Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Fiddler and his Compostela

It's a funny old time. Like being in the waiting room of a train station willing the train to come but knowing it won’t come any faster just because you want it to. After the excitement of the New Year trip I have come back to a frenzy of things to do. Bills to be paid, tax returns to be submitted, house to be let, correspondence to be answered, work to be attended to. Errrr….run that back…just saying the words House to Let doesn’t in any way convey the effort and angst that has to go into preparing for this. First there are the estate agents.
Like vampires hungry for blood they responded to an initial phone call asking for information as if I was promising marriage or a gift of £1 million or both. “Let’s not chat on the phone, sir, I’ll bring the information personally, will you be in this afternoon?” They drive up in expensive cars with the grin and over familiarity of a slightly inebriated relative. I’ve discovered they want to talk about everything apart from how much they charge. I’ve seen three. I asked one of them four times about their charges only to be diverted by compliments about the décor, the flooring, the paintings. Stop! I don’t want to talk to you about my holidays, where my office is, what kind of car I drive, and the weather yesterday, today and tomorrow. Tell me please how much you can get me for my home and how much you are going to charge me for so doing. That’s all.
I thought I’d got the message through. I got the information. They followed it up in writing. Now they have each called “Just to see how you are doing?”. Grrrrr. I want a letting agent not a best buddy.
As you might have noticed I don’t like any of this. I don’t like change. And yet I dream of it, recently almost all the time. I’ve Googled “Camino Levante” so often I swear the websites appear before I hit return. The other day I filled in that horrible and detestable thing called MY TAX RETURN and with complete irrational loathing sent them the money I owed them. I’m never usually like this but this year routine tasks are interfering with my obsessive thoughts of packing lists and itineraries, guide books, albergues and hostals. You know…the vitally important things of life.
What on earth has happened to me in these 5 years since my first Camino? Then I simply decided to go for a long walk but of course I discovered as we all do that as well as the physical act of walking which is deeply meditative, the simplicity of the way of life, the friendship of strangers and the beauty of the countryside are actually a powerful spiritual brew. I don’t know if I can explain this adequately but in the beginning I thought I’d walk and perhaps sometimes try and pray although as you know I am quite uncertain at times what that is all about. I thought I’d visit churches – at least they are familiar territory to me. What I discovered step by step is that pilgrimage is all of these things and much more. For me it is the journey which empties my mind of the unnecessary and fills it with the essential: the smells and sounds of nature, the laughter of friends, the words of encouragement of local people, the bond with other pilgrims, the times alone where we face ourselves. Above all I suppose the experience opens my mind to God in ways which Church never does. Increasingly I’ve become bothered again by aspects of Church: by the lack of caring, the focus on power, the marginalisation of women inevitable in a male dominated organisation and the pompous self regard of many leaders. Now I find these feelings fading and taking on a new perspective. When I rage about it I want to take them all, Pope included, on pilgrimage. I realise I can only take myself.
As if to mark this mood January 25th arrived. Burns’ Day when we traditionally eat haggis and remember Rabbie Burns the National Bard of Scotland. Some of his poems chime very much with my thinking at the moment. I remember as a boy in school reading To A Louse where Burns with an acute eye sees a louse crawling through the hair of a young “lady” and with his scalpel lays bare our human frailty. He closes with the prayer that we be given the ability to “see ourselves as others see us”. Then in the famous poem A Man’s A Man for A That he expresses some of the essence of our pilgrim world. I give the translation from Scots here:
Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and all that?
The coward slave, we pass him by -
We dare be poor for all that!
For all that, and all that,
Our toils obscure, and all that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gold for all that.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear course grey woolen, and all that?
Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine -
A man is a man for all that.
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that,
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that.

You see yonder fellow called 'a lord,'
Who struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a dolt for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribboned, star, and all that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and all that!
But an honest man is above his might -
Good faith, he must not fault that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall have the first place and all that!
For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

I felt much more at one with the world when I recounted these sentiments as we tucked into haggis, tatties and neeps and observed that this was good pilgrim fare. Haggis is traditionally made from offal, suet, oats, barley and spices although nowadays thankfully a vegetarian version is available!
However this mood of preoccupation with deep thoughts and irritants such as estate agents didn’t last long. The gloom was broken by the Camino which appeared in the most unexpected way. Over the years I’ve been very cynical about theories surrounding coincidences. I always found sayings like they are “anonymous messages from God” bordering on the sickly sweet. Nowadays of course some people talk about “synchronicity” and I know some research has been considered about such happenings on the Camino. I’m also aware that despite my cynicism I’ve related one or two such examples from my own life in this very column. So in the midst of my semi – melancholic, January induced, mood I was hit right between the eyes by more evidence to wonder at. Try this one for size!
At the Confraternity Service held at the end of last year a young man came up to me and enquired if I had worked in the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago. I said that I had. “I think you wrote my Compostela at the end of my Camino”,  he said. He could see I couldn’t remember him but he related some of the conversation we had. His name is Piotr from Poland who had been living in Santiago for 7 years. On a trip back home he met and fell in love with a Polish girl who was living in London. He decided to move to London but before leaving Spain made a pilgrimage to Santiago from Leon. On receiving his Compostela he also got my best wishes for his new life in London. Here he was in front of me. To prove the point he then sent me a photograph of his Compostela. “Is this your writing?” he asked in the e mail. Yes it was. Our previous meeting was confirmed.
But more than that. Piotr explained that he was a musician and that he would love it if we could get together, him with his violin and me on the organ. He managed to get over to Clapham last Sunday. Our rehearsal time was minimal but we decided to make some music flying by the seat of our pants and the score in front of us. Here is the result. The 500 people who were there appreciated it, fluffs (minor errors) and all. A Camino coincidence or not the fiddler and his Compostela has blown away my gloom:

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The King on the Via de la Plata

From the bitter cold of London I headed to Sevilla in the South of Spain to celebrate New Year. When the aeroplane doors opened after the short 2.5 hour flight the change in the weather was obvious. I turned on my phone and a text from my daughter in Scotland read, “Better weather today Dad, only minus10 degrees”
But all things are relative and although I found the 20 degree Sevillan weather almost like summer, the locals were dressed as if to ward off an arctic cold. Women wore real fur coats and large Russian style hats and men wore long scarves wrapped around their necks on top of winter jackets and coats. Just like London the cold weather brings out street vendors selling hot chestnuts but there was something very incongruous to my eyes with the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” under trees still laden with oranges.
Sevilla is one of the most beautiful cities of Spain. The gigantic Plaza España has been completely refurbished and the air is filled with laughter and the clip clop of the horse drawn carriages taking tourists around the town. After a couple of days there I headed further South to bring in the New Year with friends in Gibraltar. Crossing the border into this British Protectorate I showed my passport, passed through customs, walked past a British red telephone box and nodded to a policeman dressed as if he was in central London. The policeman was on the telephone to someone – speaking fluent Spanish. This small place of 20,000 permanent residents is a bit disorientating.They speak Spanish to each other and enjoy Andalucian style cooking but, being fiercely proud of their British citizenship, they speak English to outsiders. As a tax haven the streets are lined with shops selling discounted luxury goods, cigarettes and booze. So, armed with a bottle of Bells I set off up the hill to my friend’s house overlooking the Straights of Gibraltar. The view in daylight was beautiful with many ships parked in the bay awaiting further orders and ferries dotting back and forth to Tangiers and Morocco. As midnight on Hogmanay or the Noche Vieja approached, the ships turned on all of their lights and at the stroke of midnight their fog horns pierced the air as fireworks flew into the sky for as far as the eye can see. Happy New Year.
The television in the corner of this Gibraltar house of course also broadcast the BBC and the horns sounded again an hour later when Big Ben struck 12 in London. Gibraltarians manage to live in both worlds quite comfortably. There then followed TV reports of the massive street parties in Scotland where the Scots have made New Year their own.

In Spain although New Year is marked with smiles and handshakes what they have made their own is the Feast of the Epiphany when the Three Kings arrived to pay homage to the baby Jesus. For Spaniards this is the real Christmas and I arrived back in Seville in time to feel the excitement mounting. All day on the 5th of January, the eve of the feast, a festival atmosphere developed. Crowds drank cold sherry in the street. Tapas bars were overflowing. In the square in front of the church of Sal Salvador several hundred people assembled to chat and drink. The evening of the 5th is when the children would put out their shoes to be filled with presents in the same way as the children in other countries would hang up their stockings. But before the Christmas presents there would be the Cabalgata, the Procession of the Kings, a marvellous cavalcade depicting not only the Kings but scenes from fairy tales and childrens’ stories. This year in Sevilla 41 mobile scenes were to pass through the city during a procession lasting 6 hours. The start time was 4.15 but by 3pm the crowds were forming. By 4pm 250,000 people lined the streets creating a vast avenue of people through which the procession would pass. To symbolise the gifts to come everyone taking part in the procession throws candies to the crowd. Literally millions and millions of caramelos rain down.
Children waited expectantly with their empty plastic bags. Adults carried umbrellas which later they would open and hold upside down to collect the airborne candy. People appeared on balconies overlooking the route. In the distance the first of many marching bands struck up a tune. The Procession was underway. Scenes from Narnia, pirates, elves and fairies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many more passed through a jubilant, cheering crowd. It was raining candy and both adults and children scrambled to fill bags for the sugar-fest to come. All too soon it was over and the bars and terazzas were again heaving with people with the adults drinking beer and the children munching merrily from bulging bags. Their big presents were still to come.
The Feast of the Kings is celebrated throughout Spain and I remember whilst walking the Via de la Plata on exactly this day 5 years ago I stopped in a small town where they were very proud of their procession of 14 tractors and trailers. This year other pilgrims would witness the sight as this epic route from Sevilla is growing in popularity. I decided to follow the arrows from the Cathedral and I was soon over in Triana, the artists’ barrio which lines the river. Almost exactly on the route is the Office of the Amigos of the Via de la Plata and right next door the Taberna Miami whose owner Juan has completed the Camino on horseback several times and is President of the Amigos. Don Juan is older now but he maintains the dress and swagger of a caballero. His hat is adorned with pilgrimage badges and he regales everyone he meets with pilgrimage folklore. He met me on the street shouting to everyone at the top of his voice that the Scottish pilgrim had come to see him. In that instant I could imagine Juan the pilgrim setting out on pilgrimage on top of his horse. Just like a King on the Via de la Plata.