In defense of the French – a very personal view of Camino companions

When entering a bar, cafe’ or albuerge filled with fellow pilgrims, one almost always experiences raucous bonhomie where everyone is talking, gesticulating,  laughing together in an at times bewildering number of languages and improbable combinations thereof. We are all communicating together as best we can and having a lot of fun doing it.

Nevertheless, just as often as not there will be a lone individual or little group who do not participate in this communication free-for all, and just as often than not,  they will be French. All over the world I (and, I am sure, many others) have experienced similar situations where the French do not seem to communicate or participate. This has given them the (undeserved) reputation for being unfriendly, elitist, standoffish, or what have you. Admittedly Paris waiters are amongst the most snooty in the world, and have not changed much from Mark Twain’s time when  “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”

This is also definitely not the case once you leave Paris and travel out in the country as we have done for several years on the various French pilgrim routes … people do make an effort to understand my far from acceptable French, and do make an effort to speak slowly and clearly when speaking with me, regularly evaluating if I can follow what  they are saying.  Moreover the French when you observe them in their native habitat are a very voluble and even inclusive people when they meet someone that speaks their language  and lots of talking and  lots of laughter can be heard from the moment they get together. Need I add that the French – of all ages – are also amongst the most courteous people I’ve met up with.  What really hit the nail on the head for me in corroborating my own opinion of them, is that the other day  I read that in an opinion poll of airline passengers concerning whether they always engage in conversation with their fellow passengers, 43% of the French respondents said yes, they would – they topped the list as being the most inclined to initiate a conversation (you want to know who was least inclined to engage in conversation with fellow passengers? the Brits  … see list below)

Let me start with everyone else … everyone that is not French, that is.

Let’s start with their diametrical opposite, the  Italians… a French word here, and English word there, maybe some Spanish, a few hand movements and some Italian I learned from Fellini  (and mafia) movies, and we have a conversation going, laughing communicating … bonding! (Once, some years back in Italy, I had gotten on the wrong train, and when the Italian ticket collector, who knew no other language than his own, came by, the resulting conversation between he and I was pure opera buffo: after his initial exclamation of “Mama Mia” (I kid you not) at my mistake, by utilizing this method of communication Italians are so good at, together we got my travel situation quite sorted out)

Germans, ach Germans, so easy to communicate with – especially if there are beers on the table … they speak some English and other languages, but if you can speak German with them there is no end to the possibilities for gemütlichkeit, and they are quite effusive in their praise of you fractured German. What I especially like about them is that you both can have a raucous time together with them and still  intermingle it with quite serious conversation. I know Germans have the worst of reputations –

– but as traveling companions and fellow pilgrims they have few equals. They also are good hikers with the best equipment and their Camino guide books are second to none (ordnung muss sein) and they have more than once rescued me from a wrong turn.

Any one coming from an English speaking country should have a distinct advantage when it comes being able to mingle now that English has become the new Lingua Franca. The Brits, are my favorite, especially for their wit and humor, with the Canadian coming in a close second because of their unique combination of American openness and forthrightness and (I must say it) almost European sensibilities ( this goes double for the Québécois). Americans, especially the young, are often culturally very innocent and seem to take everything quite literally and therefore to my mind they are not as comfortably participating in light-hearted Camino banter. Though Americans are always outgoing, open and forthright, I sometimes detect a sort of hesitancy, which, with my own American background, I interpret as a sort of suspicion of the motives of others – I am most probably wrong, but …

The Spanish pilgrims, who are actually in fact our hosts on the Spanish Camino, also seem reserved vis-à-vis non-Spanish speakers, but quite voluble amongst themselves. Yet they are more than willing to talk to anyone else who knows a few Spanish words – in fact in this respect I have found the Spanish to be very similar to the Italians, and I have been able to negotiate in Spain (off the Camino) with the most atrocious Spanish, combined with a little French, a little English and some hand moments.

Finally I would like to mention the Koreans. We have met up with quite a few young female Koreans, most often traveling in groups of three or more. They are delightful to watch. Young, pretty, and energetic, highly organized, with the latest gear (including Samsung tablets of course), they are a giggly bunch obviously having a great time, and though they speak little of any other language, they are quite approachable and communicative in their own way. I also noted that of all the pilgrims we have ever met, they are the ones who seem not only to simply enjoy their Camino most, they also seem to eat better and healthier than any of us others. They have not at all abandoned the ceremony of preparing and eating a proper meal together, and always combine lots of proteins, carbs, fruits and juices (they do no ignore wine) in almost all of the meals they as a group prepare – they do tend to prepare and eat their elaborate breakfasts at an unholy early hour though, and the noise of their preparations and packing can be quite unnerving.

So what is it with the French?

It’s a big country with large population and a long history of fostering a very uniform and ubiquitous “high” culture with a very uniform school system: any potential outside cultural influence, be it literature or films, are immediately translated into French and often thereby “Frenchified. Thus, they really have no motivation what so ever to acquaint themselves with any other language (or culture) – once when I asked an American if he had read an important work in our profession (anthropology) that had as yet not been translated into English, he answered:  ”If it is truly important it would have been translated, hence it is not important” and the French would most probably with equal validity say the same. So, one reason they seem so insular is that they have really never been subjected to any foreign linguistic influence. Moreover, their uniform school system ensures that all native French speakers (everywhere in the world actually), speak a more or less standard (high) French and thus are not as accustomed as people in other countries are to understanding regional and ethnic dialects and variations to their language. Again, just like the Americans, the French never really developed an ability to negotiate in foreign cultures and languages (including internally, within their own country …).

Their mono-high-culture also sets a high premium on clarity in argument and respect for intellectual prowess expressed through the written and the spoken language. These two factors (mono-culture and a tendency towards casuistry) seem to me to be the most immediate reasons why the French seem to be so French when they are étrangers. I do think, however the link is not necessarily so direct in explaining why they do not at all participate, and why they seem so unapproachable – which they are not.

The French are great conversationalists, they love to talk together and their culture and school system puts a high premium on the art of conversation. Eating and conversation (they do go well together, don’t they) have both in France been raised to an art form. The French dilemma abroad or when meeting someone who does not speak at least a passable French, is that they are almost incapable to communicate freely and unselfconsciously with such persons. And not being able to communicate freely, means that the conversation they could engage in would be totally inelegant and not very artful – thus it’s not worth their time … it’s better to stay silent!



The most talkative nations

(percent of those responding that they will alwasystart a conversation with their fellow airline passengers)

1. Frenchmen: 43 %
2. Spaniards: 36 %
3. Italians: 33 %
4. Russians: 25 %
5. Turks: 24 %
6.  Germans: 22 %
7. Swedes: 22 %
8. Dutch: 19 %
9. Danes: 18 %
10. Brits: 16 %


The Camino Shell – a white badge of honor!

The rucksack, walking stick and shell dangling on our backs obviously attracts attention when we walk the Camino. Whether it be in France or Spain, town or country, we can be assured that we will attract some friendly attention from the local inhabitants. Often we are even walking a street or road that is called “The Camino de Santiago” or “Jacob’s road”/street/avenue. So wherever we go we are no stranger – they’ve seen our types before. It never ceases to amaze me, however, with  the sympathy with which we Camino pilgrims are received wherever and whenever we do our thing: walk the Camino.

I don’t think we can remember an unfriendly reception in any Albergue in Spain or Gite in France, no matter if they were public or private (and to some extent profit making.) Our needs were understood and met to the best of their abilities, and there was a general enthusiasm for our endeavor.

Grandparents on the street point us out to their grandchildren telling them to wish us “Buon Camino” school children giggle and point and their teachers explain what we are about …Truck drivers honk their horns at us, teenagers cheer us on and many a car slows down to wish us the best or chat with us, or, when necessary tell us if we are, in fact, lost: I remember when I walked the Camino in 2009, my companion and I were walking in a snow storm right after  O Cebreiro when a car stopped and asked us “Pilgrims on the way to Santiago”? “Yes” we answered. Whereupon he responded “Well you’re not going to get there walking this road!” (a real wise guy, but he did take us in his  car and brought us back to the right road  … snow had of course covered all the yellow arrows of which there were not that many in the “old days”).

Once Gitta and I were stopped by the police who paved the way ahead of us through a big general strike procession in Toulouse, and another time during the same strike we hitch-hiked (had to get to the train station in self-same Toulouse) and we were picked up a by a fast smart car. The driver drove as if he was a stunt man and constantly interrogated us as to our adventures … though young he emanated a feeling of competence and authority so we felt quite safe: as it turned out he was actually an officer with the French Sécurité (French FBI/CIA)

We had come to expect this special attention on the Camino. Yet we were still taken totally aback when in Paris we had a “day to kill” (in Paris, come on, that is never just killing time) and had to carry our rucksack, sticks and shell, we still got the same positive attention. Crossing a bridge on the Seine a jogger stopped and shouted “coming or going”, and then walked with us and told of us of her son who had been on the Camino 3 times … a Dutch man asked us on advice as he was going on the Camino next year … people smiled and pointed to our rucksacks and whispered to each other as they waved …In Notre Dame we of course got a stamp in our Credential … And even one of those snooty Parisian waiters in a cafe right off Notre Dame slowed down in his work to inquire of us “coming or going” and how many kilometers do we do a day and exclaimed “respect” when we told him we do app. 20 kma day (after 5 weeks on the Camino in France and Spain, we do start to look our age)


I write all this just to remind all of us pilgrims, that just as walking the Camino is intensely meaningful for us, the fact that we walk the Camino also means a lot in France and Spain, especially to the people who live along the Camino. I think that in their eyes we are seen to be on some form of quest, which even today, in our secular times, in these very Catholic countries still has religious connotations. This is respected. Moreover there is a feeling that if we make the effort to actually spend so much time walking and appreciating their country, we are in turn also paying them some respect. We are all of us pilgrims indebted to this warm welcome, and it behooves us to reciprocate … which we do best when we do our thing well: being good pilgrims.

Sir Walter Raleigh. 1552–1618
77. His Pilgrimage
GIVE me my scallop-shell of quiet,
  My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
  My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;          5
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Blood must be my body’s balmer;
  No other balm will there be given:
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
  Travelleth towards the land of heaven;   10
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
        There will I kiss
        The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill   15
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;
But, after, it will thirst no more.

Dining on the Camino

Funny thing about the Camino: we all go on the Camino with the best of intentions to walk, to overcome adversity, to be a good and helpful pilgrim friend to other pilgrims and to the locals, and most importantly perhaps to achieve some form of spiritual benefit therefrom. Most of us that walk the Camino are in our daily lives also aware consumers, aware of what we eat and aware of how the things we consume have been produced, and also careful about how we rid ourselves of our waste. Yet on the Camino we all seem to eat almost any crap-food just to sate our ravishing appetite as immediately and conveniently and as cheaply as possible. And, as to getting rid of our waste … I think I’d better let that embarrassment pass … what most bugs me is the toilet paper that is constantly blowing in the wind all along the Camino we walk on.

Most of us get into our albergues in the afternoon, and then having inspected the kitchen we individually plan what and how we will prepare what we will eat, or do it together,  or eat one of those interminable pilgrim’s menu, whose only real attraction is the wine and the camaraderie of other pilgrims, otherwise it’s worse than any airline meal I’ve ever had (when you think about all those people who would not be caught dead eating an airline meal, now guzzling some indefinite Spanish pottage or thrown together salad which is guaranteed non-organic, followed by fried meat and factory French-fries, topped off by factory-made flan or fruit yoghurt – probably the only healthy part of the meal). Mostly our “home-made” evening meal will consist of some amalgam of tinned tomatoes, grated cheese, pasta and so forth washed down with cheap wine  …  lunch will consist of baguettes spread with salami/cheese/very very thinly sliced Serrano or some such. Some of us will also buy a fruit or two and perhaps some yoghurt.

This is all very far from the nutritious balanced diet based on organic food principles etc. most of us practice in our everyday life … and the result is that just when we most need healthy fodder for our unusually active bodies, we eat what we normally would’nt  touch and which in normal circumstances we would consider substandard food, and drink far too much wine.

I remember a few years ago in France meeting an elderly couple who were really great walkers:  they were retired very fit and walked hundreds of kilometers every year. The wife told me that the last time they returned home from one of their pèlerinages she had been so happy that her husband finally lost some weight … he was now quite handsome and very fit. A subsequent checkup revealed, however, that his cholesterol levels had gone through the roof  … the culprit was the pilgrim diet I described above, most especially the tons of grated cheese spread on the almost daily diner of pasta and tomato sauce, to make it palatable.




Oldies but goodies on the Camino

Let me her draw a sharp line here between the “youngies” who do the Camino with their own rambunctious energy and joie-de-vivre and the “oldies-but-goodies”, who with the same, perhaps quieter, gusto and joie-de-vivre  are increasingly to be seen on the Camino. (at 67, I definitely belong to this later group)

Though most modern Camino pilgrims have for a long time been single, urban, often educated, middle class young men ( and increasingly women, alone or in groups) with every intent to do the 750 km of the Camino in one go, a large number of more settled middle-age people do it in sections from start to finish when they can … a week or two every year, work and family permitting … They are thus neither youngies nor oldies-but-goodies, but, together with the oldies-but-goodies they are increasingly visible and their impact on the Camino is also increasingly visible.

A surprising number of pilgrims we’ve met walking on the Camino in Spain and France (the following however mostly about the Camino Frances) come from the over-middle-age, non-working segment of the European and world population… the oldies-but-goodies … Often they have grown-up children, grandchildren, and both house, car, and bank account at home. They come from many different countries, but the ones we most were in contact with came from the USA, France, England-Canada-the Antipodes. One common characteristic of the native English speakers is that they had almost  to a man-woman have seen the movie “The Way”, and in one way (unintended pun) or another this had been a catalytic factor in their doing the Camino. My favorite story is of the American couple who by chance saw the movie via Netflix, and as the concluding credits run down the screen the wife turns to her husband and says “Were going to do that, no ifs or buts”

As opposed to these oldies-but-goodies, the French “oldies” were less impressed with the film and anyway most of them were almost always, seasoned walkers, having done several sections of the Camino in France and Spain for many consecutive years.

These oldies are truly goodies: they are very sociable, good if slow walkers and a great pleasure to be with. We have spent many a good evening together with other couples “of our age group” engaged in good stimulating and even spiritual conversation. The younger pilgrims are both solicitous and respectful of them … in more than one case the older pilgrims helped/advised their younger co-pilgrims, especially concerning gear, of which they of course had very best. Most surprisingly the younger pilgrims listened attentively to them, and accepted their counsel … the feeling that we are all on the same endeavor, so why not listen to someone with greater experience, was probably the factor that overcame the usual almost instinctive  reaction of youth against advice by one’s elders.

We cannot disregard that however well-integrated into the brotherhood of the Camino they, the older and middle-age pilgrims, are, their presence has directly and indirectly already made a most noticeable impact.

These oldies-but-goodies and their somewhat younger middle-age pilgrims are very unprepossessing and undemanding, but yet given the opportunity (and they are very very good at taking the opportunity – benefits of a long life out there in the trenches of real life) they will opt for a more upscale accommodation, lodgings, meals, road, what have you. I also suspect that given two walking routes they will – often out of self-preservation of feet and backs – mostly choose the more convenient if not easier one … behind it all they have the money to back their inclinations: they today probably bring more money to the Camino than any other sector of pilgrims.

The depiction of the rich American eye doctor on the Camino in the movie “The  Way” was not very of the mark … note also how Martin Sheen’s character  was able to make use his little platinum card when necessary, and so were the other, not that young, characters of their little cards.

Now, it could be that we have observed so many oldies-but-goodies because they as pensioners are only ones that have the time to walk in the spring. Yet when I look at the membership of the various Camino associations around the world I feel at home: my age segment dominates! Being a pensioner and not having to go to work is not just being “free at last”, as we learned from one Dutch pensioner. Children and especially grandchildren made so many demands on him now, that “he had the time”, that he needed to do the Camino in order be able to devote some time to himself, and here on the Camino he bloomed and felt “free at last” (but not without a bad conscience vis-à-vis his wife, children, and grandchildren) … I’m sure that many a pensioner will recognize his predicament.

I do think that the incursion of these older pilgrims (middle-age and oldies) has already led to a sort of “gentrification” of the Camino. Perhaps this demographic factor has even been a contributing factor towards the ubiquitous impetus on the Camino Frances for up-scaling of the roads (at least since 2009) … the Camino routed from Roncesvalles to Burgos is now almost all gravel, and except for a few inclines, it follows the straight but anything but narrow (they are broad enough so that several people can walk and talk together) … and I’m sure that in some years well see a pilgrim-highway going straight from Roncesvalle to Santiago de Compostella … Has this not also been the impetus to the up-scaling we observed (and enjoyed) of many of the private and even public albergues?

I do wonder, just as I did on my previous blog concerning electronic devises on the Camino, what the Camino will look like 10 years from now … Demographically this segment of the population is growing ever larger, and is ever more on the lookout for more “exotic” and active traveling adventures, and ever more in search for some sort of self-realization … the new, more comfortable, Camino,  is obviously the best solution for them, incorporating both yearnings, and giving them a deep feeling of communitas into the bargain. I am not saying that they won’t find the intense bonding between pilgrims, or meaningful spiritual experiences, earlier Camino pilgrims have had, I’m just saying that now that over 200,0000 people, many of whom are of this older segment of the population, go on the Camino, we must necessarily redefine the Camino experience … but then maybe we must also look at how and why the modern day Camino has come about: more in a later blog.

Finally, I must just interject that when the rain pours down, the wind blows up my poncho and the walk up the hill is tough and long, I am at my 20km fatigue point, and the albergue’ heating isn’t working, the tienda is closed, and, oh-no, the 5 Korean girls that get up together at 5 am have also arrived. .. well that is still enough of a Camino challenge for me … then only the promise of a few hours fellowship and good cheer, communitas, with my co-pilgrims (and especially if they also are oldies-but-goodies) consoles me.

The electronic Kool-Aid Camino albergue acid test

Today on the Camino, I invariably see (and participate in) the new 21st century ritual of entering an albergue and settling in. From the first moment Camino pilgrims walk enter the albergue, I can see their eyes scanning the reception area until they have found what they are looking for –  the notice on the bulletin board that this place has WI-FI – then I see their eyes squint as they look for the password, and first then, when the password is found, do the eyes relax and we all can get on with our business of settling in. But as we actually enter the dormitory the eyes again start to scan, not for the best bed or where the showers are – no, that is not our highest priority –  but rather, where is the outlet is which we need to load our smart phones, tablets, cameras, what have you?

Often enough albergues do have a  (pay)computer available for pilgrims, and I remember the clambering and jostling there was in 2009 in order to get to it … when it finally was your turn there was the stress of trying to find a coin to put in for your allotted 30 minutes of computer time… today these computers almost look forlorn as if they still waited for a friendly pilgrim to make use them, which rarely happens.

Once settled in a peaceful silence comes over us, only disturbed by the quiet tap-tapping of fingers on screens and keyboards. No, we are not meditating on what we have experienced during our pèlerinage, or planning our diners or such mundane things: no, we are communicating with the “outside” world and for a while we are not anymore a part of the here and now of the Camino world. Nor are we commune with our fellow pilgrims with whom we are about to share the next many  hours in the often very limited space of the dormitories and their showers, toilets, kitchens, even the air we breathe as we all sleep and snore together 30 to a room –  there are other communication priorities today.

A true example of one such afternoon in one albergue:

I was lucky, I immediately got on the Wi-Fi and quickly found the outlet right behind my lower-bunk’s headboard … I could hear the reassuring pings of my long overdue incoming mails … Well, as I was settling in together with Gitta, I noted that on the bunk beds across from us, that the American couple we had started to bond together with into our “Camino-family” were sitting on their lower bunk each with his ipad (as was their wont every afternoon) … he was downloading pictures from his camera, and she was preparing their daily blog to friends family and sundry … across from them on the top bunk an Englishman of some years  was tapping away on his Google Nexus,  and below him, on the lower bunk his wife was reading her Kindle (she was especially happy with her Kindle because it’s ability to present large fonts meant that she was able read in spite of her deteriorating eyesight).

We have these past years encountered many many over-middle age couples like us … is this a trend, or a coincidence, or is it because we do our walking in the Spring or Fall? … Warrants a blog!

All was peace and concentration and everyone was silently doing his or her own thing. That is, until we heard shouting from the younger Brazilian woman on the upper bunk behind ours … man was she shouting … we figured she was on the phone. If that was not enough soon we also heard a man shouting from her bunk… what the(?): She was video Skyping on her i-pad together with her boyfriend in Rio and when we went over to complain over the noise, she just turned her i-pad around so that we could wave together with her boyfriend … lots of laughs and we promised him that we older folks would take care of her.

So you see … though doing the Camino, walking on it, communicating, living and bonding with the other pilgrims inevitably, from the first step we make, draws us into a sort of magical place outside our normal time and space away from hearth and kin and the concerns of the life we left behind, it is still no further away today than a click or a tap on a smartphone, an ipad, iphone, a tablet bursts the bubble of our Camino isolation.

… I wonder wow this development will affect the Camino – not today or tomorrow but  10 years from today …