Friday, 18 April 2014
"Please help," said the monjita on the telephone. She and the sisters who usually run the albergue are off on a retreat. "None of the people filling in has any English. Most of the pilgrims coming in have no Spanish. You told me to call if I need help, and now I do," she said.
And so I went. On Thursday morning in Carrion de los Condes, a smiling group of Madrileño volunteers met me at the door, lay members of the Trinitarian religious order in Alcorcon, outside Madrid. I walked in at about 11 a.m. for a quick run-through, just to learn where things are kept and how the routine runs, just an hour or so, seeing as I would be back early Sunday morning to run the place myself.
But no. I had to stay, they said. Had to help process the incoming pilgrims, said MariCarmen and Carmen and Maria.
They asked so nicely. I didn´t have a whole lot else to do. So I stayed.
I did not walk out again til the bells clanged and jangled next door to announce the 6 p.m. Mass.
In the hours between we registered 44 pilgrims, sang to them, blessed them, counted out coins for the laundry machines, run them through the rules and the hours, mopped up flooded showers, started the desserts for the communal dinner (all the restaurants are closed for the holiday), and ourselves ate, in shifts, a hearty takeout lunch with the Trinitarian and parish priests. We ate out of takeout containers, perched on lawn chairs, hunkered over trestle tables out in the garage.
I spoke a lot of Spanish and a lot of English.
The afternoon passed fast.
I remembered how nice it is to be a hospitalera in an albergue. It is a calling, a time-honored ministry. It is also exhausting. The pilgrims coming through the door were done-in by the spring sunshine and long miles, but the hospis were just as wrinkled round the eyes. Their many trips up and down the stairs and the long nights spent sleeping beneath a tower full of bells weighed on their features.
Still, their patience, at times, was Job-like. Their love was brotherly. At one point, a foot-washing even broke out -- the non-symbolic, Epsom-salt kind. We laid our hands on the sick, we fed the hungry, sheltered the travelers, we told a couple of transients sure, they could get showers before they caught the bus south. (When a pilgrim arrived with no money, they paid his five-Euro fee.)
And me, I spoke. I communicated with people whose exotic languages I´ve only encountered in Ikea furniture-assembly instructions: French people, Poles, Finns ... Canadians, even! I learned what they needed and I turned it into Spanish for the Trinitarians. Unburdened by the rules of grammar, I spoke with the tongues of Men and Angels.
I shared the Good News of a clean bed and dinner.
The nun asked, so I said yes. Now I am knackered.
And that was just the quick run-through.
Tomorrow morning I go back to stay the full 24-hour shift, filling the gap til the replacement crew arrives.
Then we´ll see who´s asking for help!
Thursday, 10 April 2014
From the garden out back you can see the landscape to the west, beyond the mimosa trees and the chicken hut and the wall that breaks the wind.
I started installing the irrigation out there today, the water hoses that make veggies grow all summer. Nothing like putting in a water system to make the sky open up, except maybe washing a car.
I never wash the car, but my neighbours do. They are why these fields out beyond the wall are bright lime green. They wash their cars, they spread fertilizer on the heavy clay ground, and they put seeds down at the same time. The combination works its April magic. All the way to Sahagun the ground is covered in a quilt, its patches made of every shade of green. And the sky, so clear and blue all day, week, and month, this afternoon as gray as gunmetal, but with the fields still in full sunlight in the foreground. There´s a rainbow out there somewhere, you just know it.
Paddy is painting a version on the patio wall. We are working outdoors in the long daylight hours, planting things, putting out the patio furniture, sunning ourselves and petting dog-heads. Bruno is open, so we see few pilgrims now.
I contemplate Enough. That this little life, lived pretty much in this little corner of this little town, is enough for me.
I am ambitious. I want more, I want to change things, make them better. I want to have friends I can meet for coffee and hang out with. I want to speak Spanish really well. I want to write more and better books. I want to be important and respected, but I also want to disappear, I want to be happy in my semi alone-ness. I want all the seeds I plant to germinate, and grow on, and produce beautiful fruit. I want people to come here and help us eat them, but I don´t want them to stay too long.
Things do not work out. Maybe half the things I start ever come to anything. My favourite cousin on Dad´s side died three years ago, and now the favourite cousin on Mom´s side is having radiation treatments. People are sometimes friendly to me, but I do not make the next move to turn them into friends... most of them speak only Spanish, and Spanish is exhausting to me after a couple of hours. I will never get Spanish.
I do have Malin. We went horse-riding on Saturday, to celebrate my birthday. I was involved in a minor collision, I hit the ground pretty hard. I am getting too old for riding, I think. I cannot afford to feel so beat-up, this many days later. It´s encouraging, though, to hear Malin and her English friends speaking Spanish. They´ve lived here a long time, too, and their Spanish is not so great, either.
So things are somewhat sad-making, if I let them be. But then I pet a dog-head in the sunny patio, and I see the swallow dive through the barn-door. The swallows came back early this year, on my birthday. I spent Sunday at O´Cebreiro with Laurie, a woman I have admired for years. She is full of history and wisdom, her house is beautiful, she has a wonderful scruffy dog she bought from a beggar, she lives alone and she lives very well. She gave me a great armload of hydrangea cuttings which I am planting in my patio, I do hope they will grow!
I hope for half. Even half a hydrangea is pretty spectacular. Half a hydrangea, and a gun-metal sky behind a mimosa tree, and a dog-head that needs a scratch.
That oughtta be enough for anybody.