Patient Hospitaleros

A quick update on where we’re at – we are just finishing our stretch in Castille and Leon and are at a hostel tonight in Villafranca del Bierzo before the climb tomorrow to O’Cebreiro and Galicia.

I love beakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day.

I have been impressed with the seemingly limitless patience of the folks who run the hostels – called “albergues” – along the Camino. The “hospitaleros” (and hospitaleras) face an unending stream of smelly pilgrims coming through day after day with dirty boots, oozing blisters and, for the most part, lousy Spanish. And all of us seem to expect the unique Camino experience every night – enough tasty food, clean bathrooms and showers, and comfortable beds.

In the little town of Zarinaquiguie, maybe 10 km from Pamplona, I found myself in the position of speaking the best Spanish in the hostel for most of the evening. A sort-of language savant showed up later who spoke French, Spanish, German, English and even a little Basque, though she was proof that just because you can speak a dozen languages doesn’t mean you should. She commandeered the evening’s dinner conversation with little interest in anyone else, and though she spoke perfect French, she failed to accurately interpret our Quebecois and French companions’ eye rolls – something I’ve always thought transcended spoken languages the world over.

What’s not to love about loin and white coffee for beakfast?

Anyway, back to my story – before she arrived, a German pilgrim asked me if I knew what was for dinner, and if it was fish, could I tell the chef he wanted something else? I grabbed the Basque chef as he buzzed around the dining room getting the table ready for dinner and told him that one of his guests doesn’t eat “fishermen.” Without batting an eye, he knew what I meant, and Frederick got a heaping plate of spaghetti, while the rest of us had salty bowls of baccalau. The chef genuinely seemed to enjoy serving us, so when we were finished, I made sure to tell him that the salad, the lentils, the soup and the fish were all “very, very beautiful.” He graciously smiled at me and bowed slightly before zipping back into the kitchen.

A few nights ago, in Mansilla de las Mulas, just before Leon, our servers weren’t quite as understanding. We’d amassed a large group for dinner, and a continuous stream of quid pro quo drink buying throughout the afternoon made us louder than normal. We’ve met and been walking at roughly the same rate as a very cool Quebecois couple who started their camino deep in the French countryside a month and some 800 km before us in Le Puy. The husband, Daniel, is quiet even in his native Quebecois-French. But at dinner time, he enjoys rousting entire restaurants to toast the Camino, toast the servers, toast our fellow pilgrims at the dinner table in their native tongues. It seems to be his way to show appreciation. That, and he freely doles out sublime foot massages. “I mass your feet?” he offers. “I’m a very good masser.”

Though I’m sure they appreciate it in some measure, the hospitaleros always seems to feel a little uneasy in the spotlight. Perhaps they were a little on edge when we asked them (in Spanish), “What…is…the soup?” Our server spit back something that sounded like “hegetales,” which should have been easy enough to translate into “vegetables,” but our minds were elsewhere and we didn’t make the connection.

“What…is…vegetables?” I asked in Spanish.

“Vegetables are vegetables, you idiot. Carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes…Vegetables.” I have no idea if this is actually what she said to me, but I let my imagination run a bit as it slowly sunk in that it was vegetable soup she was talking about. I’m just trying to imagine how an American in a town of a few thousand people in the United States might respond to a bunch of foreigners yelling demands at her in four languages, interspersed with shouts of “Sante!” and “Salud” and “Proust!” and “K Pis!” (Apologies to our Dutch and Finnish friends – I should have asked them to write down their respective toasts.) My estimation is that an American waitress, even one who depends on tips, would quickly lose patience with us.

In the end, the vegetable soup was delicious, just the salty broth of vegetables I needed. Things ended on a bit of a sour note, when one of our fellow Americans went on tirade against a Dutch guy who, as I understood it, asked her simply (in perfect English, as all the Dutch seem to speak) whether she didn’t mind the weight of carrying her iPad. After leveling an inappropriate response about how pilgrims’ supplies have evolved over the centuries, she stormed off. The Dutch didn’t speak French, and most of our other companions speak very little English, so in an effort to ease the tension, Daniel toasted the Dutch guy a few times and said, “I am love you,” and “You my friend. You my best friend.”

Thankfully, it seems the Dutch were forgiving, as they seemed to harbor no ill will this morning, probably thanks to Daniel’s efforts. I suppose even an attempt in a common language has the potential to heal wounds.

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