Thursday, 29 November 2007

Dangerous neighborhoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 November 2007

The morning after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Living Fab in the City O Light

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

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

This year is so different, in so many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Fumey Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 November 2007

Breathless at Peaceable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Gettin On Widdit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is probably what we will do.

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

Friday, 9 November 2007

Cheddar Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Gobsmackin´ bozos!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 November 2007

November Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 November 2007

A Day for the Dead

So here I sit before the butane heater, Nov. 1, 9:50 a.m., in our kitchen in Moratinos. Two dogs and Patrick the Czech stare at me quietly as I type. I think they are waiting for marching orders. Or maybe I am just fascinating.

We are waiting for José Luis, the latest contractor wannabe. He was supposed to be here an hour ago. Paddy just phoned him. He´s on his way, he says, with the barroom laughter booming in the background. Paddy´s fretting. It´s 10 now, and the Mass for All Saints starts at 11, and he really wants to go. He even brought some go-to-meeting clothes for the occasion. I have never seen an agnostic so caught up in a Holy Day of Obligation.

I´m not going, and I am the token Christian around here. I spent last night dealing with asthma, and now I have the inevitable medicine hangover, and really need to try to sleep. Strangely enough, The Peaceable Kingdom isn´t a good place for rest.

Unless, of course, you are among the 40 or so people in Moratinos who are dead.

Like almost all tiny Spanish villages, Moratinos has a walled cemetery out in the fields on the edge of town. Each family has a couple of plots therein, where generations of their ancestors are interred in their turns. As new bodies arrive, what remains of the old are taken out and hauled off to God-knows-where. It´s end-user recycling at its finest, and it´s been going on since the Middle Ages at least. (Big cemeteries are a waste of valuable crop land.)

Here in Moratinos you can see three layers of monumental markers on some family plots. Up against the cement-block walls are beautiful wrought iron crosses, their enamel RIP identifying plaques long gone. Who they once honored is forgotten, but everyone knows which is supposed to stand where while it rusts away. Taking one out to decorate the house would be unthinkable.

In front of some of these are standard Franco-era white concrete crosses, with the names and dates still legible. And smack up against their faces are the flashy new polished marble tombs of the most modern and well-to-do departed, with resin plaques portraying the Holy Family or Last Supper or Ascension.

Today being All Saints Day, the big iron gate is open and the villagers are buzzing in and out, tidying up and laying new bouquets of flowers. I was there this morning, and young Christy joined me, the film-star pretty daughter of the Juli family. She pointed to the simple grave of a man who died at age 49 in 1990. “That´s Nino. He used to live in your house,” she told me. “He was single. A shepherd. He lived there alone, just with the sheep and dogs and cats. It´s not such a good thing to live by yourself.”

I asked how he´d died so young – most of the people lying here lived well into their 80s and 90s.

“Over at Edu´s garden, just across the pasture from your house, we found him in the well. He drowned. So nobody lived in your house, really, since 1990. Just his sister, you know, and just on weekends in the summer. And that´s why we are glad you live there now. It was a lonely place for so long.”

After the Mass today, Don Santiago will lead a procession up to the cemetery and bless the graves with Holy Water. Everyone will say a decade of the Rosary. And then they´ll all go home and have a big dinner with the family. It is good to remember the past and honor the dead. Some of the people in today´s parade must know their bodies, too, will be lying under that patch of ground soon enough, and every November 1 their families will surely show up with flowers.

It´s 10:30, and the half-hour-til-Mass bells are ringing. The builder is here, and one of the chickens is loose in the patio, and I don´t know the current location of Tim the hen-slayer. Gotta go. Gotta live while I´m still above ground.