I woke up at 7 am to empty beds around me and no other pilgrims in sight. I walked at a very fast pace and ran into Silke after 2 hours of walking, content to have added a companion for the day. I learned about her thrilling major of “industrial trade and shipping” in college. She had just finished her senior year “at University” and was awaiting the beginning of her job in August. She laughed at the absurdity of American colleges costing amounts that only the wealthy could afford and echoed the familiar refrain of Europeans, mostly those bubble-Utopias with well oiled machines for governments- Scandinavians, Germans, and Danes- “But everyone should be able to be educated.” I agree. She showed me a book she was reading on her Kindle about technology’s devastating effect on modern dating. I told her about a Norwegian author’s collection that is a favorite of mine. We reached a steep hill and were unsure of where the nearest arrow was.
“Why don’t we go up this path?” she said. A shortcut that was a much steeper but not officially marked.
“Let’s go this way, there’s a sign here.” I said, pointing to a separate, more roundabout route.
“Safety first!” she said, In a faux-jolly voice that instantly made me feel emasculated.
Schadenfreude appeared to be ingrained in her sense of humor. I broached the subject of weird metaphorical german words, of which there are endless amounts. Nervensagen- “nerve saw” or annoying person. Kummerspeck- “Grief bacon” or weight gain due to emotional eating. I told her the literal translation of the word lightbulb from German to English is “glow pear.” She listened to my failed pronunciations of these words with mild amusement that crescendoed into a genuine kind regard for my interest in her language. She taught me the word “Gemutlichkeit” Roughly translated it means comfort and happiness brought on by good, family,friends and environment with no direct translation in English. There is the word “Hygge”in Danish with a similar but different meaning, the Danes insist, which makes me think of hygiene.
There is a rapid trajectory to getting to know someone on the Camino. The pressures molding this dynamic are simple avoidance of boredom, the sheer wall of time in front of you, and the absence of technological distractions. This has brought out some of the weirder questions I have asked on the Camino. “So is prostitution legal in Germany?” “What are you thinking about?” It is legal in Germany.
We walked, ascending and descending through the winding hills until we had a clear view of the buildings in Pamplona from 3 miles away as we approached. I learned she had a brother that was 3 years older that suffered from depression and was out a job for the last 2 years. He was in and out of Germany’s aid programs for the unemployed and trade school. Germany is much more practical in their aims in government. I knew I had a sympathetic ear with her when she uttered “Depression” without any connotation or the stigma most people label it with. I disclosed to her that I had my struggles with depression. However, when I verbalize it, I can’t formulate as many reasons as when it’s an abstract idea in my head.
When we reached Pamplona, the last dregs of the Running of the Bulls were clearing out of the city. Broken glass, bottles, food, vomit were strewn about the cobblestone streets. I unsuccessfully asked a few people in Spanish where the post office was, until someone pointed me in the right direction. I wanted to ship a load of stuff to lighten my load for the hike. Silke followed me, and took the precious extra steps that were grueling for every pilgrim. “Sorry for dragging you along for this.” I said.
“It’s my choice” she responded, with ruthless German pragmatism.
She then proceeded to tell me about the difficulties and joys of “couples travel” and I instantly thought of her as a 45 year-old minivan mom. We sat and ate lunch as the entirety of Pamplona lounged in a large public park and nursed their hangovers with their white shirts and red bandannas. It was 9 am, the dead bulls’ blood was still warm and it was a perfect summer day. We parted when she stopped for the day at an albergue at the 15 mile mark. There was a sink in my stomach as I continued on without my new friend and then a triumphant rise in my chest at the prospect of open road and solo exploration.
I continued through the desolate wheat fields with small churches and houses perched at the tops in the distance. I climbed a gradually steepening, winding gravel path lined with shrubbery. I was immersed in a whirlpool of fantasies and delusions of grandeur, listening to my 2001 iPod, the Beatles’s “Across the Universe” and singing to myself “Nothing’s gonna change my world”, defiantly, along with John’s high-pitched raspy tone. A short, robust guy with a beard named Rollie caught my attention, on his 2nd or 3rd “Yo!” or “Head’s up!” I snapped out of my wistful state and pulled off my headphones and greeted him as he approached from behind on the narrow path. He had a “Penn Wrestling” shirt on so I assumed he was an athlete and could ground him as relatable. Within 10 minutes he told me he had just completed a year teaching English in Madrid in June and was a cage fighter in Peru for the year before that. Rollie was 29 and had given up a lucrative career in bond trading on Wall Street. It was immediately apparent he was well-traveled and he had a story for many of the European cities he had visited. He was still riding a wave of adrenaline from literally running with the bulls that morning. We had a synergistic effect on each other through our whip fast exchanges and my intrigue at his declarations of the endless selection of beautiful women in Madrid.
We bought powerades at the truck at the top of this embankment and could see land for miles. I was impressed by the way Rollie said “Buenas” to the attendant. I wanted that confidence in a foreign language. He took a picture of me in front of the metal figures that appeared in the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen. We traded book recommendations and he informed me he had self-published a book called “The Cage.” about his time in Peru that had sold well. I mentioned “that Actress Shirley MacLaine wrote a book about doing the Camino in the 70s when barely anyone knew about it. Have you heard of it?”
“A girl friend of mine suggested that last year. I got 30 pages in and it was all spirits, guiding lights, fate, shit like that, I couldn’t stand it.” Rollie said.
“Oh, yeah I hate that stuff. I could write self help books. All you need is a slogan, or mantra, or a 3 point plan and the masses will put you on the best seller list for a week or so. I’d just need to get a Masters or PHD so it would lend some gravity to my name.” I said, with lazy authority.
My feet started to ache after mile 23 as walked through a series of desolate ghost towns. Maybe because it was siesta time in Spain at 2-5 pm. Fortunately, at the entrance point and exit point of most all of the towns there are public water fountains. The sun sets at 10 pm in the summer in Spain so 2 or 3 pm is when the sun is at its highest point. Spain decided to stay in the same time zone as Germany after World War II. It explains Spaniards are night dwelling people and value naps highly, and of course the scorching hot climate.
We checked in to the first hostel that was located at the entrance of a town. It consisted of basement floor rooms of a hotel. This was a common occurrence on the Camino. On the patio, a canopy of green leafed branches shielded the setting sun and it shined through gaps in fractals. I sat at a table adjacent to a pudgy Russian guy with a shaved head rolling a joint. Next to him, sat a long haired, gaunt German guy extolling the benefits of being high all day on the Camino. Both the guys appeared to be in their late 20s or early 30’s. Two well adjusted, attractive, Canadian women pushing the age of 40 sat next to them, affecting forced smiles. The girls chatted with them at their table and seemed disproportionately enthused at the Russian’s sermon on his country’s reign as king of healthcare systems. The Canadian women radiated an up-for-whatever aura that night. I didn’t stick around long enough to know what happened with them. Odd things can happen on the Camino, things that were not conceivable in the distant, stationary “real world” as I would later learn. I had an uncharacteristically positive outlook resulting from a series of serendipitous encounters. My mind took on a different form on the Camino. If I couldn’t be contained in one place longer than a day, then nothing or no one could define me.
A blond, muscular, guy with a symmetrical and chiseled-from-stone facial structure sat down next to me and joined me in journaling. He told he was Anders and he was on the trip with his friend Peter, they were 24 and “on holiday” for the summer from their degree in Sports Nutrition and Physiotherapy and were getting their Master’s degrees in Aarhus, Denmark. After a series of icebreaking questions, he told me that Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark and is a “Student-city.” He used the word “student” as a modifier frequently throughout the trip: Student-parties, student-sports, student-bars. We went to have dinner and plopped massive portions of pork, rice, steak, vegetables, salmon on our plates and then Ice cream, cookies from the buffet bar in the hotel. It was 10 euros. The camaraderie between the 4 of us, ignited and churned along like a healthy car engine on the highway. Peter wore a Vancouver Canucks hat and had broad rimmed glasses which lended some gravitas to his already studious persona. We all shared a common interest in American Sports. “Its funny how you Americans think the Champion of the NBA are “World Champions.” Anders said.
“Well, we are the best in everything.” I said with a smile. Overly self-deprecating Americans who are apologetic about our stereotypes annoy me. And I was becoming exactly that person.
Anders and Peter voiced their support and admiration for Bernie Sanders and his policies, closely aligned with Denmark’s. We retired to the lounge, like accomplished businessmen, where we watched a grainy airing of the Portugal vs. France Euro Cup Final. Cristiano Ronaldo had been injured and sidelined. Harsh judgements of his character reverberated in the room.
Despite being exhausted laying in bed, I was unable to sleep because of the guy in the bunk below me. He snorted and chortled like an animal as he slept. The ear plugs helped with this problem and I became a hardened sleeper in even the noisiest hostels over the course of the trip.