Friday, 27 April 2012


It is half past midnight on a Friday morning, and I am in Paris.

Paris is beautiful. It is true what they say about the sunlight here, it is unique, especially when rainclouds are hanging around.  It is the center of a great and liberal society, the flashpoint of revolutions, a cradle of history, etc. etc. Paris has every kind of store, restaurant, sex, music, and entertainment you might want, anytime, delivered to your door if you have ready cash.

But then so does New York and Tokyo and London and Berlin. And probably Moscow by now, if you are a plutocrat.

I am not a fan of cities. I understand the city is where all the great artworks and architecture and enginaeering and genius is gathered up. I appreciate that. Cities are nice places to visit, but I would never again want to live in one. I  have trouble, literally, breathing in cities -- the air is filthy. There are more people everywhere, which means there is more trouble, fashion, excrement, ugliness, bullshit, and amazing-ness everywhere too. The noise stresses me. It is never truly silent in a city, not even in a good hotel, in a single room that looks into a garden. And so I do not often come to cities, unless I am on my way from there to some other rural place.

I came to Paris to make peace with an old friend, and to bring some artwork to a new friend. I will only be here for four days. It is a fine and sunny mission that brings me here, and I am seeing Paris with new eyes. I am relaxed. I am not staying in anybody´s house, so I can make my own plans and go where I want to go, and stay as long as I want. I feel comfortable enough with the subways and money, museums and languages that I can get around and get fed and watered without undue stress. (I am staying at a Spanish hotel, after all.)

Today I did my morning visits, and headed out after lunch to see Notre Dame cathedral. I was there once before, so I changed my mind once I got on the train, and instead went to Pere Lachaise, a huge Victorian cemetery on the wild and woolly eastern end of the city. When it started to rain I went back to my hotel, where seeing it was Spanish, I took a siesta. It was total holiday vacation for me, a person whose whole life, by some peoples´ lights, is a holiday vacation. Because it was what I wanted to do, where I wanted to do it, and when I felt I wanted it done. No one else to worry about or fuss over or satisfy, nobody to be upset when I changed my mind and switched plans mid-stream. Amazing how relaxing it is, being in no one´s company but my own!  

Somehow I think women will understand this better than men will.

Still, nice as it is in Paris, if it were not for my friends, I would not come at all. If it were not for their knowledge of cheeseburger restaurants and Lebanese spinach crepes, the Leonardo DaVinci picture that´s only on loan at the Louvre through June, the sweetness and light of the smile on my godson´s little face... well. I would have to spend my life Paris-free. Paris would have to go on without me.

Alas, at least one of us would be the poorer for it! 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Hobo Road

He is at least 45 years old, but he is a homeless child. He´s walking without high-tech, ultralite backpacks or hiking staffs, or even shoes that fit. He´s got no money. He speaks only Portuguese. He asked for children´s books, and pored over the pictures. I had to put his name in the register for him, as he cannot write. He assembled the toy train and made choo-choo sounds along the floor. He is from Braga, Portugal, he said. He is walking the camino to Lourdes, alone.
He is José, pronounced "Cho-say," the Portuguese way. He was a high-maintenance pilgrim. He never stopped talking, and we only understood some of what he said. He needed things -- a razor, so he could  shave. A towel. He needed a t-shirt. When we offered to launder his things, he overloaded the machine with his sleeping bag, coat, flannel shirt, pajama bottoms. I split the laundry into two loads and he panicked, thinking I was taking away his belongings. 

He ate voraciously. He had eaten nothing but cookies for the past two days.
He is walking the camino backward, west to east. His shoulders sagged under the straps of his cheap sports bag, his hands weighed down by plastic shopping bags. He was small and feral. Most of his teeth were  gone. He needed a haircut.

He didn´t look like a pilgrim, but deep inside his bag he had a valid pilgrim credential. He can stay in pilgrim shelters, but most of them charge a nominal fee. If he does not have even that, he sleeps wherever he can find a space out of the rain.
His fellow pilgrims do not always find him worthy company. A week or so ago, José rolled into a town near Astorga with his sneakers and shopping bags, and stepped up to register at the pay-by-donation pilgrim shelter. A couple stopped him at the door. Where were his hiking boots, his proper backpack? they asked. Why was he walking the wrong way? He was a bum, a fake. This was a place for real pilgrims only. He´d have to move along.

And so he did. He slept in the churchyard. It was not so bad, he said. 
"He´s a bum," one of the neighbors said when José showed up at the after-Mass Vermut on Sunday, asking for a place to stay. "With a pilgrim hostel and an albergue here now, the pilgrims aren´t going to make it to your house. They´re going to send you the bums. Bums and freeloaders."
José was a bum, and so was Jan, a ragged Czech who stayed last week. They are homeless and jobless, wandering the road because there is no other place for them. Given an opportunity, they ask for what they need (Wily Antonio, another Portuguese drifter, shows up here every few months with a wish list!). If nobody gives them food and a bed for the night, they sleep outdoors and eat meals of cheap biscuits. They are poor in an honest, matter-of-fact way.
The Camino de Santiago has for centuries been a hobo road, full of drifters and hustlers. Today it´s no different. Alongside the bums are the freeloaders, pilgrims suffering a different kind of poverty -- a poverty of spirit.

Freeloaders have enough money to vacation for weeks at a time, but they gleefully consume resources designed for people who can´t afford anything else. Freeloaders take up the "donativo" bunks in the pilgrim shelter because their friends are staying there, because albergues are "integral to my camino experience." Paying little or nothing for their bed, they can spend the savings elsewhere. They sip beers at their café tables and discuss what makes an Authentic Pilgrim: Walking every step of the way. Prayers. Sacrificing personal comfort and hygiene by sleeping in scruffy pilgrim beds. 
Meantime, on the porch of the church, the bums bed down on the benches.


Monday, 9 April 2012

Holy Moley Week

Paddy, Harry, and Olaya

The party was just the beginning of my sister Beth´s elaborate plan.

Monday brought cards, letters, cards... cards from my Grandpa Scott (who is 94), Aunts Gloria, Esther, and Nancy, three women who went to high school with me, more than two dozen former pilgrims, both my sisters, and  several cousins (my cousin Barbara included a book about caring for donkeys and mules!). Sonomi sent another invitation to walk the Shikoku 88 Temples pilgrim trail in Japan. 

It was Holy Week in Spain, so mail delivery was spotty. When mail arrived, it came in plastic shopping bags! Cards, more cards, and gifts too: books, a Pittsburgh Steelers Toalla Terrible (in Spanish), a spectacular hand-knitted shawl, three kinds of curry from India, a cheddar cheese (!!!) from Australia, via England, delivered on Monday by Joe The Intern from Liverpool.

The birthday jongleurs
One other spectacle happened on April 4: Someone rang the doorbell just at dusk, and I ran down to answer it: Outside stood four grinning Spaniards. "We are here to sing Happy Birthday!" they said, and they filled up the entryway, accompanied by a shiny red accordion and a big orange sign, sort-of written in English. They sang it once in the entryway, in Galician, and again, in Castellano, in the house, so we could get a picture. I wish I had remembered my camera makes movies!

It was rather confusing to me. I only recognized two of them: One was our neighbor Milagros. Another was Luis, a restaurateur from Sahagún. The other pair I never saw before in my life, far as I know (and Paddy is not in the habit of admitting accordions into the house.) Everyone tried to explain at once. The accordion man is from Moratinos originally, his wife is somehow connected to the camino hospitalero program, and knows me from a FaceBook page. They live in A Coruña, way over in Galicia... and my sister Beth had sent an e-mail, and they were in town (with their accordion) and so why not?

Okay. I can dig this. I still don´t know how Luis got involved, but I will let that go.

When my actual birthday arrived the rain poured down. We haven´t had a decent rain here since December, so all the farmers smiled great smiles and the fields grew greener and more lush by the hour. We didn´t make it to Leon to see the great Holy Thursday processions, but me and Joe went to Mass here in Moratinos, and to Sahagun in the evening to see the penitentes parade in their pointed hoods. We went to church on Thursday and Friday, Saturday night and Sunday morning. It was glorious. We is righteous!
Serious penitentes in Sahagún

And all that churchness culminated in our little iglesia on Easter morning, where Don Santiago decided we should have our own re-enactment of "El Encuentro," a favorite Easter-day procession in towns all over Spain. The Blessed Virgin statue was bolted onto the palanquin and decked with rosemary branches. We don´t have another palanquin, or a detachable Jesus for that matter, so the priest put a sanctified host into the monstrance (a wonderfully-named silver-plated display case for holy wafers) and let it represent the Jesus image. And at the right moment, when the choir began to sing, four women took the corners of the palanquin and hoisted the BVM onto their shoulders and headed out the wide-open front gates. The virgin and all the women of the church made a left outside the door. The monstrance and the men went right.

We met in the alley by the dumpster. We set the palanquin on the ground and someone took away Mary´s black mantilla. Don Santiago turned around and led us all singing through the plaza and back into the church for the big Resurrection Mass.

The only unusual and wonderful thing about this was this year, I was one of the women who carried the Blessed Virgin. It was very heavy and unweildy. It filled my Protestant bones with fear, and set my Calvinist ancestors spinning in their graves at the sheer idolatry of it all. But my heart went pitty-pat with excitement. I felt like I had won the big prize, like I had achieved something truly worthwhile -- even thought I don´t have a purple hood, I was carrying a paso like a penitente! (Carrying a paso is something I have secretly hoped to do someday, but did not know how to achieve. I only had to wait six years!)

the penitentes of Moratinos meet Jesus in the alley

Sunday, 1 April 2012


Palm Sunday. Palms don´t grow here, so we brought branches of rosemary and bay leaves and pine to church, the fragrant green stuff that grows all around us. We stood in a circle on the sunny steps while Don Santiago walked among us, sprinkling the greens with holy water. These will be tucked over doorways and rear-view mirrors, a sort of good luck charm, a sign that spring happens every year, year after year.

Mass was heavily scented, herbal even. Delicious. Lots of people were there, the ones who come for holidays are back again, like the swallows in the barn. They kissed our cheeks, admired the new crop of babies. It was a smiley morning, full of sunshine and good will.

In the afternoon we went for coffee to the Ayuntamiento. I knew something was up, and my suspicions were confirmed when I opened the door to the meeting room and Sopresa! A cloud of confetti fluttered down over my head. My former English students, my neighbors, and an assortment of their friends and relations were crowded into the small room, and they burst into a chorus of  "Appy bortay to joo!"

They had streamers, balloons, even a piñata loaded with candy and more confetti. There was a big bouquet, a bottle of nice cologne, a t-shirt with bugle-beads, a bottle of Valpolicella from the Italians, a bottle of Reisling from the Germans, all wrapped in jolly paper. They had six bottles of champagne and a huge cream cake with "Felicidades Rebeca" written in chocolate on top. Someone had even chalked a birthday greeting on the blackboard.

On Thursday I will be 50 years old. I don´t feel much more than about 23. Today, for an hour or so, was was 8 or 9. I was delighted! I never saw the meeting room so dressed-up for a birthday celebration, and I have been to plenty of those. Maybe it was because of the milestone birthday. Maybe because it was a surprise. Or perhaps because Paddy had Milagros do the planning -- and Milagros LOVES this sort of thing.
It made me feel very special and loved, and it made me miss my mom and sisters, who would have loved it. (I suspect my sister Beth is who told Patrick this might be a good idea. He would never, ever have thought of it himself, because he is not a birthday kind of guy.)

The best of all was seeing everybody there, even the factions of families that don´t usually mix. Everyone chatted and feasted and popped balloons and tickled the babies, and took home an extra bit of cake for breakfast tomorrow. The cleanup was monumental, but with so many hands at work we got that done in a trice. And so I can go ahead and be 50 on 5 April without disturbing the dignity reserved for Holy Thursday.

Yeah, I´ll be 50. And my neighbors like me! And I got presents!