Sunday, 26 July 2009

They write your name in Latin

There is a moment in the Pilgrims’ Office around 8.45 am when the peaceful atmosphere begins to stir. The team arrives in ones and twos. There is little chat. Computers are booted up, forms laid out, inkpads inked and piles of Compostelas refilled. This is all done with quiet efficiency. We know what awaits because to get into the office we had to pass the queue stretching from many yards down the street and right up the stairs to the glass door at which pilgrims must wait to be called.

Close to 9 am Eduardo our supervisor this morning asks, “Are you ready?” Heads nod and he opens the Green door below. He barely gets back in ahead of the queue of pilgrims. They spill enthusiastically into the office with rucksacks and sticks bustling. “Por favor” Rosa says loudly enough for them to fall silent, “Please wait at the glass door until you are called forward, have your Credenciales ready.” The pilgrims shrink back and some order is restored.

One by one we call them forward. I quickly realise that every member of staff has their own approach. Some deal with pilgrims quietly and efficiently. Others chat in their own language. It becomes apparent that most of the team have some knowledge of a language other than Spanish or Gallego. “What route did you follow?”, “Where did you start”, “Please fill in this form” are phrases which fill the air.
Many pilgrims want to chat. They are proud of their achievement. Occasionally couples bend the rules and come forward hand in hand. Inseparable after many days or months of walking together. Then there are the groups. 85 young people from Valencia who walked from Madrid. 24 people from a parish in Lisbon who walked via Fatima. 4 girls from Ireland who walked the Camino Ingles. There is a low hum in the office which is sometimes pierced by the hilarity of one group or another. But that soon stops when they are called forward and their Credencial inspected. This is the final step in their journey. Every one takes it seriously.

Some times there are problems when the supervisor has to be called. Soon after opening a group of very well dressed women arrived. I could almost feel Pilar sitting beside me think “they can’t be pilgrims”. One of them handed over a pile of Credenciales. “These are for our husbands who made the pilgrimage on horseback”. “Where are the pilgrims?” Pilar politely enquired. “They are with the horses” was the reply in a tone which implied, ”Where else do you think the might be?” Pilar explained that to get the Compostela the husbands would have to attend in person. The ladies left. A few minutes later an Italian couple approached my desk and handed over three Credenciales each. I opened them out. Dozens of sellos. They had started the Camino Frances from France at St Jean de Pied Port and in stages had walked the route over 4 years. I could see all of this from the dates. They stood beaming in front of me as I looked through the documents. But there was something wrong. “Do you have one more Credencial?” I asked in Spanish. They looked uncomprehending. “Do you have one more?” I asked in very slow English, holding up one finger. “No” was the reply. I asked them to wait and went to fetch Eduardo. He understood the problem immediately and came out and spoke to them in fluent Italian. “Si” they answered. “Si, si, si” they repeated. Their faces dropped however when Eduardo explained that we had been unable to find any sellos from Sarria, the 100 km point from Santiago. When he had asked them they confirmed that when they got there they were tired so they just got the bus to Santiago. Eduardo explained that this is the 100 kms EVERYONE has to complete to get a Compostela. Like true pilgrims they simply shrugged and said “ See you next year” Off they went.

Eduardo explained that this is a common phenomenon. Having walked many hundreds of kilometres some pilgrims think they have walked enough and get a bus, train or taxi the last part of the way. Alas this is not the case.

I realised receiving pilgrims could become a conveyor belt and that it is important to spend a little time talking with each. I’m a little slower than the others in any event as the procedures are still new. The name of each pilgrim is written in Latin on the Compostela. While the others know the most commons names off by heart I need to look each of them up on a list or use the special dictionary on the computer. As a last resort there is an encyclopaedia of names with their Latin equivalent.

Gradually my own way of dealing with each pilgrim emerged. I ask for their Credencial, ask them to fill in the form. Then I ask how they enjoyed their pilgrimage and ask them to look as the last stamp is applied. Then the Compostela is prepared and I give it to them saying, “Here is your Compostela with your name written in Latin. Congratulations” I can say this in English and Spanish. I need to learn other languages.

It can be a poignant moment. A young, tall, striking German hobbled to my desk with a stick. He was obviously in agony. He had walked with bad blisters all the way from León. I sympathised and gave him his Compostela. When I said “Congratulations, you can now go and rest your sore feet,” this young strapping lad just burst into tears.

Late in the afternoon a group of men arrived at the glass door. They were imposing figures, dressed very well, like upper class farmers going to market. Corduroy, velvet collars, deep green jackets and tooled leather boots. Their faces were weatherbeaten and shiny from recently being washed and shaved. I guessed that these might be the horsemen who had sent their wives earlier in the day. They were in the queue but I could see that they weren’t best pleased to be there and weren’t used to being kept waiting. They muttered among themselves. There was a little tension in the air.
I called “next”, and a regal figure made his way to my desk. Imperious looking, he became increasingly nervous as I looked over his Credencial. He and the others had come on horseback all of the 1000 kms from Seville. I’ve walked that route and it is no mean undertaking. To do it on horseback requires a lot of planning and support. He got a little prickly when I had to ask him to spell his apellido, his second name, because I couldn’t read his writing and I think he thought there were extra security checks as I rifled through the lists looking for his name in Latin. Carefully I wrote it out Immanuelem Angelorum Perez Diez. A little of the arrogance returned. “My name is wrong”, he said as he looked at me writing it. “This is your Compostela with your name written in Latin. Congratulations” I said, and shook his hand.

He gazed carefully at the certificate with eyes glistening and then like a wee boy he almost whooped and jumped up and down as he shouted to the other caballeros “They write your name in Latin!”

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