Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In the Long Run

Greetings from Castrojeriz, where the internet server dates back to Thomas Edison, but the spirit is bright. There´s a cat asleep in the bread box by the door, and a big, misbegotten dog asleep in the doorway. When anyone walks in the door they can´t help but step on him, but does he move out of the way?

It´s the clunky little places that the spirit is brightest, and where you find the Camino Senseis still hiding out. I have met a few lately.

First there´s Acacio, from the Albergue Acacio y Orietta. It´s best-known for its ties to Brazilian mystical author Paulo Coelho -- Acacio is Brazilian too. He follows this blog, and he and Orietta made me most welcome a few days ago, when the weather got violent and I was soaked from knees down by a sudden storm. (Yes, I did walk past the famously cozy albergue at Grañon. I looked in, and no one was there. I had a coffee, left a note to say hello... Grañon is like that. They don´t lock up, they don´t even hide the donation box. (they do take the folding money out every day, though!) It was too early to stop.

I crossed from La Rioja into Burgos/Castilla-Leon, where the clouds were waiting for me. I saw a weather report later, which said the gusts were 45 kph. Felt like freight trains. And the frozen rain... and all of this loveliness blowing straight into the face of every pigrim. Downright penitential, it was. (and it continues to be...) But my new Altus rain poncho did its thing beautifully. Everything under it stayed dry. Sadly, it does not cover my lower legs, but anyway...

Acacio was full of wonderful advice and comfort and joy. He told me what kind of publication the Camino needs next, that I already have all the needed material in hand, and that publishing is not going to be a problem -- he is always right about these things, he says. (He told a guy called John Brierly he ought to write a camino guide, and look at him now.) So we shall see. He gave me much to consider.

Next day I was not so well -- the tripes again. I went only as far as Tosantos, another place with a quiet reputation. And there I found Jose Luis, another Sensei, a deeply Christian one. The house is not heated. Bed is a mat on the floor of an upstairs room. We shared our food, cleaned up after ourselves, huddled in the kitchen and talked about Grace. (I am kicking butt in Spanish these days, translating heavily between it and  English and German. Tons of Germans.) And for lunch who showed up but Carlos, the hospitalero from Grañon - the guy I´d missed a couple of days before. He is Italian and skilled and looking for gigs along the camino. I sent him to Moratinos, where the Italians there may be in need of a cook sometime soon.

We tracked down Ramos, the village lady who has the keys to the chapel dug into the cliffs above town. She gave us a tour, in exchange for a little donation to Our Lady of the Peak and three Hail Marys.

The next day took me over the Montes de Oca, where I met Rory, another curate, this one a Methodist South African youth minister now posted to York, England. We walked through the wide mudbog into San Juan de Ortega. We talked with Stejn, a big Swede who looks like that guy from Mission Impossible, about grace and confession and atonement. Rory must´ve gotten A-s in apologetics in seminary, he is brilliant. We would´ve stayed up gabbing a lot longer, but the cold in that old monastery could freeze the ___ off a ___. (they still serve garlic soup after church. I actually gave one of the readings at the Mass... in Spanish, even! A real first for me. It felt good to do it again.) 

I walked with Rory and Stejn and Rebecca, a German girl, down the mountain and into Burgos on a glorious sunny Palm Sunday morning. It was MILES until we found a coffee, down in a valley in a happy little bar blasting Black Eyed Peas tunes. Stejn danced with a German lady... so weird to have "My Humps" echoing down the ancient streets, but also somehow apropos. In the next village we arrived just as the church service was letting out, and a little boy gave us blessed palms to stick in the tops of our packs and wave Glory all the way through the long slog into Burgos.

And in Burgos I got myself a hotel room! And Paddy and Kim came to see me! And they brought UNA with them! I gotta admit, I miss my little dog more than I miss anyone else when I am away. It did me enormous good to see them again, to scruffle my fur-bearing friend, and to pat my dog, too.

I will skip ahead to yesterday, when the route moved into Meseta, and the morning had skylarks singing to me and quails leaping and shouting... I was alone again, and happy to be back on my flat, rolling fields. At 3 p.m. i thought I might stop in Hornillos, as the sky was filling up again, the wind was picking up. But the restaurant closed, right in my face. And San Bol, the funky hippy hostel, was only 6 more kilometers...if it was open. I sat down for a snack to consider things. I opened a packet of nuts that Kim gave me in Burgos, and a note was inside. "Trust," it said. So I walked on. And on.

And there was San Bol finally, looking extremely spruced-up from across the field. There was a truck and a car outside. I rejoiced! But too soon. The truck was a carpenter´s van. The place was in the final stages of being completely renovated.

The car, a funny old DeuCheval, belonged to the boss. "We´re closed til tomorrow," he said. "Next place is Hontanas, 5 more kilometers." A downpour started pouring down.

"I am going to cry now," I told the guy.

"You can´t cry. I am going to Hontanas in ten minutes. I´ll take you," the man said. And who am I to argue with Divine Providence?

Long story short, the man is called Felix. He´s a local fixer, a camino supporter. He talked the council at Iglesias, the village in charge of San Bol, into making it a "proper" albergue. I a m not sure where all the money came from, but the place is transformed. No more pit toilets and baths in the spring, no wild parties, no more hippie three-week communal camp-ins and drumming circles and paintings on the walls of Mother Earth and her Children. In their place are electricity, hot and cold running water, bunk space for ten, fresh paint, a stainless-steel kitchen and espresso machine, and stunning views across the fields. You can stay one night for five Euro. Just like a proper albergue. Which is nice, if that´s what you want.

I´m going to miss the funky old place. A casualty.

Felix took me along to Hontanas, where the rain was coursing down and the streets were running in a torrent. A couple of German shepherds greeted us as we pulled up, snarling and snapping. An old man ran out into the rain and clubbed them with a stick. I wondered if this was not such a great omen, but then another door opened, and a familiar face smiled out... It´s Judit, the Romanian hospitalera I last saw at San Bol. Last summer she served there for nothing, living her dream of running an albergue of her own. And now, in Hontanas, Felix has put her in charge of Santa Brigidia, the newest pilgrim albergue on the trail. It´s opening today, too. But I got to be only the third pilgrim ever to sleep there (two of Felix´s friends were there last night.) It´s gorgeous, a sensitive renovation of an old finca, right next to the church. (And the freakin´all-night bells, but I won´t complain.) Brand new beds, showers, hot hot water, warm floors, and a storm screaming outside the double-pane windows. It was a little lonesome, but I managed. Judit worked all night downstairs, getting the place ready to open. She would not let me help her.

I think she may also be a sensei.

I am now on my way to Itero de la Vega, or maybe even Boadilla. Home gets closer. I am making more miles now, my body is adjusting to the walks. I am well. I wonder which wise person I will meet next.


Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Off the Road

My tripes got better. I think they just wanted a shot of bourbon and a glass of beer.

I now have a new favorite place in Spain. I am very, very pleased.
But first things first.
Since I last wrote to you I walked a very long 30-km day and stayed at a funky Austrian pilgrim hostel in Los Arcos. (I was going to stop sooner but it is still early in the season, and not all the smaller places are open yet. So I learned the hard way... the last nine km. into Los Arcos are the longest on the Camino.) Outside of Estella I ran into a pilgrim who stayed at our house about a month ago -- Gerardo is walking back home to Zaragoza. He recognized me from across the highway! How cool is that? I linked up for a little while with three English-speaking pilgs who turned out to be the very worst kind of cheap-ass tourists -- people who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In Bar Pito in Viana I saw the living incarnation of Selma, Marge Simpson´s chain-smoking sister. (I also had an amazing 12 Euro Menu del Dia, with a great haunch of roast lamb as the segundo! Mmm!) I lost the Turigrinos in Logroño and am now continuing a meander through La Rioja -- I´ve gone off the usual Camino route.

I am trying to listen more, and hear all the layers of sound beneath what at first seems to be silence. There is much music here. While walking the municipal park paths out of Logroño I listened to the nannies singing to the little ones as they pushed them in their buggies. In Ciriauqui I sang, too, right out loud, right down the street -- someone´s radio was blasting The BeeGees "Help Me Mend My Broken Heart," and there was no one to see me but and old man with an enormous dog sitting in his lap. And in Irigui I shared a smile with a man coming home for lunch, covered in paint. He pulled up his car and sat still there for a moment, letting Stevie Ray Vaughn finish the last couple of licks of "Tightrope."

In the Witches´ Wood outside Roncesvalles the birds sing "We did." "We did." Down here in La Rioja they sing out suggestions to those quaffing lots of water: "Pee!" "Pee!"

Yesterday was a lucky day. In the lost & found box at the albergue in Navarette I found a brand-new pack towel with the price tags still on it... 31 Euro! Holy cow! Not many pilgrims at all, most of them bikers. I stopped to look over a beautiful vista of vineyards and realized how hypocritical and silly it si for me to yell about tourigrinos who don´t value what they have.

Because it was only when I was with these photo-snapping tourists that I noticed again the beauty of Viana´s back streets, and this orderly march of vines across the rolling field...Thousands of people come from all over the world to see these beauties, and I live among them. I don´t see them nearly as much as I ought to. They´ve become Everyday! Alas!

I looked again at the vines, and saw long lines of gnarled hands reaching out of the ground, like the vast, grasping cemetery zombie resurrection in a B horror movie. It would´ve creeped me out but for the muttering tractors and birdsong. An airplane overhead. And far off, over the vineyard, a radio carried the sweet sound of Nancy Sinatra. "These Boots are Made for Walkin." Yes indeed!

The Camino is aflutter with advertising flyers, most of them for albergues or cheap Camino jewelry. Graffitti from hippie conspiracy theorists and Gaia nature groups. So much silliness. I finally got to Najera, a town with lots of "ifs" built in. Back in 2001, I caught a bus from here to San Millan de Cogolla, a 20-km detour off the route to a pair of old mountain monasteries. It was fun, but the timing was bad -- there wasn´t a bus back in time, and I ended up hitching a ride back on a tractor. But lots of things can change in nine  years. I felt San Millan calling my name, so I was ready to go there if things worked out. And ready to walk on by if they did not.

Long story short, I got into Najera 20 minutes before the Cogolla bus left. My guidebook said the only place to stay in San Millan is a four-star hotel built into the 16th century monastery, where rooms start at 100 Euro. I was ready to splurge if I had to, but I hoped a few other options had opened up by now... And again I was not disappointed. As I walked down the main street I saw the town now has several cute B&B kind of places. I pressed on to the huge monastic complex, which was closed for siesta. I went into the plush four-star place and asked if they had a single, and how much it would cost...

They have no singles, just doubles, the lady said. And there´s a special price promotion on: One person staying in a double pays only a single price: 50 Euros. Hooha! Jesus loves me!

I had an hour before the next bus left for the tiny cave church up the mountain. I opened the door to my room, and danced a very happy dance on my sore feet... it was marvellous. A big marble bathroom with a huge tub. Towels. A hair dryer. A minibar, with cold beer inside. And a huge wide window built into an arch, and a little terrace looking over the monastery garden and a babbling river and a range of snowy mountains marching off to the horizon. I could even see a couple of deer, way up there.

I took a hot bath. I trimmed my nails and moisturized. The music played "Begin the Beguine." 
The afternoon continued with visits to both monasteries, (one dates back to the 6th century!) which I will write about some other time as a boy now needs to use this computer. It´s a lovely hotel in a beautiful setting, and me and Paddy need to come here together sometime again soon.

And then came the 10 km mountain trail north, to Santo Domingo, which I am halfway through hiking now. The mountains are full of barking deer and blooming little flowers and cuckoo cries. But the second half of the walk is asphalt, which kills the feet.

But I am happy anyway. All here on my own, climbing green mountains, sipping red wine, hardly thinking at all. Soon I will rejoin the regular camino, refreshed.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Going Alone. And just Going.

Gastroenteritis tends to color your world-view. 

Be warned. I have a bad attitude today. Something has gone wrong with my tripes. My innards are all crampy and painful, and I cannot remain very far from a bathroom for very long. Which is not a happy situation if you´re trying to walk 20-plus kilometers across wild country each day.

So far I am walking this camino alone. As noted above I did make a couple of nice friends early on, but after one fun evening of beer and instructions on the difference between a "dumbass" and an "asshole," we kinda lost each other. Maybe I will find the Dutch guys again. They are a trip. And they are traveling with a full-size Gouda cheese. (This one of the earmarks of  a True Kindred Spirit.)  

There are a few reasons I am going alone a lot. One is my evident devoutness. I promised a bunch of people I would pray for them on this pilgrimage, and I am doing it. To keep myself focused I use a big old black Rosary that once belonged to a Canadian nun.  Hiking along with a rosary swinging from your hand is a clear signal to fellow believers that you´re kinda busy right now. To non-believers, it might as well be a live grenade. They steer well clear.

I am not a bang-you-over-the-head Christian maniac, just so  you know. But I figure this trail was a Christian pilgrimage for a lot longer than it´s been a hiker´s cheap holiday. I have a right to be here, doing this. And so I will. ( I realized yesterday I am really quite devout, and I shouldn´t feel ashamed of it.)

The other reason I walk alone may have to do with a diet rich in apples, oranges, bananas, nuts, and lentils. And tripes that are unhappy. But I won´t go into that.

Walking alone (between rosaries) gives you lots of time to think and observe. One thing I think is the people who plot the Camino trails are not hikers, and they dislike actual pilgrims. Or they are hit-you-over-the-head Christians who think salvation can be earned through suffering and frustration. Today, for instance: I was still smarting from being over-charged in Puente la Reina, when the trial took us down a long, beautiful valley, past a fragrant sewage-treatment plant, round a quarry and up a very steep hillside... all of this with the new arrow-straight highway to Estella in plain sight overhead. I know they strive to keep pilgrims and motor traffic seperate, and that is a noble pursuit. They try to send us over historic Roman or medieval paths that Pilgrims Of Old probably walked, or among trees and fields and flowers.

All of which is nice. The Pilgrims Of Old wanted to get the heck to Santiago, and the road they walked was probably the only one available. Today´s 21st century pilg demands something different: Good footing. Scenic vistas. Wrinkly peasants and cute donkeys to take pictures of. Safety. English-language menus, signs, and directions. Good food. Perfect cleanliness. Heinz ketchup. And all of that for 10 Euros or less.  (Oh, and NO tourists! No one hates a tourist more than a pilgrim. Except maybe other tourists.)

I want Gouda cheese, and a more direct path, too. Got that, trail planning guys? 

Anyway, today I am in a very clean, safe, scenic pilgrim albergue in Lorca. It is raining outside. I rolled into town just as the downpour began, and the bells were ringing for the Mass of San José. Lucky me! A church, open and lit up, with people inside singing! Spain is full of knockout beautiful churches, but they are rarely open. And a church with a service going on is a church in full operation, I think -- you see it in action, doing what it´s designed to do. This one was great. I met a German guy who lives here. He and his daughter asked me to come over to dinner, if I´m staying in town. And so I am. (thank goodness for them. I am running short of cash, and tomorrow is the next ATM machine..) 

And now I do not have the albergue to myself -- two very tall Germans just arrived. I think they want to use the Internet. And so I go. To the bathroom.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Compare and Contrast: First Day Out

I told you I would not post much, but there´s free internet here and I intend to make the best of it!

I was last on this stretch of the Camino Frances in 2001. Nine years ago. I did not think a trail from a mountaintop monastic complex down to a grubby village could change much. I was wrong.

And I was oblivious, too. I had forgotten SO MUCH of what I saw then, and the scraps of memory I had of that first day´s walk are splattered with mud and driving rain. It was a miserable day, in mud that sucked the boots right off our feet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

First, Roncesvalles. I first saw this place in 1992, back when it might as well have been 1930. You could touch the things in the museum, and go inside Charlemagne´s Silo and peek down into the depths and see the skulls grinning back up at you from the eerie dark. Now it´s all cemented neatly and barred shut. Now that thousands of goobers flock into the village every year, God knows what kind of plastic bottles and candy wrappers were tossed down there with the ancestors´ bones. I can´t blame them for that.

But I am peevish about how I was treated. I should have seen it coming, seeing as thousands of goobers, etc. etc.,  and I am just another one, bounding off the bus and lining up for my Pilgrim Credential. But these days it´s a moving sidewalk. Two kids with punk haircuts take your money, stamp your credential (they charge THREE EUROS for a credential up there, and they´re not even the stylin´ new Holy Year model! For shame!) And a quick hustle of 6 more Euros to stay there at the albergue.

Used to be the albergue was not heated, but they said that was not true any more. What they did not say was that 20+ people were being crammed into bunks in a basement bunker with a single non-functional toilet and one shower. They did not bother telling us where this place was, either, before they blew away in their little car. It was a long, noisy, vile night. I won´t do that again. (the priests are sweet, and the pilgrim Mass is a jewel. But the albergue was like Midnight on the Kalahari. They oughtta be ashamed.)

But the morning was bright and beautiful, with a bit of snow still lying on the ground. Cattle and backwoods trails, huge birds circling in the sky (waiting for something to die). I´d been there before, but none of it was the least bit familiar. No mud, no stunning scenery, no medieval Basque villages, and no Paddy this time.

But I learned some cool things by stopping to read the signboards along the trails. (another big difference this time is I now can read and communicate in Spanish.) I learned that when you walk from Roncesvalles down to Biskarret for your breakfast, the little forest you pass through is The Witches Wood. Back in the 1600´s there were four big waves of witch-hunting up on that mountain, which ended with at least five local women burned at the stake in the plaza of sleepy little Bizkarret. Salem wasn´t the only place where people went nuts in the 1600s. It´s those women, I tell ya. Worshiping in ways that just can´t be tolerated. 

Not to let the Massachussetts people get a jump on them, the local tourist agency has charted out a Ruta de las Brujas, so you can load up the family for an afternoon of fun and adventure driving round to the places where mountain women got out of hand... or the locals just got so bored they started turning on one another.

And on down the mountain I went. I didn´t remember it taking so long, or these long uphill bits. I am sure, now that I´ve done it, the camino was somehow re-routed in the last nine years. I have a very good memory for places, and this trail completely eluded me. Weird. I am doing more thinking and less writing and socializing this time around. The things I always do, I am going to not do. The things I never do, I am going to give them a shot. Tomorrow I will meet up with an Irish pilg and his German friend for a St. Paddy´s Day Irish Whiskey Shot-O-Rama. (I may have to stick with bourbon, however.)

A couple of observations: People who walk this stretch of camino call it "Crossing the Pyrenees." It is a really tough couple of days of mountain walking, but it really is only one mountain, a single Pyrenee. And the really bad bits have been PAVED, for heaven´s sake. (I am of two minds on this. Dangerous places should be made nominally secure, but c´mon! This is a mountain path here, and a pilgrimage oughtta be kinda hard, no?) It´s not conquoring Everest, even though some of the people are dressed for that. But it´s not supposed to be Space Mountain either. So there.

And now I am checked into an unpronouncable, starts-with-a-Z private albergue in Zubiri. This place, too, has changed out of all recognition. The raggedy old stone houses alongside the 12th Century "Rabies Bridge" are all gone now, replaced by neat three-story ethnic-ironwork apartment buildings. You can get down here to the river and  put your toes in, even. (and God, my toes look like they belong to someone else!) (Pardon me, but toes and feet and ankles and knees are deeply meaningful to pilgrims, and I am now a pilgrim. So you may hear about my sad old toes. You were warned.)  Anyway, I am sure Zubiri is much improved now. It is full of young families raising their kids in suburban splendor.

But I wish they´d left a couple of the ruins, just for looks.
Bitch bitch bitch, I know. And bit of witch.
I am having a wonderful time!


Sunday, 14 March 2010

I Must Be Going Now

Some things end, and others begin.

Yesterday the galgo girls took a side trip from their morning walk and killed one of the neighbors´ best laying hens. We viewed the corpse (by then plucked and ready for roasting), then handed over one of our little black Zaragoza hens to make good the damage. The bitches must be muzzled.

We helped trim the trees and clear up the flower beds in the Plaza Mayor, where the weather changed from bright sunshine to darksome snow within an hour´s time. Afterward we took part is a giant feed (officially termed a "merienda," or "snack") at the Ayuntamiento. Twenty people showed up. We talked about the crumbling church tower, the cemetery, what should be done with the bones in the cemetery, the best way to butcher hogs (with Esteban offering vivid visual aids with his steak knife and his own throat), how mule meat makes the best cecina sausage, and just who ought to have the right to hunt in fields owned by the Moratinos Neighborhood Association. Lamb was consumed, and empanada, and cakes. Pepsi and fizzy water, and homemade wine and moonshine were quaffed. It was warm in there. Everyone´s face turned red.

This morning the plaza looks clean-shaven and scrubbed bare.

Right this minute a train is (hopefully) speeding across Spain from Barcelona to Vigo. Kim is on board. She´ll alight in Sahagun in a couple of hours and rejoin our merry band.

Tomorrow I will board the same train on its return journey. I´ll get on at Sahagun, and get off at Pamplona. If I am lucky I will then catch the only bus up to the mountaintop village of Roncesvalles, right on the French frontier. And from there, Tuesday morning, I will set out on my second Full-Length Camino.

Walking the Full-Length Camino, a five or six-week trek on foot, is known to change lives. It did a real job on mine, back in 2001. Nine years later, I´ve stopped fighting the urge. I am joining the tide. I am taking the Big Walk.

You may not hear much from me during the coming weeks. A pilgrimage takes you Off Grid, in a way, way far from ordinary life. If you want it to. Which I do.

If you want to read live reports from the path, there are tons of camino blogs out there, full of detail and color and faith and heartbreak. I don´t think I can add anything new to that flood. Besides, internet access is expensive and somewhat rare out there on the trail. I will stay in touch with home, but minimally.

Home is doing much to set me free.

My cousin Micki died midweek. My son Philip had a revelation that turned into a long-awaited reconciliation for the two of us. I got some vegetable and herb seeds started, indoors and out. Temperatures are slowly oozing upward. March is rolling along just fine under its own inertia. Nobody really needs me here, not for a little while. And my backpack, fully charged, weighs only 5 kilos.

I have a promise to keep. It´s time to go.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Eureka! Vacky! Friki!

I get strange mail. I always have. But when a stranger from Down Under contacted me several months ago asking me to ship him Nanookies, I knew I was in for a weird international adventure.

Spain abounds in weirdness, much of it food-related. And here was an Aussie, asking me to track down a couple of Spanish oddments for him. Specifically, one Nanooky and two Barries. If they could be found. Here is part of the original letter:

When my wife and I were in Spain a couple of months ago (around Barcelona - nowhere near Moratinos), we found a kids' ice cream product called 'Nanuky'. (You can see him here, with all his family. Scroll down.) The idea is, you pull his head off and inside is a spoon and some very basic vanilla ice cream. 

Alrighty then, Leslie, I thought. I´ve seen these little ice cream thingies in posh restaurants. They are displayed at kiddie eye-level, and are bought as pricy bribes for restless children when their parents´dinner conversations drag on into the wee hours. The parents get brandy and cigarettes. The kids get a little Nanuky. Or maybe Kuaky or Friki. Little plastic characters with sugar inside. It´s what happiness is made of, no?

Leslie evidently likes to make people happy. As he said:

We're becoming ever-more-dedicated foodies and the idea occurred to us to amaze our dinner guests by serving something 'proper' inside one of these guys.  To that end, and to the amusement of the staff at our hotel, we started ordering one each lunchtime so we could take the empties home.  Problem is, we ran out of lunchtimes and didn't spot any more at the airport on the way home to complete our set!

Poor old Leslie. My heart went out to him. I told him “sure.” How hard could it be? We go out to dinner at least once every couple of weeks.

Except when we don´t. Just after I said yes, we went through a long patch of staying at home. We limited our dining-out to truck-stop “menu del dia” fare, a sort of Blue Plate Special option that sticks with meat and two veg and homemade custard or rice pudding for dessert, three courses for 8 or 10 Euro. Nanukies routinely sell for three or four Euros apiece, and so are not seen in our lowdown local “casas de comidas.” And so we did not see any.

I saw their wacky little faces now and then, plastered on the outside of refrigerated delivery trucks. I kept thinking, “I gotta find me a place that sells those doodads.” I once even asked a delivery driver if he´d sell me a couple, but I would´ve had to buy 12, and he wouldn´t let me mix them up. So... somehow, in the fullness of time, the plastic critters with body cavities filled with extruded frozen confectionary slipped from my mind.

Until they didn´t. The new year brought me back to Boccalino, a longtime favorite middle-class Italian place in the middle of Leon. In the past I had seen the ice cream critters working their late-night magic there in the upper dining room. There I expected to score all the Vackys and Morsys I needed. Or Barries? I had to think fast – which exactly was it Leslie wanted? I couldn´t remember... His internet link was Belgian, and his selections were colored by that online menagerie. He´d detailed his desires thus:

There was an elephant (called Barry - what else would you call an elephant?); we've only got one of him.  I see from the site there are several others (in fact, they don't show Barry - maybe Belgium doesn't do elephants after all that unpleasantness in the Congo).  Ideally we'd like one more Nanuky and two Barries, but whatever you can find, really.

So this Leslie fellow is probably the only man in Australia with a Barry and two Nanookies... and that´s not enough for him! No!
Anyway...Boccalino let me down. All they had were stupid Goofys and Plutos. They´d changed ice cream vendors, and with it their plastic Helado characters. (And their pasta quality slipped substantially too, in the meantime. Bummer. Good walnut pesto is hard to find on the campo.)

That was January. I neglected to write to Leslie to tell him of my long and fruitless search. I wonder if he´s forgotten, and tossed the Nanooky idea aside, moved onto othere, stranger ways to serve culinary joy to his foodie friends.

Do not despair, Australian Leslie. I work slowly, but I deliver!

Today we returned to Leon, and lunched at our favorite neo-Chinese restaurant, the wonderfully named “Casa Rong.” Casa Rong is so utterly Chinese Restaurant it is almost a parody of itself – We shame-facedly laughed to one another when the smiling waitress said “Hora, que tal? Hace flio hoy, no?” The Spanish guys at the next table complained because their Chinese food had Chinese things in it. The resident cute little boy showed us an elaborate drawing of Good and Evil battling it out in Bakugan Megazord Action-Figure form. (I wondered if his apocalyptic choice of subject was influenced by the wondrous 800-year-old Last Judgement carved into the front of the Leon cathedral, not a half-mile away from Casa Rong. The two have much in common.) But I digress.

The greatest discovery of Casa Rong was in the freezer case. In there, lit and lined up like soldiers on parade were a dozen Punkys. And standing alone, like the Commander in Chief, her bright pink udder aloft in a four-way salute, was a single, spotted Vacky.

Eureka! I cried (to myself). I can keep my months-old promise now! Feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge buying the Christmas-morning goose for the Cratchit family, I told the smiling lady “I´ll take two of the black things and the cow – and give the ice cream to that talented boy!”

So, back home at last, I have my plastic booty in hand. And no shipping address for Leslie.
The things we do for pilgs.

P.S. Just as I was finishing this up, Fran arrived at the door with a big bowl of green things his sister had cut out in the field. Fran isn´t able to say much that makes sense, so we are wondering if any of you can identify these deliciously bitter sprouts?

Friday, 5 March 2010

It´s still stormy and chilly here, but with a few days of sunshine in between to give us hope. And to give us a chance to put the tiles back up on the walls. Which we have not done.

We´ve had pilgrims, though. Two Americans, including Grant Spangler, a guy whose website has just about anything you ever wanted to know about the pilgrimage to Santiago; and Roger and Ian, two very English gentlemen who head up the newly accredited Peterborough Pilgrims confraternity. Important people all.

Oh, and a helicopter pilot from Madrid, a jumbo-jet pilot from California, and an unemployed ex-con from LaMancha.

Otherwise the house is empty. The Italians are gone for a break. Kim is off in Barcelona, visiting the Sisters of the Lamb. (Be careful. This is what happens when you pick up hitch-hiking nuns.)

I started on a rather complicated blog about Reasons To Be Nice, but find I cannot write my way out of a paper bag. So here are some photos, some of the people above, some of the neighborhood, etc. Sorry. I will be back when I have something to say.