I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago

I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416553878
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 06/16/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 395,265
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hape Kerkeling, one of Europe’s most popular comedic entertainers, is the winner of the Karl Valentin Prize for Humor, the Chatwin Award for Best Travel Book of the Year, and numerous other prizes. I'm Off, Then, his first book, has become a bestselling sensation in Germany. He lives in Berlin.

Shelley Frisch’s translations from German, which include biographies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and Franz Kafka, have been awarded numerous translation prizes. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

I’m Off Then

  • I’m off then!” I didn’t tell my friends much more than that before I started out—just that I was going to hike through Spain. My friend Isabel had only this to say: “Have you lost your mind?”

    I’d decided to go on a pilgrimage.


    My grandma Bertha always knew something like this would happen: “If we don’t watch out, our Hans Peter is going to fly the coop someday!”

    I guess that’s why she always fed me so well.

    I could be lying on my favorite red couch right now, comfortably sipping a hot chocolate and savoring a luscious piece of cheesecake, but instead I’m shivering in some café at the foot of the Pyrenees in a tiny medieval town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. An enchanting postcard idyll, minus the sun.

    Unable to make a complete break with civilization, I sit down right by the main road. Although I’ve never even heard of this place before, there seems to be an unbelievable amount of traffic whizzing down the road.

    On the rickety bistro table lies my nearly blank diary, which seems to have as hearty an appetite as I. I’ve never felt the need to capture my life in words before—but since this morning I’ve had the urge to record every detail of my unfolding adventure in my little orange notebook.

    So here begins my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

    The journey will take me along the Camino Francés, one of the official European Cultural Routes. I’ll be trekking over the Pyrenees, across the Basque country, the Navarre and Rioja regions, Castile and León, and Galicia, and after about five hundred miles I will stand right in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. According to legend, this is the location of the grave of Saint James, the great missionary for the Iberian people.

    Just thinking about the long trek makes me want to take a long nap.

    And here’s the amazing part: I’ll hike it! The entire length. I will hike. I have to read that again to believe it. I won’t be alone, of course: I’ll be toting my twenty-four-and-a-quarter-pound, fire-engine red backpack. That way, if I keel over along the route—and there is a real chance of that happening—at least they can see me from the sky.

    At home I don’t even take the stairs to the second floor, yet sstarting tomorrow I’ll have to cover between 12 and 18 miles a day to reach my destination in about 35 days. The couch potato takes to the road! It’s a good thing none of my friends knows exactly what I’m up to. If I have to call the whole thing off by tomorrow afternoon it won’t be too embarrassing.

    This morning I took my first wary peek at the start of the official Camino de Santiago. Uphill from the city gate, on the other side of the turrets and walls of Saint-Jean, is the entrance to the Spanish Pyrenees, and the first segment of the Camino Francés is marked by a steep cobblestone path.

    My route begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

    I see a gentleman of around seventy who has difficulty walking, yet is evidently quite determined to undertake this pilgrim’s marathon. I watch him in disbelief for a good five minutes until he slowly disappears into the morning fog.

    My guidebook—I chose a wafer-thin one, since I’ll have to lug it with me over the snowcapped peaks of the Pyrenees—says that for centuries, people have undertaken the journey to Saint James when they have no other way of going on with their lives—figuratively or literally.

    Since I have just dealt with sudden hearing loss and surgery to remove my gallbladder—two ailments that I think are perfectly suited to a comedian—it’s high time for me to readjust my own thinking. It’s time for a pilgrimage.

    I paid the price for ignoring the inner voice that had been hollering “TAKE A BREAK!” for months. When I forged ahead with my work, my body took revenge and shut down my hearing. An eerie experience! I was so furious at my own folly that my gallbladder exploded, and the next thing I knew, I was back in the emergency room with the symptoms of a heart attack.

    I finally paid attention and drifted into the travel section of a well-stocked bookstore in Düsseldorf, looking for a suitable destination with one thought in mind: I’ve got to get away! It was high time for a time-out.

    The first book I happened upon was Bert Teklenborg’s The Joy of the Camino de Santiago.

    What an outrageous title! Eating chocolate can be a joyful experience—or maybe drinking whiskey—but can a route bring you joy? Even so, I bought this presumptuously titled book. And devoured it in a single night.

    The way to Santiago de Compostela is one of the three great Christian pilgrims’ trails—the others are the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem from anywhere.

    According to legend, the Santiago trail was used by the Celts in pre-Christian times as a path of initiation. Veins of electromagnetic power in the earth and lines of energy (called ley lines) are said to be aligned with the Milky Way along the entire trail, all the way to Santiago de Compostela (which may mean “field of stars”), and even beyond that to Finisterre at the Atlantic coast in Spain (then considered “the end of the world”). The Catholic Church kindheartedly forgives the sins of people who complete a pilgrimage to Santiago. But that’s not my primary incentive; I’m drawn to the idea that the pilgrimage will help me find my way to God and thus to myself. That’s certainly worth a try.

    I spend the next few days in a near trance, scoping out my itinerary and buying a backpack, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a pilgrim’s passport, but once I’m on the flight to Bordeaux, I emerge from my daze and hear myself say out loud: “Am I nuts?”


    It’s been two decades since I first visited Bordeaux. Perhaps I’ve been in a bad mood ever since? I arrived there for the second time, only to discover that it is just as ugly and gray as it was when I visited at sixteen. I decided to spend the night at the Atlantic Hotel, a stately neoclassical building across the street from the train station. This is meant to be a consolation for the coming five weeks of dilapidated dormitories filled with snoring Americans and belching Frenchmen and no decent sanitary facilities.

    It turns out I would have been better off in a dormitory. I was greeted with a friendly smile, shown to a drab little hole-in-the-wall, and quoted an exorbitant price. Instead of a window, the room offered harsh blue fluorescent lighting. I didn’t complain, but I could feel my nonexistent gallbladder acting up!

    If Bordeaux had been nicer, I might not have continued on.

    But there is nothing to keep me in the room, since the last guy to sleep here had the good sense to empty out the minibar. So, out I go, back to the train station.

    In the gigantic main hall, I marshal my high school French to issue this halfway decent sentence: “Mademoiselle, one ticket from Bordeaux to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, one way, second class, please.” The charming lady behind the counter beams at me.

    “À quelle heure, monsieur?”—Ah, yes; at what time do I want to travel? That’s a good question.

    “At about seven A.M.” I decide on the spot, which is how I do things.

    “What was the name of that place again?”

    Great! None of the maps I studied listed a train connection to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port—so there must not be one! I mumble the name again while she pores over enormous timetables from past centuries with a quizzical look on her face, then announces, to my complete surprise, “Monsieur, there is no such place in France.”

    I am as flummoxed as if she’d just claimed that God is dead.

    “Waaait a minute,” I say, “the place does exist, but maybe the railroad doesn’t go there. Surely there’s an interstate bus or something of that sort.” The lady politely stands her ground: “No, no, the place does not exist. Believe me.” Naturally I don’t. There’s a principle at stake here!

    Who could seriously doubt the existence of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port?

    After an excruciating couple of minutes, she discovers that the place exists after all! And there’s even a convenient set of connections. I feel as if I’d wished this place into existence. Maybe I’ll have the same good luck with God?

    I leave the train station with my ticket in hand, wondering what I’m actually doing here, whether any of this makes sense. I look up, only to see a huge billboard advertising the latest technological gadget with the catchphrase “Do you know who you really are?” My answer is quick and clear-cut: “Non, pas du tout!”

    I decide to give that some thought once I’m back in my hotel room. I leaf listlessly through a tattered city guide to Bordeaux to find out what I missed last week, and come across another version of the same ad campaign. This one declares, “Welcome to Reality!” Touché!

    My room hasn’t sprouted any windows since I left. My cell phone charger doesn’t fit into the French outlet, and as a matter of fact I would like to go back home already—or should I go on? I opt for going on. Then I fall asleep.


    When I arrive this morning, Saint-Jean is already packed with pilgrims of all ages and nationalities. The city evidently reaps a handsome profit from pilgrim business. Rustic walking sticks and scallop-shell pendants—the pilgrims’ insignia—are sold on every corner. There are kitschy statues of saints, pilgrims’ lunch platters—think French fries with meat course—and hiking guides in every conceivable modern language. I opt for a simple walking stick, although it seems much too long, much too heavy, and much too unwieldy.

    On the way to the local pilgrims’ hostel I turn over in my mind how to say stamp in French. In Spanish it’s sello—that’s written in the pilgrim’s passport, the credencial del peregrino. In the entryway the word finally occurs to me: Timbre! Naturellement. I’ve got my sentence formulated in my head: J’ai besoin d’un timbre. Then I hear the elderly gentleman at the table speaking Oxford English while stamping the passports of a young four-man band from Idaho and assigning them beds one through four. It turns out he’s British and spends his summer vacations here in this little office, endorsing pilgrims’ passports and assigning bed numbers. And he seems to be enjoying it. My own enjoyment drains away the moment I realize that I am about to be allotted bed number five in an ice-cold, twenty-man dormitory, right next to the high-spirited country quartet from Idaho. Sure enough, they have their dreadfully heavy instruments in tow: three guitars and some sort of flute.

    When my turn comes, the nice man asks me: “What’s your profession, sir?” I mull over some possible responses, then loudly announce, “Artist!” The man looks at me dubiously. This question didn’t come up with the musicians. The billboard said, “Do you know who you really are?” Evidently I don’t. Though my little white sunhat does make me look like Elmer Fudd.

    Before he gets around to assigning me bed number five, I flee with my first official stamp in hand, although I have yet to trek a single foot. To make up for the previous night in Bordeaux, I’m going to stay at the Hôtel des Pyrénées, the best address in town! The albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) here is a bit too—shall we say—chummy for my liking. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that I’m from Düsseldorf, Germany’s premier status-conscious city.

    So the Catholic Church has it on record that I began my pilgrimage here. At the end, in Santiago, there’ll be a fabulous gilt-edged certificate in Latin—the compostela—signed by Secretarius Capitularis. And all my sins, which, as the Catholic Church sees it, are many, will be forgiven. I feel as though I’ve stepped into a clergy sitcom.

    The stamps are issued only in official albergues, churches, and monasteries along the route. If you travel by car or train, you can’t get your hands on a pilgrim’s certificate, because the places that issue stamps can be reached only by foot or bicycle. You can claim to be a true pilgrim only if you have completed at least the last 62 miles before you get to Santiago de Compostela on foot, or the last 124 miles by bicycle or horse. Most people choose to trek the entire Camino Francés, the traditional pilgrim’s route. You don’t have to be Catholic to get a pilgrim’s passport. Though I was raised Catholic, I would describe myself as a kind of Buddhist with a Christian veneer, though that sounds more complicated than it is. You just have to embark on a spiritual quest—and that is what I am doing.

    While I sit in the bistro sipping away at my café au lait, I consider my expectations for the pilgrimage. I could set off with this question in my head: Is there a God? Or a Yahweh, Shiva, Ganesha, Brahma, Zeus, Ram, Vishnu, Wotan, Manitu, Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, etc.?

    Since my earliest childhood I have devoted a good deal of thought to this question. As an eight-year-old, I enjoyed going to communion instruction, and I recall to this day exactly what was taught there. I felt the same way later in confession training, religious instruction, and confirmation classes. I never had to be coaxed into going (no one would have pushed me anyway, since I’m not from a strict Catholic family). My interest in all things religious ran high throughout my high school years.

    While other children had to be dragged to mass kicking and screaming, I really enjoyed it, though I kept these feelings to myself. Of course, our parish priest’s sermons didn’t bowl me over, but they couldn’t squelch my keen interest. There wasn’t a single spiritual course that left me cold; every type of worldview fascinated me. For a while I seriously toyed with the idea of becoming a theologian or converting so I could become a Lutheran minister. As a child I hadn’t the slightest doubt about the existence of God, but as a supposedly enlightened adult I have to consider the question again.

    What will happen if at the end of the journey the answer comes back: No, sorry, He doesn’t exist. There is NOTHING. Believe me, monsieur!

    Could I live with that? With Nothingness? Wouldn’t life on this funny little planet seem altogether pointless? I would imagine that everyone wants to find God…or at least know whether He does, or did, or will exist…or something.

    Maybe the better question would be: Who is God?

    Or where, or why?

    This is how scientists go about it.

    I’ll start with a hypothesis: There is a God!

    Since it would be pointless to fritter away my limited time seeking something that ultimately might not even be there, I’ll go ahead and assert that it is! I just don’t know where. And should there turn out to be a creator, He will be pleased as punch that I never doubted His, or Her, or Its existence.

    In the worst-case scenario, the answer would be: “There is a God and at the same time there isn’t one; you may not understand that, but once again, I’m sorry—those are the facts, monsieur!”

    I could live with that, because it would be a kind of compromise. Some Hindus, by the way, subscribe to this seemingly illogical view.

    So: Who is looking for God here, anyway?

    I am! Hans Peter Wilhelm Kerkeling, thirty-six years old, Sagittarius, Taurus Ascendant, German, European, adoptive Rhinelander, Westphalian, artist, smoker, dragon (in the Chinese zodiac), swimmer, motorist, utilities customer, TV viewer, comedian, bicyclist, author, voter, fellow citizen, reader, listener, and monsieur.

    Apparently I don’t have a very clear idea of who I am, so how am I supposed to figure out who God is? Maybe I should start with the smaller of these questions: Who am I?

    At first I had no interest in confronting that issue, but since I am being called upon to do so by a constant stream of advertisements, I guess I have no other choice. The first step will be to discover myself; then I’ll take it from there. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and discover God here. Of course, it’s possible that he lives right around the corner from me in Germany, and I could have saved myself lots of trouble.

    In my oxygen-deprived French cell last night, I got three hours of sleep, tops, which probably explains this muddled train of thought. Today I’ll get to bed early; tomorrow I want to be up and out by 6 A.M.

    If there is a God, at least He has a sense of humor. Here I am, sitting with a café au lait on a potato-shaped planet racing at top speed through the universe. Not that I notice it, but it’s a fault.

    Insight of the day: Start by figuring out who I am.

  • Customer Reviews

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    I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I found it a realistic and whimsical look at the journey. this book is the reason why there are so many Germans on the Camino de Santiago. I am anxious to reread now that I have done the 1st half of my Camino.
    travelwisdom More than 1 year ago
    I just returned from a most memorable 500+ mile long journey across the French Alps to Camino de Santiago and I never left my chair except to refill my wine glass. German comedian and author Hape Kerkeling took me along on his pilgrimage through the pages of I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago. Right from the start Kerkeling confesses to being an unlikely pilgrim...more of a couch potato than an adventurer. I too must admit that when I began this literary trek with Hape, I had serious doubts about whether or not I would stick to the journey. For me, a walk means circling the mall three times or a sunset stroll on the beach. I do not relish the thoughts of "roughing it." I was not at all certain that this was "my kind of travel book." I was wrong. As we traveled the pages across the snowcapped Pyrenees, through Basque country, Navarra, Rioja and all the way to Galicia, I discovered that this journey was really about self-reflection and self-discovery. The more I read, the more it reinforced my strong belief that when we travel with an open mind and an open heart, we quickly learn that different cultures, beliefs and traditions are not wrong...simply different...and we embrace the differences. We also discover that as human beings we are much more like our fellow pilgrims than we are different. And, as Hape point out: "Sometimes even the most annoying people mean well." I particularly enjoyed Hape's self-deprecating humor, his keen perceptions about the people he met and traveled with along the way and his pithy insights (some profound, some playful) the end of each chapter. My personal favorite; "Open your heart and canoodle with the day." (Looking up the definition, I quickly figured out that canoodle is a hip way to say "Make love to the day.") First released in German, I'm Off Then quickly became a best seller. No doubt, the English version will also reap awards and significantly increase Kerkeling's fan club. Review by Lynne R. Christen Author: Travel Wisdom
    harstan More than 1 year ago
    In 2001 thirtyish German comedian Kerkeling decided to search for God by hiking the 500-mile sacred Camino de Santiago, which starts at the foothills of the Pyrenees and ends at the Shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He was following the route of Christians who have taken this pilgrimage for at least twelve centuries. With just under forty stops, Kerkeling understood he would need to walk at least 12 miles a day to complete the tour in less than two weeks. He also knew he was an unhealthy couch potato. Still he began his trek heading to the first of just under forty recognized stops on the trail and came close to quitting right then. His version of the pilgrimage is interesting especially when he talks with workers at the sacred pit stops (irreverent but that is what these locales sound like) and with fellow pilgrims to understand their motives and gain a group inspiration to finish the arduous journey (think Canterbury Tales). Although the readers knows how far Kerkeling traveled in terms of miles/kilometers, the comedian fails to provide a baseline beyond doubting couch potato status so his spiritual awakening never fully comes across. Still his trek from the disenchanted to the enlightened is a profound journey of the soul. Harriet Klausner
    Anonymous 6 months ago
    Great story. Too much for me.
    ystout11 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    I was deeply disappointed in this book as it was billed as one of spiritual transformation. Hah! The joke was on me. Other than getting sore feet and making two new friends, I failed to see how Hape Kerkeling "found himself" on his long journey to Santiago. He may have been seeking something grander, but he kept getting caught up in making snide little remarks about people he met along the way. If that kind of attitude was meant to be funny, this book failed in that category, too.
    DoranneLongPTMS More than 1 year ago
    A great read; funny, entertaining, but still very real as the German comedian, Hape Kerkeling, shares his journey on the Camino de Santiago.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This book tells all the interesting sights you encounter on the trails. Learning about the conditions of some of the hostels was interesting. It seemed to be a worthwhile endeavor for anyone to try if they have the time and stamina.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I read this in the original German and loved it. I thought it was an interesting look at what a pilgrimage can be for people today. I have not seen an English translation, so I cannot speak to the quality of the translation. I had seen the author on Tv, so I knew what his sense of humor was like and to me his jokes are funny.
    Toil_and_Trouble More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book! It was funny and entertaining. I first learned about this book from listening to an interview with the author on public radio. I was impressed with the way he told his story and knew I had to learn more about him and the Camino de Santiago. He represented the trek as a spiritual journey where needs were taken care of just by ordering thigs up from the universe! He didn't start out that way but the Camino changed him. It was exciting to read and I would recommend.
    krpoole1 More than 1 year ago
    I recently did the Camino de Santiago and met many Germans along the way who recommended that I read this book. It was apparently written by a hilarious German comedian and was full of delicious humor. One German even told me that the English translation was going to be the cause of a major awakening in America with regards to the Camino de Santiago, thus turning it into a major destination for American tourists. I hardly think so. I don't know if this is just a bad translation or if American humor is so very different from that of the Germans, but this book is not hilarious and will cause no revolution in American tourism in Spain. His sentences are short and choppy, his jokes completely base, and I only finished the book because I believe in finishing what I start. Several times I felt like putting the book back on my bookshelf and finding something else more interesting to read. What kept me going was the desire to see how the author describes Santiago de Compostela, which I could have done by simply skipping to the end. Nonetheless, I had paid for the book, so I was determined to finish it. That said, I can't recommend this book if you are in search of a good book about the Camino de Santiago or simply something to entertain yourself.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    justry More than 1 year ago
    I purchased this because I am interested in walking the Camino and it was the only book on that subject B&N had in the store, I wish I could return it...for more money than I paid for it. I felt like I had performed a great feat in making it through the whole thing. I did read it, because I kept hoping that The Way would transform the author. That unfortunately was not the case. He started out a very unhappy sarcastic pompous person and he ended up his journey the same way. He complained the entire trip and was completely self absorbed with his perceived *celebrity* as a comedian...I of course had never heard of him...not living in Germany...and to top it off I never thought his effort at humor was funny. His anecdotes were boring and often cruel and sometimes confusing...I wasn't sure if the translator was perhaps responsible for my confusion or it was just the author's warped view of the world and what is funny and his lack of skill as a writer. I have since ordered other books on walking The Way....and have high hopes....Really don't waste your money.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    For a comedian, it wasn't at all funny. If anything it was pathetic. Hape comes off as a spoiled, whiney, fat, lazy, tit baby. Nuf' said.
    Rubezahl More than 1 year ago
    I heard Hape Kerkeling on a Wisconsin Public Radio program interview. Listening to the interview did persuade me to read this book. Despite the author's apparent celebrity status in Germany, I (not a celebrity!) still felt that I could connect with his thoughts and commentary made from his observations and experiences along the Camino de Santiago. While this book does not result in significant thought-provoking insight, it is an easy, enjoyabe read that most people can relate to. I can't comment on the quality of the tranlation; however, having relatives and friends who live in Germany (and understanding how they speak, their sense of humor, and how they translate their thoughts) I also could apppreciate the one reviewer's sense that many of Mr. Kerkeling's attempts at humor, would fall on blank stares to non-German readers. Still, overall, a good read, if not taken too seriously.