, meaningless – true joy and happiness is connecting with people, having meaningful relationships and having a purpose or a goal – the writer well remembers staying in a modest, very centrally located hotel in Burgos for two nights because his wife was suffering from a heavy cold and by the second day, dearly wanting to ‘get back on track’ and into pilgrim hostels (albergues) as soon as possible.

The Way is therefore a profound film: it does successfully tackle a number of fundamental issues which go to the heart of the human condition and is quintessentially existential:

  • loss,
  • grieving,
  • anger,
  • problematic and dysfunctional relationships,
  • change,
  • identity,
  • intercultural issues,
  • values,
  • belief and non-belief,
  • choice,
  • transformation by journeying.

Tom the American, who tells Joost from Amsterdam that they have tapas and not pinchos in Pamplona – takes the cake – (mixed metaphor intended), one of the best scenes in the film says everything about the dangers of being an ignoramus.  The film’s subtle message: get educated about the country you’re in: learn the language if possible, be sensitive and empathetic with other human beings.  After all: human beings have much, much more in common despite their many differences.

That is one of the salient messages from the film: when the four of them are lined up, looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean, Sarah will continue her chain-smoking habits, but has found inner peace; Joost will not lose the weight necessary to get back into his old suit, and will buy a new wedding suit for his brother’s wedding; Jack from Ireland is writing again, but his subject matter and style will now be vastly different from previous published texts and Tom will continue his journey into other cultures and will continue to walk – see the very last scene.

The writer thinks we should call this serendipity (the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident).

Maybe, this is what doing the Camino de Santiago is all about.

How young is too old?

Map of the way of St James In Europe

Image via Wikipedia

In 2011 along the Camino Francés there has been a travelling exhibition of photos and displays with the title Cultural and Language diversity on the route of Santiago de Compostela.  Many major and minor Western European languages are featured such as English, Spanish, German, Galician and Euskara (Basque).  The website:

In July this year the exhibition was in Roncesvalles.  What captivated our interest about the written testimonies by two women was not so much their different cultural and linguistic backgrounds as to their age and their children’s and grandchildren’s reactions.

Toti Martínez de Lezea (Spanish writer and translator) wrote the following:

When I said to my sons I was going to go to Santiago de Compostela, the very first thing they asked me was whether the retired people’s club organise the journey and whether we would travel by plane to get there.  I looked at them amused and I communicated to them my intention was to do it alone, walking from Orreaga/Roncesvalles to Galicia.  I still laugh when remembering their surprised faces, or rather, stunned faces.

The second person’s testimony is Erika, a German national:

My name is Erika, I am from Kiel, in the north of Germany and I am sixty-five years old.  Two years ago I became a widow and I thought the world was finished for me.  After a full life with my husband, I had no choice but to wait my turn.  I have two sons, two daughters-in-law, five grandchildren who come every Sunday to have lunch and they tell me what they do.  I see the children grow up and I hear their parents.  They have many projects and many years ahead of them, they take care of me, but after all I am the grandmother and I have a feeling they think my time is over.  They are so wrong.

I like books and when I was reading a novel whose plot took place along the Way of St James I felt like learning more.  I already knew something about the French Way (el Camino Francés), or, “the Stars’ Way”, but it never interested me.  I surfed on the internet, I read diaries of travellers, I saw images of amazing landscapes, towns, churches, castles; pictures of pilgrims walking under the sun and the rain and many smiling faces.  I learnt that in old times, before Christianity, people set out on this journey towards the end of the world and today, so many centuries later, they keep on doing it.  I also learnt that nobody returns the same as he set out, since the experience is unique and I decided to have a try.  After all, what could I lose trying it?

I consulted tourist guides, I learnt by heart names of towns, I marked the most interesting places on a map, I calculated what would be my needs, what type of clothes I should take with me, how much money; I prepared the backpack dozens of times until leaving just the bare essentials and finally, I bought the train and bus tickets that would take me to Orreaga/Roncesvalles.  I know, I know that all ways of St James are infinite, that each of them begins where the pilgrim starts to walk, but I had to start somehow and I did not feel like having enough strength to walk from Kiel to Santiago.  Once everything was ready, I communicated my decision to my sons and their pleas were useless to make me give up the project, or at least, go accompanied.  I had to make the journey on my own, I did not need company and probably I would not find it, but I was wrong.

From the first moment I started to walk I have had someone alongside me.  Men and women, young and adult people have set foot on the same roads as me; we have stopped in the same fountains to quench our thirst, we have contemplated the dense woods, the golden cornfields, the towns where the storks nest in the bell towers, and we have sat down in eating rooms in the evening, with sore feet, to admire sunsets.  I only spoke German when I left Kiel and now it turns out that I speak all the languages of the world!  Well I might be exaggerating, but it is true when I say I understand people walking next to me, or walking ahead or behind me, since there is always, always a moment when we meet again.

I have reached the conclusion that words are just sounds expressing feelings and a greeting or a farewell, they all sound the same in any of the languages on the Camino.  I also have learnt to thank those who receive me or show me the right path to be followed.  They smile, and I am sure they think I am not in my right mind.  What!  An old woman, alone, carrying a backpack and leaning on a stick to make the walk lighter, she has to be a little bit crazy to do such a journey on foot.  Yes, I might be, in fact, I am.  I am crazy about life.

I still have a good way to walk, many kilometres ahead of me, as I am just in the beginning of my journey.  This afternoon I arrived in Estella-Lizarra and I remained a long time on the bridge that links the banks of the river thinking about the thousands of travellers who crossed over there, throughout history, each of them for a reason, an idea, a language, an origin, but with a common aim: to walk, to arrive to the end of the world on foot.

I have blisters, it seems the backpack has doubled in weight, the sky threatens to rain tomorrow, but I have never felt so alive, so young and I have decided to do the same route on the way back.  I will not take any train or plane as previously planned; I will come back the same way as I arrived on foot!  I will say hello to pilgrims and I will tell them it is worth the effort, that the pleasure overcomes the weariness.  In what language?  Bo, gut, mat, ongi, good, plan, bon, goed, bueno, buono, dobry, bra, bun… who cares?  Everybody will understand it.

Camino Downunder classes and workshops are held twice a year in Sydney (Australia) and in New Zealand and aimed to totally prepare and support the independent pilgrim walker.  What is fascinating with Erika’s testimony is that in the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) 65% to 70% of participants attending Camino Downunder classes over the last four years are women who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.   The majority begin as monolinguals, but during their long committed and passionate preparation period, they take on board multiple languages and cultures.  The very best aspect of globalisation in the 21st century would be walking independently along the Camino de Santiago: moving between cultures; using languages and making linguistic connections.

Successfully moving between cultures on the Camino de Santiago