Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Hermit is a Pig

Me and Una, in happier times
I am almost finished being a hermit.
I switched everything off this month so I could write a book. I am almost finished. I am getting ready to climb out of my little cave and peer into the sunlight, my clothes hanging off my withered form, my skin white, my ink-stained hands shaking...
Well, no. I only wish that writing books made me skinny!
Writing books only makes me boring, I'm afraid. I don't have a lot to talk about besides the book, and most of that is technical stuff that's only interesting to me.
There's been some animal-related drama: Norman Cat's dreams came true, and while we were out one morning, he pulled down the cage with Silent Sid inside, and slew the poor canary. I found Sid breathing his last, out back by the washing machine. He died, I cried, I buried him under the olive tree. Rest in Peace, Sid.
Lulu has four stitches in one of her front paws. She cut herself running out in the Promised Land, which this time of year is alive with little roe deer and great moving clouds of songbirds and hunters bent on their destruction. The fields are full of dead sunflowers, row on row, a sobering, artistic Anselm Keifer kind of severity.

Writing is becoming less interesting these days. I think I am ready to be finished, ready to strap on my boots and get out in the ditches and clean up some pilgrim trash.

Yes, I am a strange woman. Each year, I actually look forward to spending several winter days on the boring awful Meseta, cleaning up other people's trash with a group of like-minded individuals. I am not sure just why, but people who do this are called "Ditch Pigs."

The Camino Cleanup starts at the end of this week, with volunteers coming from Switzerland, England, the United States, and Spain. Eleven donors gave us enough money to each dine on a Menu del Dia every day for five days! I hope to clear a swath from San Anton in Castrojeriz right on out to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, or maybe do a couple of days' walks north on the Camino de Madrid, from Villalon de Campos to Sahagun -- depending on what the volunteers want to do. And the weather. And how bad it is out there.

Ditch Pigs to the Rescue! 
Picking up trash is itself a hermetic practice. It has a lot going for it, spiritually -- not just the obvious Service to Mankind and Nature stuff, but the long days of physical labor, much of it done alone. Ditch Pigs aren't burdened with backpacks like pilgrims are, so they can duck and dive and stretch down low, and leave the filled-up bag along the Way to be picked up later. While they're working, they're thinking. They're pilgrimmy that way -- the camino juju gives a Pig all kinds of philosophical grist to contemplate, even as they crush water bottles and spear tissues and rake out little streams.

We wonder what kind of fool flies a thousand miles to walk a pilgrim trail, then drops litter on it. We wonder why the rise in the number of North Americans has a concomitant rise in the number of white toilet-paper tissues left along the trail. It seems my countrymen have a toilet paper addiction, or are overly fastidious in their outdoor weewee practices. When they finish they feel daisy-fresh. But everyone coming along later gets to see their "paper rose."

One sometimes contemplates the redemptive and preventive power of portable rocket launchers. The problem is, we so rarely actually see anyone drop trash on the camino. We can't blow up anyone without good evidence and due process and all that civilized crap.

So we soldier on. And each year, there's less of a mess for us to clear up.  This summer a litter cleanup campaign headed up the the Japanese Amigos group had people picking up trash all over the caminos. And over in Galicia, a Spanish group just this weekend cleared up a goodly swath of trail.
Hats off to AGACS cleanup crew!

Things are looking up out there, I say. From inside my warm, dark cave. Where I need to scribble more, more more before the week is out, before I emerge into the light.

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Yesterday there were cobblestones underfoot, and renaissance palaces to walk through. Footsore and peckish, we let our fellow tourists line up for Kosher falafel sandwiches outside the Carnavalet museum without us. We wanted a sit-down place. 
The Marais is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and a friendly bearded man in black addressed Paddy.
“Sir, are you Jewish?” he asked, right out of the blue.
“No,” Paddy said, right into the black. (Paddy wears black, too; in Spain he is sometimes mistaken for a Catholic priest. This Jew thing was something new.)
“Have a nice day, then,” the guy said. 
He moved right along to the next white male in black, probably hoping to make someone’s Jewishness bigger and better and more like his own. Evangelism is alive and well in the streets of Paris, apparently… but the grace on offer was available only to the already Chosen.  
We were not Chosen, but we’re privileged. We found a little restaurant right around the next corner, and I rolled the dice on the “plat du jour,” the unlisted Daily Special. It turned out to be a vast enamel pot of moules – fresh mussels steamed in magically delicious broth.
Moules. No, I did not take this picture.
Dessert was a pear poached in Bergerac. The food was sublime, the neighborhood noisy and dirty – I wiped my chin and the napkin came away smeared grey with whatever hangs in the Paris air.
I like visiting cities – not  just because of the food and the missionaries. Mostly because of the great artwork cities store up inside equally great buildings. An old city is like a big grandma, the streets are the dozens of pockets on her apron, and in each one is a fistful of stories and pictures.
Now we are home, back in sunny, silent Moratinos. I am always interested in what I take away from a few days in a great place, especially now that I don’t carry a camera with me. What was valuable enough for me to snap a photo of, with my &&^% “smart” phone?
Here is the one thing:
I took this picture, and yeah, it's out of focus. Nothing is lost, however. 
It’s an Anselm Keifer painting, on show in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nacionale. (Yeah, some go to Paris and see the opera, the Eiffel tower, or the Moulin Rouge.We go to the library.)
The picture is huge and heavy, and top and center is a huge, heavy book made of lead. Books and pictures and stories, all of it much on my mind these days. I am writing a book in November, starting tomorrow. I have emptied out all but the very end of November to do this, so if you do not see a blog post, you will know why.
And if you have read this blog from the start, you will know what, and about whom. 

I am writing this story, all over again, hopefully in a more coherent and meaningful way. 
So I am going off the radar for a little while. 
Don't forget me when I'm gone.  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Happy Golden Days

Paddy and me and Robin

Kim came back for a final couple of days. The sun cooperated, a sun low in the sky, its light strangely yellow here where it's usually so white. We chatted and peeled apples and roasted a chicken, and Bruno came over and had a feast with us, to celebrate Ollie's birthday.

News here is not all good. No progress on the memorial garden. Ollie's hopes for a new hospitalero gig fell through. The eye surgeon told Paddy there's nothing more to be done for him.

But these are happy, golden days. I will carry these with me for the rest of my years. Little pictures to keep in my pocket, to pull out and marvel over: We all are still alive and healthy enough, with dogs and cats to cuddle and plans to hatch and dreams still worth dreaming.

Winter is coming soon. The sky will go dark, Kim will fly away back to Florida, we'll have to settle in to real work. We have to learn to live with handicaps as they press down heavier.

We face the music. We dance.

El Camino de los Galgos, out by Villada

he sees a brown door & he wants to paint it blue

watching the plumber work: an annual pastime

Norman, growing up

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Mountain Climbing

The nights are snappy cold, the trees are bright yellow, the sky is mostly shocking blue.

It makes me want to get out and about, makes me want to drive west and north, probably my last chance to run free before the gray skies and long nights close in and shut me indoors.
Posadas de Valdeon
And so I went, with Fred and a French guitar dealer, up into the mountains of Cantabria and Leon, to mountain fastnesses with great big-sounding names like Puerto de Pandetrave, and Posadas de Valdeon, and Boca de Huergano. Spectacular places, 1300 meters up, bright green and blue and yellow for now, but with an overhanging threat of isolation and snow.  I bought good 2500:1 maps. I can look at those this winter, when the snow’s sealed those places off from us in the the south.

I went with Ollie on Tuesday over to Astorga, in the foothills, and met with city councilmen and other muckety-mucks – they like my idea of a grove of trees to memorialize pilgrims who die on the camino Way. They have an unused swath of parkland right alongside the trail out of town – complete with a chapel, benches, water supply, lighting, trash bins, and a maintenance crew. It’s tailor-made. We only need the mayor to rubber-stamp it, and we can start taking donations to make it happen. 
The park outside Astorga. Not much there. Yet.

Astorga’s got it going on. And Astorga’s got some wounds of its own to heal. American pilgrim Denise Thiem spent her final hours there in April, before a local madman abducted and killed her.
So far, the victim’s family doesn’t want any memorial outpourings. But a tree? A tree among other trees, dedicated to all the pilgrims who’ve died on the Way … we can plant trees, and when they are ready, we can put her name to one.  Meantime, other grieving families and friends can memorialize their loved-ones on the camino path, and passing travelers can be reminded they, too, are only passing through.  Still no word yet from the mayor. If you know the guy, put in a good word. If you know a pilgrim with skills who’d like to help design this, put them in touch!  

Only a couple of days later I was back over west again, this time with our beloved Kim.(That explains the nice new blog header... Kim's got a way with graphics.) We drove up to O Cebreiro to visit another friend – Canadian author and activist Laurie Dennett. Laurie knows about gardens and garden design. Her own garden has a life-size Chartres labyrinth laid out in boxwood, and this year she had a bumper crop of parsnips, too. We sat and visited and consulted and sympathized, then
Kim in the car, this time with Paddy, Ruby, and Harry
loaded up the car with parsnips and the seed pods for Cosmos flowers. Kim and I stopped on the long way home to visit the grave of Don Elias Valina in O Cebreiro, the albergue of Matt Sanchez in Vega de Valcarce, the wineries of Tilenus and Camponaraya in El Bierzo, the Bank of Santander and pizzeria of Ponferrada, the Cave of San Genadio way up top the mountain at Penalba, and finally the pilgrim hostel of Leon. Kim jumped out there, to rejoin the pilgrim path out of town for a few days. She is back now on the camino, considering her next move. 

If you know someone who wants to buy a successful, soulful sea-salt and local honey boutique in Key West, Fla., do send them on.

Back at home, the house is full of pilgrims with no homes or money, pilgrims who want to buy a copy of “The Moorish Whore,” pilgrims who just want to stop and say hello. It’s mid-October, and there are still tons of the blighters passing by.

So you see, it’s busy busy business around here.  Except for when it’s very quiet.

Which it is, still, most of the time. We ARE Peaceable, after all.   

Sunday, 4 October 2015

A Last-Minute Crisis

The lady said her name was Chelo. Her eyes were full of  tears. “Oh no,” I thought – a Spanish drama-queen peregrina with a built-in audience, a couple of companions from home… probably relatives.  
I was partly right. The two other ladies were her sister and cousin. They’d arrived first at San Anton, and they warned me that Chelo was on her way and “in a state.” Chelo’s boots had proved too tight for her feet. She’d borrowed her sister’s sandals to make it to San Anton, but enough was enough.
“If I do not find proper shoes today, my camino is over,” Chelo wept on arrival. “A lady told me there’s a sandal-maker in Castrojeriz. She is my final hope. Please, for the love of Christ, take me there,” she said.
“What a drama queen!” I repeated to myself. But it was the final night of the season at Albergue Monasterio de San Anton, and we only had five pilgrims to care for. What the heck. I had a car parked outside the gate, and Castrojeriz is only 3 kilometers down the road.
Chelo said she’d pay for gas, she’d pray for me for the rest of her life. Whatever, I said. We bundled into the car.
There was no shop on the plaza where the shoemaker was supposed to be. Chelo charged into the little grocery store nearby. The shoemaker is sick, Gloria the shopkeeper said. Closed up last Tuesday and took to her bed.
“You got any shoes here?” Chelo asked.
“Flip-flops,” Gloria told her. “I got all sizes. Some pilgrims walk in them, at least as far as the next shoe store.”
Chelo’s eyebrows met her hairline. Just below, her eyes started to brim again.
“Let me make a call,” Gloria said. “We got a network here.”
“Have faith,” I told Chelo, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We aren’t done tapping our resources yet.”
Gloria hung up the phone.
“Across from the pilgrim hostel, right out there. Ring the bell marked “Paco.” Maybe he can help you,” she said.
And so we went, and so the door swung open on an antique pharmacy, dark-painted Art Deco woodwork and etched glass, long abandoned and dust-covered. Inside was Paco, a guy I’ve met before, a little bearded man who’s lived on the camino for years. He runs the municipal Albergue San Esteban here in Castrojeriz.
“Gloria sent us,” Chelo told him in a trembling voice. “I am a desperate woman. I don’t want to give up my camino.”
“What size shoe do you wear?” Paco said, wiping some interrupted dinner from his chin. He led us past shelves of  albergue supplies of jam, napkins, toilet paper and drain cleaner to the old front window. There were stacked the leavings of hundreds of pilgrims: t-shirts and socks, bicycles and underpants, umbrellas, knee-braces, Bibles, water bottles, and boots. Dozens of boots, and shoes, and sandals, in various stages of cleanliness and decay.
Chelo tried on some high-end Salomon sandals, but her toes, inside ratty yellow socks, hung over the front edge.
“No good,” Paco declared. “Look at these Tevas,” he said, pulling some chunky sandals down off a high shelf. "They’re kinda dirty, but they’ve got some miles left in them.” The Velcro opened with a crunch.    
Chelo bent over and wiggled her feet into the shoes. She stood up and caught her breath and steadied herself against a cellulite-cream display. “Jesus and Mary,” she said softly. “These shoes. These are the shoes I have been waiting for. They are perfect. I walked 300 kilometers to here, just to find these.”
“Great,” Paco said. “Your feet are small. These have been here a while. Glad they’ve found a home at last. Most pilgrims got big old slabs for feet, you know?”

He wouldn’t take Chelo’s money. He ushered us back to the street, and we went to Gloria’s and bought expensive butter and a couple of tomatoes, just by way of thanks.

“I thought Castilians were supposed to be cold and selfish. But I see now that is a filthy lie,” Chelo declared.

“Only some of us are like that. You just fell upon a chain of generosity,” Gloria told her. “It’s your turn now. You gotta be good to someone now, to keep it going.”

And so Chelo pressed ten Euros into my hand. “For the gas to get here. For finding these people,” she whispered, crying yet again, this time for joy.  

Back at San Anton,  in the yellow after-dinner candle-light, Chelo and her relatives sang us La Rianxiera, a Gallego song about the Virgin de Guadelupe. They sang out loud as they washed up the dishes, and they hummed themselves to bed.

Chains of generosity, Ali Baba caves of pilgrim goods, drama queens singing of blessed virgins… it’s been a beautiful season at the pilgrim albergue.  Despite the petty squabbles that come with managing people, I am blessed indeed to be part of this initiative.

We closed San Anton on 1 October.  If you’re interested in volunteering there next year, do get in touch.  

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

This Mud's for You

I troweled a big wad of trulla, chocolate brown and bristling with straw, onto the flat steel float. I laid the edge of the float alongside the lower edge of the adobe wall, squashed the mud flat against the vertical, and dragged the steel upward. The primitive plaster spread itself flat and true over the surface.

Six architects, a sociologist, a chemist, and a master adobero all stood silent, watching. My trowel made wide arcs over the wall, smooth as cocoa. I tucked the edges neatly in, and handed the tools over to the next student. "It's like decorating a cake," I said.

"Bien hecho!" the old adobe-man said.
"No fair!" said the architect with the fabulous hair. "You've done this before!"

They both were right to say so. I am really pretty good with mud plaster -- I've plastered many meters of adobe walls in the last few years, and I have my technique pretty well nailed-down. No one expects that from a foreigner. I stood up straight and smiled with delight. The teacher likes me! I did good!

I love plastering, and patching, and filling wide gaps with mortar made from quicklime and dirt and sand. I love sifting the dirt and mixing in the sand or mortar, gravel or chopped-up straw, turning it over with a shovel, adding water til it starts to bind, starts to bend and rise and almost inhale -- it is much like kneading bread, this earth. You even have to leave it then, overnight or over several months, depending on what kind of surface you're going to cover -- indoors or outdoors? Weight-bearing or decorative? Horizontal, vertical, smooth or rough, in a heated room or an animal shed?

Each option has its own proportion of ingredients, its own rising time, its own set of tools.
I love them. I want to learn everything about them. I want to be a master adobera, myself, and build beautiful little huts and donkey barns, chapels and bodegas, all of native dirt, straw, water, and sand. I want to put my hand against the wall and know my handprints are all inside there, know that color painted on is the color I chose, that smooth, glossy coat of wax is what I laid on last.
Adoberas. That's me on the left.

I'm taking a three-day master-class in Surface Rendering at SmartLocal Tierra, a natural building/architecture collective in rural Valladolid. Last September I spent three days there learning to repair and maintain old walls of adobe and rammed earth. Today I started Part 2. We spent the morning in a dingy classroom in the city hall at Cuenca de Campos, going over the chemistry and physics of cohesion, compression, plasticity, filosilicates and ionic bonds. We learned the science of the local dirt, and why it's so apt for building things. We learned about laying on three layers of vertical, and why some builders prefer barley straw over wheat, and why often the walls of old buildings are peppered with broken tiles, river rocks, animal bones and grapevines.
And then we hiked up to a building that 800 years ago was the Church of St. Peter. It was a house after that, and then a cattle shed, and finally a roofless ruin. Smart Tierra bought a couple of years ago for a demonstration site, put up a new roof and spectacular beams, and is now, over many teaching sessions, is building back the walls using old-school methods and highly-trained but mostly unskilled labor. This is an odd sort of hobby. I may be the only 50-something woman I know who is passionate about smearing mud onto walls, or tying sticks together to make a roof over a stack of straw bales. These skills have little practical application. Nobody builds any more with adobe -- manufactured bricks are much cheaper and durable and easy to work with, and way less labor-intensive and frustrating. Why make trullo and trowel it on when you can buy great sheets of plasterboard that's perfectly flat and smooth? I admit that "the Three Little Pigs" was my favorite childhood fairy tale. Maybe I should've become an architect. Paddy says 22 years as a newspaper journo seems like perfect training for a mud-slinger. But all mud aside, I know why I enjoyed this day so deeply. The last two weeks have been harrowing here on the Camino Frances. Spanish police finally located the body of an American pilgrim who went missing in April, and they arrested a man near Astorga who's admitted to killing her. I did not participate overly in the anguish that went on all summer while we waited for news. But now that we know, I am surprisingly sad. My illusion of a safe, sweet Camino haven where women can fearlessly walk has been busted to bits. I am helping on a memorial committee, with all the accompanying to-and-fro, egos and frictions. San Anton is still going on, up to the end of the month. There's a big wave of pilgrims moving through, and the albergues are packed-out. The Moratinos Cultural Association is in abeyance after a rather heated planning meeting. Paddy's having health issues. People keep wanting to come here. I am increasingly unable to say "yes" with a big smile on my face. I have been doing and doing for months, mostly for other people. The mud I do for me. Three days of smearing trullo on walls is not useful, or interesting, or helpful to others. It is not going to make any money. I do it because I like it. I do it just for me. Just because.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Old Man San Anton

from the fields to the south you see how big he really is

San Anton is famous and beloved and beautiful despite his many years. I live about 100 kilometers from his place outside Castrojeriz.  We only became acquainted a few months ago, when someone put me in charge of his daily caretakers. I cannot say I know him well.  

San Anton is stony and brooding and powerful; his figure is skeletal. He stands along the road where thousands pass. People stop to snap his photo, but only some of them follow the arrows round to the open gate. Inside they find the ravaged ruin of a monastery hospital and church, now reduced to a rustic rest-stop. The visitors stand and stare up at Anton’s roofless apse. If they’re aware of such things, they feel the power of the place.   

There’s a little pilgrim shelter built in there, with bunks for 12 people to sleep. A peevish old man next door controls the water supply. There’s no electricity to speak of, and very little water. There is no hot water at all, unless you warm it up on the gas cooker. But what seems to scare most people away is its total lack of wifi.
in through the back gates

San Anton is emblematic of the scruffy, minimalist shelters that pilgrims settled-for for centuries, in the years when the Santiago pilgrimage dropped out of public popularity. He runs on goodwill and donations. The people who keep him going are volunteers, like in many other pilgrim albergues.
But the volunteers at San Anton, like San Anton himself, are exceptional.

Most hospitaleros have a lot of advance time to plan for their term of service. My guys came out of the woodwork at the last minute -- I learned in early April that I was in charge, and the doors would open May 1. I had a month to find 20 volunteers.

I did not think I could do that. I resigned myself to spending much of my own summer at San Anton. 
“Let Things Come to You,” a wise meme told me then. I grabbed onto that, and chose to believe it. I put out the word on the internet: Come and serve at San Anton!  
father/daughter hospi team from USA

And so they came – hospitaleros from Scotland, Ireland, England, Belgium, South Africa, Austria, USA, Germany, Spain, and Poland. More than enough; I had to turn away some who’d never walked The Way, who’d never spent time outdoors, who needed special medical care, who just wanted a free place to live on the camino. Some canceled out, others were called away, but always another one, a new one, emerged just in time. I lost a volunteer to stomach flu, and another whose girlfriend decided after three days that he just couldn’t take it. 

All but two hospis have turned out to be excellent, so far. And the not-so-excellent ones were not bad hospitaleros. They’d have done fine in a more civilized albergue. They weren’t a good fit. They didn’t “get” what San Anton is about. 

He is not about crowd control, orderliness, or hygiene. Anton is a ruin. There will be dust and mud. There will be spiders and flies. There will be busloads of tourists demanding to use the toilet (which is reserved for pilgrims staying overnight); there will be long, dull afternoons with nobody there at all. Anton is not about hospitaleros. He just tolerates them, I think. San Anton is exactly what you see when you come in the gate.   

He is not about money. There’s a tendency for hospis to put the donation box next to the credential stamp, especially when the bus tourists show up. There’s a moment when the pilgrim asks “how much?” and the hospi has to say, “whatever amount you can give. We’re donativo…” And trust the traveler to put in at least enough Euro to cover his own costs.
German/Austrian hospis

San Anton is poor, old, and skinny, but he is proud. He needs to be maintained, but he does not need to be improved. Hot water, bowers of flowers, washing machines, swimming pools, lights at night… San Anton never had those things, and he shows you real quick just how little you can live on, too.

Anton says pilgrims don’t need wifi.  They don’t need a hot showers – they can survive on cold showers, or no showers at all! They might be used to three-course spreads at dinnertime, but a simple salad and spaghetti will do just as well. Twenty-first century pilgrims can go to bed at sundown, like people did there for centuries.  But if they stay up a while, there are ghost stories around the campfire. The strip of sky seen through Anton’s broken ribs at night puts on a spectacular show of stars. Pilgrims who stay awake long enough will hear the owls shriek.    

(For pilgrims who sleep, I went ahead and asked for money to buy new mattresses, and now I’m buying bedbug-proof covers for those. Anton may be scruffy, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to be tawdry, or infested. We gotta keep his dignity, really.)

I have never spent a night inside the gates of San Anton. I have never served there myself as a hospitalera. But the old guy's got something going on when it comes to keeping himself looked-after. He’s attracted just the right kind of folks, from all over the world. 
People as wiry, tough, and beautiful as he is. 

Think about becoming a hospitalero at Monasterio San Anton for two weeks in 2016. If you have made the Camino de Santiago, are in good health, can withstand "camping-out" conditions, and have some training in hospitality, get in touch. I need 19 committed people willing to serve two-week slots from May through September.