Roughly one week ago, I stood in a pew at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and I cried. Full-out, snotty, pathetic sobs. It was a little embarrassing, a little funny (in retrospect), and a lot predictable.
Let’s back up for a second.
Roughly one week and one day ago, I said a dazed goodbye to my best friend in the Kuwait airport. I had told her previously that I wouldn’t cry when we parted; I rarely do at the right moments. So when her eyes welled up and my heart started to wrench and I thought about the past four months that we had spent together and the uncertain expanse of time ahead, I just squeezed her tight, told her I loved her, took an awkward selfie of us, and walked away. I hate goodbyes.
Twelve hours later a taxi dropped me off a stone’s throw away from the Roman coliseum and I looked above me and saw my parents staring down from a window in the most European and adorable fashion. There’s our daughter! I think my dad yelled. Or something. I didn’t exactly know where I was, but I felt home. I sort of collapsed into their arms and spent a few hours telling them stories that probably didn’t make sense in my jet lagged stupor. I think we ate some sort of Italian food that night. I was so exhausted that I willingly passed out on the couch. Do you know how much of a luxury it is to fall asleep on a couch?! But I digress. It was good to be in their care.
The next day was Vatican day. As in, the day I got to see where the Pope lives. As in, something I had been looking forward to for quite some time. The amount of Catholic art and history and churches in Italy is overwhelmingly beautiful and I was so excited to just swim around in it for a few days. I wanted to get drunk on churches. Instead, I got really, really hungry.
One strange yet kind of awesome side effect that I experience when I am jetlagged is insane hunger levels. I don’t really understand it but I also try not to complain because it means I get to eat a lot. But sometimes it hits me like a freight train, out of the blue (bleu), unmerciless. As we stood in St. Peter’s during a regular old weekday Latin mass, I became ravenous. Tired and hungry and all of the sudden hit with the emotions of everything that had transpired over the previous 72 hours. I had joked to friends that I was expecting to just walk into St. Peter’s and cry from its sheer beauty and significance. This, unfortunately, was a little less poetic.
I held it together until mass ended and then broke down to my mom. I’m so sorry. I’m so hungry. I need to leave and sit down and eat something. I’m so sorry. I just sort of surrendered to my own pathetic state.
Katie and Webster, of course, went into mommy and daddy mode. An apple was put in my hand (just now realizing the dumb but amusing symbolism here) and I was gently ushered out of the Basilica by those who know me (and therefore my tantrums) best. They found me food. In fact, they found me an entire pizza and roughly half a loaf of bread. They soothed me and made everything better just like parents are supposed to do. I finally mustered up enough strength to make it to the Vatican Museum, through which I shuffled with a mix of interest and reverence and exhaustion. By the time we reached the Sistene Chapel, I felt like I had run a marathon: I had anticipated the moment for so long, but all I wanted was a bed and maybe a few orange slices.
I had a similar breakdown a few days later in a Florentine church: the beautiful Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Put simply, I was at mass and I started crying because I missed Mariel. I missed her and I missed the places we had been and I didn’t really know what to do about it. So I cried, and my mom hugged me, and she took me to a restaurant with good food and a cute waiter, and everything was better.
I had wanted to visit Italy for years. The history is so rich, the culture so vibrant, the food so delicious. I wanted to experience the country fully, to learn an see and taste and understand. But my jet lag and emotional backlash meant that a good amount of my time in Italy was simply spent adjusting, dealing, feeling. Oh, and I got to cook again. That was, to put it lightly, nice.
So I just sort of resigned to seeing Italy on my own terms. Or rather, the terms of my fatigue and my emotions and the schedules of tourist attractions. I saw the coliseum from the outside, the David up close, and the Duomo at least five times. I missed countless must-sees, and I just stopped caring. That’s really the nature of travel, I’ve learned: there’s never enough time, and the universe will always have other plans.
Finally, though, yesterday my dad and I found ourselves in St Jean Pied de Port, the beginning of a 500 mile pilgrimage and the gateway we’ve both been anticipating for over seven months. I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions over the past few days–from nerves to excitement to complete and utter fear. But we arrived in beautiful St Jean, received our compostelas (pilgrim passports), and let it all sink in. It felt right. The puzzle pieces had fallen into place. I often have moments where I can’t believe where I am in the world, but yesterday, that feeling was countered by the feeling that we were right where we were supposed to be. All the adjustment from Asia to Europe, the transition from traveling with my best friend to traveling with my Dad, the seven trains that got us from Italy to the French Pyrenees: it was all for this.
So tomorrow morning, we set off. The first 25 kilometers of the 800k between us and Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The first day is the steepest, and by many considered the hardest. But more than anything, I’m excited. And I know we’re ready.
With that, I’m off to pray, buy an extra pair of socks, and use the concept of carbo-loading as an excuse to eat large quantities of freshly baked artisan bread. Au Revoir, Hasta Luego, and Buen Camino, y’all.