Archives for the month of: January, 2015

As well as poring over Miam Miam Dodo, and Brierley’s guide to the camino, I’ve been reading some more narrative accounts of people’s pilgrimages. Here are three that I’ve read so far, and what I thought:

Immortelle Randonnée by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Jean-Christophe Rufin is a renowned French writer in his own right, and it shows. His account of the Camino del norte is deeply entertaining, brutally honest and unexpectedly poignant. Whilst I’m not walking the camino del norte myself, much of what Rufin experiences and learns about himself is universal – so it doesn’t matter if you are following (or intending to follow) the same route as him, or if indeed to want to do the camino at all. Rufin’s conclusion (if you could call it that) is interesting: “the camino is a Buddhist pilgrimage”, he says. As a non-religious -but yet open-minded- pilgrim, Rufin recognises that the walk refines him, like a diamond in rough: crushed and polished until it reaches perfection and simplicity.  His airs and graces (well-established over years as an award-winning writer, and ambassador) are swiftly discarded as he begins to recognise that he occupies a solitary and sometimes invisible role in this new order – that of a lowly pilgrim. He neither rejoices in this fact, nor does he refute it: it just is.

I enjoyed following Rufin on his journey, and would encourage any French speakers to give Immortelle Randonnée a go.

I’m Off Then by Hape Kerkeling

Hape Kerkeling (for those that don’t know – I certainly didn’t!) is a famous German comedian – a fact that he mentions more than once in his account of the Camino Francés. At first I didn’t really know what to make of this book: Hape himself seemed a little self-important, and only funny in that cringy Eurovision way (I suspect that this is just the translation, though, which is a little wooden in places).  Not only this, but he doesn’t actually walk the whole camino. He takes the train at some points. But you know what, I grew to love this book, and Hape himself. After all, who am I to criticise? I, who have yet to walk a single step of the camino.  I loved this book, because Hape is so honest and actually quite self-disparaging  – he took the train, and he couldn’t bring himself to stay in dowdy refugios (preferring nice hotels and good food), but at least he admits it.  His warts-and-all self-portrayal is about as comical and fecund as his descriptions of his fellow pilgrims that he meets along the way, which read like comedy sketches, and are just as engrossing.

This one is available in English, and don’t let the translation put you off – it gets better, I promise!

The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho

Before I tell you about the book, let me say this: It is my suspicion that a ‘Coelho’ gene exists, enabling some lucky few to find profundity and spiritual solace in his works. I do not possess this gene.  When picking up The Pilgrimage, I was hoping for an account of the journey that Paulo himself made, in all its mundane detail – after all, what is not mundane about putting one foot in front of the other, day after day?  I like mundaneness, for that’s what life is about, and that’s what came across in both Rufin’s and Kerkeling’s books. Coelho’s was different: he takes a more mystical approach to the Camino, to the extent that the journey recounted seems to have occurred on some dreamlike plane very far away from everyday Spain. There are actual devils and quasi-magical people on this dreamlike plane.  This, for me, made it very difficult to connect with. That’s not to say that I’m not a spiritual person – I am. I just didn’t feel as if I possessed the ‘key’ to unlock this book. Whereas Hape and Jean-Christophe handed it to me, and guided me along, Paulo Coelho left me in the dark.  I am still none the wiser.

Have you read any of these books, and what did you think of them?

Which Camino-themed books would you recommend? I am looking for something else to read, and would welcome any suggestions.

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The things you used to own, now they own you. – Fight Club

Apologies for starting this with a quote from Fight Club – a quote that probably adorned my angst-ridden diary as a teenager. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a more succinct way to express what I’ve learnt over the past few weeks whilst beginning to prepare for the Camino.

Basically, I have too much, well, STUFF… junk… bits and bobs… whatever you want to call it. It sits in my cupboards, it gathers dust on a shelf and lies dormant under the bed, like the monolithic head in Prometheus.

It doesn’t particularly bother me, in fact it’s probably quite comforting in way, to be surrounded by things you’ve bought, things you’ve been given as gifts, things you have, just in case. After all, it’s human instinct – to accumulate shiny things, useful things, things for building a home- just like the Neanderthals must have done. We live in a consumer society, we work to consume.  This, here, is everything I’ve consumed.

And then there’s the Camino.  This is an experience which is enhanced not by the amount of stuff you have, but rather the amount of stuff you don’t have – travelling light, paring everything down to the essentials is key (or so I am told). It is the antithesis of the modern world in which we live: on the Camino, clothes and useless items are thrown or given away, or posted back home to empty houses. Nothing is accumulated, everything has its use. One teeshirt is worn, whilst another one dries, ready for the next day (this, at least, is how I’ll be doing it).

And you know what, I am looking forward to this liberation – not to be defined by what I own, what I’m wearing or what music I’m listening to. Without this everyday armour, I don’t actually know what will define me, or how I’ll be perceived by other pilgrims I meet – but I am looking forward to finding out.

I’ve just read Immortelle randonnée by Jean-Christophe Rufin, a French writer who walked the Camino not long ago (it’s been translated into several different languages, but English isn’t one of them, unfortunately).  Towards the end of his journey, Rufin finally manages to attain rucksack perfection – pure, enlightened frugality – and carries just a few essential items, which have been recognised as such, after weeks of honing and tempering.  When his wife joins him to walk the final few days by his side, the contrast is clear: much to his amusement, she has hastily stuffed a bulging makeup bag into her rucksack, along with a plethora of other odds and ends that she threw in there at the last minute. It all weighs a ton, and Rufin cannot fathom her recklessness in preparing for such a journey.  How was she to know?

That’s probably precisely the point. How do we know what may be useful, and what won’t? We don’t. Which is why we accumulate things, carry too much (you should see my daily handbag), reassessing our needs only once in a while.

I won’t go in to what exactly it is that I’ll be carrying on the Camino – this can be for another post, but I will share one way in which I’m preparing for it: by selling some of the ‘stuff’ that I no longer need.

I’m selling things for practical reasons more than anything – like it or not, the Camino is going to cost money to walk, and I need to save enough to know that I can walk it comfortably and allow for any unforeseen situations. And then there’s the menu del día that I’ve been reading about – don’t want to miss out on those for the sake of a few coins.  So until April, I’ll be unloading my own everyday ‘backpack’ of stuff, and deciding what it is that I really need to keep or throw away.

Already I’ve recognised an attachment to some things I own, even though I clearly don’t need or use them anymore.  Some things I’ve stuffed in a bin liner, ready to put on Ebay, only to take them out again with a twinge of regret. Such things include my two Blythe dolls that I received as birthday presents when I was thirteen or fourteen. They are dolls, with plastic faces, plastic eyes… synthetic hair. I don’t play with them, and they mostly sit in my cupboard. Yet I feel attached to them and can’t bring myself to throw them away. But they are made of plastic! It defies logic, really.

I suppose it’s the memories associated with such things – the joy and excitement I felt upon receiving the cellotaped brown box, flown all the way from Japan. My mum’s expectant face as I unwrapped them with glee. That’s what I miss. That’s what I don’t want to throw away.  Try as I might, I still find it hard to pull apart the memory and the object associated with it – even though it’s necessary sometimes.

Some things, I have to accept, are too hard to throw away – no matter how much I may wish to save money, or de-clutter. But how will I know what they are, unless I try?

And so I continue! Did you make any sacrifices to prepare for the Camino? I’d love to hear your stories – whether you spent years preparing, or decided to walk it on a whim.