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Posts Tagged ‘Camino to Santiago’

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Thank you Russell Baker!

I lost a good friend last week.  Russell Baker was for years a feature writer for The New York Times, and I was saddened to read of his passing.

I never met Mr. Baker, but all the same I once decided to write to let him know that he saved my sanity during a summer in Spain.  I was in the city of León, doing dissertation research, and for two and a half months I neither heard nor spoke a word of English.  Mr. Baker’s column, filled with wit and whimsy and rendered in beautifully-crafted English, was my lifeline to the world I had left behind.

León was a bit of a backwater back then, and Americans had not really discovered it yet. Like much of Spain, León was still trying to figure out how to behave in the aftermath of Francisco Franco.  In America we had timely announcements from Saturday Night Live, reassuring us that Francisco Franco was still dead.  But many in Spain were not so sure.  That may explain one thing that unnerved me on my first day in León:  copies of Mein Kampf were on sale at a few of the book stalls.

f7c78cfc-5686-49f2-aaf4-6b47fc95a03aI survived my time in León thanks to the hospitality of the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Santa María de Carvajal.  Their warmth was my haven in an unfamiliar culture, but my guest room did come with a price.  First, the nuns locked the front gate at 5 pm.  That meant that I could not enjoy the evening paseo that is the custom in Spain.  My room also looked out over a small plaza that included a noisy bar.  Five nights a week it belted out American country music, a genre for which I had not yet acquired a taste.  But two and a half months of it led to a change of heart.  After all, it was a touch of home, and I also saw it as the harbinger of change in León.  Hitler could never win against country music.

By the end of my first week in León I was desperate to speak some English, but it was a full month before I finally spied my chance.  Across the plaza mayor was an American couple, and I knew so because of his powder-blue leisure suit and her lime-green pant suit.  100% authentic polyester, if I’m not mistaken.  They clutched each other for dear life, while the Leonese stared as if they had come to announce the circus.  That was the day when I realized that dignity was more important than my need to speak English.  So I walked on by, hoping that everyone would take me for a Leonese.

That’s the context for the deep affection that I developed for Russell Baker and his writing.  His column appeared in The International Herald, and only one newsstand in León carried it.  So early each day I threaded my way through the narrow streets to buy one of its two copies.  But one day I was too late, and I came up short.  Some tourist must have snapped up the second copy, and I was devastated.  It was like losing a friend.

Today León is a lively and beautiful city, due in part to its niche on the revived Camino to Santiago.  Tourists and pilgrims now crowd the streets, and the news stalls bulge with an array of lurid magazines that are enough to raise Francisco Franco from the dead.  But a copy of Mein Kampf cannot be had.  Nor will you see pastel-hued leisure suits.  Just as I had foreseen, country music was indeed the death of it all.

8e465faf-a438-4089-868f-3a7787d17949With news of the passing of Mr. Baker, I must own up to one sin of omission.  I should have written him years ago, just as I had intended.  I should have told him what a good friend he became to me that summer.  I should have told him how I savored all his delicious turns of phrases and delighted whenever he plucked from his memory just the right underused word.  He was an artist in words, and he was the consummate gentleman when dealing with people who did not share his views.  He was the picture of civility, and with that he was generous to a fault.

The latter is one of two takeaways for me.  First, it’s never a good idea to trash people with whom I disagree.  I’m always amazed to recall that there are still ample supplies of civility and courtesy in storage, so there’s plenty to go around.  It does me no good to hoard them, and it’s better to give them away.

Second, I should never wait to thank people for their kindness until after they’ve died.  By that point it no longer does them much good.  On the other hand, it’s never too late for me.  Clearly, someone of the stature of Russell Baker didn’t need to hear my thanks all those years ago.  But I still feel the need to give them.  So here’s to you, Russell Baker!  Thank you for being a creative genius with your words.  And thanks for an amazing summer together in Spain.

a3330c18-9aef-430f-b23a-d369181b8c71NOTES

+On January 23rd I attended a talk delivered by Zach Vertin, who graduated from Saint John’s University in 2005.  Since graduation he has worked in the foreign service and spent considerable time in South Sudan, about which he has written his first book.  Today Zach is a lecturer at my alma mater, Princeton University, and he is a fellow at the Brookings Institution.  I’m always amazed at the prodigious accomplishment of such youngsters and wonder what in the world they can do for an encore.

+On January 26th I was in Atherton, CA, where I gave a morning session to incoming members of the Order of Malta of the Western Association.  I spoke on the history of the Order and the development of its mission in the course of 900 years.

+Alas, I searched my photo files to find something to show what a lovely city León is, but the cupboard was bare.  So I pulled up the file for Valladolid, which is located to the southeast of León.  The Museo Nacional de Escultura has some remarkable items, including sculptures of three of the evangelists, sitting at their desks besieged by writer’s block.  They were carved in the first quarter of the 16th century by Felipe Vigarny (d. 1542).  (Click on the photos to savor the fine detail.)  The photos at top and bottom show the façade and the cloister of the Museo, a former monastery.

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What I’ve Learned on the Camino

Today marks my seventh day of walking on the Camino to Santiago Compostela.  I and my companions have walked nearly seventy miles, encountered a ton of people and seen some lovely landscape.  But by now there’s one thing that we’ve known for three days:  we will finish — all of us!  I’m not sure any of us realized what a toll ten to twelve miles a day would really take, but walking relentlessly up and down hills over a week does grind a person down.  But by day four I and my colleagues knew we could do it.  What else have I learned?

A560D901-3EF0-4F3C-A768-56AEF688C158First, there are some things we picked up as kids that can come in handy on the Camino.  For one thing, there are moments of heavy traffic on the Camino, though it’s made easier by the fact that everyone is going the same direction — save for the cows.  That brings up one bit of advice I learned from my parents early on that has come in handy:  don’t step in the cow pies.  Virtually every day the cows share the Camino with the pilgrims, and they tend to leave little tokens of their travel experience.  I’m now convinced that farmers actually bring the cows out to refresh the trails every morning, but I could be wrong on that.  Anyway, it pays to look where you step, and the few people who use cell phones or look at the scenery can pay a smelly price.  What I’ve missed in scenery I’ve more than made up for in peace of mind.  So watching where you step is an important bit of advice.

76194DA9-A356-4024-A35E-67464E672052I’ve also appreciated the total immersion in countryside and animal life.  Most of the Camino that we’ve walked has taken us through forests, pastures and small villages.  I’ve savored the aroma of eucalyptus trees and crunched bushels of acorns and chestnuts.  I’ve also seen lots of cows (see above), dogs, cats and chickens.  The dogs have been a special delight, and their response to the hikers ranges from total indifference to warm friendliness.  There’s no ominous barking or growling.  That explains the sign we saw early on:  “Please do not let the dogs follow you.  They already have homes.  If they follow you, they won’t find their way back.”  What a welcome change from the dog warnings at home.

A third item I’ve picked up is that people have lived along the Camino for ages.  That was evident in the Celtic earthwork fortress that we passed one day.  It also was evident in the stone villages that include lots of buildings that date well back into the Middle Ages.  In fact, a personal highlight of the trip was my concelebration of a Mass in an early 11th-century church built by monks of the French Abbey of Cluny.  They built priories with guest hostels along the way to encourage the pilgrimage, and it was great to see first-hand evidence of that.  The Mass had added significance for me when the local priest drafted me to read the gospel and to recite part of the canon in Spanish.  That afternoon I got to use my Castilian accent and did reasonably well.

823490EA-1BDE-4BEA-B181-7DF4193F5DAAI had anticipated that the Camino would be a cosmopolitan experience, and it did not disappoint.  While I have walked with each member of our group as well as alone, I’ve also had the chance to visit with other pilgrims along the way, and the first encounter surprised me the most.  He was a Lutheran pastor from Norway, and he was doing his second Camino.  On successive days I met all sorts of people, including Australians, Germans, Americans from all over the place, Japanese, Koreans, and so on.  People were there for all sorts of reasons, and it was a refreshing experience.

Finally, I was surprised at how quickly the worries and cares of home melted away as I walked along.  I stopped thinking about work at the office, though I did treasure thoughts of confreres and friends left behind.  I was not surprised to hear from fellow pilgrims that their foremost concern was on the steps we were taking, and that thought gave me comfort.  Our daily trek quickly came to focus on sure footing as we walked along.  The formula for success then boiled down to this:  avoid the cow pies and loose rocks and find the places where you can plant your feet firmly, one after another.  That’s what’s gotten us through each and every day and up and down each hill.  But that also strikes me as a good formula for getting through life.

NOTES

The photos in today’s post all show scenes from the pilgrimage walk through the region of Galicia in northwestern Spain.  At bottom is the 11th-century Cluniac church in the village of O Cebreiro.

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The Trek to Santiago Compostela

I’ve never done an eighty-mile walk before, and so today seems as good a day as any to start.  Actually, it’s the right day to do it because this morning I’m scheduled to join with a group to do the last 110 kilometers of the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela.  I wouldn’t want them to leave without me.

It’s a thousand-year-old route, and through the Middle Ages only Rome exceeded Santiago in popularity as a destination in Western Europe.  With the Reformation the shrine took a big hit, and the numbers thinned out to a trickle for a long time.  But to people’s amazement, over the last fifty years it’s bounced back, and the last stretch of eighty miles alone gets an average of 300,000 in the course of the season.  And of course that does not count the even greater numbers that get there by bus or train or car.  Anyway, we won’t be alone as we walk this path.

8A1F8337-3A59-4444-9F1B-3A1E1B9ED021From the start the goal of the pilgrimage has been to venerate the relics of the apostle James, which tradition says are sheltered in the cathedral dedicated to his memory.  Even today people go there for that, but it is the journey as much as the destination that makes the whole thing worthwhile.  Today people go for all sorts of reasons, and for each there is something therapeutic about the experience.  I’ve been told that most everyone unloads their mental baggage — bit by bit — in the course of the journey.  What they are left with is themselves.  Slowly, in the course of the days of hiking through forests and fields and villages, people cast aside the worries about work and other such stuff.  Life is slowly reduced to the utter simplicity of individuals coming to terms with what is really essential in life.  Therein comes the growth.

I’m traveling with a group of members of the Order of Malta, which is quintessentially an organization oriented around pilgrimage.  The Order began in Jerusalem, where members served pilgrims who had fallen ill in the course of their time in the Holy Land.  Eventually the Order relocated to Rhodes and then Malta, and in both places the knights built and staffed giant hospitals that served the sick and the poor.  It’s in that spirit that members of the Order now go with the sick on a yearly pilgrimage to Lourdes.

The Order has never really had a strong association with Santiago Compostela, but there are chapels and fortified places along the way that the Order built or inherited from other Orders like the Templars. Today there are no members staffing these places, but lots of other people have stepped in to serve the streams of pilgrims who have once again populated the route.

495F148C-C3D3-4F78-95EC-0AC3AC43D006In the Middle Ages there were four trail-heads for the pilgrimage to Santiago, and all of them were in Burgundy and elsewhere in France.  It was a very long walk, filled with inconvenience and even danger.  Today the routes have multiplied, and the trails are much nicer; but it can still be a challenge, even on the shorter routes.  And despite all the options, purists insist on beginning the journey on the French side of the border with Spain.  That journey can take many weeks, and there’s one good reason why our group is not starting there.  We all have day jobs, and we don’t have that kind of time.

So today our trek begins in the town of Sarria.  An average day will take us about nine or ten miles, which is within my reach but paltry compared to those who will do 20+ miles per day.  In preparation I did lots of walking over the summer, though I never did ten miles a day for eight days in a row.  Still, I’m confident that I can get my left and right feet to cooperate with one another, and I’ve made it easier on them because this last leg of the route to Santiago has no mountains.

I first went to Santiago as a graduate student doing dissertation research in Spain.  That was ages ago, and I did the trip by train.  In physical terms I would have been better-suited for the pilgrimage back then.  But that was then and this is now, and I’m glad I’m doing it now rather than then.  And as the Scriptures say, “this is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be rejoice and be glad in it!”  So please say a prayer that each and every day of the trip counts for something good.  And while you’re at it, pray for yourself as well!

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NOTES

+I began the pilgrimage to Santiago with a flight to Madrid, and the photos in today’s post show scenes from that wonderful city.  There is a real elegance to Madrid, despite the rather crowded neighborhoods.  The photos in today’s post give a hint of that.

+On the eve of the pilgrimage I watched The Way, in which Martin Sheen plays a pilgrim to Santiago.  It is stunningly good and available on YouTube — for free.  Who would have thought.

+I had given some thought about more frequent posts in the course of the pilgrimage, but ultimately I decided to stick with my weekly format.  So in the post of October 22nd I will give an update on our progress through the fields and forests of Galicia in northwestern Spain.

+Today friends and alumni of Saint John’s University will gather for a funeral Mass in the abbey church to honor the memory of John Gagliardi, our long-time football coach.  In addition to articles that have appeared in newspapers across the country, this most recent Saturday the football team gave him their ultimate tribute with a 40-20 win over the University of Saint Thomas.  It was a great game.

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