No letters today.
The lottery ticket seller
in the glass booth with venetian blinds
braille-counts a roll of 5,000-pesetas notes.
My lungs’ harsh residue.
“¡Vamos, hombre!” an old man says
to the rheumatic Alsatian straying behind,
as if to a friend.
Four o’clock. Waiters in white jackets and Brilliantine
in El Paradiso nod to old women
as they incline, pouring Earl Grey.
Two female students link arms
under their umbrella.
A street sweeper in navy overalls,
luminous white stripes at her ankles and sleeves,
a witch’s broom sweeping trajectories.
The junkies shelter
under the arches in the Toural.
Old men stand beside the police.
The police ignore them, the old men
keep nodding as if they were included.
Like many regional Spanish cities in the 1990s, Santiago de Compostela was startling for the way in which the poor and the destitute were cheek-and-jowl with the middle class and the affluent. Back then, Galicia was one of the poorest regions in Spain, and probably the most overlooked. Certainly, it was off the beaten path. Santiago itself, as the regional capital, was and is still is a city of students, government bureaucrats and functionaries, and now more than ever it survives on revenue from pilgrims and tourists. (The number of guest houses and "digs" was startling, and the landlords and restaurant and bar owners were "great characters", as we say in Ireland.) What was a trickle in 1993 and 1994 has now built to a roar. 1993 was one of the first Holy Years - when St. James's Day falls on a Sunday - where a big government-sponsored campaign got behind advertising the Camino de Santiago and was exceptionally successful. Tourism in Santiago during my year there followed the way of most smaller European cities in the 1990s: in the autumn, you still saw tourists; in the winter, less and less. And in January and February, none. These short pieces are from one of those days when the city's residents went about their normal day, whether shivering under the arches, or drinking a cup of exotic Earl Grey in a lady's suit, with bouffant hairstyle, served by posh waiters. (Tea in Spain back then was associated with "English style" - it was exceedingly difficult to get a good cuppa, and it may still be.) The residents went about their day, observed by the Erasmus students, one of them writing feverishly in a notebook. Finally, the lottery ticket seller referred to above was part of, “ONCE” , the “National Organization of Spanish Blind People”. ONCE uses its lottery system to raise funds to employ and give benefits to the blind. The ONCE ticket sellers who sold tickets on the street, and not in booths, were the foot soldiers, and their plaintive call, "ONCE para hoy", and their tickets pinned to their chests, twinned with their blindness, gave them a lugubrious, almost medieval quality that I touch on in this poem, "Lamed".
Other blog posts that you might enjoy:
This poem is from my second book, Santiago Sketches, which is entirely set in the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. You can read more poems here, in Spanish and in English. You can buy the book on Amazon here, or if you'd rather buy local, order from your bookshop. More information is available on my website.
This post gives the background on the editing of Santiago Sketches, which was distilled from perhaps 100 little pocket notebooks, which were shaped from being carried around in my trouser pocket.