There is a Polish author, Ogla Tokarczuk, a Nobel Prize winner. In her book, Flights, she mentions the idea of synchronicity: “evidence of the world making sense. Evidence that throughout this beautiful chaos threads of meaning spread in every direction.
On this adventure, I have been feeling the synchronicity.
I feel it every morning when I arise before dawn to head out for another day of walking, carrying everything I need on my back and comfortable that I have a destination and a guide to get me there.
I feel it when I see the parish priest arrive at the weekly market to buy his provisions for his meals.
I feel it every afternoon when I arrive at my destination and sit in a cafe in the central square for another delightful meal.
After almost four weeks of walking, 19 hotel rooms, many photos, innumerable exquisite guilt-free meals, dozens of accumulated stories and numerous surprises large and small, I am now 500 kms closer to my final destination – Rome. I can only claim about 70% of those kilometres as mine, done the Sigeric way – on foot, but I feel pleased with the progress. The completion of my 2000 km pilgrimage to Rome will wait till next spring.
I arrive in Lucca; finished with my pilgrimage for now, I become a tourist. Lucca is a sweet transition town. I stay in the walled old town, walk the walls, visit some churches, go to an evening Puccini concert, eat some good meals and stop being a pilgrim.
Florence, my next stop, is a jewel. I have gained a bit more knowledge and appreciation of renaissance Florence, through some SFU courses on Italian history. The Uffizi is infinitely more interesting as a result, especially since I manage to find my first painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli, a fifteenth century nun/paintress I had studied as part of my Renaissance history course. Self-taught, she managed to develop her talent and be recognized at a time and place where artistic excellence had reached a zenith.
Santa Maria Novella housed the main object of my interest, a 20 foot by 6 foot painting by Sister Plautilla Nelli of the Last Supper (featured photo above). I studied her for my history paper and, through her life, studied art and life in renaissance Florence. I now have the privilege of seeing her paintings, some 6 of the 8 or so that have survived. That alone is worth the trip.
There is always the David, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Carrara marble, iconic purity of form and substance. You enter the room, look right, see the David and, for a moment, your heart stops.
These are the sweet spot moments of any journey that we cherish, they are never forgotten.
Only Rome can match my Florentine experience. I have forgotten the proliferation of antiquities and the magnitude and impact of their individual and collective displays. It is impossible to ignore the Colosseum, even though two little ones in rain ponchos on scooters who refuse to let a little rain spoil their adventure can distract and amuse me.
There’s a church on every lane, each trying to outdo the other in ostentatious displays of artistic excess glorifying the builder, usually a corrupt Pope. But I verge on digressing into a polemic.
Rick joins me and we play walking tourists. We find the Barberini museum, a gem – small but filled with iconic art. These museums are empty of tourists, full of great art, small enough to be truly enjoyable and memorable. I prefer them.
We cap our Rome adventure with a food tour in Testaccio. Our guide is brilliant, walking with a local is the way to experience the various small communities of any city especially once one is outside the tourist zone. It is a delight. Samples of food, small insights into local life, tips on cooking and many tiny anecdotes and stories, all perfect for conversation starters at dinner parties back home.
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I ask myself why I do this?
Every time I go on one of these adventures, the question resurfaces.
The Greeks framed my internal discussion by asking the only question that matters. What is the good life? And the corollary, how does one live a good life?
Philosophers and others have made it their life’s purpose trying to answer this question. I don’t have an answer, even now; yet I have a few ideas about why I do what I do. They may not work for everyone but they seem to help me.
I need a purpose in my life, a reason to get up in the morning, get off the couch and go out the door. These adventures give me that purpose. The cycle of my purpose-driven adventures starts with the idea. The planning, thinking, sorting out the pieces of the puzzle, the training, gear selection, the testing of options with family and friends can happily consume months of my time before I embark. The actual adventure is the culmination of all this purpose-driven activity. I am alive.
Adventures ignite and energize my curiosity. Every aspect of the adventure requires investigation. Whether it’s stele, ancient stone carvings found by archaeologists in the area around Pontremoli or the marble quarries of Carrara, I see things that pique my interest in ways that books cannot.
Adventures scare me. Away from everything familiar, on my own, I’m vulnerable. When I’m walking, I literally do not know what is around the next bend in the road. Every night is a new B&B. I know about 10 words in Italian. All this sensitizes me to every activity, every sensory input. It focuses the mind. Every thing is new!
This isn’t all scripted by the happy-ending fantasy movie types. Shit happens. Regularly. One night, overwhelmed by new and fatigued by it, I had ramen in a cup in my room; I felt like crap, needed something warm, and couldn’t stay up till 8pm when the restaurants finally opened. It’s not all ravioli like mamma used to make.
What then will I remember?
First, I cannot let fear govern my life; covid is here, I need to prudently adjust but I need to find a way to live the good life. Living comes with inherent risk and an inevitable result. After more than a year, I needed to re-engage with real people. This adventure affirmed that we are still kind, kindly, sociable, and resilient. There is a profound gap between what social media tells me about the human condition post pandemic and what I have experienced. On this adventure, civility still permeates and defines the human condition. Kindness runs unchecked through the streets. Smiles proliferate and are infectious. People help others instinctively without considering the transactional value of their actions.
Second, technology continues to make travel and adventures easier, but only when I become a master of my smartphone. On the advice of my adult children, I got an unlimited data plan. Everything now is done digitally and online, accelerated by and required by, the new post-covid world. I cannot get into a museum unless I get a ticket in advance online – even if it’s free. Online maps save time and energy; I’m lazy so I learn. The list goes on. I now have another essential travel necessity, almost as valuable as my passport, my credit card and my proof of vaccination.
Thirdly, walking is my adventure portal of choice. It gives me patience, the scenery doesn’t change all that fast when I’m on foot – the pace suits me. Walking requires a certain acceptance to not know – study and research in advance help a bit but it is NEW and guaranteed to not be what I expected. Getting used to not knowing what’s coming next requires a bit of Stoicism. Humility comes with the awareness I’m not able to predict what’s going to happen. I find out how little control over the world I have. I find out how small I am.
Finally, optimism blossoms when I attune myself to the kindnesses I receive. On my walks, I can go for days without any meaningful contact with another human. Perhaps that’s why the Tender Mercies stand out, they’re singular in an uncluttered human landscape.
I style myself these days as a gregarious introvert. These walks seem tailor-made for managing that oxymoronic self definition. I have been the recipient of countless small acts of kindness, tender mercies, over the past weeks, while spending countless hours walking strange paths alone.
I come home with a reinforced faith in my fellow humans, with optimism for the future.