Camino Magic

“I’m stopping at the next shady spot to eat something,” I told Dad as we walked a dusty, packed dirt trail through vineyards and plowed wheat fields. Soon an olive grove came into view. I passed by the first few rows hoping to find a tree with a rock underneath it–was it too much to ask for shade as well as a seat? A second later my wish was answered. It wasn’t much of a rock, but it was better than sitting in the dirt–which was made more difficult on this Camino when I decided a hiking skirt would be part of my “beat-the-summer-heat-while-hiking” approach.

I very ungracefully took my seat and pulled a just-a-bit-bruised banana from my daypack. Dad stood next to me holding onto one of the tree branches as if he was standing in a subway car holding the metal rail. “If I get down there, I won’t be able to get back up,” he said. He’s certainly a man who knows himself, I thought. We were six miles into the fourth day of our week-long walk on Spain’s Camino de Santiago and Dad had decided yesterday that he would be better off hiking in his Keen sandals than his Merrell hiking sneakers. He decided socks were optional, but had taken this daughter’s advice and put both the socks and sneakers in his day pack in case he found out, six miles into our day for example, that he made a bad decision. The day before, he’d decided that he only needed one hiking pole, not two as I used. And he only needed it for the downhill portions of the trail. And he wasn’t going to try too hard to learn how to open the collapsible stick when he needed it. That’s what I was there for.

Day 4: One hour into our walk, Sansol in the distance.

After finishing my banana, I pulled a package of trail mix out of my pack. Upon seeing this snack break wouldn’t be over anytime soon, my not-so-patient father decided this would be a great time to call his brother John who was currently vacationing in Ireland. It was 9:20 a.m.–too early to call anyone back in the eastern United States–but Ireland was only an hour earlier, so in the middle of the Spanish countryside, Dad rings up Uncle John. So much for enjoying the peacefulness of a quiet stretch of trail. . .

“Somebody called us about building a house,” Dad tells John. The two brothers build houses as a side gig–about one per year. “He saw the house we’re building and wanted to know if we’d build one for him. So I told him we could talk about it, but it’d have to be next week because one of the builders is in Ireland and the other is in Spain. He said, ‘Then you guys are probably too expensive for me.'” Dad laughed. I thought, Poor is the man who thinks it’s expensive to travel to Europe. Dad paid a grand total of $31 for his flight. Mine cost me the princely sum of $5.60. Travel-hacking, as it’s called, has gone mainstream and even my formerly-luddite father had gotten on board. Well, sort of. Dad had no idea he was even earning points until my brother Jeff, who works at a bank, told my Dad about the points he was accruing just by using his bank credit card.

Dad hangs up, once again exclaiming at the wonders of technology. “Look at that! I can stand here in the middle of Spain and call my brother in Ireland!”

“For everyone to hear!” I thought.

We got up and followed the yellow arrows across a farm road, past some pine trees and came upon a welcome site: an enterprising man had set up a table of drinks, fruit, and Camino trinkets for sale on one side of the trail. Four white plastic chairs sat in the shade on the other side.  And just beyond I saw dozens of cairns—single stones piled one atop another. Crouched just behind the chairs was a man, his dark hair in a ponytail,  a scowl on his face, looking down at his phone. He glanced up with a nod when I greeted him with, “Hola!”

Dad and I helped ourselves to cold drinks from the cooler and dropped our money onto the plate sitting on the table.  Though I’d just spent 20 minutes sitting, this new scene was an upgrade from my previous seat, so I said to a Dad, “Let’s hang out for a minute.” At seeing this, the man got up and lit a cigarette. “Habla Inglés?” I asked. “A little,” he muttered, still seeming a bit apprehensive about engaging with us. “Entiendo un poco español,” (I understand a little Spanish), I said,  hoping this would endear him to me a little more so that I could satisfy some of my curiosity about him and his little oasis here on the Camino.  I asked about the cairns, and he explained that he made them all himself. “Only using things from nature. Things from right here,“ he said.

He asked where we were from, and I realized I had cracked his shell. Josu was from Bilbao, a town not too far away on the Spanish coast. He used to work in economics, but says doing this is much less stressful. “But money gets you things. Like the ability to travel,” he said. So he may eventually cut his hair and go back to work for a little while. I noted the hammock behind him, the backpack hanging from a tree. “Do you stay here?” I asked. “Sometimes,” he said.

I took out my phone to videotape the scene. “Why do you live in North Carolina and your father lives in New York?“ he asked me while I was taping. “Ohhhh,” I said. “Don’t get us started. He doesn’t like that.” Dad laughed. I stopped recording and explained how I liked living in a place where winter ended before May. But this didn’t seem a sufficient enough answer standing beside my father.

As we finished our drinks, I asked the man if we could put his stamp in our Camino credentialsPilgrims get a stamp every place they stay along the Camino, and various churches, bars, restaurants, and men selling things on the side of the trail all have them as well. As I got our credentials out of my bag, Dad asked Josu if he’d seen any tall, tattooed American men earlier. “Yes,” Josu said, apprehensively. “Are you friends with them?”

“We just met them last night and had dinner with them,” I explained as I pushed the stamp into the inkpad. Josu said that they weren’t very nice. “Didn’t even greet me. Just wanted the stamp.”

“Hmph,” I said. They were some of the most gregarious people I’d met on any Camino and I found this behavior unexpected. Dad said as much to Josu as I finished marking our credentials.  “Well, maybe because it was so early in the morning they weren’t like they usually are,” I tried to explain. Josu listened. “I try not to judge too much. . .” I offered cautiously, not wanting to force my ideas on this man’s experience. Josu and I talked about the Tau crosses he carves and sells, and I showed him the silver one I wore around my neck, explaining it was the symbol of the brothers who once resided at the Convento San Antón, where I volunteered on the Camino two years ago. “It’s also the symbol of the Franciscans,” he said, which I knew now, having seen people with them occasionally over the years and inquiring as to the meaning for them.

As Dad and I prepared to leave, Josu went over to a stand of necklaces–small scallop shells (the symbol of the Camino) hung from black cords. “Can you please do something for me?” he asked, as he pulled a few of them off the stand. “This morning, with your friends, I think I was the problem. When you see them, can you please tell them I’m sorry and give these to them?” We agreed and Dad tucked them away. Josu then gave us two for ourselves as well.

I didn’t think we’d see the brothers again. They walked over thirty kilometers each day (fifteen miles). Dad and I only averaged twelve miles, and the next day I had planned a “rest day” for us–just six miles. I wasn’t optimistic we’d be able to hold up our end of the deal.

But three days later we heard along the Camino grapevine that the brothers began in the same town we had that morning. One of them was injured, so they’d slowed down. And so it was that four hours into our last day on the Camino, sitting on a bench along the trail, we found Mitchell. He told us he was waiting for his brother Pace, who was somewhere behind us all on the trail. His brother Thor was staying back in Nájera due to a muscle injury. Dad and I pulled out the shells and told Mitchell all about our conversation with Josu. Mitchell was astonished and touched.

Later that night, Mitchell, Pace, and others we’d met along the way joined us for our final dinner together. Pace said, “You know, we’ve been on this trail for ten days or so, and meeting him (Josu) was the only bad experience I’ve had. He just wasn’t nice to us at all. But then a few days later, you guys show up with these (necklaces) and this story about how he wanted to make it better. . .”

As Dad and I rode in the taxi toward the Madrid airport he asked, “Do you always have experiences like this on the Camino? Meet all these interesting people? Have these things that happen–like with the necklaces? Or was this one different?”

“Happens every time,” I told him. “That’s why I keep coming back.”

And For His Next Feat . . .

As we stood in Sarah’s kitchen drinking wine and munching potato chips, someone complimented her on the look of her kitchen cabinets. “We repainted them ourselves,” she told us. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

After she detailed the laborious process, (removing the doors, removing the hardware, degreasing, sanding, lots of dust, lots of waiting for things to dry . . .) I made a mental note: never repaint the cabinets.

I don’t know if I ever told Michael this. If I did, he forgot. Because while I was gone this summer, he did just that: he took our oak cabinets–all twenty-nine of them!–and painted them. But not before removing them, removing the hardware, choosing new hardware, ordering it, degreasing the cabinets, priming them . . .

Because everyone needs a painting tent . . .

And when you buy a paint sprayer, apparently you need to have one of these outfits in order to use it . . .

How did he come up with this ingenious method? Where else but by watching 53 YouTube videos, I’m sure.

But it was all worth it!

Oh–and did I mention he began this whole process just a few days after having surgery on his foot? Because he’s crazy. Or because he loves me. I’m not sure which. Maybe both.

I will say this: if you don’t want the headache or investment of redoing an entire kitchen, repainting the cabinets gives the place an updated look, which I loved. I also loved that I had nothing to do with it.

“And you even got new hardware! And I didn’t have to pick it out!” I said to Michael when he surprised me with his accomplishment upon my return home last Thursday.

“Yeah, I had two types that I ordered,” Michael explained. “And when I asked (our friend) Caroline which I should use, she said, ‘I don’t care–but just pick one. Don’t ask her.’” Ahhh. To have friends that know you so well. Who know that you hate shopping. Of any kind.

Caroline, I might add, is the person I called when, a week post-surgery, Michael told me he had a blood clot. I was standing on the stairs of the Pilgrim Office in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, calling to chat with Michael after lunch, just minutes before I was due back in my seat to greet the pilgrims waiting outside the door. “You have a DVT?!” I said. “Michael! That’s not good!” His attempts to reassure me did little to stop my tears. I don’t remember much from my training as a physical therapist, but I do remember this: blood clots post surgery are not good. If a patient got one, that was the end of physical therapy for a while.

So after I hung up with Michael, I texted Caroline. She’s an opthamologist but 1) she’s the first medical person I thought of and 2) she knows a lot about all things medical and 3) she’s my friend and 4) she lived close enough to go see Michael and get the full story.

“She kind of just told me she was coming,” Michael told me later. “Well, yes,” I said. “Because she knows you. If she asked to come over, you would have said no.” And she knows me. I wanted someone’s eyeballs on my husband. It was bad enough I’d left him for a month to go galavanting around Europe while he had surgery on his foot. To my credit, insurance dictated Michael’s surgery date. I had already committed to volunteer work in Europe, and Michael had no hesitation about me going. “I’ve lived alone most of my adult life, hon. I’ll be fine.”

And so it was that Caroline went to visit Michael and saw him in the midst of the surprise project. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she asked–apparently she and her roommate embarked on the cabinet-repainting process earlier this year. Over dinner, she gave Michael some tips, texted me her assessment (he’d be fine), and kept his secret.

I would like to make clear that I don’t expect such things of Michael every time I go away. Or any time I go away, for that matter. But he sees my absences as opportunities. Some of you may recall the TV/bidet mix-up some years ago. And remember when, two years ago, I left him for seven weeks? In that time he built a Murphy bed.

And a Little Free Library.

But all that got overshadowed when, just a few hours after showing me his woodworking projects, he dropped to one knee and proposed. (With a ring he designed himself. Another shopping experience I got to avoid!)

So this time, I warned him: Don’t do anything to compromise your healing.

“That blood clot really screwed up my timeline,” Michael told me later as I grilled him about how on earth he accomplished his feat. “Then, it was so hot and humid and I was working in the garage . . .” I stood in the dining room listening to him, and glanced at the plant on the table, still alive (hooray!) but notably dotted with white paint. “Uh. . . what happened here?”

“Yeah. About that. I took off all the leaves that had lots of paint on them–”

“How did the paint get there?” I asked, looking around our dining room for other inconsistencies.

“Well, it was so hot in the garage, and you were coming back in two days, so I decided to move the painting into the dining room. I covered this whole area in plastic, and pushed the table back, but after I did some painting, I was in my office and heard a crash . . .” He pointed to the robin’s egg blue tablecloth. “This is going to have to get pitched,” he said. “Don’t look at the other side.”

There’s one small dot of paint on our dining room floor. And a swipe on a curtain. But for me, every time I see them I’ll smile. Or laugh. Maybe roll my eyes. And give thanks. That I have a husband who is not deterred by a little surgery. Or heat. Or a blood clot. Who might be crazy. But who certainly loves me.

Everyone Does Their Own Camino—Luxury Version

“When you told me about the Camino,“ our friend John said, “you talked about hostels and sharing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you had told me it was going to be like this . . . “ Dad had just called John to fill him in on our adventures and the latest four-star hotel we were staying in. “We’re doing a luxury Camino,” Dad explained, repeating the words I’d used many times on this trip. “Here, I’m going to put Becky on.” Dad handed me the phone.

I didn’t even greet John. I started right in with my Camino educational-moment-of-the-day. “Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain walked the Camino to Santiago. We’re doing it their way. I’m pretty sure they had people carrying their bags for them and they probably stayed at some pretty nice places.” Municipal hostels didn’t exist when they walked it. . . Last night we stayed in a former palace that dates to the 1500s—I’m thinking that was more their style. Though they couldn’t have stayed in that place specifically because they walked in the late 1400s.

A popular phrase along the Camino is “everyone does their own Camino,“ by which we mean that there are many ways to do this journey. There are, in fact, hardly any rules. The only one I know of is that if you want to get your official compostela certificate at the pilgrim office in Santiago, you must get your pilgrim credential stamped twice per day for the last 100 km. But other than that, there’s no definitive rule book.

So Dad and I will carry our day packs, enjoy our air-conditioned room and private bathroom. You can call us King Lou and Princess Rebecca if that makes these accommodations easier for you to accept.

A Night on the Camino with Dad

“Let’s go meet more pilgrims,” Dad said on Friday night. He has become adept at identifying pilgrims by their clothing, shoes, shuffles, and limps. Backpacks and shells are also markers.

So as we strolled the streets of Los Arcos around 5pm, I saw them the same time he did. Except I immediately recognized them. Two men over six feet tall and heavily tattooed. You don’t see many like them on the Camino, and so even though I saw 60-90 pilgrims per day in the Pilgrim Office, I remembered these brothers immediately.

Pace and Thor (from California) were with a German friend and in search of a supermarket, which Dad and I had just passed minutes earlier, so after introductions, we not only walked them to the supermarket, but walked around the tiny store with them chatting about our experiences thus far. (Imagine one of our supermarket aisles in the US, but so narrow that two people can barely walk by each other. And then take that and cut it into quarters. Put two quarters side-by-side, decrease the inventory by two-thirds and you have the market.)

Our (new) friends were staying at the municipal albergue (hostel) and I asked if they could take my dad in there to show him how the other half lives on the Camino. They laughed and welcomed him to see the dorm. I stayed outside—I had stayed in this very place seven years earlier so knew about the bunkbeds and communal kitchen (and everything else) thanks to personal experience. “Looks like the homeless shelter that I volunteer at once a month,” Dad said when he came out.

They invited us to join them for beers in the courtyard at the albergue. Their other brother Mitchell joined us, along with a young man from England (also named Louis). For the next couple hours, we fed one euro coins into the vending machine inside producing beers for most, water for me.

Eventually the conversation of backpacks came up. “Tell them what you do!“ Dad said. And so it was that two of them produced their backpacks and I went through them asking questions about the contents and why they needed certain things. Pace’s biggest problem was the weight of his empty pack. This was something I had personal experience with. On my first Camino, my filled 45-liter pack weighed 22 pounds— which I didn’t know until it was weighed when I arrived at JFK airport to leave for the trip. By the time I returned, I had left enough things across Spain that my pack was down to 16 pounds. It was only when I was preparing for another Camino that I weighed my empty pack and found it weighed 5 pounds on its own!

For Louis (the Englishman), his first issue was the fact that he brought an 85 liter pack with him. The heaviest item in it was some sort of charger that must’ve weighed at least 3 pounds.

Eventually we made our way back to the main square for dinner. Some of these folks had two and three entrées! Thor and Louis decided not to tempt the fates, and headed back to the hostel to make the 10 PM curfew. Mitchell and Pace didn’t seem as concerned— they figured they could hop the fence if they had to.

At 10:30, we all parted ways and I called the number for the taxi to bring us back to our hotel, which was 3 miles from town. When the woman answered, I barely made out her voice over the noise from wherever she was. “No puedo,” she said. “. . . Pamplona.” Which I immediately understood to mean “I can’t. I’m in Pamplona.” Pamplona continues to celebrate the San Fermin festival this weekend. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this Camino, it’s that the Spaniards have their priorities: family, friends, and enjoyment of life are all much more important making money. Which was great for this taxi driver, but not so great for me and dad.

So I asked our server at the restaurant if she knew of anyone. She looked at the phone number I had and, in Spanish, said simply that that was the only taxi in the town.

Dad had had enough beers and sangria and great conversation that none of this worried him at all. Our hotel offered, as part of their services, to pick up pilgrims in the town to drive them to the hotel when they first arrived. and bring them back in the morning to continue their walk on the Camino. But they did not operate a taxi service back-and-forth. However, the woman who picked us up when we first arrived told us that if we needed anything after she left for the day at 4 PM, the owner didn’t speak English. But we were welcome to call her and she would gladly assist us. So I called her. The background when she picked up was only slightly less noisy than the taxi driver’s. But without hesitation she told me she would be there in five minutes.

Two minutes later she called back saying that the owner of the hotel would be along to pick us up instead, Explaining that she had had a couple of drinks and so was unable to do so.

A couple minutes later a late model Mercedes pulls up. The owner is kind and laughs with us at the fact that the only taxi service in town is not available tonight. We get back to our room and I decide I’m entirely too tired to keep all of you updated on our travels. And so it is that we finally get to sleep.

Walking vs. Volunteering on the Camino de Santiago

Some of you may know, just before meeting my dad in Pamplona to start our Camino, I spent the previous week volunteering in the pilgrim office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP), France. Many people begin their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in that town. They walk into our small office thinking we are there just to sell them their Camino credential (passport) and give them their first Camino stamp. I did both of those things for 60 to 90 pilgrims every day. But in addition, we give them a list of all of the pilgrim accommodations along the 500 mile journey, an elevation map, and go over with them—in detail—the route for their first day (because it is the hardest day of the entire Camino and we want to do our best to prepare them). In addition, I answer any and all questions they have (to the best of my ability). I would get questions about accommodations, safety, food, alternative transportation, pack transfer services, my own Camino experiences, and many other things. But it was made clear to me in the six pages of instructions I received via email a month before I arrived: my number one job was to reassure people. Which now makes so much sense to me. Deciding to walk any portion of the Camino to Santiago is a big decision, and to finally arrive at your starting point, the thing that people most want (though they may not realize it) is reassurance.

It takes most pilgrims 3 to 4 days to walk from SJPDP to Pamplona. Therefore, I knew that the people I was checking in on Friday and Saturday were ones that I might see again—as I was going to take the bus to Pamplona to meet my dad to start walking the following Wednesday.

And here we are. . . nearly every day it happens that someone smiles at me and then pauses and looks quizzically. Some recognize me right away. Others are not sure where they’ve met me before. One young man saw me, Dad, and Patricia having dinner in Estella. He came over to us to specifically thank me for helping him at the start of his journey. It turns out he had been sitting at the table next to us that night, and after sharing his thanks he gave us the rest of his bottle of red wine before he headed back to his hostel for the night.

Last night, Marjorie approached me thanking me for my help before she began her journey. It was now the last night of her one week walk on the Camino, and she shared with me the details of her challenging first day, and how proud she was of what she had accomplished.

Many people who have volunteered on the Camino told me, before my first time volunteering, that volunteering along the route was even better than walking it. Having volunteered twice so far, I completely understand the sentiment. But I might change it to say that even better than walking or volunteering is doing a hybrid of both. Getting a chance to see the people that you were able to help is quite an incredible way to experience the Camino to Santiago!

Camino Vignettes

Just a few things from my first day on the Camino with Dad:

We fill Dad’s water bladder by pouring cups of water into it from the bathroom sink. (Why he doesn’t just hold it under the faucet, I’m not sure.)  “You know how to use this thing?” I ask.  “No,” he says. I had thought his friend John, who lent it to him, was going to show him how  how to drink from it. “I’ve never figured out how they work,” I told Dad. “I think you need to bite on it to get the water out.” He does so. It works. Camino challenge #1: Mastered.
At the start of the day, I encourage Dad to step into a crosswalk with me, knowing the Spanish stop for pedestrians. “Probably not good luck for them to kill a pilgrim anyway,” I say.

As we walk through town passing Spanish folks Dad asks,  “How do you say good morning?” “Buenas días,” I tell him. Dad says it to the older man approaching us. The man says something back. “What did he say back?” Dad asks me. “The same thing you said to him!” Learning Spanish may be a little too much for Dad. We’ll focus on the walking instead:)
One hour later, after he drinks from the tube attached to his water bladder, Dad says, “Can we put ice in this thing?“ He decides to ask for some in the next town.  “It’s called yay-lo in Spanish,” I tell him. I decide not to tell him how to spell it (h-i-e-l-o), as that will only confuse him. He practices. I tell him  “That was Lois’ favorite word on the Camino. She’d always get a lemon soda with ice everywhere we went. To this day, I think she still remembers how to say ‘with ice.’” “You can just ask for it for me,” Dad says. (Further support for aforementioned idea of nixing Spanish lessons for Dad on this trip.)
We meet two strapping young lads from France. Dad says he’s probably three times as old as they are. “How old are you?” they ask Dad. He asks them to guess. They start in the 50s. And take four more guesses to get to 71. I think, “I doubt I had a  clue as to what a 71-year-old man looked like when I was their age” but decide to hold my tongue. Dad enjoys the fact that he’s the oldest person on the Camino thus far (three hours in at this point). We meet a woman who walked with her 73-year-old mother for 21 days on the Camino last month. But without discussion I know we both don’t count that as she’s not actually here on this very Camino at this very moment.

Gloria Morgan: Revealed

As she promised in her Christmas card,  yesterday on our first anniversary, Gloria Morgan revealed herself to us. (For those of you that don’t know anything about the Gloria Morgan saga,  I highly recommend you click here to read the start of this story before going any further.)

In true Gloria Morgan fashion, I will keep you in suspense a little longer by first telling you some facts I learned about this illustrious character:

1. Gloria Morgan is the brainchild of not one, but two people.

2. This couple came up with the idea after seeing that one could send us messages on our wedding website. “Let’s ask some funny questions,” one of them said to the other. They started brainstorming and came up with so many questions that, beginning four months before our wedding, they actually sent one per week. And the week before we got married? One per day!

3. The aforementioned couple thought it would be at most a few weeks before they started to hear from us about the mysterious messages we were receiving from dear Ms. Morgan. They were very disappointed to arrive at our wedding not having heard a single mention of her. So disappointed were they, they told their secret to some of our guests—they just had to get it out!

4.Our couple were both dismayed and delighted to read the blog post that finally came out telling the Gloria Morgan story to the world. Dismayed to learn that Michael and I had deleted so many of the messages as they came in. Delighted to see how much entertainment they were providing to so many people who wanted to help us solve this mystery.

5. After the New York wedding celebration, when Michael and I started making phone calls accusing people of being Gloria Morgan, we contacted this couple and they denied it. Many of the other relatives that we contacted that day also knew about it, but denied to us any knowledge of what was going

6. The name Gloria Morgan was indeed chosen due to the Vanderbilt connection. For those of you that don’t know, there is a Vanderbilt mansion in my hometown of Hyde Park, New York.  I grew up flying kites on their lawn. As a teenager, I regularly played their Steinway piano. Not because we were friends of the family, but because it was and still is a National Park located just seven minutes from my parents’ house. There is also a Vanderbilt mansion in my current locale of Asheville, North Carolina. The gentlemen who built these mansions, Frederick and George Vanderbilt respectively, were uncles of Reginald Vanderbilt. Reggie married Gloria Morgan, and they soon became the parents of Gloria Vanderbilt, who, I was shocked to see, died today at the age of 95. “She was hanging on for the big reveal,” one of our co-conspirators said.

Speaking of big reveals, Gloria Morgan continued to show off her creativity by revealing herself to us in a video that she emailed to us yesterday. 

A public thank you note to you, dear Glo:

Thank you for your your humor and creativity. We are very impressed that you were able to keep your secret for this long. And that those you told were able to keep it a secret as well! May you two continue to entertain friends and family for many years to come. We are all blessed to have you in our lives.

With love,
Rebecca and Mitchell