I am seated with my iPad and Bluetooth keyboard propped on the corner of a stone wall outside the office of Poggio Asciutto, while the rest of the guests sleep off last night's Bacchanalian dinner. I am sitting here, uncomfortably wedged on a folding chair at the corner of the wall, because this is the only even relatively warm Wifi spot in the whole place. The walls are that stony and thick. The birds of Tuscany are serenading me as the morning light comes up over the set of "Eat Pray Love." This is heaven: honeymooning here with my bride of 28 years and writing too.
Beside me is a sign reading Azienda Agricola Biologica. The second and third words place this B&B on an organic farm. I gather that Azienda is the Italian word from the same root as the Spanish Hacienda, making this a sort of nice country hang-out with red roofs and people who ride horses and speak in funny accents.
All of that is true. At last night's dinner, Katie and I shared a feast (and many bottles of wine and grappa, of which I was the sole non-partaker) with a pair of newlyweds from Singapore (Dennis and his Thai wife Pong-Pan); a striking and relatively sober young couple from Warsaw, married one year (he a lawyer, she a perceptive child psychologist); a group of ten insanely partying horseback riders from a neighboring town; and the eight-year-old daughter of two of the riders, Bianca, who brought the dinner to a climax by dancing with Katie to a song by AC/DC piped in on my iPad courtesy of YouTube.
I did not know that eight-year-old Italian girls fancy 70s heavy-metal bands. But then, as my last post admitted, I did not know before yesterday that my wife's confirmation name is Catherine. Did I mention that Dennis taught us a genuine Singaporean "traditional wedding drinking song" with only two words, yam and sing? Or that you have to yell these words really really loud?
Not everything about this trip has been spiritual. Yesterday we visited Siena, home of St. Catherine. So some parts of this "pilgrimage" have been religious.
I may get this trait from my father, a trait I am rediscovering about myself as our trip nears the end of its first week: What I love about foreign travel is fearlessly introducing myself to people, damn the linguistic consequences, and seeing where the encounter takes me. Yesterday featured several such encounters.
We walked uphill into the center of Siena to attend eleven o'clock Mass, arriving at ten-thirty. Already hundreds of tourists mingled in the square outside the Duomo waiting for tickets to the one-thirty opening of the cathedral for touristic visitation. But, praise the Lord, we were here for Mass and we didn't need tickets.
We entered thirty minutes early to find a French Mass nearing its conclusion. Twenty priests were concelebrating at the altar of the truly eye-popping Duomo, which you will have to Google because my powers of architectural description are as inept as my iPad/Blogger interface at uploading pictures. Counterbalancing the priests in white were an equal number of what I quickly deduced were seminarians in black. They sang the Mass parts beautifully, and given my relatively sound French skills I was able to follow along comfortably at a distance, until the Mass ended.
After Mass I approached one of the young men in black. I asked if they were seminariens from France. He corrected me: seminaristes. They were from what I gather is the French national seminary. I asked if this were in Paris, and he replied with the name of a town that sounded like Garonne, as in Jacques Maritain's "The Peasant of the Garonne," but my own Google search this morning has turned up no French seminary in that town.
It was very moving to watch these young priests-in-training receive communion from their elder brothers and to hear them sing so beautifully.
The Italian Mass began at eleven sharp, by which time the front third of the Duomo had filled up behind us. (Italian churches reflect the waning of the Faith in Europe by having pews and/or chairs set up only at the front, near the altar, leaving plenty of space for busloads of tour groups behind.) There were a couple of things that struck me about the Italian Mass: the altar boys and the concelebrant.
It turns out that Italian altar boys have much in common with American ones. (Having served happily and quite devoutly as an Episcopal altar boy when I was 12–15, I get a kick out of watching these kids, especially when I don't understand the language of the Mass and my mind wanders.) The main things Italian and American altar boys have in common are sneakers and fidgets.
Three Italian altar boys of about eleven years old outnumbered the two priests, and they also stole the show. The clown of the trio was the one with the thurible, the incense-bearing ball that in this case hung on a chain as long as his body. Off the altar to the left, we could see him practicing his swing. The thurible did not do a complete 360 around his head, but he might have accomplished the trick if the celebrant had not impatiently waved to him to come aboard, sailor. In fact, the dear Italian priest, who looked a bit like Robert DeNiro's frumpy younger brother, spent much extracurricular time waving and shooshing at the altar boys, who sat like the three no-evil monkeys to the left of him on the altar and wangled their Reeboks and poked each other when the hilarity of the clown got too embarrassing even for the other two boys.
I understood very little of the Italian Mass, but I did pick up an accent — that of the concelebrant, who was quite a bit younger than Father DeNiro. I thought the concelebrating young priest might even be American. I filed this suspicion away until the end of Mass.
At the end of communion and just before the dismissal, the two priests and three monkeys took their seats and an Italian layman of about 30, wearing black leather jacket, blue jeans, and black high-top sneakers stepped to the podium. He began speaking — in Italian, surprise! — but I did pick up something about droga, and it did not take a leap of imagination to think that might mean drug. So at the end of Mass, I spoke with a young woman seated beside me: "Prego, English?" Yes, fortunately she did speak English.
The young woman explained to me that in Italian churches, one Sunday a year, a Church-sponsored program of recovery is allowed to speak and raise money at Mass. This young man represented that program. So on my way out of the Duomo I left 5 Euros in his basket. But not before I had met Fr. Dennis Heames of Saginaw, Michigan.
As I thanked the young woman and headed with Katie for the exits, I noticed the concelebrant with the funny accent coming out of the sacristy. I approached and asked him if he were in fact American, and he confessed. He was Father Dennis, and nicer he couldn't have been. I joked with him about his accent and about how Father DeNiro had apparently pressed him to speak more than he was prepared to speak. Yes, he admitted, the Italian priest always looked for ways of keeping him on his toes.
Father Dennis then gave Katie and me the three-minute guide to religious Siena, and the two of us set off to see Catherine of Siena's home and head.
For more information, please Google. The breakfast bell at Poggio Asciutto is about to ring and I have to pack my bags for Assisi.