Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Bodega Land: Bilbo Doesn't Live Here Anymore

There's little to notice about Moratinos, but one thing that makes all the pilgrims stop and stare and snap photos is the bodegas. They're hard to miss, as the landscape is rather severe otherwise.

Right on the edge of town where the Camino comes in is a funny sort of hill. Dug into its face are 16 little doors. A path leads all the way 'round the base of the hill, and all along it are porches, entryways, lintels, and doors, each one numbered. Each is different from the next. They are cozy and old-fashioned and rural and cute.

Some pilgrims know Moratinos simply as "Hobbiton." We are constantly asked to be introduced to Bilbo Baggins. When Patrick designed our "sello," the stamp we use to mark pilgrims' passports to prove they moved through town, he used the image of the bodega hill.

Bodegas are underground storage lockers, rooms dug deep into hillsides. The constant temperature underground is great for curing hams and sausages and cheeses and making and storing wine. It's also a little way from the houses in town, so traditionally it was where the guys got together to taste last year's vintage, cut down a sausage, and chew the fat for a while.

Our bodegas were dug, according to the dates carved in the walls, in the 1920s and '30s. Each family that owned land in town also owned a bodega. Almost everyone left since then, so most of the caves are abandoned -- some have collapsed. Others are sagging badly, their doorways sealed all summer by thistles and undergrowth. One section resembles an Old West ghost town, with rusting sheet-iron and busted barrels visible deep inside its yawning black mouth.

But others are very fine bodegas indeed, still very much in use right up to this day. Modesto's is one of them, the first one seen by the passing pilgrim. Two years ago he did up the doorway with scallop shells; his family monogram picked out in little stones. Inside is neat and clean and cool, with barrels and bottles brimming with his own tempranillo. Pilgrims sometimes ask Modesto (who may possess a passing resemblance to some Hobbits) why he doesn't live in there. "Why don't you live in a hole in the ground?" he asks them back.

Celestino and Esteban, brothers-in-law, have linked their two bodegas deep under the hill. Lucky pilgrims get a tour of their operation, the biggest in town. Their bodega has a fireplace, a collection of antique and derelict farm equipment, and barrels and barrels of something liquid. Celestino says it was probably his dad or grandad who put wine in those barrels, but he's not gonna be the one to pull the bung. More often than not, it's long ago gone to vinegar. The smell will knock you down, he says.

Their bodega even has electric light... a string of hanging lightbulbs runs on a pair of jumper cables hooked by hand into the wiring for the neighbors' outdoor lights.

The most wonderful bodega by far, however, is one up from Modesto's. That one has it all: a woodstove and chimney, a television aerial and wide-screen setup, tile floors, running water, a bar and seating for 16. That was bought four years ago by "the cave men," a gang of good-time handymen from Sahagun who made it their weekend project for a year or so. Now and then, when there's a big football game on and everyone's schedule meshes, the guys come into town and roast a lamb in there and party all night. It happens less and less these days, though, as the guys get married or leave town for better jobs. I have lived here for almost a year, and have only seen it open once. A good time was had by all!

So when we bought our finca last year, we got a bodega in the deal. It's a fine one; the roof is intact, it has an elegant Gothic pointed-arch vault inside with several alcoves. The winepress is useable, probably. Like our house, it is best described as "full of charm and potential."

There's no light in there. It is always cool and inky dark. It seems like it ought to be damp, but it's not.
The former owners left lots of things behind: a plank table and benches, cups and corkscrews, sheep-shearing scissors, a form for making adobe bricks, three magnificent "trillo" threshing sledges, and several dozen bottles of wine. A few of them are actually drinkable. We found one bottle in there from 1986, and it was truly tasty. Others could clean the crud off a carburetor.

I am reminded of what a "bodega" is in urban parts of the USA: a corner store that specializes in cheap liquor and cold beer, and is subject to frequent hold-ups. The owner usually keeps a ball-bat handy. Cameras watch your every move from front door to cooler to counter.

Faraway and nowadays in Castilla-Leon, a bodega (the classic cave kind) is a curiosity, even for Spaniards. I would like to make some use of ours, someday -- it's very near the camino path, it's always cool in there, it's cozy and dark and very Spanish. A few little stools and a light source of some kind...A chapel for the pilgrims perhaps, with a nice statue set up on the winepress? A cool resting place on hot days? The downsides are apparent already, the majority related to sanitation. Once they've explored, pilgrims routinely use the bodega doorways as latrines. We could make it something free and nice for the pilgrims. But anything nice left unattended is often wrecked, looted, stolen, or otherwise spoiled -- even in the sweetness-and-light atmosphere of the Camino de Santiago.

So I await inspiration. Meantime, the bodega gives me something to do while the house is worked-on. We've lately begun re-facing the outside, where the weather and cheap building materials have conspired to give Bodega 10 a rather bombed-out look. I've painted the door "Luminous Blue," and we're experimenting with concrete and lime plaster to fill in the missing brickwork. It looks like a pizza just now, but things are improving! Film at 11.

If you have ideas, please post them here: If you don't comment, the terrorists win!

Saturday, 28 July 2007

A Long Summer Saturday

I am very tired. It's only 10 p.m. on Saturday, time for all good Spaniards to sit down to dinner, with a card game and drinks after. Not me. Soon as I get done with this, (and writing in the daily hard-copy diary, and putting away the green beans) I am hitting the sack.

It's a righteous kind of tired. I put in a very full day. It makes me feel proud of myself, as I've been putting in some less-than rigorous time lately. I don't want to get fat.

So here is Saturday on my own in Moratinos. (Paddy is down in Malaga, splashing in the Med and sharing stomach viruses with the grandchildren.) I woke myself up early because I was expecting Roger and his wife to arrive sometime in the morning, and I wanted the place to look at least sanitary. I had the whole morning to hike the dog around (Milagros gave us a couple of handfuls of new green beans), start laundry, put away junk, take out trash, etc. And to hunt down all the info. I have collected on woodburners, pellet stoves, boilers, and other heating systems. The visitors rolled up about noon.

Roger and his wife (I can't remember her name!) are from the Netherlands. He lives now down on the Costa del Sol, where all the Europeans are; he's started a business there selling radiant heating systems mostly to fellow expats. She is an architect, still living in Holland and supporting them both while his business gets going. They were on their way south from Holland, and stopped here on the way, because I kept asking him so many questions on the online "fincas in spain" forum. They have nothing to gain from us, as Castilla-Leon is a LONG way from Arcos de Frontera, where he lives and works... too far to sell or service anything. I think they're just really nice.

And so I showed them through The Project, and then learned more about renewable energy heat sources than I ever wanted to know. I still am not sure what all I've come away with, but looking over our place he recommends a "bomba de calor," aka "heat pump," to run the under-floor system and a few connected upstairs radiators. (I think "bomba de calor" sounds a whole lot more toothsome than "heat pump.") And I found a dealer/installer right here in Palencia!

I also learned our gut-and-rebuild project is remarkably huge even for those used to seeing expat reform-a-ruin projects in Spain. And that our many months of waiting and arguing and anguishing over builders could've been a whole lot worse. And the corrugated steel doors on our front gate and bathroom are quite chic in architectural circles!

Their three dogs waited out in the camper van, parked in the shade. The dogs are real crocodiles: an Irish terrier and two rather feral-looking little black mutts whom Roger said, with a touch of strange pride, have already killed five sheep between them. The terrier attacked Una, who attacked right back. And on that note the Dutchmen and their dogs drove away toward the Via de la Plata. (Una seems none the worse for it. She loves a good rumble.)

They went at about 2, which is lunchtime hereabouts. I had leftover veg, all mixed up together, and fell asleep for a while. This is Spain. That's what you do, especially when the heat comes down like a curtain at about 1 p.m.

I woke up just in time to bike over to St. Nicolas, where I was to chat with young Esperanza in English for a while. I ended up chatting with her mom, Raquel, in Spanish instead. They live in a classic Moorish-style finca, very plain on the outside and a lush garden with fruit trees, roses and jasmine, vegetable patches, a well, caged canaries, covered porches hung with hams, and stable blocks all strung together over decades' worth of do-it-yourself building projects. The house is two stories with amazing views out over the threshing floor and up the tree-lined Rio Seco. I got the full tour. I got another big bag of green beans. I think they like me.

Their front gate opens right onto the Camino de Santiago, and they put up scallop shells outside... apparently an invitation to some people. Just as I was leaving a very nasty-looking man turned up with a scruffy dog on a string. He asked for help, so Raquel gave him a Euro. He looked at it in his hand like it was a beetle.

"I don't need money. I need something to eat. I want a sandwich," he said. (He put the money in his pocket anyway.) Raquel went into the house, so I stood at the gate and was friendly at him. He spoke English. A Swede who'd for some reason visited Mississippi, he decided he doesn't like America so he came back to Europe, where the evils of America just seemed to follow him everywhere. The Camino was, he said, a nice break from all that, a few weeks of peace.

Raquel came back with a foil-wrapped sandwich and an apple. "I don't want your fruit. I just asked for the sandwich," he told her, handing back the apple. "Thank you."

He went to leave. "Say a prayer for her, on your way," I said, by way of goodbye. "I already said thank-you!" he said, striding back to the door. "What more do you want from me? I'm not going to do it. I'm not saying a prayer."

Me and Raquel and Esperanza looked at one another. The canaries stopped singing. "OK then," I told him. "Have a good trip. Good luck with your dog."

"Christ! You're still such an American, telling me what to do!" he yelled, waving his sandwich. "My dog does not need good luck, OK?" Raquel shut the gate before he could get any closer.

"Maleducado," Esperanza said. "Sin verguenza," her mom added. "Bloody lunatic," I finished. Raquel nodded. "The moon is full. It makes them aggressive."

He made me feel low for a little while, but when I got back to Moratinos the pueblo was in full Summer Evening mode, which is enough to put anyone right. The plaza is all tidied up, the flower garden is in full bloom, the duenas in their widow's weeds sat in their wheelchairs while their progeny played cards or chatted or hauled buckets of concrete to the roofing job across the way, or oiled their tractors. Modesto's house was blasting the "Sound of Music" soundtrack. We all tapped our toes while Julie Andrews' "Favorite Things" echoed off the adobes. It sounded remarkably like the tinny electioneering cars that jabber through the streets during campaign season, but with a string section.

In summertime there are children in Moratinos: the grandkids come to visit, and their cousins ride their bikes over from Terradillos or St. Nicolas. They shout and run. Above it all the swallows swoop and circle endlessly. At some signal Julia got up and headed over to the church, her hands full of two huge silver keys. It's Saturday evening -- cleanup time. The able-bodied ladies followed her up the stairs and into the tall cool sanctuary. (this picture is from St. Isidore Day. That's Julia with the church keys -- her pride and joy. And the man is Modesto, resident poet, historian and Julie Andrews fan.)

In a half-hour's time the floors were swept and mopped, from the apse right out over the front steps. The old flowers were taken out and dumped and new gladiolas and roses and greenery were cut and arranged and set up in front of the altar, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, and San Rocco. Candlewicks were trimmed. I put the last of the little votive candles in their cups. After this, no more until September. The bishop is cutting back, Julia said. (I wonder where I can find some around here?)

We stopped back in the plaza, where Leandra showed me the latest crop of kittens and told me to take a couple home. "No!" Pin yelled from over at the card table. "If she's taking anyone's kittens she's taking mine. I asked first, a couple weeks ago!"

I'm allergic to cats, so this will be a Paddy decision, I said. He'd be the one taking care of them. (Hiding behind your husband is acceptable here.)

So I came home, ate some more veg., washed and snapped and blanched and bagged all those green beans, which will go into the freezer soon as I'm done here. Which is right now.

(I'd tell you to "sleep tight," but I don't want to be a bossy American.)

Thursday, 26 July 2007

I see yer Remolque and raise you a Least Weasel

It's harvest time 'round here, the fields are full of machinery and the farmers are up and about half the night. The big rush is almost over, I am told, and the "eras," or threshing floors, are piled high with heaps of different kinds of grain. This picture shows the one in Moratinos. A huge truck from Galicia came this morning and hauled away a couple more heaps; the grain-buyers were all over yesterday, sticking their hands into the cool, slippery corns. The farmers stood by quietly. That's a year's work stacked up there for judging.

The harvest has brought about a few unintended circumstances. On the right side of the picture is a big wagon, what around here is called a "remolque." A week ago, that very remolque was parked outside the gate at the Peaceable Kingdom, and a smiling young Rumanian lad was filling it up, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, with dirt excavated from the space that will someday be our kitchen. But this week the remolque was needed elsewhere. The dirt downstairs is left in a gigantic pile, waiting for the remolque to roll back this way. I wish I had a remolque of my own! (but then I'd need a tractor to pull it.)

(Still, the work continues upstairs -- they're putting in frames for the walls, doors, and windows. They just told me they need more money to buy the things they will need for next week. I told them they already have way too much of our money, and I won't give them any more. I think the boss is pretending he does not understand my Spanish.)

Having all this grain around is giving rise to lots of other things. The most noticeable is a sharp upward spike in the field mouse population. These guys are glossy and fat and full of attitude, and they were making nightly appearances in my room. For this reason only I am now permitting Una Dog to sleep in the cave with me. She is delighted, and spends the night on the floor, growling at things I cannot see, which isn't exactly reassuring or restful.

(I put down a mousetrap yesterday behind the dresser and got two mice, straightaway. They are cute. Their tails are luxuriantly long, their eyes bright black beads, their ears have little folds at the ends, like bows. And they made an almighty racket trying to chew their way into a bag of dog food, stored only about 3 feet from my bed. It is not very Buddhist of me to end their existence, but they were ruining my equinamity, dammit!)

The mouse boom has emboldened all the critters who enjoy a mouse luncheon. I heard the owl last night, after the mice packed it in. There are more raptors wheeling around overhead. And yesterday evening, best of all, I saw something rarely seen, out on the path beyond the dovecotes: a mostelo! In English it's a Least Weasel, the world's smallest carnivore, and supposedly one of the meanest little critters out there.

The one I saw, on the path just behind us, looked just like a half-size, chocolate-brown ferret. (I know my ferrets.) He was hot on the tail of a mouse, but he stopped dead right on the path, just so I could get a good look at him. He moved in that same smooth humpety-humpety slink, then leaped into the weedy ditch after his dinner. It made my day!

Una, meantime, killed four mice of her own.

So... soon the grain will be sold off or gathered in for next year's seed, and the tractors will be oiled up and put away, and all the farmers can go to the beach and relax for a couple of weeks.

And the remolque will come back, and the dirt will go into it, and the kitchen can be built. If I can convince the builders they can keep working without weekly infusions of cash.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Wherein I meet The Geomancer

You never know who you're going to meet when you go for a morning walk around here.

This morning the dog and I followed the St. Martin Triangle (nothing to do with Bermuda, btw) a little network of roads about 2 miles on each side. It's rolling country, all fields and trees and storks and hawks. Anything new and different stands out. The drilling rig and box truck caught my eye right away. Una and I made our slow way toward it, with our shadows striding long on the blacktop alongside and a field of sunflowers watching with wicked black faces. The truck was parked in a little strip of hayfield, alongside the Rio Templarios bridge. There were four men, working at something.

Men working is remarkable too, especially on St. James Day, a Spanish national holiday. I drew closer, said my "buenas dias" and watched while three of them manhandled what looked like a telephone pole into the upright chamber of the drilling rig. Strange. I asked the odd man what was up, after carefully framing my question in Spanish.

"Why are you drilling a well next to a river?" I said.

"Sorry. Don't speak a word of Spanish," the man answered, in accented English. He sounded Dutch.

"Netherlands?" I asked (in English.)

"South Africa," he said. "Name's Jim." He shook my hand. I told him I'm an American living nearby, and asked him again, in English, why they were drilling when there's already abundant water in the little river.

"Not drilling, miss. That's no water drill. We're geomancing. Me, I'm the geomancer, and these are my crew."

"Umm. Yeah," I said, thinking fast. "Geomancers. Ley lines. The mystic energy of the earth and all that, right?" Jim nodded, folded his arms across his chest, and squinted out over the tiny river to the new autopista in the distance. The Look of Eagles, it was.

The Way of St. James attracts its share of metaphysicians and strange sciences, not to mention alternative religions and conspiracy theorists. Shirley Maclaine Herself acknowledges the Camino follows one of Earth's great invisible power meridians. Still, most Arcane Adepts keep to the Camino proper. It was odd to find such a specimen a good mile south of the Way. And with some major machinery in tow.

"You're a little far from the Camino," I observed. He just smiled and appeared to listen closely. "What do you do with all this rig?"

"Oh, that. We're taking soundings. Measuring. This stream here, it's the Rio Templarios, you know. Templars. The Templar Knights. The next town is Terradillos of the Templars. And right there, in between, making a triangle? Is the Camino de Santiago."

"Well, yeah." I said. "Um... What are you finding, then? Your measurements, are they telling you anything?"

"Of course," he said, clasping his hands together. "You live around here, right? You're in for a show, then. There's a great deal of energy built up right here, where these hills and rises come together...just follow that line of electric poles there with your eyes. Right....there. Where the birds are all sitting. It attracts the birds." He grinned. "If you stand and watch it, maybe you'll see the radiant energy rising. This place is just waiting to explode in glory!"

I haven't head of anything "exploding in glory" since I last attended a Holy Ghost Revival service, which is a rather long time. I didn't quite know how to ask Jim to explain himself without being caught up in a sermon. And just then one of the other men started over to us, clipboard in hand. He was wearing a helmet. His name was Henk, he said.

"Check these," he told Jim. "They're ready for you over there." Jim nodded at me and stepped over to the machine.

Henk spoke to me, matter-of-factly. "Don't listen to a thing he tells you. Just watch, you'll see what we're doing."

Jim hit a button, and the drill rig slowly sank the utility pole into the soil. The men put a sort of cap on top, to mark the spot. The men were simply reinforcing the river bank, driving a line of pilings into the ground several yards back from the banks. It's a state project, Henk said, European Union funding, a South African crew working under contract with an Austrian engineering firm, unaffected by Spanish holidays. No ley lines or geomancy or mystic power. Just poles and geology and hydraulics.

"Cool," I said, watching the machine work. "But where'd the geomancer thing come from?"

"Jim's a fucking sociopath," Henk said fondly. "I think he's getting too much sun. It makes him tell horrid lies."

Jim overheard. He looked up from the clipboard and corrected his friend. "Not the sun, stupid," he sang out. "It's the Earth, man. The power of the Earth!"

Monday, 23 July 2007

Why I Love America

OK, this has nothing at all to do with Moratinos or Spain or the Camino. But it makes me laugh out loud and I want to learn how to post videos on here. So... enjoy this celebration of American Popular Culture and the True Creative Spirit of My Countrymen.

... And for the really fun part...

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Sunflowers, Dust, and 'Sketty

I am thinking of things besides writing projects, at least this Sabbath Day. A summer breeze is blowing hard across the Meseta, filling the sky with fake-looking clouds. We took our big long Sunday hike this afternoon, over a web of farm tracks that criss-crosses miles and miles of this area. There's been no rain for weeks, and the tractors have pounded the surface underfoot into golden-brown, powder-fine dust a quarter-inch deep. The trails appear and disappear between tiny towns with names like Villelga, Villalon, Villada, Escobar de Campos, San Martin de los Fuentes, and Grajal de Campos ("grail of the fields.") These "pueblins," or hamlets, crop up every three or four miles, with nothing in between but fields laid over a rolling landscape. You can see for miles... or kilometers.

Because monster industrial farms haven't taken over here, the landscape isn't boring like Kansas or Iowa. The plots are only two or three acres big and there's a wide variety of things growing in them, giving that patchwork look that's so pleasing. The cut hay lies in yellow stripes, the alfalfa is still deep green, oats wallow and wave under the wind, and newly turned fields are dark brown corrugations. In June there were fields painted solid red with poppies, and now in July there are acres of violent yellow sunflowers, all facing the same direction. (when you walk past it always seems like someone is watching you. Really.)

Here and there we saw a combine harvester or a pickup truck. But for most of the hike we were the only figures visible. Still, the guys in the tractors see all. I expect to be quizzed within the next couple of days by the neighbors about why we chose to walk out among those fields out toward Escobar, so far from town for a Sunday afternoon.

It would be easy to get lost if you didn't have some kind of bearing. The fields and hills look alike, and even the distant towns all have similar church towers, grain elevators, poplar trees and an orchard or two strung out along the rio. Smart people would take a compass. We take Una Dog, who so far has always found her way home. And I have a sharp eye for details and a good sense of direction, at least out on the campo. (Cities and highways are another story.)

We ended up in St. Nicolas de Real Camino, and went backward along the Camino de Santiago to get home to Moratinos. On the way we stopped and spoke to two pilgrims, a woman on foot and a man on a bike, both of them keen to find the next place with an available bed and a filling meal. We marveled at how international the camino is, the four of us chatting there in some kind of Spanish: an Italian, an Englishman, an Argentine and an Americana.

Pilgrims are very focused people. They remind me of how absorbed I become when I have a goal in sight, how I miss out on so much that's standing just over that hill to the left or that mountain to the north. Focus is good, unless it isn't. We are fortunate, living here. We can enjoy the pilgrims and the Camino, and also take time to ramble in the fields and pathways that parallel and cross and the Way. The Camino is such a rich experience. But Spain is out there, too, outside the lines.

I hope it rains tonight. I want to see how well our new roof works, before they start putting in drywall and other non-waterproof things. Oh, and my first mosaic, a little hand-sized plaque with a nice stylized cross, has turned out just dandy!

As for the writing project: Yes, I am writing something crazy. Unfortunately it requires me to immerse myself in memories, diary entries, blogs, and just plain academic-type research; some of it fun, some of it not nice at all. I've had a couple of "smack upside the head" moments of realization, the "wow, why didn't I recognize that?" stuff I am sure happens to people who think they know what they're looking at when it's staring them in the face... when they don't! Things are coming together now, but slowly. And all the re-thinking of things I'd put aside is actually working its way into my dreams at night!

It's fascinating to note that our town has only about 25 people living in it, and good 10 percent are truly "not all there." Should we be drinking the tap water, I wonder?

I thought about just shelving the story idea, but no. This is just too damn compelling to let go, even if it does get me down. There's been some really good writing done around here in the past year, and more is happening all the time. (My audience has shrunk somewhat, but I thank you, dear blog readers, for checking me in!)

Ryan's made 'sketty with mushrooms (from our mushroom field) and toasted pine nuts and walnuts! No time to blog! (It's going to be hard to let this boy go back to Cleveland!)

Friday, 20 July 2007

The Muse Hovers Near

Maybe it's because July is my favorite month of the year. Maybe because progress is finally happening on the house, so my mind is eased a little (even thought the pellet furnace and under-floor heating system is going to cost almost 5,000 euro! Yikes!) Or perhaps it's the simultaneous arrival at our place of three editions of the New York Times AND a New Yorker issue of rare excellence. Or maybe it was the afternoon I spent last week chasing down a news story for the Post-Gazette. (it didn't go anywhere, but I had a lot of fun!)

For whatever reason, a really delicious and long-absent sensation is moving over me: I think I am going to Write Something.

The Writing sensation has never been terribly omnipresent, even in the years when I wrote news for a living. But when it does move in, it's like an intoxication. I become useless at other pursuits save the contemplative. I walk or sit, and think and consider. I take notes and make outlines and stop in the middle of conversations because some little detail or word or memory or color suddenly completely sucks up all my attention. I prepare myself. I read and re-read things: old notebooks or diaries, a collection of essays and poems and post cards accumulated over the years. Some are serious: Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel" always does it for me, as well as poems by Rilke and Roethke, and a few old emails from friends in faraway places. And the Modern Jazz Quartet.

All this is usually my way of circling around some particular subject or event or story line that's slowly taken shape in the last week or month, something or someone particularly piquant or fascinating. It used to be news stories that did that, or a snippet of conversation overheard. One time it was a song on the radio combined with the sound of wind in the trees, as heard from behind the wheel of a top-down convertible going 50 mph. (someday I'm getting me another rag-top roadster. I promised myself that.)

I realize that right here among us we have a character of remarkable depth and richness and texture, someone whose reality truly is stranger than any fiction I could conjure up. It's almost ready-made, really... all I have to do is re-read everything me and Paddy have written in the past year or so, and mix in some hindsight, and have a glass of wine maybe, and set this thing to spinning... I've got no idea what will become of it, but at least I'll be off the streets for a day or two.

So, if I neglect my blogging you'll know that is a good thing, really. Because when I'm really Writing it's like I've fallen in love, or I have a new baby, or I'm on a big winning streak at the horse races. I'm probably working my tail off, but I'm having the time of my life. There's nothing in the world like it!

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

The Joy of English...and Sweet, Sweet Silence

The Peaceable Kingdom is hardly visitor-friendly lately, but Visitors come anyway. (here's a picture of some of our chatty pilgrim visitors. These ones are Spaniards from Aragon.)
It's the season, I guess. The phase of the moon. We can go for weeks without a single stay-a-while guest, and suddenly get four or five in a row, or several all at once. That is how it works here. All or nothing. Both ways are nice, most of the time.

We put Ann on the noon train eastward today, she's headed out to Albacete. Ann's from New Jersey, a former pilgrim who's this trip a tourist, wending her way through Spain and up to Paris for her 65th birthday. Sixty-five, she says, is right there at Old, and she didn't want to be home when that day dawned. (her yard is torn apart, she said -- she's in the midst of a six-year landscaping project without end. Too stressful there. So she came here! Ha!)

So we showed her the mattress on the kitchen floor, and the workers pounding away at floorboards and carting loads of rubble out the front gate. She was duly warned. She stayed two days, a stalwart soul.

Somehow, other peoples' messes aren't nearly so stressful as your own, even when you're sitting in the middle of them. Especially when you're sitting under the beach umbrella on the patio with a cool lemonade and a three-day-old New York Times Sunday edition. The wheelbarrows roll sweetly past. The dog flops down to doze, smack in the middle of the traffic pathway. The birds twitter, the flies buzz in the ivy, the nail gun taps out a rhythm upstairs.

Doug, an sociology professor from New Hampshire, arrived this morning with his Italian traveling companion. We fueled them up on coffee and gave them the quick tour, which ended out at the chicken hut. I put five still-warm brown eggs into his hands, and made him up a breakfast with two of them. (There's something so gratifying about a breakfast so palpably fresh.) Ann and I walked the two of them halfway to St. Nicholas before the sun got too high. Una caught two mice, and almost got a lizard.

We almost always walk in the morning, and sometimes bring home a pilg or two for coffee and a chat.

In the mornings we speak mostly English here, and our guest book testifies to our clear preference for anglophone visitation: England, USA, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia are heavily represented. Mornings are misty enough for me without the gymnastics of German verb conjugations, and buying the day's bread is about as far as my Spanish will stretch before 10 a.m. Experience also tells us sometimes the visitor is deeply relieved to converse in his native tongue. There are large pockets of French out there still... and Polish, too, these days. And Japanese.

Most English-speaking pilgrims will at least try to communicate with those of other tongues, but the work is exhausting after a while. A Liverpool lad named Nigel, fresh from two days' travel among French-only Parisians and Quebecois, hugged me tight last Tuesday when I greeted him with a simple "Good Morning." I thought he was going to cry with joy. (I didn't let on how incomprehensible his Scouse accent was to me!)

It seems some pilgrims who've rested-up here were unable to stop talking. One had been traveling solo for too long. The other was a fluent German speaker, but hadn't used her English in days. Then there was an Englishman who I think just liked the sound of his own voice.

Afternoons seem to go Spanish. That's when Juli comes to make flan, or Esparanza, a girl from San Nicolas, rides her bike over to "practice English" but mostly chatters about The Simpsons in rapid-fire Spanglish. We discuss the house progress with Jefe Fran, who is so animated (and talks so fast) I suspect a few dietary additives are taken with his two-hour lunch.

We expect our "hijo politico" Ryan to return to Moratinos any day now from his European sojourn, this being his final stop before the flight home to Ohio and then a long Peace Corps stint in Senegal. (I'm so proud of him!) We don't have many more visits scheduled through the end of July, but who knows what will turn up here in days to come?

The construction racket notwithstanding, I think Paddy and I are spoiled for silence. In between visitors we drift about the place quietly most of the time. We are comfortable with one another, and happy enough to read or weed or launder or paint together or alone, without any words.

The birdsongs fill in the spaces in between. And the pneumatic hammer, digging up the old kitchen tiles. And the tractors, making hay way off in the distance.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Lucky Old Me

My mom, one of the world's most annoying saints, is fond of saying Truthful Things -- especially when I am caught up in feeling sorry for myself. One of her favorites is "count your blessings." Or "there, but for the grace of God, go I."
Which are nice Calvinist-hymnal ways of saying "Suck it up and get over yourself, ya whiner!"

Times are tough 'round here, so I've decided to take Mom's advice for a change. I'm going to count my blessings. You, lucky old reader, get to go along.

1. Sure, we don't have any floors in our house, and the workers may just have staged a walkout. But we have a roof now, and second-floor timbers, and all but a sliver of the excavating is done. The heaviest of the heavy work is done; the rehab job is almost 1/3 finished! Woohoo!

2. Yeah, Boss Man Mario's going into the hospital on Monday, and Fran the Friendly Assistant is gone to Asturias on vacation, and only Smokin' Jose and a couple of guys are sposed to come back Monday, and the bill at the building supply place is still unpaid. But we actually have people here, working. (so far!) The job might take a LOT longer than we planned, but it's still happening.

3. We're expecting Doug, an American pilgrim, to show up here any time -- he's walking here from Burgos, a trip that takes four days or so. We thought he'd be here today, but it's almost 5 and no one with any sense is out there now, in the heat of the day. So he'll likely arrive tomorrow. When we are also expecting Ann, an American lady who volunteers at pilgrim hostels. We have mattresses and kitchen-floor space enough for two, so long as the people like one another. (when people arrive here, they all show up at once. It's always that way.) The more the merrier. This is why we came here, after all.

4. It's nice to think that someday the people who visit will have their own room, their own bed, with clean sheets and towels and a bathroom with hot water and a TUB! (And so will I! I will never again take bathtubs for granted.) And the Anns and Dougs who visit nowadays are getting a great view of the "before" picture, the one that shows the shambles. If and when they return they'll appreciate all the more the nice, shiny "After" shot.

5. Nobody's dead or dying, we have a place to sleep at night and a kitchen to cook in, and a steady income to keep ourselves fed. It will all get done, someday. Even if we have to do it ourselves. (please, god. No.)

6. Summers here are so beautiful. Our town is full of good, friendly people, our neighborhood is full of medieval castles and Roman ruins and Romanesque churches and an amazing variety of birds and critters. We are, truly, living our dream.

7. On Monday morning I do not have to get up and go to work at an office! (I think I will go over to our bodega (wine-making cave) and start repairing the damaged front door. There's always something to do here.)

8. We have an inner patio with a table and a funky umbrella, surrounded by roses and herb plants and flowers and trees. The fridge is full of good things to eat and drink. Paddy is even now cooking us up something lovely for dinner: something with potatoes and spinach and squash and onions we bought this morning at the weekly market in Sahagun, where the veg. still have damp dirt on them. The afternoon breeze is blowing hard; the poplar-tree applause sounds like a waterfall overhead.

9. Someone was angry with me, and today I asked him to forgive me. I don't know if he will, but I feel better now, having done what I can to make peace. (I'm no good at keeping a quarrel going. Being peeved is so exhausting!)

10. There are storks here. I love storks.

11. Everything in my life has changed radically in the past 12 months: my home, job, health, interests, and even language. But I still have my Chopin Nocturnes and Elvis Costello CDs, and Una Dog "the Other Bitch from Pittsburgh." And I still have Patrick, my partner and favorite wag and most kindly critic, despite my many efforts to drive him screaming for the border.

So there are eleven. I could keep going but I might start sounding like Peter Mayle and become a best-selling author. So there, mom! I remember the hymn just fine:

"count your blessings
name them one by one
count your many blessings
see what God has done."

Now I will give the dog a good combing. The ticks are bad this year, but so far no fleas. Life is good!

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Castles and Cheese

This week has been a glorious racket of churning cement and pounding nails and whatever sound a timber makes when it's slotted into a hole in adobe. Mario the Boss Builder has called in all the workforce to get crackin' on our place and use up all the building materials that have been languishing outside our back gate.

(The fact that he still hasn't paid for the materials is immaterial...once they're part of our house I guess they can't be repossessed, like one of the concrete mixers was last week.) The guys are working hard because Patrick and I had a big powwow (aka "shouting match") on Monday with Mario, who wants MORE money because we've had him do a few extras outside the original agreement. We'll happily pay him for the work he does. But not cash, and not up front, and not another 42K! And not another cent before we see some really tangible progress. (we played good cop/bad cop with him. I was the hard-nose, seeing as it doesn't take too many verb conjugations to say "no," "no mas," and "ni modo.")

He thinks we will give him a couple of thousand if he does some miraculous amount of work this week, so that explains the big push over the past two days. It really is remarkable what happens when a work crew puts in a full day on the job. I can almost see what the place might look like, sometime within the next few years and thousands of Euros. Not a palace, but our own little Castle in Spain.

We've gotten some solid advice from Eric the Architect, who says any more money paid to this clown should go to pay the supplies bill. That way we know our Euros are going to our project, not to Mario's bookie or Visa bill or dentist. (Mario has a toothache. His face is all swollen and he looks like hell. He asked us for some Strong American Painkillers the other day, so I gave him Advil with a sherry chaser, which he seemed to enjoy. We have some really powerful stuff left over from Paddy's eye surgery last year; I think we oughtta give him one of those and THEN start negotiating terms!)

So tomorrow will tell. Paddy has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, so heaven knows what he'll come up with.

Tomorrow is also our fourth wedding anniversary, but we need to be here all day. Today we went out to celebrate. We drove down a country road in Valladolid and Zamora provinces called the "Ruta de las Castillas," the Castle Route. And that's what it was: classic medieval castles, large and small, ruined and restored, one in almost every little village, some of them visible from the others! Why each of these tiny cowpat towns would NEED a castle of their own was not explained anywhere; Spain is notably short on interpretive material where monuments and tourist attractions are concerned.

Castilla-Leon, the province where we live, is castle-rich: "Castle" is its first name. We have almost 200 castles here, the most of anywhere in Spain; a couple of them are within a bike-ride's distance of our house. South and east of here are some huge honking castle/palaces, some of them worthy of a Disney Princess. Problem is, sadly, the average castle is a lot more interesting from a distance than it is up close. Most are basic generic gray stone wall with a tower in the middle, a fabulous view, and usually a resident population of storks, hawks, and pigeons.

More interesting by far are the ruined abbeys and churches that go along with the castles...these have sculptures, fonts, bells, arches and just a lot more going for them visually and vibe-wise. I'll post some pictures. (I wish I knew how to do lots of pictures on this blog thing. Ryan, where are you?)

Our trail took us to Toro, a big town out on the plain near Zamora. It's famous for wine and cheese, two of my favorite things! And these I had at lunch... exquisite cheese, sheep and goat and cow's milk varieties, blue cheese, soft dessert cheese, and some cured so hard it was grainy and sharp. All of it with a green tempranillo wine, absolutely deelish! We then went to Santa Maria de Mayor, the big old 12th century church in town, to see its famous doorway and sculptures.

Wow. I have a new favorite place in Spain now, and a new favorite Santiago statue! The church is relatively small, but a pristine transitional Gothic stone structure, so cool inside on a hot afternoon. I don't want to enthuse too hard on something you really need to see to appreciate. Suffice to say I will be back there, probably in the winter, when I can sit down and spend some quality time appreciating the sculptures -- they're a good 800 years old, and still are brightly painted! It's so fun to see architecture somewhat the way it looked when the builder finished it... almost all these stark stone churches were once aglow with color.

Like the countryside here. The fields are full of combines and tractors, baling and rolling, cutting and mowing, leaving behind furrows or cubes or cylinders or sheaves. Others are bright gold with sunflowers, acres of them, all their faces turned in one direction, smiling at summer. How I love this place!

I got too much sun out there, so now I have a headache. Still, it was a superb day's expedition. I feel like I'm on vacation every day. Almost.
When I'm not questioning my sanity, or shouting "No way, Jose!" at Mario.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Juli Does Good

It's been a long, hard year for Juli, and today the wait finally ended.

Juli (pronounced "HOOlee") lives with her parents and sister in Moratinos. She's one of the "youngsters" in town, and a great ally to all of us whose Spanish is less-than-useful: She speaks English. She is willing to translate when the builder/lawyer/government form/mailman gets incomprehensible. She is 28 years old, a college graduate, trained to teach English to primary-age kids. But she spent the first three years post-grad working at a 24-hour service station out on the Autopista. She spent the past year, literally, cramming.

Getting a decent job is a long, hard haul around here. Juli's one of thousands of educated Spaniards who'd like to occupy one of only hundreds of state teaching jobs. In order to put their education to use in public schools, they have to take The Exams.

The Exams are offered every other year. Grads with good grades pay a fee for the privilege of cramming about 400 pages worth of "themes" posted annually on a state web site. We're talking massive, rote memorization, parrot-style, of excruciatingly dull material. On the first exam date, a few hundred candidates converge from all over the province and crowd into classrooms. They're given blank notebooks, bottle of drinking water, and an hour and a half. The examiner puts four of the "themes" on the board. The candidates then regurgitate everything they know about those four themes into the notebook.

Some leave the testing site soon as they see the themes are posted. Others get partway through and break under the pressure. Some of them don't remember enough, and fail the test. The lucky few who pass can then, after a couple weeks, come back for the next phase: an Oral Presentation. They choose one of the themes they wrote about in their test notebook, and give a presentation on the subject to a panel of four Primary English teachers. In English. With no notes.

Two years ago, the last time Juli tried the Exams, she couldn't face even Part 1. The morning of the test, she didn't go -- and she spent the ensuing months re-thinking her future. That's why she resigned her cashier job last fall, and took up studying full-time.

I have never seen someone study so hard for so long. She had all four native English-speakers of Moratinos record the themes on her MP3, and she listened to our voices, over and over, droning on about learning outcomes, curricula, evaluations, pronunciations, equal-access laws... Two London men, the gentle brogue of an Irish lady, and my hard-R Pittsburgh voice.

When I took long paseos with Juli's mom and the other village ladies, Juli often as not stayed home to study, curled up on the warm spot over the under-floor woodstove with her notebooks in hand. She didn't attend village gatherings or dinners or parties. Her skin grew pale. Whenever I stopped after Sunday church to say hello, the dining-room table was always covered in lesson plans and outlines. It was worrying, really. She had no life any more, and worried incessantly about passing or failing.

I can't say I helped her much -- just told her she had time to think about failure AFTER The Exams; and right now was time to fill her mind only with positive, positive thoughts. "You're the best. You're the best. You know you are," I told her and told her. "Nobody out there is studying like you. You're using your English all the time to Do Good. How can you lose?"

I wondered if the rote approach was right, if a recited spiel was really what these professors looked for, if a relaxed, easy interview was what they were really after. But Juli knew what she was about. Juli crammed like a fiend. Her mom prayed the rosary, and lit a line of candles in the church.

Two weeks ago, when she went to Zamora for Exam 1, Juli nailed those written themes.

Yesterday evening I went with Juli back to Zamora for the big interview exam. She was scheduled for 8 a.m. today, the very first on the list. We agreed to speak only in English. We shopped a little, people-watched, and strolled the beautiful old town in the long dusk. Before she went to bed Juli read over her outline just once. We re-wrote a sentence in her presentation, to eliminate a repetition. She fell asleep with the MP3 headphones on, a voice in her ear intoning something about The Decree of May 2006.

We didn't sleep so well. We were up at 6:30. She came out of the bathroom looking like she'd wept just a little, but she strode to the examination with an easy, bright air. We chattered in English right up to the last moment... I think we intimidated the other waiting candidates. We greeted everyone, but only two of them would join our conversation in English. When the examiner came click-clacking down the hall in killer heels and signaled to Juli, she wished her a cheery good morning in a lovely Irish accent.

Two and a half hours later Juli emerged, her face wreathed in smiles. She'd nailed this, too, she said: Her English didn't falter. She'd answered all their questions, presented her carefully illustrated teaching materials, all within the alloted time frame. We hugged and giggled and hopped around like little girls.

We spent the rest of the morning in the shops, as everything in Zamora is on sale. Juli bought a lovely garlic-keeper for her mom, and a box of cookies for the family. But nothing for herself.

Her gift to herself, she said, was a peaceful mind. No matter what the outcome, she really did give this her best shot.

She really is the best, you know.

Friday, 6 July 2007

More Horrors Unfold

Our Renovation Epic continues to veer back and forth between black comedy and tragedy. It's getting worse. I am beginning to wonder how we will pull out of this with our skins on.

There are still no deliveries of new building materials. Throughout this week the laborers showed up less and less frequently, and they buggered off early when they did arrive. There are three of them, and they spent short periods very slowly stacking tiles up on the roof, preparing to lay them into rows and cement them into place. (They're recycling the tiles they removed initially.) There are mixers, but there's no cement out there. Mario, the boss, is staying away. Fran, his charming assistant, is unwell, we are told.

The demolition of the second floor timbers and floorboards is complete. The debris is all cleared out of the house shell; they even swept the floors and stacked the wheelbarrows neatly against the walls. All the work that can be done with the material on hand is just about finished up. They're doing what they can with what they've got, and they're running out of things to do.

I was upset by the bill collectors coming here last week looking for Mario, so Paddy had him come over on Wednesday "for a little chat." He very dramatically pulled Mario into the cave-like despensa where we're now sleeping, and told him "If we have to live in here in Winter, we will die." Mario assured Patrick the job will be done by mid-August, that all his bills were now paid-up and things would start moving smoothly along from here on out. Paddy, always ready to believe the best of his fellow man, (and left with little option otherwise), said "OK, get on widdit."

Mario lied.

This evening, a ferret-faced man appeared at the gate, the man who owns the building materials company. Mario owes him 8,000 Euros, he says, money for the floor boards and tiles, skylights and windows, things that are all sitting in the warehouse waiting to be installed here. He's not delivering it, he said. No money, no stuff.

And what can we do? We can't get blood from a turnip. We don't know what Mario's done with our money, and we can't MAKE him give it back or pay his bills or get over here and at least finish our roof and put back some kind of second floor. We don't know the legal system here. We don't speak the language. We don't know where to hire a big beefy dude to go pay him a visit.

One of the workers says Mario is coming here tomorrow, and the building supply people want zip over here and ambush him. Maybe then we can get some kind of idea what's going on.

It is all very sad and distressing for us. After all the months of searching for a builder, waiting for them to not show up, having them show up and immediately leave when presented with the job, or being simply strung-along, this is not so very different, I guess... except it involves large amounts of money and demolition of large parts of our house. We are objects of pity in our town, and it's hard not to feel like fools.

We are facing down the possibility of losing a year's worth of wages and being left with a shell of a house that still needs major work -- and we'll be back to zero when it comes to finding a builder to finish the job. Worse off, in other words. Living indefinitely in a cave.

But it's not happened yet, so I can't let myself get upset or depressed. The ups and downs make for good blog fodder. And all the Expats Abroad books include long harrowing chapters on similar tribulations. Misery makes good copy. It's just living it that's a bitch. I guess we'll see the loveable characters and charming anecdotes emerge at some point, but so far it's not happened in any comprehensive way.

Despite a lingering sense of doom, the days just get more beautiful here. Paddy and I agreed not to let this house business hurt Us. We try to get on with our ordinary pursuits: reading, writing, hiking, playing with the critters, chatting with the pilgrims and neighbors, fixing what we can, trying to live day to day and not to dream too much about the future. I put out the porch umbrella today and we had Vichysoisse al fresco, playing Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo. The roses are blooming like mad, at night the owl screeches and the sky is completely spangled with stars. We still gotta live, so we do. And well, in our own scruffy kind of way.

Call me Pollyanna, but somehow, deep in my heart, I still believe it's all going to work out beautifully in the end, perhaps in some way that's impossible for us to imagine right now. My mind goes over a lovely old "pie in the sky" hymn from my childhood:

"Cheer up, my brother
live in the sunshine,
We'll understand it all
by and by."

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Winds of Change on Calle Ontanon

It's a Sunday in mid summer, and the town is filling up with "home-comers," the cousins and kids and aunties who only appear in Moratinos when the weather is fine. Houses are being opened up and aired-out. Cars are parked at odd angles up and down the street, and strangers (at least to me) from the city are picking their way down the pavement, still trying to keep the sheep doots out of their shoe-treads.

It's nice to see some children in town, and a few more vaguely familiar faces in church. It's been almost exactly a year since Patrick and I first showed up in this burg, so it's probably a lot more their town than ours. Still, I realized this afternoon I felt like strangers are invading MY pueblo!

This was brought-on by the news that one of the big, usually closed-up houses on the main street is for sale. It's a situation identical to the one that led us to our Peaceable Kingdom: the city-dwelling family decides they don't spend enough time at granny's old place in the pueblo to make it worth the time and expense to keep it up. It's too outdated and musty to be pleasant to stay in for long, and property prices are pretty good right now.

And this place is on the Camino, and it's got Pilgrim Hostel possibilities in a town without a pilgrim hostel. It's also got some of the same Major Issues I know so well, problems inherant in old adobe farming compounds: Mickey-Mouse wiring. Nightmarish Mid-Franco Era decor. Questionable water and sewage services. Several internal rooms with little sunlight. And a very bizarre floor plan that comes from building on a little bit more as time goes on and needs evolve. (but it's got a nice corral, and ready-made stable areas. I covet these very much!) They want an outrageous price for it: 250,000 Euros.

So it made me wonder: Who would buy this place? Will it sell? What kind of people would want to move here and take on such a monster project, at such a monster price? More lunatic foreigners? An eccentric Spanish millionaire? A greedy developer type who wants to make some big pilgrim bucks?

I deeply abhor the attitude of so many expats who "discover" a charming little town somewhere, buy a place, and then want to lock the gates behind themselves. I know change is inevitable, and old residents will move away or die, and new people will move in, and some of them I will probably not like... or they will not like me.

I just don't want the place to change TOO much. I rather like how scruffy this place is, that most visitors breeze right through and never even remember being here. I like knowing all the neighbors by their first names, being asked over to dinner now and then, being part of a small, tight group -- a community. Having an albergue or hotel in town might change the flavor, bring in a clientele of Volvo-driving tourists or ganja-smoking hippies or crystal-gazing New Agers who will realize how cool it is here and then buy up MORE of the place.

Then I realize I could fall into any of the groups above (except perhaps the ganja part) and I have to laugh at myself. Maybe the new people will bring some competent builders to town. Maybe they'll have children or teenagers to liven up the place, or horses or mules or donkeys to go in the corral. Maybe they'll be Buddhists. The possibilities for positivity are as broad as the negatives.

So if you're interested in your own Peaceable Kingdom, and you're not a greed-head nasty bastard, I can put you in touch with the owners. There's no estate agent. It's easy. And that 250K figure is "extremely flexible," I am told.

And tomorrow I am off to Santiago de Compostela, to meet with my William and Mary crew, do my part to diminish the world's shellfish supply, and have my picture taken for the jackets of books still unpublished. I will fetch back my friend Cindy, the superfine designer for "American Pilgrim" magazine. Maybe she can buy the old place down the street, and we can found an Expatriate Publishing Empire right here on Calle Ontanon and take in pilgrims on the side.

I promise not to change anything in town. And I will help her look after pilgrims if she'll let me keep my horse in her corral.