Rome

I was received warmly by the nuns in a place called La Storta, which seems only to be a cluster of apartment buildings, bars, and shops around an extremely traffic-choked thoroughfare called Via Cassia. Then, in the morning, I followed the grime and the garbage and the on-again-off-again sidewalk into the heart of Rome. The last day of any pilgrimage to Rome is notoriously one of the worst days as far as walking goes. I suspect it’s always been like this, not only because of the density of traffic, but because the 19 kilometres or so from La Storta to the Vatican are the jagged transition from one “life” into another. The significance of this (if there is one) is not totally clear: but clearly the walls that I built around myself as a pilgrim (including the facade of having an intention, or the faith in a rare something at the end of the road) are gone. So it’s being with others again. I can feel the absence of something; without skin before a mirror; the human-sized sadness rubbing against you again.

I’ve heard stories of people crying when they climb the pass into Switzerland, and then I’ve heard stories of people weeping and shouting when they finally arrive in the tourist smog in St.Peter’s square. I didn’t do either of these things, and actually the whole day felt over before it had begun.

Like with many wonderful things, the faint glow before it actually appears is where all the intensity is. Sunrises are beautiful, while the sun at noon makes you dizzy and tired.

I received my Testimonium from a woman working in an office by the basilica, a polite and unmemorable moment, and then I folded it up and walked out into the city with nowhere in particular place to go.

There is a convent here that accept pilgrims – as far as I know it is the only religious institution in Rome that will accept pilgrims unconditionally and asking only a donation. There is a lovely garden, a walled cloister that nearly muffles the noise of the enormous city, and the women here provide an excellent dinner with three courses and three kinds of wine. I think it’s the perfect ending, fitting, to be received by such generous arms.

And they washed our feet. They told us it was recommended regardless of your beliefs and persuasions. One of the nuns poured warm water from a jug and then dried the right foot with a rag and kissed it, before wishing us blessedness and courage for the remainder of our journeys in life. And then we all walked off.

There were a surprising number of people here, actually. Aside from the handful of people I met days ago in another town, and some people who have become friends, there is a large group of people I’ve never seen who arrived on bikes and will leave by bike as soon as they’re all awake.

Still, amongst it all – the anonymity of the cyclists, the friends who although I like I always felt separate from, and the great city that I have very little desire to explore – I am very alone, just as alone as I was for a couple days in London when I flew there however long ago.

I suppose it is time to take stock of it all, or what I can. Last night in La Storta some young pilgrims had a kind of discussion about the nature of happiness. It seems a natural way to end a walk after there was so much time to reflect on things. Later someone asked me about things I’ve learned from all the walking. But in either case – the nature of happiness, life lessons – I’m drawing a blank. I don’t think I learned anything new as much as I felt more intensely things that I already knew. Anyway, they are always worth repeating: when in dire straights, something or someone always, always came by to help me and the fellow pilgrims. And in easy moments, a brief smile or a gesture can change everything.

Otherwise, it’s not really the case that my faith in humanity is renewed or that I will return home (or wherever) with a revolutionized mind or that I am more optimistic.

And maybe it is sad to read this? But no – I remember it was all a joy. Not fun, but a joy in the sense that I was and am alive and happy to be alive, not in spite of but because of the complexity of the world, the labour, and the pain in my feet now that they have time to remember their real shape. It was often a challenge. Sometimes an extreme challenge, physically and later mentally.

I expected (or am expecting) a kind of release, or a kind of snap. Maybe this will come later – but for now it’s all just a heavy blanket that fell on me and will probably be there for awhile. I must be more alone than ever, in Rome. A loud part of me says to go home, but a reasonable part of me reminds me that I really have no real reason to. And there is a minuscule kind of courage that means everything, and it’s simply the will to hold your head coolly in the world when it all looks like an desert.

A short minute in quiet would be nice, but the convent makes people leave during the day, and from tomorrow on we all have to leave for good and then I’m just a regular person again – that to me is scary, although if you read the rest of the blog it is probably clear why.

I have a ticket to Pavia in a couple days to recollect my camping gear, and then I’ll have to find away back into the French Alps. That’s the short-term plan. In the long-term, who knows.

For now, maybe I’ll make myself look proper, find a fountain, and go people-watching, all those lives moving by.

I may make another post later on, when I’ve had more time to reflect on the walk. For now it felt right to write what feels fresh. But if another post doesn’t come, then I’ll say I’m extremely honoured to have had so many great people reading this and sending me supportive messages along the way. At times I feel I may have laid my mind bare, but writing is a kind of song and dance in its own way. But it was a pleasure to sing and dance for you all.

Love!

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Campagnano di Roma

So I’m in the campagnano of Rome. I’m not sure “campagnano” has a direct English translation; something like, the “countryside of Rome,” maybe. In any case, I’ve been lagging with posts because little is happening aside from pleasant breezy lotus-eating for the last few legs of the pilgrimage. 

For some reason my memory can hardly pull apart things that happened two days ago and things that happened two months ago. But since my last post, my impressions are something like this: Crystalline Lago di Bolsena is crystalline and surrounded by Dutch tourists; the walk from Bolsena to Montefiascone is uneventful and at one point I played with a town cat; the walk from Montefiascone to Viterbo is horrible with no shade, abundant dust, and industrial farms, and otherwise felt like the north of France in miniature; Viterbo is big and doesn’t seem to have a centre and everything was eerily quiet all day, and I slept in a crowded room in a church; the walk from Viterbo to Sutri was partly along the rim of Lago di Vico, on a road that is deserted on Sunday mornings, and for the first time in a while I experienced complete silence. Maybe someone understands what I mean when I say it is like turning off a radio that has been playing all day. The room – in this case, the world – became shockingly lonely, but the feeling soon faded.

By the time I got to Sutri, I was exhausted. It was one of those moments where I was tired of being a constant stranger amongst strangers, and though I lost motivation I walked on anyway, and when I arrived I sat in the shade by a fountain. The convent, which accepts pilgrims regularly, was apparently having a party that day and didn’t know if it could accommodate anyone on account of it. 

They did, in the end, accept pilgrims without question, and because there were only three of us, I was allowed a dorm to myself. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude, of course – this emptiness I cherished. And the other two, a French daughter and father, asked me to join them for dinner. For a while then, I thought of nothing but polite and happy conversation with people who, like me, have walked a long way simply for the hell of it, and whose names I never learned (nor did they learn mine) because it didn’t seem relevant. So I felt at peace, and that’s the way it ends, with a laugh and a “G’night.”

Assuming nothing dire happens, I will make my final post from Rome in a couple of days.

Bolsena

I’m in soaring spirits today, probably because last night in Acquapendente I finally got more than three or four hours of sleep. Despite the luxuries of walking the central Italian sections of the Via Francigena (friendly people, company, readily available food, and almost guaranteed beds), there is still the nagging challenge of settling comfortably in crowded inferno-like dorm rooms every night. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in uneasy anonymous sleep, having worked (and lived) in hostels for weeks or months at a time, in Budapest, Sarajevo and Istanbul. But now those cities fade in my memory, and the wavering stranger-state doesn’t really fit me any more – I’m getting older.

I had a conversation recently with someone who described a rigorous pilgrimage as a matter of conquering daily fears. I think this could be the case. But this person made a wonderful observation that most fears are very (almost annoyingly) mundane, like small talk with clearly different minds, or simply walking to the market when you are hungry but momentarily allergic to eyes. 

An odd thing I’ve noticed is that I feel like a different character depending on whether I’m wearing my rucksack and boots or not. It is somehow easier to be visibly distinct from the average person: you can take on a role and a look of having an intention. That person has come from somewhere and is going somewhere! So we are ephemeral, and I at least become resolved to erase myself from each day and each room as soon as I leave it. For many years (from the age of maybe 17 to 22), I sought this kind of counter-fashion; this aura of a floorless or perpetually star-gazing person. So maybe there is really a kind of fear in stepping into a crowd and saying, “Nah, everything is matter.”

Still, I’m hyper-aware of the need to adopt personalities according the occasion and the year. But I wrote about this before – Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is about this, the stacking of “selves” until it is difficult to recognize what you are. I thought the pilgrimage would clear this up. And it has, thought only in one sense, in that when I am entirely alone, literally alone, say asleep in the woods without a soul aware of my presence, then I can see and count my mental and physical dependences on the world, like an organism.

Today I talked to a kind Australian man about poetry and creation. It made me remember that part of the reason I started walking was because I wanted to avoid creating anything and maybe forget how making things ties you to the world. But often I find myself wanting to make things. Anything. Even carve a spoon out of wood. 

One time, I did actually make a manuscript for a novel that was partly an attempt to make sense of all this: the labour of self-erasure, the adoption of personalities according the circumstance, the rejection of contemporary culture for its own sake, and the (related) desire of travel for its own sake, or travel as an excuse to constantly rearrange oneself (more or less like Mr.Potato Head). I’m still considering whether the walk has given me the motivation to keep working on this thing.

In any case, I hope you have enjoyed my self-indulgent reflections.

On another note, I decided that with Rome only a week away I might make some decisions about what to do afterwards. I hopped on the web and happened to find a family in France that would like help renovating a barn for a couple weeks, and boy did I jump at the opportunity to put my hands to productive use (and give my feet a long weekend).

Time will tell, anyway. Taking steps.

I haven’t said it in a while, but thanks for the support, friends and family and distant readers! Love from Lago di Bolsena.

Radicofani

Radicofani is a small hilltop town. It is not only one of the friendliest places on earth but, as far as I can tell, it is the last significant climb before more-or-less descending to heart of Rome.

I started walking at 3:30 this morning, hoping to beat the heat and take in the darkness. And the darkness was powerful, indeed. Somehow, at home, I never considered walking alone down the highway in the pitch black with a only a headlamp and a squeaky backpack to keep wild pigs away while someone in the distance fired a gun, but that’s what I did for a good two hours this morning. Not heroic, but perhaps not for the very faint at heart. At one point I passed a field of what appeared to be small goats and I flashed a light on them out of curiosity – when I did so, they were frightened and charged sporadically in all directions. I also realized then that they all had black fur and that they were not fenced in. So maybe not goats after all. It must remain one of those odd surreal moments that is forever unexplained and I am the only witness.

Hours later, along paths through the vast brown-yellow ripples of Tuscany, I climbed to Radicofani and was greeted kindly by almost everyone. 

There is a woman here who owns an alimentari in a courtyard just off the main street who is apparently a pilgrim legend: she invites every pilgrim she sees to beer and olives, tomatoes, bread, and cake. And this must be a lot of people, because she has three thick ledgers full of pilgrims’ notes and signatures. 

Otherwise, the pilgrim hostel is a disappointing wave of anonymous faces; but so on, blah, blah. Courage is so often simply sitting in a room thus clouded. Courageous cat to the rescue, with an eye on the future.


 

San Quirico D’Orcia

Last night in Ponte D’Arbia, there were about twenty people staying at the pilgrim hostel. Despite the fact that many spoke Italian and some did not, some were young and some were old, some were Catholic and some considered organized religion a crime, and some walked from England and others from a town 30 kilometres away – in spite of such (apparently) superficial differences, everyone sat together at 8 p.m. in the dining room to eat pasta and wine. The chefs were applauded, and there was laughter all over until long into the night. Groups gathered outside to drink wine and smoke and it was merry (and presumably an age-old routine for pilgrims). Likewise, there is a common idea that walk, at least through Tuscany into Rome, ought to be merry.


So for me and a few others, the pilgrimage is in its end game. Others talk about Rome like it’s over the hill, and are beginning to plan what kind of celebrations are going to take place there.

Otherwise, there is nothing especially new; it has slowly dawned on me that upon reaching Rome, the world will continue just as it always has, perhaps unremarkably so; in fact, people have done exponentially more remarkable walks (and other things) and still returned home just to turn on the television. 
But maybe it depends on the person. There is real remoteness, sometimes, that enters you. Like with the narrator of “Rocket Man,” for example. That song once made me miserable.

There is an Italian expression that someone explained to me that I believe roughly translates to, “For each person there is one small world.” It’s a way of saying that it’s not possible to judge others, as all perspectives and histories are as unique as planets. But the more I think about this, the more solipsistic it seems; I’m not sure if there is much comfort to be taken in the fact that, walking down a street (or, in our case, across a country), all passing individuals are beyond a gulf, outside sound. It would be nice to believe that we can in fact send signals through the otherwise dead space and sometimes get something in return. I have at one point in my life discussed this with a good friend, us both concluding that this sending-receiving is an experiment, a struggle even, and success is incredibly rare. Yet it must be done. I’ve seen it happen even without a mutual language. And in spite of mutual dislike. History is full of examples, I’m sure, if we stretch them, but I have a suspicion that this kind of “little world” metaphor only works in a time when unity has long been fractured – we as beings still carry on.

If anything, the walk has given me the opportunity to experiment with consciously signalling no one and receiving nothing in return – it was interesting, but I’m becoming tired and looking forward to doing something else, whatever that may be.

In my own small world anyway, there is still plenty; it’s a rich world. Many memories, I mean, and I’ve had lots of time to run through them.

And in a sense I now no longer feel like a pilgrim, just a person walking and talking to himself. I think it has something to do with the lack of danger and exposure that was previously ample. It also has to do with the amount of other people that are always around; you greet, answer questions, learn small ephemeral details about other peoples’ lives – again like learning about the planets, you know.

I started walking today at quarter to five. And it looks like this will the pattern for the remaining 8 or 9 days until I hit Rome. It is nice to avoid the heat, just as it’s nice to sneak out of buildings in the dark.

Siena

Last night I witnessed my first foot-washing ceremony. The residing pilgrims who were in fact Catholics were seated and the priest – the same grey haired man who scrutinized my credential to ensure that I had crossed countries to get there – knelt down with a rag and said a prayer as he wiped the dust from their heels. I must say it was a very moving moment, even though I didn’t take part. People who have read the gospels will understand the genesis of this tradition, but personally I wasn’t aware that it still continued, or how it was actually done. In my understanding, it symbolizes absolute humility, as does the fact that the priest and another volunteer insisted on personally filling our plates at dinner time, pouring the wine, slicing the watermelon, and offering countless times to make coffee.

I rose early for the shortest walk in weeks, and I ended up in Siena: a pretty town that as far as I can tell has heaps of loves laid on it by locals and non-locals alike. It is truly a calm and inviting city, despite the number of tourists. Although I imagine it is subdued a bit by the fact that it is 38 degrees and sitting in the square is impossible.

I was welcomed into a church dorm here along with half a dozen other pilgrims, some new faces, and it still being early in the day I set out roaming the narrow roads and actually appreciating a day of nothing. 

Eventually I was stopped by a smart looking man with a beard and glasses who asked me how I was and where I came from, in that order. When he learned I was a pilgrim, he insisted on buying me a coffee and giving me a thin cigar. His English was nearly perfect, and he described his profession as “in international relations,” although he was also very in-tune with cultural history in Tuscany. So this is how I came to have a long discussion about contemporary European socialism and equestrian sports with Carlos, the international relations expert (?) of Sienna.

Other things occurred. I encountered a crowd of Italian pilgrims who taught me about wine and then, for some reason, a marching band went by and created a public spectacle with their noise and costumes.

There you have it. 

Abbadia Isola

I can’t remember anything about yesterday other than that it was sweltering and that there were a handful of pilgrims walking over dusty shadeless roads. We all rested at the ostello in Gambassi, more pilgrims than I can remember, including people who have walked for a week, two days, or haven’t yet walked at all. The people who came from afar were only Q and myself and a Dutch librarian who walked there from his front door.

Following an uneventful and impersonal evening, I chatted with a Spanish woman in the church garden, who told me that she is walking to Rome because she had already walked to Santiago and the experience had changed her life. She is the third person to tell me this. She told me that my life was changed, too; I am not sure.

Anyway, with this in mind I met with Q, with whom I have now walked (almost) every day since Aosta. Not for the first time, but for the first clear and articulate moment, he explained to me why he is walking: more or less, he feels freedom like the sun, on his skin and inside him. It struck me that I know very little about him.  Unfortunately, he lamented his lack of English and inability to express things clearly. I can understand the struggle, although I  believe my friend is a hero and a poet, truly.

In any case, Q and I decided that the best way to beat the heat was to wake up at a quarter to four and break out forty-threekilometres before we knew what happened. It didn’t work exactly like this, but we did wake up at quarter to four, walk ten kilometres in the dark, and then watch an orange sunrise over the hills and the wheat.


By midday, the heat was in and the rest of the walk became a blur. We eventually arrived in Abbadia Isola, a town with an abbey, a bar, and very little else, and drank the world’s best bad beer. Then all pain and discomfort dissolved, as it always does.

In the abbey, a man with a long grey beard scrutinized our passports and pilgrim credentials to assure that were had indeed walked from England. This done, we were allowed to stay.

Soon after, I was welcomed into the place by other pilgrims, including a saxophonist from Turin.

Anyway – en route we calculated that Rome is only 11-13 days away. There you have it.

San Miniato

Although it’s unlikely he will read this, I will give a special mention of Bob of Nottingham, who for a few days now has been making the same stops as me and every evening offering plenty of nice conversation and a particular brand of English cynical humour. If anyone has read Jerome K. Jerome, they may get it.

Anyway, after a final pasta dinner with Bob and some (by now) old friends, I slept a short horrible sleep in a small bed in the dorm above the ambulance hall, and woke up at 4:30 to pack and start walking. My Italian friend – to whom I once assigned and then promptly forgot, so let’s call him Q – had called a church about 37 kilometres beyond Lucca, and knowing it would be a long hot day with no clouds, we started before the dawn.

By some stroke of miscommunication or misplanning, we ended up walking past the church that had agreed to accommodate us, and so had no choice but to walk even further, maybe 43 kilometres, to a place called San Miniato. For some reason we whistled for the last two kilometres. Somehow I appreciated the sudden struggle against the road and the heat – the sun, in any case, doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, and recently I feel a fire at my heels to get to Rome. 

Eventually lightheaded, I had Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite in my head – one day I will make a playlist.

I’m not sure where this trend started, but the ambulance hall in San Miniato also has a dorm for pilgrims.

Lucca

Lucca’s a swell place, a bona fide Italian classic-cum-tourist hive. The walk today started at 5 o’clock sharp and was through farm tracks mostly, and then hills and the occasional olive grove. I guess I’m in Tuscany.


The Golden Age is over: I mean that the on-and-off pilgrim fellowship of the passed few days has fallen apart, although I see new people every day, even on the roads, even in areas that feign the look of being disused.

There are even the occasional towns that seem to exist only to serve the pilgrims. It’s fascinating. On one hand, I’m easily annoyed by being approached by people wanting to sell me stuff; but on the other hand, I understand that in the heyday of European pilgrimaging, many parts of Italy and Spain were actually like this – sort of pilgrim watering holes. So it is a revival, too. And it can be exciting to be a part of. Today, in one of such towns, I stopped to buy bread and struck up a conversation with Italian walkers from Milan. When I told them I came from Canterbury, I was momentarily a town celebrity, and people wanted to shake my hand.

Upon arriving in Lucca, another Italian pilgrim on a bicycle wanted to buy me a coffee and chat about the walk. Apparently he also plays in an Elvis cover band. A wonderful fellow. (Thanks again, if you read this).

Lucca. A earth-coloured walled city. Apparently pilgrims can sleep in an ambulance hall here.

To my right, a German couple drinks milkshakes. To the left, a British family with very bright blonde hair that is blinding. I haven’t thought about my “guardian spirit” since I was sleeping amongst wild animals in France, but I wonder if it has hair like that. I would like a Tarot reading.

 Pietrasanta


Last night some pilgrim friends and I ate food from an oven instead of a microwave and then I “slept” (against snoring) in the church dorm.

I walked for several hours along the seafront today, and would you believe that I  hardly saw the water? Many hotels and restaurants have taken the view away and eaten up the beach, too. One time in France, I was on a plain surrounded by silent white windmills as far as the eye could see in all directions. I remember thinking how magical it would be for someone who had never seen windmills to be dropped in that place, how alien. A similar thought came up today, but it was more in the vein of: if ancient persons of this area were suddenly transported to 2017, they would assume it was an invasion.

Nothing is really happening – I’m happy to write out of habit, but I’m convinced that the pure challenge of the pilgrimage is over – I miss it somehow, the struggle. I’ve never liked things to be easy, and when I think back on it, the atrocious pain in my feet and legs and various episodes of fear and sickness are the highlights of the way. Now, the lack of semantical or physical problems means that my mind is always bouncing around to other things and I’m occasionally wishing I had something else to do. But I may as well enjoy the remaining stroll to the eternal city. Anything may still happen.

Pietrasanta itself is nice. Pilgrims are invited to stay in a spare house owned by the nuns on the top of a hill overlooking the square.

I’m in the nuns’ garden reading “Growth of the Soil.”

Does anyone out there wish to start a book club?