Saturday, September 11, 2010

Home is where Pier Giorgio is!

Before I left for Italy, I was determined to blog more. But not long after arriving, I came down with what I think was just a very bad cold. Now, two weeks and a lot of miles and cities later, I am feeling better but still trying to get over a nagging cough. That's my excuse for the very infrequent blog posts! Tonight, however, I am determined to satisfy those of you who have been wanting more.

I will start in Poland but will use subheadings for those of you who want to go straight to Italy! :)

Wanda and I arrived in Warsaw on Friday, September 3rd. It was my first visit there and a privilege to go with her as it is the place of her birth. We got settled in our rooms and I went straight to bed. Woke up feeling terrible with still a bit of a fever and was disappointed that I would not get to see Warsaw. I only had Saturday there because the plan was for me to go on my own the next day to some other places and rejoin her later. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, I awakened to what sounded like a marching band. Now, Wanda is a great lover of music and often has something wonderful playing. So, I wasn't sure if it was coming from inside the house or outside. It got me out of bed, though. Sure enough, a marching band was coming down the main street. I could also see a lot of booths set up and a festival of some kind taking place. It was the push I needed to get moving. Wanda was not in the house, so I ventured out alone.

One of my first thoughts after spending just a little time in Poland was that I owe a major apology to everyone who came on the FrassatiUSA pilgrimage with me last year. I quickly realized how intimidating it is to be in a country where you do not understand a single word and how I had not considered that when they were with me. Even saying, "I don't speak Polish" is difficult in that language. I didn't stay out long.

Wanda returned shortly after I did and was surprised to see me on my feet. I convinced her I was well enough to see Warsaw and she took me to the old town. We walked past the President's palace where a bit of turmoil is still unfolding over a monument to the former president who died in a plane crash. We timed it perfectly to see the changing of the guard at the palace. We also saw weddings galore. It was like a Las Vegas chapel. One wedding was going on inside the church and another bridal party was waiting outside for their turn! My sense of Warsaw was that it was more American than other places I have been. There was a Subway sandwich shop across the street and a big Starbucks coffee shop -- two things I have yet to see in Italy. My energy was at an end and we called it a night.

I am only half Italian but full hard-headed and was determined to start the journey to the other cities that I had wanted to see. So, Wanda brought me to the train station on Sunday morning. She has been teasing me a bit about my Blackberry (which she sometimes jokingly refers to as my Raspberry) being a part of my body. The night before I left Warsaw, I was starting to type her instructions into the phone but she said she would write them out. That paper is one of the most valuable things she has given me these last few years! She wrote out the essential information I would need for finding my way and some key Polish phrases. Although I was assured by many people that "every young person in Poland speaks English," I quickly found this was NOT the case. In Czestochowa I met only one. Fortunately, he was in the train station and able to help me use the luggage lockers there. With just a backpack to carry, I headed off to Jasna Gora.

After a lot of pointing and showing my paper to a few different people on the street, I found my way. There was a special event going on -- some sort of Mass for farmers. The main street was filled with booths with local products, farm supplies, tractors and everything imaginable. A large outdoor Mass was taking place. In Polish, of course! I went inside and attended the Mass taking place in front of the image of the Black Madonna. It was completely packed. After Mass, I had an opportunity to sit and pray a rosary for everyone's intentions. I finished my time there by making the little journey on my knees around the sanctuary where the image is enthroned. Back down the hill, I stopped to watch some performers in traditional Polish attire. Then back to pointing at my paper and finding the train station. Managed to get on the right train to Krakow!

The second person I met who spoke English was a young woman who came into my car on the train just as it was pulling out. We had a wonderful conversation all of the way to Krakow about everything Polish. Two older women joined us and we included them in the conversation with the first young woman serving as translator. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip. I love riding the trains in Europe. Some people complain that they are not reliable but I find it to be quite the opposite. It is such a relaxing way to see the countryside.

I was met in Krakow at the station by a Polish Dominican brother who brought me to where I would be staying on Stolarska street -- just across from the American Embassy and a minute away from the main square. It was cold and dreary and drizzly and I was surprised to find the heat on inside. In my previous blog, I mentioned how Brother Michael took me to the Priory and showed me around, including the spot where Pope John Paul II dubbed Pier Giorgio "the Man of the Beatitudes." He introduced me to Brother Lukasz. Between the two of them, I had the best guides for Krakow and the surrounding area.

On Monday, I took the six+-hour tour to Auschwitz. It was incredibly intense and left a lasting impression upon me. Over the years, I have viewed a lot of films and read a lot of books on the topic. The first office for FrassatiUSA was right next to the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and I had many opportunities to discuss the Holocaust and obtain resources in different languages. But, obviously, there is nothing like being there. It was very special to visit the cell of Maximilian Kolbe and say a quick prayer there. Our guide recommended two books. I purchased one that day and finished it the other night. It is titled, "I was Dr. Mengele's Assistant." Powerful and unforgettable. It was overcast and dreary that day which was quite appropriate for the sights that we saw. Too much in and out of the cold for me again, so I was back in bed not long after returning to Krakow.

Krakow (again!)
Trying to prevent a total relapse, I decided to sleep in on Tuesday. I joined a walking tour of Krakow at noon in the main square. Every place has its own special flair. One of the amusing traditions in Krakow is the bugle playing from the highest tower of St. Mary's every hour on the hour. I enjoyed it the whole time I was there. Our walking tour guide was very entertaining and I was able to see some of the most notable sights. Most of all, I loved seeing Pope John Paul II waving to us (okay it was a poster) from the Archbishop's house. I'm not a good one for appreciating architecture and art, etc., but did enjoy heading up to Wawel Castle and the other main points along the way. When the tour split up, I went back to the museum for JP2. I must say, what a totally COOL pope he was! In the middle of one room was a collection of his sports gear, skis, a kayak, shirts given to him by sports teams. I mean, what a guy! Later, I had my first real food in days -- pieroghies in Poland. :) I give Krakow two thumbs up and recommend a trip there to anyone. Not to mention the fact that the US Dollar is worth three zlotych, so your money goes a long way. But hurry before Poland switches to the euro!

It was either the salt mines in Wieliczka or the birthplace of JP2. For me, an easy choice. Unfortunately, there was not an organized tour for Wadowice. It was cold, windy, the usual. And I had to find my way there and back on my own without a cheat sheet from Wanda! The girl at the info booth drew me a map for where to catch a bus. Okay, I found the spot but to call it a "bus" was quite a stretch. It was a total death trap with a driver who was on and off of his cell phone the whole time. He used the brakes often and at the last possible minute. My stomach was three rows in front of me the entire time. After an hour and 20 minutes, we arrived at the final stop. From my first look at the town, I wondered what I was thinking. But after walking to the house where Pope John Paul II was born, I had no regrets. It was just great to be there. The weather was horrible but every once in awhile the sun peeked out for a second. It was the feast of the Birthday of Mary -- how appropriate to spend it in the hometown of a pope whose motto was "Totus Tuus." Attended Mass in the church where he was baptized, confirmed, received first communion, served as an altar boy. It was a wonderful experience. After a couple of hours, I flagged down the bus heading to Krakow. Much to my relief, it was a real bus with a professional-looking driver.

Thursday, September 9th -- destination Pollone and the Frassati Villa. Wanda left Warsaw early that morning and we met at the train station in Krakow. It was planes, trains and automobiles all day long! We took the train to the Krakow airport, then a shuttlebus, then a plane to Milano, a car, another train, another train, another car and finally arrived!!!

The second-to-last train I took was standing room only. She found a seat but I was stuck in a wall-to-wall throng at the entrance to the carrozza. Apparently, some accident down the line made this train the one everyone needed to catch. Probably about a dozen of us were crammed into a space meant for one or two. It was like that everywhere. A father with his five-year-old daughter were standing in front of me. A woman was complaining for at least 15 or 20 minutes after the train got moving. All I could think of was the cattle car ride to Auschwitz. No air, no light, no facilities, no space, no food, no water, no hope.

Driving up the main street in Pollone (which happens to be named Pier Giorgio Frassati Street!), Wanda pointed out a new addition. In honor of the 20th Anniversary of Pier Giorgio's Beatification this past May, the town has hung some banners from a few key streetlights. It added to the anticipation of getting back here since leaving last July 5th. What can you say about having an opportunity to sleep in the house where a saint slept, to live in the house where a saint slept, to pray in the room where a saint lived, to kneel at the foot of the bed where a saint died, to pray a novena with the niece of a saint? As many times as I have been here, I know that it is a special grace and one that not everyone can experience. So the first order of business was to begin a novena for all of your intentions. I always find the novena in honor of Pier Giorgio to be very powerful but there is no comparison to the experience of praying it in his room. I went to sleep very happy to be back in Italy, most especially to be here.

I woke up on Friday morning feeling like a small child on Christmas morning -- wanting to go everywhere and see everything. But I really needed to get some rest and so did not overdo it. The weather was beautiful and majestic Mount Mucrone was standing taller than ever. Wanda and I had some business to take care of and I didn't venture far. But in the evening, I did walk up to the parish church for evening Mass. This is a tiny town. I knew what I would find upon arriving at the chapel. The tiny pews and the space in the back where my long legs would fit. The same short little old Italian ladies who lead the rosary. Old Don Mario (the priest) who has been serving God for more than 60 years. It's a little home away from home here.

Today was another picture perfect day. Wanda was inspired to take a ride up into the moutains in Oropa. Just fantastic. We ended with the 4:30 p.m. Mass in the Old Church -- where Pier Giorgio would regularly go to pray at the feet of his beloved Brown Madonna. The church was packed and it was just wonderful to attend Mass there. Afterward, Wanda talked with a priest who is coming tomorrow morning to say Mass here in Pier Giorgio's room. What a great way to celebrate Sunday morning in Pollone!

Well, that is a trip down travel-blog lane! I really wanted to get some pictures uploaded here and onto the Facebook page but it is getting late and I am supposed to meet Wanda in Pier Giorgio's room at 10 p.m. to continue the novena. So, maybe tomorrow... Thanks to everyone for all of the prayers for my safe travels and health. Know that wherever I go, I bring you with me and remain united to you through our common friendship with Blessed Pier Giorgio. Verso l'alto!

1 comment:

Silly Seal said...

Thank you for sharing about your travels. God is good all the time.