Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Magical Alamo

The Alamo stands in the center of Calle Real, right on the Camino as you walk into town. It´s a landmark in Moratinos, though most people who live here don´t call it that. I hope the central figures in its dramatic story will not mind me retelling it here. It plays a central role in our Moratinos history, and its uncertain future continues to be part of our daily lives. It has a magnetic force, the Alamo. It draws outsiders into town.

We nicknamed our neighbors´ place The Alamo because its adobe face, when we first saw it, resembled the shot-up Texas mission church that´s now an American national monument. Any pilgrim who passed through here in the last two or three years probably noticed it. Many took its picture, as it is a storybook version of the rustic adobe house of the meseta, with dirt walls and bright blue doors and windows. These days the Alamo is almost habitable, with a new roof and second floor, windows, electricity, lights, and rudimentary plumbing.

It´s been a long road for James and Marianne, the charismatic 30-something couple who brought it this far.

James and Marianne are their own Camino Story: two wandering Britons (he´s from working-class London, she´s from a successful Irish family) met four years ago at the end of their respective Camino hikes, fell in love, and headed out together on a fundraising trek down the Via de la Plata. Fate/St. James/biology changed their plans within weeks, however, and little Poppy, their daughter, was born in Pamplona within the year. The new family decided to live on the camino, and host pilgrims in a little albergue they´d build up from scratch.

They bought a ruinous farming compound dead on the Camino in a meseta town with absolutely nothing to offer pilgrims. They set up a yurt tent out in the back, and brewed tea and coffee in the morning to offer the passing crowds. Sometimes a pilgrim or two would stay around for the day and help with stacking bricks or making up mud for the inside walls. James was a sort of merry Emcee, and many were the parties and barbecues he got up suddenly when the right mix of people were present.

Marianne smiled, and cared for the baby, and did all the driving, buying, and logistics. They rented an apartment in a village 20 kilometers distant, as raising families in yurts is a pursuit best left to Mongolians. Moratinos adored Poppy, (there are no children here, except for the summer people), and welcomed the “new blood” into town.

James is an avid internet user, and that´s how I found out about Moratinos. (I took no notice of the place when I walked my Camino in 2001.) But he and Marianne were doing what I´d dreamed of. They´d found a village with nothing, and were putting something there. The real estate was dirt cheap (as dirt often is), and the welcome warm. We ought to come visit, he said. And so we did.

It was July 2, 2006. Paddy and I were spending that summer volunteering at pilgrim hostels in towns we already knew had potential. We really liked Fuenterroble de Salvatierra, on the Via de la Plata, and the rural neighborhood around Miraz, up in Galicia on the Northern Camino. But both places were “España Profunda,” very remote and extremely Spanish…downright backward in many ways. Navarre and La Rioja were beautiful, but already overdeveloping and overpriced. We weren´t needed there.

But Moratinos? Wow. It was just as grubby and backward as rural Salamanca and Galicia had been, but it was on the French camino, traveled year-round by pilgrims. It was only 9 kilometers from Sahagun, a market town. And this couple was there already, English speakers, and friendly! If they were doing-up an albergue, we wouldn´t have to. We could just play back-up, help them out if they needed it, and enjoy our retirement the rest of the time. It was halfway down the Way, so I could easily get to any other pilgrim hostel that needed emergency help.

Strangely, though, when we arrived in Moratinos James and Marianne weren´t there. The villagers said they were off in Santiago de Compostela, having another baby.

I finally raised them on the telephone, and they told us to stay in the yurt as long as we liked, and do the tea service if we wanted. And so that´s what we did, for a week. Conditions were rather low-to-the-ground. We had no lights or running water or toilet or washing facility, and it was the hottest July in 40 years. The house was probably unsafe, alive with mice and spiders but dark and cool inside. Strangely and wonderfully, deep in its bowels hummed a 7-foot tall stainless steel refrigerator, a cutting-edge wonder we dubbed The Fridge From Space. (It was plugged into an extension cord that disappeared over the garden wall).

We stayed for a week, and had an enchanting time. There was a big wooden table on the street out front under a tiki umbrella, and in the morning we served exotic tea and supermarket muffins to all comers, in exchange for donations. The rest of the day we read books, or visited museums, or met a parade of curious neighbors. (There was not much we could do there in afternoons, as the heat fell like a hammer at about 12:30 and struck the world motionless for hours.)

We asked the neighbors if there was anyplace to rent in town, and they laughed. Four families owned everything, and no one ever let anything go unless if was about to fall down, they said. Like the Alamo.

They liked us, though. We joined them in the Plaza in the cool evenings, and they tried to show us how to play Mus, a Whist sort of card game. We toured the bodegas and went to Mass, and were invited to Sunday lunch with the Juli family. Everyone said we ought to come back in August for the Moratinos Fiesta. We thought that sounded like a nice idea, as we had the last two weeks of August free that year.

We left Moratinos when relief arrived: a young German couple James had met in Santiago and likewise told to “stay at the yurt as long as you like.” They were street musicians, a hurdy-gurdy and flute combo, driving a live-in delivery truck painted with Sacred Ohm symbols. We pressed them into a free community concert in the plaza, then left them to the yurt and a turn at Pilgrim service. We went off to a hospitalero-ing gig in Burgos.

Sure, it was tumbledown and hot, and there were no buildings of architectural charm or historic value in the town. There wasn´t even a shop or a bar there. Nevertheless, we put Moratinos on our list.

…. To be continued.

Friday, 28 March 2008


Today was extradordinary, in ordinary ways.

We took a very long hike this morning through the Promised Land, in search of El Monte de Terradillos, a nearby "monte" where local people were taken in the dead of night many years ago to be shot for their liberal beliefs. (Thank goodness we showed up now, or we´d have been out there too. One of my hopes in this world is, that if they ever again round up the bleeding-hearts and intellectuals and artists, there will be enough evidence to convict me.)

Through this long slog we talked about how we might prepare ourselves, one for the loss of the other. Paddy´s present and pending medical tests could have all kinds of outcomes. And one reason we broke with our Previous Lives was a warning from my doctor to me to "make a will, be ready to go any time, and if you want to do something special, do it now, ´cause you might not get to live a long time."

And so we talked. And so we walked, northward, over the first big ridge into a beautiful, green valley. It´s a Lonesome Valley, but thankfully this time we didn´t have to Walk It By Ourselves. (that is a reference to a wonderful old hymn..) But we needed to be back by noon, and we got a little disoriented, and ended up bushwacking cross-country, relying on my navigational wherewithal to get us to the Peaceable in time to meet with Jose Antonio, the boss builder.

We made it. (He was On Spanish Time, which is to say, Late.) And when we rolled in, this is what we saw in the patio:

The color has TRANSFORMED our house, our light, our outlook, not to mention the view from our kitchen. The greens are greener against the ochre. And somehow, the this is signalling "finish" to the project. It is almost scary!

(So I am glad I walked through the house yesterday and wrote down all the things that remain unfinished, and that we expect to be done before we make our final payment. Otherwise I might have seen all that ochre and just handed over all my money to Jose Antonio with a grateful heart, so exciting it was!)

Anyway, the bosses did arrive and tour the place, and I ran right down the list with him, and I even got a little hard-assed when it was called-for (YES, green DOES go with blue, thank you very much!)

...Evidently Jose Antonio phoned Paddy yesterday to tell him to have a large lump of cash ready today, to pay for the work already done. Pad didn´t understand, and faces fell all ´round when we told them no, we don´t have several tens of thousands here in our pockets... but hey! We can go to Sahagun and tell our bank to have the cash ready on Monday. And on Tuesday we´re going to Palencia for Pad´s medical tests, and I´ll have LOTS of time to kill, I can bring it then, right to the office.

So everyone went to lunch. We went to the bank. It had closed at 2. Too late. Damn.
But stepping out of the cafe opposite was... Javier, the bank manager, a man we´d bought a brandy for not two weeks past! And miracle of miracles, in the bank at that moment they were closing things out for the week. Javi unlocked the door, and led us through, and had The Girl count us out all the Euros we needed. In cash.

I love living in a small town! (or nearby). Extraordinary 1.

We went to El Peregrino, a bar/restaurant on the edge of Sahagun that probably has the best Menu del Dia in the town. (Three words: trout, and truck drivers.)
Long story short, I kept an eagle eye on that big envelope of cash, all wrapped up in my winter vest on the chair next to me. We took it home and Jose Antonio counted it out and toured the house with us, and had a glass of Rueda white with us, as a sort of celebration... Cash for him, house for us, viva capitalismo!

Jose Antonio left, we put on some jazz and finished the vino. And I realized I´d left my PURSE hanging on the back of my chair at El Peregrino! I phoned them. Yeah, they had it. And after a quick 9 k. zip into town I found it completely intact. A bricklayer who worked for us last year had recognized my drivers license picture, the barmaid said, and told her to let me realize it was missing before she turned it over to the Guardia Civil. I´m local, he´d said. Tranquilo.

It made me smile. I looked in my purse. The bank book is there, the wallet, the Hard-earned Extanjera card, the Pennsylvania drivers license, my address book! Todo! Hallelujah! Exraordinary 2! The barmaids refused my 20€ "propina," saying they´ve abandoned their purses a time or two themselves at bars or restaurants or discos. "This isn´t the big city," they said.

Thank God for that, and told them I´d come back. The food is fine, the staff honest. I shall recommend the place highly to all my pilgrim friends.

Back at the Peaceable, the men said sure, they´ll paint the interior whatever colors I want, just so they don´t have to bring in more paint. They can tint it however I want, right here... So. Extraordinario 3!

Even though Paddy is blasting the greatest hits of Peter Allen, his old favorite (whom I usually really pretty much loathe) I can deal, as this day has been so tip-top. And every time I look out the window in front of me I see that ochre and white-trimmed house, and the budding lilac tree... and hope springs anew. And Paddy smacks a rhythm on the thick and resonant skull of his dog Tim, who will withstand anything so long as it means Attention From God/Paddy.

Can´t wait til all this phase is finished, and the Pilgrims can join the vibe too.

God is good, people. Even if the Tarot predicts all kinds of mayhem soon. I´ll take whatever sweetness I can get here and now.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

the present present

Paddy came home this afternoon, with a "so far, so good" result from all his tests. He has two more big major exams scheduled for next Tuesday, however, involving televising his innards rather thoroughly, fasting, special diets, etc. They´ve not found anything bad yet, but they´re being very thorough in their searching. Which is good. Our tax dollars at work.

Paddy is his old self, just kinda tired from a bad night´s sleep. He would have had all the rooting-round done today, but the doctors at the hospital went on a four-day strike. Doctors here are employed by the state. They are paid only about 45,000 Euros per year, and they´d kinda like to have more than that, seeing as they are trained up to international standards and are expected to work all kinds of strange shifts.

The opposition points to the fact that there´s a surfeit of doctors in Spain, and the several medical schools keep cranking out more and more. If these docs don´t wanna work for what they are paid, someone else will. I come from America, where the medical system is a nightmare of unbridled greed, mismanagement, abuse, and more greed. It´s amazing for me to see doctors having to strike to be paid a good wage, and behaving like employees! (and even more amazing to know the hospital might suspend exploratory surgeries for a couple of days, but primary and emergency care will still be delivered 24/7, available to everyone.)

This morning, while I was still thinking Patrick would be in the hospital indefinitely, I took the dogs out in the howling wind and sleet for their morning hike. Even with the weather so miserable the pilgrims just keep bombing through, and farmers keep up their plowing, and the neighbors wave or beep their horns as they pass by on the highway. And as I walked the sky cleared. The great gray clouds all scudded away east, and left behind a cold blue sky.

Two birds started singing to one another in the underbrush, a complicated, sweet melody. The wind sighed. And I realized that for the past five minutes or so I had not felt worried. I hadn´t thought of me, or Patrick, or the house, or what-if. I had only watched the sky and the waving green grain, and the dogs leaping and dancing and yipping through it all.

I´d been in The Present. It´s the only place we ever really ARE, you know. There´s no past or future, and the only worries are the ones you bring in there with you. It´s very peaceful there. It´s a gift, the present. It´s always available, usually free, and so healing.

Thanks to everyone for all your words of concern and support, and those prayers, too. Don´t stop yet. We still have that pesky Future to contend with.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008


This isn´t the usual Life On The Farm blog entry, but you will forgive me, won´t you? I may not be able to blog again for a little while, and I need to let everyone know what´s going on.

Paddy is in the hospital in Palencia. We took him to the doc. this morning because since Friday he´s been bleeding from "down under," and he started to get concerned. He finally told me yesterday, in his usual dry way. He didn´t want me to worry. Right.

So after a few lame jokes about Good Friday and misplaced stigmata (we toured a Poor Clare monastery on Saturday in Carrion de los Condes, with lots of bloody-wound decor) we hied him off to the clinic this morning. They handed him a form and said get thee to the hospital Emergency Room ahora mismo, pal. And so we went.

And that is where he is now. They´re doing all kinds of tests, and in the morning they´re going in to see what they can see.

The first bunch of results came back fine, we are told. Not to worry.

So I am back at the Peaceable, where men are painting the inside of the house and treating the ceilings for woodworm, happy as larks. I am told to collect toothbrushes, slippers, a new novel, etc. And a dictionary. If this day has showed me anything, it is that sometimes my comprehension of spoken Spanish outstrips Paddy´s. So maybe he is afraid, too, just a little.

Everything here is on such a fine balance... a broken arm, a lost checkbook, so many things could so easily send this entire enterprise crashing to the ground.

In my heart, in the long run, I know things are going to be all right. But it´s the short run that kicks the crap out of people. So I am letting myself feel afraid for now, so I can get through it and get over it before I have to drive back down to Palencia and be brave.

If you know how, won´t you say us a prayer?

Friday, 21 March 2008

Godly grief, greenery, and Grajal

Today is so many things! It is Good Friday, and the first full day of Spring, and Johann Sebastian Bach´s birthday, and also the birthday of Nicolas, my little godson. Here in Moratinos it is sunny and chilly, and a thousand birds are singing outside. Inside the kitchen Paddy is filling the air with the scent of frying baccalao -- he´s making his rice & spinach & feta dish with fish these days, and it works a charm. A Paco de Lucia CD is filling our ears with wonderful guitar music... but the birdsong is loud enough to provide counterpoint. It all is lovely.

There´s lots to write about, so I must be judicious! Yesterday we took a hike down the Camino de Madrid, a relatively new camino path that travels from Madrid across the very flat and boring Castillian plain and joins the "main" path right here in Sahagun. We took the dogs with us to Sahagun, and walked the trail backward, north-to-south, to the next town down. It´s called Grajal de Campos. Only 313 people live there, but the place it going on: they have a Renaissance palace, a very weird six-sided church tower, a fully fledged medieval neighborhood, and a 16th century castle right out of Walt Disney. And because it is Holy Week, we found everything open and fully staffed when we arrived! Woohoo!

Grajal now is quite a backwater, but back in the day when Sahagun was Big Time, Grajal was right there competing for the trade, prestige, and tributes too. (´Grajal,´by the way, means ´Grail.´ One for all you Templar Conspiracy Theorists!) The mayor was at the palace when we walked by, and told us to c´mon in and look around, dogs and all. (We were there already last year, when the renovations were still in full swing, but we let ourselves be shown the gardens and the old winepress and bodega. Turns out the mayor is a cousin to the Segundino family, who live on the plaza in Moratinos, so we got the Big Welcome. When he was a boy, the palace was a fallen-down ruin, a paradise for young explorers. Just imagine that!)

The castle is adjacent, and we´d never been inside. There´s only one way in, via a tiny doorway tucked way around one side. No one is ever there when we check it out, but yesterday was our lucky day... another Segundino cousin was there. He handed me a flashlight and pointed to a tiny light in a black hole, and said "the stairs are over there. Don´t be afraid. Watch your step." Paddy stayed down there with the man to talk about Moratinos and relatives. Here is a pic of that stairway. And me with claustrophobia!
(It was WAY windy up there! The whole place is filled up with dirt, which has preserved it beautifully. No one knows what is buried down there. So cool to have an untouched mystery, just waiting til there´s enough funding, time, and interest.)

Anyway, it took forever to get back, and last night was Maundy Thursday, the real start to Holy Week. I was whupped! Lucky I got a nap in the afternoon. I went to a packed-house, smells ´n´bells Mass at San Lorenzo church, and then joined the crowd out in the plaza to watch the start of the first processions.

Nighttime is perfect for this sort of thing. The penitentes in their long purple robes and tall pointy hats, shouldering 300-year-old statuary tableaux of the last days of Jesus´ life, eerie music by drum and bugle bands, and the flickering votive candles carried by a legion of tiny old ladies... Very ancient, visceral ritual, a thin Christian veneer over a much older cult of death, I think. (Sahagun´s processions are tiny compared to the big cities, where they go all-out and draw crowds of thousands. See some great photos here: But I still really like ours. Small and simple, and only a little bit tipsy.

My favorite image of the night happened at the church doors, where I snagged a good vantage point. The confraternity of the purple hoods numbers about 100, including some very small children. Leandro the Plumber is a grand poobah, and he cut quite a dash, sending lesser souls scurrying hither and yon to help move this image or that, get the right flowers on the right palanquin, etc. Among the plainclothes assistants was a tall, rangy biker in gang colors, apparently attached to the Virgin of Sorrows float. He wore a glow-in-the-dark rosary ´round his neck, and shouldered the sagging rear left corner of the float as it went past me... apparently a taxing position. As he stepped into the plaza and the trumpets pealed a greeting to the mournful image, I saw the back of the man´s motorcycle-gang jacket. Blazoned in bright yellow it said: "DRUIDAS." Druids. I laughed out loud, very inappropriately! And of course my camera was at home.

This morning they marched all the figures around town again, and tonight they´ll do the same. Three bands and a chorus will perform in the evening in the plaza. Good Friday is the peak of the celebration... the resurrection/Easter thing seems to be a bit anticlimactic, but for the solemn troupes of drummers who march through the town, banging away. (their hoods and robes are black.) There are dozens of other little customs here to mark the occasion: midnight sessions of gambling on a coin-toss, celebrated in most of the bars; and a seasonal ´limonade´ that tastes like strong sangria, and endless rosary recitations.

Out in the fields the earth is waking up. The birds are back, and the hunters and the pilgrims, along with the daisies and mice and lizards, too.

Now we just need some rain.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008


It´s sunny, but a cold, hard wind is blowing from the east, blasting dozens of pilgrims down the Camino and through town. This is the biggest wave of pilgrims I´ve seen since about October. They have rosy red cheeks and the wind at their backs.

New birds are appearing every day, too, adding to the two cooing doves in the garden and the amazing unknown singing maestro we call the Placido Bird. Over in Sahagun a new pair of storks is adding a second monster nest to the top of the bell tower above the pilgrim hostel. It´s building season, so the storks swoop low over town, carrying great sticks in their yellow bills. Sometimes they drop them, so watch out!

I wish we had a stork nest here in Moratinos. Storks are supposed to be good luck, but the bell tower over our church might not support the great weight of a stork´s big wiggy nest, and no other structure is high-up enough for them to consider. They add more sticks every year, and after a while the nests can stand 6 feet high and weigh a ton.

This was the last full shopping and working day before the big holy week festival really kicks into gear, and the streets of Sahagun this morning were heaving with shoppers and pilgrims and delivery trucks. Driving and parking take on video-game dimensions on days like this, but it´s fun to be part of that holiday atmosphere. We stocked up, and bought enough pork loin to feed whatever pilgrims wash up on our shores on Easter Sunday! ("You and your friggin´ pilgrims!" Paddy mumbles..)

Only one of our workmen showed up today: Jesus the tile guy. He´s finishing up his great work here, (he´s doing actual plastering in the old salon and hallway), and will be gone soon after the holiday, off to work in the mountains. He and I can converse quite easily, even on rather complicated subjects. Some other people, however, are much harder for me to communicate with. I wonder what makes the difference.

I have a headache today, so everything is blunted and not so nice. I took the dogs out for a litter pickup along the Camino this afternoon, and ran into something that made me stop being so self-absorbed.

Three buildings down from us on Calle Ontanon is the big concrete-block barn where Justi and Oliva keep their musical menagerie of doves, chickens, rabbits, and sheep. They are the only family that still keeps a business-sized herd of animals in Moratinos.

Justi and Oliva have lived in the house next door to us for most of their lives, and every day of each of those years has been a back-and-forth between their doorstep and that barn, sometimes with a wheelbarrow, sometimes a dolley of feed, returning with a freshly skinned rabbit or plucked rooster. The endless round of plowing, milking, butchering, and harvesting left them weatherbeaten and bent. Their teeth are not in good shape. They are always friendly, but you don´t see them smile too often. And when we talk of things beyond the weather or the quality of this week´s bread, they talk about the dropping prices for lamb or wool or milk, and the corresponding rise in the price of diesel fuel, veterinary care, and hay. They grow much of their own animal feed, and their garden gives them greens and beans enough to share with the likes of us.

But Oliva last year developed an allergy to the dust and droppings in the barn. The asthma attack she had after Christmas just about did her in.

Oliva told Paddy that she and Justi were going to retire anyway next year, but with things going so badly, they thought they´d cut our losses and get out a little early, while they still had some health.

It´s not so easy to sign off on a farm. First they gave away or butchered all the rabbits and chickens, and sold the doves. In January they thought they had a buyer for the sheep (the herd numbers about 60, down from 200 several years ago) but the bottom dropped out of the on-the-hoof market and they had to take on the expense of feeding the critters all through the winter. But with Spring comes the lambs, and with Easter the demand snaps back. (The butcher shops are all hung with them, neatly cloven in half from nose to tail-tip.)

We didn´t see a lot of the sheep herd, but we heard them! Every day, when we passed their barn, they´d bleat and baa at us in several keys, high and low. It is wonderful music, a sweet sound. One day Oliva opened the gate to show me ten new lambs. These are impossibly cute creatures! I knelt in the straw and held out my hands and they gamboled over and snuffled at me with their little leather mouths. "Tan preciosa!" I told Oliva. She grinned her toothless grin. "Tan deliciosa!" she said.

At church on Sunday we heard a buyer had finally been found. He´d keep the productive ewes, and butcher the old ram and the young lambs. "Finally," everyone said.

I think today was the day. The dogs and I turned the corner just as a livestock truck was heading up the street. We stepped past the barn, and something there was not right. The door stood open. There were no sounds.

Only a slight movement. For a split second as I moved past I saw him there inside. It was Justi. He stood by the lambing pen, his barn emptied-out, his face in his hands.

Now Justi and Oliva are free to retire.
And for the first time in Time Out of Mind, all the sheep are gone from Moratinos.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Meanwhile, back at Moratinos

It is Palm Sunday, and I took a couple of fronds from the Salamanca garden home for the big event.

As you probably know, the week leading up to Easter is HUGE here in Spain, where church and state are firmly allied, if not deeply committed to one another. The city halls are hung with banners, crosses, and images of the suffering Christ. Restaurants and bars keep stranger-than-usual hours as the owners go to march with their confraternities in solemn street processions. They dressed in what look like Ku Klux Klan uniforms, but it´s really meant to be a way to atone for their sins.

Atonement and suffering are what the week´s supposed to be all about -- a sort of day-to-day reliving of Jesus´ final days on Earth. The Bible story is not a happy one: a great man is sold-out by one of his best friends, condemned to die by the very people he attempted to encourage and transform, tried by a kangaroo court, and tortured and humiliated horribly before being publicly executed, all right in front of his loved ones. It´s just the kind of suffering the Spanish love best: it´s gory and heartbreaking and somehow redemptive, and it happens to somebody else.

They make the most of it, and they have for hundreds of years. The fun started last week, with all the "besapies" kissing of statuary feet... at least in big cities like Salamanca and Sevilla and Valladolid, where Holy Week is a total sensation. (In Valencia they practically blow up the city with fireworks.)

Out here in Moratinos, Semana Santa is a bit more understated. Today, in commemoration of Jesus´ ride into Jerusalem accompanied by cheering crowds and waving palm branches, everyone brought to church the local version of palms: branches of laurel, rosemary, or pine. Anything aromatic will do. Before Mass started everyone (we have some extra faces in town for the week...we were 26 in Mass today!) gathered in a circle in the entryway of the church, under the bell tower, and Don Santiago read a little scripture, then sprinkled all of us (and our greenery) with holy water.

We then processed into the church, singing I suppose a Psalm of Palms, and sat in our usual pews. Modesto and Florin took turns reading a very long passage of scripture. Modesto, our town historian and poet, had trouble seeing the book. During the long parts Florin was reading, Modesto slowly pulled the big book away closer and closer to his side of the lectern. He flipped the page once before she made it to the bottom, and she had to grab it back...It was a wonderful way to keep our attention riveted.

More people than usual took Communion. Even a couple of men did. I had begun to believe in Moratinos, Communion is a sacrament reserved for women! After a little visit outside the church we all took home our twigs and branches. Lots of people use the spicy ones for the year´s cooking, to put a little extra sanctity into the stew. I put ours up with our St. Francis icon, for that Peaceable Kingdom vibe.

Don Santiago will be back a couple more times this week, to hear confessions and lead a Way of the Cross recitation at the church. Most of the parades of statues, trumpet music, candlelit nighttime parades, etc. are happening in Sahagun, where they have a lively confraternity scene and "pasos," life-size statuary tableux of Jesus´ suffering, that date back 400 years. The crowds pour into town for these events, and this year, with our little piso balcony looking out over the church of St. John, we have front-row seats for a lot of the hoopla.

Last year we somehow missed everything, and finally went into town for Easter Sunday. In the evangelical world I come from, Easter Sunday is a wild whoop of joy after a tragic murder...Jesus miraculously comes back to life, and our sins get forgiven in the bargain! But here, Easter is a bit of a let-down, an anticlimax after all the agony and tears and mourning. Most towns don´t have a paso for the Resurrection. I think it´s because most regular people see a whole lot more death and suffering in their own lives than miracles. Grue is something everyone can understand.

Enough of Christian calendars. Back to the Peaceable! We now have floors just about everywhere, and outside they are actually PAINTING the place. We chose ochre, a local color that harmonizes with the landscape but really glows in the white sunshine. We are trimming with white, to bring a bit more reflected light into the deep window-wells. It´s gonna be a knockout!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Hot times in the City

Wow, life is picking up speed here in Salamanca, even as I start to think about getting outta here and going back to Real Life at the Peaceable.

(Since March 1 I´ve been the host at the pilgrim albergue in Salamanca, a beautiful city along the Via de la Plata, Spain´s main south-to-north pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. It´s considered a secondary and tougher trail to the "main" Camino de Santiago, where The Peaceable and Moratinos are. There are much fewer pilgrims on the Via, and they are of a different ilk.)

After three nights with no pilgrims at all, suddenly they´ve all decided to descend...if you consider three or four or six at a time a ´"descent." First it was a German and two Dutch guys, (German spoken 24/7! Yikes!) and then a French guy and two Dutch guys, and then a French guy who spoke NO other languages (thankfully there still were Dutch guys around. Those guys speak EVERY language!) I´m always surprised when I go into Full Immersion mode in a Spanish pilgrim city, and then find myself parked in a shellfish bar with Bavarian German up to my eyes. Amazing how much I´ve held onto. Those three years of high school German happened a LONG time ago.

And to top it off, last night I went to slip out the front door and who was standing out there but Dan DeKay, a wonderful old American Pilgrim I met three years ago in Canada. He´s hiking the Via de la Plata, and arrived fresh from California with lots of news about mutual friends and places and events Over There. Dan is in charge to training hospitaleros from all over North America, so it´s a little intimidating having him in the house... But he is breath of home! How refreshing, to chatter in American English after two weeks of United Nations hand-waving and charades!

It´s been a most delicious break, even if I did have to be somewhat responsible for the place at times. I am refreshed. My spoken Spanish has taken a leap forward, and I am now able to READ with some very real fluency! You can´t believe how good this feels to me... as if a crack has formed in a big wall and sunlight is now pouring in! I am back to studying indirect object pronouns in verb phrases, and it is almost ENJOYABLE. (Whether I ever use such elaborate grammar is doubtful still, but I am beyond all embarrassment and shame by now. Poor old Spanish, the things I do to it every day!)

There are some large developments in Moratinos, but I´m waiting til I get there to do any reporting on them, just to give them time to get real. I´ll be rolling in just in time for Holy Week, and I hope to attend a lot of the big solemn events in Sahagun this time around. Watch this space, as I will upload some Salamanca photos to these posts when I get back!

Monday, 10 March 2008

Death on a Sunday

I will draw this from my diary of Sunday...

It rained in the night, but stopped when the sun came up. The cathedral-top was spiked weirdly with storks, standing on the battlements drying out their wings and clacking their bills at one another. I took a long walk west.

It felt like a long way, but nothing is very far away in this compact city. I stopped at the big cemetery on the edge of town, always a good window into the local culture... or lack thereof.

First, the Mass. There´s a Sunday Mass each week at the cemetery, in a funeral chapel. (Of all the fabulous churches in this fabulous town, I choose this one!) It was a setting and group familiar to me from my childhood years in the US working-class Deep-South Bible-belt, a gathering someone else might think had an American Novel feel. William Faulkner, maybe. Anyway

The chapel was an oblong of concrete blocks, with two yellow pebble-glass windows on the altar end that let in little light. It was a dreary little place, with stains on the ceiling from the leaky roof, homemade doilies under the chipped plaster saints. The pews were simple wooden benches, moveable, with bits sticking out on the bottom to trip people as they passed. It felt like lots of the little Methodist or Baptist churches I´ve been in, except for the Our Lady of Carmel up front, and the Virgin of Solitude on one side (wearing a fierce pout!)and a truly gruesome, larger-than-life Dead Jesus in the back. The paint was all worn off his toes from a million kisses.

A small corps of ladies lit the candles and started praying litanies a half-hour before the service was set to start, led by a cadaverous man and his tiny mother. I slipped outside for a while to wander among the great sea of tombs. I saw the chapel was starting to fill up, people filtered toward it from all directions, walking slowly, looking rather vacantly at the scudding clouds or the ground. The wind blew. The plastic bouquet wrappers rattled. Cats howled in the distance. I was slipping from a Faulkner novel into a Romero zombie movie there for a minute!

Back at the chapel the prayers went on, interrupted periodically by newcomers who slammed the door, tripped over the pews, and greeted those praying with the usual two-cheek kisses. They then staggered over the kneelers on their way back to kiss Dead Jesus. I was glad to be a stranger in the crowd. I didn´t feel like kissing anyone. Or any thing, for that matter.

The priest came sweeping in, a Dominican with a widow´s peak and a bad attitude. He waved a couple of men into the sacristy and proceeded to bollock them for something easily heard over the "Señor ten piedads." The chapel was dark, and I thought the candlelight was on purpose. But evidently there was no electricity, and these two were somehow culpable. Ah, the Old Time religion, dispensed by a Dominican... those jolly souls who brought the Inquisition to Spain!

All three came back out, the priest waved his hand like an orchestra conductor, and the litany stopped dead in mid-rogation.

The Gospel was -- I am not making this up -- Jesus´ resurrecting the dead Lazurus. OK, here we have the weeping virgins, the horror-show Jesus, howling winds, the priest with the Bela Lugosi hair, and now Martha saying one of my very favorite verses from the Bible. (She´s warning Jesus that Lazurus has been dead in that tomb for three days, and "Lord, surely he stinketh." ) Not to mention the thousands of former Salamantinos buried in neat rows for acres round about.

Then the clouds covered the sun, and the yellow windows went dark, and the room was plunged into half-light... ooh!

The cemetery is less than 200 years old, or at least this incarnation is. They keep digging up and recycling the family plots, replacing the old-fashioned tablets and memorials as new and better-known family members take their places. Way off in one corner I found the "civil" cemetery, the unconsecrated part where unbaptized babies, unidentified bodies, poor people, suicides, and Protestants are put. (The poor people make their own memorials out of sheet iron, paint, and concrete. I find them much more moving than the shiny marble monstrosities farther up the hill.)

Over here too, in a newly excavated patch of ground, is a ´fossa,´ a mass grave for the Salamaninos who ended up on the losing side of the Civil War and the wrong end of a gun. Spain is just now coming to terms with this national lunacy, and is finally acknowledging their landscape is littered with graves. These dead are finally being given memorial stones and names. There´s a brand-new memorial wall in the corner that lists their names and the dates of several years´ worth of executions. A few more victims were put in family tombs nearby, including two brothers rousted from their beds in the wee hours of an April morning, whose bodies now lie together in the Big Sleep.

On the other end of the cemetery is a 110-year-old mausoleum with the sculpture portrait of a mean old woman glaring down the sidewalk. It smells really bad over there, and the reason went running away in every direction when I stepped closer: Cats. Right under the old lady´s nose were two split-open bags of cat food. The epitaph round the corner explained it all. The long-departed woman left money enough to feed the local cats to perpetuity, and her stony form can still enjoy their company, if not their tomcat scent.

Fun walk. But The Lebanese Cafe on the way back doesn´t serve Lebanese food.

I had two pilgrims in last night: a biker from Girona and a hiker from Malaga. It´s nice to have life in the place... The last three nights I´ve been alone in this very lovely, clean, perfectly peaceful oasis.

Now that I´ve creeped you out, I will maybe tell you next about the Basque guy who comes over with pinchos from his bar. Some really weird, but very yummy food!

Monday, 3 March 2008

Salamanca dreamin

I´m now installed at the pilgrim hostel in Salamanca, a very fine and golden university city on Spain´s left side. It is nice to be in a city, nice to have a massive variety of CHOICE. That is what makes cities great.

(this pic. is the view up the street outside the hostel.)
I can choose from Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Asturian, Galician, Castilian, seafood, grilled meat, and Italian restaurants, or I can eat for almost nothing in the university cafeteria. There´s a church, convent, monastery, or cathedral around every corner. Most are 15th century confections of golden stone, and when the afternoon light hits these streets, you wonder why the men all went to South America looking for a city of gold when they had one right here already!

The hostel is the most lovely I have been part of. It opened just last year, but its location is tip-top, literally... it´s in an old monastery building tucked between the monster cathedral and a huge garden on the city wall. It looks over the sculptured plants and arbors down over the Rio Tormes and onto the plain beyond.
It even has a romantic Romeo & Juliet kind of legend attached! In the afternoons the garden fills up with Salamantinas and students and tourists. Kids from the music school sit outside the kitchen window and sing and play Flamenco guitars and box drums.

I am almost alone. Since Friday night I´ve had exactly four pilgrims, even though I have space for 20! They all have been very low-maintenance and friendly, and my German is getting a workout alongside my Spanish. A city cleaning crew comes in three mornings a week, so I am left without a whole lot of work to do. So I wander the city.

(this is Santi, a pilgrim dog, who stayed in "my" garden one evening.)
I hope my fellow hospitalero friends can volunteer here in the future. It´s the best! I am soaking up the solitude. I know now how much I´ve needed to get away from The Peaceable. It´s in Paddy´s capable hands. Even though he may have to choose the interior light fittings, which is terrifying! I´ve got to let it go. It is his house too.

So that´s where I am. It is nice to stay in someone else´s house for a while.