Monday, 31 December 2007

The Year That Were

Like everyone else on this spinning planet, I am using the last hours of this year to look back and wonder what the heck happened here! LOTS happened this year, it may have been the most eventful year of all 45 in my collection. It´s been really educational, and heartbreaking, and amazing, and expensive. And it´s put some claws onto my already-blossoming crows´feet. But I kept good notes all the way through, so I figure 2007 is a good start to The Book that still has no resolution.

I did some summing-ups. Some are very sketchy and incomplete. Others I will leave out, to protect the innocent. But here goes:

Fifty-two people signed our guest book. A lot more got by without signing in. 32 countries were represented, the strangest being Oman, and the most common, the United Kingdom countries of England, Wales, and Scotland. Yes, we do tend to attract English-speakers. Must be those ties to the USA and UK confraternities, or maybe our listing in the UK guidebook? Or maybe it is the neighbors. PIlgrims who ask for something are often pointed in our direction, especially if they ¨look English.¨

Despite all that, we are known locally as ¨Los Americanos,¨ even with Paddy being so ghastly English. Anyway, lots of those visitors, to be fair, were not just random pilgrims. Many were people we knew before: fellow hospitaleros from Rabanal del Camino or Miraz, (like Frank from Scotland, or the Wallsgroves from Wales, or Marianne The Swiss), or folks we walked with on our caminos, like Dick from Holland, or Immacolada from Italy, coming by to check out the mess we´re in. Others are people who stopped here for coffee early on, and came back! Some of them stayed for weeks even, to help out ... including Sebastian from Belgium, (in the picture, smoking) Anselmo from Valencia, and The Czech Boys. I thank them all, very very much.

Others were Family. Libby and Ryan, you´ve read about ad nauseum... both from the depths of Ohio, both incredibly helpful and full of insights and refreshing laughter and good cookin´, when they weren´t out there pounding the path. Such helpful people can fetch up here anytime!

There are other people who we were glad to see the backs of, but I won´t go so much into that. You might recognize them.

We have actually made some progress at The Peaceable Kingdom. We do have a good, level roof, and new floors and walls upstairs, at VAST expense. We´ve found a new contractor who´s already delivered windows. We´ve integrated somewhat into our community, and Paddy and I are still on speaking terms with one another. What more could you ask for?

Except maybe a new dog. Paddy says the day he went out walking with Una, and came back with Tim as well, was his single best day´s walking he did this year. Is that lovely, or what? (and then there are The Chicken Girls...)

I did some other BEST and WORST thinkings...

Best Nap of the Year: Was at the Refugio in Arres, back in June, when I walked the Camino Aragonés. I walked a good 30 kilometers that day, including a hike up and back down a horrific mountain. In the rain. God did I NAP!

Best Wine Discovery: the wines of Toro, Zamora, right here in Castilla-Leon. So far my favorite is Colegiata de Fariña. Around here it goes for about 5 Euro a bottle. I don´t know if it´s exported. Amazing wine, like drinkable perfume.

Best Meal of the Year: was 29 November at Chez Toinette, a neighborhood bistro in the 9th arrondisement of Paris. An undiscovered gem of a place with a menu that changes every day. I had scallops braised in coconut milk, which sounds awful but was absolutely divine. And fresh cheese and berries for dessert. And Armagnac. I think this little restaurant may be the key to world peace. If you go to Paris, do not miss it. But don´t tell everybody, OK, or you´ll ruin it! (I was treated by my best bud Jeanne. I´d roasted the Thanksgiving turkey a few days before at her place.)

Someday soon I will learn to make fresh cheese. It´s sorta like ricotta. Maybe after we get a goat.

Best Mail: A tie of several ways. My Aunt Esther sent me a real old-fashioned chatty hand-written letter telling me all about Thanksgiving in rural Western Pennsylvania, my cousin´s chemo treatments, the llamas, the horses, the weather. A thing of beauty. Another was from Kathy Gower, one of my greatest upholders... she sends books, fabulous books! My sister Beth sends Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which has saved my sanity a time or two. My mother sent an entire overseas shipment of my Stuff from America in February... much of which has now vanished into the barn somewhere. And the Junta de Castilla-Leon, God bless their black little hearts, sent me notice in February that I had been approved for Legal Residence in Spain. WooHoo!

Best Nature Moment: Seeing a funnel cloud outside Calzadilla de la Cueza this spring. Terrifying and wonderful. ... but then there were the poppies in June, everywhere.

The best architectural moment: Touring around over the roofs of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela at sundown with my dear bud George from William and Mary, and his merry crew. He gave me a quick mid-summer vacation that really rallied my spirits, and showed me parts of Santiago I never would have seen otherwise.

Best Day´s Work: Installing the baldosas on the floor of our despensa, singing songs with Patrick the Czech. The baldosas (old funky floor tiles) came from a crumbling barn owned by Edu, our neighbor. Patrick the Czech helped me lay them, very unskillfully, into concrete. We taught one another ´Salomon,´a Czech anthem, and ´By the Mark,´an American hymn. Someday the floor will be GREAT. I think Patrick the Czech may be a mystic boddhisatva, traveling this world and teaching people things they need to learn.

Best outcome: The front of our bodega, shored-up and whitewashed and generally made much more respectable, with help from Dick from Holland. We scored major points with the neighbors on this one. The other really proud outcome was the latest issue of "American Pilgrim" magazine, which I did some heavy work on and loved. I am very proud of how that turned out. I hope it was not a swan song!

Coldest moment: Was the coldest WEEK! The second week of January, at the pilgrim refuge at Eunate, up in Navarre. I volunteered to help reopen the place. There was no heat. I have never been so cold, not since Halloween 1967 in Denver, Colo. So much for "sunny Spain!"

Best View: Was way the heck up in the Pyrenees Mountains... there was no town to peg it to. My buds Edie and Kathy from California let me drive them all over Catalunya and into Andorra in June, and we toiled all the way up to a tiny resort town atop a mountain. From a layby on the way down the peaks were magnificent. Who knew the Pyrenees were so thick and tall and serried? Amazing! And what great company!

The Best Welcome: Every morning, when we drive from Sahagun to Moratinos, and open the front gate. The dogs go crazy with joy, as if we´ve been away for months.

I won´t go into my Most Scary, Most Boring, Most Strange, Most Stupid, Most Horrifying or Most Heroic moments, as they are depressing or the Statute of Limitations is not yet expired on them. Suffice to say this has been one amazing year... and having 7,000-plus hits on my blog in less than 6 months (even if a lot of them were probably just spammers looking for mugs) makes me feel a LOT less isolated out here!

I do hope some of you will show your faces this new year. Maybe we will have a place for you to stay by the time you arrive. Bring your allergy medicine... and the sharpest cheddar cheese you can find!

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Clowns in the Convent

Ah, The Clowns of Arenillas de San Pelayo! It could have been a terribly dull afternoon, but Libby and I were shanghai-ed along on a rather dreary prospect...a gathering of elderly campesinos at a 10th century monastery out in the middle of Palencia.

El Colegia de los Campos, a state social service agency, does its best to get isolated villagers out of the hovel and into some good company. (I am not sure how they feel about immigrant interlopers being caught in their nets, but there we were.) There´s a tiny meeting of neighbors in Moratinos every Tuesday afternoon outside the harvest months, and Paddy usually goes... they chat about current events and play Spanish Scrabble, which is a very strange creature indeed.. but I digress. This Arenillas meeting was to be a special regional treat, we were told.

Paddy bailed out. Libby said she would go. Like the rest of the old farmers around here, she needed to get out of the house.

We went in a terribly squished little car up hill and dale, with Modesto and Raquel. They are sorta the patriarchs of Moratinos, very "plugged-in" to local government. I think they also own an awful lot of land around here... but they have always been very nice to us, and so I seldom refuse their invitations to go and see sights. And they know everybody. They can get the keys to open up Romanesque chapels and crumbling barns and pigeon-lofts and navigational towers.

The clowns, two 20-something boys, had the 40-or-so campesinos rolling in the aisles. A lot of it I didn´t get, but that´s OK. I had seen the church and the chapterhouse already, and I could smell the chocolate brewing in the kitchen.

Arenillas is a perfect example of the secret treasures that lie scattered around here in the hills and valleys. Here, converted in a nice way into a senior center, was an ancient Premonstratensian seminary and church, complete with Romanesque stonework over the door, an extremely cold and ancient and still-in-use church, and a meeting and classroom for the monks that dates back 1,000 years. There still are 16th-century monk initials carved into the tabletops. I love this sort of thing! I am willing to tolerate CLOWNS for a good snoop inside something so historical and tucked-away and otherwise inaccessible to me!

After the clowns put away their hooters and honkers we all had hot chocolate thick enough to stand up your spoon. Then Modesto stood up and shared with us all three of his wildly popular poems. One was about A Mother´s Love, another about Garlic Soup, the local staple. The encore extolled The Noble Mule. Here is a picture of the performance. There wasn´t a dry seat in the house!

We have been enjoying the dogs very much these days. Una went out yesterday morning to the Hare Field and ran into something that fought back. She came home with her ear tattered and muzzle bloodied-up, but after a good scrubbing she is none the worse for wear. She really enjoyed Libby´s last days here, and seemed to know she´d better get in all the cuddling she could.

That is me by the "Christmas Tree," getting the Rias Baixas white opened up for our Christmas feast. (I am red-cheeked from the hot kitchen, OK??)

The last picture might be the best. It can´t compare to the monastery at Arenillas, and there are no clowns in it. But it´s the view into our despensa... see that tile floor, starting to take on a shine? And see those spankin´ new windows, ready to be installed? Beautiful!

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Camino Christmas

Christmas Day on the Camino de Santiago, at least our little strip thereof, is biting cold and misty, with very little visibility and very few pilgrims. The weeds along the path this morning were gilded in bright white frost. The fog muffled all sounds but the crows and our footfalls. Any pilgrim out here today is truly hard core. We saw one. He didn´t want to talk.

Pilgrimages plummet over the Christmas season, and for good reason -- the weather is really unpredictable, most of the albergues are closed for the duration, and this week quite a few more are closed just for Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) or Christmas day, too. The pilgs who travel with no money are up the creek, as the only accommodation around these days is the kind you have to pay for.

We did our big celebration yesterday, in Sahagún, where it´s warm. My family has a three- or four-generation history of holiday hospitality to strangers. so once we got the lamb in the oven we headed across the street to the albergue to gather up a few travelers for the feast.

No travelers. No albergue, even. They closed yesterday, for the holiday. I was peeved. Poor ol´pilgrims, out here in the wilderness on a major family holiday, and not even a municipal albergue is open for them. We put a note up on the door, telling them to come on over if they wanted, but we had no takers. Next year I hope to tell the people in charge we will take on the cleaning/hospitalero-ing chores next Christmas, if they´ll let us. We know how.

(Speaking of those things, I got my first hospitalero assignment for 2008! I´ll be at the pilgrim hostel in Salamanca, on the Via de la Plata, the first two weeks of March. I really like Salamanca, and this albergue is wonderfully situated, right next door to the cathedral. I just wonder how many pilgs are going to be marching up this secondary camino in March.)

Anyway... We drove very slowly through the mist this morning to Moratinos, where we gave the dogs fabulous lamb leftovers and tried to take them for a walk. They were a lot more interested in staying home and gnawing on offal than they were into blasting around under a Cloak of Invisibility. We also went to church. Someday I will blog about church services here... they are a unique form of Catholicism. But that is for another day.

For lunch is chicken stewed in a sauce of mushrooms we picked out in the campo in October. Seeing as one of our Christmas gifts from Libby was a book on The Deadly Fungi of Iberia, I thought it appropriate, if risky. Lib wants to take a couple of chicken legs with her, on her long journey. She´s taking the 7 p.m. train, heading home to Ohio, USA. I am not thinking about goodbyes right now.

Soon as we finish lunch it´s over to the Milagros´family house, for a post-prandrial coffee &/or orujo. These holiday events always send me into a zombie state: the combined challenges of 40 relatives shouting questions in Castellano, thick coffee and homemade ´white lightning´, and sugary desserts... and maybe a red-cheeked pilgrim or two, shanghai-ed off the camino outside the door.

Merry Christmas to all!

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Sweet Day Saturday

Me and Libby are spending her final Saturday here in the Moratinos kitchen. She is leaving on Tuesday.
The dogs are sacked out in front of the fire, worn out from their morning run through the campo. (Una dug out and caught three mice.) They are digesting the offal left over from a huge hunk of lamb parts purchased yesterday. (Too gruesome, really, to describe here without offending my animal-loving friends.) We are having leg o lamb for Christmas dinner, and lovely Albariño wine, and maybe some real Cuban rum, and some of Milagros´ homegrown green beans!

We´re listening to Black Crowes singing the blues.
Paddy´s back in Sahagún, Christmas shopping.
This afternoon I will make the apple pies for our feast. We´ll serve it with Torta de Casar, the best cheese on the planet.
Maybe one of us has a winning El Gordo ticket!
There is so much to feel good and warm about.

Here is my holiday wish for everyone: May your days be merry and bright. Try leaving behind all the commericalism and BS and find that little bit of gratefulness inside yourself that makes Christmas into a Thanks-giving.

We are very, very blessed.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Looking forward

Somehow time is slipping by really really fast!

When the year ends and All is Merry and Bright, I look with some anxiety forward into the next year, wondering if things will be better, or worse... and ponder how long January and February will take. I don´t always do well in the depths of winter, and the long gray days and black nights of Ohio and Pennsylvania just about did me in a few times.

Palencia, the county where we live, is in Castilla-Leon, up on the flat high-altitude tableland called "La Meseta." It´s known for its harsh, long winters, and when people learn we chose to live here instead of the sunny coastal areas they marvel at our folly. But we lived through one winter here already, in an unheated house. And I´m here to tell ya, brethren and sistern, the Meseta is downright tropical compared to winter ´back home´ on Lake Erie and in the Allegheny mountains. No comparison.

It´s cheaper here, too. And the food and wine are better. Anyway, stuff is happening here that spurs me to look forward to cooler, better things in the future. First is the arrival this morning of a big truck from Construcciones Castro, our new builder, at our back gate at Moratinos. Two gents unloaded a big pile of scaffolding and an enormous concrete mixer, much to the chickens´consternation. The men took off right after, not saying when they might return or what kind of work might be done. Still, I consider this a Very Good Sign Indeed.

Another look forward involves the Federacion de los Amigos del Camino de Santiago, and their need for volunteer hospitaleros in the coming pilgrim season.

All the pilgrims who walk this pathway gotta stay somewhere, so former pilgrims who live in particular areas band together as "Amigos del Camino" or "Confraternities" and often sponsor a pilgrim hostel, a simple overnight accommodation. The pilgrims pay less than 10€ to stay there, and often make great communal dinners in the bare-bones kitchens. The place is usually looked-after and cleaned-up by volunteer ¨hospitaleros," mostly Amigos members or other former pilgrims who like hanging ´round the Camino or feel they should "give something back." (you still with me?)

Patrick and I did our first volunteer hospitalero gig in 2004, with a confraternity based in London that sponsors an albergue up in the mountains at Rabanal del Camino. We later were trained and volunteered at an assortment of albergues at places all over the Caminos, part of the "Federation," a loosely organized umbrella organization for Spanish Amigos groups. I still do some volunteer hospitalero-ing for the Federation. In 2007 I did a week in Eunate, a really mystically weird Templar place near Pamplona, and at the Madres Benedictinas convent in Sahagún. (see the blog entry from late August.) You never know just where you might end up as a hospitalera, especially one who does last-minute stopgap gigs.

Sometimes the location is wonderful and fulfilling and fun. And sometimes it is nasty, lonely, or downright unhealthy. You gotta choose carefully.

So this year I decided to be better organized, and let the HQ know in advance where I might like to serve next year.
Having done this before, I have an idea of what my requirements are: One two-week stint at the start of the season, maybe April; and another at the end, probably October, someplace else.

I would rather not cook for the buggers, but I will if I must. I´d like to stay somewhat near home, seeing as we will (hopefully) have construction going on and-or pilgrims coming and going at our own house in Moratinos this year. I´d like to avoid the few places that seem to attract wackos and/or cheapskate freeloading tourists. And I´d like to have at least one other hospitalero serving with me, as I like company and don´t like having to do all the work on my own... especially the bookkeeping. When you serve alone, you often don´t get to escape the place for very long on any given day. An extra person often has a grasp of at least one more language I don´t do.

And so I asked for consideration at a selection of places I know of that meet one or other of the above criteria. Some are right nearby: Bercianos del Real Camino, Villalcazar de Sirga, Mansilla de las Mulas or Hornillos. I´d also like to try Navarette and the spankin´ new place in Salamanca. Lots to choose from! Kind of exciting, from this far away... Vamos a ver.

But the Next Big Thing happens December 22... it´s El Gordo Day in Spain, the day of the biggest lottery draw in the world. El Gordo (´the fat one´) Tickets go on sale in August, and it seems like every newspaper kiosk and bar and beauty parlor has a selection. Supposedly you have a one-in-ten chance of winning SOMETHING if you buy a ticket... or a tenth of a ticket, or a tenth of a tenth of one! Big groups of people band together to buy blocks of tickets, and every year some gang of folks in some remote village or inner-city neighborhood is suddenly plunged into incredible wealth.

I don´t know anyone who does not have some share in the El Gordo madness. Our building supply company, as a holiday gift, sent us a tenth of a tenth of a ticket. And of course each of us has a number of his own. And I have a share in a lottery pool run by my friend Jer at , a group that´s run an El Gordo pool for several years now.

It gives everyone a nice ´frisson´of ´what-if´ just before Christmas hits. December 22 sees TV sets all over the land tuned to the big number draws. A children´s choir sings out each digit as it´s drawn, dozens of digits, for hundreds of prizes. The whole affair takes a good part of the day, so it´s not wonder so little work gets done in the last couple of weeks of the year, and the first week of the new. Because the second-biggest lottery draw is right on the heels of the first. It´s called El Niño, ¨the child.¨

I will be sure to let you know when I win, and how much. I will use some of it to fix up a few albergues I could mention!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Falling snow & tumbledown houses

It´s been a while since I posted, but I have to wrestle the computer from Libby´s claw-like grasp to use it. She´s fixing to go back to Ohio, and she´s job-hunting and she´s homesick, too. So I kinda leave her to it.

Biggest news round here is the season´s first snow is falling, as I write! I know it´s nothing compared to the great dump of white now being enjoyed by my friends in the US Midwest and central Canada, but it´s always an important seasonal marker for me: It means summer really truly is over. Waaaah! It also means the Spaniards will now barricade themselves at home for the next couple of days, as even a few flakes of snow means the roads are impassible and dangerous, and it´s way too cold for anything but playing cards and drinking orujo. (The web connection will doubtless go down, too, so I better hurry this up!)

The skies have been startlingly blue here for days and days, as you can see from at least one of the pictures. I love these landscapes, or skyscapes, really. Some poet once said "the landscape of Castile is in its skies." Amen, poet!

The reason for the tumbledown house pic is this is what´s known as "the French House." It is tucked onto a triangular patch of ground downtown, between the ayuntamiento and the bodegas, just off the Plaza Mayor. Jacques, a French former pilgrim, bought the abandoned house about 5 years ago and had impressive architectural plans drawn up for the site. He wanted to knock down the mud house and put up a modern, efficient 14-person pilgrim hostel. Our neighbor Modesto, a sort of Town Father, has copies of the drawings. But the Frenchman´s marriage broke up, and Real Life intervened, and nothing ever came of it. No one saw Jacques again, or thought about him, until this Spring, when the house fell down.

Estebanito the new mayor sent a letter telling him the place is dangerous and needs to be knocked all the way down. And so now Jacques, apparently, is moving on it.

No one´s sure whodunnit, but somebody´s put plastic barrier ribbon around the site and attached a sign saying "Private Property: Work to Start June 08." No one knows if they´re just going to demolish the place, or put it on the market, or go ahead and build a hostel there. Modesto said he hasn´t heard from Jacques in ages.

The answer lies in the Ayuntamiento, and sometime soon I am sure the news will leak out. No matter what is said, I will lay odds we won´t see any kind of action until August at least. Unless the French are a do-it-yourself demolition team. Or something completely different is going on. Or no one´s really planning on doing anything at all over there, they just want to get The Man off their case.

It´s all part of the ongoing excitement here in Moratinos.

Meantime, the Jameses, the UK-based young family who really are working on a mud house for pilgrims in town, have taken refuge in Ireland for the winter. We´ve taken a couple of their more tropical plants inside to protect them from the nighttime cold, but I think it may be too late for the orange trees.

And the other cool thing is the footprints we´re seeing more and more over at The Promised Land. Here´s a pic. I snapped this morning. It´s the biggest dog foot I ever saw... that´s a Euro coin to one side, about the size of a US quarter or a UK 10p. piece. This is one BIG honkin´ dog. Or could it be...? With the snow...? A YETI! Woohoo! Gotta get this critter over the highway and onto the Camino! We could make a FORTUNE!

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Janky Town of Bethlehem

...And it came about in those days that a decree went out from Milagro´s house that all the townswomen should gather at the church at 5 to put up the parish manger scene in the entryway.
So at the appointed hour Julia (keeper of the church keys) opened the 12-foot plank doors to the zaguan. She pulled the bell rope softly, to tell Moratinos the time had arrived. And from round about they gathered in, each bearing gifts:
Milagro and her grown-up son José arrived, each with a plastic tub in hand, filled with layers of freshly-dug moss. ("Moss" in Spanish is "musgo." A beautiful word for a lovely lichen... MOOZ-go.) Milagro shooed away José, then headed into the church loft to root out more Christmas things. Milagro is always All Business.
Pilar brought brooms and dustpans and plastic bags. Nothing gets done without those. She let Stasi, her husband, stay around for a little while, but when the full complement of Belen-builders had arrived he, too, was dismissed. And his little dog, too.
The person with the most influence in this little project was Flor. Flor is a 40-something, petite woman who lives in the inside corner of the Plaza Mayor. Her brother Segundino is the town carpenter, and Javier, the oldest of the siblings, is a farmer. Their youngest brother, Angel, is an ever-smiling background figure, frozen forever at a mental age of about 12 by childhood meningitis.
The Segundinos keep more to themselves than the rest of the village, they don´t have big dinners in the house or attend a lot of community events. I´ve never heard why. There is no whisper of hard feelings or past hurts, and they happily have shown me through the inside of their big house -- a maze of animal stalls, hallways, echoing tiled kitchens and parlors. Far as I know they are the only people here who still raise pigs and cure their own hams and sausages. They make their own wine, from the vineyard to the bottle. And they put their big green parrot, Berta, in her cage out on the plaza in the summer, where she shouts and whistles at the passing pilgrims and terrifies the neighbors´ dogs with a hair-raising facsimile snarl.
Anyway, back to Peace on Earth. Evidently the village Belen is always kept over at the Segundino house. I helped Flor carry an old bedroom door across the square and into the church, where we laid it over three little sawhorses. She produced a much-folded and rather sticky sheet of plastic tablecloth to stretch atop the door. And then came the moss. Libby helped to lay it in a single varigated pelt, covering the surface.
A crew was sent out to dig more moss, this time to the bodegas. Lots of moss on the roofs. Bad moss this year. Last year the moss was great, everyone agreed. And the mushrooms. Lots more mosquitos, too.
Meantime Milagros unfolded the sky. This was a dark-blue tissue paper tablecloth with gold foil stars stapled on, higglety-pigglety, a very long time ago. The edges were torn, the folds and creases made the stars cross their arms closed. José reappeared, bearing a wickedly smoking, stinking electric glue gun. There´s no electricity in the church entryway, so he had to work fast... He glued the sky to the wall behind the Belen. It stuck, but it looked really, really sorry. Libby looked at me and cocked an eyebrow. "What´s the Spanish word for ´janky?´" she whispered.
But we weren´t done yet. There was still the aluminum foil "rio" to install, which meant some moss had to be moved, and the little plastic bridge. Once the riverine geography was established, the Camino had to be cleared and filled-in with dirt. And when Flor ran back to her house to get the bag of special Bethlehem sand, she brought her husband back with her.
I don´t know Flor´s husband´s name, but he looks like a Larry. Apparently Larry is the Manger Man, the guy who brought Moratinos´Belen back from extinction a few years ago when he found all the little figures hidden away in boxes in the house. So when Larry arrived to install the Rio Aluminumio and the Camino, everyone stepped aside.
He rerouted the river first, and then installed a corkwood castle on the lefthand corner. The holy stable went way over on the right. The camino, he said, should wind through the middle, like this.
José pointed out the backwardness of this approach. The Wise Men came from the East, no? So shouldn´t the stable be on the Santiago side of the table, and the castle full of Roman soldiers and Moors be over to the right? (If this had been a Presbyterian church we´d have formed a committee to study the issue before proceeding.)
Larry just gave José a look that said, "Oh ye of little faith." Then he swept from the scene, leaving it to the women to people the mossy sward with a multitude of tiny plastic shepherds, virgins, poultry, swine, and kine, done in a variety of scales and rainbow colors. José left soon, muttering about how last year the Magi came from Terradillos, not Sahagún. The light was failing. One of the magi´s camels was missing a foot, and no one could find Gloria. A search party was formed I asked what Gloria looked like, or what Gloria was.
"Gloria. You kno.," Juli said. "The angel that holds a bandera, a flag." Hmmm. More Spanish holiday lore?
Libby and Pilar found the battered, pre-decorated plastic Christmas tree up in the choir loft in the dark. Libby picked it up to bring it down the steep little stairs, and the bottom half dropped off and tumbled down, scattering glass balls and Santas. Libby said a bad word, right there in the Sanctuary.
I will not detail the complexity of the tree´s reassembly and ascent to its place of honor next to the Belen, but formation of the European Union may come close in scale and tiresomeness.
By then it was inky dark in the entryway, and everyone was ready to go home and get warm. I swept up the broken decorations and moss dirt from the tiles, and picked up a little plastic angel that had fallen in the corner. Eureka! It was Gloria! "Aha! You found her! Pilar cried. She placed her atop the creche, and a light shone in my private darkness. Inscribed on the flag stretched across the figure´s plastic chest was the angelic pronouncement: "Gloria!"
I have not seen our Belen yet in the bright light of day, but I know it is beautiful.

Sunday, 9 December 2007


Woah. I just uploaded 84 photos from my zippy little Canon, and the last two weeks of my life literally flashed before my eyes! It seems like forever ago we left here and set out for Paris, wondering if the transit strikes would strand us at the airport. Since then it´s been
feast, feast, feast,
toddlers sour and sweet,
bright lights/big city,
tropical palms,
purple mountain majesties,
an olive grove
railroad cars,
and still more amazing food. And wine.
And desserts... OMG the desserts! Oh, my stomach!

I realize more and more how big Spain is, how it´s a lot more like a confederation of little countries and ethnicities than one big homogeneous whole. The pilgrims who visit Spain for just a walk along the Camino should never think they´ve really seen Spain, even though it takes them six weeks to walk the Path. There´s way, way more than just this little sliver! And tough as it may seem, I feel it is my duty to see it all. Slowly.

So here I will post a few photos from the last week or so. Here are me and Jeanne, my best bud of Paris, and the statue of the headless St. Denis (who even though he holds his head in his hands, still keeps his bishop´s miter neatly perched on top. I think it helps that the whole thing is made of stone.)

Here is also Patrick´s son Matt and his family, who we stayed with in Torremolinos. Baby Sam is the smallest one, and he´s at a delightful age.

And here are palm trees, and the Mediterranean in the back, and Patrick and Sam examining cigarette butts in the grass. Cranky and acerbic as Patrick may seem to be to casual observers, he is very good with small children. They have such a lot in common, really... aside from communicating with grunts and hand gestures, and putting strange things into their mouths, and whining when conditions are less than perfect. The real difference is in potty training, I think. (Paddy´s been there and done that, thank God.) And maybe reading Wittgenstein for fun. (Sam prefers "Where the Wild Things Are." ) And Paddy, I am sure, is a better cook.
When we left Torremolinos we rented a car and drove east, up the coast, to Lubrin, a little white Andalusian village in the mountains above Almeria. It was a 4-hour drive, and gave us a real display of the horrors of modern agriculture. What used to be desert and salt pan from the mountains right down to the beach is now turned to greenhouses... acres and acres of plastic-covered fields. Inside, in high and humid temperatures, illegal Moroccan immigrants labor to produce Spain´s big crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and lettuces. Ugly stuff, but nobody´s doing anything to change it. We like our cheap produce, and without these greenhouses, there aren´t any jobs at all down there.

Up in the mountains above we stayed for a couple of days with Aled and Sheila, a couple who have lived in the area for about seven years. They´ve spent the last two or three re-doing a stone farmhouse in a hidden valley outside Lubrin, living on solar power and well water, etc. He is an engineer and a construction project manager, so they made a lot fewer mistakes than we have. Very informative people, and downright nice into the bargain. And man, can that Sheila cook!
(Yes, I do seem to be hung up on food. Must be because my stomach is so unhappy with me.)

One highlight of the visit was the olive harvest. Right about now, all the trees in southern Spain that are not almonds or oaks are now loaded down with ripe olives. Aled has about 10 on his little hillside, and we agreed to help pick two or three trees´worth with him. Here are some pictures. We got about 6 kilos of olives in total, then drove over to the local co-op olive press, and got us two liters of fresh, extra-virgin oil to take along home! How cool is that? Tourism is FUN!

After a week of English expats it was a shock getting on the road on Friday and coming home on the trains. All Spanish, all the time. I realized I´d missed it.

I was ready to be home. I am sure Libby was ready, too... in Moratinos it´s been foggy and damp all week long, and the apartment in Sahagun ran out of heating oil midweek, and there´s not a load of things for the Libster to do with herself out here on her own with only Tim and Una to talk with.

Today, Sunday, we are back in the swing of things. Mass this morning, and at 4:30 or so all us Wimmin will gather at the church to put up the ´Belen,´ (That´s Spanish for ´Bethlehem´) Any respectable community has its Belen, a little wooden Nativity scene display that includes tiny townspeople, livestock, the Three Kings, etc. Big cities have huge extravagant mechanized Belens installed in the city hall, (no church-state conflicts here!) and families line up to view all the tiny spinning potters´wheels and splashing fountains and flapping geese. I think Moratinos´Belen is a bit more humble, but I will let you know.

There are a few pilgrims passing through, even now. We saw five this morning in about an hour´s time. Extraordinary.
Maybe by this time next year we can offer them a break from their journeys.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Sunny Torremolinos: A long way from Home

Hola from Andalucia!

From Paris Libby and I went to Madrid, where we met up with Paddy, my husband. Amazing how a week away can make two people like each other again!

From there, after an exchange of keys and cash and info., Libby took the train back north to Sahagun. Patrick and I took another train, south, to Malaga... and from there to his son's sunny apartment in beautiful downtown Torremolinos.

I can hear your eyes rolling! Really, Torremolinos is not such a bad place!
'Torre' was once a tiny fishing village along the Meditteranean coast of Spain, but in the early 20th century it was 'discovered' by northern European vacationers. Waves of ruthless (and often tasteless) property developers moved in during the 60s and 70s, and the place is now covered in high-rise apartment blocks, amusement arcades, souvenir shoppes and bars, bars, bars that attract working-class vacationers from all over Europe, but mostly the industrial midlands of England. Torremolinos was the first fishing village to suffer this fate, and now the naysayers say all of Spain's beautiful coastlines are being trashed and paved and done to death.

But like most nay-saying, these statements are usually made by people who've never been to Torre, or they last had a look at the height of the horror, back in, say, 1978 or so. Things are improving now, I think. Torre 'jumped the shark' in the 90s sometime, and is settling in to a somewhat tired, tattered dotage.

Patrick's son Matt, who is about 40 years old, grew up in Torre and still lives there, in a sunny ocean-view apartment right downtown. He likes it. It suits him fine. (He's another bilingual descendent of ours, and God bless 'im he handles our chats with Paco the Red Attorney for us.) He was educated in local schools, and can read, write, and make cogent arguments as well as anyone. He has a great book collection. He's seen Torremolinos change over the years.

The 'lager louts' and all-night clubbers who once raved through the streets are now instead catching cheap flights to Ibiza, Spain's answer to Daytona Beach. The cut-rate concrete-block timeshare sharks are now busy exploiting new frontiers in Croatia and Bulgaria and Turkey. They've left Torremolinos to the people who've been coming here for decades, and the businesses that sprang up to serve them.

Here are English-language bookstores (!!!) and pubs and fish-and-chips shops, and tea parlors and restaurants with proprietors offering anything you might want, whether you are from Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Holland, Wales, USA, Italy, France, China, Japan, or Asturias. (Yeah, there are still tons of Spaniards here, too.) I love the newspaper kiosks here, because I can compare the headlines from The Daily Telegraph or The Daily Mirror in London, Paris Match or Le Monde, Il Figaro, Der Stern or Suddeuschland Allgemeinischer, or good ol' El Pais. The whole world is boiled down here. It would be easy to be an expat in Torre, because it's not really Spain. You never really have to learn to speak Spanish here, long as you have money.

Most of the people strolling the streets are age 55 and over, and Spanish is not their native tongue. Just speaking English can be challenging, though, as every accent from the UK is going on... many of them are as incomprehensible as Basque.

It's a fun place to visit. Aside from the sea glistening on the horizon, and the tropical sunshine, much has been done over the years to raise the tone in town. Wide shopping streets have been closed to vehicle traffic and paved with shiny marble... creating a wheelchair and stroller-friendly surface for old and new people. (Unfortunately the same shiny streets are incredibly slippery when wet. And they've installed huge fountains all over, too. So when it rains or the wind blows, watch your footing, granny!)

Palm trees abound, and good shops, and outlets for all the fashionable 'pret a porter' labels. (For the serious designer stuff you have to head west down the coast to Marbella, or east to Malaga city. There are good rail links either way.) You can buy English and German appliances here, too... we're in the market for an electric teakettle, and this is the place for it. And chances are the storekeeper speaks English of some sort. Unimaginable in Castilla-Leon, and I'll admit I enjoy being lazy.

And Lazy is why we are here, and lazy is what we are achieving. Patrick, especially, needed a break from Moratinos. He has spent the last three days on a corner of the sofa, reading the newspapers in his private sunbeam, occasionally making faces at Baby Sam, and generally letting everyone else wait on him. Good, healthy relaxation, way overdue!

And on Tuesday we head up to Alpujarras, into the mountains south of Granada.
Still, I look forward to seeing The Peaceable again. Libby says nothing has changed, the dogs are still loons, the pilgrims keep passing... We'll be there ourselves, again, by the end of the week.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Dangerous neighborhoods

// danger danger. This entry wanders into politics and other dangerous neighborhoods. Those disinclined to thinking and other such boring pursuits should skip to the next blog entry, which will likely return to the nice harmless unoffensive dogs and chickens and pilgrims again. Thank you. ///

There is much to think about and discuss in Paris these days.

For some reason, each time I come here, riots break out in the northern suburbs. In my own callous and self-absorbed way I have considered contacting the government and offering to stay away in exchange for a aid package of some sort. It is the least I can do for the sake of public order and civil society. But for whatever reason Mr. Sarkozy won't pick up when I call. I thought for a while it was because I'm a Commie, but the tabloids tell me he must be preoccupied with his divorce. Or maybe he's busy manufacturing tax breaks for his fellow conservative millionaires.

Anyway. I left the United States, in some part, because of such dangerous ideals. It appeared to me, more and more, the rich were getting richer while the poor were left to rot in the inner cities and Back Forty. The middle class meanwhile, despite their relatively heavy tax burden, could think of nothing but how to gorge themselves on bigger houses and SUVs and damn everybody else. The government sold out to the multinationals a few years ago, and all the flag-waving and patriotism and God Bless America was growing more and more cynical and grotesque to me.

So I skipped the country, kinda. My family is still there, and my roots, and I love what America is supposed to stand for. If it ever starts looking and acting like itself again, maybe I will go back. I thought parts of Europe were realistically more American than America had become!

I don't live in France, and the Camino de Santiago in Spain, where I live, seems to attract the worst people France has to offer. But as a reader of history (not to mention an enthusiastic consumer of wines, viands, and perfumes) I have to admire France.

France, at least since the revolution and/or enlightenment, has always been a real idealist's showpiece of 'equality, liberty, and brotherhood.' It's strong on labor and individual rights, philosophy, rationalism, and responsibility, and its socialist government has in the past century created a very reliably liveable society for just about all its citizens. It's just too bad, for its second- and third-generation immigrant populations, it does not work. There is just too much racism ground into the national character in France to let newcomers have a chance.

This is where the USA works better. If you're an immigrant there, you are beaten up and spat-on and treated like trash for a while, but if you're willing to work your tukas off, you (or your kids) can eventually settle in and integrate into the society. But in France, and most parts of modern Europe, if you 'look Muslim' (or Moroccan, or Jewish, or black or whatever) no one will consider you for a job or a break, even if you were born and raised right in the neighborhood.

Like one wise party-goer said this weekend, France has a beautiful, efficient system that does not work. America has an ugly, broken system that somehow does. So I guess it all comes down to good ol' Capitalism. Ugly and seamy and vicious as it is, it's got some good points.

France wears its history and fear right out on its sleeves.

Yesterday me and Libby and Jeanne decided to take the subway out to the Basilica of St. Denis, a very historic church in a suburb of the same name 10 km. north of Paris city center. This is where France's kings and royalty have been crowned and married and buried since about the year 700... a sort of Westminster Abbey. St. Denis is where Joan of Arc came to be blessed by the French king, and the medieval abbot and intellectual Suger held forth against the gathering darkness and anarchy, and where (most of) Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were finally buried. (It's also where the revolutionaries broke up the graves of hundreds of years' worth of royalty and ecclesiastics back in the early 1800s, and where Royalists afterward gathered them all back up and re-interred them, whilst preserving some fabulous funerary sculpture in relative safety through the Reign of Terror.)

The interesting thing about all this is, St. Denis is still a shrine for a few French diehards who practically worship the royal family. Great bouquets of flowers decorate the grave of Marie Antoinette and Family. The royal funerary robes, crowns, maces, etc. displayed in a side chapel are covered in coins offered by the faithful, as if they were offering prayers to some local saint. You have to wonder what kind of lives are led by the descendents of the old Bourbon dynasty. They're still out there. Some of them are still kings... i.e. King Juan Carlos of Spain. His cousin, if there still were kings in France, would be ruler here. Weird, man.

And weirder still is WHERE this early gothic basilica and former abbey stands. The neighborhood around it is one of those "explosive" immigrant-rich environments where violence and firebombs and riots tend to break out, where policemen fear to tread and Tourist Office officials warn People Like Us to keep away after dark, because the natives are restless out there, y'know.

I'm not sure it's all immigrant unrest. It seems to me the Basilica of St. Denis chose a perennially tough neighborhood to stand around in... and a whole ton of people associated with the place fell into violent hands over the centuries. St. Denis, for instance. He's one of the early Christian fellows beheaded up on Monmartre, and he's famously portrayed all over town holding is mitered, martyred head in his hands. (I'll post the pics soon as I can. Dennis is a scream, really.) Joan of Arc, as all Jean Seberg movie fans know, was burned at the stake for all her trouble. Marie Antoinette and her crew may have been Ab Fab in thier times, but they lost their heads, too. And it takes some truly twisted souls to dig up the bones of long-dead children, even if you really are mad at their families for getting all the breaks and having all the bread.

And the revolution and unrest continues all around it. Makes you wonder about that 'location, location, location' mantra.

Wow, I have wandered a long way from Moratinos, no? Long story short, we went out there and the neighborhood seemed just as clean and OK as any other French town. The abbey church, a national monument, was well worth the trip. We were utterly unmolested, except perhaps by the admission charge to the museum part of the church (6.50 Euro for a national monument seems a bit steep... no wonder only Royalists go there. Only they, and tourists, can afford it.) They shooed us out at 5:30p.m. It was getting dark. Nothing was on fire. Nobody assaulted us. A bunch of kids even smiled and waved at us as we rolled on over to the subway.

Fear is such a thief. And sometimes tourist offices can be, too.

Other than all that thinking, I have been feasting on extraordinary oysters, boujolais, lentils and veal, scallops in coconut milk, steak au poivre, fresh white cheese with raspberries, and just generally a gob-stopping (and calorie-free) cavalcade of delicacies. Libby and I went shopping this morning at Paris' lineup of famous (and mobbed) department stores, but we fled in horror soon after commencing. (only to return to the horrors of a teething 2-year-old godchild.)

We may be gourmandizers, but somehow the Shopping Gene missed us. Thank God for that, as I am running short of cash! No one's getting much from us this year for Christmas. Not after those oysters. Time to head back to Spain!

Sunday, 25 November 2007

The morning after

By all accounts the Thanksgiving 2007 Feast Of Giving Thanks was a smashing success! Here are the pics, in no particular order.

The day and night were gorgeous, with the wavy glass givng us a watery view of the houses on the opposite hillside. The table settings were, as usual, elegant and understated and matched-up Martha-worthy, with fresh flowers and glistening glassware and silver and napkins folded to look like asparagus. (Which is to say I had little to do with that part of the preparations.)

In the kitchen, me and Libby did our Chef thang off and on all through the day, with the vegetarian stuffing and a 20-kilo turkey (which took 7.5 hours total to roast!) and three casseroles and a salad and aperetifs to deal with. It was such a treat, working in a real honest-to-god kitchen. The guests started showing up about 7 p.m., with the notable arrival of Dominic.

Dominic is a French chef, a formidable presence in anybody's kitchen. He took over the gravy preparation, and helped us determine the turkey really was NOT done in the prescribed time, and showed me how to cut a swath around the legs to get it to roast through toute suite! I learned a whole lot in the bargain, even if the pace really did get a bit crazy there for a while, what with the four different languages, the oven catching fire, and the grease getting on the floor and all that. (the fire wasn't bad, really. But that is how the grease got on the floor, and why for a little while I was working barefoot, so I wouldn't slip in the mop-up water.)

Jean-Marc, our host, made sure the Kitchen Help had their own champagne supply, and different guests nipped in here and there to help out. Libby performed superbly.

And somehow, a mere 30 minutes behind schedule, we got it all out there, hot and ready and even elegantly.

I did a good job, I gotta say, but I have to admit I didn't deliver on the sparkling guest role... by the time it was all served I was pretty whupped, and rather overwhelmed by all the people and noise and language. I hid myself a piece of pumpkin pie for later, and went and hid in my quiet back room in the dark for a while!

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Living Fab in the City O Light

Bon jour, faithful readers!
It is a beautiful, sunny morning in Paris, the apartment is full of the thundering feet of little Nicolas and his preteen minder. The people downstairs are either saints, or deaf. Or beyond caring.

The big Thanksgiving feast is set for 7:30 p.m., with aperitifs and cocktails and then a sit down time of 9 or so. They do things late around here, which is good for us. It gives us time to get the tables all stretched out, the rugs rolled up, the spinach leaves all washed off, and the gigantic monster turkey stuffed and roasted. This year I offered to do the bulk of the cooking, seeing as Jeanne has done all the hosting and cooking for the past three years.

This year is so different, in so many ways.

The biggest change is the location. Jeanne and her husband Jean-Marc and their little boy Nicholas (my godson) moved to a huge, deluxe apartment within the past year, five floors up above the Boulevard Clichy in the 9th Arrondissement. You can see the stone wedding-cake towers of Sacre Cour from the 10 foot front windows, or look down the street to the Moulin Rouge. This is the sleazy district of Paris, with Pussy's Lapdance Emporium across the road, and the gigantic Sex O Drome on the end of the block. It's a lively neighborhood, with night creatures of every stripe wandering around at all hours. (The wavy picture at the top is the view from our window... that's Pussy's down on the right. Visible top right of the tall building is the cathedral up top of the Montmartre, where two or three Roman Christians were martyred lo these many years ago. Paris grew up around their shrine. Maybe. I think places like Pussy's may have helped things along. )

Libby and I arrived two nights ago, in the midst of the great transport strike. It took a good two hours to get here from the airport, but it was no worse than the shuttle from Laguardia into Manhattan, really. The driver, a Sri Lankan with a bit of road rage, asked us if we were sure we wanted to get off in this neighborhood. Jeez! Getting off is what this place is all about!

Five floors up it's a different world. This is a Hausmann-era building, an 1880s classic Paris apartment block with parquet floors, marble mantels, floral and fruit cove moldings and tall, tall French windows opening out way over the avenue. Being part of the big holiday here I sometimes feel I've been airlifted into a Martha Stewart photo shoot, what with the sweetly-folded napkins and matching tableware, gleaming glasses, the spanking-new granite-topped kitchen with mood lighting, and the marble fireplaces... Oolawee. But seeing as I am the cook, they all will have to settle for working-class Pittsburgh holiday cuisine like green beans and mushroom casserole, and copper-penny carrots, and apple and pumpkin pies, and stuffing and turkey and mashed tatoes. Exotic fare to some of these guests.

Libby and Jeanne helped chop and roll out things all yesterday. We started cooking in the morning, so today things are WAY leisurely. The pies are all finished, the carrots and salad dressing are marinating, the spinach is all washed off and torn into bite-sized bits. The only mishap was with the wine -- one of the guests sent round 10 bottles of red from his family 'cave' in Bordeaux for the celebration.
Unfortunately, they were delivered to Number 35 Bis Blvd. de Clichy. We are at no. 33.

Of course the people at No. 35, purveyors of fabulous fetish footwear, say they have no idea about no wine coming there. Bummer. Makes me wonder where it all ended up. Maybe in a lady's slipper, eh? That sort of thing is known to go on 'round these parts. (can't say I've missed these things in Moratinos. I am sure they're going on someplace in the neighborhood.) We will make due with Pouilly-Fouissy (undoubtedly misspelled), a white wine that tastes like a bouquet of flowers; or Cotes du Rhone, a red that is common as dirt around here but is wonderfully user-friendly and tasty. And real champagne to start.

I woke up with an earache, and Jeanne dosed me with Excedrin. Libby and Jeanne are off to the market to buy some fresh sage. Jeannes' sister from Barcelona is due to arrive at any moment, another very interesting character. Interesting times, interesting days, I am feeling REALLY GOOD, the way you're supposed to when you're on holiday!

And now that you've held on this long, I'll tell you the news from Moratinos. Patrick must be enjoying his solitude, as it's prompted him to start blogging again! Two entries in two days, after a dearth of months. He got hold of the new builder from Palencia, Castro... and our attorney Paco the Red says Castro is a qualified surveyor. So he can do our legal survey to get the Sue the Bozos case rolling, and also start work on The Peaceable within a couple of weeks! Woohoo! (No conflict of interest there, eh?) The dogs and chicken girls are all reported well.

And when all the excitement is over, Jeanne and I are going for manicure/pedicures. Imagine! I think the poor soul who has to do me may reach for a hoof trimmer to start. But such are the limbs of we trail-hardened, intrepid hikers, habitants of barns and farmyards, 'horny-handed daughters of toil.'

Even Scruffy Girls need a coat of nail varnish now and then.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

There´s a hole in everything. That´s how the light gets in.

You find the most extraordinary things on the Internet. (including Libby.) I think that´s why we love it so much...It´s what people thought TV was going to be, or radio, maybe. We´re still at the point where the novelty hasn´t worn off, and there are few rules, and everyone feels so wild and free and expressive. For the most part I feel it brings out our best. Or sometimes our beast.

The whole world is watching, after all. Everyone has a bully pulpit for the cool stuff they used to only be able to bore their friends with. Stuff like this photo, which I think is a right scream:

Or this site, which provides you an opportunity to share your chicken photos with fellow poultry fanciers: .

Anyway. The ad and marketing and tax collectors and money-grubbing people haven´t moved in and figured out how to spoil it for everybody yet. So I am enjoying it, so far as my tiny bandwidth and remote LAN line-of-sight connection will allow. (Viewing a YouTube video requires major commitments of time and patience.)

Patience is very very important these days. It is very gloomy. The rain is pouring down from ever-lowering gray skies, up to the moment you realize the rainclouds are right down here on the ground with you, soaking you not just from the sky, but from the sides and bottom, too. Our clothes dryer works more like an oven than a dryer, so instead of wasting all that electricity we just stand in our wet things front of the butano heater or the fireplace and let our pants and coats steam. It makes me feel like the Devil. Which is not always so bad.

Tomorrow me and Libby leave for Paris, so my spirits are lifting a bit, even though we may have to hike 14 miles into town from the airport once we get there -- all the buses and trains are on strike. We reserved a place with an airport shuttle van outfit, but they warn of "extremely long delays." Film at 11.

We ARE Americans, after all, intrepid pioneer types. And we DO have a national holiday to observe, people...even if we are doing it a couple of days late, in a remote city not always accommodating to Yankees. We will steam our beans and cook our carrots, pie our pumpkins and stuff and roast our 10-kilo turkeys if we gotta slog across 10 foreigner-infested suburbs to do it, dammit! (Besides, Jeanne bought new candles and napkins and champagne glasses, and Jeanne, a force of nature from Buffalo, N.Y., will not be denied.)

Aside from all that, I have an interesting new person to meet, an expat photographer who is friends with my bud Eric, the adobe architect from California. These kinds of friends-of-friends meetings quite often yield up excellent discoveries. It is quite lonely sometimes out here in Palencia, and I´m looking so forward to having lots of conversation and people and activity going on around me, in that beautiful city.

I just hope I can get away with not spending too much money. (The voice deep in my head says a loud HA! Paris is right up there with London when it comes to clearing out my pockets. Maybe not as bad as New York, though. Or Mario.)

Meantime, Moratinos exerts its quiet charms. One big fun activity is teaching Libby to drive the stick-shift Kangoo car. When whiplash and seeing my life flash before my eyes gets too dull, we bounce along back to The Peaceable and yell at the dogs for being dirty and stinky. Without TV or YouTube we are then forced to endure hour-long games of Scrabble or Sudoku, or months-old editions of The New Yorker. Libby is right now writing a portrait limerick meant to sum up my character and Self for the world. Hers are so bad they are good. And they take less than 2 minutes:

My mommy is the best
In times of sorrow and of jest
She´s smart and sassy
and silly and classy
And I love her more than the rest.

Jeez. I´d have expected something more like ¨sorrow and unrest.¨ Or at least some creative rhyme on "pest." Or "infest." Or even "blest." Oh well, she is young.

There is time and leisure enough for such literary criticism, out here on the rainy, gloomy perimeter with every dog in the village howling, many hours before the train pulls out for Madrid (where there´s a big party on Weds. night) and then the EasyJet to Paris.

I´ve got nothing to complain about, really. But don´t get me started on that.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Fumey Sunday

It´s a sunny and very nippy Sunday in Moratinos. When we got here this morning the faucet in the watering trough was frozen, and the washing machine would not run due to the cold. Scary stuff. We got a little heater going in the bathroom to thaw out the washer mechanism. And we got a fire going in the kitchen fireplace to keep our own blood moving... a bit smoky but now just lovely. Woohoo! There´s frost on the punkin, granny!

The town is smoky and fumey, as all the neighbors have their fireplaces and glorias going, too. In Palencia they still use ´gloria´ furnaces, tunnels dug underneath the floors of the main living areas. There´s a big door (the ´glory hole´) at one end, usually under the steps, and a chimney on the other. They stuff a pile of straw and kindling in the door end and light it, bank it down so it smolders slowly, and close it up. It´s under-floor radiant heat, almost exactly the way the Romans did it 2,000 years ago, and boy is it NICE.

We have a gloria underneath our kitchen, but when we lit it last winter we discovered its ceiling was cracked. (Woodsmoke was streaming up through the tiles and the weave in the jute rug... a very odd, disco-esque effect. Subsequent efforts to repair it left us with a foot-wide hole in the middle of the most-walked-on floor in the place. I will not go into the pantomime required to repair that thing, but suffice it to say we now depend on a deeply interred tire jack from a 1987 Fiat to keep our feet on the ground, and we´ve retired our gloria for fear of carbon monoxide. (Our neighbors think we are spendthrift, but then we do not harvest 16 tons of free straw each year to use for heating fuel.) Our fireplace may be inefficient, but it is romantic. And if it gets way too cold we can just go back to Sahagún and switch on the gasoil furnace.

However, We are taking steps to protect our critters from Jack Frost, seeing as my asthma has barred them from their accustomed hearthside sprawls. Lib and I put the dogs´ crate inside the barn, and covered it over with one of the baby-blue and purple paisley counterpanes that came with the house. It is so lurid and loud I wonder how anyone could sleep in the same room with it, much less buy TWO of them and put them in the same room together. But round here you don´t always have a lotta choice. The beds are a very odd size: 120 cm. across. Just try finding sheets that size at leading retailers. We really needed sheets, though, and I finally tracked some down at a little mom-and-pop corner store that sells stuff like yarn, bedroom slippers, shampoo, and liquid propane gas. The guy behind the counter said "Yeah, we got em! It´s a really popular size around here!" And he produced exactly two sets of sheets, each in a different atrocious pattern. I went with the lesser of two evils. And that is how decorating is done, Out On The Perimeter. The dogs so far report no repercussions after their night inside the barn. (if that is, indeed, where they slept. God knows what they get up to when we are gone.)

Likewise, Paddy put a very sensible cardboard box full of hay in the Chick N Shak. Once the weather warms up a bit we´re going to block a few of the drafts with the same kind of polyurethane foam the roofers used. Libby says the Chicken Girls are doing just fine, full of beans even. Blodwyn pecked her a good one today, and all three gave up their customary egg without a fuss. So their internal machinery must not be frozen yet.

In church this morning the holy water was ice in the font, and the host was stale as hell. Everyone sang all the Alleluias and said the responses enthusiastically, I think just to keep warm, but maybe because you could see your breath whenever you talked. The church is about 600 years old, made from adobe and brick, and it´s cold in there even in midsummer. I envied Don Santiago his long layers of robes! Usually everyone hangs out a while afterward to talk, but today we all scurried outta there when the Mass was finished. Outdoors in the sunshine it didn´t feel so bad.

The only other news is I gave Patrick his Christmas gift pretty early this year, as in yesterday. It´s an IPod Nano MP3 player, which will enable him to listen to all his favorite podcasts of USC philosophy lectures without having to sit, attached by headphone wires, to the laptop. Not that he really minds sitting for hours at a time listening to the latest trends in Kant and Wittgensteinian izzits... But this enables him to visit the loo without stopping the flow of witty discourse. He likes it! Which makes me happy. He´s really quite impossible to buy anything for. And this will keep him off the streets while we are away in Paris.

And now it is nap time. God bless us, every one.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Breathless at Peaceable

In the immortal words of my old college chum Carla O´Neil, via Chaucer:
"Winter is acumin in
sing we all goddam."

We got the barn roofs repaired, finally. The expense seems monstrous, but Roofs by Antonio was the lowest bid. Antonio´s got a crewcut straight out of James Dean, and a little monkey´s body perfect for scrambling around on rooftops. He´s using polyurethane insulation foam under and around the tiles, instead of the usual cement -- lighter, stickier, better insulating, we are told. (evidently not any cheaper, though!) He guarantees his work for 3 years. Hopefully that´s not the lifespan of polyurathane! (He cements every sixth row of tiles, and the last one at the bottom, to hold it all up there.)

It´s COLD outside, especially in the mornings, but the sun just keeps pelting down... with one good rainshower yesterday afternoon, just in time to try out the new tiles on the barn roof and release an amazing wet-leaf fragrance. So... once we get the dressers and wardrobes and bicycles out of there, it will be just dandy for a donkey or goat or a couple of dogs to spend winter in.

´Cause the dogs are now barred from the people quarters. (Here´s a picture of Libby with Blodwyn the Alpha Hen. They´ve bonded deeply. She´s afraid her friends may see this picture and make fun of her, but I think there is little danger of any of them checking in here.)

Long story short, all the dust, dogs, smoke, and weather changes brought on my usual Autumn asthma bout, and took me yesterday to the local ER. (which I dearly hope my private insurance will pay for, seeing as it really was an emergency and I don´t think driving all the way to Leon or Palencia was an option at the time. Libby can´t drive a stick yet. Paddy is almost blind in one eye, and his driving could put all of us in a hospital.)

I was very glad Libby was along, but I was very sad she and Patrick had to witness all that. At the end of the day, I think Patrick felt worse than I did. We agreed we´ve gotta keep Tim the Dog away from me. Which means exiling both critters to lives outside the kitchen. They both are spoiled rotten, and contribute the lion´s share of dust and mank to our already-compressed living space here at the Peaceable. (No one´s sure what I am so allergic to at the Sahagun piso, though!)

So that´s my excuse for not writing in a while. I am feeling a whole lot better today, thanks to Modern Medicine. And just for the record, the treatment I got here in rural Spain is the equal to anything I´ve received in the finest ERs in the USA.

We´re also preparing for our big two-part holiday in Paris and Malaga. There is a giant transit strike on in Paris just now, and I join millions in hoping to God it doesn´t drag on for much longer.

A couple of very nice Lights in the Dark: A book called "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson, which is the finest novel I´ve read in years; a richly deserved Pulitzer winner, a gift from Kathy in San Francisco. Everyone should read this book; it is wholly lacking in hurtling helicopters and flaming motorcycle chases, it moves slowly and quietly and luminously. I am actually dreaming it at night. Even Patrick, the world´s most vicious critic, thinks it´s very fine.

And last night, seeing as I slept a lot of the evening away, I got up and wrote out an idea for a new story. Yum! So now I have two of them in the back pocket! Having a story outlined is like having unopened gifts under the Christmas tree. The unwrapping -- the writing -- is really tough work, but it´s the best thing there is to do in life, bar none.

I am lucky indeed. And now back to Sahagun, to find tax forms and paperwork, and maybe make Scottish shortbread.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Gettin On Widdit

Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits."

If I believed in tattoos I might have that one imprinted on the back of my hand!

I really don´t feel like a failure, but then that depends on your definition of the word. I suppose the Gordon Geckos and Capitalists and American Dreamers -- aka the people who run everything -- would consider me on the road to perdition. But I am, for the most part, enjoying the trip.

The sun is shining so brightly here it shows all the dog-nose smears on the window glass and the layers of plaster dust on everything. The Peaceable Kingdom has a different feel these days, now that we´re only spending days here. Somehow, the hours we spend sleeping in a particular place give it a particular vibe that leaves an emptiness once we shift to another nest.

Still, we manage to put in many hours each day here, mostly owing to Una and Tim Dogs and the internet connection! One plus is the welcome we get every morning when we pull up to the front gate. Both dogs go entirely hysterical with joy, as if we´d been gone for days or months. It´s so fun to be so beloved!

As I told you Friday, Mario Bozo stood us up in Mansilla. He was supposed to come here yesterday, and didn´t show up then, either. So it´s lawsuit time. What a bore.
But it´s kind of a good thing, too... We can now ´get on with it´ and get a real contractor to come in and do the work.

Meantime, me and Patrick and Libby put the first coat of paint on the despensa project yesterday. It is amazing, the great number of sins a simple coat of white paint can cover up. The place is still a sunless cave, but it´s looking more and more habitable. God knows we may just end up living in there, if our luck does not change soon. So I have all kinds of thoughts about what to do with the room decor-wise. (Paddy says he´s sick of ideas, and just wants to clean it up and get it over with.)

That is probably what we will do.

Now I must pick up Libby and buy more paint, and make some telephone calls. Life here isn´t always Arcadian. Like Robert Louis Stevenson said.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Cheddar Redemption

OK, so we were supposed to meet Mario Bozo at noon today in Mansilla de las Mulas, halfway to Leon, to discuss him coming back to work. (he´s our builder from Leon. He walked off the job in August with LOTS of our money and less than half the work done.)

He didn´t show up for the meeting, and he didn´t call.

Paddy got hold of him later. Car is broken, he said. Nothing about his telephone being broken, but hey. He´s coming over Monday, to Moratinos, he said, if we tell Jose the Milagro Boy to not beat him up.

We probably will not see him then, either. And if Jose beats him up, I´ll personally cheer. This Mario dude is not just a loser and a lowlife and a lying thief. He is a killer of hope.

Paddy is taking it hardest, which is why I am feeling angry.

Oh, and Tino, one of my favorite Spaniards, is moving in February to Minneapolis. Don´t ask me why anyone would do that to himself, but I think it must be Love. Nothing else could make anyone that crazy. This country will be a little less highly-flavored without him around.

A couple of good things, though. Libby, my daughter, is here with us. That´s not news, but it´s a real plus. She plays Scrabble with us in the evenings (and usually wins, ´cause she plays strategically while I go for the big long showy tactical words. Paddy just pulls the occasional 110-point 8-letter world-beater now and then.) Libby does Spanish really well, and is helping with tough language things like car insurance and Mario and writing legal letters.

In a couple of weeks is Thanksgiving, and Libby and I are going to Paris for a week. While there we are making a giant holiday feast for 14 people. One of them is a Parisian restaurateur. OMG. Anyway, I will just follow the good old Pittsburgh recipes and hope the crowd is OK widdat. (we won´t tell them about the Campbell´s soup, OK?) Most of them are expats of one kind or another, and the feast is at the fabulous Boulevard Clichy apartment of my best bud Jeanne.

We´ve been throwing Thanksgiving at her place for three years now, but before it was crammed into a tiny place several blocks away, in a kitchen reminiscent of a sailboat galley. This year will be different: big new apartment, new kitchen, and my family´s recipes! It´s been a very long time since I took on an entire monster feast, and it IS a little scary, especially with Jeanne´s high standards and lovely cutlery and napery... I kinda wish Ryan was coming too.(Ryan stayed with us earlier this year, and is a tremendous cook and raconteur, and he knows French, the perfect scullery maid.)

Libby and I have cute little matching aprons to wear, and a long list of ingredients to shop for -- shopping for food in the 9th arondissement is a feast for the senses! We can visit with Nicolas, my dear little godson, and go to art shows and museums and cemeteries after the party dies down. (I don´t have a thing to wear, alas!)

Patrick loves Paris, but he won´t go. Got to stay with the chickens, he says. At least while things are so up-in-the-air. I am not sure how I feel about this.
I hope he is OK.

Tim took a walk today in the sewer ditch. He is still peeved at me for bathing him. Una caught two mice. Even though it´s getting downright cold outside, the pilgrim tide just keeps flowing in.

We have cheese. Our Welsh Friends brought three types of cheddar: mature, more mature, and really old. OMG. I love my family, but it is very difficult for me to share real crumbly sharp cheddar with anyone.

Life is hard. But I have three pounds of cheddar in the fridge. I can cope.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Gobsmackin´ bozos!

Our Welsh friends Colin and Margaret,(plus Roger from Devon, in England) rolled up to the Peaceable Kingdom right on time yesterday, bearing great sackfuls of cheddar cheese and Polyvinylacrylate. (One of these is for eating. The other is for sticking concrete to plaster to wood, etc. It´s not a good idea to confuse the two, but it only has to happen once.)

We barbecued a great pile of lamb chops with rosemary and yogurt, Paddy made couscous and green beans. The herbs were from our garden, the firewood from the mountain of scrap out back, the lamb from Justi and Olivia´s flock, and the new wine was from Leon. Everyone feasted hugely. Roger, a retired lawyer with a plummy accent, told us about owning two donkeys and one-tenth of a racehorse. Colin and Margaret, who stayed here back when the house was intact, said this blog exaggerates the dire nature of our condition... the place is in a lot better shape than I let on!

So my apologies for misleading anyone. We DO have a roof, and a second floor, and even some walls in there. So all is not lost!

Anyway, we all repaired to the Irish pub in Sahagún after dinner, where the Guinness flowed freely and many opinions were aired. In the middle of all this Paddy´s mobile phone trilled out its merry ¨Mexican Hat Dance" tune, which means someone is calling.
Pad went out into the entryway to answer, as Real Madrid was playing football on the big screen and little else was audible over all our opinions.

It was Mario, the Head Bozo, the builder who walked off our house rehab job back in August with about 30K total in extra Euros in his pocket. (For some reason making business calls at 10 p.m.) He told Paddy he really wants to come back to work on the house.

Paddy was so gobsmacked (and maybe a bit Guinness-ed) he didn´t know what to say. So he told him to call back in the morning.

And miracle of miracles, Mario did. (Only a half-hour late, and right in the middle of our morning arrival at Moratinos, which also included a loose dog and a roofer.)

The phone call tells us a thing or two:
Mario must´ve gotten some legal papers finally, and realized he´s in the doodoo unless he does something quick
OR Mario is going to try to get some more money out of us
OR Mario´s really going to honor the contract and do the work agreed-upon.
OR We´ll get nasty and legal on his butt and try to make him cough up about 30,000 Euros, which will take a long time and may never happen anyway, seeing what a sad sack this bugger is.

So. Back on the phone with Paco the Red lawyer, who seems to think putting Mario back to work is a good idea.

Things are moving along. I really had hoped never to see Mario´s scavey old face again, but hey... even if it means he just does another couple of weeks of work before he buggers off again, that´s two weeks of work done that we already paid-for. We already have estimates in hand from other contractors, so we´re ready when and if that occurs. (if he does it again we´ll just call the cops this time.)

Hey! We´re going to have a habitable house one of these days!

The weather continues gloriously sunny and chilly as a well-digger´s knee. The Sahagún apartment doesn´t have a thermostat, so it gets pretty nippy there at night, too... but I am glad we have that place to go.

Our buds rolled on to Rabanal del Camino this morning. They are part of the ´working party´ that closes up the English Confraternity´s fabulous pilgrim hostel up there in November... that is how we know these guys. We were volunteer hosts at Refugio Gaucelmo the summer of 2003, and Colin and Margaret were our replacements. Great people, like most hospitaleros. And now if we ever want to hang out in Wales, or Devon, we have a place to go!

If we ever get out of here. By the time our Dream House is finished we may have neither the money nor inclination to ever leave it again.

Unless, of course, it is Thanksgiving time. In which case tradition dictates we go to Paris.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

November Light

It´s been a whirlwind around here for so long I am starting to lose track of things. And people. And commitments.

Since I last wrote our friend Patrick the Czech said goodbye and headed on down the Camino. We had a little party for him, partly over at the James´ place, where he drank way too much tequila and played Pink Floyd hits on his guitar (that´s "Pinfloy" in Spanish), and he then showed us all how to roll our own cigarettes. Which may prove useful someday if and when I take up smoking!

As you can see, Libby has finished her Camino and is back with us! She lost about 15 pounds out there and is looking smokin´ hot. She is still recovering physically, so we haven´t yet put her on the chain gang.

Today we took a long drive north, into the Leonese mountains visible from our place on clear days, to a tiny end-of-the-line village called Lois. For some reason it is home to many luminaries in the history of Spanish education -- back in the late 1600s there were endowed primary and Latin schools here for the local boys, who in their turns grew up and became luminaries. Impressive. The town today is neat as a pin and only somewhat touristed, seeing as there´s not a whole lot to DO up there...And the twisty turny road up there, which follows a babbling trout stream, is populated by the occasional cow and horse. (there are no fences. The place was private pasture well before the one-lane road went in, so animals still take precedence.)

Even with its educational past, I didn´t see any children up there at all, but for the usual sprinkling of noisy tourist kiddies.

Aside from all this, we are having reputable contractors in to give us estimates on the big job ahead, and we´re taking a very large percentage of our savings OUT of the US dollar, which is going right down the tubes. America doesn´t seem to care about its currency, long as prices stay the same at home. What a gang of ostriches. May God have mercy on us all.

We decided there´s no hurry with the contractors, seeing as we have a warm place to sleep. I wish we had taken this attitude last year. It would have saved us countless tears and Euros, but we can´t seem to learn from others.

Here are some pics, too, of the amazing light. And one of the many trailer-loads of ´hunting dogs´all over the place these days... it´s quail season!