Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

Just a quick note on a borrowed computer...

HAPPY NEW YEAR from magnificent Chartres

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Pilgrimage Defined

I made a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome by foot. Later, in Denver talking with a small group, one among them summarized for a latecomer: 'this lady made a pilgrimage to Rome, she walked there from Canterbury, England!' The latecomer, perplexed for just a moment, replied - 'Oh, I see, it wasn't a proper pilgrimage, on a bus with a priest.'

More recently, I've been chided: 'you're not on a pilgrimage, you're just doing some sort of self-imposed torture for no apparent reason.'

A few days ago, just east of Paris, I popped out of a forest and crested a ridge mid morning to that welcoming sight of a village below - the smoke streaming from the chimneys of cottages crowded around a small church. The mist was getting noticably heavier and more vertical, so I stepped off of the concrete track into an open barn, the line of cows staring at me with wide, silent eyes, to study my map. The farmer came out of the darkness from behind the cows carrying two obviously full milk cans. I couldn't help but notice how huge his hands were - catchers' mitts with opposable thumbs. He continued on, setting the milk cans out in the rain at the side of the track.
- Bonjour, monsieur.
- Madame.
- Is there a café in that village below? (I translate now.)
- No. Not anymore.
- Saint Jacques? he pointed to the scallop shell on my pack, referring to Santiago de Compostela.
I nodded. In French, one simply says 'I'm going to Saint James'.
- Is it a café you want?
- Yes (not knowing whether he meant the building, in which case yes, or the beverage, in which case, not really, I'd prefer tea) and a warm place to sit and rest.
- Come.

I followed him through the dark barn into the adjoining house. I could imagine nothing has changed in the 1950s decor of the kitchen except the calendar hanging on the wall below the crucifix. Nothing has been dusted in a while, either.
- Seat yourself.
He washed his hands in a deep concrete sink, the fluorenscent ring flickering for some moments to come on. I kept expecting his wife to appear, then noticed one cup, one plate, one table setting on the drying rack next to the sink, one chair at the table. The room was freezing, the curtains drawn over the shuttered window. No tablecloth. No napkins. No woman lives here.

He lit the propane stove and filled a kettle with water from the sink.

- I don't mean to trouble you, monsieur.
- It's nothing. It's my coffee time, too. He opened a yellow tin canister marked CAFE in red paint, and spooned some grains into two cups. (Focus on warmth, I thought, not the taste. Instant coffee? I've been spoiled by Starbucks.)

- Do you see many pilgrims to Saint Jacques here?
- No, never.

Giant hands and soft eyes, he brought a chair from the next room and sat with me at the table.

- I will tell you a little story. I was once a pilgrim to Saint Jacques - in my youth - and I never left the village.
He went on to explain, though his missing teeth made it difficult to understand every word. It was during the occupation. His brothers left to the war but he was too young. Some German soldiers were billeted to the farm and they were all greatly occupied with farming. There was no schoolmaster, anymore, no priest. On Sundays, though, he would spend his day in the library - of the village or of the priest, I didn't get. He knew about the great pilgrimages of the Middle Ages - to St Jacques, to St Pierre in Rome, to St Michel in Brittany.

The library had an encyclopedia and an atlas. He studied the paths to get to St Jacques, then read about each of the towns in the encyclopedia. He made notes about the towns and their Saints and symbols, the kings and the wars, important people and buildings. He knew as much about the towns as could be known without going there. He laughed at himself. The times were difficult - he made his own ink out of nutshells, he said this with apologetic embarrassment, but after some years, the ink faded and nothing could be read. (Of course, my curiosity was piqued - how does one make ink out of nutshells? The forests are full of chestnut and walnut trees... crush the shells, maybe char them first? Use alcohol as a solvent? Whatever. It's not important, and the ink fades, anyway...)

Over the years, he explained, he learned how to read and write; he learned geography and history; he learned some poetry and some Latin.
- Did you arrive at Saint Jacques in the end?
- No, there was no encyclopedia for Spain, just for France.
He never went beyond the Pyrenees in his armchair travels. (By this time, he brought out some cheese, some Brie he made himself, though he sells most of his milk now to another farmer because of the strict EU rules. I found his cheese deliciously creamy, mild, and smelling not badly of the cows.)

When the war was over, the German soldiers went away. His brothers never returned and he stayed and worked the farm. He married a girl from the village, older than himself, who knew how to make good cheese. When they married, they planned a trip to Paris for a week, but after three days, he didn't like it and returned.

- Un pèlerin, qui n'a pas ravi de voyage.
He laughed at this - the pilgrim who has no desire to travel.

He wrapped up a quadrant of cheese in wax paper and put it in front of me. From a box on the floor under the table, he pulled two small apples from under newspaper.
- Pour aprés-midi, Madame la pèlerine.
- C'était une bonne histoire, monsieur, merci.
I arranged my pack and rain cape, then shook his giant hand.

- You'll pray for me when you arrive in Saint Jacques?
- Of course, monsieur, what is your name?
- Jacques.

What cold-hearted person would dare claim that old man did not make a proper pilgrimage? Chacun son chemin, the French expression goes. To each his own path. There are as many definitions of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims. Jacques would not show up on a bus with a priest. To put myself there at the edge of a village in the region of Brie so I could hear his story, rainy weather and bad coffee notwithstanding, is hardly torture. It's worth the effort. It's my pilgrimage.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Christmas in Europe is celebrated on Christmas Eve - Christmas day being reserved for sleeping in and then visiting immediate family. I'm heading to the Abbaye Notre Dame de Jouarre this evening, just east of Paris. I'm not sure what kind of nuns will greet me - Franciscan, Benedictine, maybe, but I'm sure they'll be welcoming.

The weather hasn't been bad, though I'm happy for the protection of my raincover/cape against the perpetual mist. The closer I get to Paris, the more populated the villages are and the more closely spaced. There's a lot of interesting things to see and to paint. If only I could find a scanner to post a few of my paintings...

Merry Christmas all!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Viva la France!

I'm in France! Up the River Meuse from Liége, then through the Ardenne Mountains... I underestimated the distances between some of the towns in my original planning - I've walked 319 kilometers in these 11 days... someone can check my math, but I think that's just about 220 miles. I had a hope of being in Paris for Christmas, but I just won't be able to walk that fast. Come what may.

I also crossed the 50th parallel, marked with a sign on a little backroad for some reason. The weather hasn't been much different on the south side of the 50th parallel than on the north side. I've had ample opportunity to field test my self-designed integrated packcover-raincape. The weather hasn't exactly been ideal, but it hasn't been terrible.

These are heavy boar- and deer-hunting days. The forests are dominated with hunters, not pilgrims. I'm somewhat forced to walk more along busy shoulderless roads instead of peaceful forest paths. Belgium is a comparatively densely populated place - there's rarely been a time when I haven't been able to see a village or town in the distance. Even in forests, there's often a wind turbine or other sign of modern life. There's little chance of getting lost.

Immediately in France, I encountered a war monument and clear residual signs of 20th century war activities. Looking around, though, there're signs of much older wars - fortified churches of the 15th century. I did a painting of one but search for a place where I can scan it in and post it here. At the tail end of the 100-Years' War, it seems in this region, there was such destruction that the foreign mercenaries turned to sacking and pillaging for their own gain once the kings could no longer afford to pay them. The locals took it upon themselves to fortify their village churches to protect their possessions from the looters. The churches wouldn't have been able to withstand heavy artillery, which the raiders lacked anyway, but they remain today as strangely proportioned massive bastions in these little villages. The things ya see...

Monastery life

In a light rain and with the weight of dusk, the Benedictine Monastery at Miradsous loomed greyer and more massive than the surrounding fog - higher, too, situated on a ridge 800 feet above the stream valley I labored along. Two thick pointed square towers protect an enormous square peaked wall containing a huge dark rosette window, unlit, though, when I viewed it, and it's stained glass messages kept secret.

It took close to an hour to reach the giant wooden door, lit by a dim bulb steaming in the humid cold air. A hand-written note indicates to sound (sonnez) twice and then enter. Sound what? I tugged twice on a long metal pole suspended from above in the darkness and pushed the smaller door in the large gate. In the forecourt, a lit reception booth to my left got my attention. I announced myself to the man behind the glass, who smiled, but told me I'd have to report to the pilgrim reception opposite. He slide the glass closed and left his seat. I shone my little flashlight hanging on the shoulder strap of my pack around the forecourt. Lovely statues and other decorations, but nothing looking inviting to a pilgrim. The man whom I spoke with reappeared (thankfully) and showed me to a door in the opposite corner.

Down a long, dark, and clearly high-ceilinged corridor, I found Père Hoteliére in the only lit office. 'Je suis la pèlerine, qui a téléphoné plus tôt', I repeated my self-announcement. 'Bienvenue à l'Abbeye de Maredsous, pèlerine. Votre credencial, s'il vous plaît.' Those Benedictines don't spare many words, but the monk was certainly kind to me. He stamped and dated my credencial booklet quickly, took a key from the keybox, and led me back out to the dark corridor. Stopping by the refectory, he offered me some tea and a biscuit, then took me to a small elevator. On the third floor, he showed me my room for the night - simple, clean, and importantly with a radiator below the two soaring lancet windows. He pulled back the red velvet curtains while explaining the hours of the offices: vespers at 1830 and vigil at 2030, both in the crypt and announced with the sounding of bells; supper at 1900 in the guest refectory. He handed me a course wool blanket and asked if I had my own sheets and towel.

I had little time to rest after a hot shower and a quick washing of my clothes before I heard the bells. I found the refectory again on the ground level, then followed the dark corridor around the huge cloister - 200 feet along each side - to the opposite corner. I saw in the dim silence the monks in the black robes descend to the crypt. I followed them down, sort of wishing I had a wool robe, too, as the corridor was damp and cold. The crpyt was surprisingly warm, though. A mustard colored carpet over the stone floor and some radiators made it cozy among the stout columns and high vaulted ceilings.

In total, eighteen monks assembled around a central alter. One took his place at the organ. Candles were lit. I took a seat off to a side with two lay men. Père Hoteliére saw me and brought me the Vespers songbook and the Advent book. Traditionally, the psalms and responses would have been sung in Latin with an enormous illuminated book of chants centrally placed, but that tradition's been replaced with the service in French and each person having his own little book. The monks, ranging in age from mid 20s to, whew, that one guy looked to be in his 90s!, oddly, all wore glasses. There was antiphon chanting - one group chanting the psalms in a higher pitch and the others responding in a lower tone. It's really quite beautiful.

After the service, the other two non-monks left through the exterior staircase - obviously not staying the night. I followed the procession of monks, all in silence, back up to the cloister corridor. One monk whispered to me that I mustn't use the same side of the cloister - it was reserved for the monk community. Instead, I must use the guest corridor - the one without any lights at all. I groped my way alone back to the guest refectory and was happy enough to find that there were 8 other guests that evening. Young men and women who chose not to attend Vespers.

The monks occupy themselves in art. There's an atelier for them that's open to students. I didn't get whether the monks themselves provide instruction, but somehow, the abbey of Maredsous is the center of an artist colony. In my room, I noticed that the art was all original and modern. There was a notice of the giftshop and catalog.

After the supper of vegetable soup, bread, and cheese, I had to rest my feet rather than wander around the abbey. I attended the late evening service in the crypt, slept soundly, and left in the light rain after a small breakfast followng the morning service, long before dawn.

Such is a glimpse of the interior of a monastery. I would have enjoyed staying the whole day there and learning more about the history of the abbey and the art of the monks, looking around the cloister in daylight, inside the church, too, but there's a long-standing rule among hospitality to pilgrims - one supper, one night's stay, one breakfast. Besides, a pilgrim doesn't reach Santiago by standing still.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sure, why not?

It was no mystical vision, it was real I tell you - I saw St. James himself! In Liège, in the church named for him. Just a small piece of him - a narrow bone, a rib perhaps, or fragment of a forearm bone - encased in crystal, on a gold chest studded with dozens of precious gemstones. It was brought back from Santiago in the 11th century by an English pilgrim-monk, the little plaque states. A creepy thought, actually, but the legend persists for lo the millennium, so who am I to raise an eyebrow to the validity of the tale? I wonder how many other bits of the patron saint I'll see before I get to Santiago where the rest of him, it's said, is inside another gold casque.

So many of these magnificent churches have dramatic tales and legends. In the tourist information center, I read a photo caption about the Cathedral, about a Bishop, later Saint, Lambert who was assasinated in the 7th century - oooh, haunted intrigue?! It was my turn with the assistant - 'who assasinated the Bishop and why?' I wanted know. 'Take the tour', the assistant told me. 'But I don't have time this afternoon and I'll be gone early in the morning.' 'Well, then, (and I won't translate this last part) 'Googliez-vous de histoire', she told me. I'll put it on my to-do list.

Finally, a goofy hand-painted sign I saw at a farm entrance: Lapins tues à vendre (Hares killed for sale)

Quelle Motivation!

My black silk balaclava under my black wool cap makes a striking fashion statement (think in the direction of Kathyrn Hepburn's headwear as Queen Elinor of Aquitaine in the Lions of Winter). Functional against the -5° (uh... multiply by 9, divide by 5, subtract from 32 = 23°F) temperature and the wicked headwind that made my eyes tear. No matter, plenty of cafés to warm up in. 'Quelle motivé!' one woman shouted to me as the wind whipped the door back when I stepped back out into the street. The cold air's got to be blown out to make room for the warmer air behind it, right? How long can wind last? Okay, there are moments when winter seems a poorly chosen season - where's that global warming??

The heavy quilts of the chambre d'hôte make for warm thoughts. Christmas fairs in every village, decorations in houses and town squares, kids daring each other to climb trees and harvest the perfect spheres of mistletoe (called 'guy' in French) (It's something of a snipe hunt - they only look like perfect spheres; once they're cut away piece by piece, they just collapse leaving some kids laughing and others crying.) Anyway, these are all time-dependent sights that I enjoy.

Just after sunrise the other day, I was deterred from the blustery icy wind to stop and check my map to find the shortest route to a village that might be large enough to have a café with a restroom and cup of tea. A-hah! through the mist, a small chapel at a crossroads - would the door be unlocked? would there be a candle for heat?? Yes! a moment's refuge, though lacking a seat. No matter, it served my purpose. Who built this place and for what purpose I'll never know, but I appreciate it immensely. I left a 20-cent piece for the candle and stepped back into the wind, then turned back and fished a sketchbook out of my pack for a quick drawing. The water in my little box was frozen solid, so painting color into it would have to wait.

Did the builder of the little chapel foresee a future traveller's need? Merci pour la motivation!


Leaving Aix-la-Chapelle along St James' Street (Jakobsweg, in German), it took less than two hours of walking - uphill through the 'three-country' nature park, to reach Belgium by foot. In the forest with a light dusting of snow, the only way to know that the international border was crossed was the change in the trailmarker color - red scallop shells in Belgium compared with blue in Germany a few dozen paces later, my location was confirmed by the disruptive 'beep-beep' of my cellphone announcing a new service provider.

Crosses, crucifixes, and other small monument line the trails. I saw one dedicated to pilgrims to Santiago. Votive candles with protective glass cases flickered in the cold mist. There was no sense of solitude - joggers, horseback riders, foresters, and elderly strollers were never far away. 'Buon Camino' said by some who saw my scallop shell; 'Servus' said by others - the general mountain greeting expressed in Germanized Latin.

Already it's clear. In comparison to my pilgrimage last winter to Rome - not nearly as popular a pilgrim destination as Santiago - I have the sense that I'm viewed as an economic opportunity by those lucky enough to have shops along the well-marked trail to Spain. The path to Rome is not marked. I ought to do what I can to get off the marked trails in order to avoid being a marketing target.

Just Right

A scallop shell embedded in the stone wall of the St John Baptistry at the gate to the Cathedral in Aix-la-Chapelle marked my starting point. After taking a turn around the inside, seeing the opulent gold casket containing Charlemagne's 1,200-year-old remains, I was standing there gawking at a map to find my way to the Franciscan Convent for the night... I didn't even know the scallop shell was there until a German foursome of Christmas Market revellers saw the scallop shell hanging from my backpack and made the connection. They raised their heavy mugs of Gluewein to me and went on their way.

As I finished a watercolor of the building wall, a giant Austrailian couple came by looking for the shell to take a photo. For an instant I thought they might be pilgrims, too, but their packs told me they wouldn't be walking to Spain over the winter: hers seemed big enough to house a family of four quite comfortably; they could invite all their friends for Thanksgiving dinner in his. The three backpacks sitting side-by-side on the bench looked comical. The woman patted mine like it was a lap dog. 'Ooh, how absolutely adorable', she squealed. I'm fully satisfied with my pack - all 16 pounds of it.

Shortly afterwards, I was buzzed into the convent courtyard and was greeted by a gnome-like nun. She asked me to wait until she was done distributing bread to poor families. When she returned, she saw me sling my pack over my shoulder. 'That rucksack is too heavy to be carried to Saint Jacques de Compostelle', she tsk-tsked me. Too big for some; too small for others: I think it's just right.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What's in a name?

'Hello, I call myself ass…'

That's a pretty direct translation of my former French introduction: Bonjour, je m'appelle Ann.  The French word âne, pronounced just like my American name, means ass, as in donkey and fool.  Unfortunate, isn't it?  It took me an embarrassingly long time to appreciate the irony of this monosyllabic utterance.  By announcing to French speakers when I introduce myself that 'I call myself ass/fool', I sort of send the message that I may just be deserving of the moniker.


After I stumbled on this word for ass/fool, which was never on any of my high school French vocabulary lists, I fell back on my namesake – Saint Anne.  What happened to the ending 'e' in the Americanized version of my name, I don't know, but because the French pronounce that terminal 'e' as 'uh' in their reference to the sainted grandmother of Jesus, I'm happy to grab the syllable and go by Ann-uh in French-speaking lands.


But there's more:


'Hello, I am called N7…'

That's the translated German version of my christened identity.  Brilliant.  Goofy in at least two languages.   Many of the German dialects pronounce the letter N indistinguishable from the American 'Ann'.  They too, refer to Jesus' G'ma as Anne, with that all-important 'uh' sound tagged on at the end.  Compounding the difficulty, my last name, oddly, means seven.  To be named for a number is as rare in German as it is in English, although I did once meet a fresh old German man surnamed 'Acht', which means eight.  He whispered alluringly 'together, we make 15'.  For crying out loud…


Tired of the incredulous stares when I announce myself as either a model number or an ass, I'm happy to attach an 'uh' at the end and avoid all confusion.  Saint Anne is known in all languages.  I'll stick with her when I venture abroad.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why Winter?

A frequent question asked of me: why ever would you choose winter for a pilgrimage across Europe? The simple answer is: because I'm chubby and lazy.

Mediterranean summers can be rather hot. Shall we take a poll of short, squat, freckly, blue-eyed, pink-skinned heat-lovers? I could attempt scientific banter that the ratio of my body's surface area to muscle mass is very low, thus my body doesn't cool as efficiently as a tall, skinny, dark-complected person, but I'm not compelled to rationalize what may well be just personal taste: I don't like to sweat outside of a sauna. Hot summers beckon me to shady areas with a cool pinot grigio in hand. Any movement produces uncomfortable perspiration that I'd prefer to go without. A long pilgrimage demands long daily walks. Even walking between the 5 o'clock sunrise and the first refreshment break at, say, 9 in the morning, I'd be sweating up a storm and done until dusk. Sweat, and all the associated discomforts - that pesky chaffing, blisters, and - God forbid - foot fungus - are things that make me downright cranky. So summer's not an option for me, even for a few days.

Spring, with the heady-scented flowers, and autumn, with the harvest and foliage, are absolutely enjoyable in Europe. With these delectable seasons, however, comes unpredictable weather. The temperatures may range from the freezing point to the uncomfortable sizzle. Thus, the long-distance pilgrim must bear the burden (read that: carry the weight) to be prepared for anything. Carry the longjohns and heavy jacket while walking much of the time in light pants and a tank top... nah, I'm too lazy for that. If I were 'pilgriming' (crassly morphed into a verb, the way 'foodies' speak of 'plating') for only a week or two, I could track the weather and ease the burden appropriately (then choose autumn when farmers are happy to share their bounty of freshly harvested fruits and nuts, eliminating the need for me to carry snacks). Three months on the go is something else.

Winter has wonderfully predictable crappy weather.

I'd rather wear it than carry it. It may be the same weight on my feet, but my back and shoulders prefer the distribution wearing provides over carrying. On most days, I wear the longjohns and heavy jacket, carrying a few additional items in case the crappiness exceeds normal expectations, and on those days when the weather's an absolute delight, I don't mind so much stuffing my little pack full of the layers I usually wear and strapping my jacket over top of everything, basking as I walk along with my pants rolled up over my knees and wearing the first layer tank top in the warm sun.

There are other benefits enjoyed by a long winter's walk - the crowds are away, for one, and locals looking for diversion are generally so surprised to see a stranger ambling around that conversation is easy to strike up. I also find it more satisfying to linger inside museums or castles or ancient monasteries or even cafés when it's raw and rainy outside than when it's sunny and beautiful.

Cold temperatures are something my short, chubby body shape can endure with little discomfort, even walking along the damp canals of northern France or on snowshoes over the Alps. Sure, mud I could do without, but that comes in spring and autumn as well, and in winter, it has the chance of being frozen; ditto, all the little streams that must be crossed.

Every season has its beauty and challenges. A long winter's walk is good for the soul that can endure the cold. Each at his own pace. Something of a pilgrimage creed.