My wife and I are counting everying in tens right now. On Sunday, we ate discounted pain aux raisins outside the Tesco with the kids before walking home with our shopping, and I said, “Hey – ten years ago tomorrow morning, your mum ate a pain aux raisins on a bridge in Bayonne.”
It’s kind of a weird way to talk, and both the mathematics and the significance were not immediately obvious to the kids. But it’s deep enough to be ingrained for Katie and me, because ten years ago today, we walked into a new way of experiencing life. From Bayonne, we had caught the slow Pyrenean train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, from whence we began a month-long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
It was the kind of experience that telescopes so many of the sensations, such that I can know a decade on that I was a jerk (albeit an unwitting one) when I bought the pastry, missing the cue that the clerk at the patisserie was in fact trying to serve someone else first. Boorish American, she might have thought. Me struggling with French was a constant theme on the journey, though so was me gaining competence in Spanish. But the more important language for us was the rhythm of walking, the movement on an elemental scale.
Quotidian objects and spaces took on new meanings: a town was now a place to stop for coffee in the morning, for beer in the afternoon. A hillside was a place to stop and read a psalm. A road was a place to look for a yellow arrow, a flèche as a subtle confirmation that we were still going the right way.
There were many right ways, though, because people from all over were converging on Compostela. We were impressed by stories of people leaving from their front doors in Germany and just walking. Coming from Canada, it took a bit more institutional organisation. Not least the manoeuvrings to dedicate a month to it. I recall Gerhardt, one of the more elderly peregrinos we fell in with. He carried a staff onto which he had carved a series of notches – one for every day of his walk, in batches of 21 days before his holidays elapsed and he caught a train back to his home near Frankfurt. We left him (or he left us) in the town of Atapuerca, but he was joyful because next year, he would return to this little town and walk to his final destination.
This term, final destination, became a bit troublesome for us and for others. Walking for so long and with such intention, we walked into a way of life that was hard to complete. We weren’t expecting fireworks of the heart upon arriving at the Galician cathedral city, but we had to question what it meant to get there. We met Auguste in Burgos and shared a lovely meal with him at the table of a French nun. But we were not to meet him again: he was on his way back, having walked from his home in Paris after growing increasingly disenchanted with life. He felt the French were now living to work rather than the other way around, giving away all the distinctions that generations of progressive, Enlightened citoyens had fought for. They aspired to live like Americans, he said, forsaking the 35-hour work week and gaming the system to make an extra buck. Instead, he quit his job and began his peregrinations, begging shelter and a bit of food at churches and monasteries in France until he reached the more routinised pilgrim paths of the Camino Frances. He reached Compostela, and he was walking back, but he was not going home. His plan was to continue east through the Alps and down through Italy to Rome, and then, God help him (though he did not say “God help me,” for he was an atheist, but he knew the churches would provide the help he needed), on to Jerusalem.
Others – both with us and before us, whose stories still travelled up and down the route – could not feel finished. They would reach Compostela and then continue to Finisterre, then down to Fatima in Portugal. How, indeed, could you stop? We had plane tickets, jobs, and other reasons that became evident on pilgrimage that put a practical boundary around the journey.