Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Faces At the Gate

April still feels rather like March, temperature-wise, but if you look at the traffic out there on the trail, The Season is definitely upon us. Pilgrims: tall, small, on bikes and ponies or their own two feet, all alone or in pairs or packs, streaming on westward all through the day. We´ve provided a bit more clarity on where we are located, with a little sign in the plaza and a nice plaque out front of the place.

So some of the throng are finding their way to our gates. And not just the strangers, either. With the warm weather also come old friends, old pilgrims, familiar faces.

Marianne the Swiss was here yesterday, breezing through on her way to Asturias. She is forever refreshing and deep, and she has a delightful way of grinding together Spanish, German, and English that makes me know I am not so bad after all!

I´ve mentioned Kim to you. She´s been staying here since I returned from the Camino trek, doing a sort of retreat while she decides where he life ought to go. Her quiet assistance has reminded me of how delicious life can be when you have Good Help on Hand. I feel much less frazzled, and I manage to achieve a lot more in the same amount of time as before. Everything on the domestic front just slides along like it´s on rails, and I am deeply grateful for that -- because demands are picking up, too.

My mother is coming from Pittsburgh to visit us VERY SOON, and I am so excited and scared and wound-up about that! My mother´s never been to Spain, but she´s heard me ranting about the place for decades. I hope I haven´t oversold the place. I hope the food/weather/language/jetlag/dogs/dust/culture shock/proximity/revolving door/pilgrim hubbubs are not too much for her. I hope her knees hold out. And I hope she doesn´t reveal too many of my embarrassing secrets!

I mostly hope she likes it. I may be 47 years old, but I still really want to make my mother proud of me. I still want to see her happy.

Meantime, Thomas is on his way here, too.

You may remember Thomas. He´s the Dutch-Croatian pilgrim handyman who´s been here a couple of times before in the past two years. He rides in on his bike, does a week or two of heavy work for us, and then wheels away for more adventures. Thomas and people like him -- wandering workers -- have had a large part in making The Peaceable what it is today. Thomas and Sebastian the Belgian, Patrik the Czech and Anselmo from Valencia, Ryan from Cleveland and now Kim from Key West, too -- I call them the apostolic succession. They come in off the trail, stay a while, and leave a real imprint on the place. Like E.B. White says, you never run out of things to do out on the farm. And anytime Thomas calls up and asks if we have work, well. Yeah. There´s always something onerous here that we´ve been putting off for some other day, that Thomas can get through in less than half the time we´d take, with fewer cuss-words and smashed thumbs, too.

(This is Ryan, doing onerous work while he was here. He´s gone on to become a successful oenophile in Cleveland, OH.)

In May we´re also expecting Ted, an old raconteur friend of Paddy´s who has ridden his ancient motorcycle around the world a couple of times, and makes his living writing and lecturing about his adventures. My mystic Californian friend Kathy is coming to visit, and a New Mexican pilgrim will stop in, too. And a photographer from Washington, and an anthropologist who wants to interview us for a thesis. And a documentary film crew, maybe. And then a couple of South Africans are coming for the hospitalero training session. Oh, and a lady who´s knitting sock monkeys as she walks along the trail! (I LOVE those!)

Today Kim and I went to Leon on a massive shopping trip -- there are lamb chops in our future! And we´ll have three colors of begonias in the window boxes, and big plants of fresh basil and coriander and parsley to cut right into the cooking. May is going to be great, I can feel it!

You should come too, if you´re around. Bring a sleeping bag. We´ll fit you in someplace. Bring your own sock monkey.

Sunday, 26 April 2009


We felt better. We realized we won´t be able to do this again for a LONG time. So on Thursday we packed a bag and ran away.

First we ran back up the Camino del Salvador, and stayed at the delicious B&B at Poladura de Tercia, in the Leonese mountains where I stayed in March, when I was walking the trail. This time, with the snow all gone and the mud dried up, it was practically a BREEZE hiking up to the first pass. I learned since then that first big mountain is called "El Coito," and impotent men who climb it are supposed to experience miraculous recoveries. I wonder what this might do to raise the profile of this particular camino? (Seeing as we were still not feeling 100%, I was glad just to survive!)

Lots of horses running free up there, many with beautiful new foals.

The following day we headed north to Oviedo. We stopped at Sta. Cristina de Leña, site of the Magic Picnic. This time we got to see inside! It is simple and beautiful, like lace, but made of stone and light. It´s 1,200 years old. How I love old things!

More of the same up in Oviedo, the capital city of Asturias. It is a beautiful, civilized, walkable town with a great self-image. We stayed at a great-value little hotel with a view over the botanical garden. We ate amazing cheese and sea urchins and squid in its ink, and we sipped apple cider poured from great heights, as is the wont of Asturians. And we saw much art, and MORE thousand-year-old pre-Romanesque churches on pristine green lawns with hundred-mile views into the mountains. We sat at the sunny sidewalk café and drank Negronis and watched the town strolling by. We drove back through the mountains via Covadonga, another 10th-century relic of Asturian nationalism and Catholic fervor: a sort of Lourdes-Valley of the Fallen admixture with lots of falling water and stony caves and altar boys.

We took it easy. We refreshed. We enjoyed one another´s company. Here are some photos.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Blame the Dogs

Anyone searching for evidence of life out this way will have to make due with this little posting.

April seems to have turned downright nasty on us. Three days ago, the dogs had a delightful roll out in the fields in what looked, and smelled, like pig doo. Once we got home, we immediately bathed them.

We think that is where the germs came from. As such, we spent the wee early hours of Monday morning on our knees in the bathroom. We continue to shake, rattle, moan, hurl, and sleep, in turns. Thank God Kim is here. She´s felt a little woozy here and there, but by all accounts is weathering this a lot better than we are... she did not directly participate in the Dog Washing Incident.

So this way, the household is still humming along, even if the Bosses are laid-up with Swine Poo Flu. As for my usual correspondence, and all the other promises I´ve made, well. Sorry. I´ll get back to you when I get back on my feet again.

Oh, and Una and Tim? The dogs are feeling fine. Even though it´s all their fault.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Morning fog with news breaking in the afternoon

It´s a big, big chill around here since I got back. I think I brought some of the Galician weather with me. Rainy and chilly and foggy. Not a lot of fun.

Except for my deep and abiding gratitude for just being here, being HOME.

Paddy and Kim had a birthday cake waiting for me, and a gift of a little orange tree. I suspect Kim´s hand was at work, as Paddy has yet to even remember my birthday unless heavily prodded... but I will take what I can get! We do normal things, like helping friends move house, washing stinky dogs, cleaning out the birdcage, grazing the chickens on the patches of grass that are managing to grow in the wasteland out back. (cowherds, goatherds, shepherds I´ve heard of. But what do you call a herder of poultry?)

Ordinary things, made piquantly delicious by the misery that went before. My life is so good!

One big piece of news in Moratinos: posted on the community bulletin board outside the church is the application for a building license. Looks like Daniel the Guy from Palencia is going ahead with his plan to build a pilgrim hostel on the edge of town! The paper doesn´t say much: just that it´s a 16-bed, two-star operation, set to pop up on Pilar and Stasi´s section of the "era," the threshing floor out where the camino comes into town. It´s a great place to put a hostel.

I kinda wish they´d redeveloped one of the falling-down places already in town, but I understand intimately how that´s more costly than putting up something new, and full of all kinds of headaches. I took Daniel and Co. all over town last fall, looking at the Alamo and several other empty and suitable sites and houses... and nobody would part with anything! It´s better to let it fall down than to sell it out of the family, I guess...

I have several hopes/wishes for the new place.

> I hope it´s done low to the ground, and in a rustic style that harmonizes with the scruffy adobe look of the town.

> I hope they have a little bar there, so pilgs can stop for a drink and we and the neighbors can have a cozy meeting place that´s not in someone´s house.

> I hope they stay with their stated plan to serve vegetarian snacks! I am not a vegetarian, but I appreciate good veg. food... and it´s a real rarity round here.

Speaking of vegetables, the peas and broad beans are finally sprouted out in the yard, and today I planted three nice lavender bushes in the patio. If the ground out back ever warms up, I will put in the big ol´ tomatoes I started from seeds ages ago. They are READY to MOVE! I am really looking forward to the gardening business this year, even though I secretly doubt my prospects for success.

Our hot water heater won´t work.
Paddy wants to spend a couple of days in Barcelona before the May Onslaught descends, while Kim is still here to keep a watchful eye on the critters. I really am sick of traveling, but Paddy needs to get outta here, and we won´t have another chance like this for a long time, probably. (and there´s an amazing museum full of Romanesque frescos there...) But we can´t leave until the water supply is straightened out. It´s always something!

And now back to Serious Business.
I have fallen behind on the Hospitalero Training online thing. And the Camino San Salvador trail notes. And there are two unread New Yorker magazines calling softly to me from the sofa...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Hell Is Other People

I have just survived two of the toughest weeks of my recent history.

I am back at the Peaceable after a Season in Hospitalera Hell: Two weeks I´d touted as "a break in the Valley of Silence," a hospitalera gig at Miraz, in deepest Lugo Province in Galicia -- a town I know pretty well, having hospitalera-ed there a couple of times before. April 1 to 15, in an English-run, 16-bed little place on the Camino del Norte. What could be nicer?

I went for the quiet. Miraz, despite the occasional dynamite blast from the granite quarry outside the town, is one of the most quiet places I´ve ever been. In early April I knew we would not be overwhelmed by pilgrims.

It is still very very quiet there, and very beautiful. Pilar the tough ol´barmaid still reigns supreme over the tiny crossroads town, from behind the bar in her unnamed establishment. An assortment of dogs still snoozes out on the steps, and the cows still lumber down the main street in the morning and back up in the evening. The fields are going green with spring. A million songbirds try to outdo one another, dawn to dusk. (especially at dusk.) Roosters crow. Cows moo.

The pilgrims come in twos and threes, mostly Germans, some Austrians, some Portuguese. When Holy Week starts up, we have a packed house, mostly Spaniards making the hike on their holiday week. Fine people. No trouble. Great language practice.

Rain falls, and falls, and falls. The humidity rises.
The temperature falls. The humidity condenses on the walls and ceilings.
Inside the hospitalero bedroom, a 2 a.m. temperature reading shows 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Those clouds hanging over the beds are not dreams, pilgrims. That´s your breath, turning to fog. Or maybe frost. There is no heat in the Hostal de Peregrinos Miraz but for an old-fashioned built-in iron stove in the kitchen. There´s firewood out back, but it´s in huge hunks. It´s soaking wet.

After a few days I got sick.

All these things I could have managed, and have done in days past. But what made this volunteer stint the most difficult of my career was not the tough environmental conditions. It was an x-factor, an unknown quantity you sign on for anytime you take the risk of hospitalero-ing.

It´s the Other Hospitalero.

I am not naming names here. I don´t want to blacken anyone´s reputation, as volunteers are hard enough to come by, and 97% of all hospitaleros are fine people. But if you volunteer enough times, some time you´re going to run across one of those 3-percenters. And so I did.

For the first six days she did not cease to talk, at a speed that would leave many others stammering. I learned about her amazing parents, nanny, children, and aunties, her ex, and the awe-inspiring walled-in basement lurking below the stupendous floor tiles in her fabulous holiday house, and how Fashionability runs in her family... all within an hour or so. The wonderfulness continued and multiplied with time.

Some incoming pilgrims received similar gifts, until they fled to Pilar´s bar for similarly colorful doses of cigar smoke and card-game shouting-matches in fluent Gallego. This went on until the Spaniard pilgrim wave petered out, and the Germans returned. Herself doesn´t relate as well to Germans, I suppose, as she pretty much left them to me, or to their own devices. Things quieted. A Pax Germanicus fell upon Miraz.

And quietly, then, came the Corrections. She did not approve of my floor-mopping, nor my laundering, nor my clothes-pinning skills. She followed along behind to fix my errors, and to point out how I could do better. I retreated into long hikes across the lovely countryside.
I collected pine cones for the fire one afternoon, so the following day she went to the woods and collected Proper pine cones. When I posited opinions during dinnertime conversations, the assembly was duly told how my statement was faulty, or wrong, or offensive. And from there, over time, matters descended into all-out interruptions of ongoing conversations, un-doing work already done, sending away pilgrims I was in the middle of greeting ("Go to the bar. We don´t open until TWO!") and on the final night, when I touched the CD player and the music stopped for a moment, she snapped. She shoved me aside and cursed me, right in front of three young pilgrims.

Bad hospitalera. Bad bad bad.

Minor things, really. Pettiness. Nothing criminal. But two weeks of it? In a small town with no internet, TV, or other outside input to widen out your horizon and keep you grounded in reality? The negativity was overwhelming. My stay at Miraz was ruined. Heaven knows what impression some of those pilgrims must have taken away from that place, with as much hostility as humidity hanging in the air.

So be warned, ye camino folk... not all things Camino are Peace, Love, and Understanding. There are a few people out there on the trail who maybe ought to be in Anger Management class instead.

Like me.

And now I must forgive her, and let it go, and re-claim the peace I let her steal from me. And remember Miraz as the dear, quiet, peaceful Miraz of the cows and chickens and scruffy pups, and not That Dreary Place With the Bitch.

Here we are, blogsters, at Blog Post Number 250!! Wowee, it seems like just yesterday, no?