Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Welcome to Switzerland

From where does friendship begin? The evolution from stranger to acquaintance to one who enters the inner shrine of friendship begins from a single glimpse, a word interchanged, or some comic physical interaction when none was intended. Between some, it is a slow process that may never reach fruition and among others, it happens at lightning speed when two folks instantly understand one another.

I did not know how Matthias and I became friends, as we spent no more than a day and an evening in each other’s company. Perhaps we were in transition towards friendship, as he seemed much more open and free-spirited in Alaska. Here, in the Alpine land of Switzerland, he appeared detached, cautious, and more concerned about what people thought. Apparently, Matthias thought I was a true American, as I talked far too much and tended to share information he didn’t care to know. However, when I decided not to dominate a conversation, he blatantly said that didn’t suit me either. He took me to a disco, and laughed with idiosyncratic glee when I tried to dance in my hiking boots. (No, I didn’t bring a change of shoes.)

Switzerland was an idyllic realm of mountains green as malachite, and Zurich in particular complemented the rocky ranges with a mirror-like lake. The city was small, picturesque, with many bridges, a plethora of small floating boats, and multiple restaurants and shops with a lakeside front. The architecture and buildings were thin, pointy, and poignant. Everything was elegant, balanced, and perfectly organized. Even roasted chestnuts from the street were sold in a paper bag with two compartments, one for the steaming “marrons” and the other for empty shells. There was the Lindt chocolate factory unveiling delicious aromas along Lake Zurich, water taxis, and delectable cheeses in the shops. By the way, even groceries are expensive in Switzerland, since the Swiss believe in paying a great deal for good food. They don’t understand why Americans are so fond of bargains. Matthias told me the Swiss were most proud of the Zurich clock tower because its face was the larger than any other in Europe. Another entity with a preoccupation with size. Quite Freudian.

At Matthias’ suggestion, I took the inevitably prompt train to Luzcern, one of the most scenic sites in the German part of Switzerland. It was a quaint town, also adorned by a lake, but the main attraction was Mount Pilatus. This extraordinary mountain rose through the clouds, like a spiral into heaven. I remembered my love of summits, despite my fear of heights, because of the feeling of being aloft, of flying within the ever fluctuating winds, touching the clouds and the air.

It was not until later, that I realized the genuine importance of the site I had just visited. Mount Pilatus. Pontius Pilate. This was where the Roman governor or praetor, had been exiled after the revolution of Israel, where he perished, and where his bones were buried. Rumor had it he died of a broken heart. This was the anti-hero in the story of Christ, did anyone care about his heart? Ironic that such a place of misery for him became so exhilarating to many tourists who followed.

Suffering. Dying. Rising. Someone once told me that this is the cycle of life, this constant transformation and letting ourselves die so that we can continue to grow. The problem was that many of us get stuck in the suffering stage, and have trouble letting go of status quo, remnants of mediocrity. Only when we die to the past and open ourselves to the present could we unlock the mystery of our own hearts.

So maybe we all need to learn this lesson. And maybe we all are worthy of redemption. Even Pontius Pilate.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deja Vous: Alaskan Habits in France

Leaving Lourdes was harder than I thought. It was nine at night, blacker than ink, with no street lights or street signs in this quaint provincial French town. I was searching for the train station, or rather groping around in the dark for the only means of transportation and fearing I’d miss my ten o’clock train. I had a map, but a whole lot of good it did me. Apparently, this side of town was empty at this time, as all residents, tourists, and pilgrims congregated by the shrine for the nocturnal processions of Mary and candlelight.

I wound up in a sinister alley, weighed down by my backpack and duffel bag so I didn’t have much mobility in the occasion of being attacked. (Being a petite young girl, albeit a scruffy one, you had to be wary of these things.) Then a car drove by, at a considerably slow speed as if the driver was coincidentally meandering along waiting for me. This might be my last chance. Call me reckless, but it was dark and I was desperate, so I resorted back to my Alaskan hitch-hiking ways. I flagged down the car. (No, I did not adhere to my usual rule of riding with mini van-driving moms with a baby in the back.)

Thankfully, it was a pleasant-faced woman who was very sympathetic to my plight and offered me a ride to the train station a few blocks away. A grad student, she was rather young and seemed like my contemporary, although at the moment I thought of her more as angel. Angels may be portrayed as cherubic visions, or winged seraphim of blinding white at some divinity’s beckoning, but I am much more interested in the flesh and blood creatures who literally appear out of nothingness to save us from our scrapes. In moments of most dire need. When things appear hopeless. I have known many such angels. To others, they are normal citizens going about their everyday business. But to some, they work magic.

So she dropped me off at my destination with fifteen minutes to spare. I thanked her and I don’t remember her name, but it happens so often that these details are forgotten in the transcendence of to help and be helped. Then I was off to Switzerland to visit Matthias.

Remember Matthias? He was the Swiss German economist who had summited Mt. McKinley and ended up with a viscous green toe. We met while backpacking in Alaska and he had invited me to stay whenever I visited Europe. I thought about him while boarding the train, wondering if I’d have to find my own dubious lodging in Zurich. After all, there is a difference between what men say and what they actually do, and the well-intentioned directives of “I’ll call you,” or “Let’s go out” or even “You’re welcome to stay,” often have hieroglyphic meanings and even more ambivalent shades of meanings. For Americans, it is common to say things that you don’t mean out of politeness or not wanting to appear as anything less than nice. Edith Wharton implied that Americans did not like to refuse; the real answer was known only by a set of arbitrary signs. Do I think we’re fickle? Not in the slightest…

Well, Swiss Germans, or at least this one, did exactly what he said. There he was, waiting for me at the station, complaining at my selection of tardy trains and ushering me away, paying for everything as we went to his home since I hadn’t a single penny in Swiss Francs.

Matthias welcomed me into his sanctuary; he shared an apartment with an amiable roommate overlooking Lake Zurich. When I saw that iridescent sea of promise, shimmering with the halcyon of youth, I already felt at home.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bernadette's Corridor

Lourdes. I had heard of it before, a provincial and unassuming village where the apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to a poor young girl tending sheep. She had roses at her feet and stars at her head, a beautiful lady attired in azure who told the shepherdess to dig a hole in the earth, from which a spring sprouted. The waters of that spring were said to heal all kinds of ailments and even contact with it was thought to strengthen the soul.

I have been Catholic all my life, and I confess I never quite understood the "Mary thing." Certainly, she was a holy woman, a saint even, but did that mean she should be exalted as goddess? Nonetheless, I have discovered that holy places are holy because there is an intense spiritual energy there. Regardless of whether you believe, there is something that touches you in an extraordinary way, reminds you of your limitless potential, that you will always be more than what you physically are in the moment. I have been moved by Buddhist temples in Ayuthaya, the Acropolis, Egyptian ruins at Karnak. My heart tingles whenever I walk into a church or a monastery or even a mosque.

Being in the grotto was a profoundly affecting experience, like looking on the dark side of the moon. However crowded the shrine was, the sense of being there was deeply solitary as if you were the only one on earth praying. Perhaps you don't notice the hopeful, tearing, mournful, or respectable prayers of others when pouring out the private greivances of your own heart.

I remember there was a myriad of candles, each symbolizing an intention or a dear and impossible wish, or a hope that refused to be dashed. Burning fervently in the dusk, the wax dripped into idiosyncratic shapes, an assortment of figures that seemed to pray together. There were candles intermingled like lovers, or twisted and high and lofty as if reaching for a goal. There were some that burned below the surface; having spent out the liquified wax, they gleamed from the proximity of some nether world. Yet they all must end, quenched and resoundingly similar, after the flames engulfed them. Perhaps we all had been burned by the fires of Hell, whether or not we realize it.

Then I walked down the quaint rues that Bernadette herself would have passed and realized the poor saint would turn in her grave at this modern entrepeneurial site. Souvenirs, candles, and plastic replicas of the saint and the Blessed mother were up for sale by the thousands. Above all, by swarthy-looking vendors who did not seem to have any religious affinity to anything besides cold, hard cash. They hawked and solicited and haggled like any seller of overpriced trinkets at any tourist location. Here it was again, the good old profit motive.

Nothing remained of the simplicity and the unfettered mind, the very reason Bernadette was chosen to receive a divine message.

Perhaps some good had been done in the world. And perhaps the world has not changed as much as we hoped. Holiness and commercialization. How do we manage to co-exist.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Overnight to Lourdes

I went to Lourdes because of a promise to my mother. Lourdes was a site of miracles for my family. My grandfather lost his fingers to a grenade. Prior to the division of Vietnam, he worked for Emperor Bao Dai and it was at a meeting with Prince Sianouk of Cambodia that the grenade exploded in his hand, shielding the rest of the company from harm. At Lourdes, he prayed for safety and recovery prior to the necessary hand surgery. His wish was granted and he promptly converted from Buddhism to Catholicism.

My godmother Catherine, my namesake, was diagnosed with metastic breast cancer at the age of forty-two. Even though she passed from this life only two years later, Lourdes was the inevitable place where she made peace with her regrets and her past mistakes. When she bathed in pools of holy water that washed infirmities from the bodies of so many pilgrims, my mother noted that Aunt Catherine looked serene for the first time since diagnosis.

Thus, I took the overnight train from Paris to Lourdes, in the couchette. Hearing rumors of vicious and relentless pickpocketing on trains, I kept my possessions close to my chest. Despite my paranoia, I fell into a deep slumber and relied on my "poor student" exterior to ward off any potential attacks. It worked, or maybe it was because I didn't really own anything worth stealing. I'll never know.

The train dropped us off in the dark at around 4:30am. A glib French Nigerian woman insisted she knew exactly where my guesthouse was, and I wound up dragging my luggage uphill and downhill around town, retracing our footsteps twice before she realized she was lost. Actually, she did look rather sinister although I did not notice in shadowy confines of the train. In broad daylight, she seemed an African witch with treacherously thick eyebrows and gaudy shawls, ready to cast a spell on any unsuspecting passerby.

There was a central shrine area populated by a community of churches and cathedrals. A dazzling basilica was built in proximity to the grotto where the apparition appeared. Perspiring and exhausted, I pulled my luggage into the nearest pew of basilica for six o clock mass. I knelt down and lowered my head, except I did not know what to pray for.