The Camino takes you through the main town of St. Jean Pied du Port and over the river as you immediately head uphill. Straight uphill. For kilometers. I went 7.5 to be exact. The first day (or two days if you divide it up) are the most strenuous (you can see on one of the pieces of paper the Pilgrim Office gave me). It goes from an elevation of 200 meters to 1400 meters! I didn't really realize that, all I knew was that I was ready.
After climbing straight uphill for hours, and taking two rest breaks, I finally turned a corner and there in the immediate distance was the Alberge Orisson. I walked inside and, still speaking French, told the man behind the counter that I had a reservation (the Pilgrim Office said it was necessary at this particular place so they made it for me). He was delighted that I had a reservation, took my passport and signed me in. He was cute and he was flirting with me. I was smiling but by the time I arrived, my entire body was wet with sweat, and it was cool outside, and so once I stopped moving, I was freezing. All I could do is ask if "my room" was ready and he ushered me to a table in the common area and said "momentarily." He brought me some white sangria and I sat there silently shivering.
I could see the other pilgrims gathering outside on this beautiful deck overlooking the Pyrenees mountains, it was breathtaking. I could hear them talking, mainly foreign languages but I did detect English both of the Irish ilk and the American twang. There was another language that sounded so foreign, it turns out that a cross between Dutch and French sounds like Danish. I liked it but it was totally new to my ears. As I sat back and took in the scene, the Frenchie came over and introduced himself as Jean-Jaques, the proprietor. He said he was delighted to see me and hoped we could talk more later on, wink wink. I smiled and he said "my bed" was ready and gave me a token for the shower. Merci!
I walked upstairs and into my first "dormitory" - the name they give to a small room that has more than 2 beds but less than 12, usually a series of bunk beds. There are rules in these places, for example, no backpacks on the bed. That night there were 6 of us in that room: a mother and her son, some guy, and two girls from Denmark. There were two other dorms on that floor and then another set of 2 dorms in "the shed" beneath the deck. I gratefully took a bottom bunk and unpacked my clothes, towel and bath bag and took my token and headed to the shower. It was decent enough -private and it locked- but the token only gave you 5 minutes of semi-warm water. It had to be enough. Once I changed, I admired the amazing view I had and then headed outside to meet and greet the others.
This first group of people became my extended family on the Camino. We all felt that way. What are the chances that you end up walking with these people, what if I had not taken an extra day in Bayonne, I would be with an entirely new set of souls. But here we were, destined to begin this journey together. Those of us who had drinks and chatted outside stayed out until the communal dinner was served. Others had gone to their beds for a rest, one South African man (who was traveling with his darling son) came outside in his towel after a shower and I thought "is this how it's gonna be? Yes, this is how it's gonna be." Some of us went to the back to enjoy the afternoon sun, a group of ladies were reading, one woman was napping, a man was hanging his laundry, and I stretched on my yoga mat.
Dinner started at 7:30 and we were all sitting family style at a long table. We ate mixed salad and a garlic soup, then a main paella type of dish with seafood, then yogurt or ice cream for dessert, and all the bread you can eat and wine you can drink. It was fun talking to these strangers. No one really asked any serious questions, like why are you doing the Camino or what do you do for a living, it was more about the moment and learning where everyone is from and just enjoying each other's company. Sometimes the simplest conversations can be deep. That's the thing about meeting people from other parts of the world. It gives you an entirely new perspective.
Talk about a fun dinner! Even though Jean-Jacques was eyeing me, I made a break for it and went to my bed. As a single girl I knew I would probably have a little love affair along the Camino but I wasn't ready yet. So in went my earplugs for the first time and I slept in my new sleeping "liner." The beds were made with clean sheets and a pillow but you needed your own sleeping bag and my turned out to be just fine.