A-Z of our chemin

Last week I enjoyed the train journey up from Cahors: very pleasant and quiet and none of the antisocial behaviour we have to endure on our trains here in the UK. No beer cans, no public/private/business phone conversations and no leaking hip hop noise from bad earphones. I got home at 10pm and hit the ground running next day as Thompsons young and younger still were staying at ours while their new home took shape in the village. The contrast of complete independence and autonomy with a revisiting of the joy and bedlam of babies and toddlers has been exhausting but a lot of fun nonetheless. We are lucky to have a bolt hole in which to regroup and that’s where I am right now.

So looking back on the fortnight we had in France I thought I’d do a short review in note form.

A is for ampoule. This means blister. I’ve not really had them before and don’t want them again.

Aligot: never again please.

Asperge: a charming frenchwoman looked me up and down one morning in my walking gear. She raised her index finger and said “Asperge.” Asparagus. Lean bean perhaps? Needless to say I was thrilled.

Asking for help. We got better at it. Part of this journey, inner and outer is about not trying to do it all by ourselves. So asking the way, for help making phone calls, for explanations and then, at the risk of looking foolish, asking someone to repeat it, doucement, doucement.

B is for baguette. Universal bread and of variable quality. Filling but strangely unsatisfying. Also appearing in Bread soup the night before we came home with water and onions.

C is for Conques. Everyone finishes their randonnee at Conques. It’s a medieval town and looks like a film set. It was throbbing with tourists and wasps the day we arrived. We made our way downhill out of town to our campsite did our washing, and sat by the pool, feeling glad and a tad smug not to be tourists.

Cahors. Very large town, 21000 people, set on a dramatic bend in the river. It was a gruelling descent down from the limestone plateau (La Causse) and we crossed a beautiful stone bridge into the city proper to be met by an accueil: an historic welcome for pilgrims maintained by volunteers who offered us a very welcome cold drink, small biscuit and a prune!

Chapelle: one a day was enough. But they were rather lovely in a gentle and simple way, without the lurid ornament of some we’ve seen.

Decazeville. Just after the glory of Conques lies Decazeville. Say it out loud. If you were the town council wouldn’t you moot a new name? Especially as it held the largest open cast mine in Europe. You can visit it. We skipped this town and picked up again somewhere more scenic and pretty sounding, which escapes me now. If I need to see a defunct mine, Helen has promised to take me to Selby, or some such.

Desole: What the French say when they’re not really.

“Il y a du wifi?” Hopeful tone and engaging smile. “Non. Desole” End of discussion.

Derriere impeccable. Not me this time. We met three Aussie women who were great fun and game girls. They had some lovely kit but it didn’t stop them purchasing a little more. The saleswoman got Bronwen to try on some shorts, made her turn round and made her year – and a sale – with the words, ‘derriere impeccable’. So much better than ‘nice arse’.

To be continued.

 

 

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Homeward bound

I’m coming home, I’ve done my time.
It’s just too darn hot.
So I’m sitting in a railway station with a ticket for my destination.
Enough.
Actually I am milking the wifi of this hotel next to the station. H and I checked out at 7.30 and hopped over the road to buy tickets home. She got her train to Holland and I am waiting till midday for mine. So I checked back in, ate my body weight in croissants and had another shower re packed my rucksack.
In our bin are Hs boots, a lurid pink technical top of mine – never liked it but it would have saved lighting a fire on a mountain top emergency- my toothbrush, paste, Vaseline etc etc – I mean business I am really going home.
I feel a bit sad but mostly relieved. It’s been a very different experience and lots of things conspired to make it tricky.
Lots of little things:these are all mine 🙂
Recurrent small blisters which almost dry out overnight then get rubbed into existence again by their being pounded in the hot sweaty caves of our boots.
Self generating grit in my socks.
Heat rash!
Bites on my torso. How? I am not naked ex at night. Not a nice thought which ever way you look at it.
Soreness between my teeth.
Petty body grumbles but they add up.
Wrong kit. We could do this walk in trainers, sandals even, not boots but had it rained we would have needed them.
Washing not drying. Huge humidity. 75% today. So despite our various wiles- ever used the cupboard drying technique? ask Helen for details- and taking every opportunity to charm the locals into using their lines, we have damp kit.
And a few more which no doubt I ll go into in another post. But the heat is our nemesis. Last year too cold. This year too hot! Last night we agreed that while we could cope with all the other small annoyances the heat was just insuperable.

So I’ll be seeing you all a little sooner than planned. Just off to catch my train from Cahors to Ashford. We made it nearly halfway: but we’ll be back.

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Day 5

Aumont aubrac to Nasbinal. 26.5k. A green day. Very lovely walking over heath and heather and searching for the ultimate hydrating combo. We’ve decided a hot drink and a cold drink is good.Hot for psychological lift cold for hydration. So often ask for coffee or hot chocolate and iced tea. And water.
They pull faces ” Vous voulez quelque chose encore ?” Non merci. C a suffit.
We have our pride and don’t want to end up with skin like a deflated balloon. So we drink loads and monitor our fluid input output. Urine pale and plentiful? Tick.

Too much info?
I ll move on.

Nasbinal we stayed in what H called the ghost hotel. No one properly there to check us in. Two guys she named the brothers Grimm who were useless.”What room are you in? ”

Really? “The biggest one?” We wanted to say.

It was big and as the whole night was unsupervised – ring this no if you have a problem- we strung our washing from every possible fixture.

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This was the view from our bedroom window as we left, was that only yesterday? A lifetime ago. No one to check us out and little Hairy Mclary dog followed us for 4km over the hills. I had to shout and bang my sticks at him to make him go away. Felt sad but I’ve a nice dog if my own at home and really this ones legs were too short to cover the distance. And we had no neoprene boots for him to protect his pads.

Long long walk because again no room at the inn. All booked up by french people. And after 34 sweat soaked miles beautiful countryside and lots of up and down hills and gorges we arrive at the couvent in Saint Come d’Olt.

We were wrecked. But endured a long checking in from a french volunteer hospitalier.

It went:

*dinner at 7.00
*lauds 6.40
*dvd of history of convent 8.00 compline after
*Breakfast 7.00am
*more worship

And don’t mess with the nuns. They’re really old. Was the burden of it.

We nodded. We went to meals. Too tired for anything else. Our stay was refreshing -the conversion of the abbey was clever and the place was spotless. Our sheets were starched and snowy.

Now 15.5 km later we are in Estaing. We’ve passed many stone crosses, iron crosses, shrines and statues, but decided ‘a chapel a day … is enough.’

It’s my birthday and the weather is unexpectedly marvellous. We can hear chirpy French voices outside, bells sound hourly and mopeds puttering about merrily the roads being too narrow for much more.

We are glowing with sun and endorphins and the menu looks good. A lovely place to have a happy birthday.
*

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Piecemeal blogging

I can’t sustain a narrative so here are some highlights of the past few days.
Day 4
We had rain – the predicted ‘orage’ -fortunately at the end of our walk into Aumont Aubrac. No room at the inn but we were offered an ‘apartment’ somewhere madam gleefully told us the French people refused to stay. Think featureless safe house. Think iron curtain. Stase. Dismal. But much jollity at the communal meal including beet root, hard boiled egg and Aligot. Cheese potato with garlic in. And sausage. Rib sticking stuff and produced for 24 (22 French and we two) with panache. Community singing where Helen and I were invited to contribute -first. Cruel and our minds went blank. But you’ll be pleased to know we have prepared an entire set should we be asked again.

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Le Sauvage Aubrac

So après un promenade longue et chaud we arrive redfaced and sweating at the gite d’etape promisingly called Le Sauvage and it looks surprisingly civilised.In fact it looks great. A long stone building originally built by Knights Templar to tend pilgrims in the middle of a blasted heath, there was a friendly accueuil, and long wooden tables filled with happy eating/drinking French people. We pay and are given our room no. Narcisse 26.
Up the winding wooden staircase past the famed washing machine and gleaming loos and showers. All good. We open the door of 26…Well I thought I’d booked a room for two. But it seems I’d asked for a room for six. Obviously I was unconsciously hoping to make a few friends along The Way.
Helen quickly takes possession of 25 which has two beds and is empty, I traipse back to acceuil and point out on their list that we had asked for a twin room. Nice kind girl looks through the list but can’t rearrange anything. She refers to a hatchet faced woman who says the twin rooms were booked in January. January! And if I don’t like it I can move on! Oh my word. There are no other options within 8km – we could walk on but decide to make the best of it, secretly dreading the wine bibbing snorers, forgive me but mostly male, of last year. As people arrive we do our best not to be judgemental but really we look them up and down and assess the possibilities of a night of calm. We have both chosen the men we want to sleep with and random sweaty foreigners don’t figure.
After a shower some bread and cheese and beer it doesn’t feel so bad. We’ve done our washing using french fairy liquid found by a sink. No harm done: we put it on before drinking the beer and were moderate with the dose. Washing is now hanging blowing in the wind. Very pleasing.
Lying on our beds I’ve put my earplugs in to try them out for tonight (There are people shrieking in the field down below. They’re only two feet away from each other but who cares? ) my little attempt at shut eye is interrupted by three French women barging in and telling us to put our boots downstairs. Not a bonjour or excuse me between them. Just pointing our the affiches et regles and sounding cross. These are our roommates.
Embarrassingly – for them-we’ve met them before eating tarte au myrtilles and a happy chat we had then. When they realised who we were, they did attempt a small backpedal but could not resist another nag about the rules.
We moved our boots. We are good girls.
We have the beds by the windows which, we are determined should remain open. All night long. Helen is teaching me how to feign an asthma attack. She says a fit would be easier to fake but we need a condition that needs fresh air.
Our last roomie had arrived,a friendly English lady. So we’re even! And No Men. Whoop Whoop! I am so glad we didn’t move on affronted. Surfing the waves of the unexpected is part of this experience. We both have a lot of control and choices in our normal lives, so it does us no harm to let go a little. And it’s turned out ok tonight. Maybe these women are friends waiting to happen. They are for tonight. A tout a l’heure. I’ll keep you posted.

Day two

It’s hot! As hot as it ever was last year and I’ve brought base layers aplenty and my long johns. Great. So the daily washout of my smalls and the two t shirts I’ve brought becomes crucial.

Tonight we are staying in Saugues in a pleasant Logis de France with a charming could-not-be-more-helpful host called Denis. The first night in Le Puy we stayed in a room more like a student’s bedroom (rabbit hutch -Helen suggests) a hutch for one. Spotless but tiny. One of us had to remain horizontal while the other unpacked. But actually there’s not much to unpack and we both assumed the horizontal quite quickly.

Last nights stay in St Privat d’Allier needs the skill of Bill Bryson to do it justice, but as I keep boring on about, if you’re going to be in the hospitality trade for heavens sake be hospitable. Our host was unhelpful to the point of hostility. Shrugging his shoulders in that oh so Gallic way when we comment that the wifi didn’t work. Not my problem. And when we wanted to use the promised phone to make a new booking for Sunday, “It’s in the salon de television’.” And where is that? I ask with a winning smile. Second floor.
I look. I don’t want to try all the doors so I go back down and ask again.

I can’t find the salon de tv. What number is on the door?

No number it’s the salon de tv.

Where is it?

At the end of the corridor. And if he could have said Doh, he would have .
So off I trot, eventually find the room and make the call to our next accommodation. But during this call I have to give the lady, who I think I mistook for a man – Bonjour Monsieur – my phone number.

As we all know using the phone in another language is the most difficult of tasks. I am deprived of my acting skills and winsome charm. And I barely know my no in English.

She must have thought me a simpleton. Zero sept huit quartre un long pause when I know I should be neatly pairing the numbers up but the next lot are tricky. The French do that four twenties thing I’ve always found bewildering. And then ninety one is quatre vingts onze. I reverted to saying them like a five year old but I secured the room. I think. Unlike rooms booked on the Internet calling ahead in a second language feels a tad risky. She ended our laboured conversation. C’est noté.

Bon.

But this next place has a washing machine – big smile. If you could see the washing hanging from the light fittings and towel rail, you’d understand.

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Better get used to blogging by iPhone

We leave on Thursday. My bag is not yet packed but I have everything I need. Vaseline, all purpose shampoo/cleanser, euros i collect tomorrow. I have some collating to do. Some Karrimor sandals that served me well last year and a very thin lightweight running top – bright pink – these are unaccountably in the new flat by the sea. I found myself weighing my pants on my digital scales as recommended by Mary Berry ( the scales, not weighing your drawers) and then thought “this way madness lies” and just picked three pairs.

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I am not taking the blankets though it is tempting. It’s gone all cold and nasty here and though we’re promised tropical heat by the end of the week I think, I hope SW France will be warmer still.

It feels strange to be going. Last time we hit the ground running. I’d been to Center Parcs and a funeral two days before. It was Helen’s birthday as we left. The mountain pass opened the day before we crossed the Pyrenees. It felt like the beginning of something. Spring perhaps? But this feels like the end of something. It’s getting murky and dark as I tap! I feel as though I should be battening down the hatches and making a casserole. Instead I am peering at maps and mentally marking the halfway stage. Cahors I think.

But it is the start of so much. The children go back to school this week. My grandchildren will move into the next village while I am away and as grandparents we will be getting more involved in their precious little lives.

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Can’t move that picture:( anyhow that’s halfway.

This venture feels different: we are not walking to Santiago. The pull won’t be as strong I imagine. But nevertheless it’s a pilgrim route and has its own mystery. I heard the head of Eton speaking of teaching in its ancient halls. He said in many ways it’s a learning and teaching space like any other, but admitted that the weight of history and the sheer number of preceding masters and students has an inexpressible effect. I think this walk will be similar: thousands have been there before us but this is our time and it will be up to us to make it our own.

So many questions and wonderings. I like this poem. Mary Oliver again. This is the end of ‘The Summer Day’

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

There are so many reasons to play it safe but, but we all die at last and too soon. And our lives feel increasingly precious, if not wild. Why not then, if you’re offered it, have an adventure?  So for the next month I hope to be strolling through God’s good earth in my favourite season with a dear friend. What could be better?