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Published: December 24th 2009
Ron has been reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star aloud to me in bed, and I blame Paul Theroux for that all-night train ride from Barcelona to Oviedo, I really do. I lay lonely and claustrophobic in my bottom bunk, which was a bit like a coffin without the amenities. As the old train rattled its way north, my poor bones jiggled from side to side, and my head did that bobble-headed thing you used to see dolls do in the rear window of cars. To top it off, we almost missed our station and hopped off in such an all-fire rush I left behind my Parisian cheese knife and my precious jar of Dutch bee pollen.
So I’m taking Paul with a grain of salt, when he says: “Luxury is the death of observation.” However, if he happens to be right, we ought to be observing all sorts of stuff. And soon.
Our little cottage is cozy but basic. It was converted from a manger, and still has the rough-hewn walls and exposed beams that housed its former residents. Sheep. Every morning, I rise with frosted breath and start a fire out of twigs and pinecones in
the cast iron stove. Then, I gather last night’s leftovers in a rusted pail and slop the chickens. If I’m lucky, one of them will budge from the nest and allow me to pocket a large brown egg. It will perfect for Ron’s breakfast, hot from the hen.
If I don’t latch the gate, an ewe and her lambs will slip through the gate and head straight for the cabbage patch. Shades of Mr. McGregor! Yesterday it took two adults and three post-graduate degrees to get them out. I sidestep the cow patties; give wide berth to the ram. A solid black steer stands in a pile of its own tremendous dung.
Further observation: Almost every farmhouse has an horreo, a rustic granary on pillars, and they are all charming. They run from ornate to ramshackle, and it’s a good thing that cameras are digital, or I’d be out of film by now. Less charming are the life-sized plastic Santas that scale the outside of buildings, looking like Christmas cat burglars.
Further observation: There are two Gypsy groups living on the outskirts of Cudillero. If you’re imagining caravans and campfires, don’t. They eke out an existence next
to a heap of rubbish and the women beg outside the local supermarket. This is how poor country Gypsies live.
Further observation: Through the verdant hills of Galicia, we press onwards to Santiago de Compostella. This city could give you a permanent crick in the neck for all its dripping gargoyles, wrought-iron signs and timeless balconies. We fall in love with it instantly. A patina of moss covers the granite and blooms on the slate roofs. The glorious smell of cathedral icons lures us deep into the enormous church. We climb the scaffolding to examine the portico, wearing hard hats. Later, we sink into soft cushions and order a martini at a bar that used to be the hospital morgue.
Further observation: Finally, we get with the program and eat our dinner when the Spaniards do. Still, I can't shake the feeling that no good can come of ingesting tabasco sauce after 11:30 pm.
Further observation: In the half-light of a hushed cathedral, a thousand fingers flutter like sparrows. It takes a minute to understand that it is the completion of the morning mass for the Deaf.
Like a barn cat that keeps dropping mice at
your back door, I’m writing it all down for you, Betty. You’re the one that, when I worried about being away from family and friends, gave me the benefit of your accumulated years of wisdom (and that get-over-yourself look) that convinced me to take this leave of absence. Thanks for reassuring me that there is a difference between being ever-present and being indispensible.
Final observation: From bed, I look up at a lopsided chandelier and a ceiling that’s a hodgepodge of sticks. Beyond the roof, I imagine an Asturian sky, coated with stars. The Sistine Chapel never looked so beautiful to me.
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