Who are "we"?
We are Todd (35 years old, a film and literature professor at a small, state college near New Orleans Louisiana), Brittany (31, Todd's wife and a Spanish professor at a mid-size private university in New Orleans), Kepa (1, Todd and Brittany's son, born April 2012), and Mary Ann (60, Todd's mom and a nurse at a small, state university in western Virginia).
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago, sometimes referred to as "The Way of St. James," began as a religious pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. 9th century Catholic priests claimed to have found the remains of St. James the Apostle in remote northwest Spain, near the present day city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. While the authenticity of that discovery remains doubtful, and may well have simply been propagated to increase support for the Catholic reconquest of Spain in the 15th century, the Middle Ages saw Santiago become the most popular of all Christian pilgrimages, viewed as second in importance only to Jerusalem. For a few centuries popes declared that successful pilgrimage to Santiago would lead to absolution from previous sin, and the route became so popular that at least one French king attempted to outlaw the pilgrimage because too much of France's wealth was making its way into northern Spain. The pilgrimage's popularity waned after the Middle Ages, but became popular again after the 1960s when the cultural revolution caused hippie backpackers (as well as Christians) to re-visit the ancient pilgrimage. It is now one of the most popular "hikes" (it is really more of a really long walk) in the world, with an infrastructure of hotels, restaurants, and transportation that plays a large, large part of the economy of rural northern Spain.
So why are we doing the Camino? Are we uber-Christians or are we hippie backpackers?
Funny you should ask, because we really aren't either one (although we have great respect for either/or). Brittany is a Spanish professor who works on 20th Century peninsular Spain (literature and film), and she has wanted to walk the Camino since visiting Santiago in college. Todd once laughed at her because he wanted to know why anyone would "waste a trip to Europe walking across it"--a position for which he now feels stupid. This particular trip actually originated when Mary Ann decided she wanted to do the camino, began planning, and after a long story made short, we all decided to go together. All of us love the culture, cuisine, architecture, history, and people of northern Spain (especially Euskadi, the Basque country). I mean we are food obsessed, how could we not love France and Spain? Meanwhile, the past year + has seen a trying premature birth of Kepa (totally healthy, and fine now, but 6 weeks in the NICU when born), relatively major hurricane damage to our house (resulting in difficult and mentally taxing repairs), all while holding down hectic, stressful, and time-consuming jobs (especially Todd's and Mary Ann's at universities facing massive budget cuts). There is nothing we feel we need more right now than time away. Away from cell phones (which we won't be carrying), tv news, and our hectic day-to-day lives. The first year of our child's life has flown by. We want to slow down for a bit and get to spend time truly together, away from the routines that make us always rush so much. And what better place to do it than in northern Spain on a route that has led to soul searching and contemplation for centuries?
Wait. We have a baby? How is that going to work? Are we crazy?
Yes. We are crazy. Just ask any of our friends. Plus 3/4 of us are from New Orleans (and would probably never want to live anywhere else). That proves we are crazy. Certifiable. But the baby part ain't actually gonna be all that bad. As we said before, this is more of a long walk than a hike. And we walk every day at home anyway. Always have, always will. Except for the first day, the camino is mostly relatively flat. A peregrino (or pilgrim) is rarely more than a few kilometers from the next town, and the infrastructure is such that one has relatively easy access to doctors, groceries, restaurants, hotels, etc. We can buy a few days worth of diapers at a time, food is always readily available (and Kepa eats, and loves, everything), and we won't, essentially, be out in the middle of nowhere. In other words, this ain't the Appalachian trail. Thank God. No offense, but Todd grew up 5 miles from it and knows all about it. He also went to military college. Suffice it to say, camping is not for us. Back to the topic at hand, it will also help that there will be three adults rather than two, as well as the fact that my mother is a nurse. Since one has to carry all of one's clothes, journals, et al, 3 people carrying for 3 1/2 is much easier than 2 carrying for 2 1/2. Meanwhile, we are more than prepared to sit out a day, have one of us take the baby by bus to the next town, or even abandon the camino altogether if necessary--but we don't think it will be. More than anything, it will help that we hit the baby lottery and have (so far) the happiest, chillest baby in the world. He slept through the night at 2 1/2 months. He almost never cries except when he is hungry, even when he is teething. And his favorite thing in the world other than food is being carried in a backpack. Seriously. It is insane. But so are we, so we accept him one of us! It also won't hurt that Brittany speaks fluent Spanish, very conversational French, and knows a bit of Basque/Euskara.
Didn't I see a movie about this?
Yes. Probably. The Way (Emelio Estevez 2010) was fairly popular and that is how a lot of Americans know about it.
Is that why we are all are going?
Absolutely not. See reasons discussed above. To be honest, while the movie is somewhat entertaining, and offers amazing vistas of the Camino de Santiago, it is actually a very "predictable" movie that overly-romanticizes the experience while overly de-romanticizing some things that happen to the main characters in order to create drama. Really, exaggeration by Hollywood? I'm shocked. Shocked I tell you. Don't get me wrong, it is a very good movie in a lot of ways, and well worth seeing. But it is far from the reason we are going. In honesty, while we are talking movies, as a film, Todd and Brittany slightly prefer the French movie Saint-Jacques.....la Mecque (Keep Walkin') (Coline Serreau 2005)--although the dream sequences in that movie are both ridiculously poorly conceived and poorly executed. Oh well, can't have your cake and eat it too.
So where, exactly, will we be walking?
There are more than 17 official routes that make up the "Way of St. James." We will be taking the most popular route--the Camino Francés--which begins in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port (in the Basque country of Southwest France) and runs 780 kilometers to Santiago de Compestella. You can really start most anywhere, but St. Jean, near the Spanish border, is the most traditional starting point because it is the spot where pilgrims from across Europe (especially France) historically gathered before crossing the pass through the Pyranees into Spain. Other popular routes include the Camino del Norte (which follows the Basque coast before joining the Francés) and Camino Portugues (which begins in Portugal).
Who walks the Camino?
Everybody. 192,000 people a year. Not kidding. Ranging in age from 1 to 80. Some people claim that it is most common to run into people under 25 or over 65 because it is hard to get enough time off from work, but it is really made up of people of all age ranges, all religions, all socio-economic backgrounds, and all nationalities. According to the 2012 statistics, about 49.5% of peregrinos are Spanish (not surprising). After that it follows German (8%), Italian (6%), Portuguese (5%), French (4%), and USA (4%). In total, 130 nationalities walk it every year. Last year, there were even 11 people from Iran and 1 from Jamaica. It truly is an international event. 41% claim to walk exclusively for religious purposes and 70% take the Camino Francés. 12% begin in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
When will we be going?
We fly from Washington D.C. to Madrid on May 15. We step foot out of St. Jean on May 19 (Todd and Bri's anniversary!!). It typically takes 28-32 days to walk the Francés, but we are allowing ourselves 39 because of the baby. That way we have time to slow down and/or rest up if necessary. If we finish early, oh well, more time to visit the Basque country before flying back!!!
How are we getting time off from work? How can we afford this?
We are blessed to all work jobs at universities, and while this almost never means we get the summers "off" (heck, we don't even get weekends off during the school year, and usually work pretty much all summer between research and summer school) it does mean we have more control over our time. This year, we have decided to reserve a far bigger block than ever for ourselves in order to spend it doing the camino with our son. If we don't do this now, we never will....and we'll always regret it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we are going to take it. Carrying a 25 pound one year old is tough. Carrying a 35+ pound two year old is out of the question. And by the time he is a teenager, G-Mom will be 75. The time is now. As for money, the camino is surprisingly reasonable once you get there (and Kepa still flies free). Hotels, pensions, and hostels are all cheaper along the Camino than anywhere else in Europe (anywhere from 3 to 30 euros a night) because the local governments want to encourage people to do the camino in order to fuel the economy. Most restaurants also offer pilgrim's meals at discounted rates. Then, when we return, Todd is teaching two sections of summer school and an extra online class this fall. There is always a price to pay later for time off now, but we think it is well worth it.
What will this blog be?
The title, el pequeño peregrino, means "The Little Pilgrim" in Spanish---a tribute to Kepa. He probably won't be the littleist pilgrim on the camino--though not exactly typical, he is far, far from the first baby to do this--but considering he may well take his first steps on the camino, we thought the title was more than fair. Between now and May 15 we'll add a few posts about what we are carrying, how we are carrying it, how we plan to handle the baby, and what we'll be seeing, etc. Once we step off we don't know how often or how much we'll be able to blog. But because we won't have cell phones, and email contact will be sporadic at best we are going to try to post brief updates and pictures when we have computer access along the way, not just to document our journey, but to allow our friends and family to know we are safe and progressing well. Hopefully we will be able to update it often enough that those of you who are so inclined can enjoy and feel like you are following along. It'll be a virtual reality camino! OK. That was way too much of an embrace of postmodern culture. We need to go beg forgiveness from Hemingway and Chanel. That is done now. Above all, we promise that after this post, all pictures will have been taken by us. No more stealing from the internet! Plagiarism is not good kids. It just ain't.
Look for our next post, and until then, ¡buen camino!