Beginning a New Pilgrimage to Assisi: Or, how I ended up on a school bus full of Italian children

(This post is from the evening of October 11th)

This morning, I woke up in my hostel bed in Florence to the sound of heavy snoring.  One of the three people with whom I was sharing a room was sleeping very soundly, indeed, and he didn’t even get up once the rest of us started moving around and packing our things.  I had arrived in Florence two days before, in the evening, and had struggled mightily to figure out the bus system that was supposed to take me to the hostel.  My train got to Santa Maria Novella in the late afternoon, and after I had eaten something at McDonald’s (yes, I know, but I was so tired of Italian food) the sun was just beginning to set.  The weather in Tuscany made a dramatic turn at the end of last week and all of a sudden it was much, much cooler, especially at night.  This was the first time I’ve really ever experienced a non-summer Italy, and the character change it affected was really interesting to see.

People were dressed up warmly, affording some interesting fashion choices.  Lots of scarves—for men and women—and jackets of different sorts stood in stark contrast to the warm-weather wear I’m normally used to seeing.  That smell of autumn was in the air, and the coolness seemed to breathe new energy into a city that I was accustomed to seeing at 80 degrees and above.

Florence’s bus system is quite extensive, but that’s actually a problem because it’s much too complicated, even for the Italians who live there.  While waiting at the stop outside the station—a facility that serves about 7 or 8 different bus lines—I notice one man particularly upset that his bus wasn’t arriving when it was meant to.  “WHY ME?” he shouted at the top of his lungs as he paced back and forth on the curb. Finally, a bus showed up, and he thought his trials were over, but it pulled off before he was able to get on board.  “FASCISTA!!” the man screamed.  This seems to be a pretty typical insult in Italy, birthplace of the political movement.  I wonder if the man noticed that he was standing outside a building built by and for fascists during Mussolini’s reign, or if he was just really angry at the bus driver.  Another bus pulled up, and, to ensure that he didn’t miss it, the man shoved everyone else out of the way to climb on board.

After my own difficulty with the busses—at first, I ended up on the right bus, but going the wrong way—I found myself where I was supposed to be, walked inside, got my room, and soon went to sleep.

The next day, I went out with a jacket on to wander around town a little.  I walked along the southern edge of the city, next to the river Arno, until coming to the Ponte Vecchio and crossing into the historic city center.  The Ponte Vecchio of Florence is pretty much the same as the one in Venice—a big bridge with shops on it.  In Florence, however, the businesses are exclusively jewelry stores, the whole road basking in the golden glow that was reflected off of the different shops’ wares.

The rest of the day passed without much incident.  I wasn’t in a rush to see any of the Florentine sights because I knew I’d be back in a little over three weeks.

This morning, after waking up to my snoring roommate, I packed my things and left the hostel to find the right bus to the train station.  I managed without any trouble, and rode the bus all the way to the station entrance.  I got something to eat in one of the food stores—not McDonald’s this time—and, after waiting a long time in line at one of the automatic ticket machines, bought my ticket to Forli. Instead of the very expensive tickets for fast and nice trains that passed through Bologna, I opted for the more economical —and slower— regional trains.  I changed trains at Faenza, home to the Toro Rosso Formula 1 team, and got off at Forli, the next stop.  From there, I was supposed to take a bus to Dovadola, a small town that I’d never heard of, but it is the place where the pilgrimage to Assisi begins.  The bus station was in sight of the entrance to the Forli train station, and I quickly found the bus I needed and climbed aboard.

My trip had gone extremely smoothly.  Everything today was easy to find and on time, something I’ve not experienced often in Italy.  I wondered if I was just getting better at dealing with things like that, or if I had actually been the beneficiary of extremely good fortune.  Just as I was contemplating this possibility, the bus stopped—much sooner than it should have according to the schedule I had read.  We were by a school, and there were hordes of children waiting outside by the road.  As soon as the bus door opened, tons of them embarked, filling almost every unoccupied seat.  “Interesting,” I thought.  It was only a little bit after 2:00 PM and school was done for the day.  It seems as if they don’t have actual school busses in Italy; kids just use the regular bus system to get back and forth, but they don’t have to buy tickets.  Soon after picking up the first batch of kids, we stopped at the school next door.  These kids were a little bit older; they climbed on board, filling the aisle.  Then, we stopped yet again.  This time, it was an art school, so the kids were older, like the second group, but they carried with them large folders containing their artwork.  They also looked a bit different too—their clothes and haircuts more alternative than the other kids who were already aboard.  To my surprise, most the art school students were boys, and they got off the bus at very rural stops—not the sort of people I would have expected to be heading down the arts track in school.

We finally reached Dovadola, and I got off the bus with a few of the school kids. They quickly dispersed and I was left alone on the side of the road, wondering where to go next.  I was right in the center of the tiny town, though, so I didn’t need to go far before I saw a sign pointing the direction to the Abazzia di Sant’Andrea.  I walked up the hill heading out of town and it wasn’t too long before I saw the church tower of the Abbey.  Walking further toward the building, I saw a sign indicating the parish house.  I rang the door and heard movement inside before a short, old man opened and said, “Hello.”  “Don Alfeo?” I asked, hoping he was the padre I was meant to meet. “Yes, that’s me, Don Alfeo,” he replied.  “Great, I am a pilgrim…”  “Oh, good!  Where are you from? Germany?”  “No, no, I’m from the United States.”  “Ahhhh.  OBAMA!”  For some reason, this seems to be the standard reply.  “Come on inside and we’ll get you registered.”

I followed Don Alfeo inside the building, and he led me into a large, first floor room containing a big square table with a bunch of papers on it.  He pulled out a box and opened it to get all the things he needed to register a new pilgrim.  “You’re the first American this year,” he told me.  On my new credential, he wrote the number ‘443’ indicating that I was the 443rd person to walk to Assisi this year.  We talked a little about where I was from—Washington—“Ooooohhhh!”—another typical response, and how I had heard about this pilgrimage.  I explained that when I was walking on the Via Francigena, I met someone who had walked to Assisi and said it was very nice, so I wanted to try.  Then he asked if I had been to Compostella on the Camino de Santiago.  When I replied, “no,” he asked how it was possible that I had done the Via Francigena without walking on the Way of St. James.  This just proves that the Via Francigena means many different things to many different people.  Don Alfeo seems to be of the opinion that the Way of St. James meets up with the Via Francigena.  Others will tell you that the Via Francigena only goes from Canterbury.  It’s really not well-defined, and sort of confusing.  I don’t think that the pilgrims of the middle ages were too concerned about creating complicated routes and names that later historians would have to figure out.

“You’re so young though,” Don Alfeo said to me as he was finishing with my credential.  “You can’t be more than 20 or 21.”  “21,” I replied.  “And you’re here by yourself?” the man asked.  “Yes.”  “You are too courageous,” the priest warned.  “Too courageous?”  “Yes, too courageous.”

This sort of scared me a bit, and I wondered if this pilgrimage was actually going to be a lot harder than it looked on paper.  Don Alfeo gave me a booklet with a guide for the path, and took me upstairs to the freezing-cold attic to show me my bed.  Looking through the booklet and seeing its vague, all-Italian directions made me hope that I hadn’t used up all my travel luck with my easy trip from Florence to Dovadola.

Later that evening, I went out to walk around town and try to find something to eat, as Don Alfeo had revealed that I would not be getting food at the Abbey.  Dovadola is tiny, and I didn’t think I was going to have any luck.  I wandered around through the town’s few streets, and spotted some old men sitting on the tiny piazza talking to one another.  There seemed to be a lot of young children around, too, and they were all playing together in the road.  In town, I passed by two beauty salons and a pet store—every town seems to have one of these—but could find nowhere to buy food.  The smell of autumn was in the air, as a few just-turning leaves littered the road.  A scooter passed by, leaving behind it the unmistakable odor of two-cycle engine exhaust, taking me back to days at the racetrack.  Walking by an open kitchen window, I could sense that strange smell of what I can only describe as uncooked hotdogs that had laced the kitchen of my Siense host family.  Maybe I was just hungry, but all these things come at me one after another, reminding me of disparate places.  I crossed one street and approached a building with a large sign—Ristorante Pizzeria Bar—in front of it.  “Finally,” I thought, “I can get something to eat.”  The doors were closed tight, but I wouldn’t mid waiting for them to re-open in an hour or two for the food.  I walked up closer to the door where I hoped to find the restaurant hours posted, but instead discovered the most unwelcome news—Chiuso Martedì—Closed on Tuesday.

I really thought that I was stuck, without a meal.  I had walked through most of town and found nothing to eat.  Going to bed hungry was bad enough, but I knew that the next day I was going to have to walk at least 20 kilometers, and doing so on an empty stomach was not something I wanted to try.  Deciding to search the last portion of town, I came upon another piazza-type place and around its edges found large tents covering long tables.  Above each table was a big sign, labeled with the name of a certain type of food.  It seems as if there had been a festival or something, and this was where the food had been served.  This would have been perfect for me, but the place was abandoned.  The festival had come and gone.

After having been cruelly tricked twice, I began to head back to the Abbey because it was getting dark.  I didn’t know what I would do—maybe ask Don Alfeo for some food, or at least where I could find some.  Just before reaching the turn toward the Abbey, I saw a small bar that I hadn’t noticed before.

It was a pretty typical Italian bar, meaning there wasn’t much food to speak of.  The owner saw me enter and stood up from his computer in the corner of the room to take my order.  I looked around quickly to see what I could take with me.  There were large bottles of water on the floor and some chips on a shelf next to the counter.  I grabbed a few bags, then asked if I could take one of the waters.  “Certainly,” the man said.  It must have been very strange for him, in this small town that doesn’t have visitors, to be asked odd questions by someone he’d never seen before.  I had succeeded in my mission for now.  Although not ideal, I had supplies—something I hoped would last me until I next found some real food.


~ by pminnig on October 13, 2011.

One Response to “Beginning a New Pilgrimage to Assisi: Or, how I ended up on a school bus full of Italian children”

  1. And where are you now? I read a blog of a pilgrimage from Germany to Italy, ending in Rome. Fascinating. Not sure I could do it so will live precariously through your travels.

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