Monday, 28 September 2009

Cunning Old Benedict

My hands are stained and nicked. They look like I´ve murdered someone, but so do everyone else´s. We are cut and bruised and aching in the riñones, but we´re smiling, too. It is late September, and the grapes are ripe, ready for picking. Every extra hand is needed to get them all in on time.

I thought we had enough work of our own to do. We were already worn-out from the roofing project, the long hike over the mountains, framing-up a new book, and wrangling with the health insurance company that will not let me go. The stresses of living far from the homeland and family seem to pile up this time of year.

This afternoon Kathy and I sat together in the cool darkness of our bodega-cave, tasting a Bierzo reserva that´s right at its peak. She leaves us tomorrow, after two weeks of good company and great help; we were setting up for a nice Girls´ Afternoon in the Wine Cellar, the last for who knows how long?

But Brian rolled up with a wheelbarrow. We poured him a cup of vino, and we started plotting our next project: We´re building a chimney on top the bodega, so wandering pilgrims do not fall down the ventilation hole and die in there. (We have no light or electricity at the cave, and all the materials and tools for the chimney will have to be hauled up a very steep hillside that´s pocked with other chimney-holes and collapsed bodega-roofs. We like challenges here.)

And while we considered, and sipped our lovely vintage, a figure darkened the doorway.
It was Milagros, always a character to be reckoned with, a knife in one hand and a bucket in the other. It´s vendimia time, she said. Come on over to the vineyard and help out!

Brian once helped with a grape harvest in Italy, and Kathy was game for a bit of rural diversion: it seemed like a much better plan than anything we´d imagined for the afternoon! So we locked up the bodega, gathered up some knives and buckets and dogs, and headed over to the Promised Land, a vast stretch of fields on the other side of the autopista. Over there Esteban and Milagros and Leandra and Carlos keep their long-suffering vines of red Mencia and white Muscat grapes.

Two by two you take a row, and cut the vine from near the root, where the fattest, sweetest grapes grow. The harvest isn´t heavy this year, Esteban said, but other vines in the district, picked last week, provided an exceptionally sweet and mellow mosto -- the fresh-pressed juice that turns, in time, to wine.

Milagros said dogs like to eat fresh grapes. We gave Tim and Una a few, which they politely tasted, but they seemed more interested in chasing critters. We tucked into the job, and spent a good two hours out there in the cool breeze, filling great buckets with grapes and emptying them into a huge trailer behind the John Deere.

We stooped under the sun, doing work with a visible outcome, toward a final product we can taste right now, or wait a few months and taste in another form altogether. The dogs dug for field mice. Brian sang his great big rendition of "Blowin´ In the Wind."

I thought of St. Benedict, whose Rule pretty much codifed monastic life as we know it. He very wisely fitted periods of hard physical work into the monks´ everyday rhythm of prayer, study, eating, and sleeping. "Idleness is the enemy of the soul," he wrote, sometime back in the 6th century. "Therefore, at fixed times each day, the brothers are to be occupied in manual labor." So even the priests and theologians had their turn hoeing the garden, at least in the early days.

Can´t argue with that. And I know that picking grapes clears out the mind almost as well as a long walk does. The worries of the past week went into the bucket with the fruit.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Mountain Goats

It´s official now. The Camino del San Salvador -- pilgrim trail that goes from Leon northward over the Picos de Europa and on to Oviedo – is now my favorite camino.

I walked the last four of this five-day camino this past week, and enjoyed it immensely.

Not that it didn´t try to kill me again. I think the difficulty and danger is part of the reason I like it so much. When you roll into beautiful Oviedo and have that big glass of wine and touch the foot of the Jesus statue in the cathedral, you know you´ve really achieved something. (And my Protestant soul finds it pleasing that Jesus is the star of this show.)

The impact of what you´ve done doesn´t hit you til the train ride back down to Leon: the mountains! The 20-percent grades! The 5,000-foot altitudes! Oooh, I feel downright heroic when I finish up this hike in one piece...

But first, Piers Nicholson.

Piers is a certified character. He wears a halo of wiry white hair. He is an MIT and Oxford-educated entrepreneur who lives in Epsom, England and knows all about rare elements and their industrial applications. He designs and builds latitudinally-correct sundials, is on the board of the British Sundial Society, and maintains almost 100 websites, including the leading sundial information site and a Camino de Santiago photography site that qualifies as one of the oldest and most comprehensive. He the upcoming Master of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers. He is 74 years old, and on Monday night came bounding up the steps of the little pilgrim hostel in Buiza singing “To Be a Pilgrim.”

He bristled and buzzed with electronic gadgets: a mobile phone, a book-reader screen, a Spanish-English translator, two each of GPS navigational units and digital cameras, two battery chargers, and all the related wires and converters. We were in search of The Lost Trail, a four-kilometer piece of Camino that escapes the notice of just about every hiker out of Buiza bound of Poladura de Tercia. Except me. I found it when I walked back in March. So I was enlisted to show the way to Piers, who intends to use his marvelous machinery to map its mysteries.

That is what we did. He stuck close over two days of very tough terrain, very high altitude bushwacking, freezing rain, three nearby lightning strikes, hypothermia symptoms, barbed wire, and a couple of falls. (While shivering inside a stormcloud I saw a miracle occur before my eyes, all around me: the water drops, condensing out of the mist like silver slivers, then blow away downward as ice crystals. Beautiful. And cold as hell!)

Piers took a licking and kept on hiking, at least till, at long last, bedraggled and soaked through, we got down to the highway just south of the Pajares Pass. We split up there. I walked 4 more kilometers down the truck-infested, fog-bound 17-percent grade to the pilgrim hostel. But Piers? No. Piers stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked south, to pick up his rental car.

I am tough. Piers is tough and smart.

At Pajares hostel we met up with Kathy Gower, yet another tough person. She came to us fresh off a flight from her home in San Francisco, California, USA. She said she´d slept on the bus from Madrid, that she´d taken herbal jet-lag pills, that she was just fine to walk on in the morning. And so we did, she and I. (Piers had to go to Burgos in his rental car.) We took the very best path imaginable: down the sunny western side of the Pajares River, all the way to Pola de Lena.

A river path, I thought... low-altitude! We might get our feet wet, but I was ready for a break from the heights. It was not to be, however. This path, like those before, climbs upward and tracks along the faces of the mountains alongside the river, which roars and trickles far down the cliffs below. Woodland paths, sometimes paved with medieval skill, passing through apple orchards and fig trees, cow pastures and tiny stone villages. The sun shone bright all day, the blackberries were ripe and ready for snacking, and we closed each pasture-gate we passed through. It went on for hours, for two days. We drank local cider and ate döner kebab. I got a tetanus shot at the health center in La Pola, where the barbed-wire cuts on my left hand were all the ID I needed to qualify for free treatment. (They didn´t even ask to see ID. I was in and out in five minutes. Viva Socialized Healthcare!)

Kathy and I chatted, but spent plenty of time on our own, too. We petted kittens and donkeys, and chatted with a young evangelical, a forest warden, the bread delivery man, and several lonely old ladies. Most of them offered us water or food or fruit, or the use of their bathroom. I think this is how the Camino Frances was, before the great pilgrim flood overtook the place. It is rarely traveled, tough, and extremely beautiful.

It is too difficult to ever become another Camino Frances, but who knows? It was once rather popular, if legend holds true. Back when pilgrimage was all the rage, in the 13th century or so, travelers to St. James´ tomb in Compostela were lured off the main pathway and northward to Oviedo with the promise of relics from Jesus Christ himself, along with a big collection of assorted teeth, hairs, and bone fragments from a crowd of holy folk. “He who goes to Santiago and skips Oviedo, honors the servant and neglects the master,” the wags used to say.

Nowadays Oviedo sees pilgrims from the Camino del Norte, too, and those embarking on the Camino Primitivo start there – King Alfonso II of Asturias followed that mountainous way west to Compostela, and was the very first Santiago pilgrim on record – thus is his pathway dubbed “the primitive,” or the Original. I must attempt it sometime. I feel if I can survive the Salvador, I can probably thrive on the Primitivo!

But by sheer accident, Kathy and I arrived in Oviedo in time for St. Matthew´s Day festivities. Because we prayed at the cathedral during a certain span of days, we got for free a full remission of all our sins! Almost as nice as a free tetanus shot, eh?

We were too worn-out to stay out late and start running up a new tab. We luckily found a room quite near everything, ate some famous fabada bean stew and some wild-mushroom scrambled eggs, and went straight to bed and to sleep.

We are home again now at the Peaceable, where the roof is now going onto the Hermitage and over by the bodegas the ever-toiling Segundino family is squeezing grapes into wine-making juice. Kathy is up ladders and down trails, always looking for a way to lend a hand. She has been a part of The Peaceable from its very start – she visited here two weeks after we bought the place, and has been a steadfast supporter through all our dark valleys and bright mountain-tops.

She is a fine friend, a great hiker, almost like a sister to me. When she is around, I feel like anything is possible... at least after the aches wear off our ankles and backs!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Next Big Thing?

I haven´t written in a while because I´ve been thinking.
I´ve been thinking while I stay very busy doing heavy work.
It´s hot here still. We´re in the heart of the dry, brown period of the year, the only couple of months we have when the fields are not green. Everyone´s sneezing from the dust.
In the house are Brian, the handyman from Pittsburgh, and Megan, a pretty couch-surfer from California.
We´ve got the back yard looking as good as a Appalachian-style mud-brick corral can look without recourse to bulldozers.
The outside walls are now resplendent in a coat of fresh ochre.
The woodpile is two layers deep and under cover. The timber pile is sorted-out, and the scrap – boards so studded with nails and spikes, staples and clasps they´d tear the teeth off the chainsaw – is stacked out back waiting for a day calm and cool and damp enough for a bonfire. We spread gravel out there, so when the rain finally arrives we can visit our chickens without wading through gluey mud.
It´s been forever since it rained.
On Monday I meet with Piers Nicholson, a cartographer from the Confraternity of St. James in London, to hike up and waymark the mountain path over the Camino San Salvador. I am praying the rain holds off until we finish.
Brian, meanwhile, is tearing the tiles off the leaky roof over the Hermitage. The waterproofing membrane will be delivered on Monday.
So, of course, for the first time in weeks, the sky to the north is piling up with lead-bellied clouds. A breeze is picking up. I located a massive sheet of black plastic that dates back to the first entry on this blog... the May when we had no roof, the May with unprecedented rainstorms!
I am thinking about those old stories nowadays.
While I´m chatting with the visitors and ordering people around, I am also thinking. I get the usual mind-racket of Tarantino movies and books I want to read, who´s coming over next week, airline ticket prices, currency exchange rates, Una´s medicines, and the latest rant on
But late at night when everyone else is sleeping I think about the Torremolinos puzzle, and money, and future security, and how to distribute funds to pay for next year´s maintenance projects.
Most of all, I am thinking about a book.
I want to write a book.
This is a condition that descends on me like a long season. I usually respond to it by editing someone else´s book, or outlining a few good ideas of my own.
I know how to write books. Four of mine were actually published, but they are not anything I´d recommend for light reading. (They are mostly guides to herbal medicines and alternative treatments for specific illnesses.)
And like most people of my persuasion, I have committed a novel.
It´s a camino adventure story, 14th century. It´s been kicking around in some form or another for a good 15 years now, and I believe that by now it is unpublishable.
So I think I (maybe with Paddy) should write something I know. A Peaceable Kingdom book.
It will be great fun. I love writing on a long-term project I can get my teeth into.
So while I saw firewood I slice and dice our experience into topics, chapters, characters, seasons.
Paddy and I discuss. We don´t argue, not yet. But we´re both thinking it.
We have a book here, and we have an audience, too. We just have to get it written.
Once the roofing jobs are done and paid-for, and once the Holy Year hubbub dies down, and if a quiet place and time can be carved-out, and a story arc can be established while we still are living the story. I´ll need an editor. Eventually I will need to find another agent. Perhaps, someday, if the stars align and I meet the Devil at the crossroads at midnight, a publisher!
Or maybe we´ll publish it online.
But I am running way out ahead of myself. (Kim the graphic artist/former shimmering butler, who is herself not above getting ahead of myself, made up the book cover above. It will be hard to live up to!)

This, right now, is the hardest part of all – getting past all the excuses and just starting the work.

Today I re-found a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets. It says:

If the angel
deigns to come
it will be because
you have convinced
her, not by tears
but by your humble
resolve to be always
beginning; to be
a beginner.

Monday, 7 September 2009

A Long, Strange Trip

In the past few days Paddy and I have been to the south of Spain and back north again. You can drive from north to south in a day, but it is a killer LONG day. Spain is big. The dogs wanted very much to go, but we said No.

We visited a royal palace on Wednesday, and a harpy´s den on Friday. In between was a lonely Nepalese, a cute little blond boy, a kindly victim of her own generosity, and a tap-dancing squatter. Among and upon us all was El Sol.

The Sun was the biggest player in all the last few days. Everything that is done and not done is due to his supreme zapping power. And down south in Malaga province, he´s as big a hitter as I have ever seen.

We went Wednesday, leaving the Peaceable in the hands of Brian, a house-painter and Pittsburgh native who did a forced-march camino in August, survived, and returned.

We headed out early across the Castilian plains for Aranjuez, just south of Madrid. We got there early afternoon, and drove in circles a while trying to find our hostel. A royal palace and massive manicured gardens tend to play havoc with the flow of traffic and actual real-life humanity.

We have been to Aranjuez twice now, and have never found the palace open. National monuments here can be as hit-or-miss as banks are in the United States. But the gardens and duck ponds and courtyards were open, peppered with charming stone harpies with Belle Epoque hairdos. The grounds and buildings are very symmetrical, and we had moments of Escher-esque weirdness looking down passages and through gateways. And then we discovered the speed-metal bistro with Marilyn Monroe black-light decor and Campari with real soda, from a siphon! And then dinner at a restaurant with the döner kebab Turkish takeout downstairs, and Spanified Indian cuisine up, and the waiter from Nepal who was just dying to be our very best friend forever. And I then parked the car, legally, right outside the door of the hotel. Surreal, all of it.

The next day we drove the rest of the way down, via La Mancha and Grenada, to Malaga and the coast and finally, Torremolinos.

It is hard to write about our trips to Torremolinos without a lot of background. I know most of you are more interested in Moratinos, but sometimes we who live in Moratinos must scurry southward for a time. Part of Paddy´s family lives down there, in a raffish, sunny coastal town akin to Margate or Atlantic City. It´s in Spain, but it´s full of expatriate working-class Brits and Europeans. Its high-rise holiday rental apartments were thrown up practically overnight in the 1960s and 70s, and they were settling into a long, slow decline before The Crisis hit a year ago. Now things are starting to feel desperate.

Pensioners are seeing their monthly checks shrink as the Euro gains strength and the dollar and British pound weaken. Fewer people are taking overseas holidays. Shops and restaurants and closing earlier in the evening or the season, or are leaving town altogether. Wages are down. Beach-view balconies are festooned with "For Sale" signs.

Part of Paddy´s family owns two tiny rental apartments in Torre, bought years ago as “investment property.” We went to see one of the flats. It´s called “Aries Penthouse,” which means it´s on the topmost floor of a five-story, 60´s era complex groovily named for signs of the Zodiac. The hallways are clean, but the tiles are chipped, the lights only have half their bulbs. A full dustpan was left standing in the elevator, going up and down all day along with the tenants.

Like the rest of the apartment doors in the place, Number 512 stands behind a locked iron grill. It was occupied until last June by a scary old harpy called Mary Carmen.

The battered door swung open. The electricity was switched off, so there were no lights but the sunshine through the windows. The smell slipped over my nose and mouth like a clammy hand.

Mary Carmen left everything behind once the locks were changed, including a refrigerator full of food. That was the start of summer, right under the roof, in a beach town. The sun did its worst in that closed-up, un-air-conditioned space. I knew there had to be former cheeses in there, but I did not look. I was afraid there might be a body.

Mary Carmen apparently collected sheets, pillowcases, doilies, scarves, exotic ethnic condiments, single shoes, Portuguese holy cards, textbooks on criminal law, empty cleaning-fluid bottles, maps, magazines, costume jewelry, and ribbons from funeral wreaths, and stacked them willy-nilly into a space intended for two people and minimal belongings. The leaking roof turned the walls and ceiling black and peeled the paint from the walls, but she did not complain. When the toilet broke off the floor, she had someone repair it with a bucket of ready-mix concrete and a large chunk of what might be asphalt. The kitchen shelves and cooker and counter apparently fell to earth years ago, along with the built-in closets and light fittings. But when you owe tens of thousands in back rent, and the sheriff´s eviction notices are layered on the front door, you don´t ask for too much maintenance.

The roof was repaired a few months ago. But what remains is mildew, neglect, and about 16 tons of useless junk.

We came to Torre this week because Paddy and I are considering buying this place. We thought it may be a win-win situation, a way to help ease the load on the family down south, while gaining for ourselves a little bolt-hole, a warm, English-speaking place to curl up in the winter and also provide a beach getaway for family and friends who need a break. But this...? I could feel how hard this was for Jo, the relative who showed it to us. She´s a big-hearted woman, overwhelmed by grasping people, the language, smell, wreckage, and many years of loss.

And the heat. I felt ill. We gathered up a stack of unopened bills, snapped some photos, and fled.

We sat down at a cafe and gathered our wits. We found a builder who will empty out the place next week. (Will he use a shovel, or a fire hose?) Once the walls and floors are visible, then he can determine what work must be done to return the place to habitability.

Then we will decide what to do. Part of me wants to bolt. Another part knows we can´t just leave things this way.

Oh, the tap-dancer is another of the family tenants, the American woman downstairs in Aries. She speaks fluent New Jersey but says that is just because she´s Jewish -- she´s really from California. The cute little boy is Sam, our "Spanish" grandson, a little O´Gara who is very much a two-year-old these days. He rules his family with a sticky lollipop fist, but does it all so charmingly you hardly notice until he´s gone to bed and the silent, cool evening breeze blows across the patio and the wine is poured.

The moon is shockingly bright down there. The sea is lapis blue. The fish-and-chips are tip-top, and we can buy pork and beans, fig newtons, cheddar, dog chewies, Valdepeñas Reserva, and kippers, all kinds of things you can´t find up here in Palencia. Sam is there, and his parents, and his grandma Jo, all of them beloved. And that bright bright sun, so fine in winter, and so utterly smiting and stultifying in September.

We talked it all over on the long drive back, and I think we have a plan.
Next time we go, though, I think we will take the train.