Saturday, October 08, 2005

Lourdes. You know, Esther's daughter?

Okay, that's a dumb title. Esther is a euphemism for Madonna; props to you if you weren't aware.

Welcome to France retrospectives, installment I.

I'd never been to Lourdes, the Catholic pilgrimage site that's about two hours from my MIL's village. Now I may be more or less agnostic, but I think I do have a healthy enough respect for sincere religious belief. Well, that may not be entirely true. I think I often look upon the religious activities of others with somewhat of a voyeuristic eye, and enjoy the spectacle. Particularly if those religions involve a generous amount of ceremonial camp. Few things are as enthralling and befuddling as contemplating religious rapture from a safe distance, be it snake handling or some crazy middle-aged woman bursting into reverent tears as she crosses the threshold of THE Temple in Salt Lake City. So I went into Lourdes perhaps not with an open mind, but with high expectations.

Sadly, I must say that Lourdes may be the ass-tackiest scene I've ever laid eyes upon, and keep in mind that my hereditary stomping grounds are a mere few hours from Branson, Missouri.

No this isn't the entrance to Disney World. Well, yes it pretty much is.

A bit of preparatory geography: The village of Lourdes proper gives way to a long row of tourist trap shops that make Chinatown or Solveng or, god forbid (Apartment Number One) Gatlinburg, look classe. Saintly snowglobes, five foot glow in the dark rosaries, that kind of thing. This cack-trap runs right up to a footbridge, and on the other side of the bridge begins the last half-mile (edit: okay, more like a quarter-mile) leg of the pilgrimage route to the Lourdes Cathedral and grotto. If you're lucky you may see a devout Argentinian cowboy, complete with hat, boots and belt buckle, crawling toward the grotto on his hands and knees. Otherwise you'll probably see a lot of young Italian nurses in modified nuns' habits flirting loudly with the be-sportcoated official Lourdes ushers, both groups there to help the sick hobble through the Stations of the Cross.

As for us, we got to Lourdes late on a tourist season evening with intentions of an overnight stay, but with no hotel reservations. After hours of pavement pounding followed by a mediocre dinner, and still suffering from enough jet-lag to make 10:30 p.m. feel like high noon, we headed for the cathedral in hopes that the area would be only lightly touristed and the lines for the holy water spidget (my MIL had promised to bring her therapist a vial) would be short.

It started as soon as we hit the footbridge. This isn't all that unusual; any sight of outdoor water has Cedra quacking like a duck. Quacking brings immediate attention from passersby, and the attention encourages her until she's worked up into a delirious rapture of show-offedness. Well, she shot off that footbridge and down the pilgrimage route like a little wobbly-legged bull out of a pen, yammering at high decibals as she went. After about 50 feet she turned to make sure we were following her, lost her balance a little and had to bend over and put her hands on the ground to steady herself.

Anyone who knows a 15-month-old knows that they are creatures of repetition. After she'd added putting her hands on the ground to the routine once, she had to stop and do it about every ten feet. All the way to the cathedral. A half mile (quarter mile!). Shriek, raise hands into the air, toddle ten feet, stop, place hands on ground, repeat. Fine, except my mother-in-law, god blesser, is a nutty bonafied specimen of California flake. She started making observations about the earth surrounding holy sites having special "vibrations." Cedra was surely stooping over to feel them.

I didn't tell her that I'd seen Cedra do exactly the same thing along the length of 24th street between Noe and Sanchez while we waited for Michael to get a SuperCuts haircut.

By the time we made it to the cathedral and Cedra started climbing the steps, my MIL was misty-eyed. Sabra climbed most of the way, then came back down, then climbed them again. Allow me to pause here and quote the BabyCenter (shame) newsletter I received shortly after our return:

Physical Development, Your 17-Month-Old

"Your toddler has probably never met a staircase she didn't like.
By now she may be able to climb up a set of stairs, turn around at
the top and sit, then scoot her way back down again..."

Spirit-filled Cedra, climbing the steps of the Lourdes Cathedral. It must have been 11 p.m.

But nevermind that. Cedra was having a religious experience, and my MIL was having one by proxy. She snatched Cedra up and carried her behind the grotto, to solemnly contemplate the hundreds of votive candles left by the faithful. The following night, we followed the official procession and she took Sabra back to add two more candles to the multitude. One for Cedra, one for her crazy self.

Cedra's whole religious trance was just damn funny. Nothing else, as far as I was concerned. I'm glad my mother-in-law was able to get something deeper out of it, but it just wasn't happening for me. However, I did expect more out of the official procession. It was a normal Thursday, no religious holiday, but there must have been three thousand people carrying candles and chanting. It should have at the very least been a little touching. But it struck me as shamefully vulgar, like a big tacky Jesus bumper sticker or a Tulsa mega-church with an electric guitar and drum set behind the pulpit.

Before we left, we bought Cedra a little wooden rosary--actually, we had to buy it because she snatched it off a display and took off down the street with it-- and a little stuffed sheep with a mechanical "baaaaaaaa" that was the scourge of the rest of the trip. Penance for my attitude, probably.

"In the truck, Mary."


At 5:19 PM, Blogger posthipchick said...

MIL's are interesting, no?
i spent all day with mine yesterday.
she was interesting.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Apartment Number One said...

If anything can make Gatlinburg's year-round Christmas and Native American decorating motif look classy, then it's gotta be bad. I've always wondered who bought all those moccasins on the roadsides...

Hey--did you knit the sweater that Sabra's wearing in her beatific pose on the steps?

At 7:53 PM, Blogger llamaschool said...

MILs. At least mine's harmless, except for all the vicious hexes.

Apt. #1: I had several nice rubber tomahawks from Gatlinburg over the course of my childhood, but no mocassins. Not made by the Tenn./ N. Carolina Cherokees, anyway. (Proud Oklahoman scoff)

I'd love to say I knit Sabra's sweater, but it was a gift and made by Clayeux. I'm trying to work up a pattern based on it, though.


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