Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Great Escape

The sun has been shining for days, giving everybody, especially the farmers, a real boost. Modesto, who Knows These Things, says we´ll only have a couple more little tastes of winter, and he´s so confident of continued sun he´s having his roof worked on! The Paddy´s out in the patio, contentedly painting pictures and trashing the place, snapping photos of the canary, cat and dogs. I am trying to catch up with all the writing, PR, and editing projects I told people I will help with.

And today being the first day of Lent, I have joined Living Water, a Christian non-profit that drills water wells in needy lands. People like me swear off drinking anything but water for at least two weeks of Lent, and donate the money saved to help them pay for water drilling. It looks like a win-win sort of deal to me: they raise some funds, the Africans get fresh water, and I get my system flushed-out.

But "everything but water" includes coffee, tea, and Diet Coke. Caffeine. I had my last cup of coffee last night, after dinner... I have been slowly cutting back my caffeine consumption over the past couple of months, so I am managing. No headaches or crankiness. But dear God in heaven am I SLEEPY!

...Or maybe it´s yesterday that´s done it to me. We had a lovely day out yesterday, a drive up to Rabanal del Camino, a mountain village on the camino west of Astorga. Way up there, our hospitalero trainees Malin and David are house-sitting at a riding stable. They had us over for a day of hanging out and horses.

And it was a resplendent day, one of the best of 2009 so far! The weather was perfect. Rabanal, even shuttered for the winter, was its usual charming self, with the little monastery bells chiming the hours and the white, silent mountains standing tall all ´round. (Rabanal is where the London confraternity keeps Refugio Gaucelmo, its original shipshape pilgrim hostel. It´s where Paddy and I did our first gig as hospitaleros, back in 2003.)

It´s rough up at the Centro Ecuestre. There are 11 horses of varying sizes and abilities, a nice long barn that wasn´t built too solidly, not quite enough pasture to deal with all the creatures, a three-quarters-built house that runs on a diesel generator and springwater, and two pony-sized dogs. And a mountain view straight off a postcard!

Some folks came over the mountain from the growing hippie communities in Foncebadon and Manjarin, including a horse-mad 14-year-old girl visiting from Normandy and a waitress from Germany. So all us girls rounded up a horse each, saddled up, and took off for a trail ride over the mountain. The menfolk sat out on the porch and took in the view and some quantities of vino and let themselves be enchanted by the canine colossus. Everyone got sunburned, but everyone ended the day with a big smile.

And David made some Ukrainian borscht that was to die for. Maybe that´s what´s making me so sleepy now?

Back here in Moratinos there was a bit of excitement this afternoon: at long last the Teacher House over in San Nicolas went up for its blind auction. We didn´t win. I am telling myself that is a good thing, it was going to be a mountain of work and we still need to focus our money and time on this place.

Still, it was fun dreaming for a while. Maybe when the contract comes up again in three years we can make a better bid. Or maybe something better will appear.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Way up there to way down here

It´s practically spring back here in Moratinos. The fields are crawling with tractors, which fling fertilizer and seeds and some kind of spray all over the place. Lots of strange birds are passing through, flying over on their way to Africa or Sweden. My little seedlings are almost all sprouted, and I am transplanting a few of the hardy survivors into bigger pots already.

Here are some pics of my sojourn in Gouda, Netherlands and Ghent, Belgium. I will go back there again next year, if not sooner. The herring alone is worth the trip, and the Dragon Pearl tea (it´s a little dry wad of tea that looks rather like a donkey dropping, but put it in a cup of boiling water and.. voila! I love these nutty, lovely, Chinese things!

... but the trip there and back was less than nice. RyanAir, the low-cost airline that links Valladolid to Brussels, was a big disappointment this time ´round. They charge people without EU passports an extra 10 Euro each leg of the trip, but they don´t tell you that til you get to the airport. Very nasty. I have written them a very mean letter, and warned them I will tell all of you in BlogLand that they are Snakes In the Grass. Cheap snakes, but reptiles nevertheless. Right down there with lawyers and journalists and lobbyists.

Back here in Moratinos we found the Final Answer to the Hole of Mysteries. Raimunda, the lady whose family lived here since forever, said she recalls talk of a bodeguita out back -- a little bodega. A man-made hole dug underground for keeping fresh the greens cut to feed the rabbits, and later the rabbits cut to feed the people. It was filled-in long, long ago. And now it is back again, sans bunnies, good only for stimulating the imaginations of New World invaders. (Gotta do something about it soon.) Carlos and Leandra were in town for a little while, staying at the Corner House on the plaza, home of the late Victoriana. Milagros, Leandra´s sister, was also buzzing around, so Paddy and I were brought in, sat down by the kitchen fire, given tea and pre-Fat Tuesday goodies, (it was a little early in the day for orujo!) and shown the bodeguita there, dug beneath the floor in what used to be the town tavern. Theirs is much more civilized, even with a foot of water on the floor.

Amazing things all around.

The only cloud on my horizon is inside my mouth. I´ve lost a piece of tooth, and today learned I may well need a root canal. A 300-euro, 3-visit job to the dentist in Palencia.

So now I will go and have a nap to think it all over.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ghent is for Glovers

Bet you didn't know that "ghent" in old French means "glove." They used to make those here, evidently.

It's not stopped raining since I arrived in Ghent, but I'm still getting around plenty. Everything is in easy walking distance and everything is charming. There are streets and streets of little shops that sell bread and cheese, milk and mussels and omigod-quality salad ingredients. The veg is amazing, probably due to the great acres of greenhouses that glow along the rural horizons. We ate a gang of those greens, grilled, for our dinner last night.

It's not all green perfection out there. Coming into the city we passed a huge coalyard and several refineries and truck and train depots -- under the gray sky it was a rather dreary New Jersey kind of place, but without the drifts of just plain litter that plague The Garden State. The Bad Part of Town is the usual gaggle of sagging two-story walkups and Doner Kebab shops, bars and lottery-ticket agent type places. (Probably a few bookies too, I bet.) Lots of immigrants, lots of people sitting on doorsteps. Still, no litter. It may be scruffy, but it's not dirty.

Once you get into the city you see what all that industry and outlying poverty is supporting -- it's a fabulous tourist offering, full of shimmering canals, charming bridges, inlaid-marble churches, and thriving shops. Yeah, there are a few big media department stores and clothing retailers, but most are little boutique offerings, in storefronts dating back to the 1700s. They specialize.

And yesterday morning we went shopping. I bought handmade mustard in the mustard shop, postcards in a curiosity shop that's crowded with angels and erotic French postcards, spices in the amazingly fragrant spice shop, drinks in a bar with a chandelier made of Barbie doll parts. Other shops we looked in, but I didn't buy. Like the lace place. Beautiful curtains and nightgowns, as well as tea-table fitments with little froufrou pockets for your knife, fork, and spoon, little ties to keep your napkin from unfolding at the wrong moment (I hate when that happens!), even tiny embroidered hats to keep your boiled egg warm and cozy. Somehow I must find a way to keep living without one of those.

Still I bought way too much stuff to get home in my single carry-on bag. What will I do, I wonder? (RyanAir's already cheesed me off by charging me an extra 10 Euro each leg of my trip... their way to quietly soaking everyone who dares to fly with them who is not a European passport holder. To check a bag costs some obscene amount, measured by weight. )

Everyone here speaks at least three languages, including beauticians, shop clerks, and small children. America has not excuse for ripping-off its children so sorely and educating them so poorly in languages.

And now I am back out to spend some quality time with The Mystical Lamb. Photos will be added when I get home.

I go home tomorrow. I am ready. I miss Paddy!

Monday, 16 February 2009

High the Low Countries

And so here I am in Ghent, Belgium, in a loft apartment high up in the rooftops of the city.
I've never been here before. It looks, from here, like a dandy place.
For some reason I kinda just want to hole up here in Filipe's garret and not go anywhere at all. It's COLD out there!

I've written before about Filipe and Dick. They came to visit a time or two at The Peaceable since I started blogging, so I won't go into all the background: just enough to say I met Dick in 2001, whilst walking the Camino de Santiago, and we became friends. Dick lives and works in Gouda, Netherlands, where we spent the last couple of days luxuriating and eating, mostly. Filipe I met via Dick. Filipe is a scientist at the Gent University Hospital bioengineering genetics lab, and what he does is so cutting-edge arcane I cannot even remember what it's called. Filipe's probably the smartest person I know, and I still like him very well indeed in spite of that. And today he will show me 'round Ghent, and continue the Let's Feed Rebekah regimen evidently agreed-upon in advance.

Filipe is Portuguese. Portuguese have a rep all over Europe for being amazing cooks, and Filipe is no exception. Even his "simple pick-up" meals after a long drive south include minted peas, rutabaga-mascarpone puree, lamb chops in balsamic garlic reduction, chicory and olive salad... yeah. You get it. He loves cooking for an audience, and I am always willing to fill that role. And my tummy.

Today we're off in search of a stylin' haircut, a Van Eyck altarpiece called "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," some Lambic beer, maybe some Juan Munoz sculpture they keep in an old monastery. They have monasteries and churches all over the place here, right up there with Spanish preponderances. Apparently Belgium was once a major center of Catholicism... and every city also had a Beguinage, a sort of non-binding religious house for widows and unmarried women who wanted to live independant of their brothers and fathers. Pretty revolutionary for 500 years ago.

But all I think about Belgium is summed-up in touristic impressions of great beer, waffles, chocolate, and, um... Hercule Peirrot, the detective. Nothing really springs to mind, does it? There's not even a mean name you can say that means "Belgian." I wonder how they managed to stay so under the radar.

Maybe I will report back later with impressions of the place. If I don't eat and drink and shop myself into a stupor first.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Hole of Mysteries Exposed!

WARNING To those who have not yet visited The Peaceable Kingdom: We sometimes ask our guests to help out around here. We do not ordinarily send them into underground crevasses we do not dare plumb on our own. The people involved were volunteers, and acted of their own free will. No animals were harmed. Your experience will vary.
... ... ...

Yacine and Sabrina did not know what waited for them in the back garden.

Their visit here has been extraordinary in several ways. Yacine and Sabrina are not pilgrims. They never heard of the Camino de Santiago before they arrived here. They are two very young and pretty people from the dangerous, dark-skinned suburbs of Paris. They are a brother and sister. Their parents are Algerian immigrants who are raising nine children.

These two last week decided to take a mini-holiday to Spain. They discovered us on, and asked if they could stay here as part of their trip. Sure, I said. We never had any French Algerians stay before, and things are pretty slow.

Long story short, they drove 15 hours straight through the night, arrived here Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., and tomorrow at about 5 a.m. they´re getting back in their car and driving straight home to Paris. We´re not just a stop on their way someplace else... we ARE where they were going. Holy moley, the pressure! So of course we had to give them the deluxe visitor treatment, seeing as this is all of Spain they´ve ever seen.

It was a whirlwind tour of the chainsaw boutiques and produce stalls of Sahagún, a look at the bridge and convent and Mudejar churches there, (everything was closed, of course) a drive out to Grajal to see a real castle and Duke´s Palace (closed too), long toils through dusty winter-brown villages. They seem to really love it!

We learned that they keep Muslim Halal dietary laws, so we couldn´t serve them a lot of what we eat... so they volunteered to cook. They are accustomed to cooking for a family of eleven. So we have pidé-type veggie pizzas to last a week, and strawberry shortcake, and a chocolate yogurt cakey kind of thing, and a box of French chocolates they brought along, and a bottle of champagne, even. And cheese. For 11.

We learned that Yacine loves ghost stories Irish folk music, and Sabrina is a nationally ranked Thai-style kick-boxer who also enjoys speleology. Which means exploring underground caves and tunnels. Which means, of course...

She´s an answer to my prayers. In keeping with the sterling treatment we offer to all our guests, we offered her the opportunity to don a bright blue cover-all mono and climb into The Backyard Mystery Hole.

I went first, just to be sure it was safe. This was a great achievement, the fruit of many days of contemplation and fear-facing. I am claustrophobic. I harbor a deep-seated fear of closed-in, small places stemming from a traumatic childhood incident involving a drowned canary and a small coat closet. I finally decided to let my curiosity overwhelm my neurosis. I put my mind someplace far away, tucked the flashlight and camera into my mono, and lowered myself into the earth.

The animals were intrigued. Paddy made noises of concern. The hole was too narrow to double-over in, so I couldn´t get my head down far enough to see where the tunnel continued off in another direction, down where my feet were.

But I sat my butt down on the floor of the tunnel, and poked my feet down the hole as far as they would go. I didn´t find the ending, but my toe touched something round and upright... a support pillar of some sort. I put the camera down there, and snapped some pictures. They look like Mark Rothko paintings. They reveal nothing, but they have a lovely golden glow.

Paddy took a turn, but soon emerged again. He declared the tunnel definitely the work of human hands, carved out of the same soil that makes up the bodega -- a kind of clay that hardens to rock when exposed to air.

Then Sabrina, swathed in blue, of her own free will, lowered herself into the darkness. She is small and flexible and curious, and she was able, with the light, to see down into the tunnel.

It does come to an end, she said, about four feet down. The walls and ceilings are hard and curved, but the floor is soft and silty. There´s a right angle where the left wall meets the ceiling, and yes -- some kind of support pillar down there, holding up the roof.

No Visigoth treasure. No stash of guns or dynamite or hooch. Just dirt. Just what we´d expected. But still very cool indeed. And still a mystery. Why is it here? Who made it? And what do we do with it now?

... ... ... ...

Perhaps the best thing to come out of the experience was a photograph, taken by Paddy when I realized I was coming up out of that hole alive. I look a little like my mother, and a bit like the little girl who gave the canary a bath lo those 40 years ago. I look very happy, even though I am over my head in filth. And up above, like a benevolent Familiar Spirit, a brown hen hovers near.

It is a portrait of my life as she is lived. I am almost smiling.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Pigs and Pennants: A Salute

Have a look at all the widgets on the right. My favorite is the one with all the little flags on it. It shows who´s reading the blog today, or at least where they are in the world.

I always loved flags. When I was a little girl we owned a big black-backed encyclopedia
full of all kinds of fabulous facts. What I liked best (aside from the sweet smell of black ink) was the Plates In Full Colour. And of those, (aside from the transparencies showing human innards) were the Flags of the World pages. All those colors and symbols and coats-of-arms, representing exotic, god-knows-where places! Me and my sister Beth played guessing games with them, thus adding to our vast stores of utterly useless geography trivia.

And so today it feeds my self-regard, knowing at a glance that someone in Neidersachsen, Germany read five blog pages, and someone else from Baja, Mexico looked at two... and yet another, in Ulan Bator, looked at one. (he stumbled in accidentally whilst searching for "castration nurses".)

Quiet days here. Two pilgrims coming tomorrow, our first of February.
My seedlings are up: sunflowers, tomatoes, lavender, catnip. Today I planted red hot chili pepper seeds! I´m sure I am way too early. They all will likely die before they ever hit the real dirt. But this makes me feel hopeful, seeing green things emerge from the soil and stand up straight and form leaves.

Out in the patio, the spring bulbs are sprouting. In October I planted 200 bulbs, so this place oughtta burst into bloom one of these days soon.

Which makes me wonder about you readers from faraway, exotic locales. If you come here looking for deep insights on living on the Camino de Santiago, I am not sure you are well-served these wintry days, what with me blathering on about holes in the ground and seedlings. If it´s me and Patrick that draw you here, you must think we are two supremely boring individuals. (and you are probably right.) (Paddy and I are getting up each others´ noses lately.)

I prefer to think it´s the scintillating prose and sparkling wit. Or maybe my cunning over-use of parentheses?

And now I´ve gone all stream-of-consciousness on you all.

Maybe I should´ve just posted the blog I wrote this afternoon, the one all about pigs and pork and bar food and St. Martin´s Day. It fell victim to my Short Attention Span, I fear. Pigs are here among us, eating and sleeping and minding their pig business, fertilizing gardens and growing fat and adding texture and culture to our lives. But they are kept in the neighbors´ barnyards, invisible to the naked eye. Which makes them hard to write about compellingly. They´re silent and invisible, of course, until you are bringing some innocent visitors over to see the bodega, and you pass along behind the neighbors´ back gate, and you hear the pig in there... and he´s shrieking. Shrieking! And you realize, even as you skip up the path and round the corner, that it´s St. Martin´s Day, and that pig´s being butchered, right this minute, right on the other side of the gate.

OMG. I realize I´ve just heard that pig´s last words. I feel so guilty, somehow.

But when the neighbor gives me a lovely loop of chorizo sausage, likely made from that same pig, I thank her with genuine thankfulness. Because it is delicious. And maybe because I am a bit of a swine myself.

I wonder why all the flags of the world that have animals on them have eagles or snakes or lions or elephants.

Pigs are good chaps. Good chops, too. There ought to be a flag.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Blogging, logging, and tarts.

First up, I want to introduce you to a shiny NEW blog, written by my friend and colleague John Walker. Known to many as "Johnnie Walker" from the website, this guy is a true Camino Head with a navigator´s heart. He´s re-written the Confraternity of St. James Guides to the Caminos Ingles and Portuguese, and he´s now working on the Madrid Route.

He´s a born storyteller. He´s Scottish, but living in London. He´s a musician, a wit, and a ton of fun to hang out with. (Philip and I spent an evening with him and another pilgrim feller in Madrid in December, and a merry time was had by all.) So check him out at here. Tell him Reb sent you.

John is one of several writers I´ve been working with lately. It seems like my Editing Star is on the rise these days, and the projects are pouring in from all over... some of them even PAY something! I sometimes feel the urge to write something original myself, or to pick up some of the stuff I wrote in the past for another look. But taking other peoples´ good stuff, and making it excellent? Very gratifying! Sometimes they even say "thank you." Or like John Walker, they take a chance on a new technology medium and put it up on a blog. (in this case before I could send him the edit!)

Keeping a blog can be really stimulating for a writer. It opens your senses. It makes you listen a bit more closely to what people say, and take better notice of the little environmental details... it´s all everyday stuff, but a writer with an eye for a story will snatch it up and work it into the mix, and sometimes recycle it into a bit of fun, or even a bit of revelation, to share with all 45 of the friends and relations who read him!

Aside from all that, it puts the writer into The Now. He catches himself living his life "in the moment," not all caught up in plans for tomorrow or rehashes of the past. It´s a delicious place to be. Even if you still might need an editor sometimes, to deal with those split infinitives and passive voices.

Enough of my blathering. The sun is shining, the back yard is a morass, but we´ve already achieved much today. We took the dogs on an expedition to the woods outside Legartos, a nearby village. There we found some fresh-cut holm oaks. We made off with a couple bits of freshly-cut wood, which I have been on the lookout for for quite some time. (Who would´ve thought chunks of wood would be so hard to get? All I wanted was oak, beech, or birch from healthy trees cut down since the Autumn leaf fall, 10 to 15 cm. diameter and less than a meter long. Is that so much to ask?)

So when I saw a huge swath of cut oak just lying there, I took three of the less-desireable logs, ones with twists or branches that would make them unsuited for building anything. I felt guilty for a few minutes, even. Back at home drilled holes in them, and innoculated each one with a different kind of mushroom spawn. I chucked them then into the dark, damp, warmth of the bodega, where they will -- maybe -- sometime within the next year, produce crops of Shiitake, Oyster, and Lion´s Mane shrooms!

(Yeah, some people join a bowling league, or the Altar Guild, or they collect moths or comic books or Hummel figurines. I grow mushrooms. It´s better than dealing crack, OK?) ... and if I ever get good mushrooms I will take some to Legartos to share.

Today is Patrick´s birthday, too. I made him a beautiful apple tart using a dead-simple recipe: just flour, sugar, apples, salt, and butter. That´s it! Try it yourself: . Using brown sugar, and good tart apples like Fuji or Pink Lady, makes all the difference. (I used apples from our tree, but I don´t know what kind they are.) And the leftover apple syrup you can use on pancakes. Mmmm!

Lunch is done, Paddy´s snoring on the sofa, the dogs are sacked-out on the tiles. There´s nothing doing. So I shall, too, shuffle off to Nap-Land, now that I have dutifully blogged of blogging, dogging, logging, and tarts.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Wet & Windy/Comfy & Cozy

Brutal day to be outside. Wind is blasting the rain sidewise. It´s out of the west, which means it´s blowing right into the pilgrims´faces. And it´s coming off the mountains, which means it´s cold. We´re tucked inside by the fire with a nice bottle of Tempranillo, with a Cameron de las Islas CD playing and Bob singing along. The wind moans in the chimney, the gutters run, the chicken hut roof is probably leaking and the Hole of Mysteries widening ...and We The People are comfy cozy. The dogs and cat are curled up on the warmest spots of the under-floor heat -- which are inevitably the spots where we need to walk.

I am on the computer, finding copyright-free videos, audio clips, illustrations, and other oddments to load up onto the hospitalero training program to make it more appealing and interactive. The project is more labor-intensive than I thought it would be, and it still will not hold a candle to the two-day live training sessions offered at a Pilgrim Gathering Near You. (although it does offer a few things you won´t get there.)

I finished editing the book manuscript. I still need to do the Confraternity of St James online Guide to the Camino Portuguese. So you see, I am keeping busy through the gray depressing days of Winter. We took pictures this morning on the Camino walking toward San Nicolas. Provence got nothing on this place. In the village picture our house is the golden-orange one. You can see one of the new windmills in the distant background. (they still haven´t switched them on.)

According to a blog a friend found, there´s a pilgrim out there right now, coming this way, with a dog. She´s having a really hard time of it. I hope she finds us.

Paddy is worried about the dog.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

What happens while I´m making other plans

Yes indeedy, blogsters, I am falling down on the job.

The Blog Job, that is. I´m working hard on other things, so I use up all my writing juju early in the day. There´s not enough left for a decent blog. Sorry. I will do better in the future.

Soon after I wrote about the hole in the back yard, the sky turned gray and started to rain. We decided to wait til things dried out before spelunking commences. And since then it´s rained or snowed every day. We put an old door over the hole, so nobody falls in, (and nothing can come crawling out, either). It´s like having an unopened package under the Christmas tree. One that probably has just dirt in it.

The week abounded. We made a steak-and-kidney pie. (I ate the steak and pie part, and gave my bits of kidney to Paddy and Tim.) I made chicken tikka masala, which was delicious but kept me up most of the night. I went to Palencia with Gary and Elyn, as their Residencia cards arrived and we needed to celebrate that. Whilst in the city we went down into the crypt of the cathedral, where people have been worshiping things since the Dawn O Time. I love how some churches around here are layer-cakes of human devotion, with the Mannerist and Gothic and Romanesque layers one atop the other... and always with a well or spring down in the basement, down there where the power and glory really got started.

Things are happening that do not involve movements of the earth.
I am editing a rather large book manuscript, and am actually being paid to do so. It´s good to do a big toothsome project that is not Camino-related.

This morning we brought home from Mass a man named David, a smiling South Korean who is also a Presbyterian pastor. We gave him coffee and biscuits and an apple. And he blessed us and our house and animals, and promised to pray for us on the trail. (I think we are getting the better end of that deal.) Now we are listening to violin music by Roderigo, the guy who wrote "Concierto de Aranjuez." Pad´s making leftovers for lunch, making a list, giving the critters double rations.

´Cause this afternoon we´re stepping out. I found a killer deal online for the Parador Hostal San Marcos in Leon, one of the world´s great hotels -- a place I ordinarily could not afford to stay in. It´s a 15th century palace turned into deluxe lodgings, with views up the river and over the cloisters, yadda yadda, but mostly it´s got... Canal Plus sports TV in the rooms. Which means, starting at midnight... The Steelers playing in the Superbowl! Wooohooo! We´re warning the hotel people to put us in a room far away from the other guests, as we don´t want to wake everybody up at 3 a.m. with our screaming and waving of Terrible Towels. (my sister Beth sent me a Terrible Towel, a traditional aid to Pittsburgh grandstand cheering. Murphy the Cat is trying to make it his own, but that ain´t happening.)

Anyway, for the Big Even we are bringing along the leftover champagne that didn´t arrive in time for New Year´s Eve. We fully intend to have something to celebrate!