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.
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….
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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.