Yesterday (Friday) I returned to Santiago from Finisterre; the distance that took me three and a half days to walk was covered in just two and a half hours by bus. For the last several weeks and 880 kilometers, I have followed waymarks, mostly yellow arrows (from faded to fresh) that are either spray painted on roads, bridges, lamp posts, trash bins and buildings, or indicated with an array of stones or, even, a plastic garbage bag woven into a chain link fence in the shape of an arrow. Without the need to look for or follow these signals, and without an urge to consult my map, I wandered through the narrow winding streets of Santiago, often discovering that I was going around in circles.
At one point I found myself looking into yet another tempting bakery window on a street I hadn’t visited yet. Since it was mid-afternoon, the shop was closed, but I scrutinized the wares. And there, stretched along the back of the display, was a long braided bread. I peered into the glass and saw a handwritten sign stuck into the loaf, explaining that it was challah, bread for the Jewish Sabbath. While it´s possible that other bakeries in Spain make challah, this was the first I had seen, and one of the very few signs of Jewish life (past or present) I had spotted amidst the crosses and Christian statuary that populate, and in certain places dominate, the Camino. The writer of my guidebook often mentioned that seeing the cross at the top of a hill or mountain gives the Pilgrim renewed faith, hope and strength. For many, the crosses offered an excuse to pause and pose for a photo. For this Jewish walker, they were a sign to keep moving.
After traversing hundreds of miles of a Christian path, was this challah my Santiago miracle?
The shop wouldn´t open for another hour, at 5:30pm, and it was raining (again), so I ducked into a cafe and ordered a great cup of green tea. I returned for the evening opening but the large wood door was shut, even though the lights were on. A Spanish couple, shielded by black umbrellas, eyed the breads in the window. The three of us hung around for several minutes and I wondered why they had chosen to wait, rather than find another of the many panaderias in town.
“Are you familiar with this shop?” I asked them, at around 5:45pm.
“Yes,” they said.
“Do you think it will open?”
“It´s supposed to be open,” they said. I spotted a worker at the back, dusting off some equipment. I knocked on the wood door, but no one answered. I decided to stick around even though it was still raining. A few minutes later, a broad shouldered older woman with a cap of white hair opened the wood door half way.
“Do you want something?” she asked in a brusque tone. Most of the Spaniards I´ve met – either Pilgrims or restaurant and shop owners — have been friendly and welcoming, but every country has its gruff characters. She was one of them.
“Are you open?” I asked, unsure what the half open door signified.
“I am opening the store now,” she huffed. She didn´t seem to care that we had been waiting. I let the couple enter first. They quickly picked two breads and left.
“How much is the challah?” I asked. She stared, as if she didn´t understand my pronunciation. I pointed to the braided loaf in the window.
“That’s only by special order,” she said. The display version was probably a few weeks old.
I left and wandered some more, trying to find a restaurant I had noticed earlier in the day. After many wrong turns, I finally spotted it again. I ended up ordering what could be called Jewish tapas — smoked salmon with cream cheese and arugula on toasted bread — and sparkling mineral water (the closest thing to seltzer). While chewing, I marveled that there was at least one person in Santiago who baked challah and that there were people who requested it. As to who they are and why they want challah…that will remain a mystery.