Michael George is a Brooklyn-based freelance photographer and adventurer. In 2012, he walked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain. This year, he returned to the Camino to make a photo documentary; from that journey came this story. You can find more of Michael’s photography and writing on both his website and blog. Follow him on Instagram @migeophoto.

Michael George

Traveling in France is tough. Not the kind of tough like it’s particularly expensive or dangerous or confusing. Tough in the sense that there are just enough locals who roll their eyes at your accent that somewhere in your subconscious, with each passing day, you get a distinct feeling that you’re not wanted. In some ways it feels like all of the bad parts of high school spread out across an entire country. We’ll accept your tourist euros but please, don’t sit with us.

Last year I walked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. This year I went back to make a photo documentary – starting with 10 days on the Le Puy Camino in southern France. Upon arrival there were a few things standing in my way: my 11-week beginner French course was barely buying me a train ticket and I was carrying enough photography equipment to aggravate a pack mule. At five foot four inches I am barely a pack foal.

My first day brought me to Le-Puy-en-Velay after 12 hours of delay. There was a hill that leads up to the seminary where I would be sleeping. By the time I reached the top I had already almost collapsed. The next day I was supposed to walk 23 kilometers with 42 lbs. over at least five mountains.

My savior came in the form of a Parisian named Christophe. He translated where the showers and laundry rooms were. What time is dinner? Breakfast? Mass? This is your key. Leave it in the door when you leave.

Untitled (Camino path)
Untitled (Camino path)

I left a day later than planned.

I walked and hurt. Walked more and hurt more. Within a day I became a bit of a legend on the Camino. “Have you met the American photographer from New York?” The Le Puy route is mostly populated with French people on vacation. Every once in a while you find someone who plans to walk the 1,000 miles from Le Puy to Santiago. You never find an American.

“The beauty of the Camino is that it leaves all cultures behind – it has developed its own rules of charity and humanity.”

Those who could speak English would seek me out (I was hard to miss with the giant DSLR around my neck). Towards the end of the walk on my first day I met Regis, a charismatic Parisian man with a broken hand. By then the pain in my shoulders had become so intense that I couldn’t lift my camera without wincing. Regis spoke rapidly. He had spent a year in Ohio and we became fast friends. He also needed someone to help slice his bread and sausage for lunch.

Saint-Georges Seminary, Le-Puy-en-Velay, France.
Saint-Côme-d’Olt, France

Over the next few days I would meet Delphine, a young girl who helped me with my French as I helped her with her English; Gelbor and Marie, an old French couple that didn’t speak a word of English but would always smile and give me a hug; and Willem, a young multilingual wonder who had walked from Belgium and helped me translate interviews with locals.

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As each day passed I realized how inspired people were by my project. They saw my dive into a foreign world as courageous. Those who didn’t speak English would give me a knowing wave as they passed on the trail. The beauty of the Camino is that it leaves all cultures behind – it has developed its own rules of charity and humanity.  Suddenly it didn’t matter that I was in France so much as it mattered that I was surrounded by people who supported my work.

“…you only grow after finding a careful balance of human connection and total disruption.”

Sometimes a language barrier can make you feel like people have lost their compassion. You feel locked up in this little box where your insecurities are amplified to the umpteenth degree. That disconnect can also be a beautiful thing. It makes you feel detached from the world as if you are living in a dream. You get lost in your head and learn to cope with aloneness.

As I reached the end of my 10 days I began to vacillate between groups who spoke English and troupes of older travelers who spoke not a lick. Meanwhile my little army of eyes and ears had spread throughout the Camino and my project became easier. I would arrive in a town and Willem or Delphine would tell me about an interesting person they had met during the day. I would sort through the stories and decide on someone to interview. By now it was easy to find a translator.

Le-Puy-en-Velay, France
Le-Puy-en-Velay, France

When traveling you both loosen the hold on yourself and strengthen the parts you find to be most true. My walk through France had a rough start. Those first few days were possibly the most difficult I have ever experienced as a traveler. Between the physical pain and mental alienation, I honestly thought I would never make it. Then, as always, I learned to adapt. I cracked through the hard shells of the French people and proved, once again, that you only grow after finding a careful balance of human connection and total disruption.

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Michael George is a freelance travel and portrait photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. His images have appeared in publications such as WIRED, Popular Mechanics, American Photo, Runner’s World, and Hello Mr. magazines. He is also a “professional” adventurer. In 2010 he cycled 4,000 miles across the United States to raise money for affordable housing. In 2012/13 he walked over 1,000 miles through southwest France and northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage. Michael’s documentary, “Portrait of a Pilgrim,” will be published as a Photo Journal by National Geographic next year. You can follow his journey on Instagram @migeophoto.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m from the Caribbean and black. Do you think I’ll have a tough time walking the Camino. You are white and american, yet you got the feeling of not being wanted.

    • Marian,

      I think you would be fine. I met people of all races, gender, sexual identity, etc. – many of which were traveling alone. The alienation I mentioned was somewhat minor – more in a jokey “Oh, silly American” way. Granted – since I was traveling alone, it did start to bother me slightly, it was nothing too bad.

      This was also all on the Le Puy Camino.

      On the Camino Frances I experienced none of that – Spaniards are much, much nicer!

      DO THE WALK. You won’t regret it. It will change your life.

      MG

      • Hello, I’m sorry but i have to respond your post as a french person . Yeah i know what you’re gonna think : The french is not happy because we criticize the french people and say spaniards are much, much nicer. You never told yourself that you fall on the wrong persons in France and the good ones in Spain? What you the opposite happened? You would write that you felt not welcomed in Spain and that the french are much, much nicer? Does the fact you met bad persons during your trip in France make the whole people of france bad? I met good and bad persons in many different countries.
        So yes Marian, you will meet persons that will look at you in a weird way, but it is a fact in every country.
        Few years ago, i was in a restaurant in Manhattan, everything was perfect until the waiter knew we were french.. The end of the meal was different, they made us understand that we were not welcome to come back.. Did i tell myself : all americans are assholes? No, this one was, that’s it.

        it’s a bit dangerous to write things like that because a loads of people are gonna read it, and think that all french all mean to foreigners.

        So to those reading this post, we are NOT ALL assholes..

        Keep travelling without any judgment on other people way of living and way of thinking, differences of language, culture, food, way of life, are what makes the trip worth it.

        Cheers. 🙂

    • It is easy to find accommodations. Most times I made no arrangements for the next day and yet found a place to stay for myself and my two daughters. I went in May…before the rush of summer peregrinos.

  2. Michael. I’m encouraged by you sharing your Camino. I desperately ( literally ) need the Camino. If I don’t decompress soon I will pop❗️If all goes well I plan on leaving LePuy in Feb. 2017 and going to Santiago DeCompostila. I need to be cold, lonely and alone . . . Thanks again , Dart USA

  3. I want to do “the walk” so I can actually finish something. I am the consummate “non-finisher”. I understand there are a few different routes to take. Is there a book or article that would help me determine which best I’m suited for? I’ve read many bad remarks about walking the Camino de Santiago. I don’t want to walk on just paved roads or be subjected to non-stop traffic and noise. I will be 61 and want to start this next May (2017).

    • I walked the Camino de Santiago in May of 2016 and it was really beautiful. I read John Brierley’s book…it was good but he suggests stopping points and since many people carry this book those stopping points were often more crowded than if you stopped the town before or after the one he suggests in the book. The walk through the Pyrenees on the first day (if you are leaving from St. Jean Pied de Port which is the most common starting point) is very hard but you can do it. You need to train with your full backpack before leaving. It was a wonderful experience. I believe everyone should walk the Camino. You never have to worry about “staying in the now” because that’s all there is. Wake, walk, eat, drink, laugh, repeat.

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