“L’absence c’est Dieu. Dieu, c’est la solitude des hommes.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
What does one do on the eve of one’s very first academic conference (in which one is part of the panel presenting)? Why, escape the city for a few days to a sanctuary nestled deep in the heart of the mountains, of course.
True story: when my Airbnb host in Milan canceled my stay two days before my flight for “emergency reasons”, I thanked God for this opportunity for perhaps another adventure and immediately sought alternatives. I booked my train from Milano Centrale to Novara then Biella, to reach this extraordinary sanctuary hidden in the Piedmontese mountains called Santuario di Oropa. This sanctuary is so obscure that even my Italian friends had no idea where the hell it was or that it even existed.
Oropa is situated about an hour’s bus ride from Biella. It attracts largely local tourists from in and around the region — I met quite a few French tourists, and though I could not speak a word of Italian, whatever French I knew proved to be very useful here. I will never forget the overt curious glances I received from my fellow visitors at the sanctuary who clearly could not fathom what a Muslim, Asian, hijabi lady might be doing — alone — at a Catholic sanctuary in the peripheries of Italy. One gentleman, curious upon seeing me alone at dinner, was not shy about asking my purpose for being here, which was the beginning of a two-hour conversation about our respective faiths, religion, psychotherapy, and existential crises — en français.
My room was an ascetic chamber that was basic in its furnishing but simply spectacular in its ambience. I needed only open the balcony doors, and I would have before me the majestic mountainous forest stretching for as far as the eye could see. I could hear the stream flowing directly below, usually accompanied by an orchestra of birds chirping in the early morning as the sun slowly rose from behind the mountain. It was, in short, a wonderful delight for the senses.
I headed here sola in search of solitude, and found it in the misty mountains during my solitary walk through the shaded forests; by the deserted stream where, embraced by untouched nature, I had the time and space to think about what it means to live and to love and to be alone; in the stillness of the cemetery pictured below, while pouring my concerns and conscience into my Moleskine as I felt the mist rolling up the mountain while thunder rumbled in the distance.
Upon returning to Milan, I realized that I had less than 24 hours before my presentation, and nothing prepared, except for my pre-circulated paper. So I went shopping instead, for a pair of shoes deemed “appropriate” for my first conference, and lo and behold — I came back with a pair of pink metallic leather lace-ups.
Well, while in Milan…