Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sept 30 - Camino metaphor

It may not be an original idea but it is nonetheless an appropriate one: a camino is a metaphor for life. Both have their ups and downs and and some easy going in between. The first few days of this camino have been mainly uphills with a couple of treacherous descents - just as Ana and John Thompson had promised us. Many times I've reminisced about the lovely easy flat terrain where we just did our Netherlands bike tour. I'm wondering if there is a patron saint of the Netherlands and if he'd like a camino dedicated to him. Failing that, I'm looking for the French version of the Meseta. However if you're not suffering, it's not a pilgrimage.

I have often thought how nice it would be to share this experience with our children - some real quality time and such a special journey together. On our first day out, we saw a French mother with her two beautiful daughters, aged 25 and 26. They were all effortlessly walking along, laughing and stopping for some family Kodak moments. Ha. Today we came across the two daughters in St. Alban. Their mother had gone on walking ahead for the day and the two girls were having a smoke and waiting for a taxi. Their feet were blistered and they had had enough. Gotta love that quality family time or is that an oxymoron?

We may not be suffering enough. As I might have mentioned we are in private rooms every night with our own bathrooms, real beds and sheets and towels. Meals are plentiful and good even for a vegetarian - but no fries, and great wine.

Sept. 28 - Dodging Bullets

The camino angels have been looking out for us as we have dodged a few bullets which could have been disastrous. The first was finding out that our universal adaptor did not include France. Fortunately, good advice from our Lyon concierge helped us find a place to buy a new one. After our first five kilometre walk I had been feeling a pebble in my boot but was too lazy to take my pack and then my boot off to empty it out. At lunch time, when I finally did check it out, I found a big chunk of glass in my boot ( from the restaurant in Le Puy where a waiter had shattered a bottle near our table). A sliced foot might have been a problem. Another bullet dodged. When we arrived in Le Privat Allier, after our first day walking, we had our guide book out and a bon homme, Alain, came up and asked us where we were staying and then he let us know that the gite I had reserved was two hours back! But he directed us to Monsieur Vachon who had a place by the old church. We followed his advice and had the best experience - a private gite to ourselves and the hospitality of this kind man - and a five room art exhibition thrown in. I consider Alain to be our first real camino angel. Potentially bad experience averted. And yesterday, after a quick cafe, Dayton and I nonchalantly left the cafe and headed down the road. We had forgotten to check directions and it was the wrong way. Rather than retrace our steps we decided to continue along the road and then I saw in the distance some pilgrims on a country path. We were right beside a little connecting dirt track so we took it, caught up and passed the others. Evidently, our miscue was a shortcut. The only bullet I haven't dodged is a chest cold but walking in the fresh air helps as does the security of knowing (or at least believing) that we have reservations for the night.

Sept. 27 Le Puy

Nothing like a steep uphill climb in the dark shadows of the morning to set the tone for the days to come - uphill, uphill all the way. It was a good thing we had had a wonderfully substantial continental breakfast with everything from croissants to petite crepes. Tres bien. It was enough to fuel this climb. And then.... we rounded the corner and there before us were the imposing and formidable entrance to the cathedral - 110 steps, already peppered with struggling pilgrims on their way to the pilgrims' Mass. The Mass was highlighted by the exquisite singing of a chubby little grey-habited nun, so pure and clear.

A very moving and very personal benediction followed the Mass which the priest seemed to enjoy just as much as we did as he had us all introduce ourselves and our home country and wished us to find joy, hope and goodness on our camino.

As a side note, I'm continually amazed that the elderly can climb all those steps to get to church; every cathedral is on the top of a huge hill. I expect to see shrines along the way dedicated to those who almost made it to church. A true test of fitness and faith.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bonne Route

After a sleepless night in Lyon wondering and worrying about whether I had packed the right gear and being thoroughly intimidated by the thought of starting this Camino Le Puy, I was somewhat comforted when we walked into the Lyon train station at 6:30am and the first people we saw and met were a pilgrim (perelin) couple from Austria. Pilgrims are easily identified by the large packs and the maps and guide books. Meeting other pilgrims gave me a bit of confidence that at least we were heading in the right direction. Angela and Wolfgang planned to walk some sections of the camino, drive through other sections and stay at pre-booked hotels along the way; no crowded gites with shared facilities. Angela did say that one of her friends scoffed that that was no way to do a camino but Angela just said it was her camino and her way. Good for her. Those hotels sound pretty good to me.

After a very comfortable train ride, we arrived in Le Puy. We wished our Austrian couple farewell and said we'd see them at the morning Mass and headed directly to the Cathedral to get our credenciales. There is an active convent in Le Puy and the nuns in the sacristy issued us our pilgrims' passports. This being Sunday morning, we stayed for Mass especially when we realized there was a special camino service planned for the local pilgrims' group here. The highlight of the Mass was a youth choir's version of the pilgrims' song Ultreia. I have to say, with apologies to Tom Friesen, it was certainly more tuneful and melodic than our yearly Bayfield renditions. After Mass we climbed up and up (shades of trials to come) to the statue Notre Dame - with our loaded pack.

France is still a hold out to our old Sunday Blue Laws and so everything closes up at 2pm. We did manage to find one restaurant open then back to our hotel where we booked gites for the next two nights. So tomorrow it,s Mass at 7am and then "bonne route". We're off.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bike and Barge and Belgium Frietes (Fries)

With complete disregard for any athletic principle of the 'specificity of training', Dayton and I have spent the past week preparing for our three week walking trek across the reportedly hilly and rugged terrain in the south-west of France by biking the flat, even terrain of the cycle paths bordering the canals of the Netherlands. Not exactly the most appropriate training program but definitely a pleasant one.

More leisurely than physically challenging, our bike trip took us from Ghent in Belgium to Amsterdam. We were blessed with ergonomically comfortably upright sturdy seven-gear bikes and so we were never back-breakingly hunched over the curved handlebars of an 18 or 21 speed racing bike. Our daily schedule was as punctual as it was leisurely. Tea and coffee were laid out in the barge's lounge/dining room every morning promptly at 7am; the ship's bell rang out for breakfast precisely at 8am and we were packed up and on the bikes by 9am. All our gear (extra clothing, drinks and lunches) were stowed in a heavy duty pannier that clipped onto the back rack of our bike. Each days ride took us along the canals and the idyllic country roads, and through many wonderfully picturesque medieval towns and cities. The Netherlands is a very bike friendly country. Bike paths are everywhere. In fact, some roads have a substantial bike path on either side of a single lane road and it is the cars which meet head on and have to respectfully squeeze over and give way to one another.

It is great to have an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide to navigate the route and to let us know why the 'forward leading house' in Gouda is 'forward leaning', why the statue in square in front of the ancient Guild houses in Antwerp is holding a severed hand and where to find the best cheese shop or silver shop. Loek, our guide, sets a very easy pace, so easy in fact that there is no chance that we would ever intimidate the 75 and 85 year olds who routinely and confidently breeze past us, pedalling effortless as if they'd done this all their lives. Doh! And if it isn't a senior blasting past us, it's a young mother with one child set in front between her and her handlebars and one or two children set behind her or a cyclist texting or talking on their cell phone. Meanwhile we are gripping the handlebars with clenched gloved hands and heads protected by gigantic aerodynamic bike helmets. Despite the very reasonable pace of our daily bike ride being on a bike seat for five to six hours and cycling 50 kms a day still results, at the end of the day, in a very tender tush or, as I like to think of it, numb in the Netherlands.

The neighbourhoods and homes we've passed on our bike rides have appeared to be very affluent and I've particularly noted that everyone must have the same interior designer, subscribe to the same decorating magazine or have a passion for symmetry as almost every inside window ledge has a matching pair of something in the window; two identical vases, two candlesticks, two bowls or two urns. A very clean and neat sense of feng shui.

The ride into the busy streets of Amsterdam proved not as frightening as we expected. It was not the cars which were intimidating as much as the cyclists zipping in and out and across our paths. While we were trying to stay up with Loek and were still figuring out which green light was for bicycles, half of our group had missed the light. The sheer multitude of cyclists in Amsterdam is unfathomable; thousands and thousands and thousands of bikes.

And now, as we're mentally gearing down from this week's tour, we have to change gears, re-organize and re-pack and gear up for the next three weeks. Tomorrow, a flight to Leon in France, Sunday a train ride to Le Puy and then it's off our butts and on to our Camino.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Düsseldorf Alberque

Dayton and I always say, "Be very sure if you ever tell us to drop in..........because we do."
So much of a 'camino experience' or pilgrimmage is not just where you have journeyed but it is the people you meet along the journey. So here we are in Düsseldorf, the pampered guests of Liane and Jürgen, a wonderful couple with whom we shared many good times and good meals on our Camino Frances. Our first encounter with Liane and Jürgen was in Navarette, then again in Villafranca - Montes de Oca, and again and again along the way. We especially enjoyed spending time with them in Finisterre when we were all relaxing, recapping and desperately recuperating after finishing our Camino. One particularly memorable night was when we had a fire on the beach, shared some wine and cheese (actually sharing wine and cheese is part of almost every experience, at least in our book), and watched Liane and Jürgen finish their Camino with the ritual burning of one's clothes. They may have burned only a few small items but it, nonetheless, marked the end of their journey.

Liane and Jürgen's parting words to us included an invitation, "If you ever come to Germany, the door to our alberque is always open." So for the past three days we have enjoyed their hospitality. We have toured the AltStadt, the old city, shopped (Dayton now has a new full length rain poncho), met their children and grandchildren and, of course, enjoyed some wonderful food and drink. Needless to say, the German biere, (Alt Biere is the specialty of Düsseldorf) is very, very good. Another traditional culinary treat in Düsseldorf is Eisbein. Eisbein is the thigh of a pig which is roasted on a spit until the skin is crisp and crackling and is served whole on a platter with perfectly round mounds of potato dumplings and rotkohl (red cabbage). Thankfully, Dayton opted for the Sauerbräten, braised beef.

Tomorrow we leave for Amsterdam on our way to Ghent in Belgium where we will begin our 'training program' for our Camino Le Chemin Le Puy. In truth, this training is actually a Bike and Barge trip from Ghent to Amsterdam. It may be a somewhat unorthodox method of training for a walking pilgrimage but it's all we've got so it will have to do. The one thing we are sure of is that it will involve 'food and drink'.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Going to need a bigger backpack!

How can this keep happening? It's the height of idiocy to keep repeating things in the same manner but expect different results. We have too much stuff! Our promise to be ruthless in packing has been buried beneath all our stuff.

The zen of walking a pilgrimage is its simplicity; it is an opportunity to live an uncluttered life. Our everyday life is anything but uncluttered. We have embraced the societal norm which dictates that we acquire 'stuff'. We want our life to be easy, fast, comfortable and convenient and so we spend years accumulating stuff to achieve this.

The ridiculous result of amassing all this stuff is that then we have to spend an the inordinate amount of time trying to organize the stuff and then, when it's too much for the space we have available, we have to find a way to store the stuff. So we buy more stuff; shelving, baskets, plastic tubs, garage cabinets, portable storage units. If that isn't enough, there's an entire industry out there which, for a monthly rental fee, will store our stuff or we can resort to the tacky cottage industry of the 'garage sale'. You lay out all of your stuff on the driveway very, very early on a Saturday morning so that others can drive by, look it over and offer you one tenth of what you had priced it at and one hundredth what you paid for it originally. If you are ever lucky enough to get a handle on your own stuff (which I never have accomplished yet), then your children move back home from university with their stuff.

A camino is a perfect antidote for all this stuff. You take only what you can carry on your back. No more and certainly, in my experience, no less. And therein lies the proverbial rub. The ultimate problem is overestimating what you (and your husband) can carry 30 kms a day for weeks on end and underestimating what you can do without. Time to get back at the packing and do some realistic 're-estimating'..

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Things, which don't actually kill you outright...."

"Things, which don't actually kill you outright, tend to make you stronger." Oh, would that that were so! Walking the Camino Frances de Santiago last year may not have killed us outright as we did survive and arrive alive but we were more than a little beat up by the end. Now does that make us stronger for our next one? You know........ I'm just going to go with it because we are now about to go on our second pilgrimage and I'd like to take some comfort from that premise.

We have been more than a little less obsessive about the planning and training for this second camino. I'm not sure we even 'planned' for it. It just happened. We booked into a one week Hfholiday Bike and Barge trip, biking from Ghent in Belgium to Amsterdam and then had to come up with something else to do for a couple of weeks. It just doesn't make sense to fly over to Europe for only one week. It was never our intention to hit the Camino trails in 2010, a Jubilee Year, because the number of pilgrims is overwhelming. However, throwing good sense to the wind, we decided that by heading out in late September and choosing, what we think is a less travelled route, we'd avoid the crowds. Let's hope this proves to be true. So we're going to walk three weeks in France along the Chemin Le Puy, starting in Le Puy en Velay and heading southwest towards St. Jean Pied de Port, where we started our Camino Frances last year. We will not be able to complete this entire section in just three weeks so we'll just see how far we get in the time available.

In preparation for the Camino Frances I took 18 months of Spanish lessons. For the Camino Le Puy - six French lessons total. For the Camino Frances, I walked at least 20 kms a day for months; for the Camino Le Puy - 8 kms around Springbank Park once in a while. For the Camino Frances, we went to meeting after meeting, read every book we could find from Shirley MacLaine's other-worldly mystic ramblings to Jane Christmas' witty and whiney book, 'What the Psychic told the Pilgrim'. For the Camino Le Puy, we have 'Miam, Miam, Dodo' a guide book published in France that we can't read - it's in French! I guess we will definitely embrace the concept of 'letting the camino unfold' as I sure don't feel like I have a handle on what's in store for us this time. One thing won't be any different: gites or alberques, it's still communal living, shared bathroom facilities and snorers. For the Camino Frances, I was packed months in advance, for Le Puy......well, it's now Friday, we leave on Monday....time to pack.