Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Headbangers Galore

The way I use the term “headbanger” is peculiarly Scottish. Sure, a Google definition will bring up a reference to Heavy Metal which I suspect is not on the Periodic Table. However when people from Glasgow call someone a headbanger they could easily mean that they are seriously intellectually challenged. Equally it could simply mean they are totally crazy. It can be used as a term of endearment or of scorn. This week I met a few headbangers.
I´d come to Santiago with a number of resolutions. I wanted to work in the Pilgrims´Office dispensing wit and compostelas in equal measure. I wanted to have lengthy late afternoon lunches with friends after work. I wanted to write entertaining blogs. I promised the Friday Night Boys that I would blog regularly and keep them posted. On the flight to Santiago I wondered if I could become the Alistair Cook of Santiago. I planned to sit quietly of an evening with a chilled glass of Alboriño fueling the creative process. Hugging the Saint, visiting friends, writing two important personal letters and going to see Joaquin at the organ in the Cathedral were all on the list.

8 days later. Nada.
When I arrived last Monday there was a wave of heat blowing through the airport. This was not the 40 degree plus of Sevilla in August. This was the 30 degree plus of Galicia. But in Sevilla they have air conditioning. Here in Santiago they have queues. Queues for everything. Queues for the Holy Door, queues for the cathedral, queues in supermarkets and the king of queues at the Pilgrims´Office. Today the sun is beating down on a queue that is taking 2 hours to snake to the front door downstairs.When I arrived this morning just before 9am I spoke to the two boys at the head of the queue, Pedro and Nacho. “We arrived at around 6 am,” they said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I stared at the queue. It filed around the corner up the street and round the corner into the next street. When I got upstairs to the office I asked if they had seen the queue. “Tell us” Eva said and when I did she blessed herself. “Headbangers” all, I thought fondly. Me included. Why else would we stand and wait for a stamp and a certificate which to many is just a piece of paper?

The answer is of course that it marks the end of a significant journey. A personal pilgrimage which has taken time and effort. Long distance pilgrims can be very sniffy about people who “only” walk the last 100 kms. The insulting term “tourigrinos” is often on their lips. I´ve thought it myself as I´ve trudged for weeks only to meet fresh faced Spaniards with day packs marching sprightly out of Sarria which stands at the beginning of the last 100 kms. But they are pilgrims nonetheless and I recognise that there is something about this pilgrimage to Santiago which lies deep in the soul and culture of Spain.
 Dealing with the unremitting flow of pilgrims is demanding. Collectively we write 200 compostelas an hour. Personally I spend around 3 minutes on average with each pilgrim. Only time for a brief word of welcome, a cursory inspection of the Pilgrim Passport, the stamps and then their name applied in Latin on the Compostela. Pilgrims have questions. Where can I sleep? When are the Masses? How do I get information about the route to Finisterre? Where can I charge my battery? It is absorbing and has taken over the lives of the staff and volunteers. I can see it happening. It is exhausting. There are no long lunches, only a shower and a sleep. As I drift off their faces often appear:
The wee woman of 72 who walked on her own from her home in Switzerland. She simply sighed as the final stamp went on her credencial. Ramon from Madrid who had walked for 5 days from Sarria. He cried when I gave him his Compostela. “I never knew it would be like this” he said. The tall, proud Spanish chap who appeared with a crowd at the head of the queue. “Is this a group?” I asked the usual question. “No,” he said with his chest swelling, “this is my family, 26 of us from all over Spain, we have come together to walk to Compostela.” So they trouped in mingling with Scouts and nuns, the young and the older, those who had walked from afar and those who had clearly walked far enough.

Last week a young German lad appeared at my desk. He asked in clear English,"excuse me, I read in a book that there is a stone where pilgrims insert their fingers before banging their heads on a statue. Where is it please?" I explained that the sculpture of the Tree of Jesse stands at the door of the Cathedral. It has the imprint of millions of pilgrim fingers over the Centuries but alas, for the moment, it is sealed off for restoration. However there is an exhibition and for a moment´s respite the other day I made my way up to the Plaza Cervantes where the Caixanova Bank has opened an exhibition and conference centre. The ground floor is taken up with a stunning photographic illustration of the Portico de la Gloria. The huge photographs were taken from eye level and also from the perspective of the pilgrim passing through this magnificent doorway. This is the work of Master Mateo depicting the glory of heaven for the medieval pilgrim. This is what they had walked to. This is why they had walked. This where all their journeys would end. It is now as it was then. The commentary explains that it is said that the statue of Master Mateo is the image behind the Portico. This is where visitors bang their heads three times following the tradition of mothers from Compostela who brought their children to ask the Master to give them some wisdom.

For the throngs in the streets and the staff in offices it is hot. Pilgrims bathe their feet in the fountains and most of the people in the various queues are good natured. Not so at the Pilgrims´Office yesterday when another record was sadly broken. A group were keeping places for each other in the queue as some went off for coffee or to use the toilet. On their return they went back to join their friends. It was hot and sticky. People had been waiting a long time. A couple behind the group got angrier and angrier at what they saw as queue jumping. Words were exchanged. A push became a shove. One pilgrim bashed the other on the head with his stick. An ambulance was required and the police were called. For a moment I thought I was back in Glasgow. There has never been such an incident in living memory and the staff of the office is determined that this will not become a modern tradition.

As if to counter the ugliness of the incident yesterday today brought the arrival of Amado, Redemptorist priest, Professor of Theology, athlete, peace protester and former political prisoner. The pilgrims who he had met on his Camino and those around him in the queue knew nothing about him except he was the priest who had walked barefoot from St Jean de Pied Port in France. I knew he was to arrive today and as the morning wore on I wondered if I should go and find him in the queue and bring him forward as I knew he wanted to participate in the Mass at 12 o´clock. I decided not to do that. He was a pilgrim like all others. Although he is leaving tomorrow there are two other Masses in the day. However Amado, barefoot and long back in the queue mentioned to his companions that he was worried about not getting to the Mass. Word was sent forward in the queue, pilgrims whispering to pilgrims. The huge crowd parted and a way was made for the barefoot priest who was cheered along the line and up the long staircase into the Pilgrims Office.

Amado would definitely be called a Headbanger in Glasgow but it would be with huge affection. As we left the Office I found it difficult to get him along the road as people stopped and asked for his photograph or wanted to pose with him. Pilgrims he had met on the Camino hugged him fondly. He proudly displayed his feet. “No blisters” he beamed. We all applauded. Pilgrims it seems like their priests simple and spiritual.

There´s a message there for heabangers everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sitting at my desk in tears, reading about Fr. Amado! And shuddering at incident the day before! Lovely post, and glad I'll be there next year!!