So this is how Mary felt, I thought: Tired, worried, a bit desperate. Homeless.
Only Mary had Joseph - and I was alone. I imagined Joseph would have reassured Mary. I’ll find somewhere. There are other places. It’s just a matter of time. I tried telling myself the same thing. Oh, I’d been stupid.
We’d made the same mistake, Mary, Joseph and I. We’d arrived too late in the day, as night was descending. Everyone else had arrived early or booked in advance, taking all the rooms. They’d been smart.
Not us though.
We should have known better: Bethlehem had its registration; Aosta its festival. The Romans had led us to our respective towns and because of them both places were swollen with human life. I cursed the wretched Romans.
Unlike Mary and Joseph though, I hadn’t arrived on a donkey but rather on the regional train from Milano. With the casual risk-taking of youth, I hadn’t asked the ‘what ifs’: what if it’s the last train running? What if the last post bus for Switzerland has already left and there’s no accommodation in town to be had? What if I‘m stranded at the end of line in the valley of Aosta with nowhere to sleep?
Mary and Joseph had trundled through narrow streets squeezed between flat-roofed white-washed dwellings. I had woven through the Italian town with its Roman theatre and villa and Augustus arch held within ancient walls. I barely registered the ornate fountains and sundials; the chapels and courtyards or the grand piazza with its baroque buildings. I hardly glanced at the vertical granite mountains with their ragged peaks. My eyes were searching out hotels or hostels – anywhere I could sleep.
Sorry, we have no room in our inn.
There was such an air of finality with each lowered syllable. Every hotel was the same: Completo, completo, completo.
Even Mary and Joseph had had more luck than me. You can stay in the stable, they’d been finally told. But although my eyes pleaded with each receptionist - I‘ll sleep anywhere, a storeroom, even a broom cupboard - they just shook their heads, indifferent.
At least I wasn’t about to give birth.
Outside I approached a fellow backpacker. We may not have arrived on a donkey –but we were donkeys – and not just because we were laden down with heavy rucksacks. Have you found anywhere to stay? I asked. No, he replied, throwing his long brown mane back and pawing the ground nervously with his foot. What are you going to do? I’d enquired. He shrugged his shoulders. I’ll find somewhere to sleep outside. I tried to imagine sleeping in the open - but it was inconceivable. I’d feel too vulnerable, a young girl alone.
I no longer wanted to be in this place.
I had run out of hotels and options. I wandered through dimly lit streets past stalls crammed with cheeses and breads and cakes and on past wooden trinkets, jewellery and children’s toys. This place, milling with people, was filled with life and celebration, yet I felt alone, a shadow in the street. I came to a stall lined with old books, spines of gold lettering glowing faintly in the dark and frayed bindings, smelling fusty.
The tall blond girl behind the stall was about the same age as me. I noted her open face. Maybe she’d help? I explained my predicament. She turned to an older woman serving beside her and they chatted quietly, heads close together.
Finally she turned back to me. You could try the convent. They might take you in. I followed her downhill to a solid neo-classical building, just discernable in the unlit street. There were no lights in the windows (nuns have a habit of going to bed early). Ana thumped the heavy wooden door with its large brass knocker. There was no reply. She shouted up to the windows. Silence. God’s brides were not answering.
As despair took hold, Ana turned to me and said: Come home with me. We’ve got a spare room.
In the end I’d fared better than Mary and Joseph: no outbuilding for me (or even worse the shelter of a bush or tree or alcove) – but a spare room in a warm modern flat.
In the morning, I smiled to myself as I lay in bed, I might just see Aosta in a different light.