Saturday, 27 September 2008


I´ve been snapping pictures all week, when I´ve not been driving. (I try not to combine the two activities too often.) With the world economy teetering on the brink, the USA elections coming up, and the demise of Paul Newman hogging up all the printers´ ink, I am left with little of significance to tell my readers, (´cept maybe get your money out of the bank NOW and hide it somewhere no one will ever look. Millie Benson, a cunning old lady of my acquaintance, throve through the Great Depression because she saw it coming, got her money out in cash, and stashed it away safely in the tubes of her xylophone.)

Anyway, this week included the fiesta over at San Nicolas, complete with three giant paellas and several botas of very nasty wine:

The boys from Barrunta catered it, and as they traveled down the street to the teleclub porch, the fragrance brought out the citizenry in droves! The pipers played, the paella was et, and I met a couple of guys there from Saldaña. Their sister lives in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. You can leave the Burgh, but it never leaves you!

Signs of the changing seasons are all over the place. Victor over in San Nicolas is stripping out his beehives, spinning the honey, drying the wax to sell for candles. The grape harvest starts this weekend, and the vineyards are being watched-over by scarecrows of many apparent ethnicities and stripes. The farmers are wonderfully creative, but I don´t think the crows are fooled for a minute. (It´s startling as hell when a windy day blows down a scarecrow or two into a ditch. Viewed from a distance,´s scary!)
Paddy´s off to London in a couple of weeks, with plans to visit lots of old friends. This is why I need to take lots of pictures of our house, and upload them to Picasa... so they can see what Paddy´s been doing, and so he doesn´t have to take the computer along with him when he goes! I am envious, but it really IS his turn to take a break. Here are some of the nicer ones, of critters enjoying Their Favorite Things:

Meantime, we met up with a law professor from Illinois (now a pilgrim) over in Leon and went to see San Miguel de Escalada, a breathtakingly old and lovely monastery out in the middle of nothing at all. Such a treat, having thousand-year-old things around!

And then we went back into Leon and ate pizza!
So it´s been a whole spectrum of goodies, under a sky amazingly blue. Somehow it makes me miss Libby and Philip, my children. And nachos. And the Pittsburgh Steelers, my football team. And Mom. Just a little.
Just until someone asks if we want the last bits of paella.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Mean Streets and White Knuckles

Suddenly everyone wants to get up early, an extremely un-Spanish phenomenon far as I´m concerned. This week I started my "Practicas," actual behind-the-wheel driving lessons. This consists of meeting Santi, the teacher, over in Sahagun at 8 a.m., then spending the next 6 hours in the little car with the extra set of pedals on the passenger side, along with two or three other student drivers.

We students take turns driving. First up yesterday was young Nestor, a teenager from Melgar de Arriba. He drove us happily and contentedly to inner-city Leon. We stopped at Trafico HQ for Santi to drop off some paperwork. While we waited outside I congratulated young Nestor on his skills. "You´re almost ready for the exam, no?" I said. "Almost," he said. "I still have some work to do."

Santi came back, Nestor got back in the driver´s seat and was directed into the teeming narrow backstreets of the city, which are invariably parked tight on both sides.

I will not go into details of the series of near misses that ensued, only to liken it to the violent "Grand Theft Auto" video games, or perhaps the old "Herbie" series of Disney laff riots involving a free-will Volkswagen. Nestor and Santi stayed outwardly calm as we swung wide into tiny plazas, skated a good half-inch away from the sides of moving buses, and even once clipped the wing mirror of a parked Mercedes. (I was sitting on the Mercedes side, and watched as it folded closed in slo-mo. They manufacture cars here with the side mirrors on hinges, because they know this is going to happen...the backside of everybody´s mirror is etched in several paint colors.)

Then Nestor left a roundabout at a good clip and wheeled us neatly over a crowded crosswalk and head-first and wrong way up a congested one-way street. Half onto the sidewalk we went, and we´d have headed right up the block that way if Santi hadn´t finally slammed on his brake. The little Renault just about stood up on its nose.
"If this was the exam, you´d have failed just now," Santi said calmly.

We sat a minute, regaining our breathing skills. Santi made sure we were OK. And as young Nestor reversed the car back up the sidewalk and through the crosswalk, Santi gave him The Lecture: "Driving is one of the most dangerous things you can do. You can kill people. You have three other people in this car with you, and maybe they have worthwhile lives. Think about the other people in this car."

No mention was made of the heaving crowd out there on the sidewalk, which parted slowly as the backside of the Renault came at them. Nestor´s hands were shaking, but he said nothing. Santi directed him to a newer part of town, with wider streets. He told us crosswalks give the pedestrian the right of way, but only if the pedestrians are women -- men get a pass only if they´re accompanying children, or leaning on a cane. Yellow lights supposedly mean slow down or even stop, but if there´s a red light attached, the yellow just means "hurry up." These are practical instructions, he said, "the real life of the road." All the volumes of theory and traffic law we´d ingested over the past weeks were "just theory," he said. "This is Spain, the streets of Spain. Ain´t no theory here."

Finally Nestor was allowed to park the car to give another driver a turn. He didn´t get in the back. He bid us all a breathless "good day" and said he´d catch the train back to Sahagun. He turned and fled on foot into the Streets of Spain.

Susana is still mastering the clutch, and stalled the car several times at critical highway merges and often in the path of oncoming trucks and ambulances. (Automatic transmissions are still considered luxury options in Europe.) She was especially conscious of the pedestrian crowds who seem to gather at such places to gawk at the cars with their Driving School insignia on top. (Sometimes a Guardia Civil patrol parks there, too, just to add some frisson.) Poor Susana, her mobile phone kept ringing from inside her front pocket, filling the car with a tinny top-40 ditty that intoned, over and over, "no, no, no."

Santi said his job doesn´t get on his nerves, but I´m not buying it. As the hours went on and the traffic thickened his deodorant let him down. You could smell the fear.

Me, I did pretty well, considering I´ve been driving almost every day for 23 years. I have some bad habits, Santi said, but in all I drive with more self-control and discipline and precision than he does. I come from a more controlled and disciplined race of people. He said all this to my fellow students, with the unspoken assurance that I could not understand a word. Although I used pretty OK Castellano to tell him of my driving history and to explain that my lessons are in both driving and language, and that he may have to speak more slowly than usual to me... he evidently concluded that I am a retard. He started our instruction by telling me, "This structure over the road is called a bridge, or sometimes a viaduct. Bridge."

Driving Mister Rodgers. OK. I´m getting used to Square One, and it´s not always a bad place to be. I already know how to drive, thank God. And it won´t be me who gets us all flattened beneath a frozen-foods truck.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Templar Do-Rag: or A Toad in Ponferrada

One not-so-great thing about The Peaceable is its isolation. Most of the passing pilgs simply do not know we are here, and in most cases that´s a good thing. But I spent the past week at the only pilgrim albergue in the city of Ponferrada, right out in the middle of the great river of pilgrims, and I met some real characters among those 180+ pilgs per night... Most of whom had passed unnoticed through Moratinos a couple of weeks before. (There is much to say about meeting people on neutral ground. I am not sure I´d want to have all these people in my house!)

First you should know about Jose and Pablo, two men I met Thursday afternoon.
In America, my country of origin, these two would be pegged as "Biker Dudes," or "Harley Hogs." But this is Spain, and the Camino de Santiago, so here they are known as Templar Knights, or simply "los chicos de Manjarin."

A little back story for them: Manjarin is about 20 km. east of Ponferrada, an abandoned village on the topside of a mountain. About 15 years ago a businessman named Tomas did the pilgrimage to Santiago, and had a spiritual experience up there in the ruins. He found himself called to be a Knight Templar. (Even more back story: Templars were an order of Christian crusaders that flourished through the middle ages, but became so rich and influential they were all hunted down and torched to death in the 14th century. Now they´re subjects of dozens of conspiracy theories and DaVinci Codes and Hollywood movies. And as the Camino is studded with real Templar remains, plenty of self-made mystics and New Age "Templars" find themselves here. It´s all part of the vibe, but it takes some getting used to.)

Anyway, Tomas de Manjarin is a big man who dropped out of the rat race, discovered his "sacred sword ritual," and founded a pilgrim shelter up there on the mountain when the pilgrimage just began to hit it big. Someone else would´ve turned it all into a brand by now, put up a 4-star hotel and restaurant and medieval-themed Adventure Tourism Destination, then sold out for millions. But not Tomas. He still lives up there in an "albergue" made of packing cases and stones salvaged from the surrounding ruins. The electricity is sporadic, the water supply forever in question, the sewer system and hygiene downright medieval... and he´s got more volunteer help than he can schedule.

(he was a great help and inspiration four years ago to my son Philip, who while a pilgrim spent some time up in Manjarin. Philip was a great fan of Dungeons & Dragons and hobbits and such. Tomas did his sword ceremony, and killed a chicken for dinner, and was in every way the ideal medieval knight. He made a big impression on Philip, who was 17 years old. I´ll always be grateful.)

Anyway, Jose and Pablo, Tomas´ volunteer helpers, rolled up Thursday about noon, in a rattly old Citroën. They´d come into Ponferrada for groceries, they said -- they brought along a credential left behind in Manjarin by a pilgrim who´d likely show up in Ponferrada that evening, and Lisa, the biggest dog I´ve ever seen, who was apparently in search of canine romance. Seeing as Pablo is from Ciudad Real, and Bartolo (one of our volunteers) is from Cordoba, they were fraternally obliged to have a "cervecita" at the nearest bar in the short time that remained before we opened our gates to the pilgrim throngs heaving outside.

Me and Bart and Rocio (the Basque girl who came Weds night) and Juan in his black Templar do-rag walked over to Bar Peña, with Pablo driving along behind in the car with Lisa. Three raggedy neighborhood dogs followed along behind the car, snapping and snarling at one another. When we arrived Juan let Lisa go. The little curs danced with delight and sang out their love and devotion. Lisa looked down at them as if they were so many tomcats. We went inside.

There I heard tales of the hard life on the mountainside, the daily grind of an armored-car driver in Ciudad Real turned rustic Templar host, what had happened to Juan´s front teeth (an unfortunate collision with a mule´s right rear hoof), where one can buy a Manjarin do-rag, and how generally similar the Bar Peña in Ponferrada is to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 13 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. (they both have fund-raiser "strip ticket" drawings, wherein everyone is shaken down for 50 cents for a ticket, and one of the people present wins a prize. This time I won. A ticket for this year´s national Navidad drawing, aka "El Gordo," worth 20 Euro!) So I can hope one stroke of good luck leads to another, eh? Jose celebrated by giving me a monster bear hug, which I must admit was very nice.

Anyway, the point of the whole story is just how wonderful these two men were. They have one full set of teeth between them. One is fat, one is skinny. They wear bandanas on their heads and prison tattoos on their arms and smiles on their unshaven faces, and love in their hearts for all mankind, (except for turistas). They spend their vacations on a waterless mountainside performing specious rituals with a wacky old man and bemused European adventure tourists. And they´re tough as nails. I love them.

We knocked down sweet Bierzo Mencia from last year, and then we had to get back to the refuge. We paid up and stepped out. Lisa apparently had selected a suitor -- a smiling wire-haired rat-catcher. Jose opened the car door and both dogs jumped into the back seat.

"We´re just going over to the supermarket. This boy can find his way home from there," he said. And with that they drove away up the street.

I will maybe someday write more about the supposed Norwich University linguist who informed me I speak English in "a skillfully acquired American-television accent," but that an expert can tell I am "not a native speaker of American English!" I was rendered speechless, which isn´t much like me at all. It made me think Existential thoughts about language, accents, nationality, Truth, and all kinds of other nonsense. It´s gotta be one of the most non-sequitur moments of my life. I wish I´d told him he was a bullshitter par excellance, but I didn´t have the presence of mind... I think I´d been speaking and translating too many languages by then to be so pointed and fluent, even in in my native tongue. (Which is, truly, English of the American TV variety!)

Anyway, I also met a fellow University of Pittsburgh graduate from Scranton, PA., and a lady from Bowling Green, Ohio, and the man who bred Golden Missile, a race horse who won me a wad of cash back when I used to bet horses.

I will sometime work up the guts to write about what a broken ankle feels like under my hands...I´d only expected to feel hot tendons. It was one of the most wrong things I have ever felt with my hands. The owner of the ankle had just walked about 12 km. on it. Amazing what humans can do, innit? It made me feel nauseated, really.

I learned five new guitar chords, and how to sing a cool song called "Satan is my Motor," and I learned how to make Patatas a la Riojana and a three-layer tortilla, and I gave my fellow workers their first taste of Turkish and Tex-Mex cuisines. I slept like a rock at night, but still came home very tired.

It was non-stop from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I was glad I only had to do it a week, seeing as I am considered a member of the "Equipo Sapo." In Spanish that means "Team Toad." I objected when I learned this, but was told it´s not a bad thing: sapos blend into whatever environment they land in. "They can be toads, or frogs, or water lilies. They do it all, wherever you put them," Evanisto told me.

Yeah? Well, toads are nasty looking, and when you pick them up they pee. And being a Sapo is good? No me digas, hombre, sin do-rag Templario!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Endless Toil of a Nice Variety

If you´ve seen the movie "Groundhog Day" you have an idea of the life of a hospitalero in a short-staffed and over-sized pilgrim hostel.

Here in Ponferrada, a pretty mountain market town in western Leon, there are four people (really more like two and a half) to keep up a 200-bed facility. It is non-stop labor from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., what with toilet paper dispensers to fill, credentials to stamp, arguments to settle, beds to straighten-up, floors to sweep and mop, and showers to be sloughed off onto someone else to clean. Oh, and laundry.

And it´s all Spanish. The other guys here are older Spanish men, who are nice guys but full of every presumption you´d imagine older Spanish men to have. So I do the laundry, for everyone. I do a lot of the cooking, too.

But I don´t have to wash down the showers or toilets if I don´t want to. Maybe I am feeding into their sexism, but somehow it works for all of us. Except for the burritos. I introduced them to Mexican food yesterday, to mixed reviews. (we eat in shifts, so I can tell how successful a dish is by how much is hidden in the trash the next day.)

Anyway, the scenery here is knockout, the weather is fine, and I am -- believe it or not -- considered "the one with the languages." English is very useful here, and interchangeable Spanish is indispensible. I am picking up lots of Spànish fluency (without much improvement in my grammar, I fear). And my latent German came out of hiding long enough this afternoon for me to get two old Austrians into a taxi and off to the bus station. There was an audience for all this, of people who speak only rapid-fire Spanish, so even my execrable German made me look like a linguist.

Amazing what full immersion does for you. And short rations. And a daily round that doesn´t vary too much... right down the the very same Top 40 hits on the radio at the same time every morning. I´ve been here two days now, and it could be a week or a month for all my awareness of time. I brought along two books to read when things slowed down, and they´re still in the bottom of my backpack.

I am not being very coherant here, I know. But the Czechs and Germans are asking me what Shakira is singing on the radio. They want to know NOW! In German! Woohoo! Man, am I gonna sleep tonight!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Westward Ho!

No, I ain a ho. It´s a figure of speech, OK?

This just in: The Pilgrimage Hostel Volunteer HQ in Logroño needs someone TOMORROW at the pilgrim albergue in Ponferrada, right on through the end of the week. They´re a big place, about 140 beds, and they usually have three people there to watch the place. They´re down to one person through the end of the week, so they´re desperate enough to call in the likes o me. And like Paddy says, "why not? This is why you came here, innit?"

Well, not exactly. But it surely will take my mind off things.
If you´re a pilgrim coming westward over the mountains of Leon, stop by and say hello. I will there through Thursday, or maybe Saturday. Logroño flies by the seat of its pants sometimes, especially here toward the end of the big pilgrim season. Maybe there will be time and resources to post blogs from there, a view to the Daily Life of the Volunteer Pilgrim Hospitalera?

We shall see. There are two trains running tomorrow, and I´ll catch one of them.
I never much cared for Ponferrada, but I´ll keep an open mind. It´s a good-size city, so maybe I can buy a functioning mobile phone there. It´s got a big templar castle in the middle. And it´s gotta beat the heck out of another week of Drivers Education.

PS: Monday morning update. YEEHAW! I only missed TWO on the last exam, which means I PASSED! woohoo! Here´s the word from Trafico:

Resultados obtenidos en las pruebas teóricas

NIF/NIE: X......

TIPO DE PRUEBA: Teórico Común
FECHA DE EXAMEN: 12/09/2008

I am APTO! life is good.

Being Sunday

It´s Sunday afternoon in Moratinos, one of my favorite times of the week. The sky is a perfect, clear blue. Mass is ended, we´ve gone in peace back to our houses, our lunches, our afternoon naps. Nothing is moving.

There´s no plowing or chopping or baling today. The hunters finished up about noon, about when the last wave of morning pilgrims moved through. Most of the manure-spreading was finished up on Friday, and it rained briefly this morning. Every breath now is saturated with that fertile dung funk.

Out on the patio Murphy dozes in the barn doorway. Una is twitching, dreaming in her personal sunbeam. Bob the Canary, struck dumb by his annual molt, looks like something the cat dragged in... his head is half-bald. (I wouldn´t sing, either, if that happened to me every September.)

I´ve found a nice thriller novel to read through the weekend, sent on by Deirdre the Pilgrim: "Winter in Madrid." It´s in English, even! (At Paddy´s advising I am taking time off from Las Normas de Trafico. I don´t miss it.)

We experimented with eel at lunch -- lots of meat, but even more bones. The Rueda white wine was good and crisp with it. I need to wash the dishes, and peel and chop and freeze the big bag of carrots on the table´s end, but right now that looks like too much work.

Paddy naps on the sofa. A lizard darts across the kitchen roof tiles, over and under, over and under... he must feel like he´s at sea. An silent airplane draws a straight white line across the sky, way way up. Dave the Dove sings his love song.

I sit in the sunshine. I think about what I´ll do if I learn tomorrow I passed the driving test. I think about what I´ll do if I learn I didn´t pass. Then I let it go.

I have an email from the ladies at the Amigos del Camino Headquarters in Logroño. They probably want me to go somewhere rugged and be a hospitalera for a couple of weeks, right away. Tomorrow. I will answer them tomorrow.

I think about September, how bad things tend to happen then: invasions, hurricanes, fathers dying, maniacs flying airplanes into tall buildings (on a day with a sky the very same perfect blue as this), Fashion Week, a new TV season, plagues, and a general "return to Normal" with the end of summer. I wonder if I should maybe wait til October to take important exams in foreign languages. Then I let it go again.

Wasps buzz around the watering trough.
A rooster crows. Bob sings a note that sounds like a question.
A breeze rustles through the upper branches of the spruce tree.

Nothing more.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Bad-Ass Gladys & the Driving Test

I´m not really hiding out. I am studying, cramming, filling my head with so much useless and irrelevant information I may soon be mistaken for a graduate student.

If you couldn´t tell, I failed my first Driving Theory Exam. Of the 30 questions, I could miss three. Somehow I missed five. They don´t tell you which ones, but I think it had to be the questions with more than three pronouns, and probably the one about xenon headlights.

I spent Monday feeling peevish and angry and sad. But now I decided to use my mentality, face up to reality, suck it up and all that. I bought a half-kilo of assorted shortbread cookies and settled in with my driving manual and the "cuestionario" book. And occasionally I give myself a break and take a sample exam from the list of Golden Trafico Theory Tests of the Past. Just try one, from the list for "todos permisiones" or "Clase B." You´ll get the flavor, see how well you´d do, and you´ll understand why my mind is turning to slush (while my Spanish automotive vocabulary is zooming.)

And perhaps why I am finding so much solace in the chicken yard drama.

Even as Paddy and I are working our buns off, painting the outer walls, hauling a mountain of sheep dung into the huerta, and cramming Tire Tread Depths into our brains, our chickens are slacking off. What once was a steady three eggs per day is now down to one. We suspect one of our hens, after a period of experimental ovoid sculpture, has gone out of the laying business altogether. I think I know who it is. I think it is Gladys.

Of our remaining Poultry Triumvirate, Gladys is the weakest link. She has the smallest, least-red-colored comb, the least hygienic habits, and the worst attitude. She doesn´t mind being held or petted, but unlike Rosie and Blodwyn, she won´t come over and jump into your lap. And when she is, finally, snuggled into your arms, she poops. Straight down the front of your leg.

Because our three chickens have always shared a laying box, it is impossible to tell for sure which of the three was laying the football-shaped, pale-colored eggs...and now, which is not laying at all. I have considered squeezing each of them at mid-morning (when eggs usually are laid) to see which two pop out a lovely brown treat, and which one just poops, but that could be seen as rude, or even bizarre.

And now circumstances have intervened.

After a long search involving the Four Shepherds of Terradillos, Esteban, Justi´s sheep barn, and discursive lectures on ammonia and straw ratios, we finally had two backhoe-bucketloads of vintage sheep doo delivered to the rear yard of The Peaceable. After two long days of shoveling, wheelbarrowing, and raking, I got a nice half-inch deep layer laid down on the huerta... the rear patio where the fruit trees and chickens live. (We´re installing drip irrigation and a big ol´vegetable garden out there in the next year, God willing.) (distributing shit led to the inevitable contemplative parallels to my many years of journalism. I must say all that practice prepared me well for life on the farm.)

It was about then I bought two more hens -- young ones, girls who should begin laying eggs within a few weeks. We call them Muriel and Vera. They are of the same Castilian red breed as the Big Three, but their feathers are deliciously soft. Their combs are still tiny pink sprouts. They are shy.

We put them in the hen pen. Gladys went ballistic.

At the end of the dustup we had two new pullets shivering in the darkest corner of the Hut. Out in the hen run, Gladys strutted and flapped her wings, several clumps of pretty young feathers floating down around her. Suddenly our Chief Slacker had become Pecking Order Enforcement Officer.

So we kicked all three of the Old Girls out into the poo yard, to let the New Girls settle in peace into the official chicken yard and Hut. (When we finally did read the Chickens For DumbAsses instruction book, we learned you can´t just throw new hens in with have to introduce them slowly. Duh.)

And so the Old Girls have, for a week, turned to Cocks of the Walk. They roost on the woodpile, and spend their days shoving the poo around, leaving great bare spots and thick piles. They have, with help from a corps of sparrows and doves, picked through all the tons of dung and winnowed it for larvae, bugs, seeds, and chaff. One of them lays an egg each day in the garage, and the other layer, we suspect, is stashing hers somewhere... someplace where an especially important visitor will discover them in all their rotten-egg glory. (we still get occasional rumblings from Secretary of State Moratinos, who says he intends to visit here someday soon, when the crises let up. Yeah, OK Miguel.)

Oh, and the Girls rediscovered the Chicken TV windowsill overlooking our living room. I´d barricaded the window-well with an old casement and a rake. I´d hoped to preserve a nice pink geranium plant that looked nice there. My delusion lasted about three days. Bad-ass Gladys figured it all out, stormed the window well, flattened the jerry-rigged barricade, and picked the flower plant to shreds with her greedy beak.

Sensible people would just give Bad Old Glad a good whack and stew up her carcass with some greens and carrots. We had a look around for sensible people, but only found sensitive ones, and a lot of nonsense. There´s no one here capable of offing a hen, even the most delinquent kind. And so yesterday, humming a chorus of Kum By Yah, Paddy and I went out to the hen yard and opened wide the gates and welcomed each chicken, regardless of her age or caste, in to feast on cracked corn, carrot-tops, and tomato pips. We held each hen in turn, showed them the nice new nest boxes we´ve installed, and put them all down together in the middle of the run to make friends. They´d been seeing each other through the chicken wire for a week. The book said they ought to be OK by now.

Blodwyn stuffed herself with tomato and headed back out to her Paradise of Poo. Rosie settled in to the newest nest box. Gladys made a run for Muriel.

Muriel´s beak was imperfectly snipped, back at the chicken farm... she still has, intact, her lower peck, an effective underbite. She whirled and faced the Queen Chicken Bitch, and gave her such a peck, right on the ear. Gladys clucked and fluffed and backed away fast, shocked. Muriel stretched her brown body tall and flapped her wings. HA! I thought.

Gladys turned to the gate, pretending nothing had happened. Vera was there, huddled in the Hut door.

So Gladys hustled her inside and gave her a good savage kicking.

Someone´s got to keep order in this place.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Testing Times

Yes, I am back! And using my own Mac, in my own house!

It would be unforgivably boring to tell you how I solved the problem, if it is indeed solved. I think it is the combination of duct tape, cuss-words, and a spaghetti of new cables that somehow did it. Let´s see how long it lasts.

I took the driving theory exam on Friday, a dark and blustery day. It was 30 multiple-choice questions in 30 minutes, and was probably the toughest exam I have ever taken -- and I´ve taken some killer tests in my time. (I studied World War I under Judge Bernie Scherer at St. Vincent College, back in 1980. He used blank "blue books" in which students wrote extended, essay-type answers to a selection of questions written on the blackboard. His first final exam question? "Name and explain the primary historical causes of the First World War in one of the Eastern European countries initially involved, as typified by individual, named persons who were part of the action. I want causes, NOT effects. Archduke Ferdinand does not count.")

Judge Scherer did all his work in English, though, and to me that makes a helluva lot of difference. I am allowed to miss three questions on the driving exam. I know of at least two I missed for sure. I will learn tomorrow morning if I passed. (I will pass, eventually. And when I do, I will be immensely proud of myself!)

I´m not the only maybe-achiever. Little Juli, our long-suffering young teacher friend who is the only English-speaker in Moratinos besides us, was finally offered a full-time teaching position. She´ll be working in a tiny town in Soria, a depopulated desert area way to the east that is somewhat akin to Wyoming. It´s not terribly desirable to most people, but Juli´s accustomed to living out in the middle of nowhere. This is a rarely-seen, year-long posting and she will be working with primary-age kids. (she had a really tough time last spring when she was posted to teach English to the pubescent punks of Ponferrada. They ate her for lunch.)

She learned about the new job on Friday. She starts on Wednesday. She is over the moon. I hope this will be the job she´s been waiting for. We will miss her.

San Lorenzo Church, the 13th-century brick Mudejar jewel in Sahagún, is trying to fall down. A big arch inside has collapsed a week ago, and the southwest crossing outside is sagging toward the plaza. You´ve gotta feel pretty tired after standing up straight for 700 or so years, and gravity just doesn´t let up. A local construction company rushed in with hydraulic jacks and timbers and barricades, just to stop any further collapse. But there´s a big hole in the wall, and the roof is failing now. It will take millions to fix. And the Junta de Castilla y Leon moves on these things with glacial speed. (they´ve got TONS of 700+-year-old buildings to take care of, and they can´t keep up. And money is tight all around.)

The other news, somewhat in keeping with the four-legged theme I´ve been following lately, is our attendance yesterday at a Corrida de Rejones in Palencia -- a display of mounted bullfighting. It was three men, ("rejoneadores,") equipped with teams of fabulously trained and athletic horses. While mounted, armed with darts and swords and lances, each of them in his turn took on a 600-kilo fighting bull, with an audience of thousands cheering them on.

I am a great lover of horses and horsemanship, and these corridas are a perfect show of how many of the complicated moves seen in dry-as-a-bone Dressage competitions and down-and-dirty rodeos developed out in the fields to serve a livelier purpose. If the horse doesn´t obey the rider´s commands, they both are toast. And with a bull at your tail, hell-bent on killing you, your riding takes on a keen edge.

Add in a few required moves, and beautiful horses, and a brass band playing Paso Dobles, you have a heckuvva crowd-pleasing show.

(I´ll try to put a video in here. Try to ignore the overblown music.)

Paddy and I were guests of Jose Antonio, the builder who saved our hides earlier this year. Otherwise we would never have gone. And we will not go back again, we agreed. Lovely as most of it was, we just can´t take the endings. The bulls give their best, too, in a life-or-death struggle. And the bulls always die, right there before your eyes, in a great bloody display. The second bull of the day was a noble, beautiful beast. He made Pablo Hermoso de Mondoza look like a young god, and then he died of multiple stab wounds and was dragged out of the ring by a team of mules. Mendoza strutted ´round the ring on his beautiful Arab mare, with both the bull´s ears held aloft in victory. What an asshole.

I looked at Patrick, and saw he was crying, too. What a couple of soppy Anglos!

So... next time how about some recipes?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


In and out they come, the animals, seasons, fiestas, seeds and harvests, days and nights and travelers.

We have a new cat living on the workbench in our barn, a very beautiful kitten we named John Murphy, after the Very Irish Pilgrim who was staying here when the kitten showed up. We have two doves living in our spruce tree, and they sing duets and trios in the evening with Bob Canary.

For a few days we had another third dog, a little terrier we called Nobby. Today his real owner came and took him home.

I live a rather simple life these days, with the animals providing characters for our tiny drama. As you know, I have a blog, and a good number of readers. Writing the blog helps me feel like I am still connected to the outside world, like I still do something noticeable and enjoyable and maybe even a little important.

It looks like that might, for a while, have to go away too. On Friday we lost our internet connection. Now, Monday evening, the internet service provider phoned up from Madrid to tell us it´s back, New and Improved.

But not here. We still cannot connect, and the provider guy, after much head-scratching, says our computer is not recognized by their system, and it cannot be any of their doing, and why´d we want a Mac anyway? I phoned Jean-Marc, the Mac God. He gave it a try, but he is in Paris. The Mac is in Moratinos. No dice.

So, dear readers, seeing as we now must travel 9 km. to use the internet, Big Fun in a Tiny Pueblo may need to scale back radically for a while, or maybe even disappear. This is mighty upsetting to me, but I hope it is for the best.

You may just miss out on details like our epic search for sheep manure, the driving exam drama, the pilgrim parade, the bullfight in Palencia.

But the Mac still works. I still can write on it. I just can´t use it to connect to the interne at home at The Peaceable. I lived for many years without Internet. I can still do that, I think. Maybe this way I will no longer be so distracted. I can get some “real” writing done.

Suddenly I feel miles and miles from everywhere. Our telephones don´t work much of the time, and we cut down the TV antenna mast, and now our Internet is severed. The pilgrim numbers are diminishing as summer comes to an end.

It´s hard not to imagine we soon will disappear altogether… or the outside world will vanish from our sight, while we live on in our own tiny world. We will send out letters now and then, to a small circle of individuals, messages in bottles, cries from the wilderness.

We may curl up inside our ochre walls with the doves, and two fine dogs, and now the beautiful barn cat.

Maybe it´s not so bad. Maybe there is an easy solution. We still are looking. Please be patient.

But I face it: Sometimes it´s really tough, living as a foreigner out here in a strange land. I miss you guys.