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.
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.