Thank Fathom it's Friday

A walk across Spain? “It’s about time!”

1 November 2019|

A sideways look at economics

A few years ago, Fathom introduced a sabbatical scheme to reward its staff for long service. As a young and growing company, few members of staff have built up sufficient credits to reap the benefits in full. However, as someone fortunate enough to have joined in the early days, I have. For a while I’ve been entitled, as a one-off, to take an additional ten weeks of paid leave. No strings attached. But what to do with all this time? I found this a daunting question. As someone who never took a ‘gap year’, I’ve not had such an abundance of time to do with as I please since I finished my university exams more than 20 years ago. And before that, not since I started school at the age of 5. Earlier this year, I finally hit on an idea, and booked my sabbatical.

With most of my friends and family unable to leave behind all their usual commitments for such a long period, it quickly became apparent that whatever I did on my sabbatical was likely to be a solo endeavour. On reflection, I felt I should do something that I would enjoy, but in normal circumstances would dismiss out of hand as a frivolous waste of time. That settled it. I would walk ‘the Camino’.

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, is a vast network of pilgrimage routes that cross the European continent and end at the shrine of Saint James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.[1] Perhaps the most famous of these, and one that is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the Camino Francés, or The French Way. This path, which stretches almost 800 kilometres from Saint Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees in south-west France to Santiago de Compostela, is the one I chose to walk. What for many unfortunates in the Middle Ages had been undertaken as penance, as a form of religious punishment, would be for me an indulgence. It would allow me to take time away from all that I knew, and to lead a different, slower, simpler existence.

With a date in the diary, I began to make preparations. One of my early mistakes was to sit down with my mother to watch ‘The Way’, a  2010 film in which a character played by Martin Sheen walks the Camino Francés IN MEMORY OF HIS SON WHO HAD JUST DIED ON DAY ONE OF HIS OWN PILGRIMAGE ATTEMPT! Regretting my failure to study the synopsis carefully, I explained to her that deaths on the Camino are very rare.[2]

Most people find the first day tough, and I was no exception. The 25-kilometre hike takes the novice pilgrim from Saint Jean Pied de Port, at a height of 170 metres, aggressively uphill to Refuge Orrison. At an altitude of almost 900 metres, this is the last possible stopping-off point before Spain. For those who continue, a more gradual ascent follows, which in my case lasted several hours. After crossing the border — represented by a small farm gate and a rusting cattle grid — the path continues to the summit of Col de Lepoeder, at almost 1500 metres. Then there’s a steep descent through beech woods to Roncesvalles. Officially, the town boasts a resident population of just 21. Today it’s well known for its vast pilgrim’s hostel, or albergue, with accommodation for 180 weary travellers spread over 4 floors. Efficiently run by a group of Dutch volunteers on behalf of the adjoining monastery, this albergue, with its communal living on a grand scale, provides a perfect introduction to the Camino.[3] I chatted to people on that first night that I would bump into, on and off, over the next several hundred miles.

I was fortunate. For me, from day one, the walking got easier. Remarkably, I suffered no troublesome blisters.[4] As we moved further into Navarra, passing through Pamplona, and into La Rioja, I felt my strength improving day by day. My pack seemed to lighten, and my pace quicken. Other pilgrims, by and large, were not so lucky. I saw an increasing number of people who were clearly in great pain. I vividly remember passing a man early one morning about three kilometres before Santo Domingo de La Calzada. He could barely place one foot in front of the other. Nevertheless, he looked up, smiled, and wished me “Buen Camino”. At his pace, I’m not sure he would have made the town before nightfall.[5]

From La Rioja, one of Spain’s smallest autonomous regions, the way enters Castilla y León, its largest. After the hustle and bustle of Burgos, birthplace of El Cid and Franco’s base during the Civil War, we continue into the Meseta — a vast, high plain that takes more than a week to cross. Many pilgrims, frustrated by the largely featureless terrain, with fields of maize and sunflowers stretching as far as the eye can see, skip this part of the walk. But for those who persevere, it has its own rewards. After the Meseta comes the city of León. West of León, the scenery becomes more varied as the route approaches Astorga, where the path begins to climb. I reached the highest point of the walk, at Cruz de Ferro, just before dawn in late September. From there, it was a matter of days before the last big climb, from Las Herrerías in Castilla y León, to O Cebreiro in Galicia. The transition from the scrubland of Castilla y León to the lush, green pastures of Galicia could hardly have been more dramatic. In this fertile land, it seemed that every village was overrun by wildlife. Cows, chickens and at times disturbingly large dogs roamed more or less at will, leaving our final autonomous region looking and smelling in parts like a giant farmyard.[6]

Like many, I experienced mixed emotions as Santiago drew near. There was undoubtedly sadness that such an amazing experience was drawing to a close. But this was tempered by anticipation, at reaching our destination. And in my case by excitement, at the prospect of wearing something other than the two pairs of shorts, three t-shirts, and four sets of underpants that had been my lot for more than a month.[7] On 8 October, just after 1:30 in the afternoon, I walked in the driving rain with Patrick, a South African gentleman who I first met in La Rioja and had not seen since the Meseta, down some stone steps, under a small archway (where a young gaiteiro was playing something mournful on the bagpipes), and into Praza do Obradoiro — Santiago’s Cathedral Square and our journey’s end.

My purpose for walking the Camino wasn’t a religious one. I think that would be true of most people I met along the way.[8] Somewhere near the start of my journey, I was made aware of a book about one man’s experience with the Camino called It’s about time. That title works on at least two levels. It incites us to undertake now something that we want to do but have been finding excuses to avoid. It’s also a straightforward description: for me, the whole experience was about time. Taking time away from the life that one’s used to, to experience new things, and to see familiar things in a different way. One, perhaps trivial example. At the grand old age of 47, I’d never actually taken time to watch the sunrise. In my normal life, when this daily phenomenon takes place, I’m either asleep or on the train to work. When I’m on the train to work, during the darker months, the sun presumably comes up at some point during the journey, but I don’t notice it. I get on the train, and it’s dark. I get off the train, and it’s light. Making an effort to set off each day on the Camino around half an hour before sunrise — which I quickly learnt is roughly the point at which you can see the all-important yellow marker arrows without the need of a headtorch — I saw some beautiful sunrises, particularly in the Meseta.

And finally, the economics bit. I’ve written before about the labour-leisure trade-off. By convention, job offers typically specify a price and a quantity. A potential employee will be invited to commit themselves to working a set number of hours per day, and days per year, for a fixed rate of pay. Unless by some miracle the employer has chosen a point of tangency between the individual’s indifference curve map in labour-leisure space, and the employer-defined budget constraint, that labour–leisure bundle will be inefficient. A few years back I had a reasonably firm belief that if we allowed staff to choose, within limits, how much leave to take each year, at least a few people would move to one of those limits. That was indeed the case, with some younger members choosing to sell back leave in exchange for a higher annual salary, and some older members choosing to buy more leave in exchange for a lower annual salary. I’m immensely grateful to my colleagues here at Fathom for the opportunity substantially to redress the balance this year and enjoy far more of that scarce commodity — leisure.

On the penultimate day of my walk, the sun was shining, and keen to eke out my remaining time in the Spanish countryside, I stopped at more than my usual number of pretty wayside halts. At one of these stops over lunch I met a group of Americans. I asked where they had begun their walk — a standard opening gambit. “Sarria”, they replied.[9] I told them that I had walked from Saint Jean. “Ah, we would have loved to start there, but we have jobs”, was their response. I bit my lip. “So do I”, I countered, before going on to explain the concept of a sabbatical. It turned out that two of the party ran their own business. As is common in the United States — the only major economy with a statutory minimum amount of leave of no days at all — they offered their staff just ten days, which most failed to take. As the conversation developed, they seemed genuinely impressed by the concept of a sabbatical. “We should give this some serious thought”, they said as I went in to pay my bill. As I returned, a few minutes later, they were beaming from ear to ear. “We’ve decided to offer a sabbatical scheme”, they told me. “It makes sense.” I smiled. “After ten years’ service, we will offer everyone, on a one-off basis…an extra day’s holiday.” My heart sank, and I bid them farewell.

Walking the Camino is an amazing experience — it’s healthy for both mind and body. I would encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to give it a go. There are many ways to Santiago, as the saying goes, and I would walk a different one each year if I could.

sabbatical trip

[1] Legend has it that, after his death in 44 AD, the body of Saint James the Apostle was carried by boat to the Iberian Peninsula, where he was credited with having introduced Christianity. The present-day cathedral, completed in 1211 AD, stands on the site where his supposed remains were discovered by the hermit Pelagius in 814 AD.

[2] The high-level path from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, known as the Route Napoleon, is demanding, but with a bit of common sense it’s not dangerous. Martin Sheen’s fictional son attempted the crossing in a violent storm and died from exposure.

[3] I find it amusing to read some of the Tripadvisor reviews of those who have yet to adjust to life on the Camino. Of the albergue at Roncesvalles, one person complained: “The staff on check in were very abrupt and rude. The pilgrims’ meal was basic and we were treated very poorly [when we asked for a] glass of water with our wine… Also there is a curfew of 10:00pm. Yes, it is a monastery, but don’t offer [the] public beds if you expect [them] to live like monks!”. A clean, warm bed for the night at the albergue costs €12, while a three-course dinner with almost unlimited wine costs €11 — both of these prices were a little above the average for the Camino (demand is high in Roncesvalles, after all, and supply is fixed).

[4] I have walked a number of long-distance paths in the UK, and almost always suffer from blisters, making each day harder than the last. My solution on this occasion, for what it’s worth, was to wear sandals (and, yes, to wear socks with sandals when it became too cold).

[5] For me, the Camino was less of a physical challenge than I had imagined, to such an extent that I felt a bit of a fraud queuing for my Compostela in the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago among those who had clearly completed their journey in considerable pain. That’s not to say I didn’t find it at times difficult. One is so removed from everything one knows that at times it can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. That was true for me, and for most people that I met along the way.

[6] Galicians have a slightly unnerving habit of acquiring large working dogs, most frequently mastiffs, which they leave unchained to wander the streets at will. Towards the end of the walk, I passed a sign nailed to a tree at the edge of some farmland: ‘Prohibido el paso. Perro peligroso’ or ‘No entry. Dangerous dog’. Next to the sign, watching patiently as the pilgrims shuffled past, was a large German Shepherd dog, separated from the path by a single length of blue rope, around 1 cm thick. I considered taking a picture for comedy value, but then thought better of it, and moved swiftly on.

[7] There are washing facilities on the Camino.

[8] A few other statistics may be of interest. There was a broadly even split between male and female pilgrims, and a broadly even split between those who began the walk alone and those who had company from the start. By age, most were either students in their early 20s or the recently retired. There weren’t many people my age. I met people along the way from all over the world. If there was any bias towards Europeans, then it was small.

[9] Sarria is just over 100 kilometres from Santiago, and consequently the nearest convenient town from which to begin the Camino Francés if one wants to qualify for a Compostela.

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