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.


Amawalker said...

Ann, while we are enjoying the summer sunshine, summer fruits - watermelons, litchis, peaches and grapes - I will read all about your winter chemin/camino.
Buen suerte dear peregrina,

Paulus said...

This is a great story... I enjoyed it to read!
Good luck!


Wendy Sticka said...

Hi Ann,
You have a gift. Jacques' pilgrimage was so beautifully communicated/shared. I could feel him, his surroundings and life.
Thanks, Wendy

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

What a wonderful account of your meeting with this man, who surely is a 'true' pilgrim of St Jacques.

About two months ago I met a Kiwi priest who had been the priest on the bus with a group who had gone to Santiago. I laughed and told him how we used to call the bus pilgrims the 'plastic pilgrims'. (This was with some affection, after we had met a heavily made-up Japanese woman who asked to take our photo as we left Leon, and told us she would see us in Santiago as she was going there too!)
I think I will have to share your blog account with him, so he knows he was the 'real' pilgrim after all.

Deborah said...

Beautiful story! Thank you so much!
Buen Camino!

bridget said...

Ann, I too have been alerted to your blog and will be following your journey. The bus pilgrims wouldn't have met Jacques, would they?

My husband and I cycled through Holland and Belgium in autumn 2007 on our serial pilgrimage to St Jacques. Did you stay at the Abbey in Leffe, south of NAmur?

bonne chemin!


Dan Wright said...


Delightful blog. I will follow it closely. Like you, I am generously apportioned and prefer the peace of winter.

I have taken it into my head to walk from England to Saint James. I hope to glean a bit of wisdom here. Until then I will just enjoy your prose. You have a delicious way with words.


herbert said...

I've read your blog ,amazing! It is freezing cold here in Holland and you are walking out there ! Try the delicious choucroute with a glass of white vin d'Alsac that will keep you warm .Beautifull watercolors, I'll be following your blog . Bon Anneé and buen Camino Berth41

CarolineMathieson said...


Of course I assume you have realised by now that you are being directed by a higher power to unknowingly seek out and contact those people along the way which will help your journey and in turn you will help them more.

Sylvia said...


I just read this entry and I just love it! You are truly helping us all be pilgrims as we read your blog! Keep up the great work.


J F said...

Beautiful story, and I like the way you tell.
I live a few miles from that village (but in a big city you guess which one...)
For sure I'll come back
Have a look at my blog if you love travelling with a special view

LDahl said...

lovely story, well told. You really made the scene come alive, and give the old man a grateful audience.