North of France: the food, the dead and the hunting
Without the internet I would never have made it through the north of France. Without internet or money that is, because hospitality can always be bought of course. Monasteries are abandoned or destroyed, the people are distant and cheap hostels too dispersed to be of use for the traveler by foot.
I have been warned about Picardie, or at least the inhabitants of the Picardie region. They have had their share of foreigners and mostly they came to make war, not love. Accordingly, the first reaction to an uninvited stranger is not all too friendly. The second reaction is probably just as bad, but they don't speak English and I don't speak French, so I can't be sure.
Picardie is a poor region with high unemployment and low education levels. It is charactarized by large fields of corn, potatoes or sugarbeets, war graves and abandoned industries. It has its charm though and for a pilgrim there is enough to see to not get bored or discouraged.
The big stretches of farm land are seperated by roads, bushes or trees. No land is left uncultivated and fields of grass are rare. The land is utilised for one thing only: the production of food. The only reason a piece of land is not used for production, is because people occupy it, either dead or alive. Small villages and graveyards are the only points of orientation. The graveyards are often more inviting than the towns and more information is given through tombstones than through the mouths of the living. The graveyards are always open, the houses always closed and the hatches often shut, just like the people. This is no place for strangers.
The hunting season has just begun as I walk through Picardie, and gunshots can be heard all around. The hunters work in groups and walk the fields like soldiers on the look out for the enemy. As the villagers I meet make no mistake about my status as an intruder of some sort, I wonder whether a wandering stranger is never shot 'by accident'. The Picardie version of Schwarzenegger in Predator: 'If it moves, we can kill it'.. and if he doesn't speak francais of course. I comfort myself with the thought that the French like game too much to waste a bullit on a bipod without feathers.
Before I enter Picardie I travel through Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Through Couchsurfing.com I connect with Pierre, Pierre, Aurelien and Aurelie in Lens, my first French hosts. Lens used to be a mining town, but the mine industry went out of business years ago, in the sixties. The inhabitants are still searching for new means of making a living. A lot of houses are abandoned. Both Pierre's speak English and are more than willing to share their thoughts about the region and its people. They confirm what I have been told in Lille: the north of France is tough to pass through for a stranger on foot. Their hospitality says otherwise though, and I am comforted by the thought that they can't be alone in their way with guests.
On Friday evening Aurelien and Francois, a friend of the house, are performing in a small pub in town. I go with them and they introduce me to their friends. Another occassion to practise my French. I'm improving and again, the encounters are encouraging. With every conversation I become more confident. During my breaks in between walking I can work on my vocabulary. I have at least two months before I reach Spain. I am determined to have cracked the language before I do. One of the Pierre's likes comic books and I have had my share of translated Asterix's when I was young. Time to read the originals.
After Lens I move on to Arras. Pierre 1 told me to walk over Vimy, the Canadian war memorial for the First World War. It is impressive and definitely worth the detour. This is one of the reasons hooking up with locals is such a great experience.
That evening I meet Elena in an Irish pub on the central square. The houses around it remind me of Belgium. This was obviously not always a French city. Again the welcome is grand and Elena shows me around town at night, making sure that I see all the buildings that deserve attention. She has to leave early to go to work the next morning, but she takes her time and even offers me the key to her house so I can stay in bed when she leaves the next day. I'm still not in Picardie I reckon.
I arrive in Albert at 7.30 PM. In the morning I received a call from my host that her husband had an accident and is in the hospital. She can't host me this evening. The sun is shining and my experience with French hospitalityso far is such that I don't worry too much about an alternative.
Albert was fought over heavily in the first World War and I suspect many English and Canadian tourists still visit the town. They must be accustomed to hosting foreigners here. I try my luck in 'The Ol' Highlander', but I find nothing but locals that don't speak English. In my best French I explain my situation. Pointing to my guitar they assure me they will think of something while I play some songs. Music is universal. After an hour of playing and sharing my guitar with one of the guests I ask again. Whether it was my playing or the large quantities of wine they had already consumed before I came in I will never know, but in the end no one thought of hosting me. I am directed to the Hotel Ibis, way to costly for this pilgim. After a call to my host in Amiens I decide to take the train. I can stay two nights.
Silke is German by birth but moved to Amiens when she got married. Her husband passed away seven years ago. I ring the doorbell at 10 PM. She is not surprised that I got turned down in Albert, "It is hard for a stranger to connect in Picardie". OK, Silke is German, but she has been living here for years, so when I am told Picardie is hard for strangers in Picardie itself... I am glad I already made some contacts in Beauvais for the upcoming days.
The next morning I take the train back to Albert and walk to Amiens. I leave my backpack at Silke's. I don't regret leaving Albert behind a second time and I am glad to see Silke again in the evening. She is a language teacher and parttime guide to the Amiens cathedral. unfortunately she is too busy to show me around the cathedral but she points out some things that would be of interest to me. Saint-Jacques is looking out from the spire and inside his story is told by few reliefs in stone. The cathedral is amazing.
I leave the next morning to Pierrepont-sur-Avre, a small village in the Somme region. In two days I will reach the l'Oise region. Paris is coming near and with it the towns and streets are better looked after. I hope it is more than a superficial change.