Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 15: Rabé de las Calzadas to Castrojeriz

The Famous Five has disbanded, at least for now. That was the name Simon gave our happy little traveling party on the Camino: Simon and Sam, Webster and Marian, and our thoughtful-in-all-senses Canadian friend Alann. Telling the others that Marian and I wanted to go on alone, as I did Monday morning, was not an easy thing to do.

Like a Sacrament, the Camino de Santiago does things to people. At Kaserna in St. Jean Pied de Port, Monique had told me "the Camino makes you a pilgrim," transforming your way of walking in the world.

Another thing the Camino does is to make pilgrims friends. The sincerity that can arise between two strangers out here is astonishing. Not all strangers, I'm sure. Certainly there are many walkers on the Way who plod along, heads down, carapaced in their own solitude. But from the first day, I have done my level best to open myself for the sake of some broader sort of community, to be more available to whatever graces this ancient pilgrimage might confer.

So when we kept running into Simon and Sam, against all seeming odds, and when we found that Alann had attached herself to the two of them, it seemed that the Camino was asking us to join forces, much as the four characters do in the film "The Way." After repeated meetings with Simon and Sam, I wrote about us as the four hobbits at the center of the Tolkien trilogy, and then Alann became Eowyn, the Elven princess, much as Ricardo was Gandalf and Christian, the hospice administrator from Lausanne, Aragorn.

But back in Navarette, André had said that the pilgrim must "empty" himself, as a condition of being changed by the Camino. This "Lord of the Rings" conceit was not that. By applying an LOTR grid to my experience, I was bringing a preconceived notion to the Camino, just as I was by comparing my experience with Martin Sheen's in the movie. As I traveled along with the Famous Five, I found myself not emptied but filled with more stuff, too. Filled with the good things of everyday life: comradeship, joviality, plenty of down time, leisure enjoyments like Triominoes, and especially the comfort of knowing that I was sleeping each evening surrounded by trusted friends.

As I thought back Sunday night over how the Famous Five came together, I realized that this was a key to my acquiescence: In thirteen days on the Camino, I had made an idol of a good night's sleep. It's hard for an old guy, accustomed to sleeping with the same faithful wife for 28 years, to move into a dormitory with a bunch of strangers. This is what the Camino's system of pilgrim refuges effectively asks of us. So to know that the person on one side of you is your daughter and on the other side a friend can make sleep easier. Two or three nights out of the five we spent together, the Famous Five shared a single room of bunkbeds, and those were some of my better sleeping nights. Even when there were others in a larger room, we clustered together for comfort.

But the Famous Five had become another carapace, isolating me from other pilgrims. When you are traveling in a group, you are less approachable to outsiders. Because yes, if there are insiders, there must also be outsiders. I saw this vividly on Sunday evening, an event that helped decide me to talk with Marian and to agree that we should walk on alone.

Before supper, I was sitting at a long picnic table in front of the albergue in Rabé de las Calzadas. The other four Famous ones were down the hill at the bar, but something had prompted me to pull away from the group and sit alone. Soon a Finnish man named Markku sat down with me at the picnic table, and we began talking about our respective pilgrimages. Then I saw a young man I had noticed earlier in the afternoon, who limped gamely with what looked like a courageous case of cerebral palsy. I invited him to join us too, and I learned that he was Peter from Hungary. Markku, a mechanical engineer, proved to be a religious skeptic with an interest in Buddhism; Peter was a Catholic who participated in a CL-like Christian fellowship at the university where he is an instructor in electrical engineering. The three of us struck up a discussion that I found deeply interesting.

Then Simon sat down. If you have been reading my posts, you know how much I like and admire this man. But when he sat with Markku, Peter, and me, the dynamic of the encounter changed instantly. The force of our connection, Simon's and mine, outbalanced any more fragile chemistry arising between the three of us who had talked before. Pretty soon, Simon and I were bantering back and forth in an argot of friendship we had already agreed on in a few short days. The others, not native English speakers, looked confused.

When I saw Marian come up the hill with Sam and Alann, I asked her to go for a walk before supper, and it was then we agreed to make a change. Then supper came. Peter, who had brought a sandwich all the way from Budapest on the plane Saturday, sat on a bench and ate alone. Markku sat down to the pilgrim menu inside with the Famous Five and others, but he did not participate much in the conversation.

So Monday morning, as the five of us puttered around our small bunkroom in the albergue, packing our packs, I told Simon, Sam, and Alann that we wanted to part company for now. I kept open the possibility that we could rendezvous on June 16 and walk into Santiago de Compostela together the following day—Sunday, June 17, Father's Day in both the US and the UK. I hope this works out.

For now, though, I feel like a pilgrim again. I am not exactly solitary, because walking with my daughter is one of the main reasons I am on the Camino in the first place. But yesterday I walked with Markku from Finland, while Marian walked 500 meters ahead with a group of young people: two men from Germany, two women from the States. As we climbed to the meseta, a high tableland where, for the first time, no hills are visible on the horizon, I could see how happy Marian was, no longer isolated from such encounters by the comforts of family. Meanwhile, with my new friend Markku, I had a six-hour conversation both charged and fruitful—a faithful Catholic and a skeptic opening themselves to each other's experience.

As Markku and I entered Castrojeriz, a ghost town during siesta, we found Marian, Anna, Caro, Fabien, and Johnny happily chatting over beers at a café. We two older men brought our coffee and Coca-Cola to the table, and pretty soon Markku had decided to walk on past Castrojeriz with the four other young people. Marian and I had already decided to stay in town. After finding all the albergues completos (full), we "settled" for a three-star hotel, where I had a very restful night indeed. I am finishing this post at 6:20 a.m., as Marian snores gently in the background.

I hope that Simon, Sam, and Alann had equally good nights, and I wish them a Buen Camino! Perhaps we will meet along the Way, but as I have written before, the Camino itself will decide that.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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