Thursday, 31 December 2009

How´d We Do?

Outside in the sky an astronomical phenomenon is going on: a partial eclipse of a Blue Moon on the last night of a decade. I think I won´t see this again in my lifetime. I wonder why I think something so exceptional ought to be more flashy?  I would take a photo, but it wouldn´t look like anything, even with those ragged romantic clouds scudding past. Some things aren´t meant to be photographed. Eclipses are like that --  they are memorable in a negative way. An eclipse "takes away" a piece of the moon. You can´t take a picture of something that is not.

2009 has been that kind of year. At first glance back it looks rough: asthma, tendonitis, root canals, e coli, robbery, busted cats, dismembered dogs, the differing sagas of Brian, Gareth, Leo, and the ongoing Alamo saga, two less-than-successful stints at hospitalero-ing, friends and friendships lost. Like much of humankind, I find hard times much easier to recall. This is universal. Even Shakespeare knew that: "The evil men do lives after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones," said Marc Anthony, in "Julius Caesar." (So much for my stab at literary erudition).

So goes the quick gloss of hard times. Hardest, I think, happened just after halfway, on July 2. That´s when a veterinarian in Leon told us my dog Una had terminal cancer, that she (the dog, not the vet!) would die within four months or so. Negative as hell. But here, half a year on, Una lies stretched out at my feet in front of the stove, minus one leg and very much alive. (which launches me into the future, seeing as I promised to walk the camino in 2010 if Una made a good recovery...)

Nearby snoozes Murphy Cat. He vanished for ten days in October, and somehow made it home with two legs shattered and another paw flattened. Matteo, the same veterinary surgeon/professor/miracle-worker at the University of Leon School of Veterinary Medicine who did the Big Chop on Una, pinned Murph back together.  Murph is still not himself, but he is back to shouting for his dinner.

Tim managed to keep all his limbs this year, but he got fat. In the course of his hospitalero career he has laid his chin on dozens of knees this year. His dear emtpy head was stroked by hundreds of hands. He was whispered-to and wooed in at least ten languages.  On the chicken front we lost our highly-regarded intellectual chicken Blodwyn, as well as her erstwhile-troublemaker companion Gladys. But we added six exotic new black Zaragonzana girls to the flock, which the Old Guard of Castilian brown hens continues to keep in line. And we now have Max, the fine, beautiful and cowardly rooster who brings such joy to Paddy´s black heart.

Enough crowing. On the human front we did very well too. We saw Thomas again, our hardworking handyman, who did lots of repairs and painting, and imparted lots of advice and wisdom and tall tales. Kim shimmered into our lives, and became something like the daughter we never had.
Brian, the Italian guy from Pittsburgh, also rolled in, and stayed a long time. Through him we came to a new roof on the hermitage, a completely ochre outside edifice, a splendid chimney on the bodega, and a the Steelers t-shirt I wear when traveling.

Leo, the Cuban, swept through on a wave of hope, which eventually dashed against the decaying adobes of The Alamo. He, like Brian, still has a backpack full of God-knows-what floating around here. He´ll be back. They will be back. And we´ll have a place for them.

We saw tons of pilgrims: Luciano, Yacine, Jack, Ragnhild, Orlando, Domingo, David, Marlene, Sabrina, Mick, Adrian, Karl, Sky, Derek, Brian, Kyewon, Tili, Jozefien, Chuck and Sher, Ginn, Pablo, Keith, Judith, Magdalena, Gordon, Margi, Lillian, Annette, Jan, Remi, Kerry, Iñaki, Colin and Margaret, Bridget, Shey, Miguel, Fred, Marion and Daniela, Finn, Jacopo and Maurizio, Heidi, Denis, Georg, Jussi, Gareth, Chris, Stephen, Johnnie, Alf Alex, Megan, Dori, Leena, Kim, Leona, Ron and Rita, Madarsno, Zavasnik, Anne and Adriaan, Nuala, Rivka and Benyamin, Benita, Jackie, Rui, Hideo, Austin, Jacinto, Thomas, Angelo, Marina, Sevgi, Christian, Adam, Vince, Will, Teresa, Marta, Denis, Atila, James, Shevaun, Cherina, Johanna, Rachel, Ariel, Jo, Marcio, Sean, and Martin. (those are the ones who signed the book legibly, anyway. There are some languages in there we cannot divine.)

I am sure there are at least two angels on this list, and at least one Bodhissatva.  And a couple of sociopaths. But I won´t to into that, but it has also been an exceptional year for sociopaths and neurotics.

We trained nine new hospitaleros to serve at other places along the caminos. We ate very well, discovered how to make delicacies like Ukrainian borscht, Dutch mustard rabbit, and real Pad Thai. Because I can´t find ingredients here, I learned to make enchiladas from scratch... Wow! We tasted wonderful wine, like Val de los Frailes from Cigales (not rosé!); Miramonte Toro, Ibor Tempranillo from las Tierras del Leon, and Vino Virtud, my Inspirational Sip for when I am writing.

I wrote an online hospitalero course that hasn´t gone anywhere yet. I edited two books, did the international press releases for a big litter cleanup for the South African Confraternity of St. James, shot photos of said litter for "Peregrina" magazine, edited a guide to the Camino Portuguese for the UK Confraternity, co-wrote a guide to the Camino San Salvador, and started work on a book of my own. I made very little money, but I kept myself sharp enough. I wrote blog entries about once a week, and readership increased by 34 percent.

I walked the Camino Salvador, the mountainous path between Leon and Oviedo, two times. It´s wonderful. I walked parts of it alone, and other parts with some really lovely friends. I made two very good new friends this year.

We had a house full of beautiful music in 2009, much if it provided by guitarists, much of it played on the beautiful, hand-built Paracho del Norte guitar brought here last year by Federico Sheppard. Adam Levin was here no less than three times, and recorded an album here in October with violinist Will Knuth. We expect to see even more such beauty in 2010, when Fred brings a gang of musicians down the Camino to celebrate the holy year of St. James!

We had a good vegetable garden, and a patio full of flowers. I made some very good investments when the stock market tanked in March. We dodged a couple of real-estate bullets: we did not win the auction for the Teacher House in San Nicolas (we had enough to do around here without developing another property), we did not buy out a relative´s derelict apartment in Torremolinos. Which is good, because now we need that money to repair a great expanse of roofs here at The Peaceable.

The future is upon us, folks!  If there´s an architect or garden designer planning to hike the Camino in 2010, stop by here and fulfill your destiny -- if we are going to roof the barn and old kitchen and bathroom, we need to know what we´re going to do with this space later on. Any ideas? (hint: we don´t want an albergue. More than five extra people here and we go all squirrelly.)

The future is so friable. This week we met the Brescian Italians who plan to open a 50-person pilgrim  albergue on Calle Ontanon in April. Two of them, Bruno and Daniel, want to rent rooms here at the Peaceable from Jan. 15 until there´s a place for them to stay at their new digs. So, after five years of attempts by French, Irish-English, German-Palencian, and Cuban dreamers, the Italians may actually put an albergue in this little town.

And so the face of Moratinos shall change... we hope for the better. Watch this space for further developments. We hope a few pilgrims will continue to filter past the glossy allure of the new albergue   to keep us company here in our hermitage.  In the Holy Year 2010, when I shall walk the Camino again, and we shall visit London, and the people of the world will learn to live together in Peace, Love, and Understanding.


Happy 2010, world. May God have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Boppin´round the Christmas Bush

Yes, after all that water business we had Christmas after all. The turkey turned out beautifully, no one drank too much or behaved badly or insulted anyone that I know of.  Everyone got something they wanted. The wonderful Care Package from America arrived just in time (and Una tore the end of it open looking for the rawhide bone she knew was in there!) So we are sweatered, socked, and chewied-up for the coming months, not to mention stuffed with chocolates, cookies, and baklava.

A high point of the day was a performance by Kelly, a marionette who plays a tiny violin to recordings of Bob Denver hits. He dances in the streets of market towns all over Spain, collecting coins for Malin and David, our friends from up on the mountain near Astorga. The three of them came down to Moratinos for Christmas. Malin and David are living in Pedredo, a village even smaller and more remote than here... and much colder! They have lots of love to keep them warm there, but they still like to get a hot shower now and then. And we´re always happy to oblige. We know what that´s like.

The day after Christmas I went with Malin and David to Burgos for a party thrown by the Castilla y Leon Couch Surfers. We had a blast! It was held at the Leftists United Club, right in the heart of the old city -- a den of Reds, with portraits of Lenin and Zapata and La Apassionara on the walls and a heavy pall of smoke over all. (Couch Surfing isn´t political, btw. We met there because the bartender is the organizer´s boyfriend. Still, one thing I love about Spain is a person can be a Commie right out in public, and not be put on a Watch List.) A good 40-odd Couch Surfers packed in from Palencia, Valladolid, Madrid, Burgos, and Leon, with guitars and good spirits, noise and tons of food. We sang songs and ate and drank and talked about religion and history and culture and issues -- real adult conversation, albeit in mostly rapid-fire Spanish. I translated ceaselessly, as David is less-than fluent. I understood, and I spoke, and I translated it back to English, with people even listening-in to practice their English comprehension! Woowee, good thing everyone had a few beers in them!

David and Malen went back to sleep in their van, rejoicing in having spent an evening with people who are under age 60 and not shepherds. I surfed the couch of a woman named Mari Mar, a social worker who was full of passion for her job and kindness for the world in general. We caught a cab back to her house at 3:30 a.m., after waiting in a taxi rank for 20 minutes -- the streets of Burgos were heaving with lively young people all through the night. When do these people ever sleep?

Meanwhile, back at The Peaceable, all was quiet. Murphy´s splints were removed just before Christmas, and he´s making his way back to the barn for longer and longer periods. Tim is as needy as ever. David gave us a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which we started to assemble in the living room. Tim is jealous of the attention poured over it. I suspect he has eaten at least two pieces.

The Christmas bush twinkles on. I like it there, and may just leave it up for a while. Christmas here in Spain marches on til Three Kings Day, so why not?

We have two pilgrims in the house tonight. They arrived on the doorstep at sunset, sent here by a neighbor who found them out on the trail. They meant to stay back at Ledigos or Terradillos, but everyone who owns a pilgrim albergue has decided to close up shop for the holiday -- even though they are listed in all the guidebooks as "open year-round." Bad, bad. It means the pilgrim who walks from Carrion de los Condes may find himself hiking the whole way to Sahagun before he finds an open albergue -- a good 40 kilometers!

This makes Paddy mad. Tomorrow he wants to hike back to Terradillos and put a sign on their door, directing the stranded souls to our house.

I´ve kinda missed having pilgrims around. I like these two. People who walk in winter are serious, hardcore pilgrims, not party-animal tourists. There aren´t so very many of them. And this is why we came here.

Still, I also am enjoying the silence and solitude.

But we probably will do it. People gotta sleep someplace. We have beds. Hell, we´re certified Couch Surfers, after all!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Singin´In the Rain

Much as I love visiting the little hidden spring across the highway, I gotta say that hauling water buckets is not my cup of tea. There´s a good reason I was born in Modern Times, and that is because living the rugged kind of life our ancestors lived would have killed me.

We´ve been hauling water because an extended cold snap made the pipes in our house (and our backup well) freeze up this weekend, cutting off our supply of running water. We called in all the local experts, fired up what portable heaters we have, swathed everything in tarpaulins, and sat down to wait for the ice to melt.

It´s been three long days.

On Sunday we holed up in the house and pouted. I lurked by the fire in the living room and plotted out the Christmas dinner. I decided not to shop for the vegetables, in case we had to call off the whole affair. (We expect five guests.) The temperature stayed low. I organized my recipe files and backed-up my hard drive and read tomes of Joyce and Delibes. I baked quiches and tatins, and watched the weather forecasts. I contemplated the frozen darkness of Midwinter, the early black solstice nightfall.

On Monday I canceled my Spanish conversation with Marta. The temperature rose, a fog fell. The little pipe in the spring lost its icy beard. We told one another all we needed to do was wait, that Spring was bound to come sometime, that all the shrinking snowbanks and rushing streams meant even household pipes must soon flow free. I went to Sahagún and bought leeks and carrots, wild rice and butternut squash. I took a shower at Elyn´s house. Children shied snowballs across the plaza. Hope glimmered in the afternoon, but by sundown it guttered. When I came through the gate with the groceries, ice had glazed the patio again. The taps still stood dry.

Just to check, I switched on the pump in the well. A rumble rose up, and a silver ribbon of water leapt into the trough! So one water source was restored!

And so our toiling over the highway ended. We flushed the toilets with abandon, knowing we wouldn´t need to shlep the next water bucket so far. Our spirits rose, even as a heavy rain fell. No ice jam could survive this thaw, we thought.

Late this morning I heard Paddy shout from the lower kitchen. "Reb! Something is happening!" I jumped up and ran for the door, struggling into my outdoor shoes. "Water? Is it water?" I yelled back.

"Something´s happening. It isn´t good," he called out, drawing on his awesome powers of description. "Come down here."

Rain coursed from the steel gray sky and made a little river of the patio. And from inside the summer kitchen flowed a similar stream, springing from the wall behind the sink faucet. Down the wall, over the counter, through the cupboards, over the floor, and out the door.

In good weather, the summer kitchen is Paddy´s makeshift art studio. The cupboards are full of old pots and pans, books and papers and knicknacks, left over from the early days when we lived in there. The floor is covered in easels, canvases, primed boards and paint cans, boxes, bits and bobs -- all of it atop a generous layer of filth and dog hair. I never go in there.

Paddy stood in the middle of it all, twisting the taps, making water arch out of the wall with even more force. "What´ll we do?" he shouted. "Do we gotta turn it off at the mains?"

The man is a genius! Yes! So he ran out the gate and around the outer wall, up the alley and pulled the grate up from the ground and reached in beneath the straw and spider webs and water meter and turned  the key and... Voila! Inside the kitchen I watched water-arch fold in on itself and finally flatten against the tiled wall. Paddy dragged his wet self back inside. We looked at one another. We cracked a smile. We had water! Too much water, out of control water, but water!  I decided this was a good thing, the major obstacle cleared. The rest was details. I picked up a broom. Let me think, I said.

Paddy suddenly remembered the pot he´d left on the stove. He vanished into the house.

Problem-solving at The Peaceable is all about remembering things. I cleared a space in the room, swept out some of the water, laid down some newspapers, and tried to recall just how the pipes come together in that kitchen.  And it came to me that last summer Tomas installed an isolating on/off key to the kitchen water supply, just in case something like this should happen. I stepped out into the rain and turned the obscure little spigot to the "off" position. Then I stomped around the outside wall, hunkered down, and eased the main supply back on. It worked! The whole house had water, but the summer kitchen stayed dry!

Next I remembered where the pipe wrench (aka "Stillson wrench" or "spanner" for my International readers) was, and remembered to turn the nuts "righty tighty, lefty loosey," and got it off the wall. I undid all the screws and cleared out all the accumulated crud, and realized the rubber washers that held it on were practically invisible.

I remembered we have a new bathroom fixture in the potting shed, left over from the house-building project. It wouldn´t fit on the kitchen pipes, but it came with two brand-new washers inside the package! And so I put them in the old faucet, and I stuck it back up on the wall, and righty-tighty-ed it hard as I could. I went outside and eased the water-key back on. A great gurgle came up the wall. And stopped.

The taps held! Yippee! I splashed across the floor and yelled up to Paddy to come and see!

So then I cleaned up the floor, (which included one of Una´s charming mouse-carcass collections), cleared out the soaked cupboards, and just generally put the place back together, with a bit less fur and filth for now. And a lot less free-flowing water.

So many things to consider, now that the water is back:
Normal is so good.
Water is so important.
Our ancestors were so rugged.
Know where your tools are.
Know where your house´s pipes are, and insulate them fer chrissakes.
Open a tap overnight if the temperature is going below freezing.
Do not read James Joyce in the dark days of winter. Bake something.
Nature is an ironic old thing. Just when you´re most missing water in the pipes, tons of the stuff is dripping through the barn roof.
Don´t give up on Christmas -- if the guests are real friends, they won´t mind flushing the toilet with a bucket of well water.

...And if you wait long enough, Spring will come. It may just spring right out of the wall at you. Keep a pipe wrench handy.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Frozen Goobers

The sun is out. The yellow sun is over the ochre house. It shines blindingly white on the 8 cm. of snowfall. I did not know until this morning how extraordinary it all is.

Everyone enjoys a nice white snow, especially when it´s followed by a clear blue sky. Still, though, we are reminded of how American/English we are. Today, it was our water pipes that reminded us. We do not live on Lake Erie anymore. Winters here are mild compared to what we have  survived. We´ve grown lazy.

We did not leave a tap dribbling overnight. We did not insulate the little stretch of pipe that runs from the alley and along the patio wall. It never gets really bad here, we thought... And so, this morning, we woke to find we have no water.

Lately we´ve had a few village-wide water outages, so this morning I phoned José, brother of Mayor Estebanito, to let The Authorities know there was a problem. (For some reason we only have José´s telephone number, so he gets to screen his brother´s calls from us. So far it works, as nobody has corrected this little problem yet -- possibly because José seems to understand our Spanish a bit better than Esteban does. And when our car is in a ditch at the city dump, we are just as glad to see José come grinding up in the John Deere as his powerful and enchufada brother.)

Anyway, José showed up at the door about a half-hour later. (How´s that for municipal service in the depths of a deep, dark Socialist country?) We´d assumed the entire village was waterless, seeing as the water fountain in the plaza was also frozen solid. But José said everyone else has lots of water. He looked at our water meter, and looked at the pipes, and said whomever installed that was not a professional plumber. (Matter of fact, his uncle installed it. But who´s keeping track?)

The next-door neighbor came over to advise. The pipe is frozen, she said. Get some wood. Build a fire along the ground where the pipe runs. You have firewood? You need some? We have lots, she said.
"We have a monton of firewood," Paddy said, "Thanks anyway."
"And we have hot water. You need water, come on over, with total confidence," the neighbor said.
"We may just do that," I told her. I rather like taking showers. I do it almost every day. She may be getting into more than she thinks.

We looked at the line of concrete and the pipes and the wall that stands between us and the alley, where the water meter is. I thought about woodsmoke and the patio walls -- whitewashed on the inside and newly painted yellow on the outside. I thought about the new tiles laid so carefully along there this summer by dear old Tomas. I looked at the exposed pipes, with their pitiful little sheaths of foam insulation. They are made of PVC plastic.
"No fuego," I said. "No fire."
"¡Hollín!" José said. "Those pipes are plastic. They´d melt."
Ummm. Yeah. Right. Vale.

We have an electric blow-dryer, though. And an electric heating-pad, which I do not know the Spanish word for. And we did manage to communicate to our kindly neighbors that we can deal with this crisis without resorting to flames and combustibles.

And so differing lengths of pipe are taking turns being wrapped in the heating pad, which registers 40 degrees Centigrade over 120-minute periods. Hopefully the therapy that works so well on seized-up musculature will work the same magic on pipes.

The sun is out now, melting the snow. But the sun don´t shine in the corner where our pipes are. The heating pad is doing its nut. José said he is maybe 40 years old, and he´s never seen it so cold here so many days in a row. That´s why the pipes froze. Too cold too long. It´s extraordinario, he said through his muffler and down jacket.

I did not tell him, standing there in my jeans and sweatshirt and sneakers, that I hadn´t noticed.  Yes, I just finished respiratory therapy, and yes, I am not wearing five layers of clothes. But I lived too coldly, too many years up there on the Great Lakes, and my inner thermostat is still set on "Arctic."  Here in Spain, in Celsius, it´s two below zero. But where I come from, that´s 28 degrees. And for someone who lived in the mid-Atlantic USA through the winter of 1977, that´s nothing. Nada.

José and the neighbor lady know better. And so do the pipes. The weather is supposed to warm up a bit, starting tomorrow, after another inch of snow falls overnight. Worse comes to worst, we can always go to the Hotel Posh in Sahagún. Or the bodega. It´s always 62 degrees in there, all year ´round, and all the wine you could want. Never mind the spiders.

Stupid foreigners. ("Goobers" in English). At least we´ve got plenty of wood for the fire, and plenty of good wine in the bodega, and a ton of eggs to eat. We might not get a shower for a day or so, but we won´t freeze. The neighbors will make sure of that. We have total confidence.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

¡Mas Nieve!

Overnight it snowed even MORE. Here are photos of our little town. We took the dogs out this morning at 10:30 a.m., and ours were the first footprints on the snow of Calle Ontanon! It´s only three inches or so, (nothing at all by our old Lake Erie standards), but Spain shuts down when this happens. (Spain loves shutting down, and will seize any opportunity to do so.)

Some of the neighboring villages lost power during the night, and most of the utility crews are working north of here, in the mountains where the snow is a lot worse. So we can add a bit of schadenfreude to our cozy enjoyment of the snow day.  I am making quiches and zucchini breads. Paddy is messing around with a new angle grinder, which I suspect will somehow be combined with bringing in the Christmas "tree." (which is really a little piney kind of bush that usually stands outside the front door, but takes a star turn this time of year. It is an outdoor plant. The thermal shock is not good for it. (and I suspect an angle grinder is not exactly therapeutic, but I´m not going to interfere with a man and his newest toy.) Someday our cheery old tradition is going to kill that poor tree. But what a way to go!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Great White Morning

Snow is falling on the meseta.  I feel like I am joining the rest of the northern hemisphere in its cozy indoor cocoon. I am leaving all the outdoor, crunchy-underfoot fun to Paddy and the pilgrims, and keeping to the house today.

Yesterday was my outside day. I traveled down to Palencia, our provincial capital, for a big pre-Christmas shopping trip. I bought heavy cream and Brussels sprouts and leeks, yerba maté and Oloroso sherry, a mobile phone for Paddy and little goodies for all the neighbors. The crowded streets were lit up with the complicated, lacy decorations the Spaniards do so well, and the arcaded Calle Mayor was charming as a holiday card. (There were even carolers, and a guy roasting chestnuts!) I wish I´d brought the camera, so I could show you.

Then I met with Marta, who wants to do a Spanish-English "intercambio" with me. Her English is about as good (or bad) as my Castellano, and she is about my age, and we just like each other. It should be fun.  She wants to work on her written English. I need to work on my spoken Spanish. It is already productive, as my adjectives and pronouns are beginning to match up a bit better, gender-wise. I think.  El, ella, sí, se, lo, la, las, los, este, esta, ese, algunas, toda, esos todos -- All those. Them.

And then there are the real challenges. What does  "dawn´s tumbling brightness" mean? What does Kenny Rogers mean when he sings, "You gotta know when to hold em, know when to fold em"? All answers in clear, concise Spanish, please.

The sun was set by the time I was done at her house. (In Spain the sun does not "set." It "puts itself.")  I tried to hurry back through the pretty streets to my car, but the temperature had dropped. Breathing in was like a knife to the chest. Ducking into a warm, crowded tavern wasn´t a great idea either, as the sudden temperature change and the cigarette smog sent my lungs into spasm. And so I had to just walk very, very slowly, and concentrate on not panicking. What a bore.

When I made it home I was whacked. I think I pushed too hard, too early.
When I woke up this morning the snow was falling, thick and heavy. (these are photos of the views from my bedroom windows: front and back. Gotta do something about that garage door!)  I felt good, and the house was a cluttered mess crying out for a cleanup.

And so that´s what I am doing today. Indoor things. Girly stuff, mostly:  thawing fillo dough to make baklava, putting away piles of folded, clean clothes that clutter our bedroom so, stacking the towels in the bathroom a bit more neatly, discovering treats I bought in Belgium languishing in the bottom of a bag. There´s so much good stuff here I can´t even remember what I have!

I am trying to plan a Christmas dinner, but so far we have only two confirmed guests. So... If you agreed to come here for the feast, please let me know ASAP so I will have enough food for you. Or invite yourself.

Otherwise, I shall be forced to eat all this baklava myself. Or feed it to the chickens. Or pilgrims.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Seeing Stars

Some nasty things happened since that last, peaceful post.

Boiled down, it´s like this: I went to the doctor Friday because the asthma was bad. I was seeing stars at night, but inside my bedroom, which is not a good thing -- it´s a sure sign your brain´s not getting enough oxygen. Friday is when Doc Tomas comes to Moratinos. I thought he´d just write me a prescription for stronger medicine. But no. He put me on respiratory therapy, complete with steroidal inhalation mixed in with pure oxygen.

Oxygen is lovely. It gives me a sweet little buzz, and the medicine opens up my verklempt old lungs for a while, and I get the feeling that all is well. Until, of course, it wears off. Then I must come crashing back down to my usual, day-to-day level of unmitigated bliss.

Anyway, the initial orders to report ASAP to the local medical center got me on the phone to Paddy, who may have been needed here, had I been admitted for treatment. He knitted his brows with husbandly concern, packed up his troubles, and fled Salamanca on the next train north.

So all is well now, back at the Peaceable. Each evening at 7 p.m. I drive about seven kilometers down to Villada to snort medicated fumes in their quiet little emergency room. The drive home is always a treat. It is a straight shot up a remote country two-lane, and everything outside the windscreen is pure blackness. Except the sky.

The last three evenings I´ve pulled over into a field. I shut off the headlights and stepped out into the cold evening.

I can breathe almost deeply now, and the chill makes me wheeze a bit. I hear nothing else but the wind shifting the stubble below, and a dog barking a long way away. Fields and trees take up only the lowest fraction of the view. Nine-tenths is sky, that vast vault that stretches from one glowing velvet horizon to the other, with a million million little stars, moons, and planets arrayed across it all. Such beauty! I feel so lucky to have such a sky over my earth, to have such a view so available.

I didn´t have to move to Spain to see this. It´s been up there all my life. My parents were star-gazers, and I can well recall lying on a blanket in the backyard with one or the other of them pointing out Cassiopia or Orion, or singing:  "The stars at night/ are big and bright/ Deep In the Heart of Texas."

When I had children I made sure they saw Northern Lights and comets and meteor showers, too, whenever the sky was putting on a show. But these days?  I rarely take the time to enjoy this great field of diamonds, thrown up overhead... it´s a free show, every clear night of the year.

The point of all this?  Even though asthma can easily kill you, it´s not always bad to see pneumonological stars dancing ´round the bedroom ceiling. Not so long as they lead you to trade them in for the astronomical kind. With extra oxygen.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Nothing to See Here, Folks

Well, friends, not a lot has changed since we last met. I am still locked inside the Peaceable with a troupe of semi-domesticated critters. At least one of us is writing, and having a grand old time doing it. Patrick is still in Salamanca, despite his appeals to me to come there and let him go home.

Paddy has some sort of sciatica-type painful nerve thing going on in one leg. He is usually a game sort of fellow, and when he volunteered to go to Salamanca in November he was feeling fine. But pain makes Paddy into a different person. A not-nice person. I will not elaborate here, but it ain´t pretty.

Paddy wants to come home. I would go and take his place, so he can come back here and suffer just like he is there, but with Tim´s snout laid across his knee. But the Stars mitigate against that.

The star this week is John Murphy O´Pusquat, the broken kitty who now is on the mend. I took Murphy back to the University of Leon Veterinary Hospital on Monday. They shot new X-rays of his legs and let me ooh and aah at the inner workings of all these awkward wires and wands they left sticking out of him over the past month. Then they emailed the images off to another vet school in Italy.

It seems Murphy´s surgeon is presenting a symposium there on how to fix just this kind of busted cat, and Murphy´s inner workings are being screened internationally. We´re supposed to hear soon just what this wanderous cat doctor thinks of Murph´s healing process, and when/if he can remove the splints and thus return to Murph his grace and dignity.  If I don´t hear anything by tomorrow, I will start making phone calls.

And this is why I cannot go to Salamanca, and send my Patrick home. Only I can drive the car that takes the cat to the vet. We can, evidently, only deal with one bad leg at a time. Got that?

And so I stay here in Moratinos and ponder how to use-up three dozen eggs. I got a H1N1 shot (and the aches and listlessness that followed). I think a lot. I wonder if this writing business is just self-gratification, if this story is worth all this work, if this book thing is just another monumental waste of time. But mostly I write. Which is what I love best once I get started.

Other than that, I am proud of myself in little ways. I managed to move our internet cable from the freezing-cold lower kitchen up to the main house. Now I can sit in the living room and write blogs and listen to the chickens pecking at the window. I can kick a dog carcass out of the way and warm my feet near the fire and enjoy a glass of lovely Vino Virtud.

Sometimes, if I set up the wires just right, and the stars are properly aligned, the internet even works.  

I wish there was something more profound or moving to share, but this is all there is, folks. Nothing to see here. Not yet.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

That Homeless Summer

The easy stuff is done. I swept the floors, stoked the fire, fed myself and the animals, got a haircut, answered the emails, and sent Patrick off to Salamanca for a couple of weeks. It looks like the Alamo/Casa Tortuga sale went belly-up, so I don´t need to wonder when a gang of people – some of them welcome, some not – might pop in here. I locked the front gate. The December fog arrived.

Now comes the part I´ve been waiting for for weeks.

I settle down on the far corner of the sofa with a lap desk on my knees. I open a new notebook with a hard red cover and gridded paper. On the first page is a written outline. To my right leans a stack of mismatched raggedy spiral-bound diaries.

Each day since 15 June 2006, when we came to Spain to stay, Paddy and I have, with few exceptions, written at least a note about what happened and how we felt about it. I am now mining them for material, noting down where I will find this bit of color or dialog or description when I need to work it into a larger text.

These are details of days past, but they are not dull. We were not bored when we wrote them. We were on the adventure of our lives, and we lived it as brilliantly as money, time, and health allowed. We wrote pretty well, too. And we kept things.

Here is a boarding pass for that first flight – Pittsburgh to New York to London. Here´s a printout of an email I sent my sister, describing what life was like in a Mongolian yurt during a field-mouse plague.  
And a ticket to a bullfight, a “treat” provided by Don Blas, the charismatic priest at Fuenterroble de Salvatierra. We volunteered at their pilgrim albergue for three weeks that summer, and we thought hard about settling there. Fuenterroble is a tough, beautiful, brutal place, a pork-packing town on a pilgrim trail less traveled – like Dodge City, but with Roman roads. It was España Profunda… a bit too deep for me.

“Fuenterroble” is listed on The Checklist, a hand-drawn grid with 13 town names down one side, and our 13 requirements for liveability along the top. The squares in the middle are X´ed in three colors. It looks like a needlepoint pattern, but it kept us focused. All through The Homeless Summer it kept us on track. Miraz, a tiny village in Galicia on the Camino del Norte, earned only four check-marks , for its Community Feel, Dog Friendliness, Camino location, and Purpose. (We didn´t want to just live somewhere nice. We needed a reason to be there, a purpose. We wanted to contribute.) Fuenterroble didn´t suit much better than Miraz: its weather was nicer, it had a health center, children live there. But it still could not offer rental options, Spanish tutoring, internet or public transportation.

We spent that summer volunteering at pilgrim hostels all over the caminos, in places we knew we liked already. The places that met the most criteria were Hervás, a mountain resort town near Salamanca; Orense, a city in Galicia; and Vigo, a seaside town near Santiago. And Sahagún.

Grubby old Sahagún met 10 out of 13 requirements. And it was right next door to… Moratinos!  Moratinos only scored a seven. But we´d already fallen in love with the place when we added up the check-marks, so we split the difference.

All these check marks are boring to read about, so I will stop. I am just marveling over how systematic we were about all this. Two of the most intuitive, seat-of-the-pants people you´ll ever see actually produced this document. Amazing.

Looking backward is deadly if you do it for too long, (and judging from the last entry here I am indulging overmuch!) but 2006 was such a fun period, that first summer when everything was possible, when I still had a job in Pittsburgh to return to if things did not pan out. As the months went on we stayed very busy. We criss-crossed the country in a leased Peugeot, saw all kinds of scenery, museums, artwork and architecture, bashed away in our bad Spanish, and kept believing something would work its way out. And so it did.

In August, the last month of my leave, our little house in Pittsburgh sold for its asking price. (It had been on the market for a year. Two months after the sale, the U.S. housing market collapsed.)

That same August we found the little farm that became The Peaceable, for the same price we got for the Pittsburgh house. On September 2 we shook hands with the owners and agreed to buy this fallen-down mud-brick paradise in rural Castile.

I wrote a resignation letter and sent it to my publisher. I still have all four drafts. 
My mom and sisters wired us a massive congratulations bouquet. I still have the card, a water-stained relic spelled-out over the phone to a long-suffering Spanish florist. It says:

“Dearest Re Bekan an Paddy Gratulations On
You Nen Home May Yt He aunyeT Waen
you want it to be and TuLL oT Freyends wne you
 Yt Tobe Lowe Mom and Gene Bet Hand Famil Ymart  An Family.”

I will get around to heavy writing very soon, I promise. It ought to be fun, except perhaps reliving the horrors and frustrations of the year that followed…many of which were detailed right here as “Big Fun In a Tiny Pueblo.” 

But for now, I´m rolling in nostalgia, living in the past, savoring that Homeless Summer of 2006 – before reality set in, and the heavy work started, and the dream really did take shape. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Faces From Before

Nobody remembers who shot the photographs. Nobody even remembers the names of some of the people who were there that day. 

One shows a four dozen country people standing outside a church. The other shows a similar, smaller assortment, tumbling out the door of a crumbling schoolhouse. There´s a sameness to their features, like most of them were related to one another. It was a happy time. Most of them smiled. They were well-fed and comfortable here. They were home.

The photographs were taken in August 1979, thirty years ago, when the people of Moratinos took a break from the annual fiesta to pose for two big group photographs.

I know some of these faces. Pilar is there on the left, the same pretty woman from two doors down. The little girl in her arms is grown up now, moved away south, a mother herself now. There is Loli, young and pretty in her Farrah Fawcett hairdo. We only ever saw Loli on holidays, when she and her husband and son zoomed into town for weekends. She wore fabulous cocktail dresses to the Fiesta Mass, and she and her husband knew all the complicated steps to the tangos and foxtrots at the dance afterward, when everyone else just settled for polkas or paso dobles. They were a breed apart. It´s her family home that was sold last week to an Italian Confraternity of St. James.

Estebanito is there in both photos, flashing a crooked little-boy grin, wearing espadrilles and shorts and a button-down shirt. His knees are dirty. He is our mayor now. In the photo his little brother José wears an identical outfit. He snuggles up against Eduardo, the bachelor farmer who knows everything about the weather, and grows the town´s finest figs and apricots. Adults were affectionate with children in Moratinos in 1979. The photos show fathers, uncles, and neighbors holding babies and toddlers and kids up to the camera. The village raised all its children. When a child stood near, it was a natural thing to rest your hand on her shoulder, to touch his hair with your fingertips. There was no fear. The camera knew that, and caught that.

I do not know many of these people. Their names are a catalog of the strange and ancient: Pompeyo, Clasica, Agripina, Parmenio. But these streets were their streets, my house may have been theirs once, or their cousin´s, or brother´s. Their fingerprints may be on the adobe that makes my barn. I may still be sweeping their dust from my floors.

Indeed, in the shadow of the schoolhouse door is the face of the man who last lived in the house that is The Peaceable. His family members died and moved away, and he lived here alone with only fields and orchards to occupy him. The loneliness was too much for him. He walked one morning out the front gate, down the drive, and a few steps across the field. An irrigation well glistens there, in the middle of a fertile strip of green garden. Deep, silent and dark. 

Plenty more of those in the photo now lie quiet in the cemetery up the camino. All these jolly old men in their black berets: Elias, Claudio, Eutimio --  and the women in dour black dresses: Auria, Enriqueta, Victoriana. The old men smiled for the photo. The ladies faces are masks. It is impossible to tell if it is kindness or cruelty, laughter or faith or illness that engraved the lines there.

In 2009, thirty years on, the streets and plaza are paved. The schoolhouse is pointed and rendered and remodeled into a fine Ayuntamiento building; the teachers´ house, standing proud in the photo background, is fallen to ruin. The children are grown and gone to the city. Waists and faces have widened, hair gone white, beards and Afros cut away. 

They don´t take these big group photos much anymore. I wish they would.

Last week I took the two small originals to the last remaining photographer in Sahagun, a man who now scrapes his living by snapping ID photos and making copies and enlargements of old photos like these. He loves these, he told me. He has dozens of them, from all the pueblos just like this one: Joarilla and Villapeceñil, Bustillo and Rioseco and Lagartos. Hundreds of faces, hundreds of names, vanishing slowly away.

Today I finished the project. Now copies of the old pictures, blown-up to a size where all the faces can be seen, (more or less) are keyed to the peoples´ names, framed, and will hang on the wall of the Ayuntamiento meeting room.

A room you can almost see in the schoolhouse picture. It´s there behind Angel´s angelic smile, the same one he wears today. The same one his brother Manolo is wearing, back then and now, too. And Segundino, too – they have their father´s smile. His name was Ciriaco. In the photo he sits sprawled front-and-center on the ground, smiling so wide his eyes are hidden in the folds.

He looks like the king of the world. 

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Curled Up in Front of the Fire

Patrick´s not going to London now, as broken cats cost so much to fix. Nowadays, everything´s measured against the cost of cat surgery. (“A dinner for 140 Euros per person? Christ! We could put a new leg on the cat for that!”)

Instead of the expense of London in December, Paddy´s taking a less costly and more benevolent path. He´s volunteered to run the little pilgrim hostel in Salamanca through the first two weeks of the month. All he´s got to do is get there and back, and feed himself while he´s there, which costs almost nothing. In  December just about nobody walks any camino, especially the Via de la Plata. Paddy need not fear pilgrim throngs.

Salamanca is the best hospitalero gig ever. There´s a cleaning lady there, so there´s no dirt to worry about. The cathedral and plaza mayor and university bookstores and libraries and shops and marketplace and Greek and Galician restaurants are all an easy walk away. There´s a splendid clifftop garden right outside the door. The view down the Rio Tormes from the hospitalero´s bedroom window is worthy of any five-star parador. 

Yeah, you sleep in a bunk, but you have your own room. And yeah, it´s chilly there. But it´s chilly here, too. (Our bedroom was 58 F/14 C this morning!). In December in Salamanca a hospitalero is practically free to do his own thing in one of the greatest little cities in the world. And to us, “free” means no Christmas shopping or package-wrapping.

Murphy´s surgery wiped out our Christmas budget. Friends and family won´t feel too much of a pinch, we hope – we´ve been doing Christmas very minimally for a while now (And friends and family know us well enough to realize we are selfish SOBs anyway.) This way we each can enjoy a couple of weeks of solitude and quiet, away from everyone but beloved critters. That´s a gift that keeps on giving. 

Victor, the Salamanca albergue boss, says it´s fine if Paddy takes Tim along – seeing as Paddy won´t go without him. Tim knows how to behave, and he´ll keep Paddy in line. So everyone is happy.

Paddy´s the star of the show these days.

He´s got Chopin Etudes on the CD player, with live accompaniment by Bob Canary. The kitchen is fragrant with the chili tofu salad he made for lunch. The fire he laid in the grate is warming the room. Tim is asleep at Paddy´s feet. Una is curled up in her bed, next to the cat – she keeps a close eye on Murph these days. Murphy is as close as he can get to the fire, his body stretched out full-length, his costly cartoon paws akimbo. (he has post-surgery edema, which the vet says is normal, but which give him a Mickey Mouse aspect. And all cats should have something “akimbo” at all times.) Murphy´s bright blue eyes are wide open, watching the chickens outside the window.

The chickens peck at the glass in the window. They do that for hours. They have a bird´s-eye view of the living room, and we believe they enjoy watching us. We are their version of television, an excruciatingly dull reality show. I think they are pecking the glass in a vain attempt to change the channel. Animal Planet, maybe. Or reruns of “Green Acres.” Or “Cow and Chicken.”

Una gnaws a dog-chewy she stole from Tim. She is full of beans, back to being the old pain-in-the-neck dog we know and love. She is very well, so I am starting to plan my pilgrimage of thanksgiving for next spring. I have promises to keep.

Next year is a Holy Year on the Camino, when good Catholic hikers get extra divine credit for doing the walk. The high season promises to be a monster mosh-pit crowd scene, so when I go I plan to carry an ultralight one-person tent, at least for the first half of the trip. (For those who care: I want to follow the Camino Frances from the French frontier to Leon, take a break in Moratinos, and then take the Camino del Salvador to Oviedo and the Camino Primitivo on to Santiago.) I also have volunteered to be a “sapo” hospitalera for the Federation in 2010, filling-in all along the caminos when staffing emergencies strike. It should be interesting!

But all that is far in the future. For now we are recovering, economizing, and winter-izing. 

All us loved-ones are gathered ´round the family hearth, well-fed, churched, a little grubby from the morning´s run through the fields. The vermouth is as sweet as Maurizio Pollini´s piano-playing. The latest editing job is finished and sent. (Hikers check the Confraternity of St. James UK site soon for a free .pdf download of the newest Camino del Salvador guide, a three-person opus.) 

Clouds move in. The hens crowd into the windowsill and peck, peck, peck at the glass.

Bloody chickens got no rhythm. 

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Hot November

The weather is chilly and wet. It´s the time of year that the bread won´t rise and the check don´t come in the mail, and nothing else happens either. Except for here. Moratinos is hot!

The big house on Calle Ontanon, ("Ideal for Albergue!"), finally sold this week, two years after the “For Sale” sign went up. Word is it´s been bought by an Italian confraternity,  who already have their licenses and permissions in order and should have a pilgrim hostel up and running by April 2010! I´ve been over the house myself, and it really is very suited to the job, with room for a stable, even. (Had it been on the market in 2006, we may have bought it ourselves. But we were lucky.)

We haven´t met the new owners. We wonder if they´re related to Maurizio and Jacopo, a lovely Italian father-son pair from Milano who stayed with us in August, scouting out locations for their confraternity´s next albergue. Their group, the Perugia Confraternity of St. James, runs a unique pilgrim refuge in Puente de Itero, right on the county line with Burgos – it´s in an abandoned church, out in a field, and only has room for eight pilgrims. There´s no electricity, but they manage to feed and wash and accommodate pilgrims by candle light, from May to October, in a quiet Christian way. I hope they´re the same group. We will know soon, I imagine.

The Moratinos Albergue Star must be ascendant, because Leonel the Cuban and Ana, his girlfriend from Barcelona, are coming back to town tomorrow to make some decisions about the Alamo/Casa Tortuga. It´s looking a bit discouraging, but things are known to change quickly around here. We like Leonel. He´ll be a great hospitalero. We hope he gets his dream, even if it might be in some other town.

So, after false starts by at least three different sets of Camino dreamers, Moratinos will finally have a regular place for pilgrims to stay. I think it is the final Camino town without a pilgrim facility. There are no more I know of, and I kinda know this trail.   

I hope some pilgrims still will find their way over to our place now and then.

I am working on the book, writing every day, at least two hours, in a disciplined way. I need to get my chops back if I´m going to convert these thousands of pages of daily doo-dah into a cohesive narrative. It is an overwhelming job, but I confess I am enjoying myself. I am dreaming it, even. Nothing in this world, nothing at all, is as enjoyable to me as writing something I can really get my teeth into, about something I am passionate about. (And at the breaks I am reading P.G. Wodehouse´s “Jeeves” stories. What a hoot!)

What I need is an editor. And a good office chair. And a working wifi connection.

John Murphy Cat is still in the animal hospital in Leon, but we should be able to bring him home tomorrow. Two surgeries, three broken legs, and God knows how many Euros… He had better be the world´s best cat after this. I hope very much the surgeon did not forget to throw in that free cast´ration he promised. If I must own the only Bionic Cat in town, I don´t want him limping round the streets looking for love. Just look where that got him. 

Una Dog loves Murphy. She will be happy to have him back. I hope we can keep her from dragging him around by his head for a while, at least til his legs are healed and he can pretend-fight back. 

The mushroom field is finally producing. This week MariAngeles and Leandra showed up at the door with a basket full of at least three kilos of fresh, anise-scented champiñones, including a few rare “blue-foot” models. Beautiful. We´ve since feasted on mushroom soup, omelettes, and shish-kebabs, even… and now we have some big ones in the freezer, too.  (here are photos of two lovely pairs: Dick and Filipe in Gent, seeing if their goose is cooked, and MariAngeles and Leandra and All That Fungi.)

Community-wise, Moratinos  (about 10 of us these days) is working on the décor in the newly refurbished town-hall meeting room. Old photographs are being disinterred, framed, and hung up on the walls for general ooh-and-aah purposes. Paddy and I undertook to make a graphic “key” to identify some of the 40+ people in a couple of pictures from 1979, an enterprise that´s sent us deep into Sahagún and our bodega, seen us constructing a homemade light-box and creating lots of strange drawings and confusing charts of numbers. This afternoon I met with a goodly group of neighbors to match up the faces with the names.

Ladies brought goodies and tea. Milagros brought cream-filled “buñelos de viento,” which translates to “puffs of wind” in English and “blintzes” in Yiddish. Julia sent over a fine fresh pumpkin this morning, so this afternoon I turned it into a classic American Pumpkin Roll, and brought a nice chunk with me to the get-together.

The neighbors are suspicious of our cuisine. Some of them won´t even try a bite of any of my foreign muck. (I do not feel offended by that – I have, myself, drawn the line at local offerings like Pig Face and Fried Blood and Toasted Lark). So I almost expected to take most of it home again with me. … but the Cream-Cheese Icing snagged ém. They scooped it up with their fingers, saying they´d never tasted anything quite like it.

Lucky them! Imagine tasting cream-cheese icing again for the first time. It´s gotta be right up there with your first taste of home-made Buñuelo de Viento.
Or pig face.
Or saffron moonshine. 
Or blue-foot mushroom.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

We Thought He Was a Goner but...

I leave home for five days, and look what happens:

Two days in, as I think I reported previously, Gladys Chicken died. She had been feeling poorly and in low spirits, so I was not surprised to hear the news.

Two mornings later, though, Patrick went out to feed the Girls and found Blodwyn in the same spot, back behind the roosting box. Or he found Blodwyn´s  small brown body.

So no more will we find her striding softly down the hall, intoning her soft chicken chant and jerking her floppy-combed dinosaur head in search of the dogfood dish. Blod was one of our original six hens, the most intelligent and companionable of them all. She laid her share of eggs, took her turn at ruling the chicken roost, and introduced us to the joy and rewards of hen ownership.  It seems very silly to say it, but I loved that chicken. I will miss her.

And just when it seemed safe to go back to the chicken coop, Paddy found Murphy Cat back there on Saturday afternoon. How he got over the wall is a mystery, and he was howling and hungry and skinny as a rail – ten days of doing god-knows-what had left him a ragged mess. Paddy gave him catfood and milk and kidneys to eat, and a good looking-over. He´s hurt, Paddy  told me on the phone. Something wrong with his hind legs. Prepare yourself for the worst, he said – he may need to be euthanized.

I came home on Monday, a gloomy cloudy day. The dogs were ecstatic, of course. And Murph was slung across his bed on the salon floor with food and water and a makeshift litterbox close by, taking his ease. He let himself be felt-up and examined closely.

He was hit by a car, I think.  
His left rear leg is broken right in the middle of his shin – I could feel the loose bone inside. There´s a healed-up cut in his skin there, too. The entire leg dangles, limp, from its joint. His right front paw is twice as wide as the left. The skin is torn a bit, and his “thumbnail” is permanently exposed. The paw was, apparently, smashed flat.

But he walks, shimmying, from the living room to the salon. He uses his litter box, he shouts for food and water, he cuddles Una and smacks Tim. On Sunday he made it out into the patio for a sunbath. Watching him walk is horrifying – his lithe and perfect feline body now moves like an un-strung marionette, with elbows jutting outward and feet dragging backward. It´s heartbreaking.

I started to cry as I held him, imagining how much pain he must be feeling. He just looked up at me and meowed, and pushed his head up against my hand for a scratch. I am a Grade 1 animal scratcher, beloved of cats, dogs, horses, ferrets and all other scratch-seeking creatures, so of course I started in under his chin with my best kitty-rub technique.

And Murphy purred like a Rolls-Royce.  

Today the vet said Murph´s vital systems are just fine – he does not have to die.  His smashed paw should heal on its own, and it had better, as there´s really nothing to be done about it. But that back leg is a compound fracture. It´s done-for. It will require surgery – not something he can do there in the little office in Sahagun. So off we go back to the university veterinary clinic in Leon tomorrow, with yet another animal with a hopeless hind leg. 

People are going to start wondering about this place, where 3/5 of the residents walk with a limp and the veterinary hospital knows us by our first names.

Me and Tim had better watch our steps. And stay the heck away from the hen house.  

And forget about vacations, even short ones. 

Friday, 6 November 2009

Retail Therapy

Here is a quick and inelegant update on Life As Rebekah.

I am currently in Ghent, Belgium, being utterly spoiled by my dear friend Filipe. 
Filipe is a high-end sort of DNA-sorting biologist who creates perfect mice for a living. I've known him for a very long time, we get along like we came from the same mold. I am not sure why he likes me so much, but he is very good for me. 

Meanwhile, back in Moratinos, Death came to the Hen Hut. Paddy went to feed the girls this morning and found the mortal remains of Gladys behind the roosting perch. She's been huddled back there for a day or so, feeling unwell, and apparently gave up the ghost sometime in the night. 

I told Paddy to bury her deep in the garden bed, where I already have the ground loosened up, and where she can give her all to the enrichment program. But he'd already tied her up in a grocery bag and laid her respectfully in the Dumpster. Sic Transit Gladys.

Aside from all that, it seems Paddy's enjoying a few days of quiet solitude out on the meseta. 

And I am indulging in the joys of Retail Therapy, here in a fine old European city. 

Many of you know already how I feel about shopping. I deeply loathe shopping, especially shopping for clothing. It has to do with body image and high prices and peer pressure, and my conservative Protestant upbringing, and having a thick waist. Living where I do, I have little need for fine clothing, and I rather like it that way. But we have tickets for a big, fancy guitar concert on Saturday in Brussels, and I didn't have a thing to wear that was not black or frumpy or out of season. Filipe, a born hunter-gatherer with a highly evolved shopping gene, generously offered to show me round the local emporia. I needed a nice dress. This was the only way. 

We set out yesterday afternoon, fortified with a hearty Belgian lunch of blood sausage and red cabbage and Wittebier. It took for freakin' ever, but I finally found a knockout silk dress that does not make me look overly embutido, (sausage-like) and a pair of cool 1942-Paris-style shoes to match -- soft black leather pumps with two little buckle straps across the front. (I shall have to re-learn how to walk on heels!) 

I bought another dress as well, a plum-colored cashmere sheath that is bit more reserved, and a dressy blouse to liven up my churchgoing. (Filipe says I look "Presbylicious!")  It was very draining, but fun in an odd way. Except for a few unpleasant moments at the Tommy Hilfiger store, I can look back on it with a smile. At least until I have to put on pantyhose. And totter from tram to train from Ghent to Brussels in Those Shoes. And I haven't even thought about accessorizing...Heavens, I left my pearls at home!

Today it's Domestics Day. Dick, my Camino friend from Holland, is coming here within a couple of hours, and the three of us are hosting a dinner party this evening. We will spend the afternoon sipping Medoc and trussing a goose (which I am sure is really a Muscovy duck) and roasting a loin of goat and pounding an innocent octopus into casserole. Last night I roasted pumpkins for soup, and made a savory sort of dinner roll with the extra pumpkin pulp, to go with it all. This is my Thanksgiving feast for this year, see. Except I think I am the only American. 

We have orange-red roses on the table-end, and jazz on the radio, and good company and an apartment full of amazing food aromas. Life is really, really good.  

(What I need most at this moment is a long nap, but alas I am no longer in Siesta country.)

I need to bring Patrick here, as he'd like it very much. It is very civilized. I will bring him home things we can't find in Castilla y Leon. Things like nice 80-percent chocolate, and washcloths. And a squeegee. 

Monday, 2 November 2009

I Knew a Woman, Tired in Her Bones

It should´ve been a lot of fun, but it happened too late in the year.
My bones were tired out before it started, so I lived through it in a sort of haze. I need to sleep, for a week or so. I need everything and everyone to go away for a while. Or maybe I will go.

As planned back in August, Adam the guitarist came back on Tuesday with a violinist named Will and a recording engineer named Vince and a photographer named Teresa. They are young and funny and full of life. They came here to record an album of Spanish classical string duets inside our acoustically-fine parish  church.

Day after day the weather was perfect. Treesful of birds sang their tiny hearts out. The road crews arrived to “recondition” the Camino trail. Every farmer with a tractor took advantage of the blue skies and dry ground to plow and seed their fields. Everything´s started turning bright green again.

Progress. Unless, of course, you came to this tiny rural village in search of perfect silence.

The lads and lass ended up shooting pictures and sleeping during the day and recording their album after 10 p.m. each night, after the tractor drivers packed it in. Many potato chips and choco-filled cookies were demolished. Wine consumption soared. Feats of cuisine were performed – the photographer doubled as a sous chef, and the violinist showed he knows his way around a can of coconut milk. 

Days were long, so they vacuumed and washed windows, too. They practiced, and napped, and shopped, swatted flies and hashed-over web-page designs. The sound engineer tuned-up my computer, and installed a new wifi router. (it doesn´t work now, in the same way the old one didn´t work.) I dug up the garden beds out back and worked in some of our half-baked compost. The chicken girls feasted on new-turned worms. We operated at capacity, with a body in every bed but one.

Brian left Saturday for his first hospitalero gig in Ponferrada. Denis, the Scotsman from France, arrived a couple of hours later for his hospitalero training. The final bed was filled when Adam´s girlfriend Marta showed up.

In the middle of it all, John Murphy Cat walked out.
He has not been seen since Thursday morning. No body has been found. He is missing, and presumed dead—we think a fox must have got him. He was one of the best cats ever. He was too good to last.

Una Dog watches for him still.

Sunday morning, All Saints day, the church was full of locals returned for the annual cemetery-blessing ritual. The guitarist and violinist played beautifully at the Mass, a sort of thank-you for the use of the church.  

Milagros, dismayed that we had put the sanctuary benches back into order and swept-up after the musicians´ week inside, scolded me all the way to the graveyard for not asking her to help out. After church, in an apparent effort to help feed the performers, she brought over a frozen rabbit and a great tray of homemade cream puffs. But the hungry throng had already gone on the 1:58 train to Madrid. The delicacies were left in the hands of me, Paddy, and Scottish Denis. We did our best.

Denis was duly trained.  He mounted his big motorbike this morning and headed out for Bilbao and LePuy and a future of hospitalero-hood.

October finished, I heaved a great sigh and turned to face the wide-open spaces of November. I swept the kitchen floor and hung up the laundry and walked the dogs to the holy well at Fuente de San Martin. I felt tiredness in my bones. 

I was home by 10:30 a.m. We needed to go to Sahagún, but I didn´t feel like going. “Go back to bed for a while,” Paddy told me. So I did.

I slept til almost 4. 

Monday, 26 October 2009

The More Things Change

We live in a little town in a great, wide plain. A great, wide sky yawns open overhead every day and every night, offering an ever-changing spectacle to anyone who bothers to look up.

Down here in Moratinos, the Center of My Universe, the past week has been dramatic, a wild ride full of emotions and characters, conflict and contemplation.

The sky opened up late last week and down came Leonel, or Leo, a lanky, grinning Cuban guy who looks like Fred Astaire. He´s crazy about the Camino and really, really wants to live in Moratinos. He decided to buy the former proto-pilgrim hostel on Calle Real, right where the Camino comes into town, a place that´s stood empty for two years. Dozens of interested people have taken walks through the old place, which maintains its characteristic adobe face and rustic, Palentino feel. Up til now, all the dreamers decided against taking up such a big project. Up til this week. Up til Leo.

Like thousands of other pilgrims who pass by appealing-but-empty places on the path, Leo´s taken with the idea of rebuilding a distinctive old farmhouse into a pilgrim hostel of his own.

He made an offer, and as such deals do, the buying process became a roller-coaster ride, played out here at our house. (The water and electricity supply are turned-off at the old place, so we told Leo he could stay here while he hashed things out. Leo´s a professional gardener, so he took out his room-and-board in hoeing and pruning and advising on planting and trees. Nice.)

Spain is a dramatic place. Big change occurs here with an invasion of Romans or Moors or Charlemagne or Napolean or a Divine Visitation, or an Inquisition. Buying a tumbledown house can be just as exciting, evidently. It feels quite Revolutionary while it´s going on, especially in a town as tiny as this one. It seemed like the whole population looked on while for days foreigners trooped up and down Calle Ontanon, taking back things stored or left behind, accounting for what belongs where and to whom, measuring, taking notes and jabbering into mobile phones.

A handshake deal was worked out on Sunday, paella prepared, and toasts drunk to the health and wealth of everyone involved. If all goes to plan, Leo and Ana, his Camino girlfriend from Barcelona, will in late November be our new neighbors, dueño and dueña of "Casa Tortuga."

Other things are changing too. Brian trained early in the week to be a hospitalero, and he starts his first two-week assignment on Saturday, in the big, busy pilgrim shelter in Ponferrada. He is raring to go. We are raring to get him there, as the house keeps filling up and we need his room, and we´re running low on building projects to keep him busy.

Tomorrow a quartet of new faces will arrive on a 9:30 train: our old bud Adam Levin the Classical guitarist is coming with a violinist and two recording engineers. Over the next few days -- if the roaring tractors and the bread-man´s blaring horn will allow -- they plan to record an album in the Church of St. Thomas, right here in dear old Moratinos.

The four of them will attempt to stay here at The Peaceable between sessions at the church. Meanwhile Brian will pack up his gear, the dogs and Murphy will continue the ongoing war against invading field-mice, and Paddy will flee to Madrid for a much-deserved few days of peace in the museums, botanical gardens, and whatever Dens of Iniquity he can rustle up. I will stay here and soldier on until November 4, when my turn comes and I can fly off for a few days of fun and music and feasting in Belgium. Busy, busy, busy.

Among all this hubbub and humanity and change and planning, it´s important to remember a few facts about who and where we are.

Through the heart of our town flows a great river of seekers and suckers, dreamers and schemers. A few of us are bound to fetch up on the shore to put down roots and, hopefully, enrich the environment somehow with our living and working, sinning, forgiving, and dying.

None of us is here forever. We come, we stay a while, and then we disappear, even though the problems and dramas of today seem so vitally important.

We live in a little town in a great, wide plain. A great, wide sky yawns open overhead every day and every night, offering an ever-changing spectacle to anyone who bothers to look up.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

stone dead

Rain finally arrived, and cold. It should stay this way, with frequent breaks for blue skies and manure-spreading, right through til January.

October always slips by quick. It´s the month with the shorts in the drawer right next to the hoodies and sweaters, when you´re constantly putting on clothing or taking it off because you just can´t get the temperature right. Not that I am complaining, really. It is only natural.

One fun thing about October is right at the end: Halloween. In America children dress in costumes and go door-to-door through neighborhoods, knocking on doors and collecting great bags of treats... supposedly a bribe to keep the kiddies from vandalizing the place. Some say the custom is a leftover from days long past, when superstitious rustics used food offerings to buy off the Evil Spirits that run loose at the end of October.  I dunno.

I am not sure just what happened to American Halloween in the last twenty years, but I think my generation is responsible. As kids we enjoyed playing dress-up so much we decided to hang onto the custom right on through middle age. Otherwise-responsible adults now dress up like Dracula or Beyoncé or Dick Cheney and go to wild drunken parties. We dress our children as pumpkins and princesses and hover near while they trick-or-treat in carefully selected subdivisions, usually in broad daylight... the danger we so love about Halloween is the very thing we can´t stand to imagine our kids encountering. We keep all the creepy fun stuff for ourselves. The children must settle for a sanitized, über-safe glucose blowout.

Oh, and we dress up pug dogs like bumblebees. Very, very twisted, that.  

But I digress. I said all that to get to this:  One of the highlights of my October visit to the Sierra de Demanda area of Burgos was discovering something really fascinating and morbid and creepy:  medieval necropolises.  (or maybe they are "necropoli"?) In any case, it´s a Greek word for "city of the dead." 

On a sunny Saturday morning Juli and I drove over mountain and plain deep into a forest of oak and pine. And down the long, sandy woodcutters´ lane and ´round a bend there stood what remains of Cuyacabras, a 9th-century village.

It´s a hillock made of sandstone, with a gentle stairway rising up the middle, a flat spot up top where a tiny church once stood. Carved carefully over, alongside, and in between the ancient stones are 183 open graves.

They are chopped into the stone, about knee-deep. Some are bathtub-shaped, some are niches carved into the rock-face. Creepiest of all are the "antropomorfos," the "man-shaped" ones, with a rounded hole for the head and an oblong for the body.  There are trenches for big people, and doll-sized ditches for babies, and every size in between.

We walked among them and thought our own thoughts. The only sound was the breeze in the treetops.

When I think of the medieval period I usually picture a dark city scene, full of people in dirty hose and doublets, bent under loads of wood or riding furry ponies. The occasional knight or lady can read and write. The church reigns supreme.

But out here in the woods, far from anything, the picture looks even darker. The soil is sandy, so few crops could grow here. The altitude means harsh, snowy winters and little outside contact. I imagined the few families who lived here must have been very intimate, living in tiny huts, sharing everything they had, scraping to survive.

I remember being told that death was not so traumatic back when every couple  had nine children and plagues and epidemics thinned their ranks each season. Life was generally short and brutish, and no one could afford to get to attached to anyone else. Families simply chucked away the members who didn´t make it, and set about begetting more babies to keep the hovel filled and the fields tilled.

I don´t buy it. It hurt them, too, to say goodbye. Look how these long-ago folk honored their loved ones.

They could have dug a hole in the sand for burials, but their dead, freed from their hard lives, were laid to rest in the only place that lasted: the stone. With channels cut in the surrounding slates to keep the rain from running too freely into the cracks, and a long, heavy slab laid over the body to keep out the wolves. Or the grave-robbers. Or the neighbors.

Or maybe they wanted to make sure the dead ones stayed dead, and wouldn´t  get up to bother the living any more? 

Brrahahaahaa!  How Halloween is that?!

Anyway, a day´s drive around the area will bring you to at least six of these thousand-year-old graveyards, some with chapels or hermitages also carved into the stone.  Not all are hidden away in the quiet woods. The rather beat-up necropolis in Regumiel is right in the middle of town. The Revenga necropolis has 133 rock-tombs, and some mysterious labyrinth-like carvings in the rock where a church once stood -- all of it smack up against a nice, new kiddie playground!

Of all the elements they could choose, the medieval people liked their stone. Important people merited burial in stone, as the sarcophagus outside Segundino´s house will attest.  One family member told me a long-ago ancestor brought it to Moratinos from the Villa Oreja monastery, over near where our labyrinth now stands. It probably once held the earthly remains of an abbot or a local lord.

It´s thick stone, deep as a bathtub, carved in a faintly human shape. You can´t really tell what it is these days, as it´s full of building debris. But Feliciano says it makes a fine watering trough for cows, once you knock a couple of drainage holes in it. They´ll maybe use it for a flowerbed, once their family house rehab job is finally finished.

I think they ought to plant pumpkins. Reared in a sarcophagus, they´d make fantastic jack-o-lanterns!