This summer marks the first year I will be able to travel for multiple weeks in Europe without having to:
- Quit my job.
- Find a job upon my return.
- Live off my savings.
Why? Because I did a most stunning thing one year ago: I accepted a full-time teaching position.
I’ve been on the planet long enough and among enough teachers to know that you don’t take a teaching job for the vacation. But let’s be honest here: it’s quite a perk.
- Eight full weeks every summer.
- A week at Thanksgiving.
- Two weeks at Christmas.
- One week for Spring Break.
- Plus a myriad of other holidays.
Oh — and they pay me over the entire year. In other words, while I am walking across France this summer, money will get deposited into my bank account. Twice.
Walk across France? Well, not exactly. Across 300 miles of it. Beginning in Le Puy-en-Velay.
I first heard of Le Puy-en-Velay in 2012 on my first day of my first walk along the Camino de Santiago. Complete strangers would begin conversations with me and inevitably ask where I started my walk. “St. Jean Pied-de-Port,” I said, thinking that was the only starting point. Nope. Turns out people walk out their doors in Toulouse, Paris, Geneva and head towards Santiago. I met more than a few people who started in Le Puy and said the scenery was stunning and the food was amazing. “One day, I want to walk that route,” I thought.
Note: I did not think that on the first day of my first Camino. On that day I carried mostly things I’d borrowed or bought used because, I told myself, I’m only doing this once, so no need to invest in gear and clothing I’ll never use again. Ha.
I also thought I’d never be a classroom teacher. But for the vacation, and a few other more noble reasons, I accepted that position. And within minutes, I began plotting my summer.
Mission one: contact Rebekah Scott. Why? Well, that’s a bit of a story . . .
There were two things I knew after I completed my first Camino:
- I wanted to do it again.
- I wanted to be a hospitalera.
A hospitalera is a volunteer who spends two weeks caring for pilgrims at a hostel along the Camino de Santiago. This means, on any given day, I could be a listening ear, a counselor, a cook, a cleaning lady, a tour guide, a first responder, a leader of evening reflection, or all of the above.
I had the pleasure and luck of being under the care of more than a few incredible hospitaleros over the course of my Caminos–including one man who literally gave me his own shirt to wear when I thought everything I owned was infested with bedbugs. He also washed the entire contents of my backpack. And when his generosity overwhelmed me, and the tears started flowing out of my rash-covered body, he hugged and consoled me.
I never got his name. But I will never forget him. And I wanted to, in some way, pay it forward.
In September, 2015, I–quite unexpectedly–got my chance.
My friend Lois and I were walking the Camino Francés (wish #1: check). It was her first Camino (and only Camino, she promised me), and I was accompanying her not just as a friend but as her travel agent, walking coach and translator.
Long before we left on our trip, one of the places I told Lois I wanted to stay was the ruins at San Antón: an albergue (hostel) in the ruins of a 16th century church. No hot water. No electricity. And therefore certainly not someplace Lois would have chosen. “Anytime we can stay in a place that has sheets and towels, we’re going to do that,” she’d told me. Electricity was kind of implied.
But she also said she wanted to “experience it all,” so though I offered that she could stay elsewhere while I spent a night at San Anton, she insisted that wasn’t necessary.
Soon after arriving at San Antón on September 26, 2015, we registered to spend the night and chose our bunks. Then I went to do some research. San Antón is run by hospitaleros and I wanted to know all about their experiences. Sylvia (from South Africa) patiently answered all of my questions. She stopped sometimes to register new pilgrims, or I stopped sometimes to chat with pilgrim friends as they came in.
Michael and Lisa — a couple from Atlanta who became our best friends along the Camino route — walked in and over the course of our conversation the idea of volunteering came up. “I could do it at a place like this,” Lois said.
“Without power or hot water?” I asked.
“Yep. I would.”
A few hours later Rebekah Scott came by. I’d read her blog and knew her the moment I saw her. She was the woman in charge of coordinating volunteers for San Antón, I introduced myself and told her one day I’d love to volunteer here. It was then that I learned they, in fact, needed some volunteers. Tomorrow night.
Usually there are two or three volunteers, and they stay for two week periods. For reasons I’m still not sure of (scheduling issues I think), after that night, there would only be one. One person to care for twelve pilgrims. Check them in. Make them dinner. And breakfast. Listen to them. Console them. Care for them. Clean the kitchen, bunk room, and bathroom after they all left. And welcome all the other pilgrims that just stop in to see the ruins throughout the day.
I saw my chance, but then thought of Lois, and watched my chance float on by. There was no way Lois would stay here another night. So when they asked me if I’d like to volunteer for a couple nights, I said I would love to if I was on my own, but I was traveling with a friend . . .
But then I remembered Lois’ earlier comments. And her saying to me, over and over, “This is your trip, too. So if there’s something you want to do, you just say so.”
I found Lois sitting on a bench in what used to be the nave of the church . “Hey Lois?” I started.
“What’s up, kid?”
“Well . . . ” my words tumbled out quickly before I lost the courage to ask them. “They’re going to be short a volunteer the next couple of nights and they asked if I wanted to do it, but I said I couldn’t because I was with you, but then I thought maybe–”
“Of course!” Her face lit up. Not, I think, because she wanted to stay two more nights but because she genuinely wanted me to be happy.
“Really?” I asked.
“Absolutely, kid. You’ve wanted to do this for years. And this is why we planned so much time for our walk–so if things came up and we wanted to spend more time some place, we could.”
I hugged her and we went back to share the news with the volunteers. Rebekah declared, “Tonight, you two will stay here as pilgrims. Then, tomorrow morning, after breakfast, you’ll be hospitaleras.”
To be continued . . .
Note: If you would like to contribute to the care and upkeep of the pilgrim hostel at San Antón, please visit here to purchase a fascinating little book about its history.