The Camino: Memories of a Pilgrim with no Direction 1

A week from now I’ll be embarking on an adventure that I promised myself I would never do:  The Camino de Santiago (the St. James’ Way) on a holy year, that is, when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, as was the case this year.  I’m not saying this because I am a cynic, at least not too much of one, but because of a simple number: 250,000.  That figure represents the estimated number of humans, young and old, planning on descending upon the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain for annual pilgrimage this year.  250,000!  250,000 knuckleheads clogging up the beautiful countryside of Galicia.  Every living creature is going to be there.  It is without a doubt the absolute worst time in the world to do it.  But there you go, two friends of mine and I are going to go for it.  I am such an idiot.

 On the other hand, there is something to say for all of this and that is the Compostela, the diploma that they give you for meeting the requirements of the pilgrimage, is a kind of general pardon for your sins and it is worth twice as much on a holy year, kind of like scoring an away goal in the Champion League in soccer.  You see, traditionally, during a regular year, if you made it to Santiago with everything in order, the good people at the office there could produce a paper that reduces your stay purgatory by half.  That may sound attractive, but all the sinning I have done up to this point in life and I am sure I have a near eternal life sentence waiting for me, so 50% wouldn’t quite do.  

 But if you complete the journey on a holy year, word has it they free you of all charges.  It’s like one of those “Get of jail free” cards in Monopoly.  Then I can keep the certificate for a future time like, for example, when I die and have it buried with me so that when I reach the Ministry of Celestial Affairs I can say in a cocky tone, “Here’s my card, guys.  I’m going in.  Hallelujah!”  

 There is another factor too: the next holy year won’t be for another 11 years (not seven, wise guys.  There’s a thing called leap year.”) and who knows what kind of shape and condition I’ll be in by then.  

 In order to avoid the masses of humanity, we have decided to skip the main route, known as the French route, and have opted for the Portuguese option.  In Spain, it starts in a border town called Tuy and runs some 115 kms (that’s about 70 miles) to the steps of the cathedral.  So, we’ll see with what and whom we run into on the way.  My friends tell me everything is going to be fairly open and smooth, but with a crowd the size of Woodstock invading the region, I am not entirely convinced.  Still, I’ll try to look on the positive side for once, and wait and see.  We’ll find out in just a few days.

Justo and his Cathedral

Have I got a place for you to see the next time you are in Madrid!  And you have to see it with your own eyes because  just reading about it or looking up images online won’t do.

You know there are people who build castles in the air, and then there are those who say they are going to build a cathedral and actually do it.  About 12 miles due east of the capital, there is a small town called Mejorada del Campo which might have forever remained as an overlooked dot on your Google maps had it not been for a kind of modern wonder taking place there.  A man for the past 50 years has been building his own cathedral.  I ain’t kidding. 

It is the brainchild of Justo Gallego who is 85 years old.  He was born in Mejorada and as a young man decided to become a monk, so he joined the Trappist order (those are the guys who make those great Belgian beers.  Smart lad).  Before becoming ordained he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery.  According to the story, he was crushed and promised God that if he recovered he would do something as a show of love and appreciation.  He got better and decided to build a church.  That’s what I call being thankful.

He had no training whatsoever in architecture, engineering, building or carpentry.  On paper, he couldn’t have been able to piece together a Lego home.  But five decades later he is still going at it and the results are awe-inspiring. It was almost as if God had said: If you build it, they will come.   

Despite brief moments of fame, like in 2005 when he was featured on an Aquarius commercial, Justo’s momumental endeavor is still relatively unknown.  He estimates some 2,000 people come every summer to visit and even help (in the winter it must be substantially less), but that is a trifle number all said and told because it comes to little more than twenty a day.   Of these, many if not most are foreigners, who seem to be the ones who truly appreciate the marvel of it all.  I don’t know a single madrileño who has seen it.   Not one.  Whenever I mention it to someone from here, they kind of look at me with a confused expression on their faces and say, “Oh, yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about.” 

Not so surprisingly, not everyone shares his fans’ enthusiasm.  The Catholic church doesn’t support his cause, but that doesn’t surprise me, and others consider him an egocentric madman, which I find a bit absurd for a person who gets up before dawn ever day and humbly continues  his job. 

I had heard about this place for a couple of years now but never got to seeing it; that is until yesterday when I went with my family.  I was floored by its magnitude.  It’s enormous and it’s just absolutely incredible.   I couldn’t even begin to express the emotions that run through you as you see firsthand as they take up this already bulging entry.  Justo was there, of course, the way he is most days, quietly going about his business with the two or three helpers.  He is a friendly and courteous man, and he invites you to walk around and enjoy his work.  You find yourself staring from all angles at it to take in every detail and make sense of it all.  Awesome. 

I liked it so much, I returned this morning to show some more Americans who just loved it.    Maybe I can turn this into a new business.  I’m joking of course, but I would like to help spread the word.  I spoke to a woman from Germany today who was a filmmaker.  She was preparing a film and was hoping to start a foundation to support Justo’s dream.  I’ll keep you abreast of that if it materializes, because though Justo has come a long when in fulfilling his dream, he’s still got a long way to go.  Years and years.

You don’t have to be religious to admire his work.  Take it to a broader scale.  Consider his courage, his perseverence, his faith, his desire to live out a personal dream, and his pursuit of freedom.  These are universal characteristics worthy of admiration.

O camiño. Diario de un peregrino sin rumbo 1

Dentro de una semana voy a comenzar algo que prometía que jamás haría: hacer el Camino de Santiago en un año santo, es decir, un año en que la fiesta de Santiago, el 25 de julio, cae en un domingo, como es el caso de 2010.    No lo digo porque soy un cínico, por lo menos no demasiado, sino por un simple número. 250.000.  Esa cifra representa el número aproximado de peregrinos que se prevé para este año.     ¡250.000!  250.000 insensatos provocando auténticos atascos por el bello campo gallego.   Todo el mundo y su tía va a estar allí.   Sería un momento nefasto para hacerlo, desde luego.  Sin embargo, ahí voy con dos (y posiblemente tres) amigos.  Soy un zoquete. 

Por el otro lado, hay algo a favor de todo esto, y es que la Compostela, el diploma que te dan por cumplir los requisitos del peregrinaje, es una especie de indulto por tus pecados y tiene doble valor si es un año santo.  Como un gol marcado fuera de casa en la Champions.  Es decir, tradicionalmente en un año normal, si legabas a Santiago con todo en regla, solo te eximían de la mitad del tiempo que habías adquirirdo en el purgatorio por tus pecados.  Y bien sabe Dios que he sido pecador, pecadorísimo y lo mismo me espera una pena casi eterna.  Pero si haces el camino en un año santo, te quitan la sentencia entera.  Es como esa tarjetas de monopolio que valen para sacarte de la cárcel cuando haga falta. 

Pues, sé que sí consigo la Compostela, me la puedo guardar para su uso en el futuro, yo pediré que me entierren con el papel para que cuando esté en el Ministerio de Asuntos Celestiales podré con toda chulería: “Toma compostela, chaval.  ¡Déjame pasar!”  Y por supuesto me llevaré una copia de mi DNI porque seguro que el que me atienda en la ventanilla habrá sido en su vida un funcionario español, y ya sabes, siempre, pero siempre, te piden la copia de tu DNI. 

Y no hay que olvidar otro factor: el próximo año santo no será hasta dentro de 11 años (no siete, que existe una cosa que se llama año bisietso, ¿eh chavales?), y a saber en qué estado me encuentro entonces.

Para evitar las masas, sin embargo, hemos obviado el camino principal, el francés, y hemos optado por una ruta alternativa, la portuguesa.   En España empieza en Tuy y recorre unos 115kms hasta las escaleras de la catedral.  Así que, a ver con qué y con quienes nos encontramos.   Me aseguran mis amigos que va a estar todo despejado y que no habrá problemas. Yo, pensando en todo el mogollón que pueda haber en estos días, no las tengo todas conmigo, pero nunca se sabe.  Pensaré en positivo por una vez.    Dentro de una semana saldremos de dudas.

What have I become?

Oh my God!  What a relief!   Things are coming back into place.  The other day when I got back from the godawful trip from Simsbury, Connecticut to Madrid, seventeen draining hours from door to door, I dumped my bags on the floor with an exasperated sigh and went straight to the bathroom to take a much needed shower.  When I got out fully refreshed and recovered, I dried myself off, let the towel drop to the floor, looked at myself in the mirror and nearly screamed.  What the hell was that in the reflection? 

The question really was: what the hell had I done to myself?  I didn’t look like that when I left a month before.  I didn’t even look like that a week before.  And here I was running three miles a day in sauna-like summer conditions, thinking that all those gallons of  sweat dripping off of me as if I were a basted turkey were turning me into something fit to play a role as a Spartan in the movie 300.  You know,the kind with all the rippling abs. 

Instead, the final result was something entirely different.  Deceptively normal up top and below, the middle part, right around where my belly joins my hip expanded as if it knew no frontier.  “Jesus!” I exclaimed.  “I look like a bee.  No, I look like a beehive.” 

What had happened was that I had succumbed to the worst of the American way of life.  And I was liking it.  Here was the reason.  In the final six days: 4 trips to McDonald’s, 2 meals at Chili’s, lunch at Friendly’s, a massive burger at Cheer’s in Boston, pizza, ice cream, beer, buttered popcorn, coke, Reeses peanut butter cups, some more beer, Chimichangas and extra guacamole, spring rools and sweet-and-sour God-knows-what,  smiley fries, steak fries, hashbrowns…all gently digested amid the gentle sedentary lifestyle and plenty of driving, driving and more driving.  By then, running was of no good if, after showering up, you devoted the rest of the day to breaking the 10,000 calorie barrier.

It wasn’t intentional.  I just kind of got carried away.  At one point, as I felt things were getting out of hand, I decided to put a stop to it.   Sitting down at a booth of one restaurant, I picked up a menu and went straight to the salad section, telling  myself it was time I took control of my life and prepared myself for a great Spinach Caesar without any dressing.  Not a drop.  The young smiling tip-hungry waitress named Amy (they all seem to be called Amy now) came and asked.  “Can I take your order?”

And without batting an eye, I replied,  “Oh, yes.  I’ll have the half-pound cheddar and bacon chili angus burger.”   If I were an Angus cow these days I’d be taking prozac. 

“Great,” chirped Amy.  “Would you like a dab of sour cream on the side?”

“Two dabs, please.” 

My life of decadent gluttony was now complete.  The fact there were only a couple of days left before I returned to Spain led to two deadly reasonings. 1) I could eat as much as I want because soon it would be over; and 2) I had to make the most of it because soon I would not be able to eat these things for a long time.  I needed to eat crap food more and more often and in ever-greater quantities.   I found myself eating  my “last” burger of the trip for seven burgers in a row.  I would suggest my daughters that they skip the kiddie menu and order the adult portions just so I could help with the leftovers.  Nothing was sacred anymore. All scruples were thrown out the window, unless, of course they were edible.

All of thismade me recall Morgan Spurlock’s famous seething documentary “Super Size me!” in which the writer/director embarked on a mission to eat only at McDonald’s for one straight month.  The physical damage was shocking, almost to the point of disbelief. But after a week of nearly emulating his feat, I now realized just how crazy things could get.

The ironic thing is that Americans can be incredibly healthy and health-minded.  They do far more exercise than most people I know in Spain and have at their fingertips a ton of delicious and nourishing food.  But it is also one of the most dangerous lands to eat in if you don’t watch your step.  That prepared food is so tasty and so addictive, and in a way so damaging, that it takes but a handful of days to start adding pounds as if you had to fatten up for hibernation.  It’s effortless.  It’s delicious.  It’s hazardous.

Now in just three days, I’ve dropped 5 pounds without even trying.  I really, really miss those burgers, I tell you.  I’m just glad they are 3,000 miles away!

De vuelta….part 2

Ahora bien, lo que realmente me sorprendió al llegar a Madrid fue la decisión del parlamento catalán de abolir las corridas de toros.  Miento.  No me sorprendió nada.  Lo que pasa es que me sorprendió de todas formas, si me entendéis, como a casi todo el mundo.  Ya iban avisando desde hace tiempo que iban a hacer una cosa semejante y la votación del miércoles pasado simplemente fue la confirmación.  ¿Todo esto forma parte de la nueva España pos-campeón-mundialista?  Yo qué sé.  Lo mismo las cosas están cambiando más de prisa de lo que me esperaba.

Mi opinión sobre los toros es de lo más patético.  Me gustan, me gustan mucho y cuando se hace bien (que es más bien poco) me apasionan.  Pero entiendo que en el fondo es una auténtica barbaridad y digno de una mente morbosa, como puede ser la mía.  No me convence ni un solo argumento a favor de su existencia.  Ni uno.  Ni arte, ni tradición, ni razas taurinas, ni ná.  No son suficientes para justificar la muerte lenta y dolorosa de un animal como espectáculo.  Por eso no soy defensor de las corridas de toros.  Sin embargo, me fascinan, me resultan impresionantes.  A ver cómo explicas eso.

Muchos catalanes simplemente están en contra de las corridas sin más y están en su derecho de pedir que se dejen de celebrar.  Sospecho que a otros les trae sin cuidado el tema pero ven en ello una oportunidad de oro para diferenciarse aún más del resto de España.  Pero es solamente una sospecha.  Lo que sí creo es que estamos ante el principio del fin de la fiesta nacional. Me tapo los oídos para no eschuchar los abucheos de los defensores más férreos, pero me mantengo en mis trece.  Esto, amigos, se acaba.  No será mañana ni dentro de unos años, quizá dentro de 50, pero mucho me temo que la puerta de la abolición se ha abierto y ya no se volverá a cerrar.

¿Qué se podrá hacer con esas plazas en el futuro?  Pues, por ejemplo, lo mismo que se viene haciendo desde hace años: ofrecer conciertos en verano.  Las Ventas lleva siendo un venue mítico desde que los mismísimos Beatles tocaron allí.  Anoche pude disfrutar de Mark Knopfler en esa misma plaza. ¡Ay qué maravilla! No hay nada como escuchar buena música bajo el cielo veraniego de Madrid acompañado de unos amigos y una brisa cálida.  Me encanta el ambiente. Me encanta volver a estar entre los españoles.  Mientras esperábamos el comienzo del show, comentábamos que teníamos suerte de no tener a nadie sentado delante de nosotros, porque las localidades son un tanto justitas y no dan para mucho movimiento.  Justo es ese momento pasa un desconocido alto y delgado y con cara de gracioso y nos dice con toda soltura y sin perder ni un paso de nuestra conversación, “A que me siento aquí y os hago la putada.  ¡Ja, ja ja!  No hombre. ¡Es una broma! ¡Ja, ja, ja! Ciao.”  

Eso es, amigos míos.  Así me gusta.  Ante los disgustos de la vida, no hay que tomar las cosas demasiado en serio.  Hay cosas de los españoles que no van a poder abolir nunca…y me alegro profundamente de que sea así.

No more ¡Oés!; No more ¡Olés!

I really had no idea what to expect when I got back to Spain but I was sort of hoping that the World Cup festivities would still be going on just so I could engage in the fun a little.  You know, maybe thinking that someone out there in Madrid would have paused for a moment and had the sensitivity to say, “Hey wait a second.  You know Brian’s not around.  The poor guy year in and year out misses these moments because he works his ass off to ensure that future citizens of this country learn English better, even if it means sacrificing watching Spain win the big game.  What the hell.  That’s what I call dedication.  Why don’t we wait for a few weeks for him to get back and we can really crank up the party?”  Cool, don’t you think? 

Yeah, right.  Not a soul was waiting for me.  Not a red and yellow banner waving frenetically as I passed through those sliding doors of Spanish customs.  No car service ready to pick me up and whisk me away to the nearest fiesta.  No, there wasn’t a sign to be found anywhere.  Nary a vestige of victory.  In those sparse two weeks since the world, the entire world, fixed its eyes on this suffering country, the mood had swung from euphora beyond limits to business as usual, as if this country won this tournament every other year. 

No, what real had the country riveted was the Catalan (the region where Barcelona is) parliament’s decision to abolish bullfighting in that region. 

Say what?  Bullfighting restricted in certain parts of Spain?  Wasn’t this a favorite all over the country?  I know there remains a tendency to expect to find matadors and flamenco dancers on every street corner in the land, and God knows I have done my part to erradicate that misconception, but what can I do when even Woody Allen makes us think that Spanish guitar playing is a natural part of the Catalonia and Asturias in the north. 

Yeah, right.  You try to find a show in Oviedo and see how long it takes for you to get laughed out of town.

For years now, despite bullfighting’s return to popularity over the past twenty years, in part thanks to toreros like José Tomás who have actually put their lives on the line and given the animal a fighting chance to kill its opponent, there has been a slow but stubbornly determined movement crying out for its prohibition.  And it is beginning to take effect.  In regions like Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country and Catalonia, apart from sporadic examples, the tradition hardly exists. 

Catalans have been actually split down the middle on the issue because this has been a strong and deeply-rooted tradition in this region for decades; a tradition that extends even into southern France.  Still many feel that this is an custom imported from other parts of Spain and that the Catalans should have nothing to do with it.  And the street consensus is that today’s vote has represented yet another chance for the region with a healthy independence movement to further separate itself from Spain.

“How could they do that?”  Many of you have just asked.  Spain has just won the World Cup!  Everyone should be united and happy forever and ever.  That’s what soccer does, for the love of God.

Yeah, right.  Weeks after Iniesta pumped the ball past the keeper and into the net and lifted this country into a state of immortality so deeply sought after for decades, the bliss of reunion has worn off, the renewed nuptial vows taken back, and the honeymoon has been canceled early.  It’s back to business.

De vuelta…part 1

Pues ya estoy de vuelta y vaya si hay novedades.  Parece que todo es nuevo y, a la vez, no ha cambiado nada.

No sé si ha quedado restos o vestigios de las celebraciones…una resaca de la victoria de la Copa del Mundo… pero desde luego la sensación que tengo es que fue ya hace mucho y apenas nadie se acuerda del momento en que Iniesta enchufó un derechazo y mandó el balón dentro de la portería de la selección Karate-Kid de Holanda.  Eso ya pasó.  Llegué con la felicidad de un perro en la playa para comentar todos los detalles y la gente ya tiene poco más que contar que “Sí, sí.  Estuvo impresionante.”  Sí, sí, les digo.  En Simsbury, Connecticut, donde lo presencié, fue impresionante también.  ¡Vaya festorro!  Abuelos tocando las vuvezelas sin cesar, mujeres en ropa interior de Tommy regalando besos por las calles, vacas pintadas de la bandera española…no veas. 

“¿En serio?” me preguntan incrédulos, pero no tan incrédulo como yo al escuchar su respuesta.

Ya solo se habla de otros temas.  Uno es la presentación de Raúl a la aficción de Shalke 04, que lo ha recibido con el calor de una chuleta recién salida del frigorífico.  Y como siempre, con la discreción tan habitual de él, lo ha aceptado como un auténtico caballero.  

El final de la etapa de Raúl en el Real Madrid me ha desconcertado mucho porque con el se acaba una etapa de mi vida.  Yo, siendo casi 10 años mayor que él, me crié de su fútbol de pequeño, desde pequeño, como un pequeño.  Y yo de pequeño, siendo casi 10 años mayor, quería ser como él, jugar como él, triunfar como él.    Era para mí un hermano mayor en este deporte, y a través de su talento, su esfuerzo, su garra y dedicación, ganó mi admiración incondicional. 

Yo no quería dejar que Raúl se fuera.  No podía imaginármelo con otra camiseta.  Además, Raúl no podía irse porque en cuanto lo hizo el tiempo atemporal de mi juventud iba a llegar a su fin y de pronto sería yo un hombre mayor otra vez, con otra edad y en otro momento.  Y eso no me lo esperaba por mucho que supiera que tenía que llegar.

OK. Let’s Get Started

España ha ganado el mundial.  In all my years of living in Spain, never has there been a headline so drenched with meaning, history and significance than this simple stating of a basic fact: Spain has won the World Cup.

To say that this feat is loaded with meaning and wonder does not even hint at the depth with which it moved the country.  TV ratings claimed that the golden came with the goal when as many as 17 million people in Spain were watching.  A record in viewing audience that some found astonishing. 

But I say, hogwash.  In a country of some 45 million people, they mean to tell us in that in the singlemost important moment in its sporting history, and, to be honest, contemporary history, 60% of population was doing something else?  Reading a book.  Drinking coffee.  Going for a walk.  Having sex.  Writing a blog.  Please.  Some may have been, but not 28 million I can assure you. 

Well, so much for technical measurement systems.  The point is, Spain had done it.  It had  proved to the world, and more importantly, it proved to itself it could prove to the world, that it could and would live up to its expectations, despite 20% unemployment and struggling credit ratings.   It started two years ago in the European Cup tournament and was confirmed this month.  A new brash and daring attitude imbued with confidence has taken over the new generations.  Had, after all these years of my being here, Spain changed that much?

One of my missions here, but only one mind you, will be to take a look at this new Spain and rediscover what I discovered for the first time nearly twenty years ago.

Now, I have got a flight to Madrid waiting for me down at JFK.  I’ll catch later and let you know.