Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

The coldest bath you’ll ever take September 3, 2008

You can load up on Catholic paraphenalia in Lourdes

You can load up on Catholic paraphernalia in Lourdes

As I mentioned, it was my plan to tell you about my experience at the baths (piscines) in Lourdes, but first I must take a second to lament about this man who won’t stop annoying me on the train. I took my (assigned) seat (I did get a reservation to Paris – not at the exact time that I wanted, but on the next one) and settled in. As we started moving, a man came up and said a bunch of stuff in rapid French and pointed at the seat next to me (by the window). Mind you, this train is EMPTY. There are maybe four people in this whole car of 40 seats.

So he sat there for a while, and of course he reeks of alcohol and his pits haven’t seen deodorant in years and tries to talk to me, and I can’t understand it. He sits there for a while, and then after maybe twenty minutes, he makes me get up again and moves across the aisle. Then he comes back. Then he leaves. Then back, then leaves. Now he’s back.

If I knew how, I’d ask to see his ticket and send him where he belongs (because somehow I doubt it’s next to me). Anyway, although this is my assigned seat, between the annoying disruption and the stench, I’m moving back a row. If someone shows up at some point, I’ll just move again.

Anyway, about Lourdes: They do the baths twice a day, at 9:30 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon. The baths are segregated into men, women, and those that cannot walk for whatever reason. Those individuals, obviously, do not have to wait, which makes sense. I had read to get there about 45 minutes early, but when I walked by at 1:00, the line was already so incredibly long, I decided to get in it. Good thing, because only another 35 or 40 women later, and they locked the gate.

At this point you’re either sitting on rows of wooden benches, or sitting on a stone wall just before the covered area with the benches (as I was) in rows of metal gates. It was strangely reminiscent of waiting to get on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland when it first came out (and before they invented that FastPass thing).

By my estimate there were 200 of us in line, and there were women who showed up around 1:30 p.m., and were so distressed that the queue was filled for the afternoon, that they started trying to scale the gates! I saw one woman say something angrily to her friends, and then throw her cane over the top with a look on her face like she didn’t care what happened, she was climbing the thing. It was kind of amusing to see that even in a place of devotion and worship, people’s true character still comes through!

Meanwhile, at this point the women are led in singing Ave Maria while we wait. Again, it’s a different version of what I normally think of as that song. This was a pretty simple hymn, and there seemed to be no end to the middle verses – like a Catholic ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ – and sung by varying volunteers with a microphone. That part was like open mic night or karaoke. Sometimes the versus were sung by groups of women who were clearly part of a tour group, other times by these two women with French Polynesian accents who were rather painfully tone deaf. One I think must have been nervous, because her voice kept cracking the entire time. Lastly, there was a little elderly French nun who had a beautiful voice and she sang for quite a while.

Meanwhile, each and every time the women (and maybe the men on the other side of the piscines. I couldn’t hear them, but there weren’t nearly so many as there were females) were called upon to sing the refrain. What’s funny is that there was a man in a suit (a volunteer) conducting us like he was leading a philharmonic orchestra and instructing us to smile. He was also calling out those who weren’t singing or who were making a sour face. It was quite cute – he took his role very seriously, and was tireless in his duties!

The cathedral at Lourdes

The cathedral at Lourdes

At that point, you wait. And wait. And wait. And then the baths begin and you slowly shuffle forward, scaling half along bench every four or five minutes. Eventually you are moved inside, and then called into an individual room. In there, they try to determine what language you understand (everyone kept thinking I was German for some reason?). There are about four other women either waiting or just having finished the bath, and a volunteer assigned to each of us.

From there, they hold up a blue piece of material – kind of like a top you’d get at the doctor, but without any arm holes – and you are to strip down naked (with your bra in your right hand, an element of the process that really threw me). Then you hold the blue shirt (which is already pretty wet and very cold) around yourself until it’s your turn.

When it is, three other women bring you into a room which has a deep white marble bath. They take the blue top away and wrap you in a FREEZING COLD AND WET white sheet. At this point, apparently, you are to say a prayer and cross yourself when you are done. However, a trifecta of events – I had stupidly worn my glasses and they were now back in the other room, so I was a little bit worried I’d slip and crack my head open, the strangeness of having my bra in my hand (was my bra somehow holy or ???), and the fact that I was given these instructions in really broken English – made it such that I didn’t really understand that. So we all stood there for a while and they asked, “Fini?” and I realized then what she meant and quickly made the sign of the cross.

Someone took my bra from me, and they led me down two steps into the pool. At the end is a statue of Mary to whom I said, “hi”. Then you sit down and the three of them lay you back into the icy water. As they lift you and lead you out, there is a quick prayer uttered to Mary and Saint Bernadette, and they take the sheet off you and two of them put your bra on (at last the whole thing with the bra makes some sense! And I’m glad I didn’t have on a sports bra or a bra that clasped in front or some other complication).

You’re led back to the other room – I made an immediate grab for my glasses – and then, and this was very unusual, but sweet, the women dress you. I had worn leggings, so I did that part myself (they were a little tricky to get on, as you’re not toweled off and still a bit wet), but otherwise, they put on all my clothes. I had on a shirt with a lot of little buttons, and a woman very tenderly buttoned them all closed, and then did the same with the buttons of my vest. Then they put on your shoes and give you a hug and send you away.

I had read a priests’ recollection that the process is an act of trust and faith like a child. You’re naked and vulnerable and you have to trust other people to lower you into the water and lift you back out. He didn’t mention the dressing part (maybe they don’t do that on the guys’ side?), but he did think the sheet was a form of penance. I think the sheet is probably to protect some modicum of modesty, and maybe get you a little bit ready for the cold bath.

As for me, what I experienced was less like vulnerability and more like being cared for and treasured like a child. It was incredibly sweet and kind of amazing that they do this for hundreds of people each day. Even if the water isn’t miraculous, something about that act of human generosity is.

I walked around the grounds a little bit, and realized that I felt dry. I had read that the water dries off miraculously, and although there was still a little wet spot on my leggings, otherwise I did seem to be completely dry.

I’m still not 100% sure to make of it all, but in the end, I’m glad for the experience. Lourdes is not an easy place to get to (perhaps a bit easier from Paris, however?), but if you ever found yourself in the neighborhood, I would highly recommend it…if for nothing but the spectacle. On my way back to town I came across a man in a suit looking at the dozens and dozens of shops selling Mary statues and rosaries and other paraphernalia, and he made a face at me like, “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
And I have to agree: inane, and excessive, and vibrant, and pious, and ultimately quite touching.


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.



Pilgrim’s (exceptionally slow) progress September 1, 2008

Street scene in Lourdes - just another Tuesday night

Street scene in Lourdes - just another Tuesday night

I am in the midst of a really bad day.

Turns out my trusty and wildly expensive Eurail pass is not all it’s made out to be. Not by a mile. Even though your fare is covered, as it happens, there are a number of long distance trains where a seat reservation is mandatory. That I knew. There are also three countries whose need for payola is so strong, that they require a reservation on ALL trains – usually from anywhere from 10 euro to 25 euro ($16-$40) a pop. That I recently learned. The jerk countries by the way, are Spain, France, and Italy.

Here comes the kick in the crotch: You cannot make said reservation until you get to the country in question. This involves in waiting in hour-long to multi-hour lines. Then it may happen that you get to the front of the line and you learn the following: You want to go from Barcelona to Lourdes – a six-hour journey under perfect circumstances. You can buy your reservation from Barcelona, Spain to Narbonne, France, but you cannot make your continuing reservations to Toulouse and then Lourdes until you get to France. in other words, you don’t know what you’ll find until you’re in the middle of the trek.

Okay, no problem you think. Upon getting to France, you go and get in a (long and pretty much non-moving line). You write down the reservation you need today, and the other two you will need in the upcoming days in this same country (to get to Paris and then to get to Bern, Switzerland). You get to the front of the line and learn that there are open seats on the train, BUT ONLY A SET NUMBER OF RESERVATIONS ALLOWED FOR EURAIL PASSES. Worse, ALL THREE trains that you need (over the next five days) ARE ‘SOLD OUT’ with respect to Eurail reservations. (You can buy tickets, for about $450 Euro all together, but you already spent a small fortune on the Eurail pass…)

This is when you realize: You have been screwed. You have paid almost $2000 for an open-ended train ticket that is the equivalent of a really, really bad frequent flyer program. The remedy? None.

Either buy a ticket or “ask the conductor for permission to get on without a reservation.” I’ll be frank, and say I’m not even sure what that means. Ask for permission? See if he’s in a good mood? Bring her a bag of candies? Sneak them some cash? Beg? Cry? It’s not like I’m trying to ride for free or anything…

Add to the injustice the treatment by the railway clerk: When I asked if he would please process my other reservations, he looked at me, sneered, and said, “There are people in line trying to BUY tickets.” Oh, if only I were fluent in French and could take his head off – verbally. I would have liked to say something to the effect of, “Dude, this is a Eurail pass. It is expensive. It’s probably not even a good deal. I’m fairly confident you’re making more money on me than you are on them. It’s not like I’m trying to pay for tickets with box tops or soup labels here. Your employer has invented this insane, greedy process…PLEASE HELP ME WITH IT.”

Actually, what I did say was (in the world’s worst French. Although I’m actually amazed at how much I’ve pulled from the cobwebbed recesses of my mind), “I understand. Please help me.” (I would have liked to add ‘anyway’ to the end of that sentence. And maybe something about how i, too, had waited in the really, really long line for my turn…buI don’t know those words, so whatever). In the end, and as I mentioned above, he declared that there were no reservation to be had. He seemed pretty put out, and maybe he didn’t really look. Who knows?

Those are problems that will be faced tomorrow.

Today, I just need to get to Lourdes. I am stressed, but I am trying to control my thoughts and maintain a positive attitude. I honestly feel as though my faith is being tested – a big toe in the waters of the laws of attraction – and I’m trying to rise to the challenge.

On the other side of the train station, I can hear a gaggle of Australian girls who were also trying to get to Toulouse (and have Eurail passes) discuss the situation. There are about seven of them. On the down side, that may make this ‘ask for permission’ thing harder? I figure the one thing I have going for me is that I’m traveling alone. They’re not ‘making an exception’ or however this is crapola is viewed – for a small village, just one small woman and her big bag. One small, bawling, inconsolable woman if that’s what it takes. Thanks to not remotely enough sleep last night and a lack of reserves for this unexpected mess, I am teetering on the edge of tears as it is.

Anyway, I can hear the girls discussing all the other cities they might go to from here while trying to figure out where they are on a map (Avignon, Nice, Bayonne). It sounds like they’ve abandoned all hope on Toulouse, and I’m not sure how to incorporate that into my thought process. Actually, I can’t incorporate that in. I am not a group of six girls who can rent a hotel room and share it or camp together or wing it in relative safety. I am a solo female traveler with with a reservation (the first night of which I will pay for regardless) in Lourdes. I have to persist and think positive and figure out how to see myself to a happy ending.

Plus, as odd as it may sound, I really want to go. Everything I’ve read – mostly the diaries and recounting of nuns and priests and occasional pilgrim (as are called the roughly six million individuals who make their way there annually)– are inspiring. I’m really not a religious person. Not at all. I was raised Catholic until the fourth grade, when my mother married a Southern Baptist and i was suddenly exposed (despite four years of Catholic school) as knowing absolutely nothing about the Bible and a veritable heathen. Let’s just that at the tender age of nine I learned that not all Christians place emphasis in the same stuff. In short, the conversion didn’t go well for me, and I never really came back around to any organized religion.

Anyway, my point here is that although I regard myself as a spiritual person, it’s kind of a weird fusion of stuff, and I’m not a practicing anything. So I admit that it’s odd I feel so compelled to go to Lourdes. But I do. Maybe it’s the idea of miracles. Maybe it’s the child in me that really, realy believed (and still wants to believe?) everything the nuns told me: That they were wearing a piece of the cross around their neck, and god hears you prayers AND cares, and perhaps there are a few places sacred and magical enough in the world, that if you struggle mightily to get to them and you really truly want to believe, that something transcendent might happen for you? And you’d be changed, irrevocably, for the better? I like that idea. It makes me feel a little teary-eyed.

So it is for that reason that I am pushing forward against the seemingly impossible. It will take me four trains and thirteen hours – if I pull this off at all – but I’m not going down without a fight. With any luck – or perhaps with a little grace from Saint Bernadette or the Virgin Mary herself – the update on my predicament will come to you from my little hotel room on Rue de la Grotte in Lourdes.

I hear it’s got neon galore. What a wonderful world…


Three impossible things before bedtime August 30, 2008

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

Okay, so I owe a better update than this, but it’s super late, and I’ve decided to take the early train route to Lourdes, and I’ll have about a kajillion hours tomorrow to compose some lengthy thoughts for you.

That stated, let me share three key points:

1. Looking at the Sagrada Familia today, I cannot believe no one has built a casino based on this – yet – in Vegas. Better yet, Barcelona, The Casino. It would SO TOTALLY work. Gaudi’s works alone would springboard the Strip to the next level. Screw all these homages to Italy, where’s the phantasmagoria???

2. In researching Lourdes, I happened to discover that the Catholic Church is in the process of declaring the same Gaudi a saint. From this very interesting (and timely) article that popped up in the sidebar of a priest’s or nun’s or pilgrim’s Lourdes journal, “

A statue of Antonio Gaudi y Cornet in front of his Sagrada Familia Cathedral.When in 1926 God’s architect was run over by a No. 30 tram on his way to evening prayer, he was mistaken for a beggar and taken to Barcelona’s pauper hospital. His friends found him there the next day. But Antoni Gaudí refused to leave. “Here is where I belong”, he told them. He had always wanted to leave this world poor and did, two days later, aged 74, honoured by a city which universally acknowledged him to be both an artistic genius and a saint.

If it went through, he’d be the first professional anything to be made a saint. Also, note to self: Be very careful around the Barcelona trams.

3. I had this totally crazy dream last night that I was hanging out with Barack Obama and George Bush. I was egging them on to arm wrestle, and I guess Bush liked the abuse, because he came up to me afterward and was hitting on me something fierce. It was so out of line and in your face, but it was also so ridiculous and so ludicrous that I was trying to memorize every word, as I could not WAIT to tell my friends.