Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Pilgrims, and why we keep going to the dump

I am neglecting you, blogsters, I know. But I´ve been been busy, mostly in good ways. Honest.

We still are waiting on all the doors for the house, and the counter-top granite, and the finishing-off crew. We need to be out of the Sahagun apartment May 7, so we decided not to wait around. We have started moving in! It´s a bigger job than it first appears.

We´ve made several trips to the dump in the last few days. It´s hard to believe, after more than a year we still are sifting through the decades of accumulated "oh, I´ll hang onto this, it might be handy someday" junk the last family left behind: unidentifiable rusted lumps of former farm machinery and furniture, file cabinets that were at some point run over by tractors, busted bricks, sacks of concrete that got wet and turned to stone, the hateful acres of dirty plastic that sheathed the house when we had no roof. Oh, and a shiny black lacquer and gold-chrome mirrored bar that glowed in the corner of the salon for a while after we moved in. It was a marvel of pimp aesthetic, but somehow it didn´t fit into our plans for the place. We couldn´t find a home for it, so it ended up at the dump. The magpies, hawks, storks, and goldfinches are even now admiring their reflections in its many mirrors. (We find the dump is an amazing place for bird-watching.)

Mixed in with the dirty junk in our house is a truckload of stuff, mostly books, we had shipped over from USA last year. A lot of that was crap, too, but important crap. (I only wish I´d shipped my rocking chair, but the shippers would likely have smashed it like they smashed the other furniture.) All of the above is liberally dusted with dust or dirt or adobe, from spending at least the past year in the barn or garage or despensa.

The things we want to use must be cleaned, carried inside, and assembled. The rest needs to have a place made for it. And meantime I am studying my Drivers Test lessons, and potting and planting the summer flowers. I busted my hump putting in two rows of different types of sunflowers along the ugly wall out back, and the next morning I found the chickens had dug them all up and eaten every one. Greedy old things.

It´s not all forced labor, no matter what Patrick says. We´ve taken a day off here and there. On Saturday we discovered a great hike just south of here, 10 kilometers that pass through three villages. It includes a holy well, a stone sarcophagus (Roman? Visigothic?) now being used as a watering trough, the brutal three-dog slaying of a foot-long hissing green lizard, a Via Crucis, two very fabulous and huge churches towering over their tiny neighborhoods, and a bodega village that´s reminiscent of a surreal spaghetti western. It was a great day´s walk, and it left us all beat... even the dogs were doggin´ it by the end. Excellent. (Here´s a pic taken at the hermitage at the end of the two-mile Way of the Cross... there´s a concrete cross every few hundred yards all along the dirt road leading to the church, which stands out in a wheat field on its own. It´s the second such phenomenon we´ve found within a 10-kilometer radius. Weird and wonderful.)

We are wearing ourselves out every day, and sleeping very well at night. But the best thing about the last few days has been the pilgrims.

Pilgrims are a "given" here in Moratinos. Their numbers vary as the seasons change, but if you glance out over the fields there´s a good chance you´ll see at least one or two of them any time of the year. They come from all over the world, and march through our village at almost exactly the halfway point on the Camino de Santiago.

There´s no good reason for them to stop in town. We have no bar or store or accommodation for them, a rather rare thing for a town on the trail.

But the Peaceable is here, and we are, too... more and more these days. And as we begin to furnish the house to welcome pilgrims, more pilgrims are finding their way to us.

Sunday, for instance, we started out actually looking for a specific pilgrim. His name is Willy from Köln, and he walked with me last June when I did the Camino Aragonese. He emailed and said he´d be through here about 9 a.m. Paddy took the dogs out that morning, found Willy from Köln on the trail, and brought him home for coffee and leinsahmen schwartzbrot. We had a nice visit, and I walked him back through town to where the Camino commences. We said goodbye, Willy thanked me for the Moratinos "sello" stamp we´d added to his pilgrim credential. He went on his way. A young man named Jürgen heard us speaking in German, and introduced himself, and said he´d like a stamp, too. So I took him home as well, and he came with us to church.

Afterward a little English lady came looking for us. Her name was Jocelyn Ricks, and she saw our listing in the Confraternity of St. James trail guide -- this is how lots of English pilgrims know we are here. We belong to the ever-growing group, and we´ve been hospitaleros at both of the pilgrim hostels they sponsor. Jocelyn was special in many ways. First, she is walking the Camino backward, from west to east. She hopes to make it all the way to Rome this year.

Jocelyn is a Camino pioneer. She did the big hike for the first time in 1982, when no one but scholars and historians had ever heard of the Camino de Santiago. She walked from Le Puy de Velay in France all the way to Santiago de Compostela in tennis shoes, with only two road maps and an art history book to guide her. She made it just fine. (Stick that in your GPS units, folks.)

And after she got back to Wolverhampton she and three other Camino scholars founded the Confraternity of St. James. Impresionante! And so we have hosted yet another camino celebrity in our humble abode! As I saw her out of town, on the eastern side this time, yet another pilgrim stopped to ask about the bodegas. He was from Australia, he said, and his name was Xavier Francis. I had my keys with me, so I showed him what a bodega looks like inside. He took dozens of photos, asked a hundred questions, and was a load of fun to chat with.

These are the people who drew us to this place. When you´re already giving them tea and first aid and route advice, it´s an easy next step to ask the really interesting or nice or injured ones if they want to stay for dinner, or for the night even.

And so we have put beds in the guest rooms. We cleared all the junk out of the despensa and put a bed in there, so a pilgrim traveling with a dog will have a place to sleep, or someone who just wants a nap in a cool place can have a lie-down. (Pilgs with dogs have a hard time finding places to stay.)

We have a nice place right here in a Camino town. And soon we can have pilgrims stay here with us, as well as family and friends. It´s like a dream come true, no?

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Romance of Ticks

A kind Irish lady writes to me. She longs for a simpler life, and apparently Spain is calling her name.

Having been in the same situation for a very long time, her feelings resonate with me. I appreciate her candor, and the fact that this longing for faraway places is widespread enough to support a growing genre of travel/expat non-fiction.

What struck me most was this line: "I long for simplicity and the joys that you mention... reveling in the sky, clouds, birdsong and the sheer joy of living of your dogs. It makes this world of mine seem so shallow and meaningless."

Gott in Himmel! Can I live up to this? So, it is to her, and all the similar people I hear from, that I dedicate today´s blog entry. It is a description of this morning: a particularly romantic, deep, and meaningful morning.

It really started last night, when a Dutch pilgrim showed up in town with yet another stray dog picked up outside Carrion de los Condes. This pup is evidently half German Shepherd and half something smaller. It seemed quite healthy and happy and energetic, even after hiking 25 kilometers.

We fed both man and beast, and kept the dog overnight at the Peaceable. Today we´ll take her (for she is a she) in to the vet to look for the ID microchip required of all EU canines. From there we will take her home, as three dogs is demasiado.

And so when we rolled in this morning, three happy hysterical leaping creatures greeted us at the gate. Una and Tim didn´t slay her overnight, which is good. And she didn´t do too much damage we could see... Although someone made a mess in the kitchen-to-be. A bigger dog, apparently. A little message for us.

We took a walk. Celestino is working on his bodega, and asked us to come back about noon to sample the olives and cheese he cured in there last year. Woah! A lunch date!

Back at the Peaceable I settled onto the porch with a saucer-ful of paint thinner and a fine-tooth comb and the puppy, who I am calling Mimi. I put a mask over my nose and mouth, as I am allergic to dogs up close. Then, with Paddy holding her close, I removed the dozens of lumpy brown and gray blood-sucking ticks attached to her ears, face, head, muzzle, arms, stomach, back, and tail. Ticks are really bad here in the spring, and we spend a good bit of time feeling-up our dogs. We often find disgusting blood-sucking creatures tucked into their coats, despite flea collars and anti-bug baths.

I am particularly good at this feeling-up. Last year, the neighbors brought their infested curs over here for a going-over. This is not something I have bragged to my mother about. I don´t think there is a prize committee out there searching for tick-pickers. But I have always had good hands, and dogs and cats, horses and sheep, chickens and ferrets always love it when I touch them. Ticks, no. The ticks go into the paint thinner, where I hope they DIE.

After her de-ticking I decided to give Mimi a bath. Bob sang, Paddy chopped up potatoes for an omelette to bring along to Celestino´s. I put the dog into the little bathtub. She didn´t like it. And I realized I didn´t have a cup or a bowl or anything to pour the water over her. She started trying to jump out. I yelled for Paddy, who was listening to Modern Jazz Quartet just then, turned WAY up. I had to yell and yell, which made the pup even more scared, so I had to hold onto her even harder.

That´s when the electricians came through the gate. They stepped over the dish of dead ticks in the entryway, pushed aside the leaping, barking Tim and Una, and put their heads into the bathroom long enough to say they needed me to tell them where to put everything. Paddy took over the dog. I went into the house with the men.

The omelette was still cooking on the stove.

I really do like the flavor of a very well-browned onion. The tortilla is still perfectly edible, but not company-worthy.

Things calmed down a little after that. I decided to plant the trumpet vine next to the well, so it can climb up over the well structure and bloom gloriously in August. For this I needed a shovel. And the shovels are out back by the chicken coop. I headed out. Una and Tim went with me. And the pup slipped through the door, too.

She was instantly plunged into the atavistic joy of making chickens run, the thrill of hearing a woman shout "Nononono!", the excitement of seeing if she could outrun Una AND grab a mouthful of hen at the same time. Paddy came pounding outside, and by then Blodwin was cornered in the sloebush, screaming horrible hen screams I hope I never hear again. Paddy gave me a look that would wither a Mongol, then hauled the puppy back through the house.

I pulled Blodwin out of the hedge, fearing the worst, feeling through her feathers for broken skin or bone or blood. I held her against me with both hands and spoke quietly to her. I couldn´t feel anything obviously out of order, except her little heart pattering along like a wristwatch. I looked into her gleaming dinosaur eye. And she pecked me.

I put her and her mates into the chicken hut and closed the door. They all are walking and squawking normally, aside from a few literally ruffled feathers. Blodwin is one lucky chicken. So far.

I never did get that shovel, dammit.

The needy electricians are still here, so Paddy went on his own to Celestino´s bodega. He took Mimi with him. Tim and Una decided not to be jealous. They are asleep on the sidewalk outside, where the bright sun bounces off the house and nicely toasts their hides. The laundry dries on the line. Bob exchanges jazz phrases with the sparrows and grackles, right up to the moment Paddy comes back. He´s got a pair of pilgrims with him. "They´re from Seattle," he says, "I thought you might want a look at them."

Dierdre, you´re right. It might be just as shallow and meaningless here as anywhere else, and probably much more gruesome and disgusting. But there´s an awful lot of added sweetness, too.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Wonderful International Weirdness!

This is the kind of wonderful international of weirdness that makes me glad to be part of the world right now, and very glad we have the Internet, even way out here on the perimeter!

Just FYI: Leningrad Cowboys are from Finland. The Red Army Choir was a famous Cold War Commie chorus whose big hit "Song of the Volga Boatmen" is touched-on. Kinda. And "Sweet Home Alabama" is pure southern-fried Americana. Pull up a Stoli martini (or maybe Absolut? Or Wild Turkey?) and enjoy!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Memento Mori and Kitchen Installers

Jose Antonio promises the house (or at least his part of it) will be done at the end of the week. Woohoo!

There´s a wall-eyed man in there right now, installing the kitchen. And upstairs, now that we can walk on the shiny shellacked floors, the bathroom awaits the plumber, who awaits the carpenter, who awaits the doors, which are in that never-neverland called Asturias!

The details are happening. The details, I am told by Casa y Campo and the glossy "decor porn" magazines, make all the difference. And that´s what makes me so nervous!
It looks like the bathroom furniture - the sink base, the cupboard, etc., arrived in the same color we ordered for the downstairs bathroom. Down there they look great. Upstairs, though, in the blue and white and pine-colored sunlight, they just look black. I can only hope they can whisk them back to the warehouse and get them switched out. I can only hope that bathroom fittings don´t also come from Asturias.

I know this is all terribly dull, especially if you´re here looking for uplifting inspiration about the pilgrimage to Santiago. I tell myself we are doing all this, at least in part, for the pilgrims who will eventually fetch up here.

And when I think of these things I remember Fuente de Hospitalejo, a place along the lonely camino outside Carrion de los Condes. Way back about a thousand years ago, when the Camino was even bigger than it is now, when thousands of medieval pilgrims toiled for months to make the trip, Hospitalejo was a booming little place. It had at least one innkeeper and his family, a farmhand or two, and a constant stream of pilgrims -- some of whom stayed for days or weeks, or even the rest of their lives. ("Hospital" didn´t mean "medical center" per se... it was something more like "hostel," or "hotel.") Some of the pilgrims died there, along with the innkeeper and his family and farmhands. This went on for generations, for centuries, until the pilgrim stream eventually dried up. The innkeeper´s heirs found better ways and places to make their living. The inn and barns and outbuildings fell down. The cemetery disappeared beneath somebody´s plow. Hospitalejo, after all those years and generations of human labor and effort, heartbreak and death and maybe even decor, vanished.

Now there´s only a spring there, and a stone marker.

Someday, maybe sooner than later, the Peaceable will vanish, too, maybe gone back to earth, maybe paved-over and replaced by a shiny subdivision or factory or airport. The paint colors and matching wood and flowers and rosebushes will be just as forgotten as Patrick O´Gara and Rebekah Scott and Bob the Canary... and the anonymous, long-dead innkeepers of Fuente de Hospitalejo.

I need to remember that.

Saturday, 19 April 2008


It rains, rains, and rains.
I like rain. It makes everything around us turn green, and green is my favorite color. I can hear it tapping on the roof and windows, and that makes me feel cozy and warm. I think about the poppy and sunflower seeds we planted last week, and I imagine them germinating away out there around the bodega door and the back gate, out on the N120.

Heavy rain makes the Peaceable into a sticky, golden-brown mess. Our shoes, paws, jackets, floors, and walkways are coated in mud, and will remain that way until the world dries out again. I hope no one comes to visit. Una and Tim can´t seem to dry out their coats, and our single-room living space reeks of wet dog.

The barn roof, which we spent major money on fixing last fall, has three leaks. Antonio the Roofer said he´ll come and fix them, but somehow we need to pinpoint where the leaks are exactly. The roof timbers are a good 15 feet over our heads, and the vast space is lit by a single bulb. I think we might´ve been better-off replacing the whole business: timbers, tiles, and tubes, but regret is a waste of time.

The chicken house roof still leaks, too, but I periodically go out and do what I can to minimize the damage. The chicken girls, meantime, have taken up daytime hours in the window well that looks into our new living room. It´s relatively dry there, they can see some of what´s going on... they want to be where the action is. If you open the back door into their yard they are there, man... streaking past your ankles, down the hallway, and into the inner patio. (nothing is more funny than a running chicken.) They love the patio. It´s got greenery to peck at (including all the new plants we are starting or resurrecting), lots of other birds to cluck at, people moving around. And dogs.

The dogs aren´t crazy about the chickens, but they are under strict orders to leave them in peace. The chickens, meantime, love the dogs´ food bowls. Small as their beaks are, the chickens can swallow kibbles whole. They´ll clear out a dog dish in just a few minutes, their beaks banging out a rhythm on the stainless steel. They leave behind the big soft bits, which the dogs don´t much care for, either. Our chickens are pigs, really. Una hates that.

Poor Una. She has those hens to deal with out back, and now there´s a canary in the kitchen. She very deeply longs to eat them all. Bob is way up atop the fridge, but Una is clever enough to find a way to him, I know. Tim the "bird dog" stares up at him, but is otherwise nonplussed.

As for Bob, he very much enjoys musical accompaniment. We noticed this morning he sang extra loud when an Edith Piaf song came on the box. He must know they called Piaf "the Little Sparrow."

Work has slowed on the Peaceable, as one craftsman waits on another to do some needed job before he can finish up. The kitchen installers are due Monday. The bathroom "furniture" arrived in the wrong color, but it looks like we´ll just get on with it, as will take a month to get the problem put right. I went out in a howling gale yesterday and did the hateful job of shopping for furniture. I bought a bed and side tables and a dresser, in a style called "Zen." It took for-bloody-ever to find it among the god-awful clunky ´rustico´stuff and the garish laquered chrome disco lounge suites. Even then I had to order it. A month, they said again. Good thing we already have mattresses and a couple of beds here.

Good things, among the mud and gray skies. Right as rain.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Knockabout Headway Day

The dogs are asleep in the sun, and I think Paddy may be nodding off, too, out in his lawn chair. It has been an exhausting and eventful and knockabout few days at The Peaceable. 

The first big news is I broke my thumb, just a little, two days ago. A tiny piece of bone on the first knuckle snapped off and is now floating around in there. But lucky for me, my spankin´ new Spanish national health system ID card showed up the very same day! So I saw two doctors (a sort of sister act, really), got my right hand X-rayed, had it all taped-up and medicated, and was sent home without having a cast or splint. (If I have one of those I can´t drive the car, and splints often don´t offer much help in a case like this, when the joint is not broken. Or so I am told.) They let me keep my X-ray, which is truly cool. I put it in with my mammogram. I am starting a collection of photos of my insides. 

The break is not that painful unless I use it to push or pull or lift or grasp something. Which I kinda do a lot, seeing as I am right-handed. I have lovely drugs to take at night, so I can sleep. The best thing is, it was free.  Socialism is a beautiful thing! 

The next big thing is the newest addition to our Peaceable Kingdom: a canary bird named Bob. He is gray and rather nondescript to look at... that´s kinda why I chose him, really, from a cage full of his yellow and orange and white brethren at a pet shop in Palencia. He had all his feathers, his eyes were bright, and he was the only gray, sparrow-like canary there. So I brought him home. He made little peeping sounds in the box on the passenger seat, nothing like singing. But he came with a guarantee. I didn´t worry. 

And I didn´t need to. Within a half-hour of arriving in his shiny white cage on the porch, Bob was trilling, tweeting, chattering, and twittering his little heart out, letting the local bird life know that he was on the scene. It´s fun to watch the sparrows watching him. They tweet at him, and he answers back with an aria!  I´ve always wanted a singing canary, and this one already has brought so much joy to the house. (I think Una wants to ´play´ with him, though. She is not fond of birds in general.)

And speaking of dogs: This morning, out on the plaza, was the big showdown between Tim and Pants Dog, a big canine thug known to chase cars and kill chickens. Pants Dog (we call him that ´cause he is white up front, but his behind is black. He looks like he´s wearing trousers) sometimes gets out of his yard when Edu opens up the gate to get his tractor out. He´s confronted Tim before, but one time Una intervened, and the other was broken-up by Edu, his owner, who swings a mean stick. 

Often during their morning walks Una will jump on Tim, snarling and snapping, and roll him right off his feet. He fights back half-heartedly. I always figured this was just her way to reinforcing her role as Queen Bitch and his as Backup Auxiliary Dog, but now I see it differently. I think she was shaping him up for the inevitable, teaching him a few of her vicious street-cur moves.  

This morning, Tim was ready. Long story short, Pants Dog made the first move, and Tim didn´t hesitate. He grabbed ahold of Pants Dog´s ear and face with his teeth, and simply didn´t let go, not even when the bigger dog pulled and snapped and dragged him hither and yon and Edu set about both dogs with a broomstick, and I grabbed onto Tim´s scruff to try and pull him free. When he finally let go, Pants Dogs´ face was bloody and punctured. He ran back into his yard.  Edu was very sad and apologetic, and told me Tim is "tan valiente!"  

"Tim" was originally short for "Timid," but no more. I can find no mark or injury on him. I am not in favor of my dogs fighting with other dogs, but Tim was provoked. And he kicked ass. 

The other knockabout stuff came about as a result of a phone call: the carpenter is coming tomorrow to hang the doors in the house, so we were advised to get whatever large furniture we have inside the house today. 

So I taped up my hand, we girded our loins, and waded into the garage and barn and despensa, in search of box springs, mattresses, and bedrails -- most of them buried behind boxes and wardrobes, sofas and storm doors. In order to start one thing, a couple of other things had to be done first. It was hard to stay focused. We had to stop and rest a lot.  And in between we passed a huge, heavy work table through one window, and an old comfy sofa through another.  We shlepped a monster wardrobe out the front gate, up the back yard, and in through the new door. (Then two of the legs fell off it anyway. Good thing we have all these extra bricks lying around!)  We put the washing machine on a dolley and rolled it up and into the house.  We put together two beds, and brought mattresses from the garage... so there are two sleep-able beds now in the house, and a wardrobe, and a dresser, and a sofa, and a kitchen work table.  Paddy only fell down twice -- both times were probably my fault.  (He says he´s fine, really. So I gotta stop asking him if he´s alright.) 

There´s also a working toilet in the house, and toilet paper on the roll. There´s a basket full of clean laundry, the dishes are done and dog food bowls filled-up for the night, and Bob the singin´ fool is even now being tucked away for the night.  We must get back to Sahagun, where painkillers and a championship football match await. 

We´re on the final month of the Sahagun rental. Soon we won´t have to do the back-and-forth commute any more. We are making headway. The work is hard, but it feels good.  


Saturday, 12 April 2008

Big Fun Makes Headlines!

Moratinos made the newspaper today, and Big Fun blog was also part of the action. You can (maybe) check it out here:

and work out your Spanish!

They didn´t spell my name right, but those damn reporters can never get anything perfect, can they?

here it is in simple print-out form:
Entra y opina en la red

Una pareja de anglosajones se ha asentado en Moratinos y ha creado un blog en torno a este municipio
12.04.08 -

"Los soportales de la iglesia de Moratinos acogen más de un día a los peregrinos que paran a descansar y a reponer fuerzas. Después retoman el pulso al Camino de Santiago y llegan hasta San Nicolás del Real Camino, el otro pueblo perteneciente a este municipio en el que sí repercute más, al menos desde el punto de vista económico, el paso de la ruta jacobea. Y es que en San Nicolás hay un restaurante que cuenta con mucha aceptación, especialmente los fines de semana, y un albergue de peregrinos que regenta desde hace unos años un matrimonio afincado en Sahagún. Esta cercana localidad leonesa es la de mayor población de la comarca, por lo que los vecinos de Moratinos suelen desplazarse hasta allí con asiduidad para beneficiarse de los servicios que ofrece.

Acento anglosajón

Algo parecido quería promover en Moratinos una pareja de ingleses que compró una casa en este pueblo con la intención de arreglarla y abrir un albergue. Sin embargo, dejaron la vivienda que estaban acondicionando y se marcharon asegurando que no tardarían en volver. Pero de eso aún no se sabe nada.

Los que sí se han establecido en Moratinos son otra pareja también extranjera, en este caso compuesta por un inglés y una americana. «Habían hecho el Camino de Santiago y les gustó el pueblo cuando pasaron por aquí. Además, son gente muy agradable y están muy identificados con el mundo de los peregrinos», explica el alcalde de Moratinos, Esteban Velasco. Tan identificados se encuentran con este pequeño municipio palentino, Patrick y Rebeka -así se llaman-, que hasta han apostado por crear un blog en internet: www.moratinoslife.blogspot.com.

Una original forma, sin duda, de abrirse al inmenso mundo exterior que navega por la red y dar a conocer la vida de gente sencilla que lucha para que su pueblo no desaparezca del mapa."

Munching Down The Geezer Trail

First, the things happening, or not:

1. My absentee ballot arrived in the mail, and I voted in the Pennsylvania USA primary election. I sent it back the same day. I love to vote, even if absentee ballots don´t count for much.

2. That same day I sent a monster tax payment and a vast pile of paperwork to the American Treasury Department. That was not nearly so much fun as voting, but I´m glad I got it over with.

3. We had our first real guest of the year, a pilgrim named Mary. She´s from Oregon via Ireland, and she was delightful. We ate a lovely duck on my birthday.

4. Our house is all painted inside and out, and the wooden floors upstairs are now being sanded and stained. Or at least I thought they´d be stained... right now it looks more like shellac. The shiny mirror-finish kind, the stuff my mom used to run a buffer machine on when I was small. That buffer was pink, and for some reason I was afraid of it. Perhaps some deeply repressed buffer-related childhood trauma lies at the root of all my fears. I deeply hope there is no buffer in my future.

5. We still have no kitchen. A lot of the other stuff is waiting on that, and the only answer I get when I ask is, "It´s being made in Asturias." "It has to come here from Asturias." Last time I checked, Asturias was only two or three hours away, with some pretty good highway connections. What´s up widdat?

6. We still have no canary bird. I was supposed to get a canary last year for my birthday. I was still supposed to get one last September, when our friends in St. Nicholas had some extras. We had a cage, and a perch, and little china water cups, and a bag of birdseed to feed it...at least until the mice discovered it. The September attempt ran aground on the gender issue: all the canaries turned out to be girls, and only the boys are singers.
So this year, for my birthday again, Paddy decided to get the canary finally. Paddy remembers my birthdays, but he is, by his own admission, much too self-absorbed to be any good at choosing gifts or springing pleasant surprises. So, sad to say, I often end up buying my own frickin´ holiday gifts. When I bother at all.
He did try. He bought ANOTHER bird cage, because he thinks the one I got last year is way too small for a bird to be happy in. Then we drove over to San Nicolas to Esperanza´s house, where they raise canaries.
And boy are they raising them these days! Raquel has nine cages of them stacked up out in the patio, each of them home to a boy-girl pair. She told us more than we ever wanted to know about canary care, feeding, and breeding, including how much canaries are like people when it comes to any two of them getting along together.
Upshot is, there won´t be any singing canaries before mid-summer unless I can find one in a pet shop. God, what a boring story. Sorry. I should´ve been born in July, I guess.

7. Alan Joyce, a friend from Virginia and the American expert on the northern Camino routes, rolled up this week on a train from Santiago, having just finished the Camino Primitivo... the oldest and most mountainous and probably the toughest of all the caminos, according to his experience. He´s a quiet, flexible, un-demanding guest, maybe the best kind. He helped us clean up inside the bodega. And boy, does he like rabbit stew!

8. Michael, an American guy from Cleveland who lives in Iceland, came through a couple of days ago during a roaring downpour. He had a look at the Alamo, but is really into the idea of opening a new little albergue in a special spot Galicia. Pilgrims love Galicia. It is such an appealing part of Spain, with its deep green valleys and mysterious mountains and witches and ghosts and legends.
What the pilgrims don´t see is the massive bureaucracy, property development regulations, taxes, and high cost of living there. Just installing a new window in your house means several months of paperwork, architect drawings, and approvals. Jeez. Gimme a home
on the range.
Out here in depopulated Palencia we don´t need no stinkin´ architects!
(Maybe that is why everything is falling down?)

9. Yesterday was a big day in Moratinos. At 10:30 a.m. a giant and packed tour bus pulled up at the plaza mayor and we got on, with Modesto and Raquel, Milagros and Esteban, and Pilar and Stasi. We were the last ones on, and sat in the very back where the bad kids always sit. It was the Colegio del Campos Field Trip, and codgers from the best-hidden villages of west-central Palencia were there for a day´s fun and culture. So of course we headed for Villada.
Villada is a severe and sad town just south of us, once glorious but now rather down-at-the-heels. What drew us all there was La Fabrica Facundo: home of the Facundo Pipa!
Even though Spain has its share of junk food snacks, the pipa, or sunflower seed, is still king of the crunchies. Anywhere that youthful Spaniards go, the floors, streets, seats, and surfaces are crunchy with spent pipa shells. And Facundo pipas are to Spain what Frito-Lay is to middle America. They are everywhere.
We toured their fully-mechanized roasting, toasting, salting, packaging, boxing, stamping, and shipping operation, watched over by strange little Peter Lorre-type men in lab coats.
Out back on the loading dock a truck was delivering tons of Extra Huge raw sunflower seeds. They were not the produce of Spain´s great waving golden fields of girasols, the man said... those are used for cooking oil. These babies were shipped in from the big Agway terminal in Kansas, USA.
In the next building we saw tons of Chaskis, Papa Pajas, Agujitas, Frikis, and Pakis (aka CheeZos, Freetos, Doritos, crisps and chips) being put in their respective lurid bags and boxes, bound for bars and kioskos and sticky little hands all over Iberia. We were each given a sample bag of all different kinds as we left, as well as a ballcap with the intriguingly weird company logo: a cartoon Spanish bull is down on his knees, dying in the bullring, with a thought-cloud over his head. His final rumination? A sunflower seed.

In a little square in Villada is a unique memorial, set up on a plinth and lit up at night, standing outside one of its several stone churches. It´s a giant concrete sunflower seed. The plaque beneath praises the Facundo pipa factory for "raising Villada to a place of international relevance." (there was no mention of Kansas.)
We were then bused to San Nicholas, where the tourist throng, clutching their bags of cheez kurls, visited the fine old church and pottered through the streets til lunch was served at Casa Barrunta. We crammed all 50 people inside, and young Raul was running his legs off trying to keep up. We had arroz la banda, a lovely kind of giant paella. I got the scrapings from the bottom of the pan, the burned edges, which are my favorite part! That and some sheep´s milk cheese, and a glass of claret, and I was set.

Pad and I didn´t wait around... we zipped up the camino and back to Moratinos before the rest of the crowd had finished, because they were heading our way next. Back at Moratinos Paddy comforted Oliva, who was gathering chicory out back and feeling very sad she wasn´t taking part in the day´s excitement. She hadn´t been invited, she said. (Nobody was invited. We all just WENT, for heaven´s sake!) I ran down and opened up our bodega and lit it up with a dozen candles, as the tourists were just dying to see inside Moratinos´ bodegas. I helped Estebanito put platters of goodies inside theirs, and I lit some candles inside the church, too.
I didn´t spend a lot more time with the tourists, as most of them felt a little shy around me, I think -- me being so exotic and all. After they looked through the bodegas, and Segundino´s carpentry shop, and the church, they crowded into the ayuntamiento to play Mus for a while.
And then I noticed a little group of strangers was milling around outside the Alamo. A Spanish guy who works in Frankfurt, and his German girlfriend, a Spanish architect, and a hippie. They are scouting a place for a Casa Rural, a plush small inn usually in a characteristic setting. They were copying down the phone numbers from the "For Sale" sign. I showed them through the place, in a dizzying array of fragments of languages. I am amazed at the amount of interest generated by the Alamo, and very interested in seeing how it all turns out.
We didn´t need any dinner. Paddy wanted to get back to Sahagun, to watch a football match. By the day´s end I was whacked.
All of yesterday´s chores were pushed into today. I need to quit blogging and get crackin´.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Alamo Magic 2

Note: This is Part 2 of a post I started on March 30.

By the time mid-August came around we were fed-up with pilgrims. Our two weeks of forest fires and pilgrim-tourists in Ourense had us putting the ´hostile´ into ´hostel.´ We needed a break.

So back we went to Moratinos. There still were no James or Marianne, and still no new baby...they all were still in Santiago. The yurt was swept-out and made-up as neatly as a yurt can be left. The Fridge was still humming away inside the house, and the 100-or-so Euro coins we´d left were still there, with another 100 or so added to the milk jug. Good people, those German hurdy-gurdy-ers. Lots of good people around.

We sacked out in the yurt yet again, and became a bit of an attraction to the summer people who´d not yet seen the morning Pilgrim Coffee Service out on Calle Real. It was during that stay I realized this place was probably It.

I woke up before dawn one early morning, and stepped outside the tent to have a pee. The moon was setting, but I still could see everything in the half-light. It was so silent out there I wondered if the whole world could hear what I was doing. And then I looked up.

That sky, oh my! It was the biggest sky I´ve ever seen, soft and black and breathtakingly spangled with every star ever known by Mankind. I was gobsmacked by the sheer size of that sky. And it even sent down a little meteorite, just so I could be sure. This was it. I was home.

The fiesta was a good one. Check back in this blog to mid-August to find the play-by-play of the annual three-day party...but this one we experienced as newbies, guests. It was all so fresh and full of fun and novelty, and everyone went out of their way to make us welcome. On Saturday evening we had dinner at the Julia house. We had roast rabbits, raised out back. (Everyone wanted one of the halves of the heads. Everyone but us.) That´s where little Juli, the only English-speaker in the village, told us about Raimunda´s house.

It was on the edge of town, not right on the Camino path. It had an orchard out back, and an inner patio, and a barn, but no heat. The main house had no plumbing or electricity. It was old, adobe, and had been a summer/weekend place for the last 17 years or so. It was neglected, maybe. But you could live there.

And it was for sale. We could see it if we wanted, tomorrow before Mass. That is how we learned about The Peaceable. And two months later, it was ours.

But this is supposed to be an Alamo story.
We still did not meet James and Marianne for more than a week after the Fiesta. Little Finn finally showed up, and they made it back to town just before I had to leave for Pittsburgh. James was a jolly old elf, and Marianne was tired out from her many labors. The children were utterly enchanting -- we hadn´t seen small people for months! We brought some vino, and James rustled up a gas ring from somewhere inside the Alamo, and a frying pan, and made a tasty pan of prawns and red peppers and balsamic vinegar, which we ate out on the Calle, perched on shipping pallets. Darkness fell, the inky blackness of the Meseta. Our only light came from the gas ring and James´ hand-rolled cigarettes. We were made welcome.

We learned how they´d found their place, where the yurt came from, how they´d run afoul of the man who runs the pilgrim albergue in San Nicolas, the next town down the Camino... the guy wanted all the pilgrim custom for himself, and constantly filed legal complaints against them and their project. So not everyone here was nice.

We moved into our place in early October, and began a long and stressful search for builders to take on our huge renovation job. Over at the Alamo, James had hired Santiago, a local builder, to do some heavy masonry work.

It was not a happy relationship. James is a purist, an idealist. He´d read "The Good House Book" and "Earth Structures" and "Build Your Own Cob Home" books, and wanted a green, natural, old-fashioned, earth-friendly house, clad in adobe inside and out. Santiago listened closely, concluded the English boy was completely nuts, and went ahead and started rebuilding the place the way he knew how.

A few weeks later, Santiago dropped everything and walked off the job. By then the Alamo had a new second floor, roof, and windows. The donkey barn out back was roofed, too. James determined to save a ton of money by finishing the place himself.

He didn´t have building skills, but that didn´t stop him. He learned to use power tools as he went along. He pulled pilgrims off the camino, anyone with some know-how or a strong back who was willing to help out. He put them in the yurt for as long as they´d stay, fed them, drank beer and tequila with them, and smiled while they showed off their latest guitar ballads. When winter set in, the temporary help came to our place, to stay in one of the spare bedrooms.

Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn´t. We learned the hard way sometimes about one anothers´ tolerances for alcohol, bad weather, dirty laundry and Honesty. In keeping with my mother´s dictum of "If you can´t say something nice, shut up," I won´t go into gruesome detail. (This flies in the face of everything I believe in, journalistically. But seeing as this isn´t a news exposé, and the subjects are still out there walking around and reading blogs, I will pull the curtain on some stuff. Nothing murderous, OK? Just friction felt among people living in close quarters.)

About mid-year of 2007 the Alamo seemed to stall out. The village found this utterly baffling. (One thing Los James were was fodder for the gossips!) For days and even weeks, no one would see anything moving at the Alamo, and then for a week or two a flurry of work would break out. A fanciful Moorish arch and wall went up out in the garden, well before the plumbing went in...they were working backward, everyone said, and James wouldn´t listen to their advice about project planning. He had a vision of his own.

And meantime, in the spring, Los James did kind things. In the morning they put coffee and juice boxes out on the wellhead at Villa Oreja, and signs calling it "The Secret Garden." It was all on a donation basis, very sweet, and the pilgrims loved it.

A month or so later "someone" filed a complaint with the health department, and the Guardia Civil shut down the Secret Garden. Somehow, with that, something changed. They tried throwing deluxe pilgrim dinners in a tent out on the trail. Much fun was had, but in the end the expense and trouble were more than the the meager pilgrim donations could cover.

Late summer and Fall were another great rush of work at the Alamo. An electrician put in wiring, rudimentary lights downstairs and some spectacular halogen lines up in the big loft room on top. A sewer and water line were finally installed, and the walls downstairs set in their places. A proper wooden staircase replaced the aluminum ladder. James laid flagstones down the hallway and out over the back patio. The place may not be quite habitable, but it looks extremely charming! They took down the yurt and stowed it in the donkey barn, unplugged the Space Fridge, and asked us to water some of the plants. They were off to Ireland until the next pilgrim season, they said... they couldn´t take another winter here.

We were down in Malaga when they left. We didn´t get to say goodbye, but I still had an Alamo key on my ring. I kept an eye on the place, and took in the indoor plants. (The Julias have the keys to their apartment in Melgar, about 20 km. away.) I heard from Los James via infrequent updates on Facebook.

That´s how I learned James had left Marianne, the children, and Ireland. James was single. James went to Thailand. James tried life in a monastery, and found it "lacking in boom-boom." Marianne sent a text message, saying yes, it is true. She´ll come back to town "soon." And they will likely try to sell the Alamo.

It took me a few days to digest that.

The following Sunday I told the Julias what was going on, seeing as they were holding the key to the other house and are great supporters of Los James. When Mayor Estebanito came over to ask about some timbers that needed to be moved over at the Alamo, I told him the news, too. I didn´t know when they´d be back, I said. Consider the Alamo up for sale.

News spread fast. Estebanito said he and José could use the land for a tractor parking area. They´re not interested in the house or buildings. They´d probably knock them down, or just let them fall down over time.

A guitar builder, looking for a location for a camino workshop, expressed an interest.

And last weekend a man named Pablo came to town from Santander, looking for a places to put a little private albergue. I showed him the Alamo, and he was charmed. I gave him Marianne´s contact information, but he speaks no English and her Spanish is sketchy.

Yesterday Marianne finally phoned me. She and James are on speaking terms, she said. They love the Alamo, but they are in debt, and cannot put any more money into the place.

At this point the price is the best offer over 80,000 Euro. So here it is, folks. If you´re interested, get in touch... albergue settings don´t get much better than this. You too could become a part of the Moratinos Scene, and help launch my budding career in real estate wheeling and dealing.

But unless you are charming and jolly and have two blonde, smiling toddlers, you´ll have a hard act to follow.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Second Thoughts and Second Chances

It´s not all been bowels and hospitals around here.

WEDS: I think the week of Not Knowing must´ve taken a toll on me after all. This morning I brought Paddy to the Peaceable, then turned back around and returned to Sahagun and went back to bed. For SEVEN HOURS. Yikes!

Spring is sprung, so there´s plenty more happening. First, the swallows are back! We saw their first aerodynamic feats of 2008 out on the mushroom field Monday morning. Soon they will be making pests of themselves, building messy mud nests in the church entryway and dive-bombing dogs who get too close.

The painters are painting happily away inside the house now, putting up the colors we chose. Of course we now are having second thoughts about that slate-green shade, but hey. We´ll have lots of time to change it if we really don´t like it later on.

All but two light fittings are now bought, and we´ve secured an electrician to install them all. (I´m having a few second thoughts about these, too.) The Milagro Boys came with their front-end loader and a truck and made the Big Trash Mountain out back disappear... and the "cleanup man" then dumped a big new pile out there after they left, in complete defiance of what I´d told him to do. (I told his boss. But the trash was still out there today, so I cleaned it up myself.)

Lots of this is going on. The skirting-board on the stairs is made of black tiles left over from the bathroom downstairs, and the radiator pipes are now painted to match the rooms. After we´d told them no, don´t do that. Maybe they really don´t understand what we say to them. Or it´s more convenient for them to pretend so. Therefore, it will not be The House of My Dreams. It may be a Spanish Building Contractor´s House of Convenience. But it´s ours, and we will live here soon.
And then we´ll have to find something else to occupy our minds and our time.

Like getting my Spanish driver´s license. On Monday I signed up for the Drivers Ed School in Sahagun, a money-minting operation in close collusion with the Spanish police force. Because my drivers license is from a non-European Union country it doesn´t matter that I´ve been driving (almost) accident-free for decades, I have to take the written and practical driving tests all over again here. Which means I have to sign up for the lectures, books, and hours driving side-by-side with an instructor in a specially-fitted-up car. And THEN take the exams, which are notable among Spaniards for their trick questions. (I´m told I can take the written exam in English, but the official translation is so bad you might as well take it in Spanish anyway.)

I decided to swallow my pique and just get on with it. It´s great Spanish vocabulary practice, and when I finally do nail it my insurance rates will go down.
(the day continued in the same odd minor-key way. I was glad to go back to sleep.)

Because today, when I woke up: Ta-daaa! Back to normal. Normal is very good.

I am told by Wise People that now that we´ve "dodged a bullet" life will be a bit sweeter for a few days. I have to agree. Whether or not it has to do with ordnance or Springtime, or the kindness of strangers is another question. It really does seem like we are beneficiaries of extraordinary little generosities. Fuji apples, for instance. Mr. or Ms. Fuji, I thank you for the best apples I can get around here. And a package, posted from Santander by an Irish pilgrim I have never met who is now on the road. A box full of goodies I cannot find here! Can´t wait till she arrives... cinnamon rolls all ´round!
Then there are swallows. And The Book of Psalms.

This I must tell you of. Back in 2001 when I walked the Camino I met an extraordinary woman named Marie. She was from the Boston (Massachusetts USA) area, and she and her friend Sophronia were an answer to my prayers. (which were something like "Please, God, if you don´t send me someone who is NOT French to walk with I am bailing outta this pilgrimage deal NOW.") Soph and Marie were friends from years before, and I walked with them for just short of a week. Soph was the more talkative and effusive one, and Marie? She was the quiet one, the mystic, and the one who had just the cure for just the kind of ache I felt in my knees just then. While Soph gave me a "talking cure" for my ongoing crisis in raising an adolescent genius, Marie did a "laying on of hands," rubbing my shoulder, touching my elbow, letting me know she was there as I talked and walked it all out with these strangers. Marie and Soph knew all kinds of wonderful old hymns and Psalms, and we sang our way from Azofra right into Burgos.

I kept in touch with Sophronia, who actually wrote me into a book that was published a couple of years later. Marie stayed quiet. I knew she was there, though. I knew. And this week, in a note from Sophronia, I learned Marie last Friday passed quietly from this life, victim of a fast-moving cancer. She was 61.

In our despensa is a niche where we installed a rather crude carving of The Virgin. For Marie´s sake I lit a candle and stood it in the niche. I did a Catholic thing, too, just then. We were about to leave for Paddy´s exam. I asked Marie to take my prayers to the Lord. And I prayed for her eternal rest. I sang a psalm for her: my fave. Number 119.

"Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the Earth.
When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers
The moon and the stars that you have set in place
What is Man, that you are mindful of him?
The Son of Man, that you care for Him?
You made him a little lower than the Heavenly Beings
But crowned him with glory and honor."

Damned if that candle isn´t still burning in there, four days later!

Today, for me, is the first real day of spring. I really feel myself on the Camino today, as we discovered yet another waymarked alternative Camino path, this one between Ledigos and Terradillos de Templarios. This place just keeps offering up more and more loveliness, even though we´ve been here for many months.

Work continues apace at The Alamo, and at the Peaceable. Yesterday evening, because the highway department is coming through town next week, the Milagro Boys came over and asked us about clearing up the street outside the Alamo... James had left a crate-load of flagstones out there, and a heap of sand, and some pallets, and potted plants and whatnot. We went over and helped heap sand into the front-end loader and generally blanderize the front of the place. Now it is legal. And now WE have several dozen halfway- and very-dead potted plants standing in front of OUR house!

So we found bigger pots to put them in, and found god-knows-what-quality dirt to fill them up with, and we then transplanted the larger living ones into some unused plastic feed buckets we had stowed out back. Big work. We thought of planting them in a long trench out back, but when/if Marianne comes back, maybe she´ll want to take them back with her to Ireland. This way they are mobile.

I am not sure what these plants are. I think at least one is a berry bush, and a couple of others, (rather dead, I fear) are grape vines. We gave them another chance. Seeing as this is Easter season, we can hope for a resurrection.

The sun blazes away, and we ate our bangers and mash out in the patio today with the poor, starving dogs looking longingly at us the whole time. Soon we´ll have pilgrims here too, slipping scraps to them under the table.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

this just in

Paddy wants to blog, so I´ll make this quick.

He had his ´procedure´this morning, and the doctor found nothing in there but some "normal erosion" and a few nickels and a newt. I was so happy I cried, which made the people out in the waiting room think the worst had happened. A little boy even gave me a candy, and patted my hand!

The dialog I had with the doctor was a stitch. He gave me a quick rundown, and when I asked him to go a little slower he arched an eyebrow and said in very Oxford-accented Spanglish:

"You are the wife of Mr. O´Gara? You too are Irish."
I didn´t want to get into heritage just then. "Yes. I speak English," I told him.
"I speak English as well. I shall now tell you what. We found nothing out of order inside the bowel of your husband, neither did we find anything out of order inside his swallowing tube, nor did we find in his stomach. Only erosion, quite normal. A normal for a man who was drinking."
I nodded. "He drinks, yes."
"He is Irish, no?" the doctor said with a twinkle. "But he shan´t be drinking such difficult things in coming days. Whiskey, brandy, orujo, rum, such difficult drinks. He shan´t. Neither shall he drink orange juice, nor citruses fruits."
"You mean he shouldn´t? Should not have them?"
"That is what I said, no?" he said. "We shall send you a full report in the post."

And a little while later Paddy came walking out the door, very hungry after a two-day fast.
We had a lovely lunch, but no liquor at all. He shan´t.

I can only pray that someday I shall speak Spanish as well as this doctor speaks English!