Saturday, 31 October 2015


Yesterday there were cobblestones underfoot, and renaissance palaces to walk through. Footsore and peckish, we let our fellow tourists line up for Kosher falafel sandwiches outside the Carnavalet museum without us. We wanted a sit-down place. 
The Marais is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and a friendly bearded man in black addressed Paddy.
“Sir, are you Jewish?” he asked, right out of the blue.
“No,” Paddy said, right into the black. (Paddy wears black, too; in Spain he is sometimes mistaken for a Catholic priest. This Jew thing was something new.)
“Have a nice day, then,” the guy said. 
He moved right along to the next white male in black, probably hoping to make someone’s Jewishness bigger and better and more like his own. Evangelism is alive and well in the streets of Paris, apparently… but the grace on offer was available only to the already Chosen.  
We were not Chosen, but we’re privileged. We found a little restaurant right around the next corner, and I rolled the dice on the “plat du jour,” the unlisted Daily Special. It turned out to be a vast enamel pot of moules – fresh mussels steamed in magically delicious broth.
Moules. No, I did not take this picture.
Dessert was a pear poached in Bergerac. The food was sublime, the neighborhood noisy and dirty – I wiped my chin and the napkin came away smeared grey with whatever hangs in the Paris air.
I like visiting cities – not  just because of the food and the missionaries. Mostly because of the great artwork cities store up inside equally great buildings. An old city is like a big grandma, the streets are the dozens of pockets on her apron, and in each one is a fistful of stories and pictures.
Now we are home, back in sunny, silent Moratinos. I am always interested in what I take away from a few days in a great place, especially now that I don’t carry a camera with me. What was valuable enough for me to snap a photo of, with my &&^% “smart” phone?
Here is the one thing:
I took this picture, and yeah, it's out of focus. Nothing is lost, however. 
It’s an Anselm Keifer painting, on show in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nacionale. (Yeah, some go to Paris and see the opera, the Eiffel tower, or the Moulin Rouge.We go to the library.)
The picture is huge and heavy, and top and center is a huge, heavy book made of lead. Books and pictures and stories, all of it much on my mind these days. I am writing a book in November, starting tomorrow. I have emptied out all but the very end of November to do this, so if you do not see a blog post, you will know why.
And if you have read this blog from the start, you will know what, and about whom. 

I am writing this story, all over again, hopefully in a more coherent and meaningful way. 
So I am going off the radar for a little while. 
Don't forget me when I'm gone.  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Happy Golden Days

Paddy and me and Robin

Kim came back for a final couple of days. The sun cooperated, a sun low in the sky, its light strangely yellow here where it's usually so white. We chatted and peeled apples and roasted a chicken, and Bruno came over and had a feast with us, to celebrate Ollie's birthday.

News here is not all good. No progress on the memorial garden. Ollie's hopes for a new hospitalero gig fell through. The eye surgeon told Paddy there's nothing more to be done for him.

But these are happy, golden days. I will carry these with me for the rest of my years. Little pictures to keep in my pocket, to pull out and marvel over: We all are still alive and healthy enough, with dogs and cats to cuddle and plans to hatch and dreams still worth dreaming.

Winter is coming soon. The sky will go dark, Kim will fly away back to Florida, we'll have to settle in to real work. We have to learn to live with handicaps as they press down heavier.

We face the music. We dance.

El Camino de los Galgos, out by Villada

he sees a brown door & he wants to paint it blue

watching the plumber work: an annual pastime

Norman, growing up

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Mountain Climbing

The nights are snappy cold, the trees are bright yellow, the sky is mostly shocking blue.

It makes me want to get out and about, makes me want to drive west and north, probably my last chance to run free before the gray skies and long nights close in and shut me indoors.
Posadas de Valdeon
And so I went, with Fred and a French guitar dealer, up into the mountains of Cantabria and Leon, to mountain fastnesses with great big-sounding names like Puerto de Pandetrave, and Posadas de Valdeon, and Boca de Huergano. Spectacular places, 1300 meters up, bright green and blue and yellow for now, but with an overhanging threat of isolation and snow.  I bought good 2500:1 maps. I can look at those this winter, when the snow’s sealed those places off from us in the the south.

I went with Ollie on Tuesday over to Astorga, in the foothills, and met with city councilmen and other muckety-mucks – they like my idea of a grove of trees to memorialize pilgrims who die on the camino Way. They have an unused swath of parkland right alongside the trail out of town – complete with a chapel, benches, water supply, lighting, trash bins, and a maintenance crew. It’s tailor-made. We only need the mayor to rubber-stamp it, and we can start taking donations to make it happen. 
The park outside Astorga. Not much there. Yet.

Astorga’s got it going on. And Astorga’s got some wounds of its own to heal. American pilgrim Denise Thiem spent her final hours there in April, before a local madman abducted and killed her.
So far, the victim’s family doesn’t want any memorial outpourings. But a tree? A tree among other trees, dedicated to all the pilgrims who’ve died on the Way … we can plant trees, and when they are ready, we can put her name to one.  Meantime, other grieving families and friends can memorialize their loved-ones on the camino path, and passing travelers can be reminded they, too, are only passing through.  Still no word yet from the mayor. If you know the guy, put in a good word. If you know a pilgrim with skills who’d like to help design this, put them in touch!  

Only a couple of days later I was back over west again, this time with our beloved Kim.(That explains the nice new blog header... Kim's got a way with graphics.) We drove up to O Cebreiro to visit another friend – Canadian author and activist Laurie Dennett. Laurie knows about gardens and garden design. Her own garden has a life-size Chartres labyrinth laid out in boxwood, and this year she had a bumper crop of parsnips, too. We sat and visited and consulted and sympathized, then
Kim in the car, this time with Paddy, Ruby, and Harry
loaded up the car with parsnips and the seed pods for Cosmos flowers. Kim and I stopped on the long way home to visit the grave of Don Elias Valina in O Cebreiro, the albergue of Matt Sanchez in Vega de Valcarce, the wineries of Tilenus and Camponaraya in El Bierzo, the Bank of Santander and pizzeria of Ponferrada, the Cave of San Genadio way up top the mountain at Penalba, and finally the pilgrim hostel of Leon. Kim jumped out there, to rejoin the pilgrim path out of town for a few days. She is back now on the camino, considering her next move. 

If you know someone who wants to buy a successful, soulful sea-salt and local honey boutique in Key West, Fla., do send them on.

Back at home, the house is full of pilgrims with no homes or money, pilgrims who want to buy a copy of “The Moorish Whore,” pilgrims who just want to stop and say hello. It’s mid-October, and there are still tons of the blighters passing by.

So you see, it’s busy busy business around here.  Except for when it’s very quiet.

Which it is, still, most of the time. We ARE Peaceable, after all.   

Sunday, 4 October 2015

A Last-Minute Crisis

The lady said her name was Chelo. Her eyes were full of  tears. “Oh no,” I thought – a Spanish drama-queen peregrina with a built-in audience, a couple of companions from home… probably relatives.  
I was partly right. The two other ladies were her sister and cousin. They’d arrived first at San Anton, and they warned me that Chelo was on her way and “in a state.” Chelo’s boots had proved too tight for her feet. She’d borrowed her sister’s sandals to make it to San Anton, but enough was enough.
“If I do not find proper shoes today, my camino is over,” Chelo wept on arrival. “A lady told me there’s a sandal-maker in Castrojeriz. She is my final hope. Please, for the love of Christ, take me there,” she said.
“What a drama queen!” I repeated to myself. But it was the final night of the season at Albergue Monasterio de San Anton, and we only had five pilgrims to care for. What the heck. I had a car parked outside the gate, and Castrojeriz is only 3 kilometers down the road.
Chelo said she’d pay for gas, she’d pray for me for the rest of her life. Whatever, I said. We bundled into the car.
There was no shop on the plaza where the shoemaker was supposed to be. Chelo charged into the little grocery store nearby. The shoemaker is sick, Gloria the shopkeeper said. Closed up last Tuesday and took to her bed.
“You got any shoes here?” Chelo asked.
“Flip-flops,” Gloria told her. “I got all sizes. Some pilgrims walk in them, at least as far as the next shoe store.”
Chelo’s eyebrows met her hairline. Just below, her eyes started to brim again.
“Let me make a call,” Gloria said. “We got a network here.”
“Have faith,” I told Chelo, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We aren’t done tapping our resources yet.”
Gloria hung up the phone.
“Across from the pilgrim hostel, right out there. Ring the bell marked “Paco.” Maybe he can help you,” she said.
And so we went, and so the door swung open on an antique pharmacy, dark-painted Art Deco woodwork and etched glass, long abandoned and dust-covered. Inside was Paco, a guy I’ve met before, a little bearded man who’s lived on the camino for years. He runs the municipal Albergue San Esteban here in Castrojeriz.
“Gloria sent us,” Chelo told him in a trembling voice. “I am a desperate woman. I don’t want to give up my camino.”
“What size shoe do you wear?” Paco said, wiping some interrupted dinner from his chin. He led us past shelves of  albergue supplies of jam, napkins, toilet paper and drain cleaner to the old front window. There were stacked the leavings of hundreds of pilgrims: t-shirts and socks, bicycles and underpants, umbrellas, knee-braces, Bibles, water bottles, and boots. Dozens of boots, and shoes, and sandals, in various stages of cleanliness and decay.
Chelo tried on some high-end Salomon sandals, but her toes, inside ratty yellow socks, hung over the front edge.
“No good,” Paco declared. “Look at these Tevas,” he said, pulling some chunky sandals down off a high shelf. "They’re kinda dirty, but they’ve got some miles left in them.” The Velcro opened with a crunch.    
Chelo bent over and wiggled her feet into the shoes. She stood up and caught her breath and steadied herself against a cellulite-cream display. “Jesus and Mary,” she said softly. “These shoes. These are the shoes I have been waiting for. They are perfect. I walked 300 kilometers to here, just to find these.”
“Great,” Paco said. “Your feet are small. These have been here a while. Glad they’ve found a home at last. Most pilgrims got big old slabs for feet, you know?”

He wouldn’t take Chelo’s money. He ushered us back to the street, and we went to Gloria’s and bought expensive butter and a couple of tomatoes, just by way of thanks.

“I thought Castilians were supposed to be cold and selfish. But I see now that is a filthy lie,” Chelo declared.

“Only some of us are like that. You just fell upon a chain of generosity,” Gloria told her. “It’s your turn now. You gotta be good to someone now, to keep it going.”

And so Chelo pressed ten Euros into my hand. “For the gas to get here. For finding these people,” she whispered, crying yet again, this time for joy.  

Back at San Anton,  in the yellow after-dinner candle-light, Chelo and her relatives sang us La Rianxiera, a Gallego song about the Virgin de Guadelupe. They sang out loud as they washed up the dishes, and they hummed themselves to bed.

Chains of generosity, Ali Baba caves of pilgrim goods, drama queens singing of blessed virgins… it’s been a beautiful season at the pilgrim albergue.  Despite the petty squabbles that come with managing people, I am blessed indeed to be part of this initiative.

We closed San Anton on 1 October.  If you’re interested in volunteering there next year, do get in touch.