I stood outside for a while tonight and stared at what looked like a million stars. It made me think of Spain; in fact, I have been thinking about Spain a lot lately; thinking about how we lived our days when we were there, and wondering why we left that behind. It’s hard to explain, but lately I’ve been thinking about the Camino I was on, the one I’m on now, and why there needs to be a difference.
One evening, Michael and I spent the night above a bar in Samos, Spain, and had pulpo–octopus–for dinner. Later that night a priest invited us to a private party and we stood next to four buffet tables of pinchos and wine, and we ate and stood on the balcony drinking wine and watched swans swim by in the lake behind the cloister hissing at the setting sun. Every single day outdid the previous one. I kept waiting for that golden moment, and they kept coming. Like that following morning when we walked to a nearby field and found a chapel from the 9th century alone in the mist, and some eternal sacred silence.
We slept on yoga mats in a hallway of an old church in Logrono, Spain, with seventy other tired souls after we shared dinner and walked through the basement of the five hundred year old building. For two nights we slept in comfort in the same hotel Hemingway stayed while working on The Sun Also Rises. In some small, old chicken village we stayed in a brand new albergue, which had no business being open yet. The floors and ceilings weren’t done, it was freezing inside, and the yet-to-be-inspected bathroom was three floors down. The only bar in town was closed so the owner gave us a few beers which made up for the thick dust everywhere. We stayed near Torres del Rio above a bar with fine food and a wading pool out back to soak our blistered and swollen feet. We stayed in an old monastery a hundred yards from a church St Francis of Assisi himself asked to be built for the poor souls who were too ill in those days to make it to Santiago. In Portomarin we stayed up as long as we could because the rooms were all filled. We hung out in a small café until 1am and then walked around the misty, cooling waterfront. Then we settled on the town square with covered walkways running next to a medieval church. Against some storefront we pulled together folding chairs and wrapped ourselves in whatever we could and tried to sleep in rapidly dropping temperatures. A kid on a bike did tricks on the steps of the church until 3 am which anyway kept me amused. At 4:30 we headed west. You can see a million stars in Spain at 4:30 in the morning, and the darkness makes the silence almost visible.
In O’Cebreiro there was no room and we nearly walked out of town to camp when a man waved us toward a back door at an inn and we ended up with a beautiful private room for practically nothing at all and just outside the door were a few tables on a stone patio overlooking valleys that stretched across Galicia. In the morning the fog sat below us in those valleys, and the sun came up like we were looking at the ocean until the clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue and the green hills welcomed us.
When we first crossed the Pyrenees into Spain’s small village of Roncesvalles, we stayed next to a chapel Charlemagne used and at night we went to the basement and spent hours drinking gin and tonics and talking to the innkeeper. In the village of Zubiri in Navarra, just before Pamplona, we stayed in a new place on the fourth floor and shard a room with a couple from France. We were all quiet that night. My son took pictures from the Roman Bridge outside our window. A few days later on the eve of the feast of Saint James, patron of this pilgrimage, we stayed in a small inn run by a single mom who made dinner for us, a woman from Madrid, and two men from Germany. We shared a delicious Italian meal and drank clay pitchers of red wine and talked about the distances. We laughed in three languages and despite someone snoring most of the night we slept well enough to leave an hour after everyone else making our journey quieter and more perfect. We didn’t worry about how far we walked or where we might stay. We walked and we would find a place. Like the fly-infested villa with tremendous views, or the albergue with dogs who insisted on sleeping on our laps, or the room above the garage with a killer bar at the street; or the stone building down some slope where we met some girl from Texas and a father and son from Amsterdam. After paying at the restaurant we drank the best hard cider in Spain.
In one neighborhood as close to suburbia as we ever saw, some couple opened an albergue in their house and we got the first two of five beds, the others occupied by a salesman from Madrid, a woman from Barcelona and another from Mayorca. We all had dinner on the back porch where all the flies in Spain gathered to join us, as well as a dog named Bruno, and the sun was brilliant and we slept well. Once, we stumbled into some tiny town, another chicken village, looked like a movie set for an old western, and we slept in the bunk room with fifty other people. In the morning we picked up a few supplies at their shed they called a store, but man oh man the lemon chicken was awesome.
Everything we did was deliberate.
Everything we ate was delicious.
We were absolutely awake. We remained present for almost two months. Everyone we met enriched our lives.
It should be this way all the time. At home. Anywhere. We live in a phenomenal world for a disturbingly short period of time. It should always be this way, and love, and the way we wake in the mornings. I know the arguments, the schedules and appointments and necessary obligations. But, you know, still, it should always be this way.
It was in Spain, every single day, and when we came home we slid quietly into the old routine, stumbled back upon a world where what was and what might be constantly drown out what is, where few live in the present, where few talk to each other. Where people stand around hissing at the setting sun, passing through life quietly, hoping before they pass away that they can raise their voices and just once join in one last swan song. They wait too long. We always wait too long.