Châlon-en-Champagne

A couple days of walking. Many canals. Or a handful of endless canals. I walk and walk and sometimes forget the names of then places I pass through – or I never truly learn them in the first place. It is too much mental space. Only rarely do I strike up a conversation with anyone in the villages; this is unfortunate, but the odd glimmer between me and others become brighter because of it, like the man who insisted on buying my bread in Verzy, or the waiter in Corbeny who insisted I sit and rest take a coffee to escape the sun.

Last night I slept behind a hill in a forest, about a two hundred meters away from the perimeter. Maybe it was the water that I had taken earlier taken from a church yard, but I became rather ill. Waking up in the dark, surrounded by a mess of trees and totally alone in a foreign part of a foreign country – it made the morning so much brighter.

Reims

I finally missed a day of posting on this blog. I suspect that this will happen more often from here on out. One thing I’m learning about walking as a mode of transportation is that despite the slowness of progress, one is always walking toward an unknown, and the unknown may not be comfortable or contain the oh-so-vague “facilities” needed for a comfortable moment of writing.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that my senses are always blaring. Now that the landscape is starting to diversify, I’m taking in now forests and hills, now roads in hot descending curls, now villages in white, in brown, in brick, now vineyards.

The world presses for attention, and I may get tired and sore but I’m never bored.

Since I last posted, the pilgrimage has been something like this:

I mulled around in a dead parking lot on Sunday morning in Laon waiting for something to open so I could eat. It opened: McDonalds. Every time I ever sit by a McDonalds (which is not very often, actually), I think of a scene in W.G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz where two characters (one, the narrator, a memory-seeker and architectural historian) discuss something late at night over a McDonalds coffee. Say what we will, it is a phenomena of a certain space and so stirs our memories the way castle halls and so on may have stirred the ancient’s. It’s part of us, though disturbingly the same all around the world.

It’s also pricey and…McDonalds…so I left hungry until the midday greeted me with fresh bread and fruit and fountains in another town.
The sun came to harass the land – and behold, trees and trees and more. I wandered forests and fields until I was beaten by the road and it was nearly dusk so I snuck into a wood between two villages, among many insects, mushrooms and ribbon-like branches. I set up my tent in the dim and fell asleep listening to a renegade cuckoo.

I woke up and crawled out of the woods to this:


Then I began another gruelling, near-40km day in order to make it to Reims to find a place to sleep before it was too late. I am always anxious when approaching cities. Somehow the countryside is simpler, easier to navigate. Unfortunately, the road leading to Reims is through rows of factory yards and fences, before reaching an endless canal that skirts you along to the town centre. The pain in my left foot had returned at this point and I was limping emphatically when I finally reached the cathedral. 

By some stroke of fortune, the Italian pilgrim was there at a nearby bar, on the terrace along with a group of friends he had picked up along the way, drinking champagne. I sat down and the pain numbed and I drank a number of glasses.

Now, as at many times in my life, a windfall. And the world ensures I am okay.

That’s all for now. Unfortunately, blog updates will be more sporadic from here on out. “Facilities” may or may not be on the horizon. In any case, thanks for reading so far. Don’t worry about me, friends. I’ll be in touch soon.

Laon

Today was by far the longest walk so far – side-adventures included, I’m guessing as much as 40km. The Italian pilgrim and I went together and the route was mostly through the large forest (by European standards) of St. Gobain. The landscape itself is getting nicer: more hills, more trees and ponds, fewer massive farms and ghost towns. All this was uplifting.

Still, I struggled to keep up with the Italian pilgrim, who marched a good fifteen paces ahead of me the whole time and often had to stop and stretch so I could catch up. Yet he is a jolly man, kind, full of laughs and generous with his provisions, though a tad rash.

When we eventually arrived in Laon, my plan was to go to the campsite on the outside of town. But the  Italian pilgrim, having no French and little English, asked me to join him to the tourist office to work out where he would sleep. So I followed him, fifteen paces back, up a monster of a hill to the medieval town centre. The tourist office then directed us to the presbytery, who assuredly accepted pilgrims to sleep on the floor.

The priest at the presbytery – and I’m not sure if it’s kind to say this, but I’m in an honest mood – was frigid and non-welcoming. He explained that people come often asking for this and that but he cannot help pilgrims all the time. We also seemed to have intruded on his work and he was even hesitant to give us stamps on our passports. Then the Italian pilgrim (as I said, a tad rash), asked him, “Why not? Why can’t we stay here? I am a pilgrim!”

The priest said, “It is not a good day. Not a good day for me because I have a meeting here.” I know he was angry because he scowled and, most importantly, he switched into English to tell the Italian to his face. The Italian pilgrim insisted the priest was lying.

There was something deeply saddening about this, being turned down by a religious institution to sleep on the floor, but it is hard to explain. The air was heavy and toxic.

However, the priest unlocked a door to another room with tables and chairs in it, said, “8 o’clock,” and walked away. We weren’t sure what this meant. I closed the door and went back to the priest’s office to say thanks and tell him I had closed the door. “D’accord,” he said without looking at me.

So I left the Italian pilgrim there to sleep on he floor at 8, and I truly hope he patches things up with the priest.

I descended to the campsite. Oddly enough, my body feel fine, even my feet, but my head is numb.

If one thing is certain, every day feels like a very different phase of the moon.

In spite of all, there is always absurd pleasure. Enjoy this photo of two children playing on a pile of dirt while Loan looms in the distance. (Update: I have no wifi so I cannot upload the photo!)

Tergnier

I almost didn’t think I would make a post today. It hasn’t been physically draining, but something about the day has been mentally draining, so I remain drained.

I was exceptionally melancholic. Last night, I encountered a group of French men staying at a cabin not far from where I’d pitched my tent. After a brief conversation about how I was a Canadian on a walking tour across France, we all nodded politely and moved on. I fell asleep in my tent while the thunder storm rolled in but was awoken by rumbling at about 9:30, followed by footsteps in the grass a meter from my head. “Hey Canadian, are you okay in there?” the voice asked. “Come over and have some coffee, tea, it’s a good idea.” I said no thanks, I was fatigué and needed to rest. I had to say this several times before they left. An hour later, more thunder and I was awoken again by a hand on top of the tent: “How you want your coffee? Sugar?” I said again no and, oddly, had to convince them repeatedly to leave me in peace. I’m not sure why, but this made me sad; I’m not sure whether the men had good intentions, and I was confused (the heavy rain and thunder had something to do with that, too) In any case, I didn’t sleep well.

And after a rather boring walk away from Seraucourt, passing the through a number of small villages en route, I hit a long calm canal that I knew would lead me into Tergnier. I was still melancholic, very tired, totally alone, and sat down in the grass to breath and watch the water.

I was there for maybe fifteen minutes when a tall man walked by with two wooden sticks and a rainbow coloured backpack, going a solid trot and with headphones in his ears. “Ahh me!” he said when he saw me, “It’s Kevin?”

He turns out to be an Italian pilgrim also walking to Rome; that I happened to be resting there at that moment, head full of clouds, turned out to be serendipitous. We went the rest of the way to Tergnier together (a very nondescript town, by the way, with countless trains and a garland of bakeries and tabac shops). Apparently he was walking a few days ago with the American pilgrims I met in Canterbury – this is how he knew my name, and the fact that I was ahead of him on the path.

We went to the address I was given when I called the church a couple days ago. It turns out to be a house that has been repurposed as a temporary office space and meeting hall for the presbytery here. There was in fact a meeting happening earlier, which the Italian pilgrim and I certainly disturbed with our uncanny presence.

Because I had only called for myself, the people were confused, but we all just went with the motions. When the Italian pilgrim and I were left alone in the house, I went and set up my sleeping mat in a room full of months-old newspapers, cobwebs, contemporary theological books, boxes that once held printers, and a series of plates with “Profession de Foi” written on them – drained, drained.

Seraucourt-le-Grand

From one campsite to the next, I was afoot for about twelve hours, albeit with a couple long breaks. It was rough but beautiful. I walked slowly through misty forests on the outskirts of Péronne and was protected from the drizzle until I hit the open country – then I hid myself and my rucksack under a dark tarp and continued the journey as a ghostly hunchback figure and thought, for no particular reason really, about The Wife of Bath’s Tale. She is the best of the Canterbury pilgrims. She may have walked here, too, as she had apparently made it to Jerusalem.

This was one of my favourite legs so far, as it was mostly through quiet woods and villages until the final stretch on a busy motorway into Seraucourt. At one point a car pulled over to tell me say “Bon courage, but it’s dangerous to walk on the roads in the mist because cars may slip.” As soon as I walked off the road, onto a far more roundabout country lane, another vehicle came and said, “Bon courage, but it’s better to walk on the road as it will get you there much faster.”

I suppose it did.

Again, I had nowhere to stay, and planned to pitch up discretely in the woods until I stumbled across a campsite that offers showers, internet, etc. to marcheurs for eight euros. So I’m back to sitting by a pond, amidst Dutch caravans, drinking a very cheap two-portion bottle of wine that is, according to the label, “The wine of the European community.” 

Another day done and gone. Tomorrow I’m off to Tergnier. At the last campsite, I asked the receptionist to call a church there to see if they accept pilgrims. After an awkward conversation on the phone in which she had to explain how we found their name in a several-year-old guidebook (although perhaps not, because their number had changed and they appeared to not know what we were referring to) and that I am simply “A young Canadian man walking to Italy,” the church acquiesced.

There will be a thunderstorm tonight. No need for soft entertainment like books.


Also, politics anyone? It seems that every village is plastered with this, or things like it. An interesting time to be in France, anyway:

Péronne (still)

Péronne was a nice place to stop: a pleasant, well-equipped town on this hot and humid day. Although I did wander to the outskirts where the department stores are to find some odds and ends that I have lost or forgotten (correction: I didn’t find any of them), I spent most of the day in the shade watching people. At one point a car drove past me, honked, and waved – this happened several times when I was looking like a randonneur, but this time I’m not sure. Maybe I knew him in an another life.

And then, like a true post-modern pilgrim, I crossed a McDonalds making what seems to be an homage to Nirvana:


I also had time to drink wine and read Virginia Woolf. This may be a digression to the pilgrimage, but Orlando may have become one of my favourite books. Although I disagree that a love of nature is an “English disease,” I can appreciate what Virginia Woolf was thinking and responding too as she tried to excavate our relationship to it in the twentieth century and beyond. It took Orlando the character two hundred years and two lifetimes as two genders, all the while a failed lover and failed poet, to come to her revelation on the modern Zeitgeist, the modern spirit (wherever it ambulates).


“We can almost dispense with language…we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.”

Péronne

The lady in Bapaume woke exceptionally early to make breakfast for me – or, it seemed to be that way because I woke before six to pack up my tent and she was already stirring in the house. Her mother was sleeping upstairs so we spoke in whispers; unfortunately, the food she served was a toasted baguette with jam that barked every time it was bitten.

So I started the day awkwardly but exceptionally early for once and arrived in Péronne at about 3:30. I went a good thirty kilometres or more, but somehow my body and feet took it in stride. It is amazing how one night’s rest can prepare your feet for another full day of assault. 

Still, today I consciously took time to rest and remind myself that I’m not rushed: the darkness isn’t coming; the darkness doesn’t come until 9 p.m. or later. Even if the darkness comes, all the better because it would make it easier to find a place to hide and camp on the edge of a forest, maybe.

I felt no pain until the last bit of walking through Péronne itself, which seems to be a city: small, but a city, which meant a fair bit of treading pavement even after I reached the destination. Now that it’s evening though, I notice that the small toe on my left foot is somewhat swollen, which means friction which means fire.

I want to say something about the walking, this slow and steady means of movement. It seems like the body takes time to adapt, but so does the mind. At least in my experience, the mind and moods fluctuate as the day goes on and that is normal, no matter what you’re doing. Memories, ideas new and old, faces, so on. But while under physical stress like this, combined the constant worry about who or what will provide food and sleep (although I’m starting to worry less and less about this), the body and the mind and the world seem to dialogue more. For example, I spent a couple of days now walking through long flat stretches of farmland, often dusty and with little shade, with hardworking people who generally will not make eye-contact – but sometimes even slight things, like a stretch of trees or a cooler breeze or a ripple in the landscape, fall heavy on a walker. And today I emerged from the flat, mechanized farmland to uncover a canal and I sat watching a barge move on it. I waved at the man inside and he waved back. It was a profound moment, and a change.

Now, France seems to be getting more forested, diverse, river-swiped, and this excites me. I look forward to what the next few days bring.

Péronne itself is a pretty place. Their epithet, as displayed on the welcoming sign, was something like “The city of flowered villages.” When I came in, everyone was cutting their lawns and trimming their hedges. Then two boys came by riding one bicycle and saying, “Whoa, un randonneur!” (I’m not sure what was so surprising about this, but I took it as a complement). They rode by again a few minutes later and said hello, as though we had become friends. They stared, too, but certainly not out of rudeness. It was another good moment – the days are decorated with these.

Then I walked out of Péronne, to a campsite on the outskirts and washed my clothes in the shower and laid down directly on the grass.

I noticed that writing these posts gives me a peace of mind. It is something I can do only when I am completely at ease. So I guess I’ve been lucky for a small moment every day. And even though I’m completely prepared to sleep in the woods, I always find a place to stay, even though I rarely plan ahead…Today it’s a campsite with an empty on-site bar that plays Euro-pop music videos on the T.V.

Also, I have been reading everyone’s messages to me. Unfortunately, internet access has been very spotty so I haven’t been able to focus and respond, and may not get the chance to for some time. But the support is incredibly appreciated, a kind of food even! Thank you.

I decided to spend two days here in the campsite in Péronne and nurse my feet. Also because I bought a bottle of wine that, lovely as it is, is not worth the added weight.

Bapaume

I slept and woke very early, took breakfast, and went to ask the woman on staff if she would call the parish in Bapaume to let them know I was coming and – if possible – let me sleep on the floor. We left a message.

So I stumbled through Arras in the dawn looking for the day’s provisions. I stumbled for two hours in Arras in the dawn because, I learned again, nothing in France opens until relatively late. 

It was slow and depressing goings out of the minor sprawl of Arras and slower more depressing goings once I hit the countryside. The sky was overcast all day and the roads were rather boring so the mood never changed, like a movie with only once scene played on repeat. Many massive farms, few wooded sections, and at one point I may have passed an abattoir – in any case, I heard animals screaming inside.

About an hour into the walk, the pain in my toes became too much, so I strapped the boots to my pack and wore sandals all day. Miraculously, it worked – I have new blisters now, but the old ones are hibernating.

Also, I shouldn’t say the walk was all boring. I saw more shrines today than any other day, including one with a VF mark inside, along with a notebook signed by pilgrims who have passed through. The rest of the shrines were eerily locked, ridden with weeds and insects and dead birds, and if you peer through the cracks you can see Mary’s face and body weather-worn and falling to bits. These were all in use at some point – being part of this line of walkers, even as a “traveller in an antique land,” gave me inspiration of some kind.

I reached Bapaume and crossed a few men backing a camion into a warehouse. They asked me where I was going. When I said Rome, they asked if I was going to meet the pope. Maybe, I said to them, but probably not because I don’t know when he is in. They wished me”Bon courage!”

My intended accommodation was awkwardly placed beside a high school that was just being let out and I got dozens of odd looks walking by. A note to future pilgrims: letting people know you’re a pilgrim is great, but carrying a long stick as a walking pole and having grass in your hair and otherwise being a “traveller in an antique land” will get you lots of attention whether positive or not.

Anyway, the building was closed so I was left without a place to stay. Still fairly early, I went into the town centre (well, the centre of the large village) and found a tourist information building. I did not expect it, but I imagine it exists because of the amount of WWI-oriented tourism that exists in this part of France. The woman at the desk phoned a number of people in town to get me a good deal on a place to stay. When I said I’d happily sleep in a garden and forgo a shower and any meals, she gave me an address on the outskirts of town.

When I arrived at said address, the lady who owns the house said something that I believe translates to “What youth!” and gave me tea, free roam of the house, and an offer for breakfast anyway. We had a pleasant chat over vanilla tea and biscuits and then I went outside because I’m still, indeed, sleeping in the garden amongst many squirrels. Bon courage!

Arras

I woke at six and was greeted in the hallway by J, who had already been up for hours. He had no way to tell the time and thought it was already eight and time to eat breakfast with the priests. I told him to wait a while and, in the meantime, he went to kitchen of the guesthouse and tried to revive a long-deceased stove so that he could make coffee.

Me, I wandered into the adjoining woods to take in the air, only for half an hour, if even that, and when I came back the stove was still broken and J was gone. His bags were gone, too. I felt a pang of sadness. Did he leave because he thought I had abandoned him? He explicitly told me a few days ago to not abandon him – I did not…I was merely with the sparrows in the woods. So that’s the end of the chapter – someone has been abandoned but I don’t know who…

I went to breakfast then, and sat at a table with one of the head priests, who I assume also functions as principal of the boarding school. We had a nice conversation about the school and about pilgrimages. He asked if I was Catholic. I said no. Protestant? No again. Nothing then? We had a good laugh over this and he told me that today is Sunday and that I should come to mass because it might be interesting to hear Latin. Also because today is a special day for Jean D’Arc (or Joan of Arc) and there would a sermon on her life and legacy.

So I waited around a bit and attended mass at 10:30. There was a great deal of singing, both from the boys of the school and a small group of young women whose role I do not know, but they sang with soaring, complex voices. And the laypersons, it seemed, all sang too, always with one or two voices ahead of the crowd or lagging behind; sound clouded in the rafters and fell on our heads. I think I may have been the only full church I have ever seen.

I had to scurry out early because the service lasted at least two hours and I was anxious to get on my way to Arras, knowing I had nowhere to sleep there and that I’d need to work that out upon arrival.

So I walked, alone once again, through a gloomy and overcast half-rainy landscape. I saw hardly a soul until I reached the outskirts of Arras. Just me and the pain in my feet which grew and grew; as the blisters broke down, new blisters formed below (through? under? in spite of) them.

Not many pilgrims comment on the pain, and I don’t want to dwell on it, but I will at least say this: I wished with every step that my feet would turn numb. It isn’t only the pain itself, but the fear that walking on and on is making the situation worse. Once I reached Arras, traffic became heavier and drivers turned their heads and furrowed their brows and gaped at this person hobbling through their safe grassy streets. I was tempted to hop into every alley and hide from them, take off my socks, and stir in my head thoughts of soft sand and warm footprints.

The odd thing was that this was probably one of the shortest walking days so far.

I went to the tourist office to get a pilgrim stamp. Now, the woman in Amettes, in addition to pointing me to the boarding school, told me to ask for a pilgrim refuge at the tourist office in Arras because I will be given a nearby address of a place to stay. So she saved me twice. Si vous lisez ça, merci du fond de mon coeur!

I was directed to where I am now – a room in a fairly large complex, the purpose of which I am not entirely sure. Other pilgrims who have been here may laugh at me, but I have no idea who I am surrounded by or what this building is for. The man who let me in explained that there are garçons staying in the other rooms but mine is set aside for marcheurs.

I’ll go explore now, softly, softly, and maybe my feet will smile.

Here is a picture from today’s walk, before the urban skyline came in:

Camblain-l’Abbé

I slept for nearly nine hours and woke up in a room alone in Amettes. The woman who owned the auberge met me in the courtyard and smiled. “Sleep good?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, and would have loved to talk more but knew I had to meet J by the cathedral – indeed, he was waiting for me because he had been up since five; I suppose, pacing around and shaving.
The priest from yesterday had left J with two sandwiches, a small teacup and a canister of instant chicory root coffee. So there he was, offering me this beverage in a small teacup, warm as tap water can be, and asking me where we were going.

The woman from the auberge had told me that there is a private school in Camblain-l’Abbé, about thirty kilometres away, that may be able to put me up. So I showed J this place on the map and we set off (I should add, with hardly any food). We walked all day, almost entirely along a busy paved road called D-341. At one point I stopped in a market to buy bread and conserves and anything else I need, knowing that stores in this part of France can close for any number of days at virtually any time (or so it seems in my confusion). Aside from that, I was with J non-stop, listening to stories of his life: the time he saved a woman’s life in a Spanish train station, his long indignant history with Austrian police, and other things, like how to make homemade insoles from cardboard. I’ve learned a great deal from absorbing this man’s ingenuity.

We arrived in Camblain l’Abbé – not an exceptionally friendly place, in my brief experience, where people have signs on their gates discussing how their dog can kill you – and found the private school. 

A few young boys brought us to the resident priests, who welcomed us with wide smiles and offered us room and board for the evening. It appears that the woman from Amettes had phoned them on my behalf to explain that I was coming, so they already knew my name. 

I tried to explain to them that J only has five euros – they said he could stay for free, not a problem, and told us to come to the hall at seven for mass and the subsequent meal. 

J and I went to our individual rooms. “I have a bed?” J said and stepped in. I sat at my own bed and relished in the warm silence. A few minutes later: “Ya good, Kevin?” he shouts. “Your feet good, Kevin? I’m just finishing up that coffee.”

In my strain to understand the French of the priests earlier, I failed to explain that I am a vegetarian. But I am mentally prepared to take a bullet for vegetarians everywhere and be an awkward dinner guest to a hall of kind and generous Catholic schoolboys.