[Fox-Amphoux, Var, Provence] One of the implacable, albeit stereotypical, facts about France is that it is an overwhelmingly Catholic country that is also consummately irreligious. Almost no one goes to church with any regularity, and the hand-wringing, to which not too many people pay attention, sounds unremarkably like the hand-wringing that garners more attention from, say, American-Jewry. In the latter case it is especially the rabbinate that wrings its hands as it wonders at the modern propensity of largely assimilated young Jews to marry out of their faith.
Such is not the problem in France. If I recall seeing the percentage accurately, something like 88% of the country is Catholic, or so identify themselves as of not too many years ago. So when young Jacques marries young Marianne, no parental feathers get ruffled about the perils of mixed marriage. Of course, even if they weren’t both Catholics, there’s little likelihood of remorse. Scratch a Frenchman or woman, and you will find some taint of another religion or ethnicity under there somewhere. But in the main, the French wear their religion as easily as their skin.
The purest of the pure Gallic French are small in number. Mixing it all up is Celto-Ligurian-Greco-Romano-Teutonic-Nordic-Anglo-Saxon inter-breeding over two millennia. For all that, and perhaps because most of the world surrounding France—not to mention occupying it—about the time that the Moors and other elements of the Caliphate left the Iberian peninsula was Catholic one way or another, France is Catholic, whatever the purity of the stock.
Around here, in the lofty reaches of the central Provencal department of the Var, there are many Italian surnames to be encountered. This sort of clinches the deal. My personal theory is that the reason name after name on the headstones and tombs of the permanent inhabitants of the cemetery just down the hill end in vowels (as we say in the ‘States) is that some time in the late fourteenth century the black plague decimated town after town. Those towns and villages that didn’t die off altogether were abandoned.
A slightly complicated set of political alliances resulted in Nice and a significant part of the Var (essentially most of the land between the river of that name, west of Nice, and the Rhône River as it courses its way more or less southwesterly, into the Mediterranean) becoming the property of the House of Savoie. In league with the Duke of Anjou and the Count of Nice, that august state (now, itself, also a part of France) repopulated with the good citizens of Liguria the towns and villages ravaged by pestilence. Liguria was, and still is, Italian. Indeed, where the present French Riviera ends and the Italian one begins is Liguria. If we can thank them for nothing else—aside from my thanking them for repopulating this part of Provence—we can thank the Ligurians for pesto. However, there is so much more for which they are responsible, and someday, someday, my friends, I will tell you about it.
Whatever their roots, here and elsewhere in France, the people of this great nation remain mindful of their spiritual inheritance. They honor it largely in the breach of course, until it comes to that great invention, le jour ferié. It’s what the British call a bank holiday, and everyone else, including us, calls a national holiday, that is, when banks, the stock market, and hence, most businesses, are closed. The United States, despite all appearances, not being a particularly deterministic society, has, as one would expect from a country where CEO salaries are a multiple by several hundred times of the lowest salaried worker, and productivity is unequalled, and two weeks vacation is standard, very few national holidays that close the banks. The French, who are smarter than we think, and had a very smart scientist, named Laplace (Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace, who, despite the marquis title, lived from 1749 to 1827, in short, he beat the Revolution…) who believed that if you could account for every atom in the universe you could pretty well predict everything that was going to happen—in short, a guy who was just waiting for computers to happen—have a lot of jours feriés. And funny thing, a damn lot of them correspond to, well, the Christian—let me be more specific, the Catholic—calendar.
After years and years of arriving here late in May for an all too brief two weeks of the most glorious weather anywhere, never mind that of one of the most enduringly beautiful places on the face of the planet, I wondered for awhile, being innately stupid and unobservant, why we always seemed to arrive on a three day weekend, when everything was closed. Turns out, there’s this little phenomenon called Pentecost (you could look it up—lunar calendars, Easter, all that stuff…) and it’s, well, it’s a national holiday in France.
Which brings me, among all the other subtly crypto religious jours feriés, to the one I essentially just discovered, called, in common parlance, “the day of the dead.” That is, it’s the Jour des mortes, and it occurs on the day after the one we know as All Hallow’s Eve, or All Saint’s Day, or, dadgummit, it’s called Hallowe’en for chrissake. The French close their banks, their stores, their supermarkets, they close everything but the emergency room, on the day after Hallowe’en… And we think they’re craven and irresponsible, smug, self-satisfied, and contemptuous.
Think about it while you’re workin’ a Hershey’s miniatures gastric hangover with extra-strength Pepto-Bismol.
So the French have figured out how to take a lot of holidays. And when they don’t take holidays they’ve figured out how to provide minimal service short of dysfunction (see my next blog entry, “Customer Disservice,” which actually was posted before this one; why? jour ferié. I’m union.).
Lest I give you the wrong impression, let me add this very important set of observations.
Just like the high holiday Jews who show up at synagog on the high holidays, and primp in their high-price ticket seats, the only time they will appear in a place of worship, there is a certain reflexive response from the media (who else) when it comes to All Saints’ Day. They send photographers to the cemeteries and take photos of the lugubrious assemblages of entirely sincere people who gather to honor the dead. It’s become, apparently, prelude to observance of that day, a little later this month, that used to be called Armistice Day and is now Veterans’ Day (no doubt, just to make sure that veterans of the First World War, most of whom we should remember are dead at this point, don’t gain some kind of memorial hegemony). A lot of veterans’ groups and town officials gather in the local cemetery and lay a wreath. The local paper the next day is filled with snaps of this sort, from one town to small village to another.
In the local daily for the Var, and a major Provence news vehicle, the lead story on the Day of the Dead concerned the rapidly increasing cost of burial, thereby making this day a matter of mercantile greed. It’s a valid issue, but the Day of the Dead isn’t official burial day. It’s a day to remember the departed. That’s what the French call them, les disparus (which immediately conjures up for the Anglophile with peculiar cognate propensities the spectre of the “disappeared,” and there is a weary, yet disquieting sense of death as a disappearing act).
I was told by our lovely vivacious neighbor, Paule—whose appearance and liveliness vastly belies her apparent years—that one couple in particular (she pointed out their car, parked near the cemetery of the village) appears every week at the cemetery, yet every day of the week leading up to the Jour des Mortes, to honor their daughter, who died in her 20s in an automobile accident. This occurred four years ago. Who am I to say, let it go, already?
During the days before le Jour des Mortes there is indeed, on a country-wide basis apparently, a significant increase of such visits. As it turned out, there was no let up, even after last Wednesday, on which the day in question fell this year. There is no sign of lugubriousness about any of this activity. No sign of obsessive preoccupation. There are few signs of grief, unless, of course, the departed departed fairly recently.
For some, in short, the Day of the Dead is an honest and solemn institution. The chapel, which lies mere meters from my front door, showed signs of increased activity the day before. A squadron of locals, vaguely familiar, but no faces I could identify for sure, appeared in the village, disappeared into the chapel, and for about 15 minutes there was the sound of benches and other furniture being moved about, let us say, by force, mainly scraping the 13th century stone floors.
The next day, le parking at the foot of the village filled with cars. And the inhabitants thereof, in turn, filled the chapel. There was no joking, no vainglory, no kibbitz, no grand gestures of greeting and kissing of the cheeks. Just a stream of middle class, mainly middle aged people who showed up to do what they gotta’ do.
Now, there are officially 380 inhabitants of the town of Fox-Amphoux, including our little village. And I can assure you, there were not 380 people in that chapel, nowhere nearly. Whatever the number, no doubt it was a fraction. Probably it was a fraction greater than the fraction reported to the census as “devout” from among the 80-odd percent of Catholics in this nation, yet significantly less by a very long shot, of the 80-odd.
And it is, of course, for them that the banks and the stores and the supermarkets and just about everything else (though Wednesday is a market day, and we did have a market…) is closed on le Jour des Mortes. And who are we to say that they don’t deserve the holiday, even as much as the price to be paid is the mindless exploitation the rest of us engineer on a day that our thoughts about the departed, or anything else of any spiritual significance, may take a back seat to thoughts typical of just another day off? And don’t we deserve it anyway?