In the summer of 2015 I unexpectedly found myself in one of the most magical and spiritual places I have ever visited: Assisi, Italy. I had no preconceived notion that I would feel this way about this place. Eric and I decided to visit this city because we had never been to Umbria and we were hosting a yoga retreat nearby the week before. We try and visit a new part of the country we travel to each year. Recently I was reminded of just how magical this trip was when scanning through the television channels and coming upon a Rick Steves episode all about Assisi.
As soon as we arrived in Assisi and checked into our quaint and quiet little apartment, we felt different. Settled. It was a searingly hot summer with temperatures in the high 90s up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. There was no air conditioning and absolutely no breeze, just the pink stones covering the winding walkways of this mystical old city and hours of blistering sunlight. We wandered from church to church, each one a dark and cool respite from the heat. Many of the churches did not allow any photography or talking. This too felt soothing to the mental and emotional heat I had to adjust to after coming down off leading an intense retreat experience.
Assisi is the city where Saint Francis was born and founded the Franciscan religious order in the early 1200s. This order was (and is) dedicated to helping the poor, to seeing the joyous nature of life on Earth, to social justice and to living simply. All throughout our walks we would see friars, visiting priests and nuns walking amongst the tourists and residents – many of them emanating a kind and peaceful presence of Being. With such a historical significance, Assisi is equal parts Catholic churches and silent monasteries (and tourist shops!). We went in every one to explore this energy we felt all through the town.
We hiked up to the hermitage rooms and caves in Eremo delle Carceri used by many a monk to commune with Self and God. We hiked down into the catacombs of many churches and visited the resting places of Santa Clara and other historical figures. We even visited Portiuncula – a tiny, ancient and powerful feeling church with a huge Basilica built around it on the outskirts of Assisi. We spent hours in the two main churches of Assisi – collectively called the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi – scouring the intricate artwork and appreciating the dark and light shapes of the lower and upper churches.
In each of these holy places, Eric and I (who are not necessarily “religious” people) could feel a pull of something deep and silent. Thousands upon thousands of people had prayed, convened, made pilgrimages to and worked from these spaces for many years. They left an imprint. The tiny little hermitage rooms with their one small bench felt soothing even though there was nothing about their physical shape to soothe us. The cool quiet tombs had a certain whisper of wisdom in their old air even though physically they only contained bones. The churches covered in beautiful paintings and tile work inspired our hearts even if we didn’t know who the artists were. One church even had this incredible tile mural of Saint Francis preaching to a sea of fishes – all handpainted – that we will never forget! (Saint Francis is sometimes called a patron saint of animals.)
Perhaps what struck both of us so much was that most of these churches and tombs had signs in nearly a dozen languages with two simple directives: No Photos and Silence. (Hence the no pictures of any of these sites in this blog.) Seems easy enough, and yet in every site we went and felt such a pull of silence, everyone else ignored these two simple rules and proceeded to talk loudly, point at and remark about things they saw, touch painted surfaces, photograph every little detail and disregard what felt natural to us in these places – to simply be quiet, observe, absorb and be with the experience of the space. Periodically over the loudspeaker as the din of people talking grew louder, a kind but exasperated deep voice would say, “Silenzio SHH!” or “Silence SHH!” and for a few moments a hush would come over the crowds. (Eric said it sounded like Sister Mary Elephant from Cheech and Chong – the reference is lost on me.) Not long after, the talking and photographing would start up again and the frustrated friars would look on with dismay. This repeated all day every day.
At times I wish I could be the voice over the loudspeaker saying a simple “Silenzio, SHH” reminder in many a circumstance of modern life. To the person talking to their neighbor during savasana. To the people having loud conversations in public spaces on speaker phone. To the person blasting music loud enough for all to hear through their headphones as they run around the beautiful corner of Chicago’s lakefront path. To the people taking a million selfies on the beach but missing the beautiful waves just before them. It is so easy for us to be distracted and to give in to the urge to busily log everything in picture form on our phones to share on social media instead of actually experiencing the place we are in, to speak about everything out loud instead of listening to another person or the energy of a space fully, to wrap ourselves in music/television/internet instead of sitting with the world around us.
Every place in the world from your home city to a remote island in the Pacific has its own energy and special feeling. Assisi is not alone in this! It just happened to be a powerful place where I could really find a connection to this principle of being absorbed in the unique energy of a location through quietude. Could you take the time to put your phone away, to sit or stand quietly, and to listen with all your Being to what is around you? You might be surprised at the Beauty that wells up from the silence.
Earlier this summer I took some vacation with my partner, Eric, after a yoga retreat in Portugal. I had just finished teaching a wonderful week at an eco-property in the southern Algarve region, and now we were headed north to the capital city of Lisbon on the train. The end of a yoga retreat is always a bit hectic: everyone leaving at different times, transportation to coordinate, teary goodbyes after a week of bonding together, hurried packing because we stayed up too late the night before. You get the idea! I ate early in the morning to make sure I got some food before teaching and getting everyone off in their respective taxis. Then it was a rush to return my rental car and get to the train station and on board to Lisbon. There was no gluten free food anywhere near the train station for lunch so I ate a snack bar thinking about how great dinner would be in Lisbon once we arrived.
By the time we got to Lisbon I had not eaten a meal in nearly 12 hours. We arrived in the middle of a teacher’s strike and our host could not get to us to let us into our apartment. Streets were closed and crowds of people were everywhere. We were stuck in a hot square with all our luggage for a couple hours more. I know this to be the adventure side of travel – the unpredictability and the experience of being in a foreign country. I love those aspects of travel, but at this point my blood sugar was high-jacking my sense of reason. All the tables at all the restaurants in the square were taken, so we couldn’t even sit down and have a bite. We were both ravenous by the time we finally got into the apartment. I had another small snack, but I was past snacking at this point. I was turning beyond hangry!
We picked a recommended restaurant nearby us from the guide book and set out to get some dinner. A patron saint festival was going on in the area of the city we were staying – the Alfama district – and everywhere these huge sardine grills were spilling out into the streets. The smell of the smoke and the sounds of a language I didn’t understand would normally intrigue me – but in my fatigued and hungry state, I just felt overwhelmed and as if I might faint. Everyone – I mean EVERYONE – was out and about eating, drinking and making merry. Add in a high profile football game on televisions all over and you had a recipe for overstimulation. We walked, and walked, and walked…and walked some more – searching endlessly for this restaurant.
If you have never been to the Alfama in Lisbon, it is not flat. Up and down staircases; weaving in and out of crowds, we searched. We trudged all the way up a long staircase to the top of the Alfama district, only to find…nothing. No restaurant, no store, nothing. After what seemed like hours of walking (probably in reality 1 hour) I felt near collapse and was a real nightmare to be around. We were lost and didn’t even quite know the way back to our place. And we still hadn’t eaten a meal in a very long time.
We gave up after bickering in the middle of a Portuguese street, and decided just to go home hungry. We made the long walk down towards where we thought our apartment was. Suddenly we passed a small cafe on a much quieter street away from the crowds. It had just a few small tables inside with quiet groups of diners. It was very mellow in comparison to the loud places we had seen everywhere else. We wandered in to ask if they had a table. It was a fixed menu restaurant and the chef said he didn’t know if he had enough food to feed another table of two. I stormed out and held on to a stone wall dramatically as if I might pass out right there and then and never take another step. Eric came out moments later and said that they found enough food to feed us and we could sit down. I’ve never been so happy to sit down in my life!
Our tiny table was just in front of the chef’s station. There was one man cooking and another man serving. It was the coolest food experience I’ve ever had. The menu was written up on a chalk board. I was so hungry I had not thought about what we might be eating. Up on the board were foods like clams and shrimp that I was not really happy about, and other dishes like salad that I was not “supposed” to be eating due to some health concerns. I get scared around seafood because of some bad past experiences, and I had been taking my eating restrictions really seriously of late. Eric gave me one look as if to say, “Eat whatever shows up.” And I did just that. I was so tired, hungry and out of it from the travel day that I just ate.
We enjoyed one of the best meals we have ever eaten. This chef was truly amazing. Every dish from start to finish was simple but exquisite and made with the most loving attention and care. We ate every bite off every plate. I’d never had clams before and loved them. The shrimp were delicious. The salad had all sorts of fun little additions and a delicious cheese. The dessert even had gluten and I ate that too (I have celiac disease and this is usually a huge no no). I figured if I was going to get sick, at least I was on vacation and had no where to be. I didn’t get sick at all – I’ve never felt better after a meal. Maybe because I was so hungry. Maybe because the food was so incredibly fresh. Maybe because I just let go for once.
I like to be found. I like to know where I am going when and what I’m doing once I get there. I like to preview the menu before I go to a restaurant and make sure it “fits” with how I’m eating. As I’ve blogged about before, I’m kind of a control freak! Years of such structured training and education in figure skating and in school left me with an almost compulsive need to know, understand and plan. Getting lost in Lisbon was an epic reminder of what you find when you go with the flow. It’s so important to let yourself get lost. Just when we think we are at our most lost, we actually really start to find things out. They don’t call it found treasure – it’s lost treasure – and that’s what I found when we got lost.
Without experiences like this that push my boundaries, I don’t think I would be constantly out-growing my control freak nature. Without putting myself in difficult situations, not just this travel experience, but many others where I don’t know what is happening, I would not be moving in the directions I am. It’s so important to let go of our clinging nature to what is comfortable and to let ourselves get lost in the world around us.
The original restaurant we were trying to eat at was called St. Antonio de Alfama. The restaurant we found while lost this fateful night was called Os Gazeteiros and I hope you will check it out if you are in Lisbon – call ahead to reserve your table. It took us the rest of the week to finally find St. Antonio de Alfama and by that time I was so relaxed from the Portuguese hospitality and pace of life that I had prawns, whole fish and a lotta garlic vegetables all in one meal.
The next time you feel lost, I hope you can recall this story. I know I will! We need reminders about how important it is to lose our way from time to time so the real treasures can rise up from the depths of experience for us to delight in.