Thursday, 31 December 2009

How´d We Do?

Outside in the sky an astronomical phenomenon is going on: a partial eclipse of a Blue Moon on the last night of a decade. I think I won´t see this again in my lifetime. I wonder why I think something so exceptional ought to be more flashy?  I would take a photo, but it wouldn´t look like anything, even with those ragged romantic clouds scudding past. Some things aren´t meant to be photographed. Eclipses are like that --  they are memorable in a negative way. An eclipse "takes away" a piece of the moon. You can´t take a picture of something that is not.

2009 has been that kind of year. At first glance back it looks rough: asthma, tendonitis, root canals, e coli, robbery, busted cats, dismembered dogs, the differing sagas of Brian, Gareth, Leo, and the ongoing Alamo saga, two less-than-successful stints at hospitalero-ing, friends and friendships lost. Like much of humankind, I find hard times much easier to recall. This is universal. Even Shakespeare knew that: "The evil men do lives after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones," said Marc Anthony, in "Julius Caesar." (So much for my stab at literary erudition).

So goes the quick gloss of hard times. Hardest, I think, happened just after halfway, on July 2. That´s when a veterinarian in Leon told us my dog Una had terminal cancer, that she (the dog, not the vet!) would die within four months or so. Negative as hell. But here, half a year on, Una lies stretched out at my feet in front of the stove, minus one leg and very much alive. (which launches me into the future, seeing as I promised to walk the camino in 2010 if Una made a good recovery...)

Nearby snoozes Murphy Cat. He vanished for ten days in October, and somehow made it home with two legs shattered and another paw flattened. Matteo, the same veterinary surgeon/professor/miracle-worker at the University of Leon School of Veterinary Medicine who did the Big Chop on Una, pinned Murph back together.  Murph is still not himself, but he is back to shouting for his dinner.

Tim managed to keep all his limbs this year, but he got fat. In the course of his hospitalero career he has laid his chin on dozens of knees this year. His dear emtpy head was stroked by hundreds of hands. He was whispered-to and wooed in at least ten languages.  On the chicken front we lost our highly-regarded intellectual chicken Blodwyn, as well as her erstwhile-troublemaker companion Gladys. But we added six exotic new black Zaragonzana girls to the flock, which the Old Guard of Castilian brown hens continues to keep in line. And we now have Max, the fine, beautiful and cowardly rooster who brings such joy to Paddy´s black heart.

Enough crowing. On the human front we did very well too. We saw Thomas again, our hardworking handyman, who did lots of repairs and painting, and imparted lots of advice and wisdom and tall tales. Kim shimmered into our lives, and became something like the daughter we never had.
Brian, the Italian guy from Pittsburgh, also rolled in, and stayed a long time. Through him we came to a new roof on the hermitage, a completely ochre outside edifice, a splendid chimney on the bodega, and a the Steelers t-shirt I wear when traveling.

Leo, the Cuban, swept through on a wave of hope, which eventually dashed against the decaying adobes of The Alamo. He, like Brian, still has a backpack full of God-knows-what floating around here. He´ll be back. They will be back. And we´ll have a place for them.

We saw tons of pilgrims: Luciano, Yacine, Jack, Ragnhild, Orlando, Domingo, David, Marlene, Sabrina, Mick, Adrian, Karl, Sky, Derek, Brian, Kyewon, Tili, Jozefien, Chuck and Sher, Ginn, Pablo, Keith, Judith, Magdalena, Gordon, Margi, Lillian, Annette, Jan, Remi, Kerry, Iñaki, Colin and Margaret, Bridget, Shey, Miguel, Fred, Marion and Daniela, Finn, Jacopo and Maurizio, Heidi, Denis, Georg, Jussi, Gareth, Chris, Stephen, Johnnie, Alf Alex, Megan, Dori, Leena, Kim, Leona, Ron and Rita, Madarsno, Zavasnik, Anne and Adriaan, Nuala, Rivka and Benyamin, Benita, Jackie, Rui, Hideo, Austin, Jacinto, Thomas, Angelo, Marina, Sevgi, Christian, Adam, Vince, Will, Teresa, Marta, Denis, Atila, James, Shevaun, Cherina, Johanna, Rachel, Ariel, Jo, Marcio, Sean, and Martin. (those are the ones who signed the book legibly, anyway. There are some languages in there we cannot divine.)

I am sure there are at least two angels on this list, and at least one Bodhissatva.  And a couple of sociopaths. But I won´t to into that, but it has also been an exceptional year for sociopaths and neurotics.

We trained nine new hospitaleros to serve at other places along the caminos. We ate very well, discovered how to make delicacies like Ukrainian borscht, Dutch mustard rabbit, and real Pad Thai. Because I can´t find ingredients here, I learned to make enchiladas from scratch... Wow! We tasted wonderful wine, like Val de los Frailes from Cigales (not rosé!); Miramonte Toro, Ibor Tempranillo from las Tierras del Leon, and Vino Virtud, my Inspirational Sip for when I am writing.

I wrote an online hospitalero course that hasn´t gone anywhere yet. I edited two books, did the international press releases for a big litter cleanup for the South African Confraternity of St. James, shot photos of said litter for "Peregrina" magazine, edited a guide to the Camino Portuguese for the UK Confraternity, co-wrote a guide to the Camino San Salvador, and started work on a book of my own. I made very little money, but I kept myself sharp enough. I wrote blog entries about once a week, and readership increased by 34 percent.

I walked the Camino Salvador, the mountainous path between Leon and Oviedo, two times. It´s wonderful. I walked parts of it alone, and other parts with some really lovely friends. I made two very good new friends this year.

We had a house full of beautiful music in 2009, much if it provided by guitarists, much of it played on the beautiful, hand-built Paracho del Norte guitar brought here last year by Federico Sheppard. Adam Levin was here no less than three times, and recorded an album here in October with violinist Will Knuth. We expect to see even more such beauty in 2010, when Fred brings a gang of musicians down the Camino to celebrate the holy year of St. James!

We had a good vegetable garden, and a patio full of flowers. I made some very good investments when the stock market tanked in March. We dodged a couple of real-estate bullets: we did not win the auction for the Teacher House in San Nicolas (we had enough to do around here without developing another property), we did not buy out a relative´s derelict apartment in Torremolinos. Which is good, because now we need that money to repair a great expanse of roofs here at The Peaceable.

The future is upon us, folks!  If there´s an architect or garden designer planning to hike the Camino in 2010, stop by here and fulfill your destiny -- if we are going to roof the barn and old kitchen and bathroom, we need to know what we´re going to do with this space later on. Any ideas? (hint: we don´t want an albergue. More than five extra people here and we go all squirrelly.)

The future is so friable. This week we met the Brescian Italians who plan to open a 50-person pilgrim  albergue on Calle Ontanon in April. Two of them, Bruno and Daniel, want to rent rooms here at the Peaceable from Jan. 15 until there´s a place for them to stay at their new digs. So, after five years of attempts by French, Irish-English, German-Palencian, and Cuban dreamers, the Italians may actually put an albergue in this little town.

And so the face of Moratinos shall change... we hope for the better. Watch this space for further developments. We hope a few pilgrims will continue to filter past the glossy allure of the new albergue   to keep us company here in our hermitage.  In the Holy Year 2010, when I shall walk the Camino again, and we shall visit London, and the people of the world will learn to live together in Peace, Love, and Understanding.


Happy 2010, world. May God have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Boppin´round the Christmas Bush

Yes, after all that water business we had Christmas after all. The turkey turned out beautifully, no one drank too much or behaved badly or insulted anyone that I know of.  Everyone got something they wanted. The wonderful Care Package from America arrived just in time (and Una tore the end of it open looking for the rawhide bone she knew was in there!) So we are sweatered, socked, and chewied-up for the coming months, not to mention stuffed with chocolates, cookies, and baklava.

A high point of the day was a performance by Kelly, a marionette who plays a tiny violin to recordings of Bob Denver hits. He dances in the streets of market towns all over Spain, collecting coins for Malin and David, our friends from up on the mountain near Astorga. The three of them came down to Moratinos for Christmas. Malin and David are living in Pedredo, a village even smaller and more remote than here... and much colder! They have lots of love to keep them warm there, but they still like to get a hot shower now and then. And we´re always happy to oblige. We know what that´s like.

The day after Christmas I went with Malin and David to Burgos for a party thrown by the Castilla y Leon Couch Surfers. We had a blast! It was held at the Leftists United Club, right in the heart of the old city -- a den of Reds, with portraits of Lenin and Zapata and La Apassionara on the walls and a heavy pall of smoke over all. (Couch Surfing isn´t political, btw. We met there because the bartender is the organizer´s boyfriend. Still, one thing I love about Spain is a person can be a Commie right out in public, and not be put on a Watch List.) A good 40-odd Couch Surfers packed in from Palencia, Valladolid, Madrid, Burgos, and Leon, with guitars and good spirits, noise and tons of food. We sang songs and ate and drank and talked about religion and history and culture and issues -- real adult conversation, albeit in mostly rapid-fire Spanish. I translated ceaselessly, as David is less-than fluent. I understood, and I spoke, and I translated it back to English, with people even listening-in to practice their English comprehension! Woowee, good thing everyone had a few beers in them!

David and Malen went back to sleep in their van, rejoicing in having spent an evening with people who are under age 60 and not shepherds. I surfed the couch of a woman named Mari Mar, a social worker who was full of passion for her job and kindness for the world in general. We caught a cab back to her house at 3:30 a.m., after waiting in a taxi rank for 20 minutes -- the streets of Burgos were heaving with lively young people all through the night. When do these people ever sleep?

Meanwhile, back at The Peaceable, all was quiet. Murphy´s splints were removed just before Christmas, and he´s making his way back to the barn for longer and longer periods. Tim is as needy as ever. David gave us a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which we started to assemble in the living room. Tim is jealous of the attention poured over it. I suspect he has eaten at least two pieces.

The Christmas bush twinkles on. I like it there, and may just leave it up for a while. Christmas here in Spain marches on til Three Kings Day, so why not?

We have two pilgrims in the house tonight. They arrived on the doorstep at sunset, sent here by a neighbor who found them out on the trail. They meant to stay back at Ledigos or Terradillos, but everyone who owns a pilgrim albergue has decided to close up shop for the holiday -- even though they are listed in all the guidebooks as "open year-round." Bad, bad. It means the pilgrim who walks from Carrion de los Condes may find himself hiking the whole way to Sahagun before he finds an open albergue -- a good 40 kilometers!

This makes Paddy mad. Tomorrow he wants to hike back to Terradillos and put a sign on their door, directing the stranded souls to our house.

I´ve kinda missed having pilgrims around. I like these two. People who walk in winter are serious, hardcore pilgrims, not party-animal tourists. There aren´t so very many of them. And this is why we came here.

Still, I also am enjoying the silence and solitude.

But we probably will do it. People gotta sleep someplace. We have beds. Hell, we´re certified Couch Surfers, after all!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Singin´In the Rain

Much as I love visiting the little hidden spring across the highway, I gotta say that hauling water buckets is not my cup of tea. There´s a good reason I was born in Modern Times, and that is because living the rugged kind of life our ancestors lived would have killed me.

We´ve been hauling water because an extended cold snap made the pipes in our house (and our backup well) freeze up this weekend, cutting off our supply of running water. We called in all the local experts, fired up what portable heaters we have, swathed everything in tarpaulins, and sat down to wait for the ice to melt.

It´s been three long days.

On Sunday we holed up in the house and pouted. I lurked by the fire in the living room and plotted out the Christmas dinner. I decided not to shop for the vegetables, in case we had to call off the whole affair. (We expect five guests.) The temperature stayed low. I organized my recipe files and backed-up my hard drive and read tomes of Joyce and Delibes. I baked quiches and tatins, and watched the weather forecasts. I contemplated the frozen darkness of Midwinter, the early black solstice nightfall.

On Monday I canceled my Spanish conversation with Marta. The temperature rose, a fog fell. The little pipe in the spring lost its icy beard. We told one another all we needed to do was wait, that Spring was bound to come sometime, that all the shrinking snowbanks and rushing streams meant even household pipes must soon flow free. I went to Sahagún and bought leeks and carrots, wild rice and butternut squash. I took a shower at Elyn´s house. Children shied snowballs across the plaza. Hope glimmered in the afternoon, but by sundown it guttered. When I came through the gate with the groceries, ice had glazed the patio again. The taps still stood dry.

Just to check, I switched on the pump in the well. A rumble rose up, and a silver ribbon of water leapt into the trough! So one water source was restored!

And so our toiling over the highway ended. We flushed the toilets with abandon, knowing we wouldn´t need to shlep the next water bucket so far. Our spirits rose, even as a heavy rain fell. No ice jam could survive this thaw, we thought.

Late this morning I heard Paddy shout from the lower kitchen. "Reb! Something is happening!" I jumped up and ran for the door, struggling into my outdoor shoes. "Water? Is it water?" I yelled back.

"Something´s happening. It isn´t good," he called out, drawing on his awesome powers of description. "Come down here."

Rain coursed from the steel gray sky and made a little river of the patio. And from inside the summer kitchen flowed a similar stream, springing from the wall behind the sink faucet. Down the wall, over the counter, through the cupboards, over the floor, and out the door.

In good weather, the summer kitchen is Paddy´s makeshift art studio. The cupboards are full of old pots and pans, books and papers and knicknacks, left over from the early days when we lived in there. The floor is covered in easels, canvases, primed boards and paint cans, boxes, bits and bobs -- all of it atop a generous layer of filth and dog hair. I never go in there.

Paddy stood in the middle of it all, twisting the taps, making water arch out of the wall with even more force. "What´ll we do?" he shouted. "Do we gotta turn it off at the mains?"

The man is a genius! Yes! So he ran out the gate and around the outer wall, up the alley and pulled the grate up from the ground and reached in beneath the straw and spider webs and water meter and turned  the key and... Voila! Inside the kitchen I watched water-arch fold in on itself and finally flatten against the tiled wall. Paddy dragged his wet self back inside. We looked at one another. We cracked a smile. We had water! Too much water, out of control water, but water!  I decided this was a good thing, the major obstacle cleared. The rest was details. I picked up a broom. Let me think, I said.

Paddy suddenly remembered the pot he´d left on the stove. He vanished into the house.

Problem-solving at The Peaceable is all about remembering things. I cleared a space in the room, swept out some of the water, laid down some newspapers, and tried to recall just how the pipes come together in that kitchen.  And it came to me that last summer Tomas installed an isolating on/off key to the kitchen water supply, just in case something like this should happen. I stepped out into the rain and turned the obscure little spigot to the "off" position. Then I stomped around the outside wall, hunkered down, and eased the main supply back on. It worked! The whole house had water, but the summer kitchen stayed dry!

Next I remembered where the pipe wrench (aka "Stillson wrench" or "spanner" for my International readers) was, and remembered to turn the nuts "righty tighty, lefty loosey," and got it off the wall. I undid all the screws and cleared out all the accumulated crud, and realized the rubber washers that held it on were practically invisible.

I remembered we have a new bathroom fixture in the potting shed, left over from the house-building project. It wouldn´t fit on the kitchen pipes, but it came with two brand-new washers inside the package! And so I put them in the old faucet, and I stuck it back up on the wall, and righty-tighty-ed it hard as I could. I went outside and eased the water-key back on. A great gurgle came up the wall. And stopped.

The taps held! Yippee! I splashed across the floor and yelled up to Paddy to come and see!

So then I cleaned up the floor, (which included one of Una´s charming mouse-carcass collections), cleared out the soaked cupboards, and just generally put the place back together, with a bit less fur and filth for now. And a lot less free-flowing water.

So many things to consider, now that the water is back:
Normal is so good.
Water is so important.
Our ancestors were so rugged.
Know where your tools are.
Know where your house´s pipes are, and insulate them fer chrissakes.
Open a tap overnight if the temperature is going below freezing.
Do not read James Joyce in the dark days of winter. Bake something.
Nature is an ironic old thing. Just when you´re most missing water in the pipes, tons of the stuff is dripping through the barn roof.
Don´t give up on Christmas -- if the guests are real friends, they won´t mind flushing the toilet with a bucket of well water.

...And if you wait long enough, Spring will come. It may just spring right out of the wall at you. Keep a pipe wrench handy.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Frozen Goobers

The sun is out. The yellow sun is over the ochre house. It shines blindingly white on the 8 cm. of snowfall. I did not know until this morning how extraordinary it all is.

Everyone enjoys a nice white snow, especially when it´s followed by a clear blue sky. Still, though, we are reminded of how American/English we are. Today, it was our water pipes that reminded us. We do not live on Lake Erie anymore. Winters here are mild compared to what we have  survived. We´ve grown lazy.

We did not leave a tap dribbling overnight. We did not insulate the little stretch of pipe that runs from the alley and along the patio wall. It never gets really bad here, we thought... And so, this morning, we woke to find we have no water.

Lately we´ve had a few village-wide water outages, so this morning I phoned José, brother of Mayor Estebanito, to let The Authorities know there was a problem. (For some reason we only have José´s telephone number, so he gets to screen his brother´s calls from us. So far it works, as nobody has corrected this little problem yet -- possibly because José seems to understand our Spanish a bit better than Esteban does. And when our car is in a ditch at the city dump, we are just as glad to see José come grinding up in the John Deere as his powerful and enchufada brother.)

Anyway, José showed up at the door about a half-hour later. (How´s that for municipal service in the depths of a deep, dark Socialist country?) We´d assumed the entire village was waterless, seeing as the water fountain in the plaza was also frozen solid. But José said everyone else has lots of water. He looked at our water meter, and looked at the pipes, and said whomever installed that was not a professional plumber. (Matter of fact, his uncle installed it. But who´s keeping track?)

The next-door neighbor came over to advise. The pipe is frozen, she said. Get some wood. Build a fire along the ground where the pipe runs. You have firewood? You need some? We have lots, she said.
"We have a monton of firewood," Paddy said, "Thanks anyway."
"And we have hot water. You need water, come on over, with total confidence," the neighbor said.
"We may just do that," I told her. I rather like taking showers. I do it almost every day. She may be getting into more than she thinks.

We looked at the line of concrete and the pipes and the wall that stands between us and the alley, where the water meter is. I thought about woodsmoke and the patio walls -- whitewashed on the inside and newly painted yellow on the outside. I thought about the new tiles laid so carefully along there this summer by dear old Tomas. I looked at the exposed pipes, with their pitiful little sheaths of foam insulation. They are made of PVC plastic.
"No fuego," I said. "No fire."
"¡Hollín!" José said. "Those pipes are plastic. They´d melt."
Ummm. Yeah. Right. Vale.

We have an electric blow-dryer, though. And an electric heating-pad, which I do not know the Spanish word for. And we did manage to communicate to our kindly neighbors that we can deal with this crisis without resorting to flames and combustibles.

And so differing lengths of pipe are taking turns being wrapped in the heating pad, which registers 40 degrees Centigrade over 120-minute periods. Hopefully the therapy that works so well on seized-up musculature will work the same magic on pipes.

The sun is out now, melting the snow. But the sun don´t shine in the corner where our pipes are. The heating pad is doing its nut. José said he is maybe 40 years old, and he´s never seen it so cold here so many days in a row. That´s why the pipes froze. Too cold too long. It´s extraordinario, he said through his muffler and down jacket.

I did not tell him, standing there in my jeans and sweatshirt and sneakers, that I hadn´t noticed.  Yes, I just finished respiratory therapy, and yes, I am not wearing five layers of clothes. But I lived too coldly, too many years up there on the Great Lakes, and my inner thermostat is still set on "Arctic."  Here in Spain, in Celsius, it´s two below zero. But where I come from, that´s 28 degrees. And for someone who lived in the mid-Atlantic USA through the winter of 1977, that´s nothing. Nada.

José and the neighbor lady know better. And so do the pipes. The weather is supposed to warm up a bit, starting tomorrow, after another inch of snow falls overnight. Worse comes to worst, we can always go to the Hotel Posh in Sahagún. Or the bodega. It´s always 62 degrees in there, all year ´round, and all the wine you could want. Never mind the spiders.

Stupid foreigners. ("Goobers" in English). At least we´ve got plenty of wood for the fire, and plenty of good wine in the bodega, and a ton of eggs to eat. We might not get a shower for a day or so, but we won´t freeze. The neighbors will make sure of that. We have total confidence.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

¡Mas Nieve!

Overnight it snowed even MORE. Here are photos of our little town. We took the dogs out this morning at 10:30 a.m., and ours were the first footprints on the snow of Calle Ontanon! It´s only three inches or so, (nothing at all by our old Lake Erie standards), but Spain shuts down when this happens. (Spain loves shutting down, and will seize any opportunity to do so.)

Some of the neighboring villages lost power during the night, and most of the utility crews are working north of here, in the mountains where the snow is a lot worse. So we can add a bit of schadenfreude to our cozy enjoyment of the snow day.  I am making quiches and zucchini breads. Paddy is messing around with a new angle grinder, which I suspect will somehow be combined with bringing in the Christmas "tree." (which is really a little piney kind of bush that usually stands outside the front door, but takes a star turn this time of year. It is an outdoor plant. The thermal shock is not good for it. (and I suspect an angle grinder is not exactly therapeutic, but I´m not going to interfere with a man and his newest toy.) Someday our cheery old tradition is going to kill that poor tree. But what a way to go!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Great White Morning

Snow is falling on the meseta.  I feel like I am joining the rest of the northern hemisphere in its cozy indoor cocoon. I am leaving all the outdoor, crunchy-underfoot fun to Paddy and the pilgrims, and keeping to the house today.

Yesterday was my outside day. I traveled down to Palencia, our provincial capital, for a big pre-Christmas shopping trip. I bought heavy cream and Brussels sprouts and leeks, yerba maté and Oloroso sherry, a mobile phone for Paddy and little goodies for all the neighbors. The crowded streets were lit up with the complicated, lacy decorations the Spaniards do so well, and the arcaded Calle Mayor was charming as a holiday card. (There were even carolers, and a guy roasting chestnuts!) I wish I´d brought the camera, so I could show you.

Then I met with Marta, who wants to do a Spanish-English "intercambio" with me. Her English is about as good (or bad) as my Castellano, and she is about my age, and we just like each other. It should be fun.  She wants to work on her written English. I need to work on my spoken Spanish. It is already productive, as my adjectives and pronouns are beginning to match up a bit better, gender-wise. I think.  El, ella, sí, se, lo, la, las, los, este, esta, ese, algunas, toda, esos todos -- All those. Them.

And then there are the real challenges. What does  "dawn´s tumbling brightness" mean? What does Kenny Rogers mean when he sings, "You gotta know when to hold em, know when to fold em"? All answers in clear, concise Spanish, please.

The sun was set by the time I was done at her house. (In Spain the sun does not "set." It "puts itself.")  I tried to hurry back through the pretty streets to my car, but the temperature had dropped. Breathing in was like a knife to the chest. Ducking into a warm, crowded tavern wasn´t a great idea either, as the sudden temperature change and the cigarette smog sent my lungs into spasm. And so I had to just walk very, very slowly, and concentrate on not panicking. What a bore.

When I made it home I was whacked. I think I pushed too hard, too early.
When I woke up this morning the snow was falling, thick and heavy. (these are photos of the views from my bedroom windows: front and back. Gotta do something about that garage door!)  I felt good, and the house was a cluttered mess crying out for a cleanup.

And so that´s what I am doing today. Indoor things. Girly stuff, mostly:  thawing fillo dough to make baklava, putting away piles of folded, clean clothes that clutter our bedroom so, stacking the towels in the bathroom a bit more neatly, discovering treats I bought in Belgium languishing in the bottom of a bag. There´s so much good stuff here I can´t even remember what I have!

I am trying to plan a Christmas dinner, but so far we have only two confirmed guests. So... If you agreed to come here for the feast, please let me know ASAP so I will have enough food for you. Or invite yourself.

Otherwise, I shall be forced to eat all this baklava myself. Or feed it to the chickens. Or pilgrims.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Seeing Stars

Some nasty things happened since that last, peaceful post.

Boiled down, it´s like this: I went to the doctor Friday because the asthma was bad. I was seeing stars at night, but inside my bedroom, which is not a good thing -- it´s a sure sign your brain´s not getting enough oxygen. Friday is when Doc Tomas comes to Moratinos. I thought he´d just write me a prescription for stronger medicine. But no. He put me on respiratory therapy, complete with steroidal inhalation mixed in with pure oxygen.

Oxygen is lovely. It gives me a sweet little buzz, and the medicine opens up my verklempt old lungs for a while, and I get the feeling that all is well. Until, of course, it wears off. Then I must come crashing back down to my usual, day-to-day level of unmitigated bliss.

Anyway, the initial orders to report ASAP to the local medical center got me on the phone to Paddy, who may have been needed here, had I been admitted for treatment. He knitted his brows with husbandly concern, packed up his troubles, and fled Salamanca on the next train north.

So all is well now, back at the Peaceable. Each evening at 7 p.m. I drive about seven kilometers down to Villada to snort medicated fumes in their quiet little emergency room. The drive home is always a treat. It is a straight shot up a remote country two-lane, and everything outside the windscreen is pure blackness. Except the sky.

The last three evenings I´ve pulled over into a field. I shut off the headlights and stepped out into the cold evening.

I can breathe almost deeply now, and the chill makes me wheeze a bit. I hear nothing else but the wind shifting the stubble below, and a dog barking a long way away. Fields and trees take up only the lowest fraction of the view. Nine-tenths is sky, that vast vault that stretches from one glowing velvet horizon to the other, with a million million little stars, moons, and planets arrayed across it all. Such beauty! I feel so lucky to have such a sky over my earth, to have such a view so available.

I didn´t have to move to Spain to see this. It´s been up there all my life. My parents were star-gazers, and I can well recall lying on a blanket in the backyard with one or the other of them pointing out Cassiopia or Orion, or singing:  "The stars at night/ are big and bright/ Deep In the Heart of Texas."

When I had children I made sure they saw Northern Lights and comets and meteor showers, too, whenever the sky was putting on a show. But these days?  I rarely take the time to enjoy this great field of diamonds, thrown up overhead... it´s a free show, every clear night of the year.

The point of all this?  Even though asthma can easily kill you, it´s not always bad to see pneumonological stars dancing ´round the bedroom ceiling. Not so long as they lead you to trade them in for the astronomical kind. With extra oxygen.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Nothing to See Here, Folks

Well, friends, not a lot has changed since we last met. I am still locked inside the Peaceable with a troupe of semi-domesticated critters. At least one of us is writing, and having a grand old time doing it. Patrick is still in Salamanca, despite his appeals to me to come there and let him go home.

Paddy has some sort of sciatica-type painful nerve thing going on in one leg. He is usually a game sort of fellow, and when he volunteered to go to Salamanca in November he was feeling fine. But pain makes Paddy into a different person. A not-nice person. I will not elaborate here, but it ain´t pretty.

Paddy wants to come home. I would go and take his place, so he can come back here and suffer just like he is there, but with Tim´s snout laid across his knee. But the Stars mitigate against that.

The star this week is John Murphy O´Pusquat, the broken kitty who now is on the mend. I took Murphy back to the University of Leon Veterinary Hospital on Monday. They shot new X-rays of his legs and let me ooh and aah at the inner workings of all these awkward wires and wands they left sticking out of him over the past month. Then they emailed the images off to another vet school in Italy.

It seems Murphy´s surgeon is presenting a symposium there on how to fix just this kind of busted cat, and Murphy´s inner workings are being screened internationally. We´re supposed to hear soon just what this wanderous cat doctor thinks of Murph´s healing process, and when/if he can remove the splints and thus return to Murph his grace and dignity.  If I don´t hear anything by tomorrow, I will start making phone calls.

And this is why I cannot go to Salamanca, and send my Patrick home. Only I can drive the car that takes the cat to the vet. We can, evidently, only deal with one bad leg at a time. Got that?

And so I stay here in Moratinos and ponder how to use-up three dozen eggs. I got a H1N1 shot (and the aches and listlessness that followed). I think a lot. I wonder if this writing business is just self-gratification, if this story is worth all this work, if this book thing is just another monumental waste of time. But mostly I write. Which is what I love best once I get started.

Other than that, I am proud of myself in little ways. I managed to move our internet cable from the freezing-cold lower kitchen up to the main house. Now I can sit in the living room and write blogs and listen to the chickens pecking at the window. I can kick a dog carcass out of the way and warm my feet near the fire and enjoy a glass of lovely Vino Virtud.

Sometimes, if I set up the wires just right, and the stars are properly aligned, the internet even works.  

I wish there was something more profound or moving to share, but this is all there is, folks. Nothing to see here. Not yet.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

That Homeless Summer

The easy stuff is done. I swept the floors, stoked the fire, fed myself and the animals, got a haircut, answered the emails, and sent Patrick off to Salamanca for a couple of weeks. It looks like the Alamo/Casa Tortuga sale went belly-up, so I don´t need to wonder when a gang of people – some of them welcome, some not – might pop in here. I locked the front gate. The December fog arrived.

Now comes the part I´ve been waiting for for weeks.

I settle down on the far corner of the sofa with a lap desk on my knees. I open a new notebook with a hard red cover and gridded paper. On the first page is a written outline. To my right leans a stack of mismatched raggedy spiral-bound diaries.

Each day since 15 June 2006, when we came to Spain to stay, Paddy and I have, with few exceptions, written at least a note about what happened and how we felt about it. I am now mining them for material, noting down where I will find this bit of color or dialog or description when I need to work it into a larger text.

These are details of days past, but they are not dull. We were not bored when we wrote them. We were on the adventure of our lives, and we lived it as brilliantly as money, time, and health allowed. We wrote pretty well, too. And we kept things.

Here is a boarding pass for that first flight – Pittsburgh to New York to London. Here´s a printout of an email I sent my sister, describing what life was like in a Mongolian yurt during a field-mouse plague.  
And a ticket to a bullfight, a “treat” provided by Don Blas, the charismatic priest at Fuenterroble de Salvatierra. We volunteered at their pilgrim albergue for three weeks that summer, and we thought hard about settling there. Fuenterroble is a tough, beautiful, brutal place, a pork-packing town on a pilgrim trail less traveled – like Dodge City, but with Roman roads. It was España Profunda… a bit too deep for me.

“Fuenterroble” is listed on The Checklist, a hand-drawn grid with 13 town names down one side, and our 13 requirements for liveability along the top. The squares in the middle are X´ed in three colors. It looks like a needlepoint pattern, but it kept us focused. All through The Homeless Summer it kept us on track. Miraz, a tiny village in Galicia on the Camino del Norte, earned only four check-marks , for its Community Feel, Dog Friendliness, Camino location, and Purpose. (We didn´t want to just live somewhere nice. We needed a reason to be there, a purpose. We wanted to contribute.) Fuenterroble didn´t suit much better than Miraz: its weather was nicer, it had a health center, children live there. But it still could not offer rental options, Spanish tutoring, internet or public transportation.

We spent that summer volunteering at pilgrim hostels all over the caminos, in places we knew we liked already. The places that met the most criteria were Hervás, a mountain resort town near Salamanca; Orense, a city in Galicia; and Vigo, a seaside town near Santiago. And Sahagún.

Grubby old Sahagún met 10 out of 13 requirements. And it was right next door to… Moratinos!  Moratinos only scored a seven. But we´d already fallen in love with the place when we added up the check-marks, so we split the difference.

All these check marks are boring to read about, so I will stop. I am just marveling over how systematic we were about all this. Two of the most intuitive, seat-of-the-pants people you´ll ever see actually produced this document. Amazing.

Looking backward is deadly if you do it for too long, (and judging from the last entry here I am indulging overmuch!) but 2006 was such a fun period, that first summer when everything was possible, when I still had a job in Pittsburgh to return to if things did not pan out. As the months went on we stayed very busy. We criss-crossed the country in a leased Peugeot, saw all kinds of scenery, museums, artwork and architecture, bashed away in our bad Spanish, and kept believing something would work its way out. And so it did.

In August, the last month of my leave, our little house in Pittsburgh sold for its asking price. (It had been on the market for a year. Two months after the sale, the U.S. housing market collapsed.)

That same August we found the little farm that became The Peaceable, for the same price we got for the Pittsburgh house. On September 2 we shook hands with the owners and agreed to buy this fallen-down mud-brick paradise in rural Castile.

I wrote a resignation letter and sent it to my publisher. I still have all four drafts. 
My mom and sisters wired us a massive congratulations bouquet. I still have the card, a water-stained relic spelled-out over the phone to a long-suffering Spanish florist. It says:

“Dearest Re Bekan an Paddy Gratulations On
You Nen Home May Yt He aunyeT Waen
you want it to be and TuLL oT Freyends wne you
 Yt Tobe Lowe Mom and Gene Bet Hand Famil Ymart  An Family.”

I will get around to heavy writing very soon, I promise. It ought to be fun, except perhaps reliving the horrors and frustrations of the year that followed…many of which were detailed right here as “Big Fun In a Tiny Pueblo.” 

But for now, I´m rolling in nostalgia, living in the past, savoring that Homeless Summer of 2006 – before reality set in, and the heavy work started, and the dream really did take shape.