I’ve been living in Europe for one month. I’ve been living in Europe for one month? Time is flying and I don’t even know how that’s a thing, but whatta packed month of beauty it has been.
Post-family wedding in Italy, I returned to Lourdes 2.5 weeks ago to start volunteering. From the multi-abilities among people on my flight, the noticeable temperature drop when arriving at their quiet airport, witnessing the Pyrenees once again, and returning to a small town I was somewhat familiar with–I was so grateful to get back here and finally get settled. When I made it to the address they provided, I learned that the beginning of my stay would be with sisters, in a (stunning) old convent on the very edge of the “Sanctuary” land in Lourdes. I also learned upon arrival that the sisters I was staying with did not indeed speak any English. With the help of google translate (and some Spanish), they gave me my key, showed me our community room with a fridge and microwave, and gave me a rundown on my meal tickets and where I could eat dinner. I asked about laundry, and they said “no”, so I went up to my room, got settled, and began my first washing-my clothes in the sink- experience, of which I am now totally a major supporter.
When I finally ventured down to the meal hall for my first dinner as a volunteer, it was pretty rocky. Not knowing the Sanctuary buildings very well at that point & having basically zero exposure to French, I had no idea what the sisters were referring to when telling me to go to what sounded like “Michelle”, but I ventured out in the direction they pointed with hopes that it would become obvious.
It didn’t really become obvious, but, thanks to two super helpful security guards, I finally arrived at the St. Michael the Archangel cafe (San Michel), only to have the cafeteria lady be confused by the type of ticket I was presenting & discover I really didn’t have an appetite for the food that night. When I finally sat down, by myself, surrounded by a bunch of volunteers significantly older than me, I may have started tearing up.
I eventually decided to go say hi to another volunteer sitting by himself who seemed set apart, but while on my way, a German woman saw me and asked me to sit with her. I gladly accepted & can’t even remember her name, but I do know after talking to this woman and meeting two English speakers in a similar state upon returning back to the convent, my spirits were most definitely lifted.
What I learned that night, and the next morning in our orientation, is there are two different groups of volunteers here: one being an official lay order with yearly trainings & formations, etc. on how to essentially run this place, and also—us. Considering the lack of training and liability issues that it sounds like have been made worse by Covid, our crew’s job is essentially to walk around, say hello, and make sure all know where they’re going.
As someone with an MSW, etc, there are certainly parts of me that feel overqualified to do this simple work & have me looking forward to some new challenges coming in July. At the same time, I am on a sabbatical of sorts, & as an American in France in maybe the actual most diverse place ever, where the majority of people speak multiple languages and I’m only able to speak English and some Spanish, I am incredibly under-qualified & certainly being challenged in ways I’ve never experienced before.
That being said, the 6-7 of us in our volunteer group the past few weeks (& many locals), despite being from all over the world, do all happen to speak English—and getting to know them all and where they come from (Ireland, Belgium, Morocco, England, India + Cali☺️ so far) while learning a new culture and exploring such a stunning place, has been so fun.
A few favorite moments recently:
- Volunteer coordinator (Murielle) repeating “it’s OK here” and telling me to take breaks for my head whenever’s needed while I wasn’t in a great place the first few days as we figured out my schedule.
- Local guy, Pascual, who comes to the Sanctuary & sits on the same bench every day & greets me with “hello my sunshine” and often asks me to sit down.
- Random young missionary who came up and asked if he could sing to me (in French) while I sat near the river on Pentecost. (simultaneously awkward & heartwarming)
- Belgian priest who bought us all dinner & was genuinely joyful.
- The thrill after the few times I’ve been able to answer questions in (very, very broken) Spanish.
- The family from Indiana that came to Lourdes per recommendation but didn’t know the history and were so grateful to connect.
- Warm exchanges with the non-English speaking African nuns that always end in us laughing at each other (or maybe just at me, this is very possible) —particularly on the morning my suitcase broke while all of us were moving buildings & somehow we problem solved with rope and a knife to temporarily fix it.
- The janitor at the market who put his hand on his heart and gasped when he saw me for the second time yesterday, & then pulled in his English friend to ask me how long I’d be in town and tell me what I should see while I am here.
- Ice cream hangs, late night mass, laughing at language mistakes, discussing “what dad’s do” in each of our countries, and the simple processing of our days and the seasons we’re in with other volunteers-turned-friends near my age.
- Living on water from the spring every day.
- Witnessing the natural beauty of this place. It never, ever, ever gets old.