For the most part, the Camino passes through small rural towns. There are some major cities on the way, but they are the exception, not the rule.
One of the benefits of this is that pilgrims get to see how life is lived in Spain. Not just how the world sees Spain through its major centres.
A vast majority of the towns have common green spaces, sidewalk restaurants and walkable streets. Few cars are seen and most of the vehicles are for deliveries. Fruit, fish and bread are delivered to the streets and the locals walk out to buy what they need for the day, or a couple of days.
The most striking distinction, other than the dearth of cars, is the fact that the locals are often out in the street. Dog walking, spontaneous conversations, walking to buy groceries and attending fluid meetings at the bars where people come and meet and stay for various times.
This is in stark contrast to the North American way of planning a meal at a specific restaurant for a specific time and wrapping it all up in an hour, maybe two, if it is a very slow meal. The Spanish are out to socialize and the ebb and flow of friends and family appears to continue for hours.
While sitting in many of these bars it is clear who the Europeans are and who the North Americans are. The conversations of the locals appear to be enjoyable. There is laughter and animated discussions. The North Americans appear more serious about it all.
With full recognition of the fact that I cannot understand the conversation in the other languages, I can observe the people drinking, smoking and eating. The English conversations, on the other hand, seem to be more about what not to do.
I have heard these statements: “I don’t eat bread.”; “I have cut out carbs so that I don’t have to worry about having a drink.” “I’m a vegetarian.” “I have a gluten allergy.” “Why does everyone smoke, it is so bad for you?” “If I maintain this pace, I will lose enough weight to make the trip worthwhile.” “I’m watching how much I eat, why do all of this exercise otherwise?” “Can I borrow sunscreen? I have runout.” “Try these stretches.”
I don’t think this is what the locals are obsessing about as they smoke and drink and catch up with friends, laughing and joking. They greet with the double kiss and a quick hug and repeat this before they leave. A single individual joining a table can take ten minutes to greet everyone.
We managed to ban smoking essentially everywhere resulting in the closure of almost all of the bingo halls, bowling alleys and Legions. Where do these people go now? Do they get out? Isn’t being social more important to health than any other single factor we’ve been able to measure so far?
At the end of the day the facts speak for themselves. According to the World Bank the life expectancy in Canada is 81.24 years and it is 82.38 years in Spain despite the fact that they eat gluten and smoke cigarettes. So despite our preoccupation with ‘health’ we are missing some key information. Since the Spaniards are clearly not following the same rules, we have been told are good for us, and they are outliving us, maybe we should relax and enjoy ourselves more.
The part of smoking cessation that no one is talking about is that the majority that quit go on antidepressants. We are not simply eliminating the harmful effects of smoking, we are substituting one more socially acceptable medication for another. We are in essence in a long term trial to see if the pharmaceutical industry can improve our longevity by replacing nicotine directly or substituting another drug.
I certainly don’t have any answers here, simply questions. Red meat didn’t kill us. Perhaps the social aspects of smoking have been underestimated. At the very least we should reexamine policies that isolate us from one another.
Related Ted Talk, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”