Via Tolosana Day 42: Meaning of life day

Sarrance

I awoke at 4:30am and felt absolutely sick in my stomach.  This hadn’t happened on my journey so far. Other types of pain, but never sickly dread. That’s what it felt like.  It was still raining, and it had been all night.  I got up to do morning pages, not convinced that I would be walking at all today.

I have observed for myself and many others I’ve know over the years, that there certainly is some truth to what was identified perhaps tongue-in-cheek by Douglas Adams, and that is that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is truly 42. It is not surprising that it was Deep Thought that discovered it. My 42nd year was one of big changes, and I have called it my ‘meaning of life’ year ever since, so it was when I noticed that this was day 42, I was expecting something big!

I realised that I am nearing the end of my journey.  This meant I would be leaving France soon.  I never like leaving France. If only I could find a way to stay. It is turning into a big effort dragging myself up this final mountain, but it is dragging myself metaphorically through the idea that I will be leaving and ending this amazingly insightful time that is the real dead weight. I wrote a quote this morning from Pierre Gerrin, “ce n’est pas tont to qui marche sur le chemin, c’est plutôt le chemin qui marche en toi“.  You don’t walk on the way, the way walks you.  Maybe I don’t want to leave the walk just yet.  It is such a tempting way of life. Reiner has lived like this for 8 years.  I’ve met many people who return every year to follow a new version of the way.  What does it bring them to?  A great simplicity perhaps, or access to great generosity and a way of living that is deeply personal and functional?  For some it is the next step from abandoning all your possessions, putting faith in a higher place, that you will have everything you need if you just walk.  It is a very interesting thing to do, and will be so much an ongoing part of your life if you do it, even just once. It is alchemical as Guillaume said. It is real and purposeful.

Reflecting on these things, I began to re-visit my intentions for this trip.  What have I learnt about forgiveness, discipline and purpose?  I have practiced discipline and purpose, the walking and the writing have been clear reflections of this.  But I found myself wanting in the forgiveness department.  How do I do that, I asked?   Accept what has happened to you, and that each person has played an important and vital role in your life up until now.  Each character has played their correct part according to the script for you life. Accept this.  This is the purpose of your life. Just to accept that all is for a reason, and that reason is to bring you to know yourself and know God. Don’t doubt that this is true. Reiner said as much. You chose your life. Your body will continue to show you the way.  It is feeling again.  Watch it, listen to it.  It operates to keep you safe. It has turned the corner. The switch is set back to ‘on’. You have been re-started. Trust your body. Trust yourself. Trust God. You will never know such love as you have now.  You are the light that God has sent to the earth. Claim that light and shine it on everyone your meet. This is a cause for celebration, not trepidation.

Funny how things turn out.  At breakfast Marion tried to gee me up – “everything will turn out OK”. I started asking the hosts about taking a morning bus.  I found out what time it passed by and where it stopped.  It is the first day of spring in Australia, and Anita’s birthday.  Gradually, everyone left, the couple who were starting out on their journey together (in more way than one), then Marion and Sylvia.  Out into the rain they all went, but it wasn’t the rain that was keeping me.

I stayed, packing my bag up, planning my bus activities.  I spoke to Karine about it. She was a volunteer who had been helping out providing welcome to pilgrims for a little while in this place.  She was leaving today and so was the other hospitaliere, she’d left already.  I explained to her what had been happening for me. The distractions with my house in Australia, and having to constantly check whether there were bookings was taking a big toll.  We had a long chat, with a cup of tea.  She told me to be still, take my time to decide where to go next. She told me of the little walks I could do around the village – the shrine down by the river to the place where a fisherman and a shepherd on separate occasions had seen an Apparition of the Virgin Mary, the chapel of Mary Magdalene up at the back of the property.  Find solace in those peaceful places. Do what you need to do to be strong. She suggested if I could do without the money, why not take my house of the website, and cut email ties with Australia.  I decided to take my home off Airbnb, and just trust that things would be OK when I return.  In the morning the wifi wasn’t working, but it meant that I had time to contemplate what to do.  There is nothing I ‘have’ to do.  Not even go all the way to Col du Somport.

Calm. Silence. Trust. Confidence that all would be well. Go your own way. Take time to be still. It is all clear.

Karine said goodbye after we exchanged email addresses. She said I could have lunch with the community, she would tell Piere that I needed to stay tonight as well.

I took Karine’s advice and walked slowly around the town, to the Boucherie to see what they had, to the Virgin’s statue, then to Mary Magdalene’s chapel where I stayed for an hour.  As I walked back along the pruned plane tree path that curved around the hill, the ground felt softer.  I got back at 12:30 and suspected I was missing lunch, however I felt that I needed to connect to block out my Airbnb and tell my flatmate that I wouldn’t be contacting again until I was back in Australia.  I realised that some people like drama, and want to draw you into theirs, no matter where in the world you are.  This is their way, but it doesn’t have to be mine.  I have never warmed to it, and it has taken this episode for me to realise that some people are so completely wound up in themselves that they don’t give anyone else’s needs a second thought.  I don’t have any space for this deep anxiety in my life. Everything will work out for the best.  Yes, thy will be done, indeed.

There is no meaningless parroting for me any more. I want to live like this. I don’t want to have goals, I want the best life for myself, and I know that it will come with complete surrender. I will be asking so much more now, asking my body when it signals to me, asking myself when I am faced with a choice. There really are strong forces here to protect me. I know it. I no longer feel afraid in trepid situations, with cars and guns.  I know that I am safe.  What relief.

Lunch was pasta and roquefort cheese, I’m glad I stayed!  After lunch I lounged for a little minute and then heard the bells.  I thought I’d make myself scarce in case there were new arrivals at 2pm. I slept until 3pm and heard two new people. Then I ventured downstairs to the toilet and was surprised to find the green-eyed Benjamin in the welcome area.  He had stayed in Oloron for another night. I went upstairs again and back to bed.

Another pilgrim arrived and was shown my room. Her name is Diane. It is nice to have some people to share the space with.  A new energy.  I wrote my journal for over an hour.

I went down to the dining room for dinner, and there was confusion, part language and part beligerance about whether I’d paid for dinner. After getting to a more calm place, I was frustrated that I was again being drawn into a drama, that was probably my own creation.  I thought that Karine had said that what I paid covered me, but I ended up having a discussion with the guy who took over from Karine as hospitaliere. I got upset, as I really thought I had settled everything, and I was running out of money.  In the end I was in tears, and said that I wouldn’t stay for dinner if it was such a problem.  I walked back out into the cloister, through the welcome room and upstairs to my room where they new hospitaliere came to tell me I should come to dinner.  I wasn’t to be convinced, and stayed crying in the bedroom. This day that was meant to be a chance to collect myself, was turning into something different altogether. I went downstairs eventually and Benjamin kindly shared some noodles with me. He seemed sympathetic to my plight.  He is a happy fellow, who is always singing or whistling. Tonight it was Take 5 – the first tune so far that I’d recognised.

Let’s hope I feel OK to walk tomorrow, I don’t think I could manage to stay another day. I felt my welcome had well and truly worn out.

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Via Tolosana Day 9: Attention a la marche: glisser!

Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquière to Lodève 15kms

Sitting in the garden of a château with a driveway lined with chestnut trees, it is hard to believe the highs and the lows I have been through today. And I’m not talking about altitude.

I didn’t sleep, I didn’t feel rested, and was exhausted. I didn’t have a headache during the night as I usually do when I am dehydrated, but instead a temperature and I woke with my nose blocked up. Uh oh. I’m confused. In addition to this, when I first walked into the little gite, it smelled of piss and a strange damp smell.

Preparation was slow this morning. It had rained a little overnight and was cool outside. I decided my toenails needed cutting or I might have more sources of pain by the end of the day. Knowing the walk would be in the sun the previous day, I’d exchanged my short-sleeved t-shirt for a long-sleeved one, but I thought given the overcast start today, that I’d be safe with short sleeves. It wasn’t raining heavily, but enough to get the pack wet, so the yellow cover went on.

Seeing a gorgeous blue 2CV put me in a slightly better mood as we left the little town with the tongue-twister name and I walked ahead for the first part of the morning.  I glimpsed a La Poste scooter and I found a Domaine de Flo.

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Domaine de Flo

Wet dry stone wall

Watery path

The path was completely covered with water early on, but we took a way around it. The smells of wet grass and pine were gorgeous in the rain and mostly it continued to sprinkle lightly. The way was again well-marked, but in parts rocky – perhaps a reflection of my state of mind. I was angry with Jacques, but of course, mostly with myself, for once again ‘fitting in’ with someone else, and going their way. I had stopped listening to myself. I had stopped writing. I felt like I had compromised my ‘way’ to fit in with his, and lost myself in the process. I had expected to walk for 6 weeks by myself, and sadly, I resented the intrusion into my trip. At first it had been fun. Now it just felt like hard work walking with this invisible expectation that I would keep up and have the same way. Getting to Montpelier, I had been prepared to walk the ‘boring’ bits. I could have stopped to listen to myself, but didn’t. I’d done it again, like I often do, compromise my way to fit in with someone else. I found myself feeling sorry for myself.  Where is that companion who will want to walk with me at my pace? When will someone compromise their trip for me? 

Roman road?

We were walking to Lodeve today, a smaller étape (stage), and I had decided that once there I would take the opportunity to rest and let Jacques I and II go on without me. I felt like the only option I had was to stay to do my writing and get myself together again, alone.  Best laid plans.

Usclas-du-Bosc

We passed through Usclas-du-Bosc and it was still spitting. Jacques, with his random door-opening habit opened the big green iron door to the cemetery. There were stèles discoïdales there – ancient tomb stones from the 1600s and earlier. I was impressed as I thought Jacques had just found them by luck but I realise now they were probably in his guide-book. I needed to find a toilet however, and went off to the Mairie. The toilet was behind the building, but locked. I went in to the Mairie and asked the woman for the key, dumped my pack and was relieved – just in time. Afterwards I went back to take more photos of the cemetery.

stèle discoïdales

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Dry stone wall

The cigales were absent all day – they obviously don’t like getting wet. Small bushes were sending their herbal fragrances out to all and sundry, making the air smell aromatic and providing good competition for my own pungency (usually well before 10am I’m drowning in sweat).  Today was a day of dry-stone walls, made wet with the rain. They gave way to shale paths and then a long track upwards to an intersection had us turn onto a cushioned pine forest path. Pilgrims had gone wild and creative with their rock piles, even on large dolmen-like rocks. Pine trees whispered as I walked, sounding like the ocean. The air was fresh through my sweaty clothes.

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Soft pine path

rock sculpture

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Dolmen rock art

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Grandmont horses

If yesterday’s theme was Attention à la marche, today’s was attention à la marche – glisser (slippery). After the pine forest, we walked along large flat slippery rocks for many minutes before coming upon a pine avenue bordered with a stone wall next to a horse paddock leading to le prieuré Saint-Michel de Grandmont. According to the sign board outside, in addition to cloisters, there is Le dolmen de Coste-Rouge (an ancient megalith), old stone wells and woods surrounding the priory. It looked deserted, and as I didn’t want to hold Jacques up, I didn’t pursue researches to see if it was open. Once again I missed out. For the next week or so, I kept meeting pilgrims who raved about this place. It would have been a couple of minute wait for it to open, but I kept walking. Doing some research later, thanks Wiki, I found that the Grandmontine order was basically one of austere hermits, who wore no shoes, and spent their whole lives in silence, eating no meat and fasting regularly.  Sounds like medieval Vipassana. Sounds like just the kind of place I would’ve enjoyed seeing! No joke.

the path

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Attention glisser!

The whole landscape today, with what could well have been Roman built walls, dripped with history and geological significance. After the priory it was full on and the rocks were slippery as. After stepping up and down as the track passed over rocks for a little while, we came out on the top a massive rock plateau. When I took a leak, I could see down a crevice to another level below where we were. Cave men and women lived here. It was just like Korg: 70,000 BC. Jacques walked on ahead.

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Rock shelf

This rock shelf lasted for several hundred metres and is appropriately known as ‘La Roch’, although I can’t confirm, as it doesn’t appear on any maps. On the final stretch of it, enthusiastic visitors had built a labyrinth marked by small stones, so of course I walked it remembering my trip to the park with Jo in Sydney, and my friend Maureen’s love of all things labyrinthine. Walking carefully so as not to slip, I entered with an intention of composing myself and exiting into a new way, my way. Take companionship from people who would support me to walk my way. Remain true to myself.

Labyrinth

Further along the track, deep grooves in the rock, about 30cms wide and the same deep, had me wondering whether these were prehistoric rainwater collecting mechanisms. I had a momentary panic when I thought I had lost him, but eventually I caught Jacques up.  This annoyed me, not because I’d lost him, but that it mattered that I’d lost him, as I was trying so very hard to feel independent. I said I would stop for some morning tea in a highly wooded path adjoining one last large flat-topped rock shelf. We ate pain aux raisins that we’d bought at the Boulangerie that morning.  We briefly talked about La Fontaine again, who Jacques describes as a ‘fabulist’, which always sounds like ‘fabulous’ when he says it, and it takes a moment to work out what he’s talking about. It seems that the language confusion worked both ways for us.  French speakers have trouble with my name. It is completely un-French so usually people I meet have never heard it before. So, I get all sorts of pronunciations. Jacques thought my name was Bronwell. He thought this was curious because in Dutch, ‘bron’ means ‘source’. To have a name: ‘wellwell’ was amusing to him. Until I corrected him, and said, no, it’s Bronwen. I have found as soon as I spell it, people seem to understand how to say it. I keep meaning to write a card with ‘Bron-wen’ on it. This would make my name absolutely clear.

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Prehistoric rainwater collection

the pack

My pack felt heavy, but thankfully with a night’s healing sleep, my chaffed legs were not bothering me as they had the day before.  There was generous provision of water fountains and picnic spots on the first day so far in which we neither felt like drinking so much, or needed to sit down so desperately. View-worthy locations were the most popular. We bypassed the little town of Saumont, but not the table d’orientation just outside with it’s lovely old cross.

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Tractor seat picnic spot

Table d’orientation

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Saumont

It never ceases to amaze me how many terrains we pass through each day. When we started the ground was purple, but we ended up with rocks and large saltbush-like bushes with long thing spiky foliage. Just after Saumont, we sat on one of the many park benches of the day for a break. Minutes later and we were joined by Jacques II. Then another 5 minutes passed and there was Hugo. He’d brought a thermos with him for coffee, and he shared his boisson chaud (hot drink) with us – how fantastic. Jacques phoned ahead only to find that the Gite de la Megisserie was closed permanently. We would need to visit the Office de Tourisme for more assistance with finding a bed for the night. Hugo disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared and I never met him on the chemin again. For the rest of the way to Lodeve, we more or less traversed with Jacques II. I hung back, I was still exhausted and preferred to walk alone-ish.

I dropped my phone on day 7, and the sound had stopped working. I had missed the little camera shutter sound when I took photos. But today as I was crossing a grassy field, and took a photo of the Jacques ahead, I realised the sound had returned. But just because I’m paying attention and doing my best to listen, but it doesn’t necessarily mean things get instantly easier.

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Red rocks

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Rocky wood pile

Right next to the path outside Lodeve, there was a tiny hut. We joked that this was our gite for the night. Next to it, there was a rock pile that resembled the woodpiles I’d seen in Lithuania – a beautiful piece of handiwork.

walls

Le Lergue

Mary watches over all

Lodeve is a large-ish town spread along the valley of the Le Lergue river. Walking towards the centre we passed Mary looking down protectively over us. At the tourist office, the woman was very helpful and found the three of us accommodation for 15 euros each. I was missing my wi-fi and really wanted to read emails. I had left my Airbnb rooms open back in Australia, but I hadn’t had wi-fi to be able to check for any bookings. There was wi-fi in the office, but I just had to charge my phone first. After having decided I wanted to walk on my own, and stay in Lodeve for two nights, having a booking for a gite with the two Jacques didn’t feel like I was asserting my new independence. I left my pack at the office, and went to find some food for dinner at Monoprix – a cheap eat of carbonara for 2 euro 38 centimes. That’s a bargain.

I went back to the Office de Tourisme having tried to get money from three ATMs with my VISA and AMEX. I would have topped up in Montpelier, but had been too distracted to remember. Now I had 15 euros cash, and no cash until Tuesday when my master card topped up.  I was in a bind. I could go on with the two Jacques and pay my 15 euros for the night and not have anything for the next three days, or I could find a hotel to stay in that took AMEX. I got back to the tourist office just as Jacques II was picking up his backpack, and I asked him to tell Jacques I that I wouldn’t be staying tonight. I explained my situation, and he said he would wait while I tried one last possibility at the Post Office. This didn’t work. I spent 30 minutes on the phone to VISA and they had difficulty dealing with my request for a new card, said they’d put me through to somewhere else who didn’t have any idea why I’d been put through to them, and were likewise extremely unhelpful given I had no money, and a VISA card that didn’t work.

I went back to find Jacques II patiently waiting and he offered to lend me money. I was really tearful and humbled that someone who had known me only a couple of days would offer to help like this. I had just decided to go my own way, and now I had no means. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to rely on others, but it seemed this was the only option. I left to go to the gite with Jacques II but part way there I was getting the strong feeling not to go on. I tried to explain in my limited French, why I was upset, but actually I didn’t really know. I said for him to go on, and I would go back to the Office de Tourisme. I’d been there several times now, and they probably thought, oh no, not the crying Australian again. The woman checked for me whether there were any hotels that took Amex with a room available for two nights. Complet (full)! I needed more time to think. I checked my Airbnb account. I had missed two bookings, they had expired. This affects my response rate, so I decided to block out August bookings because the stress of having to find wi-fi to keep up with them, was taking its toll. With space to feel, I realised that my only option was to continue with the two Jacques. Jack High! I would take up Jacques II on his offer, and continue walking until my money cleared. I needed a break desperately, but I didn’t have the means to have one.

The woman gave me the directions to the gite. I was hoping it was a nice one, but was thinking it could be awful given the day I’d just had. At a roundabout I tried to take in the peaceful offering a gorgeous olive tree was extending.  Maybe it was reminding me of grace, or maybe charity. I felt relieved at having made a decision, but I was realising the consequences of the last 8 days. I wasn’t feeling much peace about becoming distracted enough not to look after myself financially. Stupid Bronwen.

For two kilometres I followed the avenue of plane trees out-of-town, walking on the left-hand side of the road facing the traffic, stepping aside into the grass if a car passed. I checked the house numbers, but they didn’t follow a sequence. I kept walking and there it was, #762, and no I wasn’t imagining it – it was a château, with a coach house no less. Another avenue of tall trees took a right from the road and I followed them and found Jacques I. Jacques II had told him I wouldn’t be coming, so he was surprised to see me. I went upstairs to see the madame of the house and glimpsed where she lived with her husband. She received me in a little room with bay doors leading into a sitting room. Conservatively upholstered chairs, carpet and a mirror above a fireplace welcomed personal visitors, but I sat down next to the pilgrim stamp at the beautiful table in the lobby. She only spoke French, but it was not a complicated exchange when I was just paying for a bed and getting my credentiale stamped. She did mention however that some of her family had travelled to Australia, and we had a brief discussion about this.

There are only 3 beds in this gite, and it seems that it is not generally listed, a place of last resort perhaps. A small kitchen, a long bed chamber with three beds, and a bathroom/toilet in which the small internal window opens up into the garage under the house. In addition to the musty bathroom smell, you get a hint of mechanics when you’re drying yourself after your shower. We ate dinner together, and surprisingly I was genuinely happy to be back. I showered and did my washing, but as it was already after 6pm, there was not much hope of it drying over night. Jacques I asked what I would do about money, and I told him Jacques II had offered to lend some. Jacques I offered too, so having known him just a little longer I took a loan.

château

Yesterday I honed some tips for discouraged pilgrims:

Methods for walking up long, rocky paths:
1. Little old lady, bent double method (self-explanatory)
2. Standing erect, butt cheeks clenched technique
3. Holding onto backpack straps method
4. Hands on hips technique

Vary as each one becomes ineffective.

Raised garden beds

Despite a great stopover in Seoul breaking up my journey, when I awoke on my first morning in Paris, I realised that I would need to get out and about to avail myself of some fresh air and sunlight.  My Airbnb apartment in the 12th arrondissement was a short 10 minute walk from Gare de Lyon train station, the line that I would take south to Arles in the next day or so.  I had to get my ticket and also breakfast, so I decided to take a wander to a landmark I had heard about from my friend, Delphine, the Coulée verte René-Dumont or Promenade plantée.  From street level there is not much to give away the verdant raised bed that tops this disused railway line.  Many shops now occupy the supporting arches of the Viaduc des Arts, but you can imagine that probably not that long ago this area was neglected space.  Now it is home to all kinds of artisans and creative types, both within and outside the walls.

Arch of the Coulee Verte

Arch of the Coulee Verte

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Tour de France

While the shops and arches provide a lovely diversion, the real surprise is upstairs.  You can access the promenade at each crossroad, and if you happen to be there on a Sunday morning as I was, you will share your amble with joggers of all shapes and sizes.  You can be enchanted so much by the garden you are walking through, that you may miss certain other interesting things.  In some places the trees and shrubs are tall, and only give glimpses of the buildings on either side. I was lucky enough at one point to spy a sculpture on what I found later was the Police station.  It was an impressive lazy nude male caryatid probably a storey high. He wasn’t supporting anything, just leaning. I needed to walk on a little further to realise that there was a whole regiment of them decorating the top of the building.  At another point, as I was coming to the beautiful pool in the middle of the path, I heard Gregorian chant coming from an open apartment window – apt for a Sunday morning in France.

And it seem that the vegetation was Day of the Triffids like spilling from the path onto people’s balconies and planter boxes.  At 8am in the morning with the night’s freshness just retreating, I can understand why herbaceous smells spark whole industries of wine and perfume.  They remind us we’re alive.

Tranquil pond

Tranquil pond

You can walk the full linear park for 4.7 kilometres from Bastille, but I turned back at the Jardin de Reuilly, after taking in sculptures and the most beautiful display of summer flowers.

Summer display

Summer display

I didn’t want to leave this magical place, so I walked all the way back to the other end at Bastille. Wending my way back towards Gare de Lyon, I noticed some activity on a side street.  As one does in Paris, one tends to follow one’s nose to check things out, and I found myself at the edge of a bustling Sunday market at the Place d’Aligre. Blueberry yoghurt in a glass jar, a half a baguette and some camembert – voila! Breakfast.