Thursday 16 April 2015

The Wrong Church

Reading online updates from my daughter in Australian while visiting my Mum in Spain, I am reminded of another visit to Spain many years before and how small our global village has become since.

As a teen, I hitch-hiked to Empuriabrava, a town on the east coast of Spain. I had arranged to meet my parents on a certain date during their holiday. In a pre-mobile-internet world, unsure of the whereabouts of their hotel, we arranged to meet at the church.

I got to the church at the appointed hour. A small miracle considering I was hitching and had had to turn down a lift from a guy on a moped, but only after some discussion and trying to fit on the back with my big rucksack and with the rev of forward motion, ending up using it to cushion my fall, back onto the road in a cartoon fashion. We laughed and agreed it wasn't meant to be and waved our goodbyes. I walked the rest of the way and when I got to the church I sat relieved and looking forward to seeing my parents.

I don't know how long it took for me to realise they weren't coming or that some mistake had been made, but when I did, I took action. I found out that although I'd grown up in Ireland where most towns and villages had only one church, Empuriabrava did not, it had two. And while I was waiting at the old church in the old town, my parents were waiting by the new church in the new town. Of course by the time I knew any of this, it was too late for anyone to meet anywhere and I had little choice but to wander around the new town in the vain hope of finding my parents somewhere. You could only feel sorry for yourself so long and it wasn't life or death and it wasn't going to solve itself. So rather than just sit there or hitch out again, I started to walk. At least moving I could feel some forward momentum.

My Spanish was non-existent but my Italian passable, and many in the area were able to understand and tell me they'd not seen the large group of Irish people who had recently arrived in the area, which with travel not being the norm like today, they would have noticed. Then, I hit on the idea of looking for 'white' people, not 'Caucasian' as the Americans put it but white skinned because of lack of exposure to the sun. Most Irish of the time naturally had little pigmentation from melanin in their skin and I myself had grown up burning easily and covered in freckles as soon as the summer started. However, as I'd been living in Italy some time, I was tanned and as dark skinned as most of the towns people were, so any other Irish would stand out from the crowd with the pale skin of the newly arrived.

I scoured the area's bars, hotels and tour buses, anywhere I thought the Irish contingent might be found. I didn't expect to find but didn't give up, only because I didn't know what else to do. So I searched for white faces and bodies. Scanning pool-sides, balconies and cafes, I spotted a pair of milk-bottle white legs on a balcony and called out, 'Excuse me, are you from Ireland?' The man looked down on me saying, 'Yes, how did you know?' I asked him if he knew my parents. He did, to his surprise and showed me where to find them. This story of the girl that showed up out of nowhere, who'd been waiting at the wrong church, and found her parents by asking a seemingly random stranger on a balcony if he was Irish and knew her dad, when he was and did, circulated the group for the holiday and is one which couldn't happen today in quite the same way.

It doesn't mean it was better or worse, just different. There were times when, because it was difficult, you had to be resourceful and because of that you learned to trust and rely on the kindness of strangers and how to adapt to situations. There were also occasions when you wasted so much time on remedying situations or arrangements or feeling frustrated because you couldn't remedy them that some days just seemed a pointless exercise. Communication systems like the mobile phone and the internet solve so many problems quickly today. But more than that, they connect the world. When you are far away from home or people today, you can still be in touch, moment by moment, rather than having to put up with infrequent phone calls cut short by running out of coins.

When I left home to live in Italy, it was further away than it is today. Not as far away as in Roman times or before that but further than today. The global village expands and contracts according to our needs and whatever we use to negotiate the changes and bridge the gaps, from our know-how to our technology, the important thing is not how but that we do bridge the gaps. There are lessons to learned from ending up at the wrong church and mostly they are learned from the people we meet along the way.

To paraphrase Francis Bacon:

A stranger's kindness shows that person to be a 'citizen of the world' and that their 'heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins them.'

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