This is the summer I learned how to breathe. No, it’s the summer I learned to be breathed. Well, actually it’s the summer I discovered I AM breath.
I think that’s it.
It’s been a summer when the universe itself was breathing so deeply and so slowly that breath seemed suspended for longer and longer moments. The fire of breath spread and wafted here and there. Water went deeper and deeper into the essence of the breath until, dispersed so finely into the hidden molecules of breathing, there was no longer enough moisture for even mosquitoes to reproduce and thrive, despite the heat they love.
I chose a pretty challenging summer expedition even though it involved no planning, no added expense. I had only to remain at home and bear the heat. The trails were too hot and too filled with biting flies to go on pilgrimage through the woods and over the mountains. I worked from time to time in the garden in the cooler air of morning. There, my thoughts broke free and brought me news of all that our species is facing: the droughts, the floods, the hunger, the sorrow, the dying the strain. I pulled the weeds and picked the beans to give us food. To feed our friends.
But my travels took me far into all that space that’s contained inside. I needed no ticket, paid for no accommodation. The fuel for the journey was the fuel of emotion, burning more purely than when I was young. It was often a hard road but the view was worth every bit of dust and bump and discomfort.
Towards the end of summer, having seen all that, I got into my old car and drove through the gorges and countryside, past Cathare castles and spreading vineyards to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There I joined my daughter, my granddaughters and my son-in-law who had , together, made a truly grueling journey of thousands of miles of flights, and lines and taxis and hotels. Like a miracle, we were there together, in each other’s physical presence, there where the watery breath of the planet washes back and forth , touching the body of the land, transforming it with each coming in and going out.
There, by the incredible blue of the sea, I watched the emotions my life has engendered. I saw them plainly, heard them, smelled them, tasted them so poignantly in the way one’s experience of everything shifts when one travels. We bathed for hours in the glorious healing, huge water, riding the gentle waves. In those moments in an unfamiliar place, the beauties shine like gems, the lens of the soul breaks free and both the wide scope and the fine detail are somehow simultaneously in focus. Then later, I hugged my family goodbye in the sweaty marble streets of Montpellier, my breath breathing the enormous ache.
Now the season is changing. The heat has dried the leaves on the trees. There’s more zucchini to make into fritters or chutney or bread. There are apples in a box in the basement. The winter squash is coming on. A bit of rain here and there has given the grass a bit more green and will bring out the Cepes in the forrest.The last flowers of summer are fading, their stems beginning to brown, their green blood slowly withdrawing, back into the breath of the earth.
My body seems to barely exist. I think it was finally washed away by the pure, clear, warm salty waters of the sea, the same fluid where it was created, molecule by molecule. I know it’s still there in with some sense I can’t name. I can feel its outlines when I try. There are things that prick and ache and itch, but it all seems to exist in the breath. I watch as emotions come and go, in all their colors, sometimes becoming huge without warning ike bursts of fireworks, expanding into the void forever and then fading away ever so imperceptibly, until each spark is finally extinguished and the moon returns to rule the night sky.
That’s where I went for my summer vacation. Now, as the air begins to finally cool, I sit at my desk in school to pay attention to what comes next. I wait for the rain and feel breath going out and coming in. I smell the sharp smell of pencil shavings. I hear the ticking of the classroom clock, the scraping of chairs. The new teacher is here.
Before Christmas last year, a shirt appeared one day, hung from the neighbor farmer’s wire fence bordering the road. Across the front of the shirt, the name of one of the big French telephone companies was written in white across the dark blue background. I noticed it one day on my afternoon walk. I remembered seeing a white truck parked nearby the day before. I thought I’d wait and see if the owner came to claim it.
Another week went by and then another. In the French manner, no one wanted to take it since it wasn’t polite, and at any rate, no one else could really wear it. And then came the news that a novel virus that had begun in China had spread to the US and then to Europe. It got a name.
Then it seemed no one wanted to touch the shirt to put it in the trash since it might, somehow, be contaminated. Everything around us that other humans could possibly have touched might carry this microscopic, mysterious thing we had come to fear. No one wanted to touch trash dropped on the street even after several days had passed and the virus could not have survived. Each time I passed the shirt it would tempt me, my reason saying it could no longer be infected. Part whim, part perversity, I decided finally to leave it there, caught on the sharp wires, and see what would happen over time. It became a kind of marker, my little science experiment into the nature of the interaction between the decomposition of man-made matter and the surrounding culture.
Since, we have come through two years of being ruled and then ignominiously nosed around by the evolution of this new virus. It is made, like many of its cousins, of only a single strand of RNA that can attach itself to the RNA of an animal’s cells. This thing–not really independently alive since it cannot, by itself, reproduce–finds ways to live by using the strings of RNA or DNA of other cells. It then can cross the threshold between living and non-living carbon-based matter by being able to reproduce itself. Once it invades a cell, the very process of replicating itself damages the cell. These thousands and thousands of tiny injuries are what make us feel ill. Depending on where they have evolved to thrive, these foreign RNA strands can invade organs like the lungs and wreak havoc with the way our body functions.
There have been thousands and thousands of these waves of viral evolution that have gripped populations of humans, particularly since we brought animals close to us to raise and eat. We have helped them find their way to us by relentlessly destroying forest habitats and wetland habitats, where, in our absence, they had adapted to the organisms they had found there. And we, a species now so globally connected that we can talk to people around the world and bind them to us with our love, we, who are so adept at utilizing resources, cannot muster the same level of cooperation and organization displayed by a horde of things only potentially alive.
In the face of the wave of this new virus, there has been a chaos of reactivity. Economies have all but come to a halt, endangering more lives over the long term than even the virus will be able to. Over the course of the last two years in the US, doctors have become public health officials rather than care providers. If you call a doctor to tell them you’re sick (if you’re lucky enough to be able to talk to one) she will likely direct you to whatever protocol is in development at the moment for following rules– rules for testing, reporting and quarantine. She will make it clear she doesn’t have the time to help you with your symptoms. They are unimportant. Her job is to try to keep what you have from spreading.
Then, you’re on your own to find an appointment for a test. In many places in the US at this moment, you’ll really have to scramble to find one, even while you’re so sick you can barely open your eyes. And the US is so much better than more than half of the rest of the world.
In most of our “developed” and wealthy cultures around the globe, parents have been forced to take on more and more of the responsibilities that were shared by other members of their culture. The education of children, the care of young children during the day, even the provision of basic, non-urgent medical care have all been given back to the parent. Parents already stressed by the pressures of a modern competitive society, many on the verge of real break-down before all this, have been forced to add so much more to their load. And then we have forgotten them or even given them the direct message that, for Heaven’s sake, just cope, why don’t you! Do you think you’re special? You’re responsible for your choice to have children. Do you expect your society to share that responsibility?
While many in the privileged world turn down the vaccine for their own considered reasons, over half of the world’s less privileged population is unable to access even the first vaccination. Only a little under fourteen percent of the population of the continent of Africa, for instance, has received at least one dose. Today, I read that a team in the US has developed a vaccine based on older, cheaper vaccine methodology. It simply uses a partially inactivated form of the virus which gets the body to trigger the immune system to fight off that particular piece of RNA. It is already being used and produced in India and will spread rapidly since the technology is not proprietary. It is not quite as effective or adaptable to new viruses, but it will considerably slow the advance of the Alpha and Delta variants. The wind changes because the ice melts and the ice melts because the climate warms. One thing bumping up against another. A shirt forgotten on the fence. People walking by, thinking about it or not thinking.
The shirt eventually turned to a shredded, unidentifiable piece of material, mostly white with a tinge of blue. One garbage day, it was gone, presumably put into the trash by a neighbor who finally felt safe to handle it. Meanwhile, the virus too has been changing. It does not decompose like a shirt made by humans. Instead it evolves. Both occur through random chance. The shirt was subject to the chance of changing weather and human decision-making. Exposed to the same randomness, the nature of the virus shifts in the direction of those changes that allow it to reproduce more copies of that change, more copies of itself. An almost imperceptible change occurs through random mutation and allows more of those tiny individuals to survive. That imperceptible change produces changes in the environment they occupy and on we go.
As humans, we are capable of creating changes in the culture around us. In the ‘60s and ‘70s many of the young people like me looked around and said, “The direction my culture taught me to take is not good. Killing people on the other side of the globe for ridiculously vague reasons (or for matters of greed) is insane. Continuing to make the planet we depend on uninhabitable is not a good path. Being intolerant of others of our species because they have a different color, a different belief, or are not attracted to the opposite sex is not useful. Continuing to overpopulate our home will destroy us. Building nuclear plants whose potential risks far outweigh their benefit to our comfort is stupid.” We changed the culture around us. We infected things with our love. We changed what was sexy. We consciously changed the human qualities that appealed to our desire to procreate.
This culture, so vibrant and positive, was pushed down and pushed aside by the dominant and powerful ,but its DNA persists in the population. There are variants here and there. Like a virus, these shifts in culture never really go away–they just become endemic. This little attitudinal virus with which I was infected as a sixteen-year old has developed and adapted and is still infecting all the susceptible individuals it encounters on its journey. Now it can reach farther than ever, around the globe, here in France and back to the US, outwards through the internet.
We’re a species rather superb at creating what we can use our big brains to imagine. We’re rather superb at using resources to shape our environment. There is a randomness in the universe that allows for change. Just as the DNA and RNA of all organisms allows for organisms to increase their reproductivity in the soup of randomness, the randomness of it all allows for new opportunities at every moment. We often think, as we try to survive from one day to the next, that there are only one or two choices open to us. There are an infinity of possibilities, each choice opening another avenue of infinity. When something looks like a positive direction, we can feed it, we can make it grow. We can make it expand under the attention of our love. It is clear from where I stand at the age of seventy that this opportunity we have–of living a life here on this planet– is like the water flowing in the river at the bottom of our land. It flows towards the vast ocean, persisting even when reduced to a trickle, carrying with it the impressions it encounters along the way, purified from time to time by the rush of clear water from the mountains and the torrents from the skies.
It came to me as I walked down the hill through the green forest, experiencing movement. This, the human body is never in a single state.
This body that walks is a humming amalgam of disparate elements. Some are beginning, some renewing, some extinguishing the flame of life, drifting into the void–there, where all originates, once again and always.
We are accustomed to seeing a human body as one individual with certain characteristics, either healthy or sick, alive or dead, friend or foe.
So it is with the body of the world. It appears to each of us that things are in one state or another: renewal or collapse, birthing or dying. But all of this is going on at once–birth, growth, decay, renewal, stillness–Beginning, collapse, vibrancy, death. All at once and in every part. Each part vibrating differently but in some sort of symphony.
We have come to experience this place where we spend our lives–breathing and walking, talking and working, loving and hating–as a globe, a round ball. Even if we understand that it is really an elliptical ball, we feel its satisfying roundness. Pythagorus and the ancient Greeks began to know it as a sphere. Magellan, Isaac Newton and many beings seen and unseen, understood different aspects of this place as a huge ball where, held on its surface so we don’t float away, we breathe air and drink water and eat plants and animals and use what we find to make new things. Now we have seen the photos from outer space (this vastness, somehow beyond encompassing even in our imagination) and hold in our minds the image of this blue-green sphere floating in the darkness, set off in its beauty by the lights of distant suns.
We decided somewhere long ago that this place (whether flat or spherical) is our home. We see each other and speak to each other and make plans. We are a particular species of animal that seem to be capable of imagining and by extension, imagining such a thing as this.
Since we believe it to be ours, we can do with it as we wish. We can somehow decide on the decor, rearrange things to our liking, decide what to keep and what to throw away. As with the human body, the life thronging on this planet has everything going on everywhere, all at once. Some cells are thriving, pulsing with life, living harmoniously with all the other forms of life they find around them. Others are in the throes of death. Some are diseased, having consumed everything around them and disposed indiscriminately of that which they didn’t want. And of course, the other living and more slowly vibrating forms on this particular planet move along in their own rhyme, in their own rhythm. It is only at the core of everything that there is stillness. In these times, more of us living here may have begun to sense this.
Now, in these moments on the earth, many of us can see and hear things happening to other parts of this great body, the Earth. We can’t yet touch or smell or use the fine thread of our proprioception or feel the subtle vibrations of emotions, the tiny cues of eyes and hands and faces.
We receive impressions. We get someone’s idea about what is happening right around her, through the filters of her senses, her mind, perhaps her soul. We must trust the words and the tone and the expression of her face to transmit what we would know more directly if she were sitting before us. We take all of this into the restless space of our own minds where it resonates in some way or is rejected, ejected or forgotten, judged and sorted according to what we believe we know.
But can it just settle into the stillness? Can it just be absorbed there, rest for a while as we use our internal senses to digest it, know its essence?
It is then there is a deep response. It is no longer outside of us, separate. We recognize the stillness in each other as the same stillness.
It is then that the impressions travelling around from mind to mind are transformed by our own experience in this body into something fluid, like the sound of the river or the rain, the quick movement of the brown-green lizard at the edge of our vision or the evanescent smell of the bean-tree blossoms as we pass.
There is a time when the mist here floats on the hills behind the house in the morning. As dreams mingle with visions of what we call the solid world, as I move from sleep to what we call waking, there is less division on such mornings. One morning the mist may be violet, sitting as if it were the warm breath of the still-sleeping hill itself clinging to the silence. Another morning like this one, the mist seems to float yet is without movement. Obscuring yet filled with light as the still colorless sky becomes infused so very gradually with the warmth from the sun rising over the mountain to the east.
There is also a time when one comes to a new place when the separation between that which we have come to know as our self and that which is not self is as imperceptible as the separation between mist and hill, mist and tree, mist and sky, between dream and the re-assembling morning world.
This morning when I was awake enough to tell my body to move and start the conscious day, I walked in my nightgown into our front room, a room lined with windows facing the road and a tiny kitchen space. As I passed by the windows on my way to the kettle, there was a flash of yellow at the corner of my eye. Two yellow-vested women seemed to be standing on the other side of our garden fence, in front of the row of rose bushes. Yellow vests. Signifiers of emotions and opinions which are not quite clear. A restlessness I cannot yet penetrate.
There’s a way in which the mood is turning, unwilling to continue along a disturbing path where the desires of the haves push the lives of the have-nots in ways they cannot control. As I went to set the water to boil for tea I wondered—was it this restlessness settling here in front of the house on the road into the village on a Sunday morning? Was it village workers responding to some emergency? The range of possibilities is as yet unclear to me, jumping into a new world of complexities woven over thousands of years. The cues of a very different culture, cemented into my awareness since childhood, can mislead. And imagery of the yellow-vest is ambiguous even to the French that surround me.
Then another flash out of the corner of my eye–a runner coming down the road opposite ours, down from the trail through the woods and turning left in front of our house. Then another and another, all with leggings or shorts, little backpacks of different sizes and all holding some sort of collapsible walking sticks.
Ah, yes, a cross country race! It began to come into focus. The women with the vests were officials, guiding the runners. The logo on the yellow vests became clear–”Trail des Citadelles.” They were running from one high Cathar citadel to another. Walter, about to come naked into the front room, forewarned, put on some clothes, looked at the situation in the road and said, “We have to bring those women some coffee.”
Moments later, two cups of strong coffee in hand, we walked out together to the fence and offered them. Both women, seeing the cups, said “Oh! Oui! C’est si gentil!” We stood for a while talking with them over the little fence as they greeted runners with “Par la. Tenez a gauche.”That way. Stay to the left.)
In my faulty French, I ask questions about the race and the weather. They answer warmly and willingly. They had been coming to this very spot every Easter morning for the past eight years, through the shifting dates of Easter and through rain, cold, heat and even snow. They had seen the house empty for four years in a row and were now glad to see it alive again. Today was just right. Fresh, but not at all cold. A bit of rain and grey skies, but definitely spring.
Back under the eaves of the house, we pulled out a couple of chairs and watched, dry, through the light rain as families with children waited to see a husband or father, aunt or mother come down the road to take the bend around the corner. Some on the course had already been running for three or more hours and faced many more. As each one was sighted, their small groups of supporters clapped and cheered them on. Sometimes the father or mother stopped briefly to kiss each one in their little crowd on both cheeks before running on to cheers of “Allez! Allez!” from behind.
Each interaction that connects us to this place, this home, that allows us to penetrate just a little into the life of the people here is like waking into one reality from another, dream to dream. The man who, for instance, has a beautiful garden at the other end of the village, where the river winds past the old mill and past green patches and lilac bushes. This man who was eager, when asked, to tell us all about the work he does to make a beautiful vegetable garden with rows of hoop houses and beautifully mounded potatoes and how he protects his cherry trees and harvests them and how he cuts and stores up his wood.
Or the woman standing just outside her door at the turning before the bridge whose little dogs barked at me as I passed, who said “Beaucoup de bruit avec peu de cause.” ( Lots of noise with little cause.”) We both laughed in the amber light of a sunset descending over the mountains around us, both touched by it in ways beyond apprehension.
Or the old man carrying in a huge chunk of wood through his blue front door who said “Ah. Oui, mon poêle est vraiment grand,” (Yes, my stove is truly large) when I commented on how huge it was, there in his old strong arms. The woman who gave me a ride in her little car she pulled out of the garage when I knocked on her door and said, “J’ai tourné le genou pendant la randonnée. Ça fait mal. Vous pouvez me conduire à l’autre bout du village??” (I turned my knee while I was hiking. It hurts. Can you give me a life to the other end of the village?) Concerned, she asked if I needed to go to the doctor. When I said it was not that bad, we chatted on the way about the house we’d bought whose previous owners were her friends of many years
Such beauty to be found. Here we are in the midst of it. Eyes open. Ears open. Nostrils flaring to smell the incredible blossoms of spring. Hearts listening, wondering, caught by the intensities of sunlight through parting clouds, sense of self dissipating like the mists over the hills, stirring and waking from dream into dream. So many other realities exist. This is one.
Today we got in the car and drove over the Pyrenees Orientals to Perpignan, just because we wanted to see where it was that all the people from our village in Aude want to retire. We thought we might also go to the beaches not far from this city of France which considers itself Catalan, but that was not to be. It was a beautiful drive, as all drives are in this part of France.
Over the last two months living in the department of Aude and travelling through the Ariege, our perspective has changed. Our big town has become the town of Quillan, with its population of less than four thousand. On this scale, Perpignan is a real city. There are several pharmacies, a suburbs, several Supermarches, many chic stores, and many, many, many restaurants. There’s a very pretty canal there of no apparent name. As we sat at a small cafe at a vantage point we watched while many women, young and old, of many nationalities, took selfies or posed for photos. There are several “Parkings” labelled as usual with big blue Ps, and a museum that boasts an exhibition of Hyacinthe Rigaud, a painter evidently born in Perpignan in 1659 who died in Paris in 1743. Poor guy missed the revolution and evidently painted many great portraits of nobles with fantastic wigs (or was it their hair, coiffed to perfection?). The brochure I picked up about the exhibition is written in Catalan. Even so, I pick out these facts and the estimation that he was one of the portraitists most esteemed in his time. I’d love to see the exhibition. Some other time.
We decide to pick up some things at the big pharmacy and head out of town, to return when we are settled and the weather a bit cooler. We went back the way we’d come, through the towns that used to be labelled as part of Roussillon and are now part of Pyrenees Orientals. There are beautiful views of mountains and granite cliffs. It’s a terrain full of apricot, peach and nectarine orchards and extensive vineyards that specialize in white wines, both flinty and sweet. After stopping to buy a kilo of fresh apricots at a truck stand (where an older couple was buying 84 euros worth of fruit for themselves and their neighbors and complained about the system of weighing and labeling your own produce at the local Carrefour), we were attracted, as we drove through the village, to a shop in Maury, where there is truly flinty soil.
The shop was called Les Vignes D’Elodie. We tasted a sweet wine like Muscat and a drier wine with mineral tastes and bought both. The woman in the shop, tanned, with a face delicately lined, looked both old and young and was the mother of the Elodie who makes the wine. We complimented her both on the wine and on the beauty of her daughter’s name and got back on the road.
There’s a wonder I recognize from time to time during the day—a wonder that I am actually here. When I say “here” I mean both in this place that is constantly new, constantly unfolding beauties, a place I dreamed of spending long days but never really thought could be, and then “here” in this body, looking out through these eyes, speaking words in a language unfamiliar yet not, hearing these people around me, tasting the air and the water and the wine, moving around, somehow a network of nerves and veins and cells propelled by something called a consciousness. It is here now, it was someplace else before. It contains all the information, all the sensory impressions, all the traces of emotions that have accumulated in its passage through all those other sets of molecules, many of which also seem to contain a similar ability to accumulate these experiences and to remember and retain, or lose and forget.
Believe it or not, the Fourth of July passes totally unremarked in France. We only remembered what day it was for the US when I got a FaceBook message from my daughter in Seattle during her early morning and our early evening.
We had spent the day driving through the Ariege region with our young French/British realtor to the area around the village of Massat, at an altitude of a little over 2000 feet.
The countryside of Ariege has many microclimates. On that day we had first skirted the Pyrannees, always a craggy presence, driving through the rolling foothills with their green fields and golden fields newly hayed, with their forests of mixed oak and pine. We had gone to see a house in the hills near Massat and one higher up perched on a hillside near a rocky river. Both had their own beauties. One had a stream and some decent land that would need a good deal of enriching. Both houses needed work and both had problems that couldn’t be easily modified. Neither was the one that made us say, “Okay. This is it.”
We drove back through the town of St. Girons, taking the winding road back to Lavelanet. Each time we’ve driven this gorgeous road through the mountains, it manages to catch my breath with wafts of vertigo as we drive along the knife edges of hills descending at ridiculous angles to streams below, stone huts perched on their small bits of level land before the fall. With the windows rolled down in the cooler air, the peaks of the Pyrenees white and craggy in the near distance, we heard the sound of countless cowbells from the beige Blonde d’Aquitaine cows grazing in the nooks and crannies of the green hills, occasionally wandering down to the road where they walk sedately, big bell clanging, long tails waving behind them.
Back in Lavelanet, the realtor dropped us at our car and as we drove back towards Fa, the village we call home at the moment, I thought of what it will be like to settle here in the south of France. Here where the rhythms of life flow more easily, where people have both more warmth and yet different ways of prejudging. Projects hover around me, needing the time to spread out. They pull at my sleeves and I quiet them, saying, “Look at where we are! Just look around you. Enough!” There are friendships to be settled into, friendships that will need cultivation and thought, decisions to be made about which area feels most like a home to us, which has the climate that is both clement enough in winter yet temperate enough in the height of summer, which place has the best land, the best soil, the nicest situation and a house good enough to move into and make our own gradually. All against the pull of family back in the US, nine hours back in time and six thousand miles of flight.
I think back over our trip through Portugal and Spain, places of such specificity that have already woven themselves into the repertoire of my dreams. Granada stands out in its own way and Salema in another. They have become the background to the new rhythms of life in France.
Salema. The transcendent color of the waters of the ocean, astonishingly clear, unlike anything I’d ever experienced in such a salty sea, always in motion. A transparent green that somehow lifted me with joy, with shades of light blue made even more etheric by the green. These things made their impression in the moment but, unlike the intense sensations of cities like Seville and Barcelona, they are stickier, their pathways hardened in my brain. The fragrances of the flowers in the town—the jasmine, the jacaranda, the roses, the honeysuckle—then the incredible, novel forms and colors of the unending varieties of wildflowers on the hills above the infinite expanse of the ocean. The clear delicious songs of birds with music every nerve in my body could taste. I stood for long moments listening, hoping the variations would go on forever. The wild beaches we hiked to through villages and along fields and woods. The warmth of the strengthening sun of the early summer. The delight in swimming on and on, back and forth through water cool and moving, playing with the waves. There were small disappointments, difficulties, but nothing that tarnishes the memories I visit whenever I like.
And then Granada. The Albeizin. There was something about the way the atmosphere itself seems to flow with a kind of airy fluidity. The sensation of the place seeped into the water of my cells, like the river that flows through the old town under the Alhambra, perching far above, un-ruined for me in memory by the ticket sales and the guards that chased us out like criminals before we had time to see the palace gardens and the haze over the surrounding mountains that seemed suspiciously like smog.
The evening we arrived in Granada, pulling our suitcases behind us, day packs on our backs, deciphering the directions to the hostel, hot and tired from the trip from Seville, a youngish woman on a bicycle, her hair short and uncovered, her arms lithe, her shirt a wonderful shade of green, her skin satisfyingly browned, swerved down the cobbles of the hill, past the stone bridge over the little river past us, grinning and calling out, “Smile! You’re on vacation!” I thought, no, we’re not really, but thanks. Vacation means a break from something to which you eventually return. We’re not on that kind of break. This is what we are doing. This is it.
Here we are, somehow settling into the village of Fa, near the small town of Esperaza in the Department of L’Aude in south-central France. As you make your way around the surrounding countryside, you can always tell which way is south by orienting yourself to the mountains or to the tallest hills, the beginnings of the Pyrannees.
We arrived on June 16th when there was still a cover of grey clouds, the days were cool and the locals were still complaining of the long, rainy spring. Our friend from three years ago (met through a connection to sustainable gardening on FaceBook, of all things, a woman originally from Malta who grew up between that island nation and another island nation–England–and moved here some twenty years ago) with a generosity only to be described as “genial (fr meaning fabulous, etc)”, put us up in the little stone cottage beside her pool. In the US, we would say it has two stories. Here, we have a room on the “premier etage” with windows that open out on a view of the garden and the 14th Century stone church that forms the heart of the village. From our bed, we can see what’s happening in the little plaza around the church and hear the goings on from the one cafe restaurant in the village, just on the other side of the bridge over the River Aude, which runs like a big stream through the village.
The sun came out a few days later and on this eastern side of the foothills the summer hit with with an uncommon sudden grinding of the gears. Where the River Aude widens, the cafes of the neighboring town of Esperaza filled. The petanque players came out in force on the graveled spots along the roads of the small towns and villages of the area, their silvery metal balls clanking and shining in the glinting sun of the late afternoon, murmurs of conversation and grunted exclamations of triumph or displeasure wafting by in puffs as we passed. Our work in our friend’s beautiful garden became almost impossible after noon, even in the relative shade. The mourning doves’ cooing and calling took on a new fever in the early morning and later afternoon. Life had shifted.
School was still grinding on. Our host, not only a sustainable gardener but a teacher in the local schools, continued her work despite the shift in the weather. Students were sitting for their Bacs, teachers bored in the afternoon heat, questioning and questioning. The roses, in their full flower in the village gardens, were beginning to wilt around the edges. The herbs of St. James Day, the St. John’s Wort, the Feverfew, the Pis en Lit (Dandelions) were in their full ripeness, ready to be gathered in the fields and forest edges.
On Thursday evening the 21st of June, the eve of Summer Solstice, festivals of music took place all over France. In countless cities, towns and villages, local people had been practicing and preparing for the event. In Fa, on the green common space by the river, a big tent was set up, beer and wine and food was served and almost everyone from the village and the two or three that make up the rest of the Commune were present for some part of the night. In addition to our hosts, we’d met several of the local people, some French, some ex-pats from England and Germany, at the Cafe de Fa in the village. It sits right at the turn off from the main road that runs through the village, right at the bridge over the river that divides the upper and lower village.
Old village houses line the main road, as they do in every village in this region, their wooden doors painted in various shades of blue and red and brown, their wooden shutters often closed to keep out noise and heat. There, right at the turn off to the bridge where large pots of flowers bloom, a young couple have fairly recently taken over the old restaurant. They moved into an old barn up the village road where they are making the most of their youth and energy to fix it up and create something of beauty and simplicity. They are using local food and herbs and cooking dishes of the region and dishes of their own creation. They are making a go of catering to both the expats and the locals while still attracting the flow of tourists that come in the summer. Both speak English fairly well. They work hard and know that the relationships they make with the village and their customers are just as important, if not more so, than the quality of food, wine and service.
They visit with us. They know most of the people coming and going. They know their predilections. They open in the mornings for coffee, some pastries and a few special items. Sometimes they close for a bit and then re-open around noon for lunch. They close around 2:30 and open for dinner again around 7:00. They are closed Mondays and Tuesdays. During the summer, they have live music on some Friday nights, heard by most of the village until midnight. On Bastille Day, there will host someone who will speak about the history of the village, a long one. There is no schedule of opening times on the door. You have to know.
We had already watched several World Cup games with some of the locals who still have an interest in football and a few of the ex-pats. The people of the area are fairly tepid about Le Foot. It is an area crazy for rugby. At the Restaurant de Fa they couldn’t show some of the games since the broadcast package that contains all the World Cup games was prohibitively expensive for a small village restaurant. But when there were games to be seen there was still a mixed gathering in the indoor seating, drinking Estrella beer from Spain, glasses of wine or Syrop with water, chatting during the boring parts and cheering and commenting when things got exciting. People came and went, kissing on both cheeks as they entered, greeting ‘Manu, the owner, Julia coming and going with orders for the customers outside by the river.
We saw them all down by the river that night, many dressed up incongruously in colorful clothes made of African materials. I’m still mystified by much of the symbolism of what I see, just as I am by a language whose delicacies (and indelicacies) of usage I’ll be deciphering for some time to come. As we walked down to the site of the festival in the common area in a shady spot by the river, past the big communal recycle bins, a group of men and women dressed in bright green homemade tunics were warming up in formation, faces theatrically serious and blank, with their hand drums, sticks and shakers, their conductor instructing them with her arcane hand signals. We bought our wine and beer at the stand under the big shelter, used for village parking on other days, paid deposits for the plastic cups, and watched as the troop in green started up, playing and dancing like some small, basic version of the Indian Bands at Mardi Gras.
They went on for what seemed an hour, people, men and women, some almost as old as we are, probable transplants to L’Aude, dancing wildly and beautifully to the endlessly shifting beat. The whole thing, performance and participation, was like something from another time, another space, some of it ancient, some the current reiteration of the ’60s, grown right from this tiny village, a mix of ex-pats, French from other parts and natives of Fa, an exotic stew, with sophisticated flavors and a rich broth. From time to time it seemed that one or two of the elders of the village, those who sit on the benches near the bridge in the evening, came to walk through or sit and watch. They know all about it. Their village is still here.
After what seemed an exhausting length of time, the band somehow still seemed fresh and ready to continue all night. And after other groups played in the tent, there they were again, ready for another round, the dancers from the village following right behind. The church bells had struck eleven times as we walked the short distance back to our little stone house beside our friend’s little swimming pool.
The night still had some good heat left in it as we passed the stone church, the three-quarter moon swaying in the dark blue sky above the bell tower, the planet Venus as bright as an approaching airplane as we walked towards the west where it gleamed in the vastness. We opened the big metal gates and made our way across the grass now wet with dew to our little cottage. Through our wide-open windows, we heard the music and the voices of the festive crowd well into the night. Our host’s teenage boys and their friends wandered through the garden and messed around on the trampoline well after we’d gone to bed, the whole village their playground.
I woke briefly as the bells stuck twice in the usual quiet of the sleeping village. Their sound, the first peal still startling to me, like a metal pipe clanging to the ground, connected me immediately to the place where I am, where I sleep and begin my days. I was not in our little apartment in Salema, Portugal, with a view of the ocean. I was not in Porto where we slept with a window facing the tiled roofs of houses, spread out to the river beyond. I was not in our tiny apartment in Lisbon where perhaps the man with the handcart might be coming down the street at that hour to collect the bags of garbage left out on the sides of the street. It could be Evora, with the church across from our room in the hostel, but there the peals of the bells were higher and more distant. I couldn’t be our room in Lagos where the streets were quiet until 6 am. It couldn’t be Faro, where it might have been the sound of some rowdy, cheering crowd, celebrating some victory as they made their way home at last that woke me. It couldn’t be our room in a hostel in the Albeizin in the magical city of Granada, where Italian students might have woken me with their late night operatic melodramas as we slept in the shadow of the Alhambra. It couldn’t have been Madrid, where our open window had a view of the walls of the surrounding buildings and the only noise was that of other guests coming back down the hallway. It couldn’t have been Barcelona, where there was silence until the early morning when the metro began to rumble from far down below us in its underground haunts.
Even as they’ve begun to recede into the background of my mind where, in the course of life’s preoccupations, they may no longer register in my consciousness, the peals of these bells have now begun to regulate the rhythm of my days. At two am they tell me, “Go back to sleep. There’s plenty of time.” At 7 am my body now responds with “Yes, okay, it’s time. Up now,” and if I hesitate, there’s the repetition at 7:05 or so, as with the peals at all the hours, in case I missed it. At noon, by the second repetition and certainly by the musical peal of the midi hour, my stomach has begun to signal that it’s time to stop for lunch.
Within this rhythm, the heat of the day seems to almost force me to lie down for a nap after lunch. Many mornings we leave the village by 10 am to drive around the neighboring department of Ariege where we hope to settle. Or, if we’re lucky, we drive to meet our agence d’immobilier so that he can show us some properties.
Then, once we’re far from our apartment in Fa, we have learned if we wait until 2:30 or so when we’re really hungry, every place that serves food of any substance is closed. If we stop for lunch between noon and two at a real restaurant, the ones with the fabulous food, we will be there for a couple of hours, drinking beer and wine, waiting for our food and then waiting for l’addition (unless we make a point to the servers or the maitre d’). So we’ve learned to take along a picnic and stop for a beer somewhere at a cafe. I’m getting better and better at taking my turn driving our rented standard shift Citroen through the narrow streets of the countless villages and the twisting turning mountain roads where cars don’t always stay in their lanes around the curves. When we stop to look around at a village or order a cafe au lait or watch one of the World Cup matches at a bar, I chat up the host and usually one or two of the customers, practicing my French or reverting to English when it turns out, as it often does, that they are ex-pats or have spent time in England or the US.
My French is improving, but slowly. It reminds me a bit of when I was 18 and travelling with my friend Alice, both of us in France for the first time after studying French in school for many years. It was as if my sense of who I am was veiled, my ability to communicate my experience of things passed through a thick filter that left people with only the gross residue of my being, rather than the subtleties that make me who I am. It took about a month of growing friendships and an increasing sense of what it sounded like to communicate in French, what it looked like, how it even tasted and smelled to use these words, this music, before more pieces of my sense of self began to return.
Since my sense of self is quite a bit more formed by this point in life, it’s not so dramatic this time ’round. Now the largest frustration is missing huge chunks of the conversations going on around me, missing out on all this stuff, the tissue and complexity of information and interaction that would give me a key to all these humans, to the way they see the same things I see in some different way. I am gliding over the surface, curious, but my interior sense is untouched.
And I’m surrounded by people whose own sense of self seems pretty established. It doesn’t seem to be a concern. And they like that they live here. They don’t seem restless. For the most part, although they see the imperfections clearly, they appreciate what they have, both by being French and by living in the part of the country where village life and country life is still real. They seem secure in a sense of what’s important—community, family, taking care of each other, living within certain means, maintaining a rhythm in life. This could all be an illusion they create for the daily stage of a small village but if so, they’re good at it.
I find I like it. I’m sure that as I get to know them better, their insecurities, their prejudices, their worries, the stresses of divorce, of relationships on the job, in the village, with their spouses and children, their frustration and anger with their government and the world situation, will emerge, just as it does with all humans. Here, they seem to know that all this is in fact, part of being a human, part of life everywhere on the planet and at every time. Although it is an outrage, it doesn’t seem to be surprising. Life goes on. Watch the game. As a man wrote on the chalkboard of the Cafe de Fa, “Cocorico, la France!” “The coq is crowing! Wake up France!” Yes, but they are already more awake to the extremity of our human situation than the Americans, where the urgency gets more extreme by the moment. Many French people believed that the results of our last election would cause a general uprising and a re-creation of our democracy. Yes, that was the possibility. Is it still? Cocorico Etats-Unis!
The twistings and turnings of the road. Although I am in one of the most beautiful cities in the world where all the senses are pleased, my stomach has been in a knot with shame and regret for two days. The road is a great teacher. It keeps paring down the ego and then and paring it down some more, right to the essentials. It finds the places where the material is weak and chips away at it until we have learned how to make it whole and pure. It cleans us.
The Sufis say that first God whispers in our ear. If we don’t pay attention, the second message is louder and more intense. If we still don’t get it, then it becomes a blow to the head. It’s best to pay attention the first time, even if we are tired, even if it feels like something too difficult to accomplish. If it needs to be repeated, it will become much, much more painful to take care of the second time. It will have a much greater cost. The third time—maybe it kills us. Who knows?
I bought a new cell phone before I left the US. I debated not using it until I settled in France, but my old one was acting up a bit so I pulled out the new one. I wanted to take some good photos that first real day in Portugal, as we travelled up the Douro River from Porto, to the rolling countryside of the Port wine vineyards. I violated my rule of never putting a phone in my pants pocket, ever, not even if it were more convenient for takings photos. We had just had our nice lunch at a table with women from Brazil and couples from England when I dropped it in the toilet. It was quick. I fished it out instantaneously and dried it. That night, I put it in rice. It was all in vain. It was fried.
I was devastated by my own stupidity, my own carelessness. I had struggled with this inattention for as long as I could remember. I thought I had gained some wisdom from this teacher of mine. But still, it catches me. The cost becomes greater the further I venture in life. When I was very young, the cost was mostly my own. I covered it. I learned to compensate but not, evidently to become its master.
I let the shame come full force to greet me in private. The cost of such error needs to be kept as close as close, but it inevitably spills over to those who should not have to bear the price, to those we love most. I must have the grace to bear the brunt as quietly as I can, to continue to appreciate all that is given to me moment by moment. It would be churlish to become churlish about it.
I bought another phone, surrounded by the wonderful good graces and wisdom of my partner. I used it happily. I took photos and videos of Seville in the midst of the overwhelming celebrations of the holiday of Corpus Christi, the streets packed with people in their finery, their children in expensive dresses and suits, bands parading through the streets, priests processing in front of the beautifully decked statues of Jesus and Mary. I took a video of a white pigeon for my soon-to-be-five-year-old granddaughter. I was resolved to not make mistakes. I protected the phone. I made sure I was putting it in the correct place in my purse. I talked to myself about it continuously. Habits. Formation of habits. I made sure to turn on the GPS so I could track the phone should it get lost or stolen.
The next morning, we traveled through the crowded streets to get our train tickets for the next day, pushing through the crowds seeking the blessing of all the holy displays in the streets, I, taking videos as we went, gay with the spirit of the moment, my partner pushing ahead, eager to avoid what to him carries the poison that has created hatreds and meanness.
Once we arrived at the station, we waited and waited for our turn at the counter. We were tired out, so I took out my phone from its place of security to check the buses for a return to the center of the city. Our number was called and we went up to purchase our tickets. Tickets for Granada in hand, we caught the bus back to the area of the big Cathedral. We stopped at an information kiosk and as we were leaving, I checked my bag. The new phone was gone. I checked in every conceivable pocket of the bag. Nothing. I’m afraid I broke down and cried on my partner’s shoulder right there in the street, people streaming past laughing and talking.
Now in Granada, having left my sunglasses on the train when we suddenly had to disembark to a bus for the rest of the trip, I will go and buy another phone. I guess I need it. I want to take photos. It seems very difficult to take care of the daily needs of life without the connections a phone provides to the network around us. It is part of my connection back to my family and friends. The knot of fear and shame will need to continue to teach me.
Shame is not always something to reject as invalid. The impulse is to hide. I am doing the opposite. The critical moments will come when that knot begins to relax and my vigilance is lowered. I will have to develop a structure that will catch me when I am most vulnerable, when I am tired, distracted or surprised. I will make this the practice of remembrance, thinking always of where it is, where I am, where it is in relation to my breath—a spiritual practice.
Now I will go out into the beautiful sunshine of Granada. The streets of the Albaicin where we are staying wind in and out under stone arches, up stone stairs, along narrow sidewalks paved with black rounded stones set on end. Up to where the views of the Alhambra touch something inside you that unlocks and springs open, where the scents of jasmine, jacaranda and roses in this late spring make your head swirl with joy. Up to where magnificent views of the still snow-capped Sierra Nevadas unfold from small walled secret gardens inside the hidden villas, the Carmen of the city.
And then we can stroll over to the gardens named after Garcia Lorca, and maybe see the museum made in his old summer house here, down avenues with brass plaques on the sidewalks announcing the names of the streets we are crossing–Calle Colcha, Calle Joaquin Costa, Calle Puente del Carbon–down an avenue lined with red roses that look like abundant crimson geraniums over which arch the vibrant Ginkgo and Linden Trees. Past buildings with the most amazing decorations of tile, with rococo stone carvings and Moorish balustrades, with huge doors of wood and brass and leather. Where, in this week of the holiday of Corpus Christi you might see a little girl dressed in a beautiful flounced red dress with mantilla prancing along next to her parents and grandparents or a young woman dressed as if to go to the bullfight, dark or light, transformed, graceful, elegant in a spring-like dress with flowers and lace and swishing hems. Or suddenly a bevvy of elegant men, dressed in dark suits and white shirts, followed by a group of men singing, sporting their team’s bright yellow jerseys, each group stopping soon in their favorite taberna for cervecas, talk and laughter.
And maybe later I will be able to take photos of some of this. But they will never be the same as the vivid images, coated with emotions and with the impressions of my muscles, with the subtle scents I will be able to inhale, the sounds of birds I will hear inside that vast space of mind when I recall these days. My heart will search these files in my dreams.
The water of the Atlantic off the coast of the Algarve is an indescribable mixture of exquisite light greens, luminous, almost chartreuse, catching all aspects of the light, turquoise and darker hues of blue. Walking along the water on the sand of the beach, with the gentle waves wetting your feet as they churn with sand, the particular vibrations of these colors create a kind of ecstatic lightness of being, a sweetly, softly singing kind of joy.
As I look out over the huge, flat expanse of the water, somehow more quietly laying itself out to a line of the horizon than the vast, moving, wild waters of the Pacific, I can understand the longing to move out across them that inspired the navigators of these shores to launch themselves out in boats, ancestors of these fishermen still putting out into the sea, now pulled and pushed by a big tractor.
We walked out along the cliffs, past the luxury condos and modern townhouses that now cluster on the hillsides, to the rough tracks filled still in late May with wildflowers and the sweet and spicy fragrances of seaside foliage and the blooming rockroses and the sticky gum cistus, yellow and mauve straw-flower-like hottentot figs, purple wild gladioli and toadflax, pink catchfly, the vibrant red-tufted vetch and an occasional flowering jacaranda tree that catches us unaware with its sweetness. We step out towards the crumbly edges where my vertigo begins to take hold, just to peer down at the variations of color in the rocks and water below where the minerals in the stone make astonishing purples, greens, yellows and maroons against the light and dark greens and luminous blues of the gently spraying waves.
We climb back up through the lines and lines of luxury homes made to “blend in” with the indigenous architecture, up and up to the boundary of Salema to peer over towards the village of Figueira where tomorrow we may try to go to the beach of Furnas.
The light reflected from the Ria Mondega is illuminating the front of the train station across from where I sit in the dining room of our old hotel, having a meia de liete , a roll with cheese and linguica and yogurt. It promises to be one of the first truly hot days of summer. The sky is totally blue, unlike yesterday’s cloudy start.
This is our fifth real day in Portugal, not counting the first which was spent in the blur of travel. We’d landed in Porto and made our way to the guest house where the owner and his son met us at the door. With tremendous gentility and sweetness, they had welcomed us and let us get settled. Underestimating the level of our jet lag, we’d gone to have a light dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, where, at four o’clock, a tall, gaunt waiter had met us upstairs and informed us sadly that it was too early for the fish. Exhausted, more drained than hungry, we ended up having his “friends downstairs” pack our order of pork ribs and grilled chicken as take away.
Back in a lovely room in the north end of Porto, we fell onto the beds and slept, I, waking a few hours later to gorge on the grilled chicken and then sleeping again. It was not only the day of travel hitting us, but the three weeks of non-stop work to clear the farmhouse of practically everything. My intervening three-day trip to see my son receive his PhD two thousand miles away from our former home was now a blur, his face and the swirl of so many contradictory emotions coming to me in dreams.
Porto began to show itself to us the next day as we walked in the late morning down the hills toward the River Douro. Still cool at the beginning of May, the sun came and went from behind the clouds, the weather perfect for walking around a town full of workers tearing down and rebuilding the insides of countless buildings, old houses lining every street with faces mute and blank, concealing the noises and the depth and breadth of life inside.
Grandfathers guided their toddler and preschool grandchildren through winding streets where the sidewalks were paved with thousands upon thousands of small rounded rocks in many patterns. Here too in Coimbra, all the sidewalks are the same—each street a different variety, color and pattern of stone. Some complain that these traditional streets collect garbage between the stones and are therefore unhygienic. However, I have not seen as much dog shit here as in Paris or even as on any one of the urban trails back home in Bellingham, WA.
As I walk, I imagine the workers on hands and knees, placing stones, chatting non-stop and laughing to the accompaniment of the clang of their tools pounding the stones into the gravel, working their way along beside the hundreds of doors that lead into the caverns of lovely, unseen homes inside.
But there is a mystery in these cities of Portugal. It is now evening, and we have rested and gone up the hill in Coimbra to the famed Botanical Gardens. Originally started by the university in 1772 as a place to experiment with rare species and teach the medical students about medicinal plants. it is now run down an neglected, much of it closed to the public. Fountains that must have been lovely oases in the lush greenery do not flow. Ponds with goldfish are filled with algae where teenagers cavort and try to feed the fish Oreo cookies, perhaps with felonious intent. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The stones of stairs and tables are broken and lying in pieces. The blue tiles on the sides of the seating areas are cracked and falling from the wall. Exotic trees are dead and brown or dying. The greenhouse is closed to the public and looks as if very few professionals visit to care for the browning plants inside. The whole place has a miasma of neglect. Strangely, there is a modern bathroom near the greenhouse and a couple of workers using leaf blowers and a pick in a desultory effort to clear away a few small weeds and sparse fallen leaves on the verges around the greenhouse, as if in an attempt to deny the wild growth spreading everywhere.
In the overgrown bamboo forest, two workers are inexplicably in the process of constructing a traditional stone pathway through the bamboo, while the poles of bamboo encroach on the ancient buildings and choke the ponds and fountains. The hammer on the stones makes the same sound I imagined the workers had made while laying the stone sidewalks of Porto. Accompanying the ringing taps of the hammer, unfamiliar birds sing in this wildness while domestic apple and pear trees, somehow pruned during the winter, are suffering from lack of water and nutrients in the soils, weeds taking firm hold on the terraces where the fruit trees seem to be making their own lonely effort to survive.
Internet research on the reasons for this neglect seems useless. Everywhere in the two cities we’ve visited so far the stones of monuments and beautiful old buildings are blackened and full of moss. But there is construction everywhere, private renovation of ancient buildings for apartments, new stores going in on old streets, facelifts on crumbling buildings with wrought iron balustrades. But none of it seems to be municipal work. It is clear that the economy of Portugal suffered a heavy blow in 2010 and 2011 after the crash and with the European Union’s instigation of austerity measures here and in Greece, but all indications are that the recent trends are upwards.
Fundamentals appear to be fairly strong. The Centrist Left Wing government is stable and continues to have high approval ratings. In 2012 they began pushing back against austerity and seem to be managing well. The people are working and seem fairly upbeat, despite the perceptions of some other travellers I’ve read that the Portuguese are depressed and rude.
What is the source of all the neglect? I asked the night manager at our hotel if he could tell me why so much of the Botanical Gardens are closed. He replied that the gardens are owned and run by the university as a research area and those areas that are closed to the public are typically areas where experiments are underway and should not be disturbed by tourists. I thought to myself that the research, in this case, must be into the effects of benign neglect on non-native plants. I suppose there might be a Secret Garden grant from the government for such study.
The reason for the take over by weeds and the unchecked effects of water, wind and corrosion there and in the nearby municipal gardens still eludes me. Perhaps the priorities of this socialist government are rightly placed on the care of its people rather than on its municipal parks and monuments. There are also many wild preserves in the countryside and mountains of Portugal. Maybe these (and the cafes and bars) are the refuges of the populace.
Meanwhile, still puzzled, sitting here under an umbrella at a table of the Cafe Santa Cruz in the late afternoon sun, I will enjoy the Fado of Coimbra, which seems to be more chauvinistic and folkloric than the Fado of passionate longing sung in Lisbon. I will sit and feel the sun mixed with the breezes from the Rua Mondango while bats begin to fly overhead in the open plaza around the ancient church where the light is golden for a few more moments.