*This post began as a letter to a friend…
For months since you’ve written about your upcoming trip to ***, and I’ve been trying to think of some words of wisdom to pass on to you.
After all, I travel constantly, as a serious hobby. Our family’s life has been arranged such that travel and experience is a main priority. But, I hadn’t been able to think of anything helpful or soothing to impart that would assuage some of the anxiety or prevent some of the imagined awkwardness that sometimes comes with travel.
We travel all the time. The kids like to keep track of countries, and they’re each in the low 20s. Not exceptional in Europe, but not bad either. There are some things I never get tired of…trying the local wine, taking pictures from a sidewalk cafe, and poking around in old churches.
I love churches. There’s something about entering an old cathedral that speaks to the cynical, fallen away Catholic in me. Quiet reverence and, conversely, the occasional sound of a powerful organ signify “real” church to this Catholic school girl. What really appeals to me are the churches that have some kind of claim to fame for some extraordinary reason. The Catholic Church is literally the only institution that can advertise someone’s body part as a legitimate exhibition, and people line up and wait to see it. The fingernail of a random saint, the tomb holding the remains of the three kings, or a piece of the true cross with flecks of blood…I am absolutely here for this, but why…I can’t quite say.
I always light a candle for the same intention and snap some photos if it’s allowed. My husband is a good sport about my church habit. At this point in life, he’s more of an agnostic than anything and comes in purely out of an interest in architecture or art or simply waits outside.
It’s been a jam packed summer. We’ve had different sets of friends and family in town interspersed with a few trips. I also got Invisalign in June, so I’ve been learning how to talk with the weird feeling of having plastic around my teeth at all times and how to master the art of taking them out when I want to eat or drink anything. I nearly always forget until the last minute and have to snap them inelegantly out and stash them somewhere on the fly.
So, it was last Wednesday night that I found myself in the ancient, walled city of Kotor, Montenegro. We had driven for hours to arrive there, through some border crossings, and on some pretty steep mountain roads, high above the Adriatic sea. It’s pretty far off the beaten path, and, while there’s a touristy area, Paris this was not. Car ride nerves were still firing when we sat down to dinner, and Kurt ordered a G&T and I got my usual wine, and then another.
It was late in the evening when we were wandering back towards the hotel through a throng of lingering outdoor diners lounging in the ubiquitous cafes, when I spotted a massive church that still appeared to be open. I realized that the church was not the usual Roman Catholic flavor, but that it was some sort of Eastern rite church. When I opened the door, I was instantly captivated. The sounds of chanting provided an immediate backdrop to the massive icons and wall sized paintings everywhere, so much of it gilded in gold. The air was heavy with incense and warm from the hundreds of burning candles. A black robed and impressively hatted priest was facing away from me on the altar involved in some sort of ritual. Three similarly dressed people were off to the side providing the soundtrack.
Only a door separated us from the street musicians and cocktails of the busy square outside, but we were a world away.
The candles weren’t our normal votives, but tall, taper candles that I had to purchase from an actual man behind a counter. I opened my wallet to get out the correct change, when it basically exploded all over his counter and the floor in front of it. Cards, the various currencies from different Eastern European countries from my July travels, and everything else I had stuffed in there went everywhere.
I was in that tricky place that two glasses of wine leaves you. Not drunk, but not quite sober, and I tried to pick up everything, including my dignity, quickly. I smiled at the man, finally found the right coins to pay for my candle, and walked over to light it. The ritual continued on, and the sounds of the chanting were beautiful and solemn.
I lit the candle and watched the man next to me light a handful of candles making the sign of the cross after each one. I congratulated myself on remembering that Eastern rite Catholics make the sign of the cross opposite from those of us in the Roman order. I began walking back to Kurt when the man behind the counter motioned to me. Wondering what he could want, I looked at him. And he picked up one of my Invisalign trays off the counter and waved it at me. Completely mortified and avoiding looking him in the eye, I grabbed the tray and tried to say “I’m sorry” to him above the sound of the chanting.
I hurried out of there as fast as I could to the square outside, relieved to close the door on my humiliation, leaving behind the sound of sacred music and being met by the unmistakeable notes of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. This side of the door was filled with my people, the irreverent, the after dinner drinkers, the kind of people devoted to pursuit of summertime chill. Mercifully, the crowd outside was not aware of my semi-icky transgression, so we took a seat and joined them.
Happens me to all the time, often on the same trip, sometimes on the same day. Traveling and living abroad seem to bring about more frequent indignities, but my comfort zone seems to allow for this stuff to happen to me. I’d miss it if I didn’t.