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California, New Zealand. Two passports, two homelands. And detours.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Goodnight for Life

Three Friday nights ago I was rolling out a bedroll by the glow of a Coke vending machine and planning out how I could crawl into my sleeping bag, put on my freshly charged MP3 player and read more of the James Patterson novel I had found that morning in a public restroom, without having to get into some big, profound conversation about life and the universe with the guy who had already claimed the spot under the lights of a Fanta bottle.

If sleeping in the vending machine shelter sounds strange, that´s because it was. This wasn't a place I would usually wander around looking for somewhere to stay the night, especially on my own, in this open, square, doorless shack somewhere outside of Sarria, in a cluster of houses and barns, one Alburgue and no bar. As an apology maybe, this had been built to house about ten vending machines - Coke, Fanta, Milka bars, coffee, chips, first aid kits and batteries - and maybe now and then a couple of pilgrims who didn't get to the Alburgue before 23 Spanish cyclists.

Just to set the scene, if I was writing a stage play about big conversations about life and the universe and was trying to come up with a backdrop for two opposing characters where conflict and angst could unfold over one night, a vending machine shelter in Spain wasn't bad.

And as characters, again, almost too filmic. A 19-year-old art history student from Paris, drinks water out of a crushed plastic container for dinner, while watching a Californian carefully take out gold sandals, a makeup bag and three different dress options for a wedding in the south of Spain the next week, and laying them all folded on a metal table, before yes, finally finding what she was looking for, that leopard-print eye mask she had bought in the Barcelona train station for two Euros.

His name was Franz and he had this tall, polished wooden staff by his bedroll. Everyone seemed to buying or making one along the route. I refolded my dresses and put them back in a plastic bag in my pack. I know it was how original pilgrims travelled, and they were handy for protection 300 years ago, but now, to me, wooden staffs were stupid.

So we chose our corners, made it clear in body language that neither of us felt like talking, and went to sleep.

It was dark when I woke up to a sound. Across the room I heard Franz stir. I pulled up my Audrey Hepburn eye mask. In the reflection of the Coke machine I could see the half moon above the trees. I could hear the cows moving around in the barn next door. And then I heard what had woken me again.

I turned my head slowly, telling myself it was only a nightmare, just enough to see Franz and he was looking at me, eyes like wall clocks, as the low, velvet growl in the doorway grew in intensity. His hand moved to his side. He brought the staff up to his chest, the sound of it dragging across the cement floor and gripped it with both hands, warrior-style.

The dog was stunning, wolf-like. I couldn´t have sketched a more beautiful non-animated dog to battle over my life with; I watched him come fully into the reflection on the Coke machine, joining the moon and the trees. He was turned away from us. Across the courtyard a stray dog slinked away from the barn and the cows. The dog in the doorway watched him leave, his head low, showing teeth, the silver hair along his back still up like razors. Then he circled a spot in one direction, then the other, and then went back to sleep in our doorway where he had probably been for hours. In the morning he was gone.

I thought about this moment the next Monday, when I saw Franz again in a crowd, his staff leaning against a wall in the cathedral, and how I was all about pilgrim staffs now. In fact, get two; be double fisted on the Camino. We did a funny wave across the room - the kind of awkward movement you make when you've shared a moment in a vending machine recepticle with someone, and this moment will become one of many tales you will tell of this time of walking through Spain in search of something that is unique and real to each person and in need of finding.

Then Franz nodded and I nodded and we put our hands down and our eyes roamed over the pews of the cathedral in Santiago, searching for more people with whom we've shared something with in the last month.

I had sworn to myself that I wasn't going to start sobbing, or lie prostrate or do something weird and emotional when I got to the final destination, the noon mass at Santiago. But sitting on the cool tiles, my back against marble, and seeing people across the room, scattered everywhere, people I had had these strange moments with - moments where you take shelter from a hailstorm in a bar and go halves on a pitcher of sangria that leaves you breathless and laughing and declaring you could never be with a guy who was passionate about golf or Braveheart; hours when you walk together in silence along a highway, trucks blowing past you; or late afternoons when you lay stretched out in the sun, each of you with one earphone plugged into one ipod in the grass, eyes closed behind sunglasses, both of you nodding to the beat of a favourite song the other person has to hear because it is all about what you have spent the whole morning talking about - its hard not to feel something gathering up in your chest.

Some of these people have names, and get friended as soon as you get to a computer - like Eva who only knew me for hours before she marched into the bunkroom and dragged me out of my bed and into the bar at Rabonal del Camino (You can't lie here and READ, they are serving BAILEYS in the BIG GLASSES for TWO EUROS) - and others who you tell to go on, you'll catch up with them at the alburgue in the next town, and there end up being six alburgues in the next town, and all you know is their first name and that they had a baby when they were 15 and that they're not talking to their sister.

At some point I started taking pictures of signs that people had left for someone - Nadine Where are you? Send me your number and I'll call. Oliver. March 26, 2006 - and wondered if Nadine saw the sign, if she sent Oliver her number. Did Oliver call Nadine, or did he decide that maybe wasn't such a good idea after all.

That Monday at noon in the cathedral we all did different gestures of intimacy to each other - hand clasps, bear hugs, the cupping of faces and kisses on both cheeks - saying stupidly, over and over, congratulations. We left the cathedral in small packs of people, our little mishmashed cliches, and stood in the sun of the square. We took pictures of each other and ourselves, our arms outstretched, the cathedral behind us, making jokes about finally securing salvation. I didn't want it to end. We wandered back into the city, climbing the steps, past tourists who snapped pictures of us with our packs and dangling sea shells and worn out boots, past the accordian player with his drum and bass machine who seemed to be everywhere we were, past the woman in the same down vest I had in my closet at home, kneeling, her hands out before her with a bowl of change, head bowed. I felt like I was being dragged past all of this, stumbling, trying to inhale it. In four hours I was taking a night bus to Madrid to get to the wedding in Malaga, to put to use the dresses and scarves and gold sandals that I had unloaded every night for a month to get to my sleeping bag and blister kit at the bottom.

The will to keep saying goodbye to people - and say it like it was the last time, not like we might bump into each other in Leon or Samos sometime before next Tuesday - was emptying out of me. I saw a beautiful girl in sneakers, massive headphones on her tiny head, writing in a journal on the steps of the church and I stopped to take a picture while she was absorbed. When I looked up, my friends had disappeared into the crowds.

I realised that's what I had intended to happen, so easily and completely and without any emotional effort. I put my camera in my bag and took a breath. This was the right way. I will send out a group email explain I stopped to take a picture and lost them. But no, there was Eva on the steps, face flushed, a hand on her hip, really annoyed I had made her run back to find me. And suddenly I was really really happy she had. And I realised that I am almost 34 and I need to grow up and stop being such a brat about saying goodbye to people.

The thing is, I need a line.

Walking behind Eva, absorbed with my boots, I heard my name. I looked up and there was Antonio and Leah, a couple I met in a backpackers' kitchen the week before. Antonio was learning English and while we had been waiting in line to use the one pot and sieve available, he practiced on me. Everything he had on me was answers to phrasebook questions. I was 33. I was from Los Olivos, California. I had one brother, no children, unmarried. They grasped my hand and kissed my cheek. It was more congratulations and talking about what was waiting for us in our homes then Antonio asked if I wanted to join them for dinner.

'I wish I could,' I said, placing my hand over my heart, my new gesture I had pulled from some Spanish soap opera maybe, to indicate regret, sympathy or a deep feeling about something. My eyes darted up the street to where everyone was lingering.

He put is hands up like whataya do? then grasped my hand one more time.

'Goodnight'... he said, and he lifted his eyes up to the sky, searching for the correct wording in English that he needed... 'for life.'

I started laughing a little. Harsh.

But I said it back to him. Then we continued on in different directions, and I was walking and laughing still and thinking, I've got to get a pen to write that down, because I think I've found my line.

So Camino de Santiago - time of solitude, sangria, long afternoon naps, warm crossiants in the morning, crippling blisters, nights spent in vending machine shelters, and the companions who hang out with you as you sort yourself out... it's been grand.

Goodnight for life.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Tapas with mom

Three weeks ago, a conversation with my mom about the California education system - a conversation that began in the kitchen I grew up in a week before - continued in a tapas bar in Pamplona.

Dad was trying to find a parking space; it was a Sunday night, busy in a way that was fresh and kind of wild for all three of us, and while he searched the streets for somewhere to wedge the rental, Mom sat on a barstool next to me, a glass of wine and a plate of jamon and bread, olives, marinated mushrooms between us, and she continued talking like we were still sitting at the kitchen counter in bathrobes, our hands around coffee mugs, the morning news on mute above the refridgerator, and the cat at our feet.

In the bar, Mom talked with passion about her work, but for a moment I just watched her face, her hand, beside my hand by the wine glass, crazy noise around us and outside on the streets that was just warming up for the night, and I´m thinking, I´m sitting here with my mom, talking about education, in a bar, in Spain.

My mom, by the way, came to Spain on just about two week´s notice. When it became unavoidable that she wouldn´t be able to make it to my cousin´s wedding this next week because it clashed with finals and graduation, I mentioned, extremely casually at the end of an email, that she should think about coming over and walking a piece of the Camino with me on her Easter break.

My mother is a such a sucker for adventure.

When I was young, Mom used to take me to Hendry´s Beach during the summer and on weekends; sometimes in a minivan carload of my friends and our boogy boards, sometimes just her and I. In the morning, or if it was June, it would be completely fogged out. She grew up in a house on the Mesa and Hendry´s was where she grew up swimming with her sisters. The fog didn´t bother either of us. She would get a cup of coffee from the restaurant, wrap herself in jackets and a hat and sit at a picnic table with her journal and write.

I would be leaping and diving - my first taste of feeling beautiful and powerful at something - I would yell out to her and wave, and she would wave back and I would feel appreciated and then find someone else to show off for and she would go back to writing and staring at the ocean.

Whenever I am back in California, I try to get to Hendry´s. I´ll usually do it on a day when I have something I need clarity on. I bring blankets or a down jacket in case its foggy. I´ll bring my journal and a coffee and I´ll go sit at Mom´s picnic table and write. There have been years when I have stared at the waves from there and remembered myself in them, and then picturing mom, probably younger than I am now, sitting in the same place, writing about her own life.

But mostly I don´t think about that. It´s my picnic table now, my beach, my life.

One of the most precious things about my mom is the way she has been able to leave beautiful pieces of herself - a picnic table, a beach, a need for adventure - and leave it behind her in a way that I have been able to pick them up and make these things all my own.

This morning, on Mother´s Day, I know my mom will be looking up where I am on the map (Melide) from her bed, where Dad will have brought her a cup of tea. Dad will have printed this out for her and placed it on the tea tray. She will have Michener´s Iberria beside her for historical reference, so she´ll know more about the place I am in than I do.

Then I bet you anything, she and Dad are going to the beach this afternoon and she´ll get a coffee and bring her journal and write her heart out.

Happy Mother´s Day mom...I am a very, very blessed daughter. It was so, so wonderful to see you and Dad in Spain...

The next vino is on me.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Tranquilo

´Middle age´ on the Camino ended on Monday.

The verdent but monotonous farmland, roads that stretched straight out along a highway for hours; stark suburbia, with nothing rising up to break the boredom, was moving slowly, painfully behind me, giving way to Galacia.

In the distance was this landscape reminiscent of my first week, the Camino´s ´youth´- the first sighting of Spain from the French Pyrenees, the first tiny dark coffee at a counter, surrounded by weird, intimidating pastries meant to commemorate a communion; the first sip of real sangria, the first taste of cheese and strawberries together, the mustard seed and lavender blanketing the hillsides, the fear of saying anything in Spanish at all, then the desperate need to say absolutely everything in Spanish.

This previous week was as bad as I had heard it could be sometimes. My Spanish was crap. I was falling out of love with my mind, winged in the beginning, free to fly from one pleasant concept of myself to another, inhaling its sweetness; now clawed and vicious, digging up the carpet to get to the source of the stench. My feet, young and true, overnight suddenly went disfigured. My heels looked like small animals had been gnawing at them. I was disheartened. I was slowing down. So this was really it. This was the Camino. Woohoo.

I watched a cyclist park his bike outside the cafe. Already I was unbuckling my pack. I had become a follower of ´signs´- signs of wear to stop for the night, which supermercado to buy at, who to sit next to at communal meals in the Albergues. A cyclist in the rain was sort of a sign.

A woman was bringing out fresh loaves of a new bread I hadn´t seen. It was round, full of raisins and walnuts, √≠ntegral´, not white, and the smell filled the tiny shop. I don´t know where the Italian went. I bought a loaf, then stood in the alley outside the shop, my pack leaning against the bricks, just barely out of the rain. I tore a chunk off and the steam rose . I bit through the crust to a still doughy centre. It stayed warm in my hands as I tore and chewed. I made that bread last for 20 minutes in the alleyway, thinking that I will remember this bread, on this rainy day in an alley for many, many years.

It rained and it rained and it rained. I shouldered my way through a fiesta, the tents, the octopus lifted out of boiling water, snipped up, piled on a bread board and doused with olive oil, sea salt and paprika. I walked in mud through vineyards, with creepy, beautiful old homes that had stood there for centuries on the hills, watching over their bounty. The rain paused. I was soaked. The rest of my bread I was saving for dinner was soaked. I hadn´t seen anyone on the trail for hours.

The first sight of a town cathedral appeared as the sun was going down. I was so late, and I was getting terrified that I was going to get stuck without a bed for the night - it had happened in Formista - and I didn´t even know what town I was entering and the clouds were gathering again.

I saw the Albergue ´Felix´ as I heard the thunder. My hood was up still, protecting me from wind and cold, as I entered, my big pack barely fitting through the door. I pulled off my hood, then froze. Wasn´t this the reception?

I had walked into the kitchen maybe? No, a man, looking a little like Charles Manson, was lifting off my pack and saying a word I have come to love here, repeatedly, as I stared at the huge bowl of Paella, filled with saffroned rice, prawns, fish, capsicum in front of me.

Beyond the bowl, which took up the whole entryway, was a table full of people holding up water glasses of red wine and greeting me like I was their prodigal daughter.

Having put my pack just inside, out of the rain, Charles Manson began shovelling paella onto a plate and motioning me to sit down, repeating that word and making the up and down motion with his hands in case I didn´t understand.

´Tranquilo, mi amiga, tranquilo.´

I looked up the word for ´soul´that night. Alma.

Mi alma es tranquilo.

There is a next part to that quote by Rilke to the young poet, after he tells him to love the questions themselves:

¨Do not now seek answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer...¨

Buen Camino.