Johnnie goes to Spain
Oh my god. I've done it. I've resigned from job, church and the Friday club with the boys. I'm leaving London. I'm leaving the UK. It is certain. I've bought the ticket. I leave on the 4th of May. I am going to walk the Camino Ingles with an Irish friend and when I reach Santiago I'll get a flight to Valencia to begin the pilgrimage. The counter opposite is counting. There is no turning back... more of that later.
Meanwhile last week in Santiago I wrote in my notebook...
No rest however for the staff of the Pilgrims' Office who are employed all year round. They sit in a row at their desks still busy but in an office without pilgrims. "Yesterday we issued 8 Compostelas" one said. Another added, "The day before was really busy, we had 12 pilgrims".
The new team in the Pilgrims’ Office is bedding in well. They have had lots of training in aspects of the Camino – such as its history and seeing the archives in the Cathedral but here is nothing like the real thing and in two weeks they are walking as a group from Sarria.
When I was in the office two pilgrims arrived. They were well equipped and their rain gear had kept them dry from the Galician rain which was beating down outside. They were Sandra and Hans from Germany who had walked the Camino Frances through all of January. They were burnished brown by the weather they had come through. These were hardy winter pilgrims prepared for the weather and the solitude. Yet they glowed with the good health and the serenity which a Camino full of challenges imparts.
The organists are back to playing at only 2 masses per day and even the nun who usually sings was one of the many staff in Santiago who are resting.
The students are still around but the rain and cold has taken the buzz from the bars. Now Spain has become a no smoking country the outside terazzas are only populated with a few smokers who with scarves wrapped round their necks held umbrellas comically in one hand and cigarettes in the other. The bars which are open are nowhere near as busy. But the restaurants have a steady stream of customers. They come for the winter dishes now listed on all the menus: Ribs, hot pot, boiled ham and cabbage, and the famous Cocido - a mixture of different types of pork, lumps of chicken, chorizo and chick peas stewed in a rich liquor. "Cocido is Galician central heating" one friend said. At about 3000 calories a portion I suspect it has more minuses than pluses. At least a lot of Spaniards are trying to stop smoking now they have been relegated to outdoors only.
"Resting" is a good word for the atmosphere in the town. It is how actors describe that period between parts and I think that is what is happening here. The organists are taking turns at having holidays but are already thinking of the musical programme for the next Feast Day on 25th July so too are the people who run the sound and light with its splendid fireworks display. In the Pilgrims' Office the new staff are becoming pilgrims themselves. Behind many of the closed doors of the bars and hostals comes the sound of obras - work being carried out. Places are being redesigned, redecorated and equipped for the next season which will be here all too soon.
Last year 277,000 pilgrims arrived in the Holy Year. "We're back to normal" said a friend in the Pilgrims' Office, "this year we will maybe get half that number." Maybe less than a Holy Year but still enough for Santiago to need its rest for the new waves of pilgrims yet to come.
At the moment the town is tranquil. For the few visitors there are no stalls from which to buy trinkets, no St James lookalikes begging from passersby, not one human statue to entertain the tourists and none of the amazing programme of street entertainment which takes place in the plazas in summer. The draft programme is on a desk at the offices of Xacabeo. But the place is still fun. I was walking down a street and spotted a simple cardboard box. It looked forlorn. It looked as if it might be for carrying a pet and the rustling from inside certainly intrigued one or two passersby. It was only when one unsuspecting couple strolled past did the ghostly figure from inside appear with a loud shriek. I thought the young woman was going to die of fright but she with all the other passersby enjoyed the joke. Santiago still has some surprises.