Diary of The Travelling Seanchai :-
From Victim to Pilgrim in one week!
2007-04-17 to 2007-04-20
Well after another unsuccessful attempt at trying to have a civilised time in a new city with nothing bad happening to me, I felt that I needed some additional help if I was to keep on to this travelling odyssey of mine. As I said previously, my parents, aunts, uncles and some friends had made the journey to this region in the Pyrenees so it was time for me to see what it was like.
I am not sure if you know about it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lourdes will give you an idea) but it is a prominent Catholic pilgrimage site to Mary, mother of Jesus. My bus took ages to get to Toulouse and I had 4 minutes to spare when I caught the last train to Lourdes after my pigeon French got me my tickets eventually.
My mate Laurie (more about him in future blogs) had a friend in Lourdes called Emily and he had arranged with her to pick me up and help me find accommodation. I asked for it to be a cheap and a hostel. Now Lourdes has between 300-400 hotels but there aren`t too many backpackers making the trip to these parts so hostels are non existent. But, much to her credit, Emily had found me a place where cub scouts and school tours went, in English, the village of the Young!
Well I already stood out when I arrived there because I had a) a backpack, b) a beautiful French girl in tow and c) this pilgrim had arrived in a Peugeot 206 cc sports car! It might have explained why within 30 seconds of arriving some punk kid had kicked a football off it (I later tied his cravat in a way that he`ll never be able to undo and stole his tree whittling and his bike repair badges). Still I got my own room for about 8 Euros a night and I could join the collective every morning for breakfast at 7am if I so wished but I just imagined me looking like Shrek walking into the palace with all the kids wondering why this big weirdo had chosen to visit!
Emily took me to a bar and we spoke French for about 5 hours. At the start it was excruciating, with the conversation flowing like treacle uphill in winter, me dragging words kicking and screaming out of the deep recesses of my school days with Ms Smith, trying to establish the correct tense and hardly concerning myself with the gender of them at all! It was worse when I strained to pick up every sixth word and depressingly for her kept asking, “Plus doucement, s`il vous plait?” and thankfully she would slow down but I think she could feel the sympathies of those around us wondering why she had gone on a blind date with someone who could clearly not speak the language and may be slightly retarded!
But amazingly, it started coming back to me, like lost relatives after a funeral for the inheritance reading. I was feeling a lot better and things weren`t so steccato and awkward when after about 3 hours she said something in response to my previous line, “well that is essentially the same thing but in a different context”. It took me a double take to realise that the girl who I`d thought could only speak French had better English than me! And she`d sat through the development of my Bob the French Vocabulary Builder and never said a word?! I couldn`t believe it but now I was on a roll and we continued in French, but at least now I could ask her for clarification without resorting to the grunts and hand signals of a Borneo Orang Utan.
The next day was a religious one for me, and about time too I hear you say! I started with confession and two hours later I got a lot of dirty looks from the old folks who`d been kept waiting so long! At least they had something to probably confess now because I am sure their looks were not Christian! I went looking for an English mass and found one on at 10:30am, a far more respectable time than for the poor Hungarians whose only mass in their mother tongue was at 6am! Haha! Ah those Hungarians!
The mass was dominated by an Irish group and was said outdoors by Fr Noel Murphy from Cork. It was a very sunny day and already about 24 degrees and at one point he told everyone to `Stand to profess your faith` but then in conspiratorial low tones said, `stay sitting for God`s sake will ye, it`s boiling out here` and then he said it again out loud, `Now lets stand to profess our faith…` and all those that don`t speak Cork accent English stood up and felt conspicuous by their efforts! I smiled, it was a typical Irish inside joke!
The town itself is built on the foothills of the Pyrenees and it`s quite a walk to get around it. Only Paris has more hotels than this town (17,000 inhabitants, millions of visitors from Mar-Oct every year). The owners struggled with unique names; from the blatantly patriotic Hotel d`Irlande and Hotel America to the new Hotel Moderne to the lonely and sad Hotel Solitaire to the downright lazy but descriptive Hotel Restaurant to the plain silly Hotel Notre Dame de Chartes et Sainte Radegonde! Try saying that one to your cab driver after a few drinks!
Now I have never been one to force my beliefs on anyone else (unless of course it is the belief that we should definitely stay out and have a few more drinks in which case I enforce that with the zeal of a puritanical Christian soldier) but this place was really something special. It was peaceful and spiritual without being oppressively so and despite the fact that some people think that I am the devil incarnate (usually the people who wake up the next morning after a bout of my earlier zeal) I didn`t melt when I entered the huge basilica. The walls abound with inscriptions for remembrances of the dead and thanks for conversions and favours granted. One, from 1901, was from a mother who thanked Mary for her daughter`s exam results!
I did the open air stations of the cross in the blistering heat with the Irish group and at the first station there were about 20 steps which you were asked to do on your knees if you wanted to approach it. I watched old people do this and I felt ashamed, every time I genuflect I think I`ll need a winch to get me back up.
Either side of 15 of us, we were shuffled between two huge groups (in excess of 60 in each) Italians who had loudspeakers and who unceremoniously (and terribly unChristian like I felt) held us up at the front and then hovered over us behind like a gang, albeit an old and deeply religious one. I still instinctively went to check on my new disposable camera none the less!
I met Emily that night aswell, flourishing with a new found peacefulness and contentment. Another exclusively French night ensued which entailed dinner in a restaurant (one of those ones where you have to appreciate the art of the presentation of the dinner and not the quality) and then ultimately a Karaoke bar! Thankfully I resisted the urge to sing with the school kids in there who to their credit were all doing their own choreographed variations of swing dancing (and to think in my day, moshing was all the rage!)
Still, Lourdes is not for everyone, there are little to no backpackers there, if you are going there its to pray, confess something or in my case, ask for some divine intervention to stop people hitting me and taking my stuff!
Still, my favourite story from the weekend was when I was asking directions for the post office from a shop assistant. Let me say that trying to remember my French has left me dreaming it, thinking in it, cursing in it. But it`s all encompassing and I will go into that more in my next blog but suffice to say, I was finding it hard switching over my French chapeau with my English hat so to speak.
With my new found comfort with the French language I delivered the question flawlessly but this led to a rapid fire response and my look of confusion led her to kindly ask me “Parlais vous anglais?” (Do you speak English?) but so immersed was I in my French mindset that I answered “Un peu!”. You should have seen the sheer look of confusion and desperation on the poor lady`s face, assessing this person who clearly couldn`t speak French properly, who by his own account only had `a little` English and who spoke with an Irish accent!
I felt like an idiot (the same word and spelling in both languages fortunately for my feeble brain) and walked out! Mary might help me look after my belongings but I think St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, is going to have his work cut out with me!
Living the impossible dream for a week!