As we walked out of Villafranca de Bierzo, the river flowing with force past us on our left, we had no notion of the beauty that awaited us, nor did we realize the hard climb up and forward we would have to make into Galicia. Galicia is said to be one of the most economically challenged regions of Spain, but its beauty is incomparable, except perhaps to Ireland. Galicia is a Celtic land made green by constant rain.
Breaking up the climb between Villafranca and O Cebriero, Jim and I stopped over-night in the small village of Portella. It was here that I would encounter the milk cows of Galicia. The cows of Portella were more numerous than its human residents. They daily parade through the narrow streets from milking barns to feeding barns, goaded on by dogs and usually a woman with a stick. Pilgrims encountering the daily ritual passage of Portella’s cows must step aside and let them pass. I have now had this experience of Galician parading cows many times. If I had held out my arms, I could have touched these huge animals. When they looked into my eyes, as many of them did, I wanted to embrace them.
It was in Portella that I remembered my nose’s affinity for cow shit and the smell of the barns where cows are milked or bedded down. My yen for the odors of cow barns is perhaps a legacy of my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents, who were dairy farmers in New Orleans, who continued the traditional work of the Deffes clan out of Alsace-Lorraine. I have not paid enough attention to my mother’s family, but have always more gravitated toward my Montaldo-Paretti roots. The Parettis were green grocers in New Orleans’ French market. The Montaldos managed gambling houses and my grandfather, Charles, managed a saloon in the French Quarter. I have more thought of myself as Italian rather than as my mother’s blend of French (Deffes), Spanish (Gomez) and German (Schindler). My great-niece, Cali, has traced the Deffes clan back to Jews living in Germany in the 1600s. Being in Galicia and bewitched once again by the aromas of dairy cows, my mother’s family is finally claiming its due in me.
Whatever the source, I have always liked the smell of cows and their shit. I remember visiting Bellefontaine Abbey in France, the motherhouse of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where my cousin is a monk. On the first morning after my arrival at Bellefontaine, I attended Lauds and Eucharist in the twelfth-century abbey church. When Mass had ended, I walked out of the church and got a whiff of cow shit from the monastic barn. I thought back then how wonderful it was that these French monks had built their church so close to the cow barn. Psalmody and a cow barn harmonize with one another—the heights of singing for God linked to one of our souls’ basic elements.
Cistercian abbeys in America no longer have cow barns. No matter how reasonable it is that American Cistercians no longer drink the milk of their own cows, nor enjoy a daily dose of the aroma of their shit, something essential to their monasticism might now have gone missing. Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, once a working farm, no longer has an animal on its property under the care of its monks. No matter how foolish it might seem, given the inexorable decrease of their numbers, perhaps it’s time for Gethsemani to bring back the cow shit. Monks might need to be farmers again.
The fragrance of Galician cows brings me back down-to-earth from flights of fancy I am entertaining as I walk El Camino. Before I open my mouth publicly again, orally or in writing, I’m now vowing to pause a moment and recall the odor of cow barns. Perhaps I should spend a little of my social security money to have a perfumer concoct a fragrance of cow barn odors that I could lightly touch behind my ears before addressing an audience. I could call it Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache. If it could be made cheaply enough, in addition to storing it in beautiful bottles for my own use, I could send Vatican City 500 bottles for future use in consistories that raise men to the rank of Cardinal. My gift would designate that each new Cardinal receive a bottle of Bouse de Vache in a crimson-silk lined box, bearing their coats-of-arms, along with a note: “A gift for your wise use as you become a Prince of the Holy Roman Church”.
Holding the sole patent on Cologne deBouse de Vache, I would exercise my prejudice to insure that no woman ever received a bottle, no matter how high the station to which she rose. Women already have a natural facility for smelling bullshit whenever its equivalent in speech reaches their mouths or their ears.
Walking through Galicia, I have meditated on these things. It’s a crazy notion—bottling the essence of cow barn. However, I might do a video for You-Tube in which I explain my idea. It might go viral enough that it would become a meme widely used by anyone finding themselves trapped in an audience with a pompous speaker (someone like me). In such a situation and without much thought, a person would turn and whisper to another sitting in an adjacent chair, “If only he had remembered to wear Montaldo’s Cologne de Bouse de Vache!”