How can it be that one morning I am strolling through a piazza in Vercelli under a deep blue sky, and the next I am shopping in Tesco? That one evening I am listening to nightingales, and the next to “The Archers?
Yes, I have come home to Suffolk for a pause in my journey on the Via Francigena, for some R and R, and to get my knee, foot and all other afflictions more ready for the last 840km from Vercelli to Rome. Does this suggest that finally wisdom does come with age? I saw this wood carving
beside the Rhône as I walked toward St Maurice in Switzerland, and pondered with Job “Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” Answer – maybe on the Via Francigena. I have certainly learned that I am not the person I took myself to be.
And so there is a moment for a little reflection, but also a look back at some of the lighter moments….
…the shop window in a Swiss town with an array police hats from all over the world; the 1936 mural in Villeneuve church painted by Louis Rivier, with an incredibly camp Joseph in his little tunic standing as far back from the Madonna and Child as he possible could; the street names…
“Rue des Belles Femmes”, “Empty Bottle Alley”….
The road through France and Switzerland was solitary, and pilgrims rare. When pilgrims in these circumstances meet bonds are quickly forged, past secrets shared, future hopes revealed, and vulnerabilities become visible. Sometimes these friendships endure through the years to come; sometimes they dissolve into memories as pilgrim paths part, and one senses an erstwhile companion moving into the distance. Time now to honour those I have met so far.
The first companion was Geoff Collier,a Welshman from Connecticut who set out from Canterbury the day after me, and who is now striding rapidly through Italy. We shared meals in Laon, Reims, Champlitte, Besançon, and some memorable spaghetti in Gy; sparred, snarled and laughed, and parted near the Swiss border. He likes to call himself a Short Fat Welshman, but I think we must now substitute ‘Fit’ for ‘Fat’. His encouragement, his company, and his electronic contact when we were not together cheered many an evening. And still do.
My next pilgrims were the Rev Tim Thorpe and Chris Taylor from Derbyshire , aiming to do the VF in 70 days. We met by chance in Châlons, where they recognised me from the pilgrim badge my daughter made. It made my day. We met again in Besançon, and all ate with Geoff. Those who have done any of the Caminos to Santiago will know the warmth and jollity, often le vin aidant, of a pilgrim evening. Chris is still in touch by email, and at the rate they are going they will be in Rome soon. Tim’s wife emailed me to say I’d got a mention in their church magazine. Such celebrity…!
And then a long, difficult and solitary gap with no-one until I met Gilles the Québecois on the way up the Great St Bernard Pass. Without him I don’t think I’d have had the courage to go up through the snow. And we stayed together till Vercelli, where he was finishing. His Québecois accent rendered communication somewhat frustrating, but I might still be wandering round the Alps had he not showed me how to download the Lightfoot waypoints onto the Pocket Earth app.
Then there were Swiss Sonia and Daniel, just doing a week of the Francigena to help Sonia over the recent death of her mother; Stephen a young Belgian carrying an enormous 16kg pack; and finally on the day before I returned home for my “pause”, Tim O’Brien from Sutton, who left Canterbury ten days after me. That should indicate my snail-like pace.
When I return to Italy in the autumn I sense there will be more pilgrims; the way will be less solitary.