How a window war in the albergue spawned a slightly crass joke that bound our accidental pilgrim tribe together for 800km and 6 weeks, and kept us laughing through the sloggiest of miles
Cuatro Cantones is one of my favorite albergues. My introduction to it in 2013 consisted of a fervent lecture by a blue-eyed Brazilian hospitalero, who’d walked the Camino Francés dozens of times. As I slipped off my pack, he was laying into an English pilgrim who’d asked to share one of the small dormitories with his walking companions. To the older hospitalero’s mind, the Brit had broken some kind of code.
“You don’t walk the Camino in hordes!” the Brazilian ranted, in evident disbelief. “You are missing the entire point!”
The dressing-down cast an awkward pall over the crowded alcove, until the Englishman finally slunk upstairs and my turn came to check in. “Um, just us two,” I mumbled, hoping I hadn’t missed the entire point of anything. But the Brazilian was still focused on the retreating Brit; he shook his head with an air of “I just can’t even.”
The graying Brazilian peregrino was absent when we hobbled into the Cuatro Cantones this past spring (2015); a delightful Spanish woman checked us in instead. She hugged me when I gave her a pair of scallop-shell earrings my mother had made. I paid for two of us, not mentioning that we had by chance stumbled into the most delightful of hordes. By week two, we were happily walking with a rotating cast of Germans, Danes, and Americans, a lanky Aussie, a witty Brit, an irreverent Swede, and a young Swiss pilgrim Hal nicknamed “Flowerpot” because she often stopped to weave wildflowers into her hair.
We strove to break out of the comfort of that easy companionship at the albergue’s famously excellent communal dinner; we dined with our brilliant Danish attorney-friend but welcomed an “outsider” to our four-top—an American woman walking solo. We soon regretted this decision.
Apparently, we had broken some kind of code. Hal was shooting a 30-second video of the dining room filling up as the American strode up to our table. “You don’t have my permission to use my image,” she declared.
“Don’t worry. You’re not in the frame,” Hal said.
“I’ll sit down when you turn that thing off,” she countered, and stood to wait with folded arms. Hal set his iPad down and hit some kind of “off” switch in his face, presumably to prevent himself from glaring her to death. An awkward pall fell over the table. Dinner conversation flowed fairly well between the Dane and me, but Hal remained in hourglass mode as the American interjected her varied complaints. It seemed that nothing much about the Camino experience was to her liking; and I’ll admit, with some shame, that I was unable to summon an attitude of generosity toward her. Politeness was the best I could muster.
I understand the Brazilian’s point: Walking in hordes is so terribly tempting. And indeed, it shields you from the discomforts of loneliness, of silence, and of sharing a meal with someone with whom you may not share a personal philosophy. I won’t go so far as to say that walking in the rosy bubble of new friends’ laughter “misses the point”—the “point,” after all, is a matter of perspective, and it’s personal. To each, his own Camino code.
For me, the point is the people—the laughter and the quiet miles together; medicating each other’s blisters and cooking a group meal, carrying an injured friend’s backpack or translating for someone; telling a long, silly story when a tired pilgrim is hating the uphill climb with all she’s got.
The horde does file away the sharper edges of a long, hard journey, but is that really such a bad thing? After all, doing a difficult thing “on your own” doesn’t mean you can never ask for help. No matter who may walk beside you or shoulder your pack for a K or two, nobody can walk the 800 kilometers except you. That’s the point.
The silly stories, songs, and untranslatable inside jokes don’t do the walking for you, but they make the kilometers slide by like hot oil. And the inside joke that ultimately held our little multinational horde together was born in the Cuatro Cantones that night, as our crew settled into a teeming first-floor dormitory whose door opened into the muggy shower room. The sole alternate opening in the room, the only outlet for pilgrim funk, humidity, and footsmell, was a single window on the opposite end of the dorm. And the bitter disagreement as to whether that window should remain open or closed broke down along geopolitical lines: the Southern European contingent wanted it shut, whereas Northern Europe insisted that it should remain open.
The Window Wars began in earnest when a slim redhead from Germany crossed the musty room to slide open the window, then climbed into her bunk. A middle-aged Spaniard in the upper bunk next to the window wordlessly slammed it back shut. The young German’s walking companion reopened the window; the Spanish peregrino slammed it again with an exclamation point.
“Nein! OPEN!” cried an older German gent who was walking with the young German women and felt compelled to come to their defense. Spain’s definitive answer: CERRADO. Clear battle lines were emerging: It was the Mediterranean vs. the North Sea; and for perhaps the first time ever in European history, the South won the day. The window remained shut; must and malodor prevailed.
Back in the common room, Flowerpot—who stood firmly in the Northern camp—rolled her eyes and offered the following commentary: “I cahn’t be-LIEEEEEVE him,” she drawled. “Is VERY pussy.”
“Is very pussy” became our rallying cry for the next four weeks. (We’d mostly stopped filtering midway through the Pyrenees—the evil pleasure we took from irreverent, crass humor proved too irresistible.)
“Is very pussy,” we mocked each other (mostly) affectionately, when someone’s injury or exhaustion drove them to taxi or train to the next stop. “Is very pussy,” we mocked ourselves silently, propelling our bodies, with grim determination, up the side of some mud-slicked mountain, when a taxi seemed far preferable. “IS VERY PUSSY!” we called out after cyclists who shot by inches away from us on narrow footpaths, without warning.
“Is verrry pussy,” said Flowerpot, grinning sheepishly, in a sunny bar in O Cebreiro several weeks later. I was shattered after a 30K day of uphill slogging and blasting heat. I knew she’d been struggling with a severe leg injury—we’d watched her hobble painfully for hundreds of Ks, her face set with determination. Yet here she was, looking fresh and beflowered.
“I took the taxi the last 6Ks,” she laughed, shaking her head. “I could not anymore.” We clicked our dewy Estrella Galicias and laughed with her, loving the afternoon sun now, with the hills behind and beneath us. We’d all made it here, one way or another, and the perfect afternoon belonged to us.
You may also enjoy:
Strength and Weakness on the Camino — An essay on grief, friendship, and very long walks, by a Swiss pilgrim we met in 2015.
You Might Be a Pilgrim If — 56 Ways to Identify an American Post-Camino Peregrino in Withdrawal
A Pilgrim’s Progress — On The Way, a 5’3″ woman’s gotta learn to be big sometimes, especially when her Big Strong Man feels small.