Gabriel, the hostel angel — Budapest, Hungary

I do not speak Magyar, and Budapest is a badly translated city on three hours of sleep. I arrive at my hostel on the river between Buda and Pest and crash immediately after paying my bill. I am so tired I forget to lock up my money and passport.

When I awake, my backpack is gone.

Fending off a panic attack, I ask the two other women staying in the room if they’ve seen anything. Having just returned, they hadn’t seen nothing.

I run to the hostel office and ask if the proprietor is still in. He’d introduced himself when I’d arrived, but I can’t remember his name. I mime to the matronly woman on duty (who speaks no English) that I need to speak to the tall man (hands stretch up) with curly hair (curly-Q my fingers above my head) and the red shirt (touch the red door jam, touch my shirt). After a few excruciating minutes, he comes to the office door, all smiles.

“Awake!” he says. I am shaking.

“Have you seen my backpack? Did anyone come in or out or leave with it, do you know? All my clothes…my laptop, money, passport, my journal…” My journal, with pictures of my family, my dog, my home. I can get a new passport. But the journal…

I think he says “Angliai hell-ee önkayntes haderoh.” He tries to translate. “You have a…what, angel. I am the angel of this home,” he says. He returns to his office and retrieves my pack from a locker where he’d stashed it. His younger sister, better at English than her brother, explains that he’d seen me sleeping and had worried about my unprotected belongings. He’d scooped them up and stored them for safe-keeping. I try to thank him through his sister.

“He says he is the guard of this home, for everyone,” she replies for him. The word used for “guard” sounds a lot like the word for “angel”, so he had misspoken when he’d said I “have an angel.”

He reintroduces himself. His name is Gabriel.

Barefoot Madonna — Carrión de las Condes, Camino de Santiago, Spain

I was in bad shape when my best friend and I began walking the Camino de Santiago in late May. I hadn’t had a chance to break in my boots, my nutrition was poor, and to top it all off I’d lost my wallet the day we landed in Madrid. We are 250 miles into the trek when we stop in Carrión for the night to sleep in an old cloister.

We’ve made a habit of exploring the holy sites of the places we walk through, and in Carrión this means we discover several small churches dedicated to the preservation of the 100 maidens that the invading Moors used to demand as yearly tribute to replenish their harems. The churches are plastered with Madonna imagery, and every few feet pilgrims find a new icon and offer a prayer to the Virgin and her disciple, Santiago, whose path we follow.

I, with my sore feet, have learned to enjoy moving barefoot through these sacred places, both to allow the cool stone floors to work their magic on my blisters and to better connect with the “otherness” of the holy sites. The feeling of dust under my soles is comforting. In my t-shirt and sarong I walk dirty-footed through a chapel that has a ceiling painted blue with white and silver stars.

A man approaches me. He speaks no English and barely responds when I speak Spanish. He holds up his camera and I can see by his hiking boots that he, too, is a pilgrim. I presume he wants me to take a picture of him, but when I move to take the camera from him he motions me away and points at my feet.

I am confused, but eventually understands that he wants to take a picture of my feet. I nod. He points and shoots. He gives me a small smile as he lowers the camera. He points behind me to a humble wooden statue of the Virgin, her hands held open in mercy. She is barefoot.

When I turn back, the man has moved away to sit in a pew. He is crying. I can hear him muttering “gracias” to the “bendición de pie”, or “blessing of the feet” of the Madonna.

We make it to Santiago. I don’t wash the dust off my boots. I don’t think I ever will.

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