This is the point, to speken short and pleyn,
That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
In this viage shal telle tales tweye
To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,
And homward he shal tellen othere two,
Of adventures that whilom han bifalle.
And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle,
That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
Tales of best sentence and moost solaas,
Shal have a soper at oure aller cost
Heere in this place, sittynge by this post,
Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury.
So speaks the host of the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a fine example of the kind of things strangers will do to pass the time together. This formal type of proposed entertainment strikes me as the kind which strangers might engage in on their first day together, but soon find unnecessary as their isolation and intimacy brings them closer together. If there’s one thing I learned for sure on my pilgrimage, it’s that being in intimate isolation with strangers is powerful. Pilgrimage gives you the opportunity to rapidly forge a very close bond with someone that you will likely only spend a few days with and then never see again. It’s a very intense and deeply personal experience, and one which can either make or break relationships.
Over the course of planning this journey, Terry and I spoke a lot about what the impact of this difficult venture might be on our friendship. We were both very much aware that this impact might be negative: that we might struggle to get along as well as we have done in the past, and we both brought up the fact that, before this trip, we actually didn’t know each other very well at all. This sense of unease reflects, I think, two factors with which pilgrims of all ages would have to contend before starting their first pilgrimage: the first being that as an individual you are aware that you carry with you certain doubts and fears, both about yourself and what you think you can accomplish with others. You worry that these darker aspects of your personality might damage someone else and the relationship between you, leading to the whole journey being a waste of something so potentially enlightening.
The second thing I believe pilgrims throughout history all have to contend with is the natural human resistance to change. Terry and I were clearly concerned that we might change our relationship for the worse – in layman’s terms my head was filled with anxious visions of a mutual hatred between us which might turn the journey sour or potentially dangerous. Having actually completed the journey, on the other hand, while those concerns were valid I think I should also have been worried about our relationship changing too much in the other direction. This probably applies more to pilgrims in the past when travel was generally more dangerous, but before we set off I felt a certain obligation towards Terry’s safety and wellbeing. I had, after all, persuaded him to come along with me, and were he to be injured (which of course we both were), I would feel a certain amount of guilt and shame in having been partly responsible. What I had not counted on, however, was how much this feeling would grow as the days went on. As naïve as I feel now in saying it, the more we talked, the better we got to know each other and the more I came to value and understand his commitment to me as a friend, the more I became aware that this was a real, living human being who was risking a lot in accompanying me.
And we did talk a lot; a whole lot more than I was perhaps expecting and certainly a lot more than I was ready for. As I’ve mentioned, when we started out Terry and I were friends: we’d known each other for three years, had the same friends, had spent time in the same classes, attended the same parties and events, but never really conversed, not truly. I want to make a definition here between what most people do today – talking – and conversing as we did over our journey, in that one is the simple spouting of words at one another without much interaction, and the other is a much more profound and sometimes hallowed practice, through which you open yourself up in all your vulnerability and fear, examining another person’s innermost self and soul as they examine you.
By the time Terry and I began conversing with each other properly, it was the second day of our trip. The first day had been spent (I think it’s fair to say) somewhat awkwardly, coping with the dawning sense of slight horror that this was the first few of many hours in which it would be just us and the road. That first day was spent mostly talking about hobbies we knew we had in common, books we had read, teachers we had both studied under, what we enjoyed studying about our similar topics, and so on. The epitome of safe elevator small-talk, with neither one of us really pushing anything, sticking to the pleasant and the banal. That I often felt that day like I was scraping the bottom of the conversation barrel for something to pass the time now, in hindsight, seems ludicrous. The simple truth of the matter, I think, was that we were so used to the modern practice of talking that we had no idea how to converse.
What became apparent to me throughout our journey was the power of intimacy with strangers. Of course, Terry and I were hardly strangers, but it was quite clear to me within the first day just how little we knew of each other. I realised that if anything, this made it harder for us to open up to each other, compared to some of the complete strangers we met along the road. This realisation was perhaps never clearer than towards the end of the first day, when we staggered into Kirkcaldy and found the first pub we could. Like I said earlier, I was worried that this journey might bring out worse sides of my personality, and this was one of those moments. The admittedly exhausted bit of prejudice inside me looked at the pub and worried that it might not be the best kind of place to drag Terry into. Slightly grimy windows and a bad paint-job had me fearing that this was some kind of racist hive, absolutely not the sort of place you take your exhausted and clearly foreign-looking friend. Thinking that I was being precautious, I told Terry to wait outside and headed in alone to refill our water, expecting the sort of glare you receive when you wander into somewhere only the locals go. Thankfully, I could not have been more wrong about that place. Quickly discerning that he was waiting outside and that neither of us could barely even stand, we were warmly invited in, sat down at the bar with the locals, offered as much water as we needed and asked about our story. Insisting against their disbelief that, yes we had walked 30 miles all the way here from St Andrews, we then found ourselves having to turn down kind offers of free beer, free food, the comfiest seats in the house, you name it. Overwhelmed and relieved, we stayed in that pub for about an hour, telling our story, cracking jokes, and getting to know the others.
Though neither of us had accepted the offer of anything to drink, Terry and I found ourselves discussing things with the locals in the pub which we had not spoken of to each other. Aware that we would never see any of these people again, I felt happy to answer some of their more personal questions, such as what my plans for the future were – more importantly however, I felt happy to answer them honestly. When Terry then also answered, I realised that I had never heard his honest answer before about any of this. The freedom of talking to strangers finally opened us up to each other, meaning that when we finally left the pub, our talk was no longer on random things that were vaguely entertaining, but actual conversations. “I didn’t realise you wanted to have such and such in your future”; “What are your parents like?”; “What is your life like back home?”; such was our conversation from that moment on. It wasn’t that I was suddenly aware that these questions existed or that I suddenly felt the need to ask this of my friend – it had simply taken us a while to get out of our shells.
As our journey progressed, Terry and I slowly began to speak our minds to each other properly. As we walked on we allowed our feet to do the work for us, and instead our thoughts were free to explore the sort of problems that everyone has but never really gets time to properly acknowledge; fears we had about our lives, questions we were asking of ourselves that we knew we had but didn’t want to face. These eventually formed points of discussion which we knew, instinctively, were confidential and spoken in private as brothers going through a difficult time. When we encountered strangers the same thing happened; we were freed by the notion that we could tell these people whatever we wanted, as even if they did judge us or expose our vulnerabilities, it didn’t matter – we’d never see them again. Just as Chaucer’s Pardoner does in the Tales, we were able to freely reveal things about our lives to these total strangers, safe in the knowledge that we would never see each other again. Such an experience was certainly liberating, but it was also terrifying to realise I was actually acknowledging certain things about myself or finding myself looking a question which I had previously been avoiding dead in the eye.