Sunday, 27 September 2009

Keeping going

Some letters in my in box this week have reminded me of the strength of the human spirit to endure in the face of great difficulty. Some people live with serious infirmity, pain and disability and yet their spirits soar. One of these pilgrim friends who tackled the challenges and went on to make several Caminos to Santiago has written to me about his experience. His story will appear here and I’ll send it to the Confraternity of St James hopefully for wider circulation.
Reading the correspondence again reminded me of the challenges of life that all of us face, some more than others. In many ways making the pilgrimage to Santiago is a symbolic walking of the road of life with all of its joys and pleasures, physical and mental challenges, its obstacles and set backs. The many different people encountered along the way.

Some people travel the journey of life until old age. Others are stopped in their tracks much earlier. The first of my contemporaries died tragically in the last week and maybe that has me thinking in this vein. But rather than dwell on those with short Caminos I’m trying to keep my eye on a more distant horizon!

That’s why I’ve been thinking about the long-livers in the Johnnie Walker dynasty. So far the women have lived well into their 90’s with the men like my father living well into their 80’s. By rights I should be walking for many years yet!

I’ve also been thinking about where people draw their strength. For my Dad, a working class man with no education, surprisingly it was poetry and literature.

When he died the priest at his funeral spoke of his last visits to him.” He was a quiet and unassuming man. He had no “if onlys” in his life. No regrets. Beside his bed lay the sources of his pleasure – the bible, the letters of Henry Root and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of poetry. In these three the character of the man was revealed. Faithful to what he believed and the family he loved. The driest sense of humour. A deep and creative spirit. “

Some months ago on the outstanding blog of the Solitary Walker, I read his appreciation of the poetry of Worsdsworth. I’ve kept going back to the series of posts. For a poet who never walked to Santiago - as far as we know! Wordsworth has keen insights into this journey we make on our own:

Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies;
oh! then,If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

A few weeks ago on the Route from Madrid there were many miles of endless paths to walk in the baking sun. I find the rhythm of walking in this completely open landscape very hypnotic. Balm for the mind and soul. The words of Wordsworth came back to me then and so too did the words of Seamus Heaney in his poem Keeping Going.

This was a work I was introduced to many years ago. Again I go back to its passages from time to time.

So here is the first and last stanzas for those who may be unfamiliar with it. Heaney wrote this about his brother who suffered from “turns” or “seizures”.

The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling round you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow,
Your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting
With laughter, but keeping the drone going on
Interminably, between catches of breath.

My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all?
As it was In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

And there we have it. Every pilgrim in their own way keeps the old roads open by walking on the new paths and sometimes in our Caminos whether on the Mesta or not, all we can do is keep going.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

It doesn't matter...

I've just spent two days in conference at Warren House (here). I'd never heard of it before but it turned out to be an outstanding experience. The venue is wonderful and our group was even more impressed by the standard of service and the excellent quality of the food.

Why am I telling you this?

Well everything on this blog is Camino related.

Shortly after arriving I got into conversation with the lady in charge who was showing me to my room. She asked if I'd been on holiday and I said I'd been walking in Spain. She, and her husband who is the chef producing the amazing food, are also ardent walkers. "Find out more about the Camino routes in Spain, they are truly wonderful " I advised.
It is true: the paths are well marked with yellow arrows all the way. You can either stay in the almost free dormintory accommodation provided at regular intervals on the routes or in hotels or hostals. You walk through some of the most stunning scenery and picturesque paths like the canal stretch I walked on the route from Madrid a few weeks ago. The weather is almost guaranteed to be good if you choose when you go. The people are friendly and it is great fun.
I then began to wonder what may happen to someone researching these old pilgrim routes for this first time. It is perfectly possible that as well as being attracted by the scenery and the lifestyle of walking pilgrims they could be put off by what some people think is the "right" way to go about it.

This reminded me of a lunch I had in Santiago with a student at Cambridge who is studying social anthropology. He is focussing his thesis on the Pilgrimage to Santiago. He proposes to investigate “if there is a correct way to do the Camino”.

Take any group of pilgrims and this will be a hot topic. We pilgrims are a very opinionated lot. Haven’t you noticed? I think it comes from the sense of achievement pilgrims get when they complete their journey. Also that very human characteristic that each of is the best pilgrim compared to the others.

“What makes a journey into a pilgrimage?” “What makes you a pilgrim and not simply a traveller?” Are only two of the many questions which have been debated for centuries. So too are the prescriptions for how people ought to behave:

“A pilgrimage is only a pilgrimage because of prayer. If you don’t pray it is simply a journey” writes one commentator.

“You aren’t a real pilgrim if you don’t sleep in albergues and share everything with the 30 other strangers also sleeping there” writes another.

“No pain, no gain” is a particularly grim slogan regarding blisters and sore muscles.

And so it goes on.

My own view is a simple one. Take time out to make the pilgrimage by walking a Camino route to Santiago and let the journey do the rest.

Here is my contribution to the debate:

It doesn’t matter if you…

Walk on a route where you won’t meet anyone else
Walk on the Camino Frances and meet everyone else

Sleep in hotels and hostals during your journey
Share accommodation with other pilgrims in albergues

Take every detour to the holy places traditionally visited by the medieval pilgrims
Walk straight to Santiago in the shortest time possible

Carry every item of kit on your back each day
Arrange to have your luggage carried forward to your next destination

Eat from the a la carte menu in restaurants and enjoy good wine
Eat the Menu del Dia with three courses, bread and a bottle of luminescent red wine for 8 Euros

Get one or two sellos per day
Spend your time collecting many sellos as a memento of your journey

Give according to your means in albergues and churches
Give a minimum donativo

Journey in reflective silence eschewing modern technology
Take your IPod, IPhone, Netbook and other gadgets

Follow the yellow arrows
Use a GPS positioning device

Simply follow the path marked by others
Use a guidebook with maps, directions and local history

Buy designer walking clothes and top of the range kit
Spend the minimum equipping yourself

Train for months walking every day with a full rucksack
Pack your rucksack and go

Get blisters, tendonitis and muscle strain
Enjoy a pain free pilgrimage

Pray every day, visit every church you can find opened and go to Mass every evening
You don’t believe in God and wouldn’t be found dead in church

The only thing that matters is…

You walk all of the pilgrim way to Santiago.

As we are all different, so too are our Caminos. But there is power in walking these old paths. The effect is individual. For some deeply religious. Others are amazed to think about spiritual things for the first time. Some pilgrims enjoy encounters with others. Some don’t. But the cumulative effect of making step after step for many kilometres through a strange country is very real. And it happens to everyone in their own way.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Auld claes and porridge

It is hard to believe that this time last week I was still in Santiago about to start my final shift in the Pilgrims' Office. Then on the Sunday we flew back. Despite the rampant money grasping of Ryanair they continue to be reliable on the route from Santiago to London. The flight took off at 11.20, on time. It arrived 15 minutes early. There was a train about to leave Stansted which we caught and at 2.15 I was sitting in La Teraza, the Galician restaurant in Clapham!

Of course the week has whizzed past with meetings and a mountain of correspondence. I've also been looking at planning the music for Advent and Christmas. Doing that always comes as a shock. Yes, that time of year is nearly upon us.

But I've been snatching a few minutes every now and again to look at some of the images of the route from Madrid:

This proved to be a demanding route but it is really very special. I'm not sure I would recommend it as a first route in its entirety but Madrid is so accessible walking parts of it would be a splendid way to get away from it all or to practice for a first Camino. Madrid to Segovia would be lovely and is a stretch I will walk again. The memory of the majestic Cathedral of Segovia in the cool dawn light is vivid.

So too are memories of arriving at the Peaceable Kingdom in Moratinos. It was a short two-night visit and although I’d met Rebekah before when we had dinner in Madrid on a previous trip I’d never met her husband Paddy. Paddy is a former editor of a tabloid newspaper and then specialised in developing colour magazines and supplements. Rebekah is also a journalist. They met while working together on a newspaper. Newsprint is embedded deep in their consciousness and it is clear from conversation that they have both wielded the “simple sword of truth” very effectively in their careers. Perhaps too enthusiastically, sometimes, by their own admission.

These are all my own prejudices, I suppose, but aren’t former newspaper hacks meant to be living and playing golf on the Costa del Sol and daily boasting to other ex pats about the scoops they landed over the years?

Rather Rebekah and Paddy are the only two native English speakers in a community of 18 souls in Moratinos. The Camino Frances passes through their main street. “Main” is an outlandish description it could be called street number 1 because there only is one other street. Both short.

One of the things I had been thinking about their seemingly idyllic way of life was how they cope with the boredom of being there all the time, day in and day out. No bar, no cinema, no shops. I was therefore astonished to discover that they have also taken the decision not to have a television. The internet, which they supply to the village, is their link with the outside world.

But quickly an impression of their daily life emerges. There are the two dogs Tim and Una, both demanding care and attention. Both best friends of Rebekah and Paddy. There is a fiercely independent and very elegant cat called Murphy and a singing canary. I’m sure he also had a name.

Music plays all the time. Classical Spanish guitar performed by a friend of theirs. Jazz tinkled on the piano and songs of yesteryear. Dinner round a large kitchen table. They both felt easy. They are used to visitors.

I was fascinated by Paddy. I took to him immediately. I enjoyed his sense of humour, his crusty satirical insights into all aspects of human and animal behaviour. I can imagine him publishing outlandish stories to increase newspaper sales. Although I was relieved to find he wasn’t editor of the newspaper which published “Freddy Starr ate my hamster”. I can also imagine him ruthlessly pursuing individuals for a story. It turns out some of these things also remain on his mind.
But they are both in a new place. It becomes clear that isn’t just geographical. They describe their home as a “House of Welcome”. The sign outside is pretty and has a cup of tea illustrated. The message to pilgrims is “call in for a rest, a cup of tea, a friendly chat. Stay over if you wish. Rest awhile.” They operate on the traditional strictly donativo model. No charges. Give what you want. They also believe in the saying that “pilgrims take what they need and give what they can”.

Therefore they have pilgrims who stay and do work on the house and outbuildings in a fair exchange for a bed and food.

Is this like a classy bed and breakfast amazingly run on donativo lines? I think it is a whole lot more than that. Rebekah and Paddy are good people. They are both pilgrims. They live their lives in Moratinos. They are engaged with the local community. They have children, relatives and friends outside the pilgrims’ world. They go walks. They make pilgrimage from time to time.
But whether they like it or not, and I suspect Paddy will not like the term, they are developing a ministry to pilgrims. They have a policy of not turning anyone away. If someone has problems neither of them will walk by on the other side.

This can lead to difficulties. Not everyone likes everyone else. Paddy and Rebekah are not saints and neither are some of the pilgrims who come to stay. Both of them have views on the world and Paddy can articulate his with acid humor. I can imagine people disagreeing. I loved it. They embrace unusual people, needy people, people who might be freeloading, people about whom they know nothing. All are welcome.

I decided very quickly that I couldn’t do what they do. I just couldn’t open my home and my heart to every random stranger who knocked on my door. Well...I would try, but I couldn’t sustain it. Yet here they are. They seemed to have found a place in the world in which they are comfortable.

I can imagine Paddy commanding the editor’s office dispatching journalists to deliver the evidence and verdict on politicians and criminals. But what I saw in Moratinos was a man entirely comfortable with his animals and whose face broke into the proudest smile when describing Max the new cockerel who is now literally ruling the roost.

Nowadays the office which Paddy commands is the vestibule of the church when he takes his turn with the rest of the villagers to open it to pilgrims in a new project. Instead of spiking some stories and publishing others he now stamps every pilgrim's passport.

As we got into the car to leave for Santiago I looked back into the Church at Paddy and thought, “there’s a man who has found some peace”.

As for me this week has just been back to old clothes and porridge to use the Scottish term. Maybe a week in Spain in November sorting out the new guide to the Madrid route….hmmmmm.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Two Weddings and a Crisis

I feel so at home in Santiago I always feel slightly sad when I Ieave. Being a creature of habit I usually have a final turn around the great square and then mount the steps to sit in the Cathedral for a few moments. It isn't the biggest in the world but the imposing sanctuary dominates and draws the eyes to the figure of Santiago presiding over everything.
Santiago is a pilgrim city. Of that there is no doubt, but I wonder if after seeing us for 500 years whether pilgrims have become pretty invisible to the shopkeepers and hoteliers of the town. Pilgrims don't stay for long and in my hostal there is often a turnover of clients every 24 hours. Many talk about the emptiness of Santiago when their Camino ends and friends from the Way disperse. There are lone diners in restaurants and whereas on the route strangers would strike up conversations about the weather, the albergue, blisters and the Menu de Peregrino, now back in civilisation other conventions seem to apply. Being Scottish I suppose, I've tried to chat to strangers in bars and restaurants often to be met with the cold stare of the tourist looking at me, a pilgrim in tired clothes, as if he might be robbed at any moment. I sense a tangible difference when I wear regular shoes, trousers, socks and shirts in Santiago. Indifference changes to respect. Perhaps because tourists spend more than pilgrims. Or maybe pilgrms have just become invisible.

In these last few days there has been a fairly constant stream through the Office. Yesterday I read out an internet posting reporting that over 200 pilgrims per day are still setting out from St Jean de Pied Port. This news was met with a resigned groan from colleagues. There is to be no respite yet.

Yesterday pilgrims thronged in the old town rubbing shoulders with many of the middle classes of Santiago dressed to the nines. Cocktail dresses and ball gowns adorned haughty looking women with their hair piled precariously high. Men in morning dress congregated outside bars drinking bottles of beer. There was an air of expectation and a cloud of confusing aromas as many different perfumes mixed with stronger colognes. All awaited the arrival of the bride. It is now September and like salmon leaping with the season churches are festooned with bouquets and uncomfortable grooms in patent leather shoes with their wedding uniform look as if they wished they were wearing anything else. Perhaps some wish they were anywhere else!

The bride duly appeared and the crowd of locals, tourists and pilgrims ahhhhhed with the waiting wedding guests. Then she was gone. The church doors closed to outsiders. The morning suits retreated back to the bar. Weddings are for women in Spain. Then there was a ripple of excitement. Round the corner at another church there was another wedding. The crowd shuffled off.

I'm booked to play at 3 weddings when I get back. I try to avoid them. Funerals are much more my thing. At funerals there are no photographers, no preening, no video makers, no horse-drawn carriages and hired bell ringers and the principal participant is never late.

Weddings are hugely extravagant. All the more so in Spain where style is everything. They seem unaffected by the financial crisis which has gripped the world and still dominates Spanish news and political TV programmes. Everywhere in Santiago shopkeepers and bar owners report a down turn in sales and an increase in bankruptcies. This time there are noticeably more beggars on the streets. And like the price wars of English breakfasts on the Costa del Sol there is now a Compostela version. Three bottles of wine and two Tartas de Santiago for €10 was the best offer of many. Menus of the Day now start at €5.50. Signs of the times.

We left having been presented with bottles of homemade Liquor de Hierbas. Green and very dangerous.

Hasta la proxima. Until the next time.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Even birthdays have to wait

We spent two days with Rebekah and Paddy in their home, the Peaceable Kingdom, in a place called Moratinos. It lies almost in the middle of the Camino Frances and a great procession of pilgrims pass through there every day. But no one has heard of it. We told the people in the hostal in Villalon de Campos where we were going, we also mentioned it to the priest and the lady in the Farmacia but they all looked blank.

Rebekah turned up at the appointed hour to collect us. She had dogs Una and Tim in tow. Una has recently had a leg amputated but seemed irrepressible. Rebekah wanted to know all about the route and we chatted before she went off to buy sausages and we fetched our bags.

In a jiffy we were whizzing along the main road. We caught up with the young lad from Madrid we had met on the route. He refused a lift even for his pack and we bade him "buen camino" for the last time.

Blink and you would pass Moratinos, a hamlet of 18 inhabitants. We met Paddy her husband who I took to immediately. Both were still smarting from a difficult situation which had arisen with someone else - I know everyone involved. All good people. But sometimes people just don't get on. When this happens we need to deal with it and move on.

Rebekah and Paddy are living the dream of many people especially pilgrims. They renovated a country house, in Spain, almost on the Camino Frances. They are embraced by their neighbours and they open their home to pilgrims whenever they can. They offer listening ears, tea, respite and where needed, a bed. I found they also offered seriously interesting conversation and both have not only been pilgrims but have served others as hospitaleros.

Theirs is a ministry of the most individual kind. I couldn't do what they do and I want to think more about my time with them before writing more.

On Saturday Rebekah kindly drove us to the station at Sahagun. We were early for our train to Santiago and we joined her for some shopping in the market. The smells of fresh vegetables mixed with those from the cheese stall. The place was bustling with people. Freshly baked bread was being bought in the Panaderia as if it was going out of fashion.

We bought the makings of a picnic for our train journey to Santiago and the train pulled up at the platform exactly on time. We found our pre allocated seats and settled down for the journey of six and a half hours. I had been half certain this must be a mistake on the timetable but the conductor confirmed it. So too by coincidence did the book I had borrowed from Rebekah. In "On Pilgrimage" Jennifer Lash described the same train journey in 1986. The journey hasn't got shorter in 20 years. But they now show feature films in carriages more like aeroplane cabins. It was clean and had curtains which worked. Why can't British Rail be like this?

I was treated like a long lost son on arrival at my usual hostal in Santiago and alleluia, the box of clothes sent ahead from London had arrived. There is an almost sensual pleasure in changing out of the same clothes worn and washed daily on Camino. There is also a feeling of petite mort as another journey ends.

We had arrived just as the great August holiday was coming to an end and next morning in the Pilgrims' Office I was regaled by tales of long queues of pilgrims waiting for their compostela. Over 35,000 had been issued in the previous month. The police had been called twice when pilgrims had refused to accept the office had to close at 9pm, 12 hours after opening. In scenes redolent of the middle ages the angry queue had blocked the door pushing the poor members of staff out of the way.

I was very interested that these stories were related without a hint of resentment. Crazy pilgrims. But I bet it wasn't funny at the time.

August ending is as if a tap has been turned down. The flow of pilgrims slows. The Office is more relaxed. Time this afternoon for a small party with cakes for a celebration delayed from the busy days. In August even birthdays have to wait.