We've just passed through August 15, one of the summer's biggest festival days, the Assumption of Mary, the day in which Mary ascends into heaven escorted by a troop of jubilant angels. The Renaissance couldn't get enough of the image of a woman rising out of the mundane world into a blindingly bright, cloud-adorned sky, with trumpets blasting and angels radiant with joy. It is a remarkable image, powerful, sublime, the idea that a mortal now turned sacred mother could rise on the power of faith into a waiting heaven where a throne was reserved for her is part of some profound desire of the faithful to be recognized, honored. Those who gazed upon these outsized painting were mainly workers from the fields around Rome and Florence, illiterate farm hands who tended sheep, made cheese, planted fields, and trudged off to war at the behest of some local war lord. Here was freedom, liberation, that rare emotion that one was rewarded for one's suffering and loyalty.
The way we celebrated this feast day here in my little village was to have a village supper, a concours de boules, a tournament of the local boules players who compete each year for a small purse. The whole village gazes on at their play, as the men, most of them older, retired farmers, bend over with fierce concentration and heave a solid metal ball at the little wooden target ball. There are groans, and erratic clapping when someone nails the throw and the others must recalculate where to pitch their own boules. The bar does a good trade with the younger generation sipping at pastis, short beers, a few flavored spritzes and talking in between jags of cell phone surfing. The kids play around and annoy the dogs, who are trained to endure hours of waiting for their owners to break off socializing and take a stroll.
At night, the playing field down the road, mostly used for pick-up soccer games by the village boys, becomes a theme park with a few rides, an inflated giraffe where toddlers can romp around, and most recently, a mechanical bull set up in a dry swimming pool full of mats for those brave enough to mount the battered looking animal and hang onto the horns while it jerks around in slow motion. At the end of the little park is a stage strung up with strobe lights and amplifiers where a rock band grinds through its repertoire of rock songs, all of them in English, crooned by men in tight suits, and women in short, sequined dresses. These little orchestras go way back in time to the last century, even earlier, when touring companies worked the provinces and advertised themselves as fresh from the Paris nightlife. Until a few years ago the girls, many of them talented singers, would appear in the second half of the show topless and dance around the stage. I recall watching the old geezers move closer and squint at the dazzling lights trying to absorb the vague eroticism, while their stout wives hung onto their arms. What this had to do with Mary's coronation as the queen of heaven eludes me.
But year after year, a committee appointed by the mayor convenes to plan the events, which never change. Or if they change at all, it is to eliminate the roulette table, a few concessions selling snacks and cotton candy. The thing is, these festivals are not as well attended as before, and the villages are pinching their pennies and hiring cheaper acts. But nothing will deter the village elders from keeping tradition alive. So the stalls get built, the truck holding band instruments and dressing room arrives, the techies hang all the lights and set up the computer to drive everything, and from about four in the afternoon the band rehearses. We all circulate on the dusty field and engage in small talk, munch on crackers and sip warm wine from plastic cups. You do it because it is an ancient ritual, and there is no point in criticizing its worn-out ways. Even the idlest chitchat conveys some bit of information about the year, about who passed away and who was born, who is engaged, and who just got married in a ceremony at a nearby hamlet, with all the groom's buddies hanging out of car windows and blasting car horns up and down the narrow country roads. It's all part of eternity and you can't alter rural habits or the constellations of the myriad stars overhead.
This is the south of France, where modernity nibbles at the edges of village life with cheap bungalows and convenience stores, but doesn't really change the stagnant nature of time. At the heart of any of these villages you find the timeless institution of matriarchy, where women are trained by their mothers to shop, to cook, to run a household. They pass through a brief period of sexual anarchy as teens, but once they finish school, they become sober and acquire a certain gravitas as men court them. Marriage is that mysterious transformation of the southern woman into a ruler of her domain; she rises by a few inches above the stature of men and has a certain authority that can't be breached or questioned. A woman's powers are not diminished even when husbands leave them; motherhood conveys a certain mysterious knowledge upon her, which she carries like an invisible veil. Women meet over coffee and their talk is full of hidden assumptions about their roles and the magic they inherit from their long line of female ancestors. It leaves the men feeling a bit useless in domestic matters -- they are left to themselves much of the day, to play card games at the bar, to practice their boules techniques, to sweat it out in the hot fields all summer long and to tinker with old tractors much of the fall. If they work in town, they return to the hearth to assume their lowly status as husbands.
When you go to a market town where the shops are concentrated, you may notice that the bakery is not just selling bread and pastries; it is a shrine to womanhood and honors various feast days associated with female saints. Take Saint Anne, Christ's grandmother, who was buried in a crypt of the Apt cathedral. Her day is celebrated by processions bearing banners with her image on them, and by groups handing out little cakes that symbolize her. No such ceremony honors men in the same way. Every other store along the main drag of town seems devoted to women, whether it is hardware for the kitchen, or beauty salons, or jewelry and clothing stores. Pharmacies adorn their windows with sleek, sun-tanned women smiling at a beach, enjoying their status as revered creatures worthy of special care. The perfume shops are all about women as well. A man's domain is a cafe or a hunting store, a few apparel shops featuring the latest sportswear. But there is little cachet; the real energy is always circulating through the female image, and the deep faith that her health and happiness are essential to rural life.
When a certain Swedish builder I knew bought a house, he set to work to flatten out the curves in the walls, make stairs that rose with the exactitude of Calvin's strictures against excess. He proudly showed me his handiwork, but as I entered into the antiseptic interiors, I felt an immediate hostility to his imagination. He had removed the female curves, the organic flow of space from the interiors, and replaced them with a masculine precision so harsh it made me want to escape. A provencal house is profoundly feminine, and every surface resembles some part of her body, a thigh, a leg, the spine, the buttocks, the breasts that stand for nurture and nature's profound wisdom. He had dashed it all to pieces and when the village turned its back on him, he was reduced to renting his house to foreigners because no one wanted to buy it. It still stands empty much of the year, a testament to what happens when you break southern rules.
Many who visit the region are unaware of the depths of cultural belief that define these little rock towns and hamlets. They find the streets quaint and the houses like images from some book of children's tales. They have no idea that the south is a cultural pole feuding with the north, with its industries, large cities, its Protestant theology, its lack of mysticism or magic. The south revels in the murky depths of its spiritual imagination, and the climax of many of its feelings and longings come together in this ancient feast honoring the ascension of Mary into heaven.