A typically attractive street view in a Spanish village along the way. Photo courtesy Sidse Johannsen.
Artillery Row

A paean to Spain and Italy during troubled times

On the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage I saw the delights of the countries most cruelly ransacked by Coronavirus

Macabre number watching has become an all but unavoidable pastime during the COVID-19 coronavirus’ spread around the world. We wince at the latest daily death rate report in a particular country—usually marking an increase—though perhaps sighing if the numbers aren’t as bad as expected. Beyond the UK’s situation, we all have our own deeply personal reasons for following the coronavirus-related travails of other countries. It could be because of a wonderful summer holiday spent abroad, a former job, a child living elsewhere through divorce, the migration of friends and family, a former girlfriend or boyfriend. In this global village that was, until recently, tightly knit by international flights, our links and attachments to other countries are myriad.

The plights of Spain and Italy have been particularly etched on my mind. Not just because they have the highest number of deaths—a sad mantle soon to be taken by the US, another country close to my heart—but also because back in 2017 I picked up my walking sticks and set off on the epic Camino de Santiago. This astonishing and baffling pilgrimage traverses the mighty pastoral breadth of northern Spain, attracting both religious and irreligious in equal numbers (on my Camino I was struck by a preponderance of witty and erudite lesbian atheists). It extends for about 900 kilometres east to west if you begin at the most popular starting point just on the other side of the Pyrenees in France’s Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then push on through the city of Santiago de Compostela—technically the end of the pilgrimage with the city’s claim to be the resting place of Saint James, for whom the pilgrimage is named—and continue for another 85 kilometres or so to the logical terminus at the town of Finisterre on Spain’s Galician coast. 

The mountainous terrain between France and Spain at the beginning of the Camino. Photo courtesy Nicole Thomson.

Among the motley assortment of pilgrims from across the globe that I found myself among, Italians were one of the best represented cohorts. They proved fantastic ambassadors, proof of a national character that exudes gregariousness and generosity. Many a night I was invited to pasta-based banquets the Italian pilgrims cooked up in whichever hostel we found ourselves at the day’s end. Amid impassioned conversations in Italian exploding all around me, it often felt as if I was in a scene from one of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, albeit a much friendlier version. 

Fields of wheat stretching to the horizon. Photo courtesy Nicole Thomson.

As the 5-week pilgrimage progressed, my experience of Spain and my more indirect one of Italy weaved in and out of each other, revealing more than I had ever appreciated about each country and its people. Capturing the full depth of the Camino experience requires a book. I can give a snapshot here. Golden wheat fields and vineyards stretching to the horizon. Ghosts of Hemingway in the walled city of Pamplona that hosts the Running of the Bulls, which the American novelist put on the map in his novel “The Sun Also Rises”. Each morning the rising sun over my right shoulder and backpack as I set off continuing from east to west, from Alpha to Omega. The constant chorus of Buen Camino! from Spanish locals wishing pilgrims a “Good Journey!” Pitstops for cerveza con limón, a deliciously refreshing mixture of beer and lemon. Lots of candle lighting in heart-reddeningly beautiful but empty Baroque churches, the meagre footfall occasionally picking up when a few old pensioners occupied pews during mass. Far too much Spanish red wine, especially at lunchtime. Riotous festivals in each major city passed through. The lush hills and valleys of the western state of Galicia that looks like Ireland (there were even bagpipes).

This astonishing and baffling pilgrimage attracts both religious and irreligious in equal numbers

A group of pilgrims burning clothes—a tradition to mark the end of the Camino—amid the rocks at Finisterre. Photo courtesy Sidse Johannsen.

The scope of spectacle was unending. But the farther I walked, I noticed how the beautiful surroundings, the sunrises, the candle lighting, all began to recede in importance. Far more prominent in my mind were thoughts about the other pilgrims I had befriended. Where were they? Would our paths cross at the next town where I’d be spending the evening? Would I ever see them again? Increasingly my pilgrimage wasn’t about a destination, self-discovery, or religious affirmation: it was simply about the other pilgrims.

“You realize how much we take people for granted,” Bruno, a Brazilian pilgrim, told me as we surveyed the Atlantic from the lighthouse at Finisterre. “I met so many great people on the Camino and thought I would bump into them again. But I didn’t, and I don’t have their emails or numbers. I may never see them again.”

I sympathized strongly with Bruno. Walking the Camino restored my faith in humanity, by which I mean, speaking as a military veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, those often-suspect and mercurial individuals: civilians. Despite the military’s tragedy and folly since 9/11, it’s impossible for a veteran confronted with the civilian world not to feel an acute loss over the positive aspects of the military life: the clear purpose, the defined and cooperative hierarchy, the willing sacrifices, the sense of loyalty and true brotherhood. The military maintains a sense of higher purpose and of selfless love much more clearly than the civilian world, which appears to be racing toward losing touch with anything that may lend it a sense of meaning. “Society is a machine for destroying love,” writes the French provocateur novelist Michel Houllebeeq.

A cross set against day break at Finisterre. Photo by James Jeffrey.

But through the pilgrims I met on the Camino, I was given an unequivocal demonstration—particularly by those Italian pilgrims and our Spanish hosts—of how wonderfully radical, intelligent, funny, kind, beautiful, and graceful humans can be, as well as how generous, selfless and courageous they can be. There was the German couple in their early thirties with packs on their backs, sweating and pushing two heavy-duty prams containing a baby and two young girls as their dog trotted beside; two Scottish women, one a teacher, the other a care provider for stroke victims, using their precious summer holiday to guide a hulking six-foot-five, visually impaired man up and down the mountainous terrain; pilgrims bedeviled by blisters and swollen tendons, or covered in bug bites from head to toe, fighting through tears to the next hostel.

The Camino rammed home how human life is such a wonderfully radical proposition; how fleeting it is; and how we are all united by our shared participation in “the whole mad, sad, noble, degraded, endlessly fascinating human story,” in the words of American public intellectual George Weigel. It also demonstrated how, despite what we may sometimes suspect of others, especially in these polarized political times rent by BREXIT and Donald Trump, life gains its luster through embracing Thomas Hardy’s madding crowd, not turning away from it. We are communitarian individuals, despite how self-reliant we might like to think ourselves. It’s our engagement with others that gives our existence pluck, verve and wonder. And I say that as someone who, after his army career, distraught and bemused by what he encountered when he returned to the civilian world, succumbed to scorning and avoiding the madding crowd, choosing to self-isolate himself as a journalist in Ethiopia.

The author in pilgrim mode. Photo courtesy Sidse Johannsen.

Now, encased by the COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing lockdown, the Camino and its boundless freedoms offered each day couldn’t appear farther away. But as the days of self-isolation have churned on, I’ve noticed how being marooned in the same spot can, rather counter intuitively, share much of the strange mix that occurred on the Camino. With far too much time to ponder, I find myself going through many of the same emotions that emerged during long meditative stretches through northern Spain’s arid Meseta plains: joy and sadness about the rollercoaster of life, bitterness and regret for what has been irrevocably lost, hope and optimism for what may yet still come. Lots of frustration and lust too.

There was also a simplicity about Camino life which echoes our present shrunken existences. I remember how no matter the country of origin, all pilgrims sang the praises of the simplicity, camaraderie and sense of community engendered by the Camino, and what it teaches you about a potentially better and purer sort of lifestyle. One pilgrim called the Camino “the Woodstock of our age,” referring to the late 1960s iconic counter-culture music festival: a way of breaking away from the suffocating relentlessness, confusion and expense of modern society.

A typically attractive street view in a Spanish village along the way. Photo courtesy Sidse Johannsen.

“I expected to use the walk as a time to reflect on my life thus far and reset goals for the future,” I was told by Jessi Whitby, one of the lesbian atheists. “It took me awhile to realize that this was the mental break I was looking for—no need to think and puzzle over things or big questions. I was completely present in the moment.”

In coping with the lockdown, we are being counseled how these anxious days are a time for small, daily concrete gestures of caring for others; a chance to focus on and cherish our spouses, children, parents and other important people in our lives—simple lessons that are all too each to lose sight of and which the Camino exemplified through its return to and embrace of fundamental precepts.

The author takes a pit-stop on the beach in Galicia. Photo by James Jeffrey.

The lockdown has reiterated what was arguably the greatest lesson imparted by the Camino: how a primal need resides in us all to bear witness and talk to our fellow travelers on this pilgrimage of life that, though we may disagree on much of it, should serve as a means of rejoicing in our shared humanity with its wonderful and stirring muddle of contradictions and finer aspirations. 

Spanish mountains serve as the backdrop for much of the early Camino route. Photo courtesy Sidse Johannsen.

All of us are in need of such reminders. Having turned my back on tanks and jets and drones and an increasingly technologically advanced war machinery, increasingly I found myself in a society enthralled to the machinery of the Internet and the digital realm, even though such slavish obedience seems to be deepening our personal isolation, vulnerability and susceptibility. Even before the lockdown, it was continually getting harder to interact with those civilians I hoped to find outside the army, as people find portable screens fed by infinite data more interesting than interacting with a person who is actually before them. We have been tunnelling into ourselves and inhabiting an ever-expanding nether region of commodified relationships, coerced by impersonal forces driven by markets and technology. 

One of many river crossings along the Camino. Photo by James Jeffrey.

The lockdown, like the Camino, has been a slap-in-the-face reminder that being human and being around other humans is essential—and often enormous fun. “You can live once more—look at things as you used to look at them,” wrote the pagan Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century. “In this is the resumption of life.” As we try to grapple with our strange new COVID-19-shaped world, there is much discussion about how we emerge on the other side and whether society will be irrevocably changed by the pandemic, perhaps even for the better. It’s up to each of us how we emerge and go forward. Buen Camino.

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