Thursday, 28 March 2013

A stony sort of passion

Sky full at Colmenares

"The scenery in Castile is in the sky."  I think Delibes said that. He was obviously here in springtime. 

Here are rainbows, doubles and triples. Rainbows, and huge skies, every kind of cloud and color.  Our horizons here are low and rolling and often plain, the bane of pilgrims who expect "something interesting" to look at while they walk.
Skyful at Quintanatello

The sky is full of pillars of cloud and fire, and often larks, too. They are strange little birds, they sing manically, like wind-up toys, as they fly straight upward and then hover up there all a-twitter. It´s like they´re rising up on a column of song.

Back side of Paddy at Vega de Bur

All the towns round about are caught up in Holy Week processions, Masses, Holy Hours, and Stations of the Cross. Meantime, the tourist office and the diocese had a stroke of genius: they´ve opened up 47 Romanesque churches in the north of the province -- thousand-year-old jewels in depopulated, isolated mountain towns. They are always locked up. Except this week.

Me and Paddy gassed up the furgoneta and hit the road yesterday, following a route up the Ojeda valley west of Aguilar de Campoo. We hit eight stone churches large and small. We met two fine roosters and some lively hens, saw hidden statues, carvings, reliefs, and capitals. We climbed up a steep stone spiral to the top of a tower in a town with 12 inhabitants. Tiny Maria Angeles showed us the hidden pine-cones in the stonework of her town´s chapel -- she wore splendid velvet pants the color of grape soda.
Spiral stairs at Vega de Bur

In Quintanatello de Ojeda someone had left the tower door unlocked. I poked through their tossed-away treasures. (I was sorely tempted by the plaster angel-wings, but I did not take anything away with me.) We did not see another human in that town, but their rainbow was first-class.

In Colmenares we found a spectacular Romanesque baptismal font, maybe the finest I ever saw. The old man at the door said he was baptised there himself, but he can´t remember the last time it was used. No babies. No priests.

on the baptism font in Colmenares
These towns and valleys teemed with Christians, back when the Arabs pushed the old faith north into the mountains. They built monasteries, hermitages, nunneries and parish churches, and filled them with sculpture and art and song.

The builders did good work. A thousand years later, some of their work is still standing -- rabbits and devils and faces peek down from the rafters, or wait out eternity in the darkness behind a froufrou Renaissance altarpiece. (the ladies at Vega de Bur keep a worklight handy, so you can climb in and see for yourself.)

Two monasteries are still in operation up there, but the hermitages haven´t been inhabited for centuries.

fabulous trash
It was tiring, but delightful. We saw lovely buildings and artworks and people, with mountain towns and meadows and clouds in between. It was like an art tour, but with breathing room. Hours of beauty, but not overwhelming. We looked and chatted and said "wow" til the clouds rolled in and rain pounded down. Then we headed home.       

Today we rested up. Because tomorrow we go back again to the mountains, this time to four churches up in the backwoods of Burgos. While the rest of Spain hits the streets to mourn the Passion of Christ, we´ll be with an archaeologist from the Romanesque Studies Foundation, pursuing passions of our own. 

over the doorway at Perezancas

Monday, 18 March 2013


It´s been more than 30 years since eighth grade algebra class, but this morning the horror came right back and hit me in the face.
It was a worksheet, homework. Preterite and Indefinite verbs, the same stuff we´ve been over and over for months now. I filled it in Saturday afternoon, without putting in much effort. And this morning, at Forum Idiomas in Carrión de los Condes, me and Lucía and Aisha got out or pens and papers and down the sheet we went, and when we came to a verb, out came the red ink.
My answers were wrong, wrong, wrong.
The other two were patient and kind. I was neither. I was angry, disgusted, and very very sad. It was a great effort of will to not stand up and walk out.
I was back in eighth grade algebra class, where Miss Stoker seemed to delight in marking my homework with red X´s. She switched to a wide-tip red marker to put the grade on top the paper: FAIL. And that term she wielded the same fat marker to mark the 0 on my report card.
It broke my heart. I had never failed anything before, and forever after failed to grasp abstract mathematics. To me,  x - y = 3(r/11) =  defeat + humiliation. No one at Forum Idiomas is shaming me or treating me badly, but that page full of red marks, and this ongoing struggle, feels identical to that awful algebra class.
I admit it. I shed some tears on the drive back home.

Later on, in my kitchen, I opened today´s edition of Carrión, the weekly free newspaper. (It still makes me smile, knowing that in English, "carrion" means "animal carcass." Here, it´s just the name of a river.) This is a thoroughly awful newspaper, but the ads are fun to read. Full-page ads for beauty treatments feature almost life-size before-and-after snaps of saggy bums, balding pates and baggy chins. Best of all are the classified ads in the back. There you can shop for "economical canaries," "a useable female donkey," "ferrets good for hunting rabbits and frightening mice," and wedding gowns "almost never used." One store brags "We buy junk and sell antiques." 
But today another listing caught my eye: Ofertas de Empleo. Job Offers.
There were three: Someone to hand out sales flyers on the street. A mechanic with experience repairing farm machinery. Someone to clean up a disco bar after closing time, "very part-time." 
Just below were Demandas de Empleo. Situations Wanted.
"I can cook, clean, care for elderly people and small children. I can drive, attend a shop counter, wait tables, help in the kitchen," one woman wrote. Dozens more women offered similiar services.
"Widow. Spanish, not foreign. Available morning, noon, and night to care for your elderly family member. I am serious. I have a car. I iron and do windows. Also children."
"I have a university accounting degree. Will do any kind of work."
"I am a licensed driver of trucks, tractors, bulldozers, chain-driven equipment. I will not disappoint you."
"Looking for work as a construction peon. Please call."
"Shepherd seeks work. Tractors, help in kitchen, butchering, shearing, meat and cheese. Call day or night with total confidence."
"Young men offering garden work: trimming vines, pruning fruit trees, clearing brush, insecticides and fertilizers. High-altitude work without scaffolds. Economical prices."
"Young man will work in barns, fields, construction sites. Urgent."   
"Young man. Experience with disassembling motorcycles."
"Middle-aged woman familiar with dental hygiene. Afternoons." 
"Dynamic young man, pastry and bread baker, available for all types of work. Urgent."

Seventy-five people are listed there, with their varying levels of experience, skill, and desperation, part of Spain´s massive population of unemployed adults. They´re the ones lucky enough to afford an ad.  
They are urgently want to iron clothes or herd sheep or baby-sit. They are willing to hose down a disco at 5 a.m., just to get a few euros to keep living on.  
It occurs to me that all these people probably use indefinido and imperfecto with perfect ease, but that hasn´t change their luck.

Meantime, I can communicate well enough to read the newspaper without any trouble. I can buy exactly the bread and apples I want by asking for them. And in my pocket I always have enough money to pay for them.  

So dry your tears, Rebekah. Shut up your whining.
Life can get a whole lot worse than preterite verbs. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A blast, present and past!

the plaza, Villalon de Campos
We poked through passages deep beneath a shuttered pharmacy, and toasted one another in pink-painted dining rooms. We navigated an obsolete canal, and ogled skulls and sacrums of forgotten saints in a massive, mouldering monastery. At midnight, in the rain, we hiked to the next town and back. Some of us slept in bunk beds in a pilgrim albergue, while others filled up the pensions, the B&B, the little hotel. This is how Spanish camino-heads have a good time.

I just shared an intense weekend with a gang of camino movers and shakers. They all are Spaniards, mostly from Galicia and Madrid.

The ´do is organized by a charismatic fellow from Valladolid called Paco, who has managed to not form any kind of organization or club out of it. This gang gets together every early March in Villalon de Campos, a little town about 25 km south of here on the Camino de Madrid. They converge, but they don´t sit still. There are almost 80 of them. They all seem to know one another, and they all talk at the same time.
I was invited a couple of times before, but my foreigner status kinda scared me away, up til now. I have been taking Spanish lessons since November, so I felt I was ready.
So I packed a bag, girded my loins, and headed out on Friday afternoon.  I did fine.
It was not so much the babble of speech, the massive amount of food, the obvious mutual affection, and the kindness of some of them that impressed me. It was the choice of excursions. We went to amazing places that tourists do not usually go, because they are not open to tourists. But for some reason they were open to Paco and his 80 good friends. 

Novitiate, Villagarcia
We saw inside the big old Jesuit monastery in Villagarcia de Campos. It is a huge complex of buildings hulking over a tiny mud-brick town. Inside it is dark and damp, with a gruesome collection of saints´ relics and slippery stone floors. It was home to a seminary, and an incendiary counter-reformation press meant to fight the Calvinist heresies that popped up in this neighborhood. It was also a safe place for royals to stash their surplus sons. 
Chapel for young Jesuits
It is an isolated, severe, gray place. It is still a school. I would not send a child there. 
The novitiate chapel is an explosion of gold leaf and froufrou, speckled with woodworm,  while the relics and the big stone church below are marble neoclassical bas-relief. There was big money here, 500 years back. It is a wonderous place to see. And best of all were the faces -- the saints and martyrs, naked votive baby Jesuses, severed heads, grotesquely realistic images of murdered children. Here is Spanish Catholicism at its most morbid. (It is easy to condemn an age that turned out this ghastly kitsch. Until you turn on the television.)
 CSI Vatican?
The faces of many of the statues are faces you see again and again, on the streets of Villalon, in the pension, in Sahagún and Carrión and Madrid. Castilian faces, for Castilian believers. 
Roman martyr, I think...
the kid you just want to smack
Yes, that IS a severed head in his arms...
(Blogger does not like me posting too many photos, or I would show you a big ol lineup of them!)

fun-loving old pope

 We ate empanada, and took a riverboat up the Canal de Castilla. We walked several kilometers to Tamariz de Campos, another mud-brick town on the Madrid route. Here is a thousand-year-old parish church with a huge collection of Madonnas and prophets, some of them of charming, cartoony local make. More neighbors´ faces, hundreds of years´ worth. I was so taken with their faces! Best of all, I think, is Jesus and the Apostles at The Last Supper, the Jewish Passover Feast. In the middle of the table, ready for carving, is a fine fat piglet!

It ain´t easy, being a virgin mother...
So, it was a great visit with the Camino people, wonderful full-immersion into Spanish language, and a fascinating look at Castilian art and architecture. I didn´t get to the part about the underground passages and the pharmacy that was sealed-up for 50 years after the druggist died, nor did I tell you about Marisol and Lourdes, two new friends I made... But I am already pushing my luck with Blogger!