“I’ll tell you one of the most unique, memorable experiences of my life…” offers Thomas Spaeth, bartender at Dear Irving in Manhattan and Bar Uni in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. What follows is his true tale of seeking solitude and finding solidarity as a young twenty-something abroad.
In 2009, Thomas was living in Madrid and funding his vagabond lifestyle by teaching English. Teaching afforded summers off from work and he found himself with a lot of time on his hands to travel throughout the country. Up until this point, Thomas had never experienced traveling independent of friends or family, but wanted to experience the independence of traveling solo. After visiting a friend in Barcelona, he boarded a bus to San Sebastián; in one day of travel he fell in love with the country and decided that wanted to stay longer than his intended six months.
While in Northern Spain, Thomas decided to embark upon an ancient pilgrimage called El Camino De Santiago to grow as an individual. He bought a backpack and supplies and set out on his journey. The pilgrimage is thought to be a spiritual path leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Modern pilgrims follow the ancient route directed by distinct markers and stop to sleep in hostels called albergues. Each leg of the journey is a step leading to the next hostel, all directed by the markers that became Thomas’s lifeblood. He describes walking along unmarked paths, hoping he was not lost and the relief felt upon seeing the symbol of the gold scallop shell (the modern symbol of the way).
Because he spoke Spanish, Thomas could communicate with fellow travelers and though he set out alone, he made friends along the way. When his adopted group was caught in a rainstorm, they sought shelter and came upon a charming albergue with an attached farm. Wet and weary, they were met by staff at the gate and led to a stone tavern room, where they were served fresh fruit by the warmth of a fireplace. Once settled, they were taken to the bunk house and offered rest and a warm shower.
When it was time for dinner, the group was led to a communal table with a full spread of food and bottles of wine. At the head of the table was a man who resembled Santa Claus, the presumed host. When the meal was complete, the man rose from the head of the table and welcomed the group in Spanish. He announced that he wanted to speak to them about the important things in life and selected Thomas to translate.
As the man spoke about humanity and the inequality in the world, he paused periodically for Thomas to share his message with the group, and Thomas recalls twelve wide-eyed faces turning in unison between the two men with each pause. Through Thomas, the host encouraged everyone to seek to understand the people of the world, and attempt to walk in each other’s shoes. “There I was delivering the words of a prophet at twenty-three years old,” he recalls.
The group eventually retreated to bed, and when they awoke, Thomas approached the man to thank him. He led Thomas upstairs to tour his own personal museum of humanity, with old photographs and cultural artifacts from places including Southeast Asia, South America and Africa – a glimpse into global citizenship. Thomas set out on a journey to find himself, and instead found the power of human connection.
All in all, the pilgrimage took thirty-four days, but the highlight remains the experience at the albergue. “Am I the same?” he ponders. He likens the encounter to a really long mushroom trip: so clear in the moment but in the end the specifics are a hazy memory. To this day, Thomas does not know the identity of the man. “It was just a stop along the way, but one day I hope our paths cross again.” As a permanent reminder, he has the scallop marker symbol tattooed on his big toe.