Sunday, January 08, 2012

Epiphanies

Back in the time when I still traveled, I found myself in a business meeting in a small town outside of Nice in the South of France. The meeting lasted a few days, over which time I met colleagues from other parts of the world. That being my first (and so far, only) time in Europe, I decided to extend my stay for just one more day to see the sights that I could take in.

What can you do with just one extra day? If you're along the main train lines in Europe, plenty. I headed down to the station, took a look at the map, readied my coins, and journeyed as far as I could to both ends of the line. On one terminal point was Cannes, the same city famed for its movie festival; on the other end was the small Italian city of Ventimiglia. In between was the city of Nice and...wait for it...the principality of Monaco.

With not much time to plan, I just went wherever the train and my feet took me. In that one day, I covered ampitheaters, plazas, roadside cafes, restaurants, museums, and churches.

I don't think I had planned on covering the churches. When I set out, I had the idea that I could catch some movie stars in Cannes. The time I was there was also the time of the festival. But in my eagerness I went there first, early in the morning. Stars, it turn out, whether of the celestial or the fleeting, artificial sort, only come out at night. Somewhat disappointed, yes, but in its place I found the Notre Dame de Bon Voyage, where Napoleon Bonaparte passed by before his exile to Elba. I was just in time, so I attended Mass in that Church.

After that, the trip became a pilgrimage of sorts. I went to Nice and visited its cathedral. The churches in Nice have a map points out where all the other churches are. These became the focal points for my walking tour. I wanted to visit all fifteen, but the narrow window only permitted three. Unfortunately, I could not find the church in Monaco (though I did find the Casino Royale), but in Ventimiglia I hiked up a hill to a 13th century medieval cathedral.

On the train trip back to the hotel, I met an anthropologist named Kika. Two things struck me about her: one, she was tall and built like a supermodel (I first wondered if she was); and two, she was studying some strange African language (Swahili, I think). The latter became the starting point for our conversation. It turned out she had a doctorate and was heading next to Africa for research; on my part, I told her about the little country I was from and what I was doing there. We got to talking about the places we'd visited. I told her about my impromptu pilgrimage. She was skeptical but otherwise cordial and respectful, though she did raise her eyebrow when I said something about Magellan "discovering" the Philippines (and of course she was right, in many ways, and I have corrected my view on that part of history since. On that part I claim a defect in my education.)

"Why are you smiling?" she asked when I paused suddenly.

"Oh, I was just struck by a thought," I said. "About how strange and wonderful the link of events that's led me to being here."

And it was exactly that: at that moment, I had a sense of perspective. Here was Dom Cimafranca, a sudden tourist and an otherwise insignificant mote in the universe, and yet he took the route he did because of the inexorable forces of culture and history, driven by Faith, that traces its roots back to a 16th century Portuguese explorer and the decree of a Spanish king. From Portugal and Spain in Europe to Asia and the Philippines, and now, after a span of four hundred years, a small ember from that fire should break off and travel from the Philippines in Asia back to Europe, driven largely in part, yes, by commerce, but ending in a trip inspired by Faith. I had the sense that somehow I had completed a circle.

I told Kika as such. She smiled. I think she just thought I was weird. But she was polite about it.

I've never met Kika again, and I haven't gone back to Europe since (or should I say "yet"). But that trip remains strong in memory, and especially that moment of epiphany. Because it's not just the four hundred year circle between Asia and Europe, but the longer thread of Faith that extends all the way back to the old covenant and its fruition Palestine. It's an old story, and long one, but it's still going on.

And I'm part of it. As are you. As are we all.