Walking on the Chemin de Compostelle (Le Puy-Saint Jean Pied de Port), week 2: On randomness, light rain and hard roads

Lauzerte. Depending on which hour of the day you arrive you might see a lovely church square or more paved roads to cross

The last time I wrote about the stretch of long-distance-hiking I’m currently doing (I still don’t feel like I can call it a pilgrimage, I’m after all not hoping to find God on the way) I was a few hundred kilometers from where I’m now. It sounds strange, but the kilometers, when your feet aren’t hurting anymore, add up without you noticing them, and in a few days you’ve done a hundred more. But you quickly learn they are absolutely not a reliable way to measure difficulty, or effort, and even less distance, and that the ones you do early in the morning, watching the sun rise over fields, in absolute quietness not only seem but probably are much shorter than the last ones of the day, under a burning heat, on paved roads. So let’s not talk of kilometers anymore.

by far the best moment of my days these past weeks, walking at sunrise

 The landscape is still nice, less impressive than the Aubrac region, with its austere beauty, and sometimes rather dull (or, as another pilgrim told me, “meditation-friendly”, – by which you should understand: there’s not much to distract you from your thoughts or your blisters) with corn fields and cow fields and no hill in sight. (That, I’m aware, is a Swiss biais, as I would definitely prefer any hill climb, be it devilishly steep, to a walk on a flat road anywhere. Don’t worry, I’ve expressed that opinion on the way and have been repeatedly struck by walking poles). But it remains: I don’t like tarred or paved roads, they are much too hard to walk on, they have french-driven (equals fast) cars on them and no charm at all. So, some days have been a bit…unattractive. And call me a profane pessimist but I don’t think you absolutely need a boring landscape to meditate. 

While I understand the necessity for cornfields existence I could easily do without them

Anyway, the small villages, country churches and the few towns on the way are still lovely. And mostly, the people provide well enough distraction, should you need one. I’ve met a lot of interesting ones, some you meet for 5 minutes on a lunch break, others you end up walking with for days, and – and I should maybe state a disclaimer here, so that you aren’t put of with the whole idea – some of them are lovely, absolutely rational people (I’ve met a couple from the Basque country with a dark, self depreciating humour who loved drinking wine while debating on atheism and politics with a retired french teacher, some very discreet and polite retirees, university students and farmers who had decided to go on a break to discover the country so keep them in mind for the following minutes). I’ve also met a woman who was conviced to be the reincarnation of a Korean warrior (who had died from a combat wound to the shoulder, which explained why her (or their combined)shoulder hurt when she was carrying her backback). I’ve met a young (and rather lonely) french guy who was explicitely doing this stretch of the way to find the love of his life, was rather conviced I was the one (despite all the ways I could think of to express him my lack of interest), and sang songs  for two hours straight about spirits, sitting just behind the (closed)  door to my room. I’ve met a German guy who spoke not a single world in French but found the French stupid because they didn’t understand him. I’ve met countless very charming people who, upon learning I was a doctor, took pains to convince me that Western medicine gets everything wrong and that I should go and study acupuncture/herbal medicine/digestive medicine (don’t know what it is either, and yet I’ve had a full exposé on it)/ spiritual healing and so many others I will stop the list here. In short, you don’t stand a chance at boredom, you’ll meet colorful, if somewhat “illuminé” people (a pilgrim from Zurich asked me what the term was and, when I had explained it meant something along the lines of “nice, but ever slightly lunatic”, started a game of diagnosis consisting in hearing a person talk for a while then turn to me and say, with a hopeful smile, “Would you say this one was “illuminé”(en français dans le texte)?

Well, literaly, it does mean lit and I would say they have lit up my days – with the exception of the singing serial bachelor, this one I could have done without (and slept far better).

Useful notice in a church: It is highly likely that upon entering the church you might hear God’s call. It is unlikely however that he should contact you on your selfphone


Cambodia: a land of contrasts

This isn’t very actual, at least to me, because I’m not in South-East Asia anymore, I’m doing a study on blisters and the right way to cross a cows field without annoying the bull (no one wants an angry bull) along st James way in France. But I haven’t mentioned Cambodia yet, the third country we visited in the summer,  and that is truly a shame, because it deserves full notice. 

In Cambodia, we started with Phnom Penh, which is also a big, motorcycle-crazy, polluted and frantic city, like others but still each has its own flavour (at least to me, and Phnom Penh has a nice river front as well) where I’m sure there is lots of fun things to do but we went for the horrible and instructive ones: we visited, on a row, the tuol sleng prison, where the angkar  (the Khmer rouge effective power, hiding under an elusive name (it means the organization) tortured, imprisoned and forced fake confessions from thousand and thousand of people (objectors, people who looked like “new people” (that is, that might be intellectuals/city people: with glasses or soft hands), and progressively just about anybody, including party members in a frenzy of paranoia and horror). The prison, that used to be a high school, still has blackboards where commandments of the Khmer rouge are written, in french, in a strange primary school teacher style handwriting, and the confrontation of the hundreds of faces of the prisoners, photographed at their arrival, the paintings from the few survivors depicting life (if you can call it that) in the prison and the mundane  suburban setting of the school building is particularly chilling. And raw, and awful. And so sad, to think of so many lives (1/4 of the population at the time!) lost and so much suffering in the name of nothing we can really grasp. 

To continue on the same theme we also visited the killing fields (it’s only one of many across the country, and that fact itself is horrific enough) where the prisoners would then be sent and bludgeoned to death, to save bullets. Again, it seems impossible to link the gruesome facts, and the bones and pieces of clothing emerging from,  the mass graves with the quiet surroundings, the fields at the periphery of phnom Penh. Just as it seems impossible to imagine it happened less than 40 years ago when you walk the streets of Cambodia now, meet smiling people. I’m guessing that of course if you do spend more time with people and hear their stories you would discover the horror every family has had to life through, but on the surface the horrors of the past and the quiet peacefulness of the present don’t seem to belong to the same time continuum.

But Cambodia must not be resumed to the Khmer rouge of course, and so we also went to the small town of Kampot, filled with expats, pepper farms and a distinctive post colonial vibe (even if the majority of the buildings are actually Chinese merchant houses, not french), then to a secluded corner of a beach near sihanouk ville (you can find some, of season) where we did nothing but play in the waves and read for 24 hours, which, after seeing the memorials of Phnom Penh, seemed artificial and somehow wrong, and, to close on a high note, went to Angkor Wat (well, Siem Reap) where we stayed much longer than we had previously thought, because, as mentioned somewhere else, it is much too beautiful and grand to just pass through. 

Sunset at the beach near sihanouk ville

And what I’m left with, as a lasting impression, is a land of so much contrasts (I think it just beat India which was holding the record for me up to that point, if there is such a competition) that is difficult to encompass, and to understand fully, but also a place of incredible beauty and a definite proof that you can evolve and – never easily- begin to recover from atrocities of the past. 

Coconut Sunset in kampot

View(s) from the top of my book

Now, I don’t read as much as I usually do these days (for a holiday standard, at least) mostly because I walk, stop for food, walk some more, mingle with cows and pilgrims alike (and after 10 days of walking the differences -at least in personal hygiene- are disappearing quickly) and when the walk is done, the clothes washed and rewashed,  the food prepared and the guidebook for the next day read, I usually manage a few pages before total coma. Which is a shame because the books I have with me are good. So I’ve started reading at noon, during picnic break, which I try to take in a scenic and secluded place (when possible, sometimes the stomach just has to rule on its own) and so here are what some of the views from the top of my book have been lately (plus a lot of cows and fields, but those I didn’t bother to photograph, it is amazing how lazy you become after walking so long).

Walking the Chemin de Compostelle from Le Puy, Week 1: How to successively obsess with and then loose count of blisters and kilometers

I am sitting in a fancy café overlooking the vast baren fields of the Monts de l’Aubrac, looking at a storm approaching (the same one I outwalked earlier today, first shower of the day) and enjoying a cold beer. Everything, including the word “sitting” is a cause of such unprecedented bliss only people who have walked for seven days in a row will understand. Some say you go on treks like this to discover the beauties of nature or find God, Isay you go there to re-learn how bloody splendid a chair is. 

In short, I’ve been walking. I left Le Puy en Velay, the beginning of one of the most famous going to Santiago de Compostella, and – judging by the number of people who were on the train to Le Puy (I have never seen a train so full with hikers, and I’ve spent most of my life in Switzerland) and at the Cathedral for the “Pilgrim’s mass” – a tradition before starting the walk, at 7 a.m. and after which you can acquire the “credential”, a booklet stating you are indeed a pilgrim and are allowed in various “gites d’accueil” on the way, but mostly allowing you to collect an aray of stamps from churches, mairies and B&B’s. I usually walk on secluded trail paths were you might meet a few (generally old,bearded and laconic) hikers, so this crowd is new to me, with it’s own customs and idioms (you soon learn you are suppose to differentiate the “real” pilgrims from the others, though the definition may vary (usually in favour of the person offering that distinction): the real ones are either those going at least all the way to the spanish border in one go, or those carrying their own backpacks (you can leave it to a transport service, if you are a cheater/lazy person who claims to have back problems – as a french pilgrim told me), or those who have come there to “reflect upon themselves or faith” – but that might not include, for example, an english guy who does meditation, a german guy who does tantric yoga. 

So according to those definitions, I am and at the same time I am not a pilgrim. How quantic of me, I might need a cat. Mostly, though, I don’t care, and that creates a problem when I’m supposed to go on with those conversations: why do we need to order people in terms of their respective merits according to how many kilometers they do per day, again, or how many churches they visit? Maybe I’ll get it on the way. For now, I just enjoy the landscape, which is amazing, I stand in awe of the small chapels and churches built sometimes in the 13th century, a perfection of form and in complete accord to their surroundings, and wonder at the strength of this thing called faith I’m still not sure I understand, that made people build all these, and walk, since centuries. 

And I don’t reflect much. Mostly because I’ve been busy obsessing on a nagging pain in my foot, that probably comes from my ankle and sole having to overcompensate from my permanently-on-holiday-ligaments, it is amazing how pain can become everything you think of, for hours on. When I forget it, I struggle with stupid songs stuck in my head (I did about 15 kms, today, with the theme from “Pipi Longstockings” in German. Am I in need of help?), or I’m busy talking to people on the way (after a few days, people have spread out on the way according to their pace, and you meet and meet again the same people, it is a nice routine), and when I say talking I mean mostly listening, because there is a particular brand of the “hiker/pilgrim doing Santiago”, the one that comes to solve a p or many life problems, and they usually, with the lack of usual social conventions that characterize people who have been lonely or travelling a long time, restitute a complete story of their divorce/heartache/chronic pain of various causes/chronic pain without a cause/anorexic children/friends with cancer and many others to me. I don’t know if this happens to every one on the way, or just to me, as I’m usually the one people talk to in life as well, and I am very glad of it, most of the time, because it makes my job as a doctor easier, and because I love people and their stories. But I’ve discovered I don’t like people with problems that much when, after the end of a day’s walk, I’ve just sat with my book outside in the afternoon light. Then, I could probably do something as sacreligious as burn someone’s second pair of socks. 

Just a dash of creepiness – suitably dark reads review

I have a taste for the morbid, the thrilling, the creepy, the frankly darker-than-dark. I don’t know where it stems from (my  siblings would probably say from my utterly satanic nature, but they can talk, I’m pretty sure they can’t come too close to a crucifix without combusting themselves) but I just love myself a very creepy book, from time to time. But a good one, please, and happily so were the two last ones I read – both easily desearving a spot at the top of this gloomy category.

First (in no order, so maybe last, but this is not a post for Biblical quotes): Under the Skin, by Michel Faber.

I know, I shouldn’t. I will very soon not have anything left to read by Faber, and since he has said he won’t write any new fiction after the tragedy of the death of his wife I won’t even have the hope of waiting for the next published book. But I couldn’t help myself and picked Under the skin up.

This is about Isserley, a woman picking up hitch-hikers in lonely Scottish roads, with a very deliberate set of criteria motivating her choice. What happens with the hitch-hikers, and what underlines Isserley’s otherness and pain well, you’ll have to discover by yourself but safe to say it is…not for the faint hearted (not because it is gore, it is precise and understated but still dark) and are in for a trip across moral boundaries, and a reflection on humanity and self. It might put you out of any thoughts of hitch-hiking in dark Scottish roads, but it’s well worth the read.

Secondly,The glister, by John Burnside

In the small town of Innertown, built next to a abandoned chemical plant that has poluted the woods and lands around and gives cancers to the population, teenage boys are disapearing. Nobody knows if they are leaving this cursed place of post-industrial despair (at the verge with a dystopian post abocalyptic landscape, but not quite) or if they are dead. And the local constable, who ought to fight for the truth, has been bought.

Leonard, a teenage boy who has lost his best friend, tries to find the truth while watching his father died, living his teenage life of loveless sex and violent friendships, befriends the town’s loner and a mysterious character called “the moth-man”.

I suppose it helps to be a poet by trade to write so beautifully about chemical waste-lands and gruesome events. But this is indeed beautiful, with a poetic rythm, and manages to be a moving portrait of adolescence, without cynicism, as a last stand before adulthood – because adulthood, in Innertown, is corruption or slow disapearance and death. And there is no way out.

At the end, if you expect a clear demarcation between good and evil, a just punishment, a revelation, you should read something else. Burnside won’t give you absolution or just one answer, instead you are left with a myriad of possibilities, the freedom to choose to interpret those and a haunting vision of those grey, polluted woods and the boys who aren’t there. 

So, beware, those are haunting reads. But who minds being possessed when the ghosts have such poetic beauty?

N.B I’m currently walking along the Camino de Santiago in Southern France, with limited internet acess. I may not reply to comments right away but I’ll be delighted to read them and reply whenever I can

I shall be walking on – (an update an a review on top)

faithful backpack has found an elephant friend in Cambodia, both ready to ramble again

So I’ve just come back from South East Asia, about which there would be a lot more to tell and hopefully I will write more in the coming weeks, about Cambodia, its tragic recent history mixed with the utter magnificence of its past, about the randomness of restaurants’ and hotels names, and much else.

But for now, I’ve unpacked, spent about a second (or so it seems) in Switzerland emptying the remains of the shared house I used to live in (which feels like the end of an era, and the true beginning of “proper adulthood”, which I am in no hurry to enter into) and repacked. Because this gap year is coming to a close in two months (something else I don’t want to contemplate, let’s forget the last sentence) and I have to make the most of it before being re-stuck in a hospital for countless hours.

So here I go. I had absolutely no plans, or rather, there are still too many things I want to do and two months would never suffice, but I’ve made my mind – helped with a welcomed coincidence: as I was “complaining” to friends that I couldn’t decide between going trekking along the Camino de Santiago way in Southern France or go trekking in the Scottish Highlands, they mentioned they had wanted to go to Scotland for a while, and so we planned a trip (well, we decided we would go, which is the level of “planning” we usually do) in October. I can’t wait.

But in the meantime, I shall head out on foot, along the “Chemin de Saint-Jacques”, across Southern France. It’s been a while (well, about 9 months) since I’ve done a long distance walk, and since it’s about my favourite way to travel, I am enchanted to start again.

Of course, this choice of way is book-related (what, in my life, isn’t?) as one of the books I read in Myanmar is Jean-Christophe Rufin’s account of his walk to Compostelle, in “Immortelle randonnée”. It has yet to be translated to English, as much as I’m aware, sadly, but it has none of Coelho philoso-mystical ramblings and all of the practical quirks of “the walker”, with his smelling socks, and legendary stinginess, the snobism of the long term hiker towards the daily walker and much more. It is hilarious and light, but it still manages to give you Compostelle envy, so there it goes, I’m going.

All of this to say, I shall probably be away from the internet for a while – as the French “Gites de Pélerins” are probably not equiped with the latest technology, most pélerins actually going there to avoid our connected world, but will try to update when possible.

For those who want to read Rufin and don’t happen to speak French, the only book of his that I can find in translation is “The Abyssinian”, which is not my favourite of his by far, but even average Rufin is worth a read, trust me.

Art, sexism,migraines and lots of Woolf – Non fiction reads of the past months

I realize there has been quite a lot of books I read recently that I didn’t write about – not that I’m trying to thoroughly review everything I read, far from it – but amongst those are 3 non fiction books which I’ve loved and would fit together nicely in a feminism-art-literature bundle, so I decided I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to rave.

Firstly, I read Everyday sexism, by Laura Bates, a few months back. I had read an essay of her in  the the collection “I call myself a feminist”, an interesting essay to me but generally deemed a  sort of shortened version of this book to the other reviewers of the feminist orchestra book club who had already read it. So I went for the original piece.

Originally an online project started by Laura Bates to catalogue experiences of daily sexism – when she realized she wasn’t the only one suffering from and accepting a variety of comments and attitudes (from the supposedly fun  street harassment comment to sexual abuse) – this is a compelling testimony of all the voices (not exclusively women) who replied to Bates project and shared their story. It is organized in chapters sorting through a woman’s development, from primary school to professional career, with specific insights into woman with double – or triple burdens of discrimination, like muslim woman, or LGBTQ+. Each chapter starts and is strongly based on those individual testimonies, making a chorus of voices, which, even if it has no pretence at being a statistically significant sample, is a perfect way to show the universality of those experiences of sexism. And it allows Bates to simply present and link those voices, without preaching. The voices are enough.

After finishing it, overwhelmed with the chilling statistics about rape and the collective voices of systematic abuse, battling with a sense of despair, you do have to remember that there has never been a better time in history to be a woman than now, and to take some poise and comfort from projects like this and #shoutingback: there is a strength to gain in not letting any of it go unnoticed, and a strength in responding.

Without transition, but not straying very far from feminism, I also read “Art objects – essays on ecstasy and effrontery” by Jeanette Winterson.

Which is about what it states, honestly. And is, as books of essays go, slightly atypical in tone, because it is Winterson, and she doesn’t do mellow, academic ramblings. She does passion. In this, she covers the necessity of art, and what she means by art (as truth, as objection, as the title says), but also specific writers such as Virginia Woolf, and the never ending struggles of being recognized as a writer without any association to your sex or sexuality. As I said, it is not nuanced in the traditionnal style of essays, where writers would seek to also present other points of view, at least to argue them. Winterson has no time for counterarguments, she wants to talk of beauty and truth, and she talks of it beautifully. And it doesn’t matter that you may or may not agree with everything. I read this and wanted to go to a museum, re-read Virginia Woolf,  go to a gallery and mostly, sit and think. Because this is so concentrated with ideas you will need a moment to breathe.But breathlessness, in this instance, is exhilarating.

In contrast – of tone mostly – I reread Siri Hustvedt’s Essays (mostly because I had at that point of the travel read everything there was in my e-reader). These are split into three parts, as the title suggests (it’s what also links these books, accidentally, straight-forward titles): the first about living experiences, like living with a migraine or looking into the mirror, the next more intellectual activities like writing and the last about seeing and art – covering a variety of visual artists from Goya to Louise Bourgeois.

Hustvedt is a writer with a fascination with psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and is well versed into their different languages, as she shows in one of those essays, excursion to the Islands of the happy few, which starts with intentionally obscure quotes from each domain just to make a point: specialist in every field approach  common themes with a vocabulary so obtuse they can’t communicate across branches any more. She, in contrast, dwells from  one to the other, from Freud – with the right amount of disassociation, of course and mostly Winnicott to Luria,  linking our particular appreciation of portraits with the fusiform gyrus and mirror neurons. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, read Hustvedt, she is crystal clear and manages to juggle difficult thoughts and concept to present a concise idea, without simplifying.

I would bet it is even more enlightening to someone to whom neuroscience and psychoanalysis is a black box, in fact I distinctively remember that I found it a lot more earth-shattering the first time I read this, before studying medicine and reading Lacan and some of his friends, but her ability to sore across fields of research and bring a new perspective still astonished me.

Well, I had started this post thinking I would do mini-reviews, and I see I’ve raved for a long time indeed. Concision is something I will never attain, I’m afraid. I will live you with a bundle of quotes from those, and hope it will give you a few ideas should you be looking for non-fiction reads!

From Hustvedt:

“Words quickly become thing-like. It has often fascinated me how a psychoanalytic concept such as internal object, for example, can be treated as if it weren’t a metaphor for our own inner plurality that necessarily includes the psychic presence of others, but as if it were something  oncrete that could be manipulated – like a shovel” 

“We become ourselves through others, and the self is a porous thing, not a sealed container-(…) Americans cling desperately to their myths of self-creation, to rugged individualism, now more free-market than pioneer, and to self-help, that strange twist on do it yoursef, which turns a human being into an object that can be repaired with a toolbox and some instructions. We do not author ourselves, which is not to say that we have no agency or responsibility, but rather that becoming doesn’t escape relation.” 

From Winterson:

“When I let myself be affected by a book, I let into myself new customs and new desires. The book does not reproduce me, it re-defines me, pushes at my boundaries, shatters the palings that guard my heart. Strong texts work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists” 

“The twentieth century, in the footsepts of the nineteenth, as difficulty with the notion of art as ecstasy”

“There are plenty of Last Days signposts to persuade us that nothing is worth doing and that each one of us lives in a private nightmare occasionally relieve by temporary pleasure. Art is not a private nightmare, not even a private dream, it is a shared human connection that traces the possibilities of past and future in the whorl of now.”

“People who claim to like pictures and books will often only respond to thosep ictures and books in which they can clearly find themselves, This is ego masquerading as taste. To recognise the worth of a thing is more than recognising its worth to you.”

Some treasured gold you’ll find in unlikely places – The suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale


definitely not my copy, which looked as if an army of backpackers had stomped on it with the full force of their combined body and rucksacks

If you’re anything like me, you are currently slipping your 3rd cup of coffee of the day – despite it being 10.05 a.m, but I woke up early and had to do some stats, the horror! so everything is forgiven – and your hair has started self-dreadlocking on its own volition, because it does not agree with the constant changes in humidity levels I put it through. (Picture one of these bits of dry bushes flying in the Desert, like:


an entirely faithful portrait of yours truly – missing the coffee cup

Well, maybe not that exactly. But if you are any-other-thing like me then you are probably fascinated with crime novels. I read them on bouts of 3 or 4 in a few days, like an addict, with the same amount of love for every sub-genre, from the Nordic noirs to the quaint English Miss Marple style, the dark and violent American thrillers, the food-obsessed and funny Italians, the metaphysical and historical meanderings of Fred Vargas (French), the Chinese, and even, recently, the Lao. Continue reading

The many faces of Angkor

I’ve been silent for a long time, there’s really no excuse for it, except maybe that, for a while, I have been rendered speechless by Angkor. How do you write about a place so magical everything has already been said?

We spent about a week there – much longer than we had planned – we simply couldn’t leave. Angkor isn’t one temple but the vast ensemble of ruins of what was the capital city of the Khmer Empire (9-15th century), spreading from Myanmar to Vietnam at its peak.

It was progressively abandoned and fell into oblivion, the surrounding jungle reclaiming its rights over the stones, with magnificent trees separating the blocks to spread their roots. It is so vast you won’t even mind the crowds of tourists with their selfie sticks (granted you leave the “classic” itineraries and wake up early enough). It is, in short, breathtaking.

But mostly, what I found so touchingly beautiful are the details: the stone carvings, depicting scenes fro the khmer battles or mythical scenes from the Mahabharata (the Sanskrit/Hindu epic) are so vibrant with details and the faces of the Apsaras – the divine dancers decorating almost every pillar – are smiling and staring at the visitors from centuries apart with a mischievousness that makes time stands still. You recognize the faces of fellow humans, no matter how many years have past and how many trees have grown amongst the stone. And it feels you with wonder, to think of this great empire that once was, and is no more, and of all the people that lived there, danced there, carved stones for generations to come.

Nothing will ever replace a visit there, so book a flight and take your time there (seriously, we didn’t even have a chance to see the city of Siem Reap, we had too much fun and fascination chasing every single Aspara), but here are a few snapshots of the details  (no selfie, of course) to entice you:


From the Ramayana: the army of Monkeys fighting/biting an army of demons (with seemingly delicious buttocks)


Some Apsaras chilling out in their fantastic hair dos


the many faces of the Buddha in Bayon