Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wherein a Canadian in Galicia is Bailed-Out

Funny old week it´s been, a very Camino week, with an extra dash of Hospitalero.

I told you that Lesley, a Canadian-trained hospitalera, was off to Miraz to try out the life of the volunteer  host at a pilgrim shelter. This particular "albergue" is special to us, as Patrick was one of the very first to volunteer there. We did two weeks in Miraz during our "Homeless Summer" of 2006, when we were scouting out places to maybe settle in Spain. Miraz was a bit too remote for us. It is Deepest Galicia, a tiny village where Gallego, not Spanish, is the primary language, and on the Camino del Norte, well off the beaten path.

Even though we settled elsewhere we´ve kept up our connections to the place, pointing people we´ve trained to serve there, supporting those on the job, and visiting whenever we were in the neighborhood. (Our kitchen countertops are made from granite mined in the Miraz quarry.) It´s a beautiful, peaceful spot. Or at least we thought so...

If you scroll back a year or so you´ll see my account of my last Hospitalera stint there, which was less than wonderful. I was paired with The Queen of Passive Aggression, and spent two weeks in misery and desolation, shivering through damp, gray days with wet firewood, a sinus infection, and a perfect bitch from London. I was assured afterward that this person would never again darken the doors of the Miraz albergue, and I chalked it up to Experience. I´ve volunteered at a lot of places, and a bad experience had to happen sometime. My number just came up.

But now Lesley volunteered there. And Leslie had a very similar experience to mine. She phoned me up in tears a time or two, wrote copious notes, and just generally had a miserable time... and this was her first stint volunteering on the camino! She´d come from Ontario at great expense to do this, and was treated like a stupid child by her co-worker. She called on the people in charge, but was met with stony silence.

(Paddy says it´s a syndrome: Person of a Certain Age outlives the spouse, who´s been bossed around for decades (or said spouse finds a more gentle partner). POACA is a righteous churchgoer, does the Camino. And as Hospitalera s/he finds a new niche: Lording it over a pilgrim hostel for two weeks per year, fixing everything that´s wrong with the Camino de Santiago.)

I can see both sides of this issue. Even though most volunteer teams get along just fine, the Coordinators (themselves unpaid) are probably full-up with personality conflicts. Volunteers must know there´s a mixed bag of people out there, and some strangers just don´t gel with others. They have to just scrape along somehow, tolerate, smile on through. Unless, of course, someone gets abusive.

And if Lesley is to be believed, things got there within a week. She was called "stupid." Her co-worker slammed doors, locked everyone out of the kitchen, shouted and raved at her in front of the guests, and just generally behaved like a martinet. The topper, though, was the toaster. Lesley´s co-volunteer decided that toasting bread at breakfast was too much work, and pilgrims don´t really need toast. And neither did Lesley. So she took the toaster and hid it somewhere.

In retrospect, this situation has all the makings of a situation comedy. But when you´re living it, things can get homicidal very quickly.

Miraz is 300 kilometers from Moratinos. Patrick had surgery this week and needed me near, so I was not amenable to bailouts. I listened to Lesley on the telephone. I made a couple of calls, sent a couple of emails, prayed a couple of prayers. It´s only a couple of weeks. I stuck out my misery there last year, I told her... but then I was the person in charge. I couldn´t leave the pilgrims at the mercy of the wacko I was working with. If you are being abused, you need to get out. But the decision is yours.

I left it in her hands. She stuck it out. I went to pick her up a day early, once I knew her replacement was on his way. Her replacement, you see, is Frank the Scotsman -- a patron saint of British hospitaleros.

Frank trained me and Paddy at Rabanal del Camino back in 2003, the first time we volunteered. He is a kilt-wearing character, a Lockerbie native, all charm and wit and common sense. If not for Frank I would have let Lesley just get a train back to the Peaceable. But I´ve not seen the guy for two years, and this was a wonderful opportunity.

And so I drove the 300 km. The weather was beautiful. The welcome was sweet. As I´d expected, Frank had swept into a toxic situation and put things right within hours, simply by smiling, and saying No. 

"No, we are not leaving the pilgrims waiting in the rain until the 4 p.m. Official Opening Time, when we are here and ready at 2 p.m."

"No, I don´t want to feel the cold. I think we should turn on the heaters so the place is warm. We have heaters here for a reason. This is the reason. If you want to feel cold, go outside."

And last but not least: "I want to toast my bread. Where did you put the toaster?"

And so Lesley was restored to sanity, and I stole an afternoon and evening of time with Frank. I showed him Friol, the market town, and he showed me where the nice little pension is in Parga, another charming little town to the north. We walked along a beautiful riverside path. We had big sea bass for dinner, the whole fishes. I could´ve stayed at the Miraz refuge, but I chose (like a non-pilgrim) to sleep in my own room in Parga, where I stayed up and wrote til 3 a.m. under the bare lightbulb: Dinner, room, breakfast for 20 Euro. I love rural Spain.

I learned that the nasty woman I served with last year at Miraz is scheduled to be a hospitalera there again in a couple of weeks. I hope it was just me, and that her next stint there is more successful, and the pilgrims  arriving then are treated much better by her this time around. Me? I will not volunteer there again anytime soon. Something is wrong.

I drove back home the next day with Lesley. We followed the Camino most of the way, stopped and bought a jasmine vine and marigolds outside Lugo. We visited Gordon, a South African trainee, who keeps a "stealth albergue" in a tiny town outside Portomarín. We stopped near Samos, at a tiny derelict watermill in a backwoods valley where Lesley´s sure she lived in some previous life. The millrace roared. The greenery was lush, buzzing with honeybees. The highway howled from the overpass way overhead.

We stopped at Triacastela and drank cider and ate KitKats. We took a wrong turn at Astorga, and ended up going cross-country through towns made up of bodegas, where it looks like everyone lives underground. The shadows grew long. The sky continued blue, but shifted from plain cotton to serge to velvet. Lesley told me about her marriages, her twin boys, her sociology career at a string of Canadian colleges. In the background were Neil Young, Cole Porter, Bebo y Cigala, Bach, the highway and passing cars. Outside the windows were mountains, windmills, exit ramps, detours, plains and petrol stations and pilgrims, pilgrims, piligrims.

It was day-long, warm and beautiful. Lesley called it a Rescue Mission.

I call it a cruise. I don´t want to do it many times, or it won´t be so special.

And it made me want to walk again, that stretch of Camino I missed in April, from Ponferrada onward via Samos and Sarria and Portomarin. The Invierno is not far south, but this path really does have a vibe of its own. It´s the Real Camino, as over-sold and paved and pimped-out as it may be. I love it still.

Maybe I will go back and walk it again. Maybe in the Autumn, when the crowds thin out. Maybe...

Lesley´s gone on now to walk the Norte from San Sebastian. Life at the Peaceable is a round of gardening, dogs, neighbors, doctors, and often pilgrims in the evenings -- last night we hosted a pilgrim from Pittsburgh, a freelance writer. Imagine that.

The fields are lush, waving in the breeze. The Lugo flowers seem to like life here on the plain.

It´s time for a snack. I think I will have some toast.



Anonymous said...

that's it. Autumn!

yes. and I remember I have a little toaster thingee that makes the Virgen Mary image in toast...or maybe I sent it on..We're on...hurray...


Laura said...

I love your writing and I love the life you are living. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I'm fatally adicted to your blog. It's intoxicating... probably because through your direct and brilliant style you show us life through your no-nonsense and kind eyes. There is also something Qixotic about you (the good side of D. Quixote).