Nov 17 2013

In Other Words

She stood at the foot of the bed, pleased with herself. Short-pants had just brought in two cups of coffee with frothy milk for De-facto and me. Some traditions have been carried from Paris to Barcelona, Sunday morning coffee-in-bed service the best among them.

“Are you ready for the word of the day?” She shifted her weight from her left foot to right foot and back, her quirky gesture when she’s nervous or very excited. Today because she was excited; she loves her new job, augmenting our Spanish vocabulary.
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Tijeras.”

De-facto and I, obedient pupils, repeated the word, in tandem.

“Know what it means?”

We sipped our coffees, waiting for the answer. She gave us a clue. “At the end of knitting, you need them.”

“Knots?” I asked.

She shook her head. Using her fingers, she made a cutting motion.

“Scissors!”

“Yes. And do you remember yesterday’s word?”

Derecha,” De-facto shouted, exaggerating each syllable. It’s a bit of a caricature, his foreign accent, which is the same whether he’s speaking French or trying out Italian or Spanish.

Derecho,” Short-pants corrected.

“Right,” he said, “derecho.”

!” She beamed.

We ran through all the words we’d learned this week, courtesy of her tutelage: reloj (watch), bigote (mustache), roncar (to snore), hombro (shoulder, not to be confused with hombre, man or hambre, hunger) and a personal favorite: semafaro (traffic light). She stood at the edge of the bed smiling at us, our proud teacher, pleased with our progress.

It doesn’t surprise us that Short-pants is the purveyor of words and language in our household. She is the most avid reader, reading and re-reading several books a week. Her trophy from last year’s spelling bee victory is a prized possession, one of the few personal objects she brought from her Paris bedroom. At school she’s plunged into both of the local languages, Castellano and Catalan, and she’s always happy to practice with us.

Her sister, Buddy-roo: not so much. Sometimes I’ll initiate a conversation with her in Spanish and she’ll bark at me.

“Mama, I don’t speak Spanish!”

Her resistance doesn’t trouble me. It’s all around her and she’ll pick it up. One day she’ll just let it rip, and she’ll speak it better than all of us.

I’m far from fluent. My three years of high school Spanish (and embarrassingly, two years in junior high before that) are buried somewhere deep in my brain. Little by little, phrases and grammar constructions seep to the surface, triggered by the day-to-day Spanish that surrounds me. My annual jaunts to Pamplona and the trek on the Camino last year have helped only a little. I have miles to go before I speak Spanish comfortably or articulately.
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I have my excuses. A heavy itinerary of professional travel this fall has made havoc of any routine I might have tried to establish in our new home city. It’s hard to keep up with the regular demands of life – most of them administrative – with this kind of travel schedule, let alone making time for consistent language instruction. I can navigate at the market and handle simple restaurant encounters with barmaids and waiters. Last week I successfully deposited money in the bank, bought stamps and took my sweaters in to be dry-cleaned. But I can’t convey who I am or what know in this language, and I’m still lost when I have to speak it on the telephone. This is when I ask myself why do I do this? Why do I choose to live in a place, once again, where I have to start from scratch – or nearly from scratch – to speak the language?

It doesn’t take me long to get to the answer. When given the choice between easy and different, I usually choose different. Although some might argue that Spanish isn’t such a different language, and what I should be studying is something not so easy, like Mandarin. But my goal is to get truly operative in Spanish, and to open that door for our daughters as well. Madrid or any other Spanish city might have been a better place for that, given the Catalan bias here, but it was Barcelona that called to us, and so here we are, struggling one word at a time, to put our thoughts and feelings into other words from other languages.


Jul 5 2013

About the Bulls

About this time very year I write a post about my annual escape to the north of Spain with my clan of girlfriends. I’ve recounted the rituals we re-enact every year when we go to the fiesta San Fermín in Pamplona. I’ve described the departure stress of the preparation to go, the bitter sweetness of the return from the fiesta, the feelings of joy and desperation that are both components of this week that I take for myself every year, when I attend one of the world’s hardest parties.
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The one subject I haven’t addressed fully: the bulls. If I tell people that I am going to Pamplona, to the running of the bulls, I usually get a few raised eyebrows. Almost everyone has heard of the running of the bulls, although their understanding of it is more often incorrect, thanks ot the way it has been depicted, poorly, by Hollywood. If you want to see what it really looks like, click here.

For the record, I do not run with the bulls. I watch them go by from the safety of my balcony. They run down the street in front of where we always stay, and I can lean against the railing and watch the big, beautiful beasts, and thousands of runners, sprinting by my door.

And then there is the bullfight. I am not a strong advocate for the tradition of bullfighting, nor am I opposed to it. I am a guest in Pamplona for their fiesta – the city welcomes foreigners to attend, rather graciously as their town gets trashed from it – and I’ve never felt it was my place to enter the debate for or against the encierro and the bullfight. But I have learned a few things over the ten years that I have been going to Pamplona for their fiesta. I think there are some interesting facts to consider before dismissing it as cruel or unfair to the bulls.

1. The running of the bulls is an athletic tradition. The local runners train all year to be fit enough to run for even a few moments in the primo spot, just ahead of the horns of the bull, as it runs from the corral at the edge of the city to the bullring in the center. A number of foreigners join them, runners who come every year to do so, and they, too, take the activity seriously. These are people who, prior to running, took the time to talk to seasoned runners and to watch and learn how to do it well. They consider it a privilege to take part in the encierro, and try to do so safely and with respect to the local tradition. The drunk idiot backpackers who roll into town and drink all night and never bother to learn the cultural and safety codes of the event, they are not what the run is about. In fact, their ignorance of it is dangerous, and puts every runner, experienced or novice, at risk.
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2. The bullfight is not a sport, it’s an art. As the Fiesta Nazi puts it, “it’s a tragic opera with three acts, and the hero has to die.” I have attended many corridas, and there is always blood and death; sometimes it is too much for me and I am compelled to look away. But when it is a good bullfight, when each player in the ring does his part with grace and accuracy, when the rapport between matador and bull is palatable, it is a beautiful dance. I have wept at a bullfight because it was so moving. When a torero can transmit this kind of emotion to the crowd, thousands of people in the ring share the awe of a poignant life and death moment. That’s what makes it opera, not a sport.

3. In a good bullfight, the bull does not know he is losing until the very end. The bull is provoked, he gets angry, and he’s celebrated for his fighting spirit. Again to quote the Fiesta Nazi, “in a bar fight, the guy that’s swinging isn’t saying ouch, don’t do that.”

4. For every bullfight there is a time limit. If the matador is unable to finish the fight within the given time, the bull will be removed from the ring and shot so that it does not endure an unnecessary and prolonged suffering. There are rules to protect the animals.

5. The bull leads the best life of any animal that is bred in captivity. They live in the open pastures and are treated as noble creatures. They are bred specifically to be aggressive and fierce. A bull breeder wants his bulls to do well in the fight, so these bulls, usually between four and six years old when they are ultimately led to the bullring, enjoy an existence that surpasses any animal that is raised (usually one year) for slaughter to become food on our tables. If you know even a little about the cruelty to animals in the meat industry and yet still eat meat, then a prejudice against the bullfight is a bit hypocritical. The bulls live a long, ideal life, and they are revered until the last moment of it.
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In Spain – except Catalonia where it was banned – and in Latin America, the bullfight is a cultural tradition that has been practiced for centuries. That’s not necessarily the reason for it to continue. Female genital mutilation is a cultural tradition in some African countries as is the Muslim custom of hiding women behind a full body burqa, and I see good reasons to protest both. I can understand how it would seem to animal rights activists that the bullfight is a cruel tradition that should be protested.

But I like going to the bullfight. I like being in the corrida packed with expectant spectators, watching a 1000 pound muscled animal break out of the holding pen and run into and around the ring. I like the bright colors of the toreros’ traje de luces, their pink and yellow capote capes waving above the dusty floor of the ring, the elegant bursts of music from the corrida brass band and the roar of the crowd, the sandwich after the third bull, and in Pamplona, the costumes and antics of the peñas, the local drinking clubs, juxtaposing a sarcastic irreverence with the tense drama of the corrida. The bullfight may or may not seem ethical to some people, and sometimes I do find it troubling. But I go every chance I get.

Not long ago Short-pants drew a map of her ideal town. She named the streets and avenues after her best friends and favorite aunts. She imagined places for all her preferred activities: a theater, a knitting center, a library. Her map also included large, circular bull ring, which she named after the Fiesta Nazi. She showed it to some dinner guests one night, inspiring them to ask me about what it’s like to go to a bullfight. She listened to my response and chimed in before I could finish. “The bulls live the best life,” she said, “and they are loved by everyone in the ring before they die.”
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I suppose this is how cultural traditions, and prejudices, are passed on. The imprint of our own opinions on our children is powerful. If they are educated to think on their own, they may reject our stances, for, against or neutral. If we limit their exposure to critical thinking, they are likely to parrot what we they have heard us say about what we believe. I don’t mind that Short-pants knows a few facts about bulls, even though she’s never been to a corrida, but I will never insist that she share my view. Someday I hope she and her sister will accompany me to a Pamplona, or elsewhere in Spain, to experience it all for themselves, so they can make up their own minds about the right or wrong of the bullfight.

But for now it’s still my escape, the running of the mom, away from children and the household responsibilities and into a week of delirious fun and oblivion, dancing, laughing, drinking, and yes, the running of the bulls.


Jan 7 2013

Finding Out

We stepped one foot at a time into the harnesses and pulled the bulky belts high around our waists. The tall men buckled us in, pulling straps tight, double-checking that the fit was snug. Everyone was handed a helmet and a pair of suede gloves, worn from use by many hands pressing down on wire cables. Because the electricity was out, we couldn’t watch the introductory video. Instead a guide, who spoke English fluently but with a dark velvet accent, did his best to show and tell us what would happen. hiking_in

We piled into a safari truck, wearing all our gear, helmets already a necessary protection from knocking our heads against the roof during the bumpy ride that took us to from the lodge to the drop-off point. A 15-minute hike brought us out to a cliff overlooking the ravine. We climbed on to the first wooden platform, where the ropes connected to our harnesses were clipped to the guide wire at our feet.

Never at any moment was anyone not fastened on to something, either to a line on the ground, attached to the rocks by giant pins, or, in the moment we’d come to experience, on to the long wire that stretched over the open gorge. A large pulley unit was the primary device, that’s how you rolled along the cable to the platform at the other side of the ravine. But there were always two other clips in place, for security. We’d been told this was one of the safest places for Canopy Touring, and that seemed to be the case.

“Are you ready?” the guide would ask when you were sufficiently latched on and secure for your ride across the abyss. “Enjoy!”

All you had to do was step off the edge of the platform and gravity would take over. A flight through the air, only the sound of the mechanism driving along the wire and the water cascading over the rocks below. Fifteen seconds of flying freedom.

~ ~ ~

Our friends had been to Swaziland before; it’s an easy weekend trip from where they live in Maputo. Things change almost immediately after crossing the border from Mozambique. The hills and mountains rise around you, and the land shifts from dusty brown to a palette of greens. A house just outside of Mbabane, the capital, was offered to us from a friend of a friend, one with many bedrooms that easily accommodated our two families of four. We did a big shop on the way there, the kind when you buy way too much food that you never eat because you end up going to restaurants for more meals than you expected. We spent the week taking hikes, visiting various tourist attractions, like a revived glass factory or an eccentric candle-making workshop, and then, of course: zip-lining at the Malolotja Nature Reserve.
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Our friends’ kids had already tried zip-lining, and loved it, so we knew the activity was child-friendly. But our girls have a different appetite for adventure, and it’s not as vigorous as ours. A little cajoling is almost always required. I knew for this to work it had to be well positioned to garner their enthusiasm.

It was Short-pants I was most worried about. She is thin and spindle-like, slightly uncoordinated. She’s aware of her lesser athleticism and though we work hard to keep her moving and confident, it’s her nature to avoid physical activity. I fully expected her to resist, until I thought of her role as Grandpa Joe in last year’s school play, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. After drinking the fizzy lifting drink Grandpa Joe sings a duet with Charlie called, “I’m Flying.” This was my entry point. We talked about how zip-lining might be a bit like that scene in the story, when they’re flying through the air. She said she was game. I couldn’t tell if she was truly interested in this adventure, or if she was just humoring me. Or maybe she was afraid of disappointing me. I worry about that, sometimes.

That morning, as we donned sunscreen and sneakers, it was Buddy-roo, though she’d been instantly enthusiastic about the idea when it was first proposed, who came to me with her head bowed.

“I don’t want to go.” She can make her voice so little and glum when she wants to.

“It’s natural to feel nervous before you do something new,” I told her, “I bet you’re going to love it.” I was wondering, myself, if I was going to love it.

“I’m worried about my sister,” she said, trying to think of another excuse. “What if she gets scared and freaks out?”

“You just worry about yourself,” I told her, though I wondered, myself, about the very same thing.

~ ~ ~

There were eleven zip-lines zig-zagging along and across the ravine, eleven chances to sail through the air. This meant it wasn’t a one-time shot. Once you started, you were committed. There was no way to turn back.

While Buddy-roo masked her fears by whining about her sister, Short-pants stoically adjusted her harness and her helmet, listened attentively to the guide as he reminded us of where to place our hands – and where not to put them – while gliding along the cable. We’d all gotten a lot quieter as we approached the first wire. I looked over at Short-pants and she bared her braces in a broad smile. If she was feeling frightened, she wasn’t letting on.

De-facto went first and I followed; we both had cameras and were charged with capturing images of the kids and cheering them in as they came across the ravine after us. Our friends stayed to the rear, ready to coach the youngest members of our squad as each one took their turn. The first zip-lines were shorter and the drop below them not too steep – like having two starter flights to get used to the feeling and to figure out how to use your glove, with its leather palm, to slow down at the end for a good landing.
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It wasn’t hard to get a feel for how to speed and slow yourself along the cable. The guide at the receiving end was there to catch you if you barreled in too fast, or to coax you if you’d slowed too soon to make it all the way to the platform. He unfastened and quickly re-fastened my ropes to the ground cable and I quickly turned to snap shots of each child, as they came into view, one at a time. Short-pants, long and lanky even with her knees bent, glided and landed effortlessly on the platform. She raised her arms in a jubilant victory pose. Buddy-roo sped in a few minutes later, smaller and more compact, but fast and confident and just as exhilarated by the ride.

As we followed the rest of the course, the cables got longer, stretching over the wider, steeper parts of the gorge. The hurdle of how-to-do-it had been cleared, and both girls were beaming. Much like our family hike last summer, the self-esteem of both daughters expanded, visibly, after two hours and eleven rides dangling from a cable strung out over a deep ravine. I’ll never know if they really wanted to try zip-lining, or if they were just afraid not to. But I’m reminded of how important it is to encourage our children to try to do new things they might not (at first) believe they can do. How else will they find out?


Sep 6 2012

Things Could Happen

At what age do we start to tell our children about the terrible things that could happen? We try to keep them innocent for as long as possible, perpetuating stories like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage their kindness and fairness, wanting them to believe the world is a kind and fair place. We build a magic bubble around them so they can grow up feeling safe. I’m never sure if we’re investing in their optimism or shielding them from the harsher truth. Maybe a dose of both.

Buddy-roo thumped down the stairs for one last goodnight kiss while De-facto and I were watching a movie, arriving just in time to see the scene in which a bold manservant attempts to force himself upon a young maid, who, fortunately, manages to push him off her and escape.

“What was he doing?” she asked as I steered her back upstairs.

“He’s trying to hurt her, but she got away.” I didn’t elaborate, partly because I wasn’t sure how much of the attempted rape scene I wanted to explain to a not-yet-nine-year-old, but also because I wanted to watch the movie, not talk about it.

The next morning she descended for the morning cuddle – these are still happening – and after a moment of wordless staring at the ceiling and listening to the familiar morning sounds of cleaning trucks spraying water in the street and pigeons cooing outside the window, she brought it up.

“Why was that guy trying to hurt the girl in the movie last night?”

These are the conversations I wish we didn’t have to have, but I won’t avoid them. One of the reasons I’ve told my daughters how babies are made is so they know how to protect themselves. I can’t warn them to watch out for strangers, without telling them what strangers might do. They cannot defend themselves from an atrocity like a rape if they don’t know what it is or what to watch out for. I hate to frighten them, but I don’t want them to be in the dark.

I took a deep breath and explained that the mean guy was pushing himself on the young woman because he wanted to have sex with her.

“Why was she fighting him back?” Buddy-roo asked.

“Because she didn’t want to have sex with him.”

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

I explained how there are in the world some arrogant men – boys, too – who think it’s okay to force themselves on a woman. They think if she says no, she doesn’t really mean it. Sometimes they don’t even bother to ask.

“If you’re ever in a situation like this, you have the right to say no. Say it loud and clear, and then get out of there.”

I am lucky to have never encountered such a scenario, but I imagine it isn’t always easy to scream no and get out. The whole subject – whether its date-rape or an attack by a stranger – is much more complex and there is no one right way to escape. You’d want to protect your sexual dignity, but you also might have to save your life, if a weapon was involved. Difficult choices might be required. Things could happen.

~ ~ ~

An exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, C’étaient des Enfants, chronicles the story of the children who were deported to the war camps during World War II. A number of these children disappeared right from our neighborhood; almost every school within ten blocks of our house has a plaque to commemorate the children who were taken. Just a few streets away is the address of the apartment featured in Sarah’s Key, the story of a young girl separated from her family during the Vel d’hiv Roundup when, in the course of just two days, 8,000 Jews were collected and deported.

Last week I took the girls to see it. I could have waited a few days until school started and gone on my own or with De-facto. I knew there’d be haunting images, the kind that can produce nightmares. I knew I was putting a sad and frightening story in front of them, but despite the picture of horrific reality that would be revealed, I felt they should see it.

I had to explain, as we toured the exhibit, why only some of the children in the class photographs had stars sewn on their clothing, how in one case an entire class of students completely disappeared, how some families were surprised in the night and then separated and sent off to camps, how the French police cooperated while many neighbors turned a blind eye.

“How could they let that happen?” Short-pants asked, earnestly.

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could they, a modern society, allow a paranoid politician to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could ever have happened, and to such extremes. But it did. And not so long ago.

~ ~ ~

These days I read the news, and I must admit, some of it seems just as preposterous to me. For instance, it’s become commonplace for white-haired male politicians to sponsor legislation that has a negative impact on a woman’s right to reproductive health. A candidate who knows little about a woman’s anatomy, let alone the reproductive process – and who, remarkably, sits on a science committee – proclaims that a woman’s womb won’t allow fertilization if she’s raped. Another lawmaker proposed legislation that would criminalize miscarriage and make abortion completely illegal, without exception. The bill didn’t pass, but that it was even suggested, that it could possibly be considered illegal for a woman to choose to end a pregnancy that was a result of a rape, this seems barbaric to me.

These social conservatives would insist a woman give birth to a baby that she never intended to have, whether the result of a rape or a broken condom, and that she cannot afford to raise. Yet they would cut a welfare program that would support her when she doesn’t abort, and they would un-fund an organization like Planned Parenthood which – except in the case of rape – might have helped her avoid the pregnancy all together.

It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

I live in a country where abortion is legal, where a big mistake or a violating incident can be remedied. It’s not without angst – abortion is never an easy decision for a woman – but at least it’s without felony charges. If my daughters stay here, they will have the right to choose. But I fret about what’s happening now to women in the United States, how the rights our grandmothers and mothers fought for – my mother was a supporter of Republican Majority for Choice – like the right to make choices about our bodies, the right to obtain safe birth control, all these aspects of reproductive health that, incidentally, contribute to our economic health, that these could slowly be stripped away. How could we let this happen?

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could we, a modern society, allow paranoid politicians to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could happen. But could it?


Jul 27 2012

A Family Way

Driving west, the dry landscape lifted and then flattened. I recognized the terrain, and then the familiar towns, posted on road signs: Belorado, Burgos, Castrojeriz, Frómista, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún. De-facto dumped us in the dusty town on the outskirts of León and drove away as we checked into our hotel, his bike strapped to the rack on the back of the car. He drove 45 clicks toward the sunset, to Astorga, where he parked the car and rode his bike back to us, arriving in time for dinner. That bike would spend three days in the basement of the hotel while De-Facto, Short-pants, Buddy-roo and I walked the Camino de Santiago together, as a family.

This was his birthday request, to give him and the girls a chance to see what it’s like to be on a the Camino. I divided what would have been not quite two days of walking on my own into three pieces, or roughly 15 kilometers each day, suitable, I hoped, for the legs and stamina of an 11 and a nearly 9-year-old. Even though I’d learned to trust the road and end up wherever you end up, with the girls in tow I thought it’d be smarter to map out our stops and reserve beds in advance. I even found an albergue that had small rooms with four beds, so they could experience the community feeling of the Camino but without the snoring and lack of privacy that is part of staying in a dormitory with 20+ beds. I also booked a night in an upmarket B&B, so we could have a little luxurious charm on our walk, too.

That first morning, sitting on the bed, I leaned over to tie my boots: Hello, old friends. I lifted my pack onto the table, turned and slipped my arms under the straps, content to have all the essentials close, on my back. I’d packed lighter than ever; we’d be walking only a few days and I needed to make room for the girls’ clothes. They had smaller daypacks – less than half the weight of what they carry to school in their cartables – to carry their own water, snacks, sandals and K-ways, in case of rain. Tucked in the side pocket of my pack were four pilgrim passports, three of them blank but ready for stamps.

Short-pants, whom we had to cajole and persuade through tears to join us for a 9k hike on my birthday weekend, turned out to be a most confident pilgrim. She often walked ahead of us, happy to be on her own. She insisted upon carrying her book – I’d limited her to only one – and occasionally tried to read it while she was walking. She never complained and wouldn’t tell me how sore her feet were until I asked. Even then, I think her feet hurt far more than she let us know.

The week before, we’d watched The Way, a movie about walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. In the film, each of the featured characters reveals a reason for being on the Camino, the objective they want to accomplish along the way. It was during the second day of our walk that Short-pants volunteered, during a moment she and I were alone, ahead of De-Facto and Buddy-roo, that she had two goals for the Camino.

“I want to stop picking my nose in public,” she announced, “and I want to stop yelling at my sister.”

Part of the Camino is the contemplation that comes from solitude and slowing down. Another part is the camaraderie and the exchanges with other pilgrims along the way. While Short-pants followed her instinct for self-reflection, Buddy-roo was busy making friends. At every stop, she’d strike up a conversation with fellow pilgrims. If we didn’t see them again, she’d speak of her new friends longingly, aching for another sighting. When we did happen to encounter familiar faces, she’d run up and greet them with full-bodied hugs. We hiked for an hour one morning with a Canadian man who was suffering multiple aches and pains from walking. The next day we met him again, at a roadside cantine at the end of a long, steep climb. She bolted over to him and threw her arms around his waist. He was startled at first, but when he realized it was Buddy-roo he surrendered fully to her healing affection. I bet that hug did more for him than the Advil, the sunblock or the pieces of sausage we’d shared with him the day before.

July is not an optimal month to be on the Camino. Afternoon temperatures soar, making it advisable to get up by sunrise and get on the trail early to walk in the cooler morning hours. On our final day – we actually walked 17k but didn’t tell the girls how long it was until we’d finished – we agreed to start off before dawn. When the alarm went off at 5:15, De-Facto went across the hall to wake the girls and found Short-pants, who’d set her own alarm, already up and getting dressed. Buddy-roo was harder to rally and she was grumpy about walking in the dark for the first half hour when we had to follow the yellow arrows by flashlight.

Two kilometers later, as the sky grew light enough to turn off the torch, we heard the sounds of a pulsing bass beat, like a discotheque in the distance. Could there be a late night club somewhere near? This would explain the pack of drunken boys we saw coming in to town when we’d started out. The music grew more audible as we entered the next little village, really just a hamlet, and as the Camino snaked into the center of town we stumbled into a full-on outdoor dance party, the annual village fiesta that had been raging all night. A pack of young revelers cheered and raised their drinks at us as we stepped around the flashing spotlights with our backpacks and walking sticks.

I suppose we could have kept our heads down, pushed through the dancing crowd and continued on our way. But that would have been humorless, and besides, the song that was playing was one of my favorites from the fiesta in Pamplona. I couldn’t help but dance. I looked over at De-facto, he was dancing too. Short-pants was even shaking her hips. Buddy-roo, whom you’d expect to dive into this kind of a social situation, disappeared behind a truck parked in the street. When De-Facto danced back a few steps to check on her, she came running into his arms in tears.

“It’s not right,” she screamed. “We’re supposed to be walking.”

Buddy-roo was unconsolable. I suppose you could argue her point: I’d easily have danced there for a half an hour or more, using up energy reserves that I’d need later to cover the distance when the sun was high and hot. Despite pleas from the partiers for us to stay, we collected our children and started to walk again, heading the wrong way until one of the locals, drink in hand, redirected us toward the yellow arrow and the road leading out of town.

As we left the little fiesta behind, Buddy-roo scolded us. “The Camino is for walking,” she said, officiously, “you’re not supposed to dance at a party that’s happening in the middle of it.”

“Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect,” I said, “the Camino gives you little gifts.”

The more we talked about it, the more convoluted her justification for being angry. When pressed, her reasoning deteriorated, and as it became less logical, her voice grew more authoritative. This is the thing she does that drives her sister berserk. Short-pants gets enraged at Buddy-roo for being a know-it-all when she’s obviously making-it-up-as-she-goes-along. She’ll yell and scream at her little sister and stomp off. I’ve tried to coach her to ignore Buddy-roo and just walk away when she starts to talk nonsense. Short-pants has never been able to let it roll off her back.

Buddy-roo babbled on about how the Camino is supposed to be and I braced myself for the blow-up. Instead, I heard Short-pants murmur something under her breath, loud enough for me to hear, but her sister missed it.

“Whatever you say, smarty-pants.”

Then she slowed her pace, dropping back several meters to take a little distance from her grumpy sister. A little quiet sarcasm, a giant step for Short-pants.

There’s such a surge in confidence when you achieve a goal. The kilometer count was daunting to both girls, but especially to Buddy-roo, the pokiest of our foursome. I’d slow down to walk with her, distracting her with stories to keep her from thinking about how much further we had to go. She did not suffer silently like her sister, but she never gave up. And at the end of each day’s walk she was always the proudest of the distance we’d covered. On the last leg of our little walking tour, only a few hours after her angry rant about the fiesta, it was Buddy-roo who was skipping and rocking her head happily from side to side, leading the way up a serious hill, thirty meters ahead of De-facto. I brought up the rear, watching my family spread out single file along the trail, everybody in their Camino zone, exercising legs and mind and spirit, each one on their own, but all of us together.


Jul 22 2012

All His Hard Work

A second after he heard the scratching in the ceiling, the light flipped on. De-facto bolted out of bed and grabbed the empty paint container in one hand, the lid in the other, and with the concentration of a hunter after its prey, closed in on the small barn squirrel frozen in its tracks, tiny claws gripping the stone wall.

We’ve lived with the glis-glis for years. The room that is our bedroom, like many things here at the country house, is not finished, nor is it sealed from the attached barn. This means more breezes in the winter, extra dust all year long, and a few visiting creatures who, no doubt, consider us to be the interlopers. We tried, once, to seal the hole that the critter uses to enter the room, but the scratching and screeching noises lasted until dawn and inspired us to unplaster the hole in the morning rather than endure that kind of a racket for a second night. Re-opening his passageway was our olive branch and we came to a truce with the glis-glis. He’d appear once each night, just at bedtime, squeaking a little before making his nightly run – our bedroom beams seem to be a nocturnal obstacle course – then he’d leave us alone for the rest of the night, except for an occasional scratch or screech, which we learned to sleep through.

But this year, there wasn’t just one glis-glis scurrying through our walls and over our beams. There were three.

De-facto refused to kill the creatures. This means no traps and no poison. His plan, to catch them in the paint bucket and drive several miles away to release them, was foiled twice last week when the glis-glis escaped immediately after capture. He seethed as he reported the escapes. The nightly tussle between De-facto and his barn squirrels had escalated into a war.

~ ~ ~

The truth is that our visits to the country house are never very restful for De-facto. I downshift easily into lazy pace. I have my country house projects: tending the grapevines and the roses – though I haven’t gotten to them yet this summer – and organizing an occasional cupboard, and of course the never ending stream of laundry. But I manage to spend a lot of my time here in a horizontal position, and not necessarily with my eyes open.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo spend their days running in and out of the house, into the forest and up and down the road. Their list of things to do – Short-pants voluntarily documented their choices in writing, as pictured here – includes marvelous tasks like observe blackberries, hang out in tent, story reading and, my favorite, funny time. These are exactly the kinds of things children should be doing on long, hot summer days.

De-facto grows industrious as soon as he steps into his green wellies. He dons his tool belt and begins construction. His work is paying off; the side room of the house has been insulated, wired, wall-boarded and its ceiling painted. During the last two weeks, he removed the rotted floorboards, dug out the space beneath them and, this weekend he borrowed a cement mixer from a neighbor and laid down a new floor. That Big Doll even deigned to descend from the loft, where the mess of mattresses and sleeping bags serve as a place for the kids to play and sleep – or used to sleep until this summer, when the noise from the glis-glis proved too much for them – and offered a sultry hand.

De-facto does all this hard work diligently, teaching himself as he goes along, dutifully promising me, each and every time I give him the look, that a new kitchen will be next.

“This is the best mistake we ever made,” he says of our decision to buy this beat up old house and barn. Despite the dirt and dust and everything unfinished about it, the rustic kitchen that breaks my back to cook in it, the mice droppings that must be cleared from every cupboard every season, I must agree with him. This house stores and feeds the memories of our children’s summers. Years from now I hope they’ll look back and remember the happy moments we’ve had here, happy not only in spite of the lack of luxury, but perhaps because of it.

~ ~ ~

The glis-glis, its four legs spread wide, clutching the stone wall, waited, motionless, as De-facto raised the plastic bucket and swept it toward him. Just as the open container scraped against the wall, the creature scrambled up to the beam and across it. De-facto followed, using the lid of the paint can to prevent the glis-glis from reaching the opening on the other side of the ceiling, forcing him to run around the room. De-facto bounded in pursuit over the bed and to the opposite corner where the glis-glis took cover behind a bag of golf clubs, unused for years and who knows why they’re there. A minute-long standoff, De-facto’s breathing ramped up with adrenalin, until the creature ran up the wall and behind the wardrobe. De-facto grabbed a shirt from the floor and snapped it at the glis-glis, catching him in it and quickly dropping the bundle – shirt and animal – into the bucket and, then, on his knees on the floor, he grabbed the lid and snapped it on tight.

“Now, the drive,” he said, panting. The previous escapes, attributed to his decision to wait until morning to dispose of the glis-glis, would not be repeated. De-facto slipped on his shorts and ran down the stairs. I heard the engine start and the car speed away.

Ten minutes later, De-facto returned, climbing the stairs to our bedroom with the sound of defeat.

“A successful catch and release?” I asked.

He shook his head. In his fury to get those few miles away where he left the living glis-glis to find a new home, he didn’t see the badger in the road until too late. He swerved, but heard a discouraging thump. On his way back, the badger lay dead in the center of the road. De-facto had to stop and move the animal out of the way.

“So much for being a Buddhist,” he said.

He slipped back into bed and pulled the covers up over this head. I curled up behind him, spooning close and wrapping my arms around him, grateful for all the hard work he does here at the country house.


Jul 16 2012

Toro Suelto

Every fiesta morning at eight o’clock, a rocket fires and six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona to run toward the bullring. They do not run alone. They are accompanied by a pack of steers, whose docile influence hopefully keeps the bulls running close together. Also running beside them are thousands of people who’ve been waiting in the street for the chance to run with the bulls even for just a few moments. This is the encierro.

I have been to the Fiesta San Fermín nine times and have never ever considered running with the bulls. It is a dangerous tradition that I respect, from our balcony. I’m told it started when the shopkeepers along the route, having closed their doors while the bulls run by, decided to join in, with the permission of the pastores who herd the pack of animals to the bullring. It grew into a local ritual. Hemingway made the fiesta popular among foreigners, who joined the party and the run. I’m privileged enough to be friends with some of the foreigners who are loved and respected by the local bull runners, for whom the encierro is an art and a serious sport. These are men easily distinguished from the drunken college students who show up and know nothing about the bulls or the run and whose presence in the street is often the greatest danger of all.

A good encierro is a fast run. It can take less than three minutes to cover the 800-meter distance. It’s a good run if the pack of bulls and steers stick together, if the bulls remain focused on running forward and pay little attention to the throngs of people running beside them, trying to maneuver their way to the plum running spot, just ahead of one of the horns. It’s not such a good run when a bull gets separated from the pack because he falls behind or literally falls down, and when he gets up he’s lost his mates. The toro suelto, a loose bull, stops and spins around, charging at any runner who happens to be in front of him. Usually a green-shirted pastore will appear with his long herding stick, a stick sometimes used to whack idiot runners, and redirects the bull forward to join the others at the end of the run. Sometimes it’s up to a courageous bull runner – the experienced ones know how and will dare – to turn the bull around and provoke it forward, before getting out of the way.

The entire encierro is broadcast, so the parts I cannot view from my balcony on the calle Estafeta I can see on television. It’s something to see the toro suelto stopped and spun around, confused. The bulls are so beautiful and noble; it’s perplexing to see them out of sorts.

~ ~ ~

Each and every fiesta I have my own suelto moment. The week starts out bright and convivial, with champagne and cheer and old friends greeting, music and dancing in the street, a whole week of unscheduled wildness ahead. But midway through the fiesta there’s a dip, from lack of sleep, too much drink, getting fed up with the gray sludge in the streets and the constant press of people. I always have one restless night when my mind won’t shut down and my train of thought is only of the dark side. I become convinced that everyone I know, in Pamplona and elsewhere, merely indulges me and that I’m a terrible mother abandoning my family to come to this sloppy party. It’s a lonely moment, laying in the dark, unable to sleep, the dull roar of constant revelers in the street audible even with the best of earplugs. It’s the moment I feel out of the pack, and turned around, but fortunately, too tired to charge.

It’s remarkable to me that even in the company of so many fun-loving, open-hearted fiesta-thriving people – anyone you meet in the street will nod and smile at you – that such a lonely moment can prevail. The only thing to do is ride it out; the mid-fiesta plunge always passes and with the rising of the sun, the spirited alegria of the fiesta returns.

~ ~ ~

Another always: how I leave Pamplona before the fiesta ends. Two days of incessant partying remain, but I never finish with my friends. There have been years when I lamented my early departure. Other years, like this one, I felt ready to leave. My farewell breakfast included some beautiful jotas, a reprise of singing attention from Puchero, hugs and kisses and goodbyes, followed by the sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement to my last bar in town, where the taxi meets me. It’s just over an hour’s ride to the train that takes me to France and to my family. I always keep my pañuelo and my faja on for the entire ride. I’m the only one in white and red, the suelto amongst a train full of people dressed in blue jeans and regular colors.

At the other end of the train ride, De-facto – donned in white pants and T-shirt and a thin red pañuelo bearing the name of a cheapest brand of patxaran, something I must have left behind after a previous fiesta return – swept me into the car and on winding roads through villages, fields and forests to our country house. Short-pants, Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love cheered my arrival and sang a song they’d rehearsed for my return. There were fierce hugs from my not-as-little people, both of whom had grown taller since I last saw them. Dinner was waiting on the table. Ten days of stories were flying at me from every direction. I looked around, stunned, not unhappy to be in their presence, but somehow not quite in sync, not yet facing their direction. Like the toro suelto, I’d been somewhere else, out of the pack, loose and turned around.

~ ~ ~

A few days pass and I am back in step with my herd. Little by little I take up the routines that we follow here: writing in the morning, a run to the store before midday, pruning grapevines and rose bushes and attempting to keep up with the laundry. My dirty white clothes, soaked for two days in a mix of Coca-cola and bleach before they were washed – a secret recipe for removing the gray sludge – are now draped across every clothesline, drying in the sun. Long, thick nights of sleep, deeper because of the country quiet, restore my energy and return my attention to my family. I was away from them for three weeks to walk the Camino, and another ten days before and during the fiesta. I’ve had plenty of time away from my pack. But that’s something I need, that time away, and it’s exactly what makes it feels so good to be back, running side-by-side with them now.


Jul 5 2012

All that Bull

As promised, just after eleven o’clock, they arrived. I heard the signature barking-dog alert, and looked up from my barstool to see a round, blue bull pedaling by on a vélib’, the rentable bicycles in Paris. A few moments later, the Fiesta Nazi arrived with the robust bull at her side, and a small crew from Kukuxumusu, who’d come to film her because she’s been designated as this year’s Guiri del Año of San Fermĺn. It’s been thirty years that she’s been going to Pamplona, and it’s fitting that this honor, bestowed each year upon a favorite fiesta foreigner would go to her.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love, all donning red pañuelos, came to the café, along with a gang of other friends, to await their arrival. The Fiesta Nazi habitually avoids publicity, so assembling a familiar crowd at the bar helped keep it silly rather than serious. Not that a Disney-character-styled blue bull is that serious, but we showed up to make it feel like a party rather than an interview. The girls loved the bull, aka Mister Testis, and hugged him him like a long lost friend. When he finally de-costumed, they took turns trying on his head and poking each other with his horns.

De-facto had some errands to run, but showed up after the interview to say hello. He could not contain his curiosity about the bull costume, which was crumpled on the floor like a passed-out drunk after an all-night binge. He wanted to try it on. The Kukuxumusu guys did not protest at all, helping him slip his long skinny legs into the suit that was measured for someone not quite so tall as he, and turning him and zipping him up into the costume.

I looked on with admiration as De-facto appropriated the costume and ran out of the café to interact with people in the street. He has never been to the fiesta San Fermĺn. It has always been my annual week-away-with-my-girlfriends, and when I first started going, I needed that week away. Now it is not as critical to my sanity but the rituals have been put in place and he does not complain about the arrangements I make to go there. In recent years, I have more than hinted that he should come to Pamplona, too, even if just for a few days. So far, he’s opted to let it be mine, apart from the family. That he can leave the fiesta to me, and yet celebrate some of its foolishness when it happens to come close to home; this is just another reason to appreciate his role as my partner, and the long leash that I enjoy.

Buddy-roo, however, wasn’t delighted as I was by his willingness to try out the bull’s suit for a jaunt in the neighborhood. She burst into angry tears.

“No Papa, don’t!” She screeched at him and stomped her feet. “You look ridiculous!”

De-facto bolted out into the street, skipping down the sidewalk in the bulky blue suit, nodding at strangers, enchanting the passers-by who gawked and laughed, and taunting those who pretended not to notice that there was a foolish blue bull dancing down the street toward them.

~ ~ ~

The TGV from Paris to Hendaye is one of my favorite train trips. It’s the first leg of the voyage to Pamplona, slicing through the French countryside to the Spanish border. The days leading up to get on this train are never easy, I wind myself up getting the family packed and on the road to the country house, and my compulsion to get everything else in my life in order before I go doesn’t help. But the moment that my suitcases are stowed in the luggage rack, and I plop down in the crushed-velvet seat and heave a huge sigh of relief, then I know there’s only fun and fiesta ahead.

It’s always good to start the five hour trip with a nap, but eventually the legs need a stretching and there really isn’t any place to walk other than to the bar car. The train is divided into two sections, Zen and Zap; when you book your ticket you choose an ambiance. The Fiesta Nazi and I usually book a seat in Zen, because you can always get a little Zap by strolling to the bar car, though I must say we found it to be a bit too quiet for our mood. A little rosé later, we persuaded the barman to plug my iPod into the speaker on the bar, and raised the volume on a playlist of our Pamplona favorites. There were a few other people in the bar car, pretending not to notice that we had started dancing. Soon they left, but we kept dancing, because the music is the kind of music that compels you to dance and we were, after all, ramping up to go to one of the best dance parties in the world.

The barmen, amused by our impromptu party but unwilling to participate, went about their business cashing out the register, cleaning and clearing the bar of its inventory as we approached the last stop. We raised the volume and kept on dancing. This was of great interest to two pre-teenaged girls who’d come to the bar car for a soda and found instead a disco. They stood at a distance, watching us as if were from another planet. I danced my way over to them.

“This is what joy looks like,” I said to them.

It was then, dancing in the TGV bar car, the Fiesta Nazi and I turning and twisting and laughing at each other and not even caring what anybody thought, that I understood exactly why De-facto is so accommodating about my trips to to Pamplona. He knows that something happens to me while I’m dancing like a fool with my fiesta friends, something that makes me feel especially alive. He knows I need it, and he knows why. He gets it, and I will never take that for granted.

Moments later, the two girls returned to the bar car, holding their smart phones as if to be texting, but I suspected they were snapping photos or videos. I danced back over to where they were standing, which was as far away from us as possible.

“You can take all the photos you want,” I said, “but promise me that when you’re my age – and I’m fifty – you’ll let yourself dance in a train someday, just like this.”

They nodded their heads, agreeing. What else could they do?

~ ~ ~

Such foolishness will continue for days. In Pamplona, at noon on the sixth of July, the rocket will go off and church bells will ring and champagne corks will pop and the days and nights of the next week will be filled with more laughter and foolishness than most people get in a whole year. There is joy to be had – at the fiesta it’s called alegria – and nobody gives it to you or does it for you, and it probably won’t happen unless you’re willing to be foolish. And much to Buddy-roo’s chagrin, both her parents are absolutely willing, and that’s no bull.


Jul 1 2012

A Slow Read

A crowd of people – family and friends – descended on Paris at the end of June and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to visit with them and catch up, host them for aperitifs and dinner, take them to my favorite cafés in this city where I’ve made my life. I’m truly happy for each and every visitor, but why is it they all arrive at once, with overlapping itineraries? It’s not that they become my responsibility – all these people are grown adults (or in the care of their parents) and have navigated their lives perfectly well to get themselves to an airport and get on a plane to Paris, so they can get themselves around here – but there is a mild but haranguing sense of duty, perhaps, but also desire, to help with the trip, to enhance their experience, maximize their time in Paris, a city with so much to offer and yet if you don’t know where to look, you can miss the best of it.

There were, as well, more shows to attend: Buddy-roo’s tap-dance recital, in which she had five minutes on stage in a red flapper dress, with two young men in black and white tuxedos flanking her, all three tapping their heels and toes together; and the final viola recital for Short-pants, the last of a litany of end-of-school-year performances and activities. Not to mention several beauty-nurse type appointments of my own, to put my person in order prior to going away for most of July.

Part of me was screaming for all of it to stop, such a jolt to my Camino-quieted system to have to ramp up and run at this pace of scheduled events every night for weeks in a row. This is why it was my first instinct to say no when my friend invited me to use the gallery where he was showing his artwork to host a soirée for my friends and talk about my Camino experience.

The theme of his show was This Here Now, a collection of odd objects he’s literally picked up in different places in the world, mounted on distressed zinc plates and framed, each one commemorating the place and the moment where the object was found. It was very much in sync with my walking experience, the sense of slowing down and noticing what’s right in front of you, here and now and acknowledging the beauty and story within it.

On my way to I meet him for lunch and to look at his exhibit, I was sure that I shouldn’t do it. My back-from-the-Camino self was determined to walk slower and take on less, to leave stretches of time, time for me, and time for my family. But standing in the gallery, his constructed paintings surrounding and delighting me, I heard from another self, a voice who whispered to me often during my long walks. It’s your writing, it’s art. Do it.

I remember my parents returning from their voyages – their treasured vacation in Greece the strongest memory of this – and they’d put together a slide show and invite people over for a dinner party. My mother would conjure up a menu of the featured country’s cuisine, and after dessert the guests would assemble in our living room for slides and stories about the trip. I’d yawn through it, convinced my parents’ friends were far too polite. This is why I thought it’d make sense to skip the pictures, and to excerpt a few key passages from favorite blog posts and do a very short reading. If I picked the right passages, the audience could picture it on their own. And otherwise we’d ply people with wine and have a nice time.

~ ~ ~

Little by little it slips away, my newfound rootedness giving way to the daily duties that call me, and I don’t know how not to answer. To some things, yes: I have unsubscribed to a dozen Internet newsletters. I refused paying work because of my out of town guests. I didn’t sign up to accompany Buddy-roo’s class on their day-long end-of-school sortie. I’ve said no to fundraising events and lunch invitations with people who aren’t mission critical. I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed in weeks (and I don’t miss it). Nonetheless, it felt like my energy was getting scattered from all the running around and doing more, when all I want to do is less.

But how? Every time I clear something away, a new task replaces it. We left the eye doctor last week with a prescription for Short-pants to see an orthopiste, a kiné for the eyes. This will require two visits a week for six weeks in a row. So next fall – it’s impossible to start this summer between our July vacation and every French orthopiste’s August holiday – on top of everything else we’ll be traipsing around twice a week to these appointments. It’s important and necessary, and in itself it’s not such an enormous task. It’s just that every little thing like this adds yet another detail to remember, to organize and execute, and I can’t not do them. After the Camino, I wanted to do less. But less of what?

~ ~ ~

Turnabout is fairplay, I suppose, so just as I’ve rallied for Short-pants’ and Buddy-roo’s performances, they showed up for mine. (Rallied is perhaps too exuberant to describe Buddy-roo’s reaction, but once she got there she didn’t mind.) My mother-in-love was in town too, a poet who’s done her fair share of readings so she had a few tips for me, accepted gladly as the time I had to prepare was minimal and a seasoned pro’s advice gave me comfort.

When you read your words out loud, they change. It’s not like what you hear in your head when you write them, or read to yourself. The words become truer. When you say them out loud their meaning is enlarged and magnified. You have to slow down and treat the words deliberately. Each time I practiced reading my selections, making small edits and changes along the way to suit a live occasion, I appropriated the words even more. With every read-through, I took back a little of the groundedness I’d felt slipping away. I needed to be in the this here now to be able to do the reading, and reading out loud was just what it took to get there.

De-facto bought wine and my good culinary-inclined friend prepared for me, generously, an array of pintxos and a gateau Basque, regional eats in the spirit of the reading. (My mother was smiling down at her, I’m sure.) A small group assembled, but it was just the right group. We took our time. I read one piece, and then we waited. An hour later, I read another piece. In between, a quick hint from my mother-in-love: “You could read even slower if you wanted.” So I did.

After the readings, the guests lingered at the gallery until nearly midnight, making a dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres and stretching out the evening with wine and laughter. I had a chance to visit with everyone, falling into long and meandering, meaningful conversations that affirmed for me how this reading, which felt at first like too much to do, turned out to be exactly what I needed. Note to self: do more of these.

All the images in the post are by Dan Walker.


Jun 11 2012

Not in a Rush

When you slow down, a window opens and you see things you couldn’t see before. When you take your time, you sense things, because you’re not rushing through life facing forward, you’re ambling along, receptive to what’s around you. When you give yourself time, you think things through, following a string of thoughts from one thing to the next and then further. Unlike the one-thing-to-another we experience while surfing the web or multi-tasking through a busy day, staccato and mercurial, the thought process that accompanies a long walk in the country is calming and fluid, like waves of water rolling forward and back and forward again. It doesn’t take very long for the chatter to cease, the chirping in the back of your head quiets and the mind is filled with simpler thoughts. There is space for bigger thoughts, or the smaller thoughts have room around them to echo. You start to really see what’s inside you and around you, and notice things that you don’t notice when you’re in a rush.

~ ~ ~

Walking through Pamplona, one of the early stops along the Camino – this was in the beginning of May – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rituals we enact there every July during the fiesta. It was odd to walk through that city without people and music spilling out into the streets. I walked down the empty Calle Merced, where in two months time, to the day, there’d be long tables set up end-to-end in the street, and friends would be assembling for a breakfast of greasy eggs and chorizo or pochas and red wine. I love those breakfasts, especially when the jota singers among the group stand up and sing their beautiful Navarran ballads. A man named Puchero is a force behind this, his voice bold and full, like his body. When he sings, his mouth stretches wide with each vibratoed note, his eyes bore into you, tearing sometimes because he is singing with such force. If he sings to you, the only thing to do is look right back at him with the biggest smile ever, and stay present to fully receive the song, sung in Spanish and if it is later translated, you are moved by the choice of words and their meaning.

For a minute, I wondered if the Fiesta Nazi, in a fit of generous mischief, would make some arrangement for Puchero to show up at my party and surprise me with a birthday jota. It would be only an hour’s drive for him, and not unthinkable for her to orchestrate something like this. At the same time, it was pretty far-fetched and highly unlikely. Still, I permitted my imagination to hold this image for a few minutes, just for the pleasure of the fantasy, picturing him singing to me and giving my assembled friends this taste of the Navarran culture. A little Walter Mitty moment during my walk.

Two weeks later, when the pit crew kidnapped me to go to my party, I found myself back in Navarra. The day before the big celebration – on my actual birthday – we decided to drive by St. Jean Pied de Port to see where I’d started the Camino. My credentials were getting full – I collected stamps not only from where I slept each night, but from the churches I visited and many of the cafe-bars I stopped at along the way – in St. Jean I could stop by the Camino office and get an extra pilgrim passport to use when my original one got filled up.

It was lunchtime in France – only a few miles away, over the border in Spain, lunch was still something to look forward to – and we decided to eat in St. Jean, installing ourselves at a table on a restaurant terrace along the street. We’d barely clinked glasses when a squat, thick man charged up to our table, trailed by about a dozen other people.

“I know those two girls,” he said between a string of colorful curses. We knew him, too. It was Puchero. By chance, he happened to be visiting St. Jean Pied de Port with a group from Pamplona and just happened to walk down the street where we just happened to be seated. We were as surprised to see him as he was to see us. The Fiesta Nazi didn’t miss a beat. “It’s her birthday,” she said, pointing at me, “sing her a jota!”

Without hesitating even a second, he launched into song, his robust voice belting out a wailing call. His face right away red, the veins in his temple squeezed as he forced every cubic inch of air out of his lungs before a new breath and a new phrase. He literally stopped all activity on the street. Every passerby, every diner on the terrace, every waitress, every shopkeeper, craned their necks to watch and listen to Puchero as he sang me my birthday jota.

It was framed slightly differently than my fantasy of weeks before, but nonetheless, the same elements were there. But this had not been organized in advance, it happened by chance, that Puchero was there and we were too. Had I experienced some kind of premonition? Or had my little fantasy sent out a request that was answered? Or was it all just a coincidence?

~ ~ ~

The first time I had the dream was in Estella, five days into the Camino. I guess you could call it a pilgrim-stress dream, in which I walked to the next town only to realize I’d left my walking poles in the previous night’s hotel. I woke up, relieved to see those familiar bastóns leaning against the chair, that I hadn’t left and walked an entire day’s stage without them. I had the dream again, the next night, waking to check that my poles were still there beside my bed.

A few days later, I lingered in a room I’d shared with five others, letting them all finish their morning ablutions first so that I might have a more leisurely and private departure. (This was prior to the hot meseta after Burgos, when my timing changed and a just-at-dawn departure was required to make tracks before the midday sun.) On my way out, I set my poles against the table by the door, stopping to take advantage of the wifi signal in the lobby to send a word of love to De-facto before heading out for the day’s walk. The door closed behind me, and I walked three blocks before realizing I’d left my poles at the albergue. When I returned, the door was locked and when I knocked, nobody answered. I sat on the stoop wondering how long I’d have to wait to get my poles, when I remembered I’d called the proprietor the day before, his number was in my phone memory. A quick call and he was there in 5 minutes, unlocking the door so I could reach in and retrieve my walking sticks.

Hold on to those poles, I told myself.

~ ~ ~

He stood to the side of the path and beckoned to me, holding out a small bag. “Would you like an olive?” he said, “I just opened them.”

Always accept small gifts on the Camino, I’d been told. So I reached in and pulled one of the plump green olives from the package, trying not to put my sweaty fingers in the juice that preserved them.

“I’m Mark from Michigan,” he said. I hadn’t met that many Americans along the way, he reminded me how exuberant my countrymen can be. He thrust the small bag toward me again. “Have another olive.”

I’d been singing to myself all day, a kind of stream-of-consciousness name-that-tune, when one simple word could provoke an entire medley of songs. I took another olive, but held it in my hand while I sang to him one part of a song from Godspell, which includes the lyrics,Your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying.

The song is actually a duet I used to sing, in spontaneous moments, with a good friend Dilts – we called each other by our last names as a form of endearment – his part fast and syncopated and my part slow and melodic. The last line of my part: When you go to heaven you’ll be blessed, oh yes, it’s all for the best.

Mark from Michigan looked me straight in the eye, just the way I’d looked at Puchero when he sang to me, for the entire song, which I did not rush through, but rather sang to him very deliberately, emphasizing especially the word olive, to nod my head at the cause for this melody.

“That’s beautiful,” he said, when I finished. “If I go to heaven, I’ll wait for you there.” I ate my olive, thanked him again, and walked on.

Singing that song had conjured up images of my friend Dilts, his wry smile and his dry wit. He died eight years ago, cancer took him before he could turn fifty. I carried him with me for several kilometers, vacillating between missing him fiercely but also laughing out loud at things I remember him saying and doing. A lasting image of him, still in my mind now: his smart-ass smile, one eyebrow raised and jubilant fist in the air. I had Mark from Michigan to thank for conjuring up that string of memories, all from one single olive.

~ ~ ~

I made it to León, after 20 days of walking, covering 450 kilometers. The very last leg, by bus, as I didn’t want the lingering memory of this stretch of the Camino to be the industrial suburbs of the city. I figure the day I walked on the Camino Baztanés from Urdax to Elizondo is like extra credit, and makes up for the sage decision to avoid the plight of an urban pilgrim. A friend, an avid hiker, had joined me for these last two days of walking. Even she agreed this was a better choice than to march through truck fumes and under highway on-ramps. I could see much of the Camino route from the window, so I followed the trail with my heart, even though my feet were on the bus.

We took a train from León to San Sebastian, and in the rush of getting off the train, I neglected to pick up my poles, which I’d meant to strap to my backpack, but hadn’t gotten around to it, as they were useful until the last moment getting on the train. I’d put them on the overhead shelf and when I pulled down my pack, I somehow didn’t think to grab them. In fact, I didn’t realize they were missing until we’d walked ten blocks through San Sebastian in search of our hotel.

I didn’t get upset, even though they’d carried me so many miles, even though they’d become an extension of my arms, and probably a savior of my back, even though I loved the little feet I’d bought to cover the noisy metal tips. I let them go. Not that I gave up: once we checked into the hotel, the proprietor was very happy to help me call the RENFE and register the loss in their records, just in case. The next day I visited the lost and found at the terminus, the same station where we’d board our train to Paris. There was no sign of them. They are in someone else’s hands now, but hopefully helping them to walk as well as they guided me.

I wasn’t paying attention. That’s when you miss things. But hadn’t I seen that coming?

~ ~ ~

Word passes on the Camino without texts or emails. The weaving that happens as you walk puts you in touch with different people over the course of a day. You might walk with someone for fifteen minutes and then pull ahead, only to run into them again a few hours later when you’d stopped for a rest at a village cafe. Or someone you hadn’t seen for days would somehow get in step with you again. In the meantime, they’ve walked and talked with others, and if there is news to share, it gets passed along. After Burgos, there was a rumor about someone who’d gone to sleep in the albergue there and hadn’t woken up. This wasn’t the first death I’d heard about during my walk: a 65-year old man had a heart attack on his very first day, going over the Pyrenees. The story told was his wife had died the year before, his Camino was meant to help him sort through it. Nobody I spoke with felt too terrible about it. “Perhaps he’d joined her,” they said, or “it’s not a bad way to go, walking the Camino.”

The amazing night I stayed in the Ermita de San Nicolas, after our feet were washed and our dinner was finished, my friend from Romania turned to me and asked if I’d heard about the man who died in Burgos. “You knew him,” she said, “I saw you talking to him.” She described him, but I couldn’t place him. She kept saying his name, but it didn’t register. “Yes, you knew him,” she insisted, “Mark, Mark from Michigan.”

I fell silent then, thinking about the lyrics in the song I’d sung to him, remembering our very brief exchange. Did I see that coming? Was it just another coincidence? That day, the day I shared his olives, I must have been paying attention to something.

If there is a heaven – and I’m not always sure of it – but if there is, I hope he’s there. I hope he’s met up with Dilts, who can sing him the other half of the duet. And if he is waiting for me there, well, I hope he knows I’m not in a rush.