Sunday, June 24, 2012

Saintes Maries de la Mer

 Last week we sallied forth to a tourist town, but one that is worth the candle. For starters, the seafood at Saintes Maries de la Mer, is exceptional. A bare bones, paper-plate outdoor café named La Cabane aux Coquilles had been recommended to us, and we all agreed that it exceeded our expectations of excellence.

No sooner had a plate of tellines, one of calamari and one of prawns been plunked down in front of us, along with the usual bread and a carafe of Rose, than we were well on our way to a sustained bout of finger sucking bliss.

The tellines, which are a clam no bigger than a fingernail, were steamed with nothing more than garlic and herbs. Texturally, they come with a hint of grit, which may sound unpleasant but it acts as a counterpoint that awakens the palate. The calamari, served complete, were the smallest that I have ever encountered, not much larger than the shells of the tellines. Cooked quickly at high heat, the batter was crisp, while the inside remained tender and fragrant with a hint of intertidal air.

From there we threaded our way through the side streets bustling with vendors left, right and centre until we arrived at a counterpoint of coolness and quiet. In a nearby square is a church with a sanctuary honoring Sainte Sara, the patron saint of the Roma. 

Inside the shrine.

The many legends of Sante Sara shape shift with such regularity that it is likely that they are rooted in one if not more of the polytheistic religions that were folded into the early versions of Christian mythology. In one version, she was of noble birth and chief of a tribe of Roma people who lived on the banks of the Rhone. She was not only well off, and a leader, but also known as a healer. Another version says that was born in Egypt into the family of Mary Magdalene, and was even present at the opening of the tomb of Christ.

Regardless of where she hailed from, or whether she even existed, one of the most visually interesting stories claims that she had a vision that the three Marys who had been present at Jesus’ death were approaching land and needed her help. One of them, Mary Salome, cast her cloak on the waves to use as a raft. Sara, who in some versions had also been a maid to one of the three Marys, possibly even to Mary Magdalene, stepped on the cloak and prayed both fervently- and also obviously effectively - resulting in the fact that all three Marys made land.

Be this as it may, she was adopted as a patron saint of the Roma, although never accepted officially by the Catholic Church. Perhaps she missed out on canonization because she was black, or perhaps because there were so many versions of her history that they didn’t quite jell – not that the lack of jelling has stood in the way of some of the canonizations of white males.

Unfortunately, a half dozen Roma women descended upon us as we both entered and left the church. I had been forewarned. As they do, they tried to pin a Sante Sara pin on me, so that they could then hit me up for money. They descended like pigeons on a crust of bread. Non, I said in my most crusty voice (bad pun, I know), Non. Obviously, I was insistent enough. They withdrew, but they clustered and clucked and mocked me: Non, non. they laughed amongst themselves, while glancing sideways at me as if I were trash.

When I had been inside the church, I had been enveloped by the scent of incense and candle wax, and the echoes of centuries of time, and I had felt totally blessed. Afterwards, the feeling evaporated. These women may not have taken my money, which perhaps they needed, but they did sully my sense of sanctity. I wonder what Sante Sara in any of her incarnations would have thought. On their part, or mine. After all, we all have choices, and for my part I can at least reframe this experience, even though I am not that enlightened yet. Not yet.

The woman pinned Colleen, but the pin fell into her bag, and although Colleen was a model of charm, it got a bit dicey for a few tense moments.

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