Monthly Archives: October 2010

Speaking Spanish—Or Not—on the Camino Francés

[Fishing Sign]

My friend and I were really curious about this sign that we found along the river after Villafranca del Bierzo. All I could make out was something about freedom without death. I asked a Spanish friend about it later. It turned out to be about releasing fish after catching them.

It’s much easier to survive on the Camino Francés (the main Camino de Santiago route across Spain) if you don’t speak Spanish than it is to walk the Chemin du Puy without speaking French. However, as when travelling in any country, speaking the local language enriches the experience, and makes the trip easier.

If nothing else, it’s worth memorizing “hola” (hi—pronounced oh-la) and “buen camino” (good road—pronounced bwen camino, a common pilgrim greeting) for basic Camino manners.

Talking to Locals

Local people, including shopkeepers and bar owners (bars in Spain are basically a cross between a café and a pub) don’t usually speak English.

In some stores, the shopkeepers serve you. If you don’t know the word for what you want, you should be able to point. In bars and restaurants, it would help if you had someone to translate, since the pilgrims’ menus are only sometimes translated into English and other common Camino languages.

If you get lost, the more you can understand Spanish the easier it is to get back on track. “Pardón, ¿dondé está el camino?” is another helpful phrase. Excuse me. Where is the Camino? If you can’t remember that, I would imagine saying “Camino?” and looking confused (while, of course, looking very pilgrimly with your travel clothes and backpack) will convince people to point you in the right direction.

But while it’s perfectly possible to survive without Spanish, I had a few great discussions with locals I met on the road, sometimes while asking for directions, that I’d never have been able to have without speaking some Spanish.

At Pilgrim Refuges

Some of the hospitaleros and hospitaleras are local Spaniards, but even if they don’t speak English, they’re used to dealing with people who can’t speak Spanish.

In my experience, a lot of the volunteer hospitaleros and hospitaleras spoke at least some English.

Talking to Pilgrims

English is often the common language between pilgrims from different countries on the Camino. I met two Belgians—one from the Flemish part, and one from the French part—who had to communicate in English. And even if someone doesn’t speak English, they can often find someone else to translate.

So if you’re an English-speaker, you might not be able to talk to everyone, but it’s relatively easy to find someone who can talk to you.

Of course, the Camino Francés is very international, so the more languages you speak, the better. I once had a conversation in (fairly bad) Spanish with an Italian woman, because while neither of us was fluent, it was the only language we had in common.

Spanish Spanish and Latin American Spanish

I learned to speak Spanish in Mexico, and my university Spanish professor was from Colombia. I found it harder to understand Spanish in Spain, with its lispy s’s, but after a while I got more or less used to it.

Grammar and vocabulary also differ a bit from one Spanish-speaking country to another. (Learn more here.)

Other Languages Spoken Along the Camino

Spanish-speakers often refer to the language we call Spanish as castellano, or Castilian. That’s because it’s not the only language spoken in Spain.

The first few days of the Camino out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are in Basque country, where the Basque language is spoken. Santiago is in the region of Galicia, where the inhabitants speak Galician, or Galego, which is related to Portuguese. That’s why in both these regions you’ll often see two different names for the same place: one is in Castilian Spanish, and the other is in the local language.

People in these regions also speak Castilian Spanish, so if you do speak Spanish, it’s still easy to communicate.

Learning Spanish

There are a lot of ways to learn some basic Spanish before your trip. Check your local community college listings for classes, or your library or the Internet for courses.

I really like the Pimsleur program for second-language learning. I’ve found it really engrains basic conversational grammar in my head. It has thirty-minute programs that I used to listen to every night while doing dishes, back when I was learning German. Usually I listened to each lesson twice, or sometimes even three times, before moving onto the next. The down side is it’s quite expensive (unless you luck out on eBay), but packages with the first eight lessons are often available at public libraries.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:25 am
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Speaking French—Or Not—on the Chemin du Puy

[The Road into Saugues]

The road into Saugues, near the beginning of the Chemin du Puy.

It’s possible to survive walking the Chemin de Saint-Jacques from Le Puy-en-Velay if you speak next to no French. I met two Austrian students who walked part of the route, and gleefully got by snorting like pigs to order pork in a restaurant, and miming their ailments in a pharmacy. I also walked for a day with a Korean woman who spoke no French apart from the tiny amount she’d picked up while walking. She made it all the way to Santiago.

That said, the Chemin du Puy is a lot easier—and more companionable—if you speak French.


The Miam-Miam Dodo guidebook has the most comprehensive information on accommodation and places to eat and shop for food. It also has some very nice maps.

It’s completely in French, but it uses easily-understood symbols to portray lodgings and more, so if you know a very basic amount of French, you’ll probably be able to muddle through.

If you got your Miam-Miam Dodo a few months before your trip, you could even look up the important words (they tend to repeat) in an Internet translation program and write them down.

The only English guidebook that I know of is Alison Raju’s Way of Saint James—France. It’s been updated this year, and I can’t comment on the new edition, but the previous edition didn’t have nearly as comprehensive information on eating and sleeping as the Miam-Miam Dodo has. However, it did have historical information and very detailed descriptions of the trail.

Asking for Directions

The route is generally well waymarked, but I occasionally had to ask for directions to it—especially in the mornings—or ask directions to a gîte d’étape (a small hostel for walkers).

I could ask for the directions easily enough (“Pardon. Savez-vous ou est le gîte d’étape?“). Unfortunately, I couldn’t always understand the answer. In that case, I would walk in the direction the person I talked to pointed in for a while, and then ask someone else. It’s not the most efficient method of getting somewhere, but it worked, especially since the gîtes weren’t usually that far from the walking route.


You don’t actually have to speak French in stores (although a bonjour is friendly), since you can usually select your own items or point to what you want. Of course, if you can’t read the packaging in pharmacies you might have to resort to my Austrian friends’ methods and act out your problem.

The price will either come up in euros on the till, and if it’s a really small place with no till, the shopkeeper will probably write down the amount for you.

Eating Out

If you can’t read the menu and have no one to translate, I would think you could use the age-old travellers’ stand-by of pointing to what’s on someone else’s plate. You could also use my Austrian friends’ method of snorting like a pig, or acting out some other sort of animal.

Booking Accommodation in Advance

I find it’s harder to speak a foreign language on the telephone because there are no visual cues. Nonetheless, I managed to make reservations from payphones or gîte phones a number of times.

When I met other pilgrims with cell phones who were going to the same place as I was, they never minded booking a bed for me, too. Sometimes the hospitalier(e)s offered to phone, too. I would imagine you could ask people to phone by pointing at an entry in a guidebook and miming.

I’ve heard the people at tourist information offices are very helpful about booking rooms, as well, though I never thought to try it. I would think they’d be more likely to speak English than others, but I don’t actually know how much English they tend to speak.

Pilgrims, and Others You Meet Along the Way

When I walked the route (mainly in September), the majority of walkers were retirees from various parts of France. They didn’t speak much English, although the some did try a bit of their school English after I’d known them for a while. The second largest group was French Canadians. The younger ones especially often spoke nearly-fluent English.

Then there was the occasional pilgrim from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or even Asia or beyond, who often—but not always, especially if they were older—spoke good English. I only occasionally met a native English-speaker, and only two of those (out of five that I can think of) were planning to walk the entire route.

It was definitely a relief every time I met people who spoke English, because communication was otherwise a lot of work, especially when I was exhausted from the walking. Meeting native English-speakers was particularly exciting, since that meant I didn’t have to slow down and focus on using simpler words. (Not that I minded doing that at all—after all, the people I was talking to were usually making even more of an effort to speak my language, and spoke it much better than I spoke theirs. It was just nice—and strangely surprising, since I wasn’t used to it any more—to find communication really easy on the six days or so I had a chance to speak with native English-speakers.)

Many nights in gîtes it was me and a bunch of French-as-a-first-language speakers. Some (definitely the minority) of them could speak quite fluent English. But I know I missed out on some really interesting dinner-table discussions because I couldn’t follow the French.

It would have been nice to be able to talk about more things with local people I met along the way, as well. Of course, this might have been tricky even if my French was better, since there are different regional dialects of French spoken in the different regions the Chemin passes through.

Learning As I Walked

I speak enough French to ask where things are and carry out other basic conversations. If the person I’m talking to makes an effort, I can discuss somewhat more involved topics. I didn’t have any problems communicating when I really had to, but it would have been nicer to be more fluent.

I did find that after two weeks or so, the French I did know was becoming second nature. My grammar and vocabulary weren’t wonderful, but I could speak what French I did know without thinking about every word. It was so engrained by the time I got to Spain that I said “Bonjour” to the woman in the tourist information booth at Roncesvalles, and then had to speak with her in French even though she probably spoke good English.

Have I Missed Anything?

I know this isn’t completely comprehensive. If I’ve missed something that you’d like to know about, or if you can contribute information, please leave a comment.

I had a wonderful time on the Chemin du Puy and wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but it would have been even better if I’d spoken better French.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:12 pm
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Where Have All the Yellow Arrows Gone?

I wrote this almost two years ago, about a month after returning home from the Camino.

[Yellow Arrow on a Rock]

One of many yellow arrows, painted by amazing volunteers, along the Camino Francés.

I took one look at my toothbrush the other night and burst into tears.

There was nothing wrong with the toothbrush or anything else in the bathroom. It’s just that I’m still using the toothbrush I used in France and Spain, the toothbrush that accompanied me on a walk of almost twelve weeks along an old pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

I’ve been back in Canada for over a month now. I don’t think about the Camino de Santiago all the time, but I’m reminded of it a lot. I tell some of the Camino stories that spring to mind to my family and friends, sometimes, but they don’t really understand. It’s one of those you-had-to-have-been-there situations.

Other times, when I’m alone, a Camino memory can leave me in tears, as my toothbrush did the other evening.

I miss it. I miss the walking, and the feeling that for the first time in my life my body was capable of doing whatever I asked of it. I miss the friendships: all the interesting, crazy people. I miss being outside all the time. I miss stopping at bars in the mornings for cafe con leches, and in the evening for cheap red wine. I miss waking up and really knowing that I didn’t know what would happen that day—where I would sleep (though I might have had an idea), whom I would meet, what I would see.

I even miss limping up and down stairs (it made me feel like a “real” pilgrim). I even miss dorm rooms.

Most of all, I miss the feeling that I was exactly where I was meant to be at almost every moment of the trip. I miss the intensity of it, the way the colours seemed brighter, the wind stronger, the heat warmer than ever before.

It’s not that it was a perfect journey. I got sick and had a fever for a few days. I was sometimes grumpy and insecure, sometimes lonely, occasionally angry. Sleeping in a dorm room night after night, often with snorers, was enough to drive anyone crazy.

But it never occurred to me not to walk every step between Le Puy-en-Velay in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I never once considered giving up and taking the bus or going home.

And now that I am home, I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

Part of the problem is the arrows, or rather the lack of arrows. Across France, I followed the red and white waymarks of the GR-65. In Spain, these switched to the occasional scallop shell (traditionally associated with the Santiago pilgrimage) and a lot of yellow arrows. Occasionally the route branched and I had a choice between two or three routes. But for the most part, I didn’t have to think too much about it. As long as I saw the occasional arrow, I knew I was on the right track.

After we’d reached Santiago, a Canadian pilgrim-friend talked about becoming a pop singer after returning home. Her first hit single would be Where Have All the Yellow Arrows Gone? Her pop star aspirations were a joke, but the sentiment wasn’t.

I stayed with my parents for a few weeks on my return, and walked a lot. There was a school near their house, with yellow arrows directing cars around the parking lot. I had a strong urge, every time I walked past, to follow the arrows in circles around the lot. I miss the arrows that much.

On the Camino, I’d been looking forward to having my own bed in a room to myself after almost 12 weeks of staying in a different bed almost every night. But in all those beds I’d never woke up disoriented; I always knew exactly where I was. I had my first experience of waking up and wondering where I was in Santiago. I felt the same way for the first few nights back home. I’d wake up in the dark with a panicky feeling that I wasn’t where I belonged.

All of my Camino friends who I’ve been in touch with seem to have experienced something like what I call my reverse culture shock. There are articles and blog entries on the Internet that refer to the post-Camino blues some of us experience. It makes sense, I guess. It was such a huge experience, even for the pilgrims who just walked for a few weeks, and now it’s over. And, as Nancy L. Frey points out, most of us don’t have much help integrating our Camino experiences into “real life.”

I guess we have to do the best we can. I’ve worn my scallop shell earrings almost every day since I returned. I’ve sorted through my photos and shared them with friends through Facebook, and looked at my friends’ Camino photos. I write about the Camino, sometimes.

And then there are the intangibles. A lot of us seem to walk the Camino during a transition period in our lives, or when we want something to change. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I’m not even sure what the next step should be. I haven’t undergone a huge transformation.

But there are little changes, maybe. I do seem to be better at having less privacy, less time alone. Different walking companions have, perhaps, made me a little more patient with people who don’t want to do things on my schedule, with the “right” timing. After living out of a backpack, I appreciate small pleasures like fresh blackberries and washing machines.

I still worry. About jobs. About money. About not being settled. About what to do with my life.

But I’m not quite as afraid as I used to be. My journey, somehow, has made me a little better able to face the uncertainties of life.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:52 pm
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Music from the Camino: Fiddler Oliver Schroer

The late Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer didn’t pack light for his trip along the Camino de Santiago in 2004. In his backpack, among a minimum of clothes and other essentials, he carried his fiddle—”… like a wooden chalice, like my own precious relic…,” as he describes it in the liner notes to his resulting album—and a portable recording studio.

He recorded himself fiddling in churches and cathedrals as he and three others walked 1,000 kilometres along part of the Chemin du Puy and all of the Camino Frances. Sometimes he was thrown out of a church after a few seconds of playing. Sometimes he stayed for hours.

His beautiful album, Camino, is the result of that playing. It mixes Schroer’s original compositions—some of them improvised on the spot—with Camino sounds like cowbells and pilgrims walking.

An Introduction to the Journey

In the following mini-documentary, Oliver Schroer gives his own introduction to his Camino experience and the album. The video also features one of his pieces from the album, and shows some of Peter Coffman’s photos, which also fill Camino‘s CD booklet.

The Music

The music is magical. Haunting. Gorgeous.

See—or rather, listen—for yourself.

The CD Booklet

You can buy the songs from Camino individually on iTunes. Don’t do it. The CD booklet alone is worth the price of the full album.

It has Peter Coffman’s beautiful photos, for one thing.

The writing, by Coffman and Schroer, is also gorgeous. It’s like a poem, changing from English to French to Spanish and back to English in the same sentence. There are also smatterings of German and Dutch.

Schroer’s part of the liner notes tell the story of his Camino and the music he made while walking it. Coffman writes about the Camino’s historical background, the experience of walking, and the music he heard Schroer play.

The Ending

Oliver Schroer died of leukemia in July 2008, some 18 months after he found out he had cancer. Even after his diagnosis, he continued to record and perform. His final concert, aptly named Oliver’s Last Concert on His Tour of the Planet, took place a month before his death.

I read about his dying about a month before I set off on my own Camino. It’s a hard thing to forget—not because it was terrible but because, like Schroer’s music, it had a haunting beauty.

You can buy Oliver Schroer’s Camino through Borealis Records or His Camino journal tells the story of his pilgrimage as he walked.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:48 pm
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The Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés: Similarities and Differences

Along the Chemin du Puy

The Chemin du Puy, starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, is the most popular of the Camino de Santiago routes across France. It joins up with the Camino Francés, the most popular route in Spain, at Saint-Jean-Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

I walked the whole route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in 2008. I really enjoyed both routes, though in some ways they were quite different.

This isn’t intended as a judgment of either route. It’s just meant to give you an idea of the differences between the two so you can decide which to take, or, if you’ve already walked one, you can decide if the other is something you might like to do.

It’s all based on my experiences, and of course yours might be quite different.

The Cost

France was definitely more expensive than Spain. In France (remember this was in 2008), dorm accommodation (in gîtes d’étape) generally cost between 7 and 15 Euros. In Spain, the refugios were usually 3 to 7 Euros.

Dorm Accommodation

The gîtes in France might have been more expensive, but they were also generally nicer than the refugios in Spain. Dorm rooms were usually smaller in the gîtes, there were sometimes single beds instead of bunk beds, and the bunk beds were never shoved together so people had to sleep right next to strangers, as in some cases in Spain.

Also, the gîtes rarely had a time when walkers had to leave (and it was around 10:30 a.m. in the one I can think of that did), while many refugios expected pilgrims to be out by 8 a.m.

Eating and Supplies

[Santiago Cake]

A Delicious Galician Treat: Santiago Cake

In both places, many shops closed for siestas or long lunches. I am convinced there is no single time in Spain when every single shop is open, but I actually found France more difficult in terms of getting supplies. Some shops and bakeries were closed on Sundays, and others on Mondays, or even Thursdays. On the days they were open, they might open for a few hours in the morning, and then close until 5 in the evening. Sometimes they were open Sunday mornings, but closed in the afternoons.

I didn’t actually eat out in France, but I did sometimes get demi-pension at private gîtes, which included a bed in the dorm room, a four-course dinner and a breakfast (usually bread, butter and an assortment of jams and hot drinks). This usually cost 25 to 30 Euros and was always excellent.

In Spain, I sometimes had dinner at a bar (which is like a combination café/pub). The menu de peregrino (pilgrim’s menu) also usually included four courses, but the food wasn’t usually as good as that in France.

In both places, many of the gîtes/refugios had kitchens where walkers could prepare their own meals. In Galicia, however—though this might have changed—many of them didn’t have pots and pans.

Other Walkers/Pilgrims

On the Chemin du Puy, when I was there in September, the vast majority of the walkers were French retirees who were walking for about two weeks (many planned to do the entire route over the course of three years). Many of them saw themselves more as walkers than pilgrims, and only a small number planned eventually to walk to Santiago.

There were also a number of Canadians of all ages from Quebec, and the occasional German, Swiss, Belgian or Dutch walker, many of whom had walked from their own countries.

On the Camino Francés, more people saw themselves as pilgrims, and many were walking the entire route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. The route was much more international, with pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, and North America, and a few from other parts of the world.

Local Welcome

In general, I found locals quite friendly on both routes. They were always helpful when I had to ask for directions in my mangled French or Spanish, or bought supplies.

Along the Chemin du Puy, there were a number of yards with signs where people left out drinks—and in one case tomatoes—available to pilgrims by donation. Especially closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, there were also a lot of pilgrim decorations in private yards to encourage us on.

My only bad experiences on the Camino Francés were in Castilla y León. Three times—once alone, and twice when I was walking with a female friend—I had men expose themselves to me. I never felt like I was in any danger, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. My friend and I also had a guy call us bad names as we waited to cross the highway into León.


On both routes, it was helpful to know some of the local language, since many of the locals don’t speak English.

On the Chemin du Puy, I found French was also necessary for talking with the majority of the other pilgrims. On the Camino Francés, on the other hand, a lot of the pilgrims spoke reasonable English or were travelling with someone who could translate.

The Routes

[The Camino in October]

Along the Camino Francés

Both routes were a mix of big cities and villages; hiking paths, country roads, and highways; forests, farms and urban centres.

The Le Puy route was a tougher walk. The first two-thirds or so had a lot of steep ascents and descents, since most of the route was high up, but the towns were generally in valleys. The views were spectacular. Around Moissac it got quite flat, but the views weren’t as incredible. At the right time of year, the vast fields of sunflowers would be pretty amazing, though. Closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Pyrenees foothills, the terrain got more difficult (though not nearly as hard as closer to Le Puy) and the views quite wonderful.

I could be wrong about this, but I suspect the Chemin du Puy had more parts where I had to walk right on a highway. I think the Camino Francés involved more highway walking overall, though—it’s just that much of it was on a special senda del peregrino, which was basically a paved sidewalk next to the highway.

The Camino Francés had some difficult ascents and descents that were worthy of the Chemin du Puy, but not nearly as many. There were a number of absolutely beautiful parts, particularly at the beginning and end of the route. The big cities were generally larger and more industrial than the big cities on the Chemin du Puy.

To compare the elevation profiles of the routes (which give you an overview of the ascents and descents), visit the Camino Planner.

Garbage and Graffiti

There was almost no garbage or graffiti along the Chemin du Puy, apart from the occasional toilet paper patch.

Garbage was—and I suspect still is—a real problem on the Camino Francés route. It also seemed that every region I walked through wanted to separate from Spain, and the vast amounts of graffiti on parts of the route reflected that.


[Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés]

Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés

The Chemin du Puy is waymarked as any other GR (long-distance route in France) with red and white marks on trees, fences, signs, and just about anywhere else. In some regions, there are signs giving the distance to nearby towns, or to Santiago. It’s marked so you can walk it in both directions. (Embarrassingly, this was actually a problem for me one day when I somehow got turned around and walked a few kilometres in the wrong direction.)

The Camino Francés is waymarked in one direction with yellow arrows, scallop shells, and other pilgrim signs.

On both routes, I found the waymarking quite good, though on each there were a few spots where it was relatively easy to get lost.

Churches and Cathedrals

Many of the churches along the Chemin du Puy were open for pilgrims to pray, escape from rain and heat, light a candle, and/or pray. There was never an entrance fee to the cathedrals.

On the Camino Francés, churches were often locked, and there was usually an entrance fee to see parts, or even all, of cathedrals. Instead of real candles and a donation box (as in France), there was usually a machine where, if you put a coin in a slot, a bulb lit up on a candle.

The Routes’ Ends

There’s something incredible about arriving in Santiago de Compostela—a pilgrimage destination for so many centuries. For me, anyway, arriving in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending a journey there couldn’t match entering the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:52 am
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My Camino Angels

I figure we all meet at least one angel on the Camino. It’s not necessarily dramatic. The angel might be the pharmacist-pilgrim who turns up with painkillers two minutes after you’ve hurt your leg, or a local who gives you water when you desperately need it.

The Camino angels I remember best were a group of retired French siblings who rescued me one day on the Chemin du Puy.

The day started off badly. I was in a terrible mood that morning, as I got ready to leave a rural gîte d’étape (hostel for walkers). Part of it was because my walking companion of the last week and a half was about to go home to Belgium, leaving me alone. And then I was planning to stay at a tiny gîte with only seven beds that night. It was in Uzan, which I thought was basically in the middle of nowhere. And despite several phone calls, I couldn’t get through to the owners to confirm my reservation.

I was at my most neurotic that day. What, I worried, would happen if I ended up in this tiny town and the gîte was closed or full?

And then my friend seemed to take forever to get ready. I wondered if I’d even make it to the gîte before dark, and checked my flashlight just in case. It had burned out, leaving me even more paranoid, since I was now convinced I wouldn’t make it to Uzan before dark.

It was one of those mornings when you walk and walk and walk, but hardly seem to make any progress.

And then there was the rain, which started up soon after we got underway. It was the first serious rain I’d experienced so far, more than a month into my pilgrimage. And so, for the first time, I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t completely waterproof. So I was wet and frozen by the time we reached Arzacq-Arraziguet around lunchtime, only 8.5 kilometres beyond the farm where we’d spent the night. I still had about 16 kilometres to go.

With some help from my French-speaking friend, I found a headlamp in Arzacq, solving one of my problems. But, as we made our way to the gîte where she would spend the night before going home, my cold and miserable brain came up with new, increasingly irrational, scenarios. Even if I found a place to spend the night, things could get worse. What if it rained the rest of the way to Santiago? It was already the beginning of October. With my imperfect jacket, I would probably freeze to death.

There was no one around at the Arzacq gîte, so my friend and I settled down in the kitchen. I changed out of my wet clothes, and felt a little better. We went out to find a public phone and tried calling the Uzan gîte yet again. Still no response.

When we returned to the gîte kitchen to eat lunch, I suddenly realized I’d dug through my entire backpack in search of dry clothes and hadn’t seen my new headlamp.

I took everything out of my pack again. No headlamp. I looked in all the pockets, though I knew I hadn’t put it in them. It wasn’t there. I looked all around on the chair and the floor. Still no headlamp.

By this time, I was in a panic. And then finally, somehow, I thought to look at the inside of the top of my pack. The headlamp had got stuck there. I picked it up, tried out its lights—they still worked!—and put it down on top of my jacket.

A few minutes later, I grabbed the jacket, knocking the headlamp to the floor. I tried turning it on again. Nothing happened.

It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my current state, it felt like it. Although my friend was still there, she wasn’t going to continue with me, so I felt utterly alone with my problems.

That was when my angels came in: a group of four retired French siblings—three men and a woman—who had stayed at the same gîte as we had the night before. They were each taking a turn driving, while the other three walked. One of them looked the perfect French gentleman but spoke English with a British accent, and even used words like “chap.”

They noticed I was close to tears, and asked what was wrong. I told them about the headlamp. One of the brothers figured out how to open it up, and got the batteries back in properly so it worked again.

Then my friend explained about my problem getting hold of the gîte in Uzan. Immediately, the sister offered to drive me to Uzan to make sure all was well.

They must have gathered I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea (I didn’t like the thought of paying a lightning-fast visit to the place I’d then walk for hours to reach). So the same man who’d fixed my headlamp looked in the phonebook, found the number of someone with the same last name as the gîte-owners, and called them up. The person on the other end of the phone said there was no problem—the gîte was open, and even if it was full, his uncle and aunt, who owned it, would find me another place to stay.

And just like that, everything was all right again. Better than all right, even—not only, or even not primarily because I had a working light and a definite place to stay, but because of the way these four strangers had helped me.

I didn’t get their address. I never even learned their names, or got a picture of them. I hope they’re doing well. I hope they’re happy. Two years later, I still think about them sometimes, and their unhesitating kindness to a stranger.

Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:16 pm
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