Walking the Camino, one: Leaving Behind

The first thing I noticed as my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage began on May 14 was a sense of being deracinated – yanked away from all things familiar — that grew steadily. I left from my house without my purse, and I didn’t leave by the usual door, since I took a different key with me. At the airport, I kept clutching the very small nylon bag that held my official, negotiable self: passport, two credit cards, American currency. I had no book to read. That might have been the biggest difference; I planned to travel without a book. (I was not counting the Spanish phrase book I intended to review on the plane.) Marcia the reader and writer had no computer, no book. Those were the first set of steps away from my usual identity and world of familiar references and habits.

Madrid, May 15: Travel light. It’s like I am missing things, like the recurring nightmare I have of losing my purse. My brain thinks it’s midnight.[1] 

When a journey takes the traveler across several time zones, the dislocation is physiological. I changed planes in Dublin, Ireland, at 5:30 a.m. local time, in grey light and steady rain; the connection required us to take an airport shuttle and walk out in the rain to board a plane to Spain. The Dublin airport signs are written in English and Irish, a first wee clue that English is not the only option on the globe. That, and the use of Euros on the plane, which I did not yet have. I nonetheless had a cup of Irish breakfast tea, fortifying myself from an English-speaking culture, before arriving in Madrid. English is the default second, universal language at airports (at least in Europe, which is as far as my foreign travel experience extends), so I found Madrid aeropuerto clearly marked. But oh, the Madrid Metro beckoned, my first step into the wholly unfamiliar, as I slowly deciphered the workings of the ticket machine. I had exchanged money using Spanish and English, and got directions in Spanish and English.

Looking back, I can see myself slowly wading into an unfamiliar sea, strengthened by the knowledge of my destination: I am meeting my husband after a month apart; his Spanish is better and he has been negotiating Spain for a month. All I have to do is board the right train to Astorga, where we would begin our joint pilgrimage.

As I walked in the neighborhood around the Chamartin train station in Madrid to pass time in an edifying way, I was set upon by petition carriers who were distinctly eager to see some identifying information from me to verify my signature. I think retrospectively that Santiago came to my aid; I brushed these two off and afterward found the phrase “leave me alone” in the “helpful phrases” section of my pocket language book.

“Santiago came to my aid” – it’s easy to start thinking this way in a culture that is historically deeply Catholic and steeped in traditional Catholic iconography. The Camino is replete with old churches. Some have been rebuilt; not a few look like fortresses, which the heavy Romanesque structures tend to resemble. Some of them have thrillingly elaborate retablos, others more modest and modern statuary, usually of the crucified Jesus, various renderings of Mary, and the ubiquitous Santiago, distinguishable by his pilgrim’s staff. Santiago is a regular figure in countless squares and plazas, and even occasionally encourages pilgrims who are walking far from town centers, his statue rising along a country road.

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We had one conversation with Ana, our albergue host in Santiago who is a great fan of 1950s American popular music, who helped us understand this relationship with the divine through so many intermediaries and expressions. She mentioned that each day of the year in Spain honors a particular saint. She also showed us her extensive collection of photos taken during trips to Memphis; her relationship to the founding days of American rock’n’roll was almost like a kind of material religion. (She had photos of various relatives and associates of Elvis Presley, and she and I sang a few bars of little known hits from the era.) She had been a pilgrim to America pursuing something meaningful. Her interest in American popular music developed as an outlet for her during the repressive Franco era, she told us. If Santiago came to my aid, Elvis came to hers. (She blogs about the subject at Let’s Keep the 50’s Spirit Alive .)

Outside changes — language, landscape, even change changing (I always had to look at the Euro coins to see what I had) – helped weed interior assumptions. Self-emptying happens acutely for pilgrims.

Rabanal, May 16: The Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar has massed pots of geraniums, a yappy little dog that waddles around the courtyard, and clothes drying on the line. The breeze is blowing, the birds are singing. 

When I returned, Christine Valters Paintner’s assertion in The Soul of a Pilgrim made more sense to me: “Peregrinatio is the call to wander for the love of God. It is a word without precise definition in English and means something different than pilgrimage.”

Palas de Rei, May 24: Why walk, indeed? I still haven’t figured that out, but Spain is filled with cool stone churches that invite you to think about this. 

It might mean that the journey is more important than the destination, trite but clearly true here.

[1] All italicized and indented passages are excerpts from my travel journal.

 

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