Sunday, 26 July 2009

They write your name in Latin

There is a moment in the Pilgrims’ Office around 8.45 am when the peaceful atmosphere begins to stir. The team arrives in ones and twos. There is little chat. Computers are booted up, forms laid out, inkpads inked and piles of Compostelas refilled. This is all done with quiet efficiency. We know what awaits because to get into the office we had to pass the queue stretching from many yards down the street and right up the stairs to the glass door at which pilgrims must wait to be called.

Close to 9 am Eduardo our supervisor this morning asks, “Are you ready?” Heads nod and he opens the Green door below. He barely gets back in ahead of the queue of pilgrims. They spill enthusiastically into the office with rucksacks and sticks bustling. “Por favor” Rosa says loudly enough for them to fall silent, “Please wait at the glass door until you are called forward, have your Credenciales ready.” The pilgrims shrink back and some order is restored.

One by one we call them forward. I quickly realise that every member of staff has their own approach. Some deal with pilgrims quietly and efficiently. Others chat in their own language. It becomes apparent that most of the team have some knowledge of a language other than Spanish or Gallego. “What route did you follow?”, “Where did you start”, “Please fill in this form” are phrases which fill the air.
Many pilgrims want to chat. They are proud of their achievement. Occasionally couples bend the rules and come forward hand in hand. Inseparable after many days or months of walking together. Then there are the groups. 85 young people from Valencia who walked from Madrid. 24 people from a parish in Lisbon who walked via Fatima. 4 girls from Ireland who walked the Camino Ingles. There is a low hum in the office which is sometimes pierced by the hilarity of one group or another. But that soon stops when they are called forward and their Credencial inspected. This is the final step in their journey. Every one takes it seriously.

Some times there are problems when the supervisor has to be called. Soon after opening a group of very well dressed women arrived. I could almost feel Pilar sitting beside me think “they can’t be pilgrims”. One of them handed over a pile of Credenciales. “These are for our husbands who made the pilgrimage on horseback”. “Where are the pilgrims?” Pilar politely enquired. “They are with the horses” was the reply in a tone which implied, ”Where else do you think the might be?” Pilar explained that to get the Compostela the husbands would have to attend in person. The ladies left. A few minutes later an Italian couple approached my desk and handed over three Credenciales each. I opened them out. Dozens of sellos. They had started the Camino Frances from France at St Jean de Pied Port and in stages had walked the route over 4 years. I could see all of this from the dates. They stood beaming in front of me as I looked through the documents. But there was something wrong. “Do you have one more Credencial?” I asked in Spanish. They looked uncomprehending. “Do you have one more?” I asked in very slow English, holding up one finger. “No” was the reply. I asked them to wait and went to fetch Eduardo. He understood the problem immediately and came out and spoke to them in fluent Italian. “Si” they answered. “Si, si, si” they repeated. Their faces dropped however when Eduardo explained that we had been unable to find any sellos from Sarria, the 100 km point from Santiago. When he had asked them they confirmed that when they got there they were tired so they just got the bus to Santiago. Eduardo explained that this is the 100 kms EVERYONE has to complete to get a Compostela. Like true pilgrims they simply shrugged and said “ See you next year” Off they went.

Eduardo explained that this is a common phenomenon. Having walked many hundreds of kilometres some pilgrims think they have walked enough and get a bus, train or taxi the last part of the way. Alas this is not the case.

I realised receiving pilgrims could become a conveyor belt and that it is important to spend a little time talking with each. I’m a little slower than the others in any event as the procedures are still new. The name of each pilgrim is written in Latin on the Compostela. While the others know the most commons names off by heart I need to look each of them up on a list or use the special dictionary on the computer. As a last resort there is an encyclopaedia of names with their Latin equivalent.

Gradually my own way of dealing with each pilgrim emerged. I ask for their Credencial, ask them to fill in the form. Then I ask how they enjoyed their pilgrimage and ask them to look as the last stamp is applied. Then the Compostela is prepared and I give it to them saying, “Here is your Compostela with your name written in Latin. Congratulations” I can say this in English and Spanish. I need to learn other languages.

It can be a poignant moment. A young, tall, striking German hobbled to my desk with a stick. He was obviously in agony. He had walked with bad blisters all the way from León. I sympathised and gave him his Compostela. When I said “Congratulations, you can now go and rest your sore feet,” this young strapping lad just burst into tears.

Late in the afternoon a group of men arrived at the glass door. They were imposing figures, dressed very well, like upper class farmers going to market. Corduroy, velvet collars, deep green jackets and tooled leather boots. Their faces were weatherbeaten and shiny from recently being washed and shaved. I guessed that these might be the horsemen who had sent their wives earlier in the day. They were in the queue but I could see that they weren’t best pleased to be there and weren’t used to being kept waiting. They muttered among themselves. There was a little tension in the air.
I called “next”, and a regal figure made his way to my desk. Imperious looking, he became increasingly nervous as I looked over his Credencial. He and the others had come on horseback all of the 1000 kms from Seville. I’ve walked that route and it is no mean undertaking. To do it on horseback requires a lot of planning and support. He got a little prickly when I had to ask him to spell his apellido, his second name, because I couldn’t read his writing and I think he thought there were extra security checks as I rifled through the lists looking for his name in Latin. Carefully I wrote it out Immanuelem Angelorum Perez Diez. A little of the arrogance returned. “My name is wrong”, he said as he looked at me writing it. “This is your Compostela with your name written in Latin. Congratulations” I said, and shook his hand.

He gazed carefully at the certificate with eyes glistening and then like a wee boy he almost whooped and jumped up and down as he shouted to the other caballeros “They write your name in Latin!”

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Behind the Green Door

I arrived in Santiago on the 3.30 flight yesterday. It will be a busy week. I’ll spend a few days working in the Pilgrims’ Office as I did a couple of weeks ago then later in the week one of my friends, fellow pilgrim and checker of my Guidebooks is arriving in Santiago. Joaquin has asked him sing at the Pilgrims’ Mass on the Feast of Santiago on 25 July. If that happens the lunch which follows should be splendid! We’ll see.

I’m also hoping to meet pilgrim and author Tracey Saunders as she finishes the Camino Portuguese and Iain from the Pilgrims’ Forum at the end of his Camino Frances. Apparently I owe him a glass of Johnnie Walker.

I’ve been reflecting on where the idea came from to do voluntary work in the Pilgrims’ Office. I think it stems from that first visit at the end of the Via de la Plata when I walked from Seville 3 years ago. I had arrived the night before. Exhausted. I stood in a queue and I remember it was my turn and someone behind the desk called me forward. I looked on as they turned leaf after leaf in my Credencial looking at the stamps which I had collected wherever I stopped. Dozens of them. Each able to unlock a fond memory. Then there was a slight nervousness as the girl checked the last few stamps in some detail. “You stopped in Ponte Ulla?” she enquired and after confirmation applied the last stamp from the Cathedral of Santiago. She asked me to fill in a form which involved ticking some boxes. When I had finished doing that she took a certificate from a shelf under the desk, wrote my name in Latin on it and gave me my first Compostela.

I remember the moment vividly. I took the Compostela in its cardboard tube to lunch and proudly sat it on the table, like a student after graduation.

I assumed that the young people behind the desks in the Pilgrims’ Office were all volunteers who were pilgrims themselves. In fact whilst one or two volunteers do work in the office most are paid employees on temporary 9 month contracts because of the nature of the funding which the Cathedral gets from the government. But volunteer I did, and after a week of training and orientation earlier in the year I’ve started going back for a week or two as often as I can. Next year I’d like to walk a route and then spend a total of three months or so in Santiago. I want to be there for the month of July to experience the celebrations around the feast day in the last Jubilee Year until 2021.

Working in the Office is proving to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. There is a team of around 12 young people, led by Mari and Eduardo (photo), the office supervisors, under the watchful eye of Don Genaro, the priest in charge. He calls in several times a day and when he is not there he is usually sitting in Confessional Number 2 in the Cathedral. Look out for him. He is the genial wee man with the warm smile.

The team is supplemented by some temporary staff during the busy months and this year a young student in his first year at University is working full time for the month of July. Then there’s me – the old guy and very part time volunteer.

A couple of weeks ago on my first morning there I knew it was going to be just a tad busier than when I had done my training in February. Before the cafeteria opened for breakfast at 8am I decided to take stroll around Santiago at 7.30am. That would give me plenty of time to have something to eat and be at the office for it opening at 9 am. The sun was shining but it was surprisingly cool. Council workers were washing the streets, exactly as they do in many towns and cities in Spain. There were very people around.
My route took me down by the Cathedral and to complete the circuit back to my hostal I turned to walk past the Pilgrims’ Office. There was a queue. Already! I counted 32 pilgrims standing around, some in a line. There were more rucksacks neatly laid in a line stretching from the closed green door.

The queue didn’t go down when the office opened at 9am. It got longer. That day 1,000 pilgrims were received. The next day 1100. The team in the office work in 2 shifts – 9am – 2pm and 2pm – 9pm. They rarely take breaks. Perhaps 10 mins to grab something eat. Each day someone goes out for coffee. We drink it at our desks. The wave of pilgrims is unrelenting.

In many ways the routine is simple. Pilgrims are asked to wait at the glass door into the office. This is exactly like waiting at the line on the ground at airport passport control. They are called forward one at a time. They are asked for their Credencial first and the route they have taken is checked, their starting point identified and close attention is given to the stamps they have obtained in the last 100 kms in the case of walkers and 200 in the case of cyclists or those who travelled on horseback.

Whilst this is going on, pilgrims are asked to fill in their details on a form. Name, country of origin, starting point, age, profession and then three boxes under the heading “Motivation”. These are Religious Reasons, Religious or other reasons, Non Religious.

The person behind the desk waits until the box is ticked. If the pilgrim has ticked the “Religious” or “Religious and Other” boxes then the stamp of the Cathedral is given and the Compostela prepared. If the “Non Religious” box is ticked an additional stamp of the Office of Pilgrims is applied and a Certificate of Completion is prepared – not the Compostela.

The reason for this procedure appears straightforward. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is very old and for centuries the motivation was religious – the forgiveness of sins or time off the period in purgatory people thought they would experience. The destination is the tomb of St James, one of Christ’s closest associates. The Compostela is the traditional certificate that the pilgrimage has been complete “in a pious cause” or plainly, “for religious reasons”. The roots of the Compostela go back to the 13th Century. The pilgrims’ office sees itself as the guardian of that tradition and hence the questions are asked.

For most people the reasons for their pilgrimage are straightforward and the vast majority of people tick the box for Religious or Religious and Other reasons. Some others confidently tick the Non Religious box. A few find the whole thing confusing,

My own view is that the category “Religious or Other” is ambiguous. What the Pilgrims’ Office means is “Religious or Spiritual reasons” but it is almost as if they feely they would be diluting the tradition by saying so.

A number of pilgrims have either rejected formal religion or are at odds with an established church. But they remain deeply spiritual and can have walked a great distance to get to Santiago. Some discover to their horror that having ticked the Non-religious box that they do not receive a Compostela. Either they ask about this or their disappointment is palpable. Last week one young woman was crying and her boyfriend was angry. Mari, the supervisor was called. She is both patient and multi lingual. The girl explained that she had ticked the Non religious box because she doesn’t go to Church. “Why did you do the pilgrimage?” Mari enquired. “To deepen my love for my boyfriend and to think everyday about my sister who recently died”. The certificate was withdrawn and the Compostela issued. But some clarity and guidance could have avoided the difficulty.

The case of the girl and the Compostela is the first of hundreds of stories from the Pilgrims’ Office. I’ll tell you some of them next time.

Sunday, 19 July 2009


Over the last few weeks I’ve often tried to make time to write some of the stories which have been in my mind. Unfortunately reality intervened every time. I’ve also been doing too much. Friends would say that there was a time in my life when I thought I was superman. Nowadays, they say, I think I am Mighty Mouse. It started with the 9 Day festival in Clapham. There are 4 services a day and it is now in its 36th year. I started playing for the evening service 5 or 6 years ago. When I finished 9 of them I felt very virtuous. The church was packed and the singing was amongst the best I have ever heard in any church of any denomination. My friend Joaquin, the organist of Santiago Cathedral plays to a full Cathedral at the pilgrims’ mass each day at noon and he loves a full church. We all do.

Such is my obsessive personality the following year I decided to play at 2 of the services per day then last year I stepped that up to three a day. 27 in all. This year I decided to attempt all four. The Church is a 30 minute walk from my house and so at 6.20 am on the first morning I set off to play at the 7am service. There were 120 people there. I went back for the lunchtime service at 12.30 pm and there were even more people there. By mid afternoon I felt like nodding off at a meeting I was attending and by the 6pm service I was feeling a little disorientated. But the people kept coming and they kept singing. The Church had in excess of 300 people attending the 8pm service but to be honest I was by then too tired to care. I took the sensible decision to go back to three services per day and slept for 10 hours!

Even the 27 services in 9 days took a lot out of me. But it was great fun. By the last evening there were 500 people in this old Victorian Church and at one point I thought the singing would lift off the roof. That is one of the significant differences with the pilgrims mass in Santiago. The people don’t sing. Well, the Spaniards who are in the majority never sing anyway. So whilst the cantor valiantly tries to rehearse and rouse people all she usually gets in response is a faint mumble from the congregation.

But that silence apart there are other downsides to Joaquin’s enviable position of playing to a full church everyday. The first of course is that he has to play every day. Twice. He accompanies the 9.30 Mass which is in a traditional style. The Canons of the Cathedral process in at the start, many of them looking as if they have seen better days. They sing the Office and then they go into a High Mass with sung prayers and responses. Traditional right enough. But no one attends.

Joaquin then goes back for the Pilgrims’ Mass. He usually turns up at 11.55. He turns on the organ and uses a telephone to phone the singing nun on the altar. She dictates the running order of the music and 4 minutes later she announces that Mass is starting. Joaquin pulls out a few stops and the ceremony is underway.

This routine is repeated 365 days of the year. There is another organist, Manuel, who spells Joaquin and they cover each other for holidays. But the routine can be deadly. I also suspect that whilst the music varies a little, the sermon is basically the same every day. Mind numbing.

One of the things that struck me during the 9 day playathon in Clapham was the way the time passed so quickly. The routine is all absorbing. There is little time to fit anything else in. One day merges into the other. I think I’m beginning to understand how life passes for people who follow a monastic way of life. Turning up for prayer 5 or 6 times a day would sure make the time flash past.

And of course Cathedrals are in many ways like the other total institutions described by Erving Goffman in his book Asylums such as prisons and mental hospitals. When people live and work for very large parts of their time in an institution which has its own rules and culture, the internal world becomes more important than the external. So the community life of the Cathedral is vitally important to everyone who lives and works there from the priest who is the administrator or boss of the Cathedral, the porters who take up the collection and fly the Botafumeiro, the people in the souvenir shop and the night shift of cleaners. All personalities in their own world.
I was in the Cathedral about 10pm one evening practising on the organ with Joaquin. It was a quite different cathedral. Huge cleaning machines were passing up and down the aisles. The cleaners were chatting to one another. Candle sticks were being polished and that particular evening there was intermittent sound of an electric drill as repairs were being made to a wall bracket. Towards the end of the session I asked Joaquin if he would play something. He showed me the score of a piece of music by a modern composer. One glance told me that this was technically demanding but would certainly not have a tune that would stay in my head afterwards.

Joaquin set to it. It was quiet and loud, it was slow and fast. At times his fingers danced along the keyboard. It was fascinating to watch but listening to it was quite a different matter. Suddenly there was shouting from down below. I looked over and there was one of the cleaners shouting up to the organ loft at the top of her voice and shaking her first. I could barely make out what she was saying as Joaquin kept playing. Then I understood one word. “Basura”. Rubbish. She was shouting “that music is rubbish”! Joaquin said to me as he played, “what is she shouting about?” I explained that I thought she was shouting that his music was rubbish. Crazy musician that he is, he took his hands from the keyboard, flew off the organ stool to the railing and shouted down “Maria, why don’t you just shut up? I have to listen to your cleaning machine from hell. So you can listen to me.” In high dudgeon he pulled out every single stop and started playing. It was so discordant he could have been playing with his elbows. Musical revenge.

But to recover from all the musical exertions I then spent a week in the Pilgrims’ Office receiving pilgrims and issuing Compostelas. That is another story.