Friday, 30 November 2012

the nomads

They are in their 20s and 30s, they are Europeans, singles. They are university-educated, from good families, they speak three or four languages. 
Their clothes don´t fit. Their skin is pale. Sometimes it´s evident they haven´t bathed in a while.
But they want to come in, they want to visit, they want to stay. Can they stay?
They´ve got to stay. They´ve got no place to stay yet this winter. December is coming, then January. Then things will get better, the pilgrims will come back the albergues will open up, they will find a place, they know somebody.
They are a camino phenomenon, perhaps an outcome of the economic crisis. They are former pilgrims, young people who left behind their lives in Seville or Germany or Czech Republic to find themselves along the trail in Spain. They walked the pilgrimage, they made friends, they found what "community" means. And when they reached the end of the road, they did not get on the plane or train and go back home. More often than not, they´d run out of money.
They felt a calling. They couldn´t go back. They decided to stay, to live on the camino. 
They fetch up at an albergue and volunteer to help out, in exchange for room and board.
Lots of former pilgrims do this. They feel moved to "give back" to the camino. The usual term is two weeks. For these nomads, it goes on indefinitely. 
For Alice, it´s been three years.
When I met her, Alice lived in the windowless back room of a cement-block pilgrim hostel. It was mid-winter, and the place was barely heated. Alice made no wage. She worked for room and board, an agreement supposedly set up to last through the winter. She ate the same kind of sandwich for her lunch each day, and a cheap pilgrim meal each evening. When she could catch a ride to the store she bought fruit, which she sold to pilgrims to raise a bit of cash. She fed stray cats, and left the open tins of food on the windowsills. The boss did not like her cats, or her moneymaking. Things unraveled. The boss found a new guy to run the place. He moved into the hostel and simply took over, Alice said. She packed up her things and left.
She always goes. She does not always leave a good impression behind her.
When she stayed here, she did not get in the way. She was quiet. She petted the dogs and chattered to the cats. She did not cook or clean or help with the housework unless she was asked first. She did not give a donation, unless you count the cans and boxes of food she brought from the last place. She was on the run from a stalker, she said.
Someone had stolen her cats. Her little dog had vanished. And her shampoo.
She found a place farther down the trail that needed some help, and she was gone.
Until this week, when things unraveled again.

Johnnie is a similar sort. He pops in now and then to say hello. He is a grinning 30-something boy, a very competent hostel-keeper, a pretty good cook. He´s held jobs at albergues all through Galicia, and has now landed a sweet position in the mountains of El Bierzo, a live-in, year-round pilgrim host at a municipal albergue. He has his own room. There´s no kitchen, and it´s pretty cold up there, and he has to share the showers with the pilgrims, but it´s his dream job, he says: no boss to fall out with.
The pilgrims are not always kind to him, but he smiles and nods and shows them the door if they get too nasty. They hurt his feelings when they´re mean. Sometimes one or two will stay for a day. They help with bigger projects, they recharge their batteries, they keep him company. He gets lonely, he says. You can´t make lasting friends when each night´s customers move on the next day.
Johnny´s teeth are bad, but he has no money for a dentist. When comes to visit, we fill his pockets with Tylenols and vials of Listerine.

Many of the nomads are perfectly competant. They stay as long as they are needed, or as long as they like, and then they move on. Others seem more needy, more desperate. We get the phone calls now and then,  usually from somewhere far to the west: do we need some help with anything? Can I volunteer at your place? Do you know anyone who needs help? I will work for food, for a room. I don´t want to go home. I can´t go home. I have no home. The camino is my home. So can I come over? For Christmas? For January?


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Turkey Scratch

The kitchen smells like magic. 

The days are gray now, and the mornings misty. I am holed up indoors, in the two rooms we keep heated with the woodstove. All this morning, I baked fruit pies. Thursday is Thanksgiving, the big American holiday, one of my very favorites. We have people coming over, or at least we have invited some.  We will feast, as is fitting for Thanksgiving.

And here in rural Spain, cooking a traditional American meal requires substantial ducking and diving and substituting, because many key ingredients just don´t exist here. I have to make do, or make it up from scratch. As a result we eat a whole lot less processed food, and we appreciate the rare, holiday-only treats I have been saving things up for.  Like blueberry pie. I made an actual blueberry pie today, with blueberries from jars I found, by sheer luck, in the discount bin at a German grocery down in Malaga. I snatched them up and brought them home and saved them for today. I didn´t have quite enough, so I dug out a packet of dehydrated blueberries a kindly pilgrim brought here for me. I soaked them in white wine and threw them in the mix. I lined the bottom of the pie with a layer of apple slices. We shall see. 

But there´s champagne, to serve with smoked trout and boquerones and goat cheese to coat with Balsamic cream --  sharp/sweet/smoky flavors for starters.
We have carrots and onions and red peppers, and sugar and oil and vinegar, and crushed up tomatoes all marinating together to make Copper Pennies -- a lot of those veg I grew here myself.
We have lovely Brussels Sprouts, holiday food for Englishmen. 
We have Granny Smith apples. I made a big Dutch apple pie today with those.
Maybe best of all, this year I grew three pumpkins out back. One became a jack-o-lantern. This morning the second became two lovely pumpkin pies. (The third has not turned orange yet. I am saving him for soup.)

Turkeys are out of season. I asked at three different fowl butchers yesterday in Palencia, and was told I would have to order one. They will come in time for Christmas. No. Instead I bought seven fine pichones -- squabs. Young pigeons. Each diner will have his own entire bird to eat, so we won´t have to fuss about white meat or dark. I tracked down celery and walnuts and several kinds of whole-meal bread, so I can make proper stuffing for the little guys.  No cranberries, though. Those are almost as rare as blueberries. And no fresh sage -- my herb garden fell victim to the new terrace project. 
No sweet potatoes. No marshmallows, no cream of mushroom soup to make green bean casserole, alas!

Still, another cause for thanksgiving is the people coming. They are (if everyone shows up) a German, a Spaniard, an Italian, an Englishman, and a French lady. Only one other American. Almost none of them has ever eaten a Thanksgiving feast before.
They won´t know what´s missing!  

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Brothers and Sisters

I hobnob this weekend with the saints of Leon. We are gathered at the Benedictine convent in the middle of the old city, where hundreds of passing pilgrims are welcomed every year to sleep in dreary bunks in sunless dormitories, for a mere 5 Euro per. (the nuns throw in breakfast, and all the plainchant liturgy you care to take.)

On the other side of the wall from the albergue the sisters keep a splendid three-star hotel, where I checked in on Friday along with most of the other delegates to the Acogida Cristiana en el Camino hospitalero group. (We might volunteer to care for dreary dormitories. That doesn´t mean we have to stay in them ourselves, given a choice.)

Almost everybody here is a professional Catholic of one kind or another: priests, nuns, and even a couple of friars. I want to tell you about these people.

But first, Me. I grew up in a working-class Protestant world where Catholics in general were rare, and Catholics in uniform were the stuff of wacky TV sitcoms, or black-and-white Bing Crosby movies. I never knew a nun until I was 18 years old, when the Sisters of Charity charitably let me attend Seton Hill College. I walked in the door a week into the Fall semester of 1980, and they offered me enough scholarship money to stay through my first two years of higher education. Me, a backslid Pentecostal. I had no money, and a pretty questionably attitude. But I found the sisters fascinating, and the Benedictine monks at St. Vincent Archabbey, our “brother institution,” put me on the road to becoming a church historian. (I veered off that road in short order and plummeted into journalism, but that´s another story).

Fast-forward a few years and I moved to Spain, where the Catholics advise the Vatican on Christianity. I am told there are a lot fewer cassocks and soutains around than before, but the place is still alive with people in vestments and habits and pointy hangy-down hoods – and it is not Halloween. Here this weekend are Augustinas in white, Benedictinas in black, Franciscans in brown, and two Daughters of Charity in regular-people clothes. Some of them are under age 40! Here are some of them:

Joaquin is a Conventual Franciscan from Italy. His religious order had little to do with Spain, but when Italian pilgrims came home from their pilgrimages with bad reports, the friars took note. “All the churches were closed. They could find no presence of the church along the Camino – one of the three great Christian pilgrimages!” he said. “We decided to do something about it, and build some bridges with our fellow Franciscans at the same time.”

So Joaquin and some of his brothers moved to Ponferrada, and now serve at the great “pilgrim factory” albergue there. They keep the chapel open, lead worship services, offer pilgrims counsel and hospitaleros a helping hand with the housework.

Padre Jaime is from the island of Mallorca. He´s a parish priest, but he looks like a big, beefy truck driver. Since 1992 he´s taken groups along the Camino, 12 or 15 at a time, several times a year. Some are families, some church groups. But mostly they are prisoners -- convicted criminals on a special accelerated rehab program. “It´s hard to say that spending time in jail with other sinners really changes a man much. But an encounter with Christ will do that. A lot of these men will tell you that,” Jaime said.

Giuseppe is an Italian priest, an economist, a Jesuit who works for the papal nuncio of Prague. He is also a camino-head, who keeps coming back to walk and talk and study and volunteer at pilgrim albergues. He did an informal study over several months, and found most people under 30 on the trail are not Christians. The only religion he heard discussed was Buddhism. Last December he ran a pilgrim albergue in Hospital de Orbigo, and did an experiment with seven of the pilgrims who passed by – simpaticos, helpful and kind, but not Christian. Each stayed a day or two extra to help out. They attended interfaith services in the chapel, and spent time with the parish priest during the work sessions. No pressure. Just Christian presence.

Giuseppe gathered up his seven pilgrims after they finished their caminos. All of them are volunteer hospitaleros now. One of them, a Chinese student, will be baptized in January. Giuseppe will be his Italian godfather.

Juan, a Franciscan friar, wears a long brown robe and cowl. He and his brothers serve pilgrims in the mountains, down in La Faba and up in O Cebreiro. “Most of them are not Christians, so we pray with them a prayer for peace. Everyone can believe in that,” he says. Like the Conventuals in Ponferrada they offer listening ears to pilgrims, and helping hands to the hospitaleros.

Perhaps the person most challenging to the Catholic status quo was Leonie, an extrovert from Rotterdam who serves pilgrims with the Augustinian sisters in Carrion de los Condes. She sings the songs and cleans the kitchenware and translates. She is full of life and charisma. She speaks five languages. She is a seminarian. She is studying for priesthood in the Dutch Reform church.

Leonie doesn´t wear a habit, but she is a minister like the rest of them. There´s nobody here going to tell her to go home.

I still marvel at people who join religious communities and wear strange uniforms. Their world still seems very foreign and exotic to me, even though I am these days a practicing Catholic.

Perhaps the Catholic church is Spain really is ignoring the pilgrims on the Camino, overwhelmed as it is with keeping parish churches open and misbehaving priests and nuns out of jail. Maybe this is the hour for religious communities to step up and help out.

Or maybe the Bishop of Leon is right. He paid a visit today, said a few throwaway lines, and was quickly blindsided by the people in the room. A man in the back stood up and asked him: “What is the difference between a Catholic and a Christian?”

“Catholics are Christians by definition. Not all Christians are Catholic. We all stand on the same rock,” the old man said. "Every man must answer the call himself, however he hears it."

Mother Abbess of the Benedictinas stepped up and hit him with “We need more support from the church in our efforts to evangelize pilgrims. The church is distant from the Camino. We cannot do this work all alone. The church is missing a great opportunity.”

Don Genarro, head of the pilgrim office at the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela itself, piled on: “Thousands of pilgrims are coming all the way across Spain to us. They arrive full of questions. Who is responsible for these souls?”

Poor old bishop Julian mumbled some platitudes about pastoral roles of secular institutions, and finally talked himself around to a very pointy point. He pointed at the room full of Christians.

“In the final analysis, I agree with the Mother Abbess,” he said. “Yours is a very important field of Christian work. And you are the church on the Camino -- we don´t have the manpower to institutionalize it for you. YOU are the evangelists and pastors out there." 

Preach it, brother.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Some of you know I am spending November working on the first draft of  "The Book," the story we tell all the pilgs who stop here and (inevitably) ask "what are you doing in the middle of nowhere?"  Today I got on a roll, thinking about dirt. Please know this is the roughest of first drafts, and be kind.

Think about the dirt beneath your feet. How connected are you to the land where you live? 
And leave me some feedback, OK? It´s getting lonely out here. 

8 Dirt

We live close to the ground.
Moratinos is all earth, hunkered down under an enormous sky. A Spanish poet once said “the landscape in Castilla is in its sky,” and I know why. The sky is huge around us here, the horizons low and flat and rolling like an ocean, a brown, green and golden ocean.

There are many villages out here. From atop the bodegas, on a clear day, I can see four or five more villages, with great swathes of fields between them and a scrim of craggy mountains on the north and west horizons. We live in a flat place, and we live up high – almost 900 meters above the sea level, on a vast flatland called the “Meseta,” “the table.”

Lots of pilgrims dislike the meseta. It bores them. There are no spectacular buildings or pretty trees laid on for their enjoyment, and in late summer and fall, after the crops are cut, it is dun brown and dusty. They call it a desert, and they make up horror stories about wild dogs and lightning and bad water. It makes them sound noble for having endured it.

Paddy and I met on the prairie, in Toledo, Ohio. We were accustomed to this kind of “boring” landscape, so when we settled in here it felt like home. We found it beautiful in an oceanic way.

We found the Roman villa excavation at Quintanilla, about seven miles away, and dreamed of mosaic murals buried under our barn, inside our walls. Romans lived in this neighborhood. Then came Visigoths, early Christians, cave-dwelling hermits and monastics. The next wave of people to live around here were Arabs from Morocco, wily builders and engineers. Our house is cleverly set into a hillside, with maximum sunshine and minimal wind, good water, good drainage, and gates north and south. The Arabs built the monumental churches of Sahagun, the monasteries that remain in this region, our only tourist attractions – and then they too, with their unpure blood and bad religion -- were sent away. I sometimes wonder who lived first at what´s now our house. They probably bowed each day to the southeast, to Mecca, when they could get away with it.

There is no stone here. The soil is clay, better suited to bricks than crops. All our houses are made from the earth around them, watered and smashed together with straw and sweat, pressed into molds and dried in the sun into “adobes,” stacked thick and wide at the bottom, more slender at the top, rendered-over first with more mud-plaster, later with whitewash, later still with concrete. We make gooey “cob” building mortar with our feet when we need to repair a crack in the outside walls. One summer two years back I demonstrated this for a dozen budding architects from the University of Michigan. They played in the mud, then squeezed and smoothed the goo over the inner walls of the bodega. They got a hands-on education in primitive building materials. I got 26 man-hours of labor, and a job done in an afternoon that would take me a week to do on my own.
As we say in my country: Win-win.

The Moratinos people of the past were not the first to excavate their hillsides. On our southwest horizon, where Paddy walks the dogs many mornings, stands the tumberon – a knob on the flat fields, topped with a national topographical waymarker – one of two within clear sight. An archaeologist told the neighbors it is a paleolithic tomb, a hollowed-out chamber with bones, pots, and flint knives buried inside. Unexcavated still – “how many stone knives do we need?” he said.

When Paddy dies he wants to have his ashes scattered up there, where greyhounds run. Alongside the ancient warriors, ancient neighbors.

Back in town, the bodegas are Moratinos´ best testimony to the power of the ground, and the most memorable thing about this place. They are 21 little caves dug into the base of a hill on the southeast side of town. The villagers dug them over generations, no one knows how long ago, underground caves for making wine and storing cheese and hams.

“When you first dig in, it´s like cutting cheese,” Serapio told me. “But leave it exposed to the air, and it turns to stone. Not hard, like granite, but hard enough to hold up. That´s why in winter they had the children do the digging. It was something a child could do, to occupy the hours. The work kept them warm. They could wriggle into small spaces. It kept them asleep then, for hours, in the dark part of the year.”

The temperature never changes down there, so it´s just right for storing wine. There´s always work to be done, so it´s a perfect excuse for a man to escape the house and spouse, the hot sun or driving rain. It´s cool down there, dark, full of rough homemade intoxicants. The bodega was the original “man cave.” Paula once told me the bodegas were for men only.

“A woman only went there if they wanted to make trouble. Or a baby,” she said. “Under the ground. It is a good place for that, you know. I bet half of every little town comes from the bodegas, one way or the other.”

Pilgrims see the bodegas first as they come into town, and they don´t know what they are. Little doors set into a hill, some well-kept, with TV antennae and water supplies, others derelict, collapsed into dangerous-looking caverns. “Where are the hobbits?” they ask.
“Do you live down there?” a pilgrim asked old Modesto one day.
He said No, definitely not.
“Why not?” the foreigner continued.
“If you had a house, would you live in a cave?” he answered back.
The bodegas need maintaining, and for families with many children and a need for cold-storage space, that was not a challenge. But today? Today more than half of the bodegas are dangerous ruins, high-mainenance luxuries. Only four are used for making wine. Ours is used only for storing the cases of Toro, Navarra, Bierzo, and Ribera del Duero we buy on our travels around Spain. A few of them survive us long enough to be laid down in the dark for a year or so. And for showing pilgrims what´s inside a Hobbit House.

Ours bodega, number 16, is tall and wide with pointed arches and several small alcoves along the sides. It would make a fine Visigothic chapel. I have worked hard hours (with good pilgrim laborers) to keep the chimney standing and the roof intact, but the bodega is not a priority. We have gone out of the baby-making business. Our neighbors notice if we visit there too often.

“You have thirsty guests?” they say, from under their raised eyebrows.
“Bottomless pits,” I tell them. “Thank God good wine is so cheap here.”
“Make them pay, Rebekah. Set a price. They will eat you out of house and home, the locusts!”
“Some leave nothing, some leave just a little. And another leaves enough to pay for all the rest,” I say. And it´s true, so far.

But I digress. I must stay down to earth!

Earthy as the people are here, they are businessmen, too. They are professional farmers. They know how to make this sticky brick-making dirt yield up a harvest of rye, oats, soy, alfalfa or sunflowers each year. They use chemical fertilizers, soil conditioners, fungi- and insecticides. Each of them has a vegetable patch as well, and often a fruit orchard. It is there they show off for one another – year after year, straight rows of perfect tomatoes, beans, greens, artichokes, radishes, lettuces, and peppers. They dike up the onions and garlic, and form channels of dirt to send streams of water to the roots of each plant. They do not use silly plastic irrigation hoses. They pump the water up from the ground and send it via hydraulic hose into their byzantine channels of dirt. Byzantine, or Arabic. Their gardens are spectacular, elegant, and fruitful.

Out in my back yard I tried to build a vegetable garden.
In its fourth year it now is five raised beds and a bower of flowers. I plant according to what I see my neighbors planting, and sometimes I have a harvest.

But I did not grow up here, I did not spring from the cave, I do not know their secrets. The ground to me is a mystery, and only half the things I sow in my garden will ever see sunlight.

I bring in my Penn State Agricultural Extension soil testing service, my Ph meter, my soil thermomenter and ag fleece and little plastic greenhouses. I bring in seeds from England, and my pole beans bear red flowers the like of which Florín has never seen, flowers that predatory birds supposedly cannot see and peck and eat.

But Florín and her sister Angeles pick kilos of beans from their ordinary, white-flower beanstalks. They roll wheelbarrow-loads of potatoes up the street for all to see – and squash and peppers and asparagus, kale and quinces and beets and peas. Pilar, the neighbor next door, and Paco, Juli´s dad, each have elegant, geometric gardens in the middle of town. They spend hours laboring there each sunny day, doing God-knows-what things with a 33rd degree of Masonic complexity.

They are professionals. They grew up with this.
If my garden produced like theirs, I would be hip-deep in produce, I tell myself. They have big families, they know how to freeze and bottle and preserve their vegetables, they know because they need to know, because in some point of their lives they went hungry.

I can save myself a ton of trouble, just go down to the supermarket or farmers in the plaza in Sahagun, and buy the same stuff, same quality, for a song. Dirt cheap.

Like the bodegas. Why do these people continue making wine here, when their local wine is usually mediocre, and decent wine is dirt-cheap all over Spain? Why do they grow garbanzos, a labor-intensive crop that requires the whole town to thresh and winnow, when the Argentines export them here for half the price and none of the work?

It is about the dirt, the land, the rhythm of plowing and planting and harvesting. Maybe it is habit, just repeating what they know. Maybe they are slaves to tradition. Maybe they loved their mother and father so deeply, they honor their lives now by repeating the same rhythms, planting the same crops, dressing the vines their grandmothers planted.

Maybe they are just, like me, occasionally slain by the beauty of this place, the bright yellow sun that opens onto the white barns at 6 p.m., the steel-gray sky behind, the soft green of the germinating November fields. This is a mature kind of passion, a late-in-life love affair. Not to everyone´s taste. But to some, to us? These are our fields, our homes, our dirt and caves, mud and birdsong. Even the doves, as they pass past the window glass, are illuminated.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Friendly Ghost Grows Up

very much not Moratinos

Back at home in the United States, this is the day after Halloween. Kids are straggling to school with sugar hangovers, their lips and nostrils chapped where the cold wind came through the spit-scented slits in their plastic masks. 

I bet they don´t make those any more, those cheap costumes that came in pasteboard boxes with cellophane windows, with the empty eye-holes of your favorite cartoon character looking back at you. For a buck or two you got a plastic mask and a very poorly-sewn apron with a picture of your character printed on it. I remember them well, the cardboard smell, the frustration of putting on the apron over my clothes, and then having to cover up the costume with my snow suit! What´s the use being Casper the Friendly Ghost when the neighbors open their front doors and just see a regular kid there, with only a mask between them and her plain old self? 

A plastic mask with a rubber band round the back that tangled itself into my hair. The inside of Casper´s plastic face got moist pretty fast. My nose ran. When the wind blew through the mouth and nose holes I knew something bad was happening. In November outside Denver in second grade, impetigo was always just around the corner.

Snow fell diagonally down the streetlight beam at the end of Ironton Street. It was getting late, my pillowcase bulged with candy. It was too heavy. I would never make it. I would have to winnow out all the junk licorice blackjacks and jujubees and candy corn if I was ever going to get home. I´d have to leave them on the sidewalk on the street corner, even though my Mom loved licorice. She could come back and dig in the snow and take them herself in the morning. There wasn´t any other kid going to take them home. Junk candy. Why? I asked myself. Why give that to kids, when they only come asking once a year? 
"Bums," I called them, using a word from my dad. (I thought it meant behinds.)

And why did my big sister leave me there on the corner and run off with Tonya Ball to hit the houses along the runway fence, when she knew I was going to start crying within five minutes. (I was a whiny, sickly kid, a burden to Beth.) She knew she´d get a spanking when she got home, but whatever temptation lured her up the street must be worth it. Beth was always doing cool things with big kids.

I knew the way home from there. I could almost see the house. But Beth had the flashlight, and it was only safe in the light. The dark was home to the Boogie Man, clowns, or maybe even a Hippy. I had to stay there under the steet lamp, watch it waggle up there when the wind hit it, see the shadows waggle the same rhythm on the ground, and the snowflakes shooting through in straight lines, into the beam and back out. The snow always makes it, I thought. It has to come all the way from a cloud to the ground, but it knows its way. I knew the way home, too. I could see the porch light, I could see skinny pirates and hoboes going up the front walk and ringing the doorbell. I stepped out of the streetlight beam and headed home.

That is how, in 1969 America, little kids learned how to face scary things.

Many years later, I still don´t like candy corn or licorice, and it is me who has left behind my big sister. There isn´t much snowfall here, but I have a waggling streetlight outside my window. The rain and snow still go straight down in its beam, just like they did 44 years ago in Aurora, Colorado.

There is no Halloween in Moratinos. I did not miss it much for the past six years.

On Tuesday a pilgrim came over, a printmaker from San Francisco. We lazed on the patio, talked in American accents as we basked in the last rays of October sun. I remembered I had a big orange pumpkin on the vine out back, and the little girl in the Casper suit said "yeah. Let´s do it!"

We hollowed out its heart and cut out a face, and made us a jack-o-lantern, perhaps the first Moratinos has ever seen. We put it on the stoop outside, where maybe someone will see it and wonder "what the heck have those people done with that perfectly good vegetable?"

We have no candy, we bobbed for no apples, we saw no ghosts. But a pilgrim came out of the dark, a long-haired boogie man looking for a place to sleep for the night. He sat quietly at the kitchen table and read aloud from St.  Paul´s Epistle to Philemon. He put his name in the guest book, there with all the rest of the hoboes and pirates, heroes and princesses who´ve rung our front bell in the past six years. 

And it struck me: I don´t have to risk my complexion going out Halloweening any more. I don´t have to wear a mask, or pretend to be anything more eccentric than myself. I am the grown-up now, and the characters come to my door.