Sunday, December 30, 2007
As I trot past the bench leaning again the front of the house, the window opens.
"It's for you", the middle-aged woman leaning out of the window tells me. "It's for you, peregrina. Are you thirsty? Shall I bring you some water?"
She is pointing to a box and a basket sitting side by side on the bench in front of her home.
The box is filled with plump ripe plums, and the basket with cookies, mints, cough drops and hard candies. A tiny Spanish flag stands nearby.
A notebook and pen rest alongside a small note: write to me if you like.
This oasis of sweet and fresh and delicious is explained by the sign leaning again the bench.
"This is for you, peregrino. It's been left by your friend Agapito. Buen camino!"
In the photo an older man grins out at the anonymous pilgrim friends he's feeding and encouraging.
I was tired and bored. I was 10 or 20 kilometers outside León, more than eager to leave the asphalt I'd been walking all day far behind me. I didn't know I'd sprain my ankle for the second time later that afternoon and spend the next 3 days holed up in an albergue. I only knew I was alone, walking on asphalt, destined to stick with this highway for at least another 10 kilometers. I hadn't seen another soul all morning.
And the plums were for me.
I ate a plum and a few cookies, grabbed a candy for later and wrote a note of thanks.
Here's another, in case Agapito reads blogs. Here's to laying out what people need, just in case the odd wanderer passes by, hungry and in need of a friend.
Most of the photos I took along the Camino were of signs: the rocks and yellow arrows and shells and tiles and milestones that told me I was on the right path. Many of my "yellow arrows" were people; I captured some of them on film, too.
This is one of my favorites, of the non-human signpost variety. A dead tree on a lonely peak along the Camino Aragonés after Monreal.
And the, well, other habits.
They've finally broken me down. I'm playing the lottery.
The Spanish Christmas Lottery (El Gordo), the year's biggest, is a national institution. Multiply the Super Bowl by 10 and you might close to the level of participation, excitement and news coverage.
I didn't buy a single décimo (tenth of a chance) for El Gordo this year, between the Camino and my travel home, and darn if I wasn't the only resident of the country who didn't. When I was forced to confess, I was greeted by a chorus of "¡Erin! ¡No se puede!" accompanied by shaking heads, shrugging shoulders and deep, heartfelt disappointment. No se puede live in Spain and not participate in El Gordo, it seems.
The thing is, now that I'm president, best performer and worst slacker of a company of one, no one conveniently stops by my desk to sell me a share of an El Gordo ticket.
I was happily returning to normal life, after the "no-se-puedes" and the hoopla of El Gordo, when I watched the nightly news instantly transform ordinary bar customers and supermarket workers into millionaires. I stared at the television, transfixed, while groups of neighbors and coworkers from across Spain discovered they'd hit El Gordo together, for millions.
During the next night's paseo, I suddenly noticed the laughter and witty chatter in those long lines outside Salamanca's lottery kiosks. And I thought, well, it's been 4 years.
I'm going in.
So, friends, I did what any intelligent expat faced with the complexities of a new Spanish institution would do. I asked for lessons.
I was escorted to the kiosk by a generous and patient Salmantina, who, like any good Spaniard, took me into a complex subject step by step. We started outside the kiosk, acquainting ourselves with a bird's eye view of the many and various lottery options available to us. Once I had learned to distinguish my Primitiva from El Niño (El Gordo's little brother, to be awarded the first week of January, for Los Reyes) and my Eurobotes, we entered the building. My profe proceeded to instruct me, in a voice a tad loud if I may say so myself, profe, in the subtleties of form-filling, and buying and redeeming tickets with the confident swanker of a native.
So I filled out my little form, played my first Primitiva - and won a free ticket.
The best news is that like each of my friends and neighbors, I know El Niño is mine this year. Me va a tocar.
A friend likes to tell people who call me americana that I now qualify just as well for española. I've walked the Camino de Santiago and been present for an ETA attack. I make my own membrillo, refuse to eat lunch before 230 and consume mass quantities of morcilla.
Wait till she hears I've taken to hanging out in the line at the lottery kiosk.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
This is my very favorite Camino de Santiago photo, from 36 days walking, 45 days away from home and more than 800 photos.
Three pairs of boots, airing in the window of the pilgrim's refuge at the convent of the Poor Clares (Clarisas) in Carrión de los Condes.
The pilgrim's dorm overlooks the entrance patio of the Clarisa's 13th century convent. It was there, amongst the famous carvings and arches, that Spanish tourists stopping to buy the Poor Clare's sweets one Monday afternoon found this little window, and the 6 boots of the convent's guests: a wandering American, a singing German and an Italian-speaking ladies man from Switzerland.
The tourists mostly giggled and pointed.
But I never saw my dust-covered boots more proud.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Ok, a dusting. But I woke to snow in Salamanca!
Now if I pass a busking blues guitarist and a hot dog vendor on the way to the Plaza, the magical meshing shall be complete.
May I mention my golden city looks great in white?
Hope your personal good luck dust is falling round you as well.
Monday, December 17, 2007
They're New Year's grapes, if you've yet to meet the Spanish tradition of downing one grape for every chime of the bells at midnight on Noche Vieja (New Year's Eve). 12 chimes, 12 grapes. I have yet to discuss this tradition with a single Spaniard who does not faithfully pop, chew and swallow12 grapes before the last chime has sounded on New Year's.
They claim it's not as easy as it sounds, but I tell you, I'm equal to the task.
The convenience store grapes are peeled and seedless. They're on display for the University's students, who one night soon will storm the Plaza Mayor while they celebrate a grape-stuffing early NewYear before going their separate ways for the holidays.
The cans reminded me that I've accomplished the unlikely feat of living four years in Spain without experiencing the legendary grape gobble. Ah, but this year! This year I shall gobble with the best.
I scoff at the 16-hour store's cans of peeled grapes! Hah!
I shall carefully select my grapes. I shall peel them myself. (Unless of course, I run across an appropriate volunteer. God knows I'm not above letting the right person peel grapes for me.)
Faithful friends and blog browsers, this year I have received the invitation I've been waiting for. This year I shall spend Noche Vieja with magical people in the enchanted Sierra de Francia.
I shall join a noisy, expressive, multitudinous Spanish family just like the one Spain has left me pining for, many a day.
Bus schedules willing, I shall pop my 12 grapes in La Alberca.
Now that's luck.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
The Camino de Santiago is a tricky beast. It'll gladly step up and transform itself into whatever you will it to be: a sporting event, a step in a relationship, all the space and time and silence you need to test your own assumptions about yourself and how you meet the world around you, a spiritual or religious quest, a 30 day meditation, a social event.
You'll discover, as you walk on the Camino, just as much as you are open to finding, I believe. No more and no less. It's a voluntary, renewable resource, that walking trail.
Pilgrims like to say we each meet who we are supposed to meet on the Camino. If that's true, it would explain why the chance meetings and memories I treasure most from my walk to Santiago involved people who, like me, had met a Camino determined to be a dopeslap-a-minute laugh riot. A wise guy. Our Camino handed us a tiny note every day, through a chance meeting, an unexpected adventure or an annoying inconvenience. And every day the note read the same:
"Yeh, like you didn't already know this..."
My favorite Camino story belongs to a young Swiss nurse who walked from Basil to Santiago. I met her in Sahagun, when the grandmotherly owner of a hostal where she'd been holed up sick for three days decided we would walk together to El Burgo de Ranero. I ignored my American instinct to politely inform the hostal owner I preferred to walk alone. By this time, I had learned not to resist Camino hints and opportunities, and a grandmotherly stranger putting another stranger's hand in mind and announcing we would now hike a full day together was a loud enough hint not to ignore.
And so I had one of the most enjoyable shared days of my Camino, walking beside a flu-weakened Swiss nurse.
When I shared my "I sprained an ankle Day 2 while cursing the cruel injustice of my first blister" story, Natasha gave me what truly is my favorite Camino anecdote, if only for its simplicity.
Somewhere in France, Natasha landed top bunk several nights in a row. Now, top bunk is a pain in the neck, unless you're the tall, gymastic type who's mastered that graceful, quick swing to the floor I have yet to execute without waking the dead. Natasha, like me, is far too short to appreciate the benefits of scoring top bunk.
The morning after the second night, while grumbling and complaining in every language she could muster about how the ladder rungs dug into her feet with every step of every ascent and descent, Natasha swore she hated ladders and wouldn't put up with that entirely undeserved discomfort again.
Next night, our wandering Swiss nurse again arrived at the albergue long after the bottom bunks were taken. She sullenly claimed a top bunk.
Only something had changed. This time the ladder wasn't a burden.
This time, there was no ladder.
Just before you walk into the town of Nájera in La Rioja, having already passed through Logroño on your step-by-step saunter to Santiago, you'll spend a few hundred meters strolling by a wall with an original poem scrawled across it - a long and lovely poem posted by a passing pilgrim.
And as you leave that poem behind, inspired by the magic of the verse-covered walls, message-bearing milestones, stone-steadied paper notes, yellow arrows, scallop shells and teetering rock sculptures that keep you on your path, you may glance to the left and stumble across another of the many things that make the Camino de Santiago real. Not pious. Just real.
A belly laugh.
If you glance over at just the right time your eye will meet this personal ad scratched in that same wall on the way to Nájera, maybe by the same lonely poet, maybe not.
"Pilgrim seeks girl."
And a phone number.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
So opens the first post in Big Fun in a Little Pueblo. Big Fun is written by Rebekah, an American living with her British husband in a tiny town on the Camino de Santiago in Palencia. Rebekah lives in Moratinos, near Palencia's border with León, toward the end of the Camino's long march through the "meseta" more than a few (sadly mistaken) pilgrims dread, or trade for a bus ride from Burgos to León. Flat and virtually treeless, with endless horizons and perpetually changing skies, the meseta was one of the most memorable stages of my Camino. The meseta taught me patience and filled me with huge helpings of silence and hearty food while it introduced me to an evocative form of traditional architecture I'd never known existed in Spain: mud houses. Truth is, we could easily blame my photo posting delay on my fascination with - and propensity to click in front of - the meseta's mud houses.
Rebekah lives in one of those mud houses, which she is restoring "to offer some kind of hospitality to pilgrims."
As delighted as I was to discover Rebekah and her blog, my visit's sweetest treat was the EB White quote that closes her profile. If you ask me, EB's hit the nail on the head about living anywhere you've pushed aside that pesky and "idle pursuit of making a living" to make room for something else. He's done a fine job of describing life on the Camino, too:
"E.B. White wrote, 'Just to live in the country is a full-time job. You don't have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.'"Rebekah will be showing up soon on my Webs I Wander list.