In these days of diabolical heat and biblical drought I find refreshment in my memories of late August/early September 2011, when in just five days I walked in its entirety (wow!) a tiny part of (oh…) the Camino de Santiago or St James’ Way in northern Spain. I would have loved to do the whole 800km and end up in Galicia, but I only had a few days left out of my annual break from my largely inane life in London. I also, unbeknownst to me, had a date with destiny in early October, which my soulful sojourn perhaps served to prepare me for. Plus after 150km or so I had a blister so big I could no longer get my walking boot on.
I firmly recommend the Camino to anyone seeking focus and/or fun in their life. You can keep your buddhist meditation retreats, quaker spiritual awakening weekends and hallucinogenic bonding sessions deep in the Guyanese jungle: I found the whole 5-day trip from St Jean Pied de Port through the Pyrenees via Pamplona to Estella an exhilarating pilgrimage. As I greeted and was greeted by everyone I met over those five or so days, buen camino.
Being a two-legged being from a city bordered by an abundance of peaks and valleys, I’d always taken an interest in walking as a pastime, and some of my favourite books involve long solitary journeys on foot: The Snow Leopard, Exterminate all the Brutes, and The Wisdom of Donkeys. Although I’d not come across it at the time, subsequently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (a history of walking as a leisure pursuit, as an act of rebellion, as a means of exploring the mind as much as the world) reminded me that as a kid I would take myself off on long solitary walks to clear my head and always return home with new obsessions, the result of new paths stamped into my brain, new connections. Walking and thinking have a huge amount in common.
Although I expected to spend a lot of the camino trudging along on my seul, it turned out that I was rarely alone, but part of an adhoc community united by the ritual of perambulting through a series of pleasant settings towards a daily common goal. The act of falling into step and keeping the same diurnal and nocturnal rhythms served to bond us all together as we caught up with and were caught up by feet attached to faces that soon became familiar. In the process, legends about other walkers quickly emerged. One was of a Finn who had apparently walked all the way from Lapland without a word of any other language. It was a moment of great excitement when, having come across him in one of the hostels, I was able to introduce him to some other Finns I’d met, two psychologists from Helsinki, who later told me (in their habitually deadpan manner) that he was kind of pähkinöitä.
There was an austerity to where we all slept, in bunk beds in sometimes rudimentary single-sex dormitories. Getting used to the physicality of others was a salutary experience: the rising and falling Stockhausian chorus of smells, snores and farts. As an erstwhile revolutionary who has never done military service it made me think of the barracks of a very benign and slightly decrepid army. Particularly for those who were walking as a means of escaping the labyrinth of their own daily existence, there did also seem to be an element of very mild self-flagellation.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the walk involved languages. I’d never had the opportunity to follow an intensive language course, and this was a multilingual ambulatory version. I spent the day chatting to Germans, Brazilians, Italians, French speakers and hispanohablantes. It’s easier to talk honestly and, it seems, accurately while walking unhurriedly, a lot less restricting than sitting on a couch or in a classroom. I subsequently incorporated this insight into my teaching, although getting students to swap shoes was never an unbounded success.
Some of the people who I met I might have taken a dislike to in ordinary circumstances. Not all the mild-to-devout Catholics I met were liberation theorists. We instinctively steered clear of topics which might put us off our stride. On the second night, sharing a quiet drink with an Irish musician I’d spent the afternoon walking with, I remarked on just how loud and annoying was the voice of a South African guy whose argument with his mum we could hear in full detail from over 100 metres away. The following day I fell into step and conversation and found him to be full of voluble wit and charisma. Such experiences became an ongoing (and much needed) lesson in not judging other people. (This blog could be taken as evidence that it didn’t stay with me for long.) We soon formed a group consisting of an Austrian woman, an English guy and two Israelis. Their friendliness and charm of the latter was something I decided to take at face value despite the fact that they were both ex-IDF and not ashamed of it. I felt that it should in some ways of a problem, but I was unsure of if and how to make it one. In almost all certainty they had done horrendous things to Palestinians, but I absolutely did not want to become infamous as the guy who stood in the middle of the path shouting abuse at those nice Israeli men. I tried to overcome my own impression of being subjected to hasbara by developing a gentle but sardonic dialogue over the politics of the situation and their part in it. Their sense of irony was bayonet-sharp, and so such attempts to broach the subject of Palestine mostly involved twisted, dark humour. Late one night I embarked on a willfully tortuous analogy involving some sheep in a neighbouring field and incursions by a notional pack of wolves. It was a briefly sobering moment, in that it was hard to see how we could continue to be friends once we’d departed from the path. Aside from their skills at blowing up people’s homes and bullying commuters, their ability to mock the absurdly overblown melodrama of the camino-set movie The Way, which they’d seen and I hadn’t, was peerless.
Away from the constant interference of phones and in a climate conducive to strolling and reflection, I thought about how other people’s weaknesses and culpabilities are so easy to spot, whereas our own tend to occupy a blind spot. I always criticise others for over-depending on their phones, or moan about my students’ refusal to talk about climate change, whereas in fact those things are largely projections of my own anxiety about my own failings. Around that time I was engaged in an intensive phase of the deeply individualistic (and not a little narcissistic) pursuit of internet dating, which involves a constant process of superficial self-examination: how do I present and promote myself to others? The experience of coming into such close proximity with a range of flesh-and-blood humans with whom I ostensibly had little in common was one I found therapeutic. Unlike so much of online life in the attention economy, there was nothing competitive about our interactions, but rather a shared purpose, a communal ethos. Some of that was established by the phatic salutations we exchanged with everyone regardless of who they were or where they’d been. We all shared a destination and a route.
Buen camino. Buen camino. Buen camino. Solnit recommends walking as a form of meditation, and that was its mantra. By contrast, I’d recently read a nonsensical article which argued that writing greetings at the beginning and end of emails was a waste of time and energy. The argument seemed to exemplify a turning away from the social, a retreat into solipsism. The few days I spent walking towards Santiago was an antidote to such introversion. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for that experience, I wouldn’t have recognised in its full potential the moment of serendipity that took place just two three weeks later, on October 5th 2011 to be precise, when I fell into step with a stranger I felt I’d already known for some time. As Solnit says, walking has a lot in common with writing, and as I inscribe myself into the landscape of memory by writing this down, I can see that walk as the passing of a border which separated the person I had been from the person I would become. There’s a miraculous line of footsteps that leads from August 27th 2011, when I first set foot on the Camino de Santiago, via that evening in the Candid Café in Islington three weeks later, to January 30th 2017, which is the day our daughter was born. Buen camino a todos.