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?


claire bangasser said...

Well, I am sure glad you're back but feel quite sad that you had a sorry time in Miraz. Truly, this person sounds pretty awful and you had to endure her for two weeks. Wow...
One wonders what kind of cosmic misconnection occurred for this to happen!
Well, time now to enjoy the Peaceable and our enthusiastic adoration!

Kelly Codd said...

Glad you're back, missed the updates. Sorry to hear of such a trying time in Miraz.

Laura said...

Geez! Sorry you had such an ordeal. Why are some people so miserable? It can't feel good to be inside there with herself. Well, for what it is worth - your faithful are thankful that you are back and just having a new Peaceable post to read made my day better. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I am full of admiration that you stuck it out for 2 weeks. I expect that you being there was protective for the pilgrims - well done and enjoy home and Paddy and doing things your way without criticism.

flowingwithlife said...

Welcome back! Your writings have been missed. Sorry about your misadventure...but what a trooper you are! Enjoy your homecoming and peace.

kathygpilgrim said...

wonderful to have you back again...

counting the days until it's Peaceable time....


Gareth Thomas said...

Oh dear! That sounds like a really hard time, Reb. I know CSJ has a pretty good system for selecting and training hosptaleros, so it does raise the question of how someone like that slips through the net!
I had a really unfortunate experience helping in a parish, living in a presbytery for a few weeks with a priest who was a nightmare. The way I coped with that was a stragtegy I can recommend: I imagined I was in a reality TV show watched only in heaven and every outrageous negative behaviour from the individual concerned was a test of my positive behaviour, while a heavenly TV audience of angels held me in their care... It worked reasonably well as a coping strategy!

Anonymous said...

I made it almost a month there! Miraz is not the place for suntans in April or May !

However, it is all about the company you keep.

I tried to get them organized in the wood department when I was there, but it is hopeless. Thank God you survived on pine cones.


Virginia ("Ginn") said...

I KNOW you are happy to be home again! Kind of a "Just when you think life can't get any better, you get another character-building opportunity" experience! Like boot camp! 8-)

Glad you are home and posting again - I've missed your window on the world! Hope to SEE YOU face-to-face...I depart for Madrid on Monday!

Life is good...

Camino Dreaming in Santa Fe

Amawalker said...

Bravo Reb - now when you give hospitalero training you can speak from experience on 'How to Survive a Hospitalera from Hell'.

Frank said...

Ah Rebekah, that kind of thing should not happen to someone as good as you.
My spell as hospitalero alongside you and Paddy was one of life's high lights. It probably set such a high standard that it has been difficult for anyone else to follow. Up there mopping out the toilets at Rabanal, the strains of Bach would come rising up from the court yard. I have enlivened my conversation ever since with shameless requotations of Paddy's wonderful quotations and anecdotes.
Into every life a little rain must fall. But this sounds like a veritable deluge. I was going to say, as my mother often would, "you'll get your reward in heaven", but back in Moratinos you are there already

Anonymous said...

let's just thank God for confronting us with all these mirrors said...

Touché, Anon. Righteous anger always has some element of projection in it, so You can never really enjoy it much!

Anonymous said...

right *g*

and maybe there's more to it...


Gene in Denver said...

A most interesting tale. My wife, Rosann, and I were hospitaleros last July and served with a couple from England with whom we had only exchanged a couple of e-mails. It was not until we were leaving our village after a half month that it struck me what a disaster signing on that that could be. Fortunately we were blessed: our styles were similar, we arrived with the same expectations of service to our peregrinos and of care of the refuge, we were all flexible and concerned about the others and even our language skills complemented each other. The four of us are signed up together in 2010.