Tuesday, February 16, 2010

St. Nicholas of Bari (c.270 to Dec. 6, 347)

The doors of the train slammed shut, and I stood on the platform looking at the name "Bari" on a nearby sign. And, as twilight set in, I remembered why it sounded so familiar. In my "Let's Go Italy" travel guide, a bold caption read: "In Bari, women should not go into the old city, especially at night."
I was returning from Greece where I had left my cousin and his friends. It's not that I wasn't enjoying myself, but I was tired of drinking ouzo and playing infantile card games like High-Low-Jack in 90 degree temperatures.
It was back in the days of telephone booths and through the help of an operator, I tried calling my parents in the United States. I didn't want to worry them. I just wanted to let them know they might never see me again. Lucky for them, no one was home.
Next, I dialed an Italian operator for the phone number of the organization that assists women travellers. After several attempts to find an interpreter in her office, she told me to dial 112.
Within minutes a policeman from the Immediate Action Service of the Carabinieri arrived.  He was a member of the military police and I had called the equivalent of 911. Suddenly, ouzo and High-Low-Jack didn't seem so bad.
He yelled at me until I broke into tears. Then, after assuring me that Bari was a safe place, he took me to "Stop Over in Bari," a student organization located at the train station.
It was August, so most of the hotels in southern Italy were closed for the month. But, the owners of the Hotel Bari, were kind enough to open the hotel especially for me. That, in itself, was spooky.
The concierge said I'd be the only person staying there that night, escorted me to the third floor, and told me he'd be back in the morning so I could check out. Before I fell asleep, I looked over some guidebooks and found that the Basilica di San Nicola was located right there in Bari near the harbor.
From as early as I can recall, my great aunt, Vera, who was now in her mid-eighties, would say she was born on Dec. 6, the Feast of San Nicola di Bari. I would have to go there the next day and get her rosary beads or I could never live with myself.
It was cat call city as I walked two miles to get to the Puglian-Romanesque basilica. At one point, a police officer stopped and told me to watch out for guys in the alleyways.
I told him I had to get my great aunt, Vera, rosary beads. Besides, this was Italy, the country where my grandfather was born. No one was going to harm me.(Although, the next day, after I had left on a train to Rome, 10,000 Albanian refugees forced their way into the southern port of Bari on a commandeered freighter. Authorities responded with gunfire over their heads, batons charges, and helicopters.)
I did get the rosary beads for my great aunt who lived until her late 90s and I learned more than I'll ever need to know about St. Nicholas of Bari (yes, Santa Claus).
He was born in Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor) c.270 and became a bishop who helped those in poverty. Upon hearing that a poor father would have to sell his three daughters into prostitution, St. Nicholas of Bari waited until dark and threw three small bags of gold into the man's window. The daughters were able to get married and St. Nicholas of Bari was discovered as the bearer of gifts.
He also saved fishermen who were out to sea off the coast of Lycia during a huge storm. He appeared out of nowhere on the ship to man the ropes and sails. In Germany, he became associated with Christmas and as a giver of gifts. He is known as Santa Claus in America.
St. Nicholas of Bari died on Dec. 6, 347. Canonized: pre-congregation. His relics were carried to Bari in 1087 and the basilica was built that year to hold them. It is said on his feast day each year, a flask of manna (myrrh) is taken from his tomb. The liquid-like substance has a lovely rose smell. He is the patron saint of children, sailors, and fishermen.

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