My Camino Way Series. Article #9
THE EUROPEAN CITY PLAZA AS A LIVING ROM: PART I of III
A MODEL FOR PEACE COMMUNITIES IN THE 21st CENTURY
Photo Credit: Jean-Christophe Benoist, View of Plaza del Castillo; Creative Commons, Wikipedia
“Community exists only when people know each others’ stories.” – Wendell Berry, American Poet
I am at Cafe Iruña in the Plaza del Castillo having a veggie sandwich and sipping a red house wine – or, as they say in Spanish, vino rosada de la casa. This is the same cafe Hemingway frequented in his visits to Spain during the Roaring Twenties ... when he penned his masterpiece The Sun Also Rises...
I glance out onto the street with a view of the plaza that inspired some of the most memorable scenes in 20th century literature, and I am reminded how human beings need a place to gather, to be connected in a better way, to be able to discuss ideas freely and without fear – and at that precise time I see David the Irishman [my pilgrim friend] making a beeline for the Iruña.
Synchronicity is a beautiful thing. - From my recently released book Becoming Love (2018)
The Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona, Spain has been called “Pamplona’s living room,” the “nerve of the city.” It’s not difficult to understand why. People of all ages come into the plaza not just to shop or dine but in a spirit of socializing unique to Europeans. One sees the usual scenes here as in other outdoor urban spaces: couples strolling along the streets, lovers cuddling on benches, parents watching their children play, people having drinks on patios – but the mood is distinct and difficult to capture in a word. As with life itself, the plaza is in continuous motion and ever-changing, its diverse colors and rhythms altering with the passing days and seasons.
In this sense, the plaza is a living, breathing portraiture of the European way of being, an ongoing story of the cycle of life on this side of the world.
Certainly, the shared common heritage has a great deal to do with it. There is a sense of community in the European plaza that you don’t easily find in North America – one that is rooted in ancient customs and traditions. And it finds its expression in the smallest detail of communication: the nod that a passerby gives to a neighbour, the way a parent will speak with a child, a sudden passionate burst of dialogue on the political issue of the day.
Perhaps the communal flame is sparked and kept alive, in part, by the rituals that belong to the necessities of life – those that happen at meal time.
The people of Pamplona dine quite late and linger longer at the table. They also tend to go out afterwards to socialize, so the description of the Plaza del Castillo as the city’s “living room” is actually a brilliant metaphor. In this way, the plaza becomes a sort of extension of the kitchen, a place where one drifts into after dinner to continue the conversation, have drinks and appreciate the basic pleasures of life.
North Americans on the other hand are more inclined to sit in front of the television while eating the final meal of the day – often not as a family unit – and perhaps exchange a few words in between commercials.
But while the spirit of community in Europe might be ignited at the dinner table, there’s so much more to it than that.
Another defining aspect of European lifestyle that constantly shapes its communities (and no doubt adds immeasurably to the elusive mood of the plaza) is its attitudes around sexuality.
I’m reminded of a scene in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, where Jake Barnes (the novel’s main character) describes a procession in the Plaza del Castillo during the San Fermin festival. The mood is festive, with music and dancing. Some of the dancers, wearing white garlands about their necks, gather in a circle around Lady Brett Ashley, the object of Jake’s desire, as if she is a fertility goddess. They continue to play with the group, drawing Jake and his friends into the circle and engaging them, wanting to teach them songs. Children are also included in the fiesta of San Fermin as an important part of its rituals and ceremonies.
Of course, Hemingway was writing about the “lost generation” and the wounds of war – and in particular, the fracturing of the male psyche, with many references to sexual obsession and impotence. Europeans experienced war in a very different way than North Americans – and the Spanish experience was unique among European countries – but that’s partly the point: what war does to human beings, individually and as a collective.
Hemingway and friends at a cafe in Pamplona, Spain, during the San Fermin Festival, 1925; Public Domain, Wikipedia
The true meaning of love gets distorted, ripped apart and scattered about in the ashes.
In the one world that Hemingway describes, people hate and inflict wounds on each other. Their whole purpose of partying, which includes sexual expression in its most depraved state, is to drink themselves into oblivion to escape their pain.
In the other world, the fiesta is a joyful celebration of life that embraces everyone. It is a place free of inhibitions, where nature and the creative spirit are worshipped and where pain might be transformed into something beautiful. It also represents hope that, in time, one might begin to heal the soul and learn how to love better.
Beneath its surface, The Sun Also Rises reveals another truth about human beings: humans desire (and need) to belong, and to be included, in order to truly flourish. It is an essential part of our nature. When we are disconnected from our “center,” it affects us and our communities greatly, which is why building strong communities, especially in big cities, is so important. Ancient cultures understood this well, as do Indigenous Peoples today.
It seems that Europeans are engaged, from childhood, in this unique process of creating a sense of belonging in a way that isn’t so evident in North America. The fact that ancient customs are still very much part of the European lifestyle no doubt has something to do with this.
Did Papa Hemingway, I wonder, secretly yearn for the sense of community and belonging he saw, as he observed from the vantage point of his favourite cafe, this procession of life unfolding before him? Did he find a seed of hope in this little world of the plaza that he couldn’t find elsewhere (except perhaps in nature) – the possibility of renewal after the horrors of war he experienced firsthand? Or did he shy away from it because he didn’t trust that openness, the circle of his own family being so broken and haunted by old ghosts?
Perhaps his way of belonging was to embrace it all, wherever he went – the cafes, the plazas, the people, the entire city - as he writes in A Moveable Feast, speaking of a girl who caught his eye in a Paris cafe: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
Hemingway had, with his astute observations of human nature and life, penetrated the internal landscape of the people who entered his world; he delved into their souls and unearthed their darkest, most painful secrets. And it was because he had listened so carefully to their stories that he felt bound to them.
As the American writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote, “Communities exist only when we know each other’s stories.”
This is the ideal of the European plaza: to help transform society into a more joyous, harmonious, loving place – which begins with understanding its people.
It is an ideal that is expressed in ancient civilizations, in various forms, going back thousands of years – and it is ever evolving, as we grow spiritually and our understanding of love, peace and happiness evolves.
And it is an ideal, and an idea, whose time has come.
After conversing with David, my pilgrim friend, over a couple of glasses of wine...I head back to the hostel. With just a wee glow on from the vino, my mind drifts back momentarily to our first triumphant day [walking the Camino] and the bells that seemed to ring especially for us as we entered Roncesvalles, after the monumental descent, and I recall the title of Hemingway’s other famous book I’ve often thought to read but never have. I know it is considered one of the greatest war stories ever told. A love story too. But there is something else about it that strikes a chord in me now. In writing on the brutality of war in the 20th century – the Spanish Civil War – Hemingway drew upon the gentle meditations of a 17th century poet, who understood well how we are all connected and how deep and wide and high that connection flows.
'No man is an iland, intire of it selfe;
every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were,
as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;
any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee....'
- From John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Once again, I feel a shiver of synchronicity rush through me.
El Camino creates little islands of communities, where we too become part of a whole. As we swim in the sea of our own spiritual cleansing, we are always connecting with our fellow pilgrims. We stop for drinks, share a bite to eat, lend each other a hand and ask for help when things get too much to bear, and in this way we become involved in humankind.
END OF PART I
Stay tuned next week for more El Camino stories. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me if you’re considering El Camino as a relationship sabbatical or simply for your own spiritual growth. There’s plenty of information on El Camino and many ways to walk it. So, if anything has resonated with you while reading this, it may be a special sign, divinely arranged just for you.
Buen Camino, Pilgrim