Saturday, 12 December 2009

Five Christmas Crackers

In the last wee while I’ve been talking here and in the Pilgrims’ Forum about volunteering in the Pilgrims’ Office. A lot of us have felt the need to try and “put something back” and this is one way of doing that. A number of people have e mailed me asking about my experience working there. Some people are considering extending their stay in Santiago by a few days and want to try and help out, whilst one or two others are considering spending a month or so in Santiago. Whatever the time that can be given I am sure they will be grateful. For those working for only a few days it may well be that there will be a mountain of the carboard tubes which are sold to hold credenciales to be sorted out, or filing to be done or the left-rucksack store organised. One thing is for sure – with the number of pilgrims expected next year there will be lots to do.
Already the staff numbers have doubled to 23 with more people to be recruited. They will be supplemented by volunteers.
When I was there I grew increasingly fond of the young people who work in the office. They don’t get paid much. They have few breaks and in the summer months they deal with what seems like an unending stream of pilgrims from morning to evening. They try to be eternally friendly and welcoming but you can imagine how difficult that is when there is a 3 hour long queue outside the door with 200 already lined up by the time the office opens. But they enjoy a laugh and there is great camaraderie amongst them. They certainly took this slightly eccentric Scotsman to their hearts.
Because they see the sellos all day every day they know the stages of the routes thoroughly. But few of them are pilgrims themselves. Well at least not yet…there are plans afoot for them to walk the Camino Inglés. They know a good Guide they can use. But recently some of them made another pilgrimage…to London.
On Wednesday Pilar, Danny, Antonio, Cesar, Louis got up at 2am in Santiago to make the journey to Porto for the cheapest of flights to London. I had arranged to meet them on the pavement in front of Big Ben at 4.30 pm. And I had a surprise in store.
Making the arrangements to meet them was interesting in itself. I wrote e mails which went unanswered. I then had to write to the Boss asking if she would speak to them to find out when they were arriving. I got an hilarious reply asking me why I was being so impatient…didn’t I understand they are Spanish? But they got the message and communication was established and the meeting time set. I also had to convey to them the very British concept of “smart but casual” dress. I tried my best in Spanish to explain what I meant. I should have known though that the signs in bars and nightclubs all over the world are probably the same and I was rewarded by an e mail which ended: “estaremos en el Big Ben no jeans & trainners.”

Off I went with translator in tow in the person of Señora Maria the duena of La Terazza who comes from Santiago and is of course fluent in Gallego. We waited in front of Big Ben…and we waited. “How Spanish is this?” lamented Maria. Thank goodness she was the one to say it. But Big Ben has four sides and it turned out our guests were waiting somewhere else.
After we greeted each other, we walked along the pavement in front of the Palace of Westminster. “This is the House of Commons” I explained as we passed St Stephen’s entrance, “And this is the House of Lords.” They stood looking at the magnificent façade. “I wonder if we can get inside?” I asked. They looked at me and then at the policemen, security guards and doormen in top hats. I went ahead and they followed at a little distance. I had a brief word with a Top Hat and beckoned them forward as he opened the door.

His colleague called our hostess and after we went through airport style security we were warmly welcomed by the Baroness Andrews, educationist, and walker. If they were impressed to meet her in these surroundings, she was utterly taken by them and fascinated by what they do. She treated them as if they were members of the Spanish nobility. She showed them round, stopped to demonstrate the ancient voting system and arranged for them to have the best seats in the Chamber where they listened to a debate. She then showed us through the House of Commons Lobby to Westminster Hall with its huge Christmas Tree.
They were completely awazed by the place: the Chamber, the long Gallery, the Queen’s Robing Room, the route the Queen takes for the State Opening of Parliament. But one of the things that struck me most was how proud Kay Andrews was to meet them and to show them around.

All too soon the visit came to an end and it was time for food. In La Terazza of course. Being a Galician restaurant they could not have been more welcoming. The food flowed and platters of wine arrived. From underneath the table I produced a Christmas Cracker for each of them. Each contained a miniature Red Telephone box as a memento of their visit. They looked at the Christmas Crackers and then looked at me and then looked back again. “Errrr…what are these?” one of them asked. They had never seen Christmas Crackers before. And so we set to pulling them, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Out fell the party hats and telephone boxes. They could have been in Santa’s Grotto.
You should have seen their faces. I’m still smiling at the memory.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like they all had a great time. It was wonderful to hear of the welcome they received both in Parliament and in the restaurant. One day I will meet you in that restaurant Johnnie- if I can possibly be in London when you are not away on some Camino jaunt or other ;-)

    And I was interested in their departure from Porto: some of the young people I walked with chose Porto to depart from- much cheaper than getting a flight out of Santiago at short notice in the summer.