Saturday, 27 October 2007

John Deere Does Sahagun

I think the pilgrim gave me her germ. My eyes are not working right. They keep falling asleep. My bones hurt.

There´s a big agricultural fair this weekend in Sahagún, and the throngs pouring in to view the latest trends in tractors and turkeys have snatched up all the good parking spaces. We are told there´s been an agriculture fair in Sahagún since sometime in the 1300s, long before John Deere was a twinkle in his daddy´s eye. (Although manure-spreaders and cement mixers were probably fixtures already in most civilized homes.)

The electricians are happily chopping channels into the walls and plaster and adobe, freeing the Living End of the Peaceable Kingdom from its more unpleasantly shocking tendencies. They have the hugest drills I ever saw, which may give rise to their jaunty and carefree air. The light they put up to illuminate the patio is not in keeping with the decor. (this is not because the light actually works, or is less than 30 years old. It is to say it is very industrial. But what the heck. We´ll get to charming and characteristic and rustic sometime down the road.)

The power keeps going on and off. That is my excuse for not answering all my emails. Be patient with me. The place is absolutely coated in plaster dust, and I don´t feel good.

Libby is in Palas de Rei, about three days short of Santiago. The doctor this morning told her to not walk for two days, or she will do some real damage... she´s got a sort of sciatica pain in her left leg, top to bottom. So she decided to only walk a mere 15k tomorrow. But I pulled the Mom Privilege card and told her No, Don´t Do That You Stupid Kid or I´ll Whup You Good. Palas de Rei is not exactly a swinging hotspot, but neither is the osteo ward. And in Spain, she´s got no health coverage.

So I will go and curl up in my bed in the apartment in Sahagún til I feel better. Don´t worry. Be happy. And I have health insurance.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Monosyllables: grout, slog, bog, dump, Swiss, gifts

Lots happens in a few days. We are cramming a whole lot of living and working and whining into small spaces of time, which seem to fly past us. Thanks for your patience. We only have an internet connection in Moratinos, so gone are the long, pensive evenings of blog-crafting. (by 10 p.m. we both are sacked out cold at the apartment in Sahagún.) But as for writing, am back to working on deadline! Hooah! (the picture here is the view out our balcony window. That´s the church of San Juan de Sahagún in the morning light. Nice, no?)

The tiles: there are just over 200 of them! Me and Patrick the Czech just spent the past three days laying them into concrete, trying to level and line them up just so, with the little foursquare patterns just right. Not as &%%$ easy as it first appears! After much fussing around and swearing (and some singing, too,) we got an acceptable center bit laid down, with ´white cement´ (which is really sandy brown) laid all around the edges. We couldn´t tile all the way to the walls because the walls are angle-free. The despensa is, after all, just a cave made of mud.

It is an extremely amateur job. I am in for a hard slog getting the film of grout off the faces of the tiles... I ran out of energy before I could get that all finished up. There´s only so much one person can achieve after 9 hours on her knees. It is drying now. A real tile-layer would weep. Still, I am kinda proud of it.

I´m prouder of the dolphin mosaic. James built a step outside the despensa door, and I embedded the mosaic fish into that. I grouted it today, with special marble grout. It´s looking good! And the wall next to that, I used cob (the same mud-straw mix our house is made of) to repair some bad spots, then James showed us about mixing up slip from red earth and water. It puts a really lovely coffee-brown color onto the adobe and cob. And we now have a cool little niche outside the despensa door for a candle or a little Graven Image. It is good to stay busy.

Yesterday was a case in point. In the morning we poured concrete and scrubbed tiles, and Paddy made vegetarian rice and spinach for lunch, and at 2 I got a call from Miryam, a Swiss pilgrim who is part of the Couch Surfing group (if you are a traveler and don´t know about Couch Surfing, check out their website! It´s a wonderful idea Ryan showed to us.) Anyway, Miryam was in Sahagún, and we agreed to put her up in the apartment for a couple of days, so we took Tim the Dog with us into town to meet her.

Miryam had a bad dose of Pilgrim Lurgy (a stomach virus romantically attributed to bad water or Pilgrim Menu dinners) the night before, so she´s taking it easy. Fine for us, as we have so much going on, and are incapable of staying up late. Paddy took Tim to the vet. (Tim still has a nasty cough.) Miryam and I met a great crowd of pilgrims outside the albergue, Americans and Kiwis mostly, all of them feeling green around the gills. It´s kinda fun to be the one who knows stuff about the town!

We loaded the dog and Miryam into the furgoneta and headed back to Moratinos to drop off the dog and check on Patrick Czech´s progress in plastering. We stopped at the dump on the way to drop some broken tiles and concrete. Big mistake. It rained all day yesterday, and the place is a bog with a single-lane road leading to it... no turning back. We got the debris dumped, but that weight may have been what was keeping us on the road! On the way down the mud reached up and took control of the car and dragged it sideways into a ditch. It was an eerie experience indeed, and thankfully we did not roll right over on our side.

Poor Miryam. Innocently touring the beauties of northern Spain, she finds herself stranded in a rural dump turned mud bog, with two dusty foreign strangers and a stinky, honking dog. I took her picture.

Long story short, we phoned up the Milagro Brothers, and Estebanito drove out with a tractor and pulled us out of the hole. No harm done. Thank goodness for mobile telephones, and kind neighbors with heavy equipment! When we got to Moratinos we found the electricians had been there, and started installing the new mains box on the outside wall! (For unknown reasons they buggered off early, though. Maybe we need to move furniture (AGAIN!) out of their way? To where will we move anything? The mind boggles!) Oh, and the postman brought a care package from Kathy in California... full of marshmallows for Thanksgiving sweet potatoes! I love surprise packages!

After all that Miryam took us to dinner at the best place in town. We had fresh grilled mushrooms and roasted red peppers and lamb ribs. She was still feeling peaked, and settled for rice and artichokes. We all slept very well. Living is tough, but full of little gifts, too. I think our luck is slowly changing.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

What Lies Beneath

A few months ago, Una chased a mouse into a neighbor´s yard. She disappeared into the gaping maw of a building whose side wall had collapsed god knows when. She wouldn´t come when I called, and no one was around to look askance, so I followed her inside.

A long time ago it was a cowshed, the far end of a long, plain, mostly uninhabited house on Calle Ontanon. There wasn´t much there but some rusty old plows, worm-eaten beams, fallen timbers, and tons of adobe bricks where the wall once was. One other thing I did notice, however, right by the entrance... several stacks of old concrete floor tiles, half-buried in the debris.

I pulled one out. It had a simple design stamped into its surface, nothing fancy. Very old-fashioned, 20s, or 30s style, obviously long forgotten. Hmmm, I thought. These would fit in our place. We had similar tiles in the hallway of our house, (here´s a pic. of Una standing on them) back before they were ripped up to make room for the underfloor heat system.

Anyway, Una caught her mouse and we left. I kinda forgot about the tiles, but I did find out the end of the building was owned by Pilar and Anastasio. I was surprised at that, because everything to do with that couple is neat as a pin. They wouldn´t let a building fall down that way, I thought. But then again, this town (and dozens like it) is full of fallen-down adobe houses. It´s all due to Spanish inheritance law, and bull-headed family members, and the impermanent nature of adobe.

For centuries, when a man died his wife and children inherited his property in equal parts. If all he owned was a house, all five of his kids automatically got a share. (the widow was allowed to stay there as long as she lived. Never mind the house may have been hers to start with...) Anyway, the Tierra del Campos region is suffering from severe depopulation. Pop may have left the place to the boys and girls, but all of them have moved off to Vittoria or Madrid or Berlin, as nobody wants to farm anymore. Some of the kids probably want to sell it. Others want to use it for a summer place, to use during the fiesta. (that´s how our place survived.) But when the gang can´t agree, the house is often neglected. After a few years parts start falling off it.

The big long building up the street is a case in point.

This week the tiles came to mind again, as our despensa floor took shape. On Thursday morning I peeked in the barn and the tiles still were there. I screwed up my courage and my Spanish verbs, and knocked on the gate at Pilar´s house. She understood what I was saying, but said she couldn´t remember any tiles being in there. She got her keys and we hiked up the street. I showed her what I meant.

"They are not nice. And they´re not mine," she said. "The piece of the house next to this is mine, the standing-up part. This fallen-down bit belongs to Edu. The whole place is divided up four ways," she explained, pointing out where one portion had been given one kind of window, another had pink paint, etc. That all happened so long ago no one knows why any more.

Edu is almost deaf. He has a huge smile, almost like he´s wearing someone else´s teeth. He lives down on the corner, across from the church, and lately supplies the village with exquisite figs from the big tree in his yard. So me and Pilar hiked down there. (She was really enjoying this.) Milagros, scenting gossip, came out of her place, heard the tale, and joined the parade. We found Edu inside his barn, doing something under his tractor. Once upright, we shouted to him what was up. He knew right away about the tiles.

"They are not nice," he said. "Not fashionable. My mother hated them, and my father was supposed to put them down in the cowshed, but he never got to it," Edu shouted back. "They are not nice. But take them. Help yourself."

"I have some money," I yelled. "I´ve gotta pay you something." I don´t think he understood me, or maybe he didn´t hear me.

"One thing though," he said. "Go get them fast, before the roof comes down."

I was over the moon, not just because of the coup, but because I´d taken on a somewhat complicated matter and I´d made myself understood! Me and Danek the Czeck went to get them in the furgoneta, and we found there weren´t just 40 or so tiles all standing in file against the wall, There were were layers of them, probably more than 100, buried in the foot-deep debris that covered the floor. They were filthy, some were scarred and pitted, but we cleared them all out of there and brought them back to The Peaceable and loaded them into the trough. I scrubbed until the sun went down and I couldn´t see them any more, and in the morning scrubbed some more. I found some that are in pristine condition, others almost beyond use. Four of them together form a simple, repeating pattern on a soft yellow background. I hope to use all of them someplace or other around here: maybe on windowsills, floors, kitchen backsplash, or stairway risers. Cool!

And I did some research on hydraulic tiles. You still see lots of them around, and in places like New York and Barcelona and Brazil, they are enjoying a vogue... especially the more complicated and fancy ones. Ours is more homey, a bit like this one, but not nearly so shiny or colorful.

The concrete floor in the despensa needs to dry out a bit before we install tiles, so we have ours all lined up on end along the front of the big house. The plastering is coming right along. The electricians are due tomorrow. I´ll let you all know how it all turns out.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Czechs and Balances

Sorry things are so short and snappy, but these days are VERY long and very busy. Our moods are balancing out a little, mostly because we are so very occupied. We now have two smiling young Czechs working here, with occasional oversight from James the Handy Neighbor. Today they installed a new concrete floor in the despensa, and they are just now, at 8:10 p.m., using the leftover cement to finish up the old salon floor the bozos left undone. It´s cool having another language going on.

Tomorrow we put the lovely new (and much taller! No more dinged foreheads and busted brows!) despensa door in place, and hopefully Cañizo the Electrician guys will show up and get crackin´on wiring up "the living end" of the Peaceable. Today an actual albanil from Palencia came to look the place over and start an estimate. Paddy and I stomped some mud and water and straw together to make cob, which will go into the despensa doorway tomorrow. (it´s the muddy clay stuff that most of the old buildings around here are made of.) And Pastrana the Plumber, who finally go the hot water flowing in the Sahagún place, promises to come to Moratinos on Saturday to price out the tuberia.

Paddy´s hard at work making garlic soup for our dinner. We don´t have eggs to drop into it... a strange circumstance around here! But supply may be starting to meet demand. Yesterday Moratinos was awash in pilgrims from Australia, Czech Republic, Finland, Oman, Poland, and Canada, and James and Marianne threw a barbecue of sorts over at their project. While we did the washing-up at our place, Julia the Neighbor came over with a box of figs from Edu´s tree. We all chatted a while, or at least we listened to Julia go on about life in the village.

One local concern is the mouse plague. The junta a couple of weeks ago gave the farmers long red tubes to partially bury in their fields. Deep inside they put poisoned grain, down where the storks and pheasants can´t reach and hopefully the rain water won´t flow. The mice are supposed to go down the tubes, eat the grain, and scurry off to their eternal reward.

The distribution point for the tubes and grain was right outside Julia´s place.
Someone spilled some of the grain on the ground. Julia´s chickens plucked it up. So Julia´s chickens are no more. Laying hens aren´t easy to get this time of year, and we know how well-kept her critters are -- they took in someone´s overgrown Easter duckling a while back, and Lucas is now 8 years old, a useless animal by all accounts, but they couldn´t just let him live in misery on an apartment balcony in Santander.

So we gave Julia two of the Gladyses. She and I went out into the corral with a big plastic grocery bag, popped in two hens, and off they went down Calle Ontanon. (I made sure neither was Blodwyn.) And so we are down to three hens, three eggs per day. It´s a much more reasonable number for two people, one of whom is watching his cholesterol. But we are feeding four hardworking people now, and I can only hope Castilian Poor People Food is enough to feed us all -- I used all three of today´s eggs in the tuna salad we had for lunch. And Patrick the Czech is vegetarian, so eggs is one of the primary proteins we have on offer.

Oh well. They ARE pilgrims, accustomed to living rough and eating god-knows-what. Good thing. That´s exactly what we have to offer them!

I missed my Girls Night Out in Salamanca the other day, but hopefully we can make it up tomorrow in Zamora. Tomorrow is also Libby´s birthday. She will have to celebrate out there on the Camino someplace... I haven´t heard from her in three days, so I take that as a good sign.

So the hard labor continues, which distracts us from our woes and worries and gives us some really visible progress to look at. Life is good.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

keep away.

We have a Czech pilgrim named Patrick toiling for us by the hour. He´s living in the old salon. He sings and plays the guitar at odd moments, but works very hard. He made us feel all hopeful and purposeful.

I was planning on meeting my pilgrim bud Wanda in Salamanca today for a Girls´ Night Out at the Convent, but this morning the lights went out at the Peaceable Kingdom, and the power won´t come back on. The electrician is only taking messages.

Paddy went for a walk with the dogs, and hasn´t come back. It´s been 3 hours.

Patrick the Czech is clearning the tons of old moldy straw out of the barn, a job neither Patrick nor I can bear, allergy-wise. Patrick the Czech is vegetarian, and has been sleeping outdoors for almost a week. I haven´t figured out how to tell him he can, indeed, shower and do his laundry, please! (Still I am very grateful he´s here. James found him, and brought him over, knowing the straits we´re in just now.)

I am doing heavy work again, too, clearing out the construction debris upstairs and out back and hauling it by the furgoneta-load to the dump. I hope it is not a mistake, that we aren´t expected to live among the rubble until an estimator comes and determines the degree of horror left behind by Mario & Co. If I don´t keep busy I will lose it. We are working very hard and sleeping the sleep of the righteous every night.

There´s still no hot water at the new place. It´s a schizophrenic existence.
If you were planning to stop in for a friendly visit, this may not be the best time.

Monday, 15 October 2007

The plot thickens. So does the concrete.

It´s Monday, a lovely new week has begun. The little birds are forming flocks for flying south. They sprinkle themselves across the sky like pepper on an omelet.

We´ve decided to stop whining now and get on with it. Mario the contractor is not coming back, and if he did I might just cold-cock the guy. Bring on the lawyers! And the cement mixers and tape-measures and power tools! We are going to try to do some things ourselves.

On Thursday, when we were out flinging concrete in the orchard, three big Rumanians showed up out of the blue. They said they know that &%$ lowlife Mario, he stiffed them on their wages, that Mario´s abandoned the project and they will finish the job. The whole thing was WAY suspicious. We told them no.

First things first: Libby walked in the door on Friday, and she was darned lucky to catch us home. We were coming back from a morning dog-walk to San Nicolas, and were set to help Segundino and his family with the grape harvest. Their particular grape-patch has featured in dozens of pilgrim snapshots in the past few weeks, since it´s right along the camino, and Segundino (the village carpenter) stood three or four very creative and effective scarecrows out among the crop - real local color irresistible to passing photographers. It looks like all the birds stayed away, and mice, too. I never saw so many grapes in my life!

About 20 of us went among the staked-up vines with scissors, knives, and secateurs, dropping clusters of purple and green grapes into big black buckets. When those were full, we tipped them into a remolque wagon to be hauled off to the bodega. It was heavy work in the bright sun, lots of kneeling and up and down, but we made good progress.

Segundino´s extended family lives in the corner of the Plaza Mayor, but they tend to keep to themselves. When the Milagros are out there in their lawn chairs, playing Mus into the gloaming, the Segundinos don´t usually mix in with the rest. They are friendly enough, though. They have a talking parrot named Berta who sits out on the square sometimes and whistles at pilgrims. They keep an assortment of farm animals inside their little compound, including pigs! They´re one of the few families that still uses their bodega for making and storing homemade wine.

I made friends this summer with Mary Angeles and Flor, the sisters, who worked like yeomen mixing cement while the men worked up on the roof. All working together, they put a new second floor and roof on what had been the empty shell of their grandfather´s house. They work all together in the vineyard in October, and when February comes they all help with the pig-sticking, too. So Friday being the Fiesta of Our Lady of the Pillar, the traditional grape-picking day in Spain, we told them we´d come and help. We lasted about 45 minutes. But I think we did good.

Libby showed up right then, and was a great refreshment. She skipped a couple of days walking when her ankle went bad, and she´s been contending with the Pilgrim Stomach Virus everyone has. In two weeks she´s lost 15 pounds, and she looks very good. It took her a little time to get going, but now she´s on her way to Santiago again!

But I ramble. James the Neighbor is over at his place laying flagstones on the hard-packed back yard, making a porch. In many ways our experience reflects theirs...they went through the Big Dreams phase, and the Lowdown Contractor phase, and are now in the Live in One Town and Work in Another With Only One Driver phase. He´s now moved into Do It Yourself mode. He thinks the heaviest work is already done on our house, and the remaining finish work (floors, walls, windows, etc.) are within the ability of hardy DIY people to master. "Just lookit me!" he says, his clothes covered in mud and concrete. "If I can, so can you!"

James could sell snow to eskimos. But I will take what inspiration I can from the environment around me. And so was hatched The Despensa Plan, an idea dear to Paddy´s heart.

The idea is to make the despensa (aka ´the cave´) into a truly habitable room, using concrete, plaster, insulation board, and leftover floorboards from our stalled house project. It will keep us busy, if nothing else. But before we can start working, we need to empty out all the stuff we have stored in there.

Which means we have to put it somewhere. Which means we have to organize the great jumble of belongings in the barn. Everything´s a shambles here, and it seems we spend most of our time shifting junk from one place to another. But we can´t get overwhelmed. No.

We can just do. Get on widdit. Take it day by day.

And now I need to go take an allergy pill and help move things ´round the barn. Someday, people, this is going to be a great house.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

By George, What an Honor!

Enough about me! Time to write about George Greenia, one of the very fine people I know in this world. Though after today I shall have to call him "Comendador."

This very day, George X. Greenia of Williamsburg, Virginia USA is going to a posh reception at the Spanish Embassy in Washington D.C., a celebration of the Spanish National Holiday, aka ´Puente de Pilar.´ (The feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar is tomorrow, Friday. Which means it´s a three-day weekend, or ´puente´here in Spain, and probably at the Spanish embassy, too... thus the celebration a day early.)

While there, George will be called up to the front, where the Ambassador will probably kiss him on both his (face) cheeks and put ´round his neck a yellow-and-red ribbon with a nice shiny medal hanging on it... thus naming dear old George a Knight Commander of the American Order of Isabella the Catholic.
The gentleman in the picture is not George, but if you ignore the flowing raven locks and the cunning pantaloons there IS a passing resemblance. He, too, is a Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic. Fine company indeed for a tipo of George´s caliber.

George is a professor of Spanish at the College of William and Mary, an educational institution in Virginia so eminent it was sung on a hit by Steely Dan years ago. Thomas Jefferson had a hand in the place, and Christopher Wren designed the chapel there, and the Rockefellers spent zillions creating Colonial Williamsburg, a faux capital city on the same place where regular Americans had let all the old original buildings fall down. It´s like a 16th century Disneyland nowadays, so clean and neat and regulated the McDonalds is clad in red brick and the coach horses are not permitted to poop.

George lives there, in a very fine condo just off campus. When he is not chairing academic committees, or overseeing publication of two magazines, lecturing on preterite imperfects, writing up budgets, shmoozing, raising funds, translating 14th century Castilian legal papers, plotting his next hike down the camino with a few lucky students, or scheduling international art exhibits. Or emceeíng some black-tie dinner or making something wonderful for his mother-in-law, who lives next door.

George is an all-rounder. One of his biggest talents, outside all the above, is his attentiveness. No matter how insignificant you are, when he speaks to you, you have all his attention.

We met at a North American pilgrim gathering in Toronto three or four years ago. I told him I´d help with American Pilgrim magazine, the giveaway produced by American Pilgrims on the Camino -- there had only been one edition up til then, and he needed a hand with the editing and writing. I know how to do that, so I volunteered. We hit it off.

And ever since, when George is around it´s a whirl of activity. We went to a very posh reception atop Rockefeller Center a couple of years ago, where we met with an old employer of mine back in my freelance days, the head of the Tourist Office of Spain in New York. We shmoozed the Galician tourist office people, the toffs from Condé Nast, and a gang of other questionable characters from My Former Life. We stayed at a $350 per night hotel up the street, a place that offers a Menu of Pillow Selections, as well as an on-call Pet Psychologist. George paid for the hotel via some grant or other. (Having left our ferrets at home, we could not find a good reason to consult with the pet psychologist, alas!)

George turned that evening´s introductions into a long-term relationship with Spanish tourist authorities... which somehow continue to turn into more grants for more trips and studies and publications on, about, and for Spain and the Camino de Santiago. So everybody´s happy. George X Greenia knows how to hustle!

He´s great in museums, archives, restaurants, and up on cathedral roofs. And at home. George has never been to my house, but when I go to Williamsburg I stay at his. It´s four-star Colonial, but with Indian cuisine. When my house gets civilized, I will put aside a suite (aka "push the dogs off the sofa") for George´s visit. And I´ll have to find space, probably, for the gaggle of W&M students that follow in his wake. Or sometimes a photographer or two. Spain has got a lot of mileage out of George, his students, his talent. They should´ve given him a medal a long time ago.

The Order of Isabella the Catholic was invented about 200 years ago, as a way for Spain to recognize people out in "the colonies" for service to the Mother Country. These days it´s a way to honor a standout academic who specializes in things Spanish. (Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister and namesake of our town, is also a Knight Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic.) (KCOIC). There´s not any money involved, at least not that George is letting on about. I don´t think they have any lodge meetings on Tuesday nights after bowling league... especially not in those shoes with the little bows on!

George X. is enjoying the fuss, but he isn´t taking it too seriously. In his words: "helpful colleagues have correctly pointed out that there's scant difference between "knighted" and "benighted".

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Moving Slowly. But moving.

Things are so unsteady around here even the dogs are feeling it. Una´s hiding all her toys and bones in a very dark corner of the house, and hanging out in there with them. I know how she feels, but I rather prefer staying out in the sun long as it´s shining.

The drugs are working, I am feeling a good bit better. We are moving things quite slowly into the new house; last night we slept there for the first time. Once we get the water heater working it´ll be like home, especially when we get some pictures up! Colin and Margaret, our buds from Wales, are stopping by in a couple of weeks, (they´re bringing cheddar cheese, bless their hearts!!) and Libby will probably pop in within a couple of days. We have a fully outfitted kitchen now, and I dug our good heavy cookware out of the barn. So we can roast and bake and friccassee if we wanna, and we WILL!

It´s cool having the pilgrims all around, right outside the door. Last night, just before bed, we nipped into the Irish Pub around the corner. We said hi to several pilgs, but got the best welcome from Kike and Javi. Kike is a Moratinos native who drives trucks for the building supply company. He was one of the orujo singers/dancers we enjoyed so much during the Fiesta. (While in his cups he offered to visit Mario Bozo with a pistola! Don´t worry, he told us. It´s so old they don´t make the bullets any more.) Kike´s not a pretty man...he´s missing some teeth, which kinda makes him look like a cathedral waterspout. But in a sweet way.
Javi (I think that is his name!) is the guy who sold us our chainsaw. He came over and said "welcome to the neighborhood," (apparently word has gotten around) and said he lives right over the road. If we need anything, just shout, he said. Nice. He could be the gargoyle opposite Kike, as he´s got as many extra teeth as Kike has missing. Makes me wonder.

Paddy said in all his days he´s never lived so near a pub. Still, the two of us are downright abstemious these days. For whatever reason.

Anyway, Patrick´s son Matt lives in Spain too, way down south on the beach near Malaga. He is bilingual, and Paddy´s bailed him out of several scrapes in the past. He now is stepping up to help us out, running interference with lawyers, etc. He told us yesterday that Paco Rojo, our shiny new lawyer from Palencia, phoned up Mario Bozo yesterday and actually got an answer. A familiar answer: "I´m starting work in Moratinos again on Monday."

I don´t know what all was said, but I hope it included "You´d better start working before November, or we´re coming after everything you own, pal."

Not very Compassionate, I know. But someone´s gotta stop this bugger. Or start him up. Vamos a ver.

I will post some photos of the new place ASAP. The internet connection is in Moratinos, and the new place is 9 km. away. Maybe I´ll take the computer in and see if I can roach a wifi signal somewhere... or maybe I will try to enjoy life without email and blogs and monumental time-wasting programs for a while.

I must stay sharp. I must not lose my ability to waste time manually, the old-fashioned way.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Causes & Effects

So now we have a lawyer, a consumer specialist guy called Francisco Rojo. Call him "Paco." Paco the Red. He doesn´t hold out much hope for getting our money back or getting the house finished, but he´ll take us on a 10% contingency. We should know by the end of the month if Mario really ever means to come back and finish our house. Then we can start all over again with the project! What fun!

We have the new apartment too. We need to move things in there, but it´s three floors up. I had an asthma event this morning, the first one I´ve had since we came here. I went and refilled my old asthma medicine prescriptions. 120 Euros! Holy moley! I should´ve just kept wheezing! (still a darn sight less than I´d pay retail in USA, where I was really dependent on daily doses of heavy-duty steroids and anti-inflammation drugs.)

This afternoon, since we were in Palencia anyway to meet the lawyer, I popped ´round to the only medical clinic that will take my insurance. Good thing I did -- My right lung´s all watery. A bit too close to pneumonia for comfort. Antibiotics. Another 35 Euros.

Because I think he is behind all the allergy and lung business, Tim the new dog can´t come inside anymore. Tim doesn´t seem to mind so much, but Paddy is pouting, saying we should´ve just given him back to his old owner when we had the chance.

There´s always tomorrow. So.

Maybe I will not go to Leon tomorrow to sign up for another course of Spanish. If I feel up to it I will move the essentials over to the new place, and get the gasoil man to come and fill up the furnace tank (an operation involving a hose full of diesel fuel extended up three storeys through the balcony doors and into the kitchen). I´m a bit too wheezy to carry boxes up the stairs, at least for now. And tomorrow the electricians say they are coming, (really, honest this time!) So is the new washing machine... someone´s got to stay here and wait for them all to roll in. Paddy will. He doesn´t like the house any more, but he´s loath to leave it.

Other than that, the weather was beautiful. The newly sown rye is coming up and turning all the fields green once more, a striking bright lime green. Where I come from, August and September are deep green months, where every plant is gone wild with summer. Here, after the wheat is cut in late July, the whole world is shades of brown. It takes til October for the fields to put on their green again, and they stay green all the way through to the end of June! Yippee. I like it better this way.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Our 82-year-old guide to high-altitude real estate

The sun is out today again, after a gloomy, foggy morning. Today we found, I think, our backup apartment in Sahagún. It is small enough, and bright enough, (when I imagined it without the gloom) and looks out over the old San Juan church and the big municipal pilgrim hostel and the Irish pub that´s never heard of St. Patrick´s Day. There are lots of places to park, and an extra bedroom for Libby and/or guests, and the furniture and pictures are much less shocking than the other places we´ve looked at. (It´s not like we´d have to keep the pictures on show. One thing I will enjoy very much is putting up some of our own artwork. All of ours is, of course, in the most exquisite taste.)

Finding it was a trip. On Friday we met up with Paca Luna in her little stationery store on Calle Constitución. She had things all lined up. She tied her scarf around her neck, zipped up her cardigan, tucked her hand into my elbow and rocketed us out the door.

First it was Plaza Santa Cruz, to the third-floor apartment where Elyn lived lo those many years ago. Nice, clean, quiet, near the plaza and to-the-point, with the tie-dye hippy landlady right next door.

Next we went into Calle Flora Florez, a cobbled street in the heart of the oldest part of downtown, to another top-floor apartment above the notary office. This place was HUGE, four giant melon-colored bedrooms with armoires, a long, skinny terrace for hanging out laundry, marble floors, even a safe hidden in the wall. The lemon-yellow salon looked out over the roofs of the town. Nice, but for the Froot-Loop color scheme... and how could we heat the place?

We stepped out onto the street, and Paca indicated the nicely renovated old building adjacent. She pulled us close to hear her whisper. "It´s one of the oldest buildings in town, and really nice inside. When I was a girl I cleaned there. The basement has all these little individual rooms, really curious... Then I learned this is where the Dominicans were. The Inquisitors. The little rooms were where the heretics stayed before..." She opened her eyes wide and slid her fingertips across her throat. "Madre mia."

We walked on, with Paca singing out greetings to all and sundry. "Guapo!" she said. "Adios, chiquitín!" A lot of people knew what she was doing already. One couple stopped to say they have a little house for rent. Their old dad lived there ´til he died last spring. But they´re doing it over. It won´t be ready til November, or maybe January. We headed back to the shop, where another lady, her eyes done up like Liz Taylor in "Cleopatra," told us not to decide ´til we saw her latest offering, a "piso moderno, monissimo, y llena de luz! Preciosa!"

And so we went again today at noon, fighting the market day crowd, and saw it. It´s tip-top. Literally. At the top of the town, on the Moratinos side of Sahagún, and at the top of the building. In Europe, the third floor means a four-storey climb, as the ground floor counts as zero. It seems every apartment for rent in Sahagún is high-altitude, but most don´t require you to carry your heating fuel up the steps. (Paca pointed out there´s a doctor living next door, in case the steps prove too much some day.)

Paca is in her 80s. She nipped up and down all those streets and steps like a trooper, her hands trembling just a little on the bannisters. She will tolerate no coddling. "I walk all the way to the Virgin de la Puente every day. This is nothing," she said.

We haven´t signed anything, and of course all of the landladies told the same story of "don´t wait long, there´s a girl I just showed this to and she´s just dying to rent it." Yeeah. They learn that at International Landlord School, I think.

In other news, the vet in Sahagún, using the detector wand normally reserved for leaping sheep, found an ID microchip in Tim the Dog. I thought Paddy was going to cry. We asked Juli to call the owner, a man in a town a good 35 km. from here. He doesn´t want the dog, he said, he has two others. And in his former life, Tim´s name was Toby. How we get our name on the microchip seems like another mystery worthy of the Templars.

Libby´s made it to Burgos, and this evening was on her way to dinner with David, a fellow pilgrim from England. Crikey. Gotta watch out for them Limeys, Lib!

Oh yes... just after I wrote the last Blog entry announcing the imminent arrival of an electrical appliance, the house went dark and a smoky smell crept through the despensa. Bloody wiring. We got it working again, but only just. We went to the electrician, who said "Ooh, sounds dangerous! We´ll be there Saturday, sometime after 4." So here we are, 5:30 Saturday, with all of eternity stretching out before us... but no matter when they come, it will be after 4 on Saturday. Cool! Existential electricians!

I love this country. I truly do. I will keep my mind on the bookshelves I saw in the apartment... a dry, warm place to keep books, where I am not responsible for the state of the roof. (Just how I will get my 16 tons of books up all those stairs is another question.)

Thursday, 4 October 2007

The Promised Land

The sun is out, at least for a while. Paddy´s cutting up vegetables for soup, making the air sting with onion.
I took the dogs walking this morning to The Promised Land.

I may have written before about The Promised Land. It´s a great miles-wide khaki-colored swath of fields and vineyards on the other side of our two highways. It´s only a few hundred meters from our house, but it feels like another country altogether. There aren´t many roads. The only towns are miles away, and all you can see are the church towers. Sometimes there´s a tractor, but no people, ever. No telephone poles, no buildings, no lights or phones or cars. And no pilgrims at all. It is easy to see the landscape there in abstract -- the longer I live in Spain, the easier it is to see why Surrealism took root here. The landscape is full of abstraction.

It´s lonely and wild. The roads are made of powder-fine dust, soft underfoot when it´s dry and goodgy when it´s muddy, and all speckled with the tracks of animals. There are definitely foxes and least weasels, mice and raptors, prey and predators. Here and there are little patches of bones, fur, and feathers where The Circle Of Life closed down on someone. The neighbors say there´s a flock of Avutarda living over there, a rare turkey-like bird. And wolves. This is the side of the highway with the mountains in plain sight. Sometimes people even see full-size weasels here, and deer -- mountain critters, come down to the plain.

The dogs took great delight in flushing flocks of quail from the hedgerows. Una leapt into the air and pirhouetted and yipped with delight, and Tim ran back and forth as if asking them to do that explosion thing again. They both got horribly dirty. It was a nice workout for all of us, a good four-mile hike for me and a complete full-body workout for them.

Paddy and I talked about roofs, getting a roofer in here before winter to re-do the chicken hut and the barns. It´s so hard to know whether to go forward with other things, or wait til the legal situation works out with the main house... Waiting does not seem to bother him. It makes me crazy, just sitting still while the water pours in and soaks the adobe and the timbers.

Speaking of which... I opened up the big suitcase full of winter woollens, the one that took the downpour earlier this week. The news isn´t bad as I thought. For some reason I´d put my big winter ski coat in there first, and put all the delicate things in after, and zipped up the coat around them. Glory be, I did something right! The coat is damp and musty, but the things inside seem just fine. We have a strange assortment of things hanging on the clothesline now.

Our new laundry machine will arrive on Tuesday. We bought this uniquely European appliance yesterday: a combination washer and dryer. We probably did not shop around enough, but both Paddy and I found the shopping experience excruciating. We are turning into hermits, without a doubt. We already live in a cave and speak in monosyllables. The only real obstacles are our fondness for museums, blogging, books, and international cuisine.

Even as our house project has stalled, our neighbors Marianne and James are scurrying on theirs. She is Irish, he is English, they met three years ago on the Camino They are the original Moratinos foreign pioneers, they came here and bought a ruined farm compound right at the point where the camino enters the town. They want to have an albergue, (an overnight refuge for pilgrims), but have run into innumberable obstacles on their way... including familiar tropes like disappearing builders, materializing cracks and leaks, high ideals and long winters... even the proprietor of the pilgrim hostel in San Nicolas, who´s harrassed them with legal complaints to slow their progress and keep all the pilgrim business for himself. They have two completely lovely toddlers named Poppy and Finn. They live in a rented piso in a town 20 km. away, so they don´t get to integrate into Moratinos like we can. Still, they keep coming back, making periodic progress on a very daunting task.

James is especially charming, and the house project, using old-fashioned adobe and appealing colors and imaginative arches and brickwork, draws pilgrims like honey. They sometimes volunteer to lend a hand, and you never know who you might see out in the yard, scrubbing old tiles or flinging adobe cob up on the walls. (that´s where Anselmo´s been working the past few weeks.) Theirs is a real communal kind of vibe. In the last couple of months it´s taken off, with interior plasterwork and a general outdoor cleanup, wiring and plumbing and carpentry and all kinds of things going in. It´s exciting to see it progress. It may be habitable by next spring. (They´re going to Ireland to spend the winter, on a cottage on the beach. Romantic, no?)

So we know building a place here is do-able, even if it turns into a monumental ´do it yourself.´ Even if we are not 32 years old, and charming enough to recruit a corps of international volunteers... Seeing how their place has stalled-out a few times but kept coming back, it makes me think our place, too, will see progress again.

The waiting is the hardest part. But this IS the Camino, you know. And some solution always comes up, usually at the last minute, with or without us worrying and fretting over it. The Promised Land, after all, is just over the road.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

El Dia de los Milagros

Nothing miraculous happened that I know of, but this was The Day of Milagros.

It started with a trip to Sahagún to look at an apartment on the Plaza Mayor. Our neighbors, known collectively as Los Milagros, offered to rent it to us through the winter. We really need someplace else to sleep and stash our valuables, as the Peaceable Kingdom is as porous as it is peaceful.

The Milagros (Spanish for ´miracles´) are heroes of the the day. They have been key players in our experience here. The dad of the bunch is Esteban, a rather mercurial and self-made man. (That´s him in the pic. with Paddy, at the church/bar at this year´s Fiesta.) The eponymous mom is Milagros, a woman with a piercing voice and a powerful presence. She Gets Things Done. (She´s the sad-looking woman in the other pic.) Their elder son is Estabanito, now mayor of Moratinos and a bit of a melancholic intellectual; an attractive man in a very Spanish way. His brother José is the family clown, one of the mojos who rousted Paddy out of bed during the fiesta to come out drinking and dancing. (The brothers are shown serving snacks in the plaza, after carrying the St. Isidore statue around town in May.)

All of them are very hard-working and moody, characters much too complicated to be spending their days driving tractors...which they do anyway. In addition to acres of grain they have corrals and chicken houses and fields and barns scattered all over Moratinos, and a little house on the edge of town on the Calle San Martin from which they run a farm-equipment repair and combine-rental business. (The guard dogs Roldan and Toby are marvellously fierce.) All four shuttle between Moratinos and Sahagún, the big market town 9km. west of here, where they own a big feed and seed business, a house, and bits of real estate. Milagros´mom is 90-something, and still lives in Moratinos. The children take turns caring for her -- another reason why they´re so tied to this town.

Anyway, the Milagros know everyone and own the rest. They are good people to know, even though some of the other folks in town hate their guts. (We try to track the middle path... so far, so good.) They have been very kind to us ever since we came to town. Our freezer is full of green beans from their garden.

Today, Esteban I and II took us to see their little rental apartment in Sahagún. For 220€ per month we can have a tiny kitchen, two little bedrooms, a salon with tired circa-1972 furnishings, and a fabulous second-story view of the Plaza Mayor from up above Teri´s Butcher Shop. We´d have to carry very heavy propane canisters up dozens of steps to heat the place, which may be our excuse for not taking it. (The location really is prime, though. We´d never miss a thing, right there on the corner!)

Afterward Estebanito drove us out to Población de Campos, a village to the east of us, to meet with Manolo, the Castilla-Leon District Secretary who will introduce us to his lawyer friend in Palencia on Monday. It´s not like we can´t just call the guy up and get an appointment, but this running-around, face-to-face, introduction biz is how things get done here. VERY time-consuming, but civilized. If anybody can nail Mario & Co., this guy can, Manolo sez... we may not get our money back, but somebody will GO DOWN. Hmmm. It makes me wonder. I´ll pay money to get my house finished, but I´d rather the state pay to put people away. Vamos a ver.

While we were in Población (an adobe village used as a set for a film in 1998), Libby phoned. She´s feeling much better, and walked a good 16K. today to Navarrette, and thinks she´s going to keep going! Yay Libby! I knew she could do it!

We scaled the roof again and put plastic sheeting on the worst part of the Chik-N-Hut. We´ve gotta get a roofer in here, no matter what the dollar is doing. Maybe with the stock market booming I should sell out my little portfolio, which is up by 66%... maybe I´ll break even when I exchange the currency! Expat America Thanks You, Mr. Bush!

And in the evening we went back to Sahagún to talk with Paca Luna, the little old lady who runs the Libreria. (stationers.) She is a friend of Elyn Aviva, an American anthropologist friend of mine who did the Camino and lived in Sahagún and studied its memories back in the 80s...another pioneer. Paca´s a real entree to Sahagún society, and invites us to all kinds of things related to The Virgin de La Puente, a local apparition and shrine. (the dancing lady is Paca, at this year´s Fiesta de la Virgen de la Puente). We take turns giving her fresh Gladys eggs when the Benedictine Sisters have had their share. Paca today said she knows a perfect piso, also on the Plaza, with lots of light, good-size bedrooms, and a good price, too. She´ll find it all out and tell us tomorrow. Woo-hoo! The Bozos may have ripped us off, but Paca´s watching our dimes.

At the end of our busy day we went to the Bar Deportivo and had a copa and read the papers, with excruciating Flamenco blasting in the background. It is a quintessential Sahagún bar, with homemade vermouth, bullfights and soccer games on the big-screen TV, decor from 1955, deviled-egg tapas, and the tiniest, elf-scale ladies´ room ever seen. It is usually too smoky for my taste, but it is unusually well-lit and suitable for newspaper scanning. And it´s just across the street from the supermarket and the Chainsaw Boutique and the veterinarian. Pad loves the place. We ate vegetable sandwiches and watched Barcelona beat Stuttgart.

Life is tough, but it is still good. Chin up and all that. Circumstances still suck hugely, but I am feeling much more energized and much more like myself now. I have to credit Pure Land Buddhism for that... nothing like serious meditation to make you get a grip on What Is Real. That, and the sun came out today. I talked in the morning with Jeanne, my best bud in Paris.

One of the very strangest things about hard times is how they switch on my creative energy. In the past week I´ve been struck with a new story to write and a really quite do-able entrepreneurial idea. Not to mention several murderous plots involving amoral Spanish builders.

Monday, 1 October 2007

The Terrifying Center of a Great Adventure

It gets worse.

* Justi, the guy next door is "rat-bombing" his barn. Which means we might have uninvited guests in the next few days. I do not mind a few mice, but I really hate rats.
*It rained hard all yesterday and last night, and sposed to rain off and on all week. The chicken house roof is a resounding failure.
*I slipped this morning and gave my tailbone a fearful crack. That kind of injury hurts for frickin´ever. I was carrying a newly-washed Una to be dried, and she ran off into the house and instantly rolled in the dirt. &%%$ dog!
*The bozos apparently, while working on the main house, trashed the connection where the barn roof meets the side of the house. We have been storing things in there we didn´t want to put in the leaky old main barn... upholstered furniture, rugs, boxes of lovely coffeetable books shipped over from America, suitcases full of our woollen clothes. The rain came in there too. I got through a box of sodden books and a suitcase, and then I had to leave it.
I don´t usually cry much. I am breaking all my hysteria records. Paddy, maybe because he´s English, thinks when someone cries they are terribly ill. He keeps hugging me, and telling me to go to bed!
Anyway, after all the drama we took some giant plastic sheets and some old roof tiles, and I climbed up on the roof and Paddy handed things out the windows to me, and we got a temporary fix done. It was good to DO something.
*Bozo News: Fran and Mario are dissolving their partnership. All the paperwork has Mario´s name on it. Fran claims he is taking over the job, but he doesn not answer his phone any more than Mario does. And because we thought ol´Fran was just the gang boss, we never learned what his whole name-ID number-address was. We found a lawyer to look over the paperwork and tell us what our options are.
* The US dollar hit its seventh record low against the Euro on Thursday. All the money we saved for this house project is in US dollars. What the Spaniards don´t rip off, the George Bush Americans are pissing away.
* I contacted my two most "enchufada" ("well-connected") friends yesterday: an Augustinian priest from Valladolid now an Ivy League professor, and another Ivy League professor who´s going to be given the Spanish Order of Isabel the Catholic in a couple of weeks for his record of academic achievement and service to Spain. (Impressive indeed, and no one deserves it more than George X. Greenia, hardworking editor of American Pilgrim magazine, the latest issue is on newsstands now!) Neither of them can do much to help us. It was the Valladolid bud who told me I probably don´t have a real contract, and my smart Welsh friend down in Almeria who confirmed that. (I used to know a really important foreign ministry guy in Madrid who could do anything. But he´s in jail for tax fraud!)
* It is hard, coming to terms with the sad fact that I am a chump/fool/dupe/idiot. After reading all the books and consulting with all the experts, we still managed to be ripped-off in the most elementary way.

But Paddy is over at the Ayuntamiento (town hall) now, seeing if we can finally get Tim the Dog legalized, seeing if the Junta can do anything more about the Bozos, seeing if the Milagros can rent us a little apartment in Sahagun for the winter.

It´s come to that. We cannot live here in winter. We´ve got to get what little worldly goods we have left out of the rain. And it looks like we gotta get a lawyer. I´d settle for a roofer just now, or a plumber. Better yet, an electrician who can put in a clothes dryer! There´s the chance this Hoja de Reclamacion paper we filed last week will set a fire under the Bozos, but I have lost all belief in them.

I feel like I´m becoming very boring these days, whining about the same things all the time. I wish I could tell you Libby is enjoying life on the Camino, but she apparently twisted her ankle just outside Los Arcos and is now laid-up in Logroño with it all swollen and painful. Damn. She oughtta be cruising through through the LaRioja vineyards and west. I hope she recovers and can continue. Otherwise she will have to come back here. In the rain. Until Christmas.

Now that I´ve written all this down it doesn´t look like THAT much. So I guess I´m feeling better already. I am still not ready to go back to Pittsburgh. But Sahagún is looking better all the time... bedrooms! Windows! Shops!

We still are alive. Moratinos life is not exactly the Siege of Stalingrad. Unless you are one of our hens.

We´d probably quit if we could, but we are totally invested in this. We can´t bail on it. Our only fear is what might happen next. Such an adventure, this!