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.”


Steve Finnell said...
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Claire Bangasser said...

A lovely story. Thank you.

A blessing on you and all who stop at your place.

Warren said...

Your big heart shines in the small text I receive at the end of my wire. Today I went to an Allied Van Lines depot to pick up free boxes. I'm down-sizing, lightening, freeing my soul. Pulling up in my little car next to the BIG orange trucks which were in turn dwarfed by the gobsmacking big warehouse made me feel like Pascale in his universe. Thanks for making my world seem a little bigger.

The Solitary Walker said...

Catching up on your posts... What a tremendous story. I also felt my present little life get a little bigger too.