INTERVIEW

'These alpha chicks started fluffing their feathers. The backbiting morphed into "Lord of the Flies” on estrogen.'

JANE CHRISTMAS TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HER LONELY 800KILOMETRE CAMINO PILGRIMAGE WITH 14 OTHER MIDDLE-AGED WOMEN

October 1 2007
INTERVIEW

'These alpha chicks started fluffing their feathers. The backbiting morphed into "Lord of the Flies” on estrogen.'

JANE CHRISTMAS TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HER LONELY 800KILOMETRE CAMINO PILGRIMAGE WITH 14 OTHER MIDDLE-AGED WOMEN

October 1 2007

'These alpha chicks started fluffing their feathers. The backbiting morphed into "Lord of the Flies” on estrogen.'

INTERVIEW

JANE CHRISTMAS TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HER LONELY 800KILOMETRE CAMINO PILGRIMAGE WITH 14 OTHER MIDDLE-AGED WOMEN

Q Your new book, What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim (Greystone Books), is about hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain to mark your 50th birthday, but a month-long uphill pilgrimage sounds more like self-flagellation than celebration. What was the appeal?

A: The sense of freedom, the chance to roam, unfettered, for 800 kilometres. I’m a single parent, one of my kids was going through a difficult teenage time, and I couldn’t wait to get away from them. I think they were wondering why their mother had to go away for a month and walk across Spain when everybody else’s mother was home baking cookies and hosting sleepovers. But I was wondering whether motherhood has a shelf-life, and my best-before date had passed. There was also the sense of rebellion. There’s sort of a social persecution of Christians these days, and this was in-your-face: “Yeah, I’m going on a religious pilgrimage, you think there’s something wrong with that?” I find it difficult to express my faith, and this was a way to do it.

Q: What’s the religious significance of the Camino?

A: It was set up after the remains of James, one of the Apostles of Christ, were found around 800 A.D. A shrine sprang up and he was adopted as the patron saint of Spain, and this whole machine was put in place to rehabilitate James’s personality. They basically turned

him into Spain’s Mickey Mouse.

Q: What does a pilgrimage look like today compared to one in medieval times?

A: I think the reasons that prompt people to go on a pilgrimage are not much different, it’s to go and search your soul, seek an indulgence, pay homage to a religious personage, atone for sins, honour the loss of a loved one. And in the old days, it was also just a way to get out of Dodge. In medieval times it was as close to a holiday as anyone was going to get. Today, I think it’s the same sort of thing, it’s just that Mountain Equipment Co-op has supplied the gear.

Q: You weren t exactly unfettered when you left Canada. You set off with a whole crew of women. Were you thinking you could multitask: simultaneously walk and bond?

A: It was supposed to be a solo journey but I ended up leading a group of 14 other middle-aged women who’d heard what I was doing and wanted to walk the Camino also. One or two knew each other, but for the most part we were strangers. I’m so naive in some ways, I did think there would be some camaraderie and we’d have a lot of laughs and stories along the way, kind of a modern version of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Instead, it became this walking psychology experiment. We always think we’re leaving things behind when we travel, but in fact we take this primal emotional and historical baggage with us.

When we strip away the routines and relationships and chores and commute, this pri-

mal stuff comes up to the surface and starts to percolate, and we start to discover our true selves. In our group, there were those who needed to dominate, those who allowed themselves to be dominated, and those who were politely ostracized because they didn’t fit into either camp. The group started splintering into cliques, and there was all this subtle backbiting that morphed into Lord of the Flies on estrogen.

Q: But what about womens reputation for possessing an innate ability to relate to others, empathize and communicate?

A: It’s a huge misconception. We’re trained to believe we’re inclusive and bridge-building, but particularly in group situations, that just doesn’t happen. “Bonding” is really code for “the need to know another woman’s secrets, so you can render her defenceless.” That sort of knowledge is power for women, and they use it to exclude others. Another Canadian, who wasn’t in our group originally but had got separated from her own group, was purposely shunned by some of the women in our group. They ridiculed her and refused to let her walk with them, though she was just like them: very accomplished, intelligent, educated. They’d do things like send her out to get groceries, and then when she came back, say, “Oh, we don’t want any of your stuff, we’ve got our own.” Later she told me they did things like that so repeatedly that she finally broke down and cried, and the people who came to console her were these Spanish women

who didn’t speak a word of English.

Q: It sounds like Mean Girls meets Chaucer.

A: The mean girl syndrome defies age. It’s not just confined to high school; it’s in your PTA and church group and preschool group and seniors’ home. But it’s taboo to talk about it. We call men on their bad behaviour, but not each other, because we’re afraid of other women, of what they could say about us or how they could exclude us.

Q: How quickly did you realize travelling in a pack was a mistake?

A: Just before we started walking on the first day! Some were fast, some were slow, I think a few had never even been on a hike before, period. Half a dozen of them took a cab instead of walking on that first morning, so that didn’t bode well.

Q: What were they thinking, heading off for a trek through the Pyrenees with no training?

A: I think that at a certain age, women are seized by a desire to do something really different, to challenge themselves. One woman said she’d never eaten alone in a restaurant, much less walked across Spain,

Everybody was out of their element, but almost everyone wound up walking at least three-quarters of the way. At some point, all of us took a bus or cab, nobody walked every step of the Camino, but I don’t think that was the point, either.

Q: Eight or nine days into the trip you got separated from your group and never saw them again on the Camino. You write that it was an accident, but be honest: weren’t you really trying to ditch them?

A Absolutely not. I’m an approval whore, and I did feel a sense of responsibility for them. Until we got to Estella, actually, this gorgeous medieval town where the sun was shining and I was finally having fun and thinking, “This is beautiful, I love the Camino!” Then a member of the group appeared and said, “Everybody wants a meeting, right now.” So everyone gathers around a table at this restaurant, we order a jug of wine, and these alpha chicks start fluffing their feathers. One woman started off by saying “how magical” it all is, “we need to bond with our sisters,” and then told us to go around the table and say what our goals were. It suddenly turned into this consciousness-raising Oprah orgy, and some of them decided that there was no way we were going to finish the Camino in the time allotted and we should all stick together. When it was my turn, I said my goal was to get to Santiago de Compostela, that had been the plan for the last year, and we had ample time unless we wasted it navel-gazing. I might as

well have announced that I was resurrecting the Third Reich, the way these women looked at me. One woman put her hands together and said very solemnly to the rest of the group, “I think we need to give Jane permission to walk her Camino.” I just about slugged them all. But it turned out to be a serendipitous fluke that we didn’t mesh. Sometimes it takes someone else’s really bad behaviour to shift you onto a different path and make you walk alone.

Q: But can you ever really be alone there?

A: Not physically. I went during a particularly busy year: there were about 180,000 people on the Camino in 2004. All you do is pass people, especially the first couple of days, when you have this competitive North American spirit and you think, “I’ve got to pass that person up there. And the next one!” It takes a few days before you realize you don’t have to beat the next person. You develop a real sense of empathy because you see all these pilgrims lost in their own little worlds of worry and concern and sadness, and you hear their stories and think, “My problems are nothing.” Still, there is real competition to get into the refugios, which are basically pilgrim hostels that cost three or four euros a night. If you don’t get there in time, they have no beds left and you have to walk another five or 10 kilometres to the next one. The quality varies but most are pretty awful: you’re cheek by jowl in a room crammed with bunk beds, men and women share all the facilities, there’s no privacy whatsoever. It’s a funny thing, I’d gone to get rest and relaxation and wound up physically exhausted but unable to sleep because of the snoring strangers in my room. After a while, I really wanted to quit the Camino. I really missed the comforts of home but especially my kids. I would’ve welcomed a screaming fight with a teenager.

Q: Well, isn’t a pilgrimage supposed to be difficult?

A: It is. The interesting thing about the Camino, for all its spiritualism and rigour, is that its resurgence is largely due to Western affluence. People are so stressed out, they’re overburdened with work and family and debt, and need a place to get back to life in its simplest form, to do nothing for a month except walk through mud and rain with your possessions in a backpack.

Q: You could do that anywhere. Why go overseas?

A: The Bruce Trail is three blocks from my house, and that’s 850 kilometres, but there aren’t refugios, it’s not set up to handle pilgrim traffic. You can walk from village to village in Europe, but North America isn’t set up that way.

Q: A lot of the pilgrims you encountered

were not exactly holy types.

A: The pilgrimage is a very human parade. Some people are talking about spirituality, but others are saying, “The wine at that last place was great!” I heard afterwards that two of the women in my group, one of whom was married, had had one-night stands on the Camino.

Q: Quite a few men hit on you, too, despite the fact that you were covered in mud.

A: Yeah, so much for all the age-defying creams! You can score pretty easily on the Camino. But you can also get kicked off it for un-pilgrim-like behaviour. The refugio owners have a network, so if somebody’s harassing others or stealing or having sex, that infor-

1 You can score pretty easily on the Camino. You can also get kicked off it for unpilgrim-like behaviour.’

mation is passed along and the person isn’t admitted to the other refugios.

Q: Why is the bad trip so much more enjoyable to read about than the good trip?

A: We invest so much in a holiday, but you miss your flight or lose your luggage or get mugged, and those are the things you remember. The thing is, when we encounter problems on holiday, that’s when we’re living by our wits. You don’t have the same sort of connections you do at home, and I think how we manage those problems really is the trip.

I think people see the humanness and humour of a misadventure.

Q: So would you evergo on holiday with a group of woman again?

A: No! No way. M