Monday, November 17, 2008

The Occupied Garden: a pilgrimage to one family's past

There are pilgrimages and there are pilgrimages. Some are vast, religion or state-supported affairs that draw tides of humanity. Others are quiet, personal voyages. The pilgrimage of Canadian sisters and authors Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski is of the latter sort, a journey into letters, archives, and family memories in search of the lives of their grandparents' and their father's generations in the years leading up to and during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Rich yet scrupulous in detail, The Occupied Garden recovers the life of an ordinary family living in extraordinary times, times when feeding a family was a struggle, and living by precepts of integrity and human decency required daily acts of heroism. Like any true pilgrimage, it is both a return to the familiar and a discovery of things new and strange, as the iconic figures of opa and oma (grandpa and grandma) become again what they once were: young lovers and, later, parents with huge decisions to make.

I had the pleasure of hearing Kristen speak about her book this fall at a fund-raiser organized by Toronto-area editor and writer Allyson Latta, who happened to be one of the early readers of All the Good Pilgrims. Allyson leads memoir-writing worshops, so it was fitting that all proceeds went to Alzheimer's research; the evening was devoted in every way to the preservation of memory.

For anyone looking to write about their Camino experience, a writers' workshop is not a bad place to start. To learn more about Allyson's, go to

Sunday, November 2, 2008

five glorious walks on the camino de santiago

People ask me - often in solicitous tones - why I keep coming back to the Camino de Santiago, or more precisely, to the Camino Frances, the great pilgrim trunk-road that runs from the Spanish Pyrenees west across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. "You're in a rut," the questioners seem to imply. "It's a big world, there are other experiences to be had, other roads to walk. Why this one... again?"

What do I tell them? Follow this link to find out...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Peter Coffman website

Just a quick update to let everyone know that Peter Coffman's long-awaited website is finally up! Aaaaaaand it was worth waiting for. Peter, of course, is the talented fellow who walked to Santiago with his friend, the late, lamented Oliver Schroer, and provided the award-winning photography for Oliver's Camino album. At, you'll find Peter's classy black-and-white Camino shots (disclaimer: I have a great big copy of "Route Napoleon," the cover photo of Camino, hanging in my living room), as well as a gallery of architectural beauties, ranging from Delphi to the Robarts Library. Feast your eyes!

Oops! Stop the presses. I just paid a visit to Oliver Schroer's site looking for the Camino cover photo and discovered a whole new gallery of photos by Angela Browne from Oliver Schroer's final concert, performed at Trinity-St. Paul's United Church, Toronto, June 8th -- including this one of Peter Coffman.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

luisa rubines - de oca a oca

Speaking of talented photographers, I was pleasantly surprised last week to discover a Luisa Rubines website up and running.

I met Luisa on my 2003 Camino. In All the Good Pilgrims, I described her as "a tornado with ringlets, an angular, intense young Galician woman, always halfway to somewhere." At that time, she was taking pictures for an exhibition on the theme of the esoteric Camino; more specifically, on el
juego de la oca, "the Goose Game," the popular European children's board game (ancestor of our Snakes and Ladders) with roots in the Renaissance, which many see as an allegory for the pilgrimage to Santiago. Fittingly, we first met up in Logrono, where each of us was conducting our own inquiry into the life-size Goose Game that is laid down in stone in the plaza of the church of Santiago. We kept bumping into each other (it might be more accurate to say, "Luisa kept whizzing by me") all the way to Castrojeriz, where I hung up my walking shoes for that year.

When I reached Santiago in October 2004, Luisa's exhibition - De oca a oca polo Camino de Santiago - was on at the Museum of Pilgrimages. The 63 photos, displayed back-lit in the darkened gallery, presented the Camino as a magical and mystical journey of personal transformation. In the penultimate photo, just before the pilgrim/goose is reborn as a swan, the pilgrim/photographer leaves behind the bonfire of her old self and wades naked into the ocean at Finisterre to be born again. Leavening the seriousness of the theme were the king-size dice and the spiralling labyrinth of el juego de la oca on the gallery floor, which extended a playful invitation to the viewer to join the game.

The exhibition was a joy. I looked forward to following the trajectory of Luisa's career, even if from across an ocean. Yet when I started writing my book and went looking for her on the Web, I found that her old site was out of service. All the matches turned up by my Google searches turned into dead ends. (Ah, our wanderings in the labyrinth of the Internet!) From time to time, over the past three years, I have sent out Google search parties, but never with any results.

And then last week, I decided to give her one more Google and opa! There she was! With only 8 Camino photos, her website is not as generously illustrated as one would hope. But there is a capture of Luisa's complete juego de la oca gameboard, as well as samples of her other work - colourful images of Cuba, dire photos of the homeless children of Mexico's slums, and a black-and-white gallery entitled Galicia profunda - "deepest, darkest Galicia"...

I'll send this to Luisa. With luck she'll get back to me with some explanation of where she's been hiding - and what's coming up next.

Friday, September 19, 2008

small is beautiful: the camino as seen through a pinhole

Here's a project for a brave photographer: shooting pilgrims' feet.
That's what Canadian visual artist Melinda Mollineaux did when she reached the end of the Camino this May. The results were on display recently at Ottawa's La Petite Mort gallery.

Mollineaux says:

"I photographed the soles of pilgrims' feet in the Plaza de Obradoiro as we arrived in Santiago, the final destination of the pilgrimage. These photos were very special to take; they were like prayers as I knelt in front of each person, with a kind of joy, waiting as the light reflected off their feet into my camera. I spent those few seconds in awe of the fullness of a life's journey in each person - beautiful, tired and radiant - in front of me. If only we would daily approach everyone we meet like that."

What makes Mollineaux's images of the Camino unlike any you have seen before is that they are pinhole images shot with used and discarded cameras
(Pinhole cameras? takes me back to junior high physics class!) The colour images are painterly, the black-and-whites spectral, seeming to recall a lost time. I've taken the liberty of reproducing a couple of them here. There are lots more on Melinda's blog, Beauty is really good. Just look under the entry for September 8th and click on the "Small is Beautiful" slide show. There are some lovely "conventional" pictures of the Camino as well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

oliver schroer 1956-2008

July 3rd saw the passing of Oliver Schroer, the admired Canadian musician and composer whose unique gift back to Saint James' Way was the stunning Camino CD, a collection of original compositions recorded in churches along the way to Santiago, and mixed in with the ambient sounds of the pilgrimage. I was very fortunate to see Oliver's last show June 6th, four weeks before his death. Performed at Toronto's Trinity Saint Paul's Church and billed (with characteristically mordant humour) "Oliver's Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet," it was a generous two-and-a-half hours of music, mostly solo, a remarkable feat of bravura and stamina for a man near the end of a protracted fight with leukemia - really the show of a lifetime.

Oliver was a tremendous catalyst in Canadian music, as the "Olifiddle" benefit concerts held for him at Hugh's Room during the past year made evident. I attended two of the evenings last summer, where musicians from all over Canada delivered their testimonials to the influence Oliver had had on their lives, careers and musical styles. There was every sort of musician present, but above all, the evenings belonged to the fiddlers. I would never have guessed the wealth of fiddle talent that exists in this country.

And the fiddlers were in evidence at Oliver's final show as well, not only on stage but in the audience. During the first encore, "A Song for All Seasons" from his Hymns and Hers album (recorded during his sickness), a dozen or so of Oliver's students who had flown in from BC went strolling through the auditorium, serenading the audience as they accompanied Oliver. Even when the concert was over, it wasn't over. My wife and I lingered another fifteen minutes at the doors of the church to hear a lively impromptu concert (in Oliver's coined term, "a random act of violins") delivered by these same young artists. It wrapped up a deeply sad and joyous evening.

Oliver's memory is not fading anytime soon. His youth corps, The Twisted String, are forging ahead under the management of Oliver protegees Emilyn Stam and Chelsea Sleep (not to mention terrorizing the Toronto subway system - see the YouTube video), as is Oliver's old band, the Stewed Tomatoes, with Jaron Freeman-Fox - whose sly and sprited duet with Oliver was one of the sensations of the concert - taking over the fiddle duties from the master.

And on the Camino side of things, Peter Coffman, Oliver's walking companion, who was on hand for the original recordings and took the powerful black-and-white photographs used in the CD booklet, has a book of his Camino photography coming out next year with Ottawa publisher Novalis. Perfect material, along with Oliver's music and a glass or two of tinto, to stir memories of the long walk to the west that binds us all together.

Photo credit: Peter Coffman (whose website has now been under construction for nearly as long as Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

ward on the street!

So just in case you thought I was bluffing, here I am at my "stall" at last Sunday's Festival on Bloor. Yes, I'll do anything to sell a book or two - which was approximately how many I did sell that day - but it was well worth it to spend a few summery hours chatting up passersby with sexy pick-up lines like, "Can I interest you in a book about a long walk?"

Of those who didn't just pass by but stopped to talk, five had done the Camino and a good many others had an aunt/ friend/ co-worker/ significant other who was about to do it / had just done it / was doing it right now. Oh yes, Camino fever is spreading.

And maybe even getting out of hand. Reports from Spain indicate record pilgrim numbers this spring and a lot of unseemly sparring for beds in refuges. Much of the pilgrim deluge seems to originate in Germany, where popular comedian Hape Kerkeling's account of walking the Camino topped the bestseller lists last year.

"Hmmmmmm," I muse. "Maybe with a few more efforts like my Festival on Bloor appearance, the next great torrent of pilgrims will be Canadians, every one of them with a copy of All the Good Pilgrims in their hands." Or maybe I've just been in the sun too long...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

rhythm number three: the rhythm of solitude and society

"Its doors (are) open to sick and well, to Catholics as well as to pagans, Jews, heretics, beggars, and the indigent, and it embraces all like brothers."

The words of the 12th century hymn (quoted here from Gitlitz and Davidson's masterly cultural handbook) refer to the Hospital of Roncesvalles, but they could equally be applied to the Camino today. For while the Camino gives us wonderful opportunities to be alone, the chances it offers us to meet people are unparalleled. The pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago are women and men, very young and very old and every age in between, of every nationality, profession and culture. They run the religious spectrum from devout Catholics to committed atheists with a generous sprinkling of pagans, Jews and heretics.

Many of these people, if we passed them on the street or sat next to them on the subway, we would never talk to. Our thought would be, "We have nothing in common." But on the Camino, you do have something in common. You are walking in the same direction, on the same road, to the same destination, sharing the same bars and shade trees and shelters along the way. And because you are walking, there is plenty of time to talk.

On a perfect day on the Camino, the three rhythms come together. There is the gentle, constant rhythm of walking, the
solitude of the between-spaces, and then a reunion and a celebration as we reach the next town with its bar or fountain, where already pilgrims are meeting and laughing over the usual talk of distances, heat and blisters. We can pass through with a smile, or stay to enjoy the company, and maybe leave with a new walking partner. On the Camino, we are only as alone as we want to be. It lets us measure out and balance our desire for solitude with our desire that our journey be shared.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

rhythm number two: the rhythm of human settlement

I'm back from the west coast to grey old Toronto, where the snow is still mounded up on the lawns and the streetsides. BC was very good to me. The pilgrim gatherings were wonderful and more than 200 people turned out for my three public library readings. (My sister was pretty good to me too, driving me all over town.) I just wish I could have brought home some of those daffodils and cherry blossoms.

The second vital rhythm of the Camino de Santiago is the rhythm of human settlement. There is little continuous settlement on the Camino, or in most of Spain. Instead, there is a village, a town, a city, surrounded by a great emptiness. Human settlements, especially in the early parts of the Camino, are like pearls
loosely strung on a necklace.

This rhythm of habitation and emptiness derives in part from Spain's history. In the old days of chronic warfare and raiding, people sought safety in numbers, going out to their fields by day, huddling together at night. It is also a natural consequence of Spain's dryness: where there is a well, people congregate. The resulting landscape impacts strongly upon the walker's experience of the Camino.

Why? Because of course the places I have described as "emptinesses" are nothing of the sort. They are full of space and sky and wind and wheat. They are places that invite the mind and spirit to expand and soar; or, conversely, to feel their meagerness in the face of nature (or "creation" for those who see it that way). They are wonderful places to be alone, places where you can set your eyes on a distant horizon, fall into the rhythm of your walk and let your thoughts run free. (I think of the walk from Puente la Reina, or the Sierra de Atapuerca before Burgos, or between Rabe de las Calzadas and Castrojeriz, or over the Paramo de Leon to Villar de Mazarife...)

And at intervals along this lonely, peaceful way there are human settlements. Compact little boroughs where life is lived in the streets, and the plaza with its fountain is the community living room and the pilgrim rendezvous point.

Which brings me to the third rhythm of the Camino...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

rhythm number one: the rhythm of walking

Along with our heartbeat and our breathing, it's the most basic rhythm we have. The rhythm of walking. Ages ago our ancestors traipsed out of Africa and populated most of this planet (for better or for worse) on foot, a step at a time.

Up as far as the Arctic Circle, out across Asia, south to Australia, over the Bering land bridge and all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. (As I write this I think of that urge so many of share to keep on going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, where we finally feel there is nowhere left to go.) Walking defines us. We are the creature who goes on two legs in the afternoon, and the agreed-on signs that we have joined the human club are our first steps and our first words.

Yet because of the life we live today, many of us have lost, or have hardly ever known, the rhythm of walking. City life disrupts natural rhythms and imposes unnatural ones. We navigate crowded sidewalks, stop and go at traffic lights, pop into and out of buildings, vehicles and elevators, bounce and jerk around on our feet like ball bearings in a life-sized pinball game. How many of us have exercised our great human legacy - of waking and walking, and then waking and walking again, and so on day by day in the direction of the horizon till we get to wherever it is our feet want to carry us?

One of the beauties of the Camino is that it offers us the chance to find the rhythm of our walk (for each of us has our own), and the pace that is right for us, and then to live by that rhythm of step by step day in and day out for a few precious weeks.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

the rhythms of the camino

What are the rhythms of the Camino?

When I tried to prepare an answer to this question on the ferry to Victoria, the first thing that came to mind was the rhythm of a pilgrim's day, the waking and walking and eating and sleeping and waking and walking and.... Though, thinking back, I had to admit that I never established much in the way of daily rhythms for myself. This was not for lack of trying, I was always saying "Today I'll do this and tomorrow I'll do that." It was just the Camino always tripped me up.

Take the waking as an example. There were mornings, a very few, when I woke all by myself at the hour of my body's choosing, days when I "took my waking slow." But most mornings I had help waking up. Sometimes it was from the hospitalero: the old "inspirational music at 6:30" routine. Sometimes it was from roosters or church bells. But mostly it was from some fellow pilgrim up long before dawn's first light to prepare his or her pack.

The early riser (and I'm talking 4:30 or 5 o'clock) invariably possesses a vast number of items, each wrapped in its own crinkly plastic bag. He wears a headband with a little miner's torch clipped to the front, which keeps flashing in my swollen eyes. As I lie paralyzed, he removes each of his items e v e r s o s l o w l y from its crinkly plastic and lays it on the bed. When they are all spread out before him, he examines them by torch light (I imagine him whispering "My precioussss.") Then he wraps each one up again s l o w l y s l o w l y and puts them all back in his pack.

Why does he do this? I don't know why he does this. But he does. And the rhythm of waking is shot.

Or what about that morning when I was wakened by a flashlight in my face. A man was standing beside my bunk, whispering, "Cinq, cinq," while he flashed the number five with his fingers. I went through some pretty lurid scenarios before I figured out that he had simply mistaken me for a member of his group and was telling me it was five o'clock and time to get up. There was no getting back to sleep after that.

When I think of my other attempts to establish daily rhythms - walking a certain distance in the mornings, arriving by a certain time, drinking only half that bottle of wine that came with supper, etc. - I reach the same conclusion. That, for me at least, trying to dictate terms to the Camino was largely a waste of time. I got more out of the Camino when I let it have its way with me.

So what "rhythms" was I going to talk about?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

more fun

And it only gets better! Beautiful group tonight at beautiful West Van Memorial Library, where Margaret Mould spoiled me rotten. And hey, is there an ordinance in Vancouver requiring every library to have at least one staff member who has walked the Camino? West Van has two!

I just wish I had more time to talk to people at these events. Please, anyone who didn't get to talk to me, or have a question answered, don't hesitate to e-mail me. Just click on the page that says Contact.

Before the gathering in Victoria, Wendy Loly did me a favour. She asked me to talk about a couple of subjects. i.e. not just to READ from my book, but to TALK. And this required me to THINK. At the time, I didn't feel like she was doing me a favour, I felt like she was subjecting me to a penance. But once I'd got the thinking out of the way and could see the results, I felt a little better about the whole exercise.

So what were Wendy's toughie subjects? Numero uno, scheduled for the first hour of the meeting, was to talk about "the rhythms of the Camino." Ben Cole had thirty-some minutes at the top to address Camino nuts and bolts: the who/what/when/where. In my part of the hour, I was supposed to give a feel for the pilgrim experience.

Question numero dos provided the theme for an afternoon breakout session led by Ben, Mary Virtue and me: Why do the Camino more than once?

Some of the answers I came up with for these questions were pedestrian-and-predictable. Others surprised me. I'll be sharing them in this space over the next little while.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

fun on the west coast

So here I am in Vancouver, barely off the plane, and I've already talked to two pilgrim groups and one public library crowd. Saturday's Victoria gathering offered a full day of Camino info and lore (and a great paella lunch) thanks to the organizational prowess of Wendy Loly and a high-powered team of volunteers.

In Surrey on Sunday (nice ring to that), Leigh Anderson made us feel like we were sitting around his rec-room with his cheery, easygoing style. But the best part of both gatherings was the breaks, when pilgrims and pilgrims-to-be mixed and mingled, sharing advice and stories and wishing each other well on their future big walks. Thanks to everyone for making me welcome, and giving me a chance to escape Toronto's Never-ending Winter of 2008.

Hats off too to Ben Cole, co-author with his partner Bethan Davies of some super guide books and maps of the Camino. His talk on the Via de la Plata almost convinced me that it would be great fun to spend a few weeks walking thirty-five kilometers a day in 45 degree heat. (Or was it forty-five kilometres in 35 degree heat?) Nearly got me, Ben.

And then tonight, a sterling audience of a hundred-or-so on a rainy Monday at Vancouver Public Library. Thank you to librarian and peregrina Janice Douglas. I tell you, I'm likin' this west coast!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Father Jose Maria dies

Last weekend marked the passing of a beloved figure of the Camino de Santiago, Father Jose Maria Alonso Marroquin, 81. For thirty years, the genial, energetic padre welcomed pilgrims to his refuge, housed in the secluded monastery of San Juan de Ortega, warming their stomachs and their spirits with his legendary garlic soup and a rousing chorus of Ultreya, the anthem of the Camino. Father Jose Maria was also a founder of the Burgos Association of Friends of the Camino and worked tirelessly for the restoration of his historic monastery and parish church.

In this beautiful and austere video clip of San Juan de Ortega in winter, taken from the film "Tres por el camino," Father Jose Maria serves up his garlic soup almost as a holy communion. You could say it was.

(Photo: Xose Antonio Vilaboa Barreiro)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

mexico and discovered virgins

Just got back from a few days (too few) in sunny Mexico visiting the gorgeous colonial cities of Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, as well as the capital itself. A natural highlight was the Pena de Bernal (please imagine a tilde over the 'n' in Pena), considered to be the second-largest monolith in the world, and an abundant source of positive energies (or so Michiko assures me). Urban highlights included the laid-back plazas of Queretaro, the patchwork quilt of Guanajuato's houses scattered up and down their ravine, and Mexico City's urban villages of San Angel and Coyoacan.

I intended to call on the Virgin of Guadalupe while in Mexico, but time was short and there was too much else to do and see. Next time. But I did catch a glimpse of the Virgin of Guanajuato. Here is how she is described in the Eyewitness Travel book: "The statue was given to the city by Charles I and Philip II of Spain in 1557. Reputed to date from the 7th century, it is considered the oldest piece of Christian art in Mexico." I didn't even have to see Our Lady to know that there was no way she dated from the 7th century, that she was, in fact, a virgen encontrada - a "discovered Virgin."

There are virgenes encontradas throughout Spain, but they are particularly thick along the Camino de Santiago. Nuestras Senoras de Roncesvalles, del Puy (Estella) and de Valvanera (matron of La Rioja), Santa Maria la Real de Najera, la Virgens del Manzano (Castrojeriz) and de la Encina (Ponferrada) are only a few of the most celebrated. But what are the virgenes encontradas? They are statues of the Virgin and Child (most often seated) that were created for churches of the Camino in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Later, however, a certain legend became attached to many of them.

According to the legend, which varies slightly from place to place, the statues were crafted in the early days of Spanish Christianity, before the Muslim conquests of the eighth century. When the invaders came, the Christians concealed the statues in caves, under the floors of churches, in holy springs and other secret places, before fleeing for the mountains of the north. Four hundred years later, when the Christian tide moved south again, the statues called out from their places of concealment through strange music or lights, mysterious birds or stags, wondrous deeds (the hoof of Saint James' horse splitting a tree trunk to reveal the Virgin concealed within). One way or another, they would call the attention of the returned Christians to let them know, "We are here, waiting for you. Bring us to the light and build us a church."

The tales of the discovered Virgins reveal the profound link between the mother figure, the feminine principle in the Spanish soul, and the earth over which she rules and watches. The holy mother and child rise up from the soil (or the water, or out of the very hearts of trees) as spontaneously and naturally as they rise up within the Iberian religious imagination.

Friday, February 1, 2008

snowy thoughts

It's snowing it's snowing it's snowing in Toronto. Will this never end?

What's it like in Roncesvalles tonight? Are there any brave and slightly mad pilgrims shivering in its great bunker of a refuge? Are the heights of the Camino sunk in snowdrifts?

A 13th century Latin poem about Roncesvalles paints a cozy picture. In the Spanish translation:
Sobre los rigores del tiempo invernal,
El hielo es perpetual, las nieves igual,
El cielo brumoso y el viento glacial,
Tan solo es tranquillo la casa hospital.

Roughly, "Under the rigours of the wintry weather, the ice is perpetual, the snows the same. The sky is cloudy and the wind glacial. The only peaceful place is the Hospital." (Roncesvalles was/is called a "hospital" in the old Latin sense of a place of hospitality.)

In the winter of 1570, Elizabeth of Valois passed through Roncesvalles on her way to marry Philip II of Spain. The royal carriage overturned in the mountain pass and men and horses died in the frigid cold. But even in the dead of winter, there were 400 pilgrims staying at the hospital. (Good old Liz gave 3 reales to every one of them.

At the other end of the Camino, up in the Montes de Leon, the pass of Irago was stocked with settlers "to the population of fifteen" by a decree of Fernando IV in 1302 so that there would be someone to clear the snow for the pilgrims. And according to tradition, the villagers of El Acebo were exempted from taxes in exchange for placing and maintaining 800 stakes in winter to mark the Camino.*

In 2002, I had the pleasure of crossing the Montes de Leon in the teeth of a howling blizzard. The Guardia Civil stopped me halfway and told me the highway was closed. I told them I was Canadian. They shrugged and drove away. The Spanish have great respect for the freedom of the individual - up to and including the freedom to freeze to death in the mountains. But I didn't freeze. I kept to the road, stopped for soup at Tomas the Templar's, and made it safely to El Acebo, where as far as I know they now pay taxes same as everywhere else.

*Poetry and fascinating facts courtesy of
Aventura y muerte en el Camino de Santiago, Braulio Valdivielso Ausin (yes that's his name), Editorial la Olmeda.
Top photo (mountains above Roncesvalles)
by Carlos Vinas-Valle:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

the journey of a thousand miles

Harking back to yesterday's blog, there is another Chinese proverb that is often quoted in reference to the Camino, the one that goes: "The journey of a thousand miles (or whatever the Chinese sages measured distances in) starts with a single step."

I well remember the single step that started my first journey to Santiago. It was in the wrong direction. I had just received my credencial, my pilgrim passport, from the office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It was after noon and I was dying to start out. I stepped into the SJPP's steep main street, the track of the Camino through town, looked both ways, then began to walk - up.

Well, naturally. I had to cross the Pyrenees. The obvious way was up. So I strode through the historic gates of Saint-Jacques and out into the country, breathing deeply, feeling pilgrim energy surging through me. I had walked for a bit when I saw something - a sign? a yellow arrow? approaching pilgrims? - that indicated pretty clearly that I was going the wrong way.

I didn't turn around immediately. I didn't want to be recognized as the wrong-way pilgrim. Instead I stopped and gazed out over the valley, as if that was why I had come out here in the first place. It was one of those times I really wished I smoked. When my vanity was placated, I turned around and strode right back through the gates of Saint-Jacques, past the pilgrim office and down to the bottom of the town, noting as I went that sometimes you have to go down before you go up.

Once I'd got myself pointed in the right direction, I was pretty much okay the rest of the way to Santiago.

message to eileen (and a happy Burns Day to all)

I just received an e-mail with an interesting question and a lovely quotation. Sent an e-mail in return. Got it back with notification of a "permanent failure" in the delivery. How terrible to have no hope; to be doomed to permanent failure. And what's worse, the person who sent me the e-mail would be left thinking me too lazy or callous to answer her question.

And that's when I remembered MY BLOG! Hopefully, Eileen will pass through here sometime and see my response to her question. (Let me know if you do, eh?)

So here's the message:

I have been planning to go [on the Camino] for the past 8 years...and still holding back. Some say, \"When the student is ready, the teacher will come.\" Wonder if it ever was the case for you the first time you set your heart out to walk El Camino.

To which I can reply (having counted it on my fingers) that it was a full nine years from the time I first read of the Camino (knowing at once that I would do it someday) and the day I finally took my first pilgrim steps (in the wrong direction, as it turned out.)

The proverb is apt to the Camino. Our feet find it when they're ready. Though in my case, I'd modify it: "When the student gets tired of waiting, he'll go find himself a teacher." There's plenty of them on the Camino.