Circumnavigate The World, Mission accomplished, midlife crisis mastered: When unemployed Canadian Jean Béliveau set off from Montreal 4077 days ago, his life was in shambles. On foot, he ran once around the world, and now he is back home – and celebrated like a national hero.
It’s a sunny autumn morning in Montreal as Jean walks with almost leisurely steps across the Lachapelle Bridge into his hometown. Behind him, dozens of people stroll, accompanying him on his final kilometers. He is pushing a kind of oversized walker on three wheels. In it is a tent, provisions, and clothes; a backpack would have been too heavy, for he has had a long journey.
Béliveau waves shake hands, and lets himself be celebrated, all over Canada these television pictures will be shown on Sunday. Shortly after the bridge, his wife Luce Archambault awaits him, the two embrace, and they are surrounded by camera crews. “It’s a very emotional moment,” he then only brings out. “I can’t describe it.”
Jean Béliveau is at the end of a journey that has taken eleven years and two months. He has walked around the world, crossed six continents, and covered more than 75,500 kilometers on foot – a distance almost equivalent to circling the equator twice. On average, he walked 18.5 kilometers per day, breaking 54 pairs of shoes along the way.
Between continents, he used ships and planes. He abandoned the original idea of really running every kilometer on land while still in Latin America: He had to fly over Colombia because the country seemed too unsafe; later he skipped Libya because he couldn’t get a visa. He was not at home the whole time; Archambault came to visit him once a year.
In February, Béliveau reached Vancouver. “When I arrived back in Canada after almost 11 years, it was a culture shock,” says the gray-haired 56-year-old with prominent eyebrows and a charming French-Canadian accent. “It will take me a while to get used to my own country again,” he tells me over the phone. “Now when I think about the last 11 years, I get nostalgic; it’s a real emotional mess.”
Arriving at the Vancouver airport from New Zealand, there was a big party; to the sound of drums and trumpets, Béliveau pranced through the reception hall, extremely euphoric and a bit awkward at the same time. Dozens of people cheered him, holding up flags and world maps.
Shy bears, thieving squirrels
From Vancouver, it was still 5400 kilometers to Montreal. Most nights, Béliveau was able to sleep in private accommodations. “People were incredibly hospitable, sometimes calling friends who lived 30 kilometers away to arrange a place for me to stay.” In his home country, he is now constantly in the newspaper; he is now a famous man.
In the state of Ontario, however, there are hardly any settlements in some places and a lot of forests, so he had to sleep in a tent again. Because there are bears there, he hung his provisions on a tree at night. “No bear could reach it, but the squirrels ate it,” he says with a laugh. “Then one time I saw a bear, but they’re afraid of people.” He tells this in such an unagitated tone as if he were reporting on a visit to the zoo. Béliveau has experienced far too much in recent years to be frightened by a predator in his home country.
In Algeria, he had to endure a prostate operation – a surgeon agreed to do it for free because Béliveau does not have health insurance. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, he spent a night in agony without a tent because he heard the loud snarling of a predator at close range. In South Africa, he spent a night in jail and was forgotten in his cell the next morning.
He stayed in pigsties and even in a mausoleum. In straw huts and luxury villas he enjoyed the hospitality of strangers, in return, he told them anecdotes of his journey. “I don’t think there is a king, president, or prime minister who can say he was hosted by 1,500 families,” he told a Canadian television station.
Meeting with grandson in Hamburg
In October 2006, he walked through Germany, which remained a special memory for him, because for the first time, he was able to meet his five-year-old grandchild in Hamburg. “Sometimes I think I’m a bit crazy myself,” he said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE at the time.
He met his second grandchild for the first time on Saturday in Montreal, also at the age of five. Before that, they had only been in contact via Skype.
“From now on, I’ll have plenty of time for the family,” he promises. “I’ll put chains on him,” Archambault jokes when they meet in Montreal on Sunday.
Béliveau, the world wanderer who has now reached his hometown, is a different person from Béliveau, the advertising sign maker who had to give up his small business in 1999 and suffered from severe depression.
When men go through a midlife crisis, there are two common problem-solving strategies: Those with lots of money buy a sports car. Those with little money train for a marathon. Béliveau had $4,000 in his bank account, so he started jogging. At some point, he thought about what it would be like to keep running instead of always returning home in the evening. You could also say: He extended his lap a little, to more than 75,000 kilometers.
Running as therapy
“Once I decided to walk around the world, the midlife crisis was over,” says the 56-year-old. “I had a goal again.” He kept that to himself at first, telling his wife only three weeks before the start. She was shocked at first, where every newspaper snippet about the mammoth tour through 64 countries can be read.
So which three countries would he visit again if he had his choice? “Nooo! Why are you asking me that?”, Béliveau laughs out loud. “I have to say ‘Germany’ now, don’t I?” He says, he noticed that in Germany, people were particularly excited about his adventure and that a particularly large number of media outlets were reporting it. “I have a very hard time with this question – all countries have a dark side and a light side,” he tries to dodge further.
Then he does name three candidates: “All right: Guatemala, Mozambique, and Borneo in Malaysia.” There, he says, he experienced particularly friendly people who mastered difficult living conditions with a great deal of optimism and cordiality.
Of what he experienced in the distance, he now wants to pass on something. “This trek should serve humanity, inspire it to think about peace.” Béliveau wants to write a book and give speeches about his experiences, and get involved with local charities. Sometimes he already sounds like the leader of a motivational seminar, for example when asked what best helps against depression: “Just get out and take a walk,” he recommends.