Pilgrimage

If my brother hadn’t gone on that Tinder date; if I hadn’t been irritatingly hyperactive on the plane seat next to him, then I wouldn’t be here, almost two months later, hiking up a Spanish motorway. I’m in Gijón (written Xixón in Asturiano and pronounced Hee-hon), an industrial beach-town in Northern Spain that’s on the route to Santiago de la Compostela. Maps of the city have the scallop shell motif of Santiago (St James) informing pilgrims just which streets, petrol stations, cafes and kiosks they have to pass on their way. There’ll be more churches as they get closer, to remind them that their mission is holy.

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Pilgrim’s choice: foot, horseback or water

Surfers, skulking around the bay of San Lorenzo are also on a pilgrimage. But their divinity, the sea is imminent and capricious. A day of blue sky and towering waves is auspicious. The tide is high in the morning; but by afternoon, when there’s barely a sliver of beach, the waves have come to meet the surfers. It’s more than some of them bargained for; only the bravest will descend the concrete steps, climb a wave.

I’m here on pilgrimage too, to see a singer called Rosalía. Two months ago, two days before Christmas, following a December that took more than it gave, I was sitting next to my brother on the plane. The five-hour fight to Paphos seemed overly long and I was restless. My brother lent me his headphones in an attempt to ‘sedate’ me. Playing was the music ‘TinderDate’ had introduced him to –Rosalía.

Descriptively it would be called urban flamenco – Rosalía, a young woman from Barcelona takes this indigenous Andalusian art form and makes it her own. Just a voice and a faithful guitar. But as an experience, it’s the kind of sound that makes you realise what other musics are missing.

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Afternoon tide, San Lorenzo beach plus surfers’ footprints, Gijón

I daydreamed I would spend a few weeks in Spain, work remotely from there, on the last day of a holiday in November. In December when I had to leave the place I was living, a vague timescale was hatched – I’d go sometime around February. Now I’d add a Rosalía concert to the journey. I originally wanted to see her in her home-town, Barcelona, but only listening seats were available. However, in an obscure (to me) town called Gijón, you could have the full experience. I booked my tickets and diverted my journey.

I decide to walk to the concert hall, somewhere called Teatro de la Laboral, fifty minutes away from where I’m staying, which doesn’t sound too bad. Past residential areas, a few roundabouts, an avenue named after the German physicist Albert Einstein. Did he ever come here?, I wonder. Or can town planners name a street after anyone. Still walking, I follow the instructions on the route I copied down beforehand. A new moon sprouts to keep me company as the sun sets, turning the sky purple. As I pass a stream, a horse-riding track, a technological park and a botanical garden with a camellia festival, I don’t feel like I’m going to a concert at all. But I’m to keep going straight as as a deserted clock tower and amphitheatre come into view.

By Calle de las Clarisas, it gets dark. The road with its diminishing pavement leads to the clock tower. To my mind, Las Clarisas sounds like a remote nunnery. There are even fewer cars on this stretch of road; I wonder once more if I have the wrong route. My hands get cold and perhaps my feet too; I doubt that I have the right way. But the map, even the one on my phone, says to continue. I’m to keep walking, keep the faith, past the little cottage with the ceramic groves, up, up, up, until I reach the clock tower. Even cars are few here – but I’m to keep going, past the little house with the ceramic roof and the orange groves, until I reach the clock tower – one and the same as the concert.

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Meanwhile, en-route

Travelling to places I don’t know is the biggest test of faith. At times the way is so intricate and unlikely. At the end of granny’s cottage is your dream concert; Fireworks and a Hallowe’en parade are two stomach-swirling bus rides away; that strange man named Joey will drive the two of you to your destination – you’ll arrive interrogated but unmolested.

‘Laboral’ in Spanish means ‘labour’ – so hearing on that the concert would be at a Teatro de Laboral, I pictured a brick-red venue, bustling and beer-powered. The place, surrounded by columns, topiary gardens and terraces with a view of the mountains and moon, is nothing of the kind. We’re each assigned a seat and we’re to stay there unless to give an ovation. But as soon as the show begins, I see why we’ve been placed in this stilling fashion. Because we’re in the dark and all we see of Rosalía are her open palms and the shadow of Raül Refree, her quiet guitar player. Isn’t it odd to describe a musician, a person employed to make noise that people listen, as quiet? Maybe, but it seems that the while the guitar plays, the man is mute, not especially caring to promote himself. As for her, there’s enough variation in her voice, even the movements of her fingers for the little girl in front of me to start swaying wildly, as though it’s a Stones concert she’s at.

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Arrived and inserting a hair-clip

Rosalía’s voice has been described as magical. While flesh or paint or plaster sticks to the other arts, a voice is itself; made up of sounds you might or might not find in nature. The voice could be a divine gift and the singer carries it. It’s fascinating to watch Rosalía carry her songs – seated bolt upright, her legs in a wide squat, her palm an opening flower; slouching towards the guitarist as she hides behind dark hair; standing directly before the audience in the light. Throughout, you have the impression that the hands deliver the sentiment as much as the voice. My yoga teacher back in London describes the palms as the pathways to the heart; apparently, there’s a direct energy line between the two. Though it’s cold in the theatre and I’m inclined to shiver, fold my arms; I place my hands in my lap and unfurl my fingers, receptive to whatever spell is being cast.

Luckily, the route home is different, a bus-ride shared with fellow pilgrims and a walk back by the beach.

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View from the clocktower includes a pea-sized new moon

Reading With Pleasure and Resistance: Poached Books, Vol. 3

I don’t steal other people’s books so much as ‘borrow’ them when they haven’t been officially lent to me.  A primary instance happened when I was about eleven and my best friend and I were looking for trouble in her attic and found The Joy of Sex, a 1970s sex manual. We opened it up and simply stared. Body parts swelling and merging in ways we couldn’t imagine! And the man had long hair and a beard! This was mystifying in the age of Leo and the Backstreet Boys. We heard footsteps, and quickly stuffed the book back in its place, ensuring that the loose double-pages were folded back in. At that stage, we wanted a peek at knowledge that wasn’t available to us, but weren’t really ready to come to terms with it.

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Kind of what happens inside The Joy of Sex. This is actually a clandestine copy of a Valentine in the Paris Opera archive, where I wasn’t allowed to take photographs.

This summer, I was in the makeshift office that had once been my brother’s bedroom and spotted a tomato-red, twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. I remembered my brother mentioning it before his motorcycle and bonobo monkey research trip around Africa, and was curious. On the inner leaf was a dedication from an unknown Nik to ‘Mowgli’, his explorer alter-ego:

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I wasn’t on the African adventure, but wanted to identify with the ‘true warrior’ who would receive such a dedication, so I slipped the book into my bag. I didn’t feel too bad about it because my brother freely ‘borrows’ my books and returns them in the state of shipwrecked voyagers, with curled pages and half-eroded covers. Besides, he was out of reach, so there was no way to ask him for permission. The Alchemist, a story of a shepherd boy’s trek to Egypt in search of the pyramids and a promised treasure, accompanied me on my own journeys across London for the 5 days it took to read it. In Alan Clarke’s translation, Coehlo’s prose had the spare and sparkling quality of a fairytale, with a touch more sentiment.

Proverbial phrases from the sages the boy meets on his journey, jumped out at me. They seemed relevant beyond the novel’s concise 171 pages and made me feel that its quest was my own. This was Coehlo’s intention for the book and I took the bait. Here’s an assortment of proverbs:

1. ‘A blessing ignored becomes a curse…’  How simple, and yet how true. Neglected treasures, whether people, talents or possessions have a way of skulking around, casting great guilty shadows and becoming our enemies.  A silk dress left in the closet attracts moths, a beloved who is taken for granted becomes a shrew, and creatives who sideline their practice are notorious drama queens and time-wasters.

2. ‘I know sheep can be friends… I don’t know if the desert can be a friend…’  This could be my favourite of the boy’s musings! It expresses gratitude and tenderness for the friendships he already has, and curiosity about the unknown. Sure, in many ways the arid desert seems the opposite of the shepherd’s fleecy flock; but he’s not about to dismiss it as an enemy out of hand. If more people were this open to difference, there would be less mistrust in the world and fewer wars, seriously.

3. ‘Love never keeps a man from pursuing his personal legend. If he abandons that pursuit, it’s because it wasn’t the love that speaks the language of the world…’  This comes up when the boy considers relinquishing his quest for treasure upon meeting Fatima, his heart’s desire, in an oasis. The statement advocates a world picture based on abundance and trust rather than scarcity and fear. It’s idealised, but I admire its generosity.

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This fish’s personal legend was clearly to jump out of the water and dive into a book…

As much as The Alchemist paved its way into my thoughts, at times its gender bias reminded me that I had stolen the book from my brother. The male nameless shepherd’s personal legend is journey towards the treasure; whereas his Intended, Fatima’s personal legend is him. Fatima is given some of the most beautiful and moving lines in the book:

‘I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept the fact that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals, and the water of the desert…’ 

Her words are noble because they describe love as gift to be open to, but not as an entity that can be possessed and controlled. And yet, there is something limiting (Penelope-like) about her destiny as an eternally receptive vessel with no journey of her own. Doesn’t she want to wander too, have a personal quest that can coexist with her love, not be wholly informed by it? But there I go, imagining fairytale endings for a story that’s not mine…

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Universal journey or Boys’ Own adventure?

Some borrowings require more tact and subtlety. Every Thursday I sit in my supervisor’s office for an hour, when students can come and ask questions about the course. They rarely do.  So I sit on her spinning chair and scan shelf upon shelf of books. Some are gleaming and expensive, with the aura of gifts; others are tiny, rare and cloth-bound; these, I imagine, have been carefully sourced. Intriguingly specific studies of now-forgotten designers are juxtaposed with sentimental titles like Wartime Kiss and generic volumes from grand theorists. The books have been thematically arranged and delicately handled. Apart from the odd volume placed askew, perhaps as a reference point, they appear as untouched as Snow White under rock crystal.  When I take one to pass the hour, because after all, no one said I shouldn’t, I’m careful not to touch the book too much, change its shape, or God forbid, break its spine, and replace it with the exactitude of evidence in a murder scene. In this space, bibliophilia means something different from my own cavalier love for my travelling volumes. As a thief of sorts, I must be respectful, or get caught.

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Immaculate book, crystalline pages

Poaching books is a way of crossing each other’s boundaries. We do it because we’re curious and want to be close, perhaps as a way of identifying with someone, or gaining some sort of subtle knowledge about them, or for ourselves. It could be seen as a creepy act, because no-one has given you direct permission; but, done respectfully, it can also be an empathetic gesture. Perhaps a person’s books, like their actions and body language, are indirect or surrounding manifestations of their character and dreams, beyond the words they choose to speak. To adopt Coehlo’s theme, these unspoken signals form part of ‘the language of the world.’

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Reading List

Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex (London: Quartet Books, 1974). *

Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist: 25th Anniversary Edition, trans. Alan Clarke (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).

Alexander Nemerov, Wartime Kiss (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

*I can’t remember which edition we found in the attic, but this is the original.