Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Fruits



Accidents, stopgaps, decisions made at the last minute three years ago, they all are cropping now, they are budding and flowering and bearing fruit. Literally. 
This is the most wonderful time of the year for anyone mad enough to try growing flowers and food in the ground around them. It´s a ton of hard work and hassle, and the rewards are often not so great, or just nada. Good produce is very cheap here, sometimes it is free. I don´t know why I bother, but I do. This is why. 
 
This year, for some reason, the skinny slices of dirt in the patio out front are booming, blooming with plants I expected to see, well... The same year I planted them. Three years ago, I planted poppy seeds out there, all different colors of California poppies, all over the place. Not a single one showed its head. Duds, I thought. (Meantime, wild poppies grow in great profusion by the acre, in the same kind of dirt, all over the region.) This year, in a big pot out front, a new plant put out lacy leaves and then little bright flags... bright yellow! Poppies! 
Something similar is going on with the nasturtiums, flowers with pretty round leaves and edible flowers. I planted a gang of them last year, with nominal success. This year they zoomed back, and are popping up all over the place in long plumes and tails, fat saucers of bright green, and only a few flowers. They all are orange. 
And the calendulas, too, are yellow and orange, and they are everywhere, front and back, tough as nails. I like these little guys because I got the first handful of seeds while out hiking in the mountains with my bud Kathy. We were in a mountain town called Boca de Huergano, on the Camino Vadiniense. I admired the flowers growing outside a trim little cottage, and the lady there broke off a couple of seed-pods and folded my fingers round them. "If they will grow here, they will grow anywhere," she said. And she is right. Three years later, they threaten to overrun the back yard. Which would be kind of pretty. 
I wonder why, with all the multi-colored things I plant, they all come out orange or yellow. Which works perfectly in the red-tiled patio outside an ochre-colored house.  
The flowerbeds are not just full of flowers. This year there are tomatoes growing in there, and an enormous eggplant (aubergine) covered in patent-leather fruits and purple velvet flowers. These were leftover seedlings, the ones that didn´t fit in the raised beds out back. They do a damn sight better out front, even with dogs walking and whizzing on them. Some visiting stoner disposed of a roach in the potted Pony Tail palm, and now there´s a marijuana tree in there that is taller than me. I did not plant it, I swear. There´s a grapevine out there, too. I never planted that, either, but it´s grown right up the trellis and is now heading west, over the wall. No sign of grapes, but what would I do with more fruit? 
Out back the fig tree is loaded down, the apple tree this year has clusters of fat green fruit. Edu and Milagros, Pilar and Modesto all have given us buckets and baskets full of plums, damsons, cherries, cucumbers, chard, and courgettes (zuchinni). Three stalks of sweetcorn grew this year, and we ate the first cobs last week, raw. The tomato plants are in overdrive -- we are consuming gazpacho by the bucket (I asked Milagros for a single cucumber for a gazpacho, and I came away with three cukes and two courgettes). Tomorrow I make salsa. And plum tart. And a red-pepper quiche. 
It is delicious and gorgeous and good for us, and there´s enough left
 over to share. 
Abundance, sweet providence. The fruits and vegetables of our labor.         

Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Scheme is Hatched!

I give up one thing that doesn´t fit any more (like training hospitaleros) and another, bigger, more interesting thing zooms right in to take its place.

I came to terms with the Depression. I agreed to sit still while the darkness lasted, because maybe there is something down here for me to learn. Sitting still is against all my upbringing. It is un-American. When anything is less-than excellent, you get up and do something – anything! -- to make it better. Even when doing something is really not the best idea.

So it is hard for me, just sitting here.
But sitting here, after a while, I start to see the big picture. The writing on the wall stops being part of the décor and starts demanding translation.

With fewer and fewer pilgrims stopping here, I don´t need to focus on accommodating them. I have lost a lot of interest in things Santiago. I have answered the same questions 100 times, and I´ve barked up the same trees at least as often to fix the things that don´t work so well. And I realize maybe the Camino does not need any fixing. It is exactly what it is. Pilgrims come and go, like they´ve done for a thousand years. We´ll continue giving them a bed and a meal if they need it. But what I achieve, or don´t achieve, camino-wise, means little or nothing.

So I decided to stop training people to be volunteer hospitaleros. I sent in a resignation to the Canadian Confraternity and the Spanish federation a week ago, and posted the news on www.caminodesantiago.me, the forum where I am most present, camino-wise. Nary a ripple was seen on the stream.

And a day later, up from Moratinos jumped another fish to fry. It´s fiesta week, and the town is heaving with friends and relations, come home to see granny and the cousins in the old pueblo. Everyone is happy to see the new chestnut trees and flowers blooming in the plaza, the cleaned-up streets, the fincas now for sale. Both church bells rang for the Santo Tomas procession, a jolly racket that echoed for miles across the fields and made all the dogs howl out loud.


video
procession of Sto. Tomas Apostol

And so we struck. A little group of us year-round residents rounded-up the visitors and founded a new Cultural Association, aimed at preserving Moratinos´ memories, informing outsiders of our little hidden treasures, and maybe shoring up our crumbling cultural patrimony, which is made of adobe.  

Response was overwhelming. No fewer than 55 people put their names down, along with a 10-Euro note to get things started. Men and women, young and old, all of them with some tie to this town, people determined – even though only 20 of us actually live here all the time --  to not let Moratinos die.  

I was made president. No one asked me. I was told.
I think it is because everyone can talk to me. My uncle didn´t offend their cousin back in 1985, so I am OK. I am a goober, clueless to a lot of historical inter-familial bullshit – when that comes up, I pretend to not understand. I work hard to keep a civil relationship with everyone here.
 
Costume contest: the Asturian chickens
This, I think, offers an opportunity to heal old wounds.

Only one family told me No, this can´t work, that people need to go home and mind their own business. They´ve been hurt in the past. I think they are just taking a “wait and see” stance. Once they see how things progress, they may jump on board, too. Because I feel pretty positive about this. And when I set out to make something happen, it usually works.  

I don´t have to handle money. There´s a treasurer for that. No need to take notes, because we have a secretary, too. Total transparency will be written into the bylaws. I might have to mount a FaceBook page, and update it with photos and copy – I can find someone to help me translate. Maybe this will improve my Spanish. Maybe someone will step up and make a web page. There is a lot of talent here.
Talent is cheap. Follow-through is what will make it really happen, once the initial enthusiasm goes. I am as hard-headed as a Castilian. I can make this stick. I just hope I do not step on too many peoples´ toes on the way.  
 
this year´s winner: a Pirate Ship!
We are starting out small. Tomorrow we will deposit all those ten-Euro bills in a new bank account. We will file papers to make ourselves an official Asociacion Cultural in Palencia province.  (You can join, too, and donate as much money as you like!)
We will clarify our goals. We will settle on what to call ourselves. And then start doing.

I have ideas, simple things we can execute with or without help from ministries or government groups. A sad fact is, many people here wait around for the government to improve things.  They don´t step up til they have a grant in hand, and grants don´t happen so much any more. But we can build a signpost, an information station to tell visitors what those caves are in the hillside, (bodegas), what those round buildings are in the fields (dovecotes). We can organize ourselves enough to open the church, open our bodegas, to show our children and our visitors that this is a rare sight, a disappearing resource, a  rustic little gem to be treasured.        

Small things, simple things. If we can make that work, we can tackle larger projects. Make the collapsed bodegas safe. Fix the uneven pavement in the plaza. Rationalize the reams of mouldering historical documents into a small archive. Label old photos. Collect old recipes and craftwork and stories from the elderly, while they are still here.Things people say are impossible, or too much, or beyond the reach of a small town and little people.


We are not many, but we have a big reach. We are scattered all over Spain, and most of us have some skill or another to offer. We love Moratinos. And we are only as small as our expectations. 

And here in the dark is something I believe in, something new worth working on.  

Friday, 8 August 2014

Madmen, Piglets, and Sun-stroke: Three Days of Big Fun


It was only three days, supposed to be five. I only made it partway, and I should've stopped after the first day, but I kept on going. I thought it would get better, that I would get better.
I didn't. I got worse. It got bad, very quickly.
It was a really self-serving hike anyway. The day of the last blog post, the day we saw through the neighbors' house, was the day Momo Cat was last seen. Time went on, he didn't come back. Pad and I both started looking glumly at one another, started giving up hope. So I did a Spanish thing. I made a promesa to Santiago. Momo comes back okay, I will go to Valladolid on the train, and walk home, as a thanksgiving. I said it out loud, in front of witnesses (Paddy and the outside dogs). And once the neighbors came back for the weekend, Momo reappeared, shouting loud outside the back door, not a scratch on him. We think he somehow got inside their house while it was open, and was locked in all week when they left. Thank God they're coming back on weekends these days!
Thank God indeed.
You'd better start walking, Paddy said.
And on Monday, full of expectation, I took the 11.05 train to Valladolid with my backpack good to go for a short hike across the meseta on the Camino de Madrid.
In August.  
I've been wanting to walk the Madrid for a long time. I was willing to do just the top bit, from Valladolid, just for a taste -- it is hard leaving Peaceable for longer than a few days, seeing as Paddy can't drive the car.
I should've taken the 7:30 a.m. train. Should have got an earlier start. In Valladolid I knew which bus to take up to Simancas, where the Camino Madrid passes through. I knew which bus, but I could not find a bus stop for it. I wandered the city for an hour and a half, from bus stop to bus stop, like an idiot. No one knew. I finally took a taxi. By the time I hit the trail it was 1 p.m. The sun by then was cranked up to 10. 
Only seven kilometers to Ciguenela, an easy two hours.
In August, only mad dogs and Englishmen do that. And mountain-bike riders. Everyone with an ounce of sense stays in the shade with a cold drink.
I walked long and hard, I was thankful for each little breeze that blew up the lonesome country road. Roads out there are Kansas-quality dirt, mostly straight, angled around property lines. Towns hide behind hills, you can see the church tower for hours before you get close. If you've walked the big Camino Frances, you'll remember that long strip after Carrion de los Condes. This is something like that, but it goes on for days.
I fell into my long-distance stride. Heat shimmered up off miles of stubble.
About four kilometers in, I saw two figures on the road ahead, moving toward me. Bicycles. Two men, sweaty, weaving and laughing. Maybe heading home after a long, loaded lunch, I thought. As they came closer I realized they were not drunk. They were mad.
Their handlebars waggled because their bodies shuddered. Their faces were like clown masks, they greeted me with wild hilarity and a wave that almost took one of them over. I played it cool, smiled and waved back as they passed by -- I didn't want to give them a reason to stop.
They rolled past, up the hill I'd just come down, very slowly, out of sight.
I walked on. I heard my pulse rushing in my ears. I felt light-headed. Soon as I stopped walking, a headache started. And a cold. I met the only other walking pilgrim on the Camino Madrid, in the lovely albergue of Cigunuela. He was very happy to see me.
He had not seen two crazy guys on bikes, he said. I wondered if they were real.
His name was Luis, from Aranjuez. He was dark and slender, a runner. He worked in an auto-parts factory outside Madrid. I could not keep awake to chat. Later on, through a haze, I saw him soaking his feet, then putting himself to bed. He was beautiful.
In the middle of the night he woke me up. I was crying in my sleep, he said. He gave me some water.
I was sweating hard, but I felt cold. My head pounded. Only a couple of hours of sun had done that.
Luis was gone when I got up in the morning. He'd been doing 40 kilometer days, but his lightweight trainer shoes were shredding his feet.
The early-morning walk was superb. I said all my prayers. I saw rabbits and hares, sheep and shepherds and sheepdogs, a weasel, a kestrel, and a hoopoe. My nose ran, I snorted and coughed and hacked. I was glad to be alone. I still felt light-headed. I drank lots of water, wore sunscreen and a hat, I walked in the shade at every opportunity.
I saw Luis again in Penaflor de Hornija. He was slowing down. He'd see me in Castromonte, he said. I had trouble forming Spanish sentences. I drank two quick claras. (half draft beer, half 7-Up). I left Hornija just after 11, and the thermometer read 30 degrees. I went slow. A beautiful, medieval sunken lane, all dappled and dark, opened onto miles of endless wide-open blast furnace. An Allman Brothers song played an endless loop in my head.
Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy on me.
Miles on I could see a line of scrubby oak trees. As I drew closer I saw some enterprising person had set up a piggery among them, and dozens of fine black swine browsed behind makeshift fences. Acorns. Black pigs. These were Spain's famous Bellota hams on the hoof. They were friendly, they nosed up to the fence to say hello. And in the next pen were mother pigs, and a vast number of wiggly, wormy black piglets. They squealed and swarmed and ran, ran, ran, full of energy and joy. The moms were pretty active, too, at least the ones not fenced inside numbered concrete bunkers.
Luis was there, snapping photos, grinning. It was impossible not to smile. We walked on, and on the right heard something crashing in the bushes next to the trail. Out burst a line of leaping piggies, escapees, playing chase through the woods. They saw us, screamed, and split up, some running up the trail ahead, others diving into the bushes. They kept us company for a half-mile more, the most joyous pigs I ever met. Maybe that's why the jamon is so tasty -- their lives may be short, but they have them some fun!
Me and Luis straggled into Castromonte in the heat of the day. It is a gorgeous albergue. We did not see much of it. We slept. We walked into town and banged on the butcher's door til he opened up and sold us some food. We saw inside the church, with its images of 25 saints -- they take them all out for a parade every year, the Saturday before Pentecost. Beautiful adobe houses, leaning every which way, plaques marking birthplaces of forgotten fascists.
We ate simply -- pan-fried pork loin and cheese on bread. Olives. Plums from the tree outside. The scrap-end of a chocolate bar.
Luis made me a "isotonic cocktail" with energy drink and powdered minerals. I repaired his blistered feet as well as I could, with the minimal first-aid supplies I had. Tomorrow, Medina de Rioseco, I told him. There's a health center there. They can give you a proper bandage job.
There's a bus station there, too, he said. I can pick up there next year, walk on.
He'd made a promesa, he said. His mom, last year, a cancer scare. She's fine now. And so now he has a promise to keep, even if it takes him three years of holiday time to get to Santiago.  (I did not tell him about my promesa.)
We both were asleep before the sun went down. A man painted a wall outside. The roller went shush-shush-shush.
I said goodbye to Luis in the morning. I did not see him again.
It was another beautiful morning.
I do not remember it very well, but I liked it at the time.
At Medina de Rioseco I toured the churches of Santiago and Santa Maria -- the equal of any tourist attraction in Spain, and pretty much unknown outside this region. I had a horchata (an Arabic almond milkshake, cold and wonderful) at a bakery/bar run by a jolly family, but I couldn't taste anything. I enjoyed that beautiful little Castilian town -- it is known territory, a place I have always liked. But I do not remember it clearly.
I stayed at a hotel. I took a bath with salt, I drank a lot of Luis's isotonic cocktails.
I came home the next morning on the earliest bus. I thought I might try walking if I felt better, but I had the shakes in the night.
Defeated by the sun, smitten, I am taking my time getting back my energy.
Paddy is being kind and patient. We've had few pilgrims, and none since my return, and that's probably good. I am not fit company.
Momo cat slinks about, utterly ungrateful. I didn't exactly fulfill my promise, but he is only a cat.
Do not let me walk in August any more.