Thursday, 25 December 2008

High Plains Drifters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Solstice: In Which the Past is Brandished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Standing Back Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Fantastic Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Twilight Zone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel like we´ve survived something huge.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Domestic drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 December 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Really Good Parts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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