All is grist to the mill
Today was an easy day. I left my pack at the gite for I was returning tonight.
Walking is very much part of the English culture and this is reflected in the number of words we have in the language for walking. In the last four days I have ambled and rambled, strode, staggered and stumbled, and trudged, but today I strolled. Rain was threatening, so I kept out of the woods where the path might be slippery, and strolled along the flat roads. I relied on my Apple navigator, Siri.
On the bus from Oloron to l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise yesterday, I ran into Georges the Frenchman again. Henceforth, I shall call him Georges the Sniff for reasons that will soon be apparent. He was older than I thought and wiry. Whereas I had taken four days to get from Lourdes to Oloron, he had taken two. I think he was a good-hearted fellow, but he had two unfortunate habits.
The first was not uncommon. He rattled on and on, barely pausing for breath, sometimes asking a question only to get a response he could use as a spring board to talk more about himself. I didn't understand much of what he said - he spoke too fast in an difficult accent - but it didn't matter. He was quite able to carry on on a single-handed conversation.
His second habit was even less appealing. He was a sniffer, but his was not the innocent kind of runny-nose sniff which would cause the nuns to rap you on the knuckles and say, "Use your hankie." No, his was the Eppiglottal Sniff.
The running-nose sniff is the simple intake of air through the nose to prevent the snot from dropping onto your homework or your food. The Eppiglottal sniff is more complex. It seems to begin as an ordinary sniff but the liquid is stopped somehow by the eppiglottis and diverted down the throat into the mouth, thence to be expectorated. I suppose that it is the vibrating of the eppiglottis and its sudden stop that produces the sick-making sound that drives away your friends. I didn't take Physiology and Hygiene at school, so I'm merely speculating on how it works.
I was feeling pretty queasy anyway, and each sniff would make me sick to the stomach. They were unpredictable. Just when I thought he had cleared whatever was blocking his throat, he would begin again with varying tone and increasing volume, and end with a porcine snort. I would expect a goozie to issue forth, but he must have swallowed it and saved it for later.
Halfway through the bus ride the rain stopped, and the wiper ran dry with a rasp on the windscreen. For a moment, I thought it was one of Georges's sniffs.
Have you ever noticed how similar are the words sniff, snort and snot? They are related, aren't they, and almost onomatopoeic?
We caught the bus back into town this morning and parted company. I felt better.
I bade farewell this morning to my trusty string-around-the-neck passport pouch. Almost 30 years ago, I was pickpocketed outside the Eglise Madeleine in Paris. I resolved to take more care of my important items and bought a little pouch with pockets for my passport and my credit cards. Over the years, the pouch became stained with sweat, and the knots at the end of the string where it passed through the eyelets were brown with rust. Every year I would pull on the string to test the knots, and they held firm. Finally, it was not the knots which failed, but the zip. So I had to replace the pouch, and walked a few extra kilometres around Oloron before finding a leisure store. The replacement is more practical than the original, but I doubt it will last as long.
Happily, the store was on the west side of town, and the route proposed by my GPS corresponded to the GR. As I strolled along, I whiled away the miles by recalling on how many walks the old passport pouch had hung around my neck. Seven in Britain, six in France, one in Spain, and a few repetitions of favourite sections.
When I left the Office de Tourisme yesterday, I looked out for the German couple, hoping to have a farewell beer. They were slower than I (a first!), and had fallen behind. But I didn't see them. But this morning as I was following intricate directions to the leisure store (which had been recommended by the travel agency, which had been recommended by the bar where I had eaten breakfast), there they were in front of me. None of us should have been in that place at that time. We should all have been well on our way in our different directions. But there we were. We said good-bye and wished each other well. Those of you who have walked the Camino will know that this sort of thing happens all the time. Statisticians will remind us how many times we didn't meet someone in this way.
Nothing is quite so peaceful as an old man and his dog. I was intending to stay with Siri and stick to the road, but when I reached the village of Mounour she told me that the Route de Bayonne was up ahead, and I thought it would be too busy. So I backtracked a little and followed the GR through a park. There they were ahead of me. The man was keeping to the path, and the little white dog was straining at the leash, pulling off to the right, and burying his head in the long grass. Now we have all seen this sight many times, but usually the master simply pulls on the leash and the dog gives up. Not this one! His nose buried in the ground, he refused to move. "Qui est le chef?" I asked. "He is," he replied. Recognizing my accent, he was delighted to tell me that his dog was English. "A West Ireland terrier," he said. "He goes after something in the ground and he won't give up.
He told me that the Route de Bayonne was not too busy after all, so I reversed my steps a second time, and followed the road again. At Geos, I broke my rule and drank a beer. I really do believe it settles a queasy stomach.
About a kilometre from l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise, I noticed a man working in his Garden at a house beside the road. When he saw me, he ran out and said, "Bienvenue au Pays-Basque." I thought I was already walking in Basque Country, but no, he said, it began right there. He told me that he spoke Basque better than French, and assured me that his language was alive and well. It was a nice welcome to the region.
The church at l'Hopital-Saint-Blaise is a UNESCO heritage site. It is a beautiful eglise Romane with an octagonal tower. No wonder these churches are so much loved and often visited. There is something reassuring in their simple solidity. But this one was marred, in my opinion, by a later baroque altarpiece, which contrasted starkly with the austerity of the rest of the church. Here were those two extremes again: love and humility, and wealth and power. I am not the first person to wonder how the wealthy Church at times was able to reconcile itself to that beautiful Biblical verse:
Again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, Pope Francis seems very aware of this text.