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The Seattle Times: "Languages of the world become one at the table" ... say10.html

Travel essay

Languages of the world become one at the table

By Kathleen Morelock

Don't know the language where you're traveling? Don't understand what people are saying? Not to worry, someone will.

Last autumn, my husband and I walked the Camino de Santiago, a long-distance World Heritage site trek, across northern Spain. In the Middle Ages, thousands of Catholics walked from their European homes to the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on pilgrimage. Today, hundreds follow the same route, most carrying a "pilgrim's passport" that lets the walkers stay in the chain of albergues (akin to hostels) strung along the 785 kilometers from Roncesvalles to Santiago, and on to Finisterre (meaning land's end) for those who wish to end their trek at the Atlantic Ocean. Each albergue is different. Some supply mats for a stone floor; others triple bunks. Some include showers shared with all who stay the night; most contain kitchens and a washbasin for hand laundering. We slept above the nave of an 11th-century Norman church, in monastery cells a thousand years old, in 18th-century stone schoolhouses, in the lofts of old barns, in 16th-century pilgrim hospitals, and inside new brick municipal dorms.

The albergues are hosted by international volunteers who work for two- or three-week stretches. In Roncesvalles, our hosts were British; in Los Arcos, Flemish; in Murias de Rechivaldo, Brazilian; in Sanbol, students from the University of Kentucky.

I will never forget one evening in particular. We had walked hours that day beneath a hot sun, our bodies weary, our minds avoiding the knowledge that only a few days were left before the end of our journey. After seven weeks on the camino, we didn't want our journey to end. We decided to stop at a newly built albergue outside the costal town of Corcubión, our hosts a middle-aged couple — she from Valencia, Spain, and he from Oslo, Norway. They had met several years earlier on the camino, and had been walking other pilgrimages around the world ever since.

During their sojourn in the little albergue of Corcubión, dinner and breakfast were provided for the pilgrims.

In the late afternoon, locals brought food to our hosts: a bag of potatoes, a bag of yellow onions, several heads of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, loaves of bread not sold that day in the bakery down the lane, a sack of walnuts, six cans of corn, a gallon of milk, three links of chorizo, and a jar of blackberry jam.

From this plentitude, we created a feast. The kitchen was warm and lively with all the pilgrims helping: my husband and me, the Americans; an older French husband and wife; a young French man; two Brazilian women; a Danish couple; our Spanish and Norwegian hosts. We chopped and sliced and tossed salad greens; we cooked scalloped potatoes and shelled walnuts and warmed bread and opened a bottle of wine. Then we sat down to dinner.

No one at that table was completely bilingual. And yet, we sat for hours telling stories and laughing and relishing each other's company. The French knew a smattering of Spanish, the Spanish woman knew Norwegian, the Norseman knew some English, the Brazilians could converse some in Spanish, the Danish knew a little German, the Frenchman knew a little German, and we knew a little Spanish. Somehow, the words got translated round the table. Add hand gestures and body language and a bit of charades, and dinner conversation was not only possible, but wonderful.

We came to define such encounters as the language of the camino, collectively spoken by people bonded in the shared experience of this pilgrims' walk.

(Kathleen Morelock lives in Coupeville.)
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