After the Camino de Santiago
After my time on El Camino (in May), I got on a flight from Madrid to Geneva, Switzerland, where I met two of my friends from back home who were working as au pairs in Swiss France. They picked me up from the airport and drove me to the French countryside where we stayed the night with her host family in the foothills of the Alps.
The next morning, they had the whole day planned for us. We drove out to Hautcombe Abbey where we attended mass with the monks and toured the old abbey. It is set on a lake so we spent quite a bit of time walking around the hiking trails that surrounded the chapel, ate delicious French seafood on the banks of the lake and spent the rest of our day touring the downtown area of her village.
Before I knew it I was on a plane to Rome, Italy to meet my friends from back home. At this point, I became used to traveling by myself, but I felt a little bit lonely as I switched from place to place. All of that loneliness was assuaged when I met my friends in Rome. Since I reserved the apartment for the night, I rushed from the airport to meet the apartment owner and attempted to converse with him in Italian before he handed me the keys to his 3 bedroom apartment near the Vatican.
I spent the rest of the day trekking to the grocery store so that I could have dinner cooked for my friends when they arrived. They eventually found their way to the apartment and we celebrated by playing music and dancing around the apartment. This was the beginning of our pilgrimage to Poland for World Youth Day 2016. We spent that week in Rome sightseeing. We toured the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, got to go to confession in St. Peter’s, saw the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Coliseum. We ate too much gelato and ate too much pasta, but we had the greatest time of our lives.
After Rome, we caught a two-hour train up to Assisi, which is the home of one of our favorite saints, St. Francis. We spent our time on the train praying and talking with each other about our intentions for World Youth Day. We were all so excited to be together and couldn’t stop talking about the crazy adventure we had just embarked on.
Assisi was a picturesque town in the Italian hill country and was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been in my entire life. We spent the night at a stone villa near the center of the town. We were there for two days and in that time we hiked around the trails that St. Francis did, we prayed at his tomb, sang praise and worship at a look out spot over the city, ate some authentic pizza, and prayed vespers with the Franciscan priests that lived at the monastery. I had a little bit of extra spending money and was able to visit the cobbler in town and buy some authentic Italian leather sandals just like St. Francis had!
After Assisi we got on another train and headed up to Florence where we spent two days. We mostly just hung out in the city for those two days. One of those nights we decided to treat ourselves to a steak dinner and then went out to the square where we encountered a homeless man named Bai. We talked to Bai for one hour, asking him about his life and why he was in Florence. We prayed with Bai and were able to buy him a meal for dinner. It was truly moving to encounter this man in such a particular way.
The next day we saw the museums in Florence, went to Mass, and ate amazing sandwiches from a local vendor. Since I didn’t know what to order, I told the vendor to surprise me and I was handed a delicious Caprese sandwich that I enjoyed as we walked through the town square. That night we did our laundry and packed our bags to prepare to meet our 200 other pilgrims in Paris the next day.
At 5:00 am we found ourselves on a flight from Florence to Paris and we were in our apartment by 10:00 am. We were all a little grumpy with each other at this point because we had very little sleep and had been traveling together for 2 weeks. Regardless, we got to Paris, saw the Eifel Tower, went to Mass, and ate a lazy Parisian lunch of quiche and salad. That night we met up with our priest and other friends from Texas A&M and watched the light show on the lawn of the Eifel Tower. Our group was growing in size and we now had 12 Aggie Pilgrims and one priest leading our way.
We met the rest of our group (200 French university students) the next day. Before we knew it, our little group of 7 friends had turned into 212 French and American students traveling together to World Youth Day. Luckily, the 5 priests on the trip had planned our travels so we boarded the charter buses without question and realized that we were on our way to Altotting, Germany, where we were to spend a week in formation before trekking to Poland.
Altotting, Germany, was my favorite place that we visited. It took a 15 hour bus ride to get there but we stepped off the bus to find ourselves in a tiny German village. We stayed in a missionary hostel that had beds for every single one of us. The beds were large and wooden, and were triple-bunks. They were covered with thick, fresh sheets and had checkered blankets at the foot of each one of them.
That little missionary house became home to all 212 of us. We shared the extensive and well-kept lawn and ate our meals on the grassy floor. We played endless games of volleyball and had our fair share of dance parties there as well. All the while, the French and American priests led us through a week of formation. We had a perpetual chapel open to us at all times and spent 4-5 hours of prayer in there each day. Altotting was physically beautiful, too. There were 14 cathedrals in the 3-mile radius of the town and every day we celebrated Mass in a new one. On the second day we were there, Father Daren asked if I would lead music for all of us at Mass, and I excitedly agreed.
I found myself standing at the front of a huge German Cathedral teaching 200 French Students some of the songs that we sing at St. Mary’s (my church in A&M). It brought me to tears hearing all of them resound while singing the Gloria. This was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. This is one of the times I have ever felt most like myself.
The rest of our time in Germany was spend eating Pretzels, going on hikes in the Black Forest, and becoming friends with the French. It wasn’t long until we moved on to Ostrava in the Czech Republic.
Unfortunately, our plans to do mission work with the orphanage there fell through, so we had a free day to explore Ostrava. Everything was extremely cheap there so we all went to dinner at an extremely fancy restaurant!
The next day we traveled into Poland for World Youth Day. It was the pinnacle of our pilgrimage. We stepped off the bus to see millions (3 million, to be exact) young people and religious swarming the streets. Each of the groups was cheering in its native language, and I was stunned. Each of them had gathered in Poland to share their faith with the world.
We stayed the week in a Polish school gymnasium. I still had all of my equipment from the Camino, so my experience was as comfortable as it could have been. The week was incredible. We heard the many addresses that Pope Francis gave, we ate Polish food, made pilgrimages to the relics of our favorite saints, and celebrated our faith with millions of others.
In all, my experience is never something that I am going to be able to fully capture on paper, but it is something that I will be reflecting on for the rest of my life. The Globetrotter Grant covered almost all of my bulk costs. I paid for all of my inter-European travel with the grant and was able to spend the little I had left over on some gelato and Italian leather shoes. I am eternally grateful for the financial assistance for my travel. Without the Globetrotter Grant, I would not have been able to extend my trip beyond the Camino, and I would have missed out on my favorite town in Germany. More than that, this travel was essential to my personal growth. Because I took this trip I know more about who I am and who I want to be.