A French Pilgrimage

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Dining with Madeleine and Paul-Guillaume at Vézelay.

I didn’t realize until I spent my first weekend entirely in French how much you need to be kept from your mother tongue in order to think in the new one you’re learning. Your pilgrimage begins with isolation from the familiar.

I worked in English but lived in French, and it was rare for me to spend an entire weekend immersed in the French language. But I did, on a little trip to a cathedral town. Kathleen, whom I had met at my friend Daniel’s housewarming a month or two earlier, had invited me to join her, her boyfriend Paul-Guillaume and her mother, Madeleine, for an overnight trip to Vézelay, about 90 minutes southeast of Paris, in Burgundy. All I knew about it was that Vézelay was one of several starting-off points for the Crusades, and one of several centers where wars of religion had been fought.

Beyond sightseeing, I looked forward to being forced to try to handle myself for an entire weekend in French, after just two months of study: to comprehend and contribute to the conversation around me in the car on the way down to Vézelay, at dinner at the auberge, on strolls around the basilica, without running to Google Translate to find passable phrases or approximate verbs with which to express myself.

This kind of experience isn’t new to someone learning a language, but each time you are taken out of the comfort of how you learn, you improvise and make do, and I hadn’t been much of an improviser in my life. Still, I had become someone who wasn’t afraid to seem foolish, or of working through the frustration of searching for words to describe what I saw or felt. At the same time I was also somehow more open to sensation. It was as if my lateral vision were heightened because I strove to keep up with what people around me were saying. I didn’t understand everything, but I wasn’t completely shut out from meaning. I understood enough to respond in a vague way to a question or to keep a dinnertime conversation going so that my responses didn’t impede its general flow. The meals seemed richer, the sights sharper, the sounds more distinct because I was in a slight fog of misapprehension that was cleared now and then with a ray of comprehension that made it all the more memorable.

And I got to share in a part of France I didn’t know. The French love to show you where they’re from, what they’ve discovered on their own, the history with which they’re surrounded. Americans, too, are proud of their local sights and national heritage. But France, being older than the U.S., smaller geographically and yet distinctly and vibrantly regional, breeds through a lifelong appreciation of local custom a strong national cultural ownership. A country forged in history rather than one founded on ideas leads to a citizenry alive to and sensitive of its patrimony.

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We arrived on a Saturday morning, and among the French families also spending the weekend there were groups of men in walking shoes or sandals, shorts, sunhats, hiking sticks and backpacks, who seemed to be wandering – almost but not quite aimlessly – around the Vézelay Abbey – or Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay – which had been a noted Benedictine and Cluniac monastery.

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Beaucoup de mecs,” said Paul-Guillaume. “Sans doute des pèlerins.” There were indeed a lot of guys striding about, and yes they were probably pilgrims. I didn’t know this at first. But I learned – and this was my first encounter with the pilgrimages of France – that Vézelay had been a major starting point for pilgrims on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela which, at another time, had brought wealth along with believers to the town, and now brought, well, these hundreds of pilgrims, men mainly, traipsing through the countryside, who looked more like suburban dads trying to lose a few pounds than the devout in search of insight. But what did I know? They were there with a purpose: to follow the treks of a saint. Such devotion by way of hiking intrigued me – I could never see myself trudging through a landscape in that way. But then, I wasn’t among the anointed, even if I were culturally curious. Perhaps that was similar enough for me.

I was there for enlightenment that was more linguistic than spiritual. The purpose was to better understand people who lived like me but differently, who thought perhaps as I did but not quite, whose cultural identity was not mine but whose culture I had come to admire. And I made my own little pilgrimage that provided me my own little icons for household worship.

On the Sunday of our visit, the main street of Vézelay – now marked as much by boutiques and antiques shops as by the basilica and its pilgrims – held a vide grenier, an “empty attic” flea market. The vendors were a mix of amateurs – locals divesting themselves of their excess stuff – as well as professionals doing the same but at higher price points. Amid the lamps and postcards and sheet music and battered shoes (each pair of which could have served as a model for a Van Gogh), were personal yet homely treasures that evoked another age.

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I actually bought a pair of 19th-century photographs that had been printed onto wood and then hand-tinted. The images showed a couple whose descendants could have been among the pilgrims who traversed the town. I liked the yesterday ordinariness of them – more so than the relics of Mary Magdalene that were said to rest in the basilica. These were artifacts that captured for me an everyday moment in a historical town, two normal lives unnoticed in the house of worship or on the pilgrimage path. They were preserved in wood and given the breath of afterlife, like Roman coffin portraits. I took comfort in connecting with them as pilgrims from another life, another time, another world that wasn’t mine but a tiny piece of which I somehow owned.

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