Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sharing a cup of kindness

On Friday evening 35 of us gathered in the dining room of the La Terazza Albergue in Clapham. Some dressed to impress with tartan shawls or sported splendid bowties. Others wore walking shoes and body warmers. Some were seasoned pilgrims and others were curious friends. During pre-prandial drinks some ladies drank delicate glasses of pale sherry and at least one had a pint of lager in her hand. Gentlemen ordered their tipple, others closely studied the wine list. There was an air of slightly nervous expectancy. “A Galician Burns Supper” to raise funds for the extension to the CSJ Albergue at Miraz was the cause of the anxiety I suspect. What would it be like? Would it be interminable speeches? Did we have to eat the haggis?
At the appointed hour the chairman of the Confraternity of St James, Dr William Griffiths, called everyone to table. William is a wonderful character. A family doctor, he is also a veteran pilgrim and bon viveur. Friday’s event was on the eve of his retirement from being chairman of the CSJ for the last 9 years. He appeared to be demob happy and I was slightly worried by the half bottle of whisky peeping out of his jacket pocket at a jaunty angle. But William never let us down and at a signal from Chef Antonio he called for silence, welcomed the assembled throng and asked every to say the Selkirk Grace together. And so we did. A translation is provided for the uninitiated:

Some hae meat and canna eat, Some have meat and cannot eat,
And some wad eat that want it; And some would eat that want it,
But we hae meat, and we can eat, But we have meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit. Amen. So the Lord be thanked. Amen.

At the Amen the bagpipes were heard in the distance getting louder as they blared out Scotland the Brave and sheepish Spanish waiters Manolito and Duarte processed in with the Tapa of Haggis. Soon all were served and they followed that by distributing shots of whisky. A chupito for everyone. The atmosphere lightened. The food was great. Antonio had mastered the Haggis! Toasts were raised along the long L shaped table. Manolito topped up the chupitos from a giant bottle of whisky. Fellow diners introduced themselves to each other. Strangers conversed. Just along from where I was sitting it emerged one of the guests was a qualified Wine Master. Although wine as supplied with the meal she stuck to shots of whisky. Now there’s a woman after my own heart.

Starter plates were cleared and steaming bowls of delicious Caldo Gallego were served. More shots of whisky. Diners were nodding in approval. I’m sure I caught sight of a vegetarian tucking into the Caldo with huge gusto. I decided discretion was the better part of valour on that one. After the soup Antonio called me to the kitchen to ask how it seemed to be going. I said, “listen”, and we heard the animated conversation of 35 people thoroughly enjoying themselves. Antonio beamed and went on to serve the main course. Huge portions of lamb, salmon and chicken were brought to the table. There was also vegetable paella and I risked a glance up the table and was relieved to see all was well on the vegetarian front this time. Manolito and Duarte brought bottles of white and red wine. Two seats along from me a large jovial chap tucked in. He was a Consultant Gastroenterologist friend of two very experienced pilgrims. “So,” he accused them, “this is why you go on these pilgrimages. I thought they were about sin. Now I discover they are about good company, half a bottle of whisky before eating, huge plates of food and a man has just put a full bottle of Rioja in front of me. Where do I get a rucksack?” And all of this before dessert.

The season of Carnaval is nearly upon us. I wrote about the Galician pre-lent indulgences this time last year.(here) Antonio excelled himself and produced delicious hot filloas or crepes topped off with ice cream.
After the last spoonful the Chairman rose. He thanked Don Antonio for a wonderful dinner. He spoke about his pilgrimages and from his pocket he produced the half bottle of whisky encased in a leather holder. It was empty. William shared that he had been so daunted by the long walk in front of him when he set off from France he had filled the bottle with Agua Ardiente, Spanish moonshine, and that had sustained him on his way. Along from me the Gastroenterologist gave a satisfied look of “I knew I was right about you lot”. William finished by announcing that the evening had raised £1000 for the Miraz Albergue and everyone was very pleased with themselves. With an introduction from William, the Big Man, veteran of the Camino Hogmanay, took command and led everyone in singing two versions of Que Sera. The first was entirely in Spanish so he taught us all the chorus. As his fine tenor voice soared with the opening lines the waiters stared and nudged each other, La Terazza regulars in the bar fell to a hushed silence, Antonio’s head appeared out of the kitchen…not only could the Big Man sing… he was singing in Spanish. The entire place responded with the chorus. Then followed the more familiar, “when I was just a little child, I asked my mother what would I be….que sera, sera…whatever will be will be”. By this point it was full throated, unrestrained singing. Duarte the waiter decided to conduct with two salad spoons. A diner in another part of the restaurant asked Antonio if Fridays were always like this. “Only when the pilgrims are here” he replied. With that the assembly stood as one and sang Auld Lang Syne. Many a Cup of Kindness had been shared during the evening. At that Galician music sounded out through the speakers and Duarte started performing a highland jig. The astonished throng could only cheer when Senora Maria a Spanish lady woman of some considerable refinement spontaneously joined in. Fun is infectious.
It was with a slight cabeza I made my way to the St Albin’s Centre the following morning for the Annual Meeting of the CSJ. It is an amazing event attended by about 300 pilgrim members. All of us with strong opinions on everything. The business over it came to the 10 best slides section where individual members give a commentary. Fourth up in that running order was the Camino Hogmanay – the Film. I’d edited it. People liked it and asked where they could see it again. So here it is:


  1. Ah, Johnny, Johnny, what a most beautiful video! Agh... to be there again. Thank you, thank you so much. Bravo also for your exploit!
    A huge pilgrim hug.

  2. I have watched this video over and over, and then I've watched it some more. It stills my soul - I don't know if it is the music or the photos or the journey, but it blesses me. Thank you.

  3. Haaa finally remembered to check this at home, where I can watch videos! Lovely...absolutely lovely. Esp as I stare out at more snow coming down here!! Gracias, Karin