Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #9

We’re Saved by a Jehovah’s Witness

Lourdes, France

June 1, 2001

Scoreboard: 11,615 miles; 6 Countries, 20 states

I’m sitting under the shade of a tree by a dark green French river Le Gave, in the shadow of the spectacular Basilique du Rosaire Crypte (cathedral), with a strong wind blowing leaves and tourists around.

Lourdes has been wonderful, we’ve been here nearly a week now. We’ve attended the nightly torch light procession twice and the weather has been incredible.

Travel books didn’t prepare us for the beauty of Lourdes. They tend to say things like “Lourdes was a sleepy little town until Bernadette Soubirous saw the Virgin Mary back in the 19th century…” Sleepy I don’t know, but it’s tucked into a beautiful fold of the Pyrenees, snow-capped mountains on all sides…you don’t have to wonder why Mary would want to come here.

From Barcelona we headed up the Costa Brava to Pals. A friend (that I’d never met, we became friends on a Neil Young discussion group) from Germany has a house there and invited us up for a beer.

Of course, his house turns out to be this beautiful villa with a pond by the beach, and he and his wife are the greatest hosts I’ve ever seen. They busted out what must have been an entire farm’s worth of cold-cuts, bar-b-q chicken and steak and bratwurst…the offered beer became several liters of a great local wine and we stayed the night celebrating Bob Dylan’s birthday with an increasingly obscure series of toasts before heading north again the next day.

The Spanish countryside has a great, warm, sensitive feel to it. I’ll remember one moment of driving into a valley in the rain, with low clouds partially blocking the old fortresses on the hills. And I’ll remember driving through a small town whose name I’ll never know, listening to Miles Davis play the climactic bit of Concerto de Aranjuz.

The borders don’t really exist much in Europe anymore. The French waived us on in, and by the time we got to Toulouse I was telling Theresa that “You know Sweet Pea (as we’ve christened her) is really good on gas, I don’t think that the gas gauge has even moved in 50 miles….” I desperately started looking for a gas station, but it was too late.

We ran out going up an off-ramp into a blind alley. Fortunately at the top of the hill a right turn flattened out so we sputtered to a stop in the middle of a main street instead of a blind major highway exit. Within minutes there were four Frenchmen stopped on the side of the road helping me push Sweet Pea to a parking place. It was unbelievable! No one even honked or yelled “Yanqui go home!”

Later we discussed the implications of a similar scene in L.A.

One of the gentlemen turned out to speak very good English, and offered to drive me to the nearest gas station. He then offered me money for gas. When I asked him where the nearest grocery store was he said that it was difficult to explain and drove halfway through town to it, with us following, so that we wouldn’t get lost.

In all he stayed with us for nearly two hours of ordeal during which time I thanked him repeatedly, for his kindness.

“It’s normal,” he said, “It’s what Jesus would want me to do.”

It turned out that Philippe is a Jehovah’s Witness, albeit one who knows a lot about the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana. Naturally he refused any payment for his time and gas, and seemed genuinely disappointed when it turned out that we didn’t need any more help and were ready to head on out of town.

A view from camping <i>Plein Soleil</i>“></CENTER><br />
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A view from Camping Plein Soleil

In Lourdes we checked out a couple campgrounds before settling on Plein Soleil (Place of Much Sun). It turned out to be an inspired choice. The views are incredible, especially from the third level where we stayed, and the husband and wife owners are really great people. The grounds are frequented by Joe the Collie, and offer all of the amenities that anyone could desire. It’s right on outskirts, close enough to walk to the famous grotto, but far from the tourist brouhaha of the center of town.

I’m writing a feature on the miracles of Lourdes for A Healthy Habit magazine, and we saw Song of Bernadette a few weeks before we left Orcas. It was in a grotto at the edge of Lourdes, of course, that young Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary, was initially persecuted for saying so, eventually became a nun and was sainted. Over the years nearly seven-thousand people have claimed to be healed by the holy waters of Lourdes, the Catholic church has declared 66 miracles, and now we’re here.

“Do you believe in the miracles?” a Belgian at Camping Plein Soleil asked me.

“Of course.”

“I don’t.”

“Well, it doesn’t really matter to me whether they happened or not. They could have happened, and so I’m here to celebrate the possibility.”

I guess it was a good enough response. He smiled and laughed and said that he’s off to celebrate the possibility of Fatima next.

The Trapp girls at Lourdes

The Trapp girls at Lourdes

The torch lit processions from the grotto to the cathedral are…very moving. Of course there are many people in wheelchairs, or with learning disabilities…hoping for a miracle. But there are many others, in large groups, or like us – pilgrims in small groups or by themselves, and the procession has more of the feel of a celebration than an act of desperation.

A simple service is conducted in the open air in several languages, there is the marching (with banners identifying various groups from Birmingham, England; everywhere in Ireland, Italy, Korea, a small Caribbean island community, Germany, the Netherlands, Croatia, Poland, Latvia…), and the air is filled with extraordinarily beautiful songs that everyone except for us knows all the words to.

By the time the procession is over, around 11 p.m. or so, everything is closed so we bought a bottle of wine on the way. We found some nice benches near the procession route and settled in. Somehow Myles got into Theresa’s bag and knocked the wine out, breaking the bottle on the stone walkway.

It was good French wine, and it deodorized the night! There was something very Catholic about it, I thought, very appropriate. The unforeseen breaking of the wine continued to have unforeseen consequences when a guy with a very red nose sniffed at the air for a few minutes then staggered off, no doubt in pursuit of the grape he detected.

Throughout the ceremony a moon rose over the cathedral, and a chorus of birds accompanied the service. I remembered one of my favorite Bible verses, where Jesus tells us not to worry, to see how God takes care of the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air and to understand that we will be taken care of too.


This one is for the reader who wants more pictures of my beautiful wife!

I’m going to go speak to the local scholars regarding the miracles in a few minutes, then we’ll spend the night driving through the heart of France, to Paris. I’ll be at Roland Garros tomorrow, witnessing first hand the greatest clay court tennis tournament in the world. Go Serena!

Tune in next week to see if we break wine bottles on the Eiffel Tower, or try to park on the steps of the Louvre.

Peace, Clayton.