Lost in Translation

It was late one evening, in a certain starless Paris hotel. Danny, aged 11, was studying the nightlife below the window, Kat, 15, was confiding in her diary and I was wrestling with 8 year-old Babe’s wet, tangled hair.

The Eiffel Tower from Trocadero
The Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Suddenly there was a shout from the corridor “Feu! Sortez ! Gardez le sang froid!

“Fire! Go out! Keep the blood cold!” Someone translated helpfully through our keyhole.

“What blood?” asked the baffled kids.

“Later! Quick! Out!” I snapped as a siren began to scream.

Muffled foreign music, snatches of unfamiliar language and occasional wafts of exotic cuisine had so far been the only sign of our fellow guests. But here they were now, surging down the corridor like a tsunami. They closed around the kids and swept them away.

“Gardez le sang froid” I called as I shouldered my way downstream after them.

At the stairwell the crowd slowed, stopped, then swirled impatiently on the spot. A crutch appeared above the sea of heads.

“Prenez l’ascenseur. Take the lift” shouted someone.

“No!” I bellowed ”Dangéreux!”

But my voice was drowned out by the howls of protest that accompanied the crutch towards the lift. There was a clang and a whirr. The crutch vanished and the howls grew distant. People poured down the stairs. I hurried along in their wake.

With a groan like a dying beast, the lift ground to a halt. Now it hung frozen between floors. Within, a stranded soul in striped PJs slumped dejectedly on his crutches.

“Gardez le sang froid” I whispered as his eyes met mine in hopeless silence.

Below, two camps had formed. Outside, on the boulevard, Kat, Danny and the men stood at attention, their arms raised in salute at some presence off stage. The ladies and kids had lined up around the lobby. There, half-hidden under a burkha, her head turbaned in a souvenir tea towel from Antibes, was Babe.

Given that a fireball could roll down the stairs at any time and that someone was trapped in its path, the mood was convivial. People were passing round biscuits and dates. (I couldn’t help but marvel at the sort of sang froid that could consider refreshments at such a time!) But refreshments were soon eclipsed by a burst of applause from the boulevard.

“Napoleon!” yelled a youngster as a figure in a brass-studded tunic and helmet strode into view.

“Attention les pompiers! Attention the firemen”, he commanded.

Twenty pompiers filed by, dragging a fat hose. Up the stairs they marched. The hose snaked along behind. There was a hopeful cry from the elevator but the pompiers were impervious. Onward and upward they pounded. Doors slammed overhead. Suddenly the hose stopped. Time stood still. There was a long silence. Finally, heavy footsteps crossed the ceiling and clumped down the stairs. The pompiers re-appeared. They were a different detachment now. In ragged twos and threes, with their helmets under their arms, they straggled past.

“Alarm False” Napoleon grunted in passing

Out on the boulevard, the pompiers had stopped. Danny was trying on a helmet and Kat was giggling coquettishly.   I dashed to the rescue.

“Gardez le sang froid” called an impertinent pompier as I siezed the kids and marched them away.

Back in the lobby, the hose lay abandoned. The ladies, the refreshments and the Antibes tea towel were gone. Babe stood forlornly by the stairs, her hair had dried into dreadlocks.

There was a whirr and a whoop from on high and the lift sank slowly into sight. The door clanged open and out shot the prisoner. With two swift strokes of his crutches he swung through the doors and disappeared into the darkness.

“What was all that about the blood?” asked Babe as we headed upstairs.

“Gardez le sang froid, says keep the blood cold. It really means don’t panic” I explained at last “The blood gets lost in translation”


L’Abbaye de Senanque

Tucked into a narrow valley just outside the mediaeval village of Gordes, is L’Abbaye de Senanque. The thick rows of purple lavender in the foreground, the faded stone walls and slate roof silhouetted against a background of deep blue provençale sky, make the abbey one of the most photogenic and one of the most photographed, buildings in France.

L'abbaye de Senanque
L’abbaye de Senanque

The abbey dates back to 1148, when, under the patronage of the Bishop of Cavaillon, the Count of Barcelona and the Count of Provence, a small group of Cistercian monks from the Ardèche arrived in the valley and established their community in a cluster of rough huts. By 1152, their numbers had outgrown the huts and the monks had gained the support of the wealthy seigneurs, or nobles, of the neighbouring region of Simiane.

With the seigneurs’ financial backing, l’Abbaye de Senanque began to take shape, in the Romanesque style of the Cistercian mother house at Citeaux. The church was completed first and consecrated in 1178. Shaped like a cross, with a projecting apse on either side, it points to the north, as the narrow valley did not allow for the traditional eastward orientation. The church was soon followed by the cloister, the dormitory, the chapter house and the calefactory, which, being the only heated room in the complex, the monks used as a scriptorium or writing room. The last addition, in the 17th century, was the refectory. Remarkably, all these buildings survive still, with their simple, austere beauty but still intact.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Sénanque flourished, possessing large estates and operating numerous enterprises, including mills and granges in the region.

By 1509, however, Sénanque began to decline; only about a dozen monks remained, then, during the Wars of Religion, Huguenots ransacked the building.

With the French Revolution, Sénanque’s estates were nationalised, the last monk was expelled and the abbey was sold to a private individual.

In 1854, the Order of the Immaculate Conception bought Sénanque but their community was expelled in 1903. Again, in 1988, another small community returned. They remain there today, running spiritual retreats, making honey and growing lavender as their livelihood.

It was autumn when I visited Sénaque, the purple glory of the lavender had been cut to stark grey stalks and the plain, austere abbey had faded into its narrow valley like some ancient stone landmark that had always been there and always would.

The Mystery of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is a quiet, pretty seaside place with small holiday homes and fishermen’s cottages hung with buoys, nets and anchors, with shops selling buckets, spades and plimsoles, a broad esplanade with a painted merry-go-round, a town square dominated by a statue of a Camargue bull and a skyline pierced by the tower of its fortified church.

The beach at Les Saintes Maries de La Mer
The beach at Les Saintes Maries de La Mer

Yet it’s a place with a hint of mystery, none so much as in its name. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, in English, is, the Holy Marys of the Sea. It’s a name that begs the question – Who were the Holy Marys and how or why did they give their name to this little town out on the far edge of the Camargue?

According to the bible, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, three women paid a visit to his tomb. They found it open and empty. The three women were Mary Magdalene, the famous follower of Jesus, Mary Salome, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and Mary Jacobi, the mother of James, the apostle.

According to an old French legend, back in the very first days AD, three women, their uncle and their dark skinned servant, were washed ashore on the coast near the mouth of the Petit Rhone. They had set sail from Alexandria in Egypt. According to that same old French legend, these three Maries were none other than Marie Magdalene, Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi. Their Uncle was Joseph of Arimathea and their servant was an Egyptian girl named Sarah. They had come to spread the gospel of Jesus and to avoid persecution in their native land.

According to the Knights Templar, Dan Brown, and a large number of others, a woman named Marie and her daughter, Sara, were washed ashore on that spot. The woman was none other than Mary Magdalene and her daughter was the child of Jesus. They had fled Jerusalem to escape death.

According to Gypsy lore, two women named Marie, half-dead from thirst and starvation, in a boat without oars or rudder, were washed ashore on that spot. They had been put to sea in the Holy land and sent off to starve, dehydrate or drown, a common way of dispatching undesirables (read Christians) at the time. They were rescued by a dark-skinned woman named Sarah. These two Marys were none other than Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi. The dark-skinned woman was Sara, patron saint of the gypsies.

The place where the Marys landed was known first as Notre Dame de Ratis (our Lady of the boat) then Sainte Marie (for just one Mary, if so which, or because one Mary stands for all?) Finally, in recognition of the two, or three, Marys and the sea which had delivered them, in 1838, it was named Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.

Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi lived out their days in that place at the mouth of Le Petit Rhône. After their deaths, their sacred remains were sealed in a casket and placed in the town’s fortified church. They remain there today. A statue of Saint Sara, clothed in finery, keeps vigil nearby.

Pilgrims have been coming to Saint Maries since the 15th century. Arles was on the route of Saint Jacques de Compostelle and as Mary Jacobi was the mother of the apostle James or Saint Jacques, they made the short detour to Les Saintes Maries de La Mer to pay homage to her.

Every year, Gypsies from all over Europe gather in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer on May 25, to celebrate the fête, or feast of Saint Sara. Early in the morning a special Mass is celebrated in the church. The casket containing the relics of Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi are lifted from the vault and along with the statue of Saint Sara, it is carried to the sea in a solemn procession. Long into the night, the Gypsies dance and sing.

The story of Les Saintes Maries and Sainte Sara, fascinating and mysterious as it is, is just one of the stories of this town. There are many more. Likewise the Fête of Sainte Sara is just one of the town’s fêtes. There are many more of those too, like La Fête des Vierges (festival of the virgins, in the sense of unmarried girls) started by Frederic Mistral, the great Occitane poet, in 1904.

Check out the others here: http://www.saintesmaries.com/fr/accueil/agenda.html