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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.