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.