I climbed to the upper level of the local train from Lyon to Le Puy, my backpack strapped securely over my shoulders, a bag of sandwiches clutched in my hand, and Eric just a few steps behind me. The car was almost deserted as I settled into a forward-facing seat, feeling rather proud of myself. So far, everything was going exactly as planned.
We had flown from Seattle to Paris the day before, breezing through customs during a layover in Iceland, and had easily found the high-speed train that would speed our jet-lagged bodies to Lyon. We’d navigated the streets of the new city to find our AirBnB room in a private apartment, had chatted with our (English-speaking, thank God) host, and had figured out both dinner (pizza, but it was a Monday night and a holiday, so everything else was closed) and breakfast the next morning. We’d wandered the streets and markets of the classic French city, shivering in the April cold, and I was starting to get the feel for this new culture, as long as no one tried to talk to me. We’d found the train station, and the right platform, and I’d even had time to stand in line and acquired a brie and lettuce sandwich for the road.
The hard part of travel was behind us.
There was one other man in our section of the car, a tall, almost gaunt Frenchman, all angles and what Eric would later describe as a classic French nose. He, too, was carrying a backpack.
Our first fellow pilgrim.
He must have been thinking the same thing, because he eyed our packs and rattled off a string of syllables that sounded like a question.
Which gave me the chance to respond with the one thing I’d been practicing all day.
Je ne parlais pas frances.
I don’t speak French.
Which is an understatement. After three months of sporadic Duolingo lessons, the only French I was really confident with was “The apple is red.” (Le pomme est rouge.) And if I thought carefully about the way to add direct object, I could say, “The cat eats the apple,” an observation that is both unlikely and unhelpful in most French conversations. Not once in thirty-five days did anyone ask me about apples.
Eric, my better half in all social situations, is also better at language. But his French was limited to what he’d picked up by watching a few French movies with English subtitles.
The French man nodded and pointed to our bags.
“Chemin de San Jacques?”
Oui! We are here, on this train, to walk the Way of St. James.
He points to himself. “Jean Claude.”
Well, of course he was. How very French.
Jean Claude, it turned out, knew a little bit of Spanish, which Eric was more comfortable with, and a few words of English. They pieced together that he was traveling from Strasbourg, in northern France, to walk the Way.
We told him we were from Seattle, that we arrived just yesterday.
That pretty much exhausted our vocabularies.
We smiled mutely at one another, fellow pilgrims, until a woman with a cigarette clattered up the metal stairs to our car and said something terribly fast and very loud. She looked concerned, or maybe angry, but I was too distracted by the still-burning cigarette to let the words do anything more than flow over me. That’s something you don’t see in the States.
Jean Claude, however, was suddenly all attention. He asked her something. She answered, gesturing broadly out the window.
He leapt to his feet.
“Not train! Wrong train!”
We all scrambled to collect backpacks, jackets, and the precious bag of sandwiches. There wasn’t time to ask questions, even if I’d known how.
The train to Le Puy would leave at 11:10. It was 11:05.
Jean Claude was our new best friend and our savior. We would have a lot of these over the next eighty days.
We tumbled out the doors and onto the track, sprinting for the stairs. The monitors outside had sent us to Track 9. We’d boarded as soon as the doors opened. They must have changed their minds as soon as we were out of sight.
We dodged French families, workers, and whoever else was standing around a train station in the middle of a Tuesday. I found a screen. The Le Puy train now said Track 3.
It was 11:07.
I had to waste previous seconds counting in my head before I could say it out loud.
We ran across the station, up a different set of stairs, onto another platform. We dove into the first available car, this one crowded. It was only a single story, not as posh as the car we were in. All of the forward-facing seats were occupied. I saw a number of backpacks, walking sticks, solemn-faced people. It was silent. But this car was pointing in the right direction.
We’ll find out later that the first train was going north and east to Grenoble, where almost twelve weeks later, as we were resting in Finnesterre, a man would throw explosive gas canisters at an industrial factory, behead his former manager, and raise an Islamic flag. The country, already on edge after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, would raise the terror threat level to high. But that day in April, we were going backward in time, toward a medieval pilgrimage, not forward.
Those fifteen minutes, I learned, would pretty much sum up my next three months of my life. Four years of reading books, of researching every item in our packs, of soaking up stories and data about the culture and climate and pilgrim attitudes of the Camino, would make me feel prepared. And in most cases, we were prepared.
But the Camino wasn’t about being prepared. It was about being open.
There’s a common idea among pilgrims that each person experiences the Camino in three stages. Regardless of how long they walk, the first third will be a test of the body, the second a test of the mind, and the third a gift to the soul.
Eighty days of walking left a lot of time for tests.
As the train pulled away from the station, Eric and I collapsed into the seat that was available. I get sick on moving vehicles, especially if I’m facing backwards.
But at least we were going the right direction now.
And after this, I thought, we’d be on foot.
What could go wrong?