The Pilgrim’s Staff

Yesterday we bought our walking poles in St Jean Pied de Port – our final piece of equipment for the Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostele in Spain. Today we should have been walking, but have decided to take a couple of rest days to get over the last of a bug caught en route to Paris from a fellow traveller. It is also a ‘snow day’ – meaning the high path, or Napoleon route, over the Pyrenees is closed due to snow falls.

So it’s time to explore the town – and we encountered a museum housed in what was once the Bishop’s jail. It was interesting to reflect on the importance of the walking pole or pilgrim’s staff in the history and iconography of the Camino.

Ergonomic studies on the use of trekking poles show that they can take up to 20% of the load off the knees. This enables hikers and walkers to cover greater ground with less strain than without using them. They provide stability in uneven or slippery terrain, and act as ‘brakes’ when walking down hills. But I notice that many pilgrims still prefer to walk with a traditional wooden staff or stick – perhaps to keep time and maintain the walking rhythm, and to test the depth of streams before fording them.

In the museum there was a bit of a write-up on the use of walking poles or trekking poles. As a device to support walking and provide stability, the staff has come to symbolise the axis of the world, around which we all perambulate to a greater or lesser extent.

In biblical representations, the staff of Moses guides the people to safety, even driving back the sea to enable safe passage. In this sense the staff is seen as the soul transformed by the divine – a symbology related to the redemptive power of the cross of Christ. To do a million step walk is also to lift and carry that staff a million times – so perhaps there is an element of carrying one’s cross or burden.

When you consider that the staff is at once support, defence, and guide, the stick has become the king’s sceptre, the Marshall stick of the brigadier, the caduceus of our doctors and the crozier of bishops, as well as the eyes of the blind.

For all these reasons, the staff has become the main symbolic attribute of pilgrims – not only for pilgrims on the Saint James route, but since the dawn of time, pilgrims have been using a staff for support, guidance and defence against robbers and thieves.

In medieval times it became quite an icon. So much so, that they appeared to be used even by pilgrims who went by sea. So its symbolic value was always high regardless of the mode of travel. Indeed the Ergonomists would probably agree that if you are lifting something like that a million times, it had better be useful!.

So next time you see a hiker, trekker, or pilgrim walking with trekking poles or a stick regardless of whether their sticks are made from carbon fibre, aluminium or wood, spare a thought for that humble trekking pole!

PRACTICALITIES

Trekking poles come in a great variety of shapes sizes and materials.

Materials

Lightweight carbon fibre ones are light and durable, but can be expensive. Aluminium ones are a little heavier, and can be sprung or unsprung. Wooden ones, might appear traditional, but give the least ergonomic advantage.

Use

The value comes from the straps which take your weight as you bear down on them. So wider straps are better.

Always insert your hand from beneath the strap so that the strap passes over the back of the hand. That way, if you drop the pole it will just hang there on your wrist. Also you won’t break your thumb if you fall.

There are several styles of use. I prefer to place them in opposition to the walking foot – as though you are crawling, but upright. You can establish a good rhythm in line with your walking and natural swing of your arms.

Just tapping the sticks might make a nice audible rhythm, but will give you no help with the weight you carry. Bear down on the strap and just guide the stick with your hand, don’t grip it. You will save a lot of fatigue that way.

Types

Trekking poles can be fixed or extendable, sprung or unsprung, and some telescope into themselves, while others fold up like tent poles. I certainly prefer them to be adjustable for height. The fold up ones can be less secure as there is only a small overlap between segments, allowing a lot of play. I don’t recommend those for use on uneven ground where they may be called upon to provide real stability or support.

Where to buy

The best places are usually dedicated hiking or outdoors shops – make sure you get them fitted properly for your height and that they show you how to use them properly.

Paris: Ten scams and how to avoid them

First off, Paris is a wonderful and pretty safe city, but it has its share of shady operators, as most cities do. The following are mostly ones I’ve encountered or have been made aware of. One way to stay alert is to play the ‘Spot the Scam game. It’s a bit like office bingo, but one that can save you a lot of heartache.

1. Airport taxi touts

When you arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport and clear customs, you may want to find a taxi. As you approach the taxi area you will be approached by people, some in a kind of uniform, offering to take you to a taxi. These guys will take you to an unofficial taxi and will overcharge you substantially, either by using the meter and driving a long circuitous route, or by claiming the fixed price is somewhere around 70 euros. Actually the official taxis have a fixed rate of 55 euros to anywhere in central Paris. So ignore the touts, and follow the blue line on the floor or the airport signs and head outside to the marked official taxi rank.

2. The old ring trick

This is where you are walking with your wife and either you hear a metallic tinkle or someone will pretend to find and pick up a gold ring (it isn’t gold) and will ask if you dropped it. When you say no, they will offer it to you, but for a price (finders fee). Someone did try this on us on a previous visit, and being wise to it I just laughed and called out ‘Scammer!’ And they ran off to find another mark.

3. The friendship bracelet or ring

This is where a smiling friendly looking person comes up and tries to tie a string on your wrist to make a friendship band. If they get the string on you, they won’t take no for an answer, and they will demand money for it. I’ve been fortunate so far in avoiding this one, but it seems to be a popular trick – especially on the steps of Montmartre Cathedral. Take the side steps, or just barge on up the stairs with your hands in your pockets or held against you so that they can’t get a loop on you.

4. The dodgy pedicab

Pedicabs can be a fun way to get around, but just this morning I watched police pull one over, and I overheard them explaining to the rather disturbed American passengers that the pedicab failed to display the proper fixed fares, so he was likely to overcharge them – perhaps by a substantial amount. It’s good to see that the police are looking out for this kind of thing, as it just gives the city a bad name.

5. Trinket and water sellers

Not so much a scam, but these guys hunt in packs, and run like crazy if they see a police or security officer – most likely because they are unlicensed traders. But I’ve seen them become real pests if they spot a victim. The Eiffel towers are most likely made in China – along with the selfie sticks. The latter they try to sell for 20 euros, and perhaps you can beat them down to around 15 or even 10, but at that price they are still double what you would pay in a cheapie shop. I bought mine in Australia for AUD$6 – which is about what they are worth.

6. Beggars

There may be genuine hard luck stories, but I admit I’m getting cynical about them. France has a social security system which is one of the best in Europe. I have seen the same beggar with a dog on one day, a rabbit on the next, and a small child on the third. Sometimes they seem to work in shifts, with the same signs being swapped over at shift handover. And the other trick is to have their money in a clear plastic jar and place it out in the footpath where unsuspecting people will kick it over, then feel guilty and give them some apology money. My advice is to save the guilt for Confession and walk on.

NB: Don’t confuse buskers with beggars. I’m serious about this. Most of the buskers, whether musicians or circus performers are quite highly skilled in their discipline, with many trained at the conservatoire or the national circus academy. I know via the circus professionals that those training in circus are doing a university level degree, but their third year assessment is based on them making a living doing street shows for their graduation year. Do something for the arts, and give generously if you’re enjoying their shows. And street shows are a great way to develop performance skills and skill in showmanship and working an audience. And yes, I was a full time musician for 10 years, and I learned my performance skills with street shows before working in a band. But do be aware, that pickpockets can operate among an audience while you are absorbed in the show.

7. Do you speak English? The petition scam

I’ve encountered this one a lot, four times in the last few days. A couple of young women looking harmless and holding clipboards approach you with ‘Do you speak English?’ Then they try to get you to sign a petition, perhaps about getting education for girls in Africa. While you are trying to work out what they are asking, their partner is going through your bag or pockets without you realising, because your attention is focussed elsewhere. Or, once you sign they ask for a donation to their cause. My favourite way to respond: I use the best English accent I can muster, and say ‘Do I speak English? Dreadfully sorry, I don’t speak a word of it.’ And keep walking. I do speak Australian though, but they never seem to ask me that…

8. Being asked for directions

We all get ourselves lost sometimes, but there is a sleight-of-hand trick where you are sitting at a cafe, perhaps with your phone on the table and you get approached by someone with a map looking lost. They place the map over your phone and while you are orienting them on a map, they or an accomplice are stealing your phone from underneath. It is a distract and steal method that takes several forms.

9a. ATM distract and steal

We all need to get cash out from time to time. So we find a teller machine, and start the process, but then someone comes up and engages your attention – then while you are distracted they quickly type in an amount, perhaps 300 euros and they or an accomplice snatches the money as it comes out before you are aware of what has just happened. My advice – find a bank and use the machines inside.

9b. ATM electronic skimmers

These are devices placed over the keypad or inside the card shroud to record your card’s details and your PIN number. I always -even on the indoor machines, do a wriggle test on the card shroud and the keypad. If it’s loose then don’t use it. And always cover your hand when keying your PIN.

10. Pickpockets – keep it chained.

The light fingered brigade can be found everywhere it seems these days. There are even signs inside Notre Dame Cathedral about pickpockets operating even during mass. And other services. Nowhere is sacred these days. I’ve had my backside felt up out in the street to see if I had something in my back pocket worth taking. Here’s what I do. I have my wallet AND my phone on chains attached to a belt hook on my trousers on either side. Each is long enough to enable the phone to be used as a phone or a camera while still being attached, likewise the wallet chain is long enough to permit me to take it out for a transaction. I don’t carry a backpack for day-to-day use, but if you do, wear it on your front. In a crowd it is easy for someone to unzip it on your back and reach inside for your valuables. I use a shoulder bag with a wired strap so it can’t easily be cut. Even the sight of a chain may be enough to deter a thief as they will be going after easy pickings, and you are showing that you are alert to their activities.

Other scams?

There are no doubt other scams around, it’s a good idea to read up on them before you travel, and play spot the scam to keep yourself alert – but not alarmed.

Leave a comment below regarding any others you’ve encountered, and help keep others alert and above all, have your stuff insured for travel insurance and enjoy your travels. In most cases we are dealing with petty operators, so even if they manage to sting you, just chalk it up to experience, and don’t let them ruin your amazing holiday or vacation.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny

Although it is still early spring and most of the flowers aren’t out yet, it is easy to see the attraction of Monet’s garden. We had booked a half day mini-bus tour when we arrived and it was definitely well worthwhile. An hour or so’s drive through the French countryside brought us to Giverny.

We started with the water garden – there are two gardens, the flower garden attached to the house, and the water garden across the road.

The water garden has a Japanese bridge inspired by the profusion of Japanese prints displayed in the house, and a quaint wooden rowing boat that can be seen in several of his paintings. The boat was in use by one of the grounds staff as they are preparing the ponds for a re-planting of the lillies for the new season.

The flowers around the lilly pond are planted to form a colour wheel so that you walk around a spectrum of colour.

The lily pond itself was controversial in its day, as the locals who were employed to dig it, drain the swamp and redirect the stream were worried that Monet’s exotic plants would clog the flow and poison the water for downstream use.

At around 80km from Paris, it would have been a two day horse ride or lengthy train ride to get his art supplies or to deliver his artworks. But Monet fell in love with the place and decided to make a new start here after his first wife died. He moved to Giverny with his second wife Alice, at first renting the property, then as his paintings began to sell better, he bought it outright.

Monet has a lifelong interest in the modern developments of his time, and he regularly rode and painted the trains. He also owned some of the early cars, one in 1902 and the other, a Panhard in 1910. There are photographs in the house of Monet with his cars.

The property had been a working farm, but Monet set about his garden project with enthusiasm, doing much of the work himself. He often said that his greatest art work was his garden.

Returning via a tunnel to the house and flower garden, you can see the many walks and paths he laid out. Built on flat land, Monet constructed raised frameworks to add dimensionality to the garden, and looking out through the double window of his bedroom, he would have been greeted by cascades of colour from Spring to Autumn.

The house is long, but not wide and is still furnished the way he had it with rooms themed by colour – yellow for the dining room and blue for the kitchen.

The studio, possibly a converted stable, was large and hung with works by him and his friends who often came and stayed with him to paint and enjoy the garden.

The inside of the house is hung with a large collection of Japanese prints – a major influence on the Impressionist painters – and other works by his friends. The term ‘Impressionism‘ is itself taken from the title of one of Monet’s works “Impressions: Sunset” and was originally used by one of his critics in a disparaging way. Soon, Monet and others appropriated the term to describe their approach to painting. The term caught the public imagination and was used as a banner for art that broke with the realist tradition, and that found a new honesty in plein air painting.

Today that honesty is carried forward in the manifesto of the Urban Sketchers movement with the idea of ‘seeing the world one drawing at a time’ – the idea being to sketch from life, and with honesty (if there are bins or power lines you don’t edit them out as many painters do).

We also visited Monet’s grave at the Eglise Sainte Radegonde in a small family plot marked by a simple stone.

The church itself was built between the C11th and C12th.

Despite being too early in the season to see the full effect of the gardens, I can see how it came together as an inspiring and creative space in which to work. It would be well worth returning in May to see it in full bloom, even if that means braving the crowds.