Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Geordi y Ivan

The sky was blue, the sun was warm inside the walls of the Peaceable. I chopped down the blackberry thicket out back where the chickens are hiding their eggs. I had the back gate open, to clear the way to the brush-pile. The hens pecked round the green sprouts just outside.

Two men appeared at the gate from off the road outside. The chickens fluttered and squawked. I stood up and said hello.

"Is there an albergue in the town?" one of them asked, through broken teeth.

"No," I told him. "Nothing here for pilgrims. Do you need anything?"

"We aren´t pilgrims, at least not real pilgrims. We´re heading the other way, to Burgos," he said. He was giving me an  opportunity to send him away. An honest man, I thought. Lots of travelers pretend to be pilgrims, even though their tennis shoes and bags and bluejeans give them away.

And their weariness. Pilgrims look tired-out. Homeless people are weary.

"Come in and have a coffee," I told them, wondering if I felt like having company. Paddy was  ensconced in the kitchen, tapping away at the computer. I peeled off my gloves. My fingers were bloody, even though the gloves are the heavy-duty rosebush kind. I was ready for a break, too. 

With coffee they relaxed, and the bigger one, Geordi, started talking. He spoke Spanish with a choppy regional accent I first thought was Basque. They are Geordi y Ivan, brothers, from Girona, up north of Barcelona. They shook Patrick´s hand, they gave me kisses of introduction. In ten minutes we knew their family was split up, their father in Catalunya, their mother in Lugo, way out west in Galicia. A year ago they lost their jobs when the fruit-processing plant closed. Their van was repossessed, and finally they were turfed out of the house by the evil stepmother. They hit the road, looking for work.

"Any kind of work. I can wait tables, pick fruit, short-order cook," Geordi said. "My brother knows all about inventories, warehouses, sorting things out. We worked at a campground for a while, in Ciudad Real, making salads and repairing things, but the campground closed down. We helped with the olives in the south ... but all those jobs are going to the Moros, the Morroccans, the foreigners who work for nothing."

I put some cookies on the table. They vanished. Geordi and Ivan had said "no, only a coffee," but they were hungry.

And they needed to talk. Or at least Geordi did.

They were in Madrid when they heard there was work in Toledo, building a new railway. They had no money for the bus or train, so they walked there, along the highway. Ninety kilometers, three days. In August.  
They worked there til the job ran out. They headed north to their mother´s place in Lugo, stopping in the capitol to pick up some warm clothes from the big Caritas charity warehouse. The sleeves are short, Ivan said, holding up his arms -- but the clothes are warm, and free. His green sweater bore an embroidered logo from Xacobeo 1999. A holy year on the Camino. 

While his brother talked Ivan excused himself. I thought he might be heading for the shower. I found him out in the back yard with the gory gloves and the sickle, finishing the gardening job I´d started.  

Lugo is cold, Geordi said. Their mother´s little apartment isn´t big enough for long-term guests. There was no work for them up there, either. So they´re headed back east, hitching rides along the national road that parallels the Camino, bumming food and coffee and cigarettes, working wherever work can be found.

If I had been on my own, I would have fed them and then politely moved them on. But Paddy was home. And Paddy invited them to stay for dinner, stay overnight if they wanted. They said yes, thank-you, and washed their clothes and bodies, they ate a stewed rabbit with great relish, played with the dogs, and then slept for 12 hours on beds with real sheets and blankets. It made a change, Geordi said, from meals of sandwiches, and bedding down in bank lobbies with the ATM machines glowing overhead.

Geordi and Ivan moved along this morning. They let themselves out the back gate, back onto the highway. They were not effusive in their thanks, and that is how it should be. They have their dignity, those two, even if they don´t have money or jobs or nice clothes. 

They are another kind of pilgrim. They do not walk to discover their inner selves, or to ponder the next step in their personal evolution. They don´t tie themselves into knots wondering if someone else´s pilgrimage is "authentic," or if they are getting enough B-vitamins from the Menu del Dia.

They walk to survive.

In my eyes, that is about as authentic as it gets.  

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Kafka in January

Seems like I wrote that Calendar blog a long, long time ago!
Since then we went to Belgium for a week of riotous indulgence: art deco, opera, oysters, roast goose, and five days of steady downpour. A good time was had by all, but I bet Filipe is very glad to have his little house back.
Paddy behaved well, seeing as he hates going anywhere. He even admitted that Ghent is a wonderful place. He declared it "very civilized." But he swears he will never leave home again. (Paddy swears a lot.)

Ghent is beautiful, (and so are Filipe, roast goose, and art deco) but I cannot show you the photos.

The trip home was frightful. The airplane from Brussels sat on the runway for an hour before taking off. We got to Madrid airport, onto the subway, and into Chamartin train station just in time to see the Kafka Express, the last Sahagun train, pull out and head north. (I call it that after Franz Kafka, the Czech novelist who took bureaucracy and boredom and turned them into hair-raising literature. If you´ve seen the movies "Sliding Doors," or "Groundhog Day," you will understand what this eternal train ride through darkness does to the mind.) Our computer couldn´t get internet access at the station, and the locutorio was closed.

After much discussion and a flurry of phone calls we learned that Hostal Isabel, our favorite Madrid boarding house, was full-up. We let the travel agent in the station book us into a place downtown. On our way there the subway was packed. Three professional-looking young men at the second-to-last stop took off with our zippy little camera, which was (I thought) securely zipped inside my daypack. And so our Belgium photos are now, perhaps, being admired by a family of Rumanian pickpockets.

They also took Paddy´s wallet. It upset Paddy mightily when it happened, but when we calmed down and checked over our belongings we realized there was no money in there. Just his bank card, his healthcare ID, and his Spanish Legal Alien ID.
I still have all my cards and ID and cash. We have another camera at home. We were not left without resources. Just a monumental pain in the ass.

We got to the hotel. It was noisy, overpriced, and grubby. We took a walk, found Restaurant Bangkok, and drowned our troubles in Tom Yum and lemon grass. We were in the swinging tourist hotspot of Spain´s capitol, but all we wanted to do was go home.

Which we finally did. The next morning we took the Zen Train, the morning Regional, which stops every couple of miles. You see the backyards of castles and cattle-pens all across Castilla from that train. It´s great meditative practice, if you have a great expanse of time.

At home the house sparkled, Kim smiled, the dogs wagged as hard and fast as their bums could wiggle, and Murph uncoiled and stretched himself in our direction. Even the chickens seemed to mass ´round the window to welcome us home. We unpacked all our loot from Belgium, took a long walk across the campo, and opened the mail.

Rosie, or Rosey. Or "Rosalia Castro de Arzua"
I found one of Filipe´s t-shirts in our luggage, and his bus pass in my wallet.
I looked up the legal process one faces when one loses one´s Spanish Alien ID card. It is as Kafka-esque as the night train from Madrid. (Spanish bureaucracy is a marvellous thing.)
The complicated dichroic 230v. cable-lights failed in Kím´s bedroom. I went to change one of the bulbs and it broke off in the socket. We called an electrician. He has yet to arrive.
One of the brown hens is ill.
The girlfriend of one of Paddy´s sons has taken up with someone else.
Kim left this afternoon, off to America. We do not know if or when we will see her again, and that makes me sad indeed.

Still, today is not so bad. Paddy is making pulled pork in the crock-pot. Bruno is back from Italy, and great progress is being made at the albergue. A few of the bulbs I planted in November are poking up sprouts from the black mud of the patio. The trees in the ditches are turning yellow, showing signs of life to come.

After dropping Kim at the train station I went round to the Redondo Stihl Boutique to order one of those huge vacuums Miss April is so fond of. Señor Redondo said no, that is too expensive. I must first test-drive the smaller model Stihl vacuum he uses in the shop, a vacuum that sells for less than half the price. He went to find it, and learned his sister had borrowed it. She is building a house, and needs to clean up after the drywall installers. Which made me think this might be the vacuum for me -- three dogs and a cat each day create at least as much dust as the average sheet of gypsum board. But I will have to go back tomorrow, and see the machine at work. Señor Redondo apparently doesn´t want me to buy too much vacuum. I can appreciate that.

For the first time in weeks the sky is clear and bright. Tonight I will take out my telescope. The moon is brilliant, and Saturn´s moons and rings are said to be breathtaking this time of year. I have my little planisphere sky-map, and I think I remember how to use it. I can´t wait!

And so I am reminded: When the world all around me is gray and muddy, I don´t have to just stand there with my head hanging down. I have options. I look elsewhere.

I can even look up.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Weighty Decisions

Somewhere down in the root of my being, I don´t believe in time.
I keep track of time only in a more-or-less fashion. Not the minutes-and-hours kind -- I haven´t worn a wristwatch in decades, not even when I worked with three daily deadlines. Keeping track of days and dates is about as micro-managed as I can get. Thankfully, Spain has a pretty loose grasp of time, too. I can tell we are coming to the end of one year and the start of another by the number of calendars accumulating on the nail in the kitchen wall.

We have wall-space in our house for a single calendar. Merchants give away stacks of free calendars each December, a low-cost goodwill gesture that gets their advertisements into households throughout the region. This year we have a marvellous array of them, from High Art to Vulgar Girly, and I must decide, somehow, which will make the cut.

First are the little desktop models. One came from Fertiberia, manufacturers of fertilizers, seeds, and agricultural chemicals. Our neighbor Esteban gave these out at the Vermut a couple of weeks ago -- his family runs the Fertiberia franchise in Sahagun. Another desktop model, a shiny folded pyramid, came in the mail last week from a new plumbing-and-heating outfit in Carrion de los Condes. In addition to the days of the weeks and months it tells me TreTak does solar hot water and construction projects.

I don´t need a desk calendar, because I almost never use my desk, because it is in the Salon. (It´s COLD in there in the winter, and in the summer it´s full of pilgrims.) But I want to keep track of the TreTak contact numbers. So when the calendar fell down behind the sofa I left it there. It´s not going anywhere, and this way I know where to find it when/if we get to the lower-kitchen plumbing re-do.

The rest are wall calendars, the kind we can really use.

The one we liked best is the Modigliani calendar, featuring a different Chinese-eyed portrait for each month. We actually bought this calendar, back in November at the Valladolid museum of contemporary art. We went there soon after losing Una, to soothe our hearts with art. It was not a successful outing. The museum was disappointing: lots of mediocre art in a bazillion-Euro restored white-elephant monastery complex packed to the capitals with surly art-history graduates. Our  emotions were still were too raw. The Modigliani calendar is what we salvaged.

We started the year with it, but after a week it is proving too artsy for daily use. The numbers on the dates are too tiny to be seen from across the room. And that is what a wall calendar is for.

St. Joseph and The Holy Child know that, and they glow at me from the calendar beneath the Modigliani. Their numbers are bold and black -- they have saints´ days, too, in red, and the phases of the moon with smug smiling moon-faces. They are beautifully old-fashioned, cheesy even in their soft-focus blonde curls. But.
But their calendar is two months at a time, and their picture does not change, and neither does the big 40-point type beneath them:
Supermercado TABOA
Especialidad en TERNERA GALLEGA

Much as I love their wholesome working-class charm, I don´t think I want them hanging around here for an entire year. Or an ad, even one for Galician Veal.

What´s a woman to do? There´s the Camino Cats 2011 Calendar, which arrived in the mail today from a thoughtful former pilgrim in Canada. It features nice amateur photos of cats he saw along his pilgrimage. Murphy is in there, in a typical pose (eating his dinner). I like it very well, but the numbers, alas, are artfully small. I shall put it upstairs in my room.

For sheer brass I considered for a few moments the 2011 Stihl "Chicas ´N Chainsaws" Calendar, a gift from Garaje Redondo, the Grease Boutique where we take our chainsaw for sharpening. I am not a fan of cheap soft-core porn, but I gotta admit I love this thing -- it is barely a calendar at all, the months and dates squeezed into a two-inch border beneath a glossy expanse of stiletto heels, push-up cleavage, and hydraulic hoses. Miss June is sprawled next to a swimming pool, apparently overcome by the pressure-washer coiled at her side. Miss November carelessly caresses a weed-wacker, dressed in a matching purple panties and pumps. (wherever she is, it is not November.)

By far the finest thing about the Stihl calendar is the warning label, printed in characteristically careful German: "The images do not show real-life working situations," it admonishes. "Before you use a Stihl device, read and strictly follow the safety instructions. Please wear proper protective clothing at all times."

Damn. I shall have to stop clearing brush while wearing my silver lamé bikini, I guess...

Like St. Joseph and the glowing Child Jesus, I have a hard time finding long-term lodgings for the Pneumatic Babes of Stihl. Not everybody who comes here will understand their heavy-metal charm. I will have to send them away. Except for Miss April. Miss April poses with a Stihl heavy-duty shop vacuum. I want one of those, and I will ask the good folk at Garaje Redondo to get one for me. Without photographic evidence, they will most likely tell me Stihl does not make shop vacuums -- "no se existe" ("it does not exist") being a favorite response to any request for items not presently on the shelf. (We burn through vacuums here at a terrible rate.)
(not to mention silver lamé bikinis...)

I may be the only person who has noticed there is a vacuum-cleaner in that picture at all.

All this said and written, I admit the calendar that holds the place of honor on the kitchen wall is one we bought -- a 5 Euro donation to the cluster of 12 little parish churches that comprise our deanery. Each page is a color shot of one of the scruffy adobe-and-brick sanctuaries -- Sto. Tomas of Moratinos is May. The days and dates are in bold black and red, with all the saints and moons duly noted. The big decider, the one thing no one else could offer, was the notes on who and where is having a fiesta that month: 24 June, San Roman de la Cuba. 26 June, Población de Arroyo. 29 June, Terradillos de los Templarios.

Respectable. Familiar. Supporting a good cause. Readable from across the room. 
And I never have to miss another party!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Don´t Call me "Doña"

The final day of 2010, in a pew within the great crossing of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I was a sheep amongst wolves. Or spiders. Or maybe just bitches. But in the end the Grand Flaming Fumigator of St. James won out, and the creepy-crawlies scuttled off on all their many legs, and I was left to find a way to celebrate New Year´s Eve alone.

Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself already, in the first paragraph.

31 December 2010 was a day packed full of fun and excitement, here in the Spanish shrine city of Santiago. It started the day before, when I was, with 20-some other people who waited til the last minute of the Holy Year, inducted into the Arch-Confraternity of St. James the Apostle, an honorary brotherhood based at Santiago cathedral. No one seems to know what the brotherhood really does, or why it keeps going after 500 years. Far as I can tell, it is a way for upper middle-class Camino-heads to elect one another into a semi-privileged club based at the HQ, where they wear clunky medals, greet one another with air-kisses, and shove regular people out of the good seats at big liturgical blowouts.

For many years it was a men-only arrangement. (A particular kind of men love dressing up and doing secret, symbolic things together, especially if they involve food and drink and excluding The Unworthy, and not working too hard. But not all men can be priests...) Now the Confraternity lets women in, if only to plan the banquets and arrange who gets to sit where. For New Year´s Eve 2010, the Closing of the Holy Door and Ending of the Holy Year, was a full-on cathedral spectacular, with all the silver polished and the candles burning, national television, the governor and wannabe prime minister, four-star admirals and generals, (each with his twinkling epaulettes and a chestful of medals) six bishops in shimmering hats and tassels, a couple of hundred priests, and an archbishop presiding over all in full gold-trimmed robe, alb, cincture, and miter. The cathedral was packed. We the newly inducted Confraternity members, were told that seats were reserved for us on one side of the altar.

My friend Christine, also a confraternity member, loves all this smells-and-bells Catholic splendor. She arrived at 3 to grab a seat for the 4:30 Mass, which was itself expected to go on for well over an hour. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the stone bench overlooking Azabacheria was warm and inviting – all these things speak much more clearly to me than incense and splendor and “una lectura del santo Evangelio según San Lucas.” I told her I might take a pass on this Mass.

I was feeling a little hinky. I went back to my room, I tried to take a nap, but no good. So I weighed my options:
On the “minus” side was that long, long sit. And the great clouds of incense. Santiago cathedral´s trademark fashion accessory is a 5-foot-tall silver incense burner they swing from the rafters at the end of special Masses, filling the place with fragrant fog. We´d had that spectacle at the induction ceremony the night before, and my eyes were still burning. With another front-row seat, I could expect early-onset brochitis, or at least a sneezing fit of volcanic intensity.

And the crowd. I deeply dislike big crowds of people.

But on the other side of the ledger... This was my last day in Santiago for who knows how long? Everything interesting in town was closed for the holiday. And Christine kinda expected me – she came all the way from Sweden for this, to stand as my co-sponsor for membership.

And the thought of hearing the cathedral pipe organ, with a brass section and two choirs? Well. It seemed like Santiago was arraying itself for a real Classic Christian do. And here I was in town, with no other real plans. I can take a nap any time, I thought. (That´s why there´s  a sermon in the middle.)

So I went.

And yes, a section was set aside for the new confraternity members. But as you might expect, old confraternity members had showed up too, and they decided any reserved Confraternity pew was, by right of seniority, just as much theirs as ours.

They were Ladies of a Certain Age, decked in fresh wigs and old furs, their handbags suspended on chains from their bony wrists, their fists full of rosaries. They wore their coats over their shoulders, to grant them even more girth, and to leave their hands and elbows free for shoving Lesser Christians out of their way.

I´d seen small agglomerations the day before during the Confessional Hour, jostling and cutting into the line outside the single confession-box. When another stall opened across the nave, the stampede swept all pilgrims before it, like a school of minnows in a shark attack. These ladies adore their Holy Sacraments, and God help the tourist who might be staring into the domes and capitals when the light goes on at the Baroque booth nearby.

When I arrived at the Reserved Seating at 3:45, a Confraternity Queen Bee, resplendent in Prada,  seated me between two of these Veteran Ladies. And throughout the ceremony they leaned and pitched, sighed and fidgeted, both of them deeply envious of the tiny slice of view I had of the high altar and the video screen mounted on a pillar nearby, a live feed from the TV broadcast. The woman from Pamplona was the most shameless. She couldn´t see the screen from her seat, so she practically laid her head in my bosom in her anxiety not to miss a single moment of the Door-Closing Ceremony going on invisibly a few yards from where we sat.

The Cordobesa to my right made full use of the moments when we stood up or knelt, to spread herself and her possessions over the pew. Each time I sat again she recollected her handbag and coattails and thighs, with heavy sighs. I believe these two beatas wanted me to give up and flee to the comfort of the nearest bar, where the TV broadcast could be seen un-interrupted. But I wasn´t going to give them the satisfaction. They´ve seen all this before. I hadn´t. Way too many times have I let this kind of old Spanish lady go ahead of me in the checkout line at Supermercado Lupa, only to have her step aside to admit several of her friends and family members in front of me, with cartloads of purchases.

Spanish old ladies don´t watch football. Jostling for Position is their contact sport. (They are never too old or frail. I saw one once drive her wheelchair full-speed into the front of a queue for goat cheese at a Renaissance Faire in Benavente). So this day in Santiago was their collective comeuppance. This was MY slice of pew, and I wasn´t giving it up to the Spider-women.

A bit of hubbub arose from the pew behind us. Prada Woman discovered two young interlopers in a Members Only pew. They were pilgrims, freshly arrived, just in time for the Mass. They were scared. I turned and told the Queen Bee the youngsters could have our seats, seeing as they were real pilgrims. Rather than take on the unnamed “us,” she buzzed off and left them where they were.

The Pamplonesa to my left looked at me from her upturned nose. “I am a pilgrim!” she said. She turned around and asked the youngsters where they´d started their pilgrimage.

“Sarria,” they said. “Four and a half days ago.”

The woman sniffed. “I did the entire Camino del Norte three times,” she told them. “You don´t even start feeling like a pilgrim until you´ve walked at least a week. Don´t tell people you are a pilgrim if you only walked four days.”

I thought the girl was going to cry. I patted her knee.

“There are lots of presumptuous, judgmental people around here. Egoistas. Take no heed. Santiago knows his pilgrims,” I whispered, sotto voce. I hope she heard me, and understood.

“Sssshhh!” shushed a purple-robed beadle. I was not the only person talking out of turn, and the music was about to start up again. I turned back to the action.

The Mass was long and windy and spiked through with Latin and Gallego, incense, chanting, towers full of bells and the hands of hundreds of clerics raised to add their juju to the consecration. The organ and trumpets were in full voice, and the choirs were almost drowned-out by the thousands of voices singing the responses – an educated laity is a beautiful thing indeed, especially where music is concerned.

It was a beautiful piece of theater, 2,000 years of church history done up in full emboidered vestments. It went on for two hours or so, in which the Christian ladies on either side of me did their best to not give me the sign of Christian peace nor a slice of pew nor a sideways glance. When the Mass finished, while the organ voluntary blasted its way through the frankincense fumes and the roaring masses, the beatas beat a hasty retreat.  

I realized I had a fever. It was way too late for a nap, but I went back to my room and got one anyway. No midnight shenanigans for me, not even the ones right outside the front door. I was done for the day. 
I thought. 

At 10:30 p.m. Samson, a well-scrubbed young attorney from Sacramento, California., himself a new inductee to the confraternity, rousted me out with a shiny bag of giveaway toy hats and horns, streamers and a tiny plastic pouch with 12 green grapes inside. And so, with another new friend, I  celebrated the arrival of 2011 with grapes and bells and multimedia projections across the front of the cathedral in Quintana Square. The fireworks rumbled and shook the great stone pavements, and brilliant burning lights screeched and exploded over our heads, way too close. It was splendid!

A few hours later, on 1 January 2011, I woke up in my little room with cordite in my hair and an edge burned off my little paper fez. I have no memory of my hat catching fire. And I wasn´t even drinking!

It was time to go home.

And so here I am in Moratinos, where our fireworks and our Masses are stripped down to the bare minimum, but our pilgrim quarters are full and our hearts are five times more warm than the most exalted of the ladies of the Archiconfradia de Santiago Apostol.

My membership certificate calls me "Doña," the Spanish word for "Lady"  -- a cathedral of a word.
But here in the Peaceable Kingdom there are no Doñas. 
Call me Reb instead.