165 – E Ciò Sa ‘l Tuo Dottore

You know the drill: for the hiking stuff, SCROLL DOWN to the sentence in red. If you don’t, consider yourself warned. 

The Italians reading the title will instantly know the first two verses of the tercet – and those of you who know me will just think: “Oh, here we go. Again.” Yep. Correct. Indeed, again we do. And there really is no greater sorrow than to remember the times of happiness once they appear to be gone. Which is why I waited with this article for so long. I could not face it, it’s just too painful. One day, when the burden of my present mood wears off, I will remember the Easter weekend of 2022 for what it really was: happy, joyful, fun. But I am not there yet. I am in no place, really. Like Virgilio, Dante’s guide on his journey through the netherworld, I am stuck in my own private Limbo, reminiscing about what once has been and with no way out but through Hell.  

Buen camino

A little bit of background. In the Canto V of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante descends to the second circle of hell, where eternal storm – the infernal hurricane that never rests, la bufera infernal che mai non resta –  torments the souls of those guilty of lust, an analogy to restlessness and passion that they succumbed to in life. Dante encounters Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paolo Malatesta, and asks her to recount the story of the love that brought death and damnation upon them. This is how she starts: 

E quella a me: “Nessun maggior dolore
  che ricordarsi del tempo felice
  ne la miseria; e ciò sa ‘l tuo dottore

And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
  Than to be mindful of the happy time
  In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.

The Teacher – dottore – is Virgilio, the illustrious Roman poet who lived in the 1st century BC, whom Dante meets in Limbo, the first circle of Hell, where the souls of pre-Christian great men that Dante considers righteous (and undeserving of real Hell) dwell in the state of serene melancholy, not tormented by any divine punishment. I’d settle for that right now. 

Last February, a dear girlfriend of mine invited me to a “galentine’s” party she was hosting. Although the prospect of being in the same room with 30 women was the last thing I’d have called a party, the idea of day-time bubbles worked as convincing factor. What can I say, I’m easily corrupted. At one point, while playing some game, we were supposed to say what was the characteristics we loved most about ourselves. I boasted – there really is no other word for it – that the trait I treasured most was the fact I was fearless. I’d like to amend that statement. Rather than fearless, I am reckless. And an idiot. Who never seems to learn the lesson. My capacity to develop blindness to red flags and deafness to every possible alarm bell is matched only by the ability to lie to myself. Unclear – or rather unmistakably clear – relationship status? Why on earth should that be a deal breaker? Why indeed? My heart has been bent and crushed so many times that by now it must be unbreakable. It can surely take one more hit – or fourteen. Emotional unavailability? Oh, he’s just shy. And confused. Yeah, right. A cruel remark should be a hint to take my leave and never come back. Oh, he doesn’t mean it. Doesn’t he? This is by no means an accusation. It’s all largely self-inflicted. I am supposedly a responsible adult with 20 years of dating experience. I should know better and just abstain from launching myself head-first into situations that are bound to hurt me, hoping for the best. I wish my self-respect was stronger than my feelings. Sadly, it is not. 

I am obviously aware that the state I’m at is very likely a fruit of my messed-up mind and doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. I have recently been recommended a book, The Chimp Paradox, written by a famous English psychiatrist prof. Steve Peters. I profoundly dislike self-help books. Every single one I have ever (attempted to) read was disappointing. This one was, unfortunately, no exception. I get it, he is the erudite professor with years and years of research and experience, and who am I to disagree? Apart from the obvious fact I am someone convinced that I know best on any topic, which may be part of the problem (joke). Far from assessing the book as utter rubbish (I suppose his method probably achieves great results in elite sport), but honestly, only a Brit could come up with a theory that every emotion you feel is product of an ape that lives in your brain, and only a repressed Brit would write a whole book about how to control said imaginary ape and manage it. In other words, how to restrain yourself from feeling anything at all. Again, probably a fantastic strategy if you reach Olympic final of your chosen discipline. Also a great way to exist in the United Kingdom in general. But in my case, I think I’ll just hope that the object of my love isn’t annoyed that I have feelings that I’m able to express without the need to drink myself unconscious first. In case of extreme necessity, I’d rather pop some prescription pill, it works quicker and it doesn’t involve creating a dual personality that isn’t even human. Fun fact: at one point, Prof. Peters suggests you name your inner chimp. I called mine Alecto, after one of the Furies, “the implacable anger”. Cause – provided there is an imaginary monkey friend (or foe) dwelling in my brain – I can assure you mine wreaks havoc and knows how to hold a grudge.

And havoc is the permanent state of my mind, regardless a deranged primate that may or may not be in control of it. I can barely stand myself most of the time, and I am doing my best to hide it, mostly successfully, unless my period approaches. and even then, cut me some slack, would you? I would like to see how cool and composed you’d stay if you had to uncontrollably bleed from your penis once a month, with an assortment of abdominal cramps, migraine and diarrhoea as a bonus. Can you imagine – you obviously cannot, but for the sake of the argument, try – what it feels like to feel shit and on the verge of crying all the time – well, for about 3 days – for no good reason, while being perfectly aware that there indeed is no reason to feel emotional, but feeling that way nonetheless? I have this app that tracks my period, and it sends me notifications when it thinks my PMS is seeping in. “You may feel a little irritable today.” Oh, you think? No shit, Sherlock. Don’t send these notifications to me, send them to him! That way, if he has half a brain and some self-preservation instinct, he’ll steer clear of asking what is wrong or what my problem is. I am trying to figure out whether I’d rather rip out my ovaries, or directly slash your jugular if you ask that question one more time, that is my fucking problem. I want a hug, ice cream, ibuprofen and wine, not necessarily in that order. However, all the other days of the month I don’t have the excuse of a hormonal storm messing with my brain. And yet, I am constantly fighting my own thoughts. I have a tendency to interpret everything as the worst scenario possible, but not in a constructive way. I could simply ask myself what is the worst thing that can happen and then decide if I can live with it or not and act accordingly, but that would be too easy. I straightaway jump to conclusions. Horrible, and mostly wrong conclusions. 

How do I get out of this without looking like a dangerous nutcase. OK, I am aware of my issues. And I have been trying lately, really, really hard, to keep them at bay. I am neither stupid, nor all that self-centred. I know that the world doesn’t evolve around me. I know that not everyone overthinks everything like I do, not everyone analyses every single moment of their life and not everyone needs to communicate what they feel the way I do, or is even capable of it. I know that people have their own issues and preoccupations and they may be dealing with them in ways diametrically opposed – and probably healthier – to what my approach would be. I know that my insecurities come from within and not necessarily from without. And I am aware that I do not need anybody’s approval to know my worth. I know that if something hasn’t been said aloud, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t felt. I know that not every single sentence and every action has an obscure hidden meaning that is somehow designed to hurt or offend me. I know it is unfair and outright offensive to suspect the person I love of spiteful intentions all the bloody time. I know I often see problems where there are none. I know that patience is not my strongest quality. I know all of the above and more, and I have been trying to contain all this inside of me, put on a brave face and a bright smile, I have been fighting my darkest thoughts tooth and nail for the benefit of everybody else.  I am exhausted. 

I hereby declare over this outpour of nonsense you probably didn’t need to hear about in the first place. My apologies for that. I needed to get it out of my system.

OK, those who are here to learn about the camino: you are safe to read starting here.

I have been living in the country that’s home to the ultimate pilgrimage of the Catholic world for almost four years now, yet I hadn’t walked it myself, a failure that needed to be addressed. To my defence, the pandemics confined me first to my 30 square metres apartment, then to the region of my residence for over a year. Also, I felt the pilgrimage has lost its appeal lately. Everyone was walking the camino at one point. Every burnt out corporate minion was taking unpaid leave to find the true meaning of life along Saint James’s Way. I’m telling you, you it doesn’t take blood-filled blisters from ill-fitting hiking boots you didn’t have the time to break in to realise that your life was not meant to be spent compiling spreadsheets no one bothers to read. Still, I salute you for having grown the balls to take a break from whichever white collar workhouse you sold your soul to, even if only for a few weeks. It takes guts to face your own company. For that, you have my respect. 

There are, as you know, many routes to Santiago de Compostela. And they all start at your local parish, if you want to do things by the book. On the last Easter weekend, I got invited to join a group of friends on a part of Ruta de Plata (they were walking from Mérida to Salamanca, I joined them for the last four days in Béjar). Again, I am hoping I was invited because my company was appreciated, rather then out of pity that I would spend the long weekend alone in Madrid otherwise, but this inner issue – as per described above – is hopefully another unfounded fabrication of Alecto the chimp, totally out of touch with reality. See? I am trying to be reasonable here. 

Ruta de la Plata – The Silver Way in English – was originally a Roman road that connected Augusta Emerita (modern day Mérida in the region of Extremadura) and Asturica Augusta (Astorga in Castilla y León), and was never used for silver trade. The word plata is simply a vulgar distortion of the Arabic word al-balat, which means “cobbled road” and was commonly used for any road engineered by the Romans. I will not bore you with description of the three days of walking, there is no need, the internet is full of detailed articles, for example this link (note that I walked the stage 17, 18 and 19). I will rather offer some tips and observations.

My personal views that you are at absolute liberty to disregard:

  • I am not Catholic, or religious in general. If anything, I identify – as you may have noticed – as cynical. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the spiritual appeal of the camino. I think alone is the way to do it, but you need to be in the right place mentally to be able to listen to your own thoughts for an extended period of time. But then, if you need a distraction from yourself, maybe you should opt for another way to spending your time off. Take my opinion for what it’s worth, that is fuck all, after all I was only a pilgrim for three days, I am in no position to dispense unsolicited advice, but I have spent a year travelling on my own, so maybe I have some insight to offer. Note to self: this is supposed to be a travel/hiking/cycling blog, so maybe I should stick to that and spare my audience all the whining over my first world problems. Chances are you will not find yourself. But there is also a good chance that you realise that you don’t need to. I addressed the topic upon my return from the world trip here
  • Please, please, leave your headphones at home, or at least in the backpack during the day. There is time and place for listening to music or audiobooks. And if you need to keep your mind occupied (or distracted), again, maybe you should reconsider doing the pilgrimage.
  • Do not attempt to walk Ruta de la Plata in summer. Or anytime between June and September. Temperatures reaching high forties are no exception in Extremadura, and there are long stretches of the route without any shade. 
  • Pack light. You are in Spain. They have food and shops here, should you need anything. Fill the spare space in your backpack with water, buy a bigger camel bag. 
  • There are as many ways of doing the camino as there are pilgrims. Some of them are pleasant, some not so much, and some are bat-shit crazy. You will end up crossing the same people along the way and in the hostels, and sometimes you will not be able to avoid conversation. My impression was, and maybe I am wrong or downright nasty, that there tends to be the same dynamic as in many hostels in Asia or South America: every evening, regardless of who the people are, the conversation is the same. They just try to amaze each other with their travel, or in this case, camino stories. I may be an arsehole, but I find this profoundly boring. For me, the reason to embark on a pilgrimage may not be spiritual, I don’t see it as a physical achievement either, it’s more a way to discover a place thoroughly and at a very slow pace. I am not saying that my way is better than anybody else’s, I just don’t feel the need to talk about it every bloody evening. I may feel the need to talk about other stuff over and over again, clearly, as per the first part of this post, but my impressions of camino do not fall within the range of the topics I like to stress about. 
  • One last thing: start early every morning. Before the sunrise. Before everyone else sets off. It’s the most beautiful time of the day. Enjoy the birdsong, the colours of the sky at dawn, the first rays of sun breaching the horizon, the mist rising from the fields, the soft morning light, the cool air caressing your skin. Enjoy the peace, it will only last a heartbeat. Take in every single moment, it will be gone before you know it. And really, leave those headphones in your backpack. 

 

 


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