Friday, 16 June 2017

Dazzled

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!"
"Cool!"
"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.