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.