Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Ol´ Dark & Stormy

It is a dark and stormy night. Gale-force winds rattle and hum and scream through the streets and down the chimneys.

We knew it was coming. José told me this morning, as I stomped through the rain with a couple of Korean pilgrims toward home and coffee -- "Get these people to the albergue in Sahagun, unless you want em with you all night. A gale is coming this evening out of Galicia. Dangerous. It´s going to blow all night, and it´s going to pick up things and throw them around."

And like most farmers predicting weather, José was right as rain. Just about 6 p.m. the breeze picked up. We shooed the chickens into their shed, battened shut the sagging garage doors, and took all the dogs out for a final breezing.

It was like a Tarantino movie, beautiful and violent and strangely lit. We walked in drowned dusk, a balmy wind pounding at us from two directions, down the camino toward Terradillos just in case some pilgrims might still be coming our way. None. Just Segundino and his wife, likewise out for a last breath of air before the storm. They opened their arms at us, yards away, and staggered toward us against the wind. We opened our arms, too, and slo-motion ran toward them, like Heathcliffes and Jane Eyres across the empty moors. The tempest grabbed our laughter and flung it out toward San Nicolas.

Darkness fell, and a full moon lit up the scuddy sky. The news had just come from Chile -- earthquakes and tidal waves. Closed highways here, storms and crashes and looming economic ruin for Spain, Portugal, Greece, England... And this winter, so harsh and torrential. The abandoned house on the edge of town lost more of its facade today. It´s teetering. I wonder if we´ll hear it when it falls, or if the wind will swallow up that sound as well. At the new albergue to construction crane is rocking, weaving in the gale. If it goes over, it goes straight into the building. I am glad The Lads are gone home for a break. They do not need to see this.

We are alone in the house, me and Patrick and the animals. It is lean and delicious. We don´t cook. We open a bottle of good wine. We talk about St. Teresa of Avila, and we fill up the bathtub and 5-liter water bottles, because the lights are flickering. We put a frozen pizza on top the hot woodstove. We cover up Bob´s canary cage. We feed the Galgo Girls and tuck them into their straw-bale nest in the barn. And then, as if on cue, the electricity fails.

It flickers to life, browns down, fails. Flickers, fails. Almost like lightning, but with a bright full moon´s worth of light coming through the windows. When it´s finally fully dark, we light candles, dig out a DVD Kim left behind, and fire up the battery-powered laptop. We sit at the table and watch a costume drama while the night howls and roars around us. We drink Vino Virtud, we eat bad pizza, we scratch Tim´s head (propped on the chair between us) and laugh when we´re supposed to be deeply moved. We hold hands in the dark. The movie ends, the credits roll. The candle burns down. Una moans on the floor, twitching in a dream.

From out in the dark comes a shout, a man´s voice, one of the neighbors. The gate slams open. A flashlight beam rakes the patio. Pilgrims. The dogs leap from their beds, caught by surprise, indignant. The pilgrims´ hats and hair are plastered flat against their heads. 

"Darlings! We´re so glad to find you! We´re here!" the lady warbles. "Tumbleweeds! Orphans of the storm! Hope you don´t mind?"

Naah. We weren´t doing anything, I tell her.
Nothing at all. Just sitting here in the dark.

Thursday, 25 February 2010


The Water God apparently joined The Dark Side, and everything is going to hell.

Consider: The eastern half of America is buried under tons of snow, with more on the way. Parts of England are flooded. Officials in Portugal closed a section of the Camino there because rising water made it impassible. South of here, the Guadalquivir River has busted its banks and flooded a large swath of Spain.

In Torremolinos, where parts of Paddy´s family lives, it´s rained continually since Christmas. Two days ago the kitchen ceiling fell down on top of Jo, the matriarch. She´s OK, but her house is waterlogged. Who will pay for the repairs?

Up here in Palencia, the rain keeps coming. Houses here are built of mud brick clad in concrete, with little or no foundations. The ground is saturated, so the rain is leaching up into the walls and out the concrete facing. You know what happens when dried mud gets wet enough?
Abandoned buildings are falling down. A wall collapsed at the new San Bruno albergue project. Rain is coming through the roof over there. Poor buggers are replacing the roof in mid-February. The architect is not returning their calls. The contractor is threatening to shut down the job. Tomorrow both Daniel and Bruno are fleeing eastward, taking a much-needed break from the deluge.  

At our house the rain is coming through the barn roof. It is leaking somehow into the ceiling of the little bathroom... which may soon do what Jo´s kitchen ceiling did.

It´s not just the rain. Our diesel boiler, repaired at vast expense just a month ago, is back to shutting itself off again. The repairman is not taking our calls.

Two days ago the door on the washing machine jammed shut. It´s still jammed shut. The appliance repair people keep taking down our name and numbers, but no one ever calls back or shows up to fix it. They must know there´s a wet rug and a couple of towels mouldering away in there, waiting for them to open that door.
The faucet in the little kitchen blew out a week ago and flooded the place yet again. I shut down the whole thing at the main. I called Leandro the Plumber. He said he´d be here today, but there was no sign of him.

The Hole of Mysteries is opening up again out back.

This morning we made another round of calls. We took the dogs out for a walk in the mud. The rain started up again, so I went to bed. I missed lunch. I slept through the afternoon and into the evening. Nobody came. Somehow I knew they wouldn´t come.
But we do have running water still. If you turn on the water heater and make sure it stays running for a few minutes, you can get a quick hot shower.
Everyone is reasonably healthy. I got the taxes done and sent in. The first of the seedlings I started last week are showing signs of germination. I can hear the wind howling in the treetops outside, but I don´t feel it. It´s not penetrating the walls, not yet. Too much water there already! And stalwart souls keep on walking down the camino. Today I saw one pilgrim walking with three donkeys following along behind -- the mom donk and two babies. 
They plod along through the downpour. They do not fret. Which is what we must do, seeing as The Water God is not taking any calls these days.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A Flaring of the Nostrils

Back when I was a journo, one of my assets was a "nose for news." That means strange and violent and newsworthy things just seemed to break out when I was around, and I had the sense to grab a notebook and pay attention as things unfolded. It explained how I got the big scoop on the gruesome Amish murder (I could speak German back then); Midwestern transsexual priest ordinations (I could speak liberal Protestant); a homeless WW2 bomber pilot living rough in a hangar at a rural airstrip (I grew up on US Air Force bases); a beautiful woman who made a living skinning muskrats and tanning their hides (even though my personal experience included neither beauty pageants nor large rodents); lovers suing one another after their SuperGlue sex experiment went terribly wrong (I happened to pick up a police report featuring a "man out on Route 983 without no clothes and in considrable anxiety over his intimate well-being." I asked the cop what that means exactly). It got to where I thought the county should pay me to NOT live there, so the weirdness level would drop a bit -- or at least a lot less of the homegrown crime and passion wouldn´t make The News At Six.

As time went on, the News Nose devoloped a confessional bent. Criminals and other characters would, for some reason, sit down on the chair beside mine and just tell me all about the Evil they´d done. As Paddy will attest, it makes for interesting evenings in local bars. ("I killed a guy, you know? In the men´s room, there. Did seven years´ time. He deserved it.") This peculiarity occasionally landed me in the District Attorney´s office, or on the witness stand.

Now that I´ve chosen a more Peaceable path, there´s not much call for these "skills." I thought maybe that sword had been pounded into a plowshare: Pilgrims these days often open up and spill out their stories to me. (I do not think this is a special ability. When a person has just  walked alone all day through a severe landscape, and hasn´t spoken English for a while, they´ll tell anyone all kinds of amazing things.) Most are pretty anodyne, and only a couple have turned out to be real convicted criminals. Or international fugitives. (I still know how to track down criminal court records, y´know.)

Still. I say all that to say this. For purposes of this particular story, the old News Nose still flares its ugly nostrils.

Long story short: I was subpeonaed to testify yesterday in a local court case, having witnessed, back in October, a couple of goons doing a spot of neighborhood menacing. I gave a statement back then to the Guardia Civil, which was not so hard one-on-one. But yesterday, standing up in court in front of a microphone and lawyers and all the neighbors and a judge who fired-off questions really really fast?  No problem, in English. Done that plenty of times.

But in Spanish, with a Judicial accent? It was way too much for me.

Usually I can duck and dive around my Spanish-language shortcomings, but there in Carrion de los Condes my incompetance was on public display. There was no place to hide. The questions were incomprehensible. My head swam. I stammered and mis-conjugated and answered one question with the statement I should have made for the other. I saw the frustration and confusion registering on peoples´ faces, the eyes rolling heavenward and the brows knitting in consternation at this foreign buffoon. I made a fool of myself, then fled before I had to face any outcomes or neighbors´ reviews of my performance. I hope to God I didn´t hurt anyone´s case.

I made it to the sidewalk before I burst into tears. I cried for a good half-hour, freaked out Patrick, and gave myself a headache and all the guys in the Carrion Café & Confectionary a story to take home to the wife.

It was depressing, I´m telling you. It ruined my day. And then the rain started. Nabi hurt her foot. (what is it about this place, where half of all the creatures living here walk with a limp? It´s like living on a pirate ship). The faucet in the little kitchen that I so cleverly fixed a few weeks ago came undone and flooded straight through the adobe walls and down the freakin´ driveway.

I decided to go to bed early. I told myself that today would be better.

And it was. Me and Kim dug up some trees and replanted them in a better place. She took our pictures. (here´s one of them. She is good.)

We walked the dogs, then took them to the vet. The diesel man came and filled up the heating-oil tank, and I noticed the price has gone down. One of the neighbors found the walking stick Paddy lost the day we met the Galgo Girls. They gave it back. (What they were doing in the median between two highways remains as much a mystery as how they knew it belonged to Paddy. We think every Spaniard is issued a walking stick on his 65th birthday.)

Nabi is back on four paws again. I am back on my two, too, I think.

And the Nose for News is hereby retired. From now on, even when menacing things are going on, I will mind my own business, butt out, and keep a low profile... choose your cliché.

Unless, of course, it´s someone cool. Or something wonderfully Spanish. Or newsworthy. Or something really interesting...

Friday, 12 February 2010

Acres of Diamonds

Greetings from Moratinos, por fin!

The fields are a shocking lime green, even if the sky is iron. The cold is dry, a very welcome change from the London damp that soaked right through my best wool coat. London was great. It opened my eyes to many things, most of them to do with people.

This trip to England I saw almost no great art or buildings or historic wonders. I only saw the temporary kind of treasure, the human kind. We spent quality time with beautiful creatures both great and small: Jack, Hope, Luke, Liza, Dan and Mandi, Jo and Tom, Mike and Sandy and Derek and Roger and Ian and John and Stephen and Buddy and Jonah and tired old Daisy. I finally met  Moira and "The Second Jo" and Jean and Sarah and a long list of Paddy´s friends and lovers and wives from back when Paddy was a tragically hip art student and/or workaholic hard-partying tabloid London journo. Just about everyone I met was really worth talking to. Good, smart people, intelligent enough to hold on to good friends through passing years. Paddy may be a pensioner these days, but he is rich when it comes to friends.

Meanwhile, back at the Peaceable, a little community formed and functioned. Kim shimmered about, keeping the candles lit and the carpets vacuumed and the dogs well scruffled. Malin arrived about halfway through our absence to cook vegetarian meals and walk the Galgo Girls and haul a ton of sand into what will be our vegetable garden. David cleared out the mess in the back yard, established a new compost pile, and worked alongside Brian (yes, THAT Brian, a certified welder), to fix up Malin and David´s beat-up old VW van. (Brian somehow arrived soon as we left, and took off just as we came home. One must marvel at these coincidences.) And Daniel, the Argentine half of the Mario Bros., got the new albergue building project off to a roaring start.

It was a beautiful few days, Kim says. Everyone behaved and cooperated and got along just fine. Nothing broke down, no one exploded or got dramatic or even threw up. It was Peaceable, but strange, she said.

We came home and ended the interlude, set the dials back to "normal" (and the thermostat back to 18C). Last night Kim went to bed early. Paddy stayed up to midnight with Malin and David, teaching them how to play Texas Hold-Em. He enjoyed himself, even if it´s hard for him to admit it -- he is a good teacher, Pad.

Malin and David left this afternoon, their van now driveable, the house in much better order than when they first arrived. (Malin cried, but not too tragically.) Kim went to Santander to see her novio. Now it´s just us and Daniel, who spends his days over at the Albergue San Bruno and his evenings here, speaking rapid-fire Argentine Spanish.

Paddy and I have done very little to encourage fine people to come here and help us out so well and be our friends, but here they are, picking us up at the airport and driving us home and keeping dinner warm til we arrive. They wash the dishes, clean out the garage, chop firewood, shovel up the dog doo, work the garden soil... the hard jobs we put off as long as we can.

They are young and strong and beautiful, this bunch. Unlike old friends, we´ve done almost nothing to earn their kindness or (can I say it?) devotion. But they keep returning, keep loving us and our animals and our scruffy little finca in our poky little town.

They show me the definition of "grace," a big old word in Christian circles: "undeserved favor." 

We are chilling our way back to our regular rhythm, taking Murph to town for his shots, making delicious cauliflower dal for lunch, reassuring the Galgo girls, moving fragrant bales of straw from the new albergue site to our spick-and-span garage, showing Max the Rooster once again who is boss of the back yard. (that will be ME, pal.) It all is ordinary. But these days, post-London, I see again how beautiful it is.

Monday, 8 February 2010

We're Off

"You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

That's what Samuel Johnson said, famously, a couple of hundred years ago. It's still true. London offers just about anything you could want, and the part of London we inhabit these days tends to teem with delights. It's going to be a real challenge fitting them all inside our bags when we head back to the Tiny Pueblo.

Because go back we shall, on Wednesday. Intellectually, spiritually, physically, we are ready to go. We are homesick. It makes getting home so delicious!

Kim sends us photos of Una Dog and Max the rooster, and we crow over them like they were snaps of grandchildren. She made a little movie, even, with Tim and Nabi's running feet. We get all stupid this way. We love our animals, and our house, our Peaceable Kingdom.

Not that it's not peaceful. We are catching up on our sleep. We are eating like pigs, and probably drinking too much. Paddy is facing the fact that many of his friends have knocked off cholesterol and sugar and drink and all kinds of other evil things. They're viewing things sharply now, without the alcohol and cigarrette haze  that for decades colored the world they shared. They talk now about Johnny Mercer lyrics, runny cheese, Boston Terriers, the Napoleanic wars, the decay of the current Labour government, the balance between good and evil, how to get to Clapham Common from Ealing Broadway.

It is miles and miles away from pilgrims, donativos, muddy boots and stinky galgos. It's probably healthier, despite the city pollution -- without the 16 tons of dust, dog hair, and woodstove vapors we both are breathing much better and sleeping deeply at night. We are being refreshed.

Yesterday we celebrated Patrick's birthday. It was unique. We traveled to south London, where we met up with Scotsmen called Johnny Walker and Big Man. We toured a Redemptorist monastery, heard a memorial Mass for a man from Mauritius we'd never met, feasted fabulously on racks of lamb and liver fillets, and wound it all up with a Spongebob Squarepants birthday cake. On the tube back to Ealing we fought back the urge to sing "These Foolish Things," the closest thing we have to an "our song." It was a lovely day.

I think no one else can say they had the same kind of 69th birthday.

We've visited the World's Cutest Grandchildren, and squeezed ourselves inside Crispin's Wine Bar for a loud, crowded party on Saturday night. We've looked into some fine Victorian and Edwardian churches, bought new jeans and underpants from Marks & Spencer, got lost, and shmoozed with Leena, a Canadian pilgrim who lives up in Highgate but wants to live in Spain and give us presents all the time.

We met with two officials from the Peterborough Pilgrims, a confraternity from the north. They like us, and want to offer ongoing support. Leena and the Peterboroughs are giving us a lot to think about these days. We are not accustomed to being admired and supported this way, not without DOING something in exchange. We have to get our heads around it. (Paddy especially bridles at the thought of people thinking of him as Good. Evil Incarnate is much more in keeping with his self-image.)

Even so, we hold hands when we walk down the Green, and even snog now and then. (Great word, "snog.") Vacations are good. This one was very fine... especially the vegetarian Indian buffet part. The chance to have long chats with very smart people. The break from housework and planning and cooking. Walking the beach in Bournemouth. Laughing out loud. And hearing an Irish priest call Jesus  "R. Lard."    

London's got it all, it's true. And I am so ready to get back to just about nothing.