Once satisfied with my pursuit of Portugal’s picturesque coastline I crossed the border back into España, now very much on the last leg of my trip. As much as I endeavoured not to start the countdown to my return home – having just a couple of week’s worth of pitstops (and barely a week’s worth of budget) left to go – I couldn’t help but gaze fondly ahead to the Eurostar journey back to London St Pancras and the already-planned champagne reception met Moeder Moo Moo. Whether it was the anticipation of home, the grey autumnal weather, or the utter exhaustion of one hundred and seventy six days on the road taking its toll (yes, I did just count), I was starting to feel lethargic, lacklustre and a little bit lonely. And I couldn’t think of what better a state to be in to empathise and converse with those who had just completed the mighty Camino de Santiago.
Having only first learnt about this network of pilgrimages during earlier stages of my trip (feeling an utter pleb for the duration of my first conversation concerning it; a scholarly superior during my second), I was eternally grateful for my crash course four months prior as I entered the holy land, swarming with travellers far more saintly and spiritual than I could ever hope to be. Not only could I name-drop Eliot and Stuart, two real-life people that I had met in other countries, at separate instances, who had completed the Camino themselves (somehow I felt this made me a more legitimate visitor to the city), I could also, on occasion, blame my lack of energy on “all the walking”, and hope that people believed that I, too, was a now-enlightened pilgrim who had trekked all the way from the French Pyrenees and was deserving of free hot chocolate / private accommodation / a deep tissue foot massage. (I was offered not one by the people of Santiago de Compostela, and frankly rather disgruntled by this.)
But before I had even reached the city’s bus station, neigh – before I had even embarked on the bus out of Porto – any early signs of loneliness were to be curtailed, cut short, deemed utterly kaput, by a red-haired, toe-ring-wearing, fifty-year-old hippy from Finland. At first when she started talking to me (in Finnish) at the pick-up point I did my usual stranger-danger trick of pretending not to hear. This is a little more difficult to sustain when sitting on the same bench as the suspect; even harden when she starts to touch your arm with her henna-adorned hand. I concluded that I would have to acknowledge her presence at some point, or it might start to look like we were some kind of estranged inter-generational couple with severe communication issues. So I turned to her, my mouth smiling sweetly while my eyes shot out laser rays of irritation and hostility (at which point the handful of henna was removed from my forearm), and admitted, ever so politely, “I’m so sorry, I have no idea what you are saying.” “Ohhww!” howled the now even more animated Finn, “You are not Finnish?” Well. This changed things completely. Being assumed to be Scandinavian? I don’t think I’ve ever received such a compliment. We became then, immediately, bosom buddies, and spent the entire journey gabbling away, lamenting the lateness of the bus, the merits of Porto and our shared longing to partake in the grand Camino but, you know… ouch.
First on the agenda once checked in to our respective hostels was going for a beer, a pastime which I soon learnt to be more of a constant state of being for the Helsinkian. She liked her beer. A lot. I don’t think she ever ordered a glass of water or similarly non-intoxicating beverage, no matter the hour, and I concluded that this was half for the hippyness it afforded her, and half for the plate of free nibbles it was always accompanied with in this part of the country. Unfortunately for me these dishes always contained – mostly only contained – some kind of cured meat, of which I did not care for any more details, and did not care to put in my cake hole. So when we both had a beer, she got double helpings. (Perhaps that’s why she hung around me for so long.) She explained to me, though, that she was really actually a vegan, back home, and couldn’t stand the the concept of using animals as food. But that she broke this rule when travelling, especially when in Spain, for she could live fully-sustained buying only five-to-ten beers a day, and who could say no to that?
But before I realised the slight alcoholism, along with the elastic vegan tendencies, we had to find somewhere for our first (or, for her, first five-to-ten) bevvies. We stumbled upon this lovely little café-cum-bar, in the middle of nowhere, which was really rather busy on this random Tuesday night. With a beer in hand we sat down with some very strangely-dressed people at a large communal table, and soon realised that: a) we had gatecrashed their Spanish conversation class, and b) it was Halloween. I had a headache brewing and a stomach rumbling and was not overly keen to partake in either. Helsinki, on the other hand, had other ideas. (After all, she could line her stomach with all the free jamón she was stockpiling, and her day to day appearance (with all the henna, piercings, red hair) was kind of naturally Halloween-esque.) So after a couple of beers and an attempt to converse in Spanish small talk with a bunch of witches and draculas, I decided to bid bon voyage to my new, spooky, friends (my reason: “all the walking”), heading back to my hostel to make a microwave jacket potato and get a nice early night. (Hashtag living.)
I awoke to a number of photos and videos sent to me via Helsinki (gosh they must have travelled fast) detailing the night before, confirming that it entailed copious amounts of beer, witches, gratis jamón, draculas, and Finnish selfies. I did not regret my decision to pass.