Prepping for El Camino

Despite the fact that this is going to be my third Camino, it is still as exciting as the first, I guess it must be the expectation of adventure. So here are some thoughts and advice on preparing for the Camino:

Knowing that the pilgrimage to Santiago has been around for centuries (there was a pagan trek to Finisterre (the end of the world in Latin) before Christianity modified it to their needs) means that it can be done – and should be done with minimum amount of technology, help, etc. For me the Camino is a return to basics, so I do not book hotels, I do not use a phone app, nor use high tech clothes (other than shoes). This allows for a freer mind.

Because of this minimalist approach I do not have to worry about packing: just 3 pairs each of socks, underwear, shorts, T-shirts, a poncho, a sweatshirt, flip flops, Marseille soap for body and laundry, dopp kit, swiss army knife, water bottle, hat, walking stick, sunglasses, little else actually.

A more pressing issue for me is what to read on the Camino. There are at least a couple of schools of thought: one is to read something that has nothing to do with your journey. The second is to read something germane with your trip. I am in the second camp. My first outing I read a book on the parable of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. On my second outing I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that fellow pilgrim James gave me on the first outing! This year I had a few options: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which I finally have in French, Kathleen Dowling Singh The Grace in Dying, and finally the chosen option The Way of Ignatius, A Prayer Journey Through Lent, by Gemma Simmonds who was my sister’s teacher in school! Granted, Lent is over, but one should always be ready for a “prayer journey”.

As important as the kit is the actual physical preparation. This year I also had to break in new shoes, so I killed two proverbial birds with one proverbial stone: breaking in new shoes and training. The trick is to slowly add miles and weight to your pack in training with the goal of breaking in the shoes and your back!! This year I did a few solo outings and one with a couple of friends – and their dog – in nearby El Pardo natural park.

This week I bought my train ticket to Irún and a pair of socks (to replace a lost pair), but these are no ordinary socks, 60% Merino wool, no seams, and cushion. The original ones were Darn Tough socks from Vermont, this pair is Icebreaker from New Zealand.

The final details involve getting stuff done before leaving for a month, and getting the last items purchased and prepared. Follow my Instagram (Tonxob) or Facebook (tonxo balson) for daily photo uploads of the trip, starting June 3…

Santiago de Compostela

One of the advantages of being a freelancer is that I can take a couple of days off when I can fit them in. So recently we escaped to Santiago de Compostela. I know this Northern jewel well, but last time I was there when I finished my Camino in June of 2018 I didn’t stick around and took the first train back to Madrid. This time we went for three days.

Santiago was built since Roman times mostly out of granite so if it rains and it gets dark the streets and the buildings take on a mystical glow, a very special shine. We were lucky it rained when we went!

Of course the main event is the Cathedral which has been there in one shape or form welcoming pilgrims since the Middle Ages, although the Romans already had a temple there. Other must sees include the square Plaza do Obradoiro (check out the live webcam!) that houses the Cathedral, town hall, parador and university, the awesome modernist market, the park, the contemporary art museum, the folk museum, and, of course, a bucket full of churches/monasteries. But really the best thing to do is to walk around the old town enjoying the atmosphere, the little shops, the bars and restaurants…

We were lucky to stay at the Parador, the original pilgrim’s hospital which is on the Cathedral square and is the oldest hotel in the world!

The other main attraction is food! Needless to say the seafood cannot get any fresher as Santiago is a few miles from the sea. The octopus, the barnacles, any fish is just perfect! There are two local wines to have: the crisp, seabreeze infused Albariño and the lesser known cousin Ribeiro made inland along the local rivers (thus the name).

The Cathedral was under extensive restoration efforts so we could not enjoy mass with the massive incense burner – the Botafumeiro, oh well, maybe next time.

Camino de Santiago #3 The North Route

Repeat pilgrims of the Camino number their Caminos by sorties, not by completed Caminos. That means that I have done two Caminos although I have only completed one, since I did it in two parts. So for veteran pilgrims, I am no preparing to embark on my third Camino!

Also I must apologize for my recent silence, I have been immersed in a project you will soon learn about. But now back to the Camino…

Being a freelancer nowadays means that I can take the whole month of June for my walkabout. After much consideration: De la plata (from Seville), Portugués (yeap, from Lisbon), Aragonés (from the Pyrenees), I settled on the Norte: all along the breathtaking North Shore of Spain, starting in Hendaye in France.

Over the last three years people have asked me why I do the Camino. The answer is multi faceted, but the main one is being far from the madding crowd (thanks Mr. Hardy), alone, in silence, in a state of almost constant meditation, meeting people from all over the world and sharing the walk and meals (and yes, the bathrooms and bunk beds) with them, getting to know this wonderful country more and more intimately, taking part in something much bigger and far older! than oneself. Finally it is the physical bit, the sport, the personal challenge of walking every day for days. As I have said before in this blog, the Camino is what the world should be like. So much so, I think I might be addicted to the Camino!! I will keep you posted on my adventures.

Source: Club Renfe magazine

Source: Club Renfe magazine

A (much needed) silence and meditation retreat.

The last few months have been a bit challenging, so when the opportunity came to spend a few days in the Monasterio de El Paular in a retreat of silence and meditation, I jumped.

I have written before about El Paular, it’s magic and the wonderful monks since I have visited every summer for a few years,  But I had never spent more than a couple of hours there. Since I returned to Spain in the Fall, I called the monk in charge of retreats, the Guest Master, but could never find the right timing. Finally I chose a weekend with no other people staying over, and headed for the mountains…

Although the monastery is less than two hours away from Madrid, it feels a world away, as one has to go up the Guadarrama mountains (that would be where Hemingway based his For Whom the Bell Tolls) and down the other side. When I went, the mountains were all snowed, fortunately the road was clear, so I did enjoy a good drive up and down.

Once you enter the Monastery you notice your blood pressure drops and your serenity reaches levels you did not know were possible. You get a simple cell with a bed, a desk, a proper bathroom and amazing views of the mountains. I was free until vísperas (vespers) at 8pm so I went for a walk. My first steps of that walk where a rush, a tsunami of peace. In fact, it took a while to accept the silence as a companion.

As I mentioned in my posts about the Camino de Santiago, Medieval folk had a real spiritual affinity for choosing where to put churches, chapels or monasteries. This one is flanked by a gorgeous river and many streams which were running full during my visit. It is also at the base of the mountain, making it a very secure location. According to Feng Shui, if you were to draw a dragon using the available landscape, the best – and safest – place to build would be where the dragon’s genitals would be, that is where El Paular sits.

As advised by the Guest Master, I arrived early for Vísperas prayer. All 5 (6 when there is mass) daily prayers take place in a very cozy square chapel off of the cloister. The prayer breaks down into singing and speaking and into Latin and Spanish, but that really does not matter, as what matters is the repetition of the prayers that make the event magical.

Dinner comes right after vespers and happens in silence. A monk serves you and you eat while another monk reads a religious text. After special meals, the Abbot rings a little bell and you are allowed to speak, but not to get up from the table!

The final prayer, Completas (Compline) is a at ten, and you must keep silence until after Maitines (Maitins) at 6:30am the next day. You pray Laudes at 8am and have breakfast right after. Then the monks might have communal work. When I was there we had to clean up the monk’s tombs in the cloister and plant pansies that would withstand the cold. It was nippy out in the cloister, but the sun was shining and soon warmed us up. The work was rewarding as Abbot Miguel regaled us with stories of the dead monks and other folks buried there: an American fellow who was very fond of the monastery, or a child who drowned nearby, all very touching. After our work we snuck into to kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and madeleines made by the monks. I still had time for a walk in the forest before Sexta (Sext) and lunch.

And so the hours and the days pass: meditating, walking, eating in silence and praying. The weekend I was there the monks were celebrating Saint Scholastica, the sister of the founder of the Benedictine order. I had never heard of her, but her motto is very moving, something like whoever loves more has more power (más puede quien más ama) which became one of the cornerstones of my meditation while at the monastery. Once it got dark I would walk around and around the magnificent cloister which is surrounded by massive Vicente Carducho paintings (I think I will devote a blog post just for that bit…).

It is difficult to explain the monastic experience. The concept of time is totally different from that in the outside world, actually, outside might be the key word there as in the monastery it is all about inside you, your inner beauty, your inner holiness, your inner time, your inner everything!

On my last day I had a nice chat in the library with one of the senior monks. His advice to me? Empty yourself, a process the ancient Greeks called kenosis and something I have been working on since it was also recommended by Richard Rohr in his daily meditations.

Leaving the monks and the monastery was very sad, entering back into the crazy world we have created was tough, but I know I will be back to spend some of that special time with the monks at El Paular.

 

Beauty vs Nihilism

Don Quixote and Sancho in their quest

Don Quixote and Sancho in their quest

I recently read two articles published one day apart that made me want to write about them.

The first one is a book review in ABC Cultural by Manuel Lucena Giraldo of Padre Ladrón de Guevara, a Jesuit who critiqued over 2.115 writers! Apparently they were all horrible, regardless of nationality: Pio Baroja, Rubén Darío, Victor Hugo, Flaubert… all “lead to the desolation and disconsolation of the soul”…

The second is a brief interview of Spanish author Luisgé Martín, this time from El Cultural de El Mundo who believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket, which of course is not a new concept. The idea goes back to the lacrimarum valle (valley of tears) of the early Christians.

What struck me about these two articles was the pessimism, the negativity. Now, I might not always be a ray of sunshine, but there must be some hope and/or reason for us to be here.

Aren’t you amazed at the energy in us? around us? everywhere? Coincidence? maybe, but it sure feels good to believe in something bigger, otherwise what is the point of the beauty around us? This takes me to the Ladrón de Guevara article: novelists, poets, artists all help us to see that energy, that beauty. While I confess that I have not read either author, and I do think that a contrarian view helps to add contrast to the picture, I do believe we cannot only think in black and white.

What I am driving at here is what Richard Rohr calls the “oneness”, that is you cannot have light without dark, life without death dry without wet, ying without yang, and so on.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan

 

Return to culture (at last)

One of the massive pluses of living in a major world capital is the amazing cultural offering one has access to. I really needed this cultural stimulation. The problem with the word culture is that it has been made to sound elitist, refined, distant from the people, the stuff Frazier and Niles Crane did, but in truth it is just beauty, beauty created by man – and woman of course! The least important bit is if we call it culture, art, or whatever.

I have been lucky to live in major cities where I became a cultural junkie: London (where it all started for me), Paris, Boston, New York, even Chapel Hill – a college town, but obviously with a thriving cultural scene. Unfortunately Naples only had a couple of cultural outlets (which I squeezed every last drop from), and in NJ I didn’t get a chance to explore although of course the heavy stuff was in NYC…

In the less than three months back in Madrid I have been lucky to experience:

  • A brilliant piano recital by local piano star Luis Fernández Pérez playing Händel, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Bach. For free at the Fundación Juan March.
  • A play/recital of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by stage icon Nuria Espert.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerily prescient play Nekrassov (1955) about the “fake news”.
  • A gorgeous version of The Nutcracker by the prestigious Compañía Nacional de Danza and the Teatro Real house orchestra!
  • Visits to the Sorolla museum, the Museo del Romanticismo, and a score of art exhibits including “Rediscovering the Mediterranean” at the Fundación Mapfre with paintings and sculptures from the XIX and early XX Centuries.
  • After fourteen years I again became a member of the Amigos del Prado, which allows me free entry to the Prado, avoiding the queues. I have, of course, already gone twice!
  • Seeing a couple of concerts in bars around town by chance.
  • Never mind being surrounded by amazing architecture.

Et cetera, et cetera, down to awesome street musicians and performers! And this is with limited time and money. The cultural menu is, in fact, overwhelming, but I am happy to nibble and enjoy!

Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.

Jawaharlal Nehru

 

On the importance and beauty of blogging

The lonely work of blogging

The lonely work of blogging

Blogging has been a fantastic tool for me, an outlet, and a hobby. What started as an academic adventure blog about riding my motorcycle (RIP) to visit universities for my PhD, morphed into a bit of everything blog: Musings on academia, random essays/articles, personal anecdotes, still the odd travel piece, my favorite things (restaurants, bars, cigars!), and personal notes. In fact, my most read items are my essay on Existentialism in Don Quixote and my dad’s obituary.

My students always appear shocked when I tell them about my blog. Which is surprising because they are super connected. In fact everybody should blog. You see, Instagram (follow me at tonxob) is only visual, Tweeter is limited, and old Facebook, well, we all know the shortcomings of FB. Blogging on the other hands requires a bit more thinking, planning, writing, it forces you to write – at least try – coherent thought and how to express it.

I recently found an old blog post from a professor at the LSE about precisely this issue. So here it is, click here to read more. Here is a bit of a tease…

A good proportion of the people I have come across may be brilliant in their field, but when it comes to using the interwebs, tend to sound like the querulous 1960s judge asking ‘What is a Beatle?’ (‘I don’t twitter’). Much of life is spent within the hallowed paywalls of academic journals (when I pointed out that no-one outside academia reads them, the baffled response seemed to be along the lines of ‘and your point is?’).

Here is the address if you prefer to cut and paste:

An antidote to futility: Why academics (and students) should take blogging / social media seriously

There are a few blog platforms to use. I have used WORDPRESS from the beginning and I love it! you can have your blog for free. Come on and join the club!