A Long Table of Strangers Along the Way
By Ginny Bartolone
I never learned The Man from Poland’s real name. On the Camino de Santiago, you’re more likely to learn the details of a person’s entire childhood before learning their name. You become “the Irish girl with the dog” or “the chap with the rolling backpack” or “the twins from Austria.” Given names are secondary to your deeper story: how you ended up on a centuries-old pilgrimage, for example. As soon as you get attached to someone, as soon as you receive their story, you change your walking pace or they change theirs. One minute they’re your family member, the next, you’re on different schedules, in different villages, experiencing the same road miles apart. These fleeting encounters force you to connect with urgency, they teach you to let go. My encounter with The Man from Poland lasted all but five hours, but he shifted the course of my journey.
Christina and I were about 20 days into our five-week hike from Southern France to Northwest Spain when we came across a Roman festival in Astorga. Outside, families closed up their shops early, already decked out in full Roman regalia, ready for the parades, feasts, and dancing that would go on until sunrise. Without anywhere for pilgrims like us to settle for dinner, we hid inside.
Beneath the slanted wooden beams of Astorga’s large albergue—the Camino’s word for hostel—five of us feasted on a shared banquet of bread, tomatoes, leftover ice cream cake, various treats from The Man from Poland’s pack, and a large bottle of orujo. The more I sipped, the less I felt my aching, blistered feet. There were a few familiar faces around the table, two people I’d walked with for a day or two and of course, my friend from college, Christina, a sprightly Kindergarten religion and theatre teacher who inspired me to come back to walk the Camino for a second time. The man at the head of the table was new, however. He told us that he didn’t like to sleep in the albergues when he didn’t have to. It didn’t feel authentic. I flagged the comment in my mind as we set the table
As the late afternoon wore on and our laundry on the lines outside the window dried solid in the summer sun, The Man from Poland leaned his elbows on the table and brooded for a moment. He gripped a thin, tall glass of orujo. The graying crevices of his face deepened as he pondered his next point. We were deep in a conversation—no, a debate—about whether the growing popularity of the Camino was a positive trend.