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.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Barter & Bob

It is late. I am not getting enough sleep.
But we´ve got Pilgrims, good ones.

Yesterday afternoon I was settling my brains for a late afternoon nap when I heard Paddy´s mobile phone bleating the electronic overture to “Carmen.” The phone was deep down in the many zips and pockets of Paddy´s favorite shorts, which were lying in a heap on the floor. (Paddy was not in them at the time.)

(Whenever I phone Paddy, I can usually count on his telephone being somewhere other than on his person, so this is not unusual. And as long as men sport shorts, vests, and pants with multiple pockets, they cannot rightfully criticize women´s bottomless handbags, can they?)

Anyway, the person on the phone was called Chris, and he and his three friends were 4 km. away in Terradillos, and Jesus in Logroño had told them about our place, and could they come over and stay?

Frickin´ Jesus. Still, he´s not sent us a bad pilgrim yet. (a couple of weird ones, granted... including The Spiritual Christ from Germany...) So of course I said OK.

I got up. We gave the place a quick cleanup, figured out what was available dinner-wise, and were ready when they rolled up to the door about an hour later.

They were delightful, useful, fun, refreshing, and a bit exhausting: Monica the little Italian hairdresser (with bright raspberry-colored locks); Chris from Seattle, a tall and soft-spoken landscaper; Chris from Atlanta, a Buddhist vegan soul-searching revolutionary; and Carolyn, a worn-out Quebecois a bit overwhelmed by all the rapid-fire American English. (I haven´t spoken American for a VERY long time, and only realized it when the boys opened their mouths.)

We ate peanuts and olives and drank harsh local wine and chattered right into the evening out on the patio. Chris the Vegan made dinner for us: veggie pizzas and salad (Paddy made some of his fabulous rice/cheese/spinach for the Regular Ol´ Vegetarians. Vegetarians are cool, but I find Vegans sometimes rather high-maintenance… what, no eggs, even? No fish? No cheese??? What is left? So when Vegans stop by, we usually ask them to do the cooking. And they usually oblige beautifully, proving that you can make a lot of pretty good grub using nothing at all.)

Maybe best of all was having Monica give me a haircut.

I have been letting my hair grow longer for several months now, and it´s gotten well out of control in recent days. With the snake´s nest pulled back under a bandana I´ve driven past multiple beauty salons and barbershops and chainsaw dealers in recent days, contemplating just how to tell the professionals inside in Castellano that I don´t want to lose the length, I just need to have it shaped, have the different levels blended into one another, have the long stringy bits out front removed from before my eyes. Even in English I find such concepts impossible to communicate, with my eternal short haircut as instant evidence.

But here was an ebullient young haircutting professional, who understood English well enough to have worked for two years in a salon in London´s Knightsbridge neighborhood – a brutally posh place where bad beauticians are toasted on their own curling irons and shipped back to Fiorenza in a matchbox.

So we hunted up the shears we use to trim Tim, and the meat scissors, (the only really sharp ones in the place), and the secateurs we use on the trees and bushes. We found a big plastic garbage bag and cut a head-hole in the bottom and used that for an apron. And out on the patio Monica gave me a lovely haircut I´d pay 40€ and up for in a city salon.

A good haircut always makes me feel great, and this one was followed by a tip-top meal, music, Tarot-card readings, and general good will, all of it in English! Woohoo! They all stayed up too late for me. I had to rise by 7 a.m. to go driving, so I missed saying goodbye.

When I returned home in this afternoon all the happy party was gone down the Camino. The hair clippings were swept up, the dishes done, and the secateurs taken up by the Landscaper Chris. He´d gone out into the bushy, brushy huerta and gave the apple, fig, and spruce trees a thorough pruning! Woohoo x 2.

I like hosting pilgrims, and I´ve learned not to say “no” when they offer us money to help meet expenses. But I especially like the ambitious Barter Economy pilgrims, the ones who meet our dinner-and-a-place-to-sleep and raise us a haircut or a pruning, a dish-wash or drawing or song. There´s something so fundamentally right and human about skipping over the currency and trading in goods and skills.

… And then there are pilgrims like Bob Spenger.

Bob is an athlete, a minor Camino celebrity. He showed up at The Peaceable late this morning, having walked here from LePuy en Velay, France... a trip of about 1,200 km. (he´s only got about 300 km to go to reach Santiago.) This is the third time he´s walked the Way in the past 8 years, and when he´s finished he´s off to England to compete in a world-class rowing competition. He´s a Californian, a retired chemistry professor, a gold-medal, record-holding athlete, a war veteran, storyteller, and world traveler.

Oh, and Bob is 84 years old. Look him up on YouTube and get inspired... YouTube´s not letting me post here today, for whatever reason.

He is taking the Camino easy this time, in reasonable 20 to 25-km days (that´s about 12 to 15 miles, every day for two months or so.) This will probably be his last long-distance hike, he says. His knees are starting to hurt.

We are honored to host him. Pilgrims like Bob Spenger can hang out here whenever they want, for free. Long as they´ll tell us a story or two.