Friday, 23 November 2012

The Bottle of Friendship

The Staff of the Pilgrims Office

I had to pluck up courage to write this post. No one likes to admit they are getting older. Least of all me. I look in the mirror every morning and I’m astonished that a 25 year old is no longer looking back at me. But I have to face facts. And I have to tell the truth.  On 16th October the Amigos Welcome Service came to an end and the last Amigos departed. I was sad to see an end of the project but pleased that it has been so successful. I was excited and a little alarmed too because the following day was my birthday. My 60th birthday.  I could ask myself “how did this happen?” as much as I wanted.  I had to face the reality. On the camino we use the yellow arrows to show us the way. On this occasion it was my friends who showed me that my birthday was both a cause for huge celebration and alsothat I had much for which I should be thankful.
With considerable glee a small cabal of friends here in Santiago announced their plans for the week. “For the week?” I asked. “For the week”, they repeated with smug, knowing smiles.  Minute by teasing minute they revealed the details of what they had been up to. Having said goodbye to the last Amigos, Gosia and Peter, I had to travel that evening to the airport in A Coruña  to meet two of my closest friends, Paul from London and Sharon from Ireland (left) accompanied by Sean – Amigo number one, who was joining them on this mini-pilgrimage to help celebrate my birthday.

Their arrival lit the blue touch paper for the rest of the festivities. On the evening of my birthday 20 friends gathered in a beautiful Galician restaurant for a 7 course dinner. The piece de resistance  was the custom made birthday cake with a replica of one Johnnie Walker strolling barefoot along the beach on the Camino Portuguese coastal route. The champagne flowed and so did tears of laughter. I had an almost overwhelming feeling of how lucky I was to have friends like these. There was singing, I made a little speech which they insisted was in Spanish and in the wee small hours of the morning we eventually all got home to bed.
Whereas the Wednesday dinner had been conducted largely in Spanish, Thursday was reserved for a dinner for English speaking friends. Another restaurant, another dinner, but just as much fun. What on earth would the next day bring?
For the Friday another plot had been hatched. In the evening the entire staff of the Pilgrims’ Office gathered in the restaurant of the Hostal Giralsol. I think we counted 25 in total. Everyone was there. “Happy birthday” was sung every time I stood up. Victoria the owner and chef sent out a constant stream of food from the kitchen – cold meats, Galician pie, croquettes, cheeses, salads, langostinos fresh from the grill, wooden platters of pulpo and steaming plates of callos. To say a good time was had by all is an understatement.
During the party though the conversation turned to a more serious topic. They staff of the Pilgrims’ Office said how they hadn’t known what to expect when the Amigos Welcome Service was first proposed. What would these strangers be like? Was it possible that volunteers would pay their own expenses to come to Santiago welcome pilgrims? Would they all be stern faced and straight laced?
Instead, they said, they had come to respect the Amigos and had a great affection for every one of them. They laughed as they went through them...Sean (left) and Larry, and Larraine and Patro...with their  blue T shirts with white writing they became nicknamed as the “smurfs”  They quickly cantered  through the list of names, when at one end of the table they forgot one someone would shout out from the other end...Remember “William  and Mario”, “Oh and what about Julie and Nichole? Everyone got a mention. “There was a collective “ah” when the Golden Girls, Mildred and Elizabeth were remembered.  Then came the next surprise – “we want to be Amigos too” they said.  And then every single one of them donned a blue Tshirt and assembled outside for a photograph they asked to be sent to every Amigo with their thanks for all of their help during the 6 months of the first year of the Amigos Welcome Service.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
The surprises weren’t over however. The door opened and in walked Phil another friend from South London. He had arrived to deliver a birthday card and to join with some of the “boys” who had purchased tickets to the football match between Barcelona and A Coruña to be held on the Sunday evening. You can imagine the weekend which followed. 
Shortly after I celebrated achieving three score years by travelling to Mumbai in India a couple of weeks ago with two friends from Santiago. That adventure is another story I may tell you soon!
All I can say at the end of all of this is that I came out of the week’s celebrations better than I went in. Gone was the gloom induced by counting the passing years. It was replaced by enthusiasm for the years to come.  Gone were the thoughts of the people who would be missing for my birthday. They were replaced by a profound gratitude for the many friends I have now.  Gone were some fleeting thoughts of what might have been replaced by thankfulness for what I have. I ended my little speech at the dinner as I end this post:
“The last few weeks have not been easy – two years ago in London I had a biopsy and other tests because of an abnormal blood test. After months of tests they concluded everything was ok. It was very difficult because I didn’t tell anyone about it until the end.
Earlier this year I had another abnormal blood test.  A few weeks ago I had to go for another biopsy but this time it was different, this time it was in Spain and I told a few of my friends. Their support has been wonderful. Danny and I went to the hospital last Tuesday to get the result  - as we went into the Doctors’s room he looked up smiling and said, “John – Buenas noticias – absolutely no cancer”   Danny turned to me and said, “let the party begin” And so it should.
There are no princes, cardinals, prime ministers or presidents here tonight – only important people, only my friends. Enjoy your evening and may we always drink from the bottle of friendship.”

JW - aged 60!


  1. Happy belated Birthday Johnnie, you are exactly 3 days older than I. We met briefly, whilst I was having a coffee with Jose Luise Sanches, his wife Natercia and Helen, and you were rushing off to some meeting on the 22 October, in Santiago. I am Ingrid, the Canadian, who completed her camino on her Birthday on October 20. Hope to see you again after my next camino and possibly volunteering as Hospitalera in 2014. Buen Camino

    1. Hola Ingrid

      I remember you well. It would be lovely to see you again in Santiago.

      Take care


  2. Happy belated birthday from us too John. You share the day with Terry. His next one will be 70 and we are still making Camino plans.
    Terry and Valerie

    1. Thanks and Hippyburpday to Terry. We must plan a joint celebration one of these years! come he looks younger than me?

      Best regards


    2. That is retirement John. It has given us both a new lease of life.

  3. And may you have many more years of them!