David was an American. The first American that we encountered as a hospitalero in the Spanish albergues. My impression of him, initially, was terrible. That wasn’t because I was quickly judging him or disliked him in appearances. It was because he came off like a jerk.
We showed up, with our minimal Spanish and tired legs, and inquired about beds for the three of us. “Tres?” The single word was a question indicating more than we wanted to attempt in Spanish. The man with a full head of silvery hair was unimpressed.
“Yes. I see three people.” We were taken aback and weren’t sure how to proceed. If I had an ounce more of stubbornness and more energy in my body, I might have left the albergue and walked to a different one or a different town. Instead, we awkwardly stood there, feeling bad for our spokesman and wondering if he was the only one in charge.
He briskly asked for our passport and credentials. Annoyed, I tried to kill him with kindness. I openly smiled at him when he handed my documents back to me. He didn’t seem quite certain how to take it. I would have thought he would be excited or interested to meet some people from his country, but he was clearly not.
The other hospitalero came down the steps and she greeted us in Spanish. David’s unenthusiastic voice chimed in, “They speak English.”
“You do?! Wonderful! I can talk to you! My name is Patricia.” The shift in emotions was quick. David was brooding and annoyed while Patricia was bubbly and patient. We watched them interact, assuming at first that they were a married couple. She wanted to know what the men had discovered about the water situation. Three times David gave a rude or unkind answer, but she persisted.
“No, really, David. Tell me what they said, so I can tell those who are asking.”
Finally, he gave a genuine response that satisfied her. My impression at this point was rather favorable to Patricia and dismissive of David. I wasn’t here to get walked on or be the point of his melancholic sarcasm. She convinced him to show us to our beds, a task he wasn’t pleased with but completed with minimal grumbling.
And so it was, the first American volunteer and already I was wishing one of us was from a different country. No wonder people dislike Americans if they all act like that, I thought.
My next main encounter with David was at our communal meal. Between Patricia and David, the plan for the evening was presented: supper followed by singing and then watching the sun set. David kept walking in and out of the room while we settled into our seats. I thought I had him pegged–they were a married couple and she wanted to volunteer and he came along because of her. Not because he wanted to, but simply for his wife.
Yet within the first few minutes that theory was flipped on its head. They weren’t married but had met the previous year when they finished the Camino in Finisterre. Both wanted to volunteer and decided to complete the undertaking together. He was from the States and she was from England. This information was nothing to what happened next.
Cool, detached, collected, sarcastic David began to speak. He revealed that this was their last night of the two weeks of volunteering. The next day they would be leaving for a holiday. David got choked up numerous times during his speech, his voice cracking and squeaking as he struggled for control. It was completely and utterly unexpected.
The meal of lentil soup with meatballs was served. David would take our bowls, with a large smile, and refill them before passing them back down the line to us. I was baffled. This hardly seemed to be the same man. Here he was trying to be polite and kind, a contrast to the seemingly self-absorbed American I had encountered hours earlier.
David was one of the greatest surprises of the Camino. I’m not sure I ever again saw such a transformation. The first David was, unbeknownst to me, struggling with the idea of leaving the tiring but beautiful work of being a hospitalero. He was also under stress due to water problems and trying to communicate in his rather terrible Spanish. I didn’t know that but immediately felt not welcomed. Patricia was more patient and knew more of his heart. When he obnoxiously refused to seriously answer her questions, she patiently waited for him to be sincere. That evening, David told all of us that Patrica was his best friend.
They sang silly songs, making fools of themselves for our entertainment. Then we took a group picture outside and watched the sun set. The colors were lovely but weren’t quite as grand as South Dakota. In the morning, we set off, waving goodbye to companions from the previous night. David surprised me. At the center of our hearts is a desire to be known and loved. We may build up walls all around us and shield ourselves with steely hearts, but there is always a chink in the armor. Because there always remains the desire to be known by others.
Even supposed jerks like David can turn out to have hearts of flesh after all.
“I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.” Ezekiel 36:26