Thursday, 30 August 2007

The World is my Cloister

Hello from deep in the heart of Holy Cross Monastery of the Madres Benedictinas in beautiful Sahagun. I went inside on Friday, as a volunteer host at their little pilgrim hostel. It´s Thursday now, less than a week later, and man am I ready to go home!

It´s not that the place isn´t truly beautiful. I have my own little room with private bath, my own chapel with a fine Mannerist virgin, (the statue kind, smarty pants!) and a really sweet herb garden inside a small cloistered patio. I have plates and cups and saucers, a microwave, a coffee maker, and three rooms full of bunkbeds (14 in all) to keep track of. The floors are tile, and easy to clean. The pilgrims are not abundant (my biggest night I had nine so far), and all but one have so far been good, clean, sober folk. They know how to behave in a monastery. (the exception guy was young and French, so I guess he couldn´t help himself.)

The cloister is a few yards away from the big clock tower, the last remainder of a monster Benedictine monastery that once was Spain´s largest. Inside, high above the town, are a set of very large bells. (If you look back a few entries to the photo of Peluqueria Conchi, you´ll see the clock tower too.) The bells toll the quarter hour. And at the top of the hour they toll from one to 12, depending on what time it is. At 7 p.m., when the nuns sing Vespers, and at 8 a.m., when they have Mass, the bells in the tower are joined by another collection atop my very roof. It´s a beautiful noise, really, especially when you´re just in town for alittle bit, passing through. But Sweet God in Heaven, at 2,3, 4 and 5 a.m. I hate them right down to the clappers.

Another bell is quickly becoming the secondary bane of my existence: the front gate. It´s the entry into the hostel, and pilgrims ring it to summon me to let them in. Which isn´t a problem. It IS a bit of a haul from my chair in the garden, into the hall, up to the entryway, but it gives me time to wonder who might be there... maybe the Prize Patrol from the Lottery Board!

More often than not, it´s one of the Asturian Prayer Warriors. These are a group of aged Asturian tourists who are booked into the Benedictine House of Prayer, the allied accommodation run by the same 9 or 10 nuns who run the pilgrim place. Their rooms are more plush, they probably pay a nice fee for room and board, and most of their rooms are just upstairs from the pilgrims.

They`re sposed to be on religious retreat, studying how to be Prayer Warriors in the style of St Francis de Sales. (Or something like that.) They´re supposed to keep to quiet circumspection and follow all the house rules.

These buggers, I am here to tell you, are on vacation. In Sahagun.

A lot of Spain heads up to Asturias this time of year, where the beaches are undiscovered and truly lovely. And while Spain heads to Asturias, the Asturians -- at least the lower middle classes -- head south to fly-over country. Here on the meseta the only tourists are pilgrims or other Asturians. They say they are here for their health, to breathe our dry, high-altitude air. They hole up in monasteries, which are cheaper than hotels and have better food. There, they proceed to behave as if they were staying at the Holiday Inn. They iron their clothes before heading out to the sports complex to sun themselves. They leave their curling irons switched on and short out the electricity all over the old building. They watch football matches on the sole TV, with the sound turned WAY up, then they go to bed. Without turning off the TV. Or the lights.

They wouldn´t be my problem, but for that door. Only their ´´spiritual directors´´ have keys. And the spritual directors go to bed at 10 p.m., like good Christians.

This is quite unusual for Spain. The rhythm of living here demands everyone stay in bed til about 9 a.m., start work at 10 or so, and hang out til about 1 or 2. Then they close up shop and go home for lunch or a nap. Everything comes back alive at about 4 or 5 p.m., and shops stay open til 8. Dinner is at 9 or 10 p.m. And then, if you´re 30 or under, you go out dancing til the sun comes up. (If you are older you hang out with your friends playing cards or drinking orujo and singing.) Going to bed at 10 p.m. is for Germans and worn-out pilgrims and nuns.

The nuns, all of them about 4 feet tall, are a sweetly savage race. My first day here they gave me the news on locking up. Ten o´clock, not a moment later. First lock the street doors with a key. Then lower the stanchion at the bottom, securing it to the floor. Then take this iron bar from the closet, and put it across both doors. And secure that, finally, with the padlock kept in this little drawer.

Then lock the door leading to the pilgrim hostel, so the pilgs don´t get up and wander around the cloister at night. (The place is full of Mannerist virgins, after all.) The windows facing the street are barred and covered in wooden lattice, purportedly to keep the nuns invisible to passing traffic. We are completely, utterly safe from invading moors in the night. But if the place catches on fire we all are toast.

Anyway, three nights in a row I did the Katy Bar the Door drill, just as the big bells banged out ten. And within 20 minutes of so, the little group of Asturian Prayer Warriors was out there blasting away on the door bell.

This isn´t a sweet ding-dong bell. It´s like a Change of Classes school bell, and it´s audible through the entire building wing. All the God-fearing pilgrims are blasted from their beds. And I get to undo all those bars, locks, and stanchions to let them in. I open the door. They breeze past me, dropping sweet little jokes about St. Peter holding the keys, etc. My Spanish cannot struggle past my rage in any legible form, so I can only stand there and fume. They never say ¨sorry about that.¨

Last night I managed to tell them they´d better pray to St. Peter to get them their own keys. And one old guy shot back, ¨At least St. Peter can understand us when we talk.¨

I kinda lost it. ¨I don´t speak Spanish well, but I understand you perfectly, Mr. Rude,¨ I said. (¨rude¨ is ¨maleducado.¨ ¨Badly educated.¨ It strikes at the bad guy AND his upbringing!)

And this morning I told the abbess on them.
I feel so like a third-grade summer camp counselor!

There´s lots of summer camp elements to this experience, really. There are bunkbeds, and fellow inmates from all over, of every race and language. Afternoons are waaaaaay long. There´s a chapel, and cafeteria food on a tray. (except the food here is fantastic and very healthy.)

Boundaries are well-kept, though. I can only go out and move around in the morning, because I gotta be here at noon to let people in the door. The tiny sisters come by to empty to donations boxes and make sure everything is put away and the flowers are watered. I read a lot, and practice Spanish, and write in my journal. And answer the doors.

Meals are how the day´s progress is measured, (seeing as there´s no arts and crafts or horseback riding offered.)
Like being at camp, or school. Or jail. I bring a plate and bowl on a tray to the kitchen door, and they hand it back out to me, piled with trout or steak or wonderful soup... they cook VERY well. It´s strange, though, eating alone on the patio, way over on the other end of the convent. Sometimes I eat in my room, even though that`s frowned-on. I don´t want to consume this bounty in front of the pilgs, some of whom are eating out of packets and cans.

I share my bread and fruit with them, and sometimes my homemade cuajada, a sort of yogurt. Like a camper who gets a package of cookies from home!

Enough of this. Gotta pay the barman for the computer time and head back in time for the noon bell concert.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Spic & Span, Chik-N-Huts, and Mental Blocks

Moratinos is lookin´good these days. Everyone is painting, pulling weeds, and pounding nails. It´s looking downright spic & span around here.

Because Estabanito is mayor, we now have Hugo, a part-time maintenance guy who keeps the trash picked up and the weeds cut back. Mornings you sometimes see Milagros, Estebanito´s mom, out on the plaza telling Hugo what to do today. He´s a smiling kind of fellow, and hard-working, too, and I don´t think he takes Milagros too seriously. There´s really not a lot of complicated work to do in a town with two streets and a plaza.

On the plaza, at a right angle to the Milagros-Leandra homestead, carpenter Segundino´s extended family is doing heavy labor on their old family home. I think it has to do with their grandad, who died last December over in San Nicolas -- the old man was born in that corner house, and it´s been left to ruin for about 30 years. This summer, a great gang of look-alike relations have been tearing down and building up the big two-story place over many 14-hour days. The roof is going on right now. So nice to see a house being reclaimed, rather than left to gravity and rain... the houses hereabouts are adobe, and they go right back to earth in a decade or two if they´re not maintained. Maybe grandad left them some money to fix it up. Or maybe they´re going to sell the place and split the dosh. Vamos a ver! (seeing as we´re the local lunatics who will pay incredible sums for ruins, we are usually the first people approached when property hits the market ´round here.)

Likewise, the house right next door to ours is getting a spankin´new coat of white paint, thanks to the sons of the very old man who lives there now and then in the summer. (The old guy lives now in San Sebastian or Vittoria, but he was born and raised in the house. He´s grandfather to about half the people between here and Terradillos.) Evidently not everyone has to die first in order to get his place done up.

Our house is probably the most worked-on edifice in Moratinos, but no one´s touched it for a couple of weeks... still no bozo action here. While we wait, Paddy and I are working on improving the lifestyle of our six ambitious hens. In other words, the pair of us are putting a new roof on the Chik-N-Hut.

It sounds easy. The Chik-N-Hut is in the far corner of our back yard, part of a lineup of decaying adobe animal stalls. It´s probably the most neglected part of the property. The roof was made of heavy, rigid corrugated asbestos that has cracked and sagged over many years of hard winters. The water that came in the cracks soaked into the wooden roof beams, which then began to rot. Woodworms feasted. And last spring, when I crawled up onto the outer walls to repair the tilework, I put my foot right through the stable roof. The beam should´ve held me. It had long ago turned to mush. I was lucky.

We got the chickens in May, and erected a real Mickey-Mouse/redneck/jerry-rigged enclosure for them back there in the corner stall. These are redneck chickens, apparently (the rest of them is red, too), because they don´t seem to care about their accommodations, long as there´s straw in the nesting box and feed in the feeder thingy. We kicked them out of the corner, set up the bozos´floor jacks, and fired up the new chainsaw. Zim Zam, the roof was gone. It only took about four hours of labor worthy of a Roman slave contingent the clear out the place.

We have 16 tons of salvaged lumber here from the house demolition. Some of the wood that held up our floors, roof, and ceilings was worm-eaten right down to dust -- quite similar to what once held up the Chik-N-Hut. Other of the beams are beautiful, worthy of much more than we can offer them. They´re huge, solid tree trunks, some still with bark on them, studded with ancient iron nails and chains and staples. We chose four of them, and wrestled them up into the slots in the adobe walls, lurching and swearing all the while.

Patrick thinks we are insane to do these things, that they are dangerous and beyond our technical ability. I think they are fundamentally no-brainer jobs that just require us to lay aside our books for a few afternoons. I do wonder if maybe I am working him too hard. He is a hypertensive 66-year-old man... While the Spanish die BEFORE their houses are done up, we guiris think about dying DURING, perhaps. I hope to God not.

The problem is, I need to stay occupied. I´ve gotta keep some kind of visible progress going here, or I will give up hope.
We can´t install plumbing, heating, or electricity. But we can haul beams and chop to measure with a chainsaw, and drive nails (sometimes.) So that is what I do. Paddy does, too, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

So the pile of salvage lumber mountain is shrinking a bit, and the Chik-N-Hut has fresh roof timbers now, and a little bit of concrete masonry repair work done. I wish we´d finished it. Summer is winding down for me now, and I´m not sure when will get back to the Hut project. (The chickens, oblivious, are happily cranking out eggs in the stall next door.)

Tomorrow at noon I am off for a week with the Benedictina nuns in Sahagún. I´m going to be the ´hospitalera´ at their little pilgrim hostel until next Friday, signing in the pilgs, locking the door at 10 p.m. (with an iron bar AND a padlock!), rousting out everyone by 8 a.m. and then cleaning up everything for the next go-round. I don´t get to leave the place very often. I´ve never taken part in the life of a cloistered 15th century convent before, so it should be interesting. Unless it´s not. I am bringing books to read, and hopefully I can slip away to the Bar Zentral early next week and blog it to ya!

Soon as I finish there, there´s just one weekend before I ship over to León for my big three-week Spanish Intensivo course. Maybe the convent will be good practice for the university life... All Spanish All the Time, living in a tiny cell, isolated from family and other English-speaking influences. God I hope this course breaks through my mental block -- I have lived here a year now, I can read and write Spanish passably well and can understand just about everything people say to me, unless they are Galicians. But speaking... OMG. The things I do to verbs would just make you weep. Speaking clearly is so very HARD, and I don´t know why.

So now I will shut up.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Party Is Over

Sorry to keep everyone dangling.

After many hours of worry and searching, Una Dog came home. She announced her arrival by tossing over the kitchen trash bin and spreading its contents across the floor. Bloody dog. No one should love an animal so much. She was in fine shape, covered in sand, and very tired. God only knows where she´d been.

Worrying about her took up most of the night, so Sunday, the second day of my Fiesta de San Tomas, was spent mostly in a zombie-like fog. Which is really not so bad, when you consider how many people spend hundreds of dollars to achieve the same effect by other means. I was not hung-over, but many other people around town admitted to having "peso en la cabeza¨-- a heavy head.

At 1 p.m. we went to Mass AGAIN... what with the Mother of God Assuming on Wednesday and San Tomas on Saturday, this makes THREE Masses this week. It´s a little much even for me, who really digs church. And later in the afternoon the bell summoned us yet again to the church, this time for a guitar concert.

"Cool," I thought. "Spain. Guitars. Paco de Lucia. Andres Segovia. Flamenco!" But no. It was the Orquesa de Cuerda Ganados -- the same 12-person combo that played last year´s fiesta. (We were in Moratinos for the fiesta last year, and it was a red-letter event in our lives. It was exactly a year ago we learned a finca was for sale in town, and would we like to see it? And that is how we came to find our Peaceable Kingdom. So Fiesta is kind of an anniversary for us, even though we didn´t buy our place until October.)

The String Orchestra is a dozen surly-looking people playing lutes and guitars of different keys and calibers. Each selection started of at a steady 4-4, but seemed to lose steam as it rolled on... and on. The pews were packed with people pretending to appreciate their annual dose of High Culture: more people were nodding off than even do during church services.

The music was excruciating. I have been to better Junior High choral society Christmas concerts at shopping malls. Paddy was in an agony -- I couldn´t tell if it was mirth or real horror, as he´d tucked himself behind the confessional and held his head in his hands through most of the second half.

There was lightness, though -- reasons to stay on till the very end. First was the director, a character called Carmen Sabugo. Carmen is a small, birdlike person who conducts wearing a topcoat, tie, and tails. The shoulder-length, jet-black hair, receding hairline, little jowels and padded shoulders come together to create an air of mystery. You can´t wait till Carmen turns around again to take a bow, so you can maybe discern some more gender cues... last year I thought I detected lipstick. But you cannot tell, honest to God, if this is a He-Carmen or a She-Carmen. Until this year. A close look at the little program, and Carmen´s called ¨directress.¨ Mystery Solved!

The other diversion was the overflow seating. The pews up front were full of the terribly Middle Class people from out of town, the real music aficionados. We later arrivals got to sit on the rickety balcony stairs, or on one of several three-and-a-half person backless benches brought in from somewhere else. These were apparently designed by the same person who did the teeter-totter. The fun started when someone on the end of one of the benches got up to sneak out. When his weight lifted away, his end of the bench would suddenly rise up and give him a quick smack on the bottom. Meantime, the people on the other end of the bench suddenly plunged downward. It´s an ingenious idea, an ideal way to stay sharp during those long sermons. I almost hit the floor two times, and each one brought gales of suppressed laughter from everyone in the narthex.

I am sure the benches are why the Orquesta de Cuerda graced us with an encore number. Soon as the last nail was driven into "O Sole Mio," and Mr./Ms. Carmen turned to take her bow, someone on every bench, clapping politely, stood up to head for the door. Everyone else on the bench leapt to his feet to keep from being bucked off. And there you have it, ladies and gents... an instant Standing Ovation!

Anyway, after that we all went out to the plaza again for the Big Feed, otherwise billed as a ¨Tasting of Paella.¨ The sun was setting, and a chilly wind blew, and the guys from Casa Barrunta over in St. Nicholas were a good half-hour late with the food. The men passed around a bota. The ladies went home to get sweaters. And when the caterers´ furgoneta finally pulled up -- its windows steamed-over and its backside loaded with giant pans of rice, saffron, snails, and rabbit -- Raul and Restitución and Co. were given a truly heartfelt round of applause.

Paella´s best eaten outdoors, I think. This was delicious, with crusty bread and hard cheese and rough vino tinto on the side, and plenty enough left over for everyone to have seconds. Yum!

Patrick and I packed it in after dinner, even though the Disco Movil was due to start up at 11 p.m. We were whacked and our bellies were full, and this time nobody came to roust us out of bed. Una curled up on the floor underneath us. I could hear her moan in the night as the cohetes blasted away and the Rod Stewart tunes echoed off the front of the house.

Viva la fiesta! Next year, no orujo for me. And we´re shipping the dog out of town for the duration.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Dance Or Else! Fiesta Part 2

With Paddy snoring and the town all involved in visiting their friends and relations, I tried settling in with a book and updating our hard-copy diary. I took the dog with me downtown, after the sun set, to see what was going on.

It was about 10:30 p.m., and the place was deserted. A couple of people were sweeping up in the plaza, and the Mus tables had been taken back inside. Nothing doing, but a bit of noise coming from inside the houses. I wondered if maybe the band had canceled, and what effect it would have on Estebanito´s mayoral career if the evening´s dance was a bust.

I ran into Anastasio on the way home. It´s still early, he said. The band won´t even start setting up til 11.
Too late for me, I told him. Paddy´s already in bed, asleep.

I went in and joined him. Thank goodness I crawled into bed while still fully dressed.

At 11:30 p.m. the front gate crashed open, the dog leapt up barking, and two voices bellowed out Patrick´s name. I jumped up and hit the outside light, hoping it would actually come on this time. It was Victor the folk singer, and Jose, one of the Milagro boys. They were both staggeringly drunk, smiling, their shirttails hanging out in the front.

Spanish men love drinking. Lots of them start their day with a brandy in the local pub. But they hold their liquor, and pace themselves. Aside from dumb-ass teenagers outside discos, you rarely see Spaniards this far gone. ¨Patrick´s gone to bed! You´d think he was an old man!¨ Jose shouted. ¨It´s time to dance! What´s he doing asleep?¨

"I AM an old man!" Paddy shouted from inside the cave-bedroom. ¨Let me get some pants on!"

Jose and Victor quizzed me on my age, Paddy´s age, their ages, and whether or not the numbers mean anything. One nice thing about speaking Spanish to drunks is they understand me better. Or they think they do. It kinda brings them down to the level of communication I inhabit on a daily basis, but with a lot more laughter woven in.

Paddy emerged in a pair of whitewash-spattered shorts and a dirty old sweatshirt, the nearest items he could find at the bedside. The two amigos took him by the arms and marched him out the door and down the street, chanting some merry tune about being bombed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Paddy looked dazed, but what could he do? I grabbed the camera and followed them down the street to the plaza.

Moratinos was awash in swirling disco lights. A three-piece electronic band was playing paso dobles and sentimental Spanish songs, and couples were dancing as well as they could round the uneven concrete and sunken drains that pave the space. Bombs burst in air. The kids at the bar did a land-office business.

And dance we did, for three solid hours. I danced with old Modesto, who deeply enjoyed it and actually thanked Patrick for allowing it; Paddy danced with Julia and Pilar and MariCarmen and all the ladies whose husbands quit dancing soon as they said "I do." Paddy´s a fine dancer, and everyone loves taking a whirl with someone who makes them look like maybe they can dance, too. (he had to run home at one point and change clothes. He´d forgotten his belt, and his shorts were falling down. And his flip-flops left his toes exposed to trampling dancing feet.) There were also jotas, a sort of group circle folk dance, cha-chas, and tangoes. Paddy loves a good tango, and I have trouble with a basic waltz. But toward the evening´s end I did a passing facsimile.

It was the men who really took the cake, dance-wise -- three under-50 guys, all of them truck drivers, got full of orujo and got their grooves on in a big way.

Best of all was Kike, a guy whose hair-raising nickname is just a short form of Enrique. (Pronounce it KEY-Kay and it´s not so bad.) Kike drives the delivery truck for the local construction goods company, and he knows a few gruesome details of our current financial morass with the Bozos. (While in his cups early in the day he offered to pay them a visit. With a pistola. Because he doesn´t care about other people, but people from Moratinos are HIS people, and he can´t stand to see what´s going on. I told him ´thank you, but no thanks, we don´t do violence.´ He told me I must be French then, not American!)

Anyway, Kike got himself a heavy dose of Saturday Night Fever, and as the band played on he danced his heart out there on the pavement. He led line dances, organized a conga line, and spun around on the ground within a circle of his hip-hopping kin. He even had the musicians give the mic for a moment to Fran, the town´s forever-folk-singing mentally handicapped guy, so he could sing one of his old favorites with band backup. Fran got a big thrill and a big ovation. Kike beamed.

When the jota kicked in, Kike kicked off his shoes and really got down, and took the crowd along with him. He´s not a pretty man, but he´s wiry and lithe and full of life -- he looked faun-like, kicking his feet high, turning in the air, yipping and shouting out for sheer happiness. It was a gift, just watching him there, playing off some more hot moves from Javi, a truck driver from San Sebastian whose family inhabits the big green corner house.

Things wound up at almost 3 a.m., and Paddy and I finally headed home to hit the hay for real. When we turned the corner I saw the front gate standing open. Una Dog was gone.

Moratinos Gets Down! Fiesta Part 1

The explosions started Friday night. The party didn´t start till Saturday. Why wait?

Years are long here, and when the Feast of St. Thomas comes around, Moratinos is way ready to party. St. Thomas is the village patron, and the weekend that falls nearest his annual feast day means Fiesta Time in the Tiny Pueblo.

Times are good here. The harvest was good (but for the grapes), and the first new mayor in 12 years is a Moratinos man (we share a mayor with St. Nicholas de Real Camino, the next town over.) This means the town got a real sprucing-up in the last couple of weeks, and the annual fiesta got an unprecedented number of cohetes, all from the community chest.

The Spanish ´cohete,´what we´d call a skyrocket or petard, is a wondrous thing indeed, and Spanish men seem to have a passion for them. (anyone who´s been to Spain knows about the national passion for racket, but so far I´ve not seen women lighting explosives in the streets.) They require a specially constructed ´cohete-holding´device that keeps the rocket pointed up and away from the person lighting it, and allowing for a somewhat safe distance from the sparks. Apparently cohete-lighting technique requires each fuse be lit from a cigarette. Pin (short for ´Seraphim´), one of the town´s many bachelor farmers, seems to be the unofficial Cohetero for Moratinos. Over the weekend, whenever the mood strikes him or some scheduled event is set to happen soon, he´ll set off a couple of these bad boys. The rocket heads skyward on a trail of sparks and explodes a good 100 feet up. The bang shakes the windows all over town. Every dog, cat, pigeon, and partridge dives for cover and stays there, shivering. Even Roldan, the Milagro Family´s very nasty watchdog, has spent the last 30 hours in hiding.

Cars, tractors, and SUVs from the cities rolled up all through Friday afternoon and Saturday morning -- even a Madrid taxicab was parked on the corner where the Camino passes through. Leandra´s house on the corner had ¨20-something¨ people crammed inside and out. Babies where wheeled out and cooed-over, and teenage cousins lurked under the trees in the plaza mayor, peering at mobile phones and sharing IPod headphones, their numbers bolstered by more cousins who biked over from Terradillos and St. Nicholas.

The church bell rang and the cohetes banged for the 1 o´clock Mass, and even the coolest teens joined the crowd. With the usual hymns, the St. Thomas statue was carried out and marched ´round the church, a rite that´s becoming familiar now. The usual number of lucky passing pilgrims got some nice photos, and a couple of them stopped, took off their hats, and made the sign of the cross as the Doubting Thomas statue marched by. Mass was celebrated by Don Gaspar, the priest who fills in when Don Santiago can´t be there. He stayed around after, for the annual Orujo Sampling.

Aside from unregulated fireworks, several other aspects to Moratinos´village festival would shock, dismay, and horrify many Americans. A similar fiesta held in an American town would bring down simultaneous raids from the liquor control board, sanitation authority, family services, animal cruelty officers, child labor enforcement, not to mention the fashion police.

I´ll start with the bar.

It´s a plywood counter that´s stored throughout the year in the pumphouse over the town well, and on Friday it was set up in the corner of the church porch, facing the plaza. It´s apparently been used there for generations, judging from the bracket-marks on the brickwork and names and dates scratched and scrawled on the surfaces. The selection and prices are posted on a chunk of cardboard overhead. A bar, at the church. Okay. (Can Bingo be far behind??)

And after church everyone spilled into the plaza. A nice shot of vermouth is an after-church staple for the men of this town, but usually they have to go all the way to St. Nicholas to get one -- there´s no bar in Moratinos. But on fiesta weekend they just have to stroll around the corner and... et voila! Angelín and Sara are there behind the nicely-stocked bar, ready to serve.

Angelín and Sara come to our house in the winter for help with their English homework. He is a baby-faced 14 year old. She´s 16, maybe. They tend the bar all the way through the fiesta, with breaks from cousins of similar age. They get all the Coca Cola and potato chips they can put away, and any money they make above a certain margin they get to keep. They seem to enjoy their work. No one wonders at what this experience is doing to their tender moral consciousnesses. No one counts his change, even. They´re village kids, learning the value of a 14-hour day´s work. (You got a problem widdat?)

The lawn chairs and tables soon appeared beneath the plaza plane trees, and pleasant hours of Mus ensued. Mus involves no bets or money, but it enflames tempers like high-stakes poker. Over by the newly whitewashed wall the children threw stones into the mouth of a battered iron frog, and rolled an ancient wooden ball at ninepins. We wandered home, and wisely had a nap. Between explosions. Until Tomas and Raimunda showed up.

Tomas and Raimunda sold us our house. It had been in her family since time out of mind, and she cried when we signed the papers. She cried some more when we showed her through it. Tears of joy at its imminent resurrection, or shock at its present condition, or perhaps pity for us... I am not sure. God knows the place makes me cry enough. I think they miss this place, if only for a free place to hang out during fiesta weekend. That´s about all the use it´s had over the past 25 years. They didn´t ask what we´d done with the black laquer and chrome and mirror bar they left in the salon. I was glad they didnt decide they wanted their taxidermy guinea pig back. He´s a keeper.

At 4 p.m. we were asked to come for coffee at Leandra´s place on the corner, a real beehive of activity. ¨Coffee¨on fiesta weekend means everyone brings over a bottle of this year´s home brew for a sampling. (We brought some Jim Beam in a plain liter bottle, and just told them it was whiskey made from grain.) Round the table were relatives and friends and Father Gaspar, most of them already pink-cheeked and singing. Victor, an in-law from Basque Country, was holding forth in a strong and unsteady baritone, belting out one folk song after another. He´d brought clear, rough aguardiente from Vittoria. Jose had some bright yellow orujo, made from the leavings of last year´s wine grapes. The yellow color comes from saffron, he said. It looked like a lab sample to me. But it was very smooth indeed. Someone else had ´licor de uvas,´a purple grape distillate that prickled my nose.

I didn´t drink much. I didn´t have to. An hour later I was singing "Barroom Girls" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin´On My Head." Paddy did "As Time Goes By." Victor and the lads sang about the Boatmen on the River Carrion, floating downstream with a load of drunks from Moratinos, and the Rosebud at the balcony window, whose brown eyes light up the night... that sort of thing. There are several Castillian folk songs that mention local towns by name. I didn´t know that. And my little MP3 recorder refused to work, or I´d have posted a couple of sound files for you.

Paddy, being a male among men, was given way too much to drink, and in his usual accomodating way he managed to choke it down. We went home at 8 p.m. dinner. He fell asleep in his chair. The night hadn´t even begun yet.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Sahagun, it's a helluva town!

I woke up with an Electric Light Orchestra song stuck in my head: Mister Blue Sky. And indeed, the sky was brilliant outside the plank door of our cave.

Paddy had been up for ages. He scowled and said little, but had excellent coffee. We went over to the bodega, which is white as a dove now that the two coats of whitewash are setting up and sealing all the little pits and holes in the concrete. We put the last of the Luminous Blue on the lintels. It´s a knockout. You can see it all blinding white from out on the N120.

The inside is still a spider-hole, and Paddy calls the bodega our ¨whited sepulchre.¨ (He is such a ray of sunshine.) We both are very pleased with how it´s turned out. A concrete mixer of our own may be grinding away in our future. You´re not really a homeowner if you don´t have one, and there really are 1,001 applications for concrete on any given weekend.

We expected the plumber and builders and plumbing supplies to show up today, as yesterday was the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady and everyone was off. We set off early for Sahagun. I had to take my spankin´ new Stihl back to the Chainsaw Boutique. I believe I ordered (and paid-for) a 160cc, but the one I got is a 140. Clarity is needed. The man who sold it wasn´t there, so we have to go back tomorrow. I think it was an honest mistake, but I wanna know. We are getting a bit fed-up with people sorta-kinda taking more of our money than we agreed to pay, or being given products of lesser quality, and being expected to suck it up…

Sorry. Anyway, Sahagun is throbbing these days, with TWO traffic cops valiantly trying to keep the cars from triple-parking on the incoming Avenida de Constitucion, while the big weekly delivery to the Lupa Grocery arrived on the next street up and proceeded to unload for an hour, effectively blocking the outgoing traffic artery at the busiest time of day. Then a funeral cortege tried to leave St. Lawrence church. The grocery truck driver, with a whistle-tooting cop and several formally attired funeral-goers shouting at him, finally just abandoned several pallets of dairy goods just inside the sliding doors of the packed market, slammed the truck doors shut, and pulled away… and back-ended the meat delivery truck double-parked outside the butcher shop on the next block.

The funeral people were apoplectic, and the crowds coming and going got a heckuva show. I don´t know if the dead person ever made it to the cemetery, but If nothing else could make the dead get up and walk, this might do it.

Meanwhile, I went to get a haircut. I love getting haircuts in Sahagun, because Peluqueria Conchi, where I go every six weeks or so, is such a vortex of strange and wonderful ladies.

And it´s just up the street from the remains of San Facundo, a Benedictine monastic complex that once ruled this sector of Spain and spun off Conquistadors, saints, scholars, and wicked abbots for a good 600 years. All that remains now is a clock tower, a fabulous Mudejar church, some well-preserved ruins, and a prim convent of a dozen or so Benedictine nuns who watch over the remains. (San Facundo --> Sahagun. Geddit?)

Conchi (whose real name is Concepcion), is related to at least one of the sisters, and she routinely does their hair. These nuns still wear veils, so you´d think what hair they have wouldn´t require a highly skilled beautician. But one thing I learned there is that nun hats pinch, and nun scalps get very irritated and sore where the stitching rubs, and some of the sisters have ongoing infections. Conchi keeps a special set of combs in an antiseptic solution, just for use on the longsuffering Benedictinas. They offer up their injuries for the salvation of our sinful world, presumably.

The last time I went there the woman in the next chair ¨had a little accident.¨ Her false teeth (which looked from the get-go like they belonged to someone else) fell out of her mouth and skittered across the floor, and the woman, swathed in an apron with her hair half-covered in highlights, attempted to drop to her knees and feel around for it. Conchi saw the teeth grinning down there, and quite casually picked up the plate, rinsed it off in the shampoo basin, and handed it back to the lady, who popped it into her mouth as she regained her seat and her dignity. No one said a word about it.

And today, another old lady in the chair chatted happily about how she looked forward to the fiesta her pueblo is holding this weekend, how she loves to dance jotas and paso dobles, how this is the only time anyone gets to dance these dances any more. She demonstrated the proper positioning for fingers and hands – there´s a Catalan way and a ¨regular¨ way, she said, and showed us both from underneath her cape. Cochi clicked and snipped a castanet rhythm with her thinning shears, then swept away the apron and spun the chair around. She handed the lady her walking stick and helped her to her feet. Only then I saw a large section of the lady´s shin is gone, surgically sheared down to skin and bone. She smiled and hobbled out, wishing everyone ´felices fiestas.´ She´ll be dancing jotas all weekend, if only in her great big heart.

I got my ten-Euro shampoo, cut, and blow-dry, and the bells at San Facundo chimed noon as I stepped out the door.

We headed home, where Paddy made tuna steaks and couscous and pimientos de Padron for our al fresco lunch. We drank cold vino verde and looked at the newest ´Casas de Campo´ decorator pornography magazine. We talked about color schemes and lighting and tiles, while our half-finished house glowered quietly behind us.

The bozos didn´t show up again today. Tomorrow, they said. ¨No te preocupes.¨ Don´t worry.

I´m not worrying much, as this weekend is the fiesta in Moratinos, too, and there´s plenty to do around here. I am helping clean the church and snap beans for a huge community paella, things women do. (And the Benedictinas in Sahagun, knowing I´m a Federation hospitalera, this evening called and asked if I´ll run their pilgrim refuge from the 24th to the 31st. I´ll have my own cell in the cloister. Cool.)

But Paddy is worried, burdened, and not feeling well. All the struggle and shouting is really wearing on him, and the things I use to keep myself going aren´t the things he needs.

What is required is progress. A good plumber, a houseful of hammering and pounding, painting and wiring, some visible payoff for all the money we´ve spent. I think we really just need to get this building project over with already.

Maybe next week I´ll get the Benedictinas on the case. I understand they´ve got powerful connections to a certain Carpenter.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

¿Donde estan los Bozos?

Well, OK. I got rid of the blog about bozos and hermits, which occupied this space for about 12 hours. Not because it was a bad blog -- I rather liked its surreal narrative. It showed how my mind works. But it was unacceptable for several reasons, so I iced it.

Be assured that everything I post here first passes a stringent Quality Control Regimen, which sometimes even includes a spell-check. Unfortunately in this case, some of those featured in the Bozo Blog were less than happy about it: Most notably the people who own Bozo. Bozo the Clown, that smiling goober who´s frightened generations of American children, is a copyright, and I am warned to cease and desist from using his image in my blog or face the most dire consequences.

No matter that the blog really had nothing to do with the loveable cartoon character. (The bozos in question are the team of highly skilled extortionists/builders who occasionally show up to drive a few nails at our house project and shake us down for a few thousand euros so they can buy more nails.). The goons who own Bozo´s image aren´t joking around. They apparently are not burdened with a well-developed sense of humor. (Which begs the question: Who is the REAL Bozo, when there are so many wandering the world? Is Bozo a real person, or is he a spirit? Or even a Lifestyle?)

And wow, what I could make of actually being SUED by the Bozo People!
But for now there are enough clowns in my life who want to take away all my money.

I haven´t heard from the multinational conglomerate that likely now owns Paramount Pictures, which I assume owns the image of Julie Andrews playing Maria in ¨The Sound of Music.¨(That was another image I kyped for the blog. Far as I know Maria isn´t related to Bozo, except they both wear blue outfits and hang out with gangs of small, singing children.) But I made that go away, too, before their lawyers could threaten to take away all My Favorite Things.

Now everyone in Copyright land can unknot their knickers and get back to counting paperclips and downloading porn and picking their noses.

It wasn´t just the Corporate Sharks who didn´t like the blog much. My friend Tino said it was sentimental. Patrick said it made him look like a crybaby. I haven´t received complaints yet from any hermits, but I understand they often have problems with web access.

So I am re-thinking what I oughtta blog... maybe less of what´s happening in my head, and more of what´s happening in town. Both places are populated with otherworldly beings and fantastic dialogs. Both are trips to exotic, sometimes dark terrain. But Moratinos is probably a lot less subject to corporate copyright infringement enforcement bozos.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Things I Miss (mostly cheese-related)

The sky looks threatening. I really wish we could have a big loud August thunderstorm. I miss those.

There aren´t a lot of things I miss about America, but frequent summer storms are among them. We occasionally get storms here, and I remember one that was really amazingly violent. But I´ve seen nothing here like the wild tornado-spewing gullywashers that sent us running for the basement in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Woowee! Those made me glad to be alive, afterward.

Now that I am thinking about it, I will tell you the few things I miss about The Land of the Free:

1. Customer service in stores and shops. Not that it´s really THAT great most US places, but if something´s broken you can return it and get a refund or exchange, usually with minimal hassle. Around here, you get a quizzical look and shrugged shoulders. And don´t even get me started about the ¨help¨ in restaurants and bars! Or builders and repairmen. God, no.

2. Big Box stores. Sure, they´re suburban eyesores. But it´s awfully nice to go into one place and find 40 different kinds of the thing you need, along with people who (sometimes) speak English and know where the Plumbing and Electrical and Trash-bin aisles are. Around here, you walk into the crowded little shop and tell the guy behind the counter exactly what you want, and he opens a wall covered in tiny drawers and produces something you never imagined, saw, or asked-for, which he then wraps up in newspaper and string for you to take home. This means you can go into the hardware store for a chainsaw, and come out with mouse poison and a selection of sink washers. (this pic., btw, is from a fine American named Dave whose hobby traveling throughout North America taking photos of every Home Depot store. That´s Dave in the picture. God bless Dave and the kid in the picture, too.)

3. Good pizza, which is also surprisingly hard to find in America any more. Spaniards put gorgonzola on theirs. No.

4. Macaroni & cheez. I make excellent homemade upper-case Macaroni And Cheese here, using local sheep´s milk cheese, when I have access to an oven. It´s the horrible day-glo Kraft Macaroni & Cheez stuff I miss. Vile plastic comfort food from my childhood. My mom sent me some at Christmas but there´s only one packet left... I have to wait for a real crisis to bust that open!

5. Mexican food. Nachos don´t cut it. I want enchiladas! (interesting how all my food desires involve cheese. The cheese here is outstanding, and Dick supplemented the local supply with some knockout stinky cheese from France... still I yearn for sharp cheddar.)

6. My mom. And my kids. My two sisters, and my cousin Barbara, my Aunt Esther, and Sheila, my best old bud from Seton Hill College. Wish they were here, ´cause I don´t wanna be there.

7. Once in a while, I miss the newsroom. Just the breaking-news rush, or that glow that comes over me when I discover something really juicy, or someone opens his mouth and an amazing quote comes out. And deadline. I miss that. And day ACES... assistant city editors. Some of the best journalists in America are Day ACEs.

8. Being able to pick up the phone and make inquiries and solve a problem that simply.

9. More than anything else, I miss English.

That is ten if you count the thunderstorm, and it looks like one of those is really going to happen!

I´m not really homesick, honest. I am loving it here. But it´s the weekend, the time I most usually think of family and friends and cheese. When nostagia threatens, I look at an old 1930´s era photo I have of my great-grandfather Alex and his mother Emily Ann and brother Ike and sister Anna Mary Bell. It´s obvious these folks are TOUGH hombres, wincing right through the Great Depression. (Wish you could see the pic!) They´re my forebears. Their blood is my blood.

You can bet they didn´t whine for mac & cheez, or old Emily´d give them-uns a lickin´ they wouldn´t soon forget.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Amity & Progress at the Peaceable Kingdom

It´s been a very productive few days at the Peaceable Kingdom, which always makes me feel extra good once the evening rolls ´round and the Bach cello albums come out. (Yeah, I still call them "albums." Sue me.)

Dick´s been one of the best guests yet. He not only has lots to discuss (he´s a parish priest in suburban Maassluis, and just finished a huge, ultramodern building project that´s taken YEARS), but he likes having a job to do. He´s taken up my preoccupation with the bodega-front, and in the past three days we´ve gotten the entire thing patched, pointed, and stuccoed with fine gray concrete. It´s not easy, what with that curved front and multiple layers of broken brick and rubble sticking out all over, and some really horrorshow spiders. He even did the ceiling of the arch... try getting wet concrete to stick to a dirty horizontal-concave surface that is above your head. We did it. I think his being 6 feet tall was a big help!

He also carried the butano canister for me in town today, and generally kept me company while we bought newspapers, potatoes, lemonade and mayonnaise. (the picture is us in the cloister at St. Isidore Basilica in Leon on Tuesday.) He´s walked all through the house, and commented on how doors should swing and tiles match and lights shine down just so...all the kinds of things that make Paddy´s eyes glaze over when I bring them up, but that really do need to be discussed before the installations start. Last night we stayed up way late, and drank a bit too much vino tinto, and really talked. So very fine. It´s been too long. Even Paddy, who really likes to live alone, said he´ll be sorry to see Dick go away tomorrow.

Other good friends are also in evidence. Edie, one of my California Girls, sent a Care Package this week: books of Reiner Maria Rilke and Pema Chodron, piñon and cedar incense, even an Einstein book for Patrick. The fat, luxurious beeswax candles sent by Kathy are now occupying the spaces left empty in our little parish church when we ran out of little votive lights. Friends keep us alive, and our chapels alight. I believe that. I don´t see mine often, but they are so dear, and so generous.

I think one thing all my good friends hold in common is their capacity for silence. We can chatter for hours, but we can also just be quiet together, too. And no matter how long ago it´s been since I´ve seen them, it´s always like just yesterday we talked last. The commonality is still there, the fellow-feeling, and the love.

Speaking of noise (or lack thereof) The house, it really is progressing! The place was noisy all day with hammers and tools, and we have walls in the upstairs now, the bathroom is enclosed and the downstairs floors still being excavated. Slow but sure, I am glad to say. More reason to be thankful.

And maybe next time my friends come to visit, they will have a fine room of their own to stay in, and a proper bed for sleeping!

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Good Bad Ugly French Dutch Spanish

It is late at night on Saturday, the only sound out in the dark is the owl´s scrapey voice in the distance. Even Una Dog is asleep. I am awake because my old friend Dick is on his way here from Madrid. His plane arrived there at 11:30 p.m., and he´s rented a car and DRIVING here, as I write. It´s a three-hour journey on some of the most boring highways of Spain. I hope he´s smart enough to stop and sleep. But in case he´s not, we have the ever-ready mattress made up for him on the kitchen floor, at my very feet. The dog is sleeping on it, her paws softly twitching. Even in her sleep she can hear that owl.

Dick lives in a little town near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He´s extra special to me because we walked parts of the Camino de Santiago together, back in 2001. He introduced me to after-dinner brandy and tiny cigars, (SUCH a buzz!) and taught me how to sing, in Dutch, "Yes, We Have No Bananas." He´s the one pilgrim who was with me when I finally hiked into Santiago de Compostela, the end of the 6-week journey, a powerful spiritual moment.

Matter of fact, the section of camino where I live now is part of the camino I walked with Dick, six years ago. I have no memory of this town from then. I wonder if he does. I hope we can do some walking while he is here.

A huge amount of things have changed in both our lives in the years since, but we´ve managed to stay in touch and even visit one another, sporadically, and in a vast variety of exotic locations and conditions. Dick is a very elegant and tasteful man, and I´m kinda intimidated having him here when the place is still such a wreck. (His house is right out of a design magazine... but then, he is Dutch. They are SO architectural there!) He´s done lots of construction work in the past, and says he´ll help us out with whatever... and we do need to put new roof timbers in the Hen Hut. And he´s 6 feet tall, which helps even more!

It´s been a very hot week, and most of it ordinary. On Wednesday evening a big extended family from France rolled up in a couple of vans and set up tents in Moratinos´little park. They had a couple of priests in their party, and asked if they could use the church for a Mass. The Julis, you know, keep the keys. They said ¨sure, so long as we can come, too.¨

And so we did. The kids took turns ringing the church bell, and a good number of Moratinians turned out to see what the hubbub was about. Inside the church was a genuine Latin Mass, which made Modesto go all misty-eyed with nostalgia for his acolyte years. Afterward the family gave us a bottle of their local cider to share among the plaza-sitters, so of course Jose had to bring them all up to his bodega to try ¨the champagne of Moratinos.¨ (And Modesto, not be outdone, subjected them to his latest vintage, too.)

The local wine is very nasty. It takes real cojones to serve it to people from Bordeaux. No one said anything out loud, but I think the greenery outside the bodegas got a good dousing with wine "accidentally spilled.¨

Still, a good time was had as the sun took its sweet time setting. The travelers had ten children among them, uniformly beautiful and blonde. Seeing them run barefoot across the grass, bopping one another with cattails and sunflower-heads as their parents set up camp... it was right out of an LL Bean catalog. The two families vacation together every summer, and walk a stretch of the camino each time. Even the 6-year-old kids. The parents take turns driving the vans 25 km. stages, find a place to camp, then bicycle back to join the others. This is their fourth year. I was impressed.

Interestingly, at least one other pilgrim was not. As all the bodega-visiting and cider-swilling was going on, a bearded old man with a military-surplus backpack wandered into the plaza, looking lost. I asked him if he needed anything, and he told me only that he was French and he couldn´t understand what anyone was saying.

I don´t speak French, but I understand a little. I told him (in Spanish) a group of French were set up over in the park, they could communicate with him. He waved his hands at me. ¨I am a pilgrim. Those are tourists,¨he said. He stalked away. The hell with him, I thought. Some pilgrim. Seems to be a lot of these cranky old bastards around these days.

A lot of us were tourists before we turned pilgrims. You gotta start somewhere. And who is he to decide who´s what?

We talked more on that this afternoon, when a French guy with a fabulous name turned up: Christian Champion writes a popular French guidebook. He´s out doing updates for next year´s edition, and bemoaned the recent closure of a few excellent old pilgrim albergues. The people who run them burn out, or are out-touted or harrassed by newcomers anxious to squeeze money from the pilgrim flood. The camino´s been here for a thousand years, and this is nothing new, obviously. Still, he said, so many hostal-keepers want to be the one-and-only in a given town or area. There are plenty of pilgrims to go around, but every traveler who stops at the other guy´s restaurant or hostel is seen as taking money from the other´s pocket. Ugly stuff. We´ve seen a good bit of that right here, ourselves. The very people who offer hospitality and kindness to pilgrims are full of jealousy, fear, and loathing for their neighbors.

So...all these French people all week, and now we wait for a Dutchman to arrive. The nationality thing is cool, but ultimately really quite meaningless. I´m beginning to not believe in countries or patriotism. People are good and bad, pretty and ugly, sad and glad and mean and sweet on a person-to-person basis, not a national one.

Speaking of such things...I have this ¨hit counter¨ thingy now on this blog, you can see it over there to the right. I am not sure I like it. It may disappear one of these days. It makes me all too aware of how popular/not popular this or that entry is. And it just feeds into the self-absorption that is so everywhere in Blog World... did they like me today? Will I be a ¨blog of note¨someday? Am I almost famous? Are those real people reading, or is it really just my mom, signing in over and over because her slow computer is forever timing out? Life is too short for all that. AAAAAUUGH! Bedtime for me!

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Leon Underground: Bilbo lives here.

OK, yesterday I went a little crazy with the Moratinos bodega biz. Today we went for the Mother of All Bodegas: Valdebimbre.

We discovered the place by accident last year, traveling from one 'hospitalero' gig to another. It's about 20 miles south of Leon, the nearest big city -- maybe 45 minutes from The Peaceable Kingdom. It is the true Bodega Land/Hobbiton of Castilla-Leon. It's amazing in a subterranean way.

Valdebimbre is a little town of about 800 people, I guess, and every man, woman, and child must have his own fully outfitted hole in the ground. Almost the entire place is a bodega of some kind. The terrain all around is covered in vineyards, and the town is dedicated to viniculture: gathering, pressing, fermenting, bottling, and marketing wine. That's why all the bodegas.

It's suited for the job. The ground is sandy clay, much given to both grapes and excavation. And the town -- and several dozen more all around it -- is built on a valley. The hillsides facing in are completely tunneled-under with bodegas, some of them of warehouse proportions. Entire streets are faced with little doorways, but no houses behind. The upper-level topography is all peaks and chimneys and ventilators, and you have to be extra careful where you walk. What looks like solid ground may just be somebody's corrugated-iron roof, grown-over with brush and litter.

We went to one bodega that housed a fully commercial wine-making operation and bought some bottles of last year's vintage blanco. Twelve Euros. Then we went across the little valley, where the townspeople are busy setting up the place for next weekend's Fiesta del Vino, roping off parking spots and setting up big tables under the trees. I recognized the wide grassy lawn along the river. We passed through there on a Sunday morning last summer, presumably the morning after the fiesta. The lawn was littered with the bodies of people overcome with the spirits of the night before. It looked rather like a battlefield, really, but everyone still had all their arms and legs. I knew I had to come back! (I love this country. Can you tell?)

We hiked around town a little, tasted some more home-made vino, then found La Cueva Minambres, one of the three open-for-lunch bodega-restaurants in town. The entryway looked like a lot of others in Valdebimbre, maybe just a little tarted-up. Inside was an amazingly deep and wide and high-up cave, with a really large and carnivorous restaurant installed within. We had a salad and an enormous mixed grill of beef, lamb, goat, and pork, and a bottle of the house red (which is truly 'of the house' 'round here) for just over 50 Euro. Paddy looks rather glum in the photo, but we didn't hate ourselves for long -- there are always cholesterol drugs. Una will be chewing the bones for a week.

Other bodegas in town sell their wine, or show visitors around the wine-making apparatus, or serve snacks and bar food. Others are summer hideaways for the families that own them, providing a sort of RV-park community ambience for the rough-and-ready. (The people we spoke to were friendly, but no one we saw resembled a hobbit. No elves. Not even a dwarf.) Valdebimbre is far from the only bodega-rich environment in the wide-open spaces south of Leon. The region is famous, regionally, for bodegas, but no one outside seems to know anything of them.

Whenever we go on one of these Expeditions I always look up the place in advance in our Rough Guide and Fodors and Turismo de Castilla-Leon guidebooks, just so we don't miss anything. This place, this wine region, these bodega-lands? A huge swath of blank space. Nada. The guidebooks have missed it entirely.

Tourists would LOVE this stuff, and there's nary a mention of it anywhere I checked. Amazing. And those of us who own more humble bodegas can glean all kinds of fix-up ideas just from walking down Calle de las Cuevas. In the future, visitors to the Peaceable Kingdom may be hauled out to the wilds of Leon to see this wonderful warren before the busloads of Belgians descend. Be warned.

Anyway, well pleased with it all, we headed back home. Esperanza was due for a 5 p.m. "Agony Hour" of Spanish-English interaction. We just made it.