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.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 3:51 pm
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3 Responses to Chemin to Camino Culture Shock

  1. Tom Iacobelli says:

    I have just returned home from walking Le puy, France to Santiago and then walking the”Eye of God”, Muxia, Fisterra and back to Santiago on 11-11-11. I’m having some very emotinal moments now that I’m back home. Flashbacks about all the relationships that I had been honored to be a part of and the experiences that were shared. So much back home seems insignificant’ and I’m feeling somewhat out of place in this old life that I’ve come back to. How did you reintergrate whaen you came back? How do you process that whole experience of the Camino and the feelings and emotions that bubble up and overflow at times. I just bust into tears when I think about some of the fellow pilgrims and our experiences together. I miss them so much. I would appreciate any thoughts or advice you could give to me.. In Gratitude …..Tom

    • Anna-Marie says:

      It’s hard, coming home. I wrote a bit about it a while ago. I think it’s mostly a matter of time … and if you can find a way to integrate your experiences back into “real life,” that helps too.

  2. Joseph says:

    Another great post, Anna-Marie. Occasionally I have flashbacks to some wonderful (or difficult) moments on the Chemin du Puy/Camino Francés. Transitioning is tough, as the people around me now didn’t share my experiences. Also, daily hiking is just not part of life in the western world.
    You said it so well. Getting to St.-Jean Pied-de-Port was just the halfway mark, but to so many it was the start. It was a bit intimidating leaving from Roncesvalles at the crack of dawn with 500 other pilgrims. It was kind of like a shotgun start for the New York City Marathon! It was so unlike the tranquil days in France, where I could walk by myself and commune with nature, and in some cases not see another pilgrim the whole day through (although that had its drawbacks).