Excerpt from “A European Odyssey”; when I too waited in line for 12 hours.

A Peaceful Pilgrimage

Everyone felt the gravity of the announcement. The Pope was dying and I lived just minutes from the epicenter. History’s most well-traveled Pope and first non-Italian to hold the title of Bishop since the sixteenth century was allowing the Eternal City to unify the past and present. Italians won’t react unless they have to do it in a minute. They prefer to turn on a dime after reducing one another to tears. That’s how her non-residents are made to feel; it’s a right of passage. The locals have to experience it so why shouldn’t we? Yet they have the edge, weighed down by history and now it was unfolding in real time. It felt epic. I had to get in on the performance. 

I started walking up the Gianicolo and down to the Vatican on a daily basis. In the early stages, the media were all kept at a safe distance from the piazza, our space was still sacred. The religious and curious pilgrims had yet to descend from all corners of the planet. For the time being, it was just me and the locals roaming around the ancient Egyptian obelisk. We were acutely aware of the impending drama; like the calm before the storm. Some of us stood along the periphery beneath the colonnade, then we’d find our way to the forecourt, where we could look up at the Papal apartments. We were told the lights stayed on while he was alive. We kept vigil. 

Then the lights went dark. The Pope was gone. I was triggered. 

If I remained in limbo, history unfolded around me, and fast. Present time had finally arrived in the Eternal City, it was picking up speed and kicking into fourth gear. The media moved in unmercifully. It was insane and took such little effort to put aside tedious particulars and household duties. Francis was traveling and I didn’t feel the need to track him down and discuss business bulletins. It was time to go native and channel the attitude of the Italian. The city was languid no more and it was time to pay homage. I watched as the media set up ‘mobile homes’, one after the other around the piazza. Within two days the place was packed and I took advantage of the situation. I talked with strangers and flirted with the usual suspects from Sky News, CNN, Fox, and all the rest. I watched the television personalities preen from their four-foot platforms, every once in a while they’d look down from their perch, smile, even engage for a couple minutes before happily returning to themselves and fussing with their make-up. 

I didn’t have a fixed destination, but there was an invisible guide whispering in my ear, leading me to believe even within this dark, postmodern world full of vulgarity and glaring wannabes, I was here with the rest of the world because the Pope had left the building. A man who opposed the war in Iraq, a man of peace; a man full of contradictions. Living in lock step with Catholic culture served to rekindle my Jesuit education including Chaucer’s literary satire. Even if I didn’t know Giovanni Boccaccio had written the original pilgrimage 300 years before, I was going to experience a pilgrimage, Italian style. 

I had no intention of getting in the line on that day. I was adrift, confused as to whether or not make contact with my daughter, the clock ticking half past noon. Then I wandered into the end of the line without noticing it because Italians are often allergic to organization. However, there was never any doubt everything was under complete control. Not a uniform in sight. Italians have dealt with the Mafia; forever trained, they know how to blend in better than the Russians. 

Slowly I became determined to brave this time-intensive, often suffocating adventure. I was going to see the recently deceased Pope. For twelve hours I was pushed by tiny Indian nuns while tripping over hundreds of empty plastic water bottles. We navigated around small European cars parked along the route, grateful to break the monotony by speaking with Italian ‘nanas’, these widowers or religious spinsters, as they leaned out of their ‘primo piano’ apartments. They complained about their confinement due to the zoo of humanity swimming beneath their windows. They whined as Italians are wont to do, in large dose and good spirit, their weariness intact, wearing a peaceful smile across their face. This was a special day for them, a special day for millions of people all around the world, including me. 

At one point, just after I’d joined the line, I looked up and found a tall, striking man standing next to me; his name was Christopher and he would become my best friend for the next twelve hours. He was exhausted and very hung over. He’d taken a taxi directly from Fiumicino Airport. He’d flown first class and complained in typically obnoxious New York fashion about the boring broad seated next to him. Christopher and I bonded immediately. He kept saying he couldn’t have done this without me. I felt the same way. Just minutes before meeting me he’d anxiously looked for an escape route. He was handsome, older, wispy, slightly tweedy with a shock of white hair and bright blue eyes. 

We shared a million stories, pieces of personal fiction, our opinions were like breathing. Our goal was to keep one another entertained. His father had been Chief of Police in the big apple so his gossip was full of the glamorous Kennedy clan and Sinatra. I told him my mother had seen Jackie at a museum in New York, struck by how large her face appeared, uniquely pretty and photogenic. 

Christopher responded by saying, “I used to see her on the street, Jackie was all hair.” 

His father had taken care of Marilyn Monroe’s New York apartment upon her death. Christopher had asked his father the same question we all had, was it murder or suicide? He looked at his son, “We’ll never know.” All his stories were full of nostalgic glory. Christopher had worked at TWA. He gossiped about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during their heyday on transatlantic flights. They were notoriously heavy drinkers, always seated strategically apart in custom made chairs, allowing them to comfortably fling drinks and expletives at one another in equal dose, colorful dialogue that lasted for hours. 

One of Christopher’s duties was to escort VIPs to their chartered planes and Pope John Paul II had been a client when he visited New York in the 70’s. He was so moved by that experience he felt compelled to spontaneously board the plane just hours after hearing the news. This is why he was here, hung over, with me. I shared my predicament and why I was in line, he offered his perspective and indulged in personal frustrations; he felt like a minority in his city and emotionally irritated, as if New York was playing down the historic event. Even if he no longer practiced Catholicism, Christopher still attended the high Episcopal church of St. Thomas in Manhattan. Everyone felt triggered in their own way.

By the time the fifth hour arrived our exchanges became increasingly personal. He spoke of his Aunt, an Aunty Mame kind of figure in his life, who’d once said, “There are two people in this world, the lifters and the leaners. Get rid of the leaners.” 

He looked at me and said, “Bailey, thank God, you are a lifter!” He couldn’t believe he was waiting in line and for so long; as a privileged New Yorker he’d never waited for anything his entire life. 

Entering the ninth hour, after several respectful silences exchanged with nuns, after brief conversations with college students and tourists, the humor turned macabre. Every time the line lurched forward we were forced to run for a few minutes. It was like pressure released after untying a knot. Christopher started throwing out one liners like, “OK, Bailey, now listen, we’re not really going to see the corpse, they’re sending us to the gas chambers, one line for work, one line to be gassed.” 

His best friend was Jewish and they bantered constantly, nothing was too sacred and yet everything felt sacred between us. Small talk, or ‘weather talk’ wasn’t our style as we consciously decided to make this peaceful pilgrimage lively and bearable for one another. It was psychologically difficult at times because the official estimating wait time was only four hours. 

By the time we entered the Vatican, we were talked out and completely punch drunk. It was just minutes before midnight. Our relationship had completed its cycle with our loves, our selective prejudices, our mad impressions and personal philosophies. There was nothing left to say.

Upon entering the darkly lit Vatican we stopped talking and walked to the end in silence. We stared quietly at the Pope; diminutive yet profound in his remains. For a fleeting second it seemed wrong to take a picture until it became so easy to justify. It’s exactly what Papa dictated all along, being a media savvy man, wisely perceiving each personal photograph taken would leave a far greater impression than any photo seen on the cover of a magazine. The Pope used his death as if it was the greatest recruiting tool. I had less than ten seconds to snap a picture and pay my respects, to view a blessed man, his face gray, slightly pained lay at one end with two very elegant red shoes famously designed by Prada at the other. He was so small as he lay but two feet away.

The lack of security would have felt alarming if we hadn’t felt so safe the entire time. The security was invisible in a city full of invisible secrets. As with the Italians, it’s always what they don’t say that’s most important. Christopher was baffled because he was convinced New Yorkers would have yelled and behaved badly. He didn’t understand the tolerant atmosphere. I tried to convey, as an outsider, the cultural reality of the Italian mentality. That’s why the spontaneous clapping, on the hour, this created a way to celebrate and release the tension at the same time. Along with the fact they just loved to hang out.

We stood outside the Vatican and talked about meeting for coffee the next day, and that was the last time I saw Christopher. I spent the next few days composing a letter to my daughter, including pictures and a past that didn’t necessarily lend to a typical profile of a young woman in denial of a pregnancy. Or did it? Nothing felt typical after that day.

I called her number and the mother answered. As I predicated she remained in complete control of the situation. She came as advertised, to my ears, on guard and so nice and full of promises.  I asked if I could send the package and letter. I said, “I just want her to have a little box she can take out of the closet and visit every now and then.”

I spoke with Heidi for a brief moment and then her mother quickly got back on the phone. It was as it was; a beginning. If she felt curious she could take it out and read all about it. It felt like the right thing to do. Maybe she could be familiar with her DNA, even a little proud; I certainly was.

Published by baileyalexander

An American living in Piemonte. Sailed across the Atlantic aboard our 43 Nauticat in 2002 and spent over a decade living in Rome, Paris, Prague, Malta, Venice and Bucharest before settling in Piemonte, Italia.

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