Like most people I really like, I thought he was a pain in the arse at first.
It had been a short day of searing heat. As the Chemin drives south, the mercury pushes north. I was a man on a laundry mission on entering ‘La tartine de Modestine’, in which I had booked a single room.
He was sitting there, outside his assigned cabin, with a thick mop of greying hair. Unusually, he was doing absolutely nothing. No phone, no pen and paper, no drink, no book. He was simply sitting, eyeing me from a distance.
We were three in the hostel that evening. There was a lovely, got-it-together woman in her early fifties called Agnès, whose son of 33 had married two weeks earlier, and who had felt sprung to action by the family nuptials being done. She grabbed her one-woman-tent and headed to the wilderness of La France Profonde. Despite the abundant cabins, she would spend the night on the ground outside.
And there was Arthur.
I had yet to be assingned my own little yurt, and had neither unpacked Kaïsha nor tackled the laundry, when he came over, and wouldn’t bloody stop talking.
Tak, tak, tak. Out it all came. Who he was, who am I, why he felt trapped speaking no French, what’s the word for water, is it aqua, where I come from, where he comes from, the crisis he had at the start of the walk, where has his confidence gone, and why it’s such a relief to speak English.
I’m Brian, I said, feeling burned by his urgency. Let me organise, and then we can have a beer and talk about it all.
The hostel owner, in a last minute pivot that the French love, encouraged me to share a cabin with the Aussie, ‘so we could enjoy the chat’. I ruled it out, and in quite a curt manner too.
Firstly, I like to sleep in the company of my own snoring, only. Secondly, Arthur is already proving a right pain in the arse and I’ve only spent 90 seconds with him. Thirdly, and I’m sensitive to this, the owner was essentially rejigging our contract to suit himself.
The heat was making me crabby.
Some time later, shaded under a tree from the blistering Lozère sun, Arthur, Agnès and I shared some beers. Neither of them spoke the other’s langauge, and I wasn’t sure I spoke Australian.
I’m not a gifted translator, and certainly not for the rambling Contes d’Aurthur. I was amused at his lack of awareness that Agnès needed to be kept in the loop and kept engaged; and so was she, as far as I could discern.
And yet, over that hour of chat, Arthur told us a lot.
He was a maths teacher, retired but still working relief to supplement his pension. He was 68 years old. That’s 68. He had walked 5,000 kms in Europe by taking 3 months free from work and from the wife, heading off to explore by himself over the last few summers. He had eliminated breakfast for three months before departure, losing 10kgs in preparation. He had a wiry, healthy, febrile frame. He had videos of his grandchild to show us. He had walked the Mont Blanc trail; and the whole of the Camino de Santiago during this current Euro Walkabout. His talk of travels continued.
I have been ruminating on the meaning of travel as I walk. Robert Louis Stevenson, in Travels On A Donkey In The Cévennes, advanced a fresh way to consider it, for his Victorian audience.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
This surely was a confronting idea to a utilitarian society which conceived of travel chiefly as the getting to B, from A.
Travel evolves as we do, and revisiting its meaning is the task of each generation.
My thinking has led me to this: that travel is a state of mind which stands in opposition to tourism. A traveller may have the same itinerary as a tourist, but quite the different experience.
Tourism is predicated on relaxation. For the most part, the tourist is protected from the hassles of daily life en vrai. This explains the Sofitel in Bucharest, a haven of French rectitude in a city that’s famously difficile; Full English Breakfast on the menu in Tenerife, for Brits with a mordant fear of tortilla Española; Temple Bar in Dublin, for people who come to Ireland with a thirst for « craic » but who lack the confidence to create it with the Irish themselves.
The tourism industry exacts a conspiracy of sorts on the unsuspecting tourist. Its core intent is to deliver foreign-ness in a manner so familiar that one can be abroad while feeling at home. It takes out a giant iron to the diversity of cultural experience, and erases every wrinkle, to the extent that Trip Advisor reviews which are ‘excellent’ in fact equate to ‘perfectly bland’.
And all this for a healthy premium.
Travel, in contrast, is prepared to cut the umbilical cord with familiarity. It is less interested in relaxation than in stimulation. It is the desire to experience elsewhere – which the French call ‘envie d’ailleurs’, the Germans call ‘Fernweh‘, and which we call ‘getting the fuck out of Dodge’.
I have come to see travel in the same way I appreciate the organic movement in food. Travel is the anti-mass-production experience of being in unmediated, unpolluted, natural environs. It is not for everyone; it is not for always; it is not always for me.
But it was, it turns out, for Arthur.
At the start of Le Stevenson, Arthur got lost, confusing signs of two different routes which were, in fairness, perilously similar. He ended up 10kms out of his way, up a mountain, with little water and less than 10 kms left in his wiry legs.
Describing the detail of how he got out of the pickle (via the kindness of strangers, grâce à Dieu), I felt his pain. Similar things have happened to me and one sees the world differently an hour before dusk, when the road stretches long and the forest’s pines seem unaccountably taller.
I lost my confidence five days ago, he said. And I’m still trying to get it back. That’s why I took the afternoon free today.
I was busy translating the essentials of his narrative for Agnès, who was full of empathy too. Despite his garrulous complaining, I began to shift my perspective on good old Arthur.
The man is 68 years old, still thinks the French for water is aqua, and yet here he is, on his own, undertaking a challenging walk which few outside France have even heard of.
Arthur, I realised, was manifesting a deep-seated longing in myself. The desire to keep on opening new chapters; the desire to ignore age in favour of ‘envie’; the desire to keep precipitating crises in which we lose, and then build back even more resilient, confidence.
The next morning, the Aussie went on his way 30 minutes before me. Getting Kaïsha ready for the road takes time and I don’t like a rush.
An hour into my walk, I hear a man shouting from behind me. ‘Brian? Is that you, mate?’
This was hardly a wild guess. I was, after all, with the donkey. It was indeed me, and Arthur had gone off course, of course.
I was delighted to see him for one last time, and we walked a kilometre together, before the urge to advance took him over. A donkey ambles slower than any walker.
The previous evening we had long conversations together. I took time to affirm his belief in what he was doing, and suggested that he see his getting lost not as incompetence, but rather as everyday, incremental learning. I also told him how admiring I was of him, doing difficult things at a time in life when our culture keeps hinting to us that it’s tricky to be older, and therefore we should sign up for a cruise.
As he quickened his pace to leave me, he looked back to meet my eyes.
‘I enjoyed meeting you, mate. You enriched my life’.
Arthur’s story got buried, given the amount of new stimulus that travel with a starlet donkey brings. Until five days later, when I came upon four walkers, stopped, looking down at pine cones which had been carefully, mathematically, arranged into a word on the trail. As I arrived, they had just agreed on what it said.
I don’t know who wrote it, nor the context of why it was written. But I do know it was on the right path.