Sunday, 25 October 2009

You get more out than you put in

For those who moan, including me from time to time, about all that could be improved for pilgrims, I offer this short film which was made for a campaign I was running some years ago:

In that vein,I’ve been thinking a lot about the people the Camino has brought into my life. And they keep coming. In my in-box this week there were several emails from pilgrims who have been using the on-line guides. The master copy of Laurie Reynold's new Guide to the route from Lisbon to Porto also arrived. There were one or two birthday greetings from Camino friends who caught up with last week’s post and I exchanged birthday greetings with another pilgrim pen friend resident somewhere in the Baltic Sea. I also got a note from an American lassie I met on the Camino Frances one cold November. She was walking with her German boyfriend who had been a Triathalon competitor who left her frequently to walk ahead 40 kms! I never saw them again after Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Kate struggled, got blisters, had to go ahead by bus. I wasn’t sure the whole Camino thing was for her. They had a light hearted website which was never updated and they drifted off my radar.

Leap forward 18 months and the note read (heavily paraphrased): “Hi John this is Kate from the bar in Santo Domingo, I’ve no longer got the boyfriend but I’m going to walk the Via de la Plata from Seville with my Dad”.

We corresponded. They arrived in Santiago last week despite Dad’s bad knee and set off for Finisterre. They had hoped I would be in the Pilgrims’ Office so we could meet when they arrived then realised they travel back to the US via London. La Terazza here we come!

The last week or so also saw the conclusion of Laurie Reynold’s most excellent Guide to the route from Lisbon to Porto. It is written as a pilgrim walker for other walkers. I enjoyed doing the final edit and laughed at Laurie’s honesty “It was here I got lost…could future walkers send further information please”! That plea goes to the heart of these on line Guides. Have a look - they are growing in number. People are downloading them and using them. More importantly as I learned from my in box in the last week they are sending really helpful suggestions and observations. Those of us who write the Guides put in place the basic architecture of a very useable Guide but it is only through up-dates from pilgrims will these guides always be accurate. Guides written for pilgrims by pilgrims up dates by pilgrims – free to download. But please make a donation! That’s the spirit of pilgrimage.

As well as reading Laurie’s Guide I’ve been reading Hape Kerkeling’s book about his pilgrimage which is titled I’m Off Then. I decided before I opened the cover that I wouldn’t like it. The cover reads:
“I’m Off Then has sold more than three million copies in Germany and has been translated into 11 languages. The number of pilgrims along the Camino has increased by 20 percent since the book was published. Hape Kerkeling’s spiritual journey has struck a chord”.
As I started this book resentment piled on resentment; he took buses, slept not in albergues or hostals but in 4* hotels along the way and being the German equivalent of Billy Connelly he laughs at the other pilgrims he met along the way. But as I read, his very gentle style began to calm me down. It was HIS camino and I realised he poked more fun at himself than anyone else. And after all…I’ve stayed in my fair share of good hotels along the routes and I have met some very odd characters. So I began to enjoy it and as he talked more and more about his “search” I became increasingly intrigued as to what he was searching for. From being a couch potato he got fitter after walking many days. He was pleased about that but that wasn’t enough. He met friends and companions who drifted in and out of his journey. He had splendid end of day dinners but they weren’t enough. He reflected on his background, his sexuality, his fame and success but these reflections weren’t enough. Then a page turns and he describes how he saw a child write on a wall with coloured chalk the phrase Yo y tu, (you and me). He obviously thought about it deeply because when I turned the page to the next day what he wrote came as a complete surprise:
“Then it happened! I had my own encounter with God. Yo y tu was the motto of yesterday’s treck, and to me it sounds like a secret pact. What happened there is between Him and me. But the school wall bore three words: me and you. The bond between Him and me is an entity unto itself.
To encounter God, you first have to issue and invitation to Him; He does not come without being asked – a divine form of good manners. It’s up to us. He establishes and individual relationship with us. Only a person who truly loves is capable of sustaining this relationship.
I am getting freer by the day. My emotional seesawing on the Camino has eased up and I am seeing things clearly. After running the gamut of emotional frequencies, I’ve come to settle on a single frequency and I get great reception”.
As I’ve written before this type of God happening has never been for me but I recognise that others do have powerful experiences. But I have to be honest the Camino has made me pause and reflect about deeply personal issues in a spiritual way. One such experience was sitting on the bank of the Rio Esla having a picnic in perfect companionship. The sun shone, the water was clear, the air was as still as can be. In that moment I realised that despite difficulties my life had an abundance of good things in it. Maybe more than I deserved. So when I got back I decided it was time to share. And so I was introduced to Brendan.

Brendan Barry, actor, gentleman and my friend was my guest for lunch in La Terazza on Thursday. It was a special day, his 91st birthday. He was born in the year the First World War ended. The same year Billy Graham was born. He was to grow up in the roaring 20’s and witness the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War. He saw gas lamps become electric and homes get telephones. He loves colour television but still doesn’t understand computers.

After a period as an engineer which was the profession his parents chose for him he got his first job as a stage hand in a theatre, then soon a walk on part, then he got to speak. Getting an agent followed and he then embarked on a career during which he worked non-stop for 50 years.
He played many famous parts, became expert in Shakespeare and worked with some of our most famous actors. He was in his 80th year when Myasthenia Gravis struck and he had to give up the role he was playing in the West End. He lives in the most modest of circumstances in Clapham and he allows me to visit him usually once a week. During these visits he talks a lot! He recites Shakespeare in a deep, rich and booming voice. He goes out every morning for his daily shopping and every evening he has a glass of wine. We had more than a glass together on his birthday!
He is full of wisdom about this pilgrimage of life we are all on…”accept what you are given and decide to enjoy it”…”if you think about getting old you WILL get old” and on his birthday he quoted Abraham Lincoln, “It isn’t the years in your life that are important, it is the life in your years”.
As for drink…”I used to drink champagne from a bowl I loved it so much. I drank at least a bottle a day. But on my 80th birthday I decided it was time to be a little more abstemious”. Brendan is quickly becoming by role model. He continues to give me more than I give him. Thank you Brendan,happy birthday and continuing Buen Camino!


  1. What a wonderful post! I so enjoyed reading it. Such a memorable portrait of your actor friend. I think I could get used to a champagne lifestyle myself...

  2. Hey Solitary Walker - why don't we try it? Do you think we'd live until we are 91? It would be fun finding out!