(I wrote most of this post while I was still in Santiago, but I’m finally getting around to posting it just now, a full week later. I’m back in the States and this is sort of the last of the ‘live’ Camino posts, but there will be more to come! Including the saga of getting my walking stick home…)
It’s 6:00pm and I’m sitting at a cafe tucked around the corner from the cathedral in Santiago- at an outdoor table under a large white umbrella. I’m steps away from the main square of the cathedral but this tiny corner of the city is very tucked away, down a set of stairs that not many people notice. The day is chilly and the coffee is good and strong. I feel rested and relaxed. Satisfied.
I had another early start this morning, every morning has been an early start on the Camino. Even though I wasn’t walking I still had a 7:30am bus to catch back to Santiago, so I dragged myself out of bed and wondered, again, why in the world I had walked so much yesterday, why in the world I had stayed up so late drinking wine with Honza. But then I remembered something we’d talked about the night before, the expression, “You can sleep when you’re dead.” He told me about one that his girlfriend says, and I’m not sure if it’s a Czech thing or just his girlfriend’s thing, but in any case, it’s this: “You can sleep when you’re in the pencil case.” Same concept, but funnier and stranger. I might start using it.
So yes, I can sleep when I’m in the pencil case. And since I’m not there yet, I have no regrets about pushing myself really hard in this last week: the long, long days of walking, the late nights talking with friends, the early mornings when I sacrificed sleep in order to sit outside and drink coffee with Nicolas or Christine.
Besides, I found my rest today, almost against my will. On the bus ride back to Santiago I closed my eyes for a moment and then opened them to discover I was back in the city; this afternoon I took a nap (the first nap of my Camino! And on my first day of not walking in a month!).
This is my first rest day and my last day in Spain, tomorrow I fly to Paris. My experience of Santiago is so different than it was last year, but not in a bad way. I still feel like I belong here, I’m a pilgrim and I walked here and even though this year’s walk didn’t feel as much like a pilgrimage, Santiago was still, always, the destination.
But like the rest of this year’s Camino, this final day in Santiago is calm and relaxed. But also filled with beautiful moments. I’d arranged to meet Moritz in the morning; I hadn’t seen him in about four days, since Castroverde. He took a slightly different route to get to Santiago and only arrived early this morning, planning to stop for an hour or two and then pass through and continue on towards Finisterre. When I realized that I could make it back from Muxia in time to see him, and that he would wait for me, I was so happy. It meant that I’d been able to say goodbye to the four people I’d grown closest with on this Camino: Christine, Guillemette, Nicolas and Moritz. And that was a special thing, considering we’d all parted and were arriving/leaving Santiago at different times.
So Moritz and I had coffee and filled each other in on what had happened since we’d last seen each other. We lingered, continuing to talk, already reminiscing on the days we had spent together. We said goodbye in exactly the same spot that Christine and I had parted, giving each other a strong hug and promising to keep in touch. I could feel a small lump in my throat as I watched him walk away, and I thought, once again, about how lucky and grateful I was for the people I met this year.
I stopped by the pension I’d stayed in on Thursday night to see if my room was ready, and it was. This time it all felt easy: I knew exactly where to go, I was given the same room, and when I walked inside I felt like I was back in my little home. After dropping off my pack and my stick I hurried over to the cathedral for the 12:00 mass, and stood quietly in the back of a very packed church. After about 10 minutes two men passed by and I realized I knew them- it was Jose and another Spanish man, the guys who had been at my dinner table in Bodenaya. It was a classic Santiago greeting: the looks of surprise and happiness on our faces, the hugs, the congratulations (all in hushed tones, since there was a service going on). I hadn’t seen them since the Hospitales route, the day that I tacked on an extra stage. Jose told me that they were the first to arrive in Santiago, the rest of the people we’d been with in Bodenaya were a day or two behind.
I shook my head and joked, “No, I’m the first of the group to arrive!” He wagged his finger at me. “You’re in your own group.”
I had to smile at that, because maybe I AM in my own group, or maybe, actually, I’m in a lot of groups. I come and I go but always, it seemed as though I found people to be with.
Just as the mass ended and I was saying goodbye to Jose, I heard someone exclaim, “Nadine!!” I turned and it was Jill, an American girl from Chicago who I’d met at least two weeks ago in Pendueles (when I was still on the Norte). She threw her arms around me and gave me the longest, strongest hug I’ve maybe ever had in my life. I’d probably only ever talked to her for an hour but, again, this is the Camino: when you see people again, especially when you think it’s impossible, it’s a special thing.
We’re going to meet for dinner tonight, maybe with a few others as well. I’m hoping I can run into other people I know- I’m still holding out hope that others from the Norte are here, as well- but even if I don’t find anyone else, it will be okay. In many ways I’ve been given more than enough on this Camino- more friends, more connections, more time alone, more time to feel pain, more time to feel alive- than I ever expected. It’s been a good, good month.
I never did run into anyone else from the Norte; I’d arrived in Santiago too soon, they had more time to walk, or maybe they were somewhere in the city, and I just couldn’t find them. I did, however, run into one more person, one last Camino encounter that felt strange and special.
I was walking back to my pension after dinner, it was nearly 11:00, the night was dark but the city was still alive, with pilgrims streaming through the streets, eating and drinking and celebrating. Just before coming to the street that I would turn onto for my pension I saw someone familiar walking towards me: it was Andrea, the Italian man who I had helped in Arzua (he had been looking a little lost and I told him to come with me to find an albergue). We greeted each other and he was so pleased to see me. “Come have a beer with me,” he asked.
At first I declined. I was tired and I didn’t know Andrea at all. I’d spent a total of 15 minutes in his company, that day in Arzua, and in that moment, all I wanted was to return to my room and climb into bed and fall into a deep sleep. I felt like my pilgrimage, my Camino, was over.
But Andrea pleaded. “It wil be fast,” he said. “I wanted to buy you a beer in Arzua, after you helped me find a place to sleep, but I went to the pharmacy and then you were gone. But now here you are, and I am so glad.”
I heard his words and then I heard Honza’s words, from the night before: “You can sleep when you’re in the pencil case.”
So I agreed and Andrea and I found a place nearby- a small bar on the corner where we took a table outside and ordered beer and talked for an hour.
It’s hard to describe the conversation we had, but all I can say is that it was such a Camino conversation, and in some ways, the perfect way to end this trip. Andrea told me how much I had helped him, that day in Arzua. To me, I hadn’t thought much of it- he had looked tired and I also needed to find a place to sleep, so it made sense to have him come along with me. But Andrea had really been struggling: he had tendenitis and was in a lot of pain. He was tired and frustrated and feeling like his Camino might have to end, just 40 kilometers before Santiago.
But then I appeared, and he said that when he saw me, I had a smile on my face. That he could feel my positive energy, and that being able to follow me to an albergue helped his spirits and his outlook so much.
We talked about this, and about what the Camino can give you, about how it is really just one small part of a journey through life. How the real Camino begins when you go home. It’s something I’ve thought about before, but it’s been so much more on my mind during this trip. Last year, when I came home from the Camino Frances, I was upset that I wasn’t still on a Camino. I wanted to walk all day, I wanted to be outside all day, I wanted to be meeting people from all over the world, I wanted to feel free, all the time.
It’s a big reason that I came back to do another Camino: I wanted those feelings again. I wanted to keep walking. But this year, at least right now, my feelings are different. I’d still love to walk all day and meet people and feel that freedom, but I don’t think I need it in the same way. So many of the friends I made on this year’s Camino have asked me: What will your next Camino be? When will it be? And I don’t really have answers, other than it will probably be somewhere in France, and it probably won’t be next summer.
Because I’m ready for other things, now. I think I will always want to be on a Camino, and I have no doubt that I will do another Camino (maybe many Caminos) in my life. But I’m also ready to really live my days, wherever I am. To try to be present with each day and not always be dreaming about my future, about what I want to do when I have time off. I want to say to myself, “I can sleep when I’m in the pencil case” a little more than I normally do in my regular life. When people walk up to me, I want them to see my smile, to feel my positive energy. I want to see what other parts of the world I can explore, what other things in life I can experience. I want to feel more alive and free in my day to day life, which I know is a challenge… but it’s something I want to try.
So that last Camino conversation, with Andrea, it was perfect. Because it was all about this kind of stuff. He talked about how the Camino will always be with him, that he can carry it within him wherever he goes, in whatever he does. I thought this was a powerful message to hear on my last night in Santiago, and the words repeated in my head as I walked back to my pension, as I finally climbed into bed, as I drifted off into that much needed, very deep sleep.
The Camino is always with me.