People & places: walking the Camino

Drew sits back, raises his glass to the light and takes a sip.

‘If it’s less than 13.5%,’ he proclaims, ‘it’s like kissing your sister.’ A droplet of red wine clings to his moustache like that comment to my mind. Annie, his wife, vigorously nods her approval.

‘Absolutely.’

I take a sip and agree, more out of politeness than any personal experience in incest. Apparently it’s a saying in New Mexico. I give them the benefit of the doubt.

We’re sitting in Espinal, a small Spanish town at the foothills of the Pyrenees. I never once imagined I’d spend any portion of my life arguing about incest with an elderly American couple, but here I am. Drew & Annie are adamant that ‘kissing your sister’ translates as a weak wine. I argue that if anything, breaking taboos and societal norms and choosing to kiss your sister is an inherently strong move. Frowned upon, but ballsy nonetheless.

The conversation with Drew & Annie almost never happened, not that that would be any great loss to the world. I had told myself that I wouldn’t drink, that the month spent walking the Camino trail across Spain would be an opportunity to break the cycle of boozing I’d become accustomed to back home. Then I discovered how cheap and delicious Spanish wine is. Plus I never managed to have insights into incest while sober, so a healthy liquid diet became an essential and enjoyable part of my days on the trail.

It was wishful thinking anyway, giving up the booze. The Camino is essentially a Contiki tour but by the end, instead of having taken a bus through 32 countries, you’ve just walked across one.

Despite that minor logistical difference, at a core level everything else remains the same. You travel with the same large group towards a common destination. You drink together, eat together, sleep together and get to know each other like a family, though in this scenario any familial relations do not count as incest. It’s a metaphorical family. And like any family you get on with some people better than others, but really, you learn to love almost everyone for their quirks, eccentricities and even their incestuous metaphors.

*

That was my first night on the Camino. The previous day, I had made my way down from Paris to my starting point, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, accompanied by my godfather Jean-Yves. It’s impossible to really capture the enigma that is Jean-Yves, but perhaps the most important gift he ever gave me goes some way towards it.

There’s a trunk underneath my parents’ house. It competes for space with out-of-date textbooks, sporting equipment and the detritus of discarded hobbies. A pile of backpacks lies nearby, their straps broken and their stories long recycled.

Slate grey with a heavy padlock protecting its contents, the trunk is camouflaged by layers of dust and will probably never be opened again. You’d be forgiven, upon seeing it, for assuming it contains family secrets. A map to a buried family fortune or scrolls of ancient wisdom passed through the generations just to end up in suburban Sydney.

You’d be wrong though. It doesn’t hide earth-shattering secrets, directions to a fortune or a cure for the family curse. It contains pornography and Tintin comics. An admittedly weird combination, but one that makes sense if you’ve met the trunk’s original owner – Jean-Yves.

He’s Belgian. Very Belgian. In no particular order, his favourite things are yoga, Tintin, motorbikes, trains, wine, hats and sandals. He hates Belgium. Apparently it’s full of Belgians.

He lives in Brussels working as a train driver. Having always wanted to drive trains, he decided at 57 there wasn’t much time left to realise his dream, so that’s what he did. When news of the Brussels bombings reached Australia we all thought of Jean-Yves. With the stations and airport being a target, there was a reasonable chance of him being involved in the attacks somehow and we were unable to contact him, though that isn’t particularly unusual for Jean-Yves. Growing up I’d only know when he was coming to visit because young European women started calling our home phone.

‘Is Jean-Yves there?’ they asked in accented English.

‘I’m pretty sure he’s in France,’ I replied, ‘or India.’

They hung up, confused, and two weeks later Jean-Yves would materialise on our doorstep as if summoned by feminine disappointment.

As updates on the bombings continued and our family grew more concerned for his wellbeing I took to Google, searching Jean-Yves Brussels train driver. The first result was a recording from a radio station in Adelaide, where Jean-Yves had lived for many years, in which ‘Belgian train driver Jean-Yves describes his experience of the Brussels attack.’ Mystery solved.

Speaking on the day of the attacks, the hosts compliment his particularly European approach to an awful situation.

‘How do you see the people of Brussels getting back to normal life?’ they ask.

‘There was no panic in the streets,’ Jean-Yves responds, ‘ we were more nonplussed than anything else. We really got to talk about it. A system of spontaneous solidarity emerged, with people offering lifts to go to work or back home. It was all rather convivial.’

I replayed it. Had Jean-Yves just described a terrorist attack as being rather convivial? I sent it to Mum and Dad to let them know he was okay, knowing they’d react like they always do to his stories. Mum sighs as Dad breaks out in hysterics.

‘Ahh Jean-Yves. Mon ami,’ they say, a harmony of love, relief and utter frustration.

Jean-Yves meets me at the airport in Paris. We have a night together before heading south to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. I’ve been to Paris before, so with no mandatory sightseeing scheduled we spend our time crawling between cafés and bars. We sip beer in the Place de la Bastille and he points to the apartments of ex-girlfriends.

‘She was magnificent,’ he tells me, ‘but now she is with someone. She is happy.’

In the morning we walk through the drizzle to Montparnasse Station. We’re running late, but not so late he can’t show me around the red light district on the way.

‘Your father, he definitely did not frequent these parts when he lived here.’ Jean-Yves smiles. ‘He’s a funny man, your father.’

He stops outside a nearby café.

‘This café, this is the last place I saw my own father. It was his favourite.’ We continue in silence. I pray that the last time I see Dad won’t be in the red light district.

           *

We make the final approach to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port by bus, steadily winding up the mountains past a disused rail track. I sit in the back, making distracted small talk with an American teacher while staring out the window. Jean-Yves sits in front with Rosie, a British woman in her early twenties.

‘I really like that Rosie,’ he tells me later at dinner. ‘Maybe I will come with you to Roncesvalles. I have never been.’

Pilgrims who start at Saint-Jean typically spend their first night at Roncesvalles after walking 25 kilometres  across the exposed mountains. Conditions are unpredictable, spirits are tested and for many, reality sets in. But those who are perhaps physically underprepared at least know what they’re getting into. Jean-Yves, on the other hand, has recently returned from a hip replacement in India and struggled to tackle the cobblestones of Paris the previous day. I point this out to him, as well as the fact he has nothing to wear but sandals and a battered trilby hat.

‘And besides,’ I continue, ‘you’ve got to stop hitting on young girls. You could literally be her grandfather.’ Mum would burst with pride if she could hear me. What have I become?

‘Ahh but Patrick,’ he replies, ‘the day I lose my passion for people and places? That is the day I no longer wish to live.’

His comment flows into the River Nive below us. It was thundering through the valley earlier and tomorrow I’ll cross its trickling source above Saint-Jean. People and places. Places and people. Jean-Yves has seen a lot of both. He keeps their details in a bulging black phone book in his pocket, next to his new iPhone.

He only recently joined the smartphone world and insists on not only showing me every picture from his travels, but also taking photos together whenever possible. He loves selfies. If we’re eating somewhere, however, he’ll sometimes ask a waitress to take the photo. After a quiet word and a smile, he watches her walk away then pulls out his phone book and shares the picture with friends I’ve never met.

‘This is my Godson,’ he tells them, ‘and he is on a spiritual journey.’

‘This is my Godfather,’ I tell the waitress, ‘and please excuse his behaviour.’

*

I meet Vanda outside the town of Los Arcos. And by meet, I mean I slowly caught up to her over ten kilometres and walked behind her at an awkward distance until I was close enough to say hi without seeming desperate. She’s from Auckland, in her fifties and plans on walking the same distance as me: 887 kilometres from Saint-Jean to Finisterre, the mountains to the sea.

I’m hungover so Vanda does the talking. Her niece, an Emirates flight attendant, walked the Camino last year. Apparently she’s hooked and will only take hiking holidays now.

‘You’d like her,’ Vanda tells me, not knowing I’ve already fallen deeply in love with her niece. Or at least the idea of her.

Back in Espinal, Drew and Annie had promised to set me up with their daughter’s best friend, whom they planned on meeting halfway through the walk. Drunk on wine and incest, I couldn’t remember what exact day that would be but I make a mental note to hang out with more oldies. They seem to be really invested in my romantic life.

I ask Vanda how she’s been holding up so far.

‘Sore,’ she says, ‘but you know what they say. This stage is for the body.’

I don’t know what they say. Or what the fuck she’s talking about.

‘First stage for the body, the second for the mind and the third for the soul. Those are the stages of the Camino,’ she says.

We agree that it’s cheesy, but maybe when something doesn’t quite taste right a slice of cheese can make the difference.

I pull ahead of Vanda.

‘Buen Camino!’ she calls. It literally means ‘good path’ and it’s the gold standard for both greeting and farewelling pilgrims, the ‘aloha’ of northern Spain. I’ve heard it hundreds, maybe thousands of times since leaving Saint-Jean and always felt uncomfortable saying it.

‘Buen Camino,’ I call back.

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