Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Simple Life

Last Saturday I packed my rucksack. I couldn’t decide what to take so I used a mixture of a summer packing list and a winter packing list. My winter sleeping bag was wakened from its lofting bag and rolled small again and my miniature toilet bag was replenished with its diminutive contents. I was off.
I left home and made for the underground train. It was busy. If there is anything I hate more about London it is the Tube where everyone is packed like sardines, bodies pressed against each other, many hands reaching for the rail above to steady themselves but always avoiding the least finger contact. Always avoiding any eye contact. Always maintaining absolute silence. On the Tube people behave as if they are the only one there. With elbows out to create a little personal space people read folded newspapers or have their nose in a book. Those lucky enough to have a seat stare straight ahead ignoring the girl who is applying her makeup as if she was in the privacy of her bedroom. All strangers in this alien place.
London. Loveable and hateful London. For me this is a place of day to day living and formerly full time work. Even now when I am here it can be busy as it has been recently. The familiar weight of the rucksack on my back was like an antidote. In an instant I could see the journey ahead. The airport, then the 2 hour flight, then Spain. I had looked at the long range weather forecast before I left the house. The weather was perfect for walking the long miles of the meseta.
7 minutes and only 2 stops later I was drawn from my reverie, the crowd parted and I got off at my destination. You see instead of going on Camino I was going to talk to three new pilgrims about what was in store for them. One of them, Simon, had e mailed me. They wanted to meet and chat about the Camino and the Camino Inglés from Ferrol in particular.
After the introductions they sat with their guidebooks eager to learn. Would I talk through the route? They asked. “Try shutting me up” I thought. I described that little route recommending that they start by spending a day in A Coruña with its wonderful 9 kms promenade and streets of sea food restaurants. Then after a short bus journey to begin the route from the harbour at Ferrol the birth place of Franco. I described the lovely walk to Pontedeume with the scent of salt air and sea views. The uphill struggle to Betanzos on the route which has pastoral scenes just like Devon or Ireland or the Borders of Scotland. And so over the mountain to Hospital de Bruma and onwards to Santiago via Sigueiro. I gave them each a packing list and talked them through the gear they might need depending on when they would walk. A poncho or a rain jacket? I held them up like a fashion model. “John is now demonstrating a poncho from the Army and Navy Stores and a rain jacket by Patagonia”. Would they take shoes or boots? They asked. Compeed or plasters? Albergues or hostals? We all have the same questions.
With the packing lists and the pile of props on the table I made the point about, weight, weight, weight over and over again. I realised that preparing for the physical journey is what makes us most anxious and yet describing it is quite easy. Talking about what makes that journey into a pilgrimage is a different kettle of fish. I’m now aware that what draws me back to pilgrimage time after time is the simplicity of the pilgrim’s life. We get up each day, pack the same few things into the same rucksack and set off following a well waymarked path. We have time to think, to pray, to reflect. Our needs are simply food and a bed. A hot shower is a luxury. On a new route we do not know what surprises lie round a corner. It may be the challenge of a hill, or a conversation with a local, it may be the gift of cold water when passing a house or the encouraging wave of a far off shepherd.
Being happy with what I need rather than what I want is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from the Camino and frankly I can’t get enough of it. My life post several Caminos is far from perfect but it has changed. I’m aware of less striving now. Less ambition to succeed at all costs. Less desire to be first at the top of the hill and more happiness just to get to the top. It may also be age but I also go much more slowly these days. I am reluctant to fill each day with activity and I resent it when days pass and I have no time for myself just to sit and read. Or indeed just sit.
Over and over again I read stories from other pilgrims how five years after their pilgrimage they still think about their Camino every day. What is that about? I’m becoming more convinced that it is the simplicity of the pilgrim life we learn to love.
The world in which we live and work is often the converse of that. Even in church. Maybe especially in church. Let me finish this rant about simplicity on a more light-hearted note. Last week I played for the First Communion Mass. 30 or so children with their families receive communion for the first time. Today another 30 or so will take the plunge. Traditionally the girls are dressed like little brides and the boys like mini waiters. This is a practice I’ve always found bizarre. Today like last week however they will all be wearing a simple white gown. All of them. Sure the girls still turn up in their brides outfits but for the purposes of the Mass they are all simplified by the same white gown. Only later are these discarded and the relatives can ooh and ahh at the dress by Liberty and the shoes by Jimmy Choo. Last week although she knew about it in advance one mother objected vociferously to her 7 year old daughter’s wedding dress being covered up by a simple garment. “It is a breach of our human rights” she alleged. Another parent who was incredibly patient explained the reasons and order was restored.
We sometimes think of the Spanish as being extravagant and dramatic and I laughed out loud when as friend of mine sent me this picture of a child in a Holy Week procession in Spain. Yesterday the picture was passed around the assembled Spaniards in La Terazza. Everyone smiled. Don Antonio admitted, “we crazy Spaniards, we take things to extremes.”
Not just Spaniards. The practice of upsetting parents by children wearing simple gowns for First Communion in Clapham started when a few years ago there was a hushed silence when a horse and cart drew up at the church gates and a little girl in full wedding dress alighted to make her first communion. She was later upstaged by another little girl who at the press of a secret button lit the lights in her head dress which also played Ave Maria in time to the flashes. Enough was enough and simplicity became the order of the day. At least in church.
But even at First Communion it is possible to spot the one who would rather be elsewhere and perhaps this wee lassie is a future pilgrim.


  1. Well said, John, on the "Simplicity" aspect of camino.
    During and after our first camino, my husband and I realised how good was this simple, basic way of living, and we were hooked. It's saner often, than our "at home"cluttered existences. Must admit, I think it's an age thing as well, because people our age (over 60) are keen to downsize, prioritise and order their lifestyles and houses, perhaps part of the cycle of life. Camino brings that home to us in a big, direct way. We are all held and directed by the path, changed by the path; we see how our lives can be.

    My problem, and I'm sure, that of many a post camino pilgrim, lies in the return to 'normal' life, our lives cluttered by all our possessions, work, habits and cultural expectations. We are overwhelmed and unhappy, and can suffer long periods of "post- camino-blues" (PCB) or Post Camino Syndrome!!

    I find my PCB period lengthened and worsened after each of our 3 caminos, and for weeks or months, I was in a kind of limbo, not able to get on with 'normal' life and just missing the camino, the freedom and people met along the way. Having a job helps by forcing one back to reality(if that's what it is) and I do make some changes eg. decluttering, prioritising activities and obligations and the like, but it isn't enough yet, and I worry how I'll react after our BIG walk next year, Huelva to Santiago, plus maybe a stint as hospitaleros.

    We love Spain, and I constantly wish to be back on camino. When things go wrong I feel like leaving it all and escaping to the meseta. We bore friends with our wanting to talk about camino life; friends who don't understand why we do it, nor why we'd want to stay in albergue dormitories and not parador luxury.
    So thank you, John, for reminding me about the simplicity factor. It's the biggie! Now I'm off to declutter. Cheers and buen viaje. Carole

  2. Thank you for that post! I am walking the camino now and of course it is all so true. I and my walking companions wonder about what it will be like to go home and try to explain how we feel. I made the mistake of glancing at my Facebook page the other day and recoiled from the mindless chatter and busyness. Ugh! How do I go back to that? Bless that little girl with her tongue sticking out! She speaks volumes.

  3. Ouch, damn made me really laugh!! Just post surgery that is a lovely and painful thing. And according to the Dr.s great exercise for my muscles.
    That last pic totally took me by surprsie and is priceless. Many thanks! K

  4. That last pic could so easily have been me- it does seem to have been my era! Yes, simplicity..... even now when nearly two years have gone by since I walked into Santiago.... I find myself de-cluttering and simplifying- and yes, I feel the need to grab some quiet times...