by Philip Kobylarz
Days that go by so smoothly, so ingrained in the rituals of meal preparation and wine drinking; clouds practicing tai chi as they pass from sea through and over the city and the crinkled border of mountains behind it all. It's much easier to calculate what day it is by measuring the assumed time that has passed from one rainfall to the promise of another. A melon missing a quarter of itself, wrapped in foil on a wooden table.
There's nothing much to do anyway except walk from one local antique dealer to the next within the immediate maze of the neighborhood of streets tree-lined and made occasionally barren by stretches of mortar walls behind which are tightly built houses and secrets we will never know.
Once, I found a collection of old crucifixes that I'd found in a cardboard box next to a dumpster. They were beautifully crafted: gilded silver Christs pinned to varnished wood crosses. Large ones, small ones. If not truly silver, then shiny metal that resisted rust.
Beauty is in the eye as I found, much to my amazement, that none of the dealers wanted them. They said that their condition is very good, but there no longer exists a market for such goods. They suggested that I donate them to the church. For blessings.
This is what I did. That is, I left them on the doorstep of the small chapel behind a pizzeria– a sad little place that serves more as the priest's house than a gathering place for worship. No one but the very old ever attends Mass. Behind the chapel is a tiny meditation garden with a statue of the Virgin. She is surrounded by more weeds than trees. She is a once wild animal who let out of her cage roams nowhere. And she has no visitors. Other than dandelions.
The day after I made my donation, I find the box of crucifixes, with a few of the larger ones missing, next to the dumpster near the chapel. They are in the same dusty cardboard box. On one of the box's flaps is written this word in black marker: gratuit.
The above-mentioned chapel is on Boulevard des Neiges. The interior sports a fresco featuring a scene vaguely biblical– an artistic rendering of a place very similar to the surrounding one, set back in the somewhat distant past, and unexpectedly covered in a blanket of snow.
Rumor has it that long ago there was a holy snow shower in a province of Italy from where the original priest originated. The storm was a wrath that either stopped an invading army of infidels or was summoned up to relieve a drought.
Only rarely does it snow in Marseille.
When it rains, as it does quite often in mistral-empowered downpours, even though the arid hills surrounding the town seem to contradict such a fact, and even hide such a possibility as this: snails appear in droves. Snails are legion. Snails rule the ground of Provence.
They have a dark blue, or black, a line on their shells that emphasizes their Zen-like spirals of existence. Empty shells can be collected to be made into jewelry or wall decorations. They look like tiny Chinese blue and white porcelain teapots.
The elderly still wander fields after rains storms, or in the morning when the dew makes field grass thick with moisture and bug life. They are collected not for artistic reasons, but for snacks.
Snails are cooked in their shells in the oven covered with a paste of garlic, crushed parsley, perhaps some breadcrumbs that all boils with their natural juices into a tangy sauce. Incidentally, the larger, hardier snails carrying grey-brown shells with the textures of a toe or fingernail are the ones for cooking. They bubble away in their one-time homes that, after cooking, become finger bowls from which humans may slurp them down.
What do they taste like? There is no equivalent in the American palate. They are chewy and surprise the tongue with a taste, not strong, even kind of subtle, and oddly glutinous in texture. Personally, I've never been tempted to eat them after trying them once. Not because they are bad tasting, but due to their overall likeability as tiny, harmless creatures.
What is so amazing about snails is that they roam and range everywhere possible and im–. They crawl up walls made of anything, you find them in your shoes on a humid day, they attempt to enter and explore goldfish bowls, they are a minor nuisance.
What is so characteristically French about the French is that instead of developing a product to eliminate the ubiquitous slug, they resolutely put them in their place on the food chain: appetizers on a Gallic menu.
There is a billboard, or is it letters painted on a building already existing, that in giant blue letters asks for our redemption: JESUS PARDONNEZ NOUS NOS PECHES. The building is in north Marseille, adjacent to the autoroute, so anyone coming into town can't miss it.
The first time I saw the message it read: Forgive us our fishes or peaches, Jesus. In French, the word for sin, péché, is akin to the English, peach; a pêcher being a peach tree. Finally, religion that makes sense.
During Christmas season, the Islamic Front, operating out of the former colony of Algeria, has an insidious habit of placing bombs on the Paris metro. This act of cowardice, in turn, brings out the French military on patrols of city streets, government buildings, and the underground.
Men, dressed in fatigues, sport machine guns and mean-looking guard dogs and the major cities take on an air of fortification and wartime effort. Initially, it's a disconcerting sight to see such force out casually mingling with civilian life. Marseille itself has little threat of an explosion due to the large North African population integrated into its multi-cultural Europeanized society. Why would radicals send the message of the possibility of injuring their own (as if they were capable of higher logic)?
It's a sight one has to grow accustomed to, as the existence of a military presence wanes from shock to rationalized sense of security for the civilian. If there ever is a bomb threat in Marseille, it is of Corsican Separatist origin. It is an all too real theater of unrest and protest heir to Europe's turbulent past. For an American, it is a reminder that fear is an all too real drama that the populace must psychologically partake in.
Protest is a viable form of expression. Violence can occur whenever. This is the case even during localized strikes of the bus or city workers. When rallies are held, hell may just break loose. Groups of strikers form in front of Marseille's seat of government, the Préfecture. Loud music is played and banners are waved. The people shout and sing. The riot police, the infamous CRS, suit up in their black riot gear, with shields, batons, and tear gas grenades attached to their holsters. They look even more menacing than the enchanting young army men.
The CRS set up steel barricades that block pedestrian traffic, as pedestrians argue with them to let them through, just this once. The guards banter with the strikers. Each is just doing their job. Unless a drunk striker gets too rowdy and begins throwing stones or bottles, there won't be any action. Rarely, does it come to blows. This is Europe's legacy of free speech embodied in its colorful, energetic demonstration. It is what Revolution has become today. A theater of re-enactment.
Radical political opinion is tolerated in this manner. One day, theater workers might be protesting their low wages and lack of job security. The next day it will be a rally to free Tibet from Chinese harassment. One wonders what might actually happen, and how it would occur if these crowds actually stormed the Préfecture. Probably, all the officials would have already gone home for the day.
The fact that the right to express heartfelt opinions is taken seriously in this brilliantly staged public play enables those with convictions to participate in groups of individuality and give them and onlookers and the police a break from the routine of life. It is a process that has to be orchestrated in the U.S.
In the action of halting everyday monotonous life, life is enhanced while being postponed. A space to reflect upon life is created within a parenthesis of the passing hours of the day. The stoppage of the expected causes inquiry into the reasons why. The populace, differing in opinion, background, heritage, political leanings, are united by this process of expression that toys with everyone's sense of the mundane. That is why in America, all Mondays are mundane.
It's always an uphill battle. There are slowly undulating fields of grapevine, there are downhill treks on which you must slalom across the path or gravel road to keep the legs from running. There are pools of trees and shade, thin streams of water, sunburnt outcrops of stone, and in the rocks that have fallen from those stones, pools of rainwater drying in cups of grey burnished sandstone.
The soil is rock-studded and chalky, but it can too be rich and moist, covered in fungi and moss carpets. The air in the Luberon smells crisp even on hot days when it burns the incense of distant forests of cedar. Variety is the source of its forested life.
The foothills contain mostly small farms that devote themselves to the production of wine grapes. They are far apart and each is well hidden from another by natural fences of woods and trees. The farm houses, or mas, may be decked with horses, a series of older cars that never ran all that well, perhaps even chickens, roosters, and pigs. Often walking the Luberon's trails private property is inadvertently crossed and one can take a peek at the hodgepodge collection of stuff farm life naturally assembles: no longer used for anything bathtubs, tractors and their parts, piles of half-burnt wood, wheelbarrows with holes rusted through their once blue underbellies, invented (shoddily) beehive houses made of scrap wood, a compilation of useless things set outside (for eternity) among naturally occurring vegetation with cake slices of mountains diminishing in the distance seem to take on a greater meaning. What can humanity construct that has the relevance of a pastoral view?
If you happen to be out and walking on an overcast day and you find yourself among oak, maple, pines, past farms and isolated, abandoned-looking homes, over hilltops that mostly abscond their views by growing trees and scrub prodigiously, underneath on lower levels balconies of stone that might or might not give way to a clearing where the misty skies and crooked steps of farther off mountain ridges patiently await your arrival, you might just happen upon a couple of menhirs planted into the earth. Headstones. A private, secluded cemetery. To be buried here.
Philip Kobylarz's work has appeared in Paris Review, Epoch, Poetry, and Best American Poetry.
He has published two books, A Miscellany of Diverse Things and Now Leaving Nowheresville.
Two additional books are forthcoming.