Messages home from the Camino Portugues

or …… Travels with a very small bear

This is the alternative blog – based on messages home to my partner, Hazel. Carlos, by the way, is a small Steiff bear she gave me before I set off on the Camino Frances last year. He sits, usually with his head out, in a small side pocket of my rucksack.

Wednesday 31st August:

Eating a very good octopus and bean stew after a stroll round the very lively streets of Porto. One girl belting out an Eric Clapton blues. Marvellous evening views of the river from the cathedral, the port houses of the likes of Cockburn and Sandeman still lining the shore. Hotel OK. I’ve bunk beds in the room as well as double bed – should I need them!!!

Thursday 1st September:

I’m sending a photo of Carlos (now on his second Camino!) taking in the view (the Atlantic, lost in the heat haze) just before we finished our walk. We (he and I!) are staying at the monastery in Vairao – beautiful location. Countryside surprisingly green, given the hot weather. Walked 17 miles in the hot sun.

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Started 10.30, after exploring Porto by daylight, especially the cathedral – I loved the cloisters. Slept well and walked well. Only problem might be a plantar fasciitis recurrence – felt sore even before of started walking. Not bad, doesn’t really hurt… Staying in the high 80s here. I think I like it! Carlos thinks Portugal is …cool!

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Friday 2nd September:

18 miles in 88 degree heat. Yes I did wear my sun hat! Shade always came to my rescue. Eucalyptus woods have a sweet smell! Two great cafes en route – they love peregrinos and make you feel like a celebrity. Barcelos is delightful – somewhere for you and I to visit when we do our northern Portugal trip!! (Did you know about that?) Tomorrow – 20 miles and no cooler – I’ll probably do 12 miles [I didn’t – I did 21] and stop off at an earlier albergue. Ponte de Lima does sound special.

There’s a spiritual quality in all this, somewhere, must remember that, and too much mega hot sun doesn’t help! Don’t worry – I will be sensible.

Saturday 3rd September:

Today probably the toughest of any Camino day – close on 21 miles in 90 degree heat. Took a longish lunch break, mega amounts of water – camels have a good plan, and did the last three hours down to Ponte de Lima in stages – 15 mins then water, then shade. Think feet OK, but they’re sore, and a blister needs watching! Wonderful rolling wooded country, maize and vines in abundance, but too little shade. Carlos complains he’s getting a tan! …Tuesday forecasting 40 degrees here – over 100F. Won’t walk after 10 – will begin at 6 maybe and make it a short day! [That at least was the plan!]

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Ponte de Lima beautiful and bridge medieval, long and narrow, for pilgrims and horses, but the whole place is touristy. Currently sitting outside after a shower (communal!) and drinking a local craft beer….

Sunday 4th September:

Got to Rubiaes about midday after five hours walking – and that is enough! Sheltering in the albergue, as is everyone, no-one daft enough to be out there walking! Wonderful walk from the Lima valley – a high pass only 1400ft but rugged and the sun already hot. They’re collecting pine resin from the trees – plastic bags attached to capture – so a sweet smell. And big views. Hot tomorrow again – aiming for the Spanish border…[News that Strictly Come Dancing has started already]… God help us all! They’d all die dancing in this heat… Planning a 6.30 start – not too early – Roman bridges don’t look special in the dark!… Flip-flops a big success. Sore left foot no longer sore! But sore spot on right foot. Such is life!

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Monday 5th September:

Having a coffee in Valenca, fortress above the Minho – view upriver takes some beating! Left at 6.10, arrived 11.30. Off to Spain in a few minutes – just 2km to Tui….

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Now well-settled in Tui. Mixed dorms but we’re spared mixed showers! Breakfast with eccentric ex-postman from Wigan and chatted to Polish guy who has his own travel magazine, takes own photos and hates smartphone cameras! Otherwise I’ve been swinging along through beautiful country, Roman bridges – it was once a Roman road, wooded paths, a few red-barked cork oaks, and singing, and happily lost in thought – walking as the good Lord meant it to be. Heat building, but OK. Tomorrow is the mega heat day – should I leave at maybe 4.30? Could be 2 hrs walking in the dark… Time now an hour ahead – funny gaining an hour going north. Mega hot out there – can it really be that tomorrow will be 6 or 7 degrees hotter still?

Tuesday 6th September:

Our international party, Polish photographer, Antonio, Czech student, Michaela, and me, walked 22 miles from Tui to Redondela, leaving at 5.40 and arriving 2.10, in 97 degree heat. Feet done in but otherwise beginning to recover, aided by beer, water, bread and cheese. We kept talking and and helped push each other along. On my own – would I have made it? Other people on the Camino today included – more Poles, a group of Spanish scouts, and a Mexican couple. No Brits save me!… [Tomorrow] heading for Pontevedra. Easy walk, I think. Assuming I can walk! Feet in rebellion!…

[Message from home: ‘No Brit would be mad enough to walk in that heat.’] Are you suggesting I’m not British?! I’m not one of your lily-livered Brexiters! Antonio called out a moment ago – ‘How is Brexit?’ (meaning me) ‘Do not call me Brexit!’ I shouted back. Such are the burdens we old-school Eurobrits have to bear!

Talking of bears, Carlos got some serious attention today – he’s feeling better about things. Brave bear – coping with the heat. And I’m doing the walking for him, of course.

Wednesday 7th September:

Arrived Pontevedra 12.45, having left at 7.40 – last person out of the albergue. Most are gone by 6, but sunrise 8.10 here, and I want to see where I’m walking! Easy day, two healthy climbs, but sun came out late and I had my favourite breakfast – fresh orange juice, croissant and café con leche. Bounced along after that. Lesson for and from today – think of nothing, just take it all in! Staying in a cheap hotel – Hotel Virgin del Camino – better than vergin’ – it’s actually on the Camino! Now off to eat and sight-see.

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Carlos’s fur trapped in zip but I think he’s OK…[‘Might Carlos like his head out of the rucksack, so he can enjoy the views…’] Carlos does have his head out of the rucksack, all the time. Only the rain would keep him in. Sometimes he stretches out a paw and waves as well!… I loved Pontevedra but wandered around too long, and my feet are very sore…

Thursday 8th September:

Arrived Caldas de Reis at 12.15 – walked non-stop from Pontevedra, not far short of 4 miles/hr pace. Too many slow Spanish walking groups and I needed to get well away from them! They talk! Beautiful gentle country, bright sun, and temperature high 60s. That makes two happy bears – Carlos tambien! Wondering whether to call him Carlito – little Carlos. Ibuprofen and blister plasters helping – feet doing better than I expected. Now enjoying bread and tapas lunch!… Amazingly I’m now halfway through this jaunt!

Friday 9th September:

Arrived Padron 12.30. Enjoying a very good menu de dia in a local restaurant! …very modern albergue – bunk beds with curtains! Big plus – they’ve done all my laundry! Shortish but beautiful walk – oak, pine, chestnut, under a deep blue sky. Chilly first thing. Bumped into Martin, who I’d met in Tui, and we did a short tour – walking up the hillside to where St James [doesn’t sound right if you’re a peregrino – has to be Santiago!] is reputed to have first preached the Christian message in what must have been about 40AD. Martin an Irish Catholic so a good companion for this! House/museum of a legendary Galician poet – Rosalia de Castro – up the road so I trekked off for a visit. Early start tomorrow – will be tight to get there in time for midday mass.

Saturday 10th September:

Photo [sent home, to Hazel, and to my son and daughter] taken a moment ago, 10.30, local time, 8 miles out from Santiago [I’m looking remarkably sprightly, all considered!] …

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Arrived to music and carnival an hour ago. A mere 16 miles this morning and I chose to explore the longer way in – being a glutton for punishment (and I knew I’d missed the mass). Once I start moving I do walk fast – all that running and marathons and the like. Wonderful place to be – on the steps above the Praza do Obradoiro. Met my Czech friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. Big shout of – Chris! Antonio around somewhere. And others I recognise – we’ve all walked a long way!

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Sunday 11th September:

Mist down low over Finisterre [I took a bus, and did feel a bit of a cheat], there’s a little overhead sun but wherever I walk I won’t see much. Maybe it will add to be mystery, and there’s a lot out there….

The mystery is now the view, on a perfect evening! The mist cleared over the last hour. This is where you would, in classical times, pass over the horizon, to the other side, to the spirit world. No-one is closer than I am at this moment. Back in the now – you’d love it here – sun, sea and waves breaking gently. And warmth….  a wonderful day, in the end. I’d set out for the cape  about 4pm and walked and scrambled and stopped and pondered and took photos till about 8.30. Magic, all a big surprise. No idea what I’ll do tomorrow. Just got back to the port (the cape is 2½km away) and I’ve a plate of salad, and a jug of wine, in front of me….

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View from Cape Finisterre

Monday 12th September:

Damp, cloud down, forecast dreadful, no point walking 17 miles to Muxia [there will be, has to be, another time!], left Finisterre on an early bus, back to Santiago, thought I’d go to midday mass, but refused admission – my rucksack too big! Must have been by a centimetre! Maybe I look dissolute. [Tonight in a cheap hotel] tomorrow back at my favourite, the Balalada. So far a bit of a damp squib of a day!… Bought a shirt, so feel less scruffy, had a snooze, and a coffee with Martin … wonderful evening mass, felt inspired. A bit of a downer of a day early on but you can’t have the ups without the downs! Tomorrow it will rain, but I will smile!

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View from my bedroom window over Santiago

Tuesday 13th September:

Sitting on the steps of the Praza do Quintana, near the Holy Door specially opened this year for Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. But it seems to be just another entrance for the usual tourists – the message lost. Pilgrim mass in English this morning, lots of Irish, and an Irish priest officiating. We all introduced ourselves, said where we’d walked from – which was nice. Then I toured the monastery of St Martin, hard by the cathedral – full of altars and choir stalls which put San Millan to shame – but nothing quite to compare with the sculptures of Santo Domingo de los Silos. Galician (!) hamburger for lunch, with Stones tracks in the background. Sun now, after rain, but a chilly wind. Latest invasion of pilgrims has arrived – they’re everywhere! Each day they invade – proud to have been one of them. Funny to think – back home tomorrow night.

Wednesday 14th September:

Wrote a Santiago blog late on yesterday – still work in progress. But now fired up to get out and see things again! Funny being on your own – you can go anywhere, anytime you choose, yet you want to share it, and share coffees, and chat, as we did back in May [Pamplona, Roncesvalles, Castrojeriz…].

[Two big events, not mentioned in messages home – searching out the statue in the Alameda park of Rosalia de Castro, who is already my hero, and then the Museum of Sacred Art, with paintings and statues and much more on the Camino and on pilgrimages worldwide – few people there, and yet it’s one of the best museums I’ve seen anywhere.]

For cool damp weather, come to Santiago… Now queuing to board my flight…Bus to the airport took me via the last stages of the Camino Frances route into Santiago. Everyone wearing ponchos, and the rain then got harder. Lots of sun for them on the way – shame that Santiago lets them down now. But if they don’t know already – they’ll soon discover it’s one of the most remarkable places on earth!

[Carlos, sensibly, has stayed all the while inside his pocket!]

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Carlos takes a break at Pedra Furada

 

Room – the movie 

Thoughts on the movie, Room, which my daughter Rozi and I saw last Monday. Though in itself an extraordinary story there are connections with ordinary childhoods, and that’s what I want to explore here.

Room focuses on a mother, Joy, abducted and kept prisoner for seven years, and the boy, Jack, she gave birth to two years into her captivity – the father being her captor. They’re incarcerated in a garden shed, with a skylight, and a TV, and this is the only world the boy knows, until aged 5, his mother explains (quite a challenge) to him that the world he sees on TV is actually (cartoons accepted) the real world. And she plans an escape. I’ll say no more about the plot.

There’s an intensity about the movie, which needs to be considered apart from the book on which it’s based: the movie can’t cover all the book’s elements or subtleties. It focuses on mother and child, and it’s the strength of their relationship which left an indelible impression on me. Joy gives him her total attention, total loyalty, and while in the everyday world parent-child relationships can so easily be inadequate or fractured, in this case Jack grows up, over his first five years, remarkably secure, and with a strong sense of his own identity. It has to be reinterpreted once he learns that there is a real world out there, and of course when he finds himself actually in that world.

But there is an identity on which he can build – and that is the subject of the second half of the movie.

I remember reading a few years ago about the work of paediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, and his  concept of the ‘holding environment’.  And it all seems very relevant.

Winnicott argued that the ‘mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother’, as well as fostering the ability to experience the body as the place wherein the  child – and the adult – securely lives. The capacity for being – the ability to feel genuinely alive inside, which Winnicott saw as essential to the maintenance of a true self – is fostered by the practice of childhood play. (Quotes courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Joy provides so much of what Jack needs, there is a real sense of ‘holding’, and gives him security, and she encourages play – there’s a lot of play in the early scenes of the movie: children can conjure remarkable world of play out of very little. They don’t need Toys R Us or Hamleys.

As for the father – the movie hardly touches on that. Joy rejects ‘Old Nick’ as the ’emotional’ father of the child. But how Jack connects to men and male role models –  that’s another story, and hardly touched on in the movie.

A movie, far more than most, to make you think.

Mindfulness – the Ladybird way

Predictably – and happily – I was given Mindfulness in the new Ladybird series for adults for Christmas. Only 54 pages – and sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes if gets it spot on.

Clive practises loving-kindness meditation – and it ‘finds it easier than bothering to meet his friends and lending them money’.

‘In ancient times Guru Bhellend entered a state of mindfulness that lasted 35 years. During this time he thought about everything.’ When he’d finished he writes ‘the answer on a grain of rice’. ‘He never married,’ it concludes.

(In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the computer Deep Thought comes up with 42, as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, after a 7 1/2 million year search.)

The easy way and extreme way, and both miss the path. The good old middle way.

Though even that may not work out. Last week walking on Offa’s Dyke we took the middle way, and ended up in a field looking east when we should have been by a stream looking south….

What money can’t buy

‘Everything has a price.’ How far do we take that maxim? The American experience is a warning to us innocent Europeans.

Consider Harvard professor and Reith lecturer Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy, where he explores how everything (almost) is monetised in today’s world, and especially so in the USA. How far should markets invade ‘family life, friendship, sex, procreation, health, education, nature, art, citizenship, sports, and the way we contend with the prospect of death’?

Take, for example (American examples, but a warning to the rest of us) buying insurance on other people’s lives, so that you profit when they die, or advertising in schools, directly to children, burgers and sweets, and more, heedless of health risks. Money rules, so that if you’re poor you miss out – no level-playing field.

We devalue what we monetise, we devalue education, devalue sport, when ‘sky boxes’ (high-priced seats at stadiums) separate the affluent from the ordinary supporter (once rich and poor pitched into together in baseball crowds), devalue public service when police cars carry ads, and the fire service put ads on fire hydrants …

‘In 1983, US companies spent $100 million advertising to children. In 2005′ they spent $16.8 billion.’ Education in Sandel’s mind, and mine, is to encourage critical reflection, advertising is to recruit consumers. Two radically different functions, which we keep rigorously apart in the UK. Though advertising creeps in in many other places, many other ways

The USA is a warning regarding where ‘market triumphalism’, as Sandel calls it, can take us, at a time ‘when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance’. That’s a subject in itself.

And value spreads right up the chain. In the UK as in the USA. We monetise elections – he who pays the most dominates the news and bludgeons opinion. Many would limit government action and expenditure because it functions to interfere with a pure economic process – there is no sentimentality here. The only compassion lies in economic value: as the most efficient system it’s the most compassionate.

Ultimately I wonder if we’ve might we put a value on God. We put a high value on self, and all the possessions that define our identity, and the next step would be a God who we identify with our self and aspirations. The American Bible Belt already goes a long way in that direction.

Remember indulgences, paying to offset the wages of sin, and building chantry chapels and paying for others to pray for your soul.

Everything, but everything, can be priced.

New Year – Vienna comes to the Cotswolds

New Year’s Day, and I’m celebrating gently at this moment listening to Strauss waltzes, polkas and marches from the Musikverein in Vienna, always a wonderful way to start the year. Full of optimism, music with a spring in its step, an abundance of gold, not least the coffered and corniced and painted ceiling, everyone super-smart dressed, the secretary-general of the UN in the audience, ballet out at Schoenbrunn, and even the occasional touch of calculated lunacy in the orchestra.

Back when I was 10 years old my soon-to-be stepmother brought me back from Vienna an EP, which I still have, of the Vienna Boys’ Choir – children’s songs, including Trara die Post ist da, which I used to sing to my children. And there they are this morning, high above the orchestra, singing in that same crisp and mannered style, and looking terribly smart.

The whole occasion is a throwback to the high days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when emperor and court would attend such events. There’s a strange sadness interwoven with the exuberance, a sense of the old Vienna, in its heyday, one of the world’s great cities, full of self-belief, with no sense of a future which took out Hungary, the Alto Adige and more from the old empire and left only Austria, and a Vienna which had to suffer the Anschluss before reinventing itself post WW2. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes tells the tell through one family quite brilliantly.

Should we lament this world, its elites and arrogance and gilded Baroque grandeur? Of course not. But … if you get carried along by the waltzes and the dance and the ambience you can imagine it as some kind of a lost paradise. Imagine it. A little bit of Ruritania, a world of childhood and make-believe fashioned for adults.

We can’t escape ambivalence. All that pleasure, and a touch of guilt. Somehow adds to the enjoyment.

And what of this New Year? It starts as always with a bounce and optimism, probably all too quickly undone. There will be celebration, it’s an Olympic year, and triumph, the human spirit proving itself in adversity – and new crises, and the old crises – refugees at this moment waiting to cross from Turkey to Greece, and IS still working its evil.

Will the world solve old problems more than create new ones? Shift the balance of the scale a little?

I will live in hope.

Last night, half-past midnight, I looked out across the valley, from our New Year’s party, hardly a light amidst the fields and woods, but above a half-moon, last-quarter, climbing the eastern sky, and to the south Orion, and the air cold and turning frosty – the first frost of the over-mild December just expired, and the first of the new January.

Come the morning, three hours ago, pulling the curtain back, all was grey, the east now delivering a chill wind as I ran along the lanes and across the common, ahead of the promised rain….

But, damn it, there is an extra spring in my step, then, and now, a few hours later, after a village walk and Christmas cake and mince pies.

I had literally waltzed in my heavy walking boots down the hill, humming the Blue Danube, and adapting the Radetsky March. Hazel, my partner, didn’t know what to make of it, or me. I didn’t get beyond two disastrous dancing lessons in my teens, but I almost floated this time, in a clumping sort of way.

I will probably clump my way through 2016, but I will aim to do so exuberantly.

The Alligator’s Mouth

We missed the Lion and the Uniforn bookshop in Richmond (Surrey, that is) when it closed two years ago. Now a new bookshop, The Alligator’s Mouth, is about to open. In the window of the soon-to-open shop is the following:

“Our mission is to reach all readers; the confident, the beginner, and the reading-resistant….

We are here for any child who wants to enter Wonderland, or who still believes in fairies and that animals can talk, or who wants to be a pirate or a magician or fly with the dragons…”

The alligator’s mouth is a risky place, but it opens wide, and there’s a kind of smile there. Or maybe that was Mr Crocodile. And you don’t smile….never ever.

I’ve lived several childhoods, and I still want to enter Wonderland, and fly with dragons. And put my head in that wide-open alligator mouth.

Some days I’ll sit quietly, and instead of meditating I’ll fly with dragons. Maybe they’ll get me to the same place!

Be mindful, whatever you do. And if what you’re doing is being a dragon….

 

Winnie the Pooh – a black and white or glorious Technicolor bear?

The Penguin chief executive officer, questioned (July 2013) during an anti-trust civil trial resulting from a lawsuit brought in 2012 by the US Justice Department, conceded the Winnie-the-Pooh book looks ‘extremely beautiful’ in colour on Apple products and not as good in black-and-white on other devices. [Can we assume a book is ‘another device’?] ….

Just what would AA Milne or indeed EH Shepard’s Pooh bear have thought? Pooh beautiful in colour? The Shepard illustrations were coloured up in a Winnie the Pooh edition back in the 70s or 80s, and lost something. But the Disney Pooh exploded on to the screen as a different creature altogether, taken out of the Ashdown Forest and plonked down in Disneyland.

Bears like honey, not apples.