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Archive for January, 2016

The Tarasque

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Town crest of Tarascon with Good King Rene’s castle and the Tarasque chomping somebody in the Rhone

Some years ago I wound up in Aix-en-Provence in the summer. (Don’t ever do this.) We were living in a cramped basement apartment that was at least a few degrees cooler than it was outside, and there was little to do during the heat of the day but read and listen to the eerie, omnipresent chorus of the million cicadas that are a regional mascot and a fixture in Provençal fabric design. (Gorgeous tablecloths depicting bugs, go figure. It’s just a Provençal thing.) I don’t speak French beyond the Ou sont les toilettes, s’il vous plait? level, but there was one book in English in the university library, a biography of Frédéric Mistral, the 1904 Nobel Prize-winning writer and lexicographer of Provence’s Occitan language and folklore.

I love folklore, search for it incessantly, regard it as the Rosetta Stone of all hidden mysteries. In the back matter of the book was a reference to a museum in Arles devoted to the Provençal traditions Mistral celebrated in his work. I would have walked the 49 miles from Aix to Arles just to see it, but fortunately we had a car.

The temperature was in the 90’s; the museum was empty, stifling and airless, but I popped a salt pill and reveled in it. The place was and is a trove of wonderful costumes, dioramas, santons (tiny statues of countless Provençal characters), Mistral’s framed Nobel Prize certificate, and a Tarasque! It was love at first sight.

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The Tarasque’s statue in Tarascon

The Tarasque is a mythic, amphibious creature who lived in the Rhone or in the woods near the Rhone and devoured people, mostly those unfortunates who fell into the river due to shipwrecks and that sort of thing. Armies of skilled hunters failed at every attempt to capture and kill the monster, but as luck would have it, St. Martha (of Mary and Martha biblical fame) had moved to France in 48 A.D. shortly after the crucifixion and lived

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Note murderous townfolk.

nearby. She went to the Tarasque and sang to it, taming the beast and sealing its fate. The now-gentle creature walked with St. Martha back into town, where the townfolk immediately beat it to death. Moral: The Little Prince quite aside (“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”), wisdom lies in scrupulous attention to the character of potential tamers. Martha wasn’t up to the responsibility, and would have found no fan in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The Tarasque became one of my many personal conceptual icons, and I included it in The Paper Doll Museum. But life strangely offered few opportunities to discuss Tarasques over lunch, and my interest, if not my fondness for the creature, faded. Until this trip.

Tarasc bookWhen, driving around the various ancient communes near Meynes, I saw a town name on a road sign -Tarascon. My beast has a whole town named for it! And a statue the size of a Volkswagen van, an annual festival in which it’s carried through town by men in colorful costumes, plus books and tourist gimcracks. I bought the refrigerator magnet. Our hostess Martine, no doubt uneasy at my sudden, frenzied ecstasy over an old French folk tale, graciously bought me the key chain.

There’s a castle in Tarascon that, unlike every even slightly perilous locale in the U.S., has

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Tarascon gargoyle watching the Rhone

no “Danger! Keep Out!” signs prohibiting exploration. It was built in the first half of the 15th century and does present certain dangers. But the French assume you’ll pay attention while climbing those crumbling spiral stairs five stories up to the roof from which soldiers of Good King Rene sent arrows and catapulted stones to fall on the invading armies of Aragon.

The roof affords spectacular views of the town and the church of St. Martha, in which her supposed relics may be venerated in a crypt supposedly built on the exact spot where her house stood. In the 1st century. We must assume they kept amazing real estate records! It’s interesting that Martha got the church, but the Tarasque got the town name, a statue and an annual festival that continues to this day. The official story is that the town feels guilty for having killed a tamed beast over 2,000 years ago. If true, the tale sheds light on the absence of the death penalty in France. But I don’t think that’s it.

The ungainly, impossible Tarasque with its spiked turtle shell, six legs, human-faced lion head and lashing, spiked tail, is a wonderful jumble of archetypal images. It’s a primordial,  nursery-brain dragon, both animal and human, lovable and deadly as we all variously are. The truth of the Tarasque is soon crushed into subconsciousness in three-year-olds by the slaughter of “reality,” but only after being tamed by a song. And always dimly half-remembered as the closest, most secret, scary and wonderful friend.  Because  the Tarasque is us.

 

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And now it goes with me everywhere.  😉

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Alors…

AbbieMausoleumAnother sojourn in France.  At this point I can no longer claim tourist status and by default join the ranks of those terribly sophisticated Americans who spend half their lives running back and forth to France.  They write knowledgeably and with verve about wine, truffles and the joys of living in Provence for a year.  The New Yorker keeps them on commission and major publishers battle to offer six-figure contracts for their memoirs.  They have unusual names like “Braque” and “Tani” and all live in NYC where they ferret out obscure French restaurants between trips. But frankly, I don’t make the cut.

I prefer a German Riesling and only vaguely understand “truffle” to mean some kind of fungus that’s not a mushroom. I live as far as it’s possible to get from New York without falling into the Pacific and wouldn’t survive a week alone in Provence. I’ve just been there, though, so I can write about it. Unsophisticatedly. Sort of A Corn-fed Hoosier in the Drome Provencal, to ride the titling coattails of Mark Twain.

First, while Provence in summer is, per Braque and Tani, apparently a scented dream of lavender fields, smocked artists and seven-hour al fresco dinners of daube and fougasse, in the dead of winter it’s history laid bare. The country home of our hosts, Martine and Franḉois, is in Meynes and was built in the early 14th century when the town was a Templar stronghold against attacks by French King Philip IV (heavily in debt to the Templars) after the failure of the Crusades. Beneath the narrow, cobbled streets there are still secret tunnels used by knights fleeing a fiery death at the stake. In the wintery gloom you can feel those centuries-old stories still breathing in the worn stone buildings, hear the desperate footsteps beneath the streets.

And those stories, only last week, weren’t entirely unfamiliar. Almost six centuries after the Crusades, in my little Indiana river town with a French name, the term “Knights Templar” was in common use as a designation within the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Town businessmen were Masons and my dad (very) grudgingly went along, memorizing pages of Masonic text in the bathroom as he shaved. He was a “Knight Templar.” Later I also memorized Masonic text as a Job’s Daughter, and went to dances at the Masonic Lodge with boys who were in the Order of DeMolay. Jacques de Molay was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar and burned at the stake in Paris in 1314, but as a child I would know his name as well as that of Abraham Lincoln.

Walking Meynes’ cobbled streets at night, I wondered if martyred de Molay had also walked there, and what he’d think of a bunch of southern Indiana farm boys in crusader’s capes reciting no-doubt-inaccurate versions of his story. I decided he’d love it. Who would object to being celebrated in the heartland of a country that didn’t even exist when you went up in flames?

Provence also remains the very soul of the domestic arts. Nothing on earth could persuade

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Martine’s Provencal ceiling in Meynes

me to eat foie gras, given the horrors inflicted on ducks and geese to create it, so I won’t talk about the food. But Provençal interiors set an international standard for “Country” décor. Wondering what to do with 119 of those soup tureen lids you’ve got stacked in the garage? Martine lines them up to great effect on beams that have been here since before Chaucer was born.

A few miles away and two centuries after de Molay, Nostradamus was born and lived in St.

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Martine and I and Nostradamus in St. Remy

Remy, now a mecca for shoppers in search of those gorgeous (and expensive) Provençal fabrics, bedspreads and tablecloths. I bought a single tablecloth weight in the traditional shape of the Provenzalin (Provençal woman, in the local Occitan dialect, which is not French but related to Latin, a vestige of that Roman invasion Caesar documented in his Gallic Wars. “All of Gaul is divided into three parts.” Actually there were five parts. Provence was in one of them.) I have no idea what to do with one tablecloth weight, but had to have it!

facing_horsesThen, although nobody else was remotely interested, I was graciously driven many kilometers on bleak but hair-raising little roads to Pont d’Arc, where the French government has meticulously recreated in a cave 30,000-yr-old prehistoric art only discovered in 1993 in another nearby cave. The original art in its cave is now wisely protected from toxic human contact, and the new cave “parc” is a little Disneyish, but nothing can diminish the eerie beauty of the animals drawn by prehistoric people of a culture called Aurignacian. They (the painted animals) all have expressions of near-beatific elegance and a sort of prayerful amiability, even a bit of mischief in some, like portraits of beloved, revered friends. The Aurignacians may or may not have worshiped the animals they painted, but they clearly loved them. I bought a (badly translated to English but nonetheless lovely) children’s book, Equinox, written from the perspective of the smallest painted horse who waited over 10,000 years in darkness for the return of humans. The book isn’t available here, but can be ordered online at http://lacavernedupontdarc.org/nos-outils/. Or watch Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Youtube.

Next: The Tarasc, my favorite French monster

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