016. A WALK...AND PARIS IN 90MIN / by Cara Hines

Patrick, dropped me off this morning at the canal that Via Francigena follows for a bit as it leaves Reims heading south. It was perfectly on his way to work. It’s now a little after 10am, and I’m in the village called Sillery in a café having a coffee and a cheese sandwich. A stinky cheese sandwich isn’t really what I wanted, but I didn’t know what the other things on the menu were. “Sandwich fromage” I can figure out since cheese is “formaggio” in Italian.

It’s quite a problem to have not even a basic understanding of the language. French is so beautiful, and I can’t even pronounce words on a menu. I mean, the city of Riems sounds like something between “Rez” and “Rays”. Why the hell is the “m” there if it makes no sound? I don’t even know how to ask for water. I now appreciate my knowledge of the Italian and Spanish languages, even as limited as it is. It’s developing. The foundation is there.

The thing I most miss out on is dialogue with the people I meet. This morning as I walked along the trail by the canal, I met a man who was fishing and camping. He seemed very curious about me, and the fact that I was a woman alone walking with a backpack. He mentioned the Santiago de Campostella pilgrimage route through Spain. Since I couldn’t explain I’m only taking a walk for one day, I told him I was walking from Inghilterra to Roma Italia. He recoiled, his face contorted, and he laughed in disbelief. He clearly thought I was nuts! Maybe I am. It would have been nice to talk with him and learn about his fishing and ask about his family, and learn what he knows of the area. Of course, if I were able to speak with him and every other person I meet, I might never walk. I’d be curious to know what he was up to, and as such, I’d have spent the day fishing with this nice French man rather than walking. It’s not such a terrible thought. I like the idea of simply waking up each morning with no concretized itinerary, to simply walk in a general direction with a destination in mind but remaining open to whatever forks might appear in the road.

And now as I sit in this café writing, the very cute barista man and two customers at the bar, one with his dog that is incessantly begging and barking for my fromage sandwich, I cannot talk with them either. What a shame. We tried chatting. It just didn’t get very far. One of the old men apparently ordered a glass of wine for me, which I could have walked without, but I graciously accepted and drank it. At least I could say “merci beaucoup” with a big smile, and he knew what I meant.

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Now I’m sitting in the small village of Verzenay after walking her from Sillery. I missed one minor turn-off from the road that passes the champagne house Langlais-Decotte Grand Cru, so I wound my way through the vineyard fields, with strong winds in my face and thick mud. The earth here is a chalky grey, and when it’s wet, it’s like walking through the sort of clay a potter might throw. It sticks to your shoes and everything else, but it’s also slick as oil. I almost slipped several times dodging mud puddles. The beacon for my trek was the Moulin de Verzenay, a large windmill and estate on a hill set against a bright blue sky. The vision of it was something from a fairytale. I made my way and was rewarded at the top of the hill with stunning views of the endless champagne vineyards in almost every direction, and of Verzenay village to the southwest.

Walking with only this backpack and my thoughts in a new place was heavenly. I mean that literally. It truly was heaven on Earth, to simply be alone with my thoughts and the present moment; concerned only with putting one foot in front of the other, watching for my next turn, and finding something to eat. It bolstered my resolve to make the long walk on the Via Francigena next year, and I have no doubt it will be a success no matter how it goes. Or who.

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In an attempt to follow the route suggested by the guidebook, I took an off-road path coming out of Verzenay. I did this against my better judgment and added close to an hour to my return trip. It’s a little difficult following the guidebook in reverse order. In addition, the map portion is quite vague and seems incomplete. As I’m a very visual person, the listed directions were a bit difficult to follow. It seems well suited for use if you have a GPS system, which I do not have, and I don’t care to. Of course, there’s always the possibility of user error. I’m not going to refute that as a prospect! So, as in the spirit of a true pilgrimage, perhaps the beauty is in simply feeling your way, and accepting what is.

On my way back through Sillery, I stopped to have a quick glass of Vin blanc at the same café I visited earlier. Honestly, nature was calling in a big bad way, and I couldn’t find a public restroom elsewhere. That’s OK. The cute barista / café owner was still there and still cute. I finished my glass and asked to pay so I could hurry to meet Patrick, but he poured another glass instead, indicating it was his treat. Again, my lack of aptitude in the French language posed a problem. It was impossible for me to explain I had to be somewhere and walk quickly for over an hour to get there. I also didn’t want to refuse his gesture without being able to explain why. A good problem to have, I suppose. So I drank down that second glass of wine (the last thing I needed!) as quickly as possible without being rude. I bid farewell and proceeded to walk as fast as I could with already tired legs, sore feet, and a backpack full of equipment that I could have sworn gained 10 pounds since the morning. Luckily, it was a clear and cool night. I arrived at the meeting point just in time as Patrick had arrived less than five minutes prior.

Back at his home, I showered from my long day, and we enjoyed another family dinner. Patrick introduced me to some websites and information that will help tremendously with my planning efforts for next year. We discussed the project, and at a certain point I mentioned Immacolata Coraggio’s name. (She’s the woman who hosted me earlier in this trip for a night near Milan and who walked the entire Via Francigean last summer.) He immediately recognized it from a request he received last year from a pilgrim needing a place to sleep on her way through Reims. He even found the email to confirm, and it was indeed the same person. How’s that for small world?

Patrick and Pascal were wonderful hosts. I enjoyed them thoroughly, as brief and short of notice as my visit was. The next morning I had a 45-minute walk to the train station and an all-day train ride to Torino. There would be a 90-minute layover in Paris, which I used to wander the streets and get a few photographs. I discovered an open-air market tucked away in a rather Bohemian little neighborhood near the station. Lining the streets were vendor carts overflowing with vegetables and fruits, meats, flowers, nuts, candies. In the middle of a large square were tables full of everything you could want. It was a big open-air flea market or thrift store. I could have gotten in trouble there, so it’s a good thing I had to hurry. And that I’d have to carry anything I’d buy.

I’m fairly certain 90 minutes in Paris is not enough. No, of course it isn’t. But in those 90 minutes, I was told I’m beautiful by a little old man, offered a kiss by another one, yelled at for taking pictures of one of the vegetable stands, asked to take pictures at the butcher shop, befriended by a couple of guys from Africa who play football (soccer) together and jumped into the picture of the butcher shop. I watched two older boys gleefully attempt to teach their younger brother how to skateboard, walked behind a little old couple holding hands and googly-eyed as they walked down the sidewalk, and witnessed a little girl with the cutest black Shirley Temple curls throw a temper tantrum with her mother in the middle of the street. I saw a man riding his red bicycle wearing bright red pants, glasses and scarf. He looked very serious about things. I watched a group of men playing in what appeared to be an impromptu chess match at the edge of a large open plaza, and a couple who stopped in the middle of it to make out for no less than 5 minutes without coming up for air. It was a rich and colorful little walk of Amelie ilk and worth every second I squeezed out of it. 

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