Ermita San Nicolas is a pilgrim hospital with about 800 years of hospitality stuck up in its walls.
“There is no electricity,” Iulio warned me when I checked in. He had blue eyes and blonde hair and perfectly lilting, broken English. “There is no wifi and the bathroom is outside. At 7:30 we perform a foot washing ritual, and then we eat dinner by candlelight.”
An Italian confraternity runs the place, dispatching volunteers to welcome and care for pilgrims. All the other people staying there, except three English-speaking girls my age, were Italians.
At 7:30, the hosts put on silly brown velvet capes adorned with the Camino’s distinctive concha shells, and instructed us to sit in a circle on the altar and remove one shoe.
Now, I have done plenty of foot washing, but this was different. Even though there was still daylight, they closed the doors of the church and lit dozens of candles which filled the room with warmth and light. Iulio poured cool water over our feet and Mateo, another host, recited a prayer in Spanish blessing our progress, blessing our feet, blessing us with God’s love, and we said “Amen.” Once Iulio had washed all our feet, we stood and recited the Lord’s Prayer in our native languages.
When he had his last meal with the disciples, Jesus got up in the middle of dinner to do the dirty servant work of washing the grime off his inferiors’ feet, and they all freaked out.
“You don’t understand what I’m doing, but you will later,” Jesus said. “Since I’ve washed your feet as your teacher and lord, you must go wash others’ feet.”
Having someone wash your feet is a humbling, tender, intimate experience. It’s uncomfortable in the best way to perform and receive this symbolic act of kindness.
But it was different this time, less Sunday School color by numbers and more gut-wrenching, because at this time, feet are the constant aching center of attention. It’s the part of you that craves care most because it’s the part of you that hurts the most, and it’s the part of you that carries you on your way. To touch and wash and kiss the foot of a pilgrim, blisters and bandages and athletic tape and all… that is love that can break you.
Then we walked one meter to the dinner table (the altar, the kitchen, the table, the beds were all in the same ancient space) and sat down and poured wine, which tasted bizarre, like it was homemade and hadn’t sat long enough. Mateo and Iulio counted down: “FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE!” and in the fullness of time, each took a handle of a massive vat of pasta to a colander.
It was al dente.
“I never thought we’d get Italian pasta on the camino,” said Haley, an American I’d met the day before.
Angela, who has walked three or four caminos with a giant stuffed Tigger, asked me, out of the blue: “Are you magical?”
I didn’t know what she meant, but I decided, “Yes, in fact. I am!”
“I thought so,” she said with a knowing smile, and we continued to eat.
Dinner lasted a long time, as it should have. After the pasta came green beans, and then an omelet with fennel and cheese, and then dessert, which was simply a slice of juicy pineapple with a piece of melon on top. The melon had been sprinkled with cinnamon and peppermint leaves.
“Who plays guitar?” asked Mateo, once the food was gone. Enzo from Milan pointed to me.
“Sure, a little!”
He fetched a guitar, had me sit at the head of the table, and set candles around me. I played Beatles music and Italian things I didn’t know and R.E.M. and Justin Bieber. Everyone was loud and everyone was singing but only a few seconds at a time. “ONE TWO THREE FOUR WE ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE, A YELLOW SUBMARINE, A YELLOW SUBMARINE” I cried, and a couple people recorded it on their phones. We puzzled, what songs do all people know? The wine bottles were only half empty because we were already drunk on each other’s company.
People lost interest at the same time my fingers began to hurt, and a pot of chamomile tea appeared and we all spoke Italian and English late into the night, which for pilgrims is about 9:30 p.m.
“We will wake you up at 7:00 tomorrow,” said Mateo. And that’s an hour later than normal for pilgrims, but none of us cared.
As people got ready for bed, I went up to the altar and looked at the three icons: St. Nicholas, Mary, and St. James. To the left of the altar was a framed photo of a man on the floor, and a tile… a tombstone.
“Who is this?” I asked Iulio.
“He was a pilgrim, and he loved this place and asked to be buried here,” Iulio said. “They burned his body and some of it is here now.”
“Are you scared?” asked Mateo.
“No,” I said. “That’s beautiful.”
I went outside and looked at the stars. They were thick there. The moon was a waning crescent.
One bright light came from near the river. It was the one traffic light. It was green, and then it turned yellow, and then it disappeared. I grinned at it.
Inside, Iulio and Mateo carried candles up to the balcony, rough housing each other all the way, and blew them out, and it was dark and silent. Sleep came fast and dreams came suddenly, and then in the dark, everything was pierced by a Gregorian chant of “Alleluia!”
There was light playing with the heavy iron chandelier now. Mateo and Iulio came downstairs, sluggish now, with candles. Mateo’s phone was playing the music. Iulio lit the candles downstairs. All the Italians woke up and got noisy again.
The coffee was strong. We drank it from the same cups we used for tea last night. The tablecloth was spotted with wine from last night. And the candles were burned all the way down, which is, of course, the sign of a good party.
I sat next to Angela and she asked me, “Where are you going today, magical Chelsea?”
“Maybe 35 kilometers,” I said, “but I don’t know if I’ll make it that far.”
“Well, you will be Chelsea on the camino,” she said. “That doesn’t happen every day.”
“Good point,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“Here,” said Angela. “I’m always just here.” I didn’t get anything more than that.
“I was thinking of you,” I told her. “Do you know the Lumineers? They have a song called ‘Angela.’”
“Let me play it for you!”
I turned it on my phone, and Angela danced in her chair for the entire four minute song. She wasn’t worried about how long it was. We listened to the entire song together, and then she said, “Thank you, Chelsea. That was a lovely gift.”
We stood in a circle, our hosts wearing their funny capes again, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer once more.
“Now,” said Mateo, “LEAVE!”