I hitch the channel once again with Peter, my regular lorry-driving saint. I am migrating south for the winter and am feeling more excited than usual: I am not doing my usual route through what my friend Arjun describes as the Ordnung countries, where everything and everyone has to fit into boxes within society (Germany, Austria, Denmark…)
I meet my friend, Conor, in France. He is on week-one of an overland adventure to Japan. Together we travel to beautiful Ardeche and visit Françoise, my travel-buddy in Turkey last year.
Françoise has travelled the world but says that Ardeche is one of the most beautiful places she has seen. She states that she lives in paradise. And as we hike through the mountainous forests, eating figs off of trees, I am inclined to agree.
I move onto Toulouse. French people get excited about Toulouse and say, “aaaah, you are visiting the Pink City!” because the buildings are made of brick. Coming from England, where all of our buildings are made of brick, I am not at all impressed by this claim to fame. I visit a travel-friend from last year, Albin. We first met whilst in the sea! Albin gave up a steady engineering career to follow his heart and become a juggler and circus performer. I have so much admiration for him for giving up an ‘acceptable’, well-paid job and for choosing instead to be true to himself and live a life of uncertainty but of happiness. Not many people have that much courage.
France has extensive walking routes and I decide to do some hiking. I have a terrible map and a vague idea of ending up in the town of Condom. As Albin drops me off in the countryside, he says, “with your map and compass you can’t go wrong…”
It becomes quickly apparent that I am hiking one of the most famous Christian pilgrimage routes in the world. A man in a town hall asks me if I think I will complete my St Jacques pilgrimage by December. December?!? I don’t have the heart to say that I don’t have a clue who St Jacques is. I don’t want to be uncovered as a Fake Pilgrim, so I mumble sheepishly about not having a time-limit (when I have only planned to hike to the town of Condom, two days away, because it has a silly name!)
The same man prints me out route directions in French. I haven’t studied the language since I was 12 years old, but discover to my delight that, YES! I CAN READ FRENCH! I hike smugly for 2 hours before discovering that, actually, I can not read French at all. My language skills have sent me miles and miles in the wrong direction. If only I had looked at my compass, as Albin had advised…
The two-day, 55km hike is pleasant. I am shown hospitality by the locals and am even invited in for wine at midday on a Wednesday (“wine is like water to us” says the local). I sleep in my tent, listening to the squeal of the wild pigs in the undergrowth next to me. I hope that my little neighbours will be safe from hunters when daylight comes. It is pig-hunting season all over southern France.
Towards the end of the hike I get fed up with PRIVATE PROPERTY signs on all houses and fields. Are the wealthy minority so scared of the masses that they have to warn away pilgrims, who are the only people likely to set foot near their land?! Despite its amusing name, Condom is extremely dull, and the other hikers here are actually middle-aged Christians. One hiker, wearing a t-shirt that says “Catholic” in large letters, asks me about Christian places that I have stayed in on my pilgrimage. I wonder what the reaction would be if I suddenly yelled, “I’M AN ATHEIST!”
I then start itching profusely. Before I know it, one hundred mosquito bite-like spots appear all over the body. First of all I think it is hives, caught by munching on wild fruit that may or may not have been blackcurrants. But a visit to the chemist tells me that it’s more likely to be CHIGGER bites, probably caught by using wild plant leaves as toilet paper. Chiggers are tiny mites which lay in wait in the nature, waiting for unsuspecting humans to pee. Then they take the opportunity to latch onto their victims and feed on their skin…
The moral of this blog post is, don’t wipe your bum with wild plants and don’t eat berries that are unknown to you. You may die a slow and poisonous death like Chris McCandless in Into The Wild…or you may spend the next few days looking like you have chicken pox and itching more than you have ever itched in your life.