Zuzana and I are the odd couple – she 27 years old and a beauty, me at 60 feeling like an old woman for maybe the first time I my life. We met while walking Les Chemins de St Jacques – the Camino de Santiago – near Lourdes, France. She calls me her guardian angel but to me, she is my caregiver. She gladly lets me use her phone recharger and patiently assists me when I can’t get it to work. As she makes dinner for the two of us, I sit and talk about Camino etiquette while she chops fresh vegetables.
“What is that word?” the native of Slovakia asks.
“It’s French for something like ‘how to behave’,” I offer.
I instruct her on blister care and she teaches me how to say blister in Spanish: ambule. Zuzana has been working in Spain for the past several years as an architect. Her command of the Spanish language is impeccable, but how would I know, I’m a bumbling student of the language?
Zuzana is a vegetarian and nutrition nut; I’m having withdrawals from Lay’s Potato Chips. She’s getting me hooked on Chia seeds, “Breakfast of Champions” for Aztec warriors, or so claims the label. According to the package, Aztec ancients could run for fourteen hours on one meal of Chia seeds.
When she asks me if I found her hiking pole tip, I pull it out of my pocket. You see, she walks the pilgrimage route very much ahead of me. And I find the things that she drops: a hiking pole tip and a pair of socks pinned together with a clothes pin.
I actually met Zuzana’s socks before I met her – or anyone else – on this remote pilgrimage route. There are few pilgrims walking from Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port, which is why Zuzana would make dinner for just the two of us – there were no others in most of the albergues where we stay. I found her socks on the first day out of Lourdes. They were lying in a rain puddle in front of a big sign describing the abundant nature of the surrounding area. I could tell that the socks had been recently dropped, so I picked them up. I toted them until the next day when long-legged Soren, with whom I was trying to keep up, begged me for the third time to get rid of some weight from my 30-pound pack.
“Stacey, darling! You’ve carried all that long enough. It’s time you got rid of something! I don’t mean to lecture, or pontificate, but REALLY!” exclaimed Soren pontificating.
“Oh, no. Go ahead — I need to hear it,” I interrupted. It was my second day of walking and both the temperature and humidity were high. The sweat was pouring down my red face. I left the socks and a baseball hat at a bus stop in a small country village. It wasn’t much to leave behind, but it was a beginning. Eventually I would mail fourteen copies of my Camino book forward to Burgos, Spain. I carried the books so I could donate them, one at a time to albergues along the way. But since my book was a spiritual and walking guide for the last weeks of the walk, I really didn’t want to leave them until I got closer to the endpoint.
I met Zuzana the following day, and when she mentioned that she had lost her socks, I shot a “look” to Soren. Later Soren, who planned to cross the Pyrénées at Somport, turned west and bid us goodbye. Zuzanna and I continued our walk north-ish along the foothills of the Pyrénées. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Solo travel opens up possibilities for uncommon friendships. I would never guess that a young girl in the prime of her life would ever want to be friends with me, a sixty-year-old woman. Yet the Camino brings together people who have something special to share with each other.
Stacey Wittig is a travel writer who is currently working on her second book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port. Order her first book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Leon to Santiago on Amazon.