Sunday, September 2, 2007


A few weeks ago Valbonne celebrated its patron saint with a two-day festival. Wednesday evening there was a run through the village streets; Wednesday night a ball in the place; Thursday a procession bearing a statue of Saint Roch followed by a blessing of the animals, and, later, speeches from the mayor and council members. It was our first opportunity to attend a village fete.

C. decided to participate in the run; he and G. went in the morning to register. When we returned late in the afternoon the place was already buzzing with activity. Valbonne, unlike most of the local villages, is not a hill town--which is not to say that it is flat, just that it is not perched at the top of anything. The town is laid out in a grid , with a central square entirely enclosed by arcades. Built by the local abbey early in the 16th century, the town was meant to attract people to look after the substantial abbey lands: millers of flour and olive oil, artisans, bakers, blacksmiths, maybe a butcher or a tanner. It was a planned development, maybe 16th century Provence's answer to those Disney-built towns in Florida.

In the center of the place tents were set up over tables where the runners could register and see the trophies and prizes which would be given out later. An announcer kept up a steady patter of commentary on the route, on the runners, on I'm not sure what--but it was constant. The girls and I were cranky from the crowds and the hour of the day and we all retreated to the Cafe des Arcades for limonades and a kir. Then it was time for the run: a few hundred people massed together, running clubs all together in matching jerseys and then C. in his well-worn tshirt from a race a decade ago, and then they were off and up the street which suddenly did not seem so flat after all.

We watched and waited and watched, going a block over to see the runners as they trudged by, going a block in the other direction to catch another glimpse, and then back to the place to await the finishes. First the serious, lean, intense runners, all of them in club jerseys, announced familiarly by the emcee with his microphone and cheered by the crowd. Then the second wave and then, before too many more, came C. through the archway to the finish line. Home, then, for supper and to prepare for the ball.

That was to begin at 9.30. When we arrived at 10 cars were parked higgledy piggedy around the outskirts of the town. People were eating outside. Flags and lights were draped between buildings. In the square, an old RV we had noticed parked in the corner earlier had metamorphosed into a bandstand: one of the long sides was propped open to the square, and inside sat a band--two guitars, a bass and drum--in what was decorated to look like a sitting room in a French home of the 1930s. Printed wallpaper, lace curtains, a phonograph, mismatched chairs. The musicians all wore dark pants and white shirts with colorful printed vests and garters on their sleeves. The drummer alternated between his drums and a small accordion. A dance floor had been put down on the stones of the place and little children danced their jumpy, exuberant dances while adults--old couples, friends, an old boulevardier who changed partners for each dance--navigated the space around them. Opposite the band was the lady making cotton candy and her partner selling silly string; between them around the edges, spilling as far out into the place as the law would wink at, were restaurant tables filled with families celebrating the warm night.

The next morning the girls and I took the dogs to the annual blessing of the animals. Wendy and Alice have been blessed before, at the Episcopal Cathedral in Washington on St. Francis' day. I wanted to bring them to this blessing for a lot of reasons--getting everyone at our house off the sofa and out of the pool; a historian's interest in a traditional ritual--but perhaps mostly because it offered us a way in, a way to participate in a village event. Was it to have the dogs blessed? Perhaps a little of that, too.

We were a little late, of course. We hurried through the archway into the place and then through the place, deciding in a hurry whether to walk down the hill to the abbey church, where the procession would begin, or whether to meet the procession as it came along if, of course, we had not missed it. We hadn't. As we came around a corner we heard the fife and drum before we saw the little group coming up the street: first the old men in Provencal costume, two beating drums and two playing a solemn marching tune on their old-fashioned flutes. Then two men, solemn in their costumes, bearing a statue of Saint Roch and his dog. Next came the priest, tall, sturdy, with white hair and a frank expression, a gold chasuble over his white robe and sturdy walking shoes, and then the mayor, identifiable by the row of ribbons on his left lapel, and various official-looking men. Then the church women: surely the altar guild, if a Catholic church has such a thing. All of a certain age, many all the way to aged, in their Sunday best with sensible shoes (a French woman's concession to age and cobblestones), some with cats in baskets, some with dogs, one holding a baby bird in her hand.

I looked at the girls, uncertain of how to proceed. Would they want to join in or stand back? Follow at a distance or meet up at the end? I was not even sure of what the end was going to be, or where. Before I could call a sidewalk meeting, though, the girls, with Wendy and Alice straining ahead, had stepped into the stream of the procession. And there we were: one lapsed Protestant, two unchurched children, and two terrier-poodles who had been blessed by Episcopalians, following a Catholic saint whom we did not know through a 500 year old village.

The procession picked up more stragglers along the way as it wound through the square, out through the archways, and onto the main street into the village. A lone gendarme nonchalantly stood in the street while Peugeots and Citroens lined up behind him. We took the main road a block or two, down the hill to the immense packed dirt field that serves as a parking lot and site for exhibitions and antique markets. This week, scheduled, no doubt, to coincide with the fete, there was a sizable circus installed there, with dozens of red tractor-trailers, several tents, and, of course, the big top itself, entered through an archway of lights and crowned with illuminated letters.

Along the edge of the parking lot there are courts for petanque with a club house. I had never noticed anything more, but at the end of the sandy flat courts, past the club house, there is a small stone chapel. That is where the procession stopped. Now a hundred or so people, we gathered outside the chapel. There was a makeshift altar, seats behind it for a choir, and a dozen or so rows of seats in front. I realized that there would be a mass.

We stood a little distance back from the last row of chairs. The dogs alternated between straining at the leash to sniff other dogs, of which there were suddenly many, and retreating to safety behind my legs. The girls did not behave much differently--venturing to look at and pet other dogs or, even, horses, which had begun to line up behind us, and then coming back to me to ask what was happening. I followed the mass a bit: the form was familiar and the language not so different from the Episcopal liturgy I had been used to. Some of the people around us were absorbed by the show up front while others talked, greeting friends and passing the time, glancing up towards the priest now and again to see where we were.

The priest, meanwhile, explained that first there would be a mass and then there would be the blessing of the animals. At the homily he told us the story of Saint Roch, how, after caring for plague victims, he had been stricken himself and gone away alone to the forest to die. The villagers, too frightened to help him themselves, sent a dog after him. The dog brought the saint food and water every day until the he was restored to health. Saint Roch is the patron saint of animals, therefore, because his dog saved his life. The priest talked of how God put us in stewardship over the earth and its creatures, and said that our relationships with our animals were part of that stewardship. We were to the animals as God was to us: protector, provider, source of support and love.

Midway through the homily the circus animals appeared. Several large, beautiful horses; two camels, or maybe three, assorted emus, some donkeys, and, lastly, a few miniature horses. Those among the faithful, or at least those attending, who had been gazing mainly up the makeshift aisle to the priest were now even more distracted. An outdoor mass is one thing; camels and emus quite another. The girls darted off to see the oddities and Wendy and Alice began jumping against me, overcome by the presence of so many smells.

The priest was finishing up his homily now, and I had lost the thread: concentrating on the French was difficult over the whispered English of the children and the dogs' anxiety, as well as the active conversations around me. He was finishing up, though, by enjoining us to be thankful. "It is good for the health to say thank you often, and we do not do it enough, so let us take a few moments to be silent and say thank you, to our animals, our children, our parents and families and friends." Wendy took that moment to jump a little higher up towards me, convinced that the neighboring German Shepherd had designs on her.

After Communion, the priest went first to the circus animals. The woman from the procession who had carried the small bird in her hands got to him first, though, and, leaning up to him, whispered urgently in his ear. The priest smiled after a moment and announced that this baby bird had fallen from its nest that morning and been saved, and that it would therefore be the first animal blessed. There was a cheer, and the priest named the bird Saint Roch in honor of the day. Next came the circus horses, and then their fellows. More than dogs had gathered by now: cats in market baskets, guinea pigs, a goat, a turtle. People surged around the priest in clusters. He would walk a few steps and stop in front of one person, and be immediately surrounded by a dozen others. He would work his way through each group, asking each person his name and the name of his animal, and then blessing both.

I wondered how long this ritual had existed in Valbonne. Why Saint Roch, why here? And had this ritual changed or was it, as it felt to my historian's soul, close to what it had been centuries ago--the faithful or, at any rate, the present, wanting to touch the sacred and even share that sacred with their animals. These people seemed to believe: once the priest began his blessings, the chatting groups of neighbors organized into little battalions of communicants, holding up their animals, pressing closer in to receive the priest's touch.

We were swept along, and when the moment came, I put one dog in E.'s arms and took the other in my own, and pressed forward until the priest turned to us, and then received his blessing with downcast eyes. This is what I think I believe: in connection, in the accretion of meaning over time and in specific places. I believe in history and in our inexorable even if unacknowledged connection to the past, and I believe in a grace that I do not understand and cannot fathom, a grace that has given me these creatures to care for and to teach. The strangeness of Catholic ritual fades in the strength of the sense of participating in a moment that is older than anything I know in my American life. And at that moment on a dusty sunny petanque court I am thankful.

Since then, Wendy has been thinking about converting to Catholicism. The Episcopalians don't have camels.

No comments:

Post a Comment