Reviewing Jean-Christophe Rufin’s French text: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi (2013)

Jean-Christophe Rufin is well known and appreciated in France, Africa and Brasil but unknown in the English speaking world.  It is a pity.

Camino Downunder is reviewing and critiquing his latest published text: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi – “Immortal trek – Compostela despite me  (Always challenging to appropriately translate the title – too much creativity in the translation and it can mislead, whilst staying too close to the original text and that too, distorts the real meaning).

For English speakers it is important to understand that in French le Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle means el Camino de Santiago in Spanish (St James Way).  And the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain is called Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in French.

Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi was published by a small French publishing house Éditions Guérins, located at Chamonix in the Alpes in France this year in March and when our French friend’s son of the reviewer arrived in Sydney in April (2013), he was given this new publication, hot off the presses.

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So, who is Jean-Christophe Rufin?

Born in the French town of Bourges (geographically in the middle of France) in June, 1952 and soon after birth, his maternal grandparents care for him until he was later reunited at the age of 10 with his mother, in Paris.  At 15, in 1967 he decides to study medicine because he is inspired by the South African transplant doctor Christian Barnard and the world’s first heart transplant.  He becomes a specialist neurologist and psychiatrist  but before undertaking medical specialisation, he chooses to go to Tunisia (his first contact with Africa) and instead of doing his compulsory French National military service in France, he goes to Tunisia in a non-military capacity as an aid worker in a third world (developing) country.

Alongside the internationally well-known Bernard Kouchner,  Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the early doctor pioneers for Médecins sans frontières (MSF) (Doctors without borders) and has traveled many times to East Africa and Latin America on humanitarian and covert missions.  He has also worked for the French Government in various capacities in France and overseas; such as France’s cultural attaché to Brazil (1989-1990) and knows the Portuguese language very well; French Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia (2007 – 2010) and many other executive management positions in French government administration.

He has been a teacher and lecturer at some of France’s most prestigious and élite tertiary institutions and since the middle of the 1980s he has been a prodigious writer in all genres from novels, historical novels, essays both fiction and non-fiction.  Such is his reputation as a brilliant writer, that Rufin in 2008 was elevated to being one of “Forty Immortals/les Quarante or Les Immortels” (until death) – due to his successful nomination and election to France’s most prestigious cultural/ language institution the Académie française – the final guardian and promoter of the French language, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII.

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Jean-Christophe Rufin: dressed in the green costume “l’habit vert” – the regalia worn by the 40 members of the Académie française

Immortelle randonnée (Immortal trek) recounts Rufin’s story about his connection to the Spanish pilgrimage tracks (he undertook the Northern route), commencing in France in May, 2011 from Hendaye (see map below) near the Spanish/French border, then walking through San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón, Oviedo, Lugo and on to Santiago de Compostela and his subsequent conversion into it becoming an obsession. And finally some 23 months later his book Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi is published.

In the first half of 2013 Immortelle randonnée sold over 118,000 copies (source: Edistat) and it was from April, 2013 only when it had arrived in the book stores and sold on-line.  In the first semester of 2013, this non-fiction text about a French person’s discovery and initiation of the ‘Compostelean’ attractions achieved the number 14 best seller list of all books foreign and French, fiction and non-fiction sold in France (source: Edistat).

In July this year, the writer presented a paper (The Pedagogy of the Pilgrimage Routes in France and Spain http://caminodownunder.com//library/Pedagogy_Pilgrimage_Routes.pdf) at a language conference hosted by the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association (AFMLTA) in Canberra and whilst researching and preparing for his presentation was struck by the 10 stage schematic model for engagement (see below) with a pilgrimage track (before, during and after) whilst reading in tandem Jean-Christophe Rufin’s text.

In Grossman’s  paper, the pilgrim undergoes the following 10 steps of engagement and development.  Broadly speaking this is how Rufin’s text: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi is set out; but with variations to account for creative writing, freedom of choice for the subject/person, with analytical and philosophical reflections peppered throughout the book.

THE TEN STAGE PROCESS FOR ALL INDEPENDENT WALKING PILGRIMS

  1. DECISION-MAKING/MOTIVATION
  2. PREPARATION
  3. DEPARTURE
  4. TRANSITION
  5. JOURNEY
  6. ARRIVAL
  7. RETURN
  8. RE-INTEGRATION
  9. WORKING UP THE EXPERIENCES and
  10. LASTING EFFECTS.

PREPARATION: Chapter 1 is «L’organisation» and we are informed he knows very little about the Camino de Santiago, apart from his image of it as being an ancient track with pilgrims walking solo.

He discusses in some detail his nascent knowledge about the Camino de Santiago.  As he starts his «PREPARATION» he begins to understand what the purpose and nature of the credential (the prilgrim’s pass or “credencial” in Spanish) is whilst being a pilgrim.  And most importantly:

«On découvre alors que le Chemin est l’objet sinon d’un culte, du moins d’une passion, que partagent nombre de ceux qui l’ont parcouru  (One discovers that the Camino, if it isn’t a form of cult workship then it is at least a passion which is shared by those who have walked it).  During his preparation period the French writer discovers “Toute une organisation”   (A whole organisation…) «Le chemin est un réseau, une confrérie, une internationale.»  (The Camino is a network, a veritable confraternity of humanity.)

However, throughout this first chapter and as well as in every other of the 32 chapters there is analysis, synthesis, philosophical meditations, linking the present to the past with his every step along the Northern Camino route.  His writing style profoundly engages the reader whether he/she may have undertaken the Camino de Santiago or not.  He does not hide his foibles (e.g. his insomnia) nor is he falsely modest about his qualities and abilities to successfully walk the distance and do it with some panache.  Along the Camino track he is (and this is not surprising because it is a common characteristic among independent, modern foot pilgrims) one day misanthropic and the next day philanthropic – wanting to be or not wanting to be with people.

DEPARTURE: Chapter 2 is «Le point de départ»

For Rufin, as it is for every single pilgrim-walker: deciding where to begin – where to put the first step.  For the independent pilgrim, time allowed or permitted will invariably dictate where they will begin.  The writer puts it succinctly: «C’est la raison pour laquelle, vers Compostelle, l’essentiel n’est pas le point d’arrivée, commun à tous, mais le point de départ. (…) La question qu’ils se posent est “D’où es-tu parti?” Et la réponse permet immédiatement de savoir à qui l’ont à affaire.» (It’s for that reason that the aim of getting to Compostela, is not the arriving which is everyone’s aim, but where they leave (…) The question people ask is “Where did you start?”  And the response then immediately informs the questioner who he is dealing with.)

Rufin truly and deeply understands that the greatest, most profound and long-lasting effects of pilgrimage in our age depends on doing very long and over many weeks challenging pilgrimages.  Nearly ten years earlier the American Conrad Rudolph (professor of medieval art and chair of art history at University of California) said exactly the same thing in his text Pilgrimage to the End of the World – published in 2004 by The University of Chicago Press:This is why pilgrimage must be done on foot, never on bicycle; why you must stay in refugios, not in hotels; and why the journey should be long and hard.

Il faut en effet reconnaître que le temps joue un rôle essentiel dans le façonnage du «vrai» marcheur. p. 15 One has to recognize the essential role which time plays in shaping an authentic walker.

Le Chemin est une alchimie du temps sur l’âme. p. 15 The Camino track is an alchemy of time poured over the human soul.

Il perçoit une vérité plus humble et plus profonde : une courte marche ne suffit pas pour venir à bout des habitudes.  Elle ne tranforme pas radicalement la personne. p. 16 He (the pilgrim) perceives a more basic and profound truth : a short walk is not enough to really affect his habits and dispositions.  It does not fundamentally change the person.

DECISION-MAKING/MOTIVATION (revisited): Chapter 3 «Pourquoi ?» (Why?)

In Immortelle randonnée, Rufin cleverly reverses the chronological steps by explaining his reasons for undertaking the Compostela pilgrimage.  Essentially, he explains his original motivations by simply wanting to do a very long solo walk.  His decision in doing “Compostelle malgré moi” (Compostela despite me) is due to the «St Jamesian virus» which has deeply infected him.

“J’ignore par qui ou par quoi s’est opérée la contagion.  Mais, après une phase d’incubation silencieuse, la maladie avait éclaté et j’en avais tous les symptômes”.  Not knowing by what means or by whom had infected me.  However, after a silent incubation period, this sickness exploded and I was presenting with all the symptoms.

Camino Downunder in Australia and New Zealand has always had in its classes, participants demonstrating those very same characteristics: the seemingly benign Camino seed somehow got implanted in the person’s being, laying dormant, sometimes for many years; and suddenly it explodes internally to then dominate behaviour by turning it into a commitment – the first act (DECISION-MAKING/MOTIVATION) in this ten stage process.

TRANSITION: Chapter 5 «Mise en route» (Starting up)

Having made the decision to do le Chemin du Nord – el Camino del Norte,  thanks in large part to the volunteer person manning the front desk in a Paris located Friends of the Camino office.  In May, 2011 Rufin leaves Paris by TGV and gets to Hendaye on the south-west Atlantic coast.  Like most pilgrims, arriving at the head of the walking track at Hendaye (the closest French border town to crossing over into Spain at Irún), Rufin splurges modestly on a one star H (French symbol) hotel and in his own self-deprecating words: «restons modeste, tout de même».

In Grossman’s language conference paper he notes that in TRANSITION the pilgrim-walker leaves his familiar environment when he places his first foot on the designated pilgrimage track and the subject/person is now feeling a sustained range of emotions and feelings; from the positive to the negative…”An explosion of sensorial stimuli...”

Jean-Christophe Rufin writes:

Mes émois de pèlerin novice étaient puissants.  J’avais envie de chanter. Il me semblait que, d’ici peu, j’allais traverser la forêt de Brocéliande, croiser des chevaliers, des monastères en pierre.  Inutile de préciser que je m’exalte vite.  P. 37 My excitement as a novice pilgrim was powerful.  I wanted to sing.  It seemed to me that, without much effort I was going to walk into Brocéliande forest (NB the legendary Breton forest where Merlin the Wizard and Viviane the fairy lived, according to the stories of the Round Table)  and to pass by knights and stone monasteries.  Not necessary to labour the obvious: I become excited quickly.

JOURNEY: Chapters 6 to 31 of Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi are 200 pages of vivid descriptions of the Camino del Norte up to Oviedo (the good, the bad, the ugly and the exquisite) and which then turns into the Camino Primitivo from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela via Lugo.

The insightful comments about the locals and the many pilgrim hostel wardens; observations of his many fellow pilgrims (such as, the female Australians walking in a group with their Austrian female counterparts); Rufin’s own emotions and feelings, his philosophical analyses, plus his self-deprecating comments producing a true masterpiece of writing; guaranteeing to engage 100 percent of the time any reader of the French language (classic or modern) and whether they are interested in the Camino de Santiago or not.  The reviewer was awed by Rufin’s text from start to finish because he is simply a brilliant writer of the French language.  To others who do not have a passion for the French language but are passionate about the Spanish pilgrimage routes, this text would still take pride of place in their treasured pilgrimage library.  One can only hope, sooner than later, that an excellent translation into English will happen for an English audience in the English-speaking world.

This is the map in Immortelle randonnée: showing the Camino del Norte + Camino Primitivo + Camino Francés (pp. 260-261)

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During the JOURNEY, Rufin writes movingly about an alternative/variant track high up in the Asturian mountains, recommended to him by a female grocery/hostel manager in order to walk a summit pass before getting to Salime.  Rufin looses himself in the moment and he is between heaven and earth.  Nature’s physical beauty here is so intense and so overpowering:

dans cet espace ouvert, saturé de beautés, à la fois interminable et fini, le pèlerin est prêt à voir surgir quelque chose de plus grand que lui, de plus grand que tout, en vérité.  Cette longue étape d’altitude fut, en tout cas pour moi, le moment, sinon d’apercervoir Dieu du moins de sentir son souffle. P. 192 …in this open space, saturated with beauty, at the same time being both finite and infinite, the pilgrim is ready to accept the truth of a presence which is bigger than him and bigger than anything existing.  This long walking section high up in the mountain was for me the moment, if not then of glimpsing God’s presence, then at least feeling his breath on me.

Jamais le monde ne m’avait paru aussi beau.  P. 194  Never the world had appeared to me as being so beautiful as it was now.

ARRIVAL:  In Chapter 32 (the last chapter) appropriately called L’arrivée in French, Rufin writes about himself, but could very easily be writing for all authentic, long distance and independent pilgrims.

Yes definitely it’s good arriving, but the let down soon sets in and then begins the challenge of “RE-INTEGRATION“.  After much reflection, the reviewer states that arriving in Santiago de Compostela is metaphorically death and failure.  If “arriving” means you can no longer go further: that can then be construed as an allegorical ‘death and failure’.  The pilgrimage journey is finished, extinguished or destroyed by the pilgrim’s very success in arriving.  That is the paradox of pilgrimage and arriving – pilgrimage must, by definition finish one day.  And that is precisely why the authorities (secular and religious) in Santiago deeply understand this pilgrimage paradox: arriving is the death and failure of each person’s pilgrimage.  And that explains why the ex-pilgrim is offered a number of inducements to stay as long as possible in this magical city.  However, staying more than three days in Santiago as an ex-pilgrim becomes boring and meaningless.

The writer of Immortelle randonnée briefly discusses how arriving in Santiago affects him:

Car tout concourt à le rompre, dès lors qu’on est «arrivé».  Les charmes et les beautés de Compostelle ensevelissent les souvenirs du Chemin. Le corps reprend sa nonchalance urbaine : on traîne dans les ruelles et, bientôt, on se surprend même à acheter des souvenirs…p. 256  Because all competitions break the ribbon on arriving at the end.  The charms and attractions of Santiago bury the memories acquired along the pilgrimage track.  The pilgrim’s body returns to its city-like listlessness : one wanders around aimlessly in the old city and you surprise yourself by buying some souvenirs…

In Rufin’s last chapter comprising 10 pages the writer in few words coherently and accurately describes the last 5 post schematic model stages after the JOURNEY and ARRIVAL have been achieved: RETURN; RE-INTEGRATION; WORKING UP THE EXPERIENCES and LASTING EFFECTS.

In a few profound words, Jean-Christophe Rufin deeply reflects on his pilgrimage experiences and their lasting effects.  On returning home he now applies his new practical and philosophical principle which he calls “la philosophie de la mochila” + “la mochila de mon existence”   “Mochila” is the Spanish word for the backpack one carries as a pilgrim-walker.  In other words, “LESS IS MORE”.  He returns to his home in the French Alps and for the very first time in his life, he is brave enough to finally get rid of accumulated stuff (things, projects going nowhere etc.).  He also addresses his fears which have accompanied him for a lifetime.

What is extraordinary with Rufin’s text is the fact that whilst walking over 800 kilometres from Hendaye to Santiago de Compostela he had NOT once ever wrote down any of his observations, feelings and analysis.  He tells us this emphatically and explicitly and is in fact quite disparaging of his fellow pilgrims who write each day after their many hours of walking.  He had not wanted at any stage to produce a book about his pilgrimage until returning home and with the snow all around him and being snow bound in conversation with two people who happen to be connected to Éditions Guérin at Chamonix in the French Alpes; that he is persuaded to put pen to paper and he tells us he remembers everything that he had experienced:

Dans la prison de la mémoire, le Chemin s’éveillait, cognait aux murs , m’appelait.  Je commençai à y penser, à écrire et, en tirant le fil, tout est venu. p.258  In the prison of my memory, the Camino was revealing itself, it was bashing down the walls to get out, it was calling out to me.  I started to think about it, to write, and in pulling on the linking thread, it all came back to me.

In his penultimate sentence, Rufin informs the reader he will be doing another Camino track soon.

The reviewer does not know if there will ever be a translation into English of this text.  However, if you do not know French and you have been looking for a compelling reason to undertake serious French language studies, then look no further: Immortelle randonnée – Compostelle malgré moi is a modern masterpiece.

Reviewer: MARC GROSSMAN

Note: All translations into English from the French in this post is by the reviewer Marc Grossman

https://www.caminodownunder.com

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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

http://www.sff.org.au/films-container/the-unlikely-pilgrims/

https://www.caminodownunder.com

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

www.compostelle2000.com/ 

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.
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What time of the year to do the Camino de Santiago?

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The writer would like a dollar each time he is asked this question or variations of the following:

What is the best time of the year to do the Camino de Santiago?

This question is invariably and consistently asked in Camino Downunder classes and workshops in Australia and New Zealand.  Ironically, when the question is posed, the participant has often made up his or her mind and wants validation that they have made the right choice.  The writer would prefer that all future pilgrims keep an open mind, precisely because of the premise that you should make an informed choice; it’s a personal decision-making process; and most importantly you have to decide what are your priorities and not try to have everything, see everything and do everything whilst you’re undertaking the Camino de Santiago.

Nonetheless, all the options need to be put on the table – freedom of choice.  Outlining to future pilgrims all the options is a de rigueur process in the classes.  This process is much appreciated, whilst the participant weighs up the pros and cons.

WHAT ARE THE FOUR OPTIONS?

Late October, 2009 walking through the deciduous beech forest in the Pyrenees and just inside Spain

  • SUMMER (verano) – June 21 to early September
  • AUTUMN (otoño) – September 21 to early December
  • WINTER (invierno) – December 21 to early March
  • SPRING (primavera) – March 21 to early June

WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION?

There is now a quasi formal pilgrimage “walking season”.  Most pilgrim hostel accommodation usually closes for the winter months; all open their doors once Easter has finished (March or April) and these seasonal «albergues/refugios» (in Spanish) close their doors, sometime in November, and which varies from pilgrim hostel to pilgrim hostel.  However, there are albergues and refugios which are open all year round for the very small winter pilgrimage foot traffic.  More about the winter pilgrimage traffic later.

The majority of Australians and New Zealanders prefer to undertake their pilgrimage during Spring or Autumn, as do most non-European pilgrims.

WHAT THEN ARE THE ATTRACTIONS AND CHALLENGES FOR EACH SEASON?

Summer:

  • Summer crops along the Meseta are maturing to full growth as are the vegetable gardens (huertas) in the first two regions (Navarra and La Rioja).
  • In early September (late summer) wheat harvesting commences on the Meseta.  Grape harvesting (mostly manual labour) is taking place in all the wine regions along the Camino Francés (Navarra, La Rioja and the Bierzo region of León province).
  • Most, if not all the snow found on the GR65 (la Route Napoléon) between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Col de Lepoeder (just inside Spain) has disappeared and the track is now quite dry (unless it has been rain affected).  There still may be seen some snow on the peaks of the Cantabrian Mountain ranges which are always on the right hand side (north) as the pilgrim travels west.
  • Summer heat is at its strongest – certainly in the afternoon and should be avoided when it is most intense during the mid-afternoon (around 3.00 pm).
  • If you are a morning person and you don’t mind getting up well before sunrise, you should begin walking during the cool of the morning (around 5.00 am), with its endearing qualities and finish soon after midday, to avoid the damaging afternoon sun on the Meseta between Burgos and Astorga – just over 200 hundred kilometres long.
  • The challenge for the non-Spanish pilgrim is to adhere to the tried and tested Spanish siesta traditions (moving successfully between cultures): making sure you finish your walking before 1.00 pm and hopefully get to your designated albergue, going inside and staying there until around 5.00 pm when the central town squares (Las Plazas) burst into life with the locals doing their customary “paseo” – social stroll, to be seen and to meet; coinciding with commercial establishments and shops opening from the late afternoon to until 8.00 pm or later.  What do you do for lunch?  Hopefully, you would have obtained your provisions before 1.00 pm or eaten in a café bar located right on the Camino track which sometimes stays open during the daily siesta period and during the walking season.
  • July and August are the peak times for the locals (Spaniards) who get on the track (mostly in Galicia to do a minimum 100 km of walking) during the peak summer holiday period.
  • Some overcrowding may be experienced in the last region (Galicia).
  • The foreign pilgrim experiences Spain up close and personal because life can now be better enjoyed outdoors from late afternoon, even in Northern Spain; the walking pilgrim is challenged each day to start very, very early.
  • For ornithologists and bird lovers entering Spain and less than 2 kilometres from Roncesvalles, the Centro de Migración de Aves – Roncesvalles/Orreaga opens its doors on the Camino track from July 1 until end of November. Its purpose is to study and observe the 22 birds of prey and the 22 other migratory birds crossing overhead.

    The bird watching centre on the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees and just before getting to Roncesvalles

Autumn:

End of October, 2009 in Spain in the Pyrenees between Roncesvalles and Zubiri

  • The exquisite beauty of crossing the Pyrenees from France into Navarra Spain and walking through a variety of beech, oak, fir and wild pine deciduous forests especially in late October cannot be overestimated as well as the varied colours of the leaves which are either still clinging precariously on the trees or fallen to the ground.
  • In the Pyrenees, the peak season (late September and October) for migratory birds and the huge size ‘scary and noisy’ birds of prey are all observed flying above the Camino de Santiago route and just a few kilometres before getting to Roncesvalles is the impressive bird interpretation and exhibition centre in three languages called: Centro de Migración de Aves.
  • An “Indian Summer” is often experienced in late autumn – an extension of summer, characterised by sustained dry, warm weather.
  • The pilgrim walking into Puente la Reina from Pamplona in late October early November will see on the Camino route the famous Spanish red peppers (pimientos de piquillo) being magically transformed by outdoor ovens: the outer skins are charred and blistered by the intense heat in order to release the exquisite sweet flavours inside the flesh.  Many residential buildings along the Camino de Santiago in Navarra and La Rioja have pimientos de piquillo hanging around their balconies to dry.
  • At the beginning of autumn in Logroño (capital of La Rioja): September 20 to September 26 are the Fiestas de la Vendimia Riojana – wine harvesting festivities lasting one full week and with the city figuratively exploding with people, processions, outdoor activities (viticulture) and with more gastronomy than usual.
  • The Meseta is no longer green or yellow with grains and crops – the harvest is now complete: the soil is a dark brown colour; it lies fallow and unsown.
  • The hunting season begins in both France and Spain – “la caza mayor (game hunting) and “la caza menor (shooting game birds only).
  • Throughout Spain, but especially along the Camino Francés the culturally and gastronomically significant “Matanza del cerdo” (slaughter of the pig) takes place (mainly on 11 November – San Martín) and early December.

Winter:

  • Its grand appeal and attraction in two words : character building.
  • Between Christmas and end of January: the number of pilgrims on the track go down to single digit numbers per week (certainly in the Pyrenees and in Navarra)
  • You must only do the Camino Francés in winter after you’ve done it a number of other times in other seasons: you should by then be reasonably familiar with terrain and topography.
  • You must have reasonably good language skills in Spanish and French.
  • The lambing seasons falls in winter and the early part of the year in Navarra – Pyrenees, La Rioja and Castilla y León.
  • You must enjoy being on your own for most of the day and on most days and not be constrained with a rigid walking timetable.  Time flexibility is important.
  • You must “enjoy” walking through snow and ice; the physical challenges of being exposed to some extreme cold days and to sleeping in some non-centrally heated rooms.
  • You must have either a duck or goose down jacket to wear for immediate and sufficient warmth once you stop walking.  Remember that down jackets can never be used when you are walking: they do not wick out the huge amounts of moisture produced by the body when undertaking heavy-duty walking even if the ambient temperatures are minus zero.
  • Your pilgrimage will be memorable and uplifting due to the many and varied encounters you will have with the locals, especially if you are on the Camino track during Christmas and the New Year period

Spring:

On the Meseta in early May, 2007

  • European Summer Time (Spain and France have the same time because they are in Central Europe Time zone) begins in Spring: the last Sunday in March until the last Sunday in October –  waking up in the dark, but being able to walk in daylight well past 9.00 pm.
  • A veritable explosion of new growth and fauna are sprouting and birdsong is ever-present  – flowers abound along the whole of the Camino.
  • Weather volatility is at its extreme (April and May): such as in the Pyrenees on the Spanish side all-weather records were broken in the first two weeks of May, 2010 – the coldest recorded temperatures since records began in the middle of the 19th  century.  In the middle of May, 2010 it snowed in Burgos (800 metres above sea-level) which is on the Meseta.  There is still significant snow on the Camino track above the treeline between France and Spain in the Pyrenees.
  • In Navarra and La Rioja and on the Meseta: there can be continuous days of rain: even if rain ceases for many days, the pilgrim continues to negotiate walking in mud.  It is the writer’s strong recommendation that walking with hi-tech gortex gaiters allows for a much better daily walking outcome.  The unwritten and genuine joys of walking straight through mud holes without deviating when walking in gaiters is something to experience!  See the earlier CaminoDownunder blog dated August 28, 2011: Good walking gear gives you a better walking outcome – PART ONE.
  • The colour of the Meseta is green and vibrant with the growing wheat fields and dominating the landscape as far as the eye can see, accompanied by constant birdsong all around and every day.

Mid April, 2007 snow in the Pyrenees – just inside of Spain on the Camino

CONCLUSION

When to walk the Camino de Santiago should be based on being well-informed, whilst understanding that each season’s attractions (colours, textures, appearances) is precisely determined by the yearly seasonal cycles which are unique for that season.  Can one still listen to and enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concertos separately (la primavera; l’estate; l’autunno; l’inverno – in Italian)?  Yes.  However, to eventually listen to all the four concertos is to appreciate the differences and complexities of each.  You can say one is your favourite or preferred; but you can’t say one is better or worse if you haven’t experienced it.

The choice made is on the understanding that you cannot experience all and have all the best in just one season – that’s being unrealistic.  In other words, walking along the Camino de Santiago at any time of the year will offer you the very best, but only for that season along with its challenges.

Maybe, starting to walk in one season and finishing up in other season allows the future pilgrim the opportunity to experience two seasons for the price of one pilgrimage in one walking season only.  Think about that as being a viable alternative.

www.caminodownunder.com

Navarra: on the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina: early November when the newly harvested peppers (Pimientos del Piquillo) have just had their outer skins roasted.

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: www.santiagolanguages.com

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