Thursday, 25 December 2008

High Plains Drifters

There weren´t many gifts around our little Christmas tree. No snow nor ice nor cloudy skies, even... we had our Christmas Eve lunch outside in the patio.

Christmas day was a long walk with the dogs in the morning, and Mass at 11:45. We made the rounds of the neighbors´ houses, bearing a bag of be-ribboned torrones (a sort of fondant chocolate bar). We came home with two boxes of pastries and two pilgrims.

They are winter pilgrims, a special breed. In summertime camino travelers tend to be more lighthearted and fun-loving and English-speaking. Many are vacationers, tourists, party animals, youth ministry groups or bored kids bopping around Europe on the cheap.

People who walk 500 miles in mid-winter are something different. They are tough. They´re grizzled. They are mostly silent, solitary men. And they are few. To see one per day in December is the exception. To see two together? well. We invite them home.

Or sometimes they come looking for us. Late on December 23 a man came to the door, a big dark-eyed bear in a red coat. His name was Joxe, a Navarrese Basque, he was "estropiado." Exhausted. He´d walked from Carrion de los Condes, intending to stay at the refuge in Terradillos. When he arrived there the dueña told him they were closed for the holiday, he´d have to move on. Sahagun was another 12 kilometers, and he´d already come 30 that day. He hadn´t had a real conversation with another person for three days.

"Seriously, I started walking along the road, and I started to cry," he said, wrapping his big hands around his coffee mug. "I was a little crazy, I think. Nobody sent me to this house. I was out of water, and this was the first house I saw with smoke coming out the chimney. And I find it is the only "house of welcome" in this village. I don´t believe in coincidence. I believe it is a miracle. This place. You guys." He started crying again.

Paddy gave me one of His Looks. I started another pot of coffee. Sometimes it´s kinda nice, being a miracle. Joxe stayed the night. I am not sure where he slept, because the bed in his room shows no sign of having been used.

Anyway, Joxe made it known there´s noplace for pilgrims these days in Terradillos, so on Christmas eve we went over to there and talked with the people who run the pilgrim hostel. They let us put a sign on their door telling travelers there´s a place to stop three kilometers on, if they can get that far.

And that´s how our Christmas lads found us. Luciano is a fine-looking young Roman who runs an Italian restaurant in Mallorca, one of Spain´s resort islands. Diego is a wizened, bearded old shepherd from Cordoba. He speaks with a thick Andalusian accent, biting the ends off his verbs, taking up little space. He ate only half his cake, and stored the rest in a bit of foil inside his coat, for later. He knows the Road. This is his 29th camino, he said -- he dates back 35 years, back when a "pilgrim hostel" was a corner in someone´s barn, a cup of water, some bread and sausage and maybe an apple.

But Diego also knows the shepherds´ paths hereabouts, having driven herds of sheep north and south along the Real Cañada Leonesa. Drovers for centuries have taken enormous herds of sheep from way down in Extremadura up to mountain pastures hundreds of kilometers away, following a network of public "cañadas," protected pathways for livestock. One of those paths passes just north of here. And that´s how Diego knows so much about the qualities of our spring water, what kind of soil is in our patio, what kinds of herbs grow wild here.

Luciano was taken with him, too. "I´m a city boy. If you left me out in the woods I´d last a couple of days, maybe. But Diego? He knows how to live out there. He showed me roots you can dig out and boil and eat, and leaves you use for cuts and bruises, and how to tell where there is water near the surface. Such knowledge he has... I feel like I´ve discovered a treasure."

"Shut up, you little shit," Diego told him, grinning. "You´d freeze your butt off out here, with me or without me. I´m just showing you the way your grandad´s butt was frozen off."

The pair of them didn´t stay, even though the refuges in Sahagun were closed. They headed out, their stomachs full of our weak American coffee and their pockets full of bananas and apples and fresh, harsh chorizo from the Milagros boys.

Happy Christmas to all of you in cyber-land, to all the pilgrims on the road and shepherds in the fields and all the sailors on the ships at sea.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Solstice: In Which the Past is Brandished

Today was a lot of things. It was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year up here in the northern hemisphere. It was the peak of an ongoing meteor shower, spectacular to see in the inky black Promised Land at night. And when the sun came up it was bright, lovely and warm.

And it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Sahagún, a skirmish of the now-much-forgotten Peninsular War that saw the British take on Napoleon´s troops and kick some French booty before sailing home and leaving Spain to its fate.

When you saunter past the peaceful little hermitage church of the Virgin de la Puente on your way into Sahagún, you don´t think of swords and cavalry charges and blood and guts, but today we saw a sort-of, scaled-down, not-exactly-precise re-enactment of the fight, out on the wide meadow so familiar to Santiago pilgrims.

It was fun, seeing the horses run and prance and frustrate their riders, who obviously wanted them to do close-order drill when the horses really wanted to run and prance and maybe eat grass. They´re local horses, a uniformed man told me, rented-out for this sort of thing all over the country. They´re "bomb-proof," he said. And some of them were small. Too small for the great big men riding on them, I thought.

The men, about 10 British "Hussars" and four French "Dragoons", wore flashy period costumes (the hats were especially dramatic) and rode on historically-correct saddles. They brandished swords (is anything else ever "brandished," I ask?) and shouted commands and had a wonderful time running their horses up and down the field at one another, prancing and shouting and brandishing like mad. These were real Frenchman, and real Englishmen, but not real soldiers. They´d traveled all the way here at their own expense to do this strange thing in this isolated place. Unlike the soldiers 200 years ago who really did fight a battle there, nobody got hurt. An appreciative crowd of after-church locals turned out and watched the fun, and applauded politely at the end of each charge.

There is something weird about historic re-enactments and enactors. I´ve met a good number of them on both sides of the Atlantic, re-living romantic bits of old wars in ways that are much more hygienic and less smelly this time around. It gives the kiddies some idea of what the past might have looked like. And it stimulates economies: A golden dragoon helmet, with its long black mane trailing down the rider´s back, costs upward of 400 Euros. I am not sure why I feel odd about the concept. Dressing up exactly like someone dressed 200 years ago and traveling across countries to thunder across a field on a rented horse is harmless enough. It keeps these guys off the streets.

Still, a good time was had by all, except maybe the horses. The whole battery rode back into town when the show was over, and met the mayor in the Plaza Mayor, and ate cookies. We went to the Bar Deportivo and had gin & tonics and toasted the British victory. The bar guys found the historical enactment mystifying, too. No one remembers Sahagún being occupied by British troops, or overrun by Frenchmen -- except maybe Modesto, our local historian. Not long ago I found him poking around inside one of the bodegas, back in Moratinos. He showed me a secret hidey-hole, cleverly dug into the wall behind the door leading to the outside.

"Anyone inside has to shut that door to see the little cave. And if you shut that door it blocks out the daylight, so you can´t see anything at all. That´s where they hid their stuff, back when the French were here," he told me.

Napoleon. Before I moved here I never even knew he´d sent an army into Spain. His men broke the noses off the statues on the noble tombs in hundreds of churches. They blew up the castle in Cea, and the one in Burgos, too. Their brutality inspired Goya to create his horrifying "Disasters of War" series of prints. To Napoleon´s soldiers, the Camino was just a convenient walkway across the top of Spain. To the locals, none of these foreigners was any damn good -- they sacked the towns wherever they went, burned the crops, stole the wine and probably messed the women around.

I wonder if those soldiers long ago had any idea about pilgrims using that road. By 1808, the pilgrimage to Santiago was a forgotten relic of the medieval past.

Which makes me wonder: Who´s to say this latest sensation for the Camino de Santiago isn´t a sort of historical re-enactment? Pilgs are forever discussing how tough it must´ve been for medieval pilgrims, and there are even a few hardcore bearded guys who walk the Way every year dressed in long robes and capes, drinking from gourds and carrying all their gear in canvas sacks instead of backpacks. They brandish walking sticks made from real trees. They sleep outdoors, seek out Masses, visit shrines, or go without bathing, just to get that "original pilgrim" vibe. They pose for newspaper photographers and TV cameras with a faraway, troubled look in their bloodshot eyes.

Paddy calls these characters "assholes." I think I´ll just call them "re-enactors."

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Standing Back Up

I have to admit it. I spent the last few days feeling mighty down.

I thought an awful lot had happened: sudden tons of company, Paddy´s continuing problems with his ankle, family conflicts, the nightmare trip to Madrid, snow, mud, a broken washer/dryer, a leak in the upstairs shower, economic uncertainty, falling behind on a couple of editing projects, and finally the death of Alan, a camino friend who visited us this spring. Don´t even talk to me about Christmas!

But yesterday I decided it´s time to stop feeling bad. Rotten things are going to happen. Circumstances are going to pile up. But I still get to decide how I feel about it all, at least most of the time. I´m tired of feeling bad, so I will stop.

One factor in my mind-change was a trip to Leon to play tourist. There we wandered the narrow streets and enjoyed the shop windows, all of them very old-fashioned lineups of all the wonders available within. (they were better than the cathedral, even, at least now that so much of the stained glass is under scaffolding). Here are some pictures.

Another great thing is, I have Philip here with me. I have to enjoy him while I got him. I haven´t spent much time with my son for a good three years, and here he is, a virtual prisoner, for almost a month!

Once it dawned on me that he IS family, after all, and I don´t have to take him to see all the sights and entertainments, the pressure kinda came off me. (we DID go look at a castle on Monday). He´s already walked the Camino (he did it when he was 17!), and I have a perfect right to have him help out around here. Matter of fact, he really WANTS to help out. He came here expecting Forced Labor. And finally, at long last, we are enjoying sunshine and blue skies. So today we girded our loins and waded into the back yard.

I chopped a ton of firewood with my trusty little Stihl electric chainsaw. Philip and Paddy dug earth and pried up rocks and rubble and poured concrete and stretched fence wire in the continuing saga that is our chicken coop. We all got good and dirty and hungry. And me, being the WunderMum, already had a quiche in the oven!

The menfolk now are napping. The dogs are passed out in front of the fire. The chickens may safely scratch, secure in their fine chicken yard. Only me and Bob Canary are up, and he is singing along to Sidney Bechet.

I will tell you more about Federico the Guitar Guy´s visit once I know more. He is now back in Wisconsin building guitars. He is full of surprises and ideas, and I don´t want to tip his hand before he´s ready.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Fantastic Journey

Deep breath. Throw a log on the fire and settle into that chair.
Listen to the quiet.

Events reached a crescendo two days ago, when Libby learned online that the father of her live-in boyfriend Dave had died suddenly. Terry was not an old man. He was a funny, likable, athletic Pillar Of the Community type, a referee in the youth soccer league, a church youth group leader, a Civil War history buff. He was an important part of Libby´s life, the first person near her to die. Poor Libby.

We got on the horn and got her airline ticket changed free of charge (thanks, Delta!) and decided to shift our trip to Madrid back a few days. Lib didn´t want to go down to the airport on her own. I´ll take you, I said. Philip and Federico said they´d come along too.

And such are constructed Fantastic Voyages and Heroic Epics. And sitcoms.

Libby was numb, dumb with grief. Philip was withdrawn. Federico was ebullient, full of fizz and really bad jokes and suggestions of all the things we ought to do. We set out after a hearty lunch, at about 3 p.m. The trip takes about three hours.

It started raining right about Burgos, where we turned southward on the A1 autopista. The sky darkened as we drove. The Sierra Guadarrama, a range of rugged mountains, usually rises up between us and Madrid, but this day it was invisible, wreathed in mist. At Sepulveda traffic slowed to a crawl. The rain turned to slush. We ate apples and chocolate and watched night fall as we crawled toward the police barrier.

No one was allowed to continue up the pass unless they had tire chains, the policeman said. The mountain was all but snowed-in, closed to trucks already. Several cars were in ditches. To make Madrid we´d have to take the road due west, he said, and catch the big AP6 motorway south in Segovia.

Segovia´s a good 55 km. out of the way, but we had no tire chains. We´d never needed such Minnesota-like accessories before. So merrily we rolled along (except for Libby, who thought it was all BS.) Little did we know, but when we left the four-lane we had driven straight into...

The Twilight Zone.

We made it to Madrid in six hours, including a stop for a dreary, overpriced dinner at an Italian restaurant that served no Italian food. We had booked rooms online at a place called Hotel Auditorium, a place right by the airport that claims to be the largest hotel in Europe. We went there, following the directions provided on the hotel website. Or we tried to go there.

For hours we covered the same 10-mile circuit of city streets, highways, ring roads, maintenance pathways, exits, on-ramps, roundabouts, and access ways. We phoned the hotel once and got directions that led nowhere. We phoned again and got contradictory directions. We could actually SEE the place, but could not find a road that went there. I thought I would go mad. I remember asking someone to kill me. I wanted to kill someone... especially when Federico decided to be lighthearted and chipper! (I guess my kids know from experience when to shut up and glower!)

I do not know how we finally found the hotel. It was 11 p.m. We were done-in. The place was a great shimmering series of marble corridors decorated sometime in the late 70s with massive chandeliers, chrome balconies, ormolu grandfather clocks, and Flemish still-life paintings. And right in the center of the massive main lobby stood a smashed 57 Chevy disguised as Art. Travelers drifted through the halls, their eyes empty, their luggage humming along behind them.

The rooms were reasonably priced for a 4-star hotel. But parking the car cost 21 Euros.

I woke up at 3 am with the wind screaming outside the window. I´d been dreaming of driving, still driving in circles, round and round, endlessly.

This morning Libby caught the 9 a.m. airport shuttle. Philip and I left Federico in Madrid. We bought tire chains at a truck stop, and headed northward and home. We crossed the mountain pass, then took the long way back home, down the Duero valley, past vineyards and castles, chatting and enjoying one another´s company, with long stretches of quiet in between. The Twilight Zone spat us out again after Valladolid, and we landed in a cafe in Medina de Rioseco. An old man heated up caldo for us in a little tin pan on the stove behind the bar. He served the thick broth in yogurt crocks, with a little shot of white wine on top. Lovely.

The dogs were ecstatic to see us come home. It felt like we´d been gone for a week instead of just a day.

And now, quiet. No plans. No schedule. Just some writing, maybe, and mail, a nice fire and a big fat novel to finish.

Tonight I will sleep in my own bed, so sweet and quiet (unless Paddy snores.)

I feel like we´ve survived something huge.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Domestic drama

Days should be merry and bright, what with my favorite people here in my favorite place with me. But they are not.
These people are family, after all. Families have this reputation, y´see, when they get together in wintry, closed-in conditions.
Figure in days of rain, lots of wine, some claustrophobia, jet lag, culture shock, old wounds, and just plain old boredom.
Then "the truth" comes out. Plans go to pieces. Doors slam, hearts break, teardrops fall.

So we are living in an Edward Albee play, or a Chick Flick, or maybe a Billy Ray Cyrus song. We continue to function, though. Nothing irrevocable has happened.
I hope.

I think both kids are already ready to go home. Even though I want them here always!

We also are hosting Federico Sheppard, a guitar-building osteopath full of energy and plans and stories. He wants to start a studio and build guitars out here on the meseta somewhere, and during the Holy Year of 2010 host concerts by well-known guitarists and Fulbright-grade guitar students. Sounds interesting, eh?

And so we took him into Sahagun to see possible performance venues, meet dear old Paca and German and the Abadesa, and poke around places with For Rent signs, just to get a feel for the place. Sahagun is looking pretty severe these days, despite the jolly holiday lights mounted over the streets. The leaves are gone from the trees. Leaves and greenery hide a multitude of sins. But we did find an abandoned trade school down by the river. It´s owned by the town. It´s full of tools and extractor fans and workbenches and dust. Up at the pilgrim hostel there´s a 250-person auditorium. Four churches. Lots of places for visitors and artists and composers to stay. A stop on the main railway line between Leon and Madrid. And The Peaceable a mere 9 km. to the east.

As to all that, we shall see. Meantime, Federico is making himself helpful around here, him being an orthopedic doctor and a woodworker as well. Pad´s ankle has been seen-to, the underfloor heating system balanced, the leak in the upstairs shower sealed-up, the hammocks hung. Philip is pulling his weight, happily digging and driving nails out back, putting up a new door in the chicken house, excavating a retaining wall, chopping up firewood. He´s bored enough to work hard! Wish I´d discovered this back when he was a teenager!

Nothing else is getting done. We are not walking any caminos, at least not the physical kind.
Loving people is very hard work.

Monday, 8 December 2008


The kids arrived to gray skies, and it´s rained, rained rained ever since they landed. We are effectively stranded in the Little House on the Meseta, surrounded by dripping eaves, mud, chill, and dogs. (no chilidogs, though.) It´s a long holiday weekend here, so stores, historic sites, and amusing places are all closed.

With the waterlogged plains stretching out for miles around us, we are marooned from the greater world.
I am not sure Libby and Philip signed on for this.
It´s a good thing we all like one another pretty well. We´ve played Scrabble and Settlers of Catan, a complicated "develop your medieval village economy before the other guys" sort of game that Philip brought along. We´ve discussed at length the Pittsburgh Steelers football team -- our heartfelt subscription to American regional tribalism. (Ah, the longings one feels on a long Sunday afternoon, without a TV and without a signal, far from the mad, mad crowd!)

We take turns sweeping the floors, as mud comes inside with every trip to the chicken run, trash bin, or driveway. Paddy and Philip chop and haul firewood, and keep the stove going. We do laundry, and string it up to dry in the salon. We read novels, write letters, cruise the internet. (God bless his soul, David the Dutch hospitalero really seems to have cracked the wifi mystery!)Una and Tim and Murphy are taking advantage of two extra sets of hands providing scratches, snacks, and scraps.

We´ve learned about Philip´s sojourn through the history curriculum at Ohio University, and Libby´s new job at a battered women´s shelter in Bowling Green, which will require nice new clothes...she´ll have to appear in court. We´ve been down to Palencia, where we got an up-close look at provincial governmental bureaucracy. (we were sent someone else´s tax bill, and learned today that few people here in Moratinos are on speaking terms with the addressee, so we can´t get their address to forward it to them. The bill is for a big 6 Euros. The mayor told me to just tear it up and fugeddaboudit.)

When people are incarcerated together, meals become important daily touchstones. Philip´s longtime sweetheart is from a Muslim family, and Philip has sworn-off eating pork. Libby is allergic to egg yolks. Feeding them is interesting. So far we´ve done tortilla without yolks, pesto pasta, rabbit stew, Indonesian clay-pot chicken, veg. puree, and tonight, Turkish spaghetti. It takes more thinking-ahead with this number of people, and one more is due to arrive Wednesday.

Today the rain lightened to drizzle for a couple of hours, so we went to Grajal and looked at the outsides of the castle and palace, walked through the secret passageway to the big empty plaza mayor, and discovered an unmarked bar glowing yellow down an adobe alley. We had croquetas (which had ham in them, egads!) and patatas bravas, and cold cold San Miguel draft beer. Both my kids can drink legally now, but neither seems to drink much at all.

Both my "kids" are adults. And after all these years, just as I´d suspected they might, both of them are turning out to be very good company. They make interesting conversation, they cook and clean. They know how to laugh out loud, and how to be silent. They don´t mind being alone. They do not expect to be entertained. I think I would like them even if I did not love them with all my blood and bone, heart and soul.

I look outside, past Libby´s shoulder, and I hear sparrows arguing in the spruce tree. The rain is stopped. Up above the barn roof there´s a streak of blue sky.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Really Good Parts!

We steeped ourselves in quietness for a couple of weeks, and now it´s all happening again.

Long story short, a much-anticipated visit from my son Philip, who´s not been to Spain in four years and has never seen The Peaceable Kingdom, commenced today with a knockout surprise!

We arrived a little late to Madrid airport, having driven down in snow and fog, and who is standing on the curb with my boy? His sister, Libby! They plotted and schemed together for the past month, and pulled off what might be the most pleasant surprise in my recent memory!

Of course having them both here (Libby can only stay til 16 Dec., but Philip goes back on New Year´s Eve) scrambles up some plans and will require moving furniture around next week, when another guest arrives. But I´m not thinking of that now. I am too busy being delighted. And being hugged!

I don´t blog much about my children, as they´re not a part of daily life around here, and I don´t want to bore you or violate their privacy. But they are very much a part of my heart, and sometimes I miss them terribly. To have them here, BOTH at the same time? Even when they´re jet-lagged it is meat and drink for the soul. I don´t know when we all were together in the same place last, for more than a day or evening or meal. Now we´ll be together long enough to maybe even get on each others´ nerves! Woohoo! A real family!

And speaking of potentially boring, but presently very nice developments:

I don´t know if I bored you in the past with my long and bureaucratic sojourn toward teaching other former pilgrims how to be hospitaleros. (Hospitaleros are volunteers who run non-profit pilgrim hostels in two-week time slots. They make the Camino de Santiago happen.)

A month ago, the Canadians who officially train hospitaleros agreed to bring me onto their hospitalero training "team." (Can two people be a team?) This enables me to teach people how to do this rather common-sense job here on the Camino, in English. And people thus trained can go onto the rota of the Spanish national Federation, which staffs about 50 hostels. Got all that? (here is their picture, btw):

Anyway, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning I taught my first course, and signed-up two new hospitaleros: Marik from Denmark and David from Holland. I sent all their info off to The Authorities, who will hopefully soon send them an assignment for 2009. It´s nice. It´s a little like having children, and sending them off into the world. I feel kind-of responsible for them!

So if you are one of those people who wants to try hospitalero-ing, and you want to be trained in English, you can go either to the Confraternity of St. James in London and get it in a lovely UK accent, or you can come to The Peaceable and get the Canadian version. And next I hope to put all the teaching materials into shape to make an online course! (Oh, and you can also attend a gathering of the American Pilgrims on the Camino. They offer hospitalero training as part of this annual convention... this spring it´s in Albuquerque, New Mexico.)

As for the Peaceable itself -- we´re finding out it´s not coping with winter temperatures as well as we´d hoped. It´s insulated all over, but the adobe walls are hanging onto the cold rather than the warmth. We wake up to 11-degree C in the bedrooms each morning, our breath drifting in clouds above our noses -- even as we burn through an awful lot of gasoil in the furnace. We´ll have to do some tuning. And we don´t know how.

The adventure continues! And now we have an audience to enjoy the Laff Riot with us.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Sunny Thanksgiving

One of America´s better ideas is Thanksgiving, the holiday that happened Thursday. The entire country takes a day off, roasts a turkey, eats pie and other traditional delicacies, drinks nasty liquor with distant relatives, then falls asleep in front of a televised football game. (You´re really supposed to spend this day thanking God for all the nice things and people that surround you, but you don´t always get to that.)

Here in Moratinos, Thursday 29 November was a day like any other, except it was a bit colder than average. We didn´t plan on any big fowl feast...we decided to turn back the clock to when I lived as a single mom in Toledo, Ohio. Back then I was in a labor union, and those who worked on Thanksgiving day were paid double the normal rate for their day´s work! Therefore, the kids (Libby and Philip) went to their Dad´s house for the usual feast early in the day, while I worked the early shift at the newspaper and raked in the big bucks. When I finished I´d gather up the other single people in the newsroom, pick up Libby and Philip, and we´d all drive up through the snow to Great Lake Dim Sum in Ann Arbor, where we feasted fit to burst on some top quality Cantonese. (Most other restaurants were closed on the big day, but the Chinese were always open.)

We did that every Thanksgiving for at least five years. It grew to include a good 15 or 20 people at some point. And in the years since I always kinda crave steamed wontons on Thanksgiving, when everyone else is inhaling pumpkin pie.
And so this year we decided to revisit the Ann Arbor tradition, except this time do it in Leon.

As per usual, Paddy took the dogs out for their morning run up the camino. Because the weather´s gone bad, we see very few pilgrims passing through lately, and none have stopped at our place in at least two weeks. I begin to miss them when they´re not here. They keep us from falling into ruts and rhythms of unbroken sameness, where we do the same things at the same times every day and week, with the same cast of characters. We lose track of time, space, dimension. We drift into netherworlds of long Thackeray novels or aimless web searches or elaborate eggplant recipes. We catch the flu, and spend entire days passed-out in bed, lolling in indolence.

(Some may look at the above and say "hey, sounds great to me, except for the flu part" And true, retirement DOES have its good and bad sides.)

But what I´m trying to say is, yesterday morning Paddy brought home a Thanksgiving treat. Can you guess what it was?
Another dog? No.
A donkey? No, thank God... I am still having nightmares about that huge friendly donkey-head staring in the living-room window, overshadowing all we did.
A pilgrim? Getting warm!

From out there on the windy trail Pad and Una and Tim brought back nine Koreans. They followed him through the gate, and just kept coming, and coming, and coming, like clowns piling out of a tiny circus car. Large and small, girls and boys, teens and tinies, each had his or her own backpack, staff, and big, broad smile. They shed their gear in the entryway, stacking it with practiced ease. We brought them inside, crammed them into the kitchen/sitting room, gave them coffee and cocoa, and listened to a three-person account of their travels. (they approach English the way Paddy and I do Spanish: One person listens and understands, then conveys it to the next person, who formulates and delivers a spoken response.)

The dad of the group, or maybe the entire group, is named Sunny. Sunny J-sik Han. They´re a dad and mom and six children, with a nephew along for the ride as well. They live in Seoul, South Korea, and run a nursery school with an accent on artwork -- they were enough taken with a portrait Libby did of me when she was 2 they took a photo of it! They´re walking the camino in winter because they can´t take the summer heat. They´re on a 2-year tour of all kinds of places: Russia, Jordan, Israel, France, Spain, and after this they´re off to Somalia to help out at an orphanage run by a Korean charity.

The dogs rolled around on the carpet with the little girls. The boys hunkered over the computer. They all were very calm and polite and measured, a pleasure to have in the house.

They started the Camino two weeks ago, Sunny said, and we are the first people to invite them in. I was amazed... a family, with children? Spaniards love children! How could this be?
Could be because it´s winter, and so much of the Camino has hung out the "Closed for the Season" sign?
Could be the stony Castilian character we hear a lot about? -- but we have not really seen that for ourselves. Castilians seem perfectly friendly to us, and I´ve seen them go out of their way to make a pilgrim child smile.

I wonder how much of it is their Korean-ness. I´ve noticed here in Spain that anyone with Oriental features is assumed (by many) to be a "Chino," and is treated with a clumsy, smiling scorn usually reserved for unattractive children. It´s not out-and-out discrimination, but it´s a definite prejudice, the kind you see in jokey fingers-on-eye-corners and buck-tooth smiles babbling "chinchangchow." I´ve seen this in high-ranking clergy, driving instructors, teenagers, hospitaleros, and TV ads. It is repugnant.

I am glad Paddy asked the Sunnys home. They took photos, and gave us little gifts, and signed the book and had us stamp a sello in each of their credentials. When they finished their cocoa each child washed his own cup and saucer in the sink. Then they strapped their mountain of packs and bedrolls back onto their backs and headed out down the trail. The mom turned ´round in the driveway and bobbed a little bow, and told us, "you make people happy."

"They renew my faith in humanity," Paddy said simply.

That done, we headed out ourselves -- to Leon, to a Thanksgiving feast at Casa Rong, our favorite Spanish Chinese restaurant. It´s nothing near as good as Great Lake, but I´ll take Peking Duck over roast turkey, given a choice. Outside the windows the snow began to fall, just like in Ann Arbor.

It made me miss the football, just a little.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Musical Martyrs

Woke up this morning,
dragged my carcass out of bed,
looked out the window,
and what did I see?
Snow. White hankies dropping straight down from a silent, steel-gray sky.

Still, though, I did not despair. It is only November, so it´s not killer depressing yet, seeing snow. The first snowfall of the season is usually kind of nice.

Specially if it´s like this one: short-lived and followed by all kinds of weather after. And better things than that, even. I looked at the snow and realized I´m feeling better, finally.

I´ve not written in my usual rhythm because I´ve been very ill -- an intestinal flu bug is making the rounds hereabouts, and boy did I get a dose!

I knew something was wrong on Saturday night. Saturday was St. Cecilia´s Day. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians -- the good woman, a Roman martyr, is usually pictured with a pipe organ. (Bet you didn´t know that pipe organs date back 2,000 years, to the Romans, eh? The earliest ones weren´t driven by compressed air, but by running water! Cool stuff you can learn from blogs, eh?) I can only hope that Cecilia´s organ-playing was not directly related to her martyrdom.

Martyrdom and pipe organs do have their commonalities, as anyone can attest who has sat through more than one organ recital.

More back story: Michael, my Premier Husband and the father of my children, is an organist of some note in the United States. Many years ago we toured some of the weird 500-year-old pipe organs that still remain in rural Extremadura, Spain. Nothing sounds (or looks) quite like a Spanish pipe organ, and UNESCO, the European Union, and other cultural NGOs have spent zillions in the past two decades saving many of these old whistle-boxes from oblivion. Unfortunately, nobody in the backwater towns is an organist. Paco and Pepita may have a jewel of the Spanish Baroque in the loft of their old stone sanctuary, but it´s a good bet they have never heard it played.

And so Michael´s messing-about, courtesy the Tourist Office of Spain and the Extremaduran bishops, usually drew crowds of appreciative, applauding villagers... and sometimes showered them with clouds of dust and pigeon guano. (this can happen when you pull open a stop and compressed air suddenly fills a long-silent diapaison. (Mothers, warn your children.)

So, in the fullness of years I am left with a perverse appreciation for pipe organs, especially the odd Spanish kind. And a week ago, while reading the local weekly newspaper, I found an announcement: on St. Cecilia´s Day, a free organ concert at Sta. Cecilia Church in Espinoza de Gonzalo, on a 15th century restored instrument, by a Mexican-American organist "of some repute."

"Hmmm," I thought. "I wonder if he´ll play any 15th century Mexican church music? I wonder where Espinoza de Gonzalo is? I wonder if Paddy can be persuaded to go?"

Long story short: We got up and went, seeing as we´ve not done no culture in a while. Espinoza isn´t much these days, but it was apparently an important place a few hundred years ago. They have a real gem of a big old parish church that must date to the 12th century, with a sweet Flemish-style pipe organ up in the loft. The pedals were mere pegs set into the floor. There was only one keyboard, with 40 notes, and 20 stop-buttons, big enough to fill your palm.

The concert drew a good crowd -- about 100 people gathered in, smiled and greeted one another, and wondered how to sit. (Watching a concert means you sit facing the performer. But what if he´s seated behind you, over your head? And what if the seat is a church pew, and reversing yourself means turning your back on the Blessed Sacrament up front and threading your legs over and through the pew-back? And what if you´re an old lady, wearing a skirt, and all your neighbors are there watching?)

Anyway, we being strangers, we just sat and listened. The organist was not much good. He did not play any oddments of Hispanic Baroque, and we didn´t hear any of the wonderfully goat-like honkings I knew were coiled inside those big en chamade horizontal pipes bristling out over his head. Oh well, he is the Yale-educated expert, not me.

It still was an enjoyable evening out, in a lovely and nicely restored church, with well-kept baroque and roccoco altars. It was not overly cold, although the inevitable chill did creep up into my ankles as time went on. Between numbers we could see and hear the crowd slipping away (just try to sneak out when the exit door is 12 feet tall and weighs 150 pounds).

I was glad for the architectural distraction, because my stomach was making amazing noises. The noises! It did not ache or hurt me, but something apparently was going on in there, something akin to a population migration, a hydraulic damming project, or some autonomic realignment of major digestive organs. It was almost musical.

We were going to stop somewhere for dinner after the concert, but the digestive din was a warning shot across the bow. We hied on home after the last semiquaver bounced off the stone vaults. We made it just in time.

And so here I am, somewhat recovered from my very own organ concert -- three days of musical martyrdom. Flu Blues. Acid Jazz. A little tripe music?

Santa Cecilia forfend!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Sunshine + Spare Time + Stones

Enough of life, death, and dogs´ ballocks. We´ve spent the last few dreary days hunkered down by the fire contemplating Being and Nothingness. Today the sun came out, and we decided it´s time to get back to Big Fun.

In the bright morning we took the dogs and a walking stick and hiked out to Villa Oreja, maybe a mile east along the Camino. Paddy and Una (both still limping a bit) sat down on one of the benches for a rest.

You might know Villa Oreja by now. It´s just a couple of benches and an irrigation well nowadays, a layby along the Camino between Moratinos and Terradillos. The tiny Rio Templarios babbles by, and tall trees shade the scene. Back a thousand years or so there was supposedly a monastery there, full of wicked monks. A local Good vs. Evil legend attached to the place, and is still played-out there (with plenty of liquid lubrication) every summer on St. John´s Eve. (I blogged about it before – put in “Templars” in the Lijit search box over to the right here. It´ll come up.)

Two summers ago our English forerunners in Moratinos, James and Marianne, put coffee and bickies and a donations box out in the early mornings at Villa Oreja, for the pilgs to enjoy. The innkeeper in St. Nicolas, who claims divine right to all money spent by pilgrims hereabouts, thought their little breakfast service was a threat to public health. He called in the authorities and shut them down.

Anyway, Villa Oreja has a vibe all its own. It´s quiet and pastoral and inviting, and it´s dead on the Camino. We like it. While Paddy and Una sat, Tim went down to the creek to hunt crawdads. I took Paddy´s walking stick, and started scratching in the dirt. A cross, with a dot in each quadrant. Then a hook up and to the right, to make the cross into a letter f. And from there, a loop over top. I learned it in a book, this drawing. It´s easy, ancient, and elegant. It turns into a classic Cretan design, with roots going back 3,000 years.

And thus, dear readers, is how our first Labyrinth got started.

I dragged the stick behind me to ensure the paths were wide enough to walk. We picked up rocks, and laid them along the lines.

We didn´t have enough rocks, so I later went out the the Promised Land in the car and scavenged what felt like a ton or two. After lunch we went back to Villa Oreja and worked until the little job was done. It didn´t take too long. We´re pleased with the outcome.

Why´d we make a Labyrinth? I don´t really know. I like outdoor designy-things that slip easily into the environment: simple fountains, bridges, pathways, grottos, rockeries.
We both love old things, ideas with a long, misty history. People have been building labyrinths in meadows and cathedrals and gardens all over the world for eons, for reasons that aren´t really clear.

Labyrinths (as opposed to mazes) have a reputation for deepening peoples´ spiritual practice, and I´m all for that. Many pilgrims are spiritual people. I hope they use the labyrinth at Villa Oreja. (Yes, I am aware that a labyrinth along an actual pilgrimage route is a tautology. But only if you consider a labyrinth to be a pilgrimage in miniature... Like medieval Christians did.) Most of those who pass by Villa Oreja will not even notice the rocks on the ground. If they do, maybe they´ll find them appealing, or interesting, or pretty, or even fun. (If they are 13-year-old boys, or evil innkeepers, they will probably enjoy a few joyful moments pitching them all into the creek!)

God knows what the neighbors will think, if they even notice. There´s nothing out there to identify us as authors, except our eccentric reputation...and now this blog! If they ask us what that rock thing is, and why we put it there, I am not sure my Castellano is up to the task of explaining it.

All I can say is the sun was shining. The benches and well-head and trees at Villa Oreja seemed to form an open embrace for a nice triple circle of stones.
We had time and energy. I knew how to draw the design. We had plenty of rocks. We enjoyed ourselves. And doesn´t it look kinda nice?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Why I Cried

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, but I cried anyway. I worried the dogs. I don´t think they ever saw me cry before.

...But it´s not me, really. It´s my cousin Barb.

Barbara is my cousin, maybe my favorite of all my many cousins. When I was small and gangly and lonesome, Barb was grown-up and beautiful and kind. She painted her toenails, and she showed me how to paint mine. After the enamel dried, she took me out to the barn and introduced me to the sweet comfort and company of animals, and the self-confidence that comes from practical wisdom.

Barb had a bouffant hairdo then, and a French poodle so smart he could climb up and down ladders and howl along to the radio. Out in the field Barb kept a big Arabian mare, a breathtaking animal she could ride bareback and drive and push around fearlessly. Barb built the horse´s little barn. She set up the electric fence around the pasture. She shoveled the manure and polished the bridles and drove us to horse shows. In her hallway hung long rows of ribbons: red, yellow, and fat blue rosettes, even some silver trophies. She was amazing. She was tough and long-legged and beautiful. I wanted to be just like her.

Over several years Barbara taught me to curry and saddle and ride horses, too. She showed me how to tie knots in a rope to make a halter, how to shift the gears on a tractor, catch chickens, lift sheep, pitch hay, pour beers, boil lobsters, plow snow and braise metal. When she went on holiday I fed the animals for her, even the mean roosters. When “everybody” went on all-day trail rides, Barb found a horse for me to ride, too. When my pet cat Flour died, she brought me Pete, a terrier pup she´d found wandering out on the road somewhere.

Barb´s always finding animals, or animals find her. The broken ones she fixes up and frees, or finds homes for – one winter afternoon she had a lame swan in one stall of the barn, and two screaming peacocks in the next, along with the usual parade of ponies, goats, and horses. In the house, keeping warm in the bathtub, was an orphaned goat kid. A Peaceable Kingdom, in other words. The original.

Barb is not overly sentimental, however. One Thanksgiving eve she tried to introduce me to the art of poultry butchering. Results were mixed. The duck and turkey ended up roasted, but my career as a chicken-plucker ended there in the back yard.

Barb knew strange people and odd places, and she drove her Jeep up and over the steep hills of rural Western Pennsylvania seeking out breeders of Afghan Hounds or someone giving away guinea hens. One blustery Autumn day I followed her into a murky old-fashioned German “bank barn,” a two-story barn built against a hillside, with stock below and hay up above. We entered from the road, right into the second story, where the floors were carpeted with flattened cardboard boxes and fallen hay. Barb called out for the owner, who waved us over to where he was sharpening sickles in a corner.

Suddenly everything vanished. I plunged downward through a hole cut in the floorboards, a chute used to throw feed down to the cows in the stalls below. I caught myself by my elbows. I dangled there, too shocked to shout or shriek, the corner of my eye catching sight of the horns of the cattle way, way below. All I could see in front of me were the backs of Barb´s cowboy boots. I swung an arm forward and grabbed her ankle.

“What you doing down there, Beck?” Barb said, completely casual. She hunkered down and caught me by the armpits and heaved me right back up onto my feet. “Quit messing around now. We need to see the goats before we lose daylight.”

The man with the sickle barely looked up. “Good thing you didn´t fall. Them are steers down there. They´ll eat you up, you know.” He chuckled. It was outrageously unsafe, covering up the holes with cardboard. At the time I was too terrified to even speak.

Still, the most vivid memory of that afternoon was driving home in the dusk, wedged into the tiny rear seat of the Jeep, holding a nanny kid steady in my lap. She sucked on my fingers to calm herself, an unforgettable sensation! We named her “Little.”

A good 30 years have passed. Barb still hangs on to the same wiry beauty, even though she is a grandmother now. She´s seen more than her share of suffering – sudden deaths, divorces, lawyers and lowlifes. She survives, and nowadays she´s a heavy equipment operator. She drives a forklift at the nuke plant in Homer Center, working 60-hour weeks during maintenance outages, and rolling out pavement on highway crews when the weather is good. She still keeps a crowd of critters. Two summers ago, when Paddy and I came to Spain to find a home, she kept Una for us. Una made a great pest of herself. Barb may be the only person patient enough to have done that long-term dog-sitting job.

Barb´s one person I want most to see The Peaceable, because this place is so Her. She could look through the back yard and see exactly which stall would be best for firewood, for foals, for hay and straw – where the manure pile ought to go. She could get Gladys to lay proper eggs, she could calm the wildest donkey, and I bet she could make the chicken hut roof stop leaking.

And she would love Spain. She has a capacity for cold wind and wide starry skies, squidgy mud underfoot and old, old adobe. She´d know the urge to re-use the beat-up hand-forged spikes and hinges. She´d adore the people here, even if she couldn´t understand the language. She knows what honest faces look like. And she knows how to be still, and silent. She knows how to just important skill around here.

Barbara´s got a wonderful life at home, but she also needs to see the cathedral in Leon, and the mosaic floors in the Roman villa over in Calzadilla. She ought to see the castle in Grajal, (home to a couple of doozy pitfalls!) and a Saturday market in Sahagún, and prancing Andalusian horses. She needs to eat roast suckling lamb, and drink really good wine, and bask out in the patio in sunshine with Bob singing in the background. Barb needs a good vacation. This place is perfect for the job.

Barb has never been outside the United States. In July, when I saw her last, she assured me she´d apply for a passport and start saving up some money, that I could show her Spain sometime soon. I have been looking forward to it, a treat out there in the future.

This week Barb learned she has cancer.
It´s treatable, she said. She´ll start radiation therapy within a week, then chemo. There´s hope. And the nuke plant laid her off work, so she can claim Medicare health benefits. (Like millions of working Americans, Barb has no health insurance.)

It´s not like she´s dead already. It´s the suffering ahead of her I cry for, and the very real possibility that she never will make it here now. It´s not about me, really. It´s about the person who gave me the dream that became The Peaceable. She´s gotta see this place. She´s got to. In a real way, it is hers.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Castration Anxiety

I usually do my best to adjust to Spanish life, but today I very deeply miss at least one aspect of The American Way. Simply put: In the Old Country (the USA), male dogs are neatly “neutered,” or “fixed,” or “altered” at the veterinarian´s office.

Here in rural Spain, we animal owners roll up our sleeves and pitch right in on Castration Day.

Back where I come from, “spaying” or “neutering” pet animals is practically a moral imperative. Anyone whose pooch or cat or ferret still has all its equipment is looked upon as cheap, or irresponsible, or maybe so lacking in funds he should not keep a pet at all. Letting a critter wander through life with a sex drive and the accompanying nervous tics is considered cruel.

Therefore, when you adopt a pet from the animal shelter, it´s already been “fixed” by the veterinarian on staff. And if a stray animal decides to take up with you, or a neighbor gives you a pup from his dog´s accidental litter, one of the first things you do is get him neutered.

This is easy: You drop off the dog in the morning at the vet´s office, and you pick him up again in the evening. Yeah, he´s a bit beat-up, but he´s up and about and happy to see you. You have to keep an eye on things “down there” for a day or two. But it´s really no big deal.

Here in Spain, a dog´s life is different... and a dog owner´s life surely is.

Tim is a young Brittany Spaniel who showed up here a year ago – a handsome hunting dog who´d had enough veterinary exposure to own a docked tail and identifying microchip. But he also had two testicles. Of course we inquired at the Sahagun vet about having those removed, too. The vet looked at us with shock and dismay.

“This is a beautiful animal! Why would you want to change him?” he asked. “He´ll get lazy. He´ll get fat. No!” he said. So we went away. And Tim has, in the months since, lost his mind whenever there´s a bitch in the village in heat. (They don´t alter the girl dogs either.) Tim really is a beautiful dog, and an all-around nice guy, too. But he´s high-strung. Tim pees on every vertical surface within 2 meters... this includes the neighbors´ front doors, the water fountain in the square, and sometimes Una Dog. And when he´s incredibly excited – like whenever we get up in the morning, or we return home from the shops – Tim sometimes whizzes on the ground beneath him.

And last week´s adventures with a wired-for-sound 3-year-old boy made it clear that Tim´s testes had to go. And so this evening we took Tim to the new vets, a trio of handsome young men in Saldaña. At 6:30 p.m., Luis met us at the door. I handed him the leash and petted Tim´s head. “When do we come for him?” I asked him. “What time do you open in the morning?”

Luis laughed uncomfortably. “I´m here on my own,” he said. “Come in and lend me a hand. It will be easier for the dog with you here. We´ll be done in an hour.”

I won´t go into details, but I can tell you it took 20 long, harrowing minutes and about five injections to knock out this dog. Once he finally packed it in, Luis asked us to wait another minute or two...I wondered if we were supposed to stay and hand the doctor his tools? But Paddy´s face changed everyone´s mind. He was pale. His eyes wet and wide with horror. Tim apparently was not the only patient in need of anesthesia.

Luis took down my cell phone number and sent us off to the nearest bar. Twenty minutes, half an hour, he said. “Don´t you worry,” he told us. “It´s all going normally.”

They were thirty long minutes, spent waiting in a diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. (the famous one above, "Night Hawks," is at the Art Institute of Chicago...and there´s nothing like the real thing!) Paddy, being British, had a gin and tonic. Me, being American, thought about having a shot of bourbon and a draft beer, but I was driving the car. And I might soon be needed in the recovery room.

And we were.

A very floppy and drugged-out Tim went home in the back seat, whining and twitching his head back and forth. I carried him into the house and laid him in the dog bed near the woodstove. He´s been crying there for four hours now, but more and more quietly. His pupils are dilated, his tongue lolls and drools. He´s a sad, pathetic mess. Luis says that´s normal, and Tim has what amounts to a bad hangover. (Paddy and Una are dutifully sleeping next to Tim´s bed tonight, even if Tim´s not sleeping at all.)

I suspect these horrific scenes are everyday life in the back rooms of American veterinary clinics, where animals struggle into and out of anesthesia without their owners there to hold their paws and whisper comfort to them. By the time we show up to take them home they are through the worst. We never see the hard parts. We never know what really happens. And that is why it seems so simple and easy. Because it is painless and clean and simple... for the humans involved.

Yes, it is selfish to say this, but had I known we´d be serving as castration nurses I´d have probably done like so many Spaniards do, and let my dog get through life with his standard equipment. Or maybe I´d have traveled with him to a big city, where they´d just neuter him. He might have the same experience, and the same outcome. But they´d leave us out of it.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

G´bye Lola: A Failed Experiment

Fog rolled in this week, and will likely lie here, dark and Gothic, right on through January 25, when it always goes away. Such is winter on the Meseta.

So says Edu. He´s always right so far, where these things are concerned. So we have something to look forward to, aside from The Holidays, and friends´ visits, and further progress on projects in process. I am looking Forward now, after spending a harrowing week in The Present.

Here are unplanned outcomes of the week now past:

a) The Visitation of Jeanne and Nicolas ended two days earlier than planned. They took the night train back to Paris on Wednesday. In this experiment we learned that The Peaceable Kingdom -- Scripture verses notwithstanding -- is not a suitable place for very small children.
b) Lola the Donkey this morning went back to Sahagun, tied to the back of Julio´s tractor. She was an experiment too. Experiments often fail. I can´t remember too many of my failures that felt this good!
c)Tim the High-Strung Dog is off to the veterinarian next week for his chilling-out operation.
d) The cast on Paddy´s ankle comes off Monday. Apparently he broke something in there, but it´s nothing severe enough to require more than a week in plaster. Which is good, because Paddy needs to get up and move around to maintain his happy-go-lucky persona.

Everyone involved feels much better now. I can stop worrying about Nicolas being stepped-on, bitten, pecked, spattered, scalded, or otherwise traumatized or scarred. I can stop worrying about the donkey´s health and security and feeding. The house will remain cleaner and smell better without the hay and straw and mud passing through between the barn and back garden. The dogs won´t have to share their toys with a small boy, or risk a donkey kick when they run out back to hunt mice in the chicken shack. I will only have to shovel another couple of loads of manure onto the garden plot. We won´t have to undertake major renovations to make the garage into a stable, or make the barn door acceptable to a creature who refuses to go up a ramp. Lola´s lovely face is now safe from Fists of Fury. Glory be.

I spent Saturday cleaning, putting things away, making beds and folding laundry. I made a killer Thai green curry for lunch. We both took siestas in the afternoon. And so returns the sweetness of Normal. We can sit by the fire and read and listen to Chopin. We can write! We can get up and go someplace and stay there for more than a few hours, once Paddy´s foot is back to usefulness.

I can continue scheming for ways to train the South African volunteers how to be hospitaleros.

I can get the Salon ready so our friends Gary and Elyn from New Mexico have a place to stay when they make the move here within the next month or two. (Elyn lived in Sahagun back in the 1980´s. She and Gary are renting a place there, and plan to stay around for at least a year. We´re getting English-speaking neighbors! Woohoo! I may NEVER learn my Spanish verbs!)

I can read-up on labyrinths. Paddy´s keen to experiment with a labyrinth ´round here somewhere, and Gary and Elyn know how to build them. They sent us a pile of books on that this week, so we are On It... maybe a labyrinth underground, in the bodega, right up against the camino itself? Oooh.

I can plot when and how to walk the Camino Portuguese with my son Philip in December, depending on who arrives when. (We have another friend, Federico the Guitar Man, arriving here December 8.) We will have a full house at Christmas, which I very much look forward to. Maybe we can make a labyrinth for the Winter Solstice. How New Age can you be?

It´s so quiet and calm. It´s just how it should be. And out there in the mist are still a few pilgrims. I bet they´d like a hot cup of tea.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Near Miss

Yes, she is furry brown and cute and has huge dark eyes and ears. When we walk in the mornings down the Camino, Lola the Donkey is a pilgrim magnet... her photo is part of holiday albums from Italy to Japan. She is SO appealing.

As of today, a little more than a week after her arrival, Lola the Donkey is turning out to be a bull-headed, mulish bad-ass... which is to say, a burden. She came to me in a dream the other night as a dark, heavy cloud. (the same dream featured a hen nesting in our refrigerator, so I don´t take it too seriously!)

Lola makes the most extraordinary noises. No friendly storybook “heehaw.” We´re talking the sound of heavy furniture scraped across a wooden floor, or perhaps the fog horn on a fishing trawler. She makes copious amounts of fine fertilizer for the garden. Matter of fact, the area we´d intended for a garden in the spring, which I spent hours bashing at with a hoe a few weeks ago, is now beautifully stirred into deep black mud by Lola´s sharp hooves. I wonder where we will put the garden now.

The dogs want to be her friend, but Lola doesn´t like how suddenly they move.
She doesn´t like how suddenly the wind moves, even, round the walls of the house. When I walk her ´round a corner she rolls her eyes and pitches up her head, afraid. When I tell her ´no,´ I get the same reaction. Drama. We got ourselves a drama queen, a diva, maybe a spaz. I never had any patience for drama queens, victims, fashionistas, high-strung fluttery hothouse flowers... folks with huge dark eyes, brown and cute and so appealing, but oh so nervous and delicate!

Nicolas, my dearly beloved godson, is here for a week, visiting from his home high above Boulevard Clichy in Paris. He is three years old. He´s never been around any kind of critter. He moves fast and suddenly and very loud... an antithesis for Lola and many other high-strung animals. He is enchanted by all the friendly farm animals he´d only seen before in books or videos, even if they don´t want him riding on their backs or tugging at their lead ropes... or feeling the straw underneath their feathers for eggs. Since Saturday Nicolas has cut a swath through Moratinos, visiting all the neighbors, patting or chasing or clucking at every cat, dog, duck, chick, turkey, pheasant, hog, pup, or parrot in the place. They are animals, and nothing more – simple and easy and honest.
But Lola, Moratinos´ only donkey, is a different creature from all the rest. Nicolas fell for Lola´s good looks, though, and perhaps her honking singing voice.

And so here is the Drama du Jour: (note the French influence)

Monday morning off we went for our morning walk with the whole fam damily, right through town and down to the Mushroom Field: Paddy with Una and Tim Dogs, me with Donkey Lola in hand, and Jeanne (my best old friend, back to 1993) and three-year-old Nicolas, Jeanne´s boy and my godson. This is their first visit to The Peaceable.

And as we all gambol around in the field, Una takes hold of the end of the donkey´s lead rope. It´s a good 6 feet long, no big deal. She´s done this before. But Una is an Actors Studio kind of dog, and when she takes hold of a rope, she growls and tugs and carries on like it´s a rattlesnake. I laughed, I looked at Patrick and we shook our heads at her silliness. Lola was in a field of tender, fresh greenery. She didn´t care about a silly dog, not so long as I was there holding the length of rope that separated her from the Drama Dog.

But I handed my hank of rope over to Paddy, and for some reason walked a few yards away. Una, (always my dog), dropped the rope and followed me. And that´s when (I think) little Nicolas decided to pick up the dropped end of the rope. (he´d “helped” me lead the donkey a few times in the past couple of days, with me safely between him and Lola...see the pic.)

Una saw that Nicolas had taken her spot at the lead rope, and went back to re-stake her claim.

Time slowed down. Nicolas let go of the rope, and staggered backward, right into the donkey´s front legs. Una grabbed tugged at the rope, smiling her doggy smile. And Nicolas, off balance, suddenly sat down, hard, on the ground. Una moved in to lick his face.

The donkey panicked. Her front feet were suddenly up and off the ground and over the little boy´s head, striking out at Una dog. I saw nothing then but Lola´s right front hoof. I thought I saw it hit Nicolas across the face. I thought the left hoof had struck Una in the ribs. I saw Jeanne´s body appear between the donkey and her boy. Paddy stepped in. I saw them all safe somehow.

And the next thing I saw, or felt, was my shoulder striking against Lola, and my hands on her halter, and her turning and wheeling with me and away from the dog and the child and Patrick, steps away, rearing and shouting. And I´m not too proud to say I punched her in the face. I bruised my fingers like a bar-brawler, and then I dissolved into tears like a little girl.

This was, and is, one of the most horrific things I have ever seen in my life: an animal supposedly in my care and control, doing grave harm to a helpless child, a boy born of my own heart.

At the end of it all Nicolas, who had backed into grave peril, didn´t see what was going on. He has no idea what happened. No one was hurt. Both Nicolas and Una somehow dodged the flying hooves, which were probably wielded more for warning than for harm´s sake. We shook in our boots. We thanked our Very Effective Guardian Angels. We went home for a cup of strong tea.

Still, we have put Lola on waivers. She is obviously not the docile bomb-proof donk we were led to believe she is. A kind French friend, who´s traveled the Caminos with a donkey named Dalie, is holding my hand through this crisis... it´s not Lola´s fault, she says. We´re asking an awful lot from a donkey we´ve had for only a week. And if Lola had wanted to kick the kid or the dog, she would have done serious damage.

She is probably right.

...but I love Nicolas, and Una, so much more than I love any donkey, no matter how cute or pilgrim-friendly camera-ready it might be. So the next few days we must decide if Lola is, or is not, the donkey we´ve waited for. We´re leaving her pretty much in peace, to settle in and settle down.

Meantime, let us all hope we get the upstairs heating system working around here, or donkeys and dogs will be the least of our concerns! We are all off tonight to the Hotel Posh in Sahagun, where we´ve rented a room and will spend the hours imbibing Tinto de Toro and watching the election returns unfold. We hope to celebrate, but if things go pear-shaped we will likely be suitably anesthetized for a little while.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

My Kind of Campaign!

One of the greatest things about living in the middle of nowhere without a television or reliable telephone is NOT suffering through months of pre-election ads, spins, statistics, and other filthy lies.

Having covered years of American elections large and small, I can hardly express my joy at NOT having to cover the ongoing presidential scrum. From the notes and letters and blowback I´m getting from home, this one is particularly excruciating. (Still it seems like it´s still not occurred to anyone to just shut it all off and go for a nice walk. Or read a book!)

Just for the sake of contrast, though, I will share another constituency´s attempt to spin the upcoming election. This just in, from Peru:
These guys know how to rock the vote!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Time Between

It is a strange, in-between time. Summer is very much gone, but winter´s not here yet. The clocks changed over the weekend, which always seems to chop hours off both ends of the day. We´ve not adjusted. It feels like something should happen, but whatever it is, we did not write down the appointment, we forgot whom we should be expecting.

Maybe it´s the stripped-down patio. I cut back the roses, raked up all the underbrush, emptied the window-boxes, and swept out the walkways. It is severe out there, with little Murphy´s skitterings after leaves providing the only softening to the scene. A cold wind blows. The horizon is a purple bruise. The lingering afternoon patio lunches are history.

It could be Paddy´s disability. He limps when he moves, and he does not move over-much since he hurt his leg this weekend. I am shouldering more of the household work now, and not all of it is light and easy. I find myself snapping at Paddy, and his inability to close doors behind him, or switch off lights, or put things away when he´s finished.

My new drivers license card still has not arrived. The thought of trying to tackle that bureaucracy makes me want to weep.

The donkey (for now called “Lola,”) is a heavy load, heavier than I´d anticipated. In the mornings she must be walked, trained in “stop,” “trot,” “let´s go,” “stand.” The dogs come along, but they aren´t getting the attention they´re accustomed to. They run off, or trot home. They are so child-like – they don´t like change, they don´t like taking walks without Patrick, they don´t really know what to do with this great hulking animal in our midst. (Tim keeps well away from the donkey. Una is making friendly overtures.) Meantime, I am trying to book a veterinarian house-call, and find a farrier who will come and trim her feet. I need to get a neighbor to sell us hay and straw. (NOT give it to us!) I´ve cleared out space in the barn to store it, and tomorrow will likely spend an hour or so pitching hay... a real workout! (I wish the Camino would send us a strapping young Czech or two, in need of work. One with carpentry skills, or donkey experience.)

Lola is now installed out in the huerta, sleeping in the old garage, safely enclosed within the walls, and occasionally, startlingly, staring in at us through the windows... taking up where the chickens used to stand and peck at us from their side of the glass. Chicken TV, adapted for donkeys! Like the dogs, Lola has a thing about us using telephones. When we hit the "send" button on our mobiles, Una and Tim invariably begin barking, making it impossible to hear the person on the other end. And now we can add a braying, honking donkey to the mix!

The house smells heavily today of woodsmoke, a scent I will forever associate with the rural poverty of Western Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s. As a teenager I lived through the depression and desperation so aptly captured in “The Deer Hunter” movie. So many people then resorted to burning wood to heat their homes, and many of them had inefficient, smoky stoves and chimneys. The school bus on a damp morning was a heady mix of Luv´s Baby Soft cologne, Brut aftershave, wet wool, and a sour pall of woodsmoke-soaked hair, hats, coats, and clothes.

About 30 years and 2,000 miles away from all that we started a fire today in our ultra-efficient woodstove, but left the chimney damper closed too far. The smoke streamed out the top of the stove, and before I could get the windows and doors opened up the house was filled with the scent of Teenage Wasteland. I hope it´s not forever. I did not much enjoy those years.

The men are inside their barns and sheds today, working on their tractors. Others are in their bodegas, seperating the stems, seeds and grape-peels from the fermenting juice, starting up this year´s run of moonshine or rough wine. The pathway outside the bodegas is smeared with visceral reddish-purple where they´ve thrown out the grape-waste, but it looks like a crime scene.

The pilgrim numbers are dropping fast.

And ironically, wonderfully, the dun-colored fields are turning green as the new seeds sprout. When all the world is shutting down to gray and black, our ground goes lime-green! We watch through the winter as the green changes shades and the grain slowly grows.

Winter is the season I like least. But green is my favorite color.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Donkeys for Dumb-Asses

We´ve owned a donkey for less than a day, and it´s already tried to kill one of us. I hereby volunteer to write the first edition of “Asses for Dumb-Asses.” If I survive.

I know a bit about horses, but donkeys, no. Just what I read in the heartwarming “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” back in fourth grade. There is surprisingly little hard information out there about donkey-owning, and we honestly tried to do our homework beforehand. We probably have no business keeping a creature of such size and caliber. But after a merry Thursday afternoon session in the little house of Julio the Leek-Grower in Sahagun, (wherein I realized I know his wife – she´s the cook at the Madres Benedictinas) we handed over a couple of hundred Euros in exchange for their sweet-faced brown burrica named Gelatina.

Gelatina´s never lived in a barn. She´s never eaten anything but pasture grass and straw and the occasional loaf of stale bread. She´s never had a vet give her any vaccinations or microchips or worming treatments, nor has she ever had any kind of training. Her hooves have never been shod nor trimmed. She´s tough as nails, and she is cool. She´s kind to children, and as proof Julio and Maria showed us snapshots of the grandkids using Gelatina as a furry Jungle Gym. She´s accustomed to dogs and trucks and cars and roosters. She´ll be fine in Moratinos, they said.

And so today she came to us, trotting all nine kilometers tethered to the rear of Julio´s tractor. (Julio doesn´t drive cars any more, but he rides his battered little John Deere tractorin everywhere, and parks it right up on the sidewalk. You always can find Julio when you want him.) A couple of the neighbors immediately showed up to consult. We used some mule-tying chains we found in the barn to stake her to the little lawn out front... we´ll try getting her into the barn after she settles in, we figure. After her long trip from Sahagun I figured Gelatina would be worn out and ready for a rest, but she wasn´t having anything to do with that barn.

I said g´bye to the men and drive off to Leon to retrieve the computer. Paddy pulled up a chair and the latest New Yorker magazine, and settled in for a nice morning sun-bask with Murphy Cat and The Donk. (He was all grins and giggles, ol´ Pad. It was delightful to see.)

It was even more pleasing hours later, when I returned: Both dogs were sprawled on the grass with the burro grazing nearby. Murph skittered round Gelatina´s heels. A true Peaceable Kingdom picture... until I saw Paddy.

He was perched on the little ramp up to the barn door with a strange look on his strangely pale face. It should have been funny, what had just happened... it took a good five minutes for him to tell me. He still was panting, trying to catch his breath.

Paddy had gone into the kitchen to make up a fish curry for our lunch, when he heard the dogs barking, barking, and the barks fading into the distance. He went out to the gate. Only the cat could be seen. Donkey and dogs were gone.

He ran down the driveway, quickly realizing he was bare-footed. Gelatina was headed up onto the N-120 two-lane, turning west for Sahagun and Julio and home. Una and Tim were right with her, either trying to turn her back or perhaps egging her on... in any case, they got her safely over the highway and onto the pilgrim path alongside. Paddy took off after them, using God-knows-what kind of language. They stayed just ahead of him, at an easy trot. After a few hundred meters his left leg went out from under him. He watched them disappear from sight, over the little rise. He cried out in despair (I assume).

And that´s when Segundino´s little van came over the hill, and Angel jumped out and chased down the donkey, and the kindly carpenter picked up Paddy and hauled him and the dogs back to the house. Paddy couldn´t speak to him, he was so winded. He could hardly walk. Segundino said he would take Pad to the health center in Villada, but Brave Steadfast Dumbass Paddy refused... Just please get me home so I can tie up my donkey, he told him.

And that´s what they did. And that´s about where I came in. Pad still refuses to go to the doctor, and the donkey still refuses to go in the barn, so I can only hope she stays safely tied-up throughout the night. Both dogs are covered in burrs. Paddy´s leg is wrapped up in a pressure bandage. His pain assuaged by a strong gin & tonic, he lies snoring in his bed.

(The curry was great, by the way. After all.)

It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks. Another one like this and I might not survive the stress.

I´ve been away from you a long time, Blogsters. I´ve missed you. I tried to make mental notes of interesting events and people and details to tell you about, until I realized that´s a lot like being in love. With a real person. And even though I have met some of you in the flesh, I still view you all as very Virtual, if not virtuous.

Since I finally passed the driving test on Monday the big news has been Pilgrims... a really excellent Australian/Norwegian couple, followed by a very strong German girl who helped us move the yurt out of our barn. (Yes, we´ve had an unassembled Mongolian yurt tent lurking in the corner of our barn for more than a year. Now that we need to space for living creatures, we drafted us some help and loaded up the great mound of yak wool and canvas and hauled it all over to be stored safely inside the Alamo, where its owners may someday return for it. It is a sad place, the Alamo. I hope to someday see it full of life again.

Almost as sad as learning that yes, the old Mac hard drive really is completely and totally kaput, that all my photos and music and unreadable drafts and tax records will never again exist. (Miguel at Mac Leon gave it his best shot, using all manner of Digitational Phomagzipmatron Technology, but it was not to be.) Another lesson in Letting It Go.

I write this blog on the “new” Mac, which is really the same one, but with a brain transplant. I am trying to prepare the house for Nicholas, my little godson, who on November 1 will be the first small person to visit here since the house was finished. I´m trying to make it safe, but bits keep breaking off.

And as for breaking off... I learned also this week that a clerical error at the Armstrong County (PA) Elections Bureau has effectively disenfranchised me for this year´s presidential election. (They bust their chops trying to register the apathetic, and the people who really WANT to vote are bumped off the other side!) I was all ready to get medieval on somebody, but then I thought it through. I´m an absentee voter, whose ballot isn´t actually counted til a week or so after the election´s decided. And I´m an immigrant, someone who´s got to, at some point, leave behind the Old Country and start integrating into the New. It was hard, but I let that go, too. (And may God bless Barack Obama with a long, healthy, positively history-making administration!)

Let´s just hope the lead rope that´s holding Gelatina to that iron stake decides to NOT let go. And meantime, we have GOT to get a new name for this donk. “Gelatina” is the Spanish equivalent to the English “Gluepot.” Poor old thing. Paddy likes “Bessie,” for Bessie Smith, the singer who gave us the classic “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” but I think Bessie is a better name for a cow. I´m thinkin´ Rita, or Carmen, maybe. Something Spanish and passionate, for a femme fatale? What will you name your burro, when your time comes?

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


A quick update from the smoky CyberCafe full of fellow immigrants (cept most of them are Bulgarian or Armenian or Polish): I took the driving test on Monday morning. It was a good half-hour long and we hit the tiny narrow streets, the four-lane highways, the industrial park and even an underground garage of Leon. I passed, with only a warning about pushing through yellow traffic lights. (I thought that was a REQUIREMENT here!) And at no point was I asked to park the car!

Woohoo! Paddy and I had champagne, bought back in August to mark this very event. It´s been a long road.

Still no computer, but it´s kinda fun and quiet without it. We should get it back tomorrow, I think, with a brain transplant. I wonder if it will still recognize our modem setup? The adventure continues.

Today we expect two British and one Spanish pilg coming up the Camino de Madrid. I am making butternut squash canneloni to feed them. And we met a lovely, lonely brown donkey named Gelatina yesterday, who may just come to our place to live very soon.

(I may be the only person I know who gets her drivers license in the morning, and a donkey in the afternoon!)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Zen Enforcement

Tough times hitting hard.

The hard drive in the Mac decided to die, on the exact same day its warranty died. I am suspicious and peeved and in withdrawal, back to writing this in the same smoky cybercafe we inhabited through our first six months of life in Moratinos.

Circles, I guess. I have become spoiled. It could be a lot worse.

The phones work only sporadically. My son Philip, who is supposed to come here the first week of December, just discovered his passport is expired!

I took the tip off my left index finger, using a hammer. It now has two fine stitches in it, and it hurts like the devil. It´s been a tough year for fingers!

My final "on the streets" driving test is set for Monday. Let´s hope the moon phase shifts before then.

Meantime, all the animals are healthy, and I´m slowly planting a great mountain of spring flower bulbs, and I had two batches of fine pilgrim boys (Oh, how the neighbors must be talking, what with Paddy being gone!) .. .and Paddy came back! The security people in London deemed our two containers of Thai curry paste and the jar of peanut butter much too dangerous to leave the UK via aircraft, but everything else got here OK. So there are things to be happy about.

I will return to being literary later on.
Now I have to get back to living like our parents lived, like we lived up til about 10 years ago: No telephones, no answerphones, no email, no cyber nothing. Aieee, how did we do it?

A little Bulgarian boy is dying to use the time I have left on this computer terminal...he keeps asking me (in perfect Castellano) when will I finish? I am so jealous, I may just have to wander the web a while!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

So Long Victoriana

In the corner house in the Plaza Mayor, Victoriana is dying.

It´s not a surprise, her son Celestino said. It´s no good feeling sad. She is 94 years old. She´s in her home, in her own bed. Four days ago she turned her tissue-paper face to the wall. She has not moved since.

Victoriana whitewashed that wall herself many times, many years, right after Holy Week, when women whitewashed entire houses with their own hands. It was women´s work then, plastering and patching the adobe, painting and slaking lime.

In that room she gave birth to Celestino. She had nine other babies, and eight of them still live – most of them are grandparents now. They are hovering, drifting through the rooms of the big corner house. They are waiting for her.

The other bedrooms are smaller than hers, as is fitting. In her own corner of the house she has her own double-size bed, separated with double doors of glass from her private sitting room. There are windows in her rooms, to let in the sunshine, and the children indulge her, risking chills each morning by opening wide the windows and letting the breeze billow the drapes. Victoriana is dueña here still, even as her body shrinks down, her mind moves on to things more lofty than soup, milk, mending, and laundering, and the kittens yowling in the patio.

There was a bar here once, in the big room now given over to two long plank tables and family gatherings. Used to be men in there at all hours, between their plowing, sowing, carting and grape-pressing. She made the orujo they drank there, she crushed the garlic for their soup, she counted the brown coins at the end of each day, sending the babies to bed to the sound of copper against copper.

The babies grew up, left the pueblo, went off to Vittoria or Madrid or San Sebastien to drive trucks or marry good-looking soldiers. Milagros stayed, though. She and Esteban and the chicos are still here in the village, still working the fields, but with tractors now. The mules went, the beautiful, noble mules, all gone so long now.

Mules, donkeys, milk cows, and now even the sheep all are gone. The streets are paved, and the big laundry trough, the springs that used to bubble up across the Calle Frances and send up every kind of little flower are tamed now too, shut up inside little buildings. The bodega collapsed, her father´s father´s father´s cave, the big one where bored men gathered under oil lamps in the winter afternoons for a game of Mus and a bottle or last year´s tinto. When she was a girl, before the bar, before the babies, before the war took so much away, her father hung up the cheeses and hams and sausages in there. He laid up the jars of oil, and sometimes other things. Secrets. Men keep secrets in the bodegas, especially during the war, but before that, too. Things that girls and women cannot ask about, and best not consider.

Victoriana minded her business. She kept quiet. She keeps quiet now, curled up like a baby in her bed.

Outside her windows, out in the campo her grandsons are plowing, planting. They´ll stop when they hear the church bell tolling. All the Moratinos men will turn their tractors to home then, take off their hats, lower their gaze for a couple of days. The seeding will wait that long. The harvest will be the first in almost a century that Victoriana will not see.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Heaven Half Way

I took down the original post because it sounded so damn smug. I´ve left the photo of Anna with the critters, just because it is so Peaceable Kingdom.

Meantime, here are some more pictures. People love pictures, no? These are places we´ve visited over the weekend, in Fromista and Poblacion del Campos, two towns to the east of us. We have a friend who wants to buy a place over there, so we´re doing some "legwork" for him. There´s a lot of empty real estate around. Some of it is even posted as For Sale. But just TRY to find a "motivated seller!" Even after phone calls and appointments and a blizzard of emails, we have yet to see inside any of them!

The last one is our living room, before we put up the pictures and "fine art." We´re doing a lot of living in there lately, as the under-floor heating system works very well!

Some people want to know the Prosaic Life Details around here, so here goes: (I will wax rhapsodic again soon, I promise.)

I´ve been communicating (well...sorta. In Castellano emails) with the hospitalero people at the Federacion del Amigos del Camino in Logroño. Seems there are several folks who´d like to take their training course and become volunteer hospitaleros at Federation albergues (like the things I´ve done in Salamanca and Ponferrada), but they can´t come to Spain or Canada or the USA or England for training sessions. They are in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. So I think it´d be interesting to fix up some sort of Online hospitalero training course for them, in English, using materials drawn from existing and accredited training courses in UK and North America. We have a web host, (at ) and an experienced corporate trainer who knows all about adult curriculum, and some other people who can translate between English and Castellano.

I don´t know why it shouldn´t work. There´s a meeting of Federation hospitalero muckety-mucks in Sahagun this weekend, so I will do me some buttonhole-ing. (It´s not for nothing I was a reporter all those years!)

Oh, and the new Confraternity of St. James Guide to the Camino Ingles is now "live" and online and available for download at the CSJ website. It´s not written in my usual style, but it´s nice to have had a hand in a useful document.

And that (along with an interesting Sunday drive north into the mountains) is what we´ve been up to, when not wrestling with our inner Smug.