El Camino – Part III

Welp…it’s a new year and I’ve officially been back in the United States for two months. What a total rush the holidays were. And things really haven’t slowed down much as I’ve been searching for a job and driving down to Chicago or up to Minneapolis every chance I get. If someone a year ago had told me I’d be living in Wisconsin right now I would have scoffed and rolled my eyes at them. Life, man. I tell ya.

So anyways, as winter in the midwest is generally pretty dark, dingy, and cold, I have lots of time to daydream. And what am I daydreaming about? Ditching the States again and jetting off to someplace new…preferably warm. So I thought I’d put my daydreaming to good use by reminiscing on my European adventure some more and writing a new travel post.

I last left you somewhere in the middle of my trek through France. I had parted with my beloved Éric and Laurent and found myself in a really good and happy place despite the fact that my pals had left me. But you know what’s great about a hike like this? People are constantly starting and stopping their hikes and there are always new people to get to know.

Around this time I became really close with Marc. Marc is French-Canadian, maybe 60, and a total cynic. He confided in me multiple times that the pilgrims hiking for religious reasons were not his cup of tea. The middle aged women stressing how much they loved the “pilgrim community” apparently weren’t his cup of tea either. And same with the twenty-somethings trying to find themselves, (aka me.) Basically Marc didn’t like people that much and preferred solitude. He didn’t have any interest in making connections and was solely hiking because he wanted to say he had completed the way. Despite having practically nothing in common, Marc and I became quite good friends. We never hiked together but we would meet up nearly every evening and he would buy us a round of beers (“I’m a rich man with nothing to spend my money on, Katie. I got this.”) and we’d just shoot the shit.

Despite Marc’s “I don’t care about anyone” attitude, I could tell more and more everyday that he actually did care about me. On the day when I accidentally walked seven kilometers in the wrong direction I obviously didn’t make it to the destination we’d planned to meet at and the next day when we did meet he asked where I’d been in a concerned dad type of way. One evening he scribbled his email address on a napkin and told me to contact him if I ever ended up in Quebec, despite having told me previously that he didn’t want to keep in touch with anyone he met along the hike. On my final day (when I walked double the distance he walked so I could catch a train to Spain and meet up with my parents) he gave me a big hug and asked me to give my parents hugs from him too. Despite my initial impression of Marc, I grew to care about him a great deal and I think I cracked his shell. These are the kinds of unexpected relationships you form when you decide to ditch your life and walk through a country. C’est la vie, right?

I didn’t form such extensive relationships with everyone I met along the way. Sometimes I only spent an afternoon or an evening with someone. But regardless on the amount of time we knew each other, I met so many wonderful and unique souls. I could truly go on and on about them all. Instead, I’ve chosen some of the most memorable and written up little snippets about our time and memories shared.

Colette: So as I briefly mentioned above, there was this one day when I walked in the wrong direction. Basically, I had a goal town and once I arrived I decided that I wanted to keep going to make my hike the next day shorter. My feet were on fire but after resting on a bench and scarfing down a hazelnut Milka bar I picked myself up and continued on. I powered through this hike, you guys. I mean I was in so much pain but I felt proud of myself for continuing on and this self-pride gave me the extra fuel I needed. But there was a point where I started to worry that I wasn’t on the right path. The symbol for the French camino is a red and white equal sign and I passed plenty of these symbols as I was hiking but it just seemed like I had walked more that the extra five kilometers and like I should be in the town by now. Finally I came to a tiny town and looked in my guidebook to make sure I was on track. What did I discover? Wrong town. By twelve kilometers. In the wrong direction. Turns out the same red and white symbol is used for many various hikes. I learned the hard way, obviously. The sun was pretty low in the sky, I was out of chocolate, and my legs felt numb. I started to tear up as panic rose inside me. And then I had this amazing 180 degree turn in attitude. I started walking toward the town center, looking at barns and bus stops and scoping out potential places to sleep. I remembered a banana that was crammed into my backpack and realized that if I really was desperate, the banana would suffice as dinner. I just decided to take things one moment at a time. I wasn’t where I needed to be and the circumstances were crummy but things could have been so much worse. I was nearly to the town center when a little old lady came up to me. She pointed to my guidebook and asked me in French if I needed help. After lot’s of miming and pointing, she informed me of the obvious, that I was in the wrong town. No, she said, there were no hotels or grocery stores. No taxi service either. And then, she motioned for me to follow her and walked me back to her home. She loaded my backpack into her beat up car, asked the name of the hostel I was looking for, and drove me the fifteen minutes by car it took to get to my destination. I was truly overcome by her kindness. Unfortunately, all I could communicate was, “vous êtes très gentille,” but I’m hopeful that the desperation and emotion in my expression conveyed to her just how much this gesture meant to me. All I can say is that I hope karma takes care of her.

Lescabanes crew: One of my favorite nights of the whole camino was in a rinky dink but very quaint town called Lescabanes. There were nine of us who stayed in the gite — three English speakers (me plus two Aussies), three German speakers (two from Germany, one from Austria), and three French speakers (all from France). Our hostess made a lovely meal, traditional to the town, and left us to hang around and socialize. Dinner was fun, all of us struggling to communicate, but the real fun came after dinner, when one of the German men took to the piano. He played for a good thirty minutes with the rest of us sitting around just soaking it in. I can picture the scene perfectly in my head. Edouard, my Austrian friend, was sitting beside me absolutely beaming. “This is what the camino is about,” he kept saying. Struggling to communicate another thought to me, he pulled up Google Translate. Wer klavier spielt hat glueck bei den frauen so sagt man. Rough translation: He who plays the piano has luck with the ladies. Is it just me or is humor even better when it transcends language barriers? Meanwhile, one of the French guys, an older man named Michele, befriended a stray cat. He pulled it onto his lap where it happily remained for the duration of the evening. I also caught him taking selfies with it, much to my delight. The fun was over as quickly as it began (pilgrims gotta get up at the crack of dawn, ya know) but the memory is such a good one.

Gerhardt: As the days passed and September turned into October, more and more gites closed up shop for the season. There were a couple times when I almost didn’t have a place to stay. The first time I experienced this was in a gorgeous little town situated up on a plateau called Auvillar. After hearing from the woman who ran the office of tourism that the communal gite was closed, I was immediately relieved when she mentioned a different gite that was not listed in my guidebook. She walked me next-door to a house, rang the bell, and left me standing in a state of mild confusion. I had stayed in gites run out of homes before but this one had no signage and no signs of life. Finally, an old man came to the door and welcomed me in. The house was very strange and appeared from the inside to be quite ancient and like it might collapse at any moment. While hesitant about this strange place, I was completely thrilled to find I had my own room (an absolute luxury on the camino) with a warm fluffy comforter and quickly paid up and settled in. My initial disdain for the place turned to wonder after I spoke more with Gerhardt. I learned that he was a retired university history professor from Germany who ran the gite with the help of his French wife. The house, I learned, looked ancient because it was ancient. From the 12th century to be specific. In the morning, an amazing breakfast was served, complete with fresh baked bread, homemade jam, fromage blanc, Dutch apple juice, and Moorish prunes. Gerhardt filled our heads with history facts about the town while his lovely wife went around the table and gave massages. On my way out the door after breakfast, Gerhardt stopped me and opened his “Pandora’s box,” instructing me to reach inside. I pulled out a piece of chocolate. He winked and said, “save it for the first feeling of weakness today.” Later in the day under the grueling hot sun, I felt exhausted and fed up. And then I felt the chocolate in my pocket and a smile crept across my face. Thanks Gerhardt.

Billy: At the half-way point of my hike, I met an American girl who told me that we were about a week away from a town called Lectoure, which was home to a natural hot spring. Naturally, when you spend all day everyday walking and your back is sore from your load and your feet are blistered and mangled, a hot spring sounds like literal heaven on earth. I planned my days accordingly so I would be able to arrive to Lectoure early in the day and maximize my hot spring time. Okay, so my expectations were set a bit high and it turned out to be a glorified public pool but there was a sauna and a jacuzzi and I was still stoked. I borrowed a massive, paper-thin one piece from the lost and found, rented a swim cap, and made my way to the bath house. Initially I was a little hesitant to go. I mean, when I say the swimsuit was paper thin, I mean like rice-paper thin. And even though I tied up the straps so it stayed on, it was obviously too big and the excess fabric clung to my wet body in all the wrong ways. Additionally, I didn’t bother bringing a razor on my hike. So pair a massive suit with hairy armpits and top it all off with a swim cap? Yeah, I was just a little bit outside of my comfort zone. The cherry on top was when I walked into the swim area and slipped instantly on the wet tile. It was no surprise to me when the lifeguard came up to me and asked if I was okay. “Are you Spanish?” he followed up. It only took me a minute to realize that he was not really concerned about my slip, but rather was flirting. Not going to lie, this was definitely flattering. I internally high-fived myself…looking like a mess, no makeup, black toenails, but ya still got it. We chatted for a bit and he was kind of growing on me…until he gave me his card, complete with email, cell number, home phone number, Facebook name, and home address. A little strange but still flattering, right? Definitely a memorable first trip to a bath house. And probably a last.


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