I have not been in Madrid for five years, my memories of the city are somewhat vague. This Sunday the weather was comfortably hot, the sun strong and bright. Is Madrid really that much farther south than San Francisco? As I stood in the customs line, my phone roamed to ´Telefonica Movistar,´ I cached my last dollars, and I felt the growing force of Spain:
- The guard at the douana asked me questions in Spanish as he indolently flipped through my passport (funcionarios are government employees for life and cannot be fired).
- I sat with an American family on the plane; an NYC mother with an infant – I could see the beginnings of shock as she contemplated taking care of her family in this new non-anglophone environment.
- A 17 year old girl, pretty, from Alpharetta GA, had resourcefully arranged two weeks in a Spanish summer camp to work on her spanish—smart and capable, she would do well, but her nervousness was palpable as the change of language washed over her.
Everyone should experience, preferably alone, the shock of linguistic immersion in a foreign country—when I first did this, at 18, I was terrified! In retrospect I smile at my younger self, but at the time even walking down the street was a challenge—what if someone spoke to me and I was unable to answer? I bought bread in a store, it was so cheap, although it looked a little pale and unpalatable; later as I chewed on gummy inedible dough, I realized that Pain demi-cuit means “half baked bread.” Oops!
I took the metro to Madrid’s northward facing train station—the Madrid metro is huge! More than 10 lines cross in a tangled network that must rival neuronal connections in the brain. From the train station, the all electric train glided north on precisely engineered rails. Two friendly Spanish guys were returning north from vacations in Mayorca (I learned that there is another island named Menorca—very cute.). We had the first of many uncomfortable political conversations I must always endure when traveling in Europe—it seems ironic that I (europhile and spanish speaking) am expected to answer for the spastically autistic actions of the American government. The Spanish guys asked about my itinerary and suggested alternations, and when we got off of the train in Leon they walked with me to the ticket counter and spoke to the agent with me.
An east to west train took me from Leon to Sarria—we passed off of the ‘mesata’ and into the mountains of Galicia—beautiful, I had not realized how wonderful the landscape is: green soaring mountains with occasional spires of exposed rock, waterfalls tumbling into deep blue lakes. We stopped in a sleepy abandoned station for 20 minutes “to smoke cigarretes.” The cars in the train had plush deep green seats and were stylized in a manner that must have dated the car from the era of Franco.
I was sitting next to a troop of Spanish boy scouts “Escoutes”—they laughed and word spread quickly that they had met an American boy scout from California. Many questions ensued: Are the people in California all as beautiful as the ones in the movies? Answer: Tragically no. Do American grocery stores really have bags made of brown paper—apparently in Spain they are only plastic.
Jas and I met at the Sarria train station like clockwork. We walked to the albergo where he had arranged rooms for the night. Here starts the real fun—but it is a big subject that I should treat properly.
We have been walking for two days now; about 20/30 kilometers per day. Apparently, arriving so far along the route, I have missed some of the most amazing historical sites, but there are still plenty of 12th century churches, ancient tiny villages, and beautiful countryside.
There are many other pilgrims, Jas and I (EE and Math majors) figure there are about 500 per day at this time of the year; next month is typically the highest, there might be about 30% more. These folks are very interesting—many French, German, and Scandinavian—relatively few Americans—a wide diversity of ages, from old (80 years!!) to very young children. We made friends with a family and they taught us a Spanish song about “Tengo una vida pirata, con mi botella de ron!!” The adorable children were singing the song with gusto.
Last night in Portomarin after we got off of the trail (the only negative part so far is a lot of walking!! but I suspect it will have dividends) we sat in a bar and called out to my brother’s many friends as they came off of the trail. This triggered a nice Euro perpetual party which moved from bar to bar to restaurant to finish with bottles of wine in a little park.
Boo! Good stuff! Jas and I rock at Spanish and we are charming everyone with silly jokes. A whole country for us to explore; it’s like someone gave us a great big Christmas present! It seems amazing that you can step off of a plane and immediately interact so intimately with these dark, energetic people: curious eyes note your foreignness when you step in a bar, everyone is interested to hear the story of how two Americans came to be walking the “Camino de Santiago!”