In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.
It’s a long walk from Zubiri to Zabaldika, and that last kilometer or so made the walk seem interminable, as we wound up, up, up a steep, rocky hill. One of my realizations from the early days of the Camino is that I particularly dislike being introduced to new elevations at the end of the day. That being the case, I bitched my way up that hill like a champ. I’m not sure anymore if the moaning and groaning was all in my head, or if I was being verbal, but I’m guessing by that time of day I was letting my discontent be known to anyone within earshot.
It might just have been my mood at the time, but the hardy weeds and bushes clinging to life here and there made the hill seem like an area where only the strong would survive. The detour path from the Camino up to the albergue leads straight into a lush, green church garden, which seems a veritable oasis at the end of the arduous climb. The garden isn’t visible from downhill, though, so on the way up, I didn’t even have the promise of a beautiful place to take my mind off of the climb. Instead, I concentrated on what had quickly become my main goals: a nice, hot shower, a place – any place would do – to sit down, and taking off my shoes. It’s amazing how simple life can be, if you let it.
Claire was trailing behind us for the last part of the walk, but as Natalie and I got close to the abbey garden, we saw a cyclist mount his bike and take a path parallel to ours that went DOWN the hill. I stared after him with a mix of awe and trepidation. “Now there’s a sense of adventure,” I thought to myself.
No, wait, I’m lying. What I really thought was something closer to, “Is that dude insane?!?”
The garden was small, but nicely tended. Green grass, flowering plants, and trees made it an inviting spot to rest, even in early October. At that point, though, I couldn’t see that beauty. I didn’t have the energy to do more than wonder where I’d be able to put my pack down. Claire had caught up by this point, and the three of us walked through the garden, past the door of the 13th century church, and towards what looked to be the front door of the albergue, in a little building attached to the church. Just as we got there, an older gentleman with a wizened face stepped out. He addressed us in Spanish, so Natalie, the polyglot of the group, spoke back. After a second or two of confused back-and-forth, he broke into English with a very strong Gaelic lilt, and we all relaxed.
Michael and Kathleen (pronounced lovingly by Michael as “Kat-lin”), a married couple from Ireland, were the last volunteer hospitaleros of the year at the albergue. It turned out we’d arrived just in time to ring the church bell and take advantage of the nuns’ hospitality before the albergue was officially shut down for the season. Michael was quite surprised to see us, as the night before there’d only been a couple of pilgrims, and it seemed like the pilgrim traffic was dying down for the season. He was about to be even more surprised, because before the afternoon was out, it was a full house!
As we signed in and took off our boots off, I noticed a handwritten Spanish translation of the traditional Irish blessing (“May the road rise to meet you…”) taped up to the wall. I’m getting teary now, just thinking about that amazing couple who cared for us like their own children during our stay in Zabaldika. They truly were the face of hospitality, and as I write this from the hotel front desk where I now work, I realize that my conversations with Michael and Kathleen started a little chain reaction in my life that is still coming to fruition today. One might even say that my journey into hospitality has a great deal to do with the love that they showered on the weary travelers who came to their door that day.
The best was yet to come. After boots were off, Michael led us up to the sleeping quarters. It was up two short flights of stairs, so my quads and calves, which were seizing up by then, were definitely not happy with me. However, to everyone’s great joy, there were NO BUNK BEDS. If you’ve walked the Camino before, you’ll understand how something like this might make your heart leap in your chest, might fill you with woozy relief and make you overly emotional. If you haven’t walked the Camino yet, make sure to plan ahead and get a spot at Zabaldika, because the no bunk bed thing is HUGE, I promise.
Beds chosen, showers taken, and fresh outfits donned, it was time to explore. My nose led me downstairs to the kitchen, where Kathleen was cooking up something that smelled amazing for our dinner. We still had a while before dinner, so Michael suggested stopping by the chapel to admire the artwork and have our credentials stamped. The church was still locked, so a few of us sat in the garden to wait, and along came a gorgeous, very friendly little tortoise shell cat. It broke my heart to see that she was limping, as though she’d recently been injured. I sat down to give her an available lap, and she sat with me for a few minutes before rushing off to chase a bug.
Eventually, an elderly, yet spry, nun in a smart outfit of slacks and sweater arrived with a key to the chapel. She didn’t speak any English, so I wasn’t able to talk with her, but she had a very kind demeanor, and as each pilgrim filed in to have their credential stamped, she gave them a little laminated sheet in their language with information about the church, as well as a couple of printed handouts to keep. The church was tiny, and quite charming. It was the handouts that really got to the heart of me, though.
I should interject here to mention that there’s a thing called the Camino moment. It’s unique to each person. Some might have just one moment, others might have a couple, or even many. It’s something like an epiphany, a time when you are touched to the core by something you experience on your Camino. I learned so much on my walk, and had a bunch of great experiences, but only three that I would call legitimate Camino moments. My first was in Zabaldika, reading the handouts the nun had given me:
The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor is it a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside in the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make you a pilgrim.
The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.
The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on your own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds community, community that greets the other, that takes interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.
The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must get the rest that will keep you going.
The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen to, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.
The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim
- Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered the the authentic “camino” begins when it is completed.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “camino” a life and of your life a “way,” in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
- Blessed are you pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
- Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with the Father who is waiting for you.
I got to #5 and started sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down in a pew and cried for the next five minutes or so. Then I went up to ring the bell, because the nun said we could (not the bell on the right – it was cracked and the townspeople hated to hear it – but the one on the left was fine), and, feeling like everything was right with the world after a good cry and bell ringing, not that that made much sense to me at the time, I went inside to see if it was time for dinner yet.
Kathleen was a miracle worker. She laid out a feast for us that night, most made from scratch, and all made with short notice, as almost all of the pilgrims had shown up late in the afternoon. She’d changed her plans from a simple dinner to feed Michael and a few pilgrims to a lovely multi-dish affair that allowed around 15 of us to all have seconds (and a few had thirds!) She and Michael were vegetarian, so she made an effort to cook some dishes for omnivores, like bangers and mash (with chorizo, of course) and shepherd’s pie, and some for vegetarians, including an amazing bean casserole and a veggie shepherd’s pie. Bread, sliced meats and cheeses, and plenty of wine and water kept us all very happy, too.
The best part, however, was the conversation. It was the first time since Orisson that I’d been lucky enough to be part of a communal dinner. I was sitting next to Michael and Kathleen, and chatted with Michael about music (as soon as he’d heard I was from New Orleans, he’d chortled with glee and proceeded to interrogate me about local music – turned out that he was a huge folk and blues fan). To my right sat a young Frenchwoman who, it turned out, was a singer. I can’t remember everyone sitting at the table, but the conversations flew fast and thick, and the strands of growing connection between people who had been strangers just hours ago seemed to me to be almost visible. The Frenchwoman (I want to say that her name was also Natalie) was walking with two brothers from Denmark, who had started walking from their front door and had been on the road for months. There was also a father and his teenage daughter from the US, Mark from Australia, a Polish man with whom no one could speak (he had limited English and no Spanish or French), at least one Spanish man, one or two guys that I’m forgetting, and of course myself, Natalie, and Claire.
One of the pilgrims noted that Kathleen’s command of French and Spanish were both very good, and she told us that she’d been a languages teacher before she retired. She and Michael spoke a few words to us in Gaelic, which they speak in exclusively when talking to each other. I found that particularly touching, as it’s a beautiful language and it seemed like a lovely representation of their devotion to each other. Towards the end of the meal, I remember just looking around, watching everyone as they shared stories of home, and feeling completely at ease with my life for what felt like the first time in a great while. That’s probably the moment when I realized that no matter what, even if Natalie and Claire were to walk on without me the next day, I would never be alone here unless I wanted to be.
It was Sunday, and the priest who would typically give mass was doing so in another village. Instead, the nuns invited us to come back to the chapel for singing and a group meditation. However, after dinner, I could barely keep my eyes open, so I decided to call it an early night while the others went to hang out with the nuns. Although I did what was right for my body, it turns out that the group meditation was quite impactful, and Natalie and Mark were still talking about it weeks later. If you end up in Zabaldika and the nuns invite you to come hang out, don’t miss it!
Kathleen and Michael met us back downstairs in the kitchen in the morning, where once again the lovely Kathleen had laid out an amazing spread. At some point in the night it had occurred to me that Michael might enjoy listening to one of my favorite American folk artists, Greg Brown, so I asked if he’d heard of Greg before. Michael’s eyes lit up, and Kathleen started laughing, “Now you’ve done it!” It turned out that Greg Brown was also one of Michael’s top folk singers, and he enthusiastically told me about the time they’d traveled to see him play at a jazz festival in the US. Before leaving, I wrote down a few local New Orleans bands that I thought he’d get a kick out of. I wish I’d thought to get their contact information, just to keep in touch and send a postcard from New Orleans.
It’s not easy being a hospitalero, sending away new family every morning, and welcoming another wave of soon-to-be family every afternoon. I thought that Michael and Kathleen were doing a bang up job of it, though. Leaving hurt a little more that day than it normally did. What made it worse, though, was another encounter with the sweet little local cat, whom I’d mentally named Encanta. After we’d formally left the building, boots on, packs and sticks in tow, there were still a few matters that Claire needed to catch up on via email, so we all sat just outside the front door, where we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way as the albergue got cleaned and readied for a new day.
Very soon, Encanta came limping up, and after a minute or two, she hopped onto my lap. I held her for close to a half an hour, and realized that, except for our brief meeting the day before, this was the first decent dose of animal time that I’d gotten since leaving home almost a week before. It hit me then how much I missed my cats, and how necessary pets were to my wellbeing. I soaked up all the love I could, and gave Encanta all the scratches and kisses I could before we had to leave. From that morning until the day I left Spain, I entertained thoughts of finding a way to adopt her and bring her back to the states. I’m sure she’s just fine with the nuns, but next time I’m heading through Zabaldika, I intend to check up on her.