Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Saint Honorat

The girls came with me hiking today. Since September, I've hiked most Tuesdays with a group of women from the international women's club: women older than I am, sometimes by a generation, sometimes by a few years, from England, mostly, but also France and Germany and Scandinavia.

These are women whom it is easy to imagine standing up in their horse's stirrups and calling the hounds. Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia comes to mind. Sturdy, practical, the sort of women who would not hesitate to take a gadabout nephew--or husband, or friend, or country--to task, who, in between trips to look after ailing parents or grown children in crisis, meet up on Tuesday mornings for a day's hike and picnic. If there is a birthday, expect champagne.

I joined the group on the recommendation of a Swedish neighbor who, having made the suggestion, went back to Sweden to look after her father and whom I have not seen since. I--who am not a joiner--disciplined myself to go the first few times, reasoning that the exercise was good, the fresh air even better, and that I could learn the area by hiking. All of that has turned out to be true, of course. The bonus is this: that these women have taken me in, and drawn me out, and made a place for me among them.

So today E. and G. came along. They are at the beginning of yet another school vacation, the vacances de ski. I asked the leader of the hiking group--a woman so formidable she would make Bertie's Aunt Dahlia wilt on the vine--if I might bring the girls along, and she, having ascertained that they had hiked before and had appropriate shoes--agreed. I bought two small backpacks for them to carry (something new always helps), and we packed one of our favorite picnics: roast chicken, camembert, baguettes, and fruit. And they baked chocolate chip cookies to bring along to share. We managed to wake up, get dressed, run the dogs, pack our packs, and arrived in Valbonne on time at 9:00.

Our hike was in the coastal mountains. Red rocks loomed above us, the Mediterranean lay below, with the Iles de Lerins in the bay out from Cannes, and occasional sailboats wafting along. The sun was strong today, at least, strong for February. We started uphill, and first Sue walked along talking to the girls. Then a stop for water, and, after, Maggie. After Maggie: Rosalynde. Then a long and steep uphill, back and forth around the mountain, and Maggie, again, making bets with G. about when we would arrive at the top. Arriving at the top, and lunchtime: Annsofi had kept a place for us and we picnicked together. There was a birthday, and champagne; Pauline had just come back from Scotland, and brought shortbread to pass around; Judy distributed almond cake from a friend's patisserie; G. and E. circulated the chocolate chip cookies. We sat in the sun and feasted.

Down steep and narrow stone stairs from our picnic spot was a shrine, a cave in the rock's face. More than a thousand years ago Saint Honorat sheltered there. It was in a time before Christianity established order in the area, and after the Romans and their order had fallen apart. Saracens threatened from the sea, and unknown barbarian tribes from the north. Life was probably as hard on this coast then as it has ever been. Honoratus had started off in the north of Gaul, the son of a well-to-do family, and had converted to Christianity and headed south, aiming for the Holy Land. He got there, after assorted misadventures, and then headed back towards France, probably for the baked goods. Arriving here, he was well-respected in some circles--but reviled in enough that he climbed up this trail and sought sanctuary in this cave for a while. And now it is a shrine.

We ducked to enter the cave. Along a low ledge at the back were offerings to the saint: plastic flowers, notes, a book or two, a Byzantine-looking triptych with Jesus in the center, flanked by two saints, one of them presumably Honoratus. There was a photograph of Mother Theresa, and other photos, too, of ordinary, unknown people, even of a soccer team: Saint Honorat, pray for us, 2006. It was cold and damp and though it did not feel holy to me, I could feel that it was holy for all the people who had come here searching for answers or help or peace.

Today was primary day where we come from. We sent in our ballots last week, voting absentee, of course. We have liked being an ocean away from this election. The last eight years have been hard years to be American--probably part of the reason that we find ourselves here, now. We came looking for a pause from American politics. A moment of distance and detente. A regrouping. And so we read about this election, so important, from afar, and we try to explain what we think about it to each other, and to our French friends, and to our girls. What we feel, mostly, is proud. And we dare to hope. And, then, we feel anxious: what if, what if, what if.

So I imagine young Honoratus climbing up this hill and hiding out and waiting for the time to be right, maybe for the local priest to change, maybe for the Saracens to sail off, maybe for the rain to come, or the rain to go. When he came down from his mountaintop, Honoratus sailed out to the Iles de Lerins and founded a monastery that became, in time, the most powerful monastery in Provence.

We walked back up the stairs, joined the group, and walked down the hill. Annsofi decided the hike was going on too long, and started singing songs with E. and G., and telling stories and laughing. The girls were happy; we were all happy. The mimosas and the rosemary were blooming, and even a little early lavender. We wound down the hill, a colorful procession of women from 12 to 70. These women are kind. Sturdy and strong willed and impressionantes, and kind to children and newcomers. Sanctuaries come in different forms.

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