Saturday, 31 May 2014

Appalling Behavior

Three creatures deeply dedicated to appalling behavior 

There are tons of people behaving out there, and some of them are behaving very badly.

May is a big, big month on the Camino de Santiago. Thousands of people are on the trail, hundreds pass through our town each day, each on his own deeply personal journey of faith and self-discovery.

Unfortunately, few of them are on a pilgrimage.

Maybe it´s just the sheer numbers -- put too many animals in a cage and they´ll savage one another. Maybe it´s the uptick in Americans and French people on the trail, people accustomed to comfort and cosseting and convenience, people from consumer cultures where Money Talks, and the Customer is Always Right.

Maybe it´s the unusually cool, damp weather.

Or maybe people are just awful.

Talking to other hospitaleros, talking to restaurateurs and bartenders, talking to pilgrims themselves, it seems there´s an awful lot of bad behavior happening these days. I have seen some of it myself, with my own eyes.
Stupidity. Cluelessness. Cultural disconnects. Or just sheer bad manners.

This week in La Rioja: An ancient nun was locking up a village church, heading back to the convent for her lunch or prayers or nun business. Three pilgrims arrived just then. They wanted to see inside the church. The nun said no. The pilgrims told her she was un-Christian, they´d walked miles, they were PILGRIMS, that all the churches on the camino are locked-up, but the churches in their country are always open. The Catholic Church in Spain rakes in millions, they said, but evidently does not care about pilgrims´ spiritual needs.

Sylvie, a Canadian hospitalero who volunteers over at Bruno´s albergue, was passing by just then. She understood the language the pilgrims were speaking to the nun, who clearly did not understand them. Sylvie told the pilgrims to stick their spiritual needs someplace where the sun don´t shine. Sylvie is short and stout but not to be trifled with. The nun clung to her. And when the righteous hikers finally left, the nun began to cry.
I think it is safe to say: Proper pilgrims do not abuse elderly nuns.

Paddy and I were miserably sick last week. We took two days off from the pilgrim business, for our sakes as well as the pilgrims´ -- we were contagious. When six bright-eyed young pilgrims arrived on Thursday evening, I told them (eyes streaming, nose red and running) that we were unwell. We do not have room or food for six people, that they should go over to Bruno´s place.

"But you don´t understand," a young man said. "It costs nine Euro to stay at Bruno´s. We don´t mind if you are sick. We are healthy."

These are not the words of an evil person. Just a very thick one.

Just yesterday, driving out of town, I turned the corner onto Calle Real and glanced up the street. Pilgrims were pouring into town. Pin´s car was parked in front of his house. Between the car and Pin´s front gate was a pilgrim, a female pilgrim, crouching with her pants round her ankles, clearly visible from both east and west. With wide fields and generous ditches stretching for miles around town, this person relieved herself on Main Street, on someone´s very doorstep. Appalling.

Last night and this morning at Bruno´s albergue, a pilgrim demanded special food, extra bedding, free refills, discounts. When the backpack-transport service arrived this morning to take her bag, she wanted it delivered to the train station in Sahagún. The service does not deliver there, Bruno told her, it´s not safe to leave bags unattended.
"Then you should just deliver me, along with the bag," the lady said. "You won´t have to worry then about my bag. I won´t take up much room in the van. It´s only nine kilometers."
"I don´t have a taxi license," the delivery lady told her. "You should just call a taxi."
"I am a poor pilgrim. I cannot afford a taxi," the lady said.

Fact: The person calling himself "a poor pilgrim" always has perfect, white teeth, and usually wears $200 boots. He drinks up all the wine at dinner, steals the toilet paper, and leaves 10 cents in the box.  
Paddy calls these people "ghastly."

Equally ghastly are a couple of albergue owners east of here, who are taking advantage of the current crowds. In dormitories with bunkbeds, the lower bunks are often reserved for the injured or elderly. This spring, they are gouged an extra 2 to 5-Euros for a bottom bunk. Disgusting.

Yes, I am whining. Admit it, you love reading about these awful people, because you are not one of them!
The Camino de Santiago really IS a magical place. Amazing things happen here. People discover God´s grace in action, they experience generosity and kindness and acceptance like they´ve never seen before. Before they are finished the buttoned-down and self-possessed often find themselves sharing their food, hearing the confessions of broken-hearted strangers, and binding up gory wounds on rainy roadsides. It is glorious and wonderful and very varied.

And among the crowds thronging the path and looking for something are plenty of sharks, lowlifes, losers, addicts, pikers, thieves, cheapskates, whiners, and manipulators. Some are pilgrims, others are the townspeople or churchmen or volunteers charged to care for them. They´ve been part of the camino scene for a thousand years, and they´re not going away anytime soon.

I stood up on top the bodegas yesterday, marveling over the floral spectacle of May on the Meseta (while looking  for two badly behaved greyhounds). I considered all the human awfulness going on out there in the world. I watched two more pilgrims pounding into town, saw them marching round the foot of my hill, checking out the little hobbit-house doors. I wondered if one of they were stopping to have a pee against the door of my bodega. (Yes, that happens, and yes, it does smell after a while.) I stepped over the crest of the hill and down toward them, just to be sure they kept moving. A man was there at the door of our little cave, but he was not sinning against me. He was snapping a photo. I clambered, casually as I could, down the steep hill to the little lane where they stood. I said hello as I found the foot-holds.

They looked up and smiled at me. The straps of their backpacks squeaked as they reached upward, as they took my hand and my elbow, as they helped me down the last two steps. They were gentle.
I thanked them.
"It is nothing," they said, in Italian. "It is steep. Be careful in those shoes, there are thistles here."  

They´d met suspicion with kindness.

We all are humans, we all are sinners, some more appalling than others. We all need to be forgiven. Even me.

And we need to forgive one another.  

Monday, 26 May 2014

Exit Oliver

Oliver arrived just in time for me to leave, just in time to put my mind at ease. He is an agent of Divine Providence and Chaos at the same time. Oliver is a true child of St. James, or maybe Peter Pan. He is a born hospitalero, a phenomenon.

He stayed a few days at the Peaceable to help Patrick deal with the dogs, just until Paddy´s son Matt could get here from England. Matt and Oliver got on really well, and Paddy didn´t mind the extra help, so Ollie he stayed on a few extra days. He stayed right through til I got back from America, because he didn´t want leave without saying goodbye.
Oliver on the left, redneck on right

Meantime, he washed the windows. He swept the back patio. He cut the grass front and back, and wheeled a couple barrow-loads of sand over to Bruno´s place for making cement, in exchange for using Bruno´s mower. He shared the pilgrim room and downstairs bath with Howard from England and Bev from D.C. and Sarah Jean from North Carolina, each in their turn. 

Oliver is from Germany. He has lived along the Camino de Santiago for the last seven years, fetching up the first two years at a commune in Ponferrada, where he learned how to meditate. From there he worked a while at the Albergue Aquarius in Santiago itself, a flower-power place known for its creative use of pilgrim labor. Oliver found himself there, or at least found his calling. He loved the pilgrims, he didn´t mind a bit of cleaning, he downright enjoyed cooking for them. He decided to live on the trail, to serve full-time.

I met Oliver out on the trail, on one of his many camino walks. He came here when Peaceable was still a half-finished project, and stayed to lay concrete in the patio. I met him again in Finisterra, way out at the end of the trail. He ran an albergue there for a while, and later he lived on the beach, drumming up business for a couple of local bars. Our paths crossed now and then. He always greeted me with a big hug and a puff of spliff, if he had one. Oliver likes to smoke, and he likes to share.     

Oliver speaks German and Dutch, Italian and English, and a good bit of French as well. He is moody. When he is "up" his boyish joy can be overpowering. When he is "down" he can almost disappear into philosophy. He is outgoing and fluent, and he knows just about everybody on the western end of the camino – the drifters, bosses, saints, and perennial pilgrims. That is how he ended up at Murias de Rechivaldo.

Murias is a shabby old town just outside Astorga. Its rundown schoolhouse was the only albergue in town until about five years ago, when suddenly the townspeople turned their redundant stone outbuildings into private pilgrim accommodation. Simón, the friendly geezer who kept the keys and occasionally cleaned the albergue, was somehow related to the mayor. Oliver needed a place. Simón put in a good word.

And for two years Oliver had his dream come true – a steady hospi gig in a place he liked very well. He did some big work there. He painted and pointed, he tore out the paneling that was home to a community of hardy bedbugs, he swept and mopped and welcomed the simple kind of pilgrims whose needs do not stretch to wifi and washers and dryers and central heating.

There are fewer and fewer of those pilgrims around, Oliver said. Beds go begging in his place. His clients wash their clothes by hand, and sit chatting under the trees out front while the laundry dries in the branches. At the posh privado over the road, capacity crowds pack the porches. Each stares intently at his little hand-held screen as he waits for the lady to deliver his laundry, dried and neatly folded.  

“Wifi is ruining the camino,” Oliver said. “Those pilgrims don´t talk to each other. They bring their old lives with them in their IPads. They never really leave home, they never really experience what the camino has for them. They are not free. They are addicted. I am sad for them.”   

When his albergue closed for holidays or disinfection, Oliver walked. He came here two summers ago and ran Bruno´s place for a week, in which time he gave a name to our particular flavour of marijuana.

I had just harvested a big, healthy plant, and I asked Ollie to test-drive the product. (I have asthma, I cannot smoke anything, and I never enjoyed that numb sensation. I grew marijuana for the simple reason that I can. It is legal here, in small quantities.) Oliver was delighted with the idea.

He reported back the next day. “Rebekah, your weed is very quiet. I thought for a little while it was no good, I felt nothing,” he said. “But then I got up and moved about. And I felt light. I felt nice. I felt… fluffy.”

And so it is called now as well, when we have it around: Fluffy.   

Last year Oliver decided to close the albergue and spend winter back home in Germany – he´d met a girl, he said. He stopped here on the way. He was manic. He preached grace and peace and healing, then moved on. A few days later, in an albergue in Burgos, all his money disappeared. He shrugged his shoulders and headed back to Murias, reopened the albergue, and settled in to earn enough money to walk home again to Germany.

In tiny Murias he was a friend to the unemployed young men, a drinking buddy, the only blond German who had ever carried the banner in the patron saint processions.
But not everyone in town liked him so well. He was a foreigner occupying a municipal post – a very low-down position, but in a small town those jobs are, by right, held by some local cousin or in-law of the council members. The man in charge refused to register Oliver as a town resident, which would qualify him for health care. He refused to put Oliver on a workers´ contract, even though Oliver was entitled to both.  

Finally, the council decided to “monetize” the municipal albergue, put it to work making a profit for the town. A suitable daughter and son-in-law were installed in the albergue, and Oliver was told his time was up.

“It was two years, one month, and five days,” Oliver said. “It was never mine, but it was close. It was a great time. Everything has its span of life, no? It was time for me to go. And now I have a reason to go back. Helena. I am in love with her. She is crazy for me, too. It fits so good together!”

Oliver left this morning, heading east. He is hitchhiking, walking, sleeping rough across three countries. Helena´s dad has a job for him, he says, starting June 23rd, selling nutritional supplements in Germany and Holland and France.

“I am 38 years old,” he said last night. “A bit young to settle down. I will come back. I still have my dream. Helena loves the camino too. I still want a place of my own here.

“An albergue that is mine. A place that is simple. Something nobody can ever take away from me.”

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Past, future, presents

Me and my sister Beth

The Peaceable is far, far away from here.
Here is Apollo, Pennsylvania, a little post-industrial rural area in the United States of America. This is the town where my parents grew up, where I did some growing-up, too, a place I could return to someday, if I wanted to. Here everyone is friendly and polite, if a little rough around the edges. It is easy to be here. I know where to find the library (the library where my mom signed a paper so I could see books kept on the "forbidden" shelves), the St. James Catholic Church, the pub with the best white pizza, the Dairy Queen where I sat in a Sunbeam Tiger sports car with my first boyfriend and drank in the glories of the mocha milkshake... three decades back. Apollo is my hometown. My mother and sister and former in-laws still live here. Apollo is my past.
I spent the weekend at a hotel in Toledo, Ohio, another place from my past. Toledo is where my children were raised, where I dug in and flowered as a newspaper journalist, where I met and married a wise-ass Englishman called Paddy O'Gara. Toledo is where my son Philip met a very pretty girl called Raheela. More than a decade later, after our family broke up and scattered to places all over the world, Philip and Raheela called us all back to Toledo again for their big wedding celebration.
It took three days. It was complicated and ethnic and in some ways slapdash – Raheela's Pakistani-American family followed an elaborate canon of customs, which I was supposed to follow along and fulfil in my special role as the groom's mother. A bevy of aunties were recruited to get me into the right place at the right moment. Orders sometimes were scrambled or contradicted, but all the henna was duly applied to hands, all the photos snapped, all the skirts and under-garments duly ironed and veils appropriately attached at the proper moments.
The whole shebang climaxed Sunday evening. Everyone put on his most spangled suit and headed to a great banqueting hall in downriver Detroit. We the groom's side, seventeen of us, were charged with Making An Entrance, so we gathered in the backside of the parking lot and tried to keep out of sight.
A cowboy pulled up with his two-horse trailer right on time. Beth stepped up with the handiwork of many hours, and the tack and saddle were hung with patchwork quilted by my mother's mother. We threw the past onto the back of the present, and Philip, clad in splendid Sergeant Pepper-meets-Aladdin finery, clambered on board. In command from atop his golden-haired mount, he belted out the verses of "Dunderbeck," a gruesome childhood ditty, and his family walked along down the car park singing the choruses:
"Oh Dunderbeck O Dunderbeck what makes you be so mean?
You'll be sorry you invented
That sausage-meat machine!
Now kitty cats and long-tail rats will nevermore be seen
They've all been ground to sausage meat
In Dunderbeck's machine!"
And just before we got to the entryway, where a sparkling assembly of 370 of Raheela's kin awaited the groom, a man jumped out from between two parked cars – a bearded man with wild eyes, a turban, and bright yellow pants. He pressed shakers and jingle-bells into our hands, he shouted at us to shout and dance, to follow him as he drummed and capered and yodelled, so that is what we did. The horse, apparently a victim of some long-ago jingle-bell incident, jumped and capered at the racket. Philip looked only a little concerned, he held his seat. It is a good thing he decided against his turban for the horseback arrival business. (The turban was sent over from Karachi, but proved too small for Philip's cranium. We considered duct tape, bobby pins, and staple guns, but a cousin finally just split the thing open from inside and showed how to fold it onto his big head. No problem.)
My sisters snapped pictures and herky-jerky videos. Philip's dad, my former husband, danced a wild dance with the Sikh drummer, ululating. Our bright silk garments floated and turned round our legs as we spun on the asphalt. Spangled aunties tottered out to meet us, they kissed my cheeks, they told me "welcome to the family."
And so Philip was enfolded into the noisy embrace of his new wife's people.
And so the two of them zipped off into their future in a stretch limo, with a scheduled stop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for a couple of days.
Monday morning we headed back east to Apollo, where I am now until Thursday. From the future back to the past, where the next big event was a drive down Dime Road to visit Barbara.
Barb is my favourite cousin, another person from the past, particularly beloved. She taught me to neck-rein a horse, how to help a dog birth pups, how to turn a Jeep to four-wheel drive, how to knock down a shot of bourbon and not choke. She drives steamrollers and forklifts for a living, and builds dry-stone retaining walls on the weekends. She can set vertical fence-posts on a sheer hillside and shoot a .44, and tell a lowlife to go straight to hell. But she knows how to pray, too. She's praying a lot these days.
Barb has cancer in the bones of her spine and the organs of her abdomen.
I went to see her this morning. She does not look like Barb at all. I held her hands. I never noticed before how elegant her hands are. She is very small, she is in a great deal of pain.
I will probably not see her again.
She is the future, too. Most of my family dies of cancer eventually. We fight and medicate and suffer, but it gets us in the end. Cancer or old age or accident, something gets us, all of us, in the end. Aside from the suffering, there is nothing to feel too badly about. Everybody goes.
Me, too. I go home on Thursday, via Charlotte. On Friday I will be home in Moratinos, the tiny pueblo. My present.

(I promise to post more photos. I have a new computer and have not figured out how to move things around comfortably.)


Sunday, 4 May 2014

Everybody Knows

I put a stronger lock on the bodega door, because the key stopped turning in the cheap one. It´s a detail, a tiny difference in the everyday. But everybody knows. (They ask me if I´ve heard of gypsies in the area. Gypsies are the local bugaboo. They come from the east and north, and I am told they steal everything that´s not nailed down. I go to Carrion de los Condes every Thursday, eastward. So maybe I have heard something, maybe I know. One can´t be too careful, not with Those People!)

Last week after Mass, I went to Santiago de Compostela for a congress of people like me, loonies who let strangers stay at their houses, with some bishops and nuns and Anglicans thrown in for righteousness´ sake. I was gone for four whole days. In the interim Patrick went to the bar one evening, to see a football match. While there, he had a scary, embarrassing coughing fit. Everybody knows. And after church this morning everyone said "Welcome back, Rebekah! How was the trip?"

Everybody knows now how the convention went -- the bishops blathered on and on. They know too about the day I skipped out, I flew up to Sarria and back down in a top-down convertible Fiat 550 with two merry Dutchmen, one of them a priest, a dear friend for many years, a majo who visited Moratinos, who helped us, didn´t he? plaster the ceilings at the bodega, he is so tall! Big hands! Good teeth, despite those cigars! Yes, we remember! Yes, we know! Lucky you, Rebekah, such fabulous friends you have! (what about your husband, here all alone, choking in the bar, and you gadding about in a Fiat with tall Dutchmen?)

When we moved to Moratinos my friend Tino, an expat Gallego Spaniard from Xunqueria de Amba, a somewhat-small town in darkest Galicia, gave me a stern warning. "Rebekah," he said, "we have a refran, a wise saying: "Small town, big hatred." Watch out for that. Small town, small minds."

"Tino," I told him then, "this town is only 16 people. You can´t afford to be too hateful in a town so little. People need one another. No one will survive otherwise."

And so it has proved, even as the town has grown -- we now are 23 or 25 year-round people, depending on how you count. There are frictions and factions, yes. One of our neighbors is sure our dogs trampled the pea-patch in his un-fenced garden. He followed us around for three days to make sure we kept every one of our dogs on a lead anywhere near town. (Never mind the other three or six dogs who regularly wander loose through town.) He has a point, however. So we put all the dogs on leads while we walk around in the town. We adjust. Everybody knows. (Everybody rolls their eyes heavenward, too, in sympathy.)

Dogs attack one another, run off together, kill hens and harass cats. Visitors park their cars in the wrong driveway. We fail to cut the high grass, which goes to seed and spreads to the field alongside. Neighbors spread manure on the very day the abbot or the Junta or news reporters are due. We plan and publicize beautiful concerts, and almost no one shows up. That´s life in a tiny pueblo. It does not always go our way.

But there is an up-side, too. We have, apparently, landed on a marketing list.

For some reason, producers and PR guys are sending us top-class regional cheese, honey, and wine to sample. They apparently believe The Peaceable is a destination for high-end tourists. Their shiny packages often arrive at the same moment as the most lowdown homeless travelers. Once I figured out I do not need to send back items I never ordered, I started inviting the pilgrims to taste the goodies, too -- who knows? One of them may be a true connoisseur. At least two of them were shepherds of decades´ experience, professionals who know ewe´s milk cheese better than anyone I can think of.

So yes, it´s true: We give delicacies to derelicts and wanderers, and their "feedback" we send back on the "tell us what you think" ratings cards provided. The honey, like the "artisanal beer", all tastes pretty much the same to me. Jam? Jam is jam. The wine, though... the wine I keep and taste and judge for myself, now that Lent is through.  

And this explains the Audis and BMWs rolling up here lately, looking around, the glossy drivers stamping their pilgrim credentials, wondering what this place is, asking odd questions. We have been mistaken for somewhere else. I am finally figuring this out. But I bet everyone in Moratinos already knows.  

Meantime, the queue outside the doctor´s office on Monday means Rebekah´s asthma is kicking up, Raquel´s bad knee is worse, Manolo´s stiff wrist needs seeing-to, everybody´s blood-pressure medicine in running low. (My blood pressure is always low, it is genetic. Everybody knows.)

The fields are green, heads well-formed atop the rye and soon the barley, the soybeans blossom bright yellow. May and June and the steady breeze turn our campo back to a shallow sea, soft waves flutter these days green instead of blue, grain instead of waves of water. We fall into the rhythm of the grain, and we forget the conflicts that so irked us earlier on, we let them go as we walk out to the huerta, the orchard, the garden, the bower of backyard jasmine. We drink the wine. The cheese melts softly on our tongues.

I know. Everybody knows. But we forget, at least for now, because the sun is out, the swallows are in the barn and ´round the church tower, and soon again the farmers will cut the grain. There will be enough for the rich and the poor, the pijo, the gitano and the presumido, too. Enough for all of us.