The Penitent Legionnaire
By Robert Ward

Walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Robert Ward meets a mysterious fellow pilgrim: an ex–French Legionnaire with a secret identity and a few regrets.

I first met him over dinner one night on the meseta, a wiry man in his forties, with a high, balding forehead, a gentle manner and a wise laugh. He introduced himself as a former member of the French Foreign Legion. I guess I didn't take him quite seriously, for I said, "So you used to destabilize democratically elected governments for a living?"

To which he placidly replied, "Well yes, there was a certain amount of that."

For Jean–Yves, the Camino was a time to think out his future. He had retired on full pension. He had a new name, a new identity, a new history. He was still young enough to chart out a second life. "I have a resumé," he said. "A detailed and very impressive resumé of the imaginary places where I have worked. If anyone calls a phone number on the resumé, someone in an office somewhere will answer and tell them what a splendid employee I was." He was thinking of starting a counselling service for others in his circumstances. There were a lot of them, he said, and many had trouble adapting to dull civilian life.

© Robert Ward

In most respects, Jean–Yves was a thoroughly modern pigrim. But he was also something older: a penitent. "There are things I have done that I don't feel good about," was how he put it. His was not a rigorous penance of the sort prescribed by tenth–century English canon law: "that a man lay aside his weapons and travel far barefoot, and nowhere pass a second night, and fast, and pray fervently, and be so squalid that iron come not on hair or on nail." Jean–Yves wore good European walking shoes, prayed with moderation, ate and slept well, and kept his nails trimmed. Yet he had laid aside his weapons, and on his pilgrimage, he travelled far.

In the weeks after our first meeting, we saw each other often but seldom spoke. His regime was not mine. He would set out quietly before daybreak, walking swiftly and alone. In the afternoon he would rest at the refuge before evening mass. By the time I came back from dinner he would already be sleeping. It wasn't till Palas de Rei that both of us went looking for a quiet place away from the crowded gymnasium floor and ended up at the same table in Bar Albariño.

© Robert Ward

After a glass of wine or two, I told Jean–Yves, "These crowds are wearing me out. Sometimes I almost wish the Camino was over."

He replied in the placid tone of one who knows things you don't. "If you wish the Camino was over, keep walking, that's all. You can walk in your sleep, you know. I've done it a few times, in Africa. You just hold onto the belt of the one walking in front of you and you can actually fall asleep. Only for some steps, of course, but a few seconds' sleep can go a long way in extreme circumstances."

"How far do you think I could cover in one go?"

"With the right incentive, you can easily walk sixty to seventy kilometres in a day, even carrying a heavy pack."

"So I could be in Santiago tomorrow night?"

"Without doubt. We put artificial limitations on ourselves. We look at our watch and say, 'Oh! It's time to stop.' But we can keep going. Humans are more resilient than they know." He speared a chunk of octopus with his toothpick, swished it in olive oil, and popped it into his mouth. "Walking, in fact, is an under–appreciated strategy. Especially when you are in the jungle, where aircraft can't spot you. In one night an army can shift fifty kilometres. They just disappear, without a sound, without a trace. And then they show up somewhere no one expects them to be." I envisioned a massive nocturnal deployment of pilgrims to the gates of Santiago.

All that night, and the next in Arzúa, Jean–Yves spun me tales of that strange ex–job of his: fighting guerrilla wars in Africa, keeping Arafat's bed warm the night he was spirited from Lebanon, swimming at the atoll of Muroroa before the atomic tests. He could talk about it now, or most of it, and he did, unburdening himself to a stranger in precise English, smiling all the while the mild, ironic smile of a man who knows he has done wrong but can't bring himself entirely to regret it.

"Do you think your life will be boring now?"

© Beau Travail, the movie

"Yes, but that is probably a good thing. I still have some years to atone for my sins. Maybe someday I will retire to Addis Ababa. Have you been there? Fascinating place. Lots of old spies. There was one time in Lebanon when I had a gunfight with a Mossad agent. We were not trying to kill each other. You understand that sometimes you shoot at someone without meaning to hit him––though of course things don't always work out as you intend. Anyway, several years later, I was in Addis Ababa, reading the newspaper in a café, when I looked up and there he was, sitting at the table across from me, the same Mossad agent. I wasn't sure if he had noticed me or not, so I waited till I caught his eye and then I smiled. And he smiled. And I went on reading my newspaper and he went on drinking his coffee. It was very curious."

As we walked back to the refuge in Arzúa, he started talking about doing bayonet practice on dummies and how, even though the dummies were given synthetic ribs and spines to make the exercise more realistic, it still wasn't the same as the real thing. Then his voice trailed off. That was one story that stayed between him and God.


Excerpted from All the Good Pilgrims: Tales of the Camino de Santiago by Robert Ward. Thomas Allen Publishers. Copyright 2007. All rights reserved.

Robert Ward just loves pilgrimages. He is the author of All the Good Pilgrims: tales of the Camino de Santiago and Virgin Trails, an agnostic's guide to the worship of the Virgin Mary. When not wearing out his shoes, he calls Toronto home. Check out his writing, photos and pilgrim blog at

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