Thursday, 12 March 2009

To cut a long camino short - a mortality tale

Marching in the same direction

Strange as it may seem I find many similarities between life in rural Spain and life in rural Scotland. Or perhaps rural anywhere. Of course the weather in Spain is better and for me the rhythm of the day more relaxed. But in these small country communities the same issues are faced and often the same solutions emerge. Like the postman on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland…well the postman is also the bus driver because the post van has seats in the back and he actually has a proper ticket dispenser! But that is only his morning job in the afternoon he cuts peat to be stacked and dried as winter fuel and in the evening he has his own beasts to attend to, 10 cows and 50 sheep. I was once in his house and we were having a dram in the kitchen. I asked him if he also kept pigs. “Only for part of the year” he replied. “And then you sell them?” I enquired. “No” he said, “then we keep them in there” as he pointed at the freezer.
Romantic it may seem to outsiders but the work is hard and often monotonous. Community life has the great benefits of solidarity and mutual aid but of course the down side of everyone knowing everyone else is that inevitably everyone knows everything about everyone else. This can be claustrophobic especially for young people who may travel to the city or a larger town for school or college and taste another way of life. In Spain I sense that the restlessness of young people to up sticks and leave villages is just as intense as in Scotland.

But there is a strong community spirit and sense of identity in these villages where arrangements for the fiesta to celebrate the feast of the local saint are joyously made. When there is a birth the whole village celebrates new life and when there is a death everyone shares the grief.

When I got to Castilblanco de los Arroyos at dusk I followed the guidebook and made my way to the garage on the main road. The attendant stamped my Credencial with great ceremony, told me there were no other pilgrims and gave me the key for the albergue which was behind the garage.

The albergue was well appointed but it was freezing. I could see my own breath in the dormitory and the water was cold. I went back to the garage and the attendant said that for 12 Euros I could get a room at house number 43. Off I went to explore.

As I turned the corner into the street he had sent me to a church bell started to toll somewhere deeper into the village. As if in response to some tribal call doors opened and people starting walking in what I assumed was the direction of the church. At first it was one or two women, then a couple, then a family. I followed and quickly it seemed as if every house had emptied. I knocked on the door of 43 but got no response. At the junction people from another street joined and then another until a great procession emerged out onto the village square in front of the church. The church filled rapidly and the throng simply stood outside. The buzz of conversation silenced and the crowd parted to allow the entry of a hearse. As the coffin was borne into the church I could almost feel the silence broken only by the muffled sobs of the grieving relatives. And so Lorenzo’s funeral mass began.

I have been to lots of funerals. Funerals are funerals so to speak. But what struck me about this funeral was not the grief of the family or the indifference of the undertakers or the clinical efficiency of the priest. What has remained a lasting picture was then entire community filling the church and lining the square. Faces all different but with a common look. Stoic. Jaws set against the loss. Like stone but with the kindliest eyes. As this community stood in solidarity with one who has died and those left behind there was a huge sense of our individual and collective mortality.
I went back to the albergue to find there was now hot water and next day my own journey continued as does life. But I was left to wonder how much of this community spirit has been lost in the modernity of the great cosmopolitan cities like London and New York. Here in sophisticated London people don’t even know their neighbours yet in rural Spain they certainly do.

When pilgrims meet on a route there is an immediate connection and for some travelling communities are formed where you can walk alone if you wish or walk with new friends with everyone coming together in the albergue or at table in the evening. Pilgrims help each other. They take what they need and give what they can. Why does this happen? Perhaps pilgrimage is the realisation that with Lorenzo we are all marching in the same direction.


  1. Hello, you´ve got that right. I´been a teacher in the Finnish countryside for 12 years, our twin daughters were small. Social security was something to rely on. On the other hand, as You aid it, Everybody knew everybody else´s busines. I wasn´t called Timo, everybody called "ope" shortened Finnish word for teacher. The speed of life was very pleasant. Now the girls have moved away and we live in "big" city of Lahti, the town with the skijumping centre. We try to maintain our speed of life, not the city´s. It´s easy when you get old and you don´t have hurry anymore...

  2. Hi Timo. Nice to see you here. Ok ...we've stopped hurrying, but come on Timo, we're not old! :)

  3. OK,
    older... (=experienced)