Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

The conclusion to this week’s episode of the Amazing Race… September 2, 2008

The view of the Sacre Coeur from my room in Paris

The view of the Sacre Coeur from my room in Paris

I made it. By the skin of my teeth, but I made it. Not to beleaguer the tale, but I waited on the platform for the next train to Narbonne. When it arrived, intense adrenaline kicked in as I tried to find the controller. There was no one who seemed to be an employee, except the driver hanging out of the front of the train. I ran to him and tried to see if he could help me. He didn’t speak a word of English, so I just kept repeating the word ‘controller” until he replied about a ‘chapeau’ (a word I actually understood), so i ran the other way, looking for someone wearing a hat. I ran to the complete other end of the train, but there was no one, and suddenly I heard the creepy warning noise (the French train stations employee this spooky tune before announcements that trains are arriving or departing), and – knowing the train would pull away within seconds – I jumped on anyway. I figured at this point, I’d pay the fine for not having a reservation if it came down to it.

I wandered through the cars and eventually found a woman with an SNCF pin on. She, too, didn’t speak English, so I just thrust my Eurail pass at her and tried to communicate that I couldn’t make a seat reservation. She seemed relatively non-plussed, pulled out a hand held device of some kind, told me ten euro, and printed a receipt. I don’t know if that was a fine or the cost of a reservation, but either way, it got me to Narbonne. From there, it now being fairly late at night (20:30), I got on the nearly empty train to Bayonne (which stops in Lourdes) and to the hotel as they were locking the doors.

So now that I’m here, let me tell you that Lourdes is a fascinating mix of contrasts. In many ways, it’s a complete and total commercialization of faith. Amid neon the likes of Vegas, you can buy statues of the Virgin Mary in every fathomable shape, size, and race. At the same time, there are at least fifty different styles of container for your Lourdes water (I went with a rinsed out Coke bottle) from tiny glass vials to three-gallon jugs. I’m guessing the people who buy the jugs drove here. Anyway, it’s like Catholic Disney World with all the glitz and flash and retail.

But at the same time, once you enter the actual grounds, it is a relatively solemn experience. There’s an incredible church, strangely reminiscent of Cinderella’s castle, and then the taps for the water (which is potable), the Grotto where Bernadette saw her vision, and the baths. I did do the baths as planned, and I will tell you about that tomorrow on the train to Paris.

However, for now, let me jut say that one of the things I found truly amazing was the processional. At 21:00 every night, anywhere from three to six thousand people gather in the square below the church with candles, and from there a slow procession winds through the grounds. The sight of the that many people gathered with candles as far as the eye can see is strangely like a rock concert, although the only singing is that of Ave Maria, sung by the whole crowd. I shot a video of a minute of it, although I don’t know that anything can accurately capture the awe inspiring event that it is.

It’s also a nice relief to smell candles burning rather than cigarettes. In America, where smoking is super uncool, I’m really not subjected to it very much. In Europe, it’s everywhere. Everyone smokes, except maybe the occasional toddler – the nuns, the priests, the young, the old, you name it. Like I said, I think this could be why I honestly do look younger (less wrinkled, anyway) than some of the early twenty-somethings I’ve met.

Anyway, cigarette smokes gives me a killer headache and pretty much nukes my appetite if I can smell it while I’m eating. So sorry to all of you that have to stand fifteen or twenty or twenty-five feet away from any public building to enjoy your Camels, but one thing I cannot wait for when I get home, is the intolerance of smoking!!!!

Otherwise, Lourdes has made me think about my paternal grandmother and her sisters (all deceased) quite a bit. My grandmother, Mary, died on New Year’s Eve 1991, during my first year of college. She was an extremely devout Catholic and very important to me, and I think about her – and occasionally buy and light a candle for her – when I am in the churches of Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. Although born in 1911, my grandmother never flew in a plane. She had stories about sneaking onto the back of the horse-drawn milk truck as a girl in Pennsylvania, and truly seemed to come from another time and place.

Thus, it goes without saying that she never made it here. With respect to Lourdes, I think she would have scoffed at all the neon and people imbibing on the streets at 10pm, but I also think she would have delighted in it as well. She did love BINGO and any opportunity to socialize, and this would have probably been a good crowd. If there’s any justice in the world, there was a wild game of BINGO going on somewhere in Lourdes last night…

Meanwhile, I’m going to wrap this up and try to find somewhere to post it before heading to the train station, but I just wanted to add: To all you that have made comments to which I haven’t yet had time to reply, I WILL! I greatly appreciate the feedback (knowing people are out there reading this makes the daily effort to write these and then the even more challenging task of finding a way to post it worthwhile), and it’s simply a matter of having to use computers in fifteen minute junctures and with foreign keyboards that slows me way down. I can usually accomplish very, very little in thirty minutes!!! Anyway, until then, thank you for finding this by accident and enjoying it, and Cheryl, I agree on “I Will Always Love You.” You can’t go wrong with Dolly Parton.

Cheers!

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