Upon arriving in Madrid, my husband Michael and I rented a car and headed north. Our plan was to spend the summer months in Oviedo, then move to Valencia in the fall.
After a couple hours, I was hungry. Michael knew this situation could turn into a minor emergency very quickly.
“Just pull off into one of these small towns and they’ll be a bar. We can get some food there,” I told him.
We pulled into a tiny parking lot and took care of my hunger with a café con leche and a pincho de tortilla (like a quiche, but only potatoes inside it). We sat outside at one of the tables and watched as the townspeople came and went.
Tears pooled in my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Michael asked, always alarmed at the sight of tears.
“I’m happy!” I said.
“Oh, good,” he said, with a sigh of relief. “That’s it? You’re just crying because you’re happy?”
“Well,” I started, “remember how I told you that lots of people that walk the Camino ‘fall in love’ with Spain? I never felt that. I fell in love with the Camino. And, until this very moment, I thought my experiences on the Camino were ‘Camino experiences’ — like sitting at a table outside a bar with a café con leche and a tortilla, mingling with the townspeople, lingering over good conversation. But I just realized–that’s not just a Camino thing. It’s a Spain thing!”
Our first year in Spain has proven this again and again: what I thought was the culture of the Camino is actually the culture of the country.
My favorite part of the Camino has always been the people. From all over the world. On the same journey, but in their own way.
And I’ve found that here in Valencia. Not with Camino pilgrims, but with ex-pats.
Through my weekly walking group here, I’ve met people that hail from France, the Phillipines, Norway, Russia, Jordan, the US, Columbia. All have come to this one place for the next part of their life journey.
Not all of us are doing it the same way, but that also keeps it interesting. Some of us rent, some bought their apartment, some have lived all over the world, some have had few international experiences, some chose this city sight unseen, some had visited many times before.
And together we meet each week, sharing stories of our experiences about learning the language, renewing our visas, traveling, or trying to get our air conditioning fixed (wondering how anyone here could live without it!).
I was always impressed with the kindness and willingness of other pilgrims to help me on the Camino and I’ve found the local ex-pats to be no different.
And then there are the Spaniards.
Back in 2012, I was walking out of Burgos, a large city on the Camino, early one morning. I asked a woman to point me in the direction of the trail. I didn’t understand Spanish at the time and she quickly picked up on that. I could tell by her nice pantsuit that she was on her way to work. But that didn’t stop her from leading me for a good few minutes until we came upon a Camino marker. Then she headed back in the direction from which we’d come. “Muchos gracias,” didn’t seem thanks enough.
As on the Camino, over the past year we’ve been helped by some very patient Spaniards.
- The man in the Tabac shop who helped us purchase SIM cards and then helped us make sure they worked.
- The gestor we hired to help us finalize our visa paperwork here in Spain.
- Our landlords who respond very quickly to our every question, usually always telling us, “Don’t worry.”
Sure, we’re paying all these people in some way, but still — being kind to people is a choice. And I so appreciate the kindnesses I’ve found here.
And then there are the stories.
I have, for quite some time, found that most people have more than a few stories about their own lives. Some happy, some heart-breaking, and everything in between. I feel honored that people choose to share their lives with me in this way.
Those I have heard are not my stories to tell here.
But I will say this: I find people and their stories everywhere I go. On the Camino, two people can walk and converse for hours at a time–without interruption.
I’ve found that’s a ‘Spain thing’ as well.
In my year here, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been given a bill for my meal without asking for it. The culture is one of uninterrupted conversations. No waiter or waitress will come asking if we want anything else. We have to hail them over.
Some people would find this frustrating.
But I’m not here to judge how another country operates.
I’m here to observe.
And to realize that, ten years ago, on the Camino de Santiago, I fell in love. With Spain.