We’re back from two glorious weeks in Europe: London, Scotland, Florence and Rome. Except for having my pocket picked and spending about twice as much money as we expected, everything was as wonderful as we wanted it to be.
Technically, I can’t say for sure that my pocket was picked. I guess I could have just dropped my wallet and not noticed. And it really wasn't my pocket, it was my backpack. But this much I know for sure: I had my wallet out when I was buying a coke in a crowded MacDonald’s at the Pisa train station. I put it back in my backpack that was the last I saw of it.
It’s hard to believe that anyone is skilled enough to unzip my backpack and retrieve the wallet without me knowing it, especially when I could never find anything in it without taking it off my back, holding it down with one foot while unzipping it and rummaging through it up to both elbows. There were times I even had to stick my head inside to see what I was looking for. If anybody was able to quietly pick my wallet out of the chaos within then I have to be impressed at their talent.
The only consolation was that Beaven, in his best OCD fashion, had Xeroxed everything we had in our wallets before we left home. So all we had to do was make a few phone calls to report the cards as stolen. To his credit, he didn’t even gloat and do the whole end of the world scenario. And since I lost the cards about mid-way through the trip and we reported it so quickly, one credit card company had the replacement card waiting for me in the mail when I got home.
But you didn’t come here today to hear me whine about my stupidity. Europe was great. We kept moving constantly in order to cover so much territory is just two weeks. The thing an American gets blown away by in a visit to Europe is how old Europe is. You would be looking at some Renaissance artwork and suddenly realize that when the guy was painting this picture Columbus hadn’t even discovered our continent. Then we kept bumping into stuff that was built before Christ. The most astounding moment was standing in the middle of the vast St Peter’s Basilica. This building is so big and so grand that Michelangelo’s magnificent work, the Pieta, is tucked away in a corner almost like furniture at a rummage sale except that it sits behind bullet proof glass. I stood in awe looking up at an inscription carved in the dome of St Peters so high over us that the latin words were carved in characters seven feet tall so they could be read from below: “Tu es Petra”. I remembered the words of Christ to his disciple: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” And here I was standing inside the most magnificent of the churches built upon that rock.
I was totally respectful in St Peters after upsetting Elizabeth by quietly breaking rules in a couple of museums that didn’t allow pictures. I’m not sure what came over me. The places were so crowded with people that I think I was overcome by the possibility of how easy it would be to take pictures without anyone knowing it, especially if you turned your flash off. I felt pretty sure the rule had two main reasons; namely that the flash could harm the artwork and what a circus it would become if anyone could take as many pictures as they wanted. I remember a few years ago in the Louvre watching folks take each others’ pictures in front of the Mona Lisa. I really doubted people were looking at the painting as much as they just wanted their picture taken in front of it. It sort of disrespected the art. The only way to prevent this flurry of flashes is to outlaw photos of any sort. But the two I share with you today, I took very carefully without a flash and being extremely quiet about it. All you had to do was pretend you were looking at the your camera, thinking of something else besides what you were doing, like maybe your next gelato. Carefully turn the flash off, double check that it’s definitely off, triple check once more then hold the camera nonchalantly by your side and aim. All the while Elizabeth was hissing at me in shock, “Mother, what are you doing? Are you taking pictures? You can't do that, it's illegal. It's against the rules!! You are breaking the rules.”
In two week’s time we ate more pizza, pasta and desserts than we normally do in three months. We became intimate friends with the tube system in London and Rome. We learned to navigate Florence’s confusing streets. Veterans Day is a whole other thing when celebrated in a city like London who was bombed into smithereens during WWII. Everyone on the streets was wearing bright red and green poppies on their lapels. You could get one of the poppies anywhere with a small donation to the veterans causes. Elizabeth and I both bought one and wore them with pride. Heeding Rick Steves’ advice, we became temporary locals.
The oldness of Europe vividly intrudes in your life every time you’re presented with a set of stairs. And that’s often. While they usually have an escalator in the subways going fifty feet up to the next level there’s still plenty of steps when you’re only going up one flight of 10 feet or so. The Spanish Steps in Rome have even become a tourist attraction in themselves, though they’re not any more beautiful or graceful than the others. I can’t figure out just why they’re famous.
I am a big fan of stairs. I find staircases some of the most dramatic and graceful things around. I've been hooked on staircases ever since Rhett Butler carried Scarlett O'Hara up the stairs in Gone with the Wind. I love walking stairs. I love the feel of the banister in my hand and the heft of the lift in my thighs. Maybe it's the idea of going higher. Except that I'm scared of heights. So, maybe it's just the concept of getting somewhere.
I would love to see a coffee table book of just stairs; a book that would show them in all their grandeur. I know just which stairs I’d like to see in the book: the staircase in Gone With the Wind, for starters. But I’d also include the ones in Dallas Hall at SMU as well as the ones going to the basement in Perkins Chapel there, the stairs at the Louvre, the worn out steps in the Coliseum in Rome, the small pine stairs in the University of Virginia's Rotunda; I never forget a staircase. There are also great stairs that aren’t so much pretty as they are memorable: the stone stairways in the Tower of London where imprisoned Kings and Queens climbed and descended, the narrow marble steps inside the tower in Pisa, carved from the same Carrerra marble as Michelangelo used for the David. But I fear that the book wouldn't be enough to satisfy me. Stairs were meant to be climbed. It's the experience of the thing not merely looking at them in a book.
Stairs can be brutal, especially when you’re tired and worn out. I have a couple of friends whose knees are bad and each time I was tempted to grumble about the particular stairs we were fighting in the subway I thought of how lucky I am that I can even do this. Then I worried about how much longer I would be able to climb myself.
I also understand stairs now from a builders point of view. In the last few years Beaven and I have built a few stairs here at our house and a couple more on mission trips. I’ve conquered the trick of using a carpenters square to create stairs out of raw lumber and now I can not only do it but I understand how it works. I know stairs well enough now that while I climbed I found myself analyzing how high a rise and how long a run and calculating in my head how many steps this required. I noticed that some of the steps in Europe have a steeper rise than the usual seven inches.
I don’t know if it’s Beaven or just Europe but it seemed like we spent our whole two weeks on one staircase or another. When he would blithely explain that all we had to do to get from A to B was a few transfers on the tube he didn’t go on to explain that it meant going down three flights of stairs to reach the train platform then up the stairs where we would transfer to another train, then down again --up and down, up and down. London was just one big up and down to me. When you add the necessity of climbing a few icons just so you can say you did it (St Paul's Cathedral Dome in London, the tower in Pisa to name a couple) it all became a drudge of just putting one foot in front of the other. Climbing to the dome of St Paul's I counted steps to break the monotony and to double check their figures. As I counted I fell into a rhythm: lifting my foot and sliding it forward to establish a firm footing then transfer my weight to this foot, lifting the other foot and slide it ahead. Lift, slide. Lift, slide. Lift, Slide.
In between the cathedral and coliseum moments of our lives there are uncountable and ordinary days of just lift and slide. Though we don’t always enjoy them and they are mostly a pain in the butt, they’re necessary to get us where we’re going.
I’m going on to the next step in my life next week. I leave on Monday to begin work as a co-manager of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteer village in Gautier, Mississippi. I don’t know at this point for sure how long I’ll be gone-- more than likely about four months. It’s exciting on one hand to embark on this adventure, one I am certain I will walk hand in hand with God, but also one I know will unavoidably include a lot of lift and slide and it won't all be elegant. I'm sure most of it , in fact, will be ordinary steps with a higher rise than I want. But I'm going to try to hold God's hand while I climb. I'm sure the lift and slide of life is easier when you’re holding God’s hand.
Check back next Wednesday and travel with me on the journey.