How Dinner Conversation is Like Basketball

Day Ten: Colombres to Llanes — After breakfast in the deserted breakfast room I gathered my things, paid for my laundry and dinner, and stepped out into the day. I knew the camino route followed the highway, so I walked down the motel driveway and faced oncoming traffic from the narrow shoulder of the road. The lack of scenery along the wide expanse of asphalt allowed room in my thoughts to reflect on last night’s dinner conversation.

The best dinner conversations I’ve enjoyed over the years follow an unspoken protocol. The host or hostess, in addition to making sure everyone has enough to eat and drink, subtly guides the conversation so that everyone at the table is included. The goal is for all to participate and for everyone to have a good time. Others at the table help by being certain not to dominate the conversation and, after they’ve spoken, by asking a leading question of someone else at the table.

A dinner party, then, is a lot like a basketball game. The ball (the conversation) should be in constant movement and everyone should get it regularly. If someone doesn’t pass the ball to others or if two teammates make all the plays, the other players might as well go sit on the bench.

Good basketball teams don’t happen by accident — they take coaching and practice. The same is true of conversation. Get six strangers together and you don’t really know what will happen, particularly if some of them don’t know the game.

Which brings us to last night. Along with the three youngsters (American, Québécois and Dutch) I was joined by an older, married pilgrim couple who described themselves as “from Europe.” As the conversation developed it was clear that the focus of the older man’s attention was the young, female American pilgrim. With a few exceptions the conversation among the six of us became a conversation between the two of them. No one among us, myself included, seemed quite able to shift the focus. I tried several times to draw out the older woman, hoping we could wrest the attention to a different axis, but I couldn’t quite pull the whole table along.

It reminds me of a scene from last year’s camino. I was sitting at dinner in a small albergue, enjoying the conversation with three pretty French women across the table. I poured them a refill on their wine and then heard a voice from the older woman next to me saying, “don’t just pour for the young women. I’d like some wine, too.” I hadn’t realized until that moment that I had been focusing on the pretty, young table mates. That night I needed to remember that dinner conversation is like basketball. At our conversation last night if we’d had more dribbling and passing and more team involvement I think we’d all have had a better time.

Soon it was time to turn off the main road to a smaller road on the left, which led to a gravel road that followed along and above the highway. After a time this road returned to the highway once again. At Buelna I followed the guidebook’s directions to cross the highway, descend through the town, and find the GR-E9. The “GR” denotes it as one of the “Grand Route” walking/biking trails of Europe and its wide, well-graded gravel trail way became the route for most of the rest of the day.

The E-9 followed the coastal cliffs and occasionally offered panoramic views or quiet, isolated beaches. The kilometers melted away accompanied by the sounds of murmuring creeks and crashing ocean waves. I enjoyed seeing the five Spanish women briefly (Begona, Annabelle, Pilar, Nuvia, and Anna), along with a French couple and Czech foursome I’ve seen several times recently.

Eventually the trail came to the town of Andrin where I stopped for breakfast #2, enjoying a delicious tortilla espanol. I hadn’t carefully looked at signs to find the way from the restaurant, so I guessed that the road headed west out of town. Wrong. After walking 1 km the wrong way I asked directions and headed back, almost to where I began, and found the trail as it climbed a steep hill. At the top of the hill was a spectacular vista of the ocean, with a full view of Llanes ahead. I followed the signs and was once again on the E-9. The trail led below then above the highway and then took a steep climb to a TV tower above Llanes. For a time it seemed as though this route would bypass Llanes, but eventually it descended and connected with Llanes’ main route. As I came into town I noted the name on Google Maps of a large hotel. When I passed it I liked its quaint and dignified style and couldn’t resist going to the front desk and asking the cost. At this moment I’m enjoying the view from one of the hotel’s elegant and surprisingly inexpensive rooms.

Today I’m missing home and also my pilgrim friends. But I’m also happy to have some quiet and rest in a lovely place after a good day’s walk.

Taking stock of my walk after 10 days:

  • I’ve walked 226 km (141 miles)
  • My blisters are healed
  • I’m feeling well, except for some hip pain from yesterday’s fall
  • I’ve diligently stayed clear of any kind of work, thanks mostly to my coworkers who are handling things completely on their own
  • According to the scale at the Llanes pharmacy I’ve somehow managed to lose six lbs
  • All told, things are going very well. If you’ve read this far into today’s entry, thank you for your kind attention.

    Off to bed now after a big, late lunch. No basketball for me tonight.










    Oops, I Think I Fell Into a “Mad Men” Set

    Day Nine: Comillas to Colombres —I saw the motel in the distance and couldn’t quite reconcile it with its setting. In ancient Spain where everything has a medieval or Baroque patina, here was a motel — yes, a motor hotel — right off the set of Mad Men. I couldn’t imagine what the rooms might be like (maybe springy beds and noisy air conditioners?), but after 32 km of walking I was not about to be picky.

    Today’s walking began early, the three Italians with whom I was sharing a room were awake and packing their bags at 5:30. They politely kept the lights off until 6:00, which was when I’d told them they could awaken me. Together we finished readying our things and somehow I headed out the door a few minutes before them.

    I wound my way down the streets of Comillas to the main highway where yesterday I’d seen the yellow arrow way markers and headed out the red, paved pedestrian walkway that climbed along the highway out of town. After 20 minutes or so the Italians passed me, along with a friendly Spaniel-ish dog who had just adopted them.

    After a bit the pedestrian walkway petered out and we were walking along the road again (insert frowning emoticon here). After a bridge over the Rio Rabia our smaller road veered off to the left and climbed above the main highway, giving vistas of the valley which fell out to our right into a small ocean bay. The road continued up through farms then rejoined the main road after a few kilometers of ups and downs. At the final uphill I passed the five Spanish women from yesterday as they turned off to a rest area to recover from the steep climb. This was to be just the first of many steep climbs today.

    The road then meandered through an immaculate but empty golf course. Near the clubhouse was a tiny, ancient chapel with a tree growing out of its bell tower. Not something you see every day, even among the 200-800 year old churches of Spain.

    From here the road descended, losing all the elevation we’d gained, and dramatic views were visible of San Vicente de la Barquera and its bridges, castles and churches. My Italian friends were just ahead and they continued on while I turned right so I could find breakfast. At a little cafe overlooking the quiet harbor I enjoyed a coffee and croissant as the Spanish women passed by with a wave and then settled into their own breakfast at an adjacent cafe.

    Armed with a few calories I headed back to the camino trail, which immediately climbed steeply through the streets of San Vicente. The road dropped down, then climbed even more steeply through a eucalyptus forest. After a descent followed by a roadside walk that included a deserted and overgrown but somehow picturesque pedestrian tunnel I crossed a bridge and began yet another ascent, this one on a steep, green path through the forest.

    My French guidebook describes the following descent as “a little acrobatic” and sure enough, for the first time in 2300 km of camino walking I actually slipped and fell. My right boot lost traction on a steep gravel slope and slipped ahead about two feet, leaving me in a lunge-like position with my left knee on the ground. Somehow i managed to keep my balance and I wasn’t hurt much, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my hip or back are sore in the morning.

    The path soon joined an asphalt road which ran next to a gravel quarry, its machinery loudly grinding while big diesel trucks noisily drove in and out of its gate.

    I followed the road into Unquera and walked along its pedestrian walkway until it was blocked off then headed onto the sidewalk of its main street to the concrete bridge out of town. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the camino signs pointed to yet another enormous climb, this one easily 300 meters on flagstone pavers at perhaps an 8-10% grade.

    By now it was 2:00 and the sun was at its hottest for the day. Near the top of the climb was a tiny camino chapel (wish I’d taken a photo), then the trail stopped and suddenly I was at the albergue of Colombres, my intended goal for the day. There was no sign to note that the camino had now left Cantabria and was in the Spanish “autonomous state” of Asturias.

    The albergue was full of children with no room left for pilgrims, so with the Italians, who were just ahead of me, I hunted for lodging. After 10 minutes with no hotel in sight they headed left while I headed right and somehow I ended up alone out at the main highway, approaching a motel right out of Mad Men.

    As I came around to its front door, very hot and tired after many climbs and descents in the sun, the first thing I noticed was that the large parking lot was deserted. Not a good sign. I noted patio furniture on the terrace, a good sign, but weeds growing through cracks in the concrete, another bad sign. I passed the shuttered restaurant and cafeteria to find a vast lobby with a desk clerk speaking loudly on the telephone while fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed overhead. She noticed me right away, but continued answering the caller’s highly detailed questions (“What is included in the dinner?” “What time is breakfast?”). This gave me a chance to inspect the vintage furniture, to peruse a 2008 edition of Perro magazine (all about schnauzers), to admire the empty expanse of the vacant sunroom, to realize that I was probably going to be the only guest in the entire 60-70 room hotel tonight and to theorize that the hotel was built in 1959 for a convention of American advertising agency execs and hadn’t changed since then.

    Finally when she was free I learned from the desk clerk that the cost of the single room was only 30€ including breakfast and that one of her friends was happy to do my laundry (for an as yet to be determined price). When I arrived at my room I marveled at the vintage 1950’s fixtures in the bathroom (blue toilet and sink, yellow tile). To my delight I soon learned that showers were just as good fifty years ago as they are today.

    I headed out in the late afternoon to catch a bite at a roadside restaurant (the hotel’s restaurant doesn’t open until 8:00) and was delighted to run into Amelia, Julien and their Danish friend whom I’d met way back at Guemes. They were intrigued at the thought of sleeping in a Mad Men motel and we agreed to meet at 8:00 in the restaurant for a dinner of… sticks and canned vegetables maybe?