Via Tolosana Day 1: Into Great Silence

Arles to Bouchaud 8kms

I knew I was well rested because when I put my pack on to go, it was lighter – I swear! Although, there were still doubts about having my SLR camera and extra things, but I will just have to see how I go. For breakfast the coffee was instant, the bread yesterday’s but at least it was something. I wrote my morning pages. There was nothing doing in the dining room, unlike the night before where a parade of people passed through – none of them pilgrims. Can’t wait to meet a real one.

I packed up but couldn’t find my Confraternity guide book. I was emailed later to say they had found it, but it was a bit late then. Maybe it was telling me to focus on Miam Miam Dodo, and not worry so much about the other information. I had a brief chat to the woman at the maison, and she said the most popular months are more May/June and August/September. She said she had not seen a pilgrim in a while. I thought, there goes my chances of meeting people on the way. I said I’ve always been a little crazy, to which she replied, only Nazis walk in this heat. Nice!

The day before I had spoken to four people to try and get accommodation in someone’s house. One of them, Annie, after I’d already booked in the Maison, said I would be welcome to stay with her if I hadn’t found anywhere. Then she proceeded to text me helpful information. She was like my first guardian angel. I had asked her for the locations of supermarkets, which she delivered promptly. She checked whether I already had my Credential, and whether I wanted maps to St Gilles (my second stop), and I let her know that I was going to Bouchaud first. She said Vous aimerez le monstiere de Notre Dame des Champs mais prenez une lotion anti-moustiques!! (You’ll like the monastery, but take mosquito lotion!)


Basilique St Trophime

So after snapping another photo of the Basilique St Trophime, I wandered down rue de la Republique to get myself some food and some mosquito lotion. I managed the food OK, but I think my cash passport top up had not gone through and three cards that I had weren’t working. No mosquito lotion. I felt a little vulnerable. I had 3.40 euros left, and my lunch and dinner. If I walked to Bouchaud there would be no wifi and no bank. There would be no money until the next town. I took a deep breath, asked myself what I should do, and the answer came, walk to Bouchaud and everything will be alright. So that’s what I did.

Sunflowers

Hot already from my to-ing and fro-ing finding food, trying to get cash and buy lotion, the sweat was dripping. It must have already been 30C. I continued on the blue dotted line pilgrim route on my Arles town map, out, over the bridge across Le Rhone lugging a plastic bag with my lunch in it, because my pack was too full to fit in anything else.

It was footpaths at first, but then along a stretch of shoulderless road walking against the traffic. I know it is meant to be safer, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. The stencil art continues out the very fringes of the city – even under bridges. My new Salamon walking shoes felt good. Until now I’d been wearing cotton socks with them to travel in, but now with the addition of woollen socks, they were extra tight, but comfortable. My right shoulder gives me a little concern, but not pain with my pack on, just when I take it off. It has hurt since Australia, so I can’t blame the road. I can feel what I think is my hip when I’m walking, which just goes to show what an extra 10 kgs does to my joints.

Van Gogh’s sunflowers, still nodding towards the east, had not yet woken up. Their stance was matched later by a monk in robes, head bent in what I thought was extreme contemplation. After a flutter in an obscured building, I realised he was retrieving the bottles of wine for lunch.

Skirting the town, parallel to the river, I walked further as the road grew a shoulder. That was reassuring as the size of vehicle coming towards me had also grown to semi-trailer size. I came across a collection of vehicles parked next to some make-shift tents … fruit stall by the side of the road. “Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it” (Alice Walker), were the words on my mind and I slightly let go of that anxiety I had about finding enough food. A peach, two apricots, an eggplant and pepper all for 1 euro and I had covered morning tea, lunch and maybe a contribution for dinner. I tried to engage the fruit seller in a conversation about the unusual (to me) shaped apricots, trying to ask her what variety they were, but my French let me down, as it often does. One thing that has improved a lot is my numbers thanks to Alliance Francaise so I am able to understand when buying things, however I was away the week they did days of the week, so these are still hopeless. I know Lundi is Monday.

Line markers

Passing a house with what looked like Mexican hats for gate decorations, had me singing the Mexican Hat Dance for a few hundred metres – this is what it comes to when you’re walking … until sunflowers or fruit stalls take you’re attention.

The cicadas again joined me, they were loud and present at each shady tree. I took the D570 at the roundabout happy that I was successfully following the map. Rounding a bend in the road, I was now in full sun. It was really hot, and I was really hot. The road shoulder was only just wide enough.

I would soon find that I spend my days with workers who do all the things most people wouldn’t. Line markers, farm and road workers. It is humbling to be out in the sun walking by choice when a whole lot of people have to do it for their livelihoods. Maybe that’s another idea for my new job.

Road to Bouchaud

After 2.6kms, I found it, marked by a large brown cross, Prieure Notre Dame Des Champs, oh and Domaine de Bouchard. Sounds like Seven Hill winery, French style John.

Bouchaud

Bouchaud

1600’s St Jacques de Compostelle Map

When I looked at myself in the mirror in my sweet little room named ‘Jesse’ (my grandmother’s name), I looked like a beetroot. So I can only guess at what Frere Joseph took me for when he answered my tug on the metal bell chain. I’d apparently interrupted prayers so he told me (not so candidly of course) as he showed me my room and the amenities. He asked where I’d come from, and was surprised when I corrected him when he said Italy. A beetroot from Australie (for work colleagues, my face was ten times more red than post ride to work). I said I had my lunch, so he asked me to join them for dinner at 7.15pm, and I happily accepted, not least because I’d never been to dinner with Benedictines, well not in this lifetime anyway.

The window in my ‘Jesse’ room

With my window open, the cigales were relentless outside in the largest plane trees I have ever stood next to. I like the sound. It is reassuring in a funny way. I took my lunch into the garden, and sat next to Jesus in sculpture form and had a lovely view of the lodging area. Another pilgrim was to tell me later, that this is quite a special monastery. They grow rice in the ‘bio’ way. Because it is twice as expensive as other brands, no-one in France buys it, but they supply a woman in Germany who buys it all from them. I suppose this and the money from having people lodge with them, and producing wine pays for their community. Several monks have disabilities, so I was very happy I could come and have a meal with them.

I found a great map of the different routes of St Jacques de Compostelle from 1648 hanging in the passage. It shows the route the other way from Arles, towards Turin and also to Dijon. I would later meet an older Italian man who had started in Turin. For the afternoon I sat in quiet contemplation, wrote, read and slept. It feels like I’m de-stressing. I am glad to have started walking. Gone is the uncertainty of the hot day yesterday.

Lunch with Jesus

Just before dinner, the bells rang. I remembered the keys – a chatelaine. I was ushered to the seat with the blanc serviette, next to an older woman who later told me she was here to get well, away from her town which she said was so noisy. We stood for prayers for a little, then sat down for more readings. I could understand a few words, but not at all the meaning of the lovely French. At the end of this we were served. A large plate of rice, chickpeas and ham cut into tiny cubes was ready at 1 o’clock next to my plate and the knife and fork had coquille shell symbols on them. We commenced passing water, pepper, tomato salad, leaf salad and dressing between us silently, apart from my merci beaucoups, until everyone was served. Accompanying our meal, brothers would take turns reading. It wasn’t from scripture I don’t think, because there were countries mentioned, l’etats unites being one of them. We were watched over by St John the Evangelist and St Catherine, sculptures on the wall opposite the huge hearth. This room had been the centre of this house since the 1600s when it was built. Part-way through dinner I heard it mentioned that ‘we have a pelerin with us from Australie’, and they asked what my name is. Aren’t I glad I can say that in French. Although I think they then realised my French was limited and tried their best to speak in English for me. After main course, we spoke and watermelon was handed around accompanied by lemon verbena infusion – gorgeous. When we could start talking, I had a lovely discussion with an older French man, a novice and born in Vietnam. I was also trying to get to the bottom of the symbol I had seen on many gate posts on the road but no-one seemed to be able to explain it. It is a bull’s head with a trident on top. It reminded me of the disturbing, but excellent French series by Fred Vargas featuring detective Adamsburg that I watched with my friend Deb before I came away.

Towards the end of dinner, another young woman came in. She was seated at another table and I said hello. Viola is Italian, and we agreed to speak in English – if my French is just passable, my Italian is at fail level for conversation. She was walking to St Gilles the next day, so I said let’s walk together. She said she has a 20kg pack because she is juggling things for her work. I thought she might have a computer like me, but no, it turns out, she is an actual juggler! We made breakfast arrangements and said goodnight.

It was 8.52pm and the cigales stopped and the Mistral wind began. I took my credential to be stamped, a little nervous that I had no money to donate. Joseph said that because I was a pilgrim I didn’t need to. I said that I would send some money at a later date.

This whole experience seemed very familiar to me. I haven’t yet seen the film Into Great Silence, but it was one I was always intending to see. There is something about the life of the religious which appeals. Maybe I got my own little taste of it in this place. Maybe I was an abbess in a former life. Keys. Clefs. Musician – that’s an interesting connection. In my childhood, I spent time in Bangladesh, and was often fascinated by the old-fashioned locks on gates. The keys used to turn so easily in those big old brass locks. One teacher, the head of the school, Miss Muchidee had a big collection of keys which she tied to the end of her sari.

Ou est ma clefs? What does this mean for my life now? I am still the holder of the keys, with my Airbnb?
Tre calme, tre reste, tre silence.

read more … Day 2

Priory of Notre Dame, Bouchaud

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