Part 1: Food on the Camino
Monday. We’re in Sarria now. I have before me a bottle of wine that did not cost extra and has no label. This makes me very nervous. This time the “espaghetti bolonaise” came in the form of penne pasta tubes. I think the Camino Spanish have some confusion about what spaghetti is and how spaghetti is made in Bologna, and I propose a fact-finding mission to Italy be scheduled by a team of qualified Spanish culinary and scientific experts.
I wonder how many Spaniards per year name their sons Jamón. I would not be surprised by any answer but this one: “fewer than sixty”. In the United States, I remember reading of two girls who had been named Orangelo and Lemongelo (the “gelo” instead of “Jello”, I assume, to avoid actual trademark infringement). This is child abuse.
I’ve been to Madrid, Bilbao, Pamplona, and Barcelona, among other Spanish cities. I know that they do have restaurants. But the cafe-bar, especially on the Camino, has a distinctive kind of menu. I wouldn’t claim that a 500-mile walk through the rural United States would yield a greater diversity and creativity in the food, so what I say here applies only to the cafe-bar on the Camino — which is to say, to just about every place you can find to eat for over a month.
The menu del dia along the Camino de Santiago usually comes with a first plate, a second plate, dessert, and your choice of wine or water. It costs between 8.50 and an occasional high of 12 Euros – usually 9 or 10. The choice of first plate is invariably one of the following:
The Camino notion of spaghetti Bolognese, which somehow does not involve a tomato, or even, necessarily, spaghetti.
Ensalada mixta, mixed salad, which is lettuce, a few slices of tomato, and a scoop of tuna – even when the menu does not mention tuna, it comes with tuna. A cucumber, tomato, Caesar, arugula, beet, mushroom, pea, bacon bit, corn, spinach, or any other type of salad is not possible.
Other options are jamón and cheese, jamón and tuna, eggs and bacon, and eggs and jamón.
The second plate offers a choice of fish – cod (bacalao), usually – or grilled chicken. Sometimes beef, or another type of fish.
Dessert can be flan, yogurt, some kind of cake (tarta), and only occasionally ice cream.
In Sarria, I go to the bar to pay and the proprietress reminds me that dessert was included. Yogurt or flan. I shrug and order the flan. She reaches into a refrigerator and takes out a small white plastic carton of the sort yogurt comes in. Right in front of me, she peels open the lid and turns the carton upside-down on a coffee saucer, allowing the flan to slide out. Then she presents me with my dessert.
So far I have seen no to-go coffee in Spain. Not a single Starbucks, not even in Bilbao, Pamplona, Burgos, or Leon. The Spanish seem to hold to the charming creed that a person who intends to drink coffee should simply drink coffee, rather than drinking coffee while also doing one to five other things. A Zenmaster would approve.
At the Bar Morgade, at kilometer 99.5, I had an empanada Gallega, or Galician tuna pie. It wasn’t bad, but would have been greatly improved by cheese and grilling. I also ate huevos con bacon, because the Spanish eat fried eggs and omelettes all day long.
Part 2: Language in Modern Spain
I have collected a half-dozen different Spanish lessons on CD or podcast, and, since my arrival, have faithfully listened to virtually none of it. (I also imagined that I’d listen to audiobooks on my long, presumably boring walks. Never once has the urge struck me). One of the Spanish courses, when I bought it in 1993, had long been used by the Department of State’s Foreign Service officers. It has quaint phrases like “Deme la pluma,” or “Give me the quill pen”. But I need something for a modern country, a member of the European Union in the year 2011. What I could use in modern Spain are phrases like the following:
Do you have Internet?
No, it doesn’t work.
Do you have wi-fi?
This also doesn’t work.
Dear Orange, What do you mean by the slogan “Internet Everywhere”? Because it doesn’t actually work. Anywhere. Ever. Not for a minute.
Is there a Thai, Indian, Chinese, German, Mexican, Japanese, or French restaurant in the area?
Your retail staff in Bilbao doesn’t know how your Internet service works. Or your cell phones. Could a shoe salesman have gotten into one of your retail stores? Your Internet-access interface says I can click to find out my balance. But it doesn’t work. It also says I can recharge on the Internet. But the link doesn’t work. When I find the right page on my own, the form doesn’t work. The error messages are alternately incorrect, nonsensical, or unhelpful. In other words, they don’t work. No one responds to my help requests. Does anyone, I wonder, at your company work?
Part 3: Sarria
The municipal albergue in Sarria was one of the least pleasant we’ve seen. (The taxi driver had dropped us off there; in the morning we walked past half a dozen visibly nicer albergues). Each floor’s beds were all bunked around a triangular, all-glass airshaft that enabled anyone trying to sleep to hear the noise and see the light of pilgrims on all the other floors. There was no Internet. The kitchen was tiny, and shared space with the washing machines. There was one outlet, in the hallway by the bathroom. Competition for it was fierce.
In the albergues, I have seen a number of things I would rather not have seen, usually in the nature of older Europeans without sufficient cladding. In Sarria, as all the pilgrims on our floor quietly prepared for bed just before lights-out, a fiftyish Spanish couple arrived at their bunks, speaking loudly. The generously proportioned woman stripped to a shirt and her panties and lay on her stomach, and the man began to vigorously rub a cream of overpowering scent into the backs of her ample legs.
This went on for some time.
Then they hung a towel from the top bunk so as to obscure the bottom bunk, and our uxurious husband climbed in with his creamed-up wife and they yakked late into the night, indifferent to Mom’s attempts to hush them.
Part 4: Into the Cabbage Groves of Galicia
The Camino ends in the capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela (“St. James of the Field of Stars”), and the Camino as a pilgrimage was originally a Galician tradition. (This was before the kings of Navarra and Castilla and Leon realized how much revenue could be raised from pilgrims, most of them from France.) The Galicians have placed milestones, so to speak, every half a kilometer on the Way, so that pilgrims can count down the distance to Santiago. These have been defaced almost beyond legibility by people’s names, messages to one another, and relationship status. (Almost all are in Spanish).
I had understood Sarria to be a neat 100 kilometers away from Santiago, but the morning found
us walking by a restaurant that called itself “Kilometer 111”. Uh-oh. Mom’s ailments tell her she can do 16 kilometers a day, but not 19 or 20. We’ll have to figure out how to make up this difference and still make Santiago in time.
Mom said she’d read that pilgrims walk more slowly in Galicia, perhaps because it’s so beautiful and they don’t want it to end. The beginning of our walk was not so promising. The smell of fresh animal dung as we left Sarria was strong enough to be detected in outer space. We passed a curious Galician custom we would see repeated in every village thereafter: cemeteries that looked like a blend of mausoleum (tall concrete structures) and morgue (small doors, three high, into which coffins, or ashes, were slid).
Once we got into the country, the day became simply magical. We were back in the trees,
and we wound our way through one small farm after another. Mist rose from the fields, seemingly without source, for we could see no rivers or ponds nearby. We crossed quaint stone bridges spanning tiny trickling creeks. And the smells! We breathed in not just astringent, bracing cow dung but loam and the leaves of autumn, the sweetly pungent smell of sorghum, woodsmoke, and pig farms capable of being detected from universes parallel to our own. Cabbage was cultivated in what could only be called cabbage trees – six-foot stalks with the eating end at the very top.
Soon we began to climb, and the landscape became even more storybook. The small farms
spread across gently undulating hills, with ever more hills in the distance, and were bounded by mile upon mile of walls made of carefully stacked stones emptied from the fields themselves. The houses themselves were made of the same stones, all found in nearby fields. Mile after mile we could smell the sorghum, and sometimes we could see the plastic tarps that covered it up. German Shepherds could be seen in most farms, apparently the Galician guard dog of choice. Roosters crowed nearby.
And then there were the slender, elevated buildings near many of the stone homes in the country, standing on foundations about five feet off the ground, six feet tall, ten feet long, three feet wide. Were they for hens? Some were topped by stone crosses and even had
inscriptions: were they mausoleums? Or, as a German maintained, for bees? My guidebook said many houses had next to them something called “corncribs,” which raised more questions than it answered.
“The sky! The sky!” I could hear Mom saying to herself. It was yet another perfect day. “My cells are loving this!” she said.
Carrie was going to take a picture of Mom and me walking side by side. I put my hand on her back and began to walk. “Are you in there?” she said. “I don’t feel you.” I understood what she meant, and I visualized light flowing from myself, down my arm, and out my palm into her back. “Oh!” she said. “I see a big blue light! It’s like a . . . what’s the word? An aureole.”
I don’t know what to make of this. I can’t say I believe it in the sense that such a belief would matter – belief matters only when and to the extent it affects behavior, as we may see by watching the uninspired conduct of many of the super-religious and god-fearing. If I really believed what people say about my energy then I suppose I’d spend all my time visualizing myself healing people, starting with Mom. Which I don’t do, obviously.
At times we walked in a sort of bounded walkway ten feet across, with stone walls three to five feet high on either side of us. For long stretches the rock walls were covered in ivy,
and the stone itself invisible. The path itself was impassable by car, and we had to pick our way carefully over the uneven stones. I’ve never seen such byways on any farm, or anywhere.
“Who put all these rocks in our path?” a German woman joked.
“That’s what I’d like to know, too,” Mom responded, also in German.
We did, I thought. God did. Does it matter? They’re still there.
Part 5: Pilgrims Have Increased by 20% Since This Book’s Publication
I have been asking pilgrims a simple question: “Why are you on the Camino?” Quite a few Germans say it’s because they read a best-selling book, first published in 2001, by a well-known German comedian. This is a disappointing answer. The book itself, at least as translated into English, seems to me incapable of inspiring one even to finish it, much less to walk 500 miles. Even Mom complains that it’s boring.
I asked one German, “Is it good in German? Because in English it’s not funny at all. It doesn’t have any fresh observations, or information about the locations, which you sort of expect from travel writing.”
“We know the author,” the man told me. “It’s interesting if you know him. We can hear his voice.”
Over three million copies sold. Either the English translation was doing the author a great disservice or his readers were doing all the work.
Part 6: La Bodeguina in Mercadoiro
Tuesday. We reach Mercadoiro. The La Bodeguina albergue costs a princely 10 Euros (about $13.30), but it has a patio with tables, a large yard with picnic tables, and a superb view, as well as a lounge-like room and free wi-fi. A single laptop is available for surfing, in exchange for a donation that we see no one pay. The bathrooms and showers are all new. The showers even have six hydro-massage heads that can be angled to effect stimuli from the thighs to the chest.
The menu has more variety than we’ve seen, and the entire operation is run by two men, one of whom speaks English, and other of whom is simply very helpful.
However. The menu showed a picture of an assortment of sliced fruit beautifully arrayed in a bowl.
“Son las frutas fresco?” I asked, hoping that meant, Are the fruits fresh?
“Si,” he said. But the kitchen was not open, he explained. Then he shrugged and went into the kitchen. Amazing! He was going to get me something to eat anyway. I was feeling very grateful.
He returned with a bowl of canned peaches in sugary syrup.
There are more flies in Spain than in the rest of the world combined. This is called a hypothesis. I now ask graduate students from around the world to prove me wrong.
The downsides of the albergue: for perhaps 50 people, it had two bathrooms, each containing a toilet sans privacy and two showers.
Part 7: Mom and Food, Part 27
Mom tried to buy bread this morning, in a small shop, and was told it was reserved. “All of it?” she asked, incredulous, pointing to the array of bread. Yes. All. Reserved.
Wednesday. In Ventas de Naron, Mom and I were sitting at an outdoor table, reading. She wanted to know how to ask what time dinner was. I told her. She practiced it a few times before she pulled out her notebook and pen. “This is an important sentence,” she explained. She got up to go to the café.
“And if she says seven-thirty, I’m going to slap her.”