Wednesday, 29 December 2010


I wrote an entire blog about Sunday´s after-church "Vermut" gathering, but somehow I blew it away into the ether. It was not meant to be. Instead of writing about a single, moonshine-flavored after-Christmas series of parties, I will write about an entire year. (I may post some of the party pics, just for hilarity´s sake.) (If /&&% Blogspot will allow more than one photo upload.)

When I look over 2010 at first it seems like a big tabulation of sad events. This year I lost a lot. Elyn and Gary, the only known Americans within 50 miles moved away in February to Girona. My cousin Micky died in March, at age 45.  Max the wife-beating rooster was iced in June. The August fiesta was marred by a fatal accident. Nabi dog was killed, and Una dog faded through October and then disappeared. My friend Juli suddenly was snatched away in November. (I am not saying human and animal losses are comparable -- but they are losses nevertheless.)

But compare that to the great things that came my way this year, and there´s no contest.

In January Una found two starving greyhounds, who became Nabi and Lulu. Tim was lost for a long afternoon, but he found his own way home. Murphy almost left us permanently in August after eating a  poisoned mouse, but the vet saved him (he is burning through those nine lives, however...)  We now have Rosey, another camino refugee, found this time by Kim.
We traveled long and far in 2010. We visited dear ones in London and Bournemouth, Pittsburgh and Ohio and Washington, DC. We spent three days in the mystical city of Avila. I visited Frank the Scotsman in Miraz, and rescued hospitaleras Leslie the Canadian and Sonomi the Japanese from terrible fates along the Caminos. I did an exhausting hospitalera gig in June in Navarre, and in August I went to Salamanca and Zamora and Potes with Miguel Angel. Kim was here with us for many weeks, and the Peaceable shimmered and glowed. She made it possible for me to walk this year, and walk very very far. I walked an entire Camino in the spring, from Roncesvalles to Santiago, via the Camino Invierno.  In September I walked the last bit of the Invierno again, with my dear friend Kathy and her sister. And in December I walked the Sarria-Santiago camino -- the most meaningful and lovely Camino yet. I´m a certified Walkin´Fool, and I hope to keep it up til my feet finally fail me, or the camino stops sending me kind souls like Kim who can help Patrick keep the Peaceable going when I´m out. (This  really is a two-person job.)

So many innovations this  year: the Italians showed up and started their Epic Albergue, next to Segundino´s carpentry shop, and a new 2-star hostel was begun on the other end of Moratinos. Paddy discovered several topical blogs on conservative Catholicism, and soon spawned his popular online persona "Toadspittle." We got new roof on the barn, a new PC, and new patio furniture -- Paddy served many al fresco meals out under the big blue umbrella in the fine weather. We got a bread machine from Holland, a slow-cooker from England, two new white hens from the Chicken Boutique, and a lovely and powerful telescope to feed my late-night stargazing habit.

The church got a new little Santiago image, the Confraternity of St. James in London got a new Camino Invierno Guide, and throughout the month of November I wrote a novel based on a true, 1,000-year-old story based in Sahagún. (No one´s "got" that yet!) We finally got a new induction hob in the kitchen, after wrangling with the repairman and warranty people for two years.

The other big positive weight on the scale is the people who came here this year.  Maybe not quite so many people as 2009, but very high quality people indeed: the Aussie girls of January; Grant Spangler from California; Roger and Ian from Peterborough Pilgrims; reporters from Norte de Castilla and Revista Peregrina; Malin and David and Brian, and then the Camino All-Star Weeks that brought luminaries like George Greenia and Frank Farrell, Mariann the Swiss and Sue Kenney and Tracy Saunders; Ignacio, Adam, Will, Peter, and René, musicians from the Camino Guitarras program; Jackie the Mastiff from Terradillos, and Rainer, the German guy who thinks he is Jesus Christ.

Real, certified (if not certifiable) religious people graced our summer: Verena the Zen Master from Austria, Father Amado the barefoot Filipino Redemptorist, Sisters Miriam and Maria Elizabeth, and Father Calvo from the diocesan art museum in Palencia. The Molloys, Mitch, Derek, Rafferty, Rom and Aideen, and Laura drew closer to our hearts.

Leo and Edu gave us shit, but only because we said our garden needed it.
Two Freds and a Patriç gave us the use of their skills and labors.
Kim gave us a Big Dog Party, and hours of invisible shimmering, videos, prayers, and a friendship with uncanny timing.
Juli gave me companionship, laughs, verb drills, and the best reason I ever found to walk a camino. Her mother Julia gave me acceptance I never imagined I´d ever feel as a foreigner in a tiny Castilian town. She understands about half of what I say, but she lets me rattle on... and she translates it into real Spanish for anyone else who´s trying to understand.

There´s not room here to tell you all the local people who´ve been kind, patient, or neighborly with us this year. We´ve been to their parties and funerals and pig-stickings and moonshine-samplings, and we´ve had them here, peering at our bodega roof and frozen water pipes and demonstrating how to carve up a pig´s leg and drink down many bottles of cosechero. We live in a fine community of fine people. They make our dream of life in Spain come true every single day, in some way or another.

The losses we suffered in 2010 only accentuate how fortunate we are to live in this place, with this great parade of characters going on around us. There are at least as many beginnings as endings, if you think about it. So more and more I use the year´s end as a Thanksgiving, too.

I leave tomorrow for Santiago de Compostela, where I plan to hang out a lot with Christine from Sweden, a new friend, and look through museums that I never had time for before, and attend a ceremonial Mass of Imposition of Medals for new members of the Archiconfradia del Apostol Santiago. I want to see fireworks over the big cathedral for the New Year.

And the old one, too. 2010 was, you know, an Año Santo. A holy year.


Monday, 20 December 2010

Good Medicine

It was a walk of 110 kilometers, or about 70 miles. We took just over four days to do it. For us it was a spiritual discipline, so according to some people we were not supposed to have any fun on our way. (in their opinion we should not have gone at all. We should have stayed curled up at home in the dark.) Thankfully, our lives are dedicated to God, and not the opinions of "some people!" So we went anyway, because the Church says that making a pilgrimage for the souls of the dead is a Work of Mercy. There is enough darkness in the world anyway, with or without us... 

I refer to "us" in this story, but I really mean "me." I cannot speak for Paco or Julia. We all walk our own trails. I´ll keep it general, and tell you about my own experience.

From the very start, in the misty hill town of Sarria, we attended Mass every evening, starting on St. Lucy´s day. Then and there a Mercedarian priest told us about how a blind woman used light and darkness to describe our lives here on earth, and how someone who has a light within doesn´t even need to  "see" in order to get on with her life. He blessed us after the Mass, he stamped our pilgrim credentials and said he would say a Mass the next day for Juli.

And in Sarria a restaurateur (at Restaurante O Camiño, right at the start of the town) gave Paco a book he´d written about the Camino, its culture and pilgrims and legends. Throughout our trip it provided a background for what we were seeing and walking. It was more light for our way.

Then your prayers started taking effect. Several of you said you prayed for us while we walked, and I gotta say you are some powerfully well-connected people. The week before we began,  this trail was a nightmare of snow, sleet, mud, rain, and wind. But from the moment we set out it was blue skies and green fields, a bit of water, some mist and clouds, and one morning of drizzle. Nada mas que primavera. Someone was smiling on us.

We made good time, and good friends. Carmen and Ana, two women from Palencia who now work together in Valladolid, sparked up a conversation with Julia and walked with us off and on right the way to Santiago -- Paco carried their backpacks along with ours in the car, seeing as Carmen broke her shoulder in a car accident a year ago, and was struggling to continue. We made friends with a corps of pilgrims we met at Mass or dinner or along the trails each day. Once word got out about our "mission" they forgave us our status as lightweights who use a support vehicle. When we stepped into the restaurant or the bar for a break, our fellows greeted us as brothers and sisters, even the ones who´d walked with heavy packs all the way from Paris and Roncesvalles and Sevilla. We were not many, but we were family.

Julia, Ana, and Carmen
 And almost to a man we were Spanish. Only two of us were from other countries, or spoke other languages. And so it was a full-immersion Castellano experience, one that reminded me over and over just how much I need to buckle down and finally master those verb forms!  I was one of the only people who ever walked a Camino before, and in answering questions I found myself tripping over the complexities of subject pronouns, locations, conjunctions, and shifting past and future tenses as I tried to deal with daily logistics: "if Angel and Geordi met us at this place, and Paco took your bag to that place, we then can meet up at the intersection of this and that place and make plans for later, like we did yesterday." It seems simple until you have to shift into another language!   

But it all worked out. Things tend to do that on this trail.
I had not walked the Camino from Sarria to Santiago since 2001. It has changed almost beyond  recognition. In December it is strikingly green and beautiful, even though many of the trees are without leaves. Ever-thoughtful Kim, who was in the neighborhood, left behind one of her trademark hand-painted signs on a mile-marker, wishing us Godspeed. The streams are full, the cows and sheep are calving and lambing in time to provide baby-tender meat for humans´ holiday feasts.  Villages that nine years ago had dirt streets ankle-deep in dung and mud are now beautifully paved with flagstones, and ancient stone barns now feature built-in Coke and Doritos-vending machines. Tumble-down barns and houses are reclaimed and occupied. The ox-drawn wagons with heavy wooden wheels are gone now, replaced with shiny tractors. Sic transit rustica.

And the trails, nicely set aside and safe from vehicle traffic, are peppered with candy wrappers, water bottles, cigarette packets, tissues, and human shit. Some of the most beautiful stretches are unspeakably polluted with pilgrim trash. I found a big 40-gallon bag in the blackberry bushes at one point near Ligonde, and filled it to the brim with empty plastic bottles and cans within a half kilometer. Disgusting. I suppose this is the price we pay for walking the most heavily-used portion of this very popular hiking trail. I wish something could be done, though. (Something to thoroughly shame to perpetrators.)

It was a beautiful walk in many ways, and very good medicine. But it was not a "fun" camino. It was a purposeful walk. I very intentionally used the Christian infrustructure that was put there over the years to achieve a spiritual journey, and it worked beautifully. The Camino is not just spectacular scenery and lovely people, it is chapels, shrines, crossroads-crucifixes, monasteries, waymarks, and memorials, all of them calculated to bring the traveler´s mind back from its wanderings to the Eternal Verities.

I kept a couple of disciplines. I carried a rosary, and I used it at the start of every morning´s walk to just get warmed-up and contemplative. I was not overly obvious about it (I am not usually very forthcoming first thing, anyway!)  The other pilgrims noticed, though, and respected my silence.

The only other overtly Christian thing I practiced was saying a silent prayer each time I passed a church, shrine, crucero, or other devotional spot. There were many. It was not only a spiritual moment, it was a physical break, too. I stopped walking then. It was a rest.

And walking with Julia, you need rests. The woman may have 15 or more years on me, but she goes like a moto! The final long day I was feeling pretty weary when we passed up Arco de Pino, at the 21 km. post. I pointed out the oversight -- it was time to stop, I said.

But no! It was still early! The weather was still so good! Everyone felt fine!
And so we walked on. We walked, ultimately, another 13 kilometers, right into Monte de Gozo. It was as long a day as I have every put in on the Caminos, and Julia was still full of beans at the end of it all.

And the following morning, after a breezy stroll down the mountain and through the city, we were there at the middle of the Plaza Obradoiro, just in time for the great pealing and banging and bonging of the cathedral bells! We were early, and got our official Compostela certificates at the pilgrim office, and walked through the Holy Door, and hugged the apostle statue and then, deep beneath the high altar, we stood at the tomb itself and laid down before the Lord all the burdens we´d carried there. Yeah, we cried. And yes, I´ll admit it -- we smiled, too. We´d achieved what we set out to do. Our mission was accomplished!

There in the cathedral, for the second time this year, I ran into George Greenia, an old friend from Virginia, USA. (this is extraordinary to the point of ridiculousness.) We met up with another old friend. Lunches were lunched, plans made, addresses exchanged.

Kim phoned me. Back up the trail, after Arzua, Kim had met a little dog. She´d spent her last dime on the creature, and the pilgrim albergues wouldn´t let them in. They were up against the wall.

Paco and Julia decided to drive on the Finisterre, the Atlantic beach where many pilgrims finally end their travels. There was no more I could add to their trip. So I headed to the Santiago airport, rented a car, and headed back up the trail and see what new gift Santiago had for us.

Her name, so far, is Rosey. She has a little black nose, a wiggly-waggly tail, and an underbite. If Lulu does not eat her she will fit in here just fine.

christmas gifts: critters and maple-leaf mittens!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

¡A Santiago Voy! (ojala)

Weather is perfect for walking these days -- beautiful, warm, somewhat sunny, almost like spring. A crocus I planted a month ago is blooming already in the patio. The sky is full of falling stars -- the annual Geminid shower is in full flow, and it´s breathtaking!

We did not walk yet, though. Once my mind is set on making a pilgrimage, it is hard to wait to walk.

There is plenty happening here to keep me occupied.

> I have a novel to edit down, we´ve had some interesting pilgrims and a couple of Couch Surfers, too. The chicken hut always needs maintaining, the living area got a serious shake-down (aaachooo!) and scrubbing and mopping, at long last! (Playing fetch with Tim in the evening meant wrassling with a hairy dog in a cloud of dust. Not good.)

> A bearded git from La Rioja who walks the caminos every year dressed in a brown robe and scallop-shell everything, leaning on his staff and gazing into the horizon, claiming to be "the spirit of the camino" and handing out autographed photos of himself... well. He´s apparently ripped-off some hospitalero friends of ours for about 1,500 Euro. If you meet a goober out there who meets that description, walk the other way. There are frauds aplenty on the Magic Road... you´d think a guy who´s been gaming the system for many years wouldn´t start picking pockets!

> Murphy is the Cover Cat in a 2011 Camino Cats Calendar, a Canadian enterprise.

> Me and Kathy and Elyn and some other sterling characters were featured this month in "Camino de Santiago Revista Peregrina, a glossy Spanish magazine. (glossy as it may be, it doesn´t have its own website!)

> Somewhere in there is Christmas, and then New Year´s Eve, and my solemn Mass of induction into the Archicofradia Universal del Apostol Santiago, which ought to be a hoot.

But most of all is that little Camino. All manner of family business has kept Julia from leaving as planned. We keep up with our paseos, almost every day, at 4 p.m. Sometimes we have neighbors and family and dogs along. Mostly it´s just us. People see us out there, and they know what we´re working up to. Today after Mass, at the community "Vermut" gathering in the Town Hall Private Bar, I was told "God keep you" many many times. It´s a good thing we do.

Once we do it. Tomorrow afternoon, Julia says, after all the appointments and medical checkups.
Bags are packed, prayers are said, the larder filled for the duration. Monday afternoon we travel to Sarria, the starting point. Tuesday morning we shall rise up and walk, God willing.

As I prepare my mind and spirit for this trip, I feel very light and free. Not just because Paco is driving a car that will haul our luggage from one comfy rented room to the next. Not just because it´s a mere 110 kilometers -- a five or six-day go. Not because I have granola bars and gaiters and everything else I think I will need, or because I know this trail relatively well, or because I might just run into Kim out there somewhere.

It´s because this Camino is not about Me.

I am walking it for a friend, and it´s for her (and a few other people) I will be aiming my prayers and intentions. I do not expect to explore my Inner Self or develop insights or hear any great Voices of God. (I will likely hear plenty of Voice of Julia -- she loves a good chat!) I don´t expect much from this trip, as much as I am looking forward to it. I can relax and enjoy the scenery and the snappy weather and maybe even some rain (it´s in the forecast for the end of the week, alas!).

I am taking my NetBook, so if there´s a wifi where we lay our heads at night, I will try to update. I´m traveling light as I can, (and I´m prepared, if things go pear-shaped, to continue on the trail by myself, carrying my own stuff in a pack on my back.) My great thanks to you who will uphold us with your prayers and walks and good thoughts.
It is a good thing you do.
I may need to write a guidebook about it, someday. A how-to. Or maybe a song.
There are many Camino songs. Julia sang one the other day as we walked, a ditty I never heard before -- it is one of Fran´s favorites, and now he´s singing it all over town! Julia wrote down the words for me, in a fine cursive hand:

A Santiago voy, ligerito caminando
y con mi paragüitas, por si la lluvia 
me va mojando. 
A Santiago voy ligerito suspirando,
por mi niña Carmela,
que en Compostela me está esperando.

Voy subieindo montañas, cruzando valles
siempre cantando,
O verde me acaricia porque a Galicia
ya estoy llegando!

A Santiago voy, a Santiago voy
como un peregrino, por el camino de la ilusion,
A Santiago voy, a Santiago voy
y con mi Carmela, que en Compostela
me quedo yo.

    A Santiago voy... ¡me voy!

And in very rough translation:

I´m going to Santiago, walking lightly
with my umbrella, because if it rains I´ll be walking wet.
I go to Santiago, sighing lightly
Because my girl Carmela is in Santiago
waiting for me!
I go, climbing mountains, crossing valleys,
always singing
Greenness embraces me as I arrive in Galicia.

I´m going to Santiago, to Santiago I go
as a peregrino, the Road is so exciting!
To Santiago I go, I go to Santiago, and in Santiago
and with my Carmela in Santiago I will stay.

I´m going to Santiago, I´m off!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Fin de Piggy

Here is what became of the swine on Monday.
A good time was had by all. (The pig was beyond caring.)
Those are pork loins, and pig faces, and chorizo sausages, in case you´re wondering. Even more was hung up in a room up in the rafters upstairs, where the sleeping family can have delicious dreams beneath a rack laden with aging links and loops of ground hog. 

Lovely Leandra shows how a pork loin is sliced

Carlos rejoices in the abundance

how chorizo links happen

Aptly-named Milagros does it all
And a note for all of you wondering what´s happening with the pilgrimage to Santiago: When you agree to walk with a family member, you kinda walk with the entire family. Which means we are waiting a few days so Paco can go to the doctor, and Christy can keep an appointment, and maybe the weather will improve in the meantime. Which looks like Monday afternoon now...    

We have pilgrims in the house, too! Patrick the Czech guy, who stayed here and helped us lay floors in the despensa way back at the start of things in 2007, is back again -- this time he´s chopping firewood and entertaining everyone with his guitar-kazoo renditions of "Stairway to Heaven" and "Wish You Were Here."     

Wish you were here, too.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Matanza on Saturday

WARNING: This entry is not for the fastidious or the animal-rights activist. If you are revolted by innards and gore and death, turn back now.

When I stepped out of the snow into the hot kitchen of Victoriana´s house, a big enamel dish of fried blood was steaming on the tabletop. Leandra worked alone over a stovetop rattling with pots. This was the first offering in a day of animal sacrifice. The big action was out in the patio.  

Saturday was dark and frosty, the first day of a long weekend. The nephews and grandkids were in from Madrid and Vittoria. The pigs were fat, the knives were sharp. It was a perfect day for sticking pigs.

Here in the Hispanic world it´s called "Matanza," or Pig-Butchering day. People with pigs wait to kill them until the temperature drops below freezing, a practice that dates back to pre-refrigeration days and still keeps the proceedings vermin-free. Killing, cutting-up, and processing such large creatures requires many hands working together, and so was born an annual winter-weather festival. A gory one, for sure. (I begin to see why Halloween never really caught on in Spain -- they already have a big helping of blood and bones on their plates this time of year.)

Out in the snowy courtyard the pig was just coming out of the fire -- I´d opted out of the actual death scene. They´d already singed-off most of her hair, and Estebans senior and junior, and brother José were working over her skin with neolithic-looking curls of steel, shaving off the last of the bristles and hair. It stank with a particular stink I´d never smelled before.

She (for this pig was a sow) was stretched out belly-up on an antique bench, her legs splayed obscenely. Alejandro, a grandson of four or five years, touched the pig carefully with the very tips of his fingers: its teats. Its black nose, dripping red. Its pliant trotters, one by one.

Esteban Senior took an old black-bladed knife and slit open the abdomen in two long strokes, from throat to pelvis. José took hold of the place where the lines met, and peeled it back. The pig opened up like a thick book, a steaming Renaissance folio on anatomy.

Esteban, working with the practiced hands of a surgeon, quickly dismantled the systems so neatly packed inside: bowels large and small, bladders, lungs, liver, kidneys, throat, stomach. He pulled them free and passed them to his sons, who hung them steaming from hooks and rods in the rafters. Milagros did quick work with her little knife and strings, clearing the chitterlings and tripes, readying them for their next incarnation as sausage casings. Carlos, the brother-in-law, fluttered near with a bucket and broom, keeping the stage clear. As the insides emptied and the pig became a carcass, assorted male relations descended, hoisted the 100-kilo carcass onto a block-and-tackle and cranked it up to the porch ceiling.

Esteban switched knives, and seperated the pig´s fatty skin from the meat beneath. He split the pelvis bones with a hatchet, and José spread open the carcass with a bit of board. And there it was left to hang and cool, a great meat butterfly in a pigskin raincoat.  

We crowded inside the house, around the coal stove and the kitchen hearth. The men shucked off their overalls and scrubbed their hands and headed to the bar for a drink. In the kitchen the work was only beginning: they had those tripes to scrub, and a basin of blood to spice and season and transform into morcilla sausage. In due time the carcass will be dismantled and ground and spiced and cooked and stuffed into casings to make chorizos.

Little Alejandro went upstairs for a nap. Through the afternoon, in the patio, the burnt-bristle smell lingered. The emtpy sow dripped in the cold, with her organs dangling from hangers -- a gory doll with her wardrobe arrayed and displayed alongside.

It was beautiful in its symmetry and economy -- the pig´s insides in such pristine working order, every system so perfectly formed, so elegantly arranged to make the whole creature function. And the matanza, too, was almost choreographic in its efficiency. Each worker had a job, each tool was fashioned for just its part of a complicated, highly skilled dance of death and life, food, family, and winter.  

It´s a folk dance, done here in this patio by this family since time out of mind.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Tripping Out of Zamora

The weather´s gone all wintry  now.

Yesterday the weather was cold but sunny, so I drove to Zamora, on the Via de la Plata, to visit a couple of Canadian hospitaleros who are doing their thang at the pilgrim albergue in that fine city. Wow, what a place! It´s a Pilgrim Parador, built into the city walls with brand-new everything, even an elevator for the handicapped! Best of all was going out on the town and eating and drinking way too much rich stuff with Tom Friesen, one of the shining stars of the Canadian hospitalero traning movement. He´s a sweet spirit, a generous soul, and a hoot, all at the same time.

On the drive home this morning I felt very sharp and bright. I haven´t felt that way for a long time. The sky was full of clouds with blinding-bright edges and bullet-gray insides, and the watery light cast long shadows everywhere. The campo was 120 miles of magic, with every crumbling dovecote and adobe picked-out in high relief, and great raptor birds circling over it all, looking for lunch.

The rural architecture of Zamora and Valladolid provinces is unique in a lot of fascinating ways. I want to study it in-depth. I want to know about the tiles up on the church spire, those strange round windows on the half-story roofs, and the dovecotes... wow! They´re almost Oriental! And most of them will not be here much longer. I had to take their pictures. So this blog is mostly pictures. They are worth a lot more than words, you know. (If Blogger will cooperate. It does not like it when I use photos, so it makes me insane when I try to upload more than one, or arrange them pleasingly on the page. ARRRRRG!)

So what does one do, when one can´t do a whole lot?
One finds a really lovely poem. Here is a new one:

by Joseph Stroud

Everywhere, everywhere, snow sifting down,

a world becoming white, no more sounds,

no longer possible to find the heart of the day,

the sun is gone, the sky is nowhere, and of all

I wanted in life – so be it – whatever it is

that brought me here, chance, fortune, whatever

blessing each flake of snow is the hint of, I am

grateful, I bear witness, I hold out my arms,

palms up, I know it is impossible to hold

for long what we love of the world, but look

at me, is it foolish, shameful, arrogant to say this,

see how the snow drifts down, look how happy

I am.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Living Small, Walking Hard

I´m spending most of this week alone, almost. Paddy is off in Malaga, visiting the family on the beach. I am here in Moratinos finishing up the novel, taking lots of hikes. I think we both are having a nice time. 

I can listen to my Pete Townshend and Holly Cole and Elvis Costello music without driving Paddy up the wall. I can make one homemade pizza and it will last for a whole day. I haven´t had to wash dishes or wash laundry or take out trash for days and days, because somehow I don´t make much mess when I´m on my own. I live pretty small. When it´s just me and the critters, me absorbed in a project, I inhabit only two rooms. I can heat those with just the woodstove. It´s kinda cool, living small. Long as I remember to keep lobbing logs onto the fire!

(the sky is closing in.)

One of the signposts of my days is 4 p.m. That´s when me and Julia go for a paseo. A very FAST paseo, a good 6 or 8 kilometers´ worth, sometimes more. We´re getting into condition for the camino, you know. Her family steps aside and lets her go, sometimes right out til 6 or 6:30, when the sunlight fails. She is a woman on a mission, with her new Salomon walkers, her waterproof trousers -- the combined total for both was 100 Euro, hollín! For a walk of four days!
(Six days. Seven, I say, parenthetically).
You know what I mean, Rebekah. What do I need with expensive hiking things? This isn´t Everest!
No. It´s about 115 kilometers. It´s not Everest. But it is not peanuts. It´s not easy-peasey. You are going to feel this. It´s a pilgrimage. Sacrificio.

Julía´s husband Paco tells her she´s "muy illusionada." Living a dream. Her daughter Christie did the same Camino a couple of times, and she´s the one who Shanghai-ed her mom to the mall in Leon and bought her the proper shoes. (Christie´s the one staying home and keeping an eye on Fran, the family member who needs some looking-after. Here is a pic. of what the two of them are doing lately: alumbrando their field of grapevines. They say it keeps the stocks from rotting. I say they are practicing for careers in cutting-edge hair design.)

The family is making sure Julia´s camino is successful. This week Paco volunteered to drive the pair of us to Sarria, and to drive our "coche de apoyo," (in America it´s the "sag wagon.")  We won´t have to carry our things on our backs. We will walk short days, and sleep each night in private rooms, in proper beds with sheets and blankets. We´ll have hot showers and clean towels. Nothing elaborate. But better than the pilgrim albergue bunk-bed and manky shower routine beloved of the pilgrim throng.

Some consider this short-trip luxurious kind of pilgrimage a touristic cop-out, not quite legitimate. In the past I may have thought so too. Now, once again, I am having my mind renewed.

This family is rallying around Julia, the matriarch. They are making this happen for her, because she really, really needs to get out and do this. She and Paco. Their fields are sown. Christie is off work, at home with Fran. The holidays aren´t here yet. The Holy Year is almost done. There´s me, a (somewhat) respectable pilgrim woman for Julia to walk the path with, someone with experience. It will be so good for Julia, so therapeutic. The family is making a sacrifice for Julia. They are "siezing the day."

And Julia is doing this for whom? She does not say she is walking for the sake of her daughter, her namesake, Juli, so recently and suddenly taken from us. It is ME who is doing the walk for little Juli, my friend and their daughter and sister. Julia, Juli´s mother, is doing this walk with me, to support me. Because I made a promise to Little Juli.

And just thinking about that makes me melt into a big pool of sentimental tears.
This may be the most meaningful Camino I ever made.

So God help the next hardcore hiker who rags on the Sarria-starters when I am around. He may forever after carry on his hide the scars of a multiple rosary-bead impact. There´s so much more to this Camino than our presumptuous, self-referential, comparative Pilgrim egos can comprehend. It takes years to even start to see the layers. I think we all ought to just shut the hell up and walk, for Chrissakes.

It is a day of  hope, though! Today in San Nicolas, during our paseo, we ran into Sabina, a sweet lady of 88 years. I met her at a funeral a couple of years ago, and helped her walk from church to cemetery. She remembered me, and whose funeral it was, and what the weather was like then. She remembered when Julia´s firstborn was baptized in the church there, a good 40 years ago. Remembering is what she does best these days, she told us.

My Words O Wisdom? Write down at the end of each day what happened, and what you thought of it. It is not hard. It´s very therapeutic, really. And in so doing, you build your own archive. Lots of pilgrims keep diaries, but they quit when they get home. Not smart.

Years from now, when you get to be as old and wise as Sabina, you can put on your Holly Cole album, and pull out your notes, and review all the wisdom of your years, and create Great Literature.

Or at least you will leave behind some stuff that will embarrass the hell out of your kids someday, if they ever bother reading it.
At the very least, it will be great kindling for the fire.
Some future dog or cat will appreciate a good fire.

Oh, and today in a draw at the big "hipermarket" in Leon I won a jamon Bellota, a top-quality giant cured pig leg, delight of gourmets and campesinos the world over! Paddy and I discussed only days ago buying one to install in the Residents-Only bar in the Moratinos town hall... Santiago steps in again. My lucky day! 

Luckiest of all, perhaps, was discovering the case of Prado Rey 2006 crianza, a restaurant-grade Ribero del Duero tinto that I stuck in the bodega two years ago. Tomorrow we will have guests over for a late Thanksgiving feast, so I pulled out two bottles to serve with dinner. I tried a taste this afternoon. It has matured into something marvellous! My first home-cured Reserva!

God is good, in so many ways. I wish more countries did "Dia de Accion de Gracias," or Thanksgiving.
Julia says maybe I should take tomorrow off, hiking-wise, what with  David and Malin coming from Astorga, and Bruno and his Italian carpenter, and Paddy returning, and all these little quails to roast.

... and the blister on my left foot. 

Friday, 19 November 2010

Lost Soles

Murphy, in his new bed, by the fire.
November is a small month to me. The sky closes in, the rain arrives, and I usually launch myself into a new writing project I can toil over til the sun comes back again.

In November I notice little things, and I think big thoughts about them. This is a function of writing, especially writing fiction: when you´re constructing a story, each detail you put into chapter 3 may well become an important element in chapter 11. You gotta notice. You gotta keep track. The detail orientation translates itself into noticing things when you´re out in the real world.

One latest thing I notice is shoe-bottoms. On beaches, in trackless deserts, in woods, fields, city streets, in airline terminals and feed-store parking lots, and up on the roofs of old hotels you see them: the soles of boots and sneakers. The fabric and leather that once made them shoes is gone, but the tough meet-the-road part lives on. You only ever see one of them at a time. They come in every style and size. They turn up in the most extraordinary places.

I want to know why. Why just one? Why here, and not there? Who did these soles belong to, back when they were shoes? How did they get here?

I know that sudden impact often knocks people out of one of their shoes. (why only one?) Single shoes litter the scenes of accidents and terror attacks and battles. I know trash sometimes bounces or blows out of the back of the garbage truck, and shoe-bottoms would likely outlive most other refuse that landed along the road. But that doesn´t explain the shoe-bottoms in the farm fields, miles away from any road or village. Or the one lying disconsolate in the middle of Space 36 in parking garage Level B. Or the one on the sill of the display window at the shoe store.

I like to think these soles are all that remains of people who were suddenly assumed into heaven. I love  to believe that still happens sometimes.

Back here in Moratinos life is getting more normal. People are back to smiling and waving from up in their tractors and out in their gardens. The garlic is planted. The days are getting very short, it´s dark now by 6 p.m. In the night and morning we are shrouded in fog. Rain arrived, right on time. The fields are full of beautiful sprouts, "green as a snooker table," Paddy says.

Me and Julia, Juli´s mom, are heading out for Sarria on December 9 to start the Camino de Santiago. (Christy has to stay at the house and look after Fran and Paco. Men cannot function without a woman in the house.)

The two of us will start walking the next day. We will go very slow, even though Julia says she can go like a hare. I will carry an extra poncho and socks, even though Julia says she doesn´t need extra clothes for a five-day trip. I will hope her shoes hold up. She doesn´t want to bother with waterproof hiking boots. She has some sneakers that are "light as a cloud," she says. And as for the rain, the December rain, the Galician rain? We will pray, she says. We´ll pray our feet don´t get wet. I have an umbrella, she says.

The camino is really tough, I tell her. It´s like walking to Sahagun and back, every day for a week.  You´ll have a load on your back. You´re going to hate it sometimes.

It´s only five days, she says. Seven or eight if we get tired. We don´t have to run.

We can wait til Spring, I tell her.

In spring we´ll be older. We have work to do in spring. This is the best time, it´s the Holy Year of Santiago, the crops are in the field, Christy is here to help in the house. Let´s aprovecharlo. Let´s grab the advantage.

You´re sure, I ask her.

We can do this, she says. We´ll be fine. We´ll walk every day from now til then, at 4 o´clock, if the weather is nice, to get into form.

I really want to do this, she says. I can´t go on my own. It will be very very good for me. We´ll do this for Juli. We´ll do this. Like hares we´ll go. I want to.

We need to. 
It´s going to be an interesting camino.

(You guys out there who want to pray? Pray for perfect weather!)

Tim, in his new bed. Suede and sheepskin. Great donativo, this!

Monday, 15 November 2010

Purgatorial Mercies

It was a harrowing week. I think I look old now, I am still puffy around the eyes. But after church this morning my neighbor Anastasio looked at me as I came down the steps and said, "que guapa!" ("How pretty!")

Anastasio doesn´t say a lot, God bless him --  he suffers from early Alzheimer´s. But I will take compliments from any source these days, and a man who lives in the purity of the present can´t be telling me lies, can he? (I was wearing a nice new red sweater, after all.)

Life is getting back to normal again. Somehow the Camino Vibe got switched on, and today we have LOTS of pilgrims in the house, including three Special Guest Pilgs: Rom and Aideen, Irish hospitaleros from the Gite Ultreia in Moissac, France, are staying over with their 2-year-old terror Matthew. We don´t see a lot of little kids around here. Milagros was over the moon, but Murphy and Tim are not at all sure about this. We have three other young pilgrims here too: a Korean, an Englishman, and a nice girl from Australia. They seem to really like the "family atmosphere" here, they chowed down heavily on the green chicken curry, did the washing-up afterward, and snuggled with Tim. Everyone was in bed by 10 p.m. But now, at 11:30, I can hear the baby crying upstairs. It´s the downside of staying with a family! Another camino memory for these pilgrims to take home. It is good to have company again.

All the good pilgrims on Calle Ontanon

Moratinos has done a whole lot of churchgoing lately, four Masses in a week´s time. It´s very good for all of us. It binds the community together around its loss, and if you are a Catholic believer, all those prayers and Masses are also good for Juli´s soul. The Catholic church (the only game in town around here, religion-wise) says dead peoples´ souls don´t go straight to hell or heaven, not unless the dead person was a complete sinner or saint. The majority of us fall somewhere in between. And because Jesus and Mary are so nice, we get a second chance. We can go to a hell-like place called Purgatory, and have the  imperfections in our souls and characters burned and buffed away. It takes an awfully long time but in the end you get to go to heaven. (these beliefs fly in the face of everything my Protestant upbringing taught me about God´s grace, but that´s a whole other subject. I´m trying not to get too theological here!)

The really therapeutic part of Purgatory is for the people left behind. When something terrible happens, especially something out-of-the-blue, survivors feel compelled to DO something, to make an amend, to help somehow. (The great flood of blood donations after the September 11 attacks comes to mind. The actual victims were beyond the need for blood, but Americans rolled up their sleeves anyway.) The church in its wisdom says the living can pray for the dead, or have Masses said for their sake. Some angelic accountant keeps track of all that goodwill, and when the sins on the dead soul are counterbalanced by their loved-ones´ devotion, well -- Bing! Up he comes, translated into glory!

Here in Moratinos we have a Location Bonus. We live on the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic Christian pilgrimage route for the past thousand years. Walking a pilgrimage, and offering prayers and attending worship at the cathedral at the end, earns the hiker a major credit against the purgatorial sufferings he has waiting. But wait, there´s more!
If you want to, you can transfer your pilgrimage credits toward the soul of someone who´s already doing time in purgatory! So, seeing as walking is something I can do easily, I decided to make one last pilgrimage this year, for the sake of the soul of my friend Juli.

There´s a degree of presumption to this. Juli was a very conservative, careful person. She was not a big church-goer, but she didn´t drink or smoke or party. The few times I saw her cut loose and be human I also saw her repent heavily afterward. I´m not the Great Judge of Souls, but I know Juli can´t have run up much of a debt in the Bank of Sin. So I don´t feel so bad, taking the minimal 100-kilometer route into Santiago. I can do it before the end of 2010, and get a few extra credit points as it´s a Holy Year!

Three weeks ago, Juli and I discussed doing a Christmas pilgrimage together. She liked the idea, but was afraid she might not be physically up to the challenge, even just the final 100 kilometers into Santiago. Failing was not something she did well or often, and I didn´t push her.

Yesterday I told Juli´s mom I was planning to walk the trail for her, probably in December. She switched on like a lamp. She and Christy, Juli´s sister, had floated the very same idea that very same day, she said. Their family doesn´t go in big for Christmas anyway, and this year, with Juli gone, the holiday is a grim prospect indeed -- so why don´t we all go? she said. Julia and I can walk in the afternoons, to get into shape, and when Christy´s Christmas holiday starts we can all get on the train for Sarria and start walking from there.

When I came home in September I said I was done with Caminos for a while. But this one, done for a real purpose, with really dedicated people, looks like something special -- a walk that could be very therapeutic for us who mourn, and downright redemptive for Juli, our sister and daughter and friend. 

And even if they can´t go in the end, I will.
I told Juli I would.

Monday, 8 November 2010

crie de cour

I need to blog, but the heart´s gone right out of me.

I know somebody out there likes hearing about plows and pilgrims, grapevines and tree-cutting, how the canary is singing and how Tim is coping with the loss of his lifetime boss, Una.

Since losing Una last Sunday I have poured myself into a writing project that demands about 1,700 words per day, through the NanoWriMo program. I am writing a fictionalized historical novel, something I´ve been sitting on for a couple of years. It´s pure escapist fun for me, and I´m enjoying myself. I don´t know if it will be any good or not, but WTH. When real life gets too heavy, it´s good to just throw yourself into someone else´s shoes. Someone who lived, say, 1,000 years ago.

And life skips along, with the wind stripping leaves off the trees, and the trees being trimmed. I enjoy climbing trees. Add a chainsaw and I can make something useful of it. I figure I´d better get this out of my system now, before I get too old to handle either activity. So this morning I trimmed one of the big spruces, the one out back. It should be much healthier now, and much less noisy when the wind gets up: It was full of big crossed branches and rubbed horribly on each other, scarred the tree, and created a terrible moaning outside the blue bedroom window during storms.

After that we lunched. And after lunch someone came to the door. It was Fran, carrier of messages, usually scribbled on a bit of paper. Perhaps they´ve canceled Mass, I thought, or the local government is calling us together for some meeting or other. But Fran was frantic. He had no note. "You must come with me, Rebekah. Follow me home. Julia needs you," he said. Strange. Fran almost never makes that much sense. He ran out the door. I ran after him, wondering if someone needed first aid or CPR -- far as I know I´m the only one around here who knows how. I hoped to God it wasn´t Fran playing a trick on me.

Down the drive, round the corner, Fran turning to shout "Hurry! Hurry! Run!" I was wearing my moccasins. Running was not easy, but I did it. Fran opened the door to the the place we call "the Juli House." There the key of life suddenly changed to something very minor, very sharp.

Inside, round the corner into the sitting room, was my next-door neighbor Oliva. And Julia, the lady of the house. She turned to me, sobbing.  "Ay, Rebekah!" she cried. "Tu amiga, tu amiga!"

It´s Juli. Little Juli. The English teacher, the daughter of the house, 32 years old, Moratinos´ youngest citizen, my best and only real Spanish friend... she is dead. Killed this morning, head-on crash with a truck, just north of Salas de Infantes, where she was in her second year of teaching primary school.

Julia at her school, Oct. 2009

She was just here with us yesterday. She comes home to Moratinos most weekends. She´s a homebody, a daughter of the pueblo. You may remember her from previous posts. We spend considerable time together, taking road trips, taking walks, hanging out after Mass on Sundays, chatting in two languages on the church steps on long summer afternoons.

No more. Juli is gone. I cannot believe this. I cannot understand it yet. (I am writing this while I am still numb.)

One beautiful thing about the pueblo is everyone is expected at the house of mourning, and everyone is allowed to cry as much as they like -- men, women, children. I sat there and cried myself sick with Juli´s mom, and with Oliva, and Juli´s uncle Pin. And when Manolo and Feliciano came in, they hugged Julia and cried, and when Manolo sat down next to me and saw me crying, he patted my shoulder and cried some more. In England they make tea in these situations. In America, they break out the bourbon and the Valium. Here, they all just have a good, honest howl.

Twenty people live here. When one of us dies it´s a terrible blow. And when we lose the youngest, and perhaps the most decent, sweet, and caring of us... It is incomprehensible.

Tomorrow they´ll ring the bells the way they do for deaths. Patrick and I will try to follow the motions of the others, to do the right things at the right time, choose the right words to say at the right moment.
Advice on the finer points of pueblo behavior in these situations is very hard to find. In English, impossible.

The person who we always asked, the local who told us a house was for sale in this town, who told us how to find the owner of the lost dog who became Tim, who asked me to come along when she took a big exam, who helped us understand the Byzantine tax documents that arrive in the mail... the girl who taught me to pronounce "imprescindible" and "joder," and how to use a sickle without chopping off my hands, and how to negotiate a traffic circle.

Little Juli, our guardian angel of Moratinos, is dead.

The hearts of an entire town are broken today.
People, please pray for us.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Saints Together

While we were waiting for other things to happen, the big All Saints Day holiday snuck up on us.

This is usually just a long weekend here, with a Monday Mass as well as a Sunday, and a community-wide march out to the cemetery to bless the living and the dead. But this year, maybe because so many people were in town for the weekend, or maybe because someone wanted something to do, the families on the plaza decided to organize a big Sunday afternoon lamb roast.

This used to be standard procedure, from what I understand, but like many traditions it was let slide when all the young people moved away to Bilbao and Burgos and Berlin. Now a lot of those now-not-so-young people are coming back for holidays -- who knows why? -- and they´re willing to put the work into making things a bit more lively. That´s what we heard on Saturday evening, when Carlos came to the door with the news: Big dinner tomorrow. We´re all splitting up the costs. Bring your own plate and silverware, after Mass in the plaza.

And so we did. Here are pics of the big event: the grapevines for the barbecue pit, the windbreak made from a plastic sheet, the beautiful pottery bowl full of chuletillas and garlic and wine, steaming pots of potatoes slow-cooked with the rest of the lamb on the back of the stove, escarole and pomegrate salad, apple tart and oranges and grapes for dessert...

and then the coffee and chupitos, shots of whiskey and other homemade liquor. It made my day to see the strange red fruit from our tree out front suspended in anisette, floating in the bottom of an reused chardonnay bottle. (We used our cherry-crabapple thingies for pies, and gave a lot away too.) We toasted the health of Don Santiago, our priest, and applauded the many cooks and crew who made it all happen so fast and delicious...and cheap. A meal fit for kings, queens, or saints, for four Euro each!

It was an important day in a couple of ways. Paddy was given the lamb´s kidneys, roasted over the grapevine fire -- kidneys are his favorite, and these were the best he´s had in all his life, he says.
And it was Una´s big goodbye to Moratinos. She came with Patrick down to the plaza while the meat was roasting, and made sure to be underfoot and available when scraps hit the ground. Everyone marvelled at her continued good health, and slipped her pork rinds when she touched their knees  appealingly with her paw.

And then Pin (short for Seraphim) got out the cohetes. These exploding skyrockets are the bane of Una´s life. I took her round back of the building when I knew they were going to happen, and the first big bang sent her fleeing from my arms and across the plaza, fast as her three legs and half a lung could take her.
That was the last I saw of my little white dog.

In the past 24 hours we´ve done several thorough searches, but Una knows every hiding place within two miles of town. She´s laid herself down out there somewhere and died.

And so she is gone from us, and we don´t even have a body to bury, at least not until the farmers get back out in the fields. We´ve had a month to let her go, and this is the way she chose to leave. It´s fitting: she came to us out of nowhere, and she´s gone out that way too.

We´ve had more than our share of death and tears in the last couple of months. I am hoping I´m not sliding into a depression, but there´s never any guarantees there... and there´s never any real fighting one of those great tidal waves of Numb. I hope some pilgrims arrive soon, to get my mind off myself and back where it ought to be.

Today we walk our two remaining dogs, who are very subdued. We listen to Brahms, whose music is always so uplifting. We are being kind to one another. It´s a new month, a new start.

The swallows have flown away and the sons and daughters of Moratinos are gone back to Madrid. We the skeleton crew are all that remain to face the winter. Me without the little dog that followed me from room to room, house to house, country to country, for seven years.

Like Don Santiago said out at the cemetery: The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Back to the Light

Good sense and sunshine returned to The Peaceable on Monday, in the form of Kim.
She heard about the downward spiral I was on, so she got on a bus and came back.
Gently she told me again what Paddy´s been saying for weeks, what Fred said right here on the blog comments: Una´s not seen the X-rays. Let her live as long as she wants.

So we filled in the grave out in the yard (loosely), and we had a big dog party out at The Promised Land, a piece of rugged, untillable erosion that´s full of hare-holes but has a beautiful view. Kim made a beautiful Valentine of a video out of it. (it´s so cool, having a videographer in the house.)

a big dog party from salt ... on the road on Vimeo.

Life goes on. Una´s going slow, but she´s still going. As Paddy always said, "she´s as game as a pebble."  Kim goes back on the road today. I feel a whole lot better. I think Una might, too. Friends are good.

I bought seed garlic from The Garlic Dude at the street market in Sahagun, for planting over the winter in our spankin´ new garden beds. I was warned, however, to hold off planting garlic til after St. Martin´s Day, November 6. Not because that´s the new moon. Not because that´s when the first frost always comes. Because that´s just what you do.

And so I will.

altitude therapy from salt ... on the road on Vimeo.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Running Out of Sunshine

October is many days of a sameness here at The Peaceable. We wheel things around in barrows, and shovel up muck, and update all our files of important documents (which is much like shoveling muck, I think, but with less visible progress.) Una lets us know she is not ready to die yet. She bounds about each morning chasing mice and beating up Tim and bossing everyone around. Maybe the veterinarian gave us too much information. It seems like we humans are the ones doing all the suffering. At least until evening, when her breathing is labored... 

 Life in Moratinos goes on the same rhythm it´s followed, more or less, for the last 500 years or so: Harvest grapes and press them into mosto and set that aside to moulder, clean up the cemetery, chop up the kindling for the winter fires, get your flu shot, your pneumonia vaccine, wash the windows, plow and sow and hope the rain comes down on time.

The weather´s been kind. Progress continues apace at both new pilgrim albergues, and the pilgrims themselves continue flowing through the middle of all our activity, dozens of them every day. They don´t stop to say hello when we greet them. They don´t come home for coffee, even, not anymore. So I was surprised a few days ago when three pilgrims at the edge of town surrounded me with hugs. I knew them right away, because they stop in here whenever they come by: Jussi and Liisa, evangelical missionaries from Finland, and Daniel, a sometime Yankee sailor who does odd jobs. They´re a strange trio -- the Finns are elderly and parental, with ruddy cheeks and kindly smiles. They don´t have to tell you they love Jesus, cause you can see that. Daniel´s somewhere in his 50´s, but he´s young for his age, full of jokes and advice and American brass, with a Jewish vibe ringing in there somewhere.

We met them on New Year´s Eve 2006, soon after we settled here. All together we attended a do-it-yourself pagan bash in a town nearby that included downing shots of home-brew liquor and vegetarian lasagna and singing our respective national anthems. The highlight was watching our rather-floppy-by-then host attempt to light a bonfire and jump over it without torching himself or the neighborhood. All of which might be a blast if you´re not partying alongside teetotal born-again elders.    

They must´ve forgiven us, because they keep coming by when they´re out spreading the Gospel. This time I gave them boiled eggs and mandarin oranges, grapes and figs and brown bread to eat. They drank down a pot of coffee, blessed our house, and set out on their way. I don´t think I will see the Finns here again. Jussi looks grey with exhaustion. Liisa mentioned retirement, stepping aside and letting the younger evangelists have a go, seeing as Jussi´s coming on 70.

Seeing them again made me wonder. Maybe pilgrims have changed in the past four years, or maybe we have, but we don´t often see the soft, slow type pilgrims any more. These ones flow slowly down the Way, stopping now and then to help someone lay bricks, or to pick a Neil Young song on a guitar, or to talk about Jesus in the middle of the morning. Nowadays it seems like pilgs roll along hard and silver as ball-bearings, self-contained, on schedule, leaving no tracks and picking up no dirt or bugs or color, waiting til they´ve found a place to stay before they open up their packs and relax.    

Today is Friday, a wake-up day. I can keep myself occupied Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday, but the veterinarian is closed on weekends. If we let Una stay alive through Friday evening, we commit her to hanging on through Saturday and Sunday and most of Monday, too. We have to gauge carefully, balance her morning liveliness against the afternoon clinginess and the breathlessness of night. We cannot let her suffer. We pretend not to notice how slowly she rises in the morning, and how she decides against the long hike, turning aside instead to squeeze past the fence and greet the Italian work-crew laboring at Bruno´s albergue. She has a terrific appetite, and we´re giving her deluxe dog food, driving greedy Tim mad with envy. 

We are running out of sunshine. If I work hard and stay busy I don´t hear Una coughing. I don´t notice how Paddy´s grey hair is going white on the edges. I don´t feel my own breath coming shorter each afternoon, after the medicine wears off. I don´t notice when the sweet old pilgrims don´t come back again.

Death is part of life, it´s all around us, it´s easy to deal with when it´s out there in the future, and abstraction. But as I dump the barrow out in the patio, I rake the soil ´round a grave already dug and waiting for a certain dog. The sky is going grey, and winter is coming on. Friday comes ´round so fast, and Una looks sad in her bed at night, struggling her way to sleep.

I do hate long goodbyes. I hope October doesn´t linger too much longer.  

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Una Going

It´s true what they say: "those whom the gods would smack upside the head, they first make happy."

Looking back over this year we´ve been very happy and golden and blessed. No one died or even cried much. We had tons of great company and wine and cheese, music and pilgrimages, trips and donativos. The flowers bloomed, the chickens laid beautiful eggs. I got a start on the book, and Kim was around to keep things humming while I hid out or lit out.

I wondered when the other shoe would drop. Because it always does. So here in October, after the last wave of Septemberness (the Camino Invierno, visits from good old friends, a couple of days at the beach), Nabi ran onto the highway and died. And now the veterinarians in Leon, some of the best in the region, tell us Una´s cough is the cancer come back, the cancer that cost her a leg more than a year ago.  Her right lung is just about done. She has maybe a week, a month at the most.This is not a big surprise. The vets told us more than a year ago that bone cancer like Una had often travels to the lungs next, and that this would likely happen, sooner rather than later. It was supposed to be a lot sooner. She´s been living on borrowed time, and we are grateful for all these extra months her pure cussedness has won for us.

So if I am distant, or I even seem like I´ve disappeared, it´s just the Una thing, OK? Because it was painful to say goodbye to beautiful Nabi, but Una? She is simply the best dog I ever had.  She is part of our marriage, and integral to the Peaceable story.

For now, she is on steroidal anti-inflammatories and the same kind of hardcore pseudo-neurotransmitter I take when I´m in dire straits from asthma. She feels grrrrr-eat through the day, chasing mice and barking at the mailman, but at night she comes crashing down, usually onto one of the beds in the salon. When she stops enjoying her dinner, or she´s in obvious distress, we will have her put down.

(We hope Kim gets here in time. If things go to plan, she will arrive in time for a Big Dog Party up at the tumberon, with liver and pig-noses and dog toys and mouse-digging enough for every dog in the neighborhood, and maybe some Burgos morcilla for the humans involved. 

On the way home from the "malas noticias" (bad news) on Monday, we stopped at the tree nursery and bought a big healthy olive tree. Yesterday we cut down the scruffy lilac in the patio, and started excavating a hole there, alongside where all the people and animals come and go. Excavating in adobe takes a long, long time. We´ll dig a bit more each day, and watch our Una dog. And when the time comes, we will put the olive tree in the ditch, and curl her body up around the roots, and bury them together. Una can still be part of the life here, even though she is gone. Right there at the heart of the house.

Una is still very much around, and may be for a little while, so I am not overwhelmed. I need to keep myself on a steady keel, as I am preparing chapters for a literary agent interested in seeing a Peaceable book. (Apologies to those who are waiting for the Camino Invierno guide, it´s next!) I am trying my best to pour all this emotional energy into the writing. But I am also ready to let it go, if they agent says no. I need to let the book go, and let the dog go. Like I have let the house go in the last few days... the pilgrims seem to sense that. No one´s come knocking at the gate since Nabi died.

Things are unhinged. Everyone´s being fed, but there´s not a lot of Big Fun happening here. Just Real Life.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Nabi Goes

Nabi Dog is the spunky, feisty little greyhound, the darker and smaller of the starving pair who showed up here in January, rescued from a ditch alongside the highway. Her "sister" Lulu is much more refined and retiring, afraid of everything. Nabi doesn´t like strangers, but when she´s among family she´s a pushy broad. At dinnertime, and in the morning when it´s time for everyone to get up, she is out in the patio leaping ´round the flowerbeds, shouting out the "woo woo woo" that brands her forever a hound-dog.

I´ve told her a thousand times that no hound-dogs are allowed in the house, but she tries her luck every time the front door is left open. She´d dearly love to be a house dog, but no dice. Two dogs in here is enough. And with her extra-long whip of a tail, a joyfully wagging Nabi is a destructive force.

Nabi´s not quite so fast as Lulu, but when they´re out in the fields chasing one another, the mirror-image Galgo Girls are never more than a meter or so apart from one another. They are a perfect pas de deux, and at 15 mph., a breathtaking sight.

On Thursday they hunted critters together in the woods alongside the camino into Calzadilla de los Hermanillos. Nabi killed at least two field mice. Together the galgos ignored us when we called them back to the car. And when we finally got everyone home, the two of them slipped out the gate. Paddy went to feed them dinner, and found the barn empty.

He stepped into the dusk and called to them.
Only Lulu appeared. Very strange, that. Very wrong.

It was a long night. Friday morning I took my spyglasses and the car, and went looking for naughty Nabi.

It took a while, but I found her.

I found her body. Lying along the edge of the A231 autopista, at the foot of the same roadside rabbit warren that so tempted Una a couple of years ago, was a greyhound carcass the same size as Nabi, wearing the same kind of collar.
She was not mutilated or messy.
She was elegantly posed, long legs outstretched, as if she was sunning herself on the patio.
The highway gave her to us. The highway took her away, just a few hundred meters west. 

A part of me started to cry, and didn´t stop for a long time.
Some other part of me marched back to the house, told Patrick the news.
"Nabi is dead," I said, and somehow that made it so. We loaded a sheet and a shovel into the back of the car, and drove back to the autopista to collect her.

Together, with a pick and shovel, we buried her body out back. We put a seedling tree in the hole with her, so something good might come of it. Una and Tim and Murphy stood by in the tall grass, watching solemnly while we worked and wept.

Lulu stayed in the barn. In the night she cried. Tim went out and slept on the greyhound sofa with her, in Nabi´s spot.

Lulu is confused. Maybe she is lonely or sad, but who can tell what is going on in her tiny brain? She asks for more of our attention. She walks more sweetly on the lead. We wonder if we should go ahead and let this hound dog in the house, give her the gift of human company we denied to Nabi.
But Lulu doesn´t want to come inside, even though Una and Tim stay in here. Lulu lives in the barn, in the "Greyhound Lounge." That is where she wants to be.

I project my grief onto Lulu´s slender shoulders. I know Nabi´s troubles are over. She probably never knew what hit her, out there on the highway in the dark. It´s little Lulu who makes me feel the most sad.

I must learn to live without one of my pets. 
Lulu must learn to live without her shadow.   

Friday, 8 October 2010

Esperanza Comes Alive!

I´ve never done this before, (used someone else´s blog for a post here), but this is good, especially if you like music and understand a bit about it. This is a post from Peter Blanchette, one of the fine musicians who played here this summer. It´s all about Esperanza, (the guitar Federico built) who lives at our house.

I think he likes her.

Makes me wish I knew how to play something on the guitar beyond the chords to "Eleanor Rigby." Makes me know that sending Esperanza to live at the Peaceable, where no one plays guitar, is like sending Cinderella to live with the Steppy Uglisters.

Oh well. The pilgrims enjoy her, even if they only play "Streets of London" and "Working Class Hero" and "Smoke On the Water" on her. We can´t all be maestros.

Before he went back to America, Peter re-strung our guitar so she could "use her entire voice properly." The guitar sounds great, but singing along is restricted to the Neil Young/Frankie Valli category, at least til you get a feel for the pitch and just drop your voice down an octave or two. (maybe this is why I always sing flat?)

Now I know why "high-strung" isn´t always a bad thing.. just something else that takes some getting-used-to.  If you want to know more about Peter, who is a character, and who played at our church on Fiesta Day this year,  or to even hear some of his excellent work, go to . I´ll vouch for the guy. Hey, he said nice things about us in his blog!

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Yes, I do come home sometimes

Kathy heading for Pico Sagrada
Fun days at The Peaceable. David and Malin are here -- he fixed the computer beautifully, and tomorrow they are off to France to attend a wedding of two acrobats from Toulouse. When I think I lead an exciting and exotic life, I just look at these two and I know I´m still safely dull.
Just to add to the fun, this afternoon who rolls up to the door but the original John Murphy... the pilgrim our cat Murphy is named for. John Murphy is the most Irish man I ever heard speak. When David´s puppy tried gnawing his already gnarled pilgrim foot, John Murphy blurted "Ooh doon´tcha, by Jayzus!" He is a nice man, even if I only understand "soom" of what he says.

For the first time in many weeks I saw rain on Sunday. Summer´s long pointy fingers open cracks in adobe walls and roofs, and the first wet day of Fall is always an unhappy revelation of maintenance jobs neglected. Our bodega wants our attention. We bought materials this summer, and discussed how to get the job done, but we never got ´round to putting an asphalt barrier on the roof. We instead spent the weekend with Laura and Sam, a couple of blog readers from Oregon. It was strangely dissonant, being with two such American Americans in this very Spanish place. They´re not even pilgrims!  (and they brought blueberries!)

Filipe heading for the beach

 I spent most of last week in a Portuguese beach town with Filipe and Dick. I always see them in extraordinary places, as they are travelers, too: We´ve met up in London, Chicago, Rotterdam, Gouda, Ghent, Paris, Palencia... and now Altura. (I met Dick when I walked the Camino in 2001. He was my best Camino friend, another great gift given to me by this old road.) We only had a few days together, but we filled them up with sand and Campari, langostinos steamed in a cataplana with coriander and clams, big red Portuguese wine "liberated" from Filipe´s dad´s cellar, and conversations lasting long into the night in the dark back patio. It was sweet and delightful and sybaritic and rather allergenic, too. These two do maintenance on my soul.

I spent a good chunk of the best September weather out having fun on the Camino. I haven´t told you much yet about that -- I´d planned on walking the Camino Vadiniense, a climb down a Roman road from the mountain fastness of the Picos de Europa in Cantabria. But with the end of summer the buses don´t run to the starting point any more. We couldn´t get ourselves up there. So when Kathy, (my hiking bud from last year´s Camino San Salvador run) arrived with her hike-ready sister JoAnn, we settled for a revisit of the last 100 or so kilometers of the Invierno, the path I walked this spring.

This time it was much, much better. The ground was dry, so we could stay on the marked paths and get off some of the asphalt roads. (A lot of the lower-lying ways were flooded when I was there in April.) I had a good feel for the path, having taken so many wrong ways already. We didn´t get lost, not even once! Best of all, this time I did not have dysentery. Revisiting the scenes of the last days of my spring Camino, I realize how very weak and ill and lonesome I was. Poor old me. I am glad I gave it a second chance, because it IS a wonderful path. I am now working on a new English-language trail guide, and hopefully more people will give it a try. It is too hard for first-timers or tourists, so hopefully it will not become the littered, paved-over knucklehead parade that the Camino Frances is turning into.
Me and Kathy, laboring over the burning trail

The Invierno is a hard camino. I wore boots I bought in America in June, boots I thought were broken-in over the summer... OMG. I was wrong. My feet were blistered like a newbies´!
buddies drinking

But we stayed in some great places, and ate some really great food, and made an impact on supplies of Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras wines. We suffered a bit, but we medicated well. And we met some real characters along the way -- including Joaquin and Esteban, two traveling salesmen from Noia, in Bar Toxa Octopus Emporium in Silleda. This is what the Camino is supposed to be about!

Oh, and when we arrived in Santiago, who did we run into, standing in line to enter the cathedral? George Greenia, our old bud from William & Mary, down in Virginia. He was just in town for a couple of days.  as the Spaniards say, "el mundo es un panuelo." "The world´s a handkerchief."
Three Chicas Americanas