Sunday, 22 February 2015


The Month of the Pilgrim continues. It is extraordinary. It is exhausting.
Every night this month but one we've had at least two people, sometimes the full-capacity six or even seven, but almost always somebody.  They walk 31 kilometers to get here. It's another nine kilometers to the next stopping-place. We cannot in good conscience leave people to sleep outdoors.
We chose to live here because there's a relatively steady stream of pilgrims flowing past. We like the pilgrims, we've been pilgrims ourselves -- they keep life interesting in a town that would otherwise be stiflingly isolated and insular.
We've been at this for nine years. We have never, in all that time, had such a steady flow of pilgrims stay with us, day after day after day.
They are nice people, sometimes funny, always cooperative. I've had only one ask for a hair dryer, and I've only had to tell one person "This is my home, it is not a hotel."
They clean up after themselves (mostly), they often phone ahead to tell us they're coming. Some of them are really interesting characters -- we've had a Dane who runs a Ribero del Duero winery, and a Swiss woman who rehabilitates injured wild animals up in the Alps, and the editor of the Korean Airlines in-flight magazine.
A Korean man left a message on our shopping-list blackboard: "I love here," it says.
On Ash Wednesday there was no Mass in Moratinos, so we had a rite of our own. We anointed one another, told one another "from ashes you come, and to ashes you shall return." Even the unbeliever, the "rationalist." He's the one who put the cross on my forehead. He's the one who, the following morning, on his way out the door, assured me that yes, he will pray for me out there on the road. "Yes, I can do that," he said.
It's moments like that that keep me going.
Because keeping going is getting tough now, three weeks into this extraordinary February onslaught.
I like the pilgrims, but I very much miss the quiet, the long evenings of no one but us. Simple dinners, or no dinners at all -- a sandwich, some fruit. A good book, or a writing or editing project. Able to go out for the evening, able to make evening plans. Long stretches of my own company.
I am spoiled rotten this way, or I was, up til Bruno left.
Two weeks is the standard limit for volunteer hospitaleros. After that, they go all squirrelly. Two weeks is more than enough for a lot of volunteers. Most don't come back again.
I think of Bruno and Lourdes and Jato and Tomas the Last Templar and Edu in Boadilla, people who do this all the time, every day, for years. People who have to do this to earn enough money to pay their bills. People who do this because they just love pilgrims. And I see why Bruno takes two months off every year, and why Lourdes only opens her doors in wintertime, and why Jato and Tomas and Edu have gangs of people helping them out. And I remember some of the "sensei" hospitaleros of years past -- Anna of Ages, who helped us get settled in here. The couple who ran the albergue in Eunate for years, and Cirauqui before that. The couple who opened the albergue in Villares del Orbigo, or the Brazilian guy who ran the place in Vega de Valcarce...
They are gone now. Sold-up, moved on, retired. There's a lifespan for full-time hospitaleros, and it does not seem to be a long one. There's now enough pilgrim albergues on the market to support at least one specialist estate agent.
Paddy is unhappy. He still turns out beautiful omelettes and couscous and stodge every day, and I heard him laughing out loud this afternoon with three semi-hysterical Korean ladies... but he glowers at me from behind his computer, even as the merry pilgrims chatter and laugh all around him.
There's hope. February is almost over. And last year, the albergue in Terradillos opened up again in March.
Please, God. I am happy to be a hospitalera now and then, but I am a hermit in my heart. I am not cut out for full-on sainthood. Not even for the shortest month of the year.  

In other news, I do not have breast cancer.
I got the test results. They did not get a clean biopsy sample, even after sinking the needle three times. But none of the tissue they did get showed any sign of malignancy. Something is still in there, but so far it's okay. I am okay. I just have to keep going back every six months to be sure.
Glory be. And thanks to everyone who supported me in this little adventure, with good thoughts, prayers, and words of encouragement.
I love you guys.
Please pray for us, whether or not you believe anyone is listening.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Que Tranquilo!

Rosalia de Castro, resting between mouse-slayings
Spaniards are always astounded to learn we live in rural Palencia year-round. "Que tranquilo!" they exclaim... "How quiet!" And between the lines they mean "Que aburrido!" How boring!

But it suits us right down to the ground, at least the way we play it. There's plenty here to occupy our minds.

We bought a big box of everything Chopin ever wrote, played by tip-top musicians. We got the stereo to play out of four speakers instead of just two, and put one speaker out on the patio, so the whole Peaceable can be All Polonaise, All the Time. Superb!
Two weeks ago, I had a large-needle mammary biopsy of a half-a-lentil-size something in my right breast, without any anesthesia. Yow! Anything but boring, that.
While in Paris, while consuming a sea-salt caramel, a 30-year-old filling came loose from an even-more-venerable tooth. (Lots of other stuff happened there, but that would be a digression.) I had the filling repaired in Sahagun, also without anesthesia. It appears that news of my September over-reaction to dental anesthesia has made the rounds of the Spanish healthcare system. So now, minor surgical interventions are a practice in Being Present With Pain. Zen discipline is my new way of life, whether I like it or not!
So far, I find authentic pain not much worse than the eeeugh of being shot-up with local anesthesia. And none of it compares to the horror of being strapped into the Magnetic Resonance Imaging device. So go ahead, doc, poke me with needles! Anything but that clattering bondage chamber!

...But I shall not be one of those old ladies nattering on about her latest "procedure."
Suffice to say I will, hopefully, learn on Monday whether or not I have breast cancer.

And that is my excuse for not writing a whole lot these days.

That, and it's winter, and I am depressed. And I have a great big toothsome editing project to work on, and a speech to give (in English) at the university in Palencia, and a radio interview after that (in Spanish.)

And we're putting out to bid a big renovation on the little kitchen/despensa/bathroom by the front gate, to make it its own nice little weatherproof solar-powered apartment. The dollar is strong. The time is right. We might need someone to come here sometime and help us out, and they will want their own space. I thought long and hard about buying one of the two fincas for sale here in town, but decided we might as well make the most of what we have already. I cannot save the whole adobe world on my own. At least not until I hit the lottery.

Since Bruno left we have lots and lots of pilgrims, relatively speaking. Most of them are South Koreans, and some of them speak a few words of a language we can handle. They are decent company, they keep the days rolling along, they keep things interesting. Kindly people from far away send us donations to help pay their way, because most of these pilgrims leave only a fiver in the box. It all comes up even in the end, I think.
I try not to think too too much. It is almost tax time, when I have to tally up all the numbers and tell all to two countries, in two languages.
But money is almost as boring as medical procedures.

Like I said, I went to Paris for a quick visit. I ate oysters, and had my spirits lifted. I went last week to Santiago de Compostela, for a "more of the same" hospitalero get-together and some Quality Time with my buds John and Stephen... and Laurie, up on the mountain on the way home in O Cebreiro. Spirits again lifted. It is good to get out, to see how others like me are coping with the grey skies and manuscripts and daily demands.

Plans are moving forward. Schemes are being schemed. Soon I will reveal details of a cool new FICS hospitalero opportunity which I hope will not consume me until I get the latest book edited. Paddy is headed down to Malaga, to visit family and soak up some rays and escape the pilgrim onslaught for a few days. Nothing at all is happening with the Asociacion Cultural, but I can't afford to worry about that just now.

People ask me how I can stand the silence and boredom of this isolated, underpopulated place. And sometimes I say the winter sky here is startlingly clear when the wind blow
s, especially at night. At night I go out and look up at Venus and Mars and the rings of Saturn and the belt of Orion, and I know how small I am, here on our little ball two rocks from the sun.

I know none of us means much at all.
And I will be all right.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Shelter for the Hardcore

Bruno’s burned-out, gone back to Italy until April. He left us with a big pan of tiramisu and a set of keys to his albergue. And every pilgrim who comes down the pike.
Winter’s usually pretty dead on the Camino de Santiago. We don’t mind being the only place open to pilgrims in 20 kilometers, because almost no one walks this part of the path this time of year. In February and early March, if you’re walking westward, the wind tends to blow freezing rain right into your face. Even in June, the tourist-pilgrims complain and skip past this bit because “there’s nothing to look at out here.” There’s even less to look at in February.When you can see past the ice on your eyelashes.
I exaggerate. Only every other day is that bad. We see plenty of blue sky, too. But you don’t see a lot of sky when you’re watching for ice underfoot. It’s winter on the prairie. Most people have good sense enough to stay home by the fire.
Except pilgrims. This winter there are still tons of the buggers out there. Most of the restaurants and pilgrim shelters are closed for the season. The ones that are open are often unheated. That means the walk between stops is much longer than in summer, even as the daylight hours are shorter. There are very few fellow pilgrims to keep you company. Winter pilgrims are a serious lot, a tough breed. They used to be few and far between. 
But that's changing. In January, 1,217 people were awarded “Compostela” certificates at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a new record for the month. Today, eleven pilgrims got theirs. Eleven. We used to get that many pilgrims in a winter month!
We get pilgrims every day now. Partly because we’re the only open place between Calzadilla de la Cueza and Sahagun. Partly because the winter pilgrimage is getting better organized. Lourdes Lluch, a hero of the modern-day camino, is responsible.
Lourdes is the Ur-Hospitalera, the pioneer. She opened the first pilgrim albergue on the modern Camino Frances, in Hornillos del Camino, back in 1983. She helped to organize the Federation of Amigos del Camino de Santiago, a national non-profit group dedicated to the pilgrimage. She helped create a hospitality network based on donations and voluntary service -- all in the most humble, quiet way. On a camino bristling with experts, "coaches," academics, and documentary filmmakers, almost nobody knows how important she is. 
Lourdes is still around. In Fromista for the past few years, Lourdes and her husband open their apartment in wintertime, when all of Fromista’s for-profit albergues close down. Following the same path Lourdes laid down 30 years ago, they give the pilgrims food and a bed, and ask only for a donation in return. They do it because it’s the right thing to do, because they believe in the pilgrimage. They almost break even.
This year, Lourdes decided to put her camino contacts to work. Starting in December, she made up a list of every open albergue on the Camino Frances – with telephone numbers and email addresses. She updates it frequently, as places open and close almost at random in winter. We’re on the list.
We get a lot more telephone calls lately, people making sure we are for real. We see fewer pilgrims sleeping rough on church porches. We get more pilgrims in here, sometimes too many. We’re eating more lentils and beans and spaghetti. Cheap carbs, easily multiplied. “Pilgrim stodge.”  
We’re meeting some cool people, hearing some hair-raising tales of derring-do, and testimonies, too, of faith found and kindness shared. Everyone’s too tired to cause trouble. Nobody has much money. Many of them walk alone, but everyone’s pretty much met everyone else who’s walking out there. The care for one another. 
After they settle in and shower the pilgrims text each other, to learn where everyone ended up. They text with translation software, because many of them have no common language. They cannot talk to one another on the phone, but they want to be sure that Soo-Rin or Lindsey or Manuel’s found a place to spend the night.
They are tough and quiet and decent, winter pilgrims. They don’t ask for blow dryers, or the best room. They eat all their stodge, and wait til everyone’s done before they ask for seconds. They do the washing-up. Sometimes they talk, sometimes for hours, sometimes in languages I barely understand.

I used to feel bad about not being needed anymore by pilgrims, now that Moratinos has other accommodation options. But now I look at Lourdes, and I see she’s got it figured out. She is a hospitalera to her bones, but she’s found a way to do her service in winter, when the weather weeds-out the party animals and the lightweights, the drama queens and spiritual consumers. 

Winter pilgrims are the real deal. I’m glad Lourdes sends them our way. 
Bruno leaves the best for us.