Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Via and The Camino

I didn’t begin this journey consciously intending to compare it with the Camino de Santiago, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past 9 weeks and I’ve realized that unconsciously, I had no intention to do otherwise. The Camino is the only other experience similar to this that I’ve experienced. The brain experiences thousands of sensations daily, and interprets and makes sense of them by comparing them to memories of those similar. When we taste a new wine, we compare it to other wines we’ve tasted. When we drive a new car, we compare it to other cars we’ve driven. When we hear a new song, we consciously or unconsciously compare it to all other songs we’ve ever heard. That’s my favorite wine, or that’s my favorite song couldn’t be a valid statement if the brain didn’t work that way. We couldn’t even say, “That’s a good wine” if we didn’t have a basis of comparison.

My brain wants to say, “This is not my favorite pilgrimage.” I can’t argue with it, not without being schizophrenic. But I can force my conscious mind to evaluate on a different level, or try to stop evaluating altogether, just experiencing each day as a completely new sensation, halting the comparison, knowing that just because I happen to be walking from town to town with a destination in mind, there doesn’t’ have to be anything that the past 2-1/2 months has in common with the 50 days on the Camino de Santiago. I might as well be comparing a wine I just tasted with a car I used to have.

The fact is, this walk has been much more difficult than the Camino de Santiago—there are no guarantees that you’ll have an affordable bed to sleep in when you get to a town. The guide book may or may not list one, but even if it does, that the hostel may not be in business, or they may have remodeled and raised their rates. There have been many days when I’ve had to walk 30 kilometers in the heat of the sun without anyplace to stop to rest or have lunch. As I’ve mentioned before, a can of sardines has more than once kept me from feeling like I was starving. Hostels that you find on the Via Francigena probably won’t have a kitchen for your use, so eating in restaurants tends to be the norm. If you’re really trying to be frugal, you can buy food in a grocery store as you pass by, if you see one open, and eat on a park bench or in your room in the hostel. On the Via Francigena there may not be water when you need it. There may not be a direction sign where it should be and you’ll end up walking several kilometers in the wrong direction. And the people I met on the Camino, those who made the journey so enjoyable, aren’t on the Via Francigena. The Via can be a lonely place. If you set out alone, you’ll probably walk into Rome alone.

All that is opposite the Camino de Santiago: On the common routes there are places to stop for a drink or snack at least every couple of hours. There is always someone interesting to talk with, and there are so many people walking it that you’re bound to find someone who speaks your language. You don’t have to look for a place to sleep—an albergue is right in front of you in just about every town you pass through. The albergue will have a kitchen and the town will have a small grocery store to buy food. The albergue will be inexpensive, and if you’re traveling with friends or acquaintances, you can prepare a healthy pilgrim meal for very little money.

But I’m not making comparisons anymore. My son gave me a book about a man who walked and swam the Amazon River from its source to the Atlantic Ocean. He spent over two years on his journey, fending off leaches, mosquitos by the millions, disease, Amazon tribesmen, and worst, South American governments. He had no signposts to guide him, no pubs along the way to stop at, no fresh water every ten kilometers, and certainly no hostels waiting for him at the end of each day. I suppose if I want to make comparisons that would be the place to start. My little trip around the Mediterranean sees pretty cushy now.
So, here in Bolsena, Italy, six days from St. Peter’s Square, I’ feeling pretty good. I’ve just come from Vespers, a Catholic service of evening prayers, conducted entirely in responsorial Gregorian Chant. The church itself was a beautiful Romanic structure from the tenth century. You can’t have that experience in very many places in the world.

I’m feeling grateful—grateful that I have had the opportunity to take three months to go to a writing seminar in London and then walk most of the way from Barcelona to Rome; grateful that I have a family, especially my children, who understand that I need to do things like this and encourage me to do so; grateful that I’m healthy enough to make a journey of 2,000 kilometers, grateful that I have friends in Spain waiting for my return after Rome. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Polite Request

Some people have asked what I do to keep from being bored while walking all day, every day. To which I reply, I get bored sometimes. There is some eye-catching scenery, but then there is boring, industrial, ugly scenery also. And when you get down to it, even the beautiful scenery gets old after a while; there’s only so much red-roofed little villages nestled amidst rolling green hills below sapphire blue skies one can absorb before the brain just has to take a rest. 

One thing I do is have my daily conversation with God and my guardian angels. I know my angels are listening because that’s what they do, it’s who they are. And they’re good angels—never falling down on the job, always patient, loving, kind, and gentle. I appreciate that. But being a Catholic, I know I’m supposed to go through intermediaries—Saint Christopher because I’m traveling, Saint Hugh because I was born on his name day, and the Virgin Mary just because. But I spent most of my life as a protestant and I’m still in the habit of going directly to God. He’s never said anything like, “Hey, DeMar, Can you hold on while I finish this other prayer?” so I assume when I start talking he’s listening and paying attention. So while I walk, I take a few minutes to say prayers for my children, for my brothers and sister, my mother, my father, and my friends. Out of a normal 6-hour day of walking, that takes about 4 minutes, so I have a lot of time on my hands. Even after admiring the beautiful scenery and watching for the trail markings, I’ve got about 5 hours and 56 minutes on average each day to say a few more prayers.

Which brings us to the point of this particular post. I’ve got about three weeks to go on this pilgrimage to Rome if I walk every day and stick to the plan in my guide book. That gives me about 120 hours of walking where I can say a prayer for your particular need if you want. All you have to do is send a comment and let me know what you want me to include in my prayer list and it’s done. If you don’t want me to publish your prayer request let me know, otherwise I’ll hit the publish button and it will be a matter of public record in the blog. I’ll write down your request in a small booklet I carry with me and take some time every day to bring up your request to God and ask Him to help things along in whatever way they can. Of course, if you’re so inclined and want me to direct your prayer to a particular saint, just let me know.

Nothing would make me happier than to have to buy another book to keep track of all the prayer requests. Feel free to share this with anyone you want. 
Just another beautiful end of a day in Tuscany.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Turning the Way-Back Machine to 6/23/14:

In Torino/Turin, I took an extra day for R&R, paying an exorbitant 35€ a night for a 2-star hotel. I’m not complaining, but the room was so small that the mice were round-shouldered. And talk about the bathroom: I had to step over the bidet to get to the toilet. The shower was so small, it was impossible to step out of the water to use the soap; I had to turn off the water to soap up. Maybe that was the intention. But the room was private and included breakfast which was pretty good by European standards: any style of coffee drink you wanted, plus several kinds of fruit, yogurt, pastries, bread, jams and jellies. It was a pretty good way to start the day. 

I had tried to call the hostel of Parrocchia San Giovanni Battista, the only hostel in my price range, since the day before and tried again when I got into town, each time without success. I got an answering machine once, but couldn’t understand the message so I’m not even sure I had the right number. At any rate, I never receive an answer or a call back. I walked to the address listed in my guide, but it certainly didn’t look like anyplace that might receive pilgrims and there was no indication at the door of the building that there was a parrocchia office inside.

So I walked around, following my nose, which is what I usually do in these situations, hoping for Divine Guidance. Strange enough, it usually works. I asked a group of policemen if they could help me, as I had no idea where anything was and the address in my guide was obviously wrong. One of them led me to the tourist office, which, miraculously, wasn’t too far away and was OPEN! Waa-hoo!!! The woman at the tourist office was very friendly and helpful, which I have found to be the case in all but one town in my journey. She found the above-mentioned hotel—the lowest price in town—and made a reservation for me. She also gave me a map of the city and recommended some sights, one of which, of course, was the cathedral where is housed the Shroud of Torino/Turin. (They call their city Torino, so I’ll use that from now on.) Another church she recommended as the most beautiful in the city, in her opinion, was the Santuario della Consolata. I made a point of seeing that the next day which is where the real story for today begins.

Santuario della Consolata
She was right—the Santuario, actually more of a cathedral, if you ask me, was beautiful. It was ornate in a Baroque style, with all the marble and gold you could ever expect to see in an Italian cathedral. But that wasn’t the best part.

I was walking around looking at the sculptures and paintings when, surprisingly, mass began. I was in a part of the church out of sight of the nave and didn’t see any preparations being made. I just suddenly heard the Kyrie and that was that. I had the whole day ahead of me, with plenty of time, and I thought this would be a good time for a wayward pilgrim to attend mass, so I quickly took a seat.

Even though I’ve been to mass a couple hundred times, give or take, it’s been a while since I attended regularly (since 2005, I believe). I don’t remember the order of the mass and what’s being said, so especially in a foreign language, I’m somewhat lost. But that didn’t really matter once the homily, or the sermon, began. 

I didn’t get the name of the priest who was celebrating mass that day, but I wish I had, and more, I wish I could have recorded his homily. No Baptist preacher ever had anything on this guy for emotion, and Henry Fonda himself would have a hard time competing with him for pure dramatic effect. His voice was like velvet, his sense of tempo and rhythm and pitch; Mozart couldn't have improved it. And his Italian—it was so clear that I could almost understand what he was saying, since there are many Italian words that are close to or the same as Spanish. But even though I couldn’t really understand all that he was saying, his meaning and emotions were clear as crystal, poignant and direct. His facial expressions and tone of voice gave meaning even though the language was foreign. Once I even got chills up my spine. I was rapt. I didn’t want the homily to end. If for no other reason, for all the sights and sounds and tastes of Torino, the day could have ended right there and I would have been satisfied. All the getting lost and sore feet and frustration of high costs and not knowing each day where I would spend the night, all the effort to get from Barcelona to Torino was worth it, just to hear that homily.

And then I got to thinking, not to detract from the talents of Puccini, Rossini, Verdi, and the rest of the Italian composers of vocal music, but really, how can you take a language like Italian, with its inherent rhythm and melody, and not create good vocal music? (Yeah, I know. There’s lots of bad Italian music, but I’m making a literary point here.) Italians take a little extra time when they come to a double consonant—motocicletta would not be pronounced the same as motocicleta (if motocicleta existed, which it doesn’t). There’s just a little extra time taken on the second “t” and every double consonant which gives that unique rhythm to Italian. And Italians seem to take their language seriously. They’re not like many speakers of English who seem to take great pride in making the language as mushy and unintelligible as possible. There’s no slurring of consonants and making an art of using as little movement of the lips and tongue as possible. Italians seem to revel in vowels and consonants, pitch and rhythm and tempo. Every vowel is pronounced. I had a diction teacher who said if you were to ask an Italian how to spell a word, he’d look at you funny, then just say the word again more slowly for you. The language is phonetic, there are rules, and they are not broken.
Of course, not everyone speaks as well as the priest I heard in Santuario della Consolata, but almost everyone I hear makes music of the language. I especially like overhearing a girl or young woman talk excitedly—they’re so melodic, it’s difficult not to listen. (Since I have no idea what they’re saying, I don’t feel guilty for eavesdropping.) It’s also fun to hear two people arguing; it’s like listening to good, classically-trained Shakespearean actors, only in Italian.

I’ve read that when the states that became the nation of Italy were being united, someone in government (I admit, here’s one time when government did something worthwhile) took the time to tour the nation, listening to all the regional dialects and languages, to determine which one was most beautiful and would become the language of the nation. Turns out, he found it in Florence, but that’s beside the point. The point is, the Italian language was purposely chosen from all the dialects and languages spoken in the future Italy for its beauty. Whoever that guy was, he made a good choice.
The River Po in Torino. Some days later I'll take a ferry, actually
a fishing boat, across this river.