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Sacred Sites, Peaceful Moments, and…Noisy Tourists?

The candles flickering, the old Italian lady quietly praying, the dark lonely crypt with so much history you can almost feel it, the peaceful sound of a camera loudly “click click clicking” non-stop – wait, where did that come from?!

Don't hesitate to take non-stop noisy photos in quiet places

There is nothing more frustrating than travelling thousands of miles to visit a beautiful, holy site and then have it ruined by tourists stomping about as if they were at McDonald’s. While to some visitors the site may just be a spot with beautiful artwork or a great addition to their photo album, for others it really is a holy site that they want to appreciate it in peace, tranquility, and prayer.

Yet it is amazing to me how many people do not seem to understand this and act as though they are attending a social gathering at a museum or historical society. Because I have spent far too many times amazed at the lack of respect, I created this list of some of the things that really bug me when visiting sacred sites and dealing with irreverent tourists.

The Seven Official Ways

1) Take photos using your flash – do not bother to check if your flash is turned off. Just step up and start shooting with wild lights in the middle of Mass, a quiet church where people are praying, an archeological ruin that someone else is trying to enjoy, etc. They will definitely appreciate the flashing lights and may see it as a sign from Heaven emanating from your welcome camera.

2) Snap some great shots using a noisy camera – you know, one of those cameras that has to make noise every time you take a picture. Then do it over and over and over and over and over and over…and over…without stopping – like Chinese water torture. When people stare at you, just ignore them. Who are they to expect you to be less intrusive about your photos?

3) Hang out and talk in churches or other sacred places – we all know churches are great social halls and not places where anyone would want to spend some personal time in quiet prayer. So mill around and chat for a while. If the person in front of you appears to be praying, act like you did not notice. Talk about the art, talk about what you want to have for lunch, talk about anything but just talk. Oh, and if you have any of those noisy shopping bags, play with them a lot so that they distract everyone around you.

4) Enter chapels designated “for prayer only” – if you do not want to pray, but are really curious to see the chapel, just enter anyways. Walk right in and gape at the ceiling, the walls, the statues. Sit in a pew in the middle of the room and keep writhing in your seat to get the full view. Sure, the other people there are focused and intent on prayer, and can tell you could care less, but you want to see the art darn it!

5) Attend Mass for 5 minutes just so you can see the church and then leave – if Mass is being said, but you really want to see the church, take a seat in one of the pews and linger for a few minutes. Then get up and leave when you are done. Sure you are distracting, and completely irreverent, but who cares?

6) Talk on your cell phone – of course the call cannot wait until you can step outside. So just take it there in public. It is your right!

7) Complain about the money that was spent on building such sites really loudly or make fun of religious customs you do not understand – forget the fact that thousands of unknown souls may have found solace, hope, and healing in such a place and through such a faith. You don’t like it and you travelled all the way around the world just to see it, so you could complain about it some more! Really, it is a very rational move and the money you could have given to the poor that you spent on your airline ticket, well, who would ever expect you to carry the burdens you lay on the shoulders of others?

Ruined Moments

These are just some of the things that have attempted to ruin some very sacred moments for me when visiting holy sites. It seems that in our modern world, people tend to view churches and holy places as relics from the past, a sort of living museum, but forget that others still see it as a very sacred place indeed.

So now that I have vented, what are your pet peeves and aggravations when visiting holy sites or traveling? Let me know, I would love to hear!

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(Editor’s Note: WordPress has been acting up lately. I have notified customer service, but until they can fix the strange editing mis-haps that I cannot, you may find some unusual things in the posts, such as periods to separate paragraphs that are otherwise insisting on bunching together. My apologies!)

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It was night in Rome. The stars were shining in the sky above, the air was cool and crisp, my i-Pod was singing sweetly to me alone, and the sparkling water of the Tiber was running ever onwards to the sea. As I made my way across the famous Bridge of Angels, the illuminated Vatican glowing in the distance, I felt at peace and deeply happy.
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Pausing on the cobbled pavement of the famous bridge, I gazed up at the angelic figure who so kindly gazed back at me. The soft white of the wings against the twinkling stars and romantic black sky made me almost feel as if I was gazing upon a real angel who had traversed the universe just to be here tonight. The moment seemed surreal, like something out of a dream or a fantasy (and this was a bridge I have crossed many times in the 10 years I have been visiting Rome). Tonight was different in some way.
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I passed the angels one by one, contemplating the treasures that they held. They seemed to be imploring for me to consider what each one meant; to unlock the symbolism before me.

The first angel on the left holds the whips

First the pillar of Christ’s passion on the right, and the whips used at the scourging on the left. I smiled at the angels and silently replied, “yes, I see what you are suggesting.” I responded to their call by contemplating the scourging of Christ, particulary in the items represented.

Next, two angels on each side displayed the crown of thorns and Veronica’s veil. I nodded in understanding; “I am moving along through the passion of Christ.” I considered the sufferings from the crown and the bloody results that would have left him barely able to see until Veronica so kindly wiped his face.
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Stepping to the third pair of angels hovering over me on the moon-lit bridge, my eyes fall upon two more items to consider. One was the nails. Another was the clothing that was stripped from Christ before the crucifixion and the dice that the soldiers used to roll for the fabric. The angels were leading me through time, asking me to meditate upon the moments before Christ was crucified.
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Further along the bridge, the next set of angelic figures presented the cross and the sign that read “Jesus, King of the Jews” which was nailed to the top of the beams. Now I was mentally at the crucifixion, through the items that were used in those hours.

The last angel on the right holds the lance that was used to pierce Christ's side after his death

Nearing the end of the bridge, I gazed up at the last pair. On one side, an angel held the sponge tainted with vinegar that was pressed to Christ’s lips when he cried out in thirst. On the other side, an angel held the lance that had pierced his side after he had passed away.  These were the final cruel instruments used against him, in his final moments and even after his death. The journey was complete; both of his passion and life, and mine across the bridge.

The angels all smiled at me in silent witness. They joyfully knew that I was about to know what they knew…

I stepped onto the northern bank of the Tiber, and in the cool night air I gazed back at where I had journeyed from and what I had journeyed through. Turning, I looked at the direction ahead; Saint Peter’s basilica glowing in the distance. That was when I realized something I had never caught before.
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I had just journeyed through time. What now lay behind me was the foundation of what lay before me, both physically and historically. All that Christ had suffered during his sorrowful passion, as represented by the items that the angels carried, had provided a bridge across time to a new civilization and a new faith. St. Peter’s Basilica standing triumphantly in the distance was the physical manifestation of the goal Christ had achieved; the Church of Christ on earth. The Roman Catholic faith. Christianity. Salvation from destruction through suffering.
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It was a physical journey accompanied by a historical one all via the angels gently calling upon the viewer to remember…just to remember.
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It was brilliant! I hurried back to the beginning of the bridge. Who was there, guarding the way? Saints Peter and Paul! The very same saints who stand in the same positions before St. Peter’s Basilica! They greet and guard the beginning of the journey across the bridge and to the Vatican, and welcome home at the end, for they are the first great protectors of the faith who gave their lives so that it would not be forgotten.
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Now I understood how this would have all played out centuries before. When instead of tourists snapping too many photos there would have been devout pilgrims in prayer, and this was the route that would have been laid out for them to cross.

View of the Bridge of Angels from across the street. Saint Peter is on the left and Saint Paul is on the right.

As they approached the Bridge of Angels, they would have seen Peter and Paul greeting them while guarding the path. The great gatekeepers of the message of Christianity had something to tell them, something they wanted them to consider and see. It was the message of Christ that lead to the Church that they  helped establish.

Stepping onto the bridge, the pilgrims would have passed the five sets of angels, two by two, and perhaps meditated on the passion of Christ through the instruments of the passion that the angels carried, just as I had. Crossing the river, they would have perhaps also felt the sense of crossing through the passion, through time, to the other side where the present glory awaited. The glory of the Church, of their faith.
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Arriving at Saint Peters, would they have thought, as I did, “yes, all that suffering grew into something so great! And here is the witness before me!”?
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How would they have felt about their own sufferings, seeing first hand what had grown in splendor from those of one man who bore his own sufferings in simple love and humility?
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As I walked towards the Vatican that night, under the beautifully clear Roman night sky, I felt as though my journey was suddenly enriched. I was not just walking across a bridge with pretty angels and then heading down a street to an amazing basilica, but if I listened, I was journeying across time. From the Passion of Christ and the guardians of his message to the triumph of that passion and those who had protected it; this was the deep message I had discovered on one famous bridge.
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And my simple walks to Saint Peter’s Basilica have never been the same again.

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Today is the day when beers magically turn green, foreigners temporarily become Irish while pleading for a kiss, and the gift of the gab runs freely across the lips of those celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day. Cheers!

On such an occasion, I thought it fitting to share some of my most memorable experiences when I lived abroad in, that’s right, you guessed it, Ireland!

The very first foreign country that I ever temporarily called home was the land of the leprechaun’s, and the city that I chose for my own was ol’Dublin town as I attended Trinity College. (My former Irish roommate would probably be yelling at me right about now for all the clichés!)

Although Dublin has its charm, I have to admit that three of my most favorite places in all of Ireland were far from the hustle and bustle of the city.

1) The Cliffs of Moher

I journeyed far along the cliffs into the distance

I made several trips to these dramatic cliffs overlooking the wild Atlantic, and every single one of them was worth it. But my favorite was the one time I went all alone, instead of with a group of friends, and got up the nerve to enter the portion of the cliffs that tourists are dissuaded from visiting.

 

I wandered far along a narrow dirt path that clung close to the edge until I had distanced myself so completely that every tourist was just a tiny spec in the distance. My only companions were a field of cows grazing to one side, lazily staring at me at they chewed on their herbal meal, and the thundering ocean below.

Feeling brave, I laid down on the grass, carefully inched closer, and hung out over the sheer edge as much as I dared. (I do not recommend this. It is very dangerous and should not be done.)

The wind caught my hair as I gazed breathlessly out over the sea, a thrilling energy tingling through me. I loved the birds-eye view of the steep drop and the dangerous rocks below. I felt as though I was a seagull soaring high above, and simply laid there for some time in glowing appreciation of such a moment.

When I finally (and very carefully) drew myself back, I rested for the longest time in the grass and just listened. The cliffs seemed to speak to me in a language all their own, and had so much to tell. What they shared I can never repeat, for they spoke without words. It was rather the essence of a rocky, lonely place that had stood for millions of years whispering gently of its secrets to my own soul.

2) The Rock of Cashel

On my very first road trip through Ireland, I rented a little red car from the Dublin airport and worked up the nerve to drive (all by myself) – on the wrong side of the road!

Leaving the airport, I had to almost immediately tackle a roundabout that lead to a busy freeway, which was as nerve-wracking as could be. Cars were flying at me in circles from every direction, and they all seemed to be from the wrong direction. I could not remember which way was right and which way was left…everything seemed a frightful mess!

By the time I made my way to the little country roads, I was almost in tears. I felt like a schoolgirl learning how to drive all over again, but this time no one was with me to help me feel safe!

The view is one of those rare ones that does not let you down in person

Shaken and wishing I could run straight back to Dublin and hide under the covers of a warm cozy bed, I turned a corner and saw the most spectacular view in front of me. For a moment everything seemed to stand still as I just gazed in awe at the Rock of Cashel which revealed itself to me in a grandeur I had little expected. Still on edge, I managed to make my way to the parking lot, safely park my car (whew!) and then hiked up to the famous ruins above.

I could have spent all day there, and must have at least spent an hour or two just lingering and wandering about. I sat inside the crumbling cathedral, on the bare earth, and just stared at the sky above me. The cool breezes passed through the doorways and windows that were now just gaping passageways in the walls. The grass rustled, the birds soared high above, and history gently echoed around me.

Gothic churches are meant to point to the heavens, but a Gothic church lacking a roof really completes its mission of guiding your heart to the skies.

By the time I got back to my little red nerve-mobile, I was so calm and relaxed that I was amazed at how effortless driving suddenly seemed! The rest of the trip was a breeze, and it was as if I had been driving on the opposite side of the road all my life. (Except for my pit stop at the country gas station, where two old Irish men hung out their windows in good-natured humor as they laughed at me trying to get into the passenger side!)

3) Skellig Michael

A lone tourist enjoys the view on a beautiful sunny day

I saved Skellig Michael until almost the end of my time in Ireland, when I made another road trip across the country (this time less afraid of the roads!).

 

Boarding a rickety boat at a small dock, I was soon whisked away into the ocean and the sight of Skellig Michael slowly growing closer was everything that I had hoped it would be, and more. What was not what I had hoped it would be was the death-defying climb to the top!

After we docked, many travelers only ventured so far up the steps and then refused to continue the journey, but I was determined. Step by nervous step I made my way up the steepest, most ancient stairs I may have ever climbed, all without a handrail! Chipped and even loose in some areas, I had to force myself not to look down.

I kept wondering how it could be possible that they let tourists make such a climb so freely without worrying about the implications. But nevermind, I was glad that they did, as it gave me a chance to experience the authenticity of the historic island.

Reaching the top, I was able to revel in spectacular views of the sparkling sea, climb through monastic ruins, and huddle into tiny chapels. At one point, a gentleman who was on the voyage with me came over to share his amazement that monks had once lived in such a perilous, rocky place, and I could not help but exclaim “I could stay here forever!”

To imagine the religious men who had lived in such lonely surroundings, daily climbing the steep steps, was a romantic epic for the mind. The blue skies, the cool yet strong breezes, the seagulls, and the absolute solitary nature of this forgotten monastic community is perhaps my favorite memory of all.

While I did make several other road trips with different groups of friends, none of them stand out the way my solitary adventures do. Ireland is a modern land but still retains many wild, untamed places. The security of a group simply never allowed my soul the freedom to really listen to the heartbeat of the past, and for that I am forever grateful that I took the chance, overcame my nerves, and explored this country on my own as well.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

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Today was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I was able to welcome the forty day season here in Rome!

Lent is traditionally the time when Catholics prepare, by fasting, prayer and penance, to remember the passion and death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection from the dead on Easter. Many will renounce something important to them for forty days as is customary, or intensify their religious/spiritual life. As for me, I usually stumble through it pretty poorly, and today started off as no grand exception.

Nestled warmly in my bed, I was none too delighted when my alarm called me to the new day. Fumbling to turn that call off, I pulled the covers over my weary head for just a little more sleep. Strange how in those moments we do not rationally remember how that decision always goes! When I finally re-opened my eyes, it was far too late to attend Mass at my favorite parish. To make matters worse, I had not researched Ash Wednesday Mass times for any other church in town! The day was not headed in the best of directions.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to remember that this is Rome! With a church on every corner, all I needed to do was scurry from parish to parish and I should eventually hit a mass. The blessings of the Eternal City to the rescue.

Soon dressed and out the door, I stopped by the nearest church. I paused in the back for a moment, but it looked far too dark for a Mass to be commencing anytime soon, and I did not see any of the tell-tale “Mass is about to be said” signs to look for (candles being lit, alter wine being set out, etc.). That was when I thought of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the largest churches in Rome. It is only about a ten minute walk from my place if I hurry and take the narrow, winding back roads, and being as important as it is, I figured there had to be a Mass there!

A painting of Santa Maria Maggiore as it looked before cars and vespas went zipping by

Before long I was making my way down tiny cobbled streets, dashing across larger busy ones, and almost out as breath as I neared the church. Flying through the doors, I blessed myself, dodged tourists and felt relief as I heard the sounds of a priest delivering his Italian homily. I was able to slide into one of the large gated side chapels just in time. Safe!

The large side chapel where I attended Lenten Mass in Santa Maria Maggiore

After the homily was finished, Italians proceeded to converge upon the priest in a rapid cluster to receive their ashes (in Italy there is no formal sense of ‘waiting your turn’). For a Catholic, this means standing in line to have the priest dip his thumb into a small dish of black ashes and trace a cross on your forehead, while inviting you to remember that life is temporary and that we will all one day return to dust. It is part of the custom to leave the black ashes on your forehead until preparing for bed that night, as a witness to both yourself and the world of who you belong to, what you profess, and the deeper thoughts of life and death that you are contemplating.

Completely prepared to spend a day wandering around Rome with a gigantic cross on my forehead, I blended into the queue. When I finally had a clear view of the priest, I stepped forward, closed my eyes and waited to feel the ashes traced across my forehead as I do every year.

And I waited…

The seconds ticked by and I quickly realized nothing was happening! My eyes fluttered open in self-conscious bewilderment and instantly fell on the dish of ashes. Instead of black suit, all I saw was an off-white powdery substance. Confused, I looked up at the priest, who just stared blankly back at me. Realizing nothing more was about to happen, and that if I stood there any longer I would risk looking more foolish than I probably already did, I quickly stepped aside.

As I crossed through the chapel on my way back to my standing room only spot, I looked at every forehead that I could but did not see a single dark cross. In fact, I saw nothing. What had happened?

When I reached the back of the chapel, I turned around and silently studied the priest. He followed all the procedures, dipping his thumb in the ashes, blessing the foreheads, but he did not seem to be actually touching anyone and if he did, it was leaving absolutely no mark!

Having been raised a cradle Catholic, this sight was absolutely surprising to me. I was even a little let down that I did not get to spend my customary day of minor embarrassment with people gawking at the strange girl with the unusual mark on her forehead. (Many priests are not good at forming a cross, so often you just get a big black smudge. It can actually make for an interesting day, if you have a good sense of humor!)

By the time Mass was over, I gave up my contemplation of dashing to the American parish in Rome with the hopes of finding a “real” Ash Wednesday blessing, and decided to settle for my invisible cross. Besides, I figured Santa Maria Maggiore was a good enough place to commence the Lenten season because it contains a relic of the manger that Christ was first placed in when He was born. The correlation between the beginning of Lent and birth (new life, new beginnings) seemed like a fair enough match, and so I stayed put.

The reliquary shaped like a crib that holds relics of the real crib Jesus was placed in when he was born

To reach this reliquary, one must journey down a set of marble stairs into a small little alcove tucked away under the altar. It is here in this holy alcove that I went to pray.

Under the main altar of Santa Maria Maggiore can be seen the Crypt of the Nativity and the reliquary

Given my Lenten track record, I wanted to do contribute something meaningful to my spiritual life, but I could not figure out what. The customary “just give up chocolate!” came to mind, but that seemed to trivial. After praying a little longer, I eventually wandered away, still pondering this thought. As I was about to leave the church, a small voice deep in my mind suggested that I go back to the crib and pray once more. I hesitated, but then figured “why not?”

The central nave of the church as viewed from near the entrance/exit

I made my way back over to the altar, where I stood in prayer at a heavy marble railing that overlooks the little alcove. I considered the correlation between birth and the new Lenten season once more, and that was when it hit me. I had something to give up, and it was better than chocolate!

Understanding that the baby Jesus had been born into this world for the sole purpose of one day dying to save souls, I reflected on how this was His entire obsession, and what He thirsted for more than anything. So what could be more delightful to Him than to have someone present themselves as a gift during the season that prepares us for His own great gift of His life.

I decided to “give up” my laziness towards my morning offerings, and offer myself each morning as a gift to the baby Jesus who, in 40 days as a grown man would give His life for me. Coupling this with the intention to give up any negative thoughts (this could get complicated!), I decided that I had settled on my Lenten offerings.

What really touched me though was that as I was leaving the church, I had the most strong sense of tender innocence wrap itself around me, and for the rest of the day I dwelt in an unusually tangible peace.

A painting of Mary and the baby Jesus by the famous William Bouguereau

Maybe I will botch up the entire season, who knows. Hopefully I won’t! But today turned out to be a good start to Lent after all, and Rome once again proved itself to be a rich spiritual resource if one is willing to step beyond the photos and sightseeing to simply look deeper. And thank heavens for a church on every corner!

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Taking the step and journeying abroad can be challenging. My biggest fear in transitioning from a digital nomad in the states to a digital nomad abroad was the internet, or lack of it.

Dreaming of the streets of Rome is one thing, but as a digital nomad your dream depends on one source: the internet

Having lived in Italy before, I was very well aware that my expectations of the internet were not the same as an Italians, and that the reality of a bad connection could easily open the door to potentially disastrous results. If I could not work, I would risk upsetting my employers and loosing a significant portion of income only to end up back home at square one. It was a situational red flag that had “stop!” written all over it.

After months of mental debates and endless considerations, I found myself in Rome one beautiful Monday morning, riding the Leonardo da Vinci express into the city center. With the time difference, I knew I would be able to get to my apartment, unpack, shower and rest before “heading” to work (my long three-foot journey to my desk).

Before laying down to ease my jet lag, I popped open my laptop and briefly tested the connection. All seemed well on the digital front, and so I happily dozed off. I had no idea what was awaiting me.

Some hours later, I lazily rolled out of bed, shuffled over to the simple wooden desk, opened my laptop and waited for the magic of the internet to transfer me at the speed of light across the ocean, linking me to my company.

Nothing.

Taking a deep breath, I remained calm. Having travelled and used the internet from different locations in the past, I knew that it could sometimes take a few tries to establish a connection. But an hour later, still staring at a blank screen, I felt like my entire world was sinking around me.

With the clock ticking, I knew that I could no longer cross my fingers and hope for the best of the web, and so I crossed the hall to my landlord’s flat and rang the shrill buzzer. Explaining to her in broken Italian my life and death situation, she kindly took an interest and attempted to help. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. She suggested that I wait a few hours and perhaps her son could be of more assistance when he returned home.

A public phone in Rome much like the one I used that night

Grabbing my purse and coat, I headed out to find a “Tabacchi” (a little Italian shop where you can buy lottery tickets, cigarettes, etc.). For five euros I was handed an international calling card, which I promptly carried to the very first pay phone I could find. As my luck would have it, I ended up standing on the busy corner of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road that leads to the Coliseum, engaged in a semi-tearful phone call to my family back home. (Standing on a street corner looking distraught while holding the glaring red receiver of a public phone to your head is probably not the most pleasant way to kickstart a journey.)

With the promise of prayers from the states, I said goodbye to the familiar voice, buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and wandered aimlessly through the darkening streets. Falling away from the beaten path, I came across the large, looming facade of a church, it’s doors still hanging wide open. Feeling like this was something of an invitation, I crossed the narrow street and wandered into the mysterious space.

It was dark, dimly lit and I was all alone, sheltered by the 500-year-old arms of a building that had seen many more souls desperate than mine. I stared forlornly at the flicking candles that whispered prayers to ancient saints, and gazed in sadness at the painted icon above the altar. Step by slow step I made my way down the aisle, passing rows of abandoned pews, until I could walk no more and simply sank down on one of the narrow wooden benches.

Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome, the church that welcomed me that first night

That was when I began to silently talk. To God. In the private corners of my mind I whispered my concerns, and the more I spoke the more distraught I became. Sheltered by the privacy of the semi-darkness, the only eyes to gaze upon me the centuries old statues and paintings of holy men and women, a need began to take over me. It was a need so deep I had not even realized how strong and powerful it was, for it had never emerged in such a way. When the container holding it finally cracked, I was overwhelmed at what poured out.

Sometimes we do not realize just how much we truly want something until the recognition that it could be lost is most tangibly felt. That is how it was for me, and in those moments the tears that poured forth were of an intensity that I had never known while sitting in a church. I even stopped caring if anyone saw me or what they would think. I simply could not and did not want to stop the force of longing from breaking through the suddenly frail container of my humanity.

I talked, prayed and cried until people filed in, lights went up, mass was said, people filed out, and the lights went down again. I sat until only the loving eyes of the ancient statues and paintings remained to gaze tenderly upon me. Only then did I leave.

Santa Maria dei Monti, much brighter when pictured on a sunny day

Hoping that somehow the echoes of my being splitting in two by the force of desire had been heard, I stepped out into the cool night air and made my way back along the busy road. Turning down the little quiet medieval street, I hurried to my flat where with my landlord and her son we tried every option we could think of until we were all exhausted from so much effort and so few results. Perhaps the force of desire had not split loudly enough as I had hoped.

Pinned to a wall and with no other options, the next evening I found myself at a local internet cafe. Wired in and uncomfortably seated in a hard metal chair, flourescent green walls screaming at me from every angle, I logged on and went to work. Later that night, I sleepily wandered down the little medieval street to my flat, climbed the 7 flights, and lay across my bed staring at the darkened ceiling. I talked to God a lot during that time.

Some friends back home had suggested that the problem was just temporary, and that perhaps the internet would resume functioning again. I put a little hope into this suggestion, but it did not take me long to recognize the true source of the problem.

Staying in the flat next to mine, and renting from the same landlord, was a group of young girls who were studying abroad. As the days passed, I quickly began to notice that when they went out in the morning, the internet suddenly came alive. I could surf for hours and utilize all my programs without a glitch. But the moment I heard their door unlock and the sounds of furniture moving on the other side of the wall, I came to recognize that within 10 minutes or less the internet would disappear for the entire night. All night. Into the early hours of the morning. My problem was not the internet, but bandwith-sapping neighbors who were using the internet for some unknown but clearly intense purposes.

To my dismay, I learned that they were scheduled to remain there for many months and so I finally knew I had no choice. The internet would never be reliable as long as they were “sharing” (hogging?) it. I had to either find another flat in Rome, or quickly purchase a plane ticket back home.

Deciding that after all my trials option B was the most desirable choice, I began contacting prospective apartment owners zealously. I parked myself on my sofa for days (during the hours the girls were away), sending e-mail replies to every internet add, signing up with every apartment finder service, and clogging my account with reply after reply in the negative. “Sorry, we do not have internet.” “We have internet – want to go in debt to live here?” “We are connected, but nothing is available for another 3 months. Your request is too last-minute.” “We have a nice place with a great connection and it is available – if you take a train for 45 minutes outside of Rome and walk another twenty you can come see it.” It seemed hopeless, and time was ticking.

In those questionable hours of my life, I kept returning in my mind to the church I had sat in on the first night. In the little chapel of my thoughts, I spoke at length with God about everything I felt and feared. I threw all of my trust into His hands, telling Him time and time again that I was certain He would not abandon me. I threw my faith into overdrive and dwelt on one thought alone; that I trusted in Him.

But time was growing too long, and I had to make a radical decision. Either move somewhere far on the outskirts, go broke living in a place beyond my means (but stay in Rome, where I truly longed to be), or purchase a ticket home. Spun into a world of uncertainty, I was amazed when I came home Sunday evening and found a little blue paper that my landlord had slid under my door.

Picking it up, my eyes widened as I read the letters inked upon the unlined page, “the girls are moving out.”

I stood there, still weighed down by my bags and coat, half out of breath from the seven flight climb, and just starred in what could only be understood as joy and shock all rolled into one. In my hand I was holding a little piece of paper with words that would literally save my Roman dreams. My gratitude was enormous, and all that echoed inside my head were the two words “thank you” over and over. The force of desire and longing that had split my heart so powerfully that first night, and all the prayers after it, had somehow been heard.

A few days later, the girls did indeed relocate to another flat in Rome. And that evening I happily shuffled to work in pink flip-flops, turned on my computer, and peacefully went to work. It was as if nothing had ever happened.

Yet something had happened. I had not only discovered the force of my desire to be in Rome, which I had never truly known until the moment I realized it cold be taken away from me, but I had also been given a glimpse into the power of faith. While I will never know what would have happened if I had not poured out my heart to God in those moments, and turned to him in my little trust, I do know what happened when I did.

Travel showed me a side of my own heart that I had not known and the kindness of God to my simple human desires. And chapter one of my life as a digital nomad abroad ended with a challenge presented, and a priceless lesson learned.

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While it may seem unusual, I can literally pinpoint my obsession with Europe to one single day in the fall of my 21st year.

At 21, all I wanted to do was sail off into the sunset.

From the summer after I had graduated high school just over three years prior, there had been a constant tug of war between both my mother and myself. I had dreamed of heading off to the islands and gaining my “education” through adventurous experiences, crewing on a boat around the world. However, this free “diploma” was not the one my mother had intended to hang on her wall. Being the coercive leo that she is, she did everything she could to literally stuff me in the car and drive me off to college right on time with everyone else, at the young age of 18 (while I played Jimmy Buffett tunes and sang about how “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go…”).

Feeling defiantly boxed into a corner, I made good on my outspoken promise to be seen but not participate. I went through the motions of heading to class, but engaged all of my effort into my fraternity boyfriend, throwing the biggest parties in the dorm, and living the “coolest” new-found life of freedom that I could.

While my shallow existence could have easily continued on for a lifetime of trivial pursuits, a series of unexpected events that would quickly unravel over the next few years taught me first-hand the meaninglessness of the path that I was on. It was as though someone grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and made a very sharp, dramatic turn, setting the car that was my life onto an unknown road I had never seen before.

Once I was on this unexpected road, however, I never had any interest in turning back. The road began to hurriedly climb a steep mountain which I now knew had always been near at hand, but had never noticed. As I sat helplessly in the passenger seat, I turned my head to gaze out the window where I could see everyone I had left behind, all so far below. They seemed to be congealed together in a great mass, all struggling and writhing for the little bits of happiness that they could find here and there. It looked miserable, almost shocking really, and I wondered why I had never viewed it that way before.

And then, suddenly, the car stopped someplace far up the deserted mountain, surrounded by a dense, misty grey fog. Like a magic trick it disappeared and I was left standing alone never to know who the driver was or why I had literally been abandoned there. All I knew was that I now only desired to continue journeying upwards.

Symbolic metaphors aside, daily life continued on and my mother, still desperate to hang on to her dream of seeing me through college, found a school she thought I would like and suggested their program to me. A little more open to the idea of education at this point, which stemmed from a burgeoning intellectual curiosity about life, I wandered through the catalog until something caught my eye. At first it was religious studies, but then it was humanities. Before long, I was registered in courses for both European history as well as European art history.

And that leads me to the day that I mentioned earlier. The one day where it all definitively began.

My mind filled with so many fascinating subjects, I now felt a deeper calling to be in a place with so much history and culture.

Completely alone, I had locked myself in my bedroom to study. Sitting on the small round carpet on my floor, I leaned against the wall, tilted my head to the right and gazed out the window next to me. The textbook I had been reading lay idle in my lap, its pages open to an image of medieval Europe and the great universities that had once paved the way for the educational system that we know now. My mind seemed to bob gently up and down in a sea of art and history, the middle ages and the Roman times, culture and legendary figures. I gazed at the blue sky so far above, dotted with gently drifting clouds and thought to myself both dreamily and yet with a deeply profound determination that I did not recognize yet, “I am going to live in Europe some day. One day, I am going to be at one of those universities. One day.”

It was as simple as that. A seed was planted in fertile soil and I never could forgot that moment and the call to Europe that I had first felt. That one, single thought lingered in my life, like an anchor that I somehow knew I needed, and continued to grow. It was a part of me in a deep, hidden way that was unexplainable, and still is.

I hung on to it through many trials. Such a radical turn in an individual’s life as the one I was experiencing was hard to prove stable to others, but I began to work seriously at my studies and eventually was accepted to a solid American university where I graduated Magna cum Laude.

But I was not done there. I continued to hang on to it even when others told me that it never could be. My boyfriend used to laugh good-naturedly at my insistence that I would go to school in Europe some day. Acquaintances thought I was full of smoke and enjoyed gossiping about how it was all a pipe dream. Maybe a study abroad program for a semester would be nice, but to get a full degree somehow seemed unreasonable to them. Yet the more that small seed grew, the more I hungered for what was trying to manifest itself into my reality.

I hung on to it as I made my applications to graduate school abroad, hand shaking from a fiance who had tried to tear all hope out of me. I continued to hang onto it on the airplane the day that I finally left, as the engines revved and the aircraft began to slowly pull away. I hung on to it as sitting there in my window seat the realization that this was it brought a sledge-hammer down on my life, tearing it apart and dividing it in two.

I hung onto it that first night in Ireland, when all I could do was lay on the unmade bed in my dorm room and stare at the ceiling, too overwhelmed to understand where I was or what I was doing. Through homesickness, culture shock and a multitude of challenges to complex to describe here, I refused to let it go. I hung on to it because it was the one thing I knew I could not let go of without loosing apart of myself. It was truly apart of me. It was my dream. The anchor of my life.

In the end, I walked down not one but two aisles to receive two European degrees. And when everyone had thought it was over, and it was time for me to stop living in a dream and to take up reality, I still hung on to it. I ran with my gut and listened to what it was telling me, and went in that direction only. And today, I write this from my flat in Rome.

I will always hang onto it. It is apart of who I am. You know you were destined for something when it comes true despite what everyone else is telling you. Promises are like that. They only whisper to the promised and no one else can hear them but the one they are speaking to.

It can be hard to listen and let yourself be led. But a call will lead, if you allow it, as mine is still leading, up that misty, mysterious mountain, to a destiny shaped only for you.

As I fall asleep tonight, I cannot help but wonder what it is that I am journeying to. What awaits me at the highest peak of the mountain? It is a question whose answer continues to elude me, in the most tantalizing way, and so I am thankful for the still unknown journey that lays ahead.

And, for mom.

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I just learned the other day that I am a digital nomad.

What is a digital nomad? Um, I think it's me!

To be honest, if you had asked me what that meant two weeks ago, I would have had no idea. At first, when I started hearing the expression “digital nomad,” I thought it was just a fancy way of saying that a person liked to spend all of their time exploring the internet; a computer nomad wandering the digital universe from the comfort of their couch. A very nice way to say “I am addicted to the web.”

In a way this definition that I had formed in my own limited understanding is true. Digital nomads journey into the high-tech universe of the web from many comfortable places, but they do it for pay. This is how they make their living, by being able to work from just about anywhere they can get a good internet connection.

And sometimes this freedom even turns them into true nomads, wandering the country or even the world, laptop in hand. It was this last sort of digital nomad that made me realize I too was one of them. The “force” was with me, and my two traveling laptops, whenever I logged on to the www.

I never set out to become a digital nomad. How could I when I did not know what it was? I just knew that I loved travel and wanted to keep doing it always. So when my employer offered me the opportunity to work at home so that I could relocate and still keep my job, the first words out of my mouth were “and if I want to go abroad? Can I take the job with me there?”

The “yes” was all I needed to hear.

In the beginning, I was nervous to leave everything behind and hit the road, job-in-tow. For an experienced traveller, this was rare. After all, I have been to or through every state in the USA but Alaska and North Dakota. I have checked many tropical islands off my list as well as Mexico. I have seen most of Canada from Vancouver to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I have lived on the west coast, east cost and several states in between. I have backpacked around and across Europe, and even lived in Ireland, England and Italy. I passed through the European educational system, earning two international graduate degrees from two different countries. But I had never packed my laptop in my bag, bought a plane ticket and said “I am headed to Europe and everything depends on my internet connection.”

I started to seriously consider taking the plunge in April of 2010. I began dropping in at expat websites, curiously checking to see if others had ventured out before me and how they had fared. But the advice was fragmented and left me even more confused.

The feedback was like a sea-saw wildly out of control. The internet was good enough for work. The internet wasn’t good enough for work. Keep in mind this factor, don’t forget that one. My doubts growing, I wondered, “what will I do if I give up my apartment, move all the way there, only to have it fail?” After all, this was my job. If I could not work, I could not make money. If I could not make money, well, lets just say that would not be a good option.

After endless rounds of mental debates, I realized that I had to go forward. I felt that there must be a reason why I had been given such a job when my dreams had always lingered on travel and foreign destinations. I almost felt that there must be something wrong with me to have the door hanging open, literally begging me to enter, and I could not cross through.

I closed my eyes, turned my head away and held my breath that day when, sitting on the floor in my room on a Friday afternoon, I clicked the “send” button that confirmed I had now purchased my ticket to Rome. I sat there quietly and stared at the screen with the confirmation message that had appeared. In the silent aftermath of my choice, I realized that I was the only person who knew the secret which was about to change the course of my life. I was nervous, but I knew there was no going back now.

Since that day, and the day I landed in Italy, many obstacles have arisen which I have had to surmount (including the internet not working, as I feared, but I fought my way through it and am still here). So when I learned that I am a digital nomad I could not help but feel as though a puzzle had come together; someone had explained to me a significant part of my life. It really was as though I now understood that the “force” was with me; a unique force that I log onto every day when I turn on my computer and connect to the 21st century energy that we humans call the internet.

That is something to be truly grateful for.

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