It was such an incredible trip. It started with a 6 hour delay at JFK airport where I met some random strangers and read 2 books. Apparently Alitalia Airlines was on strike. Luckily they settled things and I got off the ground. Finally after an 8 hour flight I arrived in a new country, The Old Country, the place of origin for my Italian American roots. I had been there before but this time was different, I was on my own. So everything looked different, sounded different. I am SUCH an American. I thought everyone speaks English and celebrates with BBQs on the 4th of July. Foreign travel is always so humbling because then I realize Thanksgiving is NOT celebrated in England and the birthday of The United States of America is NOT celebrated in Italy. It's just another day and I was just another American that didn't speak Italian. I had taken classes before going so I understood enough to get around, but not enough to understand that my train to Florence made a stop and I needed to get off and change trains. Luckily an older woman next to me took pity and realized I had no idea where I was and directed to me to the transfer train. We could barely hold a conversation, but we bonded and ended up being pen pals for years. I communicated enough to figure out how to order coffee, cafe americano. But, I couldn't communicate that my nails need acrylic repair (those were the days when I had no kids and thought nothing of spending $25 a week on fake nails, their upkeep was high on the priority list, even in Italy.)
I stayed at a religious boarding house, Casa Immacoolata. My stay there had been arranged by a priest friend of mine that I used to work with. The Franciscan Sisters that run the house were amazing. They took me under their wing and advised me on how to get around Assisi and travel into Florence, etc. Assisi is a medieval Village, a walled city, one of the most peaceful places on Earth. The population is around 500, the visitor toll is in the thousands. People travel from all over to visit St. Francis's tomb. All races and religions stand near his tomb and bask in the absolute power of God and feeling of Peace. It is unreal. It took a few planes, trains and a walk up a steep hill to arrive, but I got there. I settled in.
I spent the first 2 days a bit jet lagged and cultured shocked. I wandered the town, visited the Basilica, found quiet places to read and journal. I sat in the Piazza and had coffee. I adjusted to the idea that there are no screens on the windows and its too hot to close them at night. I got over the fear of the bats that circled at night and slept without my ear plugs and sleep mask for the first time in years. I was so exhausted and so at peace that I didn't even think of them flying in the windows at night after awhile. I was lulled to sleep by their shrieking. This was a major step for me. Especially since I wouldn't even stay home alone at night in my own house.
After a few days I met people. I met Brother Barry. He was in Assisi for a Friars convention. We had a lot in common, he was a kindred spirit. We talked for hours and met in the Piazza at night to listen to music. We both had curfews. The boarding houses we stayed in were run by religious groups, he was a member of his group. We had to be in by 10:15 pm. Or the doors locked. So we laughed about that! We talked and talked for hours. He had the peaceful spirit of Francis. He stayed for over a week. On the last day his Order of Friars were meeting for Mass at the Tomb. He invited me to attend, but I didn't have an alarm clock so he told me to tell my angels to wake me in time. I laughed and said goodbye just in case I didn't make it to the 7 am Mass. At 6:30 the next morning sure enough my angels woke me in just enough time to dress and get to The Basilica. The Mass could not have been more incredible. All of those Friars celebrating together at the Tomb of St. Francis. Peace was everywhere that morning. After Barry left, I missed my friend, but I knew I would have more adventures in the time that remained. Barry and I would stay in touch over the next few years and visit with each other again in Toronto during World Youth 2002. By then I would have had my first few dates with Hubby and be on the way to the rest of my life. In Italy I didn't know that yet, but I had a feeling one morning when I visited the San Damiano Chapel that life would work out exactly as it was supposed to.
I had saved San Damiano for last. I first visited the house Francis grew up in, and some of the places in the Umbria area where he traveled and ministered. I went to his tomb daily and sat and absorbed his Peacefulness. I met a group traveling from Australia, they stayed for a few days. I met a Luca on a train back from Florence. He had visited America and thought it was great so he loved having someone to chat with about it. I became good friends with some of the Sisters that ran the boarding house I stayed in. They showed me some of the sights that were less touristy. We had gelato every night in town. They made yummy fresh food. So fresh in fact that one morning I realized there were a few less chickens in the yard. My vegetarian tendencies told me to panic, but the spirit of Francis told me to go with the flow. It was great food, great pieced together Italian/English conversations over meals.
One of the Sisters gave me a ride to Mount Subasio. Francis spent months praying there. I couldn't wait to get there. It was one of my last stops in Assisi. I was introduced to Franco, a man that worked security there and the Sister assured me he would give me a ride back into town when I was ready. I was at the top of Mt. Subasio completely alone in the woods with only Franco out that gates. I was a long way from home. I could see all of Assisi from where I stood. I knew it was unsafe walking the winding roads back into town, I had heard of things happening. And it was far. So Franco was my best option. I trusted the Sisters opinion and stayed to pray. I spent hours there. Lost track of time really. It was such an amazing space to be in. And Franco made good on his promise to get me back safely. He was such a nice guy and talked about his family and how wonderful the Sisters had been to them.
I met people of God everywhere I went in Assisi. I met Claudia and Flavia. Claudia is a true "Townie." She walks all day. Anywhere you go in Assisi, at any time you are likely to see Claudia walking. She has had hardship and life has taken it's toll on her, but she walks and she welcomes. She has an edge. She hold you accountable. She wanted to know, was I a Tourist or a Pilgrim? I think back to that question so often in life. Am I here sightseeing, just along for the ride? Or do I really want to be a part of the bigger picture, the amazement, the wonder the reality of what God has to offer. I thought long and hard before I answered her and finally I said, I guess I am a little bit of both. I wanted to go to Florence and buy pocketbooks and jewelry and I did. I wanted to take pictures of Saint Clare's preserved body. But, at the same time I was moved by it. I was in awe of the woman that gave her life to God and followed Francis in his spiritual ways and was left untouched by death. I guess I am a Tourist that is striving to be a Pilgrim. Trying to find the sacred in the everyday. Claudia and her daughter, Flavia traveled with me and one of the Sisters to Perugia. A nearby village. It is the famous sight of the story Francis and The Wolf. The Wolf had been terrorizing the people, but Francis and his gentle spirit tamed the wolf. Then the people fed the wolf and he became their beloved pet. I love that story. I loved Perugia. It was quant, lots of great little stores and tiny chapels where Francis had spent time. It wasn't as sacred feeling as Assisi. But, it was a nice spot to visit for a day.
By the end of the weeks I spent there I had met so many people and prayed in so many churches and sat and journaled in so many beautiful scenic areas. Finally at the end of that time I was ready to go to San Damiano, the place where God appeared to Francis and told him his mission. I went there on a Sunday. It was quieter than I had imagined. Almost deserted, although I am sure there were people there sightseeing. There were always people there. But, it wasn't crowded. I soaked up the feeling in the Chapel. I remember being there, but nothing stands out in my memory. Until I went walking back up the the huge hill towards town. There was a large circle in the center of the path. It was the halfway point back up the hill. It was hot and the sun was blazing. I stopped in the center of that circle. I closed my eyes and felt a cool breeze. I will never forget that Circle, that sacred space. For the first time in my life I stopped, I took it all in. I felt Peace. I realized it was in my heart all along. I knew life would unfold just as it should. All of the things I prayed for, would be in time. Not necessarily exactly like I pictured or in the timing I expected, but as it should be. When I get stressed out, overwhelmed, discouraged with life. I think back to that moment. I feel that moment and that sense of Peace washes over me. It was a sacred gift, one that I hope I can hold onto for a long time.
I was sad leaving Assisi. I felt that even though I wanted to return someday, I knew in my heart of heart that it wouldn't be the same. I will go back again. I have to. My dream is to bring my children someday. For them to experience the sacred, ancient place of Assisi. To see the beautiful countryside, the fields of lavender, the rose colored buildings at sunset. To hear the Italian language spoken as our ancestors spoke it. I want them to go to Rome and Florence and sight see and be tourists too, but, to have a spiritual journey like Assisi is priceless.
When I stood at the top of Mount Subasio and looked out at the view enjoying the peacefulness of life, I never could have known that 2 months later the United States would suffer a terrorist attack that would change lives forever. I didn't know I would be gripped with fear on airplanes in the future or afraid to be out at night in strange cities alone, I didn't know that fear would motivate me to stay closer to home and cling to a smaller radius to live life. I didn't know that type of fear would remain underlying in everything over the next years as I started a family, I didn't know I would be a mom that makes neurotic decisions in an effort to protect my children because the world is scary and bad things can happen. In that moment in Assisi, I was independent, free and at peace. I draw on that experience often. I try to fight the fear and still enjoy peacefulness. When the Evening News overwhelms me I tend to change the channel, when horrible things happen I tend to pray for a better world. And underneath all the fear I still cling to the belief that life is good. I hope someday I will get back to beautiful Assisi. For now, I am grateful for the experiences I had and for the chance to be independent, to discern what is truly important so I can treasure all of the blessings I have in life!