There is a moment, fruity and hazy-afternooned, just before the sun loses its heat and falls out of the marmalade-smeared sky, when I am stopped. Arms scratched and itching from the day’s garden toil. Tweaks of sharp discomfort here and there, yet still a sigh of deep contentment escapes.
I sit on my haunches, rabbit-like and watchful. The cat picks his way over broken soil and in one leap, alights to the bannister in a clear request for food. I oblige, seizing a stolen moment to boil the kettle for tea. In a short while, tools will be downed and I will tear Husband away from his newly-planted trees and towards the cosy evening. Lemon, orange and mandarin. Tangy grapefruit and dark, sweet plums. Into this timeless pause, the citrus-blossom scented future falls.
We start early, woken by the keen energy of other Camino pilgrims and greeted outside by a star, falling through crisp, dark sky. Since we began our walk, the moon has waned from a full, bright round to craggy quarter. A dirt road takes us around lanes, between village homes still quiet with sleep, until we reach an intersection where a highway, already busy at this early hour, leads us precariously onward. Spooked by huge trucks passing at fierce speed, we’re relieved to see the beckoning lights of a cafe, countertop replete with warm empanadas, fresh croissants and an almond cake named for Saint Santiago. As we offer our credential booklets for the pligrim’s stamp I wonder, are cafes the new churches?
Although there is some sadness in this being the final section in our Camino Way, my feet will be glad to finish. These past few days, I’ve been walking with the assistance of efficient painkillers that I’m pretty sure were not available to the first pilgrims in mediaeval times. Blisters upon blisters upon blisters. Ouch. I blame the asphalt roads – hard and unyielding to human feet. There are too many of these for me. I prefer the quiet of forests which, being full of eucalypts, are achingly reminiscent of our time in the forests of Tasmania. Imported to control erosion and as fast-growing timber, eucalypts are causing havoc in Portugal, covering up to 7% of the land. As in Australia, they make great fuel for forest fires, and as climate change ramps up the summer temperatures, both these countries are re-considering how to manage these magnificent trees.
Stepping aside from the path, we lie down on dry, sweet-smelling leaf litter and gaze up through the cathedral of trees to a denim blue patch of sky. After a scramble for beds at the auberge on the first two days, we took the decision from then on to book ahead and skip the stress. After all, what Way does not include time to stand and stare? In addition to soulful wayside dreamings, my companions and I make time for daily reflections. These practices add richness and meaningfulness to our journey – an inner element to weave alongside the outer scenery.
During the tough bits, I plugged one ear into my i-pod and listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent iridescently imagines rural Ireland in the 1800s when the local “doctress” – a local medicine woman – finds her ‘old ways’ outlawed by the church. Treading these ancient Galician pathways graced with autumn fruits and nuts, elderberries, blackberries and hedgerow mint, I am reminded how the land holds so many cures for our ills and how women were mostly the ones who held the knowledge of how to use them. It was a male-dominated clergy who helped push them out and a patriarchal university system which monopolised the medical profession to which women – no matter how skilled or priviliged – were not admitted. What was I doing then, walking along a Christian pilgrim route? And amongst the masculine icons, where were the peregrinas – the symbols of female power? I sit quietly in a wayside chapel to contemplate this, but am interrupted by a babble of pilgrims, bustling into the chapel to take pictures and gather a stamp for their Camino credencial. Once again I question – what am I doing here, hoping for a spiritual experience at a time when the spiritual path has been replaced by the route to the next coffee shop?
The following morning, we arrive in Pontevedra, its ancient town centre now lauded for extensive pedestrianisation. Walking the quiet streets, we are drawn into a rounded church where, to my surprise, the image of a woman gazes down at us from the vestry. The frieze above her depicts a donkey on which rides a pregnant woman. In this way, the elegant Capela da Virxe Peregrina seems to answer my question.
During the final three days, I ask my social media community to help me find purpose in my walk. “Walk for all those who can’t”, one says. “For equality and justice.” “For love”. “For justice for refugees.” “For the Earth.” Walking with these prayers in mind, a warmth spreads through my heart and for a while, I am able to forget my own sore feet.
Whilst writing this post, I stumbled across the work of Geraint Rhys, a Welsh singer songwriter who has recorded a great anthem-like song, Visca la Terra. He translates this phrase, often associated with radical independentistas, as “Bless this Land”. Whatever we feel about the politics, we of the smaller nations cannot help but see ourselves reflected in these struggles to be seen and heard.
So it is that I find myself a sunny beach, with the first chill of winter in the air, meditating in solidarity with those striking over the independence question in Catalunya. As foreigners in this land, we may not feel the pain of what is happening as deeply as those who call themselves Catalan, or those who consider themselves Spanish, or both. But what we can do is to listen without judgement. We can hear their stories and bear witness, as the sun and the sea bear witness to our meditation.
It was my friend Joe who recently used the word witness. Just two weeks ago, we were in Germany on a Mindfulness Teacher Training Course and I was interviewing him about his work as an activist. He was bearing witness, he said. And now here I am on a beach in Spain, holding a meditation group for peace in Catalunya. The word comes up in my mind and sticks, like a flag or a badge I can wave or wear. If I can do little else, I can bear witness.
We sit listening to the sea lap on a sunny shore, aware that the traffic is backed up all the way to the city, that public transport is severely disrupted, that many shops and offices are closed as part of the strike. “People were on the streets this morning as I took my son to school” said one woman. “The company I work for has banned us from talking about it.” said another. The idea of witnessing seems important to me, but it is only later that I reflect that it feels good for me to have found a role in this drama.
Last week, Joe wrote to ask how it is on the ground here. I gave him a comprehensive picture of life in our small village, just one hour south of Barcelona. “To be honest,” I said, “on the ground here for us, nothing has changed. Summer is cooling into Autumn. The vineyards around are turning red and golden. Yesterday a huge electric storm shot forks of lightning into the hills around our home, the sky cracking as if the world was breaking part. Nature is far more threatening than the Guardia Civil!”
I was joking, but it was true all the same. And all the same, I wrote, “It’s hard to escape the awareness that our Catalan friends are suffering. It’s been a traumatic time and emotions are being pulled at. Those of us with less rooted connections feel empathy, but also see that folk are being manipulated on both sides.”
When the idea of being a witness pops up, the thread of thought is inextricably linked to Joe, to the Agents of Change course and to the practice of mindfulness. For what is mindfulness but kind awareness? And what use is kind awareness if we cannot find a way to bring it into the service of others? Into the service of wellbeing of humans, animals and the natural world? Into the service of peace?
On Thursday this week, the International Day of Peace, I gave a talk at a local school about how the practice of mindfulness relates to peace. Drawing on the idea that without inner peace there can be no outer peace, I outlined how our personal practice can help facilitate calm, clear communication with others, even if they have harmed us. I was careful to tell the young people that there are times we need to stand up for ourselves, call another out for their wrongdoing, but suggested that it could be done non-violently.
On Friday, sitting with friends in a flat in Barcelona, a clattering begins outside. It’s 10pm and the casolada has begun. From all around, we can hear the dull chiming of spoons on pots. This is a people’s protest, Catalan style. I stand on the balcony and look out over the darkened city. To my left, I can see the tallest towers of the Sagrada Familia, where we have just spent a pleasant hour in one of their free public openings. It was my first visit, though I have been living in Catalonia for over 18 months now. Gaudi’s masterpiece cathedral is astounding, but to be honest, I am much more excited by the casolada! My friends have heard it before. They live in the city and have been present during the last few days of protest, but I live out in the countryside and though I have heard stories, this is my first contact with the indignation currently sounding throughout Barcelona’s streets and homes.
Catalonia is preparing for their October 1st referendum. They will vote to decide whether to split from Spain and claim independence. This is not news. The banners proclaiming “Sí!” hang from balconies in every town and on the recent Díada of September 11th – Catalonia’s National Day – a torchlit march in my local village saw people wearing the Señera – the national flag – like capes and carrying a thirty foot long version of it through the streets. This year, it was hard to separate national pride from the question of independence.
Although there is a lot of support for independence, with most people naming the fact that Catalonia gives far more in taxes to Spain than it receives in resources, it is by no means clear which way the Catalan people will jump. However, fear from the Spanish authorities has grown to such a pitch that they have decided to try and block the vote entirely and nobody knows how far they are prepared to go. In the port, it is said there are ships housing thousands of Guardia Civil, the Spanish State Police. Catalonia has its own police force, known as the Mossos, but it is not they who have been raiding local government offices this week and confiscating ballot boxes. Several officials were arrested, which caused protests to arise, demanding their release. This is no longer about Sí o No, this is about human rights. I ask my Catalan friend what she thinks and she tells me how she and her husband have been taking turns to attend the round the clock vigils. “There are all sorts of people there.” she says. “Grandmas who were alive in the fascist times of Franco and young people who took to the streets during the Crisis. People are coming together because this time, the Spanish government have overstepped the line.”
Life in Catalonia, though relaxed and relatively easy, is always infused with contradiction. The Catalan language is spoken everywhere, in schools, in shops, in the street, at home. Because everyone knows it is a language that has fought for survival, the very speaking of it is an everyday political statement. As a Welsh person who grew up learning, but not speaking Welsh, I have nothing but respect for the way this language has been fiercely protected. It is a mark of identity and solidarity, but not, funnily enough, exclusivity. Catalan people meet the stumbling Spanish of tourists with grace and kindness, though, like the Welsh who insist they are not English, the Catalans are defiantly not Spanish.
As Britain prepares to redefine itself as separate from Europe and the Scots back away from declaring their own independence, I feel ambiguous about separatism and nationalism. Cultural identity is important. It helps us feel we belong somewhere and reinforces a sense of community. However I still feel that these arbitrary frontiers, drawn along lines which tell tales of war and conflict, seem at best like childish spats over yours and mine and at worst, deadly symbols of division. How can we have both? How can we express ourselves and our feelings of home and country without making our neighbours the enemy? This is a question, surely, that we all must answer every day, in each encounter, in every single human relationship. After all, peace begins with me.
So. House renovations are underway and I have to admit, I sometimes get depressed. Not just because the task ahead of us often seems insurmountable and not simply because my arms and neck are aching from hours spent hunched over a sander, hammer, or scrubbing brush. Much more depressing is the amount of time we seem to spend in FesMes.
For those of you around the world, Fesmes is the Catalan equivalent of B&Q (in the UK) or Bunnings in Australia. Do you have a version of that in the US? Anyway, every weekend, we appear to need at least one visit to Fesmes. First it was for water pipes, as the tubo that connects us to the local well had somehow been cut. Because we were complete novices, it took several visits and numerous lengthy conversations with Francisco, our fontanero, before the water finally flowed in the taps. Each visit also involves other discussions – about lighting, for instance. About possible bedroom, bathroom and kitchen layouts. About furniture or about various ways to rig up some shade in which to work when the sun is high in the sky and it’s hot as hell. The air conditioning in the brightly-lit store is a welcome relief from the burning sun outside, but that just means it’s consuming loads of energy. The things in the shop are cheap, but that just means that the materials are likely to be unsustainably sourced. The trips leave me drained and feeling sad. In addition to the dreary trips to Fesmes, there’s another problem. Money.
The Brexit Effect has left us shorter of cash than we imagined, so we’ve determined on a plan. We will do as much of our renovations as possible from recycled materials. We will make friends with the segundo mano store and in addition, make as much as we can out of pallets. I’m thinking beds, shelving and tables. I’m finding I enjoy sanding pallets in the way that I enjoy ironing – it has a meditative quality, where the mind is completely focussed on one thing and the endless list of things to do stops circling for a while.
Husband is patching the holes in the bathroom wall with a mixture of lime, sand and water. We have yet to see if it will stick. Meanwhile, I’m attempting a bit of the old, varnished wooden floor with my hand sander. It takes ages so I come to the conclusion that we need to hire an industrial sander. Of course, everything seems to take a lot longer because we first have to look up what “industrial sander hire” is in Spanish. (It’s a ligadora para alquiler, in case you’re wondering.) Then we have to phone or go there and try to explain exactly what we want. Then we have to understand the response, the instructions, the price structure, the dangers…It’s exhausting!
Thankfully, Husband’s brother arrives for a visit. Our first volunteer. Someone else with whom to discuss the issues, problems and solutions. The discussions about spaces, materials, electrical and heating solutions go on late into the night and are accompanied by un monton de red wine and olives. I didn’t know he was such a dab hand with a hammer and when the lime plaster cracks and falls off in clumps, he helps to make a beautiful panelled wall from some of the pallets I’ve sanded. There is a bit of disagreement about what to treat the pallets with but a quick search online confirms my hunch. They are now looking healthy and glowing under a luscious coat of olive oil. Well, we do live in Spain…
Have you ever said “yes” to something and then, when you realise the amount of work that’s involved, wondered if you’ve done the right thing after all? In the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, I’m sure many ‘Leavers’ are watching the value of their savings/ pensions/ homes/ wage packets plummet and thinking that perhaps they jumped when they should have stayed put. Myself, I’m having the same kind of thoughts about the cottage we just bought in Spain. Before you condemn me as a someone who has abandoned the UK like the other rats from a sinking ship, or grabbed myself a luxury second home, let me explain…
The casita sits on the side of a shady hillside, surrounded by tall pine trees. One of only eight houses in the tiny urbanizacion, it has been empty for more then ten years. The rooms smell of neglect. The water supply has been cut. The garden is unkempt. When we first spot it on the Fotocasa web page in January, we are living amongst the noise and haste of Barcelona city. This small patch of countryside seems a far cry from that and indeed, it takes us an hour’s bus ride and a half-hour walk to get there. Following sketchy directions, we take an unsealed track off the main road and find it sitting there. Is it waiting for us? We clamber over the wall and perch on the abandoned swing, looking at the crumbling facade. The stairs and banisters that lead to the upstairs living space are falling away but when we peer in through the shuttered windows, the space inside seems free from structural damage or damp. It just needs to be loved.
The decision to renovate a house, even a tiny one, can not be taken lightly. We consult a lawyer, talk endlessly around all the options but it appears that the casita already has us in her sights. In the Spanish language, the way you express that you like something is to say that the object likes you. Me gusta means, literally, it likes me. I have to conclude that this house likes us. So we find ourselves saying ‘yes’. One hour from Barcelona, fifteen minutes from the pretty beach town of Sitges and five minutes from the authentic Catalan pueblo of Sant Pere de Ribes, we decide to create not just a home, but a refuge. A refugio. In undertaking the retrofit we intend to be as eco-friendly as possible. Natural and recycled materials, renewable energy, capturing the precious rainwater and re-using the grey waters from our sink and shower. Growing as much food as we can.
As I write this, the thermometer reads thirty degrees, the barometer firmly wedged towards ‘sun’. There’s a cool breeze wafting through the forest and I’ve laid down the hammer and chisel I’ve using to prise the tired tiles from the bathroom walls. Broken shards of sharp ceramic lie in piles on the floor and it strikes me that in order to create the change that’s needed, we sometimes first need to make an unholy mess. Before we can make something new, we need to get rid of the old. As I drift off into my afternoon siesta, it occurs to me that maybe Brexit was a way of doing this, of bringing the old ways crashing down like broken tiles and leaving the space open for a fresh new look. It may look like there’s a lot of work to be done but it seems clear that we can’t go back. It’s time to start imagining what a new Britain might look like and I’m pretty sure what’s needed is more than a fresh coat of paint. I think what’s needed is a complete retrofit.
It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of. When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre. I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.
A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.
In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.
Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.