(An excerpt from the book in progress, describing the morning of April 8, 2015.)
Despite the wine and the jet lag, I slept fitfully in Le Puy, waking every hour to stare into the darkness and listen to pilgrims breathing in the cubicles around me. We were so close to beginning this thing.
When my watch finally said it was close enough to six, I turned off the alarm and quietly packed my belongings in the dark. For the first time I put on my “walking clothes”—the hiking pants, the merino wool shirt, the vest, the scarf—that I’d so carefully chosen. I could hear the sounds of a dozen other people doing the same thing.
We couldn’t talk to each other, but we were together in this adventure.
Downstairs, the tables were set for breakfast. Isidore waved us to empty seats, each set with a cereal bowl and a small juice glass. I saw a pitcher of orange juice and a basket of crusty bread. But at six in the morning, the sky still dark outside, all I could think about was coffee.
My wishes were granted when the female volunteer—I still didn’t know her name—came over with a coffee pot.
“Yes, merci.” My Frenglish made her smile as she waited to pour.
There was a cereal bowl and a juice glass. No mug.
Hesitantly, I reached for the glass. Maybe the French didn’t drink their coffee Venti. After all, demitasse was a French word, wasn’t it?
Her smile turned into a laugh.
“Non, non.” She reached past me and poured me a full bowl of coffee. I looked around and realized that yes, everyone had a bowl of coffee.
Well, okay. When in France…
I chalked up yet another lesson about the change in culture. For the next thirty-five days, every morning I ate a French country breakfast: sliced bread, not toasted, on which I either spread butter and/or some kind of fruit confiture (jam), or I dipped it into my giant bowl of coffee.
At quarter to seven, Isidore told the assembled group (and pantomimed for the Americans) that he would take us to the cathedral for the blessing, but first we should please clean our dishes. There was a rush of gathering bowls and cups, and a line formed at the sink. Eric, whose tendency to help and “be useful” is almost pathological, settled in at the tap and washed everyone’s bowls and glasses while they donned their jackets and packs.
Everyone was charmed by him. Well, everyone but me. I was antsy, impatient with my husband’s good deeds. What if they started without us?
But of course, we weren’t late. Isidore led our small group through the pre-dawn streets and up a back alley I hadn’t noticed before, right to the side entrance of the cathedral. He led us through the main sanctuary, pausing to make the sign of the cross before the Black Virgin, and to a smaller side chapel, where a line of backpacks already rested against the walls.
There were twenty people or so in the pews, and our group filled in around them. Remi wasn’t there, but I recognized the brothers from dinner the night before. They stood, arms crossed, stiff and frowning.
I christened them the Brothers Grim.
The mass, of course, was in French. We managed to stand and kneel at roughly the right times, but the words washed over me as I looked around the stone chapel. How many people had carried their bags into this same room, had said the same words, and had set out in the name of Saint Jacques?
The mass ended, and the priest explained—in several languages including English, bless him—that we would all proceed to the altar of Saint Jacques. We filed into the sanctuary and toward a wooden statue surrounded by candles. This image of Jacques was dressed as a pilgrim, with a floppy hat and pilgrim shell, staff in hand.
I stood, shifting nervously under the weight of my backpack, until I realized that no one else was wearing theirs. Another pilgrim lesson: don’t wear your pack until you have to, and don’t wear it inside, where you’re likely to bump into other people or priceless antiques.
The priest asked each pilgrim to introduce themselves. Eric and I were the only Americans and English speakers, but there were also a couple of Germans and at least one woman from Belgium.
The priest prayed in the native language of each pilgrim, and a nun in a full habit and wimple gave us a printed card to carry with us, that said:
Almighty God, you never cease to show your goodness to those who love you, and you allow yourself to be found by those who seek you. Look favourably now upon your servants who are setting out on pilgrimage and direct their way according to your will. Be for them shade in the heat of the day, light in the darkness of night, relief in tiredness, so that they may come safely, under your protection, to the end of their journey, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
After another prayer, he gave us each a small silver medallion, the size of my thumbnail. On one side was a scallop shell, and on the other, to my delight, was the Black Virgin and the words “Notre Dame de Puy.” I immediately slid it onto a necklace cord I was already wearing.
I would wear that medallion every day until we were back in Seattle.
Eric, I noticed, also attached his medallion to the cord he wears around his neck to carry his wedding ring.
Neither of us would call ourselves sentimental, nor are we at all Catholic. But there was something about that moment, and the scope of this journey, that demanded solemnity and some act of commitment.
We were pilgrims of Le Puy.