St. Jean Pied du Port, France
September 30, 2016
Since I wrecked myself the night before, the sleep was rough and the morning rougher. Why do people continuously party with poison? Especially people who are almost 50? WHO DOES THAT? Even a stroll on the historic beach of Biarritz wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been.
I mean this was one of Frank Sinatra’s favourite places to holiday and all I could think about was getting to my first hostel and sleeping. Old Blue Eyes would never have been my drinking buddy. Frankie don’t drink with square cats.
After getting to Bayonne, France, which is where I needed to catch the next train up into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, I had a couple of hours to kill so I found a park bench downtown and tried to sleep. On a park bench. Like an alcoholic. Like a “vagrant”. With everything he has in a bag. The next time I walk past a “vagrant” I might not be near as creeped out.
(Not a bad view from my vagrant’s bench. When my eyes were open!)
I have never felt so relieved to see other people with backpacks as I was when walking to the train. I felt like such a tourist-target strolling around Paris. The two car choo-choo train that took me to the official start of my Camino journey (St. Jean Pied du Port) travelled through some absolutely stunning scenery.
Across bridges that have had far more history than Madison County. It passed over raging waters that Napoleon’s horses once drank from, and passed some of the quaintest (not sure I’ve ever used that word before – it’s like mauve) farms tucked in hills that actually felt alive with the sound of Muesli!
After checking into Camino headquarters and getting my passport for The Way, I checked into my first EVER hostel. The last time I slept in a bunk bed was when I was a teenager at camp. (This one time – at Ranch camp – we used to do something called Blue Angels.) I’ve grown since then. Not “up” necessarily, but enough to realize that bunk beds are really stinkin’ small and at 6’4” and 240 lbs they reminded me of when I used to play hide-and-go-seek in the casket display room when I had friends over to play. (Have I mentioned that I grew up in a Funeral Home? Just thought I should provide some context.) For some of you, sleeping in a bunk bed in a hostel with strangers is no biggie. However, for this accommodation princess who will do whatever he can to get the best deal at the best hotels… let’s just say that I did not have the best sleep of my life. At one point, I think I actually got wedged in between the headboard and the footboard. If there is a God, I would like to thank God for the fact that the person sleeping four feet from my face did not snore.
My first bunkmate in 35 years was Franck. Franck comes from the border area of France and Germany. Franck’s accent made me wonder if his last name was Von Trapp. (They made a movie with a whole bunch of singing. Mary Poppins was in it!) Franck had just finished school and this was his only opportunity to do The Camino before Franck started his career as a police officer. (I just like saying Franck’s name.) Franck recently became an uncle and discovered the new emotions that come along with holding a new baby. I explained to Franck that I understood exactly what he was talking about.
*I’m not sure I’ll write about everyone I meet along The Way, nor will I record all the tedious travelling details. This is not a travel blog and it almost feels like I’m betraying people’s trust by writing about those I’ve met. To be honest, I’m not sure WHAT this is going to be. I’d say it might be similar to Eat Pray Love – but with balls. But I’ve never actually read that book by Julia Roberts. 🙂 (She’s just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her… I said yes!)
At this point in my journey it seems that unless I initiate, hardly anyone makes any attempt to strike up a conversation. That’s not new. I’ve almost always been the one who has talked with strangers. (Sorry mom.) The first Camino pilgrims that made any attempt to interact with me were two divorcees from Israel. They are both 1966 babies (woot woot, as the kids say) who decided to celebrate the big 50 together on The Camino. They loved my Hebrew tattoo. (More about that later.) I hope to get the chance to hear some of their journeys. They tried to strike up a conversation during breakfast… mmmmmm breakfast. (Now say it like Homer Simpson) My first hostel breakfast was FANTASTIC. Of course all breakfasts are fantastic after an unwise night of libations. Even if the breakfast occurs the day after the day after said libations.
As I left, I heard the hostel host whisper as he turned away from saying goodbye to me, “bon chance”. As though it was a quiet prayer offered up by a man who loved what he does. And what he does, day in and day out, is serve people. This man had a true servant’s heart.
The weather forecast for Saturday, October 1st (my GO day) called for solid rain. Knowing that my views of the Pyrenees mountains would suck, I decided to leave one day early. HOLY CRAP! I’m not ready! To make matters worse, I still wasn’t feeling 100% (who starts the Camino hungover?) AND I contracted whatever wretched cold Little Miss Hypochondriac who sat beside me on the airplane had. So I decided to walk as far as the first hostel, which was only 7 KM’s into my 800 KM journey.
Before I left, I also stopped in at the church just before the ceremonial bridge that all pilgrims crossover before they begin their Way. (Maybe Father Au-Revoir would be there and we could try again.) I needed to “drop in” (yoga people say this a lot) and try to get a handle on what was stirring inside of me.
This ancient, yet “quaint” church yielded a warmth like no other archaic structure I’d been in. Maybe it was because I was overtired and emotionally vulnerable. Maybe it was because I was hungover. Maybe it was because I was on the cusp of my Way. Or, maybe this church was actually a “thin place.” CS Lewis used to write about how the Celts (our family’s ancestors) would refer to certain mystical geographical locations where the gap between the Creator and the created became tangibly thin.
The CD that was playing softly in the background had beautifully harmonic, soft female voices, enhanced by the eerie reverberations of this stone structure. As I walked towards the front of the church, I quickly realized that it was not a CD playing, but rather two young pilgrim women (AKA angels) standing side by side in front of the altar, singing just softly enough for the ancient walls to grab their tones and catapult them into my soul. (I think they were two of Franck’s sisters.)
I barely had time to put down my pack and walking sticks before I completely lost it. And I mean lost it! T.O.S. (Tears Of Snot) and involuntary noises that reverberated embarrassingly in this cavern of Christianity. I honestly tried to hold it together until the church was empty, but as it turns out, the buildup behind the floodgates of “manliness” was too strong. AWKWARD! (Tear Stained Pews is a great name for a country song though, ain’t it? That one’s for free Paul Brandt.)
ANYWAY, moments after Hurricane Marshall had subsided, I noticed that the church was empty. It must have been a pretty scary thing for those people who got caught in the wake of such a torrential downpour. Then, a stereotypical old European woman, dressed in black, walked slowly and unevenly to the front left corner of the church and began lighting 13 candles. (Three shy of a movie that explains the worst decade of my life.) Then, she then sat down beside me. We both sat in silence, praying. I wondered what her 13 prayers were about. Heck – I wondered what my prayers were about. I’ve never had much clarity when I prayed.
Eventually she left and I decided to light my own candles. Something I’ve never done before, not being one for religious symbology. It’s never really resonated with my soul. Until today. As I brought the first candle to the flame of another one already lit, I froze. “Who should the first one be for? I don’t pray to or for dead people. I shoulda thought this through a little better.” I was surprised at how quickly the decision became clear to me.
The first candle was lit for a person who has never hurt me the way that I have scarred their soul. “SORRY”
The second candle was lit for the person who has been the greatest source of both strife and joy in my life. I want them to see their own astounding worth and to reach for more. “REACH”
The third candle was for the one who I’ve felt the closest to throughout my life. I’ve lost what was. “GRIEVE”
Then I lit a candle for my new granddaughter.
And instantaneously, the strain on my face lifted. Strangely, after looking at the picture I took of the candles, hers burned the brightest, the cleanest, the purist. “HOPE”
Finally, I actually lit a candle for myself. Why? Well, if you haven’t figured out by now that I am a tad lost and a shamefully broken man… then you’ve just been skimming over this crap. (BUSTED!)
As I sat there pondering my seemingly innate battle with darkness, contemplating whether walking in the light is even possible at this point in my life, I was irritated by a street sweeping machine that seemed to keep going back and forth in front of the church. While I haven’t been diagnosed officially with ADD, I do tend to be bothered by things that most other normal people just let slide or don’t even recognize in the first pla… SQUIRREL! After my annoyance subsided, I finally clued into the fact that there was a glaring analogy screaming at me from just outside the church walls.
The Camino is a giant street sweeper and walking it, is for many, a way of figuring out where to put our garbage – through solitude and reflection, contemplation and meditation, prayer and pain, and even interaction with our fellow pilgrims.
Most people realize that we all have garbage. The question is, what do we do with it? Where do we put it? Some of us try to figure out ways to recycle it. Some of us barely have enough clarity and strength and awareness to begin any real attempt at dealing with our garbage in healthy ways, so we simply get used to living with it – in it.
As a result, we either try to compact our garbage – again and again and again – until the compactor breaks down and then we have to pay a repairman/shrink to fix it. (A lot of us go on and keep using the repaired compactor – as well as the repairman.) Or, we attempt to deal with our garbage by putting it where it belongs – the garbage can – but during the throw, we completely miss. Then, we can’t be bothered putting the effort into picking up our garbage and trying again, so we just leave it where it landed.
However, when our attempt to deal with our garbage falls short, it eventually starts to stink up the place. Eventually, the smell gets so bad that others begin to stay away. Our stinky garbage begins to effect our relationships.
I think that one of the reasons we have a hard time dealing with our garbage is because we are unable to let go of our garbage. I wonder if we must first, become willing to release our grip on the garbage that we have become so used to hanging onto, BEFORE we attempt to throw it away?
(Bare with me on this.) Ever watch a girl throw a ball, BEFORE they learn to throw a ball like a guy? It’s sorta like that. (How much do you hate me right now?) I think that until we become so tired of hanging onto our garbage and have no choice BUT to release the grip on our garbage, that we won’t release our grip on our garbage. And even if we try to throw it away, unless someone teaches us how to throw, our garbage will end up only travelling as far as our feet. AND THEN when we try to walk forward in life, we end up stepping in our own garbage, again and again and again. (Or THIS could all just be garbage!)
I think this is what’s happened to me over time and that’s why I have become Oscar The Grouch! I haven’t been able to let go of my garbage BEFORE I’ve tried throwing it away so every time I try to get rid of my garbage, it just lands at my feet. Exisitng like this for so many years, I’ve become used to living in my own garbage and the stink has begun to impact those around me! All of this because when it comes to my garbage, I throw like a girl. (Such A Jerk!) I need help learning how to let it go. “Let it goooooo. Let it goooooooooo!”
Within the first kilometre, I was second guessing my decision to walk another 799 KMs. HOLY UPHILL CLIMB BATMAN! And it never let up. Not once! Sure, the next hostel was only 7 KMs away, but thus far the entire journey had been absolute torture. Beautiful torture. (Kinda like how I imagine being married to Julia Roberts would be.)
My grip was beginning to release. BRING ON THE STREET SWEEPER a.k.a. The Camino de Santiago.
THIS WEEK’S CONFESSION(s): I slept on a park bench like a sketchy homeless dude / I’m a sexist, judgemental jerk / I have become a grouch because I throw like a girl