Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The House Next Door

The Peaceable is the yellow house behind THND.

I have lived only yards away for eight years, but I had never been inside the house next door.  Castilians mind their own business. They meet one another in bars or in the plaza, but almost never in each other’s homes.

Besides, there was hardly ever anybody home.

The place next door hasn’t really been a home for about 30 years, at least. Old Francisco raised his family here, but the kids grew up and moved elsewhere. When Francisco’s daughter married, he went to live with her in the city.  (It is a daughter’s duty to care for aging parents.) On holidays and sunny weekends we sometimes saw Francisco out in the driveway in his folding chair, watching the grain waving in the field over the road. He was small and stooped, but his eyes were bright and friendly. He told me once about serving in the civil war, that his military picture was on display at the ayuntamiento. 

Years passed, and Francisco stopped coming along when his daughter’s family visited town. The old man died this spring at the care home in Villada. His four children inherited the house next door. They agreed among themselves that none of them wants to keep the old place.

And so it is for sale. And so people like me, accompanied by others who might be interested in buying, can now see what’s inside the walls I walk past every day. And so on Sunday, when the daughter came to town, she showed me:
the patio

A patio paved in amateur concrete, streaked with rust and adobe. There’s a grey paisley wainscot of rising damp along two sides, and greenery is restricted to two neglected flower beds. It could be a lovely little patio. It may once have been, before sheep and cattle trumped hyacinths and hollyhocks.

A baking and roasting room, with two black-mouthed ovens built into the wall: one for bread, and one for roasting meat.  

An indoor well, a tiny room where the water comes in, a luxury in its time.  There’s a new water line and sewer line, too, installed a while back when Moratinos put in municipal systems.  Everything works okay, the lady said. They’re only here on the weekends in summer, and for the fiesta in August. They haven’t done much work on it, because it’s not really theirs.
The bathroom is windowless. Tiles, shiny, floor to ceiling, a pattern repeated over and over. A tiny tub, set up for showers. A pull-the-chain toilet. A derelict washing machine. A naked lightbulb overhead casting 40 Watts of gloom.

Not a lot of electricity. The wiring tacked-up and painted over.  

A kitchen, covered in funky 1960s tiles. No counter space, few cupboards – preparation and storage happen in yet another little room. A big, broad porcelain sink, a little fridge, a gas stove with the aroma of roasting rabbit floating forth -- Sunday dinner.
a beautiful, beautiful barn

Next little room in line, up three steps, the table is set for six. On a sofa pushed against the wall the little grandson naps. Fairies dance on the silent TV screen.  Up two more steps into an empty bedroom, cool and blue. The window looks out onto another patio, green and overgrown.  There’s a closet in this one, the lady says. Inside hangs a mop with a shriveled head.

We follow her down the steps, we turn a corner, and we’re in a sunny entry hall. Dark blue double doors open onto the sun-blasted patio; sunlight bleaches the throw rugs. It is airy there. Hydraulic tiles on the floors, moderno, very chic nowadays in New York and Barcelona. Four little bedrooms, low ceilings, small windows to keep out the cold in winter – they open onto the sunny hallway, onto another dining room, a formal room with a 1930s-era wedding photo on the wall. 

Across the patio and through a gate is another labyrinth, this one for animals.  Here is room for cattle, a mule, foals, chickens, rabbits, pigeons, tractors, wagons, hay and seed-corn.  The stalls look out on a little corral, space for another nice patio, perhaps. The walls are adobe brick, stacked and sagging, with elegant interlace of timbers, sticks, mud and tiles that make up the roofs.

And there’s the rub. This is not a large finca, but a massive amount of it is under roofs. And the roofs, neglected for decades, are failing. The timbers are riven with woodworm, walls and beams are jacked-up and coated with dove droppings. It is dusty and dark and well beyond redemption.

This finca, and thousands of others just like it in hundreds of towns in Castilla y Leon. For hundreds of years they sheltered farmers and carpenters, mule-drivers and wicker-weavers, but now that dark, grubby world is gone.

The family’s moved away, the space is useless, the maintenance and preservation too expensive. No one wants to live out here. No one wants to live in small rooms, heated by straw burning slowly in a tunnel underfoot. No one needs old fincas any more, and so they stand abandoned. They sag and leak until they collapse, and eventually the rain washes them away.

Unless a fool like me happens along.

The Peaceable was much like the house next door when we found it – just a bit smaller and less elaborate. We had to pull down the beams and ceilings, open little rooms into bigger ones, demolish the back barn, plumb and re-wire, put in windows, doors, a kitchen, floors, heating, roofs. It was a tremendous undertaking, expensive and frustrating and probably the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.  It turned out pretty nice in the end.  

It can be done. They are asking 72,000 Euro for the house next door. You can live in a camino village, or come here in summer, or rent it out to other camino dreamers. You can fix it up to whatever standard you like… you could bring your dog, your donkey, there’s lots of room for them. The place even comes with a bodega cave, albeit a broken one. Right next door to ours.   

And we will be here with all kinds of hard-earned advice and references, ready to remind you that Yes, it can be done, and yes, you really are insane to take on a great charming money pit in a tiny pueblo at the back end of the universe.

But this is Moratinos. Where the Big Fun is.  If you can stand the dog racket from the place next door, come and be our neighbour.  

Monday, 14 July 2014

Heretic Laundry

Breathless, Alberto came to the door this afternoon. "Priests," he said. "Seminarians, young, in black soutanes. From Canada. I tried talking with them, but I thought I better come over and get you."
I scooted right over to Bruno's place, and sure enough, there they were. Three Americans and a Canadian, all dressed in black, blank-eyed with exhaustion. English-speakers, no Spanish, none over 20 years old. Their priest and another seminarian were back the path somewhere. They had no working telephone. And could they say a Mass, later on, after the priest showed up? A Mass in Latin? Would that be okay?
I scooped up young Nick and we drove off to Terradillos to find his missing brothers. We stopped at the church, where Modesto was on duty. Modesto bustled up to the car window, anxious to learn about these holy boys. A Mass, a Latin Mass? Dear God, he said -- just the thought of it turned his grey hairs back to black! He still has all his Missals and Breviaries, he said, he did two years in seminary himself, and was altar boy for years and years!
Mass would be at 5:30 p.m. then, young Nick said. Modesto chortled with joy.
And so at 5 we rang the bell. Modesto and Raquel were waiting in fresh clothing, they'd brought water and wine and ironed napery. (I brought some as well. So did Milagros!) Milagros pulled a silver communion kit from a niche in the wall and gave the water-pitcher a good rub. An event!
We lit the candles and waited out on the steps.
Father Daley is well over six feet tall, and the assembled neighbours held their breath as he and three young men strode up the street in their flapping black soutanes. They were tall, young and handsome. They stepped right up and inside, where the priest unloaded a bagful of vestments and altar-ware, all in matching embroidery. They moved the books and candles into new positions, and at 5:30 sharp they sang out the first psalm.
Their Latin was said with flat Midwestern vowels, but the villagers -- the few people not out harvesting wheat -- knew the right responses, or at least the timing. Father Daley said Mass with his back to us. Bells tinkled, boys bowed, knelt slowly and painfully. Over the roar of passing tractors they sang in beautiful Latin, they chanted the Hail Mary and the Our Father and the Glory Be. It was strange, arcane, ancient. It was splendid.
At the end one of the ladies called it "the Mass of our grandmothers."
The men in black went back to Bruno's. Two of them were feeling quite sick, so I brought them some medicine. I took away some dirty laundry to run through our machine. I wondered if I was being silly, giving them this special treatment. I am not one to fawn over clergy, am I?
I asked one of the seminarians which religious order they are from. They are SSPX, he said. Society of Pius the Tenth. It rang a bell with me. Not a bad bell, but something familiar, something harking back to my long-ago incarnation as a religion journalist. Something to do with Vatican II backlash and Swiss bishops and maybe an excommunication or two.
I looked them up.   
Sure enough. Very, very conservative. Broken away from Rome. Efforts made by Pope Benedict to reconcile, but talks broke down when the SSPX man copped an attitude -- or when the Vatican refused to return to The Truth --- depending on whose website I read.
And so I clipped socks onto the clothesline, pondering what I had done. I'd invited outcasts into our Roman Catholic church, and they'd used our altar to celebrate a non-standard Mass. Some received Communion, even. Had we done wrong? The clean soutanes flapping on the laundry line were not good old Catholic vestments, they were reactionary uniforms. Holy shit, I thought -- I'd just down two loads of heretic laundry.
And then I gave myself a good smack upside the head.
I have done tons of laundry for pilgrims, and that is what these guys are: Pilgrims. We serve pilgrims of every size and shape and faith, not just Vatican-approved Catholic pilgrims.
I just finished reading a turgid history of the bloody succession crises that followed when King Henry VIII of England -- a hapless pioneer Protestant -- left his kingdom to Protestant firebrands, Catholic reactionaries, and faithless political manipulators, each in their turn. Everyone said he did his deeds for God and Truth and Our Lord. Religious sectarianism is ugly and small-minded. It ain't Christian.

And today we opened our church in good faith, and faith happened there. The people came to worship when the bell rang, and God was glorified.
It is not up to me to decide whose brand of Catholic is best, or which priest or pilgrim deserves a helping hand and who does not.
Me? I am the biggest heretic, the least Catholic of anybody in Moratinos.
It is up to me to just open the door, light the candles, ring the bell.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Mid-July, Tiny Pueblo

Sometimes, everything just falls my way.
The climb was everything I had hoped, and maybe more. No injuries, just sunshine, cool breezes, and perfect red cherries hanging right out over the pathway. We lived large in the back woods, me and Laurie. It was not a long hike, but it was a tough one, with spectacular views around each bend. It's the kind of hike that stays with you for years.
Back down here on the plains sunflowers bloom in bright rows. Combine harvesters clatter over wheat and rye and oats, cutting and threshing. They leave behind lines of chopped straw for the balers later on. They throw a fine dust of straw high into the air. The breeze catches it. Straw floats in the sky sometimes like a golden cloud. Some afternoons a rain of dust and straw descends on us, on the patio and dogs and hens. It is like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Magical Realism we have to sweep up after.   
I bought a cabbage, a green one big as a child's head. It's probably the best cabbage ever. I have made two magnificent batches of coleslaw with it, and there's still half a cabbage left. Out back, the garden this year chooses to yield many, many bright yellow squash. Tomatoes? Peppers? Courgettes? Beans? No. Not yet. For now it's squash, and onions, and tender, mild garlic. 
I let the hens loose this morning, they leapt into the high grass, snatching little insects in midair, humming and singing their hen music. I ordered two laying hens this morning at the feed store, little black ones, the kind from Zaragoza. What more could you want from life, when you have two new hens coming in the next few days?
But the goods keep coming. Fred phoned to say he'd wangled his way into the little house museum in Cervatos de la Cueza -- a dusty backwater town on the way to Carrion de los Condes. There's a house there once inhabited by the San Martin family, whose sons rose high in the Spanish military and "liberated"  Argentina in the mid-19th century. Eventually the whole family died or immigrated, and the house was left standing on the edge of town, surrounded by a big wall. Someone a few years back realized they had a time capsule on their hands, and voila! An adobe house furnished in the style of a century ago, tiny rooms full of dust and epaulettes, crucifixes and rope beds. Best of all are the lightbulbs -- tiny bright lights like the backside of a firefly. A wiry brown fellow named Delfin keeps the keys. I will try to rustle up a Moratinos field trip over there. Modesto will love that place.
Speaking of wiry brown fellows, our very own Paco did a star turn on Edible Camino, a fine blog, not long ago. He was not named, but he was certainly honored. I will try to get this fabulous intuitive new $$#@ computer to share that with you.
And now that it's July, the church is open each day for the pilgrims. There is no diocesan funding for it this year, so some of us decided to just do it anyway. Modesto is the man in charge. Modesto loves showing pilgrims through the place, taking down their names, telling his tales to fresh ears.
Moratinos continues to change. The finca next door, the finca where Paco grew up and where his sister comes for weekends, is up for sale. It needs a lot of work, but it's got a lot of charm, too -- sorta like our place was when we bought it. Pandora's box.
Maybe someday we will have new neighbors there. I hope they are the good kind. If I win the big lottery this week, maybe I will buy it myself.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Time to Climb

I was kissed for the first time by a boy in July. (His name was Jeff Smith. Up on a roof under a fig tree, in Izmir, Turkey. Just after fourth grade. He said I was groovy.)
July is the month when the ripe grain is cut and straw and hay are baled, when the lush green goes golden brown. July is when fireflies light up the dark orchards -- at least in North America, where I come from. (no fireflies here in Palencia, alas!) July is cookouts and vacations, swimming pools and long, long stretches of sunshine, with thunderheads looming in the western sky. In my book, July is the best month of all twelve. June and May battle it out for second place.
Last July I took a hike up in the mountains, on a trail I knew, but with a gang of mountaineers. I pushed way too hard. I hurt myself pretty badly. I scared myself.
This July, starting from tomorrow, I am taking another hike in the mountains with a mountaineer, on a trail I know already. But this time the mountaineer is Laurie. She is a hiking machine -- she is over 60 years old, a law professor from Illinois, tough as shoe leather. She can go 40 kilometers for days at a time without ill effect, and I am joining her at the finish of her Camino Olvidado -- she's spent the last couple of weeks striding across Spain from Bilbao along a rarely-used Roman Road that pilgrims walked a thousand years ago, back when what became today's camino was occupied by unfriendly Moorish Muslims. The Olividado goes straight through the Picos de Europa mountains, east to west. The Moors didn't bother much with mountains, but the pilgrims back then were plenty happy enough to move their camino a few miles south, down onto the flat, when they got the chance -- and the Camino Frances was born. (And now the pilgrims complain because the flat bits bore them so. Poor things have to take a bus.)
The Olvidado's been a lonesome trek, Laurie says, long and tiring and tiresome. 
I am counting on that. I hope it's slowed her down.  
Laurie and I will meet up tomorrow in Ponferrada, stay at a posh new pilgrim Albergue, and on Monday morning take a leisurely 22-kilometer hike from there on another Roman path uphill, across some forgotten bridges, to a little camino town called El Acebo. We will stay with Jaime, who keeps a nice B&B and a couple of goats up there, and who knows all the trails through all those mountains. It was Jaime, back in 2010, who drew me a map of the backwoods way from Acebo up to Penalba de Santiago, the local mountain-peak Mozarabic pilgrimage shrine. Me and Laurie hope to walk that way on Tuesday, over the river and through the woods and past a huge hollow tree full of honeybees, up into the mountain fastness. We will go slow and easy. We will stay up there in that twee little town, and visit the hermit cave, there I will light the candle I have packed in my pack. 
The next day we will climb back down to Ponferrada via the Valle de Silencio. The Valley of Silence. Then Laurie will continue down the trail to Santiago. I will go back home.

The forecast is clear and cool. Paddy feels pretty healthy. The cupboards are full of chow for everybody.
And I love the mountains, and Penalba. I could use a good walk, and the company of a girlfriend. (One who's promised already not to walk my legs off.)
It is July, after all. The peak of the year, the top of the calendar. Gotta make that hay while the sun is shining.