Sunday, June 17, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 34: Arco O Pino to Santiago de Compostela

We made it, Marian and I, a young woman and her father "just walkin' across Spain," as she has said so often during the past 35 days. We arrived beside the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at 3:30 Saturday afternoon. We had planned to spend Saturday night at an albergue 4 clicks from town, but once we got there, there was no keeping us away. I still feel like I'm dreaming.

With Marian's usual golden touch as our translator and negotiator, we got the last double room in a former major seminary facing the southern side of the cathedral. It's now an enormous pilgrim hostel with private rooms and baths. Our double on the top floor is humble, probably once used by a first-year priest-in-training. But Marian immediately noticed a faded print of Mary and Jesus on the wall over her bed, and the room's just right for our purposes, including ample hot water. Though it's more expensive than albergue living (and you know how I feel about albergue living), we have a room for five nights for a grand total of less than $200. That's two nights for Marian, who walks to Finisterre on Monday, and five nights for me, who picks her up by car on Thursday. Plus seven breakfasts. You don't get that at a Red Roof Inn in Poughkeepsie.

The only negative of not staying at the albergue outside the city, we thought, was that we had agreed to meet our Portuguese friend Ana there. But from the beginning of our Camino, Marian and I had agreed that, above all, we wanted to walk into Santiago together, as father and daughter, so I felt less guilt than I otherwise might have about not touching base with the young scientist from Porto.

Leaving our bags at the Hospederia San Martin Pinario, we walked downhill and beneath a tunnel that leads out into the square in front of the cathedral. Who would you guess was the first person we recognized—coming at us through the tunnel? It was Ana. Her face lit up like wildfire and the three of us hugged one another. She was apologizing to us for not waiting at the albergue faster than we were to her. The Camino does things like this. Try it and see for yourself.

We did as our friend Ricardo (Gandalf) had instructed us and lay down on our backs in the square, looking up at the Cathedral of Santiago. We were not alone. Strewn around on the paving stones were several dozen other pilgrims, lying, lounging, leaning on their packs, just staring at the 1,000-year-old façade. A police cruiser drove around us, and a giant tour bus did the same. We lay there looking up at the statuary, the two great square spires, the yellow oxidation dripping down in front of them like golden watercolors. The massive steps in front were crawling with pilgrims. The sun was out. It was amazing.

One more note about Ricardo. As I wrote the first week, he gave me a heart to carry to Santiago for a friend of his who could not make the trip. (Ricardo himself only walked as far as León this time.) Marian and I had a picture taken of the two of us holding the heart in front of the Cathedral, and she will be sending the picture to Ricardo once she downloads it from her camera.

I'll confess it now. I never really believed that the remains of St. James were buried at the cathedral in Santiago. I fully the accepted the skeptic's view: that a shepherd found some bones, a bishop declared them the Apostle's, and a pretext was created for a military buffer zone across northern Spain to keep 9th-century Muslim armies at bay in the first stage of the reconquista. I just never thought you had to believe the legend to make the pilgrimage.

Then this afternoon on our first visit to the cathedral, while hundreds lined up to "hug the Apostle behind the altar," Marian and I instead went down into the crypt containing the alleged relics of St. James. There were only a handful of people passing through. If you've seen the film "The Way," you may remember a scene where Martin Sheen kneels with his son's ashes in front of a silver casket behind a grill. That's the crypt, and there is a kneeler in front of it, wide enough for four or five.

Marian and I knelt where Sheen knelt, the only ones to do so, and I have not been touched half so much by anything else I have seen or heard since arriving in Santiago. First, the casket is beautifully ornamented in silver polished to perfection. Light practically pours out of it. But what struck me most was this. Just suppose that in that casket there really do lie the remains of a human being who, 2000 years ago, walked and talked with and touched the hands and heard the voice of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Suspend your disbelief for one moment and accept that the legend is not legend but truth.

Whether James's remains are there or not, the possibility that they are suddenly made the reality of God's presence in the world—the Incarnation—visible, tangible, utterly convincing for me. To my knowledge, the remains of no other Apostle have been found. We know where Peter is buried, beneath the Vatican, but his bones have not been identified. Is there so much as a relic remaining from any of the other eleven? This casket "containing" St. James is a unique link with our Lord.

The rest of the day and evening were marked by brief encounters:
With Jean-Pierre from Lausanne, who had walked all the way from Lausanne, starting at his front door in Switzerland on March 18, three months ago. He got in on the heart pics in front of the Cathedral, actually. We'll have to explain to Ricardo who he is. Actually, I think he's Bilbo.
With a group of ten traditional Spanish musicians: We sat in a café for a coffee, bread, and cheese about 5:30 pm. Within a few moments, bearded guys wearing capes sewn with what looked like Boy Scout merit badges and bearing traditional instruments, including what looked like 12-string lutes, began taking seats two tables away from us. When they had assembled and ordered their first round of beers, they began playing rousing Iberian melodies. (I don't know from folk music styles. You'll just have to go with "rousing Iberian melodies.") Five minutes later, the little plaza holding the café was filling with Spanish singers clapping along. Two hours later, when we walked by again, they were still going strong.
With Antonio from south of León, who calls Marian la guapa and me the garda guapa.
With Vivianne from Quebec City and her future mother-in-law, who walked the Camino together from León, where Vivianne's future husband is studying. Can you really imagine walking 200 miles with your future mother-in-law?!
With several friends of Marian, with whom she went out after 9pm, while the garda guapa was settling in for a long summer's nap. But not before...

I walked into the square in front of the Cathedral after seeing Marian into the company of Fabian from Germany, who was taking her to where the other young people were. I stood alone in front of the façade again as the westering sun poured onto it over the distant hills and through a gap in the facing buildings. I sat on a stone bench in the sunlight.

A Spanish man we had met several days ago, one who speaks no more English than I speak Spanish, came over to embrace and congratulate me. He smelled of cigarettes and beer and needed a shave and a change of clothes. But I was thrilled to see him.

"One thousand years!" I said, pointing to the Cathedral, which has been greeting pilgrims that long.

"Mil años!" he answered, if I have the Spanish right. We embraced again and bid each other adios.

I hadn't been seated more than another minute when a little old man in a dapper herringbone fedora, matching jacket, and non-matching wide-wale green corduroys approached me and began talking in Spanish. He spoke three or four lines when I realized that he was speaking in rhyming couplets. I saw a book under his arm, his book, written by him. He was a poet, and he was reciting his verses for me, with an enormous smile on his face. He asked me if I spoke Spanish, and I said no, but that his ritmos were muy buonitos (the best I could do with beautiful rhythms). He appreciated my literary criticism and extended one more warm handshake before moving on to four other people seated at the next stone bench.

These four Italians seemed puzzled by the poet. Meanwhile, I sketched him. I was amazed at the speed with which I drew: not perfect by any means, but in proportion, catching the fedora, the nose and smile, the way he clutched his book of poems against his body with his left hand and a folded purple umbrella in his right. The four people noticed I was sketching, and they brought this to the poet's attention. He deemed my sketch as good as I had deemed his verses, and he graciously told me his name and age: José Manuel, 86.

Perhaps I had a vision of the old man I will be. To celebrate, I bought two scoops of ice cream—chocolate and "After Eight"—and downed them before heading back to the seminary for the night.

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

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