As I walked down the cobbled Rue de la Citadelle, I saw her standing outside her home chatting with two gray-haired men.
Oh good, I thought. She’s still here. And somehow I felt like my world was coming back together.
I don’t know her name. But I’ve been in her home.
Three years ago I volunteered in the Pilgrim Office next door to her home here in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. A popular starting point for pilgrims wanting to walk the Camino de Santiago, I was here to reassure and assist the pilgrims, most of whom are told in guidebooks, on web sites, and in their hotels and hostels that they should definitely stop in to see us at 39 Rue de la Citadelle.
About 60 times per day, I gave pilgrims their first stamp in their Camino passports, explained the map of the next days route, where the last places were to get food and water while making the arduous 4000 foot climb and then 3000 foot descent into Roncesvalles–a town 15 miles away.
One day, during a lull, I stood outside the Pilgrim Office and started a conversation with the bespectacled woman next door, who stood surveying the street in her housedress.
Her door had just one small sign that said, “Chambres por Pelerins.” And she lamented that she wasn’t getting enough pilgrims to stay with her. I wanted to say, “You need a bigger sign,” but didn’t feel it was the right response.
Hearing I was a volunteer in the Pilgrim Office, she invited me in to see her rooms and her breakfast room. She told me how she cleans vigorously every day. How she offers a plentiful breakfast. All for just 20 Euros per night ($21).
She looked to be 80 or so, but I’ve stopped trying to predict age by looks.
So when I saw her outside her door once again yesterday, I smiled and tried to figure out how to get into a conversation with her and her two companions.
I planted myself on two stone steps outside the Pilgrim Office (my official duties there don’t start until Monday) and watched as two young men walked their bicycles up the steep street, maps in hand, eyes clearly searching for a place to stay. They paused outside her door and spoke to each other in a language I couldn’t hear well, but heard enough to know it wasn’t French, Spanish, or English.
I got up to see if I could help just as she, too, approached them. They responded to her French, so I returned to my perch and watched. They asked if she had bike storage. Indeed she did. The men seemed unsure as to if they should stay or look elsewhere. One stayed posted outside while the other went to look up the street.
She looked at me with a face that said, I’m not sure what more they want and said something incomprehensible in French. I shrugged my shoulders, agreeing with her, and had my in.
She hadn’t aged. Still in her glasses and housedress. Hands on hips. Still complaining she doesn’t have enough pilgrims staying with her.
One of the men standing with her was her only guest–an Irishman who spoke perfectly-accented French. The other man? Her son.
The bicyclist was Italian. “I speak English, French, and Italian, but I never know which one to speak when I’m talking to anyone here!” I understood. Sitting on my perch, I’d already heard all of those languages plus German and a few others I couldn’t identify–Polish? Romanian?
The cyclist told me his day had started early that morning. A ride to the airport. A flight to France. A train ride to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. He seemed ready to be done with his day as it was nearly 8pm. He called his friend, apparently telling him to come back
The second cyclist returned. Marie (by now I think I’ve remembered her name, but I’m not sure) opened the doors and led them and their bikes through the hall out to the backyard.
“She’s 87,” her son told me. They can’t stop her, he said. The work keeps her young. He son comes over to mow the lawn.
After a few minutes of conversation, trying to participate but finding only Spanish flowing from my mouth, I explained to the men that I now live in Spain and am having trouble speaking French anymore. The Irishman said he’s able to switch back and forth. I said I can only hope that will be the case for me one day.
The proprietor returned to her doorstep just as another young man with a backpack approached asking in broken French about rooms. I excused myself as she started to lead him in.
She turned to me and confirmed I was starting work in the Pilgrim Office on Monday. “A bientôt,” she said. See you soon.
And with that, I felt like I was, in a way, finally home again. In this town of 5000 people. In the foothills of the Pyrenees. In this town I’ve been to four times in the last ten years. In this town most people have never heard of. Here, where I started my first Camino more than ten years ago, I’m home.