O.K., maybe it’s not what everyone does, but it’s what I did. I picked myself up in the Bronx and flew to Madrid, took a train to Pamplona, and volunteered for a week to help two complete strangers with their overwhelming renovation project. And I am so glad I did.
I am a pilgrim. I have walked along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain on more than a few occasions in the past six years, both alone and with my children. I have two Compostelas – the certificate you gain when you arrive at the end of the way in Santiago de Compostela, home to the magnificent medieval cathedral that houses the remains of the Apostle James, the patron saint of Spain and the object of this pilgrimage route.
Pilgrims have walked to Santiago de Compostela for centuries and many, many thousands of them have walked right by The Abbey – a 12th century fortress near Pamplona that became a 16th century abbey, that became a local parish church, that became abandoned, that was recently purchased from the Catholic Church in Spain by two pilgrims who are determined to renovate it. And that surfaced on Facebook with a link to a GoFundMe page where I donated a few dollars.
Their project spoke to me.
And then I tried to go back to what I was doing.
Such an epic fail. I started checking in to see how the fundraising was going. Some days were better than others. Then I started following the project more closely on Facebook and on the Camino Forum – a virtual center of information on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. They were clearing debris. For a time, they housed a forlorn pilgrim who needed new hiking boots. So they started a separate fundraising campaign to buy him new boots. They cleared the patio of a layer of concrete and uncovered a stunning geometric pattern of old stonework. They found religious vestments and when they realized they could not save them after years of water damage and neglect, they burned them and scattered the ashes in the garden. And on Saint Lucy’s Day this past December, in honor of the former patron of the church, they rang the bell in the bell tower in her honor.
So I messaged them on Facebook and just told them I was coming. I said I would help any way I could, that I could paint, or haul rocks, or hammer nails, or whatever they needed. I just wanted to help. The response was about as amazing as it gets – “Come, yes, but we would just need someone to greet passing pilgrims so we can keep working, because when we stop to talk to people, the work just takes so long. And, if you could, give tours of the church.”
I was in heaven – seriously. I spent ten years taking art history courses at Columbia University in medieval architecture and I love nothing more than telling stories to my fellow pilgrims.
The routine was simple enough. I would get up every day at 5:40 a.m., get out of my hotel in Pamplona not later than 6:15 a.m., and head to the single and only open café to get breakfast and pack something for lunch. From there I would make my way to the edge of the main section of town where I would be picked up at 7:00 a.m. and driven out to The Abbey to work. Once I was there, I would stash my things in the church and head up to the road to start greeting pilgrims. And, because my language skills far outnumber my math and science skills, I spoke to them in French mostly, then English, Spanish, and Italian, with apologies to the Brazilians that I only know how to say “Good morning” and “Thank you” in Portuguese, and many apologies to the Germans that even though my father’s family came from Germany to settle in Indiana in 1854, I only know about six words of German.
I met a woman from Indiana, too! The conversation went something like this: “Hi, where are you from?” “Indiana.” “No kidding, I went to high school in South Bend!” “Really? I have cousins in South Bend. I go to Indiana University!” “Really? My son goes to Indiana University!” And where were we? We were halfway between Ilarratz and Eskirotz on the Camino de Santiago, standing in front of a 12th century fort being renovated by someone I met on Facebook.
I was fortunate to be able not only to work at this amazing project for the week, but to meet so many other pilgrims and to hear their stories. I worked with a young Danish pilgrim who had walked for a month to get to this point. She was ready for a break and decided to help out as well for the week before she would start walking again. I just saw that she finished the pilgrimage and had found her way to Finisterre – the end of the earth on the Atlantic coast of northwestern Galicia.
A mother and son stopped to talk one of the days I was there. He was home-schooled, she was nervous about him, and I ran into them later that night. They could not find a place to stay, having limited Spanish and not wanting to stay at the pilgrim hostels. So I took them to my hotel where they were able to find a nice clean place for the night. And a man came by. He was older, heavy set, and he told me he had started his pilgrimage in France at the site where his father’s plane had been shot down during WWII. He told me he had met the son of the man who saved his father’s life by pulling him out of the water after the plane went down. I even met a woman who was on her way to meet a friend of mine in Logroño!
Most astonishing, given that I connected with The Abbey via Facebook to begin with, was the morning I was sitting on the patio at the entrance to the church when a man shouted at me from the road, “Are you Anne? Hi, Anne! I read about you on Facebook!”
All told, I greeted pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, South Africa, South America, the Middle East, Ireland and the UK, Canada, Mexico, and the US. I went back and forth among my four languages for hours each day: “Buenos días, bonjour, buon giorno, welcome to The Abbey. This is a 12th century fort, which became a 16th century church, which became abandoned for ten years, which my friend from South Africa just bought with his partner from the UK. They are also pilgrims and they bought it from the Catholic Church in Spain to return it once more to use by pilgrims.” Some people would ask timidly if they were dressed appropriately to enter the church, others wanted to know if it would be O.K. if they came back to help when they finished their pilgrimage, or would we mind if they took some photos? And two pilgrims – on two separate occasions – just walked in and started to sing. The acoustics in The Abbey are quite perfect for singing.
The garden was overgrown and now it has been planted with apple trees. The grass is cut, and the house that sits just behind the church is being renovated, too. It will become a small pension where pilgrims will be able to stay for free – if they want to do a little work on the project. My new friends are planning to live there once that part of the renovation is complete to save the expense of living offsite.
After a week, reluctantly, I left to spend a long weekend with my daughter in Madrid and then I came back to what passes for real life here in the Bronx. I will go back to the Camino, either in October or December, to walk again. I find tremendous spiritual clarity in walking long distances on this route and in speaking with other pilgrims. And I love to travel alone.
I did it all for a very personal reason: I like to think that if I were to buy a medieval property in Spain to renovate it for pilgrims, people would come and help me, too.