Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Monday, 30 June 2014

Day 25. June 30, 2014. Bagneres de Bigorre to Lourdes. 24 kms

 Do not seek to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Monique was joined last night by a friend whom she had met on a previous chemin. I have enjoyed walking with Monique, well, not walking exactly for we both preferred to walk alone, but meeting up with her at the gites in the evening. She is continuing to Oloron-Sainte-Marie. I wish her well.

The hospitalier at the gite had given us a copy of a google map with a highlighted route to Lourdes which was even shorter than the itinerary we had been given a couple of days ago at Saint Bertrand. He showed us the way out of town, and mentioned something about the equestrian centre.

I set out about half-past eight, passed the equestrian centre, and followed the only possible route. As I passed the lovely couple above, I wondered what you called a baby donkey. An asset? 

I was a little uneasy when I seemed to be heading south-west instead of north, but there was no way I could have gone wrong. I climbed and climbed, and eventually ran into Monique and her friend who had left before me. We had indeed gone wrong, but a kind old man put us right and drove us back to the right road. He dropped me back at the equestrian centre where apparently I should have taken a road so insignificant that I wouldn't have noticed it unless I had been looking for it. Of course, I should have been looking for it, but our hospitalier had spoken so quickly that I hadn't understood.

To make up for lost time, for I had a train to catch, I decided to take the most direct route possible, even if it was along a busy road. I was racing along, and as I climbed a hill, I was passed by a couple of motor bikes. At the top was an ambulance with flashing lights, and I feared that one of the bikers had failed to make the turn. But no, it was an older man on his back on the road. The paramedics were working frantically on him, but to no avail. Perhaps he was a farmer who had stepped out onto the road and been hit by a car. A woman was sobbing nearby. So sudden, so unexpected. So many lives changed forever.

I wouldn't recommend this route, the D937, although it was certainly fast walking (5.4 kph), as the shoulder was narrow, and the traffic quite heavy, but I wanted to get to Lourdes to catch a train.

So I gave Lourdes short shrift, but from all I have heard, it wasn't my kind of town.

This was not my most enjoyable walk. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I was having to do too much road walking. Perhaps I was always rushing. Perhaps it was too hilly for me.

I leave you on a lighter note. I wish to apologize to all the dogs whom I have criticized for barking at me. Truth is, they only bark when they are in their yards. Often, when they are out walking with their master or mistresses, they come and greet me in a friendly fashion.

A couple of days ago, I was walking through a little village and ahead of me was a raised garden. Four dogs barked at me as I approached. As I walked passed the garden, a woman leaned over the wall and apologized on behalf of her dogs. The dogs put their front feet on the wall and looked down at me. They too looked contrite.

Tous les chiens aboient a moi
Je sais pourquoi ils aboient a moi
C'est parce qu'ils guardent leur territoire
Que tous les chiens aboient a moi

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Day 24. June 29, 2014. Moulin des Baronnies to Bagneres de Bigores. 22kms

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! 

It was a gradual climb for most of the morning through lonely little villages in the hills. I passed several old mills and marvelled at the innocence and simplicity of harnessing water power to drive machinery. Until the invention of the steam engine we lived in harmony with our planet. Later, the road became steeper until eventually I passed through the Col de Palomieres at 810 metres, having climbed about 1500 feet from our campsite.

It was quite wild at the top, and lonely, but for a rather posh and popular restaurant, where I popped in for a salade tomate. For the first time on this walk, I was cold.

And then down again into the valley, with the GR providing a more direct route for a change, and along the river to the town of Bagneres de Bigorre.

We are staying tonight at the Accueil Notre Dame, a rather dilapidated industrial building which is soon to be refurbished.

Bagneres is fair-sized town, the first opportunity in several days to stock up on supplies. No restaurants were open on Sunday night, but I was directed to the casino for a meal. I suspected that other restaurants were closed because they couldn't compete.

The menu at 14 € began with a complimentary glass of champagne. What a nice touch! And then a salad, duck steaks, and strawberry ice cream. As the French say, It was correct.

I will arrive in Lourdes tomorrow, where I must stop. I have run out of time.

I have just learned that an old friend, David Riesen, has died, the third great teacher-colleague-friend to go in recent times. He was well  respected in his church, in the Mennonite community at large, in the city of Winnipeg, and further afield, and much will have been written and spoken about him. I travelled with him, and we had many a glass of wine or brandy together. I am sad that I will not have the chance to do that again. Some people make other lives richer. David was one of those people.

He was a Christian, but he never once mentioned Jesus to me. I have known Christians who manage to squeeze Jesus into every sentence, and do their faith no credit, but David was silent on the subject. He lived his faith, and by his example made agnostics like me keep an open mind. Farewell, David.

Day 23. June 28, 2014. Montserie to Moulin-des-Baronnies

For this relief much thanks

Marie at Saint-Bertrand gave us a new itinerary for pilgrims to follow from Montserie to Lourdes. It follows the GR where practicable, but most of the time it takes the little country roads from village to village. It is shorter and easier than the GR in its entirety.

I left the gite early and stopped for a chunk of cheese at Lortet. A group of randonneurs were assembling by the river and set off soon after my arrival, a couple of dozen females from eight to eighty, and one man, who of course was their leader. I hope he doesn't lead them astray.

As so often happens, a fellow who had walked the Camino came to chat and we shared experiences. It is always a pleasant interlude during the day.

It is interesting country, forever changing. I can remember walking for days on end beside the Loire, or across the plains, or over the moors with little change of scenery, but here, one minute it is flat with corn fields on either side, and then it's lush pasture with ruminating cows, and then I'm up on a ridge or down in a valley. And the high Pyrenees are never very far away.

After a long descent into a valley, always to be regretted, because it means a greater climb tomorrow, I arrived at the campground at Moulin des Baronnies, where we are staying tonight in a gite.

This is a very peaceful spot beside a stream which runs under the old mill, which in its present form has become our gite. When I arrived, a couple were sitting in their chairs outside their caravan. Three hours later, after my second Leffe, they were still there. Several elderlies were playing pétanques. And all the while the stream gurgled by.

I have another experience to add to my collection of bizarre bathrooms.This time a trickle issued forth from both the hot and cold taps in the shower. Miserable buggers, I thought to myself. They are really trying the save their water. This despite the fact that the old mill stream flows right underneath us. I was soaping myself up when the trickle threatened to dry up altogether. Bloody hell, I thought, I'm covered in soap. I'm buggered. Then there was a trembling, a pulsation, and a sound like a steam train pulling out of the station, and the water started gushing out of the shower in a veritable torrent. Apparently, some pump had started operating and was making up for its earlier deficiency.

Day 22. June 27, 2014. Saint-Bernard-de-Comminges to Montserie. 22 kms

Last night I slept in a feather bed

The gite last night was the most comfortable I have experienced. It was more of a chambre d'hôtes really, as Marie, our host, supplied towels, and the beds were made up with sheets. She said that she doesn't have any other guests; she just wants to cater to pilgrims. In the morning, she led me out of town to the beginning of the footpath.

At first the going was easy. I climbed slowly with a nice view of the cathedral on my right. I passed a group of randonneurs who were out for their weekly hike. I ran into them again after I had missed a turning and made an unintended detour. Their leader, Jean, was a little odd. At first he was willing to give me directions, but when I had a follow-up question, he walked away and didn't want to talk to me. He may have been a little embarrassed because he had just led his group in the wrong direction. Oh well, it takes all sorts. I continued along the GR which sometimes followed a track through the woods and sometimes the road.

Suddenly, it left the road and took off at right angles down to the river. I slid down the slope, slippery after last night's rain, and followed the muddy path around the river through tree-high weeds and nettles. I was assailed by March flies and mosquitos and midges and ticks, and other sundry buzzing insects. After that experience, I resolved to follow the GR only on the high ground. 

The trouble is that you ever know what it is going to do. Sometimes I have taken the road only to find out later that the walk along the path was spectacular and not difficult at all. Other times I have taken the GR to find it difficult and interminable.

I had my crust and cheese at Lombres, and made my way by circuitous country roads via Hautaget to Montserie. I passed some spectacular gardens. Sometimes the flowers were displayed in unusual ways.

Tonight we are staying at a municipal gite in the middle of nowhere. IIt's a fine modern gite with a washing machine, so I was able to wash most of my clothes. I prepared a fine meal of sausages and lentils. This is an old favourite of mine. Last year I carried an emergency can of the same for those occasions when nothing was open. Tonight's can for two was provided by the mayor. 

Later, I extracted a tick that was embedded in my hip. The ticks here are tiny little buggers, not like our old friends in Manitoba.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Day 21. June 26, 2014. Saint-Pe-d'Ardet to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. 17 kms

On mange comme des rois

I have been reflecting how different the gies have been over the last few days.

At Le Mas-d'Azil with Paster Bordes the ambience was somewhat religious. I slept above a chapel.  He said Grace before breakfast, and asked questions about my religious beliefs. He was not dismayed when I said I was non croyant and seemed interested in my Protestant background and the state of the various Protestant denominations in Canada. With the community at La Mauraudes, the discussion was more intellectual as we discussed the relationship between Esperanto and other languages. At Portet-d'Aspet chez Jo, the atmosphere was rural French, a slice of life the way it must have been for 100 years or more. Singing, dancing, loud discussion with voices rising to emphasize a point.

Last night was a little different. Apparently, the old farmhouse had been bought and was being developed by a group of nine partners, and one of them confessed that they didn't all get on. Imagine! Even a partnership of two or three could be a risky venture, but nine! Two of the partners were there at the gite: one, rather severe; the other, friendly. 

Monique, my camarade du chemin, was perturbed when she found out that the cost for the stay, demi-pension, was 40 euros. It was more than we expected, particularly when the gite had been recommended as pilgrim accommodation. She wouldn't let it go. She pointed out that pilgrims couldn't and wouldn't pay more than 30 €. Her budget, she said, was 29 €. "Well, I guess, today, you'll break your budget," said the severe partner. The friendly one said nothing but looked uncomfortable. This conversation continued more or less pleasantly (I'm not being sarcastic) over dinner.

At breakfast this morning, Monique took it up again with the sister of the friendly partner, who seemed to be the resident cook. She agreed that 40 € was too much but it was the men who decided these things. However, she thought 30 € was fair, and we paid her that amount. Monique continued to argue her case even after the deal was done. I don't know whether the men had already decided to lower the price, or whether the friendly partner's sister was to face the wrath of the severe partner later in the day.

The walk today was very easy: down through a couple of little villages to the bank of the Garonne, and then along a cycle path to Saint-Bertrand. The workers at the gite decided that I needed a stick.

Tonight's Accueil Pelerin chez Mme Huchan has a very homely atmosphere and  comprises a couple of rooms attached to a house. Very comfortable indeed. The lady cooked us a simple but superb meal: an unbelievably tasty vegetable soup, consisting of carrots, peas, squash, onions and a variety of herbs, and then stuffed zucchinis and a kind of pate cake. This was followed by two of the cheeses of the region. Accompanied by wine, of course.

I haven't mentioned the weather for a while because it hasn't been spectacular. But it's been good for walking, cool, often raining overnight, heavy clouds above the mountains always threatening a storm but holding off. I haven't needed to get out my rain gear. But this afternoon after I arrived, it started, so I borrowed an umbrella to walk up to the high town to visit the cathedral.

Cathedrals seem to have sprung up like mushrooms in this part of the country. La Cathedrale de Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is famous for its magnificent choir stalls, 66 in all, beautifully carved with their wooden misericordia and panels behind. And there is a very fine organ at the back of the nave. In fact, perhaps because it was a religious community with few townsfolk in the vicinity, the choir occupies most of the church and the nave is relatively small. The lower town was served by its own church, and nearby, now standing alone in a field is the magnificent Romanesque church of Saint-Just-de-Valcabrere.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Day 20. June 25, 2014. Portet-d'Aspet to Saint-Pe-d'Ardet. 27 kms

What passion cannot music raise and quell?

It was an interesting evening Chez Jo. The man himself appeared a couple of times during the afternoon, but at 86 years old he leaves the management to others and seems to take responsibility for the chooks. The loo is covered with posters of past events Chez Jo, including performances by various visiting bands and by Jo himself on the accordion. After supper, he brought out his instrument, his son grabbed a guitar, and everybody started dancing, including the dog.

We were eight at dinner, and the conversation was fast and furious, too fast for me, particularly with the accent in these parts, but it touched on a serious issue that is always just beneath the surface in France. I have encountered it many times.

There is a real fear, justified or not, I don't know, that France's very identity is threatened by the unwillingness of some immigrants and their descendants to participate in mainstream society and become "French". The perception is that they remain in enclaves with their own cultural and religious practices, and that with their higher birth rate, they will in time outnumber the secular French and threaten their very existence.

There is another problem in France, which also concerns the national identity. It was also evident Chez Jo.

No one in the village is employed. The people who drop into the bar are retired or on social assistance. And the same is true all over France. In countless villages, I have passed boarded up shops and factories that used to sustain the community.

In the capitalistic world, we let the villages die if they can't survive on their own. But in France, I suspect that rural life has been heavily subsidized in recent years because it is the real France, and the government cannot afford to let it die. But how can it afford to continue to support it?

Leaving the gite just after eight, I took the GR straight up the hill, cutting the road several times as it looped its way up to the Col Portet-d'Aspet, and then I climbed even higher as the path clung perilously to the side of the hill while the road wound on down. Three hours later I arrived in Juzet-d'Izaut where I stopped for lunch.

Then I climbed again up to the next pass, the Col des Ares. This time when the GR left the road up a steep slope, I decided to continue on the road. It was a seven-kilometre steady climb. And then down a Roman road to Saint-Pe-d'Ardet, our stop for the night. This road was a fine example of the Romans' engineering skill. In places, the original interlocking stones were still in place.

It was an interesting gite, an old farmhouse still undergoing extensive renovation. One of the workers was an Englishman, a carpenter, who lived in the nearby village of Lourde (without an "s"). He said he has no trouble finding work in France because he gets more done in a day than his French counterparts who tend to take long lunch hours.

In the evening, we strolled into the village. A gospel choir was making a recording in one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches I have ever seen. Apparently, the paintings above the altar had been discovered about 40 years ago. They had been plastered over.

This was not your typical French choir. They were all young singers and the sound was quite beautiful. Their director made dramatic cat-like gestures to draw out their voices, and they responded in kind, shaping the notes with their hands. They were feeling the music. Unfortunately, as I took the picture below, the camera made an audible ping, and he had to begin the recording again. But he didn't insist that I erase the picture.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Day 19. June 24, 2014. Arrout to Portet-d'Aspet. 19 kms

O you'll take the high road
And I'll take the low road

I cannot recommend the Gite la Mauraude highly enough. It was quite a different atmosphere from any I have experienced before. We were guests, not clients. Indeed, at the price they charged, they would have barely covered their costs.

It rained heavily during the night, but the day promised to be fair. As I walked down the hill to Castillon the birds were singing and the sun was slanting through the trees and catching the mist. The sound of rushing water grew louder as I walked down, and eventually I arrived at a dam, and then the village.

A whiff of the water was a Proustian moment for me. I recalled my early days playing around the Swan River in Perth. Sometimes in the afternoon the water would have a characteristic smell, some would say stink or stench, but to me it was never unpleasant. An older friend would try to catch fish with a kylie, a sharpened metal cross which knifed through the water to impale the fish below. I don't remember him catching anything, though. My mother paid the same friend two bob to teach me to swim. My memory is hazy, but I think he just tossed me off the end of the jetty. I didn't sink.

I have two other Proustian experiences. Smoke from a coal fire will take me back to the era of steam trains which passed close by, and to this day the sight of a castor oil plant will make me feel queezy. When I was seven or eight years old, some of us ate some seeds from the plant, and I vomited all the way back from the top of Waratah Avenue to my grandmother's place in Victoria Ave. where we lived at the time.

I reached the highway and headed west. As I've said before, I'm a purist to the extent that I'll walk every step of the way and not take the bus or tram to avoid the monotonous stretches. But I'm not above taking a short cut along the highway, particularly if the traffic is light. And there are a couple of advantages: the climb is more gradual and the coffee stops more frequent.

Just in case you thought I was making all this up, I took a photo in one of those convex mirrors opposite a blind alley. Perhaps you've already noticed how the weather was changing as the day progressed.

I looked up and saw my friend Monique following the GR high above. I belted out the appropriate song.

I have often wondered why Scottish songs are generally happy and optimistic, while Irish songs are more melancholy. There are no Irish patriotic songs to compare with "Scots wa hae", for example, and the archetypical Irish song, "Danny Boy", is a sad and sentimental piece, appropriately sung in the bar by people of Irish ancestry after a few drinks. Others like "The Rose of Tralee" have the same sad strain. 

In "Danny Boy", he's dead, but she's still in love with him. In "The Rose of Tralee", she's dead, but he's still in love with her. In the Scottish "Annie Laurie, he would "lay me down and dee" for her, but he doesn't have to.

Scottish romantic ballads like "Aye Fond Kiss" are profoundly beautiful, and to me, "John Anderson, my Jo" is perhaps the most moving song ever written, especially when sung by Kenneth McKellar. I can't listen to it very often, and even now just hearing the song in my head is enough to bring tears to my eyes. And I'm not a particularly emotional person.

Has the oppression of the Irish by the English and the Church shaped their popular songs while Scottish songs reflect the Scots' rugged independence and optimism?

At Saint-Larry I stopped at a restaurant for one of the best omelets I have ever tasted. Then, although it was less than an hour up the highway to Portet-d'Aspet, I thought about taking the GR for the final stretch. I looked at the signpost at the footpath. "Portet-d'Aspet 3 hours," it said, pointing up at a Mount Everest. What would you do? Take the footpath? You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

This rarely happens, but it is such a good experience when it does: I arrived at the gite before I expected to. 

We are staying tonight in a loft above a pub called Chez Jo. The toilet is down below, reached by steep, lethal stairs without a handrail. There is an outdoor exit as well leading to a balcony and stairs going down to a garden and another toilet of the primitive variety. Colder and wetter if it's raining, but safer. I had a shower down there, half outdoors, but with a wooden plank roof which leaked. The water was warm under the shower, and then cold as I raced up the stairs in the rain.

Day 18. June 23, 2014. Saint-Lizier to Arout. 17 kms

He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again

It should have been an easy day, and it was really, but for a couple of brutal climbs at the end. One was justified; the other, not. I have mentioned before how the GR will do any thing to get you off the road, even to the extent of taking you around three sides of a rectangular field if the fourth side is along the road. 

One of the loops off the road today entailed a rugged climb, over dirt and slippery rocks, a switchback, each section hopefully the last, but no, still on and up, the top at last, and then down again, all to avoid a short section of the highway. 

It was a little confusing leaving town this morning, since the sign was pointing one way but I knew I had to go in the other. The first person I asked for help gave me Manuel's response. "I know nothing," he said. The second person pointed me in absolutely the wrong direction. "It's down there," he said. A little later on, but still in the suburbs, after I had been misdirected by a GR sign sending me to the left,  the third person said, "She went that way," and pointed down the street. So I knew that Monique, a French pilgrim I had met several gites ago, had also been misled by the sign. "You cross over a field and go over a footbridge," he said. The fourth person said I couldn't cross the field because there were savage dogs in it.

I knew I had somehow missed the path, so I followed the highway which was heading in the same direction. Eventually, I rejoined the GR which passed through several villages along the river. Then it crossed the road and took off up the hill, up and down, up and down, eventually to arrive at Arrout. 

I passed a very convincing artificial hedge. It was so well groomed and had me fooled for a moment. Strips of green plastic, looking for all the world like leaves, were woven into a wire mesh fence. No watering, no trimming. Very effective! And then I saw a little fox terrier carrying a tennis ball. He would stop, put it down, but never leave it behind. His master explained that he always took it with him when he went for a walk.

It was fortunate that the gite where I had intended to stay was closed. Instead, I stopped a few kilometres earlier at a Centre de Vacances, la Maraude, at Arrout. The last institution of this kind where I stayed was drab and depressing, but this was just the opposite. It was a huge converted farm house. I had a room to myself, in what was once the hayloft, and the food, mostly from their garden, was excellent. All for 26 €.

It was a colony, offering, as their card puts it, "des sejours, nature, pour les enfants". But it was also an Esperanto study centre, offering courses and conferences in the language.Now I, in my ignorance, had thought that Esperanto had died a natural death, especially with the rise of English as an international language, but no, it is alive and well, if not exactly kicking. Apparently, it was taught in schools in France during the wars, but not since.

They all spoke the language fluently, and spoke of it with great enthusiasm.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Day 17. June 22, 2014. Le Mas-d'Azil to Saint-Lizier. 28 kms

En passant par Lorraine
Avec mes sabots

Last night was la Fete de la Musique in France. In every town, in every village, there was singing and dancing and playing in the squares and in the churches. I sat in the church and listened to the familiar sound of a French choir dominated by aged female voices. Three men did their best. But it was still a delight to see. And then in the grande place I watched a groupe folklorique dance in their quaint wooden clogs. And then another choir singing familar traditional French songs. This part of the festival came to an abrupt end with the arrival of a heavy rock group, three guitars and drums. I watched as a portly gentleman with walking stick and straw hat gesticulated with the sound man. "Trop fort!" he was saying. I think the sound man pretended to twist a nob in the manner of sound men everywhere, amateur and professional, when asked to turn the music down.

Later, in a park beside the river, the evening concluded with la Feu de Saint-Jean, a sort of French equivalent of Guy Fawkes night. A group of villagers, carrying torches, came up the river and set alight a huge bonfire from which we could feel the heat a hundred yards away.

In the morning we, Monique, a French pilgrim, and I, had breakfast in the presbytery with the pastor. He is a cat person. Three cats roamed around the old house and climbed all over him.

Now there are cats and cats. There are stuck-up, snotty nosed little cats that wouldn't pass the time of day with you and there big congenial cats that climb all over you and purr contentedly when you stroke them. The pastor's cats were of the latter variety.

He was very proud of his bell, which was called Norman. It had been presented to him by his parishioners.

As I walked along the road towards Clermont I found myself singing the familiar traditional French song that I had heard last night at la Fete de la Musique. I remembered learning it sixty years ago in Miss Secombe's French class. I was filled was a deep sense of regret. To have dropped French and taken up Geology was the first big mistake of my life, and one that I have regretted ever since.

Perhaps the most common question we children were asked by adults was "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I didn't know. Other kids did. This worried me as I grew older. What was I going to do? I think that is why, when suddenly Geology was offered in my second last year at school, I seized upon it as a profession I could follow. What a mistake! I graduated from school with three sciences and two Maths, caught up, probably, in the Sputnik-motivated science wave. But I soon realized at university, that, to use an Australian expression of the time, I was useless in Maths and Science. I was a no-hoper! Strangely, just before we graduated, they had given us an aptitude test, and my top interests were literature and music. 

I stopped for coffee at Clermont. It was a very pleasant place, run by the proprietor and his two dogs. Now the French have a rather severe attitude to their dogs, they expect them to know their place, but not this man. He loved his dogs and they loved him. They were long-haired shepherd-collie-type mutts, and they lolled around in the bar because they owned it. One was a gourmand, explained the barman, as the dog sniffed the bread in my pack. He ate with the clients, forever seeking new delicacies.

I left the road and followed a track up a hill. I passed through an electric fence, carefully detatching the hook with the plastic handle and then fastening it again behind me. Forgetting that electric fences, like commas, often come in pairs, I came within inches of giving myself a nasty shock where I didn't want one. I continued on along a farm track which wound its way up and around the hills.

I sang Waltzing Matilda to a bunch of cows who nodded their heads in approval, swung their tales in time, and joined in the chorus, indicating their pleasure by coming towards me as if to say, "Sing it again." They knew a good tenor voice when they heard one. But I couldn't stay.

What a magnificent song is Waltzing Matilda! Just after I left in the sixties (Stop me if I've told you this story before),  Australia held a referendum to decide which song would replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem. The choice was between Song of Australia, an insipid piece, something about a sky gleaming with a thousand eyes, or was it a thousand dyes, I never knew; Waltzing Matilda; and Advance Australia Fair. The first was never in the running, and Australians, who take themselves too seriously at times, thought that Waltzing Matilda was a bit too frivolous, and chose Advance Australia Fair, a very generic anthem with unsingable words, which nobody knows anyway. They fake it, until they get to the bit they know.

Dah, dah, dah-dah, dah, dah, dah-da, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah,
Dah, dah, dah-dah, dah, dah, dah-da, Advance, Australia Fair.
Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, Advance Australia Fair.

It was an unfortunate choice. It is certainly not one of the world's great anthems, like the Welsh, for example, which brings tears to the eyes of every Welshman, and many like me who aren't Welsh. Besides, Waltzing Matilda is as well known to the rest of the world as the Canadian maple leaf, but who recognizes Advance Australia Fair, which might be the anthem of any of half a dozen countries?

Later I passed some sheep and you can guess what I sang to them. But they turned their heads.

I stopped for lunch in the little village of Lescure, where few people live today. On the monument aux morts there were 47 names. One family had lost three sons; many others had lost two. I have seen this on so many war memorials across France. We in the Commonwealth are well aware of the lives lost by our countrymen in the First World War, but we forget that as many were lost by the French.

Then it was ten kilometres to go, and flat or slightly downhill all the way to Saint-Lizier. I stopped to admire a ruined church in the middle of nowhere.

cyclist stopped and told me she had recently walked the Chemin du Puy. We chatted for a while and she said it had been a pleasure talking to me. I think she meant it. And I felt the same way. She warned me to hurry to beat an oncoming storm. And then I spoke with a couple who had marked the trail and wanted to know whether I had found it satisfactory. I had. They said there wouldn't be a storm.

Then I chatted with a fellow who was carefully picking nettles. For soup, he said. I told him to leave enough for other people. I felt the first drops of rain as I arrived at Saint-Luzier. 

I missed out on my beer. Here, there are two cathedrals, but little commerce. Nothing was open. The lady in the Office de Tourisme was extremely helpful and gave us good advice about the gites to come. We are staying in the municipal gite, Monique and I.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Day 16. June 21, 2014. Sabarthes to Le Mas-d'Azil. 13 kms

Only in Canada, eh?

The pendulum swings from right to left,
It seeks the centre to adopt;
But when at last it comes to rest,
It is because the clock has stopped.

It was a short walk this morning, 13 kilometres along the road to Maz-d'Azil.

I ate lunch today under a shady tree in a paddock beside the road. All seemed still, yet there was constant motion all around me. A hawk circled overhead. Butterflies of different hues fluttered in the distance. Flies buzzed about my face. And on the hill in front of me, the trees, all huddled together and hustled by the wind, made great sweeping movements from right to left and back again. It was so peaceful.  I reflected on the absurdity I had come upon the night before.

Taking advantage of the Wifi to catch up with the Globe and Mail, and finding nothing on our celebrated Toronto mayor, I had read an article by Margaret Wente. Most of the time I agree with her as she exposes the absurdities of Canadian politics. It was the headline that took my attention:

Welcome to Vancouver's gender-neutral pronoun wars

Were we not in the heat of summer, I would have checked my watch to see whether the date was April first. And a good April fool's story it was.The Vancouver School Board has passed a policy that recognizes the needs of transgendered kids. It allows them to go to either the male or female washroom, and allows them to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns instead of he or she, him or her, his or her.

Today, a little girl's comment to the teacher that I recall vividly from First Bubs at Claremont Practising School more than 60 years ago would sound like this:

"Look at Tommie, Miss. Ze's wet zyr pants. Take zem to the lav."

Not only is the notion absurd, but the choice of the gender neutral pronouns is foolish as well. It sounds like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.

I wondered whether this was a movement led by the parents of the children concerned or by leftist feminists fighting their cause on the pretext of helping the children.

To me it is almost incredible that such an absurd idea could even be considered by the School Board. But I can imagine what happened. The notion would have been pushed by a very small minority, and everyone else in the room would have been pinching themselves and thinking, can this be really happening, but refraining from pointing out its absurdity for fear of being labelled intolerant.

I'll leave you to reflect on whether the policy will benefit or actually harm a kid who may be having doubts about zyr sexual identity.

I am wary of inadvertently offending people. In the marketplace a week or so ago, I saw a fellow of diminutive stature belonging to a class of persons traditionally associated with Snow White or Tolkien, but I had to leave him out of my description because I couldn't think of the politically correct term to use. 

Last year, I was rattling on about the English in France who refused to learn French and I unwittingly offended a Scot by lumping him in with the English. I had used the term "Brit" as synonymous with "English".

Now I love Robbie Burns and I regularly eat the haggis. I have walked the West Highland Way in the rain, and I sing along with Kenneth McKellar as I read Ian Rankin and sip my Laphroaig. I love all things Scottish except their weather, and I had no intention of offending. But someone had been offended. I had not got my facts right. I was wrong. I apologized.

But what if it were not my facts that were wrong, but my opinion?

I would be committing an act of micro-aggression -- offending someone without intending to. According to this way of thinking, everyone has the right not to be offended.

We had a case of micro-aggression recently at a Canadian university.  In an attempt to encourage students to swot for their exams, a student union president published a cartoon strip depicting President Obama. It was in no way racist, but someone took offence. The student president was forced to resign and apologize. Only when the student union was ridiculed across Canada, and the black students said they found nothing offensive in the cartoon, was the student president reinstated. I believe he rescinded his apology.

In another case, a teacher was accused of microaggression for giving an unsatisfactory mark to an ESL student in an English class.

In another manifestation of this kind of thinking, a prominent university is replacing its traditional representation on student council, Arts Rep, Science Rep, Engineering Rep, etc, with categories such as First Year Rep, Black Rep (although that is probably not the politically correct term), Gay and Lesbian Rep, Transgendered Rep, Two-Spirited Rep, and so on. If you happen to be a white, second-year Engineering student, you have no representation, and if you complain, the current response is "Check your privilege!" What that means is, "Shut up, you've had it better than us for so long. You've got no right to complain!"

In other universities, students have shouted down speakers whose views they didn't like. Recently, a university had to cancel an invitation to a respected Muslim speaker who was to express her belief that some reform of Islam was necessary. A minority of students would not have let her speak. 

It is ironic, how, in espousing a cause by shouting down their opposition and oppressing free speech, the extreme left is completing the circle and joining hands with the far right.

I am staying tonight in a gite run by the Protestant pastor. Often there are surprises awaiting you in gites and cheap hotels. Usually, taking a shower is a one-handed affair for there is no way of attaching the shower nozzle to the wall, the attachment being broken or long gone. So you have to wash under your arm with one hand like a gorilla, and then switch hands. You can't have a long relaxing shower.

This time, however, I was delighted to see that I could slide the shower onto its fixture on the wall. I settled in for the final stage and turned up the hot water a little. The extra pressure forced the shower off its fixture, whereupon it snaked about in all directions like a chook with its head cut off, if I can mix my metaphors, spraying water everywhere. There was a minor flood on the floor which I had to soak up with the floor mat.

I ventured out in search of a Leffe.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Day 15. June 20, 2014. Pamiers to Sabarthes. 23 kms

O aching calves!
It doesn't do its thing by halves
This winding path,
It never ends.

And when at last,
It seems that now its peak has passed,
This winding path,
It still ascends.

I left town and followed a gently ascending path along the river bank, the rushing water to my left. When I ventured into the bush for personal reasons, an unfortunate encounter with nettles left me tingling all day. It's a strange sensation -- not painful really, but as if a slight electric current is running across your skin.

Suddenly the path took off to the right up the hill. Up and up it went, and every time I came to a fork where one path levelled out, it was always the other I had to take, onward and upward. Ultreia!

But then, relief, as I reached the top and continued west across rolling fields and down to the village of Saint-Victor-Rouzaud. Here, I ate the cold duck Patrick had given me for lunch.

And them, up again, this time on the road which wound its way around the contours of the hill, but ever upwards, a longer climb and higher than this morning's,  but manageable because it was a slighter gradient. 

It is mainly pasture on the heights, with sheep and cows and horses. I watched the cows swishing their tails. What a useful and flexible appendage! The flies were bothering them, and their tails were in constant motion, swinging back and forth to cover their legs, but flicking higher as well, and coming to rest on their backs before falling down again.

I walked down into the village of Montegut-Plantaurel and on to Sabarthes, and then along the road to my lodgings.

I am staying tonight in a caravan at the Chateau de la Hille. The caravan cost 12 €, the evening meal, 23 €. Even with aperitif and digestif, the meal was not quite up to scratch. It was duck, of course, but not up to Patrick's standard. The desert was a dry tart, and not at all to my taste. The host and hostess were quite charming, and made a practice of joining their guests for the aperative and desert. This was unfortunate.

The other guests were an English couple with a second residence in France, near Capestang on the canal. He spoke a very halting French of the kind that is kind that is sometimes spoken by Shakespeare's low characters in the comedies ("Mon-sewer," etc.) "Our French is junk," he said. I didn't disagree. And when the host and hostess joined us, the Englishman had stories to tell which would have lasted a long time in English, but took an eternity in French. I left as soon as I politely could.

I'm not being unkind here. I'm simply telling it how it was. If I tried to learn Italian or Spanish at their age, I would speak it the same way.  And they were not the kind of English who live in cultural enclaves. In fact, they made it very clear that they did not mix with their fellow countrymen in their community, but with the French. He spoke of how they all come together at community events.

"The French love each other," he said. "We (the English) hate each other."

The Chateau de la Hille had been a children's orphanage during the war, "A happy place," he told me, unlike some other children's refuges. They were off tomorrow to visit a museum on the subject.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Day 14. June 19, 2014. Roquefixade

They sat around the fire and talked all night
Of how the world was in a pretty plight

I have made up my mind. I will proceed leisurely and see where I end up. I have accepted an invitation to stay an extra night with my friend Patrick and his charming wife Lucette at their house in the hamlet in Saint-Martin, in the village of  Roquefixade.

I met Patrick three years ago on the Chemin d'Arles, just after Toulouse, where he was setting out for Santiago from his home town of Saint-Lys. We walked together as far as Puente la Reina in Spain.

He was the leader of our group, and he made life easy for us by organizing our accommodation. He has done the same for me today.

Patrick has written a book about his experiences on the Camino, which has sold quite well. I am mentioned in this book, primarily in an incident when, everyone else having given up hope, I managed to persuade a publican to open his bar and serve us all a beer.

Last night we all had a beer together in Pamiers, and then Patrick cooked a fine meal on a grill over an open fire in his stone house. It was duck, of course, a long standing joke between us since a discussion we once had over whether the French practice of force-feeding ducks to make pate was worse than the Canadian practice of battering seals to death. We reminisced over those good times on the Chemin d'Arles.

This afternoon we toured the area and marvelled at a huge elm which must be one of the few of its kind surviving in Europe. Then we admired the ruins of the chateaux of Montsegur and Roquefixade. In the picture above, you may be able to make out the Occitan flag which Patrick has planted on the latter. Patrick is passionate about all things Occitan.

In the evening we had a long political discussion. Patrick is slightly to the left of centre; Lucette, to the right; and as the evening rolled on, the discussion became quite heated.. They agreed that France is facing a economic and political crisis and that the most serious problem is political apathy on the part of its citizens.

It was a delightful jour de repos for which I thank them very much. Tomorrow, I will be back on the road.

Day 13. June 18, 2014. Mirepoix to Pamiers 30 kms.

Climb every mountain, ford every stream

I woke up to the news that the Canadian government has approved a controversial pipeline to take the bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the west coast, against the wishes of many of the First Nations along the way and two-thirds of British Columbians whose pristine northern coastal waters the tankers must navigate to collect the oil.

I suspect that the Prime Minister has been given a hint that President Obama is not going to approve another controversial pipeline which would take the bitumen down to the Texas refineries, Alberta is desperate to export its resource. This will be a divisive issue for years to come. Canadians will have to choose between the economic benefits of the tar sands and a cleaner planet without them.

I was dropped off at the post office, where I had been picked up the night before. As I started walking, I ran into Catherine, so we set out together. We followed a little short cut suggested by M. Lepere and ended up at the back of a farm, and had to scramble to get back to the GR. After walking along the main road for a couple of kilometres, we turned off on a track which headed up the hill.

It was a brutal climb. On and on, up and up, straight over the top of the hill, and then down into the village of Manses. It rained last night, and I was glad of my Zambs where the water was across the track. And then the same again. Another brutal climb. Up and over a hill and down into the village of Teilhet. In the picture of the village, you will see the characteristic clochers mur of the church, typical of the area. The bells are not hung in a tower, but in a wall at the front of the church. Cheaper than building a tower.

But the church at Vals, the next village, is quite unique and very famous. Built both in the rock and on the rock, it exists on three levels. The pre-Romanesque crypt perhaps preempted an earlier pagan site. It looks up to, and the nave looks down upon, the altar, and there is a gallery as well above the nave. The church just seems to rise out of the rock.

We sat on the steps in front of the church and ate our lunch.

And then we took a short cut suggested by the woman who organized our lodging in Mirepoix. Cutting off a huge and hilly loop in the GR, we saved five or six kilometres by walking directly to Saint-Amadou. There I left Catherine to make her way to her gite. 

I pressed on, taking another short cut along the road and adding only one kilometre. Finally, I arrived at the town of Pamiers, where I ordered a beer at the Cafe des Halles on the Place de la Republic. No Leffe, but a "Greem". I waited for my old camerade du chemin, Patrick, who was taking me back to his place for the night.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Day 12. June 17, 2014. Fanjeux to Mirepoix. 28 kms.

Estas redit, nunc recedit Hyemis sevitia
Iam liquescit et decrescit grando, nix et cetera

I walked today with Catherine, la Francaise. We left the Dutch couple at the convent. They were not going as far as we were; in fact, they were walking a circular route and not doing the Camino at all.

We left town just before nine and made good progress, covering 17 kilometres before lunch. We passed through a couple of hamlets which offered no chance of refreshment.

Most of the morning we walked along the Chemin de Cretes (with a circumflex over the "e", another example of the old "s"). With a cool breeze in our faces, this was the very best of walking. Hay fields rolled away on either side, with the Pyrennees in the distance, snow on their peaks. And as we came down into the valleys, we passed through scrubby oaks, some pines, and the ubiquitous broom.

I found myself marching along to the frenetic rhythms of Carmina Burana. After we sing at a concert, I am always left with its themes in my head. At the time, I was sorry that Carmina had erased the beautiful melodies of the Brahms Requiem we had sung a few weeks earlier, but today I found that the marching rhythms of the drinking songs hastened my pace.

It was after lunch that things went wrong. With about six or seven kilometres to go we followed a track up a steep hill, somehow missed a turnoff, and found ourselves up against a barrier of mud, too deep to wade through and impossible to pass on either side. We backtracked until we found what we thought was a parallel trail, took it, and came upon a fence where we noticed a coquille fastened to a post. Was this the Camino? We pressed on but it led to a lonely farm where there was no one to help us. Someone must have idly nailed the shell to the post years ago, little realizing that one day it would give a couple of walkers false hope. We followed the farm access road back to the highway, and eventually came upon some local ramblers who put us right, and accompanied us into town.

At a cafe on the square of the beautiful medieval town, I drank one of the most refreshing beers I have ever enjoyed.

I am staying with a local family, part of a local network which puts up pilgrims for the night when there is no gite in town. Before supper, I watered the garden and fixed a pipe passing water from the roof into a tank. As we ate, I sensed I was caught in the middle of a mother-daughter conflict.

Tonight I will have to study the guide very carefully and make some decisions. I do not have enough time to reach Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, my original intention. Some of the steps ahead are up to 42 kilometres long with climbs of 1,600 feet. I will have to cut these in two. Better to proceed leisurely and enjoy the magnificent scenery than to arrive exhausted at seven o'clock with no time to visit the town.

Day 11. June 16, 2014. Montreal to Fanjeux. 13 kms.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four,
Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more

I was rudely awakened in the middle of the night by the Dutch lady saying, "Please don't snore!" Fortunately, I managed to get back to sleep. A bit much, I thought, later. What do you expect in a gite? She said she had nudged me and I'd stopped, but then started again, so she'd had to wake me, but  still I'd continuedCatharine, the French woman, said I wasn't snoring, but talking in my sleep. She didn't understand what I was saying. Probably just as well. It must have been the wine I drank at dinner.

We dined last night at an Auberge on the highway. It was a fine meal, beginning with a wonderful salade Roquefort, and followed by a steak, worth mentioning because of the most amazing frites I have ever tasted. It was explained to me that they were simply potato peelings, formed after the skin had been removed. A litre of rouge sat importantly in the centre of the table, its level sinking slowly as the evening progressed.

So I confess to feeling a little crook this morning. I hope it is the wine and not something I am coming down with. But it was the shortest day in a long time, only 13 kilometres, and glorious walking in cool weather in high open spaces. It was almost cold at times, and I felt a few drops of rain. In the distance I could see snow on the peaks of the mountains.

Since Carcassonne, I have seem lots of wheat and barley. I have seen legumes as well. This morning I saw some potatoes with their tops already dying. They must be ready. Mine won't be.

This year, at the suggestion of Ron, my neighbour on the island, I have planted potatoes in a barrel. The idea is to plant four or five potatoes in a 44 gallon drum or similar container, and as they grow, to keep covering them with soil, all but the crown. The potatoes are supposed to keep forming in layers. One fellow claims to have grow 100 lbs of potatoes this way. Another got only a single spud. We shall see.

I walked through a couple of little villages sans bar, following minor roads, broad country lanes, and tracks through the fields, just what a GR should be. Soon I could see Fanjeux, not far away on the top of a hill.

Then followed a sequence a little reminiscent of the great crop-dusting scene in North by North-West. As I walked up a minor road towards Fanjeux, I noticed on a neighbouring field a tractor pulling a sprayer with its long arms outstretched, but raised above the ground. What was it doing? It must have finished its spraying. But suddenly it was thundering along behind me. As I stood aside to let it pass, it squirted an evil-looking liquid on the road beside me. It rumbled on by, jettisoning the foul pestilence, leaving a wet stream on the limestone for me to follow, all the way to the main road, where it continued to spew out the poison, but fortunately not in the direction I was taking.

I turned in the other direction, and climbed the hill into the old town. Again the church is heavily decorated, and kept locked, but with barred glass doors so you can see the interior. There must have been some valuable paintings and statues inside.

I am staying tonight at a Dominican convent, demi-pension 25 €. A delightful retreat. Two young sisters looked after us. Their order must be experiencing a renaissance, I thought, but no, they were the only two in this grand old building with its large garden. How can they survive?

I leave you to ponder on a puzzling notice I saw at the church last night. It seems the Church is in the discount business. The suggested offering at a mass is 16€. But you can get a package. If you attend 30 consecutive masses you get a slight saving. Not much, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But look what happens if you select the nine-mass package. You end up paying more. Somebody, like Tim Hudak, couldn't do his sums. Or am I missing something here? 

I wonder whether the Church offered the discount packages on its sale of indulgences in the Middle Ages.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Day 10. June 15, 2014. Carcassonne to Montreal. 28 kms

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

I was totally alone in the abbey, a huge building with three floors, and room for a hundred people or more. It was a very secular institution devoid of crucifixes on the walls, and seemed to be totally given over to the business of providing accommodation for parties of students and travellers. This was probably the only way for the institution  to survive. There may have been a few members of a religious order in a remote part of the building.

I walked down the hill to the Aude, crossed the Vieux Pont, and saw the familiar red and white markings of the grande randonne above a coquille Saint Jacques. I decided to abandon M. Lepere, and to follow the GR.

I turned left and walked along beside the river. As in any large city, lost and lonely men sat on benches waiting for something to happen. One accosted me and wanted to talk. I didn't understand him but that didn't seem to matter.

It is much easier and more enjoyable to follow the markings than to consult guide book all the time. However, you only have to miss one of the signs to get lost. I took a wrong turning on the outskirts of town, and a man stopped his car to put me right. Be sure you take the Rue de Romarin," he said. I thought of my little herb garden.

At last, I reached the open fields. I stripped the wild oats from their stems and scattered them to the wind. I chatted with a couple of chooks. And then I met a man with three dogs. We walked together around a lake. The dogs knew their routine. At regular intervals they would plunge into the lake.

In the village of Lavallette. I asked a wizened old man if there was a bar in town. "No beer, no coffee," he said with a malevolent smile. So I ate a banana on a bench beside the Club de Pétanque. The wind made the sound of rushing water in the poplars.

Eventually, I found a coffee at Arzens. Two men and a woman were talking in a bar. It was a conversation I've heard many times in a bar, but never understood. It came in bursts, rising and falling, rumbling along quietly and then rising in a crescendo of guttural ejaculations before falling again into near silence. I was reminded of the harsh cries of a crow, but also the squawk of a parrot, and perhaps the hee haw of a donkey.

Later, I encountered something of the same at a bar at Montreal. This time I could hear loud shouts and huge banging sounds, as if someone were being thrown into the bar. Was it safe to go in there, I wondered. I ventured in cautiously, to find that the proprietor and his friends were watching a game on the television, and slapping their fist on the bar at exciting moments. This is serious rugby country.

I climbed gradually all day, and by the afternoon I was on the ridge overlooking the plain. I heard a solitary lark. My spirits were uplifted.

I am staying at the municipal gite. Three others have arrived, a Dutch couple and a French woman, a serious pilgrim indeed. More about them later.

The church, a collegiale, once a study centre for clerics, is very impressive from the outside. It dominates the surrounding countryside. Inside it is very somber, adorned with many paintings and wall coverings.

Day 9. June 14, 2014. Marseillette to Carcassonne. 24 kms

G'day, G'day, how yer goin'?
Whadya know? Well, strike a light.
G'day, G'day, how yer go-o-o-in'?
Just say G'day, G'day, and you'll be right. (Slim Dusty)

I slept well in my barrel. Adjacent barrels also had their occupants, but they were fast asleep when I climbed the stairs early this morning to heat up my coffee. The others were eating late, and the hospitalier wasn't going to make a special breakfast for me, so she left me some coffee, a few crusts of bread, and a strange jar of syrupy liquid to which, I think, I was expected to add water to make orange juice. I let it be.

The whole building is a veritable wine-making museum with its barrels and presses, and all the other related equipment.

I left the gite early, walked 600 metres to the 300 metre sign, and headed back to the canal. Then I marched on towards Carcassonne into a strong breeze.

I passed a fellow packing up his tent after camping on, or just off, the bank of the canal.

This year I am wearing Darn Tough socks. I like a challenge, don't you? When someone offers a replacement guarantee on a pair of socks if you wear them out, I like to wear them out and get them replaced. Every so often I replace my Tilley socks. They have a three-year guarantee. But this year I am trying Darn Toughs. They have a lifetime guarantee. I have two pairs which I switch from day to day as I walk. I'll let you know how they work out.

The village of Trebes where I had my real breakfast was as alive as Marseillette was dead. People bustled about in the shops and cafés that lined the street along the canal. Flowers added colour to the waterfront.

After that, the canal path was very busy. Walkers, joggers, innumerable cyclists. A family with a baby in tow in a little cart. And a young man in a wheel chair, also pulling a cart. And then the riders on horseback.

There must have been a hundred or more of them.They came in successive files, many of them looking rather nervous, obviously not accomplished equestrians. I stood well back, careful not to spook the horses and end up in the canal.

I had to tread warily after that. I remembered how our mothers used to send us out with a shovel to scoop up after the baker's cart and put it on the roses. Today, for the same purpose on Mayne Island, I visit the little farm with a sign out the front saying "Free Horse Poo".

I must have said "Bonjour" a thousand times today, and 999 responded in kind. Except for one fellow on a bike. "G'day," he said. He was tired of saying Bonjour. 

And then, at the outskirts of Carcassone, from behind, another loud "G'day." What could have prompted that, I wondered. My Tilley Outback hat?

It was the Queenslanders. They had turned around. Had they continued, a train strike might have prevented them from travelling back to return the bikes they had rented. They thanked me for advice I had given them yesterday: that they would have no trouble riding along the towpath. They had been told it was too rough for bikes. They had also been told that the French were  aloof and "up themselves". We agreed that nothing could be further from the truth.

It is curious that only the Australians have adopted an English equivalent of Bonjour. It is really a very sensible greeting, particularly around midday. How many times have you said "Good morning" only to realize a few minutes later that it was well into the afternoon?

I arrived at Carcassonne, and found lodgings at Notre Dame de l'Abbaye, at the foot of Cite Medievale.

I found the Cite chockablock with tourists buying trinkets and speaking a Babel of tongues. Some loud, crude Australian lads, with attendant admiring lasses, were drinking beer and keeping the Ocker image alive. I retreated outside the walls and sat in the calm under a plane tree. 

A word about the Canal du Midi before I leave it tomorrow. It was built, not under the direction of Napoleon as I had thought, but earlier, between 1666 and 1681, to provide, by meeting the  Garonne at Toulouse, a link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Seas. It was probably the biggest engineering feat of the century. Some of the banks are 20 to 30 feet high, and the canal passes over a number of rivers along the way.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Day 8. June 13, 2014. Omps to Marseillette. 23 kms

Roll out the barrel
We'll have a barrel of fun

I was delighted to wake up to find that the Liberals had won the election in Ontario. They won because Ontarians respect their leader, a woman who wouldn't be leader in many countries in the world because she is gay. In a few, she wouldn't even be alive. The Conservatives lost because their leader couldn't do his sums. The NDP never had a chance because their platform was almost the same as the Liberals, and they had forced an unnecessary election in the hope of gaining power. 

I should give you a brief summary of Canadian politics so that you can understand what is going on at next year's federal election. At the federal level, we have the same three parties: the Regressive Conservatives, the Excessive Liberals, and the Aggressive National Democratic Party (NDP).

The Regressive Conservatives used to be called the Progressive Conservatives but were taken over by reactionaries who don't believe in climate change. Some of them believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago. A few believe the world is flat, but their leader tries to keep them out of sight.Their domestic policy is to win votes by appealing to Canadians' self interest. Their foreign policy is to win the votes of immigrants who have ties with foreign countries. Under the Regressive Conservatives, Canada has lost its position of respect in the world.

The Liberals are the Natural Governing Party of Canada but have fallen onto hard times after funding scandals and a couple of idealistic but unpopular leaders. They will win the next election, because they have a handsome young Trudeau at the helm, and because Canadiians, who are basically decent people, are coming to their senses and realizing that Regressives are destroying the country.

The National Democratic Party was the party of Principle in Canada until they sensed a real prospect of forming a government. They used to be to be a Socialist party but now they are trying to replace the Liberals in the centre. Their leader is the most competent of the three, but he looks like a Bolshevik and refuses to shave his beard. They won't win. Appearances are important in Canadian politics.

With that unbiassed little primer you should be able to follow what's happening in the next election.

I continue to investigate the plight of the plane tree. The proprietor at my chambre d'hôtes this morning  told me that the plane trees were dying because of a fungus in the water of the canal. A group of people at the next table where I drank a coffee at La Redout said it was the result of some bug brought over by Americans in munitions boxes during the war. I will continue to investigate.

In any case it is very sad. Like the elms which have disappeared all over Europe, the platane is a noble tree which provides shade all over southern Europe, and especially in les grandes places where they link their branches together to form a green canopy overhead.

Every so often I come to a lock. Next to it is always a substantial stone building rather resembling a French rural railway station. People mill about on the platform as they wait for the water level to rise or fall. As I entered a lock just before Marseillette, I was startled by a whirring of machines beside me. To my right was a mechanical garden with cycles and sewing machines and rods and wheels and cylinders and connecting rods, and even a dog who peed, all in motion, and all presided over by a stark-naked wooden woman on a bicycle, the whole affair being set off by a motion detector which sensed the movement of passers by. This was the dynamic exhibit. Further on was a stationary display of metallic figures of various shapes and sizes. I didn't linger though. I was put off by the unfriendly signs which indicated, No toilets! No drinking water!

At least half of the people I meet along the towpath are Anglophones. Most are riding the canal in groups. As I arrived at Marseiilette, I met a Queensland couple on bicycles. We shared stories about our previous experiences in France and commiserated about the heat (like Perth, he said), and talked about the gentillesse of the French people. These were very different Queenslanders from Old Alf, with whom I taught in Townsville 40 years ago, who, at his retirement party, in response to my asking if he were going to travel overseas in his retirement, said (Australian accent required here):

Australia's the best country in the world, mate. Why would I want to go overseas?

The Belgian host at the B&B a couple of nights ago had given me a card for a gite at Marseillette. Unfortunately it was a couple of miles out of town but I trudged out anyway. Eventually I came upon a sign which said Gite Beauvoir 300m. I decided to test my theory that the French always underestimate distances. I noted the distance on my GPS and walked for 300 metres. I had arrived at another sign for Gite Beauvoir. I followed it. Three hundred metres later I arrived at the gite.

It was worth it. For 20€ I have a room to myself in an old wine barrel. My sleep tonight will be lightly oaked, with a touch of tannin.