Wednesday, May 1 2013
Arriving by taxi to the small village of Saint Jean Pied de Port (St. John's Pass) on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains, I walk through town savoring the history literally seeping through its pores. I eventually end up at the pilgrim's office and receive my very first credential stamp in my peregrino's passport, a real scallop shell, a map showing elevations for the Camino, and last but not least, encouragement. The Napoleon Pass was closed yesterday and today due to snow int he mountains, but there are high hopes that tomorrow it may open, as today's weather in town is gorgeously sunny and bright. All in God's hands.
I walk across the cobblestone road back to L'Esprit du Chemin (the Spirit of the Way), my first ambergue. I am welcomed into a perfectly charming medieval building run by perfectly charming hospitaleros (ex-pilgrim volunteers from all over the world who work at an ambergue for two weeks or so).
L'Esprit du Chemin built a modern egg house out of chicken wire, which contains little plastic eggs holding notes written by pilgrims before they begin their pilgrimage. I sit in the garden and write my prayer:
Please bless me on this journey to knowing you better and loving you more.
All I am is yours.
All I breathe is thankfulness.
I fold the pink paper up, put it in an egg, and pop it through the grate, feeling intensely ready.
At about 7:30 the dinner bell is rung (literally), and the Camino magic begins. We 18 pilgrims are led into an L-shaped garden area enclosed with plastic sheeting to keep out the wind, snow and rain, but allowing in the sun and nature. Two long tables fill up a bit chaotically, as we strangers arrange ourselves on benches and random chairs, squeezing in close to each other, with the hospitaleros at the heads of the tables. They share several traditions with us, beginning with an aperitif from Navarre (how can dinner go wrong starting off with alcohol?).
Next are introductions all around, made even more interesting by the fact that about 1/4 don't speak English, which thankfully is the most commonly shared language tonight. I learn quickly that hospitaleros are almost always multi-lingual, which amazes and humbles me. My English is fairly decent since I used to teach it, my Spanish is somewhat passable since I like all foods and things Mexican, but my French, German, and Italian are limited to "Please" and "I'm sorry", and my Basque, Hungarian, Dutch and almost all other languages is flat out non-existent. We Americans are spoiled, and it can be rather embarrassing.
Lastly before dinner, we share a moment of silence. Although the Camino originally was traveled for spiritual and religious reasons, and still often is, there are many who travel for other reasons; out of respect for many beliefs, Quiet rules for a few minutes.
Then joyful Mayhem takes over as food is passed around family style, half of which is unidentifiable to me, but tastes wonderful. Thankfully there is only one other American, a woman named Curry from Florida - I come to Europe partly to experience other peoples and other cultures, and I would be sorely disappointed if this were the Appalachian Trail, filled with Americans. One couple shares that after she completed the Camino 2 years ago, she met him while in Santiago, and they are now bicycling it together on their honeymoon. Some are married couples with friends, some are a group of single friends, some are solo like me. One 75-year-old man biked the Camino 14 years earlier, and is now walking the Camino in memory of his recently-departed wife. James Holland sits across from me, a handsome young man of 24, and tells me his multiple sclerosis is getting worse and he walks now to understand his future, or lack thereof. Leo Germany is the hospitalero to my left, and he shares that he walked 4 years ago and connected with a young woman (Leo is about mid-60's) who kept in touch with him; when she was baptized last year, she asked Leo to be her godfather. What an honor! Leo also teaches me a valuable trick for the Camino. We each have only one small glass in front of us, and after I fill my glass, I offer water to Leo for his glass, not knowing that wine flows as freely as water on the Camino. He laughs and tells me several years ago he "quit the water" and drinks only wine at dinner. After my initial glass of water, I share the wine pitcher with Leo, and will follow his advice every single day afterward.