Tag Archives: Language

The Chemin du Puy with No French: Agnes Chun


Agnes

Agnes Chun, relaxing in a gîte d'étape after a long day's walk.

A lot of pilgrims on the Camino Francés speak very little Spanish, but it’s harder to get by on the Chemin du Puy with only a few words of French. It’s even more difficult when your first language isn’t English.

But my Korean pilgrim friend Hyun-Jung (Agnes) Chun managed it, when she walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in autumn 2008.

Earlier this month, Agnes kindly agreed to answer my questions about her journey on the Chemin du Puy.

Anna-Marie: Was it very difficult walking in France without speaking French?

Agnes: As you know, I only know few French words. I can’t even make any French sentences. However it worked to survive there.

We can live there carrying just a 10kg rucksack, and language is exactly like belongings. The key is in our sincere heart to communicate. Of course if I could speak French, I’d have had richer experiences definitely. But the conclusion is never changed. It’s difficult but it’s not difficult to walk in France.

How did you communicate with hospitalier(e)s, shopkeepers, and other people you really needed to communicate with?

I listed just a few words to say what I needed. Sometimes I drew a picture or used my body when I had no idea of the French words. But I was not nervous about communicating with them because I met people who could translate for me whenever I need them.

How did you ask for directions?

In France, the way marking is very clear. Just followed red and white lines. But I lost the direction just one time in Pomps. I could not find any way marks or pilgrims. I was almost in a panic. It was an even worse situation when there was no one who could speak English. I met several old men who worked in the wheat field but they barely understood me.

Finally I showed them the shell on my backpack and shouted “Compostelle! Compostelle!” And then they pointed their fingers in the right direction.

Did you reserve your bed in gîtes d’etapes in advance? How?

Mostly I reserved beds in advance. I took my cell phone for reserving accommodation. Speaking on the phone was more difficult than “face to face,” but they could understand. For example, I just said like this: “Une pèlerine, demain, réservation!” It’s really ridiculous, but I didn’t have any other choices.

Sometimes I asked other pilgrims who could speak French to help, but otherwise I always said the above. But one of my friends told me the tourist office could make a reservation for pilgrims.

Did you meet many people you could speak English or Korean with?

Well… I’ve never met a Korean speaker in France. Koreans usually walk only the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. (But I met only five Koreans even in Spain!) It’s not difficult to find English speakers in France. Most pilgrims could speak English, especially the Germans, the Belgians and the Dutch. But I was sorry that I could not chat with locals.

Was it lonely often being surrounded by French speakers?

After dinner the “French Talking” started in the gîtes every night. For the first few days I tried to stay at the “French Talking table” but it was very stressful. For me, “English talking” is also very difficult… (English is a foreign language to me.) Oh God, French talking? Haha. Loneliness was the second matter.

A funny situation occurred in Spain. I had very close German friends in Spain. One night, there were eight Germans and the only Korean: me. We started to talk in English at first, but the main language changed to German. After an hour, I was a stranger again.

Would you recommend the Le Puy route to others who can’t speak French?

Sure. You should not miss a big and powerful present due to a very small obstacle. Don’t be a fool.

What was the most difficult thing about walking the Le Puy route?

It was a physical matter. Before walking the Camino, I’d walked less than five minutes a day during last seven years. I exercised for one month before leaving Korea, but it’s not enough to walk around 20 km per day.

I felt it would be impossible to finish this walking during the first few days. Stomachache, heartache, blisters, ankle pain and back pains… But I realized that it wasn’t only my own problem but it was the same for all others. I asked my friend who started from his door in Munich, Germany where the most difficult part of the whole way to walk was. His answer was “from Le Puy to Conques.” But don’t panic, it gets easier to walk. I am not sure if it’s for geographical reasons or because my body adapted.

[Cows in the Aubrac]

Cows in the Aubrac, along the Chemin du Puy.

What was the best part?

I think every moment, every single place and even my tears on the road were magnificent presents for my life. However, if I had just a couple of days to walk on the Le Puy route, I’d like to choose the Aubrac region. As I mentioned above, it’s a really hard course but it deserves to be walked again.

But I don’t want to meet the giant cows. I’m scared of them.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I met a French guy in Nogaro. He could not speak English but he was try to tell me something. In my understanding, he criticized my poor French. He said I would never understand their lives, their history or themselves because I could not speak French. He spoke in a very bad manner so my friends yelled at him in French, but I couldn’t help agreeing with him partly. If I spoke French better, I could communicate with French speakers, especially locals, and then get a broad and wide knowledge and experience. It’s irrefutable truth.

However, language is just a means and the open heart can get over all the language issues. My experience prove this….

* * *

You can read more about Agnes’s experiences in her blog. She hasn’t gotten around to translating it in to English yet, so you’ll need to either be able to read Korean or use an internet translator.


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Chemin to Camino Culture Shock


[Saint-Jean Sign]

A sign that told me I was a few hours from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

I went out for a walk today and just wanted to keep walking. I suppose I could have done it, too, but eventually I would have had to turn around. Walking around home is fine—I try to do it every day—but it’s not exactly the same as being on the Camino.

So I was feeling a little melancholy as I headed home, and I guess that’s why I started thinking about the transition between walking the Chemin du Puy in France and the Camino Francés in Spain. Mentally, it ended up being one of the most difficult parts of my journey.

Before I started walking, I basically saw the Chemin du Puy as an extension of the Camino Francés, which I’d read so much about I thought of as the real Camino. I walked from Le Puy because the 780 or so kilometres from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port didn’t seem like far enough.

Of course, all that had changed by the time I actually reached Spain. After almost six weeks in France, I appreciated the Chemin in its own right.

My last few days in France were particularly wonderful. I met some great people, and began, more or less, to leap small hills in a single bound. But I was still excited to reach Saint-Jean. I didn’t see it as the real start of my Camino any more, but I knew it would mark the beginning of something new.

What I’d forgotten was how difficult transitions can be. On the Chemin du Puy by the end of September, the fairly large number of walkers had slowed to a trickle. But crossing the Pyrenees, I was suddenly surrounded by pilgrim hordes, so many that it was hard to talk to any one person.

And there were so many other contrasts between the Chemin in France and the Camino in Spain. In retrospect, I can’t say I preferred one of the other, but rather enjoyed them both—sometimes in different ways. But for a few days after starting the Camino Francés, I really missed France.

I missed the cleanliness and the beautiful gîtes d’étapes that didn’t make me sleep right next to strangers. I missed the open churches where I used to stop and think. I missed the red and white waymarks of the GR-65 and rather resented the yellow arrows that had replaced them.

And it seemed like I had just grown used to speaking French when I had to make the transition to Spanish. My second night in Spain, I wrote:

My speaking is a mess. I try to speak Spanish, I know I know the words, but French comes out. I hadn’t realized how … not fluent, but at least how used to French I’d become…. I speak in this weird mélange that more or less works for now, but I have to train myself to automatically say “gracias” and “si” instead of “merci” and “oui.”

At the time, I’d also lost track of all my Chemin friends (I did catch up to some of them just after Pamplona), and I missed them. On most of the Chemin du Puy, I’d shared a common background with the other walkers, even if we’d never met. Now, I had no one to talk to about past experiences. I couldn’t say, “The Pyrenees weren’t as bad as the road out of Conques,” to the new pilgrims without sounding arrogant and irritating.

It was also strange to be at a different stage of my Camino than most of the people around me. I was at the halfway point, and beginning to really think about the experience and what it had meant so far. Everyone else was just starting out. It was such a relief to have someone to talk to about all this when a Frenchwoman I’d met once on Chemin du Puy walked into the refuge at Zubiri.

Of course, I soon got used to the Camino in Spain, and learned to love it—and its yellow arrows—too. I made more friends, most of whom had started in Saint-Jean, and we soon had a Camino history in common, too.

The biggest culture shock of all came when the Camino ended. The transition from France to Spain was from one part of the Camino to another, but going home meant returning to another world.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:51 pm
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Bon Courage and Buen Camino


[A Pilgrim in France]A few hours out of Le Puy-en-Velay on my first day on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques (Camino de Santiago), a white-haired Frenchman stopped me. We talked—briefly, since my French isn’t very good. And when I set out again, having told him I was walking to Santiago, he said, “Bon courage.”

I tried to translate that in my head, but all I could come up with was “Be of good courage,” which sounded archaic.

I didn’t think about it much then, but by the time I’d been walking through France for a few weeks, I decided English is seriously lacking in encouraging expressions with the word “good” in them. “Good luck” is the only one I can think of. We’ve appropriated “bon voyage” and “bon appétit” from the French, but rarely use them.

In France, when I would stop to eat a picnic lunch along the road, most of the passing walkers wished me bon appétit.

And of course I constantly heard “bon chemin” (the French equivalent of the “buen camino” you hear so often on the Camino in Spain) and “bonne route.” Both literally mean “good road,” but again we don’t have a great English translation. “Happy trails” is the closest I can come up with, and that sounds corny. “Have a good trip” sort of works, but it’s more general and doesn’t sound as good.

Maybe the solution to the lack in our language is to adopt more French sayings. And of course pilgrims to Santiago have already adopted “buen camino.” It really is easier to wish each other well, especially on vast undertakings like walking pilgrimages, when we have good words to do it with.


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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.

Guidebooks

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.

Stores

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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