Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Long Tale of a Lucky Dog

She´s lucky I didn´t kill her myself, back when we first met.
A year or so ago, on a dark, snowy afternoon in the mountain village of O Cebreiro, I drove my car very slowly up the single cobbled street. I peered through the sleet, hoping for a decent parking spot. I hit the curve at the top with just enough momentum to avoid touching the gas. And there it was, sprawled out lengthwise on the snow-covered street -- a huge black hound dog.
I touched the brake and slid, just a little. I stopped in time. The dog didn´t move. It was dead, some idiot had already run it over and left its body there, I thought. Poor, unlucky beast. I pulled over to the side, turned on the emergency lights, got out of the car.
The dog rolled slowly over and got to its feet. It ambled over to me, wagging its shaggy tail. It was a filthy, yellow-eyed brute, a shaggy rag of a hound dog, lying in the street like all good Spanish dogs do. At least until some local hot-rod puts a permanent end to their restful lives.
I happened to have dog treats in my coat pocket. I gave them to the dog. He wolfed them down and ambled away. He´s not starving, I told myself. He´ll be alright.
I got on with my errands, got on with my life. I didn´t know that dirty old dog wasn´t done with me.
St. James works closely with St. Francis sometimes, where I am concerned.
My friend Laurie is Canadian, but she´s been part of the O Cebreiro community for decades. She noticed when the big black dog appeared along the edges of the town a year or so ago, scrounging for scraps, sniffing around the dumpsters, sidling up to pilgrims. Near enough to be obvious, but not close enough to touch. It was a female dog. People threw bits of bocadillo to her. The restaurant cooks left bones and trimmings by the back door, which vanished overnight.
Everyone agreed the dog must´ve been dumped by a hunter, or escaped from a local shepherd. No one came looking for her. Nobody wanted a big black dog. The dog was so shy, she didn´t seem to want to be anyone´s pet. She survived the first winter by holing up alongside a horreo on the edge of town, out of the wind.
She made friends with Carlos, a portly pet dog who lived with the Esperanzas, two ladies named "Hope," at a local bed and breakfast inn. The two dogs spent last summer working the tourist crowds, cadging treats from the delivery vans down along the LU-633, taking long naps in doorways, garages, and sometimes in the middle of the street.
Cinders in O Cebreiro, Summer 2017 (Rachel Thompson photo)
Around July, the black dog produced a litter of puppies. They tumbled around the streets for a little while, then suddenly vanished. No one can say where. No one much cared. No one wanted a puppy.
No one wanted a big black female dog.
Time went by. The tourist crowds thinned out. The days grew short.
Laurie named the hound dog Cinderella. The Esperanzas let the dog sleep in their garage, but they didn´t want to adopt her. They spend their winters in a little apartment in Lugo, they already had one too-big dog. Laurie spends large swaths of time in England and Canada, so she couldn´t take her on, either. Cinderella was facing another long, hungry winter on the mountaintop.
So Laurie called me.
I was due to visit O Cebreiro in November, so Laurie and the Esperanzas fixed things up.
I arrived with the rear hatch of the car all done-up for a scared dog, but I needn´t have worried... the Esperanzas had lured her into the entryway of their elegant stone house, and drugged her into oblivion. We four ladies dragged and lifted the dog into the back of the car.
The Esperanzas wept. Laurie grinned her great grin. And so Cinderella left her mountain home.
I won´t tell you what happened when I stopped at a service station halfway home to let the dog relieve herself. She did just that, but getting back up into the car was too much for her. She dropped to the ground and lay there, supine. I thought it was the drug.

doing the Ghandi drop, November 2017
That turned out to be her default response to any stressful situation: Drop down and lay flat.
This is a huge dog, 35 kilos, 77 pounds. A smart dog. Wily. Unmoveable.
She did that when a Ditch Pig accidently let her out the front gate, and I caught her by the collar.
She did that whenever Ruby and Harry Dogs came to sniff her over and check her out.
She did that on our walks, when we were turning left and she wanted to keep going straight.
Slowly, eventually, she warmed up. We took away her collar and put a harness on her, and she stayed on her feet. She began nosing up to us when we petted the other dogs, asking for her share of love.
Finally, out in the Promised Land one morning, I let her off the lead when the other two ran free. She ran after them, in a big wide-stride lollop.
And when they came back, Judy Dog came, too.
The veterinarian said she´s young and healthy. He gave her rabies shots and worming tablets and a microchip with my name on it. We called her Judy, because she seemed to like it.
I booked her into another vet who does spay-neuter operations on dogs -- not an overly common procedure in Spain. We waited until after Christmas, til after the vet got over a cold.
Late yesterday morning I took Judy into Sahagun for the operation.   
In the afternoon the veterinarian phoned just after lunch, her voice anxious. She´d opened up the dog, she said, and found a terrible surprise. Judy had an acute pyometra. Her uterus and ovaries were a massive infection. The operation was going to take a lot longer, and be a good bit riskier, and cost a lot more money, she said -- or I could opt to just euthanize her, there and then. Without the full operation she would not survive more than a day or two.
I told her to go ahead with the surgery.
Five hours later I took Ollie and David to help collect her. The vet was exhausted, Judy was drugged-out. In the sink of the dispensary was Judy´s uterus. The normally pencil-size organ was a great, 3.5 kilo loaf of eeugh. (The vets here always show you the spare parts.) 
"This is the luckiest dog I´ve ever met, and I´ve met plenty," the vet enthused. "I can´t believe she could be walking around with this inside her, and not have at least a fever. I can´t believe she could stand up, even, and there she was this morning, prancing in here with her tail wagging. I can´t believe she´s here for something routine, something scheduled, and wow. And a couple more days and she´d have been dead, and you´d probably never have known she was sick. Exceptional. Extraordinary. Lucky." 
"It´s St. James," Ollie said.
"St. Francis, maybe," David said.
"Lucky dog," the vet said. 
A survivor. A black dog made of old car tires, rubber bands, shoe leather. Tough as nails. Lucky as hell.
I might start calling her that. Lucky.
Lucky Dog.
Post-surgery, wearing my nightgown 


Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Great Expectations

My mind shouts: Gotta write something! Gotta get that Peaceable Projects website out there, gotta fill in all the gaps in the design while the website-builder is here!  
But it was Christmas day, and Daft Punk was playing on the radio, and the sun came out for a while, and the early-arrival pilg was shaking his booty around the kitchen as the turkey came out of the oven. So I danced a little, too. ´Cause I´m happy. (And nobody laughs too hard at a person wielding a carving knife.)
I had a load of things to do. Not only feeding three friends, two neighbors, a husband, and four pilgrims a full-on holiday feast, but opening up the church for the 1 p.m. Mass, ringing the bells at 12.30 and lighting all the stoves and candles. After that, back at home, vermouth and cava, nuts and boqueron fillets, jazz from French public radio. Clear out the aperitivos, wash the forks, and bring on the turkey, stuffing, beans, carrots, apple pie and English Christmas pudding, whipped out of the microwave at the last minute by another helpful elf.
And a second round of the same stuff when the last three pilgrims straggled in, accompanied by
David on the guitar, singing hits from Prince, the Drifters, Beatles, Bing Crosby, Oasis. I thought about that website copy, thought about how this website is past due, how people are looking for it and not finding it, felt my old aversion to busted deadlines…
So I finally sat down to write this thing, but only after everyone finished singing and dancing and clowning around. Because keeping company with wonderful people is more important than just about anything. And because I was a little afraid.    
Once I write this, and it´s plugged-in to the design and sent out onto the Interwebz, Peaceable Projects Inc. is Really Real, and I am Responsible.  
This is scary. I don´t know anything about maintaining websites, or running a non-profit organization, keeping track of all this paperwork... I am not sure I do enough to keep a website interesting and fresh. Most of what´s done here, day to day, is dull as Ditch-Pigging.  
But I´m throwing myself in.
It´s time to step out into this. Peaceable isn´t just a house along the Camino de Santiago any more. It´s grown into the home-base for several projects, almost all of them aimed squarely at the Camino de Santiago and the pilgrims who walk there. It´s developed a base of supporters, fans, and followers, people who are shockingly generous and surprisingly interested in every kind of local development.   
I´m finding more needs and knotty problems among the non-profit Camino community, and I am getting good at matching them up with solutions, often from faraway lands.
We´ve developed a memorial grove, to remember pilgrims who die along the Way. We´re helping to fund an archaeological dig where a medieval pilgrim shelter once stood. I am  bringing sustainable architectural design to re-invent a shelter at a rustic albergue within a ruined monastery. Cool stuff!
And day by day, Peaceable Kingdom in Moratinos remains open to pilgrims, travellers, hobos and CEOs, the people of the Way. 
It´s about time we got organized. Within the next day or two, HONEST, we´re launching this rocket of a website, a place where you´ll easily see what all we´re doing, and how we hope to achieve it all. And if you like, join in the fun. Right this minute, send me your email address (at rebrites (at)  and we´ll add you to our subscribers list – you´ll be the first to know if-when things happen!

It´s dark out there. We´re working hard to keep a light burning on the Holy Way. Come join the fun! 

Monday, 11 December 2017

An Embarrassment of Pilgrims

jolly winter pilgrims
There didn´t used to be any pilgrims on the road in December or January or February. Only the hardiest souls venture out onto the Meseta when the wind picks up and the temperature drops.

Hostels and albergues can´t make money out of pilgrims in winter. It costs a fortune to heat up a dormitory for just four or five people… people with a well-earned reputation for not spending money.
At the end of October, most people who run albergues close the doors and head out of town for a well-earned vacation. They return just in time to clear out the drains and slap on a coat of paint before Holy Week brings in the big crowds again.

Very few pilgrim albergues remain open through the winter, and many of those close their doors at random moments. Winter pilgrims were often left, literally, out in the cold with no place to go.

Lourdes Lluch, the original donativo hospitalera of this incarnation of the Camino de Santiago, a couple of years ago had a brain-wave. She started Acogida deInvierno, a website that lists every pilgrim albergue on the Camino Frances that stays open from November through February. It is updated daily, so pilgrims can check their smartphone or computer to see how far they´ll have to go to find a bed and a meal.

Peaceable is on that list. We have three beds on a given day: two singles and a double. We can push that up by three, but that requires people sleep at floor-level, or bunk in a room without heat… so we top out at six. Now that Bodega-Restaurante El Castillo de Moratinos is closed for winter, we get to feed and water them, too. 

Pilgrims love the Peaceable. This is a home, not a bunkhouse. The place is relatively warm, there´s a clothesline, cats to pet, wifi, decent food. And we´re donativo. We let them choose what to pay. Which means they can get it all for free if they´re shameless freeloaders… or judging by the latest donations in the box, they get it all for whatever change is rattling in their pockets. Since December began, I´ve made change for two people with 50-Euro bills, and one with a 100-euro bill… but we´re averaging 4 Euro per person in donativos. Which means we are not just supporting these “pilgrims” in their journey, we are subsidizing them.

Paddy is not happy, but he´s bearing up better today than yesterday. 

I know I´ve whined in the past about people taking advantage, so I won´t do that again. Truth is, these pilgrims don´t have many options. Our house is the only place they have to stay in Moratinos, one of only two places that are open this winter in the 40-kilometer stretch between Carrion de los Condes and Sahagun.  (La Morena, a big private albergue in Ledigos, is taking the weight.)

Today Lourdes told me something even more hair-raising: On Christmas and New Year´s Eves, La Morena is closing, too.

We will be the only place in 40 kilometers for pilgrims to go. So they all, however many wandering souls are out there on a holiday, will end up here.

I contacted Bruno. I have the keys to his albergue, and he´ll disarm the alarm if I want to open  his dormitory room and put people in there to sleep. There´s no heat or water, but it´s a place out of the rain. How we´d feed an overflow crowd is another puzzler.  We cannot afford to do that, not at 4 euro per person. 

This has all the makings of a feel-good, no-room-at-the-inn sitcom. Or maybe a public health crisis. A helluva holiday, for sure! 

Saturday, 11 November 2017


There was a fly in the room. I snuggled under the covers, hiding from the afternoon light and the buzz. Momo Cat curled up against the back of my legs. Against the wall of my chest my heart ached.
Voices floated up through the floorboards from the room below. Paddy crooning to the dog in his lap. Kim washing up the lunchtime dishes. Kim in the house, fetched down from Foncebadon, a long morning’s drive up the mountain and back down again for just a couple of days. But these are special circumstances. Dire days.
The dog in Paddy’s lap is Rosie Dog, our little chihuahua terrier mutt. The veterinary specialists in Leon say Rosie’s spleen and liver are dotted with what is probably cancer. She will probably die soon. Seven years ago, right about this time of year, Kim found Rosie limping along the Camino de Santiago in a eucalyptus forest outside O Pedrouzo. She brought Rosie home to us.
Kim has come and gone a few times in the years since. Rosie became a lap dog, a house pet, a fixture at Peaceable Kingdom. Kim remains Rosie’s favorite person. It was only right that Kim should come to see the dog again, to say goodbye.   
It’s very right, having Kim in the house. Kim belongs here, just like Rosie belongs here. Some creatures are just like that.
I lay there in my bed, my own bed in my own house, probably my favorite place in all the Earth. I let myself feel the pain in my heart, the keen loss of a beloved friend. Yeah, she’s just a dog. But she’s an integral part of my life, a little spark that’s lighted up my days for seven years. When I lose her, I’ll lose a piece of my heart, a bit of my home.
I heard a tear thump onto the pillow by my ear.
I thought of the heaviness of the past few weeks, the months of dull depression, the sparks of hope that I’m pulling out of it, the desperation at oncoming projects that ought to make me happy, but only overwhelm me with details and expenses. I thought of Paddy’s aging body and low spirits, the wonderful book no agent can be bothered to look at, my son’s struggles, the friend in North Carolina with cancer, the neighbor caring for her husband with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the ongoing Republican dismantling of that beautiful Democracy. Catalonia. The future, or the lack thereof.
A motorbike zoomed past on the road outside. The fly buzzed past my ear.
I am at home, I thought. Kim's here. Paddy is here. Rosie is still here, and me. We are all here today, all of us still alive, looking forward to a nice dinner in a warm kitchen. 
My heart aches, but I could not ask for more than this. 
Momo purred against my knees. I opened my eyes all the way. The soft yellow kitchen light shone up through the cracks between the floorboards. Down there someone fired-up the new pellet stove and put on a classical guitar album, Barrios. Softly, music I know by heart. I was time to get up, to close up the cold frame in the back garden before the sun went down. Lettuces out there, ready to pick for salad. Dinner was already set in motion.
The patio dogs shouted the alarm. A pilgrim at the gate, someone coming in off the trail, and out the bedroom window I saw Paddy bring in a blonde lady. Clearly exhausted, probably did the 31 kilometers from Carrion de los Condes and found the Moratinos albergue and hostel both closed. We’d have to revisit the dinner plan. Have to feed the animals early, have to change the sheets on that second bed in the salon…
I combed my hair, splashed water on my face, went downstairs. Her name was Ingrid. She sat at the kitchen table while the music played and the kettle boiled, the cats chased one another. Rosie dozed. Patrick peeled potatoes. Kim took the lady’s pack to the salon. 
I gave Ingrid a cup of tea.. She put her hand on mine. She was crying.
“This is a home,” she said. “A family. I feel like I am at home.” 
And she was right, by God. 

Rosie Dog

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Bloody Sundays

Moratinos Super Heroes

Sundays for me are fraught, and have been for years.

As a child in Denver, San Antonio, Bossier City, La., and Little Rock, I was dressed up in skirts and scratchy petticoats and made to sit through Nazarene basement Sunday School flannelgraph Bible stories (which I rather enjoyed) and windy pew-bound sermons that ground my cute plastic-net petticoats into the backs of my thighs (which taught me the meaning of “wrath”) and hours-long, on-our-knees appeals to the Almighty by Elder Ernie Slayton, who prayed for each damned soul on This Celestial Ball, ferChrissakes. (Brother Ernie taught me what Eternity is).
When I grew up and had two kids myself, with a husband who was a classical church organist, Sunday meant everyone on Red Alert. My husband was articulate and beautiful. He played Buxtehude, Bach, and Cesar Franck with Germanic precision. Every note was perfect. Every nerve was fried. Every mistake was amplified 50 times. (“This is Art, people. Can’t you shut that kid the hell up?”)   
On Sunday afternoons I took my babies for long rides in the car, usually to a Dairy Queen in Van Wert or Stryker, VanLue or Waterville, some small town far away. Small cones. I didn’t often have more than $4 on me, but I had lots of gas in the tank. Rolling Stones on the car stereo, our Emotional Rescue. Muddy Waters, singing “Sail on, little honey bee.” Merle Haggard and his Mama’s Hungry Eyes. Gillian Welch with her Mark where the Nails Have Been, Springsteen’s Thunder Road, Prince’s Little Red Corvette, and Johnny Cash stuck in Folsum Prison. They saved our souls. We stayed alive. We sailed on.    
We survived. That husband left us in Ohio, but we’d set ourselves free a good while before that. Sundays still happened. We danced to “June Bug” and “Love Shack” and “Keep a Lid on Things.” We were dancing fools after church at St. Tim’s Episcopal, Perrysburg. I taught Sunday School, I covered religion at the Toledo Blade. I did a hell of a job, won all the national journo prizes. I lost my religion, found my faith. I was a sinner, and Jesus didn’t mind so much. Real Jesus isn’t anything like the Jesus I’d been taught.
And after many years and much to-and-fro, I am here in Moratinos, Palencia, Spain, on a Sunday afternoon. Sundays still are unique. This husband is not an American and not a Christian, but he’s a devout Catholic. We’re at Mass every Sunday, and at the community “vermouth” afterward, at the local, catching up on the gossip, the TV news, the “Norte de Castilla,” a remarkably good regional newspaper. Sundays set the tone for Moratinos, and today was a rich mine of sociology.
In summertime, all the chicks come home to Moratinos to roost. The younger generations that live in faraway cities return to town with their children, and the families and kids and grannies all mix it up together for a few weeks (except for the few who feed on grudges and won’t talk to the others.) But church brings everyone together. And today, this morning, a deep mine of Sociology showed up for the Divine Office.
It was the sixth birthday of one of the youngest set, so four of them, all cousins, came to church dressed in costume:  Superman. Thor. BatGirl (with added princess tiara and wand), and Captain America. They all sat together on one rickety pew, kicking their feet, tapping their tinfoil hammers and shields, shaking hands with the priest at the Passing of Peace. Padre Santiago wouldn’t shake with the Hammer of Thor, but he laid a hand on the Norse thunder-god’s head and blessed him.
It’s a little unsettling, having Super Man and Captain America show up at my Castilian church. I am used to being the only American in the place, and I know the little guys under the masks are Unai and Ibai, burly little half-Basque bruisers who don’t speak a word of American Superhero. (They probably have a real leg-up on Truth and Justice, however.) (I asked Ibai in English, “How old are you today?” He answered me “sei,” six, in Euskadi. Basque. The kid speaks three languages, almost. Damn superpowers!)  
Anyway, Paddy and I stuck around for an extra glass of vino, while the whole town poured in the doors to commune together. Up on the TV screen was a huge national demonstration in Barcelona, with all of Spain (including the very tall young King Felipe) saying they are against terrorist attacks but still love the resident Muslims. Everyone agreed the Catalan nationalists were hijacking the whole thing for their own political ends, yadda yadda. (Spaniards love demonstrating against things that have happened already. They are not so great at prevention. Prevention is risky, and it requires work. We pay the government for that.)
Paddy and I sat among the superheroes and card-players, perched at the limit of our integration. We don’t play Mus or Brisca. Our grandchildren made acceptable holiday appearances last week, pale-skinned, red-headed, smart and polite, their parents – our children – speaking acceptably good Castellano, paying in cash, laughing at the right moment of the jokes. We will never be natives, but we do OK.
Life is very good here. Sundays are much more quiet than before, now that the pilgrims have other options. These days we listen to Eric Satie and Jussi Bjorling, and eat melon and the summer’s finest gazpacho. We consider what we left behind, and the options that remain. The next edit on the book. Should I take up Mitch’s latest offer? That opportunity in Asturias. The house for sale next door…   
Sundays still can be fraught. Sundays often bring us pilgrims, or guests from the homelands. The second bottle of hospitable Toro often turns people political, or confessional, or tells them it’s time our dogs were properly trained or our gardens properly  weeded or my novel properly edited. I have been advised at least four Sundays this summer on how to “turn this place into a total gold mine.”
We come from busy, busy places. Our friends and families are improvers, fixers, helpers, caped crusaders. Just like we were. Usually Paddy goes for a nap toward the start of the seminar.        
I listen. I hear them. My petticoat scratches the back of my legs.
Sometimes I have to pull my Thor mask over my American face, and pick up my tinfoil hammer, and let ‘em shake hands with that. But with my other hand I bless them. I bless their busy, big hearts. Because I have one of those, too.
We’re all still driving down Thunder Road, looking for the Dairy Queen.
We all still have so much to learn, and maybe we should listen better, but it’s the Sabbath Day on the Holy Way. We’re all on our way home.

Me, I’m the honey bee, sailing on. It’s late, but I can make it if I run.         

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Eels of Muxia

Where Eels Go to Dry

It’s great for expats like me to have Spanish friends. Nobody knows how to have fun like a Spaniard. No one can pack more fun into a single day.
But when a Spanish friend invites you on an "excursion," be sure to pack sandwiches. Take your vitamins. Leave a forwarding address.   
Pepe Formoso, for example, invited me for “A Day Out” next time I was in Santiago de Compostela. Pepe is an extrovert. He lives in Muxia, on the Atlantic coast of Spain. He keeps a hostel there for pilgrims, and he’s active in FICS, the Camino activist group that I’m also part of.   
Pepe Formoso
He’s a little firecracker of a man, the kind of guy who goes everywhere and knows everybody.  So I said Yes. And so he planned us a Day Out.   
A little background: In mid-July I walked a five-day camino with my friend George, an academic, an expert on medieval pilgrimage. He has fascinating friends at the University in Santiago de Compostela. I’ve done “Days Out” with this gang before, up and down the coast to hidden holy places and mom-and-pop vineyards and haunted churches and hoedowns – always very sociological and historical and culinary. It’s like living in a travel magazine, without the glossy blonde people. It’s a great workout for my Spanish language skills, at least for the first few hours.   
Anyway, Pepe invited us out to Muxia for the day, for eels. George and I drove there with Miguel Tain, an art history professor, and Miguel's daughter, a silent, beautiful 13-year-old deep in the throes of adolescence.
By car, Muxia is 40 minutes away from Santiago de Compostela, but Miguel got lost. We drove along the coast road instead, with both historians pointing out places where Vikings once raided and shellfish grew on frames sunk deep in the bays. I felt privileged to have such fine tour guides, but two hours is a very long time to spend in a little car on a winding road.
Miguel's phone beeped: The wind was too high, the sea too rough. We couldn’t take Pepe’s boat up the estuary to the eel grounds, alas!
We finally rolled up, just a little woozy, to the famous fishing village. Pepe descended, swept us up to tour Bela Muxia, his spectacular pilgrim hostel. We were shown the couple who run the place, the ladies who do the cleaning, the graphic design etched into the glass, the foot-bath fountain, the penthouse with a sweeping view of the beach. We talked about how pilgrim accommodations have changed over the years, remarked how far a pilgrim’s got to walk to find this Shangri-La at the very end of the line.
Postcard image of Muxia
Muxia (pronounced Moo-SHE-ah) presents itself to the world as violent Atlantic waves crashing against a noble chapel, a remote Galician village now overrun with post-pilgrimage backpackers, a beautiful final scene in Martin Sheen’s camino movie “The Way.” Pepe took us up to the iconic church and crashing waves and rocks. We took photos, discussed contemporary sculpture, and the big oil spill of 2002 that almost killed this coast.  
But about the eels? I asked.
I saved that up for you! Pepe said. He took us down behind the town, on the safe side of the rocks, beyond the restaurants, bars, and little hotels, right up against the calm side of the sea. There stands a big frame of wooden beams. The poles stand upright in holes carved out of the rocks, shimmed upward with bits of wood and stone. Crossbeams are lashed tight at the angles. There’s a shed alongside, and signs warning passers-by to keep away – this is a working rig, not a jungle gym. It’s a “secadora artisanal de congrios.” An eel-drying rack.   
This town used to be all fishing, all the time, with a bit of seasonal shellfish and octopus action. Settled in among them was a big family that diversified a bit. Juan Diaz Martinez is 87, the last of his line. He opened up his garage/eel-processing house to show us around.
He’s sharp as a tack, but he moves slowly now, he said. Can’t climb up on those frames like he did, what? Five years ago?   
Lots of people talked at the same time, so I missed some salient points. Everyone showed off the little tomahawk used to split the eels’ skulls, right here on this tree-stump; the long board with the peg in the end, where you hook the eel through the gills and slice it open longwise; the narrow, spotless, white-tiled sinks that line the walls, where the split fish are bathed in salty water and laid in long white nets. Juan produced newspaper clippings and photos… we arrived out of season, see. This is a Spring thing. Should’ve come in April, for the party!  
These eels are not tiny fingerlings like you see on the Basque coast. These are Conger eels, great heavy tubular fish that swim up from the south Atlantic to spawn in the “rias,” the  freshwater fjords of Galicia.  
Juan’s last big year saw him and his boys take 12,000 kilos of fresh eels – whether from local boats or brought in from France is not clear – and cut and split and lay them in their knitted cots, and haul them up and sling them on the racks in the bright sea air to dry. It takes 21 days to properly dry an eel, he said. At the end of the process, he packaged 3,000 kilos of Artisanal Dried Eel, and sent it to the only place in Spain where anybody eats the stuff.
It went to Catalayud, in the landlocked plains of Zaragoza.
Catalayud used to make great ropes, Juan said. Way back in the day, when Gallego ship-builders and chandlers wanted the best ropes and nets, they’d haul what they had overland to Catalayud to make a trade. Fresh fish was not an option, but the dried eels traveled well. The Zaragozans grew to love them. And so an industry was born, and a cuisine.
It seemed only right we should dine on eels, and by then it was 3 p.m.: lunch time! We went round to the waterfront, to Casa do Peixe, a classy little family-run place that serves eel, and whatever else the guys brought in on the boat today. That day there were percebes. Pepe rejoiced. Goose barnacles!
“Not for me, thanks,” I told him. “I had them before, didn’t care for them.” (I had them before, and they were awful.) 
“In Santiago, right?” he asked. “Never eat percebes in Santiago! God knows where they get them, probably shipped in from Korea! Weeks old. Pure poison!”
“You might as well eat the eraser off the end of a pencil,” the waitress said. “Our percebes were fresh this morning. I know. I picked these off the rocks myself.”
“No way!” George enthused. (George is like a little boy sometimes, where food is concerned.) “What a valiant woman!”
And yes, the percebes were divine, served steaming in a little brown enamel pot. Huge and ugly as rhino toes, but almost oyster-like in their fresh oceanic sweetness. There was wonderfully silky octopus, too, but I was saving room in my stomach for the star turn.
Roast Conger Eel
The eels arrived, two great platters of them, cut like steaks: fresh eel grilled with red peppers, and dried eels soaked back to life like salt cod, then slow-roasted with new potatoes. We feasted, sopping up the pan juices with dark bread, washing it all down with light white wine from Ribeiro. (“Rias Baixas is trendy bullshit wine for tourists. When Gallegos drink white wine, they drink Ribeiro!”)
Two more friends arrived in time for dessert, but George and I were whispering, wishing… maybe Pepe would  rent us bunks in the albergue for an hour or two?  
“Get up, you guiris! Let’s go to the picnic!” Pepe said, crushing all hopes of a nap.  “All the Socialists are having a fish-fry at the river, and I have to at least show my face!”
We were captives. We climbed back into Pepe’s big van and went hill-and-dale down to the river, where a vast crowd of jolly locals had already (thank God!) polished off a half-ton of grilled sardines and were just settling into pitchers of coffee and home-brew liquor. We sat on lawn chairs, shook hands with the pink-faced Red party bosses. I showed my Communications Workers of America union card, and was roundly cheered by my fellow travelers.
From there we went to a beautiful beach where herons fed in the lengthening shadows. We had to see an old river-crossing, where pilgrims had to pick their way over granite blocks sunk in the stream,
old pilgrim "bridge"
 until about eight years ago. Photos were snapped, hair-raising stories were told of near-misses and half-drowned pilgrims. We climbed back up the trail behind the others, George muttering something about a "Death March." We hadn’t touched the liquor, but we staggered anyway. 
Back at Muxia at last, Miguel poured us into his little car. We drove straight to Santiago this time, with the sun falling down to the right, to the west. Miguel talked of his research, his two years in Berlin, engravings of Santiago cathedral he found in a French archive. George politely tapped the back of my seat when I began to nod. We passed a 16th century palace on the edge of the city.  “You must see that, Rebekah,” Miguel said.
“No! Not now, please!” came voices from the back seat. “Next time!” 
We said goodbye to Miguel and walked back to George’s flat in the gloaming, through the crowded streets of the old city. We heard no noise, we acknowledged no greetings, we ate no dinner.  I went to my room and packed my bag for the journey home in the morning. George, I think, was showering when I last was aware.
The sun went down over the holy city, and my long journey was finished. I slipped into a divine sleep full of good cheer, Spanish verbs, and eels, eels, eels.  


Friday, 16 June 2017


The street is still. My head aches, just a little. My the skin on the back of my legs sweats against the plastic chair, but it's cooler here in the shade than anywhere else.  
We sit beneath a Coca-Cola umbrella outside the only bar in Fuentes de Valdeperos. We don't know this town, or this bar. The three old men sitting in the other chairs under the other umbrellas are not particularly friendly, but we don't mind. We don't need to be their friends.
My beer glass drips with condensation. It leaves big rings of water on the plastic table-top. I make an olympic symbol. Paddy fishes an ice cube from his gin and tonic and sends it skittering across the pavement. The town is built of pitted, pale-yellow stones, massive blocks. The bar is built against the church, a monumental structure that looks like it erupted out of the earth a million years ago. Its roof bristles with stork nests, each of them full of stork families. Just up the street is a castle, newly restored, a real sky-scraper Disney kind of place that dates back 800 years. You can go inside for 2 euro, if you get there during visiting hours.
There's another spectacular castle just a couple of miles up the road, at Monzon de Campos. We've never managed to see inside that one, either.
There are castles all over Palencia, lonely old keeps on hilltops and out in fields and stuck right in the middle of tiny towns. Museum ticket-takers must be some of the loneliest, most under-employed people in Spain. They are always overjoyed when we show up, but more often than not they have to tell us No, so sorry, you've arrived too close to lunchtime, you'll have to come back some other day.   So we go. We walk round the Plaza Mayor, we follow the fancy paving past the most historic buildings. There are no people in the streets.
Our only fellow humans are huddled under the umbrellas outside the bar. The bar is why we stopped at Valdeperos, really. Paddy just had minor surgery on his left eye, and he felt a gin and tonic coming on. We were driving north from Palencia, a route we almost never take, and there was a huge castle over there, one I'd never noticed. Castles mean tourism, which means there's probably a terrace bar there someplace. And bingo.  
So we sit. No one says anything. The sun has stunned us all silent.  
The street is narrow. A car eases by, the bumper passes a foot or two from the back of my chair. It's the museum lady, heading home for lunch.
The sun dazzles the face of the old church. Its bell strikes two.
The storks on the roof answer back, clattering their bills, making a sound that says to me, "you are in Spain." "This is Spain. Castile. It's summer."

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Wheelie-Bag of Mysteries

It's not always a good idea, being ordinary.
Our black suitcase is so very common, so average, on Thursday afternoon it faded right into invisibility.
From the Large Luggage rack on Coach Number 2 of the Madrid-Ponferrada Regional Express train, our black wheelie-bag joined the realm of mystery.
Paddy had the bag with him on that train. He was on his way home from a quietly extraordinary two-day getaway in the big city. There we stayed in a ridiculous hotel designed for robots, feasted on Brazilian Swords O Meat, saw a retrospective of Catalan artist Ramon Casas i Carbo, and most importantly, we consulted with one of Spain's top retina specialists.
The eye doc said the treatment Pad's getting now at Palencia's public health hospital is top-class. And she gave him one thing the locals have not: a prescription for new glasses. Glasses she says will improve his distance vision "markedly, 30 percent," and his up-close vision "noticeably, maybe 10 percent."
Which, when you're expecting to be told you'll be blind in a couple of years, is worth celebrating.
We spent the rest of that day sitting at a cafe table along a busy sidewalk, watching the people go by, laughing and relaxing. We have an appointment in Palencia on Monday. We can have the optician there make up the glasses, handy dandy!
The following morning I headed off to Santiago de Compostela on a 28 Euro airplane flight. At that price, you do not check any bags. I put my Compostela gear in my little backpack, and put my Madrid clothes with Paddy's, in the black four-wheel-drive suitcase. He took it home with him on the fast afternoon train.
The train stops in Segovia, and again in Valladolid. The next stop is Palencia, where Paddy got off. But when Paddy went to get his suitcase, it wasn't on the rack.
There was an average black bag there, but it had a ribbon around the handle, and two wheels. It was not our bag. But it was near enough to be mistaken for it.
Our black suitcase had vanished.
The train was ready to leave. Paddy jumped off, and like a sensible citizen went directly to the station manager. In the 40 minutes he had before his connecting train headed for Sahagun, he filled in the papers, told three different people he thought it was just a mistake, that some poor boob in Segovia was at home now, saying bad words, rifling our dirty laundry.
He might be pleased to find our new IPad. I'd put the new computer in there, seeing as we couldn't figure out how to make it recognize a wifi signal. My new jeans were in there, too, and my favorite old black silk kimono jacket. And my first and only hand-made shoes I bought in Italy. (I don't have a lot of clothes, and I detest shopping. This was a blow.)
But Paddy was shockingly sanguine.
"It's a suitcase. Clothes. Stuff," he said on the telephone. "It will turn up. I'm not going to get all upset about it."
"It's the prescription," I said. "The whole reason we went to Madrid!"
"If the bag doesn't show up, we'll call up the doctor and have her re-send it," he said, blithely.
No one from the railroad phoned that night, nor the day after.
Kim arrived at Peaceable, expecting to find me there. (People never arrive when I am home. When I want wonderful visitors at my house, all I have to do is leave.) Kim heard the sad tale of lost luggage. Kim is a Mac expert. She sent a "ping" to the IPad inside our suitcase, to see where it was in the world. If it had been stolen, she could frustrate the thief with a remote-control "kill switch" that would render the little machine useless forever.
But I'd shut the IPad down before I packed it away. Somewhere out there it slumbered on, unmolested, un-pinged.
I came home this afternoon on the train from Santiago. We phoned up the railway for news.
Our ordinary black suitcase was found, an ornery man said, in Ponferrada, not Valladolid, nor Segovia. It was way over 150 kilometers west of here, at the end of the train's trajectory. Yes, they had not bothered to tell us. And no, they would not put it on the next train east, so we could pick it up in Sahagun. If we wanted the suitcase, we'd have to shlep to Ponferrada and get it.
We wondered. How the heck did our suitcase get to Ponferrada? Was that our bag, or the lookalike with the ribbon and two wheels? The stationmaster wouldn't say. Should we go all the way over there for what might be someone else's bagful of laundry?  
And it's Saturday. Would the station still be open by the time we got there? Everything closes on Sunday. And on Monday we have to be in Palencia! Ay yi yi!
And up stepped Kim.
"I have a license. I had a full night's sleep. I love driving. Give me Paddy's ID and his train ticket and I'll go over in the car."
I should've gone with her, but I'd just spent six hours on a train. (A train that had stopped in Ponferrada!)
Maybe Paddy should've gone with her, but why?
And so she went. I wrote a sort of permission slip, claiming Kim was our daughter, telling the railway to let her have our bag. I handed her some gas money and the keys, and she drove off into the sunset. A couple of hours later she sent me the photo above, taken on the platform in Ponfi.
Aside from being a Mac Pro, Kim's a photographer, and a filmmaker.
And a Soulful Mystic Pilgrim.
She's our Hero of the Day.
She's the best friend you could ever ask for.
She is extraordinary, even in the most ordinary ways.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Fits and Starts

The vegetable garden's been wiped-out twice now -- once by Hens from Hell, once by a very late frost. This does not make me happy. Tomorrow I shall try yet again with the green beans and red peppers, tomatoes and chard and spinach. I enjoy planting seeds and seedlings and seeing them emerge and grow, but this is getting tiresome.

Other things are happening, and not happening, and not quite happening. My friend Marta has spent the last three months moving from her splendid house in in downtown Madrid (yes, a HOUSE) into a sunny bright apartment in uptown Madrid. She had 40 years' worth of antique furniture to downsize. I took some chairs in December, some blankets and pillows for the albergues, a couple of vases. I don't need any of these things. Valuable, fragile, antique things don't live long here in the Animal Kingdom. But three weeks ago I drove home from her house with walnut headboards, a 200-year-old framed mirror, paintings and prints and elegant lamps. Marta could not throw them away, or give them to the predatory antique dealers for 25 euros. So she gave them to me.

(Making space for these acquisitions has begun a huge domino-effect rooting-out of things we haven't used, don't use, and never will use. April's been cathartic, furniture and closet-wise. Lots of hard work, but very little visible outcome. Sorta like gardening...)

Marta hired a guy with a truck to bring us even more beautiful things, stuff that would not fit in my van. A dresser to match the headboards, a really nice desk that, yes, I really can use. The furniture man was due last Thursday or Friday. We waited around, but he did not come. He rescheduled.

We got on with our lives. I took lamps and woolen blankets with me up to O Cebreiro, where my other friend Laurie has a sewing machine. She can repair the raveled edges of those lovely thick blankets, and pass them on to Refugio Gaucelmo, the original English pilgrim refuge. (Laurie helped to found that place, 25 years ago.) She has a big stone house where Marta's big old elegant lamps have room to glow. She has a herb garden that's sheltered from late frost, so I dug up all the mint, fennel, oregano, and melissa I could ever want and took it back with me.      

Paddy stayed home to oversee the furniture delivery. It didn't come again.

On the way back home yesterday morning I stopped in Trabadelo (I love that word: Trabadelo!) and visited Casa Susi, a new albergue started last year by an extrovert Australian lady named Susi. It's very simple and beautiful. Susi has much to be proud of.

I got to Astorga by noon, and there I met up with one of the more courageous people in this world. Her name is Shirley, and she is Australian, too. Last year she was hiking the Camino de Santiago with her husband Ron. During an overnight stop in Leon, Ron died in his sleep. After a couple of harrowing days, Shirley walked on. She finished their camino! And last Fall, she got in touch with me about putting up a little memorial to her husband at the little park outside Astorga. (I wrote about this last year -- the city planted trees for fallen pilgrims, anticipating events like this.)

So Ron's memorial is the first one of what I hope will become a "memorial garden." On Saturday I did a little service, blessing the memorial stone. Shirley was there, walking the camino again, this time with her sister-in-law. Inez, an Australian hospitalera, came along as well. The mayor came, and reps from the Astorga pilgrim amigos group, and people from the hotel in Leon where Ron died. Malin, my friend from Sweden, sang a sad song. We spread Ron's ashes at the base of the tree.

Then we all went over to Castrillo de Polvozares and had a feast.
After that, Inez came with me back to Peaceable.
San Anton, looking up from the road below
And this morning, a dark and stormy day, we loaded a mirror and some other blankets and table covers into the car and hit the road again. We moved eastward this time, to Castrojeriz. It's the last day of April. The Albergue Monasterio de San Anton opens on 1 May, and we had to get the place into shape to start welcoming pilgrims.

Four of us ladies worked for three hours, sweeping and scrubbing, putting things onto shelves, pulling weeds and making up lists.We stamped credentials for several very wet pilgrims, and retired to Castrojeriz for another feast.

Tomorrow, Inez heads back to Australia. David is coming to do some painting, he'll watch the house and critters for a couple of days while Paddy and I go to Madrid to have Paddy's eyes examined by a specialist down there. On Thursday Paddy will get the train home, and I will catch an airplane to Santiago de Compostela! (it costs only 28 Euros! Takes only an hour and a half!) The FICS board is meeting there, we're plotting new schemes and deciding what's next... Being a do-gooder requires a large carbon footprint sometimes.

I'll take the train home from there, a long, leisurely haul through spectacular scenery.
I'll stay home for a couple of weeks. We have some cool pilgrims coming our way.
And maybe someday the furniture will arrive.
And Springtime.
And vegetables.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A Gathering of the Minds

Getting the Job Done 

Everyone came to town for Holy Week, so the Asociacion Cultural gathered itself together.
It was decided somewhere among the grand families of the Plaza Mayor that we'd meet after the Stations of the Cross. And so, thus focused on our many transgressions, as well as the  suffering and death of our Savior and his Mum, we ruled against meeting in the back of the church.
It's too echoey in there. Impossible to make out who is talking, especially when everybody talks at the same time. Which is just about always.
I was the founding president of the Asociacion, but I stepped down last year after two seasons of Big Fun and cultural disconnects. We started some good things, mistakes were made, and a few people sneer and roll their eyes every time my name is mentioned. But that's the price you pay. You can tell a pioneer by the tomahawks sticking out of his head.
So we gathered outside Vitoriana's house, on the corner of the plaza. Some of us sat right down on the pavement, or stood dangerously near to Leandra's prize tulips. Lucy, the new president, presided.
"What do we want to do for this summer? Another Semana Cultural?"
"Yeah! Last year was fun. Let's do that again!"
"Let's do what again? Which part was fun?"
"The movie night. Let's get that giant screen in here again!"
"That giant screen was a pain. Try keeping the kids away from that."
"We had to drive back and forth to Villada to pick it up and return it. And we had to put it up and take it down."
"And we had to sign a million papers to borrow it," I added.
"Let's do like they did here in the old days, when someone brought a projector and a movie. Hang up a sheet on that wall over there, and project it on that."
"Forget the sheet. The wall is whitewashed."
"Where would the electricity come from?"
"Extension cord. We have those. Jesus!"
"Don't be that way."
"What movies will we show? The movies last year were lame."
"Those are details. We can work that out later. Let's decide what else..."
"Let's do another tortilla contest!"
"Let's do desserts instead this time. We already did tortillas. We know whose is best now."
"But that will spoil everyone's dinner."
"How about we have a flan contest. Flan, and orijuelas. We all know how..."
"So how about tapas?" I said. "Appetizers? Pinchos?"
"Yeah! Let's do pinchos! Everyone loves those!"
"Yeah! Pinchos, and desserts."
"Let's have a proper prize, like 50 Euros. We'd get some people over from San Nicolas then, attract attention from outside,"
"Fifty euros? How about a nice bottle of wine?"
"San Nicolas? The heck with San Nicolas! What do they have to do with this?"
"And let's have a camp-out for the kids, over in the grove."
"We were going to do that last year, but the moms were afraid to let the kids stay out there."
"No, the mothers weren't afraid. The kids were afraid."
"No we weren't! It rained! You wouldn't let us because it rained!"
"OK then. Let's also have an excursion. We can tour the Sunflower Seed Factory in Villada!"
"We can get a bus and go to Astorga, and tour around and have Cocido Maragato!"
"Astorga's too far! What's in Astorga?"
"Everyone will have to pay his own way. The Asociacion can't pay for it."
"Well, of course!"
"And we ought to do something cultural. Like a workshop, or a dance group or something."
"How about we make up some adobes? Mud and straw don't cost anything."
"Yeah! We have brick molds!"
"Sounds pretty messy. Who's going to lead that? Who knows anything about adobe?"
"Rebekah does. She goes to those workshops every year. "
"Rebekah can do it. Can't you?"
"Yes," I said. "We'll make slurry, and all you guys can render the inside walls of my bodega!"
(Slave labor, hooray!)
"So we have all these things to do! What fun!" Lucy said.
"And flowers. Shall we plant flowers again this year? Can I spend 50 euros on flowers for the plaza?" I asked. "It's almost May, almost time to plant."
"Not so many this year. Not enough of us are here all summer. Milagros ended up watering them herself every day," came the slap-down I've been expecting for months.
"Also, sometime in the summer let's think about a wine-tasting night. Everyone bring a bottle from the region where they live -- Vittoria, Burgos, Coruna, Gran Canaria -- and we'll line them all up and taste them and see what we think,"I suggested.
"We can do that with the pinchos! We can do pairings!" said one well-educated cousin.
"No, I mean this as something separate from the Semana Cultural. Not a contest," I tried.
"We can bring the wine, and create a pincho to match,"she insisted.
"What, wine with flan? What the hell? This contest is getting out of hand!"
"Whatever. We'll see. This is just the start."
We were there, we were opinionated, but we got some things figured. We were Angelines, Florin, Leandra, Carlos, Ines, Raul, Cristi, Olaya, Timia, Luci, Milagros, Conchi, Ester, Other Carlos, Judit, Raquel, and me.
Plenty enough to get some culture done.
We have four months to work on it.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Two Basques Called Antxon

Winter came and went.
I went, too. I went deep into a translating "El Gran Caminante," a seminal Camino memoir by Antxon 'Bolitx' Gabarain, into English. It took a lot longer than I anticipated. Yesterday, five months after I started, "A Walk to the End of the World" was finally polished, and sent off to the production guys.
I've been a professional writer for years and years, and an editor for a lot of that time. Translating is something else altogether. It's like poetry, in that it demands a ton of technical skill and a degree of integrity I don't normally have to draw on. It's scary, because I like to do a really good job. My Spanish skills are mediocre, but I'm a whiz at English. I've studied and studied, but I am still not sure I know what I'm doing. There are some mistakes in there, no doubt. I hope they're not too embarrassing.
During this epic I made friends with two Basques named Antxon.
Antxon Gonzalez is the man who asked me to translate this book. He's a big guy, a retired executive, speaks a little English. He drove all the way down here from the coast, armed with homemade txakoli wine and a box of shortbread and a pretty good publishing deal.
I was feeling fed-up and depressed with my own book. I needed a wintertime project. I had a glancing acquaintance with "El Gran Caminante," which came out a couple of years ago on the Spanish market and did quite well, especially for a book without a standard distribution deal.
I told Antxon I'm not a translator. He told me I should try. I was the only person who could.
So I did.
The other Basque named Antxon is also known as 'Bolitx.' (No one can tell me what "Bolitx" means.) This Antxon wrote the book. It's a first-person narrative of his 2008 Camino pilgrimage, starting at his front door in Zumaia, in the Basque Country, passing down a disused pilgrim trail and joining "the Mighty Camino Frances" in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. It continues on to Santiago and Finisterre, and along the way he tells about growing up in Navarre and Bizkaia, family legends, ghost trains, his grandfather's adventure as a 19th century immigrant to California. Cool stuff I've never seen anywhere else.  
I have seen a slew of amateur pilgrim memoirs, and they are, with a couple of exceptions, pretty dreary reading. Antxon's is the first one I've read in Spanish. Yes, it is self-indulgent and yes, he does go on about his blisters and his spectacularly authentic pilgrimage. He has issues with women, and Asians, and foreign food. But he has a remarkable knack for description, especially in the bars, restaurants, and albergues along the Way. He does dialog well, he sets a scene and lets the players tell the tale. He's a natural writer, a sharp observer, unschooled but fluid and cogent.
He tells you what it all means, in a way that's not preachy.
Antxon the author
And he's funny. Even after reading the same passages five or six times in two languages, he still makes me laugh out loud. I got to know him pretty well this Winter. He looked over my shoulder sometimes, worried that I get it right. Or at least his spirit did.
Antxon the author finished writing "El Gran Caminante" in 2012, three days before he died of ALS. He was 41 years old.
Anxton the publisher is his father.
The translation will be available soon via Amazon or other online retailers. Most of the proceeds go to educate his young daughters.
So now I am a translator. I did my best. I had to call on expert help when flummoxed:  two old guys in Boadilla talking trash about the town floozy were beyond my powers of comprehension. Good thing I count a renowned Hispanicist among my friends. Antxon's granny was "the best Mus player in Navarre," and his description of a fast-paced match of Mus in Rabanal del Camino meant a Son of Seville now living in Virginia went and learned to play the card game himself, just so I could get it right.
It was a fun project. A nice break. Antxon the Dad seems very happy.
Now, after I chill a little while, I will move on to something else.
I kinda miss my own kind of writing.

Oh, I went, too, to the USA. For two months.
While I was there, a child was born. A red-headed girl called Cora. I became a grandmother.
Maybe I will write about that, too. Once I get my head around it.