(This post is from the evening of November 25th)
Here it is. My last day on pilgrimage in Italy. I didn’t leave the religious hostel too early because it really wasn’t that far to St. Peter’s in Rome. By this point, I was out of the countryside and well within the city’s larger urban area. Walking on the sidewalk beside the main road, a man turned around for a moment and did a double take before stopping to wait for me to catch up with him.
“Are you a pilgrim?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “But you’re not Italian.” I don’t know what it is that gives me away. Coming from the United States, where a sampling of faces on just about any city street will reveal people with a range ancestries who now share a common national identity, it is funny to be in Europe—a land with such strictly defined national personalities that outsiders are immediately obvious to those in the know. Strictly defined identities go beyond those of national origin, however. Regional differences are incredibly well-defined, on a level almost unimaginable in America. At the archaeological dig a few months ago—where Italians from different parts of the country were brought together in the same place—playful arguments rose up out of the regional stereotypes that seem to be common throughout Italy. “She’s from Bologna; she has short arms”—a phrase meaning that a person is stingy with their money. Sienese see themselves as totally different from Florentines, even though the two places are only 45 miles apart. In Switzerland, it’s the same phenomenon. Not only is the Swiss German language very different from the High German you would learn in school, but the different accents and terminology at use throughout the country vary from place to place. “In Simmental,” a man on the train who was from Zurich told me, “people speak verrry slowly. When you ask them why, they say it’s so they can think everything through before they say it!”
I’m not saying that these sorts of differences don’t exist in America; they’re just on a much larger scale here in Europe. It’s easy enough for most people to tell the difference between a New Yorker, a Bostonian, a Texan, and someone from LA, but more refined distinctions might take more study. Whereas Italians have lived in the same area for generations, these days, Americans move around to such an extent that regional differences are now largely faded. The thing is, there really isn’t a distinguishing feature to being American—at least nothing that I can pick out and give as an example to people in Italy. When asked about American food, I try to explain that you can eat anything here. This is a difficult concept to grasp in a place where ‘Italian food’ is just labeled ‘food,’ and there’s really nothing else readily available. Thanksgiving dinner is pretty much the only thing that I can offer as “typically American,” but that once-a-year meal hardly describes our “identity” to foreigners.
“No, I’m not Italian,” I said. “Are you French? German?” “No, American.” “…but you speak Italian.” “Yes.” The man then began going on a spree of information telling about the pilgrimage to Rome. Most of what he said was stuff I already knew—“This is the Via Francigena”—or “The Via Cassia is an old road from the Roman Empire”—but he did tell me one interesting story about a chapel which rests near the edge of La Storta. “It was in this chapel,” he said, “that Ignatius of Loyola stopped when he was coming to Rome to present his plan for the creation of the Jesuit order to the Pope. By the time he was here in La Storta, he was having doubts about going through with it, and he stopped with his two companions in this chapel to pray. There, he had a vision of Christ who said, ‘Do not worry. I will be with you in Rome.’ Ignatius decided he had to finish his journey, and when he arrived in Rome, the Pope had no objection to his plan.” As he told me all this, we walked together to the chapel in question. It was just on the side of the road in front of a sort of strip mall. It was fairly modern and rather plain—“They’ve rebuilt it of course”—but sure enough, there, on the wall was an inscription—“Io a Roma sarò con voi.”
I was sort of eager to get going, and made my way out of the chapel, but the man stopped me again. “Now, here comes the Devil,” he said. “I’m about to tempt you. Right over there is the train station, and every 15 minutes a train leaves for St. Peter’s in the Vatican. It only costs 1 euro.” “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I’d like to walk the rest of the way.” “Really? It’s only 1 euro. Here!” He began to reach in his coat, presumably about to present me with a ticket. “No,” I stated firmly. “I want to walk.” “I see,” replied the man. “You want to be a pilgrim up until the end. OK.” He headed off across the street and disappeared into a store. Now I could really begin my way to Rome.
It turns out that taking the train might have been nicer than walking. The road to Rome was quite nasty and dangerous, following the paths of many major highways. The shoulder—if there was one—was always covered in the sort of garbage that gets thrown from car windows, and the cars and scooters going by provided plenty of noise, smoke, and close calls. I had thought—especially with the newly created paths that I found the past few days—that there would have been a nicer road leading into Rome on the final stage. At the very least, I expected that there would be a better alternative to the highway. This wasn’t the case, however, and until reaching the park of Monte Mario, I was stuck, walking through an environment worse than most cities I’ve been to. Unlike American suburbs where things spread out, the surrounding area of Rome was just as densely packed as the city itself. I will never understand why Italians refuse to live in houses and insist on close contact with their neighbors. Maybe I’m a completely beholden to the idea of home and land ownership, but that very fundamental concept—the American Dream—is perhaps what separates us the most from our European counterparts.
Monte Mario is a large hill that overlooks Rome from the north. When I finally reached it and looked out over the city, I tried to pick out monuments that I knew in the skyline. Specifically, of course, I was looking for the dome of St. Peter’s, so I could have some idea of where I was headed on the final few kilometers of my trip. I saw several large domes throughout the city, but couldn’t decide which one was right until I turned a bit and all doubt left my mind. Even from this distance, St. Peter’s dominated the area, towering over everything else in the city. It is like something from science fiction or fantasy—too big to be real.
Now that I knew where I had to go, I made my way down the twisting paths of Monte Mario and found the long, wide boulevard that would lead me to the Vatican. I reached the metro stop nearest to St. Peter’s and was immediately engulfed in tourists coming up from the underground train stop. Eager tour group leaders were waiting for them on the street level. “Hello, do you want to go to the Vatican Museum?” “Hi, you want a tour of the basilica?” “You can skip the line with my tour!” “English tours here!” It was all quite overwhelming. In addition to these people, there were stores and restaurants all along the street. Waiters stood outside the doors of their restaurants, offering specials to passersby. Beggars on the street asked for change, and souvenir salesmen approached anyone they deemed a tourist, plying their wares. My pilgrim’s pack and garb offered little protection from their advances, as men on the corners sat by their large grills, selling roasted chestnuts, while groups of tourists were paraded around like soldiers behind group leaders bearing identifying flags. After the calmer arrival in Assisi, and the largely quiet walk to Rome over the past week, today had been hectic and discombobulating. As the culmination of a spiritual and personally rewarding journey, shouldn’t the end of the trail allow a pilgrim to gather his thoughts and approach his hard-won destination with room to reflect and rejoice? Now, in the hubbub of city and tourist life, the serene feeling of purpose that had been present for the past few weeks was gone. It was like moneylenders in the temple, piercing a contemplative and peaceful bubble with their less-than-spiritual commercial activity.
As I passed through the crowds and under the northern wall of St. Peter’s square, I was relieved to find the plaza relatively unoccupied. I looked up and there was the massive façade of the church, seat of the Popes for hundreds of years. I walked to the middle of the square, in front of the fountain and obelisk, set my pack down and collapsed to the ground facing the giant basilica. Here was the peace; I could just sit and rest, knowing that I had completed my journey. I had done it. I had made it to Rome. I had completed a journey that thousands before me had undertaken. I had become part of a long and enduring tradition of the faithful, and—whatever your views on faith and religion—you have to respect the history behind the pilgrimage to Rome. During my time walking, I had been challenged in so many different ways, but in each instance had been able to overcome any difficulty with help from others, faith in myself, and an overriding belief that things work out for the best in the end.
Upon arriving in Rome, there was more a feeling of emptiness than elation, as the goal I had been striving towards was now done. Maybe this is proof of one of the most clichéd and trite adages you could make about a pilgrimage—It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. This really has to be true, especially when it comes to the experience of a pilgrim. No matter where you’re heading—Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca, Lourdes—the expedition is going to take up the majority of your time and thought. We go to these places for a number of reasons—to get closer to God, to discover more about ourselves, and to reconnect with what’s truly important in life. Showing up at any one of these places doesn’t help you achieve any of these objectives, but the pilgrimage walk itself offers unique, visceral, instruction into what it means to be human. Perhaps it is this knowledge and experience of the world of here-and-now that is meant to bring us in closer communion with the realm of the divine.