Book review: Ailsa Piper’s SINNING ACROSS SPAIN – A Walker’s Journey from Granada to Galicia

Ailsa Piper presenting her text “Sinning across Spain” in Ariel Books, Paddington, Sydney in June, 2012

292 pages ISBN 978 0 522 86139 6

This text has been published in 2012 by Victory Books in Melbourne, which is an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing.

OVERVIEW:

Sinning across Spain recounts the story of an Australian (Ailsa Piper) living and working in Melbourne, commencing with her airline journey to Spain via Rome during Easter, a Vueling flight to Barcelona and then on to Granada.  This was the beginning of April, 2010 until she completes the 1,200 km pilgrimage walk from the Spanish city of Granada in the south (Andalusia or Andalucía), to Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) in northwest Spain on Tuesday, 18 May 2010. The author continues for another 100 km walking to Spain’s Land End, (Finisterre or Fisterra) so that by Friday, 21 May 2010 she sees the Atlantic Ocean from that mythical and iconic shoreline in Galicia. In her own words: “thirteen hundred kilometres completed in forty-three days.  Approximately thirty kilometres per day” by being somewhat disingenuous when prefacing these truly impressive numbers “for those who like a statistic”. Ailsa Piper is quintessentially Australian and throughout her book she demonstrates being highly competitive in the great Australian outdoor sporting tradition that nothing is really too hard, too far or too long – she can do it.  And she is equal, if not better than all the other walkers she encounters on these pilgrimage tracks.  We do not know since her return if she is carrying any consequential injuries from her punishing kilometres per day in Spain.

My prep is normally exhaustive. For the previous year’s Camino Francés I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover, scoured websites, grilled camino veterans, downloaded Spanish podcasts…”

This text recounts the people whom she met as pilgrims walking the two pilgrimage tracks: the Camino Mozárabe commencing in Granada and then the Vía de la Plata at Mérida (the latter starts at Seville/Sevilla). In addition to meeting and relating to fellow pilgrims, the writer recounts the many hundreds of locals whom she had ephemeral relationships (sometimes lasting but a few hours), but no less profound and intense every day, all the way along. She also recounts in great detail her deep and complex relationships with these walking tracks, the natural and built environments, the flora and fauna encountered.  In a word, she shares with the reader her evolving relationships with both her temporal and spiritual worlds not only in Spain, but also her country of birth. The reader is taken vicariously on this journey when she moves between cultures, uses languages and makes linguistic connections.

…languages are one of my chief pleasures. I’ve worked with language all my life, as a writer, theatre director and teacher. I relish English and its vagaries. I speak enough Spanish to chat about the times if not the tides; have passable schoolgirl French; and enough Italian to know when I’m in a discussion that is going down a one-way street…

 Ailsa Piper’s chronological narrative recounts in detail her rollercoaster emotions and feelings with her three main pilgrim protagonists whom she meets whilst walking:

  • «Herr Theologie or Herr T» – Mr Theology (a German) at Moclín until Monterrubio on the Via de la Plata
  • «Amigo – Friend» (a Spaniard) first met on the Vía de la Plata after Mérida and before el Carrascalejo until Salamanca
  • «Il Capitano» – Captain and «il Soldato» – Soldier (two Italians) at Aljucén until Santiago de Compostela

Here, the reviewer will just focus on her problematic relationship with Herr Theologie.  We learn that this German pilgrim is 60 years old or maybe a little older and during his youth had been taught by Joseph Ratzinger (the current Pope).  The Australian and German have a number of heated arguments about religion, goodness and the nature of evil.  It is interesting Piper does not seem to understand the complex context when she comments on their philosophical discussions about “good and evil”.  This German theologian would have been born just after the end of World War Two: he would have been marked (if not scarred) forever by the collective guilt of his generation and his parents’ concerning the rise and fall of Nazism and the Holocaust.  It is a pity Piper did not join the dots or was simply not able to understand because of her Australian background.  At the end of her text we are informed that, “I don’t hear from Herr Theologie.”  Nonetheless, with generosity she adds: “I hope he is happy. And strong.”

Everyday in the late afternoon, throughout her walking journey she is phoned by a young gay couple from Barcelona called Leonardo and Ricardo whom she had met on the Vueling flight from Rome to Barcelona and at the end of her narrative, Piper informs us she now considers them like her adopted Spanish brothers.

Throughout Sinning Across Spain, Piper frequently goes back to her first pilgrimage experience in Spain on the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in September, 2009, six months earlier, during the European autumn period and throughout her southern pilgrimage recount, she makes reference to this most special of special Camino friends by using the word «Compañero» –  (waking) partner/team-mate. As she says herself: “One with whom you break bread.” Very soon into the text we find out that Piper is forever changed by her 2009 Camino Francés experience:

I came home to Australia knowing I was changed, but uncertain of what that meant.  I longed for the fractured Esperanto that is the language of that road.  I craved figs, sunflowers and dusty tracks leading ever west, but most of all I yearned for the journeys I had taken outside my body.

The reviewer believes that she would not have had a successful outcome on her thirteen hundred kilometres southern route without the experience and knowledge of the Camino Francés.  And it is precisely for this reason that if anyone from Australia/New Zealand wishes to emulate her achievement, they are well advised to have prior knowledge and experience of the Camino Francés and are reasonably well versed in Spanish – more proficient in the language than Ailsa Piper demonstrates in her narrative. It is true the Camino Mozárabe and the Vía de la Plata do not have the depth or breadth of infrastructure supporting pilgrims like the Camino Francés and if you are a monolingual Anglophone on those tracks it is not a good look and more challenging than it should. In a text such as Sinning Across Spain the reader inevitably commences a relationship with the writer because she is not only the subject matter, but the reader is like her vicarious walking companion or a type of guardian angel – forever present but never assisting and often judging her actions.  We see her close up and personal with both her strengths and weaknesses exposed.  Piper is an honest writer and every reader will appreciate that. With the exception of her date of birth: 1959 (source: Wikipedia) one is given constant information by the subject herself concerning her upbringing, her personal life, her interests, passions and values.

SO, WHAT DOES THE TEXT TELL US ABOUT THE WRITER – AILSA PIPER?

Born in Western Australia, growing up on a property in the bush; raised as a Catholic, sent to Catholic school, had an evolutionary falling out with her Catholic faith, but nonetheless is culturally, traditionally and emotionally deeply connected to Catholicism – her brain is hard wired to Catholicism even as a lapsed Catholic.  All this gives her both comfort and an object to admire and despise.  She lost her mother in 1995 when Piper was approximately 46 years old, her father is alive and Ailsa is ethnically an Anglo Celt and brought up in a monocultural, monolingual, homogenised Anglophone environment.  Even her first name of «Ailsa» reinforces her Anglo-Celtic heritage.  Ailsa is Old Norse (a North Germanic language spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia) in origin, a Scottish geographical name (an island in Scotland) and also Gaelic (either Scottish or Irish). She is married to the same man and their marriage allows both parties to pursue their individual professional interests, they have no children, she has siblings – she is older by two years with her brother Brett living in WA; has a sister; Piper lives in Melbourne which she adores, but did live in Sydney for a time and liked it. Her mother’s death 15 years ago is still felt as a deep loss, which she grieves and frequently talks about it. Piper does not know German, but can speak and understand some French, Italian and Spanish at a certain indefinable level, loves journeys, poetry and the theatre. She is passionate about walking in the Australian bush and walking in general. First time she does the Camino in 2009, Piper is meticulously prepared but in the following year, not so well prepared.  She cries and is explosive every now and then as a way of releasing her from an acute crisis or anguished moments on the pilgrimage tracks.  She walks too fast; too hard and too far each day – she even admits it; has a sexual attraction and feelings for a particular pilgrim, but does not cross the line between desire or lust converting to action.  She is also opinionated, judgemental, proudly Australian, with a big ego, coupled with high self-esteem.  She says of herself she suffers having too much pride as one of the original Seven Deadly Sins and she amply demonstrates that throughout her text.  She is also disarming and always on her mission: carrying the traditional sins of her financial sponsors and benefactors.  And most importantly she is loyal and faithful to people who have put their trust in her.

The reviewer is surprised she makes no reference to the honour culture of Spain (too much pride and shame – Don Quijote is a good example).  Honour is a form of collectivism based on social image or reputation.  Honour cultures (e.g. Spain) encourage the maintenance of strong family ties, social harmony and interdependence such as hospitality.  In this regard, Spanish people and Ailsa have much in common.

To fund her second pilgrimage she publicises in her Melbourne community and elsewhere that for a financial payment she will carry the traditional sins of her patrons, which she calls the “Seven Deadlies”:

  1. anger;
  2. greed;
  3. sloth;
  4. pride;
  5. lust;
  6. envy;
  7. gluttony.

She correctly informs the reader that this is what happened to some pilgrims during the medieval period.  When Ailsa Piper gets back to Australia and has her text accepted and published by Melbourne University Press, these classic, religious based seven sins become the perfect marketing and promotional angle.  That’s well and good and it is clever too. It is necessary in today’s world when you have to stand out and be noticed in an extremely crowded commercial market place – certainly in the book publishing world and more so when publishing Camino de Santiago journey recounts.  This is the commercial bottom line and is understandable. However, my problem with this is that these 7 x Deadlies are simply an anachronism because in the 20th and 21st centuries we are all globally and individually challenged rather by discrimination, racism, genocide, betrayal and treachery; breach of trust, abuse in all its forms, fundamentalism, poverty and starvation. Piper’s anger and crises during her journey are intriguing but understandable when pushed to one’s physical limits.  We know that loss frequently triggers anger.  Anger also arises after being insulted not only in honour cultures; including our intrepid trekker Ailsa Piper. However, Piper’s emotions and feelings in the text are always dramatic and makes for an engaging piece of writing.  But one thing we do know about all her ups and downs: the locals along the pilgrimage tracks always assist this Australian human walking machine… they invariably lift her spirits, offer her generosity and are accommodating to her needs and wishes and give her good advice.  And it is therefore understandable when she openly states that she loves Spain and Spanish people.  Invariably they were very good and generous to her.  And as a loyal person, she returns the favour. As previously mentioned we know that Pilgrim Piper walks incredibly fast, hard and long: is she sublimating her mother’s death (and her sister in law’s sudden death just before leaving on her second pilgrimage) through the catharsis of a long, hard and challenging walk?  We may never know.

Ailsa Piper’s on making linguistic connections and using languages.

Throughout the text Sinning Across Spain…and nearly on every page Ailsa Piper uses either an Italian or Spanish word and often has the English equivalent.  As the reviewer has more than 4 decades of formal learning and is passionate about the languages and cultures of both France and Spain, he did pay particular attention to the author’s constant use of those languages in her book.  Some of those Spanish and French words and expressions used were lost in translations and therefore meaning distorted. To be fair, she got most of the translations reasonably correct, but there were some glaring and unfortunate errors, which will mislead monolingual English native speakers.  In the context of returning a wish or a salutation Piper says that the English translation of «igualmente» was «equally».  Very simply: it should have been translated as: «Thank you, the same to you».  There are a number of other misleading translations.  Piper takes obvious pride in knowing and using her existing Spanish language skills: however, just because one has a working knowledge of another language, that should never give rise to linguistic hubris.  It is ironic that Ailsa Piper criticises her first pilgrim companion (the German Herr Theologie) because “His English, his Spanish and his manners were formal, products of his time and his education.” When the reviewer was doing his research into this book, he needed to consult with a number of his language colleagues who collectively have over 100 years of study in the Spanish language.  They summarised Ailsa’s use of Spanish in her text as demonstrating that she was showing off her modest but limited Spanish language skills.  Is this a harsh and an unwarranted comment? Ailsa is to be commended for using any Spanish, for so long as she is able to correctly and without distortion get her messages across the linguistic and cultural divide.  However, more humility would not have gone astray and an acknowledgement that learning languages including our first language is the quintessential never-ending journey during our lifetimes.  After all, in Sinning Across Spain Ailsa herself proudly proclaims that, “languages are one of my chief pleasures (…) I’ve worked with language all my life…” It is also a pity that the well-known Spanish television weather person Ana Belén Roy’s name is incorrectly spelt as Ana Balen Rey on pages 207 and 233.  When one is using and dealing with other languages and cultures it is imperative that greater care be exercised as a sign of respect for that culture.

CONCLUSION:

Is Sinning Across Spain – A walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia a good read?  Definitely yes.

Does the reviewer recommend both arm chair travellers as well as prospective pilgrims obtain a copy?  Yes.

Will the reader be better informed, more knowledgeable, and have greater insights into modern Spain as a result of reading this text?  Yes.

REVIEWER: MARC GROSSMAN, June, 2012. email: marc.grossman@caminodownunder.com   website: http://www.caminodownunder.com

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Comments

  1. Jocelyn Gordon says:

    Liked your review…and now for the ‘read’. JG

  2. Michael Macklin says:

    Just finished this book of great humanity and feeling. I generally read two or three books at a time but this one was all on its own from beginning to end. I suppose the fact that I am going to Spain later in the year would have influenced my attitude but I know a couple of friends who have never been to Spain and are not intending to go were also smitten with this recounting of a person’s walk through life. Read it and savour the experience of walking without sore feet and feeling one’s heart going out to all those on their own camino.

  3. Alison Klitzing says:

    After seeing the movie “The Way” my girlfriend was smitten by the idea of the walk, I bought her Ailsa’s book which has been read and re read many times by my friend until her house burnt down a few weeks ago. I am about to replace the book as her dreams of going in 3 years are stronger than ever; the book is now ashes but not her goal.

    • This is the classic story of the phoenix: this mythical bird having burnt itself on a funeral pyre and then rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle. Your friend’s situation now and its renewal will be amply rewarded no doubt in the future. She should still be culturally and linguistically prepared.

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