The pilgrims were supposed to assemble at 5:30 AM on Saturday morning outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. We got up the next day at 5 AM, and the third day at 5:30 AM. This means that if you had jet lag, you were sunk. Sunk. Although the UK is only one hour behind France, and although I had practiced waking up at 6 AM for two weeks, I felt really rotten getting up at what was for me 4:15 AM. I regret taking the later, cheaper Friday flight to Paris. I wish I had spent the extra £30 to take the earlier flight. That way I could have had a decent Parisian supper and gone to bed at 10 PM France time (or earlier) instead of at 11:30 PM.
Lesson learned 1: Go to Paris early and get a decent night's sleep.
My hotel was ten minutes maximum from Notre Dame de Paris, which was excellent. Yes, it cost me $180 Canadian, but it was worth it to be so close. For one thing, my one-wheeled suitcase was a beast.
Lesson learned 2: Pay the price for the centrally located hotel.
Lesson learned 3: Don't take a one-wheeled suitcase.
My first morning began foully, for I forced myself to eat my homemade sugar-free muesli with coconut milk. I didn't much like it at home, and I absolutely loathed it in a tiny expensive Paris hotel room at 5:15 AM. Afterwards, I ate less than a third of all my carefully packed rations (and no more of the muesli) because I was so tired, I couldn't make myself eat them, let alone use a knife and fork. On Sunday night and Monday morning I had just enough energy and time to stuff some blueberries in my mouth, like a squirrel or a bear, if bears use their paws to facilitate eating. Believe me, on the Saturday and Sunday evenings by the time I had pitched my tent, I was like a bear crawling into its cave--a cranky bear with sore feet with not enough reason to know how to open a tin of herring, let alone wield a can opener.
Lesson learned 4: Bring only food you can eat piece by piece, preferably out of small zip-lock bags, using only your hands, if possible. Good food: nuts, seeds, berries, homemade fruit-and-nut bars, apples, small cans of John West tuna (for lunch), kabanosy (long, thin, dried Polish sausages), dark chocolate. Bad food: tinned herring, tinned salmon, little containers of tomato and spinach, avocados, lemon and lime. (I had a marvellous idea that I would make avocado-tomato salad with lime juice at the camp site, and eat it dantily from a plate with a knife and fork. Ah ha ha ha ha!) The pilgrimage organizers provided pilgrims with bottled water (lots and lots), apples (on the first day) coffee, hot chocolate, bread and soup. I was too tired to both queue up for the porta-loos and then get my cup and come back for soup, so I never had any soup. It looked and smelled nice... broccoli...
Lesson Learned 5: Take a cup and a fork. That's all you will use.
Lesson Learned 6: When you get to camp, tie your cup to yourself and take it everywhere, so that you can get coffee/hot chocolate/soup on the way to or back from the loos and/or the Foreigners' Luggage Truck.
One of the seasoned pilgrims told me that she just doesn't wash during the pilgrimage. I felt that as an old Girl Guide, brought up to strictest standards of camp cleanliness, I would certainly wash myself and brush my teeth. This did not happen, except for my feet. After pondering my podiatrist's advice to ice my feet at the end of each day--no fridge, no ice--I brought a plastic tub in my suitcase and a little squeezy bottle of antiseptic soap. After putting up my tent and crawling in, like a bear, I would take out my tub, strip my feet, put them in the tub, squeeze soap on them and pour over one whole litre of bottled water I had carried from the last rest stop. HEAVEN.
Lesson Learned 7: Enjoy your hot showers and teeth-brushing in hotel before and in hotel afterwards, for washing and teeth-brushing will not happen during. Let go of the expectation of washing or brushing teeth during. Won't happen. You will be too tired and it may be too cold.
Lesson Learned 8: Bringing a tub for the feet is totally worth it.
There are loos. The queues for the loos are long. Sometimes you have to give up hope of using the loo, or brace yourself to run a kilometre to catch up with your chapter after using the loo. There are no sinks (obviously), so you can not wash your hands afterwards.
Lesson Learned 9: Carry hand sanitizer in your pocket at all times or just accept that you have become, at best, pre-modern and, at worst, an animal.
Lesson Learned 10: Pray, sisters, that you not get your period on or just before the pilgrimage. Naturally you cannot help it if you do, but your life will be better if you don't.
Lesson Learned 11: I brought wet wipes. Bring wet wipes.
Ah ha ha ha ha! Ah ha ha ha ha! Excuse me while I wipe away a tear of mirth.
Lesson Learned 12: Bring a sit-upon, for you will be sitting in mud during breaks, kneeling on gravel for Whitsunday Mass, and (if your group is luckily one of the groups allowed to hear Mass inside Chartres cathedral---you can't fit 10,000 people in Chartres cathedral) kneeling on a cold, cold stone floor for Whitmonday Mass. A sit-upon can be a piece cut out of an old yoga mat or a newspaper wrapped in a plastic bag and taped shut.
Lesson Learned 13: You can't bring too many socks. Wool for the day's walking, cotton for camp, more wool (or bamboo fibre) to pull over the cotton for sleeping.
Lesson Learned 14: The north of France is naturally muddy. It doesn't have to rain; it's just muddy. As you tramp up to your ankles in mud, wondering why it is so muddy when it hasn't rained, you will suddenly remember everything you ever heard about the French battlefields of the First (and possibly also Second) World War. If Canadian, a Canadian near you will make reference to Vimy Ridge.
Lesson Learned 15: The North of France can be cold in mid-May. All those images you have of warm, sunny France are of the SOUTH. Buy the warmest sleeping bag you can afford (as I did) and bring thermal underwear (as I didn't).
Feet first was my motto. No matter how much you deny Mr Stomach and Mr Bowels, you have to take care of Mr Feet. By Monday morning, I was actually arguing with my feet, pointing out how I had been putting them first, washing them so lovingly, soaking them in my tub, and giving them fresh band-aids, blister plasters and socks instead of eating and before queuing for the loo.
Lesson Learned 16: Have a well-stocked first aid zip-lock freezer bag and take it everywhere.
What almost felled me at the end was not my feet but an angelic-looking little blue-eyed blond boy who went down the loo queue during the Monday lunch break with a plate of French sausage bits. Instead of thinking "Don't talk meat from strangers when it is (for once) hot out", I thought, "Oh how nice" and took a piece. Two minutes later I was doubled over in agony, thinking something VERY BAD was about to happen in public, and when--thank God--a man gave me his place in his queue and I was in the safety and privacy of the loo, my head swam, I saw spots, and I thought I was going to pass out right there in the loo. It was over.
Fortunately, I recovered sufficiently to be ministered to by the fathers and mothers of the chapter who offered to take me to the nearby doctor, offered me glucose pills and said "It was too fast for food poisoning. It must be low blood sugar!" The chaplain (Father Mark Rowe) threw me a bread roll from his Priest's Rations (see footnote below), and after I ate some, I felt much, much better.
Lesson Learned 17: Never take meat from a plate offered by a stranger on Day 3 of the Chartres Pilgrimage, even if he looks like a little baby angel.
Lesson Learned 18: Being on a low-carb diet for three weeks before the Chartres Pilgrimage is probably not the best idea ever.
One of our party got a throat infection, poor boy, and by Tuesday's flight home, the chapter had run out of paracetamol.
Lesson Learned 19: Bring enough painkiller for both you and a friend.
Incidentally: I applied sunblock throughout, wore my wide-brimmed French Guide hat in all daylight hours and wore sunglasses. Therefore, I was never sunburned. Amazingly, the French weather can be cold and cloudy one moment and blazing hot and sunny the next. It was like this all through Whitsunday Mass: freeze, burn, freeze, burn. How both my Scottish great-grandfather and his Canadian son my grandfather survived the French weather alone--never mind the Germans--during the World Wars is now a wonder to me.
Lesson Learned 20: Weather in Ile de France and the Loire Valley is weird and changeable.
It's a Traddy Pilgrimage in France: there will be Latin and a lot of French. Not a minute I spent reviewing French prayers and tourist phrases was wasted.
Lesson Learned 21: It is worth reviewing your French, and even improving it for next time.
I will save most of this for my newspapers, but this is above all a Traditional Catholic Pilgrimage, and unless you are a Catholic who loves the faith and its traditional theology and devotions, you will not get this pilgrimage. Not to trash the Camino, but it's not the Camino. Aging hippies love the Camino; aging hippies would not last the first day of the Chartres pilgrimage.
Lesson Learned 22: It's the real thing.
CHARTRES PILGRIM PACKING LIST
If I go again (and many a time as I walked did I think "Never"), I will bring the following:
Backpack (NOT suitcase)
Small bottle of anti-bacterial liquid soap
Lamp (to hang from hook at top of tent)
Flashlight (if you have aging eyes, you will also need this to read the Pilgrimage Missal in cathedrals during Mass, so keep it in your day bag)
Garbage bag(s) for waterproofing (i.e. bundling the still-damp tent into before shoving it in my suitcase)
3 tins John West tuna
12 (at least) homemade fruit-and-nut bars
3 packages (at least) kabanosy
100 g dark chocolate
Bag of mixed nuts and seeds
Granola bars (in case of another Low Blood Sugar Incident)
Easy-peel oranges (because if not easy, won't bother)
500 g water bottle
Mineral replacement tablets
First Aid bag with antiseptic wipes, plasters, blister plasters, scissors (crucial), etc.
Ear-plugs (very important for remaining in charity with fellow pilgrims at night)
Small folded rain jacket (even though I didn't need it this time)
Tiny folded umbrella (ditto)
Money belt for passports, wallet, money (from which I received HUGE peace of mind)
Passport & UK Resident Visa
Euros (esp. denominations of 5 and 10)
Toothbrush with head-protector (for hotels)
2 packages of paper tissues
Paracetamol (enough to share)
Meditation (if agreed to give a mediation again)
Chapter song & hymn book (with "500 miles" glued in)
Guide (or other wide-brimmed) hat
Light quilted country jacket
4 cotton/linen long-sleeved shirts
4 T-shirts for under long-sleeved shirts (sounds crazy in May, but I am so grateful I took the hiking advice for temperate climates in Survival)
The Mighty and Indestructible Denim Maxi-Skirt of Female Traddery
Underwear without elastic around the leg-holes
Four days' worth wool/special hiking socks
Three night's worth cotton socks (not for walking)
Two night's worth knee-length socks (bamboo fibre good)
Tennis shoes (for campsite)
Woolly hat (for cold camp nights)
Woolly gloves (for cold, damp mornings, esp when striking tent)
Thermal underwear for sleeping in
Thin dressing gown for modesty's sake in loo queue
Cute outfit worthy of French restaurants
Cute outfit worthy of French restaurants
Naturally absolutely everything should be packed in plastic, waterproof, preferably zip-lock freezer bags.
I was going to include a list of things I brought but never used, but that would be just too depressing!
*Priests' Rations: My friend Berenike once told me that "A fat priest is the pride of his [Polish] village." I have been thinking that over for years, and at last I understand it. Although too many priests deserve to have their bottoms kicked from here to Hereford, traditionalists are second to none in our respect for the Sacred Priesthood. Also, we naturally want them to come to our pilgimages so as to hear our confessions, lead the rosaries, read the meditations, say mass and throw us their bread rolls when we have low blood sugar (see above). Therefore, priests on the Chartres Pilgrimage do not share the some primitive lifestyle as the pilgrims but have camp beds in their tents, special snacks and meals laid on in special covered trays. It's very, very nice for priests, dear priests!. There are lots of priests there--some of them just stand with their breveries by the side of the road waiting for penitents--but I believe more would always be welcome. Priests who both love the Traditional Latin Mass and play the bagpipes would be particularly prized by the Scottish chapter.