Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Out in the dark

I couldn't stop fidgeting. I would pull my hair down out of a tightly wound chignon only to wrap it back up five minutes later. Ditto for the Hermès scarf that I rarely wear, I would tie it around my neck, twist my fingers in the tips, only to shrug it off and drape it open around my shoulders. Something inside me was jumping and I wanted to break out in a run.

And yet I wasn't actually nervous but rather fuzzy, out of focus and distanced to what was going around me. I was still too caught up in the emotions brought about by endless loops of newsreels to be out walking about in public.

It was Friday night, one week exactly after the terrorist attacks in Paris when 130 people had been brutally killed. I think if I had only listened to my instincts, I would have stayed at home, le cocooning as the French call it. But we had an invitation.

Remi's friend and colleague, Lionel Roux, was opening his art exhibition "Par Dessus Tout, La Provence," where he would present his panoramic images of our region shot from on high at the Chapel St. Anne in Arles. Of course, we had to go. And part of me wanted to as well. Not only to support Lionel but to finally start to see other people and to respire beyond the confines of my own shrunken heart. 

There were several events organized for the evening as is often done in Arles so that la belle monde can stroll from one to the next, creating a flowing line linking creativity, a glass or two of cheap wine and fastidious conversation. Many Provençaux were expected to attend the unveiling of the new sash to be presented to the Queen of Arles in the town hall while another vernissage at the recently opened Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation - which focuses on the plight of the poor in under-represented countries - would most likely draw an intellectual crowd with the possibility of quite a bit of overlap between the three.

I did not know what the mood would be.

I laced my arm with that of the belle Madame L who was accompanying us along with her companion Monsieur W. The men walked up ahead of us, lost in discussion, as we crossed the Place de la Republique. The night wore heavy, I felt slightly exposed and leaned in. I was especially aware of who was around me and where, just as I had in Manhattan the days after 9/11. We mounted the steps to Lionel's exhibition, past the security guard who was checking his cell phone but was present nonetheless. And there we found...

...a happy band. A milling crowd...

...out in the dark.

The glass half-full of something just below burned, barely palpable...

...with the need for connections to be made.

And yet there was no show of pasted on normalcy...

...no frozen smiles...

...and at times the roots of mourning were still obvious. 

I ran into a few people that I hadn't seen in a while, some of whom wanted to talk about the horror of the week before but most did not after an initial nod of recognition. A few shared stories of having been nearby the attacks as if to cleanse the story - as though with repetition it would lose its strength. One whispered with disgust that there seemed to be something of a twisted competition in these stories, of who lost the most, who survived.

But, above it all, there seemed a tacit agreement to simply focus on the art. 

We were all a bit fuzzy that evening, I suppose, not only me, scratching our way back up to the surface of everyday life...


Mixing, talking and even laughing but most certainly...not letting fear win. Even for those who could not claim to be même pas peur. Like myself.

And this even though the pain was still so present. Certainly no one was forgetting anything. Fresh flowers had been lain at the small shrine in front of l'Hôtel de Ville despite the wind having snuffed out the candle's glow.

At the Foundation, I passed through the brightly lit rooms of the Renaissance period hôtel particulier alone, observing. The age and the solidity of the old stones held up the bee-like swarm of the shoulder-touched crowds. Hiding behind my camera, I no longer felt the need to fuss and flick, now steadied by the current of a collective hum.

For I was incredibly proud to be amidst this group, so wounded and yet so resilient. As an outsider, I was quite moved by what I saw. That evening, these regular citizens were standing by their belief in freedom and joie de vivre, qualities of life here that no one will take away. Wearing their affinity loosely, while rising ensemble like a bird set free, they showed me the beauty of the French spirit and through that, the strength of humanity.

"It felt good to go out tonight, didn't it?" I asked Remi later as we walked towards home in our tiny village. Yes, it had, he agreed.

I am not usually one for pop anthems but I have been listening to this on repeat the past few days:

My thoughts remain with the families, friends and loved ones of the victims of the Paris attacks. I think that I stayed at the Radisson in Bamako, Mali and send the same to those involved there. And for any of you reading from Brussels, stay strong. The world believes in you and is sending strength. 

Let's continue to stand united as one mankind.
Thank you for all of your support and for being the amazing people that you are.
With much Love and Gratitude from Provence,

Monday, November 16, 2015

Standing united

There were nearly two hundred of us waiting outside the gate. Everyone was talking quietly, giving bisous to those they hadn't yet seen since Friday night. 

Monsieur le Maire, wearing his tricolor sash, was the first to enter the school courtyard where all of the students were lined up in rows. Some were tittering nervously but all remained still, in place, as members of our tiny village filed in slowly. All extraneous conversation fell away.

I was there with my friends Madame L and her fine companion W. I had written an email the night before asking if I could accompany them. Although I would have gone alone, I have been in a fragile state and thought it best to be surrounded by people who I could rely upon if need be. My friend C, the first "Americaine" of the village, crossed through the crowd. "I want to stand with you guys." It felt really good to see her. She was clearly moved and I felt it echo through me as we hugged.

Shortly before noon, the mayor read a short speech about the importance of our coming together as a community and a nation, that we are here, standing united in the face of such barbaric acts. His hands were shaking slightly. I looked around and saw faces of all ages, from tiny babies to the advanced elderly, all listening, present. He spoke on, honoring lives lost.

Afterwords Madame F, the head of the school, explained what the faculty had done with the students that morning. She told us of the words that were presented and explained, words like Daesh (the acronym used in France for the so-called Islamic State), Syria, Belgium, terrorism, terrorist...and what it is to live in France, what is a democracy, what does the tenet of that mean. 

The mayor called for a minute of silence. I had gripped C's hand at some point. I bowed my head and prayed...I tried to find the words...I have had such a hard time finding the words or even speaking at times over the past few days. When I failed I directed my heart towards the victims, their families, their friends and loved ones...and all who were touched directly and indirectly by this massacre. Which means, finally, all of us. 

The minute over, the bell of the town hall began to toll and one of the students ran to ring the school bell. We were thanked for coming and the group was beginning to disperse when someone started to sing "La Marseillaise." Voices joined in, one after the other, singing quietly but with determination. I did too, while crying, when I could. As Remi wrote this weekend, we are all French right now.

When it was over, glances and nods were exchanged, a recognition. I fumbled for kleenex then my sunglasses and quickly put them on for this was not about me. This was and is about that feeling of solidarity, even amidst an extreme crisis, that I felt in the courtyard. 

I asked Madame F for permission to take a few photos of the drawings that the students had made in order to share them with you. C, who works at the school, had told me that some of the young ones had experienced difficulty in putting their feelings into images. But in words they wrote, "No to violence and yes to love"... "Not afraid"... "Grief"... "No to terrorists".... and... "We will not pull back in the face of fear. Liberty, Hope, Paris."

A beautiful young girl approached me just after I had photographed that last phrase. "Did you take one of that one? I did that!" Nine years old, ponytail swinging, eyes shining. I averted my gaze as I didn't want to confuse her with my clinging tears. "Bravo, tu as bien fait," I responded. You did good.

I don't know where the events of November 13th are leading us or how any of it can be resolved any time soon. I fear we are headed into a war, I fear we will be torn apart. I fear, I fear but also, I love. And I am very grateful to have been present at a moment of resilience in the midst of such chaos.

May we find a way towards Peace and may our hearts remain strong.

Sending much Love to you all from France,
With my deepest condolences to all who have lost or been hurt by this tragedy,
Thank you to all who have sent emails and comments of concern,

Friday, November 13, 2015

L'Église St. Vincent à les Baux

At times I am glad that certain things are still respected in our question mark world.

Sacred spaces are not always so or are often trapped in the parenthesis of context.

But surprisingly, amidst the bump and bubble of Les Baux-de-Provence, the Church of St. Vincent retains its sense of purpose, just as it has for nearly one thousand years.

Founded in the 12th century, it's rounded portal symbolizes the half-moon arc of man reaching up towards God and coming back down to Earth with God inside him, a reoccurring theme in Romanesque architecture.

The stones have been smoothed by so many supplicant hands. Bare heads of countless newborns have been dipped in the baptismal fonts.

I wonder if Les Baux's warrior troubadours would kneel to absolve themselves after their far-reaching attacks during Medieval times, their swords scraping the steps as they did. Did they beg for forgiveness? Were they granted it? 

Vincent of Sargossa, a Spanish martyr from the fourth century is the patron saint. Legend says that ravens protected his body from the vultures after he had been burned alive on a gridiron. He is invoked by winemakers, brick-makers and sailors. Certainly, the first of those might call upon him today as Les Baux is surrounded by gently sloping hills dotted with vines. The same need for protection from nature's whim - or man's - remains. 

Despite the jewel-like tones of its glass stained windows (donated by Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1955), a somber mood prevails. Perhaps peace is honored as the church itself seems to be wrapped in a shroud of melancholy, one that would flutter in ages past as the "Lanterne des Morts" was lit under the gargoyles watchful stare when one of the villagers had died.

 Dug partly out of the hillside, the anchored walls of St. Vincent hold in their veracity.

While the recent time change has truly thrown me for a loop - as it always does - I hold dear this part of the year in its slow exhale, with strands of reflection wrapped around my fingers, binding them into something steady even when whispered, like a prayer?

Faith is a curious number.

Thank you for all of your incredibly kind wishes for Ben. Have a wonderful weekend.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ben is nine today

"Ben has soul." Our dear friend Sonny has said this since the very first time that she met him.

And she is exactly right. He is incredibly special. There are times that I think he is an angel in a dogs disguise...

...albeit one with a very specific and unerring sense of humor.

His joie de vivre is off the charts! Remi has said that he can hear me laughing while playing with Ben everyday and that is true...

...but he also gives us both an enormous amount of comfort and peace...

...that is rooted in unending love.

It is amazing to think that he turns nine today. Of course it only seems like yesterday since we brought him home.

He has been through a lot of changes since then. This is his third home, we have moved from city to country and not to mention the boat-rocker that was the adoption of Kipling, to who he has been a loyal companion, one to inspire trust at every level...

...for that is his true specialty. He has convinced people that are petrified of dogs to give them another try and dogs that are petrified that nothing bad will happen in his fine company. 

I love his easy smile, liquid deep eyes and sly tail wag. You are such a charmer, Ben.

I tried to take an official portrait of him (see above) but he was too intent on napping in the afternoon sunshine to pose. Who am I to disrupt that? Most especially on a birthday...

Happily there is also this photo, taken on our morning walk today where he was proud to have found an extra big stick for the return trip. It is daily project that he takes rather seriously...


...and is one of the few "typical" aspects of this delightfully unique dog.

I love you, Bidou.

Happy Birthday mon Ben!

I will leave you with two of my very favorite Ben posts:
and the classic

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Back to les Baux

We see what we want to see; we tell ourselves the stories that comfort what we think we know.

I don't take the beauty of Provence for granted. It can be wide and sweeping or minuscule and intimate. An endless variation of songs to light up the dance floor. And how I do love it when I am asked to dance.

But, but after ten years of living here, I can be a snob about certain things, as unattractive as that is to admit. 

For example, I don't like crowds and feel foolish when caught in the midst of them in full on "ooh" mode.

Fanning women who have "A Year in Provence" poking out of their bag and agressive baseball cappers extending a selfie stick towards the sky make me grumpy.

See? Right on time. Snobby.

And certainly no place tends to prickle my skin more than Les Baux-de-Provence.

While I have a healthy respect for its fame, I see its potential and shake my head in dismay at the endless line of identical tourist shops lining the cobblestone streets, those selling fake savon du Marseille and polyester napkins imprinted with bees.

And yet, here we go, the entry to the humbling part...

...of course I wanted my Mom and her husband Leonard to see it while they were visiting in September. 

And they were enchanted.

So how could I not be? Wonder is delightfully contagious.

All of those veils of ideas, judgements and expectations fell away. The crowds pushed around me and yet it didn't matter. Of course, they have the right to stop and point and rave.

By giving in, I found myself back in Les Baux, the one that I know to love in my heart, even when my head tells me otherwise. Stories silenced, vision cleared. In seeing it through the eyes of loved ones, I discovered it anew for myself, Provence plus one.


Eh oui, I seem to have written quite a few times about this enigmatic village (and I am not done yet as there will be a post on the main church there in the future). It is fun to look back at them now...especially in seeing how certain places have changed or not over time.

If you would like to understand the history of the village, click here.
Another shift in perspective, this time via a camera trick. To read, click here.
I love everything about this post (save that the photos are so small!): here.
And for my friends in the other hemisphere, you must believe in spring, so please click here.

Oh! And thank you all for your lovely responses on my previous post. For those of you that have been wondering, yes, Ellie arrived safely and is already making her new house a home...