There I, a convinced atheist, stood alone in a sandy and windy world, devoid of water, trees, or anything that seemed to be alive. And I couldn’t help but wonder what madness had overcome me…
The most fateful university holiday I ever experienced was way back in February 1988. Yes, during that magical and mystical decade of the 1980s. Back when we had a great president, and when Americans felt great pride in the leadership of Western civilization.
Though I was officially enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, I spent the entire 1987-1988 school year—my sophomore year of college—at our sister school in Austria, the University of Innsbruck. I arrived in Austria in July of 1987, and I departed in July of 1988. During the academic year there, fall semester ended on the last day of January, and spring semester didn’t begin until March 1. A full month of exploration is just too close to heaven for a twenty-year-old. The possibilities seemed endless: a journey to the northern reaches of Scandinavia; a brave excursion into the mysterious depths of the Soviet Union; or a crossing into the old, palimpsest recesses of the Near East of the Roman empire.
I realized, though, that I would never again have so much time to get to a new continent (at least new to me), Africa.
After much thought and little planning, I decided to travel with two friends to North Africa for the break. I’d never been there, and my Eurail pass, amazingly enough, covered Morocco. Armed with little more than bravado, I visited not just my first non-Judeo-Christian country, but also my first third-world country in one fell swoop. And, on a continent totally new to me. En route, I feel head over heels in love with southern Spain, especially Seville.
The trip seemed especially blessed as we crossed the Straits of Gibraltar. A school of dolphins followed our ship.
Arrival in North Africa, though, dispelled all such previous glories. From the moment I stepped off the ship in Tangier, life became a confused mess, and I never quite got over my dizziness or found my cultural, spiritual, or intellectual bearings. The best word to describe my state of mind and soul—overwhelmed.
Let’s just say, I wasn’t prepared in the least for the poverty, the omnipresent pictures of the king, or the intense haggling that every single Moroccan seemed capable of. Still, I did my best to embrace the culture as fully as I could: the shops, the mosques, the architecture, and the desert villages. My whole memory of my time there was one of movement, movement, and more movement. On the best day of the trip—and one of the most memorable of my life—we hired a car and drove deep into the Bedouin villages. The Bedouin children screamed with delight, following us around in packs through whole villages. Our delight with the children was equal to theirs with us, as we all vied to hold hands with them on our walks.
After a week in Morocco, I decided I wanted to get back to Austria to prepare for spring semester, but my two friends wanted to stay several days longer.
We split up.
Not knowing French or Arabic, I left them in Fez and headed to the train station there. Still culturally, intellectually, and spiritually disoriented, I accidentally boarded a train that was heading west toward rebel-controlled territory between Morocco and Algeria rather than east to Rabat. It took me hours on the train to realize I was heading in the wrong direction. My M.O. throughout my year in Europe (I’d become rather expert at traveling on trains—or so I thought) was to find a relatively empty compartment, store my gear, and immerse myself in a long, good novel. This has great advantages when traveling to the right place: not worrying about a thing for hours on end but the enjoyment of the book. It works less well when you immerse yourself in the story, not realizing that you’re on the wrong train. So much for my self-proclaimed expertise.
It was several hours into the train ride before I realized my rather stupid and potentially dangerous mistake. I figured this out through some very difficult and broken conversation with several Moroccan men who had joined me in the same train car and wanted to know what an American was doing in the middle of the Moroccan desert. They were rather agitated, and I could tell they weren’t sure if I was a curious oddity or an intrusive nuisance.
At one point in the increasingly crowded train compartment, one of the men became extremely aggressive (I was still doing my best, trying to stay occupied and inconspicuous as I read an Agatha Christie novel) and started tearing apart my backpack (a huge Kelty that I carried all over that year abroad). When I physically tried to stop him—worried that I didn’t know the laws and might be thought guilty of assault—the door to our compartment flew open and an impeccable Moroccan gentleman, dressed in an all-white suit, entered, and he and the would-be thief began yelling at each other in Arabic.
After a few bewildering moments of shouting, the white-suited man said to me in flawless English, “You, young man, are in great danger. You have no reason to trust me, but you must. Grab your things and jump off this train. Now.” I have no idea how rational I was at that point, but I followed his advice. The train, as it happened, stopped at that moment in the middle of nothing but sand dunes. I got out, and the train moved on. There, I stood alone in a sandy and windy world, devoid of water, trees, or anything that seemed to be alive. As I couldn’t help but wonder what madness had overcome me, a train moving the right direction emerged over the dunes and stopped. I boarded, and I was able to make my way back to Rabat, then to Gibraltar, and, then, of course, to Spain, France, Switzerland, and Austria.
As it turned out, I had only one compartment companion on the entire route across Europe. He was an elderly man, a former German Nazi who had since converted to Catholicism. Much to my surprise (given my own disposition toward quiet, isolated rides in which I could immerse myself in a book), he told me all about his life, his conversion, and his faith. Far from annoying me, I found the man utterly fascinating and truly wise. Indeed, he reminded me of my maternal grandfather (who had passed away a half-decade earlier), the most dignified man I’ve ever known.
Thirty years to the month later, I still am not sure exactly what happened on that train in Morocco.
I do know this, though. When I entered Morocco, I was a convinced atheist. By the time I arrived back in Austria, I had become a convinced Christian. I spent the entirety of the rest of my time in Innsbruck, February-July, 1988, reading Scripture, hiking and praying the rosary, and meditating on the mysteries of the Catholic faith.
Whoever that man dressed all in white in Morocco was, he led me back to my childhood faith. Whoever that man was on my train back in Europe, he led me into an adult understanding of the Catholic faith.
A fateful break, indeed.
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