In May 2017, I spent five days traveling across the Iberian Peninsula, and then my tour group crossed the Pyrenees to the next major destination, Lourdes. It is a small town with the second highest hotel occupancy in France after Paris. Like Portugal’s Fatima, the town thrives thanks to the Catholics from across the globe who sleep, eat, and shop while visiting the site of Mary’s apparition, which supposedly took place in 1858.
At first, I wasn’t impressed with this very religious town, but that changed after my family crossed the bridge to get into the town center. To our surprise, there was no tourist there, not even the Americans who acted like big shots in the hotel. We enjoyed shopping like locals at Carrefour and Monoprix, and for the first time in more than a year, I enjoyed watching politics on TV again.
I even starred in a medical drama, when an elderly woman from another tour group was ill and the shrine’s clinic needed an Indonesian translator. It was great to be able to help both the doctor and the patient, but I was disappointed that no guide or fellow pilgrim from her group was there for her. Such is life for me – intervening for other people.
After a proper rest in Lourdes, it was another seven hours bus ride to Nice, passing through notable cities like Toulouse, Montpellier, and Cannes. When we entered Nice, my group’s racism level went off the scale at the sight of Africans – both North and Sub-Saharan. The tour guide raised the heat by reminding us of the Bastille Day 2016 terror attack on the beach.
Ironically, the bus broke down and we had to wait on the street for 30 minutes – would other people judge us too, as Asian tourists coming out of an overheated bus? Men in the group had no time for such thought. They were too busy leering at white women and making racist “jokes” on black women, with their wives nearby.
Personally, I was not comfortable with Nice and it was because I encountered too many young men loitering the Square Notre Dame at night – whoever they were. Too many testosterones there. I spent the night watching Grey’s Anatomy again in the hotel, perplexed by my roommate’s decision to go to the beach after ten p.m.
Leave it to Indonesians to ruin schedule. We wasted too much time along the French Riviera and on toilet stops (during which everyone would buy coffee and snacks), so we reached Pisa after eight p.m. Again, the racists were treated to the sight of African peddlers and souvenir kiosks manned by Malay-speaking South Asians. After dinner, we only had minutes to take picture of the Leaning Tower and nearby cathedral, and the bus left a late couple behind, so they had to take a taxi back to the hotel.
Dad signed up for the tour because he wanted to see this central Italian town, the hometown St. Francis, as he grew up with Franciscan monks in Puncak. There we experienced a small inconvenience that would put me off from visiting cathedrals – visitors must pass a security check manned by fully-armed soldiers. While others were getting inside the cathedrals, I browsed Wikipedia articles on the wars between Italian city states throughout the Renaissance.
In 2017 Italy is not in war, but following the string of autonomous terrorist attacks across Europe recently, the Italian government must believe that they’ve made the right decision. Churches and armed men still go together here, five centuries later.
It should have been easy to love Rome, with my love for the Renaissance and the Roman Empire. But the Eternal City is too dirty, too car-oriented, too gritty, and too crowded with tourists. We sheltered from the heavy rain at Mitsukoshi Roma, opened not for Romans to get chic Japanese brands, but for Japanese tourists to get luxury Italian goods. The sight of Japanese tourists lining up to hear shopping instruction from their guide terrified me.
In the Vatican, I had become allergic to queue and too jaded with the Renaissance, so instead of getting into the Sistine Chapel, I read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland by the pillars of St. Peter’s Square, raising the book when a group of white Americans passed.
Italy is easily my least favorite country on this trip, despite my love for Italian food, Italian history, Italian language, and my admiration for Italian-Americans and Italian-Australians. It wasn’t hit hard by the Euro debt crisis, but for decades it’s been paralyzed by corruption, inequality, and violence. Italians love to joke that Americans will put up with Trump like they had put up with Berlusconi.
I ended the tour with a bang – singing the Psalm during the tour group’s Sunday Mass at the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. I never sung any Psalm before, but I wanted to show my parents that the vocal class pays. And pay back everyone who had annoyed me during the tour.
It was a miracle that I could sleep on the night flight to Dubai, and video-on-demand is a blessing for modern flight, from New Girl to Hidden Figures. Drama didn’t leave me and presented to me a group of snooty, rude, and conservative Indonesian academics who stole my compartment’s space, yelled at the stewardess, and jostled with me on the way out. I was happy to slight them publicly while apologizing to the stewardess, tailgated them while singing Carly Rae Jepsen, and acted cute nearby them while collecting the baggage.
It was a fruitful pilgrimage for me. I learned to work as a team with my parents throughout the trip. I know that I could take care of myself and keeping myself safe out there. I was assured I have no problem socializing. My respect and appreciation for Europe has grown. I know that not being religious is okay. I only have to be brave, be good, and be humane.
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