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Postcards Along the Way (Mile 0)

Jennifer and I are taking something of a sabbatical this month and walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500+ mile pilgrimage from France, across northern Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, the traditional resting place of St. James. I’m writing a bit about the experience along the way.

28 April (Mile 0 / KM 0) – We arrived in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, today. We’re staying at the Beilari Hostel (Beilari is Basque for “pilgrim”) and I’m writing from a “meditation room” on the rock terrace behind the hostel. It’s a little stone room about six feet by eight feet that feels like a shrine to…everything? Or nothing, depend on how you look at it. It’s pseudo-religious, as if it wants to be a meaningful place, but in navigating itself around any particular faith, it’s become something of a no-place, a place of all faiths—and therefore none. There are sconces in the walls filled with a shell, a sacred-looking vial of perfume (with the brand sticker still on it—something French, of course), tea-light candles (one of which I’ve lit), a couple of angelic figures, a Sedona-style crystal, and several other assorted trinkets. There are two rosaries strung up and a couple of large, flat stones set in the center of the room asking to be knelt upon in prayer. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I’m bothered by the world’s readiness to become a no-place instead of a some-place or a one-place. I’d rather visit a Buddhist shrine than one that makes no risk at all toward something grander than mediocrity. But that’s just the room I’m in. And to be honest, it’s a good place to write.

We had a seven-hour flight from New York that began the evening of April 26th and ended at 7am on the 27th in Madrid. The next step of the trip, our goal being to make it to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to begin the Camino, was to catch a train to Pamplona and from there to overnight and then catch a bus to St. Jean. The train from Madrid wouldn’t depart until 3pm, so we were left with seven-odd hours adrift in the city before leaving. We set out from the airport, taking the local train from the terminal to the train station, and then wandering the streets. We ended up spending much of the day in the Royal Botanic Garden, a gorgeous maze of gravel paths through acres of greenery, dotted with monuments to kings long-past. The chestnuts were blooming and gorgeous. They reminded me of the story of how America lost all its great chestnut forests due to a blight in the 19th and early 20th century and it made me sad (read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, if you haven’t).

It’s so easy to look at Europe and think how much more beautiful it is than the US. I know that’s not accurate—after all, I’ve seen the wild and varied glories our continent has to boast of—but when I consider the chestnuts, I have to admit some truth in the feeling. We’ve lost them, and we won’t get them back, at least not in my lifetime. But here in Madrid they flourish, and I’m grateful.

Due to jet-lag, and little real sleep on the plane, by the time we boarded the train for Pamplona we’d been awake for around 36 hours and were exhausted. The train was an oasis of space and quiet and we dozed through most of the trip. Three hours later we arrived in Pamplona and found our hostel. After a quick dinner of Dominos pizza (yes, Dominos…it was right next door and we were too tired to wander), we collapsed at the wonderful Aloha Hostel and slept till 10am.

This morning we boarded a bus and took the winding road across the Pyrenees to our destination, the beginning of the Camino de Santiago—St. Jean Pied-de-Port. After 48 hours of constant vehicle travel and exhaustion, we joked about how tiring it was just to reach the starting point of our trip, and how ready we were to be done with engines for the next six weeks.

We walked cobblestone streets lined with shops and cafes until we found the Pilgrim Office. Inside, several volunteers attended to pilgrims from all over the world. There were volunteers helping in English, Spanish, and French, so we waited for one of them to call to us, finally answering to: “American people?” Yes, ma’am. She seemed impressed that we’d done our research and planned to stop at Orisson tomorrow and even more impressed that we already had a reservation. “You don’t need me at all,” she said, laughing. She stamped our pilgrim passports and wished us well.

Beilari Hostel was right across the narrow street. We checked in. Lovely place. Immediately met a German woman, Ana, who had just arrived after hiking 800km from Arles, France, on her way to Santiago. I think she thought we were cute in our innocence of everything, a strange opposite to the Pilgrim Office volunteer. And then we immediately met an American couple, Gary and Joan. They arrived from the Boston area and seemed just as out of place as we felt ourselves. Joan is animated, friendly, eager, and just as Bostonian as you can imagine. Gary is quietly tolerant, as if he’s been dragged here solely at his wife’s request (we’d later learn that was exactly the case). Another man, Dave from Kansas, joined us for our welcome to the hostel. Once done, a quick walk to the market for a few items, then back to our room for a quick siesta. Jennifer is asleep now. Dinner with the whole peregrino group is downstairs at 1930. It smells delicious.

I’m grateful for each of the members of that one-night family. To these gathered together I say thank you. Thank you for allowing Christ to play in 18 of his 10,000 places around our table tonight. Pete Peterson

We’ve only just arrived and have had a couple of pre-Camino days in Spain (and France), but I’ve already gathered an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, displacement, and weariness that amounts to a unique humility. The first because I can’t communicate well. We studied our Spanish every night before leaving (a whopping 53-day streak on Duolingo!), and I swear I felt confident in it when we boarded the plane, but whatever false-confidence had accumulated via our iPhone teacher melted away in a hurry the first time I walked into a cafe and tried to order coffee. “Quiero una taza de cafe.” I said. The waitress (camarera) gave me a polite nod and then said something baffling and looked at me inquisitively. I still have no idea what she said, but I got my cafe con leche and enjoyed it anyway. That fairly describes every interaction since getting here. I feel like I know SO many words, but no one else seems to be using any of them, therefore: helplessness. As someone who generally moves through the world with confidence, it’s uncomfortable, and, frankly, oddly refreshing to find myself having to rely on the kindness and understanding of others even to order a coffee.

As for displacement, that’s obvious, we don’t belong here. But it’s a displacement beyond that of merely traveling to an unknown place. It’s a displacement that’s peculiar to being a pilgrim; we walk everywhere, with everything, and we have to rely on what we find along the way to sustain us. I don’t want to romanticize the situation of a refugee, but there’s a similarity in situation if not in measure or seriousness. It’s a state of being in-between, of being en route. Our homelessness is by choice, of course, and not of necessity, but the rub is still there and you feel it in every stranger’s glance.

Weariness explains itself by virtue of the other two. And when all three are taken together, they amount to a real sense of joy when encountering another human who’s kind and helpful and understands what you need. In light of that, I find myself wondering how I’m to go about being Christ in my small ways to the people I meet. And I’m realizing that maybe I can’t. Maybe that’s not my place right now. Maybe all I can do is reflect back the Christ they are being to me.

To wit, immediately after writing that last paragraph, we went down for dinner. We joined 19 other pilgrims and our two hosts who had been cooking for hours. Joseph, a Basque Frenchman in whose home we were sheltered, assembled us all around a single table. The room was small and the table filled most of it. There wasn’t much, if anything, in the form of elbow room. Once we were all seated, he polled the room for names and nationalities: 3 French, 2 Swiss, 6 American, 5 German, 2 Brazilian, 1 Canadian. Between us, we almost had a shared language, but Joseph ended up needing to translate everything into either English or French. Most remarkable of all, though, were Lori and Russel, a couple in their 60s, both blind. Yes, you read that right: blind. A married couple walking five hundred miles across mountains and deserts, cities and rivers and the length of Spain itself, all without the benefit of sight. And get this: it’s their second Camino. Talk about humility. Both of them smiled from ear to ear for the whole meal. We passed around the wine and toasted one another as our “one night family,” as Joseph called us.

Then followed a homemade lentil soup for an appetizer and fresh bread, then salad with fresh-mixed balsamic dressing and vibrantly colored slaw with eggs. After that Joseph brought the main course to our table and asked if I would like to serve. I would. And I liked. It was a vegetable entree of carrots and mushrooms and other delicious things atop steamed rice. I stood and served, and each person watched as I loaded up their plate and motioned when the portion was just right. So when Russel’s plate came around, I realized he couldn’t see the portion size and I called aloud to him, “Russel, are you a little bit hungry or a lot hungry?” And Reinhardt, a big German man seated next to him cried out, “Such a man is very hungry!” So it was. May we all be such men as Russel. He had light in his eyes.

When the dinner had concluded with a picture, we retired to rest for the day ahead. I’m grateful for each of the members of that one-night family. No matter how ragged and scattered a remnant of humankind we are, we assemble, perhaps, in search of a some-thing, a one-thing. We resist the pull toward becoming no-thing, and a sacred presence shines through us each, calls us toward one another, toward itself—himself. Even the Sedona-style crystal in the meditation room glimmered with the brilliance of its maker. Even the blind shine forth in light. To these gathered together I say merci beaucoup, danke sehr, muchas gracias, muito obrigado, thank you. Thank you for allowing Christ to play in 18 of his 10,000 places around our table tonight.

Tomorrow, we climb the Pyrenees.

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices; Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

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