December Reflections 9: shadows

DSC_0241

I’ve remarked before how having a camera in my hand makes me pay more attention to everything. I’ve been on the lookout for good shadows over the last couple of days. And the thing that I’ve noticed particularly is that the best ones come when the sun is particularly strong. Inside the house, where there are multiple light sources (overhead lamp, desk lamp, candle) there are shadows all over the place, but outside you don’t get any shadows to speak of unless the sun’s out. And it’s the rich, golden, slantwise sun that makes the really good ones.

My youngest brother has been staying with us, doing a bit of work experience at my office. It’s prompted me to think a bit about the way that I live my life, to remember that early mornings and long journeys aren’t necessarily the way things have to be. I don’t see anything much changing in the next few years. But it’s been good for me to remember that things look different in different lights.

December Reflections 8: biggest surprise of 2018

DSC_0230

The biggest surprise of 2018 had to be the moment when the creative writing workshop I was leading turned out to be not, as I’d assumed, adult learners, but a group of thirteen and fifteen year olds. That was a bit of a shock!

More generally, though, I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed teaching and tutoring. And by how much less intimidating it’s been than I would have expected. Then again, my own learning style is very much, ‘read around the subject a bit, and then jump in and have a go’, so I’ve found that it’s really been a question of equipping other people with the confidence to do that.

I’ve led a few creative writing workshops now, and undergone four days of tutor training. It turns out that ‘read around the subject a bit, and then jump in and have a go’ is an approach that lends itself fairly well to learning how to teach adults. Which is fortunate.

And I find myself thinking about how I could apply what I’ve learned in other settings, which in turn seems to be prodding at questions I thought I’d stopped asking years ago… Well, we’ll see what, if anything, happens there. If anything does, it’s going to take its time about it. Long enough for it not to be a surprise. And I’m fine with that.

December Reflections 7: home

IMG_20181207_124523_433

Home. It’s a touchy subject for me at the moment – both the concept as a whole, and also the way it currently exists in my life. We have a house inspection tomorrow, and I’m on edge. Part of it’s the whine of the vacuum cleaner, and the way that I keep seeing cobwebs, and dead leaves, and things that I should have washed up. Part of it’s just the knowledge that there’s going to be somebody in my house and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And all the time I’m very aware of how lucky I am compared to others – having a steady job, having a landlady who’s very – pardon the pun – accommodating, having a roof over my head at all. Sometimes, hoping for anything more than that feels flat-out greedy. Sometimes, I’m furious that I haven’t sorted it out yet. In the meantime, I’ve got a place to sit down with a cup of tea.

December Reflections 5: five things about me

IMG_20181205_143159_592

  1. I read a lot, and I own a lot of books that I’ve never read.
  2. I don’t drive, and am perfectly content with that state of affairs.
  3. I enjoy using clothes and accessories to explore and express my identity.
  4. I am easily brought down by pessimism, and find it useful to set up good things for the future.
  5. I like travelling. I don’t go far off the beaten track, but I follow it at my own pace, and on my own, or with only one or two companions.

December Reflections 4: best decision in 2018

DSC_0199

I spent much of the summer and autumn of 2018 wondering, Now what? I’d been on my epic adventure. I’d launched my new book. Now what? I was ready for the next big thing, but the big things were just too big, and they hovered infuriatingly just out of reach. (They still are, though I’m gathering boxes to stand on.)

At a church ‘praying with art’ event, I happened to mention that I was in the middle of a transition, and that I didn’t really know what it was. I’d been looking at The Visitation by Sebastiano del Piombo, and been very struck by the way that the two women’s faces and Mary’s right arm make a heart shape, and by all the bustling going on in the background. It’s a painting about transitions. Now what?

A couple of months later, the curate suggested that I might be interested in Cursillo. I heard ‘Casio’, like the calculators; when she spelt it out to me and explained that it was Spanish, it immediately felt like a good thing. Three days of talks and discussion groups, with the Eucharist every day. As I looked into it more, and discovered that much of the imagery came from pilgrimage, it felt like a good thing that might fit into the same place as the Camino de Santiago. I got my form filled in and returned with, for me, unprecedented speed.

The weekend is difficult to describe. (There’s a perception that one isn’t meant to describe it, which I think could be a little off-putting; certainly I appreciated having been given an outline of the way it works, and told ‘not to expect a retreat’.) It was what I was expecting, but it was more than what I was expecting. I knew that there would be talks and discussion groups; I knew that I would have to work quite hard to find myself spaces of time where I could be alone and quiet; I did not know that there would be rainbows and butterflies and a pervasive sense of joy.

I think that what it did for me was to bring out all my awkward bits, and bless them. I have a lot of awkward bits. (Probably most people do.) Most of them came up in discussion. My queerness, and my brain (both my insistence on using it, and when it refuses to work), and my extensive experience of burnout, and my unfashionable opinions on marriage. It has often been lonely being me, being Christian. I’ve had to work a lot of things out on my own. So I spent Friday and Saturday thinking that I’d heard it all before, and Sunday crying, because I’d been heard. On Saturday night I really wanted a hug, and on Sunday I got dozens. I felt as if I’d been taken apart and cleaned and put back together again.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still working through everything that came up. (And quite often that’s meant “ignoring everything that came up, while I catch up on sleep”.) But it’s been good for me, and I think it will go on being so.

Camino Inglés 5: Ferrol to Pontedeume (day 1)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

10 May 2017

The first thing was to get around the ría de Ferrol; it took twenty-eight kilometres and all of the first day. We started at the naval museum – well, we started at the hotel, really; that was where we got our credenciales stamped – and then worked our way around three, or four, or perhaps five, sides of the bay. We were to see the big Navantia arch in the docks from several different angles over the course of the day.

DSC_0645

Busman’s holiday

DSC_0646

The waymarks didn’t have QR codes the last time I walked a Camino (to be fair, we didn’t see many others like this)

Which was not to say that the scenery was uninteresting, simply that it didn’t seem as if we were getting very far. For the first hour or so we were very close to the water, and walking past cranes and ships – and a lonely little red-roofed chapel. Then we started gaining height and walking a little way inland. An avenue took us to a path alongside a major road, and then we crossed around the edge of a roundabout into a trading estate.

DSC_0654

Harbourside chapel

DSC_0658

Snail tempted out by the weather

DSC_0659

Diversion

DSC_0663

Eucalyptus in the rain

A series of short showers brought out lots of scents. Eucalyptus, fennel, seaweed. Some more evasive action around some more major roads, a faintly surreal stretch down an ordinary residential street, and a medieval monastery… Then we went further uphill, finding a path through a eucalyptus forest and under a motorway. The Camino was already demonstrating its variety.

DSC_0667

Inspecting the mill equipment

The path went along the top of a grassy dam, part of a disused tidal mill, and then led us into the town of Narón. We decided that here was as good a place to stop for lunch as any, though it wasn’t quite twelve. This seemed to puzzle the proprietor of the bar we happened across, as did John’s vegetarianism, but neither problem was insurmountable. Not for the last time on this camino, we went for the items on the menu that looked to be the least heavy on the meat, and then I picked out the unmentioned sausage chunks.

DSC_0669

Arty shadow self-portrait against Narón’s shell-shaped pavement

DSC_0671

Bridge across the Ría Xubia

The route crossed the Ría Xubia and almost felt as if it turned back on itself along a pleasant, riverbank path. But we were heading away from the water again, past a cemetery and then a church, and along what the guidebook calls ‘a street called Paraíso’ – which sounds as if it should be a film. Paraíso became the Rúa Real, and the whole thing was one of those streets that manages to be well-preserved yet still very much lived in.

Soon the buildings became less interesting and we crossed under another stretch of motorway. The route went steeply uphill; the sight of an emu in someone’s back garden went some way to compensate for the climb. We could have done without the sight of the Navantia arch. Nearly twenty kilometres and we could still see the wretched thing. We ambled on through this residential quarter.

DSC_0679

Ría de Ferrol. I can’t see the Navantia arch in this; maybe I was so fed up with the thing by this point that I refused to take a photo of it.

The rain was sudden and intense. We had just enough warning to get our waterproofs on. We stopped in someone’s driveway to do it, much to the fury of their neighbour’s dogs. Within a few hundred metres it became clear that repeatedly putting the wet guidebook and taking it out again would reduce it to a pulp; so, too, would keeping it out. Fortunately John had brought a transparent plastic wallet to keep his credencial in: we put the credencial in with mine (in a waterproof bag deep in my rucksack) and repurposed the wallet for the guidebook.

We followed the path downhill and sorted ourselves out in a bar, spreading our waterproofs out over the backs of chairs, getting our credenciales stamped, ordering a coffee apiece, and waiting for the rain to stop. Waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers… It was already becoming apparent that my boots were no longer waterproof. It wasn’t entirely surprising, given their advanced age, but it was annoying.

A little way beyond the bar, the houses gave way to countryside again, and the path headed back uphill, straight up towards the motorway. Looking at the guidebook to refresh my memory, I find myself slightly surprised to discover that this all happened on one day. But then it was one long day. The route had been diverted around some roadworks, which meant that we bypassed the motorway service station that the guidebook had promised us. We ate some date bars instead, and grumbled about the habit of other pilgrims of cluttering up the waymarkings with ineffectual little cairns of stones. This was a particularly egregious example, with the stones in a plastic flowerpot.

DSC_0685

A particularly annoying pilgrim cairn

DSC_0686

Horreo with waymarking

That was probably the most trying point of the day. Once clear of the motorway gubbins we were onto a track through trees and then narrow country roads, empty of traffic, winding downhill, leading us to a pleasant green path and at last down to sea level again. Now we were walking along what I could only call a promenade, with wide pavements and beach cafés and all the rest of it, alongside a band of sandy soil with the water visible between the pine trees. And at last we’d lost sight of that arch.

DSC_0687

Downhill.

DSC_0688

Flat path at Cabañas

The route took us over a long bridge that spanned the whole inlet, and into the town of Pontedeume.

The albergue was on the waterfront, a few yards off the route. It was closed when we arrived, and had a notice on the door with instructions of who to call to get it opened up. Feeling rather daunted, I did. ‘Somos dos peregrinos. Queremos rester aqui esta noche...’ It wasn’t brilliant Spanish, but it did the job; after about ten minutes the hospitalera showed up, unlocked the door, and issued us with disposable sheets and pillowcases. This was a new development since my last camino. I knew from Confraternity newsletters that bedbugs were an increasing problem along the route: this was an attempt to deal with it. There were plenty of bunks to choose from, even allowing for the fact that some had been reserved for what (judging by the notices on the beds, which I didn’t read all that closely) seemed to be an organised group on some kind of sporting excursion.

DSC_0689

In the Pontedeume albergue.

Safely booked into the albergue, we went off the explore Pontedeume. We sat at a tall table outside a bar and drank beer while I tried to write my biography and John found his way onto the wi-fi. At the end of the beer we moved on, and, seeing a shoe shop, thought we might as well see if they could supply a new pair of insoles for John’s ailing boots. My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to cope with this task; we eventually got the message across by dint of John’s taking his boots off – and to pieces – to demonstrate. The shopkeeper was of the opinion that really new boots were indicated, and we tended to agree. I hadn’t realised how inadequate the old ones were. It would be expensive, but it would be worth it.

DSC_0690

Pontedeume in the twilight

Boots purchased, we moved on in search of some food. We picked a bar based on the versatility of its menu, and dined entirely adequately on chips and padrón peppers – though we had some little difficulty persuading the woman who took our order that no, John didn’t want any ham. We were the only customers in the place, which had a slightly incoherent décor of bare stone walls combined with rock’n’roll heroes. Previous patrons had amused themselves by balancing coppers on the protruding edges of the stones; we added a few British pennies to the euro cents.

Returning to the albergue, we found that the Japanese pilgrims had propped the door open, and, having obviously found a supermarket somewhere, were enjoying a makeshift supper. There was no sign of the group with the reservations when we turned in. I couldn’t see how to turn the lights off; besides, the others were still up.

I woke some hours later to find that the lights were still on, but that the sporting group had arrived. I didn’t fancy getting down from my bunk to turn the lights off (and I still didn’t know how to) and I drifted off to sleep again.

Next time: the only way is up. And then down. And then up again. And then down again… Also, a surreal theme park.

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

It’s at this point that I apologise to those readers who are here for the walking, because I am mostly going to talk about ferries and trains. If you aren’t interested in train journeys, then you should definitely avoid my series about my Grand Tour, which is coming up in six months or so. For the moment, however, you can skip this post and come back next week for the actual Camino Inglés.

On the catamaran back across the Solent I realised that the pain in my foot was not due to any injury; some part of the structure of my boot had cracked across the top, and was digging in with every step. I had no time to get new boots, let alone walk new boots in, so I resorted to the pair I’d bought in my first year at university.

My stepsister-in-law was getting married in Leighton Buzzard. My father was holding a 75th birthday party in Itchen Abbas. In between the two my brother John and I were walking the Camino.

DSC_0551

These shoes were not made for walking, really.

I constructed an elaborate packing plan across my rucksack and a suitcase, and smiled at the contrast between their contents. Walking boots versus kitten heels; waterproof rolltop bags versus satin clutch; thick socks versus white gloves. My husband hired a car to get us from Cambridge to Dunstable, and from Dunstable to the church, and back to the hotel for the reception (at which I tried a grapefruit-flavoured gin, and didn’t think much of it). And in the morning he took me to Luton station, and I took the train to St Pancras, and then another one from Paddington to Plymouth.

I met John at Plymouth station, together with a friend of his who at that time happened to be living in a camper van on Dartmoor, and we walked down to the port. At this point we had well over an hour to spare before we had to check in to the ferry, so we stopped for lunch at a yachtie place called The Dock. This was appropriate, as the service was laughably slow. Also appropriate was the item on the bill that read ‘BAD/HOUMUS’. The boys, being vegan, both ordered bread, houmus and taramasalata without the taramasalata. They were given the option of double houmus. The order took a very long time to arrive and then it came with taramasalata.

We were five minutes late checking in, which wouldn’t worry me at all on an Isle of Wight ferry, but which made me a little twitchy given the need for passport and security checks. It was fine, really.

The Pont-Aven was the sort of ferry that wants to be a cruise ship when it grows up, and we felt a bit scruffy with our giant rucksacks. The last time I’d done the Camino we’d crossed from Portsmouth to Caen, and skimped on such luxuries as bunks. This time round, a decade older and richer and wiser, I’d booked a cabin and everything. We sat in the bar and listened to a jazz band who were travelling to a festival in Santander, as the sun set over the sea.

DSC_0556

Sunset from the Pont-Aven

And when they sell rum called Saint James, there is really only one possible response. Mojito.

We retired at a relatively early hour, but I went up on deck at about 11pm to see if I could see anything of France. Not from the port side I couldn’t, but the lighthouse on Ushant was very visible, a double flash every four seconds, the very last flush of the sunset above it, and the moon waxing over the other side.

The next morning I woke up some time before John, and got up to see if I could find breakfast and see dolphins. I spent breakfast eavesdropping on my fellow Britons and thinking that the Brexit vote wasn’t such a surprise. They were whingeing about the breakfast, the price, quality, and quantity thereof. But I forgave them when they pointed out my first dolphins.

I saw three separate groups of dolphins in the end: the first through the ferry window at breakfast; then three side by side quite soon after we went up on deck to look for them specifically, and then, after a very long time in the wind staring at the sea and seeing nothing beyond the rainbows in the spray, just as we were about to give up and go down to pack up, one of the other people watching pointed out a group of six or seven, travelling at right angles to the ship and leaping right out of the water. They seemed quite small and almost luminous in the morning sunlight.

DSC_0563

From the station at Santander

In Santander we put our watches forward, which was ridiculous given how far west we were intending to end up, and ate lunch at Café Royalty, where I’d last been ten years before with Anne. The translation of the menu had improved somewhat in the meantime. Then we wandered around the town, poking our noses into shops and covered markets, and looking at street installations meant to show the devastation caused by the fire of 1941. There was also a monument to a ship explosion of1893, and a preserved air raid shelter from the Civil War. We would have gone to look at that, but it was closed. Eventually, being hot and tired, we brought some provisions for the train and went to wait at the station.

We’d previously stopped there to buy the tickets, where my first proper Spanish conversation in a decade had amounted to ‘You know it doesn’t leave until ten past four?’ We did know, and we got the train at ten past four. But I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to understand about the rail replacement bus service between Llanés and Ribadesella, and, once we’d worked out that was what the guard was talking about, I spent some time in a state of nervous panic before seeking clarification.

Between what the guard told me, logic, John’s memory of the train he’d been on last time, and some signs along the way, we worked out that the reason for the bus was the electrification of that stretch of line. The bus took us through some spectacular coastal villages. I was struck once again with an impracticable desire to walk the Camino del Norte. The bus driver clearly knowing everyone, telling one passenger to give his regards to his mother, and stopping at another point for a through-the-window conversation with an older man.

DSC_0580

View of the railway, from the rail replacement bus

We ate bread and cheese once back on the train (electric, this one). John had downgraded his veganism to vegetarianism for the duration of this Camino. On his previous trip along this stretch of railway he went all the way from Ferrol to Santander in a day, and didn’t bring anything to eat. We stopped for the night in Oviedo, staying in Hotel Favila, blessedly close to the station. After checking in we wandered around the city, and found very little going on. We concluded that either we’d been lied to all our lives about the Spanish nightlife, or that nothing happens on Mondays, or that nothing happens in Oviedo.

DSC_0587

Oviedo bendybus

DSC_0591

Spiritual succour, 24/7

The next morning it was more lively, and we got further, too, into the old town and the university quarter. They were setting up the market when we went there; the night before all the cafés were clearing up, sweeping the floors and stacking the chairs. After the market we worked our way back, through a park with mighty and dark trees. Where Santander does memorials to tragedies, Oviedo does sculpture. Every other street, every other crossing, a statue or a concept piece or a fountain.

DSC_0598

Oviedo breakfast

DSC_0604

Exploring Oviedo

We walked out towards the suburbs and back towards the station. We checked out of the hotel and drank thick, rich, hot chocolate from little cups in holders shaped like scallop shells.

DSC_0620

Hot chocolate

We kept finding ourselves on the Camino, mostly by standing on the pavement being indecisive for too long. Locals saw our rucksacks and directed us in what they assumed was the right direction. In Santander, we’d been accosted by a woman handing out business cards for a hostel on the Camino del Norte. Now, in Oviedo, having an hour or so to spare before our train, we thought we might as well go with it, and we followed the Camino Primitivo for half a mile or so. As far as a bridge over the FEVE line, at which point John saw a bridge a little further down that interested him, a sort of suspension bridge-cum-roundabout, so we went to look at that, and then turned back – and had to explain that no, we weren’t lost, we were going to catch a train to Ferrol.

We found our way back and drank coffee in Café Uría (because it was opposite the station and had a picture of a bicycle on the window) – then caught the train.

DSC_0627

North Spanish coastline, seen from the train

Two hours into the second leg, and the scenery was a sequence of tunnels and steep valleys, eucalyptus trees, viaducts of various ages, hairpin bends a long way beneath us, horreos, houses with shallow roofs of red tiles and yellow plaster walls; maps of the Camino in tiles on the walls of the station buildings; shells here and there. Very occasionally, we glimpsed the sea out to the north.

DSC_0638

Waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol

The second rail replacement in as many days (a car this time, not a bus) took us from Navia to Ribadeo. A few kilometres east of Galicia, it started to rain; then a yellowish mist rolled down. I read Four Quartets, and decided that I was growing tired of fog and eucalyptus trees. We could go back the other way, via Palencia.

Checking into the hotel at Ferrol, we found ourselves behind three Japanese men in their sixties – obviously pilgrims, and well-organised ones at that. They had plastic folders with step by step (not quite literally) instructions. As the week went on, we would discover that they rose early, walked fast, and enjoyed themselves when they got to the night’s destination. For the moment, though, we were mostly concerned with getting the key to our room.

There was wi-fi. There usually is, these days. The last time I did the Camino my phone had a screen of three square inches and if you wanted to get on the internet you had to hope there’d be a public access computer in your albergue. This was, no doubt, an excellent spiritual discipline, but in the year of Our Lord 2017 it turned out that daily internet access was a blessing.

Because when I connected my phone to the wi-fi in that hotel and my emails started rolling in, it turned out that Speak Its Name had been shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and the Society of Authors needed a biography, a photograph, and six copies of the book, all of which would have been very difficult to organise without the internet. Not that I did any organising that night. We went down to the bar and drank beer and red wine, and I was very glad that I had one hundred and sixteen kilometres of walking ahead of me to keep me distracted through the embargo.

Next time: we start walking the Camino Inglés. I promise.