As the months have gone by this past year, I keep reflecting on where I was and what I was doing exactly a year ago, especially this week. It hasn’t quite been one year calendar-wise, but liturgically, one year ago I was on a pilgrimage in Lourdes, France, and, due to the crazy final month and a half of school, I never had a chance to write anything about it.
As told in my previous posts, I was in Austria and Hungary for the first half of my Easter break, I spent Holy Week in the Vatican, and then on Easter morning I flew to Lourdes, France to meet up with a group of Spaniards.
Each year during the Easter Octave (the week immediately following Easter Sunday), a group of people from Santander make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, many of them disabled, chronically ill, or elderly. Those who are able-bodied can choose attend as either pilgrims as well, or volunteers who care for those in need assistance throughout the week. So for the last week of my Easter break I served as a volunteer helping to get everyone up, dressed, and fed in the morning, transporting people in wheelchairs everywhere we went, and simply providing good company to the more reserved pilgrims.
I remember flying into the teeny tiny Lourdes airport, catching a bus, and taking a taxi to the hotel we were to stay at. The bus driver spoke just enough English, but the taxi driver spoke zero, so I mustered up all the French I had absorbed from Duolingo (which wasn’t a whole lot, but it was something). Although I’m sure my pronunciation was horrific, the driver was highly amused by my attempt to make conversation.
Since I arrived a day early, I wandered around the tiny streets filled with touristy religious gift shops. I walked into a shop that sold a wide variety of items made by monastic communities; it had everything from soap to chocolate to rosaries. Very happy to support religious brothers and sisters, I bought a couple of things and, since Lourdes is very close to the Spanish border and many people are bilingual, I began talking to the shop owner in Spanish and when I explained that I’m American but was with the group from Santander her entire face lit up and she exclaimed that she’s originally from Santander! So every time I passed by throughout the week I made sure to stop in and say hello. Another plus was that it also happened to be right next to a fancy cookie shop that always gave out free samples.
One of the most interesting parts was that all the volunteers had to wear a uniform. For the men it was simply a nice white dress shirt and slacks, but the girls and women had to wear these outfits that greatly reminded me of my relatively ill-fitting plaid Catholic school uniform days and they definitely made us all look like “monjitas” (little nuns). I actually learned recently that the outfits are simply emulating old (like 1920s old) nurse uniforms. So the following day I managed to piece together all the components of my getup, including the cloak, which I found to be the most exciting part because it very much reminded me of a cape, and I went to meet up with the rest of the group.
We spent the days attending mass, exploring the church and the properties, playing games, singing and dancing, and meeting people from all over the world. There was a surprising amount of people from Ireland, and I even ran into two girls about my age from the U.S. A group of us from Santander were chatting away in Spanish while in line waiting for lunch and I heard the two talking to each other in front of us and recognized not just the English but also the familiar accent. I turned to them to ask where they were from and they nearly jumped when I started speaking to them in English. It turned out that they were also studying abroad and decided to come as pilgrims, just the two of them.
I found it highly amusing that within our group I was very much the odd one out because I was not only one of the few young people who was on the pilgrimage without other family members, but I was also the only non-Spaniard (surprise surprise). It was like reverting back to when I first arrived and I was grilled with the same questions over and over by different groups of people as to why was I in Spain and why was I in Lourdes and why was I a volunteer (instead of a pilgrim) and how did I learn Spanish and can they practice English with me and can I talk to their son in English so he can practice, etc, etc.
Then one day I was talking to some people in the hallway when one of the women in charge of our group from Santander cuts in and asks in a rather urgent tone if anyone speaks English. She says that there’s a lady who’s lost and asking for directions but doesn’t speak spanish. I offer my services and she brings me over. The lost woman looks at me and starts speaking in rather exasperated French and it takes every ounce of self control I have to not crack up laughing as I told the woman who had brought me over that the lady was not speaking English at all, but French and that unfortunately I was of little to no use in that field (as demonstrated on the taxi ride before).
I had never felt so Spanish and so non-Spanish in the same week.
Some of my favorite parts of the week included the candlelight processions in front of the church with groups taking turns leading a rosary in their native languages, and simply getting to know the pilgrims, seminarians, and other volunteers on the trip. On the last day I was asked to accompany an elderly woman to the spickets where people can fill up containers with the Lourdes water. She had three large plastic containers and was unsteady on her feet and not 100% mentally present so I balanced three gallons of water on one arm and herself on the other. We moved at a snail’s pace but thankfully the weather was lovely and in the time it took us to walk there and back she had gone through the same cycle three times of her telling me a story about a family scandal, asking me my name and where I was from, and kindly informing me that if I ever needed a place to stay in Santander that I was more than welcome to come stay with her. I smiled and thanked her, and I was honestly just happy that she did all the talking because it was rather difficult to understand her at times, so I was more than content just walking and listening.
I feel that this snippet encapsulates my sentiment about the whole trip rather well. Most people (including the pilgrims who were there) ask me if I got to go see the baths, to which I reply that I didn’t, but that doesn’t disappoint me in the slightest. Every time I visit somewhere new I receive many well-intentioned recommendations of where to go, what to do, etc, but oftentimes something tells me that’s not where I will make the most of my personal experience. In Lourdes, I feel like I was always where I needed to be, and while for many people that would’ve meant visiting the baths, for me that meant simply walking, sitting, and talking with the pilgrims for most of the time. It was exhausting, both physically and emotionally (especially as an introvert), but beautiful and well worth it.
I was talking to my friend Eli this morning, after she had just returned from Lourdes this past week, and she said that some people had asked for me. It means so much to me that I was able to make such a small yet positive impact on other volunteers and pilgrims that they remembered and cared for the odd American girl who seemingly came out of nowhere to join them on a pilgrimage. I had so many other memorable encounters with different pilgrims and volunteers that I couldn’t possibly include them all here, but I’ll be thinking of and praying for them every time the Easter Octave comes around.