Goldilocks on Pilgrimage

Securing a bed each night along the medieval Via Francigena pilgrim trail from Canterbury to the Vatican is an ordeal and a blessing. For a faithless pilgrim such as myself, leaving my bed to fate or luck or chance or serendipity or street smarts or the kindness of strangers is an uncharacteristic show of faith.

Fellow pilgrims say, “Trust in the Cammino.” The trail, the walk. “The Cammino will provide.” But sometimes it seems unlikely. I never know where the next night will bring me, and often the beds are too long, too short, too soft, too hard, too hot or too cold. But they are safe refuges, and for that I’m immensely grateful.

I’ve rested my head in all kinds of places, from the simplest (my knees, my backpack, the grass) to a church floor when I had nowhere to go, a hammock on a rooftop above Milan, countless bunk beds in 12th century monasteries, convents and hostels, a few airbnb’s, and many trains and buses.

I’ve found sanctuary:

  • in monasteries with vaulted ceilings, church bells, and gardens with sugar-sweet tomatoes
  • on a terrace in Milan where a young student from Istanbul held out a bottle of wine and declared, “You’re drinking this with me tonight!”
  • on another rooftop on the other side of Milan in a hammock, watching the girl in a hammock next to me sketch the skyline in her Moleskine notebook
  • in a hipster city hostel blasting PJ Harvey and Nirvana in common areas, where we were given bottle caps to exchange for free drinks, where I enjoyed a 3-hour breakfast with new friends from Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Italy, and Mexico and we discussed van Gogh’s lodging in Holland – how he rarely had a full palette of paint to work with
  • on the floor of a church at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary bathed in red candlelight
  • in a church where an elderly woman’s singing in the pew next to me made tears roll down my cheeks, because I wondered who she was singing to
  • at a detox commune where transsexuals, a man with a tattooed face and a kindly sailor served me home-baked bread, homemade fig marmalade, and salad from their garden with generous, shaking hands
  • in a hostel where I struggled to figure out how to tie my sleeping bag to my backpack and a more seasoned female traveller/ architect gave me invaluable advice
  • in a shared room where two adolescent roommates took turns vomiting throughout the night and took heartrendingly good care of one another in turn
  • in a convent where a male guest offered to let me use his towel and his “sex” shampoo, and hugged me a little too long
  • at a monastery where an art historian gave me a free tour of the adjoining Romanesque church that boasted a mosaic labyrinth in the floor, and where I learned the Italian word for “sin” while staring at an engraving on a medieval capital depicting Eve with an apple in her hand
  • in an austere room with five beds and a cross on the wall where I was the only guest and got my first full night’s sleep
  • in a room where I awoke covered in ants, like diminutive starlings forming patterns on my pillowcase
  • in a cheap gorgeous “Amelie” – type hotel in Paris with a view of the glittering Eiffel tower reflected in a window opposite, a room that offered a “pillow menu” from which one can order the exact type of pillow one would like: down, firm, memory foam, etc.
  • in a convent hostel where the statue of St Sebastian is riddled with holes, but the arrows are missing and I can’t stop wondering where they are, are they still flying, wandering, do they pierce each of his likenesses in turn? Do we all have our own arrows, Cupid’s or otherwise, that pursue us? Is that why we run or roam?
  • in a narrow cell in the alps where I knit for hours because I was too panicked to do anything but make knots over and over again, to have control over something in my life – down, around, up. repeat. etc. Like the woman in Like Water for Chocolate, knitting forever, a river of wool in our laps
  • on a train through the alps that came apart and I happened to be in the wrong part – which retraced its steps on the track and dropped me off in the middle of the night in the same little alpine village where I had boarded hours earlier
  • in the village of Marola with my dad, husband, mother-in-law, and extended Italian family who guided us to the top of a mountain and fed us like kings
  • in a 6-bed room in Lucca, where I bandaged my feet in the dark, a flashlight in my mouth and a lighter, scissors, pin, gauze, tape and disinfectant in my lap
  • at a hostel where I was rain-soaked without a towel or dry clothes and crawled into the clothes dryer a little bit because it was so warm on my numb fingertips (like when I knelt beneath a hand dryer in a public bathroom at the Milan train station when stuck in the rain and wet to the bone – the heat a benediction on the nape of my neck)
  • in a house in Montepulciano in a vineyard where the owner gave us a free bottle of the family’s label and we swam in our clothes, our wet footsteps disappearing in a hot Tuscan second
  • in Lucca, where my host drove me an hour into the wilderness, to the hilltop village of Gioviano, where Sean joined me and we walked 25 spirals around the mountain and still didn’t reach the top
  • in Colle di Val d’Elsa, where a young priest greeted me after nightfall in a 12th century convent on a promenade overlooking the city below  – I was the only guest in a 36-bed dormitory so he trusted me with the keys to the whole convent and I awoke to farmers harvesting olives on the walk back into the village
  • in San Gimignano on Halloween, walking around the Etruscan city late at night when everyone else had gone inside – the alleys, stairs, and arches so enchanting in the ambient light
  • in a medieval village, trading my  artisanal “pilgrim’s” beer from the farmers’ market for pictures at a used bookshop next to my guesthouse
  • in another guesthouse, the owner loading up red napkins full of rolls, Nutella, cheese, pastries, and butter for lunch later in the day – I imagined myself tying the red napkins to the end of a hobo stick
  • in a monastery where a place setting was left for me at breakfast that read “La Pellegrina” – pilgrim.

The deacon who gave me my pilgrim’s blessing at Canterbury Cathedral gave me advice that made me giggle. She said that if a village fails to offer a pilgrim a bed for the evening, the pilgrim has the right to ask for the town mayor (who will then make sure a bed is provided). Apparently it’s an awful breach of etiquette to allow a pilgrim pass through one’s village without a good night’s sleep. My family and I giggle about this: Ooh, you might have to call the mayor!

Some villages make a point of physically removing your pack for you as a gesture of relieving your burden.

I’m so grateful for the serendipity, and the many hearts and hands, that have delivered me safely from bed to bed despite all of the miles, uncertainty, worry, pain, exhaustion, cursing, and scrambling in between.

A couple of years ago I wrote a poem called The Blessing of the Beds, which was an homage to a maid who sang beautiful Gaelic songs as she cleaned the dorms in Somerville College, Oxford, where I convalesced (and raged and screamed) from my divorce. I was so thankful then for a benign bed, and for her soothing song.

Little did I know my life would lead me to this pilgrimage, to this “song line” leading me through the European landscape from bed to bed and song to song.

Here’s a snippet of that poem:

Her melody soothed the beds’ injuries,
ministering to box springs with screams
in their throats. Her voice rang clear,
then mute, caught beneath parachutes
of bleached cotton settling over beds,
tucked tight and smoothed with a caress.
I wished she would wrap me in those
starched sheets, so I couldn’t flail or kick,
shake or think. I’d be a papoose strapped
to her back while she cleaned.
I’d be small and broken, easily folded
close to her song. I’d nurse her lyrics
like a chick sups from the beak.  

She made words safe again, palatable
and soft, after weeks of screaming.
I’d nurse her lips then slip back to the curve
of her spine that held up the world
of the dorm and all the restless
souls who hid there. She sang people
to sleep, people who hadn’t arrived yet,
people who forgot their souls in single cots.
Lost causes, homesick students, divorcees
like me. She blessed the beds with song,
the way 19th century maids strewed herbs on
straw mattresses to fight rats, lice, and
nightmares. Eucalyptus, lavender –
housekeeping carts like apothecaries
or farmers’ market stalls.   

Every day my pilgrimage leads me to a pillow. It’s hard not to have faith in some kind of goodness.

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