We’re at the end of day one! . . . and the bones in my feet feel as if they’re about to cut through the skin on my soles. It’s like walking on tacks. We packed early to the accompaniment of yowling Roman cats and the bang-clang-thud of Christian bells ringing their dominion over land and life. I would have thought, if I’d thought about it at all, that the Vatican’s bells would be power bells, beauty bells, hallelujah chorus! bells. Then again, pilgrimage is all about expectations . . . more on that later.
I lay in bed in the early light of dawn, Ben sound asleep in the far corner of the room, quietly thinking about the road ahead. I brought to mind my creed for the road, the Eugenia Street Prayer:
Eugenia St Prayer
I respect myself,
I honour my creativity;
I keep my puppy on a lead,
I see the miracle in others.
Spirits high and packs heavy we wandered down to the Vatican for brekkie. The biggest decision at this stage, riding as I was on a caffeine-driven four hours sleep, was whether or not to have another coffee. There are three things, culinarily speaking, that I do not do – meat (vegetarian for 30 years), wheat (cells retain fluid and I swell up) and coffee (don’t sleep for days). Having walked one 1000km pilgrimage on a near-starvation diet (try doing regional Europe coffee, wheat and meat-free), I’m not about to repeat the performance. On day one of the road to Istanbul, I merrily tucked into all three.
The great gift of pilgrimage, and the piss-off, is that you get to shake hands with your own head trips; the ideas, concepts and musts that shape, and limit, our lives. Sure, in particular circumstances and times of life they serve us very well, so too as experimental phases. Yet when rigidity kicks in and we begin to punish ourselves on the grounds of what we ‘do’ and ‘do not do’, then the trouble starts. The trick is recognising trouble!
Morning coffees in hand, we played the first game of the Great Backgammon Challenge on the pavement in front of God’s Castle. By a throw of the dice, Ben was handed the inaugural victory. When he was a kid, the backgammon board sat perennially on the kitchen table, the first challenge of the day signalled by the rattle of dice on the wooden board. Summoned to the game, we’d drop what we were doing and take our seats at the table. It took him years to beat me and even now, his victories are rare. So I was happy to hand him the first challenge of the walk. ☺
We hefted packs onto backs and, raising our eyes to the light of our first sunrise, headed east. East to the east. We’d found it impossible to find a map, although in truth we didn’t try very hard; the sun was our guide. We followed the river awhile, the old buildings and bridges keeping time, until the presence of the ancients gave way to the architectural priorities of the 20th century as we turned roughly in the direction of Tiburtina Road, the most straightforward route to Istanbul. What once would have been a common procession of merchants, travelers and crusaders is now the preserve of the occasional pilgrim – or two. Lost, and abandoned by the usefulness of our native tongue, in asking directions to Tiburtina Road we were inevitably pointed to the nearest bus stazione! We finally collapsed in the corner of a bar for coffee and toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a proprietor who spoke enough English to assure us we were entirely on the wrong side of town. Fortunately for us, Ben’s pilgrim nose is finely tuned and he led us over a small hill, which I like to think of as one of the seven famous hills of Rome (or is my ignorance showing again?), past the homes and lifestyles of Rome’s modern day middle classes, and onto the road to Tiburtina!
The clean streets of affluence gave way to trains and traffic and lots and lots of rubbish. Food was no longer an option and navigating the giant cement freeways funnelling traffic in and out of town was a pilgrimage in itself! Eventually we took a breather and lay in the dirt in the shade beneath one of the great underpasses, Ben sprawled out with his feet up on his pack. A bus went by and the look on the face of a young man on the bus, when he saw Ben, was priceless. Then he saw me and we both laughed out loud at the incongruity of the moment. Those smiles and laughs are the best thing of all about this journey.
Soon after we saw a hotel and, reckoning a good day’s effort, decided to give it away for the day. The innkeeper took one look at us and pronounced ‘full’, despite all those room keys jangling merrily behind him. We left, spirits undampened, thinking Motel Industrial was a strange name for a hotel anyway . . . Down the road aways, on the other side of the main drag, was another hotel. This time friendly – and also full. So we downed packs in the café next door and settled in for a cold drink and bowl of pistachios. A bed and breakfast sign with pictures of sweet yellow and white rooms, all shiny and beamy and beckoning, announced itself from the glass door of the café. A young bloke with long black shiny hair and three mobile phones was perched in the corner of the café, feeding one of three pokies in the room. The only one around with enough English to guide us, he said the shiny, beaming, come come come establishment was in the backstreets, about 500m back the way we’d come.
Now, lesson one of the road to Santiago was: keep moving forward. As is the way with us humans, lessons have a habit of becoming rules. And so, rather than turn around and walk back the way we’d come, we agreed to keep moving forward . . . and spent the next two hours staggering through an industrial corridor that looked like any other industrial wasteland in any city in the world on a Sunday afternoon – caryards, paint warehouses, abandoned buildings, lots of wire fencing, weeds with pretty flowers (thank god for weeds with pretty flowers). Nowhere to pitch a tent. Nowhere to grab a bite. Nowhere.
So here we come to the bit about expectations. Even though that sweet little yellow B&B called, I thought I knew better, that there would be another motel very soon. Why? Because I wanted one. Just as I made peace with my error of judgement, a small church came into view and we were returned again to civilisation. Church meant church steps and church steps, in the absence of anything else resembling a bed, would do me and my screaming shoulders and aching feet just fine. Ben thought I was joking. Not about sleeping on church steps but sleeping on those church steps. I’d failed to notice the church was old as the hills and its steps were about six inches wide, sloping and crumbling. Besides, there was an eight foot wire fence around it. All I saw was a bed.
Hallelujah! A (relatively) modern church spire rising from tall green trees a couple of blocks away signalled hope. I peeled off the pack and collapsed on a plastic chair outside the bar next door to the church, unlaced my boots and gazed semi-conscious at the clear blue sky above. The bells rang for six o’clock mass and the old ones of the town hobbled up the path and into the church. I vowed to not move another step. We could hide out the back of the church and get locked in after mass. The barman must have read my mind, because he told Ben about a motel up the road – across the road from the old church we saw first, as it turned out. So while Ben went to check it out, I, on behalf of my piercingly painful shoulders and agonisingly world-weary feet, made a vow:
I dedicate this walk to harmonising ease and effort.