Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happy Burns Day

Today Scots everywhere celebrate the life of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns. He was, like a lot of us, a complex character. Yet, despite the complexities of his life he was able through his poetry to launch ideas which were enormous in his day and ever the more potent now. Because during his personal pilgrimage life Burns observed life. He spied with a shrewd eye the very nature of humanity in all of its failings. The outcome is his philosophy of life - humour, equality and tolerance. His writings punctured the stuck up pomposity of the upper classes, the rank hypocrisy of the church and the unfairness of the class system - but he always did so with humour, with a graphic word image and the directness that is the hallmark of the Scot.

So when several people over the last few weeks asked me "What are you going to do in Santiago to celebrate Burns Night on 25 January?"  The answer was simple - have a traditional Burns Supper. And so I did a few evenings ago. Here is the table at which 10 friends would sit, feast and enjoy the spirit of Scotland's bard.
I debated for a while how Scottish an affair it ought to be because sometimes I think there is nothing sadder than the image of a kilt wearing, whisky swilling, ex-pat singing "By yon bonnie banks" with the out of tune gusto of which only the half cut seem capable.  Perhaps, I thought, it should be more modern and international. Maybe some Burns poetry mixed in with Galician poetry and music? I tried that suggestion on a few Spanish friends here. They reeled in horror at my proposed act of vandalism and it became clear that the "we want a Scottish Burns supper" brigade would not take no for an answer.
So I set about assembling the ingredients. What you need for this traditional event to celebrate the life of Scotland's greatest poet:

Friends willing to participate by giving the various speeches and recitations
Good food including HAGGIS
Music and singing

The friends were the easiest as it turns out. I gave them a list and they volunteered for the speaking parts. However they all agreed that I should give the opening Address to the Haggis and following a splendid procession to bag pipe music I duly addressed the beast reciting from memory the traditional verse: Fair fa' your honest sauncie face, great chieften O the puddin' race."  At the appropriate verse I sliced the haggis to a cheer and then led the toast to the haggis with a...whisky.

That last bit is of course fiction - I was struggling to get the food ready for the assembled 10 guests all from the pilgrim world in Santiago and so I did what any modern Scot would do and played a video of a proper Address to the Haggis complete with pipe band.
After we had all said the Selkirk Grace together the first course was served, a tapa of haggis, turnip and mashed potato. These Gallegos. I think they are actually Scottish (either that or starving) because they wolfed it all down.

The big question of course was where had the haggis come from? The answer is the Internet where I have discovered that all sorts of Scottish delicacies can be delivered to order.

The rest of the dinner followed punctuated by singing and a further toast (with whisky) to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.
Then as the fulsome dessert was served two of the guests Ruben and Elena prepared to do battle. Ruben had been chosen to propose the Toast to the Lassies and partner Elena to Reply on behalf of  the Lassies. They asked in advance what it was all about and I explained that the Toast to the Lassies is usually a light hearted commentary on the many good points and many failings of the female of the species....the Reply is generally a robust defence of womanhood and with a humerous send up of men.  From his pocket Ruben produce some closely typed sheets of paper. He had come prepared. With a flourish he launched forth in Spanish and spoke faster and faster the more excited he got. I picked up most of the key words, "female drivers...addicted to shopping...your mother, my mother in one can wear so many shoes". The gentlemen present thought it was hilarious and cheered when he reached his peroration. I, however, wondered if his strategy was not a little suicidal. The lassies were then duly toasted...with whisky.

Then Elena stood and fixing the enemy with a stare produced 9 pages of well prepared attack. As she listed  the many debits and few credits of the male of the species the women around the table joined in volubly in agreement. Boys toys, cars, gadgets, failure to contribute to the housekeeping or even remember a birthday all got a cheer from the women as Elena punched home every point. People sat with tears of laughter running down their faces. Everyone agreed the girls had won the day.

They also agreed that Burns Night will become part of the calendar in the pilgrim world here in Santiago for the future.

I'm off walking to recover from all of this. I'll tell you where I get to when I return in a couple of weeks. Meantime have a wonderful Burns Day and remember toast Robert Burns with a wee tot of Johnniewalker.

Friday, 20 January 2012

New Year, New Project - 100,000 Welcomes


I mentioned in my last post that a new service welcoming pilgrims to Santiago was being launched this year. We are going to run it for 6 months on a pilot basis and decide its future after evaluation. Only around 26 volunteers are needed in this pilot phase and these will be drawn from the memberships of the sponsoring organisations. We are very interested to hear pilgrims' impressions and experience of arriving in Santiago previously. Please leave a comment or send me an e mail. Here are details of the new project:   

New entrance to the Pilgrims Office
A Service of 100,000 Welcomes –
An English language based programme at the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago de Compostela
The Confraternity of Saint James and The Irish Society of the Friends of St. James have come together to deliver a new service which will welcome all pilgrims to the Pilgrims’ Office. The service will be staffed by two volunteers and will run from May until the second week in October during 2012. The project will be evaluated towards the end of 2012. The evaluation will inform consideration of whether the project will continue for future years. 
The objective of this new service is to greet every pilgrim arriving at the Pilgrims’ Office with a personal welcome and congratulation as well as providing information for English speaking pilgrims.
The Trustees of both organisations approved the project in principle and delegated authority to an implementation team comprising two representatives of each organisation to develop and manage the project. It was agreed that John, who works in the Pilgrims’ Office would chair this group and coordinate the project for the pilot period.

The team has drawn up plan for the project which are laid out in this paper.
The project will be called:
Amigos – a Service of 100,000 Welcomes.
Volunteers will be called Amigos.

Pilgrims go to the Pilgrims’ Office either immediately on their arrival in the city or shortly thereafter. They have often walked a considerable distance in the previous 24 hours to get to Santiago. They often are still carrying their rucksack. Many are tired and thirsty. From all routes they can follow yellow arrows until they reach the Old Town of Santiago and then they simply follow the signs for the Pilgrims’ Office.
On arrival at the office they may have to queue for a short time. There is a new office layout and process and waiting times have been cut dramatically. However the Office remains very busy and in 2011 more than 180,000 pilgrims were received.
With these numbers arriving the staff of the Pilgrims’ Office has little time to do more than ask some cursory questions of the pilgrim about the journey, stamp their credencial and write their Compostela.
This project is aimed at complementing the existing services of the Pilgrims’ Office particularly targeted at English speaking pilgrims. It has the full support of the management of the Pilgrims’ Office.
The "new" system
Pilgrims’ Office currently
For more than 20 years the Pilgrims’ Office was located on the first floor of the Dean’s House at Number 1, Rua do Vilar. The office moved 2 doors down Rua do Vilar last year. Entrance is through a pretty courtyard with a fountain and pergola. There are stands for bicycles, male and female toilets for pilgrims and a Consigna – a left luggage service available for pilgrims at 1€ per day. The Pilgrims‘ Office is on the first floor overlooking the courtyard. There is now an electronic display above the entrance door upstairs telling pilgrims which desk number they should go to.     

Role of Amigos:
The name defines the role:
To be present in the courtyard generally between the hours of   9 – 5pm (see hours of operation later).
To say “hello”, “welcome” and “congratulations” (in a number of languages) to all pilgrims arriving.
To direct pilgrims to the Pilgrims Office, the toilets and left luggage where appropriate.
When the Office is at its busiest, for example in August, a second office is opened in the courtyard –arriving pilgrims need to be allocated to both offices.
To answer pilgrims’ questions - depending on the language skills of the volunteers - Spanish speakers and other non English speakers can be told to ask their question in the office. Induction in Frequently Asked Questions will be given.
Responding to more complex problems that pilgrims may have – and if necessary seeking advice from the project Coordinator or other staff of the Pilgrims’ Office.
To be ambassadors for The Irish Society of The Friends of St. James and the Confraternity of Saint James including highlighting what these associations can offer pilgrims back home. However this is very much a second order objective as the priority is to make pilgrims feel welcomed. 
To simply smile, chat and make pilgrims feel valued and welcomed and to provide them with the information they require.
Toilets and left luggage facilities for pilgrims
What skills should Amigos have?
Amigos need:
To have walked/cycled to Santiago for a sufficient distance to qualify for a Compostela .
Excellent communication skills with an ability to listen to and empathise with other people, including not talking about their own pilgrimages experiences but rather listening to those of others.
To have a pleasant disposition and be able to work as a part of a team.
To be able to speak Spanish to some extent or to be prepared to learn basic phrases in Spanish sufficient to welcome pilgrims. All Amigos should be able to welcome pilgrims in Spanish, to give simple directions in Spanish and be able to learn the words for “welcome” and “congratulations” in a number of languages.
To be able to recognise and observe appropriate boundaries between themselves, their colleagues, arriving pilgrims and the staff of the pilgrims office.
To be able to commit to working in the Welcome Service for at least 2 weeks between May and October 2012.
Amigos need to be sufficiently physically fit to be active for a full working day for a period of at least two weeks.
Be prepared to share accommodation (with own bedroom of course) with a stranger (but member of one of the associations of St James) – perhaps of the opposite sex.

Age and gender of Amigos
It is the intention to have a balanced team of Amigos in terms of age and gender and the selection of applicants will reflect that ambition.

Hours of work and flexibility
The Pilgrims’ Office opens at 9am and volunteers need to be there to greet the first batch of pilgrims many of whom may have been waiting for several hours at the busiest times of the year.
Generally speaking after the first surge there is a quieter period until 10.30am or so when pilgrims start to arrive so that they can get their Compostela before the 12 noon mass. Shortly after 12 there is another lull until around 1.30 when numbers build again until the late afternoon.
It is also important to note that the “walking season” begins gradually in May, has its peak in July/August and pilgrim numbers reduce in September and October. Volunteers need to adapt to different volumes arriving – for example when it is at its busiest organising and working the queue might be the most important job to be done. When it is hot it is important waiting pilgrims know where to get water.  The staff of the Pilgrims’ Office are always alert to the need to deal quickly with families with young children and disabled people.
Volunteers will themselves decide between them when they are going to work and how they will cover the day in co-ordination with John and/or the management of the Pilgrims’ Office.

Management and Support
The service is being developed and delivered by The Irish Society of The Friends of St. James and the Confraternity of Saint James. Together they have formed an implementation team. This is chaired by John who lives in Santiago and works as a permanent volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office. He has overall responsibility for the co-ordination and smooth running of the service and Amigos will be accountable to him. In his absence he will make clear to whom this responsibility has been delegated. Normally this will be a member of staff of the Pilgrims’ Office.
If any Amigo has an issue (other than operational issues) about which they are concerned they should raise the matter with John in the first instance. If the matter remains unresolved they may refer the issue to the Implementation Team whose decision will be final.  
Accommodation and finance
Accommodation for Amigos will be provided free of charge in a central location in Santiago in an apartment with two bedrooms, plus lounge kitchen and bathroom. The apartment will be fully furnished. A starter pack of basic items such as milk, eggs, tea bags, coffee etc will be provided for Amigos on arrival. Thereafter they are responsible for all other subsistence costs.
The flat will be exclusively non-smoking.
There will be few house rules save the expectation that Amigos will treat each other with dignity and respect at all times.
No third parties, such as pilgrims in need for example, will be permitted into the flat at any time.
In exceptional circumstances an Amigo may wish a friend or relative to sleep in the flat for an overnight if for example they are travelling onwards together at the end of the Amigo’s stint. Permission for this must be sought from the Co-ordinator not least to ensure that there is sufficient health and safety provision including insurance.   
Amigos need to provide their own transport to and from Santiago and all other personal expenses such as insurance.  Amigos must also provide details of their Next of Kin including current contact number and details of any relevant health issues they may have.

Finding Amigos
An application pack containing much of the information available in this paper will be produced for applicants. The pack will contain:
1.     An application form.
2.     A role description.
3.     A description of the skills needed from Amigos/volunteers.
4.     A grid on which potential amigos should indicate their availability and date preferences.
5.     A timetable for the selection of Amigos.
6.     A description of the selection process including the dates of interviews.
7.     A note indicating that potential Amigos will be asked to give the name of one referee who may be contacted if selected.
All potential Amigos will be asked to attend an interview.
There shall be two selection meetings which will include an interview with each applicant. They will be held in Dublin and London. Amigos will be recruited from the membership of the Irish Friends and the CSJ or those known to those organisations.
Both organisations will publicise information about the new service in their own way beginning by end December.  

Timetable for recruitment
Whilst it is accepted that recruitment may need to be an on-going process throughout the pilot period the initial timetable is as follows:
December 2011
Both organisations start to publicise the service to their members and those known to them.
23 January  2012
Application packs available.
24 February  2012
Closing date for applications.
March XX  and XX – To be confirmed
Selection meetings.
End March
Selection made, references taken up and successful Amigos informed so they can begin booking flights.
May - Project starts 
Pilgrims receiving their compostelas

Monday, 9 January 2012

The organist wore red underwear...

Puerta del Sol - Madrid
Here I am. Hello everyone. Happy Christmas, Happy New year, Happy Feast of the Kings. Santiago has been  non stop fiestas since I last wrote to you. Seriously. I never cease to be amazed at the capacity of Spaniards to find every excuse for a celebration.  I'm exhausted with it all.

Christmas here was wonderful but in many ways quite different the UK. For example I had a full schedule of playing - 2 services on Christmas Eve including Midnight Mass or the Mass of the Cockrel as they call it then three on Christmas morning. Usually midnight mass is the highlight. I'm used to a candlelit carol service and a packed church. Here it was cold and wintry and there was a half full church. How so? Well I discovered that here in Spain on the Christmas Eve, the Noche Buena, the tradition is that families sit down together to eat a meal of many courses. As the services gradually filled up on Christmas Day until there was standing room only at the final Mass at 1pm I heard story after story of the night before. "We had 28 of the family to dinner last night", "Oh really? We had 33 plus 7 children." No wonder the streets and the pews were empty.
There was little respite for me in the few days until New Year and the funerals came piling in. I've played at 35 in about 25 weeks. However New Year was splendid. The Plaza Obradoiro rocked and fireworks filled the sky over the cathedral as I raised a glass to welcome the New Year before getting up early the next morning for the three services of the Feast of Our Lady the Patroness of Spain.
One more thing about how the Spanish celebrate the New Year. In Scotland we tend to have family dinners on New years Eve just as the Spaniards do on Christmas Eve, then as the bells toll a glass of something, often whisky is raised in a toast. Here as the bells of the clock tower in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid the dead centre of Spain chimed midnight Spanish friends munched a grape, 12 in all to welcome the new year. Many of them also wore red underwear. Now, underwear is not something we usually speak about nor write about in pilgrim blogs. But the truth is over the few weeks leading up to new year I couldn't help but notice that shop windows were full of displays of red underwear. It seemed to be everywhere. I thought about taking some pictures to show you the extent of it but I couldn't bring myself to been seen camera in hand taking pictures of underwear. However over a few drinks I did pluck up courage to ask some friends about this tradición intimá as some of the posters in shop windows put it. To much laughter they confirmed this was the case. Many Spaniards wear red underwear to bring in the new year to give them good luck for the year to come. It has to be new red underwear, by the way to give you the best chance of good fortune. A short google search revealed that this is a tradition shared in Italy, in China!  
Now you know.

It is a New Year and New Project as colleagues in the Confraternity of St James and the Irish Society of the Friends of St. James launched the new Service of 100,000 welcomes. We are going to open an apartment here in Santiago in which volunteers will live for minimum periods of two weeks whilst they work in the Pilgrims' Office providing  a personal welcome to every pilgrim who arrives. It is also an English language based programme and the volunteers, called Amigos, will provide information in English to those who needs it. We are going to run this project this year from May - October, the walking season, and then evaluate its success before deciding on future years. In this pilot period volunteers will be drawn from the membership of the CSJ and the Irish Friends and those known to them. It is very exciting and already members have started to write expressing an interest. Information is available from both organisations and I'll post further information here when I get my breath back.
Then the other day I went down to the train station where I usually get the train to Pontevedra to find a throng of thousands waiting for the arrival of the three kings. This was the Feast of the Epiphany. Arrive they did and a splendid procession began through the town. This was not the spectacle of Sevilla or Madrid. It was a much more homely affair. But the streets were lined with people. Children were held high with plastic bags open to catch some of the tons of sweets which were thrown into the crowds. On the back of the floats carrying the Kings a seemingly endless supply of sweets sat like bags of swag as the marching band played at full tilt. Everyone was happy.
It is also a time for making resolutions. I've got a few. I'm astonished to look back and count up that I have played 150 times in the last 5 months. This is more than I played in the UK and is frankly too much. Forgive a short morbid rant about this but I had no idea that in Spain when you die you are buried within 24 hours. Whatever the benefits of this tradition for me it means a phone call sometimes late in the evening asking me to come the next morning or afternoon. I can see in the distance caminos becoming impossible, the diary being arranged around organ commitments, coordinating the new project and answering the phone about funerals! So there will be change. I'm going to walk more. I've devised a new route here in Santiago, it is the Route of  Routes a guide to which will be published later in the year. I'll tell you more about it soon. I want to do more of this and other walking projects. So many routes...

So dear reader, thank you once again for calling in. I'll finish this blog by wishing you all a Happy New Year. I hope that the year brings you good things and that at least some of your camino dreams and ambitions come true.

And did the organist wear red underwear for luck? Well that would be telling.