‘Moan, bitch, gripe, tweet-f****ing-tweet’.
Said I to my wife this morning before I leaped from our cosy bed into another dark October morning.
Faking it until I could make it.
The wind was moaning and swaying the garden greenery all night, and rain beads were now spattering the bottom of the window visible beneath the gently rattling blind.
Summer definitely over as I pulled up my freezing trousers and fumbled for last night’s T-shirt.
Dogs to be called and children to be fed … or was that the other way around?
Amazing what brain throws up, isn’t it?
Far too many years ago this was the catch-phrase my fellow travel agency guides and I adapted one season in Lourdes.
‘Moan, bitch, gripe, tweet-f***ing-tweet’, we’d chorus before switching on our tour guide smiles and facing our public.
I was the only man in our team of five, and one of the older-hands had seen this little cartoon in a magazine.
A baby chick sitting in a nest. Looking miserable.
Four pictures, the words going with each:
Perfect for us guides working the Lourdes beat.
Yes, that Lourdes, the small town in southwestern France famous for the apparitions of the Virgin Mary that local peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen in a cave, or grotto, there in the mid-19th century.
And as these things do, word got out and soon Lourdes Tourism was born.
Packed pilgrimage planes in and out from April to October, mostly, flashing hotel signs, shop after shop crammed with laminated mass and sympathy cards, Virgin Mary water bottles, illuminated grottos, and discount Apparition Pill Boxes.
Day trips, walking tours with lunch, decent restaurants, disco or nightclub to unwind …
Opportunity knocks. Or maybe Opportunity Knock to follow?
The grotto itself, though, and the baths and the volunteers, the afflicted looking for solace or a miracle, was an amazing and humbling experience. No matter how many times you went there. And entry there was free.
The whole experience offered a fascinating insight into Catholic Ireland at the grassroots level.
Decent people, largely, getting by and so many of them visited with some awful disease or tragedy.
Lovely to deal with and look after. Even the awkward ones who expected you to get their dentures repaired that morning, or know which souvenir shop they left their umbrella in.
Many wonderful priests and religious people too, doing their best and doing so much good for their parishioners. Especially the sick ones.
And then you had some plump parish priests, pampered by adoring flocks who treated them like Jesus reincarnated (again). Men who wielded their power and influence shrewdly and whimsically.
Social influencers in a soutane.
Liked the best of food and wine, and could be bought over with gifts and flattery by other tour operators, and bring their lucrative custom flocking with them.
But there I was, anyway, getting my cut of the religious souvenir and pilgrimage action.
Not the worst job I’ve ever done. A small basic salary paid into my account back in Dublin and living on the commission from our various ancillary activities.
A sliver of the financial pie from the hotels or lunchtime stop-off points on day tours, 10 per cent of the price of each group photograph taken near the three basilicas built around the famous grotto where Our Lady supposedly appeared.
One or two other things and usually generous tips from each departing group.
There would generally be two groups a week, 200 people or more.
A lot of photographs and a lot of steak frites …
We reps would be friendly enough with the bartenders, coffee shop people and hotel desk operators, but conversation often revolved around how well the season was going.
Our clients were obviously not your usual Benidorm sun holiday merchants. No crazy-eyed Bear Grylls types or manic mountain trekkers, packing in two warm-up hikes before breakfast.
God love them, but ours were usually older folk, often not well, of course, though the really sick ones stayed elsewhere, much nearer St Bernadette’s Grotto.
We are all familiar with that helplessness that can come over us on any kind of organised trip or tour.
Competent, capable people, we see our assigned guide and suddenly we lose all independent thought and reason.
And the poor guide is to blame for everything from the crap weather to the traffic tailback on the M50.
It was like that for us in Lourdes, only more so.
Loads of fantastic, lovely people.
And lots of moaners and groaners.
“Why was that mass so short this morning, and was there no one there to do it in English anyway … and why is the toilet so far away?’
Wouldn’t say a word to the French hotel owner who treated them with hauteur and downright rudeness, of course, but plenty to say to their tour guide!!
Or put into a stinker of a letter to the travel agency itself.
I did the gig for two seasons.
It came about originally after I had moved home for good from France.
I was looking for work when I saw the ad for Bon Voyage Travel. Specialists in tour packages to Lourdes.
I spoke reasonable French, did the interview and got it.
Eventually, the money I earned went a long way towards funding my diploma in journalism course in Dublin.
And the pilgrimage of my secular soul took another turn.
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