Friday, 29 June 2007

The Ladies Take Me in Hand

It's been an extreme sort of day, with emotions of hormonal proportions sweeping through like thunderstorms. I am not like this, really. I almost thought I was losing my mind a couple of times.

Early this morning the remolque construction-debris wagon was duly delivered to the doorstep by Estabanito, one of the Milagro Boys. The sun shone, the sky was cloudless, the Placido bird sang me out of bed with his strange mix of Mozart, Broadway show tunes, and "The Lark Ascending." After a breakfast of boiled eggs (god, the EGGS we've got...!) me and Una took a long hike, all the way to the Palencia/Leon county line. I realized I was giving the contractor dudes time to arrive (usually between 10 and 10:30 a.m.) and get started hauling tons of rotten lumber out of the house. I phoned Paddy, and found him well and on his way to Artieda.

We stopped at St. Nicolas del Real Camino, and I had a coffee at Casa Barrunta. I finally learned the names of the two older men who run it: Angel and Restitucion. ("Resti" to me, he said.) Imagine naming your kid "Restitution." His mom must've been a trial lawyer.

Una Dog didn't even vanish into the Hare Field on the way home, as is her habit, but stayed right by my side. She must have known. We got home after 11, but nothing had moved. No one was here.

I saw red. All my meditative detachment flew right out the window. I made my first mistake right away: I called Paddy, and asked him to phone the boss and find out where the buggers were. He called right back. No work today, he said: it's a fiesta in Leon, where the contractors are from. I freaked, which always makes Paddy freak. (He is the only one allowed to be angry/low/negative. When I show signs of being upset and needing support, he immediately plunges into despair, which is always hugely helpful.) The phone call did not end positively.

So... all my gymnastics getting a remolque here were for naught. These buggers do two days of work per week, and vanish without a trace, and no communication about fiestas or when they'll be back...but a remolque has to be waiting when they get here. I lost it. I phoned Mario El Jefe myself, and gave him what must have been a completely incomprehensible Spanglish ass-kicking. Not that it did any good, but it made me feel better for a couple of minutes.

And right after that the delivery truck pulled up from the building supply company. Mario evidently still has not paid his 5,000 Euro tab. No more wood or nails or fittings. I wonder where our thousands of Euros have gone? Are we now officially in the shit? Is this the end?

I sat down in the patio and cried like a baby.
Esteban, Milagro's husband, came to get the remolque. He saw me all red-faced. He must have told. News travels fast here.

Meantime, I decided to be busy. I went into Sahagun and paid the car registration and ate an eclair. Back at home I made an excellent lunch with fresh tomatoes and spinach, with herbs from the pots outside. I cried some more, tried to take a nap, and went over to the bodega to prep the outside walls for concrete or plaster or whatever. It was inspiring, all the little spaces where bricks used to be, the little slots and niches all over the would be a shame to fill it all in and smooth it over. More thought is needed. Ideas. Good things.

I think The Plan got into action about then. I'd agreed earlier to take a paseo (afternoon walk) with Julia, the neighbor lady, but she showed up at 5 p.m. with a shopping bag. Inside was a pressure cooker. "It's too hot to walk right now," she said, "but we are going to do something with all these eggs. I am going to show you how to make flan. Where is the sugar?"

My kitchen was a disaster. I haven't washed dishes in two days, and these ladies spend their lives with bleach in one hand and a scrub-brush in the other. Their houses sparkle. Mine crunches underfoot. I really could not bear the thought of cooking with her among the ruins of my last six meals, and I told Julia that. And I also said Paddy is the real flan fan, and we oughtta wait til he's here to help eat it.

"Don't you worry then. Next week," she said. "So now you're coming to my house." And so I had to.
We sat in her little patio garden, where her daughters were babysitting Finn and Poppy, the only people in the village under age 15. Poppy is 2 years old, and was pleased to see me. She curled up in my arms and laid her head on my shoulder and hugged me close. I dissolved into tears again. (She is such a little healer, this one!)

Julia's daughters, Juli and Christy, chatted and talked with me in Spanish and English, and had me read their English lessons aloud to them, then asked if I'd do a paseo now that the sun was lower. We walked out to Villa Oreja, and they invited me to the big fiesta concert tomorrow night at Terradillos de Templarios. And on the way back through town we stopped in the plaza to greet the ladies sitting there on the corner. Victoriana and Tina are in their 90's, in wheelchairs; their daughters, Milagro and Esperanza, are in their 50s or 60s. And lurking in the background always is Victoriana's caretaker, a chain-smoking dame from Rumania whose name I've never learned. They all take the sun every evening there, watching the tractors move in and out of town, waving to their various descendents and relations. (a couple of days ago Una offered a dead partridge chick to Tina, who politely told her "no thank you. I'm not hungry right now.")

"Hold on a minute," Milagro told me. "I have something for you from the garden." She disappeared into the house, and I sighed to myself, wondering what I would do now with 6 pounds of green beans or asparagus or alfalfa.

When she came back out she was hidden behind an armload of roses and lavender, gathered up in a bouquet with foil and plastic wrap at their base. "The white ones are falling apart already," she shouted. (Milagro always shouts and gestures wildly when she talks to me.) "They're not lasting this year. But they smell good." She loaded them into my arms. The thorns prickled my thumbs. "I have too many over there. Your garden is smashed this year by those lazy bastards. Take these."

I started crying again, and walked home down Calle Ontanon like Miss America, embracing a hundred fat blooms of pink and white, red and orange and yellow and purple.

And it wasn't till I was overturning the house looking for a container to put them in it occurred to me what had happened. Esteban saw me sad, and told Milagro. She put out the word. And the ladies, all of them, conspired to make it all better for me somehow.

Yeah, I am still crying as I write. But not so much for sadness and despair. It's the sweetness now, the kindness of this place. That un-earned favor called Grace.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Making Hay While the Moon Shines

The moon is so bright you can almost not look at it. The farmers are taking full advantage. They're out there now in their tractors at 11:30 p.m., raking and baling and loading up hay. They've been at it since 8 a.m.

It's a little strange, looking out over the silvery dark campo and seeing them creep up and over the fields, buzzing along behind two glowing headlight-eyes like big green John Deere insects. All the guys (and a lot of the girls, too) are looking pretty bushed in the morning, putting in long, long hours, praying it doesn't rain until the baling is done.

Disasters are happening out there all the time, and being dealt with on the fly: Jose Maria's baling machine went haywire yesterday and a couple of long rows of bales were only half-wrapped -- they collapsed overnight where they stood, and had to be re-done. (believe it or not, the storks get up on them and pick at them with their long orange bills, looking for bugs or trapped mice or other goodies. A stork can wreck a bale of hay that's not wrapped too tight. Good to know. You heard it here first.)

His re-baling only got started AFTER Jose Maria unwrapped about 60 yards of blue twine from the innards and outards of the entire machine, tractor, chassis, etc. -- the twine-wrapper sorta, well, came unspooled.

In the evenings I see the men hosing-down and oiling their 30-year-old tractors and the assorted strange implements attached to the fronts and backs. These people have to know when and how to plant and plow and hoe and harrow, cut and bale and load and unload. And they have to know how to fix and maintain and use all the tools and machinery that make it possible. Amazing people, farmers. And we assume they are uneducated and simple!

The harvest rush created a bit of a snafu here this morning. The builders showed up to clear out the much-lumbered insides of the house, but they couldn't find Jose (one of the Milagro boys) to bring over the remolque -- a big farm wagon used for waste hauling. Jose and the remolque were both out in the fields, loading and being loaded with monster hay bales. The construction guys were terribly annoyed at all this, and I am told Milagro (Jose's mom, and a real power around town) gave them a piece of her mind, too... something about 'we're not waiting around for people who don't know when they can be bothered to show up and do some work." Jose came in from the field to talk to them, but they'd buggered off already.

So I am assured (please God!) Jose will have a remolque here outside the gate early tomorrow morning, and the workers will be here to fill it up. If my Spanish sufficed. Vamos a ver! (we shall see.)

I am told Blog entries should be a lot shorter than I make them. I am accustomed to writing exactly to a 21-inch newspaper feature length, and I'll bet the farm that's about how long these babies go. Blog readers have teeny tiny attention spans, I guess. So maybe they'll have to go read someone else's teeny little thoughts.

Tomorrow, perhaps I'll write about the fight for the Secret Garden. And my adventures with Living Plaster!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

All or Nothin'

Patrick's gone off to try the Camino Aragones himself. God knows he needed a break.

Patrick's idea of a "break" is a sustained diet of only spring water and bread crusts, combined with a weight-lifting and running regimen and a couple of Existentialist tomes to lighten his mood. He is a man of extremes, that Paddy -- either all or nothing. I wonder if he's out there hiking the 30K stretches without having eaten anything. He's funny (stupid) that way.

Not that my idea of fun is lying on a beach with a trashy novel. (I've never been a big beach person, really. Too damn sandy. Although there IS room in society for the trashy novel. I should know. I've written a couple.)

Given my choice of things to do, I'd choose to learn something, or at least taste and try on some new kind of theory or study or discipline. The list of things done/undone includes a 10-day silent Vispassana meditation retreat; volunteering for two weeks of feeding and cleaning up after 40 hikers a day in a mountain hostel in a foreign country; Gutting an old mud house and rebuilding it; and taking up mosaic tile setting. Or Tarot card reading, or chicken-raising. All told, I guess I like making stuff, or making stuff happen.

And seriously, I am going to learn how to make mosaics. I have a few spots around the Peaceable Kingdom set aside where mosaics will be just the ticket. Our local Roman Villa is full of 'em, so they are macrobiotic, sorta. And I just learned about a building substance here called "yeso vivo" (aka "alive plaster") that I'm looking forward to daubing around the front of the bodega, and a cool ochre pigment I can use to color the limewash that seals it up. All fun things to plan and consider and do.

I often feel compelled to achieve something tangible, seeing as the house progresses in such fits and starts. Yesterday the men came and spent many hours tearing out most of the timbers and all of the floorboards that were our upstairs. The wreckage was very artistic; for a good while the emtpy salon had a most intriguing contemporary sculpture hanging from what remained of the ceiling. It all was extremely dusty, but pleasing. Something was happening!

And this morning, and all through today -- a gorgeous, breezy, cloudless day -- no one came at all. No work was done, no phone call to explain why not. The coffee maker quit halfway through the first cup. I realized I can't find the bill for our annual car registration, or the Rosetta Stone Spanish CD. (It hasn't been a good day for Spanish.) Two of the chickens slipped into the patio garden and ate up my only surviving corn plant. I washed the dog and she immediately rolled in the dirt.

I soothed myself by walking a long long walk with the dog, wherein we saw many, many birds: 18 hawks, circling and shouting at one another; 16 storks, flying in formation over the fields; and a mom partridge with about 15 baby partridges, running up the path ahead of us. (Una killed one and took it home. I am not proud of this. But she is a dog.)

And late in the afternoon came a saving stroke: an opportunity to LEARN SOMETHING!

I am accepted into the Erasmus Spanish program at the University of Leon! Yay. I will spend most of the month of September in a beautiful nearby city, cramming a year's worth of conversational Spanish into a 60-hour course designed for European exchange students. I hope to rent a little apartment from our neighbors for the month...imagine, our own Pied a Terre in the Big City! Woohoo! Maybe this will help me overcome whatever it is that's turned Spanish verb conjugations into a great mashed-up soup in my head!

The amazing part is the price. Tuition and books? 300 Euro. Including free use of all university facilities. If I decided to take the full three-semester Spanish as a Foreign Language certification, that would cost an entire 1,700 Euro. For all THREE semesters: six hours a day, five days a week! Holy Moley! I may have to go back in the winter and start a degree! I LOVE college! I LOVE this country!

So...what is the Spanish word for "mood swing?" And how do I celebrate, when it's just me and a dog?
Maybe it's time for a glass of vino tinto. And a trashy novel!

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Templar Rites Right Here!

A cool thing happened last night, a local legend from the Dark Ages! Oooo!

The next town over from us is called "Terradillos de los Templarios." It's a bit bigger than Moratinos, and Santiago pilgrims can stop there at an overnight shelter, buy food and drink, and do a couple of other things we can't do here.

Yes, you saw the dark and mysterious word "Templar." Spain used to be lousy with Templar knights, a medieval military monastic order that came here to help guard the travelers on the pilgrimage path to Santiago against bandits and Moors and other malefactors. The Templars were driven out and burned up on Friday the 13th Oct., 1307... they'd accumulated too much money and power, and the king owed them a lot of money...but that's a story better explained by the Conspiracy Theorist bloggers.

This is for real. On the path between Terradillos and here is a little spring and a couple of benches on the bank of the Rio Templarios. (The "River" is more of a stream than anything else.) The little tree-lined spot, according to a carving on a rock nearby, was back in medieval times a village called "Villa Oreja" (aka 'house of the ear." I am not making this up.)

Anyway, according to the locals, there once was a monastery at Villa Oreja, and the monks there joined the Dark Side. When pilgrims stopped there for shelter or food the monks robbed/killed/kidnapped them, and sometimes stole away youngsters from nearby towns to bolster their own numbers. This was something up with which the people could not put.

And so came the Templar Knights. They set up shop a mile or so up the road from the mean monks, and accompanied travelers down the road and safely past the bad guys. That is how Terradillos de los Templarios got its name... "little fields of the Templars." And even long after the monastery and community at Villa Oreja crumbled to dust, the river running through it is named for the Templars, too.

The cool thing about last night is this, which I learned from a Terradillana named Pili today: 23 June is St. John's Night, "la noche de magia." St. John, the patron of the Templars, is also Terradillos' patron, and all the scattered people who consider the village their family home are now back in town to celebrate the fiesta. In the middle of the night they bring candles, flashlights, and orujo (the local home-made fire water) out to Villa Oreja, where they sit and listen.

If you tune in just right, she said, you'll hear the hoofbeats and snorts of the horses the Templar knights once rode past here. You can hear the creak and jingle of the harness, even!

Pili didn't hear anything herself, she said, and she stayed til almost 2 a.m. Her husband Taddeo said he heard the templars once, back when he was a lot younger. "The likelihood of hearing anything goes way up as the level in the bottle goes down," he said.

So... there were lots of semi-intoxicated people out on the camino last night, looking and listening. Next year I think I might join them, just to see what happens. Or maybe I'll borrow a black horse, and take a gallop down the Camino in the dark, and give 'em all something to talk about!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

A Sickle Sweetly Swinging

Blue sky. Hot bright sunlight. Tall weeds, including some record-breaking thistles all covered in fist-like purple blossoms.
Conditions were perfect, so I got out the shiny bright curve of steel and peeled away the red plastic blade-cover.
It's sickle time, kiddies. Don't stand too close.

Sickles are primitive. They date back to the Sumerians 4,000 years ago at least. They're bright silver Letter C's mounted on a wooden handle, set at an angle. The people who study these things say sickles were superseded by scythes, the stand-up slicer made famous by The Grim Reaper ... you don't have to hunker down to use a scythe, but it's a lot easier to chop yourself in the ankles with one of those great grim blades.

A sickle is slower and harder on the lower back, and if I forget my gloves it will raise a blister just below my index finger. But it is graceful, quiet, and effective. It uses no fossil fuels or electricity. It's cheap and lightweight and easy to maintain. It doesn't take long to get the knack of swinging one, and once you catch on it's almost like dancing -- bent knees, back flat, and swinging from the shoulders with a wide curve of arm... WHOOSH. Knee-high weeds are sliced off, the thistles are leveled, swept forward and away with nary a sting. A twist of the wrist and my arm is a pendulum on the backswing, carrying ahead of it another swath of summer green. I can switch hands when one shoulder tires, and adjust my swing and angles to deal with tough stalks or nearby stones or embankments.

I get into it. It's a feminine motion, but powerful, too. My body swings with the sickle, and the results are immediate and remarkable -- I cleared the waist-high overgrowth from the pathway outside our Bodega door in ten minutes' time. I cleared the low growth from around the walls, and more wilderness up top, where the chimney opens out. (We need to do some repairs before some hiker goes stomping round up there and breaks through and plummets to his doom the wine-dark cavern below!)

Sickles make me think of Ruth, a poor woman from a Bible story who followed behind the harvesters and picked up the wheat stalks the sickle-wielders missed. Her tale is all about gleaning and threshing and fertility and pastoral romance. She was a strong, brave woman, and it's implicit Ruth swung a mean sickle. And remember those great sickle-swinging Babushkas on the Soviet propaganda posters? Nobody messed with Ludmilla -- her great steel C was so powerful a symbol the Russkies put it on the national flag.

Sickles, like chickens and wheelbarrows and concrete mixers, are required appliances for living the life down here on the ground level, out on the perimeter. Buy one, keep it sharp, oil it now and then, and slip that red strip back on to keep the rust away and the kiddies safe. It will last a lifetime of summers.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Roofless No More!

Big News! The wood finally showed up on Monday, and today, Thursday, (I can say without fear of contradiction) there is a real, honest-to-God ROOF on our house! It's got timbers, and crossbeams, and insulation, and ondulina leak-proofer stuff, and hooks for gutters! And soon they'll put the old tiles back on! Ta-daaa! My entire outlook is changed, especially where clouds and thunderheads and relative humidity is concerned.

It's still a bumpy road. The wood people tell us our builder hasn't paid them yet, and they'll stop delivering on Friday if he doesn't show up with 5,000 Euro by then. Oooo-KAY. Still, I'm not making his problems my problems until the work stops. Right now there are guys up in the eaves pounding on things, running machines, and whistling. Now and then, when the washing machine changes cycles and the saw is going as well, we lose our lights. Gotta love it. (one of these days they're going to re-do the wiring too.)

Our friend Edie Bennett came here on the train two days ago, and slept on the kitchen floor with Immacolata, the Italian pilgrim I told you about before. We all feasted and chatted and chased chickens. Yesterday Immacolata took to the road again, and Edie offered to watch the place so Paddy and I could take some time out. So we did. We went to Zamora, an old city to the west of us, just north of Salamanca.

Very cool. We stayed at the de-luxe Parador, a five-star set up in a 16th century duke's palace. We spent way too much money, and walked around the pedestrianized streets, and saw inside probably a dozen Romanesque churches. This is unusual for Spain; where every town has an abundance of lovely old churches but none of them is ever unlocked. These guys have it going on, though... they take really good care of their patrimony, and they keep the doors open so they can show it off, God bless 'em! We saw some strikingly beautiful and well-preserved tapestries, frescos, and carvings.

Another remarkable thing was the preponderance of storks. Every steeple and belfry and high place had a bushy stork-nest wig all bristling with families of flapping, clacking, courting black-and-white birds.

We went to Zamora via Vilafafria, a huge bird preserve and home to the world's biggest population of endangered Avutarda birds.. a sort of colorful turkey. (I've seen a few around our place.) We saw almost nothing but really bad roads and dusty towns, as we got rather lost for a while. We did see an enormous bright green snake, though, which made it worthwhile! And a field alive with dozens of storks, all of them jumping and playing and carrying on together... a stork party! Yeehaw!

And now we are home again, and what a change was wrought in a day... the second floor is almost habitable again! It's a long way from Parador five-star luxe, but it's mine and I love it. (the pics above show the interior at the Parador and the one at our house. Try to figure out which is which!)

Tomorrow I am back to Zamora with Juli, our neighbor who is taking a comprehensive English Teaching exam. Maybe I will see all the things I missed yesterday. Or maybe just give my Spanish a real workout.

More news soon. Paddy says he'd like to walk the Camino Aragonese himself in coming days, as he needs a "general shake-down." Keep lighting those candles, people, 'cause things are happening!

Friday, 15 June 2007

Ordinary Time at The Peaceable Kingdom

It's Friday night at The Peaceable Kingdom (the name I am trying on for our house). We are sitting in the kitchen, digesting a meal of vaguely Mexican provenance. Patrick is reading a New Yorker magazine from February. (they arrive very sporadically.) The dog is curled up on her favorite old armchair, one of those Naugahyde beasts that came with the house. (I refer to the chair, not the dog).

At 9 p.m. it is still broad daylight, and will be for another hour. Dusk stretches long. The birds will be singing still at midnight.

In other words, everything is Normal. This morning, as is our habit every couple of days, we went into Sahagun and bought bread (chapata) and produce (a huge cauliflower) and meat (chicken legs, ground meat, sausages). And a newspaper. We love our El Pais, and on Fridays they have an excellent magazine section. We take turns reading parts of the paper all day, discussing the news and how it's written in the papers here.

Today the weather was nice, so I potted the herb plants we bought yesterday, on the way back from an Expedition in Leon. Paddy walked the dog. Fresh laundry flapped all day on the clothesline. When Paddy and Una returned, the dog had a dead rabbit in her mouth: Her third. She showed it off, then dumped it in the garden and went off to hunt for mice in the barn. I took a nap. Paddy started a painting, which for some reason involves using our cheese grater to "chunk-up" adobe. (I can say little, as I've permanently adapted the soup ladle for use in the limewash barrel.)

This is the first Regular Day we've had in weeks, and I enjoyed it hugely.

I thought about Ordinary Days last week, as I walked alone on the Camino. I had to wonder what "Regular" has become anymore, now that we're living such a strange, ever-changing life. We shed most of our earthly goods when we moved here, and now, with all the work being done on our house, all our remaining possessions and furnishings are stacked in the barn and garage, or stuffed into the windowless, cave-like pantry where we sleep.

Our menu is limited, as we have no oven now, and severely limited storage space for fresh or perishable things. Our clothes are stowed, and there's no one here to impress, so we wear the same outfits over and over. We have a washing machine, but no dryer, so our laundry line is forever fluttering. (I do the laundry for James and Marianne, our Irish/Englsih neighbors, who have laundry machines but haven't hooked them up yet.) They have two tiny tots, so the sizes and styles are wildly various. The plain-Jane jeans and tshirts out there are ours, but their contributions include tiny dungarees, string bikinis, hippy-chick skirts, and a big hoodie with BAD GUY blazoned across the chest. It's amazing the things you can learn about someone when you do his washing.)

It's been mighty stressful here in the past week, what with visitors from America (beloved as they are) sleeping in the awful dripping grotto that will someday become a kitchen, more downpours, an architectural consultation (which was encouraging, I might add.) I got page proofs for a magazine project I've been working on for ages, and they look very fine. Paddy's lost his temper a few times with the contractors, who are themselves hamstrung by a supply-chain breakdown and what appears to be a cash-flow nightmare. (but are we their Money Tree? I think not!)

We've given way too much money to the builders in advance, and we still don't have a roof on the house, and more rain is in the forecast. I ran away from it all for a couple of weeks (as you know), but Paddy refuses to take a break... and he's got an open offer of a place in Paris! He's got twinges of pain in his legs and shoulders. When he's feeling low he says the place is killing him. It has been dire indeed, here and there. We are "paying for our education," as Architect Eric says, and it sucks.

But then there's today. No builders. No schedule. No TV or radio or even music, unless you count the songbirds.

And so I celebrate Ordinary, lean and grubby as it may appear. Immacolata, the Italian pilgrim I met in San Cilia back in Aragon, is due here tomorrow and says she'll cook again! Perhaps the rain will hold off, and we can light the fairy lights in the ivy arch outside, and have our dinner on the patio. Veal. I bought veal today, too. I wonder what she'll make of it.

Monday, 11 June 2007

The Teasing of the Cows

Sahagun, our nearest real town, is "en fiestas" right now (not to be confused with "infested"); five days or so of concerts, speeches, parties, fireworks, random explosions, rosary novenas, closed shops, drunkenness, and general merriment all around. People are pouring in from all the surrounding villages, and many, apparently, brought along saxophones. (more on that later.)

Others brought bulls. Bulls are apparently a vital part of the Feast of St. John of Sahagun.

Not that St. John of Sahagun is a bovine patron of any sort, (nor is he the only local saint!). Seriously, he is considered the Father of Anthropology, the study of human societies. He was a brilliant local boy, a priest in Sahagun's mighty Benedictine monastery, and went over to the New World in the 16th century of so, to help evangelize the Indians. He actually TALKED to some of them, and listened to their stories, and wrote down the folklore of native tribes, information nobody else bothered with. (This was, presumably, just before his fellow Spaniards carried the injuns off into slavery.) No report on whether John saved their souls, but he did save a little bit of their culture, God bless him.

But let's not rain on the parade. One of Sahagun's ways of celebrating John is to spend weeks installing steel and wooden barriers and gates all over the downtown, tying up traffic in a most effective manner. (they also installed a huge collection of carnival rides right on the state route through town. God knows where you get the bus these days!) The gates and barriers are designed to move a dozen or so young cows safely from a corral downtown up the main street, across the railroad bridge, and into the decrepit old bullring, where they can then be either teased or killed.

I don't go in much for the Corrida, the slow, balletic butchery that we call a "bullfight." I saw a performance last summer I promised would be my last. But Sahagun's saving up its corrida for Tuesday. Today, Monday, was "just the encierra," our neighbor Segundino told us. "Local boys go in the ring with the bull. Young bulls. No swords. The bull gets to live. And he gets ahold of somebody, sometimes. The bands play, and everyone dances."

Wow, a bullfight where the animal has a chance, along with a "running of the bulls" through the streets of dear old Sahagun! Who could pass that up... especially when the option is staying home and swatting flies and finishing the laundry?

We got there on time, managed to squeeze our bulks through the bars on a few barriers, and staked out a place on the bullring lawn near the ice cream truck. Soon the parades came up the street: "Penas," groups of friends and associates dressed in matching outfits, each one sponsored by a local bar whose name was prominently displayed on their flashy sashes or kerchiefs...and whose produce was swigged from enourmous plastic cups all the way up town. Each pena had a band, too... and each band featured (for reasons I must explore further) several saxophones. They played a strange assortment of tunes: paso dobles, Herb Alpert's "Whipped Cream," "Beer Barrel Polka," and even, yes: "Found A Peanut."

One group, "La Rueda," was too full of beer to carry a tune together, so the six saxophonists each just played his favorite. All of them, simultaneously. But they kept to the drumbeat, may god be praised. Nobody seemed to care, and the members shook their booties all the way into the ring. The lawn filled up, the crowd thickened, the beer and calimocho flowed.

Eight penas paraded, and then the explosions started: the beloved petard, noisemaker of choice in Spain -- these people LOVE a good, simple, solid "boom!" to clear the streets. The gates were closed, the barriers in place, and then the bulls released... into what appeared to be a crowd of drunks.

Who suddenly came alive, transformed in a moment into "encierrados" or some such thing: valiant young men pitting their testosterone against fast-moving half-ton ruminants with pointy horns. They ran down the avenue, and they ran back up, and the bulls, I suppose, went back to their pens all fired-up by their quick dash downtown.

The crowd poured into the bullring seats; the penas took up assigned spots around the arena, their green, blue, yellow, and pink matching shirts all together; their bands taking turns playing snappy tunes. And into the sandy center the civic workers released the bulls, one at a time. Waiting for them were high-school boys, our plumber, three guys with magnificent mullets, the local notary (who's getting a little old for this kind of thing), and a few eagle-eyed 20-something athletes who were really taking this seriously.

The bulls were way young... just out of calfhood, a couple of them. And they really gave the local boys a good workout. It's hard work, teasing a calf into chasing you, then diving behind a wooden barrier or up over the bullring wall the get away. A couple men got very close, and twisted elegantly above and around the bulls' horns at the last moment. Another one, (a guy who works on the Sahagun road works crew), actually vaulted up and over the charging beast. But most of them just ran away a lot. It made me understand what kind of guts a real bullfighter's got to have, to stay in that ring the whole time, to keep moving, and keep the bull moving, too.

When the bull got tired, or stopped charging, the fat little guy who runs the candy store opened the gate and let the animal go back to its pen. The bulls seemed to delight in charging the fat guy, so I wonder if he spent his Monday afternoon hanging out in the bullpen, poking them with a stick or something.

There's another encierra tomorrow, just before the big 6-man Corrida, but I may opt for the Solemn Novena. Or finishing the laundry. We have company coming this week, and we have to keep up appearances. Even if it's just a less-than-toxic bathroom, or a kitchen/sitting room with floors that do not crunch underfoot!

Sunday, 10 June 2007

'Stoned' in Aragon

Sorry it's been so long. I have been on another planet, almost... walking the Camino Aragones, from Jaca to Sanguesa, out on the upper right corner of Spain. It's the Pyrenees mountains, full of knock-you-out scenery reminiscent of Switzerland, but without the snow or yodeling or wristwatches.

I've been very ready for a long time for some solitude and scenery, and this hike's got both in spades. It was, bar none, the most beautiful hike I've done so far in all my days. We're talking high mountains here, paths following along a river valley and up into high heights (not always on purpose!), forests of oaks and pines dotted with abandoned hermitages and deserted villages; 11th century monasteries hidden away under the crags, (here's a pic!) profusions of blossoming flowers and fluttering butterflies, wide fields of golden wheat and green oats, and very few fellow pilgrims.

I thought I knew the camino routes pretty well, but I wasn't well informed on this one, going in. Pilgrim accounts I read online focused on personal interactions and hostel conditions, and didn't say much about the trails themselves, the terrain or weather or other vital info.

I wish I'd known. Maybe I'd have prepared myself better. For along with being the most lovely, this trail is also the most difficult I've encountered. I was only out there for a few days, and I feel like I've had the stuffing kicked out of me.

A few impressions stand out: Foremost is the views. There's something so soul-nourishing about wide-open spaces and long views of beautiful scenery. The towns are all perched up on steep hillsides, and the ones with pilgrim hostels are quite widely spaced..the average day is well over 25 km., and much of that is hills or mountains! Footing is often loose stones on a 15 percent grade, or deep ruts with their own little ecosystems living in them, or those Roman road pavers the size and shape of eclairs. From Jaca up the mountain to San Juan de la Pena, (where the stone is carved into amazing bible story scenes), all the way to Arres, the stones along the path were standouts.

Maybe it was my state of mind, or the vibe of places inhabited by humans for thousands of years, but SO many of these little (and not so little) rocks I wanted very much to put in my pockets and take home, they were so cool. They all were just lying out in the mountains, but wore the stamp of human hands: there were balls, orbs, perfectly round. Others looked shaped and formed into primitive tools, or architectural details, or painted with striking Moderne black-and-white designs, or incised with Sumerian glyphs, little human figures, swirly-wirlies, smiley faces, or geometric spaceship landing vectors. I saw candy-bar rocks, egg rocks, and perfect triangles, like wedges of cheese or pie. There were eclairs, hamburgers, sno-kones, and even a pork-hock rock... have you noticed that real meals were hard to come by on this trail?

And right around Puente de la Reina de Jaca the pilgrims got to noticing the profusion of rounded-off river rocks lying thick along both sides of the path. They got to stacking them up, one on the other, then more and more on more. And now there's a veritable forest of these "rock people" stretching out from the Way, along several patches of woods along the River Aragon. I saw them on Thursday, I think... The roaring river and woods, added to the rainfall that afternoon, made the scene seem quite weird and wonderful. I wish I'd taken a picture. But then again, I don't think a camera could capture it. You'll have to go and see for yourself!

Dozens of these little stone cairns are scattered along the Camino Aragones, like another kind of wildflower.

With all those stones around it's only natural the people would build their homes out of them. The villages along the Way in Aragon are stone walls, pavements, and slate roofs...even the livestock fences are made of rocks (with a few of the classic bedspring gates.) One of the coolest is Ruesta. The town is well up a long climb, hidden in a defile, with two ancient towers you can see for a very long time before you hit the city limits. The closer you get, the more clear it becomes: the place is a ghost town, utterly deserted, home only to swallows and bees. (I'll include a picture. It's hard to take bad pictures in Aragon!)

Ruesta's one of several towns in the area deserted in the late 50's, when a new dam project cut off their road access. The place has been slowly falling back to earth since, but stones well-joined take their time coming down, and some of these walls have been standing since the 14th century!

And as the Camino winds through, you find the sole survivors. Here's a new pilgrim refuge, and a tiny bar. It's a project of the UGT, one of Spain's leftist labor unions. They want to reinhabit the town, the young barman said, and someday create a cooperative workers' paradise here in the crags.

I told him about life in the Newspaper Guild and the union-busting going on in my beloved country. And when we went to leave, he gave me a shiny enamel lapel pin with the UGT's red raised-fist logo on it! Solidarity forever!

That night in a faraway hilltop town was another memorable experience. Undues de Lerda has a huge, lovely pilgrim hostel on the top two floors of the 16th century town hall. It's only 10 more kilometers to Sanguesa, a town with lots of restaurants, banks, etc., so everyone else walked on. Me and Willi, a German pilgrim, were the only customers that night in Undues. There is one bar, and it serves pilgrim meals if you request them early enough... an elderly lady does the cooking, so I said YES!
Willi and I sat at a table laid with real silverware and cloth napkins, and were served a fine salad and then a clay pot of stewed meat, wonderfully fragrant. I'd never seen this strange lumpy cut of meat before, so I asked what it was.

"Pig," the lady said simply. "Fresh. Raised it myself." It was very generous and very meaty and tender. I ate it right down to the flat disc of bone at the base. Curious still, I asked the barmaid what the cut was, as the old lady had gone home.

The barmaid stroked her cheeks. "It's pig face," she said. In other words, Hog Jowls!

I love this country. Now that I've done pig face, next post I can maybe go onto Baby Jesus Feet. But now I need a nap.

Monday, 4 June 2007

first day out, and feeling fine

It´s odd writing about the Tiny Pueblo when I´m not there, but I blog by popular demand.

Today I finally officially started my mini-pilgrimage. I woke up in Zaragoza, and took the early bus to Jaca, one of the old classic places to commence walking the Camino Aragones.

I got off the bus and hiked over to the cathedral, touted worldwide as one of the great gems of Romanesque architecture. Granted, it was the first of its kind in Spain and influenced lots of other really old Camino churches, like St. Martin in Fromista and the really amazing St. Isidore in Leon. But sadly, the grandfather doesn´t look as good as his offspring. The outside is still really severe and spiked with cartoony faces and creatures. But the inside has been Gothicked-over to a tragic extent. You can SEE it´s there, under all the gilt and pointed arches, and for a cathedral it´s darned dark and small... a couple of the things that say ¨Romanesque¨to we the ¨randy for the antique.¨

I thought the Diocesan museum would put me back to happy, but alas, it is Monday and the doors were closed! In there is one of the biggest collections of Romanesque fresco in the close, yet so far! Oh well. I saw another ¨biggest-best¨collection of those in Girona last week, and I´m still reeling. This gives me a reason to go back, I guess!

The town itself is totally charming in a French-Spanish way. There´s a dearth of yellow arrows, though, so the pilgrim wandering around looking for a stamp on his pilgrim credential, or a bed at the albergue, has to shlep all over the place asking the natives ¨donde esta?¨ Still, a very worthwhile place. I finally got my (very lovely) stamp and stamped on outta town.

It´s 16.7 kilometers to the next place, but they are VERTICAL kilometers, and this old pilgrim hasn´t been on the trail offically since 2001! The trail follows along the banks of a noisy, fast river, and climbs up and down the sides of the mountain valley. The rocks are bad. The mud would be a real problem if it got wet, and I seemed to be racing a monster storm up the valley all day, with rumbling and flashes of light over my left shoulder, and the distant mountains occasionally disappearing in the clouds and mist.

The fields are full of every kind of flower, sheep, lamb, goat, and grain. The trees of the fields clap their hands in the breeze. And I saw not a single other pilgrim on the trail. Not one. Amazing, considering the crowds that pass our village every hour on the Camino Frances. It was kinda lonely, but really really excellent, too. And tiring. I arrived in Sta. Celia about 3 p.m. and found the albergue next to the old abbot´s house... the place is a knockout, downright 3-star hotel quality, with towels and pillows and a washing machine! And I was the only person there ´til an Italian lady showed up. She´d walked the whole 30K from the French frontier, and shé´s volunteered to make our dinner. There are sheep grazing outside the window.

Amazing people, pilgrims. And hospitaleras. The one here is a town employee, and takes care of the hostel as well as four other public buildings. And the town is small and neatly kept and full of young folks, and even has an outpost of the Red.españa free internet service. Tomorrow I can leave my backpack here at the hostal when I hike up the mountain to see San Juan de la Peña, another national heritage site...this one a Romanesque monastery built into a mountainside.
After I get back down I´ll pick up my things and hi myself off to Arres, a mere 10K away and a big favorite of the Spanish hospitaleros voluntarios.

Dinnertime pends, so I am off! God bless us every one!

Sunday, 3 June 2007

still alive, but off in Aragon

Wow, I didn´t know you guys CARED so much!

I haven´t been blogging because I´ve been off driving all over the eastern Pyrenees mountains with my buds Edie and Kathy from California. We´ve been to Arab baths in Madrid (and bought string bikinis for the about WILD), the airport in Barcelona (where we picked up a rather hot black Volvo) and drove to Girona,(home to one of the best art museums I´ve been to!) Besalu, St. Joan delas Abbesses, and into French Cathar country, home to a 13th century religious genocide in a really lovely countryside.

Then back to Spain via Andorra, which was very disgusting.

Then to Monserrat, another Disneyland. I want to write at length about Blessed Virgins, so watch this space!

Now off to walk the Camino Aragones from Jaca.
I´ll be back.