Saturday, 15 October 2011

My Life in Santiago - Gaps in the wall and Spanish diplomats

Maria and I were having a drink in the garden above. She said, “ John, the Pilgrims’ Office is really busy in the summer, but what will you do living here in the winter? It gets dark early, it is cold and it rains a lot.”  “Maria,” I answered with a smile, ”clearly you have never been to Scotland.”
Maria however wasn’t the first to wonder about life in Santiago. It is a small place compared to my home city in Scotland and the metropolis of London where I lived for many years. As a medieval town Santiago couldn’t be more different. But in term time it becomes a vibrant student city with all of the features of that. Bars and cafes are crammed and music throbs well into the night. When the students aren’t here the pilgrims are arriving in huge numbers. Santiago may be small but it is busy and exciting with new faces to be seen every day.
I thought I’d tell you some of the things I’ve been up to recently as well as showing you some of the places I hang out.
Just as in London my life here has its own rhythm. On Sundays I travel to Pontevedra to play at three Masses – 11, 12 and 1pm. Following a short rehearsal for the forthcoming week after the last service Sunday lunch beckons and that takes care of the day. Saturday mornings are spent preparing for Sundays usually with some practice on the electric piano at home. Then the Santiago equivalent of those long Saturday lunches in London. It is a time to meet friends with people calling in for a drink and a chat. I’m a regular in a few places now all within walking distance and friends know where to find me. The garden restaurant of the Casa Felisa (above) is hard to beat when the weather is sunny. It is also a great place to hang out on a warm evening and with lighting through the trees and plants the place has a Mediterranean atmosphere.

In Santiago there are good restaurants to be found in the most unexpected places. Down this gap in the buildings just along from the Pilgrims’ Office lies two restaurants with tables in the patio. I don’t like taking pictures of people eating when I don’t have their permission but you get the idea.
During the week will find me back in the Pilgrims’ Office for some of the time. I don’t go every day now. Pilgrims numbers are less and other projects are beckoning. I’m revising and editing guides as well as working on the development of a Welcome Service for English speaking pilgrims. This is supported by the Confraternity of St James and the Irish Society of Friends of the Camino. We have formed an International Committee to develop this and perhaps other projects. I’ll tell you more as plans emerge. It takes around a week to do a thorough revision of a guide book including preparing the versions for publication and I’m now trying to persuade other people to help make maps for the on-line guides as this would be a great bonus.
I try to call in regularly at the market in Santiago. Just a few steps from the Plaza Cervantes this place is great to visit and an essential resource for the resident. It has everything from many varieties of fresh fish and meat to a wonderful array of home grown vegetables. It also boasts a little restaurant where they make up their menu everyday depending on what is available in the market. The other day I was down there and a group of Spanish men had formed a table with upturned packing cases on which they had plonked a chilled bottle of white wine and a large bowl of freshly cooked clams from the restaurant. The sun was shining, they were laughing and frankly the scene was just perfect.
Language has been a challenge. I’m used to speaking a lot about different things. I can hold a basic conversation in Spanish and working in the office is no problem. I can discuss religion and politics if the other person is very patient and helpful. All the time I’m getting better. But I’m having to learn lots of new words. What do you call haddock and herring in Spanish? How do I ask the butcher for a rack of lamb or the cut of beef I need to make roast beef? Why do I need to know these? You might ask...well my friends have been showing a huge interest in my cooking skills and having held a first dinner party all in Spanish successfully I’m now committed to more. Foolishly I’ve promised them a Burns’ Supper in January replete with Haggis. Watch this space.
I’ve got myself organised at home with internet and cable television. I mention the latter because one of the wonders of modern technology is that if a programme dubbed in Spanish was made in English you can make it revert to the original at the touch of a button. The beloved BBC news has returned.
Santiago isn’t London but it does well with music festivals and concerts. A couple of weeks ago I was at a performance of the El Barbero de Sevilla in the concert hall and there is more I want to see later in the year.
One of the good things about living here is my ability to explore some of the pilgrim routes in a way I’ve never been able to before and I’m working on one page guides with the transport links for anyone who wants to try the last stages of another route after they have arrived in Santiago.
Last Sunday evening I noticed the weather forecast for the week showed there was to be a heat wave. On Monday I got the bus to Ferrol and walked down the Camino Inglés to Sigueiro. It was lovely and I visited one or two people along the way I now know. When I got back I decided to fulfil a long held ambition and walk up the Pico Sacro. This Holy Peak dominates the Ulla Valley and can be seen for many miles including from Santiago. The Via de la Plata passes the base of this mountain during the last stage into Santiago. All of the guide books I have read invite the pilgrim to take a detour of a few kilometres to ascend 600m to the peak. I’ve never met a weary pilgrim who would consider such madness at the end of a long pilgrimage. So off I went and four hours after leaving my flat I struggled up the steep walkway to the peak. The temperature was soaring. My calf muscles were screaming and beads of sweat were dripping from my forehead. As I emerged on top there standing cool as a cucumber was a man who said to me in perfect English, “you came up there very quickly.” When I got my breath back I discovered this was Miguel a recently retired Spanish diplomat who had worked for many years in the Spanish Embassy in London. He offered me a lift back down the mountain in his air conditioned Mercedes. It would have churlish to refuse, don’t you think?
This morning has been spent doing a little practice, cleaning the flat, laundering and ironing clothes and paying bills. These things all still have to be done.

I’ll soon get ready to go and meet some people. Where will we go. Perhaps down this other narrow gap...which leads to another the back of another special little restaurant.
Best wishes from Santiago. Good luck with your adventures.
Until next time.



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  2. Ah, John, I cannot tell you how much I envy you to live in Santiago... Enjoy it, do enjoy it, every bit of it. And thank you for sharing some of it with us.

  3. All the very best to you too, John. Your new life sounds great to me. I feel you haven't regretted your momentous decision!