Friday, 25 February 2011

The precious lady was pleased

Close friends and family call her La Preciosa, the Precious One and I was privileged to meet her for the first time last summer . Her face still displays the beauty of her youth and also a deep inner strength. Her experience of life on the land, raising a family and of life-long work are embedded like hallmarks. Hers are eyes which have seen the effects of the Second World War, the terrible divisions of the Spanish Civil War, the reign of Franco and the democratisation of Spain. First and foremost though, she is a mother and a Gallega. She lives in a little pueblo called Rial some 20 kms from Santiago and when I was first introduced to her she was sitting in her usual position on the front terrace of her beautiful stone house which looks onto the village church of St Vincent only a few yards away. This is the church in which she got married, where she goes to daily mass at 6.30. It is the church where she married her husband and it is to this very church the men of the family carried his coffin for his funeral.

That short journey was also made by La Preciosa’s daughter Maria, for her baptism, first communion, confirmation and marriage to Luis. Almost 40 years ago Maria and Luis left Galicia for London where Luis developed a very successful business which he still runs. Maria and Luis are also partners in La Terazza, the famous Galician restaurant in Clapham, London and because of them I met La Preciosa. The story has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it.

It all started with lunch. I’ve gone to the restaurant so often I’ve become friends with Luis and Maria. Both are big personalities. When they are in the room you know they are there. They are extremely generous and on a Sunday afternoon Luis, sporting a very large goblet of his favourite red, always feels compelled to buy drinks, usually for everyone. We have had many conversations about Spain in general and Galicia in particular. They have a home in A Coruña but they often visit La Preciosa where Maria’s room from her childhood is still there. Last summer when I was in Santiago they invited me to Sunday lunch in Rial. Luis picked me up in a car driven by the local Parish Priest Don José and they pointed out the local sights, particularly the bars, as we travelled along. We stopped at one for a pre- prandial drink…then we stopped at the local social club just to say hello to the locals and the inevitable cerveza…then we stopped at a bar at the end of the road which leads to Rial. There we were joined by a few more guests for lunch. There were 7 people in the company and I guessed that if everyone bought a round I would probably miss lunch and sleep until the next day. I was relieved when it was announced that lunch was ready.

The car drew up outside the house and there on the front terrace I met La Preciosa. A gargantuan Gallego lunch ensued. Starters of empanada and grilled langoustines were followed by home grown salad and home reared roast beef. The table groaned under the volume of food and all of us gasped when a pyramid of profiteroles running with fresh cream was placed in the centre of the table. “Of course if you prefer something else…” Maria announced as a circular cake the size of a car tyre was also squeezed onto the table. The wine had flowed and so had the conversation. La Preciosa sat at the head of the table surveying the merriment before her. Behind her stoic features lies the warmest of hearts and her face lit up as we chatted about village life. “We must visit the church” she commanded and so we did, our informal procession staggering slightly as made our way.
The church is beautiful and Maria and Luis were rightly proud of it. In a half joke I asked innocently, “Is there an organ?” Luis, proud Galician that he is, reacted immediately, “No we don’t have an organ…but we’ll soon get one…and you will organise it for us!” Now, strong drink had been taken and in the days which followed I never gave it a second thought. However on my return to London Luis reminded me of my task. Therefore on a subsequent visit to Santiago I was amazed to find 4 music shops which sell electronic instruments. Armed with a photocopy of a catalogue I presented it to Luis on my return to London. “Which one?” was his only question. I pointed. He produced his cheque book and in that moment I had the task of getting an organ for Rial.
So two weeks ago armed with two friends from Santiago I went back to the shop. The organ we wanted was still in the box. “Come back in two days” said the woman in the shop, “and it will be ready.” We returned, this time with Joaquin the organist from the cathedral in tow. The box had not been opened. “The man who assembles the organs may come manaña ,” said the woman. She appeared completely unconcerned. I was furious. My Galician friends were more philosophical. “This is only the beginning” one said. We explained we were likely to buy the instrument but that we had to play it first. She replied that the owner might build it today for us. “Where is he?” we asked. “He is in that room giving a music lesson, I can’t disturb him, when he finishes we will ask.” I got angrier. Joaquin wandered around looking at music and trying out pianos generally keeping out of my way. After 20 mins the door opened and small man who could be every child’s grandfather emerged. He and Joaquin had an instant reunion, the atmosphere changed. “I will build the organ” he declared. As he fetched his tools Joaquin explained that Martín has been his childhood music teacher and that he had been an international virtuoso pianist who worked for many years as a composer in Spanish television. The problem was solved, the organ built, paid for at a discounted price and delivery arranged for the next day. In the process Martín (playing above) and I got on like a house on fire. I was invited back to the shop for a chat and a drink on a future occasion. “It isn’t often I meet a Scottish musician who is as loco as Gallego musicians” he declared.
Thus the next day the organ arrived in Rial. The priest was delighted. The local people assembling for Mass were bewildered. Martín played, I played, photographs were taken and all was well. We were invited to La Preciosa’s for coffee. It was served with cake and homemade liquor. I politely declined which led to a bottle of whisky appearing. I still declined but raised a toast with the coffee. “To the new organ”. Martín decided it had to be done properly and poured himself a whisky. Then another. “If you have one more of those you’ll become Scottish.” I joked. “Oh, my friend, I’ve been Scottish many times in my life” was the reply.
Martín set off to deliver the grand piano which was in the back of his van and we chatted to La Preciosa coming back from Mass in the rain. “What do you think of the new organ?” I asked. Her smile said it all. La Preciosa was pleased.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Here is the news...

Johnnie goes to Spain

Oh my god. I've done it. I've resigned from job, church and the Friday club with the boys. I'm leaving London. I'm leaving the UK. It is certain. I've bought the ticket. I leave on the 4th of May. I am going to walk the Camino Ingles with an Irish friend and when I reach Santiago I'll get a flight to Valencia to begin the pilgrimage. The counter opposite is counting. There is no turning back... more of that later.

Meanwhile last week in Santiago I wrote in my notebook...

The sound of the Galician pipes lightens the grey of Santiago in February. The piper plays as usual under the arch into the Plaza Obradoiro but his passing audience is almost non-existent. In summer his pipe tunes are often accompanied by the beat of the walking sticks and boots of the thousands of pilgrims who pass under the arch to their final well earned destination. Today a lone pilgrim makes his way across the square to the shell embedded in the centre to turn and face the great Cathedral. His joy without other pilgrims around appears undiminished and his final determined steps have a spring in them.
If that solitary pilgrim wanted to meet others at the famous Café Suso he would be disappointed. Souso like many other bars and hostals is closed for the month of February "so the staff can rest" signs say everywhere.

No rest however for the staff of the Pilgrims' Office who are employed all year round. They sit in a row at their desks still busy but in an office without pilgrims. "Yesterday we issued 8 Compostelas" one said. Another added, "The day before was really busy, we had 12 pilgrims".
The new team in the Pilgrims’ Office is bedding in well. They have had lots of training in aspects of the Camino – such as its history and seeing the archives in the Cathedral but here is nothing like the real thing and in two weeks they are walking as a group from Sarria.

When I was in the office two pilgrims arrived. They were well equipped and their rain gear had kept them dry from the Galician rain which was beating down outside. They were Sandra and Hans from Germany who had walked the Camino Frances through all of January. They were burnished brown by the weather they had come through. These were hardy winter pilgrims prepared for the weather and the solitude. Yet they glowed with the good health and the serenity which a Camino full of challenges imparts.
I saw them a little while later entering the Cathedral. All has been returned to normal after the excited massive crowds of the Holy Year. They mounted the front stairs and still wearing their rucksacks disappeared behind the High Altar to hug the Saint and visit his tomb. They stacked their rucksacks at behind a pillar with some others and the 12 noon pilgrims' mass began.
The organists are back to playing at only 2 masses per day and even the nun who usually sings was one of the many staff in Santiago who are resting.
The students are still around but the rain and cold has taken the buzz from the bars. Now Spain has become a no smoking country the outside terazzas are only populated with a few smokers who with scarves wrapped round their necks held umbrellas comically in one hand and cigarettes in the other. The bars which are open are nowhere near as busy. But the restaurants have a steady stream of customers. They come for the winter dishes now listed on all the menus: Ribs, hot pot, boiled ham and cabbage, and the famous Cocido - a mixture of different types of pork, lumps of chicken, chorizo and chick peas stewed in a rich liquor. "Cocido is Galician central heating" one friend said. At about 3000 calories a portion I suspect it has more minuses than pluses. At least a lot of Spaniards are trying to stop smoking now they have been relegated to outdoors only.
"Resting" is a good word for the atmosphere in the town. It is how actors describe that period between parts and I think that is what is happening here. The organists are taking turns at having holidays but are already thinking of the musical programme for the next Feast Day on 25th July so too are the people who run the sound and light with its splendid fireworks display. In the Pilgrims' Office the new staff are becoming pilgrims themselves. Behind many of the closed doors of the bars and hostals comes the sound of obras - work being carried out. Places are being redesigned, redecorated and equipped for the next season which will be here all too soon.
Last year 277,000 pilgrims arrived in the Holy Year. "We're back to normal" said a friend in the Pilgrims' Office, "this year we will maybe get half that number." Maybe less than a Holy Year but still enough for Santiago to need its rest for the new waves of pilgrims yet to come.

At the moment the town is tranquil. For the few visitors there are no stalls from which to buy trinkets, no St James lookalikes begging from passersby, not one human statue to entertain the tourists and none of the amazing programme of street entertainment which takes place in the plazas in summer. The draft programme is on a desk at the offices of Xacabeo. But the place is still fun. I was walking down a street and spotted a simple cardboard box. It looked forlorn. It looked as if it might be for carrying a pet and the rustling from inside certainly intrigued one or two passersby. It was only when one unsuspecting couple strolled past did the ghostly figure from inside appear with a loud shriek. I thought the young woman was going to die of fright but she with all the other passersby enjoyed the joke. Santiago still has some surprises.