Monday, 31 August 2009

August Ends

The wind is strong this afternoon. It is after 6:30 p.m., but heat still radiates off the tiles in the patio. Flies gather in the ivy. They hang with their sticky feet onto the shady undersides of the leaves. They buzz, invisibly. The greenery sounds like it´s humming to itself.

The birds are gone silent. No radio plays, no tractors pass. I hear the blood thumping inside my ears.

Paperwork, stacked under a round rock on the tabletop, thumbs itself in the breeze. The day´s business is done: We gave a new pair of crutches to Paula, a neighbor lady who lent a pair when Gareth broke a foot-bone here last week. We said goodbye to Juli, and saw her on her way to a new job in rural Burgos. Reservations are made for a mountain hike two weeks hence, and tickets bought for a November expedition up north. Email was duly sent to the insurance guy in America. The past is put away. The future is planned-for. Nothing more to achieve. I am left here, in the present.

The dog barks next door. The wind lows in the top of the spruce tree.

A horn honks out on the autopista. Tim the Dog, sprawled in the doorway, groans in his sleep.

Here inside our walls is pure quietness.
No one wants anything.
Someone else is making dinner, something Italian, with prawns.
The kitchen is clean.
No one is coming here this evening. Nothing much is planned for tomorrow, either. Harvest some eggplants. Sweep the patio. Put up some primer on the outside wall and put Brian, our current handyman, to work on that.

The last houseguests, two fine and merry Scotsmen, left two days ago. They went smiling, promising to return. One is a really special guy. I may have found a true new friend.

I am doing nothing, but I am not bored.

Operatic Placido birds have arrived in the spruce-top. They are tuning up for their evening concert. Inside the house, Murphy wails for his dinner.

Nothing more but right now. Right here.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A Failure

We are finally alone together this evening, after many days of hosting.

We are tired-out, emotionally frazzled, low.

Maybe it´s all the letdown after the big fiesta. Maybe it´s the feeling that summer is almost gone, that the cool evening wind has the first breath of autumn in it. Maybe it´s all the nastiness and conflict in the news: from the hateful healthcare culture wars in America, to a nasty mob of locals tossing out the monks who run the parish church in Rabanal del Camino.

Maybe we´re feeling our own aches and pains a bit more as we look at our three-legged dog and wonder if she really is cured, and when we hear about beloved cousins and friends now losing ground to cancer.

Failure has something to do with it. Instead of staying the three weeks originally intended, one of our long-term meant-to-be-helpful guests decided last night to cut short his stay and move on. He can´t take this place any more, he said.

We cannot be all things to all people. But in a couple of very real ways, we let this one down. Paddy doesn´t want to talk about it any more. Maybe I should not be writing anything. But just for the sake of balancing out all the "Happy Happy Joy Joy" I write here, you oughtta know this.

Sometimes it´s hard being here and doing this. Sometimes, no matter where you live, just living is hard work.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Brushfires & Busted Bones: Felices Fiestas!

It was a great fiesta weekend, what with the guitar concert, the huge chorizo barbeque, the fireworks and dancing into the night.

Too bad one of our guests fell down the stairs. And maybe the brush fire wasn´t such a great idea.
But we´ve all survived worse weekends, I think.

First things first, though: Here we had two houseguests: Adam, the handsome young Fulbright-grant guitarist from Chicago; and Gareth, a Catholic seminarian from England who walked from Worcester to Santiago, and was setting out to do two or three weeks of painting and repairs and cooking here at The Peaceable over his summer break.

Saturday´s fiesta Mass was a high point. Moratinos was in full Homecoming mode, and everyone wore their summer Sunday best, and brought the granny and aunts and cousins along. We year-round ladies had practiced a number of hymns in advance, so when the St. Thomas statue was carried aloft ´round the plaza, our “Alabanzas” did not sound half bad! The church was swept, mopped, and dusted, then filled with fresh flowers. The sun shone hot and bright, the kiddies played with antique games, and the whole world seemed to smile all morning long.

Maybe because I was there to help with so much of the preparations, I felt very much a part of the celebration this time. I´m not watching any more. I am participating. It was moving, and made me feel very thankful.

Then, on Saturday evening, Gareth fell down the stairs. He did something to one side of his foot, he said. He hopped around a lot, but refused to go to the doctor.

Saturday night of Fiesta Weekend means fireworks. The sign on the church door said the display would start at 10 p.m., so I took the dogs off to Sahagún in plenty of time to miss the terrifying racket. Down by the River Cea, miles from the fiesta and guests and hubbub, we had a nice walk in the shimmering dark. We pulled into Moratinos again just before 11 p.m. In the sky above exploded the very first petard of the night´s big display.

Una ran for the shower stall and spent the next few hours shivering in terror. My purpose defeated, I headed down the street to the plaza to join in the ooh´s and aah´s and bathe in the rockets´ red glare.

Last year the Boys launched the fiesta display right in the center of the main street. Neighbors complained afterward about embers and sparks bouncing off their roofs and into their gardens, so this year the the launch zone was moved down to the truck scales, where the Camino leaves the town. It was still quite close to the plaza, but seemingly out of the danger. I joined about 75 people on the corner, watching while José and Hilario and some of the younger cousins lit fuses and ran through the smoke while the sky exploded over their heads.

It was the big green crysanthemum bomb that did it. It sped skyward in a spray of golden sparks, but the secondary ignition happened early – too low to the ground. Glowing green fireballs came down on both sides of the pavement and shattered into the dry brush and the stubble. Flames suddenly shot upward, well above the head-level.

Seventy-five people inhaled, wondering if this was for real. The men in the middle didn´t seem to notice the pillars of fire to their right and left, at least not until the smoke plume blew over the pavement and into their faces. Suddenly we all remembered how windy it was. The fire roared and widened. Then someone shouted. “Agua!”

In an instant the pavement was pounding with silhouette figures, all of them running, all of them swinging a shovel, rake, or blanket. They were us. Men shouted for keys, the keys to the pump house where the big municipal water hoses are kept, but no one had them, no one knew who did. Then the water appeared – garden gates opened and out spouted green garden hoses. Someone put a paint bucket into my hands, and I ran, too, over to the fuente, I turned the crank and Agapita was there with her two mop buckets, then Segundino was there with a big rubber manure-mover. We filled up and ran, down the plaza, over Calle Ontanon, straight at the flames and the flailing figures in the ditches, dozens of us.

Great arcs of water seemed to hang in the air as men and women old and young ran back and forth, flinging dishpans and pails of water at the threat. Roaring round the corner, its headlights blazing, came Estebanito in his tractor, the one with the crop-sprayer tank on the back. He drove through the flames and out the other side, then wheeled round to face the fire. Water sprayed out, under heavy pressure, and the fire´s westward movement stopped dead.

The bucket brigade stomped and soaked the rest, til every last ember was out.
It took five minutes, tops. Nobody was hurt, although a couple of children and dogs were badly frightened. (Toby, Milagros´ little dog, was found hiding in the corner of a neighbor´s bathroom.)

We finally put down our buckets. We all joined in a collective round of applause. All together, we´d saved our town! Which called for a drink. The little brick-and-board fiesta bar was open in the corner of the church porch, so off we all went.

Sunday morning was spent not at church, but at the hospital in Palencia. Care there was friendly, professional, and very efficient: Gareth´s foot was duly x-rayed, found to be broken, and put in plaster within an hour. They had no crutches at the hospital, for reasons I couldn´t clearly understand. All the pharmacies were closed til Monday, so we had to make due with a couple of hiking poles.

We were home in time to feast Sunday afternoon on the massive and fragrant lasagna Gareth made on Saturday morning. We hopped over to the church and let Adam knock us dead with a concert of classical Spanish guitar. (People came all the way from Sahagún to hear it, including our electrician and his family. They even bought a CD!)

And after the concert Paula, one of the summertime people, took Gareth by the wrist. She just happened to have a pair of crutches in a closet, she said – would he want to use them?

And so the fallen man is relieved of his hopping, and joins the growing ranks of the Peaceable Kingdom Dismemberment Society. I will finish the paint job outside myself, unless some other willing worker shows up. I will help Juli feed the orphaned kittens using a syringe. I will cook for a houseful of men. I will continue to spoil my dogs.

I will continue to be amazed at how good it is, (almost) all of it.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Weekend Update

Una´s recovering nicely from her leg-cutting-off surgery. The incision is almost completely closed-up, the stitches are removed, and the nasty Elizabethan hood comes off tomorrow. Not a moment too soon for her. She´s dying to spend a good few hours licking at the place where her leg once was.

And the long and short of it is, she´s probably dying. The biopsy came back on Friday, and she has osteosarcoma -- bone cancer. Every vet we´ve consulted on this (all SIX of them!) says yeah, that´s fatal. Taking off the leg greatly cuts down on her suffering, and probably prolongs her life. We can do chemotherapy, too, and add on a few more weeks, while emptying our pockets and maybe making her more miserable. So we will wait and see from here. We´ve done almost all we can do.

The only hope now is that the cancer did not move on to her lungs before they took off her leg. Not much hope of that. So, after many tears and conversations, we decided to get the incision cleared up, and proceed to spoil Una rotten for whatever amount of time she has left. Four to six months is average.

But she started limping almost a year ago, and has got this far. She is tough as nails.
And we have the Secret Camino Weapon of Hope. We have San Roque.

I think I told you already that I made a very Spanish Deal With God, via San Roque: Save my dog, and I´ll walk the Camino in thanksgiving in the Holy Year 2010.

Our parish church has a lovely, primitive 17th-century statue of San Roque (or San Rocco for my Italian friends). He supposedly saved Moratinos from a plague of Scarlet Fever in the 1860´s, and the men of the town formed a Confraternity ever after to thank him for favors granted. The prayer group died out with its members, but resurrected in the 1930´s, when Franco "recommended" everyone go very religous. All those Confraternity men have also gone on to their eternal rewards, but they left behind a powerful tradition.

I live here now, even though I´m a foreigner. San Roque is still there on his special altar in the church, with his little mascot dog at at his knee, offering up a crust of bread to the plague-stricken pilgrim saint. (A couple of years ago Paddy put a dog biscuit in his paws. It´s still there.)

So I guess I am the new Confraternity of San Roque in Moratinos. For the sake of a scruffy mutt dog from Jeannette, Pennsylvania. I am sure Roque has bigger fish to fry up there where he is, but I have nothing to lose in asking. So I did. Yeah, it´s superstitious nonsense. But if you were me you´d do it too. If you loved anybody the way I love Una Dog. Me and Una and Roque are all immigrants, y´know.

Enough of my silliness. There are other things happening around here that you must know!

The two-star hostel on the edge of town is supposed to start building in September or October now. All the permits are in order, according to Daniel the owner, whom we met on the trail a week or so ago. The holdup is the bank. Banks aren´t lending money to anybody these days. So we shall see. The Word on (all two) Streets of Moratinos is: "Cuando veo, yo creo." "I´ll believe it when I see it." Which is kinda too bad, because even if none of us has much use for a hotel, we´d like to have a bar in town.

Since Paddy and I installed a simple stone labyrinth along the Camino in Villa Oreja last November, it´s reportedly appeared in an Italian Camino journal and on several pilgrim blogs and websites. Passing pilgrims have done their best to "improve" it, adding another circle of stones ´round the outside, re-locating the entrance, and decorating the centerpoint with flowers, coins, buttons, and in one instance a foil-wrapped ham and cheese sandwich.

One labyrinth specialist of our acquaintance warned us that ad-hoc additions and re-designs "interfere with the energy balance" of our classic Cretan design. I listen, so far as keeping open the entry and exit paths. (for some reason, pilgs like to close-off those, presumably for the sake of symmetry.) But the extra outside ring, and the bits of poppy and lavender at the center don´t seem to hurt anything. They probably add to the mix. So I leave them. The Camino doesn´t mind.

...sorry, interrupted. Emilio the long-anticipated Italian arrived, he is scouting new albergue locations for the Confradia de Perugia in Italy. This group has an almost-legendary place right on the Burgos-Palencia border that only accommodates 12 pilgrims, in an abandoned church, without electricity. Very Catholic, these guys, but good people. They wash the pilgrims´ feet, even. (Amazing how much Italian I can understand (and speak) after half a bottle of Sunday Ruedo!)

And so I should go. We could be looking at the future here. Or at least a couple of pilgs to feed. Emilio is walking with Jacobo, his 10-year-old boy.

Every boy should walk the Camino with his dad. Or his mum.
So saith Me.

More news later on. Work to do now.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Big Sweep

Two dozen arms sweep and push and pull. Backs bend and straighten, turn and twist and bend again. The breeze carries chaff and sneezes over the threshing floor. The tractor roars and turns in circles, over and over, crushing the crop beneath two stone-studded sledges a half-century old.

Nobody´s threshed garbanzo beans here for at least two decades, I am told, and never such a grand quantity. The work´s only meant for the nine or ten members of the clan who raised the plants: Angelín and Angelón, Segundino and Toñi, Floren, Feliciano, Mari Angeles, Hilario and Isabel, a little black dog called Amora, and their brother/uncle/in-law Manolo up there in the John Deere.

The novelty, and the need, drew more of Moratinos out to the era, the threshing floor to lend a hand. We were: Paddy and me, Modesto, Leandra, Milagros, Esteban´s sister Paula, and a couple more summer people I don´t know. Pilgrims stopped to snap photos.

Some of the older people did this work before, back when they were young: Garbanzos and lentils and grain, all had to be beaten into the ground this way to break the fruit free of the pods and leaves and twigs that surround them. The heavy sledges, called "trillos," were pulled by steers or mules. (And when the animals made manure, Modesto pointed out, the driver had to run up and catch it in his hands, so as not to soil the beans! Not so bad with a mule, but cows? Wheew! You kept a bucket on the sledge.)

As the fluffy plants are crushed flat beneath the trillo, the helpers use rastros and escobas and orcas (handmade wooden rakes, straw brooms, and hayforks) to turn it over and shove and sweep the plant matter farther into the circle´s center, to be run-over again.

Trillos are almost never used any more, and then only by small-scale farmers like Manolo. He chains two of them side-by-side behind his tractor, and the work is done in less than half the time an animal might take, with a lot less worry about poo.

The greater concern is silliness. It´s helpful to have some weight on top the sledges, so the siblings, none of them spring chickens, jump on and frolic while Manolo makes the trillos swing and buck, just a bit. It´s a low-tech thrill ride, a chance to let the breeze blow back your hair.

Time passes. The sun pounds down, and even the breeze is hot. We bend and sweep every tiny bean inward. Beginners are given a quick tutorial, and told to feel the wind, to keep out of the shifting cloud of broken chaff, to give each stroke a lift at the end, to send a little more of the dust into the breeze.

In bigger, more developed places this work is now completely mechanized. Manolo´s family hasn´t grown its own garbanzos for a good 25 years, he said -- it´s not a good investment, not with Argentinian beans selling at 40 cents a kilo. Spanish farmers cannot make a profit when the price falls below a Euro, so the locals only grow small crops of these kinds of legumes, for their own consumption.

The final outcome, these little swept-up brown beans, are "rico, rico, rico, lo mejor," I am told, over and over: delicious, the very best. They are small and hard, but they have a nutty, dense flavor that stews beautifully with swiss chard or spinach or cabbage.

These beans will feed their big family for the next year, Hilario said. They will eat them themselves, or sell them to the neighbors, maybe use some for seed for next year. The leftover sticks and leafy bits will feed the pigs and chickens.

This family has an ancient sarcophagus in their yard, used to store construction junk. They are re-doing a house on the plaza with their own hands, a place with a Romanesque doorway where their mother was born. It is slowly becoming a showplace. In their higgledy-piggeldy complex they produce hams and sausages, tools, fruit and vegetables, wine, moonshine, poultry, rabbits, and hunting dogs.

And garbanzos, this year.

They think it´s kind of cute, how interested I am in outmoded, sweaty work. They laugh out loud at the end of the afternoon, after the cider is drunk and the beans are reduced to a small mound on the era, when I thank them for asking me over, for giving me an opportunity to rastrar and orcar alongside them.

I wish I could ask them: How often can I do with my hands the sweep of history that´s scratched the ground of that era for a thousand years?

But I am a stranger enough the way I am. And my Castellano just isn´t up to that yet.

Sunday, 9 August 2009


Summer is the finest season of the year. Everything is alive, green, and bright, putting all its energy into growth and ripening. The fields are cut and brown, but gardens are going full blast.

Our little garden, the scruffy outcome of months of work and planning, is cranking out tons of free vegetables. We´re filling up our freezer and our bellies, luxuriating in all the extra vitamins and minerals. Today it was zuchinni fritters, a red-pepper tortilla, and slices of tomato drizzled with olive oil. Yesterday it was baba ganooj and a pitcher of gazpacho. Tomorrow we may sample a melon!

Fresh food does not get any better than this, and I am careful to chew slowly and savor the gift. Most gratifying of all is the abundance allows us to share. Seems none of our neighbors grew eggplants/aubergines this year, so we´re handing out these purple-skinned wonders to whomever wants them. (And probably to a few who don´t, but are too polite to refuse.) For years now, the Julis and Milagros and Edu and Segundinos have been giving us bags of beans and peppers, figs and courgettes and squash and tomatoes and roses. Finally, we have something of our own to hand back.

We don´t see many pilgrims at our door these days. We are preoccupied with Una dog, who is recovering from her leg-amputation surgery. It is gruesome and shocking and terrible, seeing a dear friend maimed and suffering. Still, she is taking it better than any of us would. I only wish I knew what “normal” looks like, in reference to a catastrophic wound. She may be doing just fine. She may be fighting a terrible infection. She may be undoing all our anti-biotic efforts by licking the thing when we´re not looking. I just don´t know. We take her back to Leon tomorrow to find out.

I am not cut out for anything medical. Just changing Una´s bandages makes me cry like a baby, because I know I am hurting her.

I wonder if our lack of pilgrims is a failing on my part. We´re supposed to be here helping them out, but we´re holed-up at home instead, licking our wounds and eating our vegetables.

It´s not all joyless nursing here. Over in Sahagún the town is hopping with natives returned home for the holiday month and Asturians come down to enjoy the dry Meseta air. I need a haircut, but I shall have to live with my haystack demeanor for a while – even the peluquerias are packed-out! Bars and restaurants are offering all sorts of parties and specials, and one particular poster caught my eye:
Fiesta Hindu
Cafe-Restaurante Polideportivo
Comida de India
Cena completa 12€

This was unusual on several levels. First, the locals are NOT eaters of foreign food, especially something as potentially spicy as Indian. (I´ve learned to not bring “foreign muck” to community dinners, as it will go practically untouched. Even apple pie, and baklava, alas! )

Second unusal thing was the setting. The cafe at the sports complex is a rough spot, where you might find a crude sandwich or a reheated frozen “pizza” among the Cheez-Kurls and ice pops and cold drafts. Dinners? Exotic foreign cuisine? No way, Jose.

And the price! Twelve Euros for three courses and wine? Not on this side of Mumbai. And just the idea of Tikka Masala translated to a Spanish palate was intriguing. We were SO there!

And we were not disappointed. It seems an Andalusian-African couple is running the place now, and is making a real effort. The woman pinned a colorful Indian tablecloth sari-style over her dress, and wore her hair in a long black braid. The man tacked Buddha posters and elephant-print cloths to the dining room walls, and lit incense sticks on a table laden with tropical fruit. He dimmed the lights, and ignited our little tabletop candle. Which was, unfortunately, made for repelling mosquitoes. (Combine several tables´ worth of these with joss-stick incense in a garage-size room, and the effect is exotic to the point of pleurisy.)

Theirs was not like any Indian food I´ve eaten before, but it was tasty, abundant, and served with care and even flair. By candlelight. It was weird and foreign and lovely, a beautiful way to spend an evening at the Polideportivo.

We´ll be back. Every Saturday they will offer something different, the man said. Different, in Sahagún! Someone´s gotta support this kind of thing, even if we are all Anglos and Asturians.

We will bring along company, even. Soon our friend John Rafferty (aka “Johnnie Walker”) will hike to here on his epic journey from Madrid on an alternative camino. (he´s updating the CSJ Guide to the Camino de Madrid.) And Gareth, an English priest-in-training will show up here soon to help us out, part of his summer holiday. So we´ll have to get some pilgs in here to keep him occupied!

He´ll be here for the fiesta, coming up on the weekend of the 22nd. And here, too, will be Adam Levin, guitarrista, who is performing a concert for the village on Sunday afternoon. Word is the fiesta may be smaller than usual this year, as most of the Juli and Pilar families will be out of town that week. But we´ll do our best to beef up the numbers and jolly-up the joint with some charming foreigners. Maybe they´ll dance!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Into August

Oh what a week it´s been.
The sun pounds down. The garden is burgeoning, full of glossy eggplants and fat green beans and brilliant red tomatoes.
I am neglecting the garden a bit, and the blog a lot.

Brian the Pittsburgh guy pushed his romance with Juli a bit too hard, and a great drama unfolded over a couple of days. He is now on the Camino, on his way to Santiago. (So nice, having a low-cost psychotherapy option/escape clause right outside the door).

Juli learned she did fine on her big exam, and in September she starts with a real job in a real school teaching English, out in Burgos province.

Paddy is feeling much better, after having a rather low period.

Una, on the other hand (or paw?) is feeling pretty bad. Yesterday at the Leon University Veterinary Hospital her left rear leg was amputated. We go to pick her up this afternoon. I am bracing myself for the shock.

In the middle of all this I took off in the train for Santiago, where I squeezed with 38,000 other people into an outdoor theater/cow pasture designed for 30,000. (seems the promoter got a bit carried-away with the VIP passes for friends and family.)There we watched Bruce Springsteen sing and cavort for a solid three hours. He was very fun. I was there with a couple of fine people, so it wasn´t a complete waste. And I got to have a long, leisurely, solo visit in Santiago, a very beautiful and moving place.

I am getting some thinking done. I am re-thinking the blog, and I wonder if you readers can help me clarify what I am doing with it. Should I focus on Village Life in Rural Spain, or camino things, or my own thoughts and experiences? Is this blog too personal, and/or boring? Am I losing you?

Tell me what you want. That´s what the "comment" slot is for, down at the bottom. I need to know.

And as for Moratinos Life, the Segundinos have harvested their garbanzo beans, and the plants are drying out on the era in a fluffy great pillow of stalks. On Saturday they will drag a heavy trillo threshing sled across them, to separate the beans from the pods and stems and leaves. (We have one of these trillo sleds in our dining room. Ours is decor -- and a great back-scratcher.) And then they´ll somehow separate the chaff from the beans by throwing them all up in the air.

I´d never seen garbanzo beans in their natural state before. When they´re green they look and taste like hard peas. I didn´t know that getting chickpeas involved such a great deal of time and effort. They are so inexpensive, so easily bought, all ready to serve from the jar or tin. It´s an eye-opener, seeing what goes into them.

So, if you should see a farmer today, tell him thank-you. Think about hummus, and give him a big kiss on either side of his smile.