Deh, quando tu sarei tornato al mondo, e risposato de la lunga via
ricorditi di me, che son La Pia; Siena me fé, disfecimi Maremma.
Pray when you are returned to the world and art rested from the long way do thou remember me who am La Pia. Siena gave me birth, Maremma death.
Purgatorio Canto V
I finally find the buildings that house Le Sorelle dei Poveri di Santa Caterina da Siena having tramped all the way the down Via Banchi di Sopra, taking a wrong turn or two along the way.
I locate the little booth that guards the entrance to the private chapel and cloister. A tiny, wimpled sister directs me across the square. ‘All’angolo, numero Quattro’ – ‘on the corner, number four’ she tells me, frowning at my dishevelled, travel-worn state. I am back at her booth ten minutes later. The wizened sorrella displays a distinctly unchristian impatience.
But I cannot seem to find the entrance to the hostel. She had been perfectly explicit. I am just being a bit stupid. In a huff she pulls her creaky frame up from the desk and grabs my arm, nearly getting belted by my bulky backpack as I spin around to follow her back out of the hallway to the square. I blush. I had actually stood at the right door, but second guessed my choice. The justifiably irate nun stomps back to her desk behind the glass pane.
I am dirty and sweaty from two days’ hiking the dusty byways and ancient pilgrim trails between Moteriggione and Siena when I ring the bell. I need to freshen up and change my clothes. I am buzzed into a big hallway. There are two elderly nuns behind a long table handing out food parcels and clothes to a crowd of Kosovo-Serb refugees. These people, I am told, are fleeing persecution and the fear that another shooting war will break out following a flare up of ethnic tensions in the Kosovo region.
A pretty, blonde, settled refugee and part time volunteer at this centre, Katya, describes the terrifying prospect of another spate of violence. Back in 1994 her family had lost everything and would have ended up as casualties had it not been for the intervention of an Irish priest working with a mission in the midst of the madness. He secured housing for the family and schooling for the children. Katya went on to graduate from university in Pristina. She is a refugee again and works with the sisters to look after her fleeing countrymen.
She tells me of her struggle to get a visa to stay in Italy. She is studying for a post graduate degree in psychology and needs the visa to practice here in Siena. We speak in Italian and English; she is fluent in both. I watch her marshalling toddlers, mothers and grandparents around food tables, clothing boxes and taking the recently arrived to shared dormitories on the second and third floors. She is full of positive energy, wit and empathy.
I am introduced to La Madra Superiora, Sister Cataterina, who runs Le Sorelle dei Poveri. She must be in her late sixties. HHHHHHer eyes are kindly, her movements, efficient. Only her voice betrays her weariness. She seems to be able to be everywhere at once. She checks me in and shows me to my dormitory. By the time I am settled in and showered she is making dinner for the resident refugees, guests and staff. It is simple fare, but good. I eat with Katya and watch Sister Caterina take the briefest of pauses for her meal before getting back to work.
Later on I stroll up Via dei Rossi to Santa Caterina’s Fountain. Some of the refugees I met at dinner are sitting here letting their children mess around with the water. They have the faraway look of the dispossessed. Across the road there is a bar. I order un caffé, a short, intense espresso, from the grumpy owner.
Two doors up is a mini market. I pop in to pick up a few bits and pieces that I am running low on. I bump into Sister Caterina and Katya loading up with shopping to feed the hungry crowds in the morning. They smile in greeting and I tell them that I would be out for a few beers and would be back before they shut the hostel for the night. Sister Caterina pulls a face, I am not sure she approves of my beer drinking plan.
After exploring some of the little side streets and squares I wander into a friendly looking bar back at the ‘Campo’. I sit there sipping on a nice cool Peroni and munching on free pizza slices. I am relaxed, watching people on the street and listening in on a couple of animated conversations. I am intrigued by a Canadian couple with very rough Italian trying to talk to the barman who has rather patchy English. I go over and strike up a conversation with a group of Sicilians and we chat and drink a few beers together.
The Canadians are still there an hour or so later and run into difficulty understanding something the barman says. I help translate and join their discussion. We talk back and forth for a couple of hours. The bar will be open till three in morning, so there is no hurry. It is past midnight when I suddenly remember that the hostel has an eleven thirty curfew. I leap up, say my goodbyes and run along the confusing lamp lit streets, getting quite lost.
It takes me a good thirty minutes to find Via dei Baroncelli again. The place is dark and shuttered. I make a tentative ring on the bell and wait across the street for half an hour or so. Then I begin to mull over alternatives. I am not going to make a fuss and wake up the nuns. That would be bad form. I could try to book into one of the cosy looking hotels that I passed as I wandered around earlier. I am dissuaded when I calculate my tight budget and anyway, staying, even for a night, in the cosseted luxury of a hotel would defeat the principals with which this adventure was conceived. I am after all, on a pilgrimage.
There is no reason why I, an embittered anti theist, cannot take those meditative aspects that my Catholic upbringing instilled in me and employ these to find peace, find reconciliation with the ghosts that haunt my every waking moment. I have been wandering the ancient Tuscan pilgrim pathways these past ten days, unplugged from the intrusiveness of Facebook, Skype, emails and telephones. I have been seeking quietude and I have found it among the hills, woodlands and ancient walled villages that punctuate the rough tracks and winding roads I have been following. It feels right then, that as I come to end of my sojourn, that I would bookend it with a vigil. A long, cold, sleepless night spent wandering the steep, cobbled alleys that wend their way between the ancient, looming walls of shuttered apartments, shops, museums and churches. And I dedicate this night and this vigil to the memory of Madeline. So I walk, freeze and remember.