San Sebastian called to me.
Before I could leave the beautiful country I had called home for two months, I needed to see San Sebastian – or Donostia, as it is known in the Basque language. I had seen most of the South; I had walked much of the North; yet San Sebastian somehow eluded my path.
Notoriously famous for one of the best cuisines in the world, solid surf and local cider houses, it would be simply unfathomable for me to leave Spain without spending a few days in the place named the European Culture Capital of 2016.
So how did San Sebastian measure up against the previous enchantments I had experienced in Spain? Did it disappoint? In a word: impossible. As a matter of fact, the charm of San Sebastian left me speechless. The culinary masterpieces were far more mind-blowing than I had read about in books. Combinations of ingredients I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Restaurants and bars lined up with seemingly endless dishes of bliss on a plate.
But don’t call them tapas…Pintxos are taken very seriously in Donostia. One place in particular, Atari Gastroteka, in the heart of the old town…wow. Just wow. Suffice it to say it is a place not to be missed.
Prior to getting to San Sebastian, I found out that the priest who baptized me lived in San Sebastian. So I thought I would try to connect with him while I was there. I mean, how often does one get to reconnect with the person who baptized you 30 plus years ago?
It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
We agreed to meet at the small plaza in between my hostel and his priest-home. Ironically, Padre Sanchez lived only three minutes away from my hostel. Literally, three minutes. How’s that for fate?
We had a bit of a hiccup upon meeting as I didn’t remember what he looked like and it seemed I had changed quite a bit since I was one year old. Eventually, we met and this 70-plus year old priest did not miss a beat. “Strolling” through the city and by La Concha beach, I was huffing and puffing just trying to keep up with him. He was as quick as a whippersnapper and blessed with a Spanish Seinfeld sense of humor. He was anything but a boring priest – quite the unique character.
After the informative city tour, he insisted on sneaking me up to the priest’s headquarters and feeding me food from the dining hall. Although I ate some tortilla, milk and chocolate, it clearly wasn’t enough. He insisted that I should eat more and armed me with some high calorie-filled treats to take with me. It was hilarious the way he tried to feed me. It reminded me those old Italian grandmothers whose food you absolutely could not refuse without offending them; it was a cardinal sin (excuse the play on words).
The next day, Padre Sanchez had a fun little activity planned for us: a hike up to the Jesus statue in Monte Urgull. Easy enough, I thought. Amusingly, he breezed passed me on this average-level-of-difficulty-hike. I mean, it must have been because I was wearing flip-flops and unprepared for a hike. Yes sir, that’s definitely it…it was the flip-flops that slowed me down (insert: shamed face).
The view from the top of Monte Urgull was magnificent. A 360-degree view boasting incredible sights of the city and sea. Also, unknown to me when I began the hike, the statue was built atop an old fortress. Padre Sanchez explained to me that he sometimes held mass at the tiny chapel under the statue, which is why he hiked so quickly: practice (I knew there had to be a reason). After visiting the educational museum and seeing the cannons on the top of the mountain, it was just about lunchtime.
What came next was the kind of experience I don’t think I will ever encounter again, and the kind I will never forget: Padre Sanchez insisted that I eat lunch with him… and all of the other priests, in their community dining hall.
There I was: a hobo traveler, sitting at a dining room table with the priest who baptized me 31 years earlier, and greeting about a dozen other elderly priests on their way to their lunch tables. It was surreal, it was comical, but above all, it was humbling. I felt honored because it felt like I was privy to something few women have been a part of (the nuns live and eat in a different place).
Padre Sanchez is that very special kind of human being – one who doesn’t take life too seriously, shares everything he has, and doesn’t let the norms of society affect his behavior or beliefs. It’s obviously not really acceptable to have a stranger, much less a woman, come to have lunch at the dining hall reserved for priests. But he didn’t care; I was a guest in his town, he knew most of my family, and that was that. He is one of the most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. An incredibly inspiring person with such a bright spirit – the kind of spirit that keeps him young.
During the course of my time in San Sebastian, I also met some wonderful girls. As luck would have it, they were all my roommates. They were my new buddies, my partners in crime for a short few days. Stef, Raya, Mel and Steph were the lovely occupants of Room 7. Stef was a fun Aussie traveling through Europe for a while and met Canadian-born Raya in the South of France. In the true traveler form, they clicked, joined together and came to San Sebastian. Mel and Steph were two amazing Aussies on a whirlwind around-the-world trip. Steph had, without a doubt, the greatest laugh I have ever heard in my life. She could have been talking about a ham sandwich, laughed, and I would be in stitches. It was one of those wonderful, contagious laughs. It was impossible not to be happy around them.
Too quickly we had to say goodbye to Raya and Stef, as Mel, Steph and I were leaving the hostel. The three of us spent our last day scouring the old town for anything but the touristy, kitschy souvenirs, which turned out to be a very difficult endeavor. During our search, we literally bumped into a Pintxo bar called Atari (mentioned earlier), and what a fortunate accident it was. The food: divine. The wine: celestial. Atari was a gastronomic miracle. I’ve tried to remember the combinations of mouthwatering treats I ate, but my memory fails me. There were cheeses, there were sautéed onions, there was bacon, there was avocado…but those might very well have all been on different pintxos. (Just promise me that if you ever make it to San Sebastian, you will go to this otherworldly place and try everything on the bar. Promise me).
With that mind-blowing meal in our bellies, we felt ready to conquer the souvenir world, and that we did. After a morning full of laughs, we had to say goodbye. I remember at that time thinking to myself, “I really hope I cross paths with Mel and Steph again. They were wonderful.” Mel, a true beauty with a sweet and kind nature and Steph, a stunner with her infectious laugh and the “too much, too much?” question after every joke. There go another two to add to the “awesome global friends” list.
My last day in San Sebastian was far from over. Before getting on a very long bus ride to Paris, I wanted to say goodbye to Padre Sanchez and thank him for the kindness and hospitality he showed me. I don’t know why I didn’t see this coming, but once I got to the church he dragged me to the local bakery to buy a fresh baguette. He then proceeded to the all-too-familiar dining hall to make me three separate bocadillos for me to take with me on my journey. But that obviously wasn’t enough; he gave me a banana, dessert and water. I was packed with enough food for a three-day journey. Mine was less than one.
My heart felt like it was going to explode from his endless thoughtfulness, and I found it so endearing how engrossed he was in making sure I had enough to eat.
Life is all about moments. I remember being in that exact moment and feeling so much gratitude, so much warmness surrounding me and, even now, I cant help but feel that he, too, was part of my “Camino.”
Before setting off on the pilgrimage, I had a somewhat jaded view on the church. I didn’t see eye to eye with some of the church’s strict black and white policies. The unforgiving passing of judgment had left me feeling somewhat indifferent towards religion. Religion should be something that makes you a better person, something that welcomes everyone, is inclusive and promotes kindness; yet that wasn’t the church I knew back home. I’ll never forget the day I went to a baptism class I needed in order to become my niece’s godmother. The woman teaching the class began preaching that homosexuality was wrong and how it was our responsibility to teach that to our godchildren. I nearly walked out of the class. If I didn’t need that certificate to become a godmother, I would have left immediately.
In an unexpected turn of events, I began seeing a different side of the church throughout The Camino, and the differences had been a very distinct, recurring theme during the pilgrimage. Experiencing the goodness of people first-hand, the absence of judgment in all of the local churches I visited and going back to how things were supposed to be – all of that had impacted my views on the church, and I began believing again. Padre Sanchez was also part of that change in perspective. He showed sincere benevolence in the only way that he could – through food and inclusion. Making sure that I had (more than) enough to eat was how he could take care of me.
Before I left beautiful Donostia, another random act of kindness revealed the beauty in strangers. I missed my bus stop on my way to the train station, and I had literally run out of money to pay for the ride back to the right stop. A girl sitting next to me noticed I was a little frazzled and told me where I needed to go. She then gave me the 50 cents I needed to get there. Yes, it was only 50 cents, but it was the way she realized I didn’t know where I was and how I couldn’t find change in my wallet. It was like second nature the way she did it – without a second thought. When the bus driver overheard our exchange, he told her to put away her money and announced that he would take me back for free. He continued on, informing me that I was a visitor in his city, and that he wanted all visitors to feel at home and to leave with a good impression of San Sebastian. He didn’t know that I had already made up my mind about the wonders of his breathtaking city, but his genuine kindness re-confirmed my belief in the goodness of people.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic of the human race, but the fact is, when you encounter daily random acts of kindness in your life, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe otherwise. And I’m okay with that.