Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Faces From Before

Nobody remembers who shot the photographs. Nobody even remembers the names of some of the people who were there that day. 

One shows a four dozen country people standing outside a church. The other shows a similar, smaller assortment, tumbling out the door of a crumbling schoolhouse. There´s a sameness to their features, like most of them were related to one another. It was a happy time. Most of them smiled. They were well-fed and comfortable here. They were home.

The photographs were taken in August 1979, thirty years ago, when the people of Moratinos took a break from the annual fiesta to pose for two big group photographs.

I know some of these faces. Pilar is there on the left, the same pretty woman from two doors down. The little girl in her arms is grown up now, moved away south, a mother herself now. There is Loli, young and pretty in her Farrah Fawcett hairdo. We only ever saw Loli on holidays, when she and her husband and son zoomed into town for weekends. She wore fabulous cocktail dresses to the Fiesta Mass, and she and her husband knew all the complicated steps to the tangos and foxtrots at the dance afterward, when everyone else just settled for polkas or paso dobles. They were a breed apart. It´s her family home that was sold last week to an Italian Confraternity of St. James.

Estebanito is there in both photos, flashing a crooked little-boy grin, wearing espadrilles and shorts and a button-down shirt. His knees are dirty. He is our mayor now. In the photo his little brother José wears an identical outfit. He snuggles up against Eduardo, the bachelor farmer who knows everything about the weather, and grows the town´s finest figs and apricots. Adults were affectionate with children in Moratinos in 1979. The photos show fathers, uncles, and neighbors holding babies and toddlers and kids up to the camera. The village raised all its children. When a child stood near, it was a natural thing to rest your hand on her shoulder, to touch his hair with your fingertips. There was no fear. The camera knew that, and caught that.

I do not know many of these people. Their names are a catalog of the strange and ancient: Pompeyo, Clasica, Agripina, Parmenio. But these streets were their streets, my house may have been theirs once, or their cousin´s, or brother´s. Their fingerprints may be on the adobe that makes my barn. I may still be sweeping their dust from my floors.

Indeed, in the shadow of the schoolhouse door is the face of the man who last lived in the house that is The Peaceable. His family members died and moved away, and he lived here alone with only fields and orchards to occupy him. The loneliness was too much for him. He walked one morning out the front gate, down the drive, and a few steps across the field. An irrigation well glistens there, in the middle of a fertile strip of green garden. Deep, silent and dark. 

Plenty more of those in the photo now lie quiet in the cemetery up the camino. All these jolly old men in their black berets: Elias, Claudio, Eutimio --  and the women in dour black dresses: Auria, Enriqueta, Victoriana. The old men smiled for the photo. The ladies faces are masks. It is impossible to tell if it is kindness or cruelty, laughter or faith or illness that engraved the lines there.

In 2009, thirty years on, the streets and plaza are paved. The schoolhouse is pointed and rendered and remodeled into a fine Ayuntamiento building; the teachers´ house, standing proud in the photo background, is fallen to ruin. The children are grown and gone to the city. Waists and faces have widened, hair gone white, beards and Afros cut away. 

They don´t take these big group photos much anymore. I wish they would.

Last week I took the two small originals to the last remaining photographer in Sahagun, a man who now scrapes his living by snapping ID photos and making copies and enlargements of old photos like these. He loves these, he told me. He has dozens of them, from all the pueblos just like this one: Joarilla and Villapeceñil, Bustillo and Rioseco and Lagartos. Hundreds of faces, hundreds of names, vanishing slowly away.

Today I finished the project. Now copies of the old pictures, blown-up to a size where all the faces can be seen, (more or less) are keyed to the peoples´ names, framed, and will hang on the wall of the Ayuntamiento meeting room.

A room you can almost see in the schoolhouse picture. It´s there behind Angel´s angelic smile, the same one he wears today. The same one his brother Manolo is wearing, back then and now, too. And Segundino, too – they have their father´s smile. His name was Ciriaco. In the photo he sits sprawled front-and-center on the ground, smiling so wide his eyes are hidden in the folds.

He looks like the king of the world. 

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Curled Up in Front of the Fire

Patrick´s not going to London now, as broken cats cost so much to fix. Nowadays, everything´s measured against the cost of cat surgery. (“A dinner for 140 Euros per person? Christ! We could put a new leg on the cat for that!”)

Instead of the expense of London in December, Paddy´s taking a less costly and more benevolent path. He´s volunteered to run the little pilgrim hostel in Salamanca through the first two weeks of the month. All he´s got to do is get there and back, and feed himself while he´s there, which costs almost nothing. In  December just about nobody walks any camino, especially the Via de la Plata. Paddy need not fear pilgrim throngs.

Salamanca is the best hospitalero gig ever. There´s a cleaning lady there, so there´s no dirt to worry about. The cathedral and plaza mayor and university bookstores and libraries and shops and marketplace and Greek and Galician restaurants are all an easy walk away. There´s a splendid clifftop garden right outside the door. The view down the Rio Tormes from the hospitalero´s bedroom window is worthy of any five-star parador. 

Yeah, you sleep in a bunk, but you have your own room. And yeah, it´s chilly there. But it´s chilly here, too. (Our bedroom was 58 F/14 C this morning!). In December in Salamanca a hospitalero is practically free to do his own thing in one of the greatest little cities in the world. And to us, “free” means no Christmas shopping or package-wrapping.

Murphy´s surgery wiped out our Christmas budget. Friends and family won´t feel too much of a pinch, we hope – we´ve been doing Christmas very minimally for a while now (And friends and family know us well enough to realize we are selfish SOBs anyway.) This way we each can enjoy a couple of weeks of solitude and quiet, away from everyone but beloved critters. That´s a gift that keeps on giving. 

Victor, the Salamanca albergue boss, says it´s fine if Paddy takes Tim along – seeing as Paddy won´t go without him. Tim knows how to behave, and he´ll keep Paddy in line. So everyone is happy.

Paddy´s the star of the show these days.

He´s got Chopin Etudes on the CD player, with live accompaniment by Bob Canary. The kitchen is fragrant with the chili tofu salad he made for lunch. The fire he laid in the grate is warming the room. Tim is asleep at Paddy´s feet. Una is curled up in her bed, next to the cat – she keeps a close eye on Murph these days. Murphy is as close as he can get to the fire, his body stretched out full-length, his costly cartoon paws akimbo. (he has post-surgery edema, which the vet says is normal, but which give him a Mickey Mouse aspect. And all cats should have something “akimbo” at all times.) Murphy´s bright blue eyes are wide open, watching the chickens outside the window.

The chickens peck at the glass in the window. They do that for hours. They have a bird´s-eye view of the living room, and we believe they enjoy watching us. We are their version of television, an excruciatingly dull reality show. I think they are pecking the glass in a vain attempt to change the channel. Animal Planet, maybe. Or reruns of “Green Acres.” Or “Cow and Chicken.”

Una gnaws a dog-chewy she stole from Tim. She is full of beans, back to being the old pain-in-the-neck dog we know and love. She is very well, so I am starting to plan my pilgrimage of thanksgiving for next spring. I have promises to keep.

Next year is a Holy Year on the Camino, when good Catholic hikers get extra divine credit for doing the walk. The high season promises to be a monster mosh-pit crowd scene, so when I go I plan to carry an ultralight one-person tent, at least for the first half of the trip. (For those who care: I want to follow the Camino Frances from the French frontier to Leon, take a break in Moratinos, and then take the Camino del Salvador to Oviedo and the Camino Primitivo on to Santiago.) I also have volunteered to be a “sapo” hospitalera for the Federation in 2010, filling-in all along the caminos when staffing emergencies strike. It should be interesting!

But all that is far in the future. For now we are recovering, economizing, and winter-izing. 

All us loved-ones are gathered ´round the family hearth, well-fed, churched, a little grubby from the morning´s run through the fields. The vermouth is as sweet as Maurizio Pollini´s piano-playing. The latest editing job is finished and sent. (Hikers check the Confraternity of St. James UK site soon for a free .pdf download of the newest Camino del Salvador guide, a three-person opus.) 

Clouds move in. The hens crowd into the windowsill and peck, peck, peck at the glass.

Bloody chickens got no rhythm. 

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Hot November

The weather is chilly and wet. It´s the time of year that the bread won´t rise and the check don´t come in the mail, and nothing else happens either. Except for here. Moratinos is hot!

The big house on Calle Ontanon, ("Ideal for Albergue!"), finally sold this week, two years after the “For Sale” sign went up. Word is it´s been bought by an Italian confraternity,  who already have their licenses and permissions in order and should have a pilgrim hostel up and running by April 2010! I´ve been over the house myself, and it really is very suited to the job, with room for a stable, even. (Had it been on the market in 2006, we may have bought it ourselves. But we were lucky.)

We haven´t met the new owners. We wonder if they´re related to Maurizio and Jacopo, a lovely Italian father-son pair from Milano who stayed with us in August, scouting out locations for their confraternity´s next albergue. Their group, the Perugia Confraternity of St. James, runs a unique pilgrim refuge in Puente de Itero, right on the county line with Burgos – it´s in an abandoned church, out in a field, and only has room for eight pilgrims. There´s no electricity, but they manage to feed and wash and accommodate pilgrims by candle light, from May to October, in a quiet Christian way. I hope they´re the same group. We will know soon, I imagine.

The Moratinos Albergue Star must be ascendant, because Leonel the Cuban and Ana, his girlfriend from Barcelona, are coming back to town tomorrow to make some decisions about the Alamo/Casa Tortuga. It´s looking a bit discouraging, but things are known to change quickly around here. We like Leonel. He´ll be a great hospitalero. We hope he gets his dream, even if it might be in some other town.

So, after false starts by at least three different sets of Camino dreamers, Moratinos will finally have a regular place for pilgrims to stay. I think it is the final Camino town without a pilgrim facility. There are no more I know of, and I kinda know this trail.   

I hope some pilgrims still will find their way over to our place now and then.

I am working on the book, writing every day, at least two hours, in a disciplined way. I need to get my chops back if I´m going to convert these thousands of pages of daily doo-dah into a cohesive narrative. It is an overwhelming job, but I confess I am enjoying myself. I am dreaming it, even. Nothing in this world, nothing at all, is as enjoyable to me as writing something I can really get my teeth into, about something I am passionate about. (And at the breaks I am reading P.G. Wodehouse´s “Jeeves” stories. What a hoot!)

What I need is an editor. And a good office chair. And a working wifi connection.

John Murphy Cat is still in the animal hospital in Leon, but we should be able to bring him home tomorrow. Two surgeries, three broken legs, and God knows how many Euros… He had better be the world´s best cat after this. I hope very much the surgeon did not forget to throw in that free cast´ration he promised. If I must own the only Bionic Cat in town, I don´t want him limping round the streets looking for love. Just look where that got him. 

Una Dog loves Murphy. She will be happy to have him back. I hope we can keep her from dragging him around by his head for a while, at least til his legs are healed and he can pretend-fight back. 

The mushroom field is finally producing. This week MariAngeles and Leandra showed up at the door with a basket full of at least three kilos of fresh, anise-scented champiñones, including a few rare “blue-foot” models. Beautiful. We´ve since feasted on mushroom soup, omelettes, and shish-kebabs, even… and now we have some big ones in the freezer, too.  (here are photos of two lovely pairs: Dick and Filipe in Gent, seeing if their goose is cooked, and MariAngeles and Leandra and All That Fungi.)

Community-wise, Moratinos  (about 10 of us these days) is working on the décor in the newly refurbished town-hall meeting room. Old photographs are being disinterred, framed, and hung up on the walls for general ooh-and-aah purposes. Paddy and I undertook to make a graphic “key” to identify some of the 40+ people in a couple of pictures from 1979, an enterprise that´s sent us deep into Sahagún and our bodega, seen us constructing a homemade light-box and creating lots of strange drawings and confusing charts of numbers. This afternoon I met with a goodly group of neighbors to match up the faces with the names.

Ladies brought goodies and tea. Milagros brought cream-filled “buñelos de viento,” which translates to “puffs of wind” in English and “blintzes” in Yiddish. Julia sent over a fine fresh pumpkin this morning, so this afternoon I turned it into a classic American Pumpkin Roll, and brought a nice chunk with me to the get-together.

The neighbors are suspicious of our cuisine. Some of them won´t even try a bite of any of my foreign muck. (I do not feel offended by that – I have, myself, drawn the line at local offerings like Pig Face and Fried Blood and Toasted Lark). So I almost expected to take most of it home again with me. … but the Cream-Cheese Icing snagged ém. They scooped it up with their fingers, saying they´d never tasted anything quite like it.

Lucky them! Imagine tasting cream-cheese icing again for the first time. It´s gotta be right up there with your first taste of home-made Buñuelo de Viento.
Or pig face.
Or saffron moonshine. 
Or blue-foot mushroom.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

We Thought He Was a Goner but...

I leave home for five days, and look what happens:

Two days in, as I think I reported previously, Gladys Chicken died. She had been feeling poorly and in low spirits, so I was not surprised to hear the news.

Two mornings later, though, Patrick went out to feed the Girls and found Blodwyn in the same spot, back behind the roosting box. Or he found Blodwyn´s  small brown body.

So no more will we find her striding softly down the hall, intoning her soft chicken chant and jerking her floppy-combed dinosaur head in search of the dogfood dish. Blod was one of our original six hens, the most intelligent and companionable of them all. She laid her share of eggs, took her turn at ruling the chicken roost, and introduced us to the joy and rewards of hen ownership.  It seems very silly to say it, but I loved that chicken. I will miss her.

And just when it seemed safe to go back to the chicken coop, Paddy found Murphy Cat back there on Saturday afternoon. How he got over the wall is a mystery, and he was howling and hungry and skinny as a rail – ten days of doing god-knows-what had left him a ragged mess. Paddy gave him catfood and milk and kidneys to eat, and a good looking-over. He´s hurt, Paddy  told me on the phone. Something wrong with his hind legs. Prepare yourself for the worst, he said – he may need to be euthanized.

I came home on Monday, a gloomy cloudy day. The dogs were ecstatic, of course. And Murph was slung across his bed on the salon floor with food and water and a makeshift litterbox close by, taking his ease. He let himself be felt-up and examined closely.

He was hit by a car, I think.  
His left rear leg is broken right in the middle of his shin – I could feel the loose bone inside. There´s a healed-up cut in his skin there, too. The entire leg dangles, limp, from its joint. His right front paw is twice as wide as the left. The skin is torn a bit, and his “thumbnail” is permanently exposed. The paw was, apparently, smashed flat.

But he walks, shimmying, from the living room to the salon. He uses his litter box, he shouts for food and water, he cuddles Una and smacks Tim. On Sunday he made it out into the patio for a sunbath. Watching him walk is horrifying – his lithe and perfect feline body now moves like an un-strung marionette, with elbows jutting outward and feet dragging backward. It´s heartbreaking.

I started to cry as I held him, imagining how much pain he must be feeling. He just looked up at me and meowed, and pushed his head up against my hand for a scratch. I am a Grade 1 animal scratcher, beloved of cats, dogs, horses, ferrets and all other scratch-seeking creatures, so of course I started in under his chin with my best kitty-rub technique.

And Murphy purred like a Rolls-Royce.  

Today the vet said Murph´s vital systems are just fine – he does not have to die.  His smashed paw should heal on its own, and it had better, as there´s really nothing to be done about it. But that back leg is a compound fracture. It´s done-for. It will require surgery – not something he can do there in the little office in Sahagun. So off we go back to the university veterinary clinic in Leon tomorrow, with yet another animal with a hopeless hind leg. 

People are going to start wondering about this place, where 3/5 of the residents walk with a limp and the veterinary hospital knows us by our first names.

Me and Tim had better watch our steps. And stay the heck away from the hen house.  

And forget about vacations, even short ones. 

Friday, 6 November 2009

Retail Therapy

Here is a quick and inelegant update on Life As Rebekah.

I am currently in Ghent, Belgium, being utterly spoiled by my dear friend Filipe. 
Filipe is a high-end sort of DNA-sorting biologist who creates perfect mice for a living. I've known him for a very long time, we get along like we came from the same mold. I am not sure why he likes me so much, but he is very good for me. 

Meanwhile, back in Moratinos, Death came to the Hen Hut. Paddy went to feed the girls this morning and found the mortal remains of Gladys behind the roosting perch. She's been huddled back there for a day or so, feeling unwell, and apparently gave up the ghost sometime in the night. 

I told Paddy to bury her deep in the garden bed, where I already have the ground loosened up, and where she can give her all to the enrichment program. But he'd already tied her up in a grocery bag and laid her respectfully in the Dumpster. Sic Transit Gladys.

Aside from all that, it seems Paddy's enjoying a few days of quiet solitude out on the meseta. 

And I am indulging in the joys of Retail Therapy, here in a fine old European city. 

Many of you know already how I feel about shopping. I deeply loathe shopping, especially shopping for clothing. It has to do with body image and high prices and peer pressure, and my conservative Protestant upbringing, and having a thick waist. Living where I do, I have little need for fine clothing, and I rather like it that way. But we have tickets for a big, fancy guitar concert on Saturday in Brussels, and I didn't have a thing to wear that was not black or frumpy or out of season. Filipe, a born hunter-gatherer with a highly evolved shopping gene, generously offered to show me round the local emporia. I needed a nice dress. This was the only way. 

We set out yesterday afternoon, fortified with a hearty Belgian lunch of blood sausage and red cabbage and Wittebier. It took for freakin' ever, but I finally found a knockout silk dress that does not make me look overly embutido, (sausage-like) and a pair of cool 1942-Paris-style shoes to match -- soft black leather pumps with two little buckle straps across the front. (I shall have to re-learn how to walk on heels!) 

I bought another dress as well, a plum-colored cashmere sheath that is bit more reserved, and a dressy blouse to liven up my churchgoing. (Filipe says I look "Presbylicious!")  It was very draining, but fun in an odd way. Except for a few unpleasant moments at the Tommy Hilfiger store, I can look back on it with a smile. At least until I have to put on pantyhose. And totter from tram to train from Ghent to Brussels in Those Shoes. And I haven't even thought about accessorizing...Heavens, I left my pearls at home!

Today it's Domestics Day. Dick, my Camino friend from Holland, is coming here within a couple of hours, and the three of us are hosting a dinner party this evening. We will spend the afternoon sipping Medoc and trussing a goose (which I am sure is really a Muscovy duck) and roasting a loin of goat and pounding an innocent octopus into casserole. Last night I roasted pumpkins for soup, and made a savory sort of dinner roll with the extra pumpkin pulp, to go with it all. This is my Thanksgiving feast for this year, see. Except I think I am the only American. 

We have orange-red roses on the table-end, and jazz on the radio, and good company and an apartment full of amazing food aromas. Life is really, really good.  

(What I need most at this moment is a long nap, but alas I am no longer in Siesta country.)

I need to bring Patrick here, as he'd like it very much. It is very civilized. I will bring him home things we can't find in Castilla y Leon. Things like nice 80-percent chocolate, and washcloths. And a squeegee. 

Monday, 2 November 2009

I Knew a Woman, Tired in Her Bones

It should´ve been a lot of fun, but it happened too late in the year.
My bones were tired out before it started, so I lived through it in a sort of haze. I need to sleep, for a week or so. I need everything and everyone to go away for a while. Or maybe I will go.

As planned back in August, Adam the guitarist came back on Tuesday with a violinist named Will and a recording engineer named Vince and a photographer named Teresa. They are young and funny and full of life. They came here to record an album of Spanish classical string duets inside our acoustically-fine parish  church.

Day after day the weather was perfect. Treesful of birds sang their tiny hearts out. The road crews arrived to “recondition” the Camino trail. Every farmer with a tractor took advantage of the blue skies and dry ground to plow and seed their fields. Everything´s started turning bright green again.

Progress. Unless, of course, you came to this tiny rural village in search of perfect silence.

The lads and lass ended up shooting pictures and sleeping during the day and recording their album after 10 p.m. each night, after the tractor drivers packed it in. Many potato chips and choco-filled cookies were demolished. Wine consumption soared. Feats of cuisine were performed – the photographer doubled as a sous chef, and the violinist showed he knows his way around a can of coconut milk. 

Days were long, so they vacuumed and washed windows, too. They practiced, and napped, and shopped, swatted flies and hashed-over web-page designs. The sound engineer tuned-up my computer, and installed a new wifi router. (it doesn´t work now, in the same way the old one didn´t work.) I dug up the garden beds out back and worked in some of our half-baked compost. The chicken girls feasted on new-turned worms. We operated at capacity, with a body in every bed but one.

Brian left Saturday for his first hospitalero gig in Ponferrada. Denis, the Scotsman from France, arrived a couple of hours later for his hospitalero training. The final bed was filled when Adam´s girlfriend Marta showed up.

In the middle of it all, John Murphy Cat walked out.
He has not been seen since Thursday morning. No body has been found. He is missing, and presumed dead—we think a fox must have got him. He was one of the best cats ever. He was too good to last.

Una Dog watches for him still.

Sunday morning, All Saints day, the church was full of locals returned for the annual cemetery-blessing ritual. The guitarist and violinist played beautifully at the Mass, a sort of thank-you for the use of the church.  

Milagros, dismayed that we had put the sanctuary benches back into order and swept-up after the musicians´ week inside, scolded me all the way to the graveyard for not asking her to help out. After church, in an apparent effort to help feed the performers, she brought over a frozen rabbit and a great tray of homemade cream puffs. But the hungry throng had already gone on the 1:58 train to Madrid. The delicacies were left in the hands of me, Paddy, and Scottish Denis. We did our best.

Denis was duly trained.  He mounted his big motorbike this morning and headed out for Bilbao and LePuy and a future of hospitalero-hood.

October finished, I heaved a great sigh and turned to face the wide-open spaces of November. I swept the kitchen floor and hung up the laundry and walked the dogs to the holy well at Fuente de San Martin. I felt tiredness in my bones. 

I was home by 10:30 a.m. We needed to go to Sahagún, but I didn´t feel like going. “Go back to bed for a while,” Paddy told me. So I did.

I slept til almost 4.