Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

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Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

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Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

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It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 1) – Leaving Villafranca Montes de Oca

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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An early view from the day’s walk. Even the most difficult mornings carried their own quiet joys.

From the moment that I awoke, I was feeling run-down and pensive. The day was a struggle, one of the hardest of the Camino, especially mentally. It was also one of the most beautiful and memorable. It was the first day since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port that I walked alone for much of the day, something that provided me with a chance to reflect and come to terms with the changes that I intuited for my near future.

Since leaving home, my anxiety had abated significantly, but this morning I felt that old familiar post-anxiety attack feeling, like someone had hollowed me out, leaving my shell, both fragile and strangely pliant. I am always slower, sweeter, my sense of humor skewed slightly more towards the bittersweet (typically I’m firmly in the schadenfreude camp). I went with the flow, letting my body guide me, packing up and getting ready in a haze. As I’d thought they would be, my clothes were cool and damp in the morning. I knew I should have brought them in from the line overnight, but I left them outside anyway, and by morning they were soaked with fresh dew. It was crisp out, making the effort of donning clammy running capris especially daunting. My butt was cold, and my feet were freezing. I worried that I hadn’t brought enough clothes to get me through colder weather than this.

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This little guy REALLY liked my shoelaces. I’ve got a whole set of photos of him nom nomming away. I didn’t mind one bit; I’m not above bribing adorable kitties to like me.

As usual, I was one of the last few to finish packing and leave the dorm. I joined the rest of the pilgrims in the hotel’s little cafe/breakfast area, reveling in a steaming cup of cafe con leche and a little glass of sweet, freshly-squeezed zumo. I also seem to remember a slice of tortilla (which wouldn’t be hard to believe, given that I ate tortilla at every opportunity – several times a day, on average). This particular specimen must not have been great, though, because I can’t remember anything special in conjunction with that morning’s breakfast. The best part of the morning, as far as I was concerned, was after breakfast, when I plopped down in the garden and let the cats play with my shoelaces for a few minutes. This was just one of many animal experiences on the Camino, but again I was relieved to find that a few quiet moments shared with animal friends gave me the energy I needed to press on.

I walked away from Villafranca Montes de Oca in the morning with the knowledge that we wouldn’t all be heading to the same destination. Terry had decided the night before that she’d like to spend the night in Ages, a tiny, ancient town that she’d fallen in love with on her last Camino. Natalie and I had talked it over, and agreed to walk further, to a town called Cardeñuela Riopico. It would be a challenging day for the both of us, but would make up for some time we’d lost in taking a few shorter days, and also allow us to get into Burgos early the next day, on relatively fresh legs. The promise of a short walk, and maybe even a day off from the trail, buoyed me along for the first half of the morning. Even so, I was to spend much of the day alone, for better or worse.

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From time to time, the Camino Frances intersects with other hiking trails. The yellow arrow tells you that you’re still on the Camino (and headed the right way), while the other trail markers denote the other paths encompassed on this stretch.

Click here to read about Day 16 (Part 2). 

Finding Love on the Camino

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My favorite Camino buddy. He gave me kisses when I was having a particularly rotten morning.

Today, a work colleague asked me if I could boil down what I’d learned on the Camino into a simple statement or two. Of course I couldn’t, because I just got back, and I’m still absorbing all of the lessons that fell in my lap while I was walking 500 miles through Spain. However, I took a few minutes to tell her what I was thinking about today, and it was a good thought, so I figured I’d share it here with you, too. Here’s what I wrote:

“In regards to boiling down lessons learned on the Camino, I heard this amazing quote near the end of the trip that really resonated with me: ‘Every encounter is an encounter with yourself.’ I met so many interesting people from all over the world, some of whom I’m sure will be lifelong friends. You can get surprisingly close in a very short amount of time when your only duties are to walk, eat, and sleep.

I was reading The Dalai Lama’s Cat a little at a time, and happened upon the concepts that we’re all made of love, and that true happiness comes from being good to others. [I already knew that I liked to be nice to other people, and that serving others made me feel good.] But what I hadn’t realized before I left is how little I showed love and compassion to myself on a regular basis.”

One of the behaviors I started to realize in myself while walking is my great love of animals, and a need to seek them out on the Camino. I had some really intense interactions with all kinds of pets and livestock on The Way, and it became apparent to me that for me, having a good day was dependent on having these conversations with horses, feeding starving dogs, and giving belly rubs to barn cats. Eventually it started to dawn on me that this love I felt the need to shower on my animal friends was something that I desperately needed to be able to show myself, and that in these encounters I was giving back to me in the only way my subconscious knew how. Once that dawned on me, I started trying to apply that same rule to my human companions (sans belly rubs), and ended up getting the first hints of a message that I’m only now starting to really soak in and figure out.

In short, I learned that I am both capable of giving, and worthy of receiving, boundless love and kindness. Silly me, not looking more deeply into the words of St. Francis – “Grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love” – in the first place. Now it’s time to start gluing my thoughts together and making a better, stronger life out of what I’ve learned.

The Canticle of the Creatures

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I was still thinking about St. Francis this morning as I walked through my neighborhood on the way to my local brunch place. It’s a cool, crisp day out, with plenty of sunlight and not a cloud in the sky. I love days like this, but we have so few of them in New Orleans. When they’re happening, you have to get out and enjoy them while you can!

Most people who remember a prayer or two will associate Francis with his Peace Prayer, but just before he died, he composed a beautiful prayer called The Canticle of the Creatures. It is also sometimes called The Canticle of Brother Sun. It’s really no wonder why Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and environmentalists. I hope this inspires you to spend some time appreciating the bounty of nature, and reflecting on how we can better work to preserve and protect our beautiful world.

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing,
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no human is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.

My New St. Francis Statue – Plus, Vote On A Color!!!!

By now, most of you know that I really love St. Francis. Ever since visiting Assisi a few years ago, largely on a whim, I’ve been coming to terms with an ever-growing affinity for the 12th/13th century friar. He’s grown to be something of a hero to me. As a non-Catholic (indeed, I’m not even Christian), I don’t admire him for religious reasons, or seek him out as a conduit for communicating with the divine. However, I’m fascinated with his life, with his commitment to simplicity and minimalism, and with his deep and overpowering adoration of nature as an extension of God.

I love that his followers loved him for his honesty. I love that he didn’t bullshit – he called it like he saw it, even when it was a tough pill for others to swallow. I also love him as a historical figure. We tend to think of saints in mythical terms; in many ways they are Catholicism’s answer to the problem of the pagan gods and demigods that the Church wanted to clean up and package into the new religion. Francis is kind of unique as a saint, in that he has a rich history, with lots of exciting, almost magical stories that accompany him on his rise to sainthood, but he was recent enough that we know a lot about him as a man. The thing that sealed the deal for me, I think, was seeing his belongings in the Basilica at Assisi, including the paperwork that was signed to create the Franciscan Order. With the creation of the order (whose members embraced poverty) Francis began the movement that essentially saved the 13th century Church from the ruin of excess.

But enough of my waxing poetic. I really like the guy. He was complicated, and flawed, but so are we all. Having him in my life helps me stop and take stock of what I really need, and appreciate that almost everything is already waiting in my heart.

This being the case, when I happened upon a statue of Francis in someone’s trash pile last week, I was so excited to take him home. It was a pretty weird find, because my boyfriend and I had set out that afternoon to find something (I wasn’t sure what) to go beside my front door for decoration. I’d had this idea that it would be a statue, but all day while we were shopping, nothing was catching my eye. We’d given up and were actually heading back home when we passed the trash pile and I spied Francis sitting there, waiting to be rescued.

Now why had someone thrown him away? Kind of easy – he looked like this:

St. Francis Statue

Sure, he’s missing a head, but he’s still pretty darn cool!

I love him just the way he is – missing head and all. I’ve decided I’m going to sand him down and repaint him in a really pretty, glossy, bright color. Pretty sure that even though Francis would have thought adding tchotchkes to your life is a terrible waste of time and money, he still would have seen the humor in making someone’s castoffs beautiful again.

What color do you guys think I should paint him? I’m a fan of magenta or teal, but what do you think? Hot pink? Yellow? Grass green? Multi-colored with sparkles? Leave a comment below.

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 3)

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

First off, you should know that the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is pretty large. The basilica consists of two main levels – upper and lower – plus crypts underneath the main structure, as well as the requisite bell tower and related private rooms above the upper level. I spent about three hours exploring the spaces open to tourists, and could have spent many more, if not for the repeated message on the loudspeaker: “No photos, please. No photos, please. No photos, please…” in about five different languages. As you might gather from this, I didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the church. I doubt anyone would have kicked me out or confiscated my camera, but after the run-in with the Alabama church group, I was feeling like I should attempt to be a better person, you know?

The upper level of the basilica is awash with frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis, frequently attributed to artist and architect Giotto, who is known as the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance. I’d count him as a late medieval artist, but that’s an ongoing academic argument that will most likely see no solution in my lifetime. We have little proof that the frescoes were indeed created by Giotto, but they are striking and historically important nonetheless. In the lower level of the basilica, a fresco painted by Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue, still exists. It, too, is argued to be by another painter, due to its contradiction to commonly known elements of Giotto’s style. I’d studied all of these works in undergrad, but had conveniently managed to forget their location. As a result, when I walked into the space, my heart skipped a beat. As my dad would say, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

The only other time I’ve felt that extreme rush of familiarity and longing – a soul call, if you will – for a piece of art was when I unexpectedly stumbled across Rogier van der Weyden’s “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. That was a moment for the ages. My heart breaks just thinking about it. Some folks get misty-eyed over lost loves; I get misty-eyed over beloved paintings. What can I say?

"St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“St. Luke Drawing the Virgin” by Rogier van der Weyden. Currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image via Wikimedia Commons. (Also, please don’t judge this painting by the image on your screen. Go to Boston and see it in person. It’s superb.)

Anyway, so I walked into this enormous, softly lit space, my eyes landed on priceless art previously only seen in a text book, and I felt like someone had just cut off my air supply. I got a little loopy. I went from being a tourist on a day trip to being my primal self, standing in a small Italian town, searching for something I didn’t know I’d lost. I was smaller than ever, but suddenly feeling intimately connected to everything.

This feeling only intensified as I entered the small museum dedicated to St. Francis, on the lower level of the building. At first, I didn’t intend to go in. It was a tiny room, and people didn’t seem to be staying that long. What could it possibly have? Knowing the day was short and there was a lot ahead of me still, I walked in, intending to just glance around and walk back out. But there, in a simple case by the door, was a brown hair shirt, conserved under glass. I looked at it, then looked again. Not just a piece of clothing. HIS piece of clothing. Until that moment, I’d never realized one of the coolest things that sets Francis apart from other saints of the time period: he was acknowledged to be on the road to sainthood whilst still alive. People were already planning his veneration before he died, which gives credence to the fact that the items preserved are actually his, versus items from other saints that were sometimes collected decades or even hundreds of years after the saint’s passing.

Though the room was small, it held clothing that Francis wore during his lifetime, the cloths used to bandage the wounds of his stigmata later in life, and most impressive, the original document used to found the Ordo Fratro Minorum (Francis called his followers the “Little Brothers”). The beginning of the Franciscan Order, the words that can be argued to have saved the medieval Church from a ruinous path of greed and gluttony, it’s there for all to see in that little museum. For a person of little religious faith but an overwhelming desire to find some smidgen of truth, seeing Francis’ words written out in ink on vellum can make – did make – a world of difference.

After seeing his belongings/relics, I mistakenly thought I’d reached the pinnacle of my experience at the basilica. But as I started to walk back through the building, I noticed a sign for the crypt. I love crypts. Crypts and bell towers are the best parts of churches, in my opinion, and I visit as many of both as I can. So of course I decided to take the stairs and see what kinds of creepy stuff was down there. As I got closer to the bottom, I realized that whoever was buried downstairs must be important – lots of people crowded the stairs with me. We reached a small chapel where a service was being conducted. Beyond the chapel, I could see a wide stone column, surrounded by a round room with niches. The people next to me began to whisper, “Oh, this is Jacoba!” and I turned to see that I was standing next to a protected niche, containing a burial container. Inside were the remains of Jacoba dei Settesoli, a dear friend and devoted follower of St. Francis. She was the one who dressed the wounds of his stigmata, and she was present at his death, despite the impropriety of a woman being at his bedside in the friary. Suddenly, I realized why everyone was standing around. I realized who was in the crypt. I’d come here to feel close to St. Francis, this man I didn’t know or understand, but still loved, and here he was, waiting for me.

I sat in the chapel for the remainder of service, then walked around Francis’ grave, taking note that the niches around the room were the graves of his four best friends and fellow monks. I was suddenly happy for Jacoba. Though she wasn’t in the chamber, itself, she was close. I pictured them enjoying nature together, sharing a simple mindful moment. As I left the crypt, I purchased two candles, leaving them to be burned at one of the chapel’s daily services.

For the rest of my time in the basilica, I felt my spirit begin to drift higher and higher; I was feeling positively effervescent. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off of my face. It’s free to enter the building, but there are donation boxes dotting the corridors. I put a euro or two in every donation box that I passed. There were brochures explaining the various artwork; I took one and dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. I wanted to light a candle and pray at a small side altar; I dropped a couple of euros in the donation box. A photography exhibit shared the Franciscan Order’s works of service with the poor; I dropped a few euros in the donation box. By the time I’d walked around the building and stopped in at the gift shop to buy a few keepsakes for friends and family, I had about 15 euros left in my pocket. I’d have to find an ATM before heading back to Perugia.

After leaving the church, my next stop was another small museum. To be honest, my first intention was to find a free bathroom, but I was quickly drawn in by MUMA (Museo Missionario Indios Frati Cappuccini Dell’Umbria In Amazzonia). For a pretty tiny museum, it had some of the most impressive interactive technology of any museum I’ve ever visited, and the subject matter – the Capuchin Order (a subset of the Franciscans) and their mission in the Amazon from the 19th century to today. It’s easy to assume that the story told would be about a bunch of Christians coming in and “bettering” lives by converting native peoples, but that’s not really what the museum is about. It turns out that though the idea is to spread the gospel, the method is to go, be of service, help make changes that native peoples are comfortable with, and respect existing traditions. The museum is a celebration of cultural diversity, overcoming adversity, and protecting ecological treasures. I was pleasantly surprised, though now I understand that these are all things that Francis, himself, supported. If you have a chance, please check out MUMA’s website.

Hunger was calling, so I opted for a sandwich and some wine at a local cafe with the last of my money. Afterwards, while trying to withdraw money at an ATM, I realized that both my bank card and credit card had been shut off. I’d forgotten to tell the bank that I was traveling internationally, and they placed a hold on my accounts. No problem; I’d find a telephone, call the number on the back of the card, and have my problem solved within the hour. Just one problem – the international numbers on my cards weren’t working from the pay phone. After several failed attempts, I gave up and decided to enjoy the hour I had left before it was time to catch the bus back to Perugia. Thankfully, my return ticket had already been purchased.

The cell in which St. Francis' father imprisoned him.

The cell in which St. Francis’ father imprisoned him.

Not far from the ATM, I passed a smaller, interesting looking church and decided to go in. It turned out that I had entered Chiesa Nuova, built on the remains of St. Francis’ family home. I stood in the storeroom where the former Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone’s father had stored fine silks to be sold at market. I saw what remained of the family home’s imposing front door, and the small cell in which Giovanni’s father locked him when he declared his intention to give up the family business and become a man of God.

My last stop before heading out to wait for the bus was the simplest, but strangely also the most striking. Santa Maria Maggiore is austere in comparison to its fellow holy sites within the walls of Assisi, but after a day of passionate impressions, followed by a building sense of worry about my finances, the late afternoon light streaming through her rose window was everything I needed.

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I left town, and went to stand by the bus. There were pay phones, so I tried all of the numbers I had once more. No luck. I just couldn’t manage to dial out. Deciding it was user error and recognizing that I was quickly destroying every ounce of personal peace I’d just found within Assisi, I gave up for the time being. Still, I was seething. I’d lost it. A whole day of beautiful things and suddenly all I could think about was how I was going to pay my hotel bill when it was time to leave Perugia in the morning. Standing there on that June afternoon, I was halfway between heaven and hell. I was so angry, and angry again at myself for letting something this stupid get the better of me. And even angrier that I couldn’t just hold on to this goodness I was just reveling in, not a couple of hours before. What was wrong with me? Who does this to themselves?

A friendly voice piped up from beside me, stirring me out of my slump. “It’s much warmer here than back at home.” I looked down to see a lovely little Japanese lady, impeccably dressed, and staring back at me with the kindest smile. My ruffled feathers began to smooth over instantly. Ikuko was from Japan, but lived in San Francisco with her husband much of the year. She spent a great deal of time in Italy with friends, and like me, had traveled to Assisi for the day out of curiosity about the saint. She had ridden the same bus in with me that morning, and was also heading back to Perugia on the last bus out for the day. We chatted for a bit there at the bus stop, then sat together on the way back, too.

In the year and a half since meeting Ikuko, I’ve tried to explain the feeling of that bus ride many times. The closest I’ve ever gotten is by using something that popped into my head that day, while we were talking. I seriously began to wonder if she was my angel. Sometimes I think that even if that couldn’t possibly be true, it’s the thing that makes the most sense. We talked about life in Italy, about the little things, like coffee and finding great gelato, and about big things, like finding God. She asked me why I’d gone to Assisi, and I explained sheepishly that I didn’t know, exactly. I told her that I had trouble with some parts of Christianity, but no trouble at all with the big picture items, like being good, spreading light and love, and living a life of service. We talked about doing our best each day, and hoping that it would be good enough in the end. She told me of her (literal) epiphany during a sermon in Ravenna, the moment she’d gone from agnostic to enthusiastic Catholic. She spoke of suddenly feeling an emptiness inside her fill up with light. I was so happy for her, because the light she spoke of shone out of her.

Have you ever watched a baby laugh and smile over something simple that absolutely filled them with delight? It’s like they’re overflowing with simple goodness – there’s nothing dark or troubling that could encroach on how they’re reacting to that moment. That’s what it felt like to be with Ikuko on that bus ride home. She helped me focus the passion that I’d experienced that day, and turned it on in me, like a faucet in my heart. I feel like I’ve been filling up with goodness, ever since. True, I’m a little leaky now and then, but I’m a work in progress.

She left me with a poem. It’s one of the first things I posted on this blog, actually. You can read it here. We’ve kept up through emails ever since. I wish I would have walked her home that night, but we were going to two different parts of the city. And besides, I still had the credit card issue to figure out.

It took me a few more hours to crack the case. Many, many tears and failed phone calls later, after I’d enlisted the help of an American in my global cell phone’s company call center, plus two separate concierges, the lady at my soon-to-be favorite gelateria, plus a number of concerned but utterly unhelpful tourists in the public square, I got everything figured out. In the end, no one could help me dial the numbers on the back of my credit cards (or any international numbers for Chase Bank on any of their websites) from Italy – not even the Italians. My concierge darkly blamed the trouble on it being an “American number”. I bit my tongue to avoid the unpleasant remark I felt bubbling up inside…and to think that only a few hours earlier, I might have agreed with his assessment.

Luckily, I had an iPad and Skype, and it turns out that you can dial anyone from Skype – including Chase Bank. Ten minutes later, I celebrated my newly-reinstated bank accounts with two scoops of gelato – pistachio and sweet cream is the best combination, hands down.

During the ordeal of trying to call my credit card company, I was sitting on some steps near the public square and sobbing. Luckily, extreme displays of emotion don’t make Italians run in the opposite direction, and an older gentleman came up and interrupted me mid-sob. He asked me if I was holding an iPad, and if I’d be so kind as to let him check his stocks. He asked me why I was so upset, brushed it off as an issue I’d soon solve, then asked me to wine later if I was free. I declined, much to my later disappointment when I saw the man and an extended group of friends having a lovely conversation at an open-air trattoria.

Watching the group of Italians laugh at their table, it struck me that it had all been a test – a big, messy lesson from St. Francis. I’d just had a small taste of what it was like to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, to not know where my next meal was coming from, to have no clue how I’d be leaving town. All I had was my ability to make friends, to prove my goodness, and to have faith that something would come through. It was a tough lesson to learn, and I don’t think I did too well on the first round; I was a spoiled brat and an emotional wreck, placing too much faith on my gadgetry and not enough on human connection. Maybe that’s where I’ll step up my game on The Camino.

Overall, my trip to Assisi was a pivotal moment in my life thus far. In one way, the day was quite simple: I took a bus to see a couple of churches, and ran out of money. It’s all of the details that make the day so huge in my memory. Every time I run back through the events of the day, my mind untangles some new moment, makes a previously unnoticed connection, draws me closer in my relationship with St. Francis. The wild man who preached to birds, who believed that laughter and song were the perfect way to spread the radical concept of not being a jerk, who gladly stripped naked in the public square to renounce his father’s fat pocketbook in exchange for a life of austerity…I’m behind that. I might not be able to accept everything yet. Maybe ever. But I’ll take what I can – and I’ll pass it right back out. My best is all I’ve got, and I’m going to give it.

Shrubbery from the basilica's lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Shrubbery from the basilica’s lawn. The Tau (in red) is the symbol of the Franciscan order. Pax = peace.

Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 1)

Me and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie's wedding reception. It was a misty day, but we're actually on top of a mountain, overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

Me (right) and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie’s wedding reception. It was a misty day, thus hard to see much of the background, but we’re actually on top of a mountain overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

In the summer of 2012, I went to Europe for a best friend’s wedding. Before I left, I quit my job of four years. I’d hated working there pretty much from the beginning, and had just been holding on until a better job came along. One never did. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and elation that I gave my notice. Jobs were scarce; what would I do for money? But the promise of an entire two weeks in Croatia and Italy, not a moment of which would be spent thinking about my gut-twisting, heart-palpitation-inducing job, filled me with a longing that I couldn’t ignore. I briefly imagined a long vacation, wasted with worrying about a pointless job back home, and realized that my limit had been reached. I called up my boss and resigned my position immediately.

From the moment my flight landed in Trieste, I was in heaven. My American girlfriend was marrying a Croatian sailboat captain, and two of his best friends drove into Italy to pick me up at the airport. On the way back to their hometown of Lovran, one friend spoke in Croatian and the other translated into passable English (much better than my Croatian): “What music is favorite of yours?” “How like you our country?” “You are best friend of Katie, yes?” The radio dial fluctuated between German pop music and Italian power ballads, interesting roadside attractions were pointed out, and one of the guys measured me up as a potential bridesmaid “score” – THAT look is universal.

In Croatia, I met up with my two best friends. One was getting married, and the other announced to me on the spot that she’d just found out she was pregnant with her first child. We celebrated that first night together with about a gallon of happy tears and another of freshly-made gelato. It was odd, because I was intensely sad to be being left behind, but also so happy to see my friends getting all that they desired. It was the kickoff of what was to be an emotional vacation; maybe it’s my nature as a Scorpio, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of weeks in two of the most beautiful countries on earth than exploring the complexities of the soul.

Luckily, since I was with two of the people who know me best in the world, I was given the perfect mixture of alone time vs. together time in Lovran. I had time to explore the town on my own, sit on the beach, and drink espresso in the local internet cafe. But I also had the important honor of helping the bride Katie’s mother steam creases out of her wedding gown on her wedding day. I also felt beyond loved when Katie invited her best girlfriends to spend a few precious moments drinking champagne with her as she got dressed, put on makeup, and tried to relax before meeting her intended at the traditional pre-wedding party. At and after the ceremony, Croatian relatives who had never met any of Katie’s friends from the US knew me on sight, called me by name, and hastened to give hugs and make conversation, but no one was clingy or expected too much. When I was worn out from talking, there was a beautiful mountain-top balcony where I sat and had a glass of wine, enjoying the murmur of conversation in the background while a cool breeze from the ocean comforted me, the last of the unmarrieds, feeling a little melancholy at the end of the night.

The night after the wedding, I was back in charge of my emotions and decided to take full advantage of being relatively young and able to party. I went out with Katie’s younger twin cousins and some of their new Croatian friends, drinking beers and conducting a singalong down at the marina, then moving our party to a local late night bar. It was a raucous time, until I realized it was almost time to pack up and leave town in two hours…oops. At 6am the next morning, an extremely hungover and sleep-deprived Anna caught a ride back to Trieste, where I caught a bus to the train station, where I then caught a train to Venice. It was a good five hours of hating my life and hoping not to puke on my fellow passengers. But then: Venice. My eyes fill with tears just typing it. There’s no need to wax poetic. Let me just say that it’s one of my favorite places on earth. It never disappoints, and always draws me back. I’m always living for my next visit; the smell of salt water, the sound of music floating over the canals.

A wonderful meal on the island of Burano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant's own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

A wonderful meal on the island of Murano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant’s own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

After a too-short stay in Venezia, another train ride (this one much less hungover, thank goodness) conveyed me to unfamiliar territory: Perugia. Before visiting this Umbrian gem, the city honestly wasn’t even on my radar. In fact, I’d chosen to visit Perugia primarily because it was a short bus ride from my intended target: Assisi, home of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, otherwise known as St. Francis. I didn’t spend enough time to have any great stories about the town, other than being awestruck by the massive Etruscan Arch (dating from the 3rd century BC), and falling in love with the tradition of a late night espresso and gelato at my local gelateria. In hindsight, I have no idea how I slept on that vacation. I think I had an espresso every time I passed a cafe, I never turned down a glass of wine (which should be a rule on any good vacation), and I know I ate gelato at least twice a day for two weeks!

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy.

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy. The photo doesn’t do justice to how imposing this 3rd century BC construction is in person. It seems indestructible.

My second morning in Perugia dawned bright and cool – perfect weather for a day trip to St. Francis’ hometown. I didn’t know what to expect. Before leaving the States, I’d decided that since I’d have a full week on my own in Italy, it would be a good idea to spend some of my time just shopping and eating (two of my top favorite pastimes), and the rest checking out architecture and religious relics. Assisi seemed like a fairly obvious choice, given my time constraints and an extremely basic knowledge of St. Francis – that he was an animal lover, displayed symptoms of what might today be concluded to be mental illness, and wasn’t too keen on fashion. Most of all, though, I was excited about visiting a town that hasn’t changed all that much through the centuries. Assisi is a walled medieval city, set against a stunning backdrop of rolling, verdant hills. I’d never seen anything like it in person, so why not? Francis would just be the icing on the cake.

Little did I know that this trip would set something in me on fire. Stay tuned for more on my awakening in Assisi, tomorrow…(Click here to read Part 2)

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone's private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone’s private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

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