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Camino Stories: St. Jean Pied-de-Port

Updated: Jan 8

It’s just me, some questionable machine coffee, and my red head lamp here at the monastery pilgrim hostel in Roncevalles, Spain.


I’ve been up since one-something this morning after just a couple hours of sleep. I laid in bed for nearly two hours trying everything I could to fall back asleep, from every meditation practice I know to reading something boring. Finally, around 4:15, I was like, oohhhhhh I’ve been wanting more time to write and maybe the universe was like, here you go, and I was like, um could you not, and it was like, you didn’t say WHEN. So maybe the lesson is take the gifts as they come but also be more specific when you wish for them?


Let me back up to when I arrived on Thursday to St. Jean Pied de Port, the official starting point for the Camino Frances, The French Way.


After a stunning train ride through the countryside that wound us along a river for an hour, we arrived. I say “we” because a few other pilgrims and I had met while waiting for the train, which was the second one of the day since there was a stopover in Bayonne. We all chatted about where we were from (US, Canada, Australia) and why we were doing the Camino. On most of the ride there, we talked about what we were most excited and nervous about.


It was a big moment for me when we walked onto the platform and saw the name of the town on a sign, which we all took a moment to appreciate and take photos of each other in front of. While I loved meeting and connecting with them, I made a point to walk on ahead alone because I wanted to be as present as possible while entering the town since I know chatting can be fun but also take us away from the moment.


It was just a five minute walk up the cobblestone street to the Porte de France, and when I got to it, I felt a whole world of emotion bubble up in my chest and throat and my eyes grew tears in the corners. I paused at the threshold, took a few breaths, and then walked across. My insides were like a ping pong match between euphoria and wonder, and felt very much like my Pipi was with me.



I walked on and up the hill towards the pilgrim’s office where you can obtain your pilgrim’s passport, which is a booklet in which you get stamps from various places along the Camino including hostels, hotels, bars, and restaurants. You need them for access to pilgrim hostels and also in order to receive your compostella at the end in Santiago, a document that certifies you have completed at least the last 100km of the Camino.


When I arrived, there was already a small line outside of the closed doors; it wouldn’t be open for another hour. Oh, Europe and their long breaks and siestas. We could learn so much from them.


I walked just a few seconds down the street to the pilgrim hostel I’d booked for the night and plopped down on the stoop in front since there was a sign outside of it stating they, too, were closed until 3:00pm. Within minutes, the others had arrived and we all sat or stood around happily chatting and taking in the charm of this quaint little town, host to so many starting pilgrims over the centuries.


Before long, the huge wooden doors opened and we all perked up and got in line. There were about eight or so volunteers sitting behind a long table, ready to welcome and orient us one by one.


In front of each of them were signs that stated which language(s) they spoke since pilgrims come from all over the world. When it was my turn, I just automatically went to the empty chair and sat down and noticed the woman spoke only Spanish and French. I’d originally thought that I should talk with an English speaker just to make sure I didn’t miss any important details, but I looked up and saw the kindest smile and warm eyes of a woman in her 70s, and knew I wouldn’t be budging.


“Bonjour,” I greeted her, and we shook hands. I noticed I was shaking slightly. Like many others, she was shocked to learn I was American and could speak French. She then shared information with me about the route over the Pyrenees, highlighting a section that was not recommended due to current conditions and explaining the other path. She gave me a few more papers with helpful information and then handed me my pilgrim passport to fill out. I couldn’t help it and started getting sniffly, and when she noticed, she was so kind. “Oh, yes, it’s a very emotional journey,” she said, sharing with me about her own first Camino 15 years prior.


This, of course, made me cry a little more, and she reached over and held my hand (which made me cry more). I reached into my bag to grab the little card from my Pipi’s funeral with his photo on it and the serenity quote, which I’d like to carry with me the whole way, and I showed it to her so I could explain what really brought me here. I thought she might just look at it quickly but she took it and studied it for a few moments. “But he looks French!” she said, and I was only too happy to explain that he was, in fact, the son of two Belgian immigrants to the US, and soon I couldn’t really see her through the haze of tears I tried not to drip onto my brand new pilgrim passport. I can’t you tell how how thankful I am that I got Carmen, because she didn’t rush me, but spent a few minutes talking with me, asking me questions, and giving me advice, before we said goodbye, at which point she stood up and reached out over the table to give me a hug, and I’m surprised I didn’t just completely lose it there.


Before leaving, I grabbed a seashell to attach to my backpack, a traditional mark of the Camino pilgrim. You could leave a donation in a box, and I pushed a few coins through.


I went back to wait for the hostel to open since it was almost time, and right on schedule, the doors opened and Alain, the hostel’s current volunteer, was there to greet us. Over the next few minutes, about five of us had made it inside and sat around a table so that Alain could explain the hostel rules and meal schedule. However, it turns out Alain doesn’t speak much English, and we were a group of almost all English speakers. For a few minutes, he tried so hard, but he also seemed quite nervous and uncomfortable, so I gently offered to translate if he’d like, and his eyes got so wide and he was basically like oh my god yes please thank you, and I was honored to be his informal assistant for the next couple of hours as more pilgrims arrived or confusion arose and he’d call me over to translate again.


After putting my things in a shared room with three beds and my new translator duties, I explored the town for a while with the goal of finding a replacement adapter while at it. I first walked the path up to and around the historic citadel and took in the views of the lush green mountains hugging the low-hanging clouds before making my way back to the town area and exploring shops with an ice cream in hand to cool off.


I walked by a church and stepped into its cool interior and walked over to where you could make a small donation for one of three types of candles, and I lit one for my Pipi. I sat behind a woman who was praying the rosary and thought of my own that I brought with me, wondering why I really brought it and if I’d use it or really do anything with it, but I didn’t overthink it. I just sat on the pew for a while and thought of my Pipi, so full of love and grief and not trying to push anything away or down. There’s no great love without great loss, my aunt had said at some point around the time of his funeral. And it’s true. It’s a gift, in a way, to feel the pain of the loss because it means you knew great love. And, it’s still hard.



I was having an impossible time trying to find that adapter, and just when I’d turned around to do another lap through the stores to comb through them all, I bumped into some pilgrims I’d met at the hostel, and one of them suggested I go through the box of items past pilgrims forgot or left behind, and sure enough, when I looked later, there were five! And none of them worked with my phone charger. But I took my time with them, trying different combinations among them all, and two ended up fitting together that would work with my charger. The Camino provides, everyone says.


I decided to walk back to the hostel to shower and then write. I didn’t get far before an Australian man I’d briefly met earlier asked if he could join me, which turned into a long conversation about who we are and why we’re here. I loved hearing about his journey and have really enjoyed getting to meet pilgrims finally. But I will say that one challenge is, after learning about how they plan to do the Camino, meaning what resources they’re referring to and how many miles they’re walking each day and all that, you start to question your own way. I’d decided to not have all the apps and be in all the online forums and use the websites that can create itineraries—I had a fantastic guidebook, and I was happy to just rely on that. But when he started going on about these amazing resources I absolutely had to look into, I found myself caving to his enthusiasm and saying yes when he asked if he could show me on my laptop, and twenty minutes later, I was no longer feeling confident about my plan and wondering what I should do with all this new information.


But then the other host, Flora, came by and announced that the social hour before dinner was about to begin, so we made our way over to the table and spent a half hour introducing ourselves and sharing about why we were doing the Camino. We then had a wonderful homemade vegetarian meal prepared by Alain and Flora and had a chance to all get to know each other further.



Two hours later, and it was time to start getting ready for bed. Though just three of us shared a room, one of the others snored so loudly that I spent a couple of restless hours awake in the middle of the night until she stopped, and this was with my wax earplugs in. I knew the pilgrim hostels would be a challenge for me, but I still woke a bit bleary-eyed the next morning.


It was time to begin my Camino.


Love,

Katie


PS: stay connected with the pilgrim community over at my Camino Corner, where you can join a Camino-themed reading, writing, or meditation group.

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