Jan 28, 2010

intermittent internet

We arrived in León yesterday afternoon, and after some walking in circles found the albergue.  It's very nice, and there are two computers with free internet access.  And of course, last night the network was down.

This morning I woke up a little earlier than the others and eventually discovered that there was internet access.  And of course, now the others are eager to get going.  So, just a brief update while the photos upload, and then a spot of breakfast.  Then I plan to re-visit the 13th century Gothic cathedral and the museum.  By the time we got there last evening, the museum was already closed.  Then perhaps I might even do a bit of walking today...

Jan 25, 2010

Sunny Sahagún

This morning there was frost on the parked cars in Sahagún, and not a cloud in sight.  So what am I doing sitting at a computer terminal instead of walking on such a gorgeous day?

First, I am waiting for a massage.  There is a physiotherapist with offices in Sahagún and Leon who specializes in pilgrim's feet.  Thankfully, I don't have any blisters.  What I do have is a sore foot, related I think to my fallen arches.  I figure that a professional massage and a rest day may help.

Secondly, I am waiting for my friends Antonio and Arancha to catch up with me.  The uphill slog through mud I wrote about last time left Arancha with some very nasty blisters, and the extra day of walking she did after that was probably not the best thing for them.  She and Antonio decided to stay behind in Carrion de los Condes and she sought medical treatment.  I really enjoyed travelling with them, and I hope they are only a day or two behind me.  Now that I've added more minutes to my mobile phone, we can actually contact each other again.

Since I've mentioned them, I thought I'd mention some of the other pilgrims I've met so far.  Carmina left Burgos with us, but the second day of walking from there she received a phone call.  Her mother had been in a car accident.  She was not seriously injured, but Carmina finished the day's walking and the next morning  caught a bus home.  I'm not sure how far she'd been planning to walk, but I suspect police officers in Spain don't get five or six weeks of vacation in a row.

I set out alone two days ago, and after a few hours of walking saw something about a kilometer ahead of me.  (Yes, the road is that flat and straight.)  I wasn't sure if it was another traffic sign or a person, but then I noticed the object had moved from the right side of the road to the left.  After walking another hour or so, I was close enough to see that, yes, it was another pilgrim.  I whistled and a few seconds later saw the figure turn.  I was still too far for my waving to register, though, but the pilgrim pulled over at a rest stop and got some water. 

Eventually I caught up with Javier.  He had decided to walk a section of the Camino on his vacation before returning to wife and work in Madrid.  For two days we walked and talked, or walked in silence.  At dinner in the evening our discussions were surprisingly wide-ranging.  Javier's English certainly improved more than my Spanish did.  This morning, he headed to the train station here in Sahagún.  In Leon he will catch another train to Madrid.

Another pilgrim who caught the train to Leon this morning is Alejandro.  I actually saw him in the café in Burgos the day I got off the bus from Paris.  He's been walking from Roncesvalles, but when he began his pack weighed 21 kg.  Since the accepted wisdom is that your pack should be no more than 10% of your body weight, he suffered quite a bit over those first few days as he shed more and more of the non-essentials.  He had been walking with several other pilgrims he'd met along the way, but decided to stay in Sahagún to rest his leg.  He's planning to stay in Leon for another few days of rest, so I may meet up with him there.

I've tried to make this experience more than just a long walk, so I've also been taking the time to poke my head into churches and museums along the way.  Friday evening, A & A and I were relaxing in the resto-bar attached to the hostal we had booked into for the night.  (The local albergue was closed.)  The bell in the massive 13th century church across the street began to toll, so Antonio asked the woman behind the counter why and she said there was going to be a Mass.  Friday evening struck the three of us as a rather odd time for that, but I hurried across the street anyway.

I really don't know much Spanish, but I do know a bit about liturgy.  It was fairly easy to follow the half hour long service.  The Great Doxology sounded the same, and of course the sursum cordum and the Lord's Prayer were in the expected places.  At one time, Villalcázar de Sirgar had been a major town and the size of the cathedral bears this out.  That evening, however, there were only eight or nine of the faithful present, along with the priest and one Orthodox pilgrim.  It was a very beautiful service.

Yesterday featured another evening Mass.  Sunday morning just after we'd left the village of Moratinos (pop. 84), the church bell began ringing.  Although Javier is not religious, he knew that I am and offered to wait for me if I wanted to go back for the service.  I considered it briefly, but decided to keep walking with him.  Since I wouldn't be communing anyway, it would basically be a chance for me to sit and pray surrounded by others doing more-or-less the same thing.  After settling in to the albergue here in Sahagún, I headed off in search of coffee and internet access.  I found both in a bar near the albergue, but both the internet terminals were in use.  While I was sitting there nursing a coffee and watching the football game (that's soccer in North America), Javier came in and told me that the church was open and they would be celebrating Mass very soon.  It was very thoughtful of him to tell me, and off I went.  Strange pilgrimage, to be dashing from bar to church....

I just received a phone call from Arancha.  They have arrived in Sahagún, so as soon as I've finished uploading the current batch of photos, I'm off to meet them!

Jan 21, 2010

Thankful Thursday

Yesterday was my first day of walking the Camino in Spain.  Leaving the albergue (pilgrim shelter) where I stayed in Burgos, I walked a bit in the dark and drizzle, stopped at a bar for a cafe con leche (yes, the bars are open at 8:00 am, and not all the clientele are drinking coffee), and promptly got lost in town.  Wandered in what I thought was the right direction for a bit without seeing any of the waymarks, but then I saw a gas station.  The attendant didn´t speak a word of English, but between the two of us and my map he pointed me in the right direction.  That's when I saw the three west-bound pilgrims, two of whom had bright yellow rain covers on their backpacks.  I paced myself, and in about 20 minutes I caught up with them.

This is now the second day we've been travelling together and it is a nice thing.  Artense speaks English, her husband Antonio speaks French far more fluently than I ever will, and Carmina studied French in school.  (I suspect I've been out of school much longer than she has.)  So we communicate with humour and sign language and snippets of French and English, aloing with my broken phrase book Spanish.

Of the three of us, I've got the most time to make it to Santiago, and I suspect that once Artense's blisters clear up, she and Antonio will go back to their 30 km per day pace.  So far, 25 km seems about right for me.  Today we only walked 20, but yesterday was fairly brutal, even for the experienced walkers.

As I mentioned above, it started out with drizzle, but after about two hours the sun came out.  And I honestly thank God that it did, because the thought of walking the last section of the trail we covered yesterday afternoon in the rain makes me weak in the knees.  The first 25 km went well.  The section of trail we're on now reminds me of the parts of North Dakota I've driven across -- plateaus, with the occasional river valley punctuating the high plain.  It's very beautiful, but when you're on foot you experience those hills somewhat differently.

Five of the final six km of trail yesterday was a constant uphill slog through mud with a strong head wind.  It was indescribably miserable, and part way through (while I was still capable of coherent thought) I realized that fire is not the only biblical image for hell.  There is also the miry deep.  Finally I crested the hill and saw a sign which almost had me weeping with joy:  Hortanas 0'5 km.  Only half a kilometer to go, and it was all downhill WITH NO MUD!!!  And at the end, my companions had already told the hospitalera that I'd be arriving.  Marta waited patiently while I dropped my pack, removed my mud-laden boots, and fished out my pilgrim's credencial.  She stamped it, recorded my details in the log book, and led me to the kitchen where my companions were waiting and she'd already begun cooking our dinner.

After a quick bit of refreshment, she led us upstairs and showed us to the dormitory.  A hot shower, a clean change of clothes, and a foot massage later I felt human again.  And then it was time to eat.

Today was a much easier walk.  No mud, for one thing, and it was walking on the meseta.  There were a few slopes, but much of it was walking on more or less level ground.  I arrived in Itera de la Vega about an hour ago and poked my head into the first place that was open.  Carmina had walked on ahead of the rest of us, and she wasn't there.  Still, it was warm, it had beds and food and a nice big bathroom for each dormitory room.  I was sold, especially since I knew we'd meet again on the trail tomorrow.

As I was scraping the mud from my boots (well yes, there was a little mud today, but nothing worth mentioning), Antonio and Artense came along the road.  I hailed them and they told me they were headed to the albergue next to the church, which is where Carmina had settled in.  We agreed that we'd meet back at "my" place for dinner together at 7:00 and I headed for the shower.  When I came out a new man, they had changed their plans.  In fact, so had Carmina, so the four of us are booked in here together again. 

Dinner will be served in an hour, which gives me time to stretch out a bit, massage my feet, and relax with the others.  I'm not sure when I'll be posting next, but I'm keeping notes as we go.  Hopefully the next time I log on, I'll also be able to upload photos.  The current machine is locked down, with only keyboard, mouse, and monitor accessible.  Makes sense from a business perspective, but it is a tad annoying.  Ah well.

¡Hasta luego!

Jan 19, 2010

Adieu Paris and ¡Hola Burgos!

After a delightful stay in Paris, I have finally made it to Spain.  The 14 hour bus ride from Paris to Burgos would have been quite relaxing except that the heat was cranked up after the first two hours.  People were in t-shirts, but somehow I neglected to pack any summer clothing so I had a very fitful sleep.  The last time I woke up sweating from the heat on a long distance coach was in Syria.  In that case, the air conditioning wasn't up to the job but because it had A/C the windows were all closed.  In this case, I can think of no rational explanation.  I survived.

I arrived in Burgos at 8:00.  It was still dark, there was a light drizzle, and nothing was open yet.  I suppose I could have stayed in the bus terminal and bought a coffee and some sort of breakfast there, but at that point I was eager to stretch my legs and get some fresh air.  I left the terminal with no clue where I was in the city.  The Camino map I brought with me has things like churches, cathedrals, and hostels marked on the individual city maps, but no information about bus terminals.  (Since the idea is that you're walking, that information would just be redundant.)

As I stepped out into the street, I heard a bell chiming the hour.  I followed the sound, thinking it would either be city hall or the cathedral.  It was the latter, and I finally had oriented myself.  The cathedral didn't open for tourists and pilgrims until 10:00, so I found a small cafe.  Walked in, and noticed two lean guys with backpacks and wearing gaiters having their breakfast.  We nodded to each other, and I settled myself down.

After getting the first stamp in my pilgrim's passport and seeing the cathedral (12th century Gothic, very big and a UNESCO World Heritage site) I bought a cheap mobile phone.  ATTENTION  CANADIANS:  We're being ripped off.  For 19€ I got a basic Samsung model and 12€ worth of airtime.  That should do for the local calls I'll be making.  After a quick visit to the local tourist information booth, I found the cybercafe I'm currently writing from.

Next on my agenda for the day is more coffee and then on to the nearest albergue (pilgrim's refuge) for a hot shower.  I may even be back to this cyber cafe later to upload some photos. It's conveniently located for me, although at 3€ per hour it will add up quickly if I'm not careful.

Jan 18, 2010

On Being in Paris

Some observations from the past 11 days.

You may have heard that Parisians are rude.  I have yet to experience this.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The first day I set out wandering on my own, I emerged from the Metro to street level and stood for a moment trying to get my bearings.  I pulled out the guidebook Sharif was kind enough to lend me.  As I stood there, a passerby came up and asked if I would like help.  Unlikely to happen where I come from.

You may have heard that Parisians refuse to speak anything but French with tourists.  The last time I sat in a French class was in 1984.  My accent is atrocious, my vocabulary is abysmal, and I have difficulty understanding people unless they are speaking slowly and clearly.  And yet, after the initial pleasantries are exchanged and I ask, "Parlez-vous Anglais?" the answer has usually been, "Little bit."  (Or words to that effect.) All of the people I have encountered here have patiently worked with me in trying to communicate.  Even if I can't think quickly enough to hold up my end of the conversation, I understand more than I am able to say.  Twenty Questions is a great game, as long as you have patience and a sense of humour.

Parisian drivers obey traffic signals.  This may not seem worth mentioning, but go back to my previous post and have a look at the countries I've wandered through.  Yeah.  This is pretty cool.

Parisian pedestrians do NOT obey traffic signals.  If the way is clear, they will cross against a red even with the police a stone's throw away.


A decent cup of espresso can be had for about 1 € (or maybe as high as 1,20) in most bars, cafes, or brasseries.  Fresh baguettes are available on practically every corner, and cheese really is a staple.


Parisian girls (and by this I mean, women in their twenties) almost always seem thin, elegant, and sad.


Paris is surprisingly monochromatic.  Most of the people wear black, the buildings are almost all an off-white, it's been overcast all but two days I've been here.  Apparently fall is glorious.


Art galleries.  Museums.  Exhibitions.  12th and 13th century churches with their doors open.  Free organ recitals.  If you're even remotely interested in the arts, you will not be disappointed here.  Today's concert in Saint-Eustache featured works by Liszt and Tchaikovsky transposed for organ.


The Metro is incredible.  With fourteen separate lines plus four or five lines in the urban train system the map can look a little intimidating, but everything is clearly marked.  If you don't have time to walk, this is definitely the way to go.  Hop on the RER from either of the two international airports serving Paris and you'll be downtown in under an hour.


Paris is actually a surprisingly small city.  Yeah, sounds crazy to describe an urban area with 11 million people as small, but the downtown is easy walking (if a little confusing) and even to go from one end to the other would only be a matter of a few hours.  Like many major cities, at certain times of day it may even be faster to walk than to take a bus or drive a car in the core.


When it looked as though my luggage had been permanently lost, I gave some thought to just staying here for the next month.  I could live here, at least until my money ran out.  However, if God wills, I'll be leaving for Spain on Monday, arriving at my starting point Tuesday morning, and hopefully beginning the walking part of this pilgrimage on Wednesday morning.

Jan 16, 2010

The Art of the Flâneur

I love getting lost.

That statement deserves some clarification.  One of my favourite activities is setting out to explore a new city with no particular agenda for the day.  Maybe I'll have a map of the transit system or a basic guidebook, but maybe not.  Occasionally, I'll even be able to communicate fluently with the people around me but most of my city explorations have occurred in locations where I don't speak the language.  I have gotten lost in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, the UK, Russia, Mexico, and now France.  Eventually I get tired of wandering and begin actively looking for the nearest Metro station or bus stop.

Paris is especially ideal for these aimless voyages of discovery.  I spent a good five hours on Friday walking in the downtown area, exploring street markets closed to traffic.  I doubled back a few times, took lots of photos, watched people, and then concluded my evening with a stroll from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomph.  The sidewalks are as broad as the road along this route, and the people of Paris were out walking, shopping, dining, lining up at the cinemas, and just generally enjoying life.

According to Wikipedia, a flâneur is "a person who walks the city in order to experience it."   Paris is incredible.  Perhaps tomorrow I'll write about my impressions of the city.  In the meantime, here are some of the photos I took during my perambulations.

Jan 15, 2010

Luggage Update

Just a few minutes ago, a friend knocked on the door and announced he had good news for me, and bad news.

The bad news is that the lost luggage is no more.

The good news is that it is no more because it is here at the Institute.  It's in the secretary's office, so as soon as lunch is over I will head over there and reclaim it.  Then I suppose the next step is to un- and re-pack and then book my bus ticket to Burgos, where I will begin the walking part of this pilgrimage.  By the time I hit the road and start walking, I'll have gained 10 days in Paris and several new friends.

Jan 14, 2010

update


Well, I have finally set foot on the ancient Chemin de Saint-Jacques.  One of the main rallying points for pilgrims leaving Paris on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was a large church located on the north bank of the river Seine, near Notre Dame.  Today all that's left of this is the tower which is known as Chatelet.  I got off the Metro at that stop, took some photos, and then started to walk south.  The name of the street changes to rue Saint Jacques on the south bank at the church of St-Séverin.  I did make a slight detour to visit the Musée de Cluny - Moyen Age which was cool.  Lots of scallop shells on the walls and ceilings, but I think those are heraldic rather than an indication that the 15th century mansion housing the collection ever served as a hostel for pilgrims.

Then it was south again to l'église Saint Jacques Compostel.  The parish is now known as St-Jacques Haut Pas, but the older name has stuck.  There is a 14th century stone statue of St. James the Pilgrim, along with a prayer for the blessing of pilgrim's sacks and staffs.  I spent some time there today.

Leaving the church and continuing south along rue Saint Jacques, I was surprised to see a large yellow stripe painted on the sidewalk just across from the church.  From this stripe (a starting line perhaps?) a thin dribble of yellow paint led down the sidewalk for about 20 m before stopping.  A block or so later, I noticed the first yellow arrow, pointing back the way I had come, towards the church.  The arrows lasted about two blocks.  Maybe a coincidence, but a pleasantly surprising one nonetheless.  (For those of you reading this who are not up on your Camino lore, the main path through Spain is marked by yellow arrows.)

When I got back to the Institut, I bumped into Martine.  She has been a God-send.  I've been well looked after by the community at St-Serge, and Martine has spent hours on the phone with Air France on my behalf.  Thanks to her, I will be receiving 100 € from Air France plus they will reimburse me for any supplies I have bought.

The good news from today is that they know approximately where my luggage is.  They delivered it to Provence.  Because Martine has kept calling and very politely but very deliberately pushed, it looks like I may get my luggage back this weekend.

I think I will go on to Spain on Monday.  I've lost a week of walking (about 150 km or so) so I will take a bus to one of the bigger cities further along the route.  I should be able to buy what I need there if my luggage doesn't arrive in time.

I sure hope it does, because a battery charger for my camera will cost a minimum of 60
€, if I can even find one in Paris.  In the meantime, Sharif lent me his camera for the day.  Once he gets back from the library, I'll ask him where the USB cable is and start uploading photos to Flickr.

Jan 11, 2010

a delightful day

I now have more than just the clothes on my back!  This morning I went out to a department store and bought some clothes to wear: socks, underwear, a t-shirt, pajama bottoms, slippers.  Oh yes, and razors!  Things are not cheap in Paris and the items added up to 63 €.  Yes, I expect Air France to reimburse me fully.  Five days of wearing the same clothes was a tad inconvenient, and I still don't know when I'll be able to collect my luggage.

On a happier note, two people celebrated birthdays at St-Serge today, so there was a very nice lunch in the dining hall of the seminary.  This being France, there was a nice red wine with the meal.  This being a seminary established by Russians, there were shots of slivovits distributed as well.  After the tables had been cleared and we were drinking coffee, the singing began.  Last Thursday was the celebration of the Nativity of Christ here at St-Serge (and elsewhere in the Orthodox world) so Christmas hymns and carols in a variety of languages were the order of the day.

Later that afternoon, I headed out to run some errands.  My goals were to get my documents photocopied so I could submit the originals to Air France with my request for reimbursement, and also to cancel my train ticket and get my money back.  Successful on both accounts, with a little help again from Anne.

When I returned to St-Serge, I realized that it was only 7:00 in the evening and that I was feeling pretty good. Since the weather has warmed considerably over the past few days, I decided to head over to the Eiffel Tower again.  Even if the elevators were still shut down due to the weather, I could at least get a photo or two of the tower lit up at night.

Well.  The highest level is closed for some mid-winter repairs, but since the middle level is 120 m (394 feet) above street level, I had a pretty good view of things.  It was wonderful.  The noise from the traffic was still audible, but it actually added to the sense of peace and detachment I was experiencing.  The lights of the city are very pretty and I walked around the deck several times before I finally let the cold drive me back towards the elevator.  

I managed to get a few shots from on high before my camera battery finally died.  And guess where my spare battery and the charger are?  Well, actually I don't really know where they are, other than in my luggage.  I sure hope the airline figures out how to deliver my things to me. Tomorrow morning after the ritual phone call to Air France, I intend to head over to Sainte-Chapelle again.  I will ask Sharif if I can borrow his camera.

I am very glad I've had this time in Paris, but I am also very eager to get on the road to Santiago de Compostela.  I had hoped to be in Roncesvalles this evening, after having walked across the border from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port.  Ah well.  Church starts less than five hours from now, so I suppose I ought to log out and get some sleep.

Jan 10, 2010

Resourcefulness

In the very first post on this blog, I made the comment that "for six weeks at the beginning of 2010, I will become radically dependent on other people and the providence of God."  Little did I realize how rapidly I would realize the truth of my prediction.

It's late and the story is involved so I will just say that without Sharif, Anne, and especially Martine, my prospects for a speedy resolution to my luggage misadventures would be non-existent.  It turns out that the delivery company somehow delivered my luggage TO THE WRONG ADDRESS!  How they managed to do this when I had been told I needed my baggage claim ticket to get my stuff is beyond me.  Thanks to Martine,  it looks as though Air France will be paying me 100 € for my trouble as well as reimbursing me for the basic essentials I will be purchasing tomorrow.

It also looks as though I may still have a chance at leaving Paris on Tuesday. However, if my bag is not delivered tomorrow, I owe Anne more than just the meal at the Chinese restaurant.  She came with me to the ticket office at the train station to verify that I would be able to cancel the ticket and get a full refund as late as 8:00 tomorrow evening.  When I bought the ticket online, there was a disclaimer stating it was non-refundable so I had already written that 49 € off as a loss.

Here in Paris, my "resourcefulness" has amounted to a willingness to shrug, laugh, and hunker down to wait as long as necessary for my bag to be delivered and then adjust my plans accordingly.  Thankfully, the people around me are far more resourceful than that.

Jan 9, 2010

Peter in the snow, with no luggage

Paris, it seems, shuts down if there is 2 cm of snow on the ground.


Today before venturing out to a café for my first hit of caffeine, I phoned the airline baggage hotline.  "No problem, your bag arrived last night, it will be delivered by noon."  My friend offered to stay and wait for the delivery, so I sallied forth.  As a side note, the Metro system in Paris is fantastic.  There are 14 different subway lines, plus two different train companies.  There is a single ticketing system and there are several stations which allow transfers from Metro to RER without an extra fare.  According to one site, there is not a building in Paris less than 300 m from a station.


My first call was at Sainte Chapelle, which has been constructed by the order of St. Louis (aka Louis IX) in the 13th century to house relics.  Two-thirds of the stained glass windows which remain date to this time, and are the oldest in Paris.  After winding my way through the Metro I arrived to discover a sign -- Fermée.  I asked the person at the door whether he thought it would be open tomorrow, and was rewarded with a shrug and the reply, "It depends on the weather."


Fine.  On to the Eiffel Tower, although I had my suspicions.  Sure enough, I got some wonderfully monochromatic photos from ground level, but the elevators (and the stairs, although that was never a serious option for me) were closed due to snow and frost.


Well, then.  L'Arc de Triomphe should be weather resistant.  One or two transfers later and I emerged on to the street from the Metro station.  The Arc was there, sure enough.  I got what I hope will be some decent pics and then looked around for the ticket kiosk to buy admission to the roof.  Guess what?


After a brief detour for lunch and a session of puzzling over the map of the transit system, I headed towards Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre.  It's built like a traditional Byzantine cathedral, but there was no possibility of confusing it for an Orthodox structure once inside.  The walls were bare stone except for the huge mosaic in the apse, which extended on the ceiling the length of the altar area.  The only other colour was found in the numerous side chapels.  As I walked in following the flow of tourists, I happened to turn back for a glance at the rear wall.  I was surprised to see an altar there, flanked with two mosaics.  Looking more closely, I realized that the mosaic on the left of the altar (i.e. on my right) was Christ calling the first disciples to "Come, follow Me and I will make you fishers of men."  The icon opposite it depicted Christ lifting Peter out of the water as he was sinking.  For some reason, seeing these two icons of my patron saint really moved me.  Even yesterday at the Louvre, there were unexpected sightings of St. Peter.  Well okay, perhaps I should have expected to see paintings of the chief of the apostles in an art museum, but I certainly did not go looking for them.


While Sacré-Coeur is certainly big, the real treat for me came around the corner.  On approaching the basilica, I had noticed another, much smaller church across the street.  Across the street, but also 3 or 4 metres higher than street level where I was standing.  I followed the signs to St. Pierre de Montmartre which took me through a very scenic (and touristic) neighbourhood of Montmartre.  Art galleries, souvenir shops, restaurants, and not a few sketch artists who were very eager to do a caricature or serious sketch.  I wound up bantering with Luigi, but even after he realized he was not going to get any money from me he was willing to keep talking.  Charming guy, and did not mind posing for me to take a photo of him.  (In Egypt, I would immediately have faced a demand for money after taking the picture.)


Then I found St. Pierre.  The building suffered greatly under the Revolution, but was returned to use as a church in the 19th century.  It looks like the oldest of the furnishings are the paintings, of which at least one was commissioned in 1839 for the parish.  The stained glass windows, the pews, and the altar all seem to be of late 20th century provenance.  I noticed none of this at first glance.


My first impression of St. Pierre de Montmartre was that of silence.  The door was open, there was a sign requesting silence and respectful behaviour since this is a house of God, of worship, and of prayer.  There was not, as at Sacré-Coeur, a churchwarden hissing at the gentlemen who forgot to remove their hats.  There were not, as at Sacré-Coeur, hundreds of tourists murmuring and milling about.  There were two or three other people inside, so I slipped in, breathed in deeply, and began to look around.  Walking down a side aisle, I wound up at the side altar and noticed one of those Romantic paintings.  There was no indication of the artist's name, but as I looked closer I realized that the figure warming his hands at the charcoal brazier was none other than St. Peter.  He was turned to face the maiden behind him to his left, and behind her in the shadows was a soldier.  I spend some time at that side altar, just sitting in the chill.


Eventually I got up and continued my tour of the church.  It was no surprise to see the statute of Peter seated on a chair holding two keys, with the inscription TU ES PETRUS ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM.

Since all of my walking clothes except my outer fleece jacket are in my luggage, I got fairly chilly on the way back to St-Serge.  It was with some disappointment (but no real surprise) to learn that my bag had still not been delivered.  When I called the airline at 6:00 pm, I was told that the bag could not be delivered yesterday because of the snow, but that it was out for delivery right now and I should get it before midnight.  Hmmmph. After Vigil at St-Serge, I had dinner with Sharif and we got to talking.  Theories of biblical interpretation, a comparison of the banking systems of France, Canada, and Mexico, Mexican beer (they never drink Corona except as a last resort, rather like Australians and Foster's) -- the conversation wandered.  Eventually Sharif looked at the clock and said, "Oh yes, we were waiting for your luggage!"

Tomorrow morning, I plan to attend Liturgy at Saint Alexandre Nevsky Cathedral.  Before leaving, I intend to contact the airline and tell them I will be picking the bag up at the airport myself that afternoon.  Since I have bought a non-refundable train ticket out of Paris on Monday, I really do hope they will manage to contact the delivery company and have the bag returned to the airport for me.  (If things really work out well, perhaps they'll even reimburse me the extra travel costs or at the very least give me a lift back into the city.)

Stay tuned!

Jan 8, 2010

lots of Louvre, less luggage

Today I logged on to the airline website to check on the status of my luggage. It arrived over night at some point. Shortly after that, the airline contacted me to tell me the bag would be delivered this evening. Great news, I thought! On to the Louvre without having to worry about meeting the courier. After a few hours, it was time for coffee and some food. As we were sitting down to eat. Then the phone rang. Apparently they were a little more "efficient" than they had expected -- except of course there was nobody there to receive it. We'll be trying this again tomorrow. Today I also booked my ticket down to Bayonne, and from there I'll hop a bus to St. Jean-Pied-du-Port. It means starting the walk a day later, but doing that will save me 30€. I'm willing to bet I'll manage to spend less than that on a Sunday in Paris.

Jan 7, 2010

Bonne Fete!

I arrived at l'Institut de Theologie Orthodoxe Saint-Serge in Paris just as the faithful were leaving church after the Liturgy celebrating the Nativity of Christ.  My friend Sharif is a student there, and after lunch at the Institute, he took me on a whirlwind tour of Paris -- the highlight being Notre Dame, but which also included a visit to the cafe Deux Magots where the French existentialists used to loiter and drink coffee.  At that point I was in dire need of caffeine, so it was a welcome stop.

I actually arrived at the school somewhat later than I'd expected because I spent some time in the baggage claims department of the airport, trying to discover where my luggage was.  As it turns out, the airline did not lose my bag.  It's just that I made a connecting flight in Amsterdam that my belongings did not.

Tomorrow, the Louvre!  And, hopefully, my luggage.

Jan 6, 2010

Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi
T. S. Eliot 

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

* * * * * * *

T. S. Eliot published his poem Journey of the Magi shortly after he was baptised as an adult convert to Christianity.  A brief visit to your favourite search engine will reward you with some fairly decent commentaries on this poem.

January 6 marks the end of the "twelve days of Christmas."  In the western Christian tradition,  the feast is known as the Epiphany, and the focus is on the adoration the Magi offer to the Christ Child.  In the Orthodox Church, the conclusion to the Nativity season is the Feast of Theophany, wherein we celebrate the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.  In both cases, we see the inauguration of something new and the death of something old.

The Christmas carols I remember from my childhood sustained this understanding, but now it seems that nobody sings any more than the first and last verses of these hymns.  O Come O Come Emmanuel, Joy to the World, We Three Kings -- these all tell it like it is.  No magic talking snowmen or flying reindeer here!  No surprise, then, to hear the following chanted in the Orthodox Church:  "Christ is born to raise up the image that of old had fallen."

Likewise, in Orthodox iconography of the birth of Christ, there is a mirroring of themes and images from His burial.  The Virgin reclining occupies the same location within the cave as Christ's body in the tomb, the presence of angelic beings, the figures outside the entrance.  To quote Eliot again, "this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death."

And then there is the Baptism of Christ.  As St. Paul wrote, "do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."  (Romans 6:3-4)

Today is also the day that I am scheduled to leave the comfort of home.  With the exception of a few days in Paris, I will spend the next six weeks trying to walk in newness of life.


'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'

Jan 2, 2010

the wanderer



My upcoming journey to Santiago de Compostela is not the first time I have undertaken religious travel. My priest never tires of telling me how fortunate I have been to have had all these opportunities, and this is a sentiment which several of my friends have also expressed. It's a trade-off, I suppose.  Typically the people who tell me this are the ones who are married, have careers, and are raising families.

My first visit to an Orthodox monastery was at the invitation of my priest, who was going to visit his spiritual father.  A friend and I accompanied him, but even before we got to the monastery we had met the elderly Egyptian priest who had baptised him.  And then we arrived at our destination. My first meeting with Fr. Roman Braga is one which I shall remember for the rest of my life.


In 1999 I attended the SYNDESMOS XVI General Assembly held at Valamo Luostari in Finland. Following the assembly, I was one of sixteen people who took an optional journey through the western region of Karelia, ending in St. Petersburg.  One of the highlights of that trip was our visit to Valaam Monastery situated on an archipelago in Lake Ladoga.  The exact date of its founding is unknown - it may be that the first monastic was on the site as early as the 10th century, although the earliest written record of a community there dates to the 14th century.  It has seen some very hard times throughout the years, but following the end of communist rule the monastery was re-established in 1989.  When I visited ten years after this, there were over 100 monks and the community was growing.  (See photos from this trip here.)

On a trip to England to visit a friend, we spent a weekend at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights and then drove to Holywell in Wales to visit St. Winefride's Well

A friend and I did a road trip from Toronto to Los Angeles in 2001 to attend the National Convention of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.  It was a fantastic experience and along the way we managed to attend Liturgy at two different monasteries.  Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction MI is a short six hours away and is a wonderful refuge.  We also stopped in at St. Anthony's Monastery in Florence AZ.  One of these days I hope to find my way back there and spend more time.  (The Grand Canyon was also pretty cool, as was the Painted Desert.)

September 2002 marked the beginning of my seminary career.  St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery was established in Pennsylvania in 1905 with the assistance of two men who were later recognized as saints:  St. Tikhon of Moscow and St. Raphael of Brooklyn.  The seminary was founded 34 years later to provide training for clergy.  By the end of my first year, I had begun to feel quite at home there.  The funny thing about feeling "at home" is that one is often blinded to the remarkable aspects of the familiar place.  Although I was aware of some of the history, I was taken aback by the Memorial Day Pilgrimage. My blasé attitude towards the monastery and school was confronted with the piety of the  thousands of people who came to St. Tikhon's that weekend.

At the end of my first year at St. Tikhon's, I was one of six seminarians who travelled to Greece in order to spend time on Mount Athos.  Several of the hundreds of photos I took can be viewed here.  It was here that I realized walking to a monastery was a much better option than taking a bus crammed with sweaty pilgrims.  I also spent a day walking half the length of the peninsula. Writing any more about this would be counter-productive.  If you already know about Άγιον Όρος I don't need to say any more, while if you have no clue then my paltry words won't help much.

The autumn after my graduation, I moved to Lebanon -- specifically to the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand.  The following nine months was an incredible time.  Visiting monasteries and parish churches in Lebanon was only the beginning.  While I was in the eastern Mediterranean region, I visited St. Katherine's Monastery in Sinai.  I walked the entire length of the "street called Straight" in Damascus and visited the city of Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.  Qala'at Semaan is now in ruins, but I went anyway.  Before posing for a photo with what is left of St. Symeon's pillar, I spent a few moments in prayer.  And then there was the ten days I spent in Istanbul.  Hagia Sophia is a museum now, but it still moved me to tears.  (Photos from all these travels and much more are on Flickr.)

Now the longest, most arduous journey to date lays before me. I leave in four more days.