Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Here the fields are full of wheat and wind, the way the ocean is full of ripples and waves. The green is going gold now. It is our annual local miracle. I hope I never lose the ability to see and marvel at this inland sea.

I am very tired. I am coming up to the surface now, I think.

This weekend our house hit capacity, with Kim and Tomas already resident, three people who wanted training to become volunteer hostel-keepers, Paddy, me, and the critters. Then, on foot, came Bob Spenger, an affable California athlete who´s just completed his fourth pilgrimage. He is 84. We told him to stay around, so he did. That made eight.

We had beds and food and drink and good spirits enough to deal with all of them, but I don´t think I want to take on so many again. Not after a month and a half of ongoing hospitality and concrete work.

Every day this week we´ve driven to the train station and reduced our numbers bit by bit.

The South Africans drove away on Monday morning, back to their Camino Cleanup mission. Lillian, a delightful midwife from Florida, took the afternoon train back to her sojourn on the Camino del Norte. Bob stayed another day, and Kathy came then too. Kathy´s been part of the Peaceable since its beginning. Hers is the third name in the guest book. She saw it two weeks after we bought the place, so she´s one of a few who´s watched it develop. A great friend, Kathy. I hope she comes back in September, and joins me and an English friend who are planning to re-conquer the Camino del Salvador (this time without the snow.) Now that I have an idea of where I am going, I want to do it right this time. No more floundering, no rush, no skipped bits, either. Slow and steady. Applications are being accepted now for this epic expedition.

But all that is far away in the future.

Now, today, there are four more trained people ready to volunteer as hosts on the Camino. An ugly corner of our patio is now turned into level, useable space, a pleasant addition to what retailers call our "outdoor living space." We have a beautiful young Picual olive tree, newly planted in the center of the garden -- a gift from Kathy.

The chicken house has gutters and downspouts now, so the chicks will have much less mud to wade around in when the rain comes back. This healthful improvement may come too late for Blodwyn, who is ailing terribly and inexplicably. I think we may lose her. Veterinarians here don´t treat individual chickens. Neither Paddy nor I knows how to euthanize hens, and we would not have the heart to do it even if we did. And asking a neighbor to whack our chicken may be pushing them a bit far.

Una´s leg is no better. As Tomas would say, "This Una, she is so much a change-ed dog from the past times, Rebekah. Is like I don´t know her no more, she is not noisy, not bluffing so much at birds and Tim, and she´s not much running around ... and these things she like-ed! Poor old lady. I mean Una the poor old lady. But not you Rebekah, listen! You are young still I think."

I am going to miss Tomas and the many twists he gives to English. Tomas is leaving tomorrow, heading back to the unpronounceable Dutch town where he came from, more than a year ago. Kim is going to cry, I think. Those two really like each other.

And so we will be back to three. And Kim says she´s going to start walking again, so maybe we´ll even be two soon.

Imagine that.

Meantime, here are some photos of the people and excitement here. Life is good. Especially after a good siesta.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Hippies & Sarcophagi: More Daily Life

Patrick and I keep a daily diary, so we won´t forget any details when the time comes to write our best-selling "foreign devils abroad" book. (We have mixed feelings about these, as we heard that authors like Peter Mayle and Chris Stewart are now loathed by their native neighbors in Provence and Granada, respectively. Their readers were so excited by their colorful stories that they bought properties near the authors´ charming places and ruined everything.)

Because I am lazy and because we said it best the first time, I will share a few entries from the last couple of days.

: (written by Paddy) Ted arrived in the morning on a gigantic BMW motorcycle, dressed in leather and striding about like the Road Warrior. The Sock Monkey Pilgrim arrived later and gave us a little knitted monkey called Ruth, which is now guarding the kitchen. Reb made an excellent soufflé for lunch, seeing as we had 13 eggs in the fridge and more on the way. Much drink was taken at dinner, which resulted in me getting snitty with Reb´s mother over politics.
Reb note: Ted is 78 years old, a jolly fellow from London who managed to pioneer Community Organic Farming in California about 30 years ago. He´s known Patrick for decades. He rides around the world on motorcycles and writes books and lectures about his experiences. His best-known book is "Jupiter´s Travels."

: (written by Paddy) Reb, Kim, and Reb´s mom up early and set off for Madrid airport. Ted and I walked over to St. Nicolas and saw Justi, the barkeep at Casa Barrunta. He got on the phone and ordered us a load of firewood. Should be here tomorrow or Weds.
Good spaghetti bolognese for lunch. Day got actually hot. Tomas working on the trough, will put in tiles left over from the bathroom upstairs. Reb and Kim back about 6 p.m., having stopped for cheeseburgers in Madrid.

Yes! Cheeseburgers and onion rings!

Tuesday: (written by Rebekah) Quiet day. Looking into a trip to south of France in early June to see an art opening and hobnob with Paddy´s old London pals. (It is dangerously near to St. Tropez. I don´t have a thing to wear!)
Took a stroll to Plaza Mayor, where Segundino Siblings still are laboring away on the family home. They showed me inside, it is going to be beautiful, as they´re keeping much of the old charming details. So far, anyway.
Best old detail is out in the back yard -- I commented on the old stone watering trough that´s moldering out by the well under a load of scrap. "That´s no trough, really," Maria Angeles said. "That´s a sarcophagus."
Sure enough, when they moved some of the junk over you can see the outline of a head and shoulders carved body-deep into the stone. It´s from Villa Oreja, where the monastery was, and the labyrinth is now. No one knows who brought it into town or when, but Milagros has one too, over in her chicken yard. Thousand-year-old burial vaults make great watering troughs. (I wish I had one. All I got is a Hole Of Mysteries.)
(Both are great for putting extra dirt in, evidently.)

Wednesday: Still no firewood. Ted left early, off to Bilbao and from there to Germany. Me and Pad walked the dogs to St. Nicolas again, went most of the way with Jackie and Clementine, two charming pilgrims from New Zealand.
Lunch for eight: a Thai green chicken curry done with 1.5 kilos of chicken breast and the LAST of our green curry paste, alas! We were joined by Gary and Elyn, our New Mexicans-moved-to-Sahagun, and Judy and Paul, their travel-writer friends from America. Toured them through town, bodega, labyrinth, sarcophagus, chicken hut. They took lots of notes and pictures, including a great one of me holding Rosie Hen. Later on, Paddy had a wicked good time blogging about Republican senatorial shenanigans, giggling over the keyboard at his own evilness. He even e-mailed the guy a copy. Will be blacklisted soon. Firewood came at 9:30 p.m., now a knobby mountain outside the back gate. Still no sign of the 3 twin-size mattresses ordered last week. Got South Africans coming on the weekend. One hopes for the best.

Thursday: Beautiful day. It´s the Feast of St. Timoteo, so we gave Tim an extra bone to celebrate. Air is full of something itchy; I think it´s the fluff blowing off the cottonwood trees. Work continues apace in the patio. Decided to tackle the firewood early, before the afternoon heat. (Had to move it about 15 meters to the wood store and stack it properly... a heavy two-day job for two people with wheelbarrows.)
Yellow wheelbarrow had a flat tire.
Bicycle pump won´t work.
Nut and bolt holding the wheel onto the barrow is stripped.
Something making my eyes stream and nose run. I sneezed and sneezed.
Tomas took the second wheelbarrow to mix cement.
The chickens got loose again, and headed straight to the vegetable patch.
Pad helped chase chickens and wrestle the wheelbarrow, we took it into Sahagún to be fixed. "While You Wait" took a good two hours, so we bought nice mushrooms and had a leisurely drink at a plaza-side café, watching pilgrims and old ladies and toddlers go by. Back at home with Kim were two strange young hippie pilgrims, one a dead ringer for Sideshow Bob. They wore flipflops and dreadlocks, and downed coffee and milk and cookies, and asked if there was any work they could do for some money.
... Well, we DID have that great pile of firewood out back...
So we reassembled the wheelbarrow, and Tomas gave back his, and the silent youths schlepped tons of wood for us in the heat of the day.
They were strangely slow and quiet. I wondered if they were on drugs. Tomas, who knows about thee things, said they were hungry. They probably had not eaten in a day or more.
So I stopped judging them. We gave them a big lunch and money and a pair of Pad´s retired hiking boots and a bag of food to go. They thanked us and silently padded off down the trail.

We are seeing actual hungry people more often these days, looking to the camino not just for a vacation or even Enlightenment, but for a meal or a place to sleep another night.

May we always have enough to share with them.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Too Much

Busy-ness is good. We came here to be busy, to keep our retired selves occupied with small but somehow meaningful things.

Busy is one thing. But this week? Jeez. Enough already.

Not that I am not enjoying a lot of time with my Mom. In the week she´s been here we traveled from Madrid in the slow train, toured a Roman Villa a few miles away and museums and cathedrals in Burgos and Leon. We drove for hours down the Camino, stopped to chat with Deeply Meaningful hospitaleros, shopped for groceries and hardware, snapped a few hundred photos and uploaded them all to Picasa, tried to visit the castle and palace at Grajal (which remain as firmly closed as ever, despite all the PR). We´ve also just sat and gabbed. Mom and Kim seem to hit it off wonderfully, perhaps because Kim has not heard all of Mom´s stories before!

Having Mom here is one thing. It is stressful, but it´s a good kind of stress.

Sadly, there´s plenty of the other kind around. Thomas paints with olive-green, and had already painted a huge swath of garden wall before we realized that was not the wall we wanted him to do.

He started "fixing" the leaky pipe in the old water trough in the patio, with sitcom-worthy results: fountain of squirting water, shouting, me running out the front gate and round the outer walls to shut off the water main, which was covered in spiders, all just in time for a gang of Aussie pilgrims to roll up at the door. So we didn´t have water for a while. A portion of the patio is, well... mud. For now. Until Thomas finishes painting the walls out back, and hanging up the gutters on the chicken house, and we make a decision on what to do with our water lines. I keep having to visit the ATM to draw out more and more money. I wonder if we can afford this.

Then there are the chickens. Blodwyn, our favorite, is not well. It´s very worrying. She might just be sulking, as we have ordered six new hens -- black ones, from faraway Zaragoza. But even she can´t hold a grudge this long, and the new girls won´t arrive until June.

Paddy´s moods are swinging wildly from sweetums to SOB. No good reason for it, outside the usual Mother In Law jokes. Today was especially bad. It´s San Isidro Day, occasion for a Mass and Procession and party in the Plaza, and occasion for fireworks and skyrockets. Una spent her morning cowering in the back bathroom, terrified of the noise. Then Paddy had to put on nice clothes and go to church. Then he lost his wallet in the laundry somewhere. Thomas made the back wall very green. The liver Pad cooked at lunchtime was not a big hit, as we´d run out of onions. Tim rolled in pig poo fertilizer again, and had to have another bath.
So Pad is mad.

I drove into Sahagun, twice.
I developed a headache.
The builder´s merchant delivered the wrong guttering.
Out back the garden-watering system stopped working.

Pilgrims came, nice ones. I wonder if we treated them well enough. I like to give them my full attention, but I know I am not operating at Full Hospitality. I assume they understand, or they don´t notice. (Pilgrims are usually as self-absorbed as me.)

At 9:30 p.m. or so, after dinner, everyone finally shuffles off to his respective bedroom. I am left alone. The breeze is up. A dog and cat and I step out into the patio, down the sidewalk, past the mud hole and Tomas´s radio warbling in the Hermitage, through the gate and out into the gloaming.

A strip of sky is still yellow where the sun smeared its way down. Swallows dive and dart at the insects in the streetlight. Out on the distant autopista, trucks hum. Murphy´s cat-feet thump softly on the concrete street.

But there´s a new sound now to the evening: the leaves. The standing grain is now blue beneath and silvery green on top, and the wind hums and whispers through the stalks. And the trees, our few trees -- tall proud ones that stand along the creeks and ditches -- they roar and shush, noisier in their way than even the neighbors´ hound-dog chorus. This, I know, is what the color green sounds like.

There are no people sounds. I turn back to home. The only light coming from The Peaceable is from my mother´s window. It´s sweet-pea green, bright and warm. I realize my head feels okay now.

I let us back inside, and as I pass I open the lid on the little Donations box by the front gate. Inside, along with €6.55 in coins, somebody has left a 50-Euro bill.

We can do this. Tomorrow will be easier, or maybe Sunday will.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Peaceable Mom

And what a week it´s been.

Sunday: Thomas the wandering pilgrim handyman arrived again, so we put him to work. He´s putting in concrete footers on our north-facing exterior walls, so they don´t fall down. He´s repairing the cracked, moldy old trough in the patio. He´s working like a draft horse, and eating like one, too.

Tuesday: Kim and I drove all the way up to the Ikea in Oviedo and had a wildly successful shopping trip there. We did Live Geometry Exercises in the car park, turning each box and bag into the back of the car just so. Every one fit, barely. So what that one of us had to ride home in the little jump-seat behind the driver? We now have upped the guest capacity at The Peaceable by four. The Salon is now a guest room for three people! (almost.) Bring on the pilgrims!

(except we don´t have mattresses for the beds. I bought some in Sahagun, Twin size. Turns out Twin size in Leon Province is a good 10 cm. shorter than Twin size in the rest of the world, probably owing to the petite proportions of people here. So next week the Mattress Men have to come and get the little Leonese ones, and switch them for the Rest Of The World Twin Size, which they think is absurd.) The Ongoing Mystery of the Leonese mattress is another blog post in itself.

End of the week: Got the house really really clean, went to Madrid, got my mom.

I had not seen my mom since July 2008. I expected the worst, as every time I see my mother she looks a bit more small and aged. My mother´s health is not what it once was, and her life is further challenged by caring for a husband with even more handicaps. She is often tired, or ill, or feeling poorly. I was afraid of what the 14-hour Pittsburgh-to-Madrid odyssey might do to her.

And when, after our respective long journeys I found her at Terminal 1 she did look rather damp and bedraggled. But her smile lit up the Arrivals Lounge, and her big hug was so perfect and familiar and soft, I didn´t even mind paying 45 Euros for a cab into the city. Mom was limping, towing a good 30 kilos of luggage, much of it gifts for me. No one was going to get in my way. And no Mom of mine was going into the Metro with all those bags.

We did not see much of Madrid. She slept, while I bought coriander and garam masala and tumeric and five kilos of basmati rice at the Indian grocery in Lavapies.

On Friday I put all those things in my backpack and bundled my mom and her wagon train down to the metro after all. At rush hour. To get a train at the northern train terminal that a railroad ticket agent at the downtown Atocha station assured me does not exist.

We made it home just fine, and found not all railroad employees are so incompetent. I asked the conductor for a window seat, so my Mom could get a good first look at Spain. He kindly moved us into our own four-person section, and she didn´t miss a single castle or palace or mountain view the whole way home!

Things have gone at a very leisurely pace since then. We have chatted, and cooked, and put away the several tons of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinners she schlepped across the Atlantic for me. Mom is sitting in the sun, reading. She is being waited-on, a little. She´s unraveling Thomas´s sometimes-odd English. (she and Kim think it´s a laff riot, how he says "peanut butter.") She is closing her eyes and listening to Bob´s afternoon program of birdsong classics. But mostly she is napping, and sleeping, and dozing.

The Peaceable has that effect on newcomers. My mom did not walk 250 km. to get here, but like most of our pilgrims, she is evidently making up for many, many hours and days and weeks of stress, anxiety, and lost sleep.

She´s only here for 12 days. I don´t want her to miss out on the historical monuments and cathedrals and palaces of Burgos and Leon, or the Romanesque churches in the mountains, or the little Camino villages -- if those are what she wants to see. I told her so last night.

And she told me something wonderful.

"Yeah, I want to see all those. But I didn´t come here for that, you know. I came here to visit. To talk. To see you. And to relax."

And so she is. And so she will, until she´s ready to go tooling around. We gave her a walking stick, so she and Paddy can hobble companionably with Una. We´re teaching her a few good Spanish phrases. She did a star turn this morning at Mass, with all the ladies cooing over how young she looks, how alike we two are, and how pale her skin is... all in rapid-fire Castellano. With no Spanish, Mom looked a bit mystified, but she nodded and smiled and shook hands and cheeky-kissed like the trouper she is.

And in the afternoon we bundled up and drove out to Villa Olmeda, the newly reopened Roman Villa museum about 20 km. north of here. Mosaic everywhere. More Calderiums and Peristyles than you can shake a cane at.

I think she likes it here.

I love her so.

Happy Mother´s Day to all you moms out there.

Monday, 4 May 2009

...And a little child shall lead them.

I don´t know where this photo was taken or the identity of this lovely child, but I´ll bet the farm that affectionate little shaver is in fine health to this day.

The pig, however, is most likely by now rendered into bacon and lard.

Which is to say that pigs, "swine flu" notwithstanding, have a whole lot more to fear from we humans than we humans have to fear from pigs.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

In Which Sometimes Work Is Done, or at least Begun

We knew Thomas the traveling handyman was coming, so we met him at the gate Saturday afternoon with a list of heavy, boring labors: measuring up the garage for a new set of doors; painting the rest of the walls all along the outside of the house; building window screens (somehow Spain, one of the most fly-infested countries in the world, hasn´t cottoned onto window screens!) paving the patios, front and back; chopping up firewood...

He immediately found something even larger and more ambitious to work on. The walls that surround our little Peaceable Compound are made of adobe brick, set without foundations directly on the ground. They´ve stood there for at least 200 years, but some cracks are beginning to appear.

And long story short, Thomas is going to use concrete and chemicals to keep rainwater from splashing back and soaking upward and into the innards of the walls. They´re made of mud inside. Get mud wet enough and it liquefies. And someday, slowly or maybe fast, the two-foot-thick chicken house wall will ooze down the alley.

This is not a sexy way to spend a 500 Euros. But we rather like our walls, and our house, and our chickens. So now Thomas is hard at work again.

But not until he´d told us a few good stories of the Road.

Thomas was last here in August, painting and plastering. In the months between he traveled north to the Basque County, followed the Camino del Norte down to Santiago and then into Portugal. He visited the shrine at Fatima, which he found "just as disgusting as Lourdes." He followed the Atlantic coast, stopping to earn money wherever he could find work, staying at pilgrim hostels when he was on caminos, and sleeping under overhangs and haystacks and in garages when no place else could be found. And in Portugal he stayed with the firefighters.

In Portugal, firefighters cover 12-hour shifts, and their firehouses always have extra rooms, showers, etc. They double as doss-houses for down-on-their-luck travelers, and the often-bored firefighters seem to enjoy these visitors. Thomas now carries a stack of little flags and stickers, gifts from his volunteer hosts. He stopped at Sintra VFD on Christmas Eve, and feasted on a smorgasbord left over from the departmental banquet -- the chief gave him a week´s worth of leftovers to take along on the road.

New Year´s Eve found him in another small city, where the hostels were sold-out and even the jail was at capacity! Thomas found a place to sleep at the municipal museum, where the guard let him curl up in a storage room. In the morning he woke to find a gift box perched atop his bicycle seat, filled with homemade cookies. A note from the museum security staff wished him a Happy New Year.

Next spring, if I walk a camino, I want to do the Ruta Portuguese!

Today was bright and windy. While Thomas was excavating outside the walls, Kim and I spent a chunk of the afternoon at the labyrinth, digging out and replacing sunken stones, making the curves a bit more curvy, and just generally clarifying things. It was heavy work. Naps were required afterward. Patrick herded the chickens out onto the deep green grass, and he and Murphy Cat kept careful watch on their scratching and clucking. (Kim took the mystical photo.)

Kim and I are planning a trip to Ikea to buy another couple of pilgrim beds.
A German lady is coming tomorrow afternoon, to stay overnight.
On Thursday I am off to Madrid to collect my mom at the airport.

Just because things are buzzing here does not mean we don´t waste a lot of time online, anyway. Here is a lovely (and quick) video for you, made by a man who walked across China. Enjoy!