Monday, August 24, 2009

Happy Ukrainian Independence Day =)

I’ve never celebrated this holiday before, but because I have a very strong desire to make a pilgrimage this winter starting in Kyiv – as I just learned from my new Ukrainian friends, not Kiev, which is the politically incorrect Russian transliteration of the capital city – I thought it well to start boning up on some language and cultural fundamentals.

The Ukrainian Byzantine Rite Catholic Church here in Denver had a wonderful celebration yesterday and I was invited by a Ukrainian-American I met. From the warm and generous reception, I’m more motivated than ever to get myself to Eastern Europe this winter… by November, I’ve been advised by Kyivians, after the worse of the autumn muds yet before the deepest of snow. The kind priest offered to write a letter of introduction for me in Ukrainian as an aid in finding accommodation from priests and monasteries I might encounter. Wow, how cool is that?

Reviewing the pages of ‘Teach Yourself Ukrainian’, I’ve concluded that this will be a little more challenging for me than learning Italian on the pilgrim trail. I’ve been on the Introduction pages for a week – and that’s just the alphabet. The 33 symbols contain enough oddities to make it seem illogical – the boxy symbol that represents the ‘D’ sound, for example, has a printed version considerably different from the handwritten version. Handwritten, the capital letter looks suspiciously like a cursive capital D, which I content with, but the lower case is decidedly like a g. Tricky. But not insurmountable. How hard can it be? I’ve got months to learn enough Ukrainian, Turkish, and Greek – each with its own alphabet – to get me by. (I figure I’ll fake my way through the language requirements of Romanian and Bulgarian… if I stick to the touristic coastline of the Black Sea, I hope that my German, French, and English will be enough.)

I have enough experience now to have a clear idea of the vocabulary I truly need to find a bed, some food, and directions to the next town, plus be able to explain who I am, where I’m going, and why. I’ve found that learning my half of these conversations and repeating them over and over again to anyone who might listen is a good way to progress, indulging on the pain threshold of the conversation partner. By the six or eight weeks it will take to pass through Ukraine, I should have some of that mastered to a satisfactory level. Pride, dignity, eloquence must be easily released to get through this. In the car on the way to the Ukrainian Independence Day picnic, I repeated countless times aloud ‘men-e-zvar-ta Anna’ as a way to introduce myself. No one laughed at me. My first Ukrainian sentence committed to memory, tried and tested – happy day!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Happy St Roch Day (or St Rocco, St Rock, St Roco, etc…)

August 16th is the day of celebration for this sainted pilgrim around southern Europe and anywhere Italians migrated. A parade in his honor even made the Godfather movies. In all my wanderings on both the routes to Santiago and to Rome, I kept running into statues, grottos, and paintings dedicated to him. I haven’t studied any real statistics, but I can guess that there are more chapels and churches dedicated to him than to any other Saint. His attributes are unmistakable: a medieval pilgrim with the standard floppy hat adorned with scallop shells, heavy cloak, walking staff with a water gourd attached, but with two distinctions – he’s lifting his cloak to show a wound on his muscular pilgrim’s thigh and there’s a dog at his feet holding a loaf of bread in his mouth.

His story’s a good one – these sorts of knowledge bites are sometimes written on plaques next to the churches or grottos and on guides to stain glass windows or paintings in cathedrals, or even on the paper placemats or menus in a restaurant called ‘St Roch’s Inn’ or something of the ilk.

Born in Montpellier, the legends agree, but when is a bit conflicting, with dates swinging over a few centuries from the 1200s to 1400s. All seem to agree that he, like St Francis, denounced his family’s wealth, dispersed everything he had to the poor, and went on pilgrimage, apparently to Santiago (he’s got the shell to prove it) as well as to Rome. In Acquapendente, on the via francigena, a plague had struck. It may have been the Black Death of 1348, but whatever, the date’s not really so important. He stopped his pilgrimage and aided the sick.

Next he showed up in Piacenza, a city also on the via francigena in northern Italy. He continued his work nursing the plague victims when he himself got the dreaded disease. The symptoms apparently include getting open wounds. He went off to the forest to recover or die on his own (peculiar thing to do) and every day a dog showed up to give him a loaf of bread. He survived, made his way back to Montpellier, got thrown in pokey through a case of mistaken identity, where he died right after dramatically revealing himself as the nephew of the governor responsible for the false imprisonment (okay, sure).

The thing is, regardless of the specifics of this man’s life, he was a real guy who lived centuries ago and he became a pilgrim along the same routes thousands of people make every year to this day. He generously interrupted his pilgrimage to help people in need. His kindness to the plague victims was so noteworthy that people years after his death decided that history should never forget his efforts or his character. Miracles were attributed to him during his lifetime and afterward. Sounds like he was the Mother Teresa of his day.

Were it not for the heinous devastation of the plague, would he have been just another pilgrim on the trail? Timing is everything, maybe, but afterward, during the subsequent not-quite-so-great European Plagues of 1575 and 1630, which especially hit hard in Italy, he was venerated by the individuals and towns for survival. Many of the statues, grottos, paintings, chapels evident today were created during and after these significant events. This was a pilgrim who made the big time.

The things you learn on a pilgrimage…

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Let’s tell the world about these European pilgrimages

My commitment to pilgriming includes sharing the experience with others, especially Americans… to spread the word that this particular way of exploring the world. This is a message that warrants a bit of evangelizing.

I’ll be giving presentations about my two consecutive solo winter treks across Europe – from Canterbury to Rome along the 1,300-mile via francigena, and the 1,500-mile walk from Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), Germany to Santiago de Compostella, Spain.

At the moment, I have the following talks scheduled:

August 27, 2009
7 pm
REI Boulder
1789 28th St
Boulder, CO 80301-1003
(303) 583-9970

September 8, 2009
7 pm
2525 Arapahoe
Boulder, CO 80302
phone: 303-786-8406
toll free: 866-786-8406

September 15, 2009
7 pm
REI Denver Flagship Store
1416 Platte St
Denver, CO 80202
(303) 756-3100

I expect these to be a lot of fun, talking about my experiences with the idea that anyone can do the same sort of thing, any time of year.

Go forth, see the world at 3 miles per hour, relax, get fit, eat well, enjoy…

Always interested in talking about this subject, I’ll post other dates as I get them scheduled.

Everyone is welcome =)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Travel Costs through Europe

Travel Costs through Europe

I just spent a month traveling around the south of Europe, with a small backpack and on trains and buses. I had a lot of places to visit and not enough time to walk, plus, the temperatures were generally just above or below 38C/100F – definitely not my kind of weather to be out walking in.

I traveled over 4,600 km (2,900 miles) in Spain, France, and Italy. I kept track of the costs for future planning purposes with the question in mind: is there really great value in Eurail passes? The short answer seems to be No.

Overall, I paid on average 0.11 € per kilometer (= $0.25 per mile) traveling mostly by 2nd class train, once by 1st class, because the 2nd class seats were all taken, once by sleeper-train in a 6-person cabin, and often by bus. Trains get fully booked in the summer.

An Adult Eurail Pass for a month of travel costs $1,199 (=850€). For the distances I traveled in the month, I would have been paying 0.18€ per kilometer (= $0.41 per mile) if I had purchased a Eurail Pass. [Were I a youth, which is under 25 by their definition, I’d have paid $799 (=567€) for the pass working out to 0.12€ per kilometer (=$0.27 per mile), about the same as without a pass, but there are often discounts at the station for youths anyway.]

With a Eurail Pass, one tends to stick to the trains to travel long distances. Wonderfully, buses go places trains don’t. The train-traveling crowds are thick and heavily burdened with enormous backpacks or wheelie luggage. They go places where the trains go. These crowds are not met on buses, which, for long distances, are quite modern and comfortable – restrooms far less skanky than on trains – and run more frequently than trains. My bus travels cost a mere 0.07 € per kilometer ($0.16 per mile).

Midway between bustling historic Genoa and the crowded but gorgeous Cinque Terre lies Portofino, a village on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean. Nearly as gorgeous as the Cinque Terre, it completely lacks the crowds because it has no train line.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience versus cost. For example, from Madrid to León, Spain, I stepped onto a bus within minutes of arriving at the central bus station, paying 20€ for a 5-hour ride. The alternative would have been paying 43€ for an hour and a half ride by train, after waiting for 3 hours. I’d have gotten to León at about the same time either way, by bus, I had a quiet relaxing ride where I could ask the bus driver some questions and have another 20€ in my pocket; by train, if there were a ticket still available – Spain is notoriously short on trains – I’d have been surrounded by other people’s luggage in the aisles and the ride would have been noisy from both the crowds and the lurching of the train itself. Whatever floats your boat.

Costs vary by country, clearly. In Spain, I paid an average of 0.11 € per kilometer (=26¢/mi); in France it worked out to 0.16€ per kilometer (=36¢/mi); and in Italy, a mere 0.07€ per kilometer (=16¢/mi). Though the comfort of trains varies by country, their lack of punctuality was equal. Clearly, I wasn’t traveling in Germany where the punctuality, comfort, and network are hard to beat.

Interesting comparison: Arriving back in the US, I visited for a few days in San Francisco before heading back to Denver. Preferring the train to the plane, and having a few days to spare, I chose to take the Amtrak so I could experience the mountains from the unique perspective of the train. With an advanced-purchase ticket, the rate calculated out to $0.07 per mile (=0.03€ per kilometer), traveling a distance of about 1,260 miles (=2,000 km). Big difference, but proportional to the price of fuel, it seems.