Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Esme's Bookshelf

Books I read in May and June (pre-Spain)

Children of the Abbey; A Tale by Regina Maria Roche. Technically I read volume 3 and parts of volumes 1, 2, and 4. Accidents happen.
Only for Women.
The Monk by Matthew Lewis. Oh, the scandal!
There's Cake in My Future by Kim Gruenenfelder. A thoroughly amusing book.
Sexing the Cherry by Jeannette Winterson. Winterson is a good old chap. You should read her. Do it. Seriously, this lady has skills.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke. Excellent, as one would expect from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Books I read in June, July, and August (in Spain and France)

A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. Mrs. Pollifax is as amusing as ever.
Scandalous Innocent by Juliet Landon. I'll post more on this later. Wait, I never read the last few pages. I kept saving them for the right moment...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Not long before I did the Camino, a gorgeous copy of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Son of a Witch came into work. Hardcover, shiny embossing, gold-edged pages, a green ribbon to use as place-marker. I quickly snagged it.

From the little I’d heard from friends about Wicked, the few songs from the musical I’d listened to, and the for-children book of Maguire’s I had previously read, I wasn’t prepared for what I’d actually find in the book Wicked. The fully-formed world of Oz; a complexity of politics and religion, prejudice and racism, war and terrorism; contemplations on the existence of the soul and the nature of evil. For being based on glittery shoes and people called munchkins, the story was modern and relevant. It was interesting how, one by one, Maguire fit the puzzle pieces of the original Wizard of Oz into his book so seamlessly you didn’t always notice they were there. Some parts of the writing didn’t feel right, but overall it was an impressive work that I had trouble putting down. I’ve already started Son of a Witch

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Now that I’m back in Idaho in my MFA community, people ask if I’m going to write about the Camino. The writing in my diary and the more creative sort of writing I’ve done on this blog are as much as I plan to do right now. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. There are plenty of books and memoirs others have written, and I don’t feel a need to add to that body of work, but I can point people towards authors and titles if anyone’s interested in reading more.

Since I’ve gotten back, people have asked me if my trip on the Camino was spiritual. They’ll ask if it was life-changing. The answer is yes, but it was spiritual and life changing in a lot of little ways. There were no giant miracles, but it was indeed a pilgrimage.

The lessons I learned were small but important, the sort of lessons that if you simply state them rather than experience them they sound cliché, and so I’ll refrain from writing them here. They’re the sort of lessons that you have to learn over and over again: Every day on the Camino you go through the same routine of walking and searching for a bed and searching for a meal and searching for friends and going to sleep, and every day you live the same routine of facing a difficulty and dealing with it. Humans need to learn lessons more than once, and with the Camino each step is a lesson if you are paying attention, each step works wisdom into your muscles, so that hopefully when you go back to your normal life wisdom will reside in your body and not be forgotten so easily.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Camino Community

One of the best parts of the Camino is the community of people you meet. I’ve made friends with Hungarians, Italians, South Koreans, Germans, Australians, Welsh, Canadians, Danish, Mexicans, Irish, Andorrans, Czechoslovakians. I’ve made friends with doctors and clowns and students and radio directors and chefs and monks and computer hackers and REI clothing designers. I've met the last Templar Knight. I’ve met people who had nothing and were doing the Camino completely on the hospitality of others, and I’ve met people who had more money than I could imagine having.

But despite all this diversity, we are all at the same level on the Camino. We wear the same clothes and eat the same food. We all sweat and we all wash our clothes by hand. We all sleep together in bunk beds in rooms of up to 200 people. We all have blisters and sore muscles. We all have a common purpose. Many of us are doing this for religious or spiritual reasons. And so we’re able to get to know people in a different way than if we met them in our daily lives. We much more quickly and much more often find ourselves in intimate conversations with people, whether it’s about the diarrhea they got from a bad fountain or whether it’s about how they experience God on the Camino.

Life is both slower and faster on the Camino. Try walking for five hours with nothing but wheat fields to look at and you will know how life slows down. It can be tedious, but it’s also the simple feeling of always moving at 4 kilometers an hour, rather than going 50 in a car. It’s also getting down to the basics, having nothing more on your To-Do List than “take a shower, wash clothes, find a grocery store.”
But life is also faster on the Camino. You can walk with someone for five hours then have a beer with them then eat dinner with them then sleep in a bunk next to them, and the next day do it all over again. You’re not just hanging out on a Friday night. People are exposed to stressful and difficult and demanding situations, and you see them in these situations and share these situations with them and get to know them in a different way than you might in your normal life. You get to know people very quickly on the Camino.

Sometimes you make a friend and run into them over and over, stopping for coffee at the same bars, sleeping in the same albergues, walking at the same pace on the Camino, for days or weeks. Sometimes you make a friend for a week or two and then they get 10 kilometers ahead or behind and you don’t see them again until Santiago. People come and go, popping up again when you least expect them. Sometimes you make a friend for an afternoon only. Sometimes you talk to someone for ten minutes. But even that ten-minute interaction can be something you remember fondly the rest of the Camino, can be meangingful, can touch you.

The professor from whom I first heard about the Camino said that all of life happens on the Camino. Within those 35-odd days everything will happen to you that happens in a lifetime.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Guide to the Camino: Food, Part 3

I'm back in the States, but I'm going to do a few more posts about Spain to wind things up before we get back to our regularly scheduled programming (books, books, and books!). I promise this is the last post about food; it just seemed I couldn't end my Spain posts without mentioning tapas.

A Guide to Camino: Food, Part 3

Atun—Tuna was probably the meat you ate most in Spain. Little tins of tuna made great lunches along the road; tuna melts for lunch if there was a kitchen in the albergue; tuna on the ensalada mixta; and when you got to Galicia, empanada atun (a thin tuna pie) was your favorite snack to pick up at a bar.

Ensalada mixta, a common starter, with tuna 

Meat—"For a vegetarian, you really like meat," the Belgian once told you as you were digging into some of the best chicken you ate on the Camino. You explained to him that walking 30 k a day made you need lots of protein, and Spain wasn't exactly overflowing with beans and nuts. You ate what was available. If huevos fritos, fried eggs, were on the menu for the pilgrim's entree, you almost always took it.

Home cookin'—If there's a supermercado in the town and a kitchen in the albergue the pilgrim's can cook dinner for themselves. More and more often along the Camino this is what you do. Pasta is common, easy to make for large groups. Your first home-cooked meal was made by a German, pasta for 12 pilgrims, with fried onions and garlic and red peppers, with tomato salsa and shaved mozzarella. You were thrilled. Another time a Danish woman made you a sort of alfredo with tuna and dill. The Belgian always made Spanish eggs. On your night to cook you made the Belgian grilled sandwiches, because he became extremely confused every time you talked about this American habit of frying sandwiches or offered him a tuna melt. You caramelized onions with red peppers and garlic, added tomatoes and cheese and ham (the Belgian wanted meat), put it between slices of bread and fried it in butter.

Spanish eggs—The Belgian always made these because they were fairly easy. He said they were college food. The last night, while you were breaking up for the last time, he made them for you because he knew you liked eggs. He would scramble eggs with tomatoes, ham, cheese, onions, garlic, and butter. When asked what made them Spanish, he said it was how heavy they were, the cheese and butter, no milk or water to cut the eggs.

Vinagre y sal—Every night when the camarero brought your entrees to the table, you would say, "Vinagre, por favor," and the Belgian would say, "y sal." Patatas fritas, French fries, came with most meals. The Spanish don't salt their food much, not even French fries, and ketchup was uncommon, forcing you to kick that habit. But you were introduced to vinegar on French fries by a Finish woman and Pennsylvanian man, and loved it.

The entree of a pilgrim's menu: rabas (calamari) patatas fritas, pimientos, and bread soaked with oil and vinegar.

Tarta de queso—Cheese cake. In Galego, tarta de queixo. It really isn't like American cheesecake, and you're not sure they even use cream cheese. It's much eggier, but when done right very good.

The window of a delicatessen in Santiago, with tarta de queixo on the left.

Tinto de verano—Most commonly half red wine and half lemonade. Very refreshing.

Croquetas—Creamy potato business, sometimes with cheese or bits of ham, breaded and fried. They're like little potato pills. They were one of your favorite snacks at bars.

Tapas—You at first found all this pinchos, raciones, and tapas business confusing. Even now, you're not really sure if pinchos and tapas are the same thing. Pinchos were small bits of food, just a few bites, usually under glass on the bar. Pinchos often came on toast, you even once saw croquetas on toast. Raciones were larger, such as a plate of gambas (shrimp) or pimientos de padron or cheese. At some bars they would give you a pincho every time you ordered a new drink, a small plate of olives, or a mussel on toast, or a slice of tomato and cheese on toast, or a couple bites of tortilla. In bigger cities like Pamplona and Santiago you liked to bar hop so you could try a pincho or two at each one. Shrimp salad on toast, sweet peppers and sardines on toast, a small piece of empanada filled with chorizo and potato.

A case of pinchos at a bar in Santiago 

Pinchos: Smoked salmon and blackberries in cream cheese, salchichon. 

Pinchos with a glass of Ribeiro, the best white wine in Galicia

More pictures:
Queso con miel, cheese with honey that was the postre (dessert) with the ensalada mixta and calamari previously shown 

Cafe con leche 

 Arroz con leche, rice pudding, a postre for pilgrim's menus

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Guide to the Camino: Food, Part Two

Ensaladilla rusa—Russian salad. The first time you found this in a bar you thought you´d hit the jackpot. It´s like tuna salad and egg salad and potato salad all rolled into one with some veggies thrown in.

Ensaladilla rusa

Baskets of bread—At bars and restaurants they give you bread with almost everything. Bread with your tortilla, bread with your cheese plate, bread with your pimientos de padron, bread with your ensaladilla rusa, bread with your patatas bravas. You once saw two horses eating bread for breakfast.

Kebap—It´s basically gyros. You have it twice in the bigger cities, Burgos and Leon. The first time the Belgian thinks the Spanish menu is confusing you because you try to order from the vegetarian options. The second time he asks you what type of meat falafel is.

Spicy food—They don´t have it in Spain. You and the Belgian lament the fact.

Azucar—Ever time you order a coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or cola cao they give you one or two packets of sugar. Each bar has its name or logo on the sugar packets. You once watched in horror as a woman heaped spoonful after spoonful of sugar into her tea. You´re surprised how many people put sugar in their coffee here, you don´t remember anyone in the States doing this. Maybe it´s because in America you can put sweetened flavorings in your drinks, unlike most places in Spain, but even then a lot of people simply take their coffee black or with cream. You have yet to touch the azucar.

A typical pilgrim breakfast

Vino—You´re pretty sure wine is its own group in the food pyramid, and you need some everyday to have a balanced diet.

Pimientos de padron—Fried peppers common in Galicia. One of the few dishes in Spain that is truly salty and even a little spicy.

Pulpo y pimientos de padron

Pulpo—A traditional Galician dish. Boiled octopus tentacles drizzled with olive oil and served on wooden plates. In Arzua you watched a woman in a bar snip the suprisingly large tentacles into pieces. You first tried it in Palas de Rei, and it was quite good. It wasn´t at all rubbery and had a taste between fish and chicken. The second time you had it in Finisterre with gambas al ajillo, shrimp and garlic.

Pulpo con gambas al ajillo