Monday, 26 October 2009

The More Things Change

We live in a little town in a great, wide plain. A great, wide sky yawns open overhead every day and every night, offering an ever-changing spectacle to anyone who bothers to look up.

Down here in Moratinos, the Center of My Universe, the past week has been dramatic, a wild ride full of emotions and characters, conflict and contemplation.

The sky opened up late last week and down came Leonel, or Leo, a lanky, grinning Cuban guy who looks like Fred Astaire. He´s crazy about the Camino and really, really wants to live in Moratinos. He decided to buy the former proto-pilgrim hostel on Calle Real, right where the Camino comes into town, a place that´s stood empty for two years. Dozens of interested people have taken walks through the old place, which maintains its characteristic adobe face and rustic, Palentino feel. Up til now, all the dreamers decided against taking up such a big project. Up til this week. Up til Leo.

Like thousands of other pilgrims who pass by appealing-but-empty places on the path, Leo´s taken with the idea of rebuilding a distinctive old farmhouse into a pilgrim hostel of his own.

He made an offer, and as such deals do, the buying process became a roller-coaster ride, played out here at our house. (The water and electricity supply are turned-off at the old place, so we told Leo he could stay here while he hashed things out. Leo´s a professional gardener, so he took out his room-and-board in hoeing and pruning and advising on planting and trees. Nice.)

Spain is a dramatic place. Big change occurs here with an invasion of Romans or Moors or Charlemagne or Napolean or a Divine Visitation, or an Inquisition. Buying a tumbledown house can be just as exciting, evidently. It feels quite Revolutionary while it´s going on, especially in a town as tiny as this one. It seemed like the whole population looked on while for days foreigners trooped up and down Calle Ontanon, taking back things stored or left behind, accounting for what belongs where and to whom, measuring, taking notes and jabbering into mobile phones.

A handshake deal was worked out on Sunday, paella prepared, and toasts drunk to the health and wealth of everyone involved. If all goes to plan, Leo and Ana, his Camino girlfriend from Barcelona, will in late November be our new neighbors, dueño and dueña of "Casa Tortuga."

Other things are changing too. Brian trained early in the week to be a hospitalero, and he starts his first two-week assignment on Saturday, in the big, busy pilgrim shelter in Ponferrada. He is raring to go. We are raring to get him there, as the house keeps filling up and we need his room, and we´re running low on building projects to keep him busy.

Tomorrow a quartet of new faces will arrive on a 9:30 train: our old bud Adam Levin the Classical guitarist is coming with a violinist and two recording engineers. Over the next few days -- if the roaring tractors and the bread-man´s blaring horn will allow -- they plan to record an album in the Church of St. Thomas, right here in dear old Moratinos.

The four of them will attempt to stay here at The Peaceable between sessions at the church. Meanwhile Brian will pack up his gear, the dogs and Murphy will continue the ongoing war against invading field-mice, and Paddy will flee to Madrid for a much-deserved few days of peace in the museums, botanical gardens, and whatever Dens of Iniquity he can rustle up. I will stay here and soldier on until November 4, when my turn comes and I can fly off for a few days of fun and music and feasting in Belgium. Busy, busy, busy.

Among all this hubbub and humanity and change and planning, it´s important to remember a few facts about who and where we are.

Through the heart of our town flows a great river of seekers and suckers, dreamers and schemers. A few of us are bound to fetch up on the shore to put down roots and, hopefully, enrich the environment somehow with our living and working, sinning, forgiving, and dying.

None of us is here forever. We come, we stay a while, and then we disappear, even though the problems and dramas of today seem so vitally important.

We live in a little town in a great, wide plain. A great, wide sky yawns open overhead every day and every night, offering an ever-changing spectacle to anyone who bothers to look up.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

stone dead

Rain finally arrived, and cold. It should stay this way, with frequent breaks for blue skies and manure-spreading, right through til January.

October always slips by quick. It´s the month with the shorts in the drawer right next to the hoodies and sweaters, when you´re constantly putting on clothing or taking it off because you just can´t get the temperature right. Not that I am complaining, really. It is only natural.

One fun thing about October is right at the end: Halloween. In America children dress in costumes and go door-to-door through neighborhoods, knocking on doors and collecting great bags of treats... supposedly a bribe to keep the kiddies from vandalizing the place. Some say the custom is a leftover from days long past, when superstitious rustics used food offerings to buy off the Evil Spirits that run loose at the end of October.  I dunno.

I am not sure just what happened to American Halloween in the last twenty years, but I think my generation is responsible. As kids we enjoyed playing dress-up so much we decided to hang onto the custom right on through middle age. Otherwise-responsible adults now dress up like Dracula or Beyoncé or Dick Cheney and go to wild drunken parties. We dress our children as pumpkins and princesses and hover near while they trick-or-treat in carefully selected subdivisions, usually in broad daylight... the danger we so love about Halloween is the very thing we can´t stand to imagine our kids encountering. We keep all the creepy fun stuff for ourselves. The children must settle for a sanitized, über-safe glucose blowout.

Oh, and we dress up pug dogs like bumblebees. Very, very twisted, that.  

But I digress. I said all that to get to this:  One of the highlights of my October visit to the Sierra de Demanda area of Burgos was discovering something really fascinating and morbid and creepy:  medieval necropolises.  (or maybe they are "necropoli"?) In any case, it´s a Greek word for "city of the dead." 

On a sunny Saturday morning Juli and I drove over mountain and plain deep into a forest of oak and pine. And down the long, sandy woodcutters´ lane and ´round a bend there stood what remains of Cuyacabras, a 9th-century village.

It´s a hillock made of sandstone, with a gentle stairway rising up the middle, a flat spot up top where a tiny church once stood. Carved carefully over, alongside, and in between the ancient stones are 183 open graves.

They are chopped into the stone, about knee-deep. Some are bathtub-shaped, some are niches carved into the rock-face. Creepiest of all are the "antropomorfos," the "man-shaped" ones, with a rounded hole for the head and an oblong for the body.  There are trenches for big people, and doll-sized ditches for babies, and every size in between.

We walked among them and thought our own thoughts. The only sound was the breeze in the treetops.

When I think of the medieval period I usually picture a dark city scene, full of people in dirty hose and doublets, bent under loads of wood or riding furry ponies. The occasional knight or lady can read and write. The church reigns supreme.

But out here in the woods, far from anything, the picture looks even darker. The soil is sandy, so few crops could grow here. The altitude means harsh, snowy winters and little outside contact. I imagined the few families who lived here must have been very intimate, living in tiny huts, sharing everything they had, scraping to survive.

I remember being told that death was not so traumatic back when every couple  had nine children and plagues and epidemics thinned their ranks each season. Life was generally short and brutish, and no one could afford to get to attached to anyone else. Families simply chucked away the members who didn´t make it, and set about begetting more babies to keep the hovel filled and the fields tilled.

I don´t buy it. It hurt them, too, to say goodbye. Look how these long-ago folk honored their loved ones.

They could have dug a hole in the sand for burials, but their dead, freed from their hard lives, were laid to rest in the only place that lasted: the stone. With channels cut in the surrounding slates to keep the rain from running too freely into the cracks, and a long, heavy slab laid over the body to keep out the wolves. Or the grave-robbers. Or the neighbors.

Or maybe they wanted to make sure the dead ones stayed dead, and wouldn´t  get up to bother the living any more? 

Brrahahaahaa!  How Halloween is that?!

Anyway, a day´s drive around the area will bring you to at least six of these thousand-year-old graveyards, some with chapels or hermitages also carved into the stone.  Not all are hidden away in the quiet woods. The rather beat-up necropolis in Regumiel is right in the middle of town. The Revenga necropolis has 133 rock-tombs, and some mysterious labyrinth-like carvings in the rock where a church once stood -- all of it smack up against a nice, new kiddie playground!

Of all the elements they could choose, the medieval people liked their stone. Important people merited burial in stone, as the sarcophagus outside Segundino´s house will attest.  One family member told me a long-ago ancestor brought it to Moratinos from the Villa Oreja monastery, over near where our labyrinth now stands. It probably once held the earthly remains of an abbot or a local lord.

It´s thick stone, deep as a bathtub, carved in a faintly human shape. You can´t really tell what it is these days, as it´s full of building debris. But Feliciano says it makes a fine watering trough for cows, once you knock a couple of drainage holes in it. They´ll maybe use it for a flowerbed, once their family house rehab job is finally finished.

I think they ought to plant pumpkins. Reared in a sarcophagus, they´d make fantastic jack-o-lanterns!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Honey in the Rock

Just back from the Sierra de Revenga, the wild borderland of Burgos and Soria, a place where everyone since the dinosaurs has been, but supposedly nobody goes anymore.

I went on Thursday to visit Juli, a Moratinos girl who´s helped us mightily through our resettlement in Spain. She, in her turn, struggled mightily to become a certified English teacher for Spanish public primary schools. This year she landed her first real full-time gig, in a shiny new school out on the edge of Burgos province. She has her own apartment now, and a classroom and a gang of students she clearly adores... it´s  the life she´s dreamed of for a long, long time. Our Juli, Happy At Last!

She asked me to come and see it all, and to have a talk (in American English) with her 5th and 6th level English classes – the 10- and 11-year-olds who might just understand some spoken English. I said “sure.” So, in the fullness of time, with approval from the Head Teacher, I was written into the curriculum.

It was wild and fun and educational for all of us, I think. The kids learned that not all Americans are good-looking, gun-wielding, or glamorous. (One boy was rather let-down to learn that I am not black, nor do I personally know gangsta rapper Fifty Cent.) They were happy to learn that yes, I can speak in Spanish... and they know more Spanish than I do!

So, by the end of Thursday, 50 young Spaniards knew me by my first name. They now know my favorite color (green), favorite food (pizza), and that I like to ride and race horses. (They also now know the difference between “ride” and “race.” I even used the blackboard. Kids love it when I draw pictures.)

At the end of the day they shouted “Bye-bye, Rebekah!” from the windows as their buses pulled away from the curb. I think this is as popular as I have ever been in any schoolyard, anywhere, any time.

The following day I went along on a school field trip. Who am I to say no to such a cultural exchange? I asked myself. How many foreign tourists get such a full-immersion learning experience? (The part of me that is addicted to silence and solitude was shoved into silence and solitude.)

It was a structured day. We fist went to Hacinas, where we climbed up a sandstone cliff, visited a stonecarver in his studio, climbed another cliff (this one with a cave in it – once home to a Christian hermit, later a Moorish booty stash, or some such.) There was once a castle up there, too, but now it is only home to a life-size concrete Jesus with a mighty iron lightning rod sticking out the top of his head.

Maybe due to all those caves, this region is full of fossil creatures, dinosaur bones, even a set of celebrated dinosaur tracks. Hacinas proudly hosts a unique collection of petrified trees. Because it´s a charming but little-visited town, the Junta invested many thousands into a museum to showcase Hacinas´ stone oaks. Busloads of children each year dutifully make their way through its displays and mock-ups of just how a smiling cartoon tree is slain by hurricanes, sealed away without oxygen for a few million years, and somehow, using salt and pressure, it´s tranformed into a grinning tree made of rock. The kids then don special spectacles and watch a breakneck-action 3-D movie populated by English-speaking cartoon dinosaurs and turtles, but not a single fossil tree. The kids then step into the blinding bright light of the plaza, where the fossil trees lie scattered like so many big rocks.

The museum is clean and shiny and high-tech. It easily slid into my Top Five List of boring-est museums, right up there with Cervantes´ House in Valladolid and the Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont, Texas. I bought the t-shirt. 
We climbed another hillside. We went on to visit a cement factory (I am not making this up) and then Pinella de las Barruecos, another little town with steep sandstone cliffs along one side. There we feasted on local treats: roasted tripe, stewed tongue, a clay pot full of chicken fillets and wild mushrooms. The mayor, (also head man at the cement factory) gave an elaborate speech on Our Culture and The Future, while the ladies opened up great trays of tiny dessert pastries. The children showed amazing restraint. The mayor cut things short, narrowly avoiding a feeding frenzy.

The tongue was delicious, the best I ever had.

Everyone raved about the mushrooms, which are at their peak in October. I am afraid they were wasted on me. By the time we climbed up the Pinellas, and patted Roque the Donkey, and tried out the giant bellows at the recreated old forge, I was exhausted. The ride back was not a long one, and we were, thankfully, spared the first 58 verses of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer On the Wall.” (It seems some of the finer points of American school-bus culture were not imported wholesale, after all.)

That evening, in agreement with my appeal for Monastic Silence, Juli and I drove the 15 km. To Santo Domingo de Silos, a monastery where the monks have won Grammy awards for recordings of their Gregorian chant. There were 30 of them up front for Vespers, and a good few people in the audience of the great stone church also knew their way around the music. It was honey in the rock, sweet and beautiful and dark. Later, outside under the walnut trees we gathered windfall nuts and cracked them open with a stone. I don´t much like walnuts, but these were utterly delicious, eaten with cold fingers under the streetlamps, shared with a fine friend.

Having climbed multiple hillsides all day, I slept that night like a petrified tree.

(coming up next... Villages of the Dead!)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Toro Toro Toro!

Dear People Walking the Camino Right Now:

If I already told you to stop in here on your way past, please don´t let my manic postings scare you away. We still like pilgrims just fine. We just really really needed a break.

And we took a nice one, a day trip to the big Vendimia Fiesta in Toro, near Zamora. Toro is one of my favorite places in Spain. They not only have the very best red wine there, they also have the very best Gothic church "portico de majestad" I ever saw. It was enclosed soon after it was finished, so it is still almost intact, with all its brilliant colors and wonderful characters gloriously alive. Just seeing it can make me smile for DAYS. (this image is lifted from a guidebook. Like most architectural photos, it is an insult to the original. Still..)

Another big treat we found is the Romanesque porch out front is covered in scaffolding. The rows and rows of little sculpted musicians and kings and prophets out there are getting a scrubbing and preservative treatment, after lo these nine centuries. And there was a guide there to take us up onto the construction site so we could see the sculptures RIGHT UP CLOSE! I love this stuff! (And it was free, too.)

The wine was not free, but we tasted a good bit of that and bought several cases of delicious un-oaked and 4-months-oaked Vino de Toro for the bodega. 

The chimney project is coming along, slowly but surely.
So if you are out there walking, come on by. I promise not to bite you. 

We will keep Patrick on a short lead.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Nest O Frenzy

There have been so many people in and out of our house for so long that I am beginning to wonder if it´s safe to leave Paddy alone with them. (He is fed-up with pilgrims, and mutters vague threats anytime there´s a knock at the door.)

It is October. It´s time for all good pilgrims to GO HOME. Instead, for some unknown reason, they are coming here. Every night for at least a week, at sundown. In twos and threes, exhausted and broke and hungry, often brought here by well-meaning neighbors. We are nice to them, show them to the salon, let them cook their dinners if they want to, so long as they clean up after.

Tonight it´s a Swiss and a German and a big tall Spaniard. They´re in there now, chattering companionably and periodically yowling along to the guitar. One of them is wearing extremely strong cologne, or maybe he´s spilled some. I hope to God it isn´t soaking into the mattress or the rug. It´s making my nose run, two rooms away...

Usually the pilgrim wave would have abated by now and left us with a few days of peace, but not this time. Maybe it´s because the pilgrim hostels are closing now for the season, and more pilgrims are on the road later in the day, looking for cheap lodgings. Maybe it´s the "occupancy effect," the fact that we have a full house already: Brian in one spare bedroom, and Annie (an invited guest) in another, attracts more people just through sheer mass.

It´s getting hard, having strangers in here. It´s true, pilgrims are pretty much the reason we came to live here. Still, we´re going to have to start turning people away, just for the sake of our own sanity.

I am questioning my sanity these days. It´s not just the weirdness I wrote about previously. I am having great bursts of Organization and Tidiness, completely foreign to my usual menu of Sloven and Chaos. I want to get writing on the book, but instead I am dragging the dining room furniture into the patio and scrubbing the floors, or I am leading a work gang of amateur masons on a concrete-mixing and hauling expedition to the heights above our bodega chimney. I´m working hard and losing weight and not eating or sleeping very much.

I told Annie, our wise visitor, I think maybe it´s to do with My Time Of Life. But she stepped in with something wise and wonderful:

I´m nesting.

"Remember when you were pregnant, and you couldn´t wait for the baby to come, but labor wouldn´t start?" she said. "You started putting everything away, and cleaning the house, and making everything perfect, so you could concentrate on the labor once it started, and the baby, once he arrived, would be your focus. You were nesting, getting ready."

"So you´re going to write this book, and it´s not ready to happen yet, but it´s about to," she said today. "And you´re doing the same nesting thing now. When the writing starts, you won´t have to think about the dust in the corners or the state of the woodpile. You can relax into it. You can´t rush it. But you can get the place ready for it."

(And you can make sure there aren´t tons of extra people hanging around the place when "It" arrives, eh?)

And so, presuming my head is aswim with the next great best-selling "life abroad" volume, I made a list of all the great Nesting Achievements we chalked-up in the past month, with help from many hands. They are legion. I am proud. Among them are:

Major "spring cleans" of the living room, kitchens, bathrooms, and potting shed.
Re-roofed the Hermitage/dispensa.
Got the garage and woodpiles in order, got the chainsaw working and got a fine new sawhorse made;
Got the dogs and cat flea-treated and wormed, and got Blodwyn back on her feet;
Dodged a bullet in Torremolinos (we turned out not to be the last resort after all!)
Cut brush
The Kangoo-mobile got its vastly overpriced 50,000 km. "checkup";
Hauled 16 tons of concrete up the bodega (this project is still in progress!)
Harvested grapes with the neighbors, and lots of other veg from our own little garden;
Got all the outside walls painted;
Did our share of church-sitting duty;
Hiked the Camino San Salvador;
Made three new friends;
Got a tetanus shot;
Watched a Pittsburgh Steelers game WAY late at night;
Spent a day at a donkey farm;
Danced in the moonlight on the Equinox;
Canceled my private health insurance and overpriced car insurance;
Planted heather and lavender in the patio, and tore out the spiky cactuses (yow!);
Found the missing Leonard Cohen CD, and my lost address book;
Got my mobile phone working again;
Hosted pilgrims, pilgrims, pilgrims from Canada, England, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, Colombia, and the US of A.

The car still needs new tires on the back. We still gotta finish that bodega, and get it stocked with this year´s wine. And sometime in between I still need to blog... like now. It is 2:16 a.m., and I am out in the summer kitchen where it is quiet and cologne-free and the computer works. (something is very wrong with the wifi unit.)

So, Book Muse? When you decide to show, we´ll be swept and stocked and ready for a nice friendly stay. Just be sure to shut the gate tight behind you when you come inside. And never mind that muttering man on the sofa.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Indian Head Massage

The perky blonde peregrina said she´d trade a couple days of rest here for Indian Head Massages, an Ayurvedic therapy she uses in her employ as an Energy Worker.

Paddy and I answered identically, in unison. "I don´t have an Indian head."

And that is The Line of the Week.

Things are getting weird around here. The Harvest Moon beams blindingly down from the sky. Time and the light play tricks. The sun rises later and sets sooner, noticeably sooner. Out in the tall spruce tree, honest to God, a screech owl has visited every night for the past five. Flocks of strange birds fly over, southward to Africa: snow geese, strange wrens and robins. One day this week all our swallows disappeared.

When Max the Cock crows, the dogs howl.

Still it is hot and dry in the afternoons. The sky fills up with thunderheads and great winds blow all the dust off the fields, but it comes to nothing. The world is brown and dry. The fields want rain, the farmers say.

But long as it´s dry work continues hard and physical, at least for Brian, and often for me as well. The big roof job is done, and we moved on to installing a chimney in the air shaft over our bodega cave. It´s a bigger chore than we´d imagined: pick-axing, shoveling, chopping, hauling dirt and timbers out, and hauling in concrete beams, wire, broken tiles, and tons of concrete both dry and wet. All of it up and over a 35 percent grade. Brian decided this chimney is to be his Masterpiece, his Moratinos Memorial for the next 100 years. The workbench in the garage is littered with notebook paper, scribbled-over with quadratic equations and curious diagrams. (Maybe it´s a chimney. Maybe it´s an ancient formula... this region long ago was known for its alchemists. Maybe Brian just LOOKS like a Pittsburgh yinzer.)

Estebanito is now involved as well. He spent a long Saturday morning with us, mixing cement and hauling us around in his front-end loader. I don´t think he knew what he was in for. I don´t think he approves of me pitching gravel and hauling hods. (I should be home butchering lambs, perhaps?)

The fun continues tomorrow morning.

How dull this blog must be... like watching cement dry, eh? There has been much in between to keep things lively, as somehow the Pilgrim Come Hither Vibe has been in full oscillation through the week. We had a full house last night, with four fine ladies from Ireland, South Africa, the Alpujarras, and Ottawa rolling in late from a town far down the trail. The Canadian, who is also a Shaman, took us all out to the labyrinth for a Harvest Moon celebration. It was fun, but chilly.

It´s getting chilly around here at night. Enough to make an owl screech.
Enough, apparently, to make Max the Rooster feel like a real man too. This morning he made a running jump at the Irish peregrina, which made her shriek like a banshee, which scared the bejeezus out of me.

Blodwyn the chicken is unwell, and the medicine and handling she´s getting these days is bringing her back to her old pet-chicken ways. When we leave the back door open she pushes through the hanging screen and struts down the hallway to the dog-food supply, or sometimes right through the front door and into the patio. Yesterday I came into the kitchen and saw her settling into Paddy´s favorite corner of the sofa.

Blod´s sick. She´s looking for comfort in company. She asked me today to pick her up and hold her, so I did. The dogs gave me the fish-eye.

The dogs are glorying in all the pilgrim traffic -- so many scratches on the head, backpacks to sniff, scraps to gobble, and boots to hide in the barn. Una and Murph have caught many mice in the past few days. Or Murphy does, anyway. He brings them still living to Una, who deals them the coup de grace.

Paddy is in a dark humor. He watches live horse races online in the afternoon, drinks wine, and grumbles about the meaninglessness of it all. His eyes and hands and bad leg all bother him, and he does not watch us sling cement.

But the Shaman´s Indian Head Massage did make his sore shoulder better, he says. The rest of him is hopeless, he is sure of it. Still, tomorrow he is off to see David, the local masajista who helped me so much when I had tendinitis.

Ayerveda. Reiki. Chiropractic. Massage. Weird stuff, for a weird time.

It works for me.