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 2)

A wooden plaque of St. Francis above a residential doorway in Assisi, Italy.

A wooden plaque of St. Francis above a residential doorway in Assisi, Italy.

I first fell in love with medieval architecture in high school, on a trip to the UK. By college, I was firmly obsessed with medieval religious structures and art, with a particular interest in reliquaries (boxes, baubles, and statues created to hold holy items, like saints’ bones and so-called pieces of the true cross). I even graduated with a double major in Medieval Studies and Art History, which allowed me to spend the better part of four years studying this field. As soon as I had saved up enough money to take my first postgrad trip to Europe, I made a point to visit any saints, martyrs, and holy items I could find, just for curiosity’s sake. I didn’t realize it at the time, but aside from my lack of veneration at each holy site, I was performing the basic duties of any good medieval tourist. The macabre dressed skeletons of two martyrs at Peterskirche in Vienna, Austria; the Veil of Mary at Notre Dame de Chartres, France; the relics of St. Mark at the Basilica in Venice, Italy; the reliquaries housed at The Cloisters in New York City – any shard of bone or lock of hair encased in gold and rock crystal can hold my attention, make me crowd closer to get a better view, give me a thrill as I imagine its history and debate its authenticity.

In the summer of 2012, while planning my Italian itinerary, I had a choice – travel to San Giovanni Rotundo to see the shrine of recently canonized Padre Pio, or travel to Assisi to see the Basilica of 13th century St. Francis. I’m still not sure why I chose St. Francis in the end; I had no real knowledge of or affinity for the saint. In fact, I preferred more exciting saints, like Barbara, locked in a tower for refusing to marry a barbarian, or Sebastian, pin-cushioned with arrows for pissing off Emperor Diocletian. Up until visiting Assisi, my only intro to Francis was superficial, at best – a snippet of the Peace Prayer, recited in Band of Brothers, and a wooden statue of the animal-loving saint that my mother placed near the area of our yard that serves as a pet cemetery.

Maybe choosing St. Francis over Padre Pio was predicated by vacation timeline, but I don’t remember that, if so. I did only have five days in all to spend in Italy before returning to Croatia for a week of island-hopping with my friends. But given what happened in Assisi, and how my life has changed since, I think maybe I never even made a decision; maybe the Universe made it for me. At any rate, after two glorious days in Venice, and a beautiful evening exploring the cobbled streets and gelaterias of Perugia, I headed to the bus station to catch a ride to Assisi.

When the bus pulled up at its final destination, the combination of short journey and uninspiring view from the parking lot made me worry that I might be getting off at the wrong stop. But everyone else disembarked, so I followed suit. All worry dissipated as I entered the town gates and started wandering with the crowd towards the Basilica. St. Francis salt and pepper shakers, pencil holders, religious medals, tea towels, nesting dolls, posters, and t-shirts were in every shop window, and I smiled at the sweet-natured cheesiness embraced by locals and tourists, alike.

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As I got closer to the basilica, a German tourist on a bicycle stopped and asked me to take a photo of him. At the time, it registered as odd that he’d trust me with his expensive DSLR camera, but over the course of the day, I was stopped over and over again by tourists asking me to take photos of them in this holy place. Among these was a church youth group from Alabama, on pilgrimage to a host of holy sites across Europe. I was in the town, on a street high above the basilica, looking for the perfect vantage point to get a great shot of it plus the land beyond. Since I was in a residential area, I hadn’t seen another tourist on the street for probably 10 minutes. Suddenly, I turned the corner and ran into a group of 15 kids and their chaperones, discussing how they could take a group shot and get everyone in the frame.

At first they didn’t notice me enter the courtyard area that we were in, and I tried to ignore them and will them to ignore me, too. When you’re in another country where the first language isn’t your native tongue, unless you hear another person speak, it’s easy to assume that they don’t share your language. I used this assumption against them, fully intending to take my photos and get away without ever having to talk to them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned (or thought that I’d learned, at least) after a few trips to Europe, it’s that the majority of Americans you’ll run into when travelling are generally classless jerks in foreign countries. They laugh at local custom, disrespect the people and landscapes they come into contact with, and generally end up making us all look bad. Most introverted Americans I’ve met on vacation tend to pretend they’re Canadian. So I didn’t know where these folks were from yet, but I knew enough to know I wouldn’t like them. An American church group with southern accents? Surely they’d be bible thumping inbreeds. I couldn’t get away quickly enough.

Eventually though, guilt got the better of me. I snapped a couple more photos on my own, then introduced myself as a fellow American, and offered to take their group shot. They were overjoyed to find out they could all be in the shot together. Afterwards, they all gave me hugs, and one of the chaperones gifted me with a laminated bookmark commemorating their pilgrimage, bearing the Peace Prayer on one side. I of course felt like a total shit, and resolved to be kinder to strangers in the future. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first of MANY lessons St. Francis was about to throw my way.

It’s taking me forever to tell this story, but I promise I’ll finish up in tomorrow’s post. Stay tuned to hear about the rest of my day in Assisi…(Click through for Part 3)

Detail of St. Francis taming the Wolf of Gubbio, from one of the doors of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. In the story, Francis tames a wild, dangerous wolf that has been terrorizing a town, and the wolf, now gentled, becomes the town pet. During my visit to Assisi, I underwent the beginning of a very similar transformation. No leashes or flea bath necessary.

Detail of St. Francis taming the Wolf of Gubbio, from one of the doors of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. In the story, Francis tames a wild, dangerous wolf that has been terrorizing a town, and the wolf, now gentled, becomes the town pet. During my visit to Assisi, I underwent the beginning of a very similar transformation. No leashes or flea bath necessary.

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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Vacation Archives – Day #7 (continued): More Assisi

Some of you might be wondering why it’s taken me so long to finish telling you guys about my amazing vacation. It’s hard to say this, but here it is – I lost a blog entry. Lost it. Zip, zero, gone, not coming back. Somehow I ended up erasing an entire day of my vacation, and since the only existing copy of my journal entry from that day was here, locked up on the backend of Compass & Quill, I will never have those exact memories from that afternoon again.

What really sucks about that (or maybe it’s a boon – you tell me) is that the writing I lost was a recap of the best day of my vacation. In all two weeks, my favorite day, the day I think back on, wish could have been much longer, the day that is sepia-toned in my mind, like some slow motion, driving-through-the-countryside scene from a heady emotional drama (you know, where sunlight glints off of waving blades of grass, and the heroine rides in passenger seat, gently fiddling with her hair or her sunglasses, and the camera goes in and out of focus in a way that both slightly irritates you and simultaneously breaks your heart?)…that was this day.

Naturally, you can see the kind of emotional turmoil I went through after finding that I’d essentially misplaced (forever) my memories. I felt like such a jerk. And I am. There’s no getting around it. But the show must go on, so here’s what I remember from the rest of the day…

The Franciscans don’t ask that you pay any fees to explore St. Francis’ birthplace and final resting place. However, there are little donation boxes everywhere, and with my heart overflowing with joy, just like Francis intended, I gave freely. I donated money for two long, slim, beeswax candles to be burned in prayer during one of the brothers’ daily services. I put change in boxes for the basilica’s upkeep, and for the brothers’ many missions for the poor across the world. I bought souvenirs – a lovely poster of St. Francis’ Peace Prayer, which contains one of my favorite quotations, a new medallion for my necklace of sacred baubles, and lots of little gifts for family. I bought The Man some anise candies that turned out to be the best gift of all – delicious!

When it came time to see where St. Francis was laid to rest, I was a little let down. It’s just a room, nothing too special. But I can’t say that I wasn’t touched. He’s buried with his four companions, the men who were his support in later life. We assume they were good friends, and I hope for his sake that they were, but this was long ago, and stories get twisted in the telling. Such is the way of the world. I’m doing it right now, whether I’d like to or not, by leaving out small details and remaining too long on things of little consequence. C’est la vie.

After exploring the basilica, I walked around the town. It’s a winding town, a quiet town, a friendly town. I met travelers all over, and took other peoples’ photos for them at every stop. It began to feel as though it was my tiny mission to make people happier by making sure they had commemorative snapshots. I didn’t ask anyone to take my picture, an oversight that still bugs me. I met a tour group of teens and their chaperones from Georgia, taking a tour of sacred European sites. After I took the group’s photo, they all gave me hugs and one woman handed me a lovely little St. Francis bookmark as a gift.

It was sometime after this that St. Francis started to make himself known for real in my life. I went to the ATM to get cash, and my card was declined. I realized that I had forgotten to tell my bank that I was heading to Europe, and since all the cards I had with me were from the same bank, I was essentially screwed. A short while later, I ran out of all the change on me. Luckily I’d already purchased a return ticket to Perugia, so getting home wasn’t a problem. I tried using a pay phone to call the out of US number on the back of my card, but the pay phone wouldn’t make the call, telling me that the number I dialed was “not allowed.” Instead, I gave up and spent the last hour in the city walking around, checking out old architecture, soaking in the atmosphere.

Finally I gave up and waited for the bus. As I waited, an older Japanese lady came to stand beside me. She had been on the bus to Assisi with me from Perugia, and I knew she spoke English, so I made some pleasantry about the weather to be polite. For some reason, something in her demeanor really made me like her immediately, and I tend to have very strong and accurate gut feelings, so I went with it. We ended up chatting for the next hour, sitting next to each other on the bus, sharing stories, life views, laughing, philosophizing. It was an amazing moment for me. At one point in our conversation I felt certain that she was a kind of angel, someone I was meant to talk to and learn from.

Her name was Ikuko, and she lived in California but was originally (and maybe still – I didn’t pry) from Japan. She spends a good deal of time travelling for pleasure and personal growth, and has quite a few friends in Italy, so she was in the middle of a three month vacation when we met. She asked if I was Catholic, and I said no, but that I felt drawn to St. Francis. I thought that she would maybe be confused, or brush me off in some way, but instead she nodded sagely and said that she believed we got what we needed from the Universe, that religion was just a piece of the puzzle, and an interchangeable one at that. Our conversation ran the gamut from religion (she had a genuine epiphany a few years ago, and went from having no religion to being a pretty devout Catholic) to coffee, and how to order an American coffee without offending your Italian waiter. Have you ever met someone that you just loved immediately? That’s how I felt during that bus ride. It was a ‘coming home’ feeling, and we’ve remained in touch. I plan to go out to California in the next year or so, and hope to visit her while I’m there.

The rest of the afternoon was nowhere near as pleasant as meeting Ikuko. My cards didn’t work, and as it turned out, no phone I tried would let me dial out to any of the credit card company’s numbers (multiple), including my hotel room phone, my cell phone, the front desk phone or any of the pay phones I tried outside. I’ve already recounted how horribly unhelpful the desk staff were at my hotel, so no need to go through that. Bottom line is that I cried buckets, but finally got through to the bank via Skype on my iPad – a free app that literally saved my life. Without Skype I would have been stranded in Perugia until someone could wire me cash, and given how irritatingly unfazed the Italians I met were when it came to my financial crisis, I’m not sure that I could have gotten money for at least a couple of days. But oh well, it’s over. I’ll know better next time.

After getting the money sorted out, I wandered the streets of Perugia, enjoying the sights and sounds one last time. I had dinner at my hotel – OK, but not my best decision ever. The only great thing about it was having very old fashioned service, complete with a rolling cart for food and beverage delivery, and waiters with gloves and little towels thrown over their arms. It was out in the courtyard of the hotel, and with the sounds from the street echoing in, and the whole place lit in a soft yellow glow, it was a little magical.

The only thing left for my evening after dinner was to write in my journal, check in with Facebook, and get some gelato and an espresso like a proper Italian. I headed back to the gelato spot that I’d found the night before, this time ordering sweet cream and hazelnut. The shop owner and the counter guy chit chatted with me a bit this time, asking where I was from and how long I planned to stay. Their service and friendliness was impeccable, something I treasured about staying in that area of the city. They even brought me out a special cone-holder so that I could type on my iPad without having to hold the gelato cone! The gelato place had all of these tiny outdoor tables, and there’s something magical about sitting outdoors at 11pm, eating gelato and drinking an espresso, listening to a town that’s still going just as strong as during the daylight hours, hearing snippets of music and laughter…I’m getting teary-eyed now.

 

 

Vacation Archives – Day #7: Assisi

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 6th, 2012, I took a day trip from Perugia to Assisi, home of St. Francis. He was a little bit nutty, very kind to animals and big into simplicity and genuine kindness…my kind of dude.

Lesson of the Day: an iPad is worth it’s weight in USD, especially if it comes equipped with Skype.

I woke up early with my first ever room service breakfast. It was terrible, since apparently the Italian idea of a cheese omelet is a dry frittata, and nowhere I’ve been yet has offered butter or olive oil with bread. At least my croissant had orange marmalade in the center, and there’s little one can do to destroy the basic integrity of a cup of English breakfast tea.

After breakfast, I set out for the bus station to find out when the next bus to Assisi was leaving. I was a little confused on how to get there, since the online map said to take the escalator but I couldn’t find one. Finally I just started climbing down the hill, but I happened to pass a large set of open doors that opened into a mysterious cavernous place. I thought since there were no warning signs, I’d take this odd detour. It turns out that I’d found the medieval underground city as well as the escalators in one turn! I took my time getting to the bus station, and the next bus wasn’t for an hour, so I walked around a bit more. One thing I love about Italy (and Croatia) is how obedient the dogs are. Tons of people have dogs, and many are off leash in public places. While waiting for the bus I sat in the park and watched people with their dogs for a bit.

I was a little carsick on the bus. Lots of curves, and the eggs weren’t sitting well. Once we got there all was fine though. The bus stopped right outside the city walls, and I walked inside. At first I was turned off by the amount of tourist shops. But then I got to the Basilica of St. Francis, and everything else faded to the background.

It’s huge. Huge. There’s a guy who sits in a glass cubicle just saying “silencio” and “no photo” all day long, but there are so many tourists, and they keep whispering and taking sneaky shots. The place is cavernous, though, and everything echoes. The whole place is covered with frescoes, top to bottom, all things I studied in undergrad. The best part is that the chairs or pews where the monks sit (oratorio?) are all wonderfully decorated with the most ornate marquetry, and most have portraits in wood. It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

There are two church museums, one with St. Francis’ relics, and another with medieval and Renaissance art and reliquaries collected by the church over the years. I was in awe over Francis’ things. Seeing his tunic and hair shirt in person, plus a note he actually wrote, that just made me feel so close to him.

I guess that for me, with other religious historical characters there’s such a divide in time and also limited availability of fact, so it’s tough to see a real aspect to the tall tales we tell ourselves. In this case, there’s still this collection of stories, but also there are some solid facts to help compare and contrast. Though some bits are just fantastic stories, other things are true. He created a new monastic order, and with it he not only helped save the church, he also helped bring about a new way of sharing Christianity. He helped people remember the original point of honest giving and cheerful charity, and even today the Franciscans lead by example and live in harmony with other religions, taking the golden rule to heart.

More tomorrow, including Assisi sights, the lovely Japanese woman, Chase troubles, dinner and gelato.