Stes. Maries de la Mer

     I had never been in such a dark church, its stones black as coal, the nave lit only by the red candles of wish and devotion. An area a half level up at one end of the church was roped off for silent prayer, with dark wood pews and one stained glass window.
     Beneath it, a half-level down, was a brightly lit grotto, where the supposedly miraculous well is located, watched over by a statue of the black Saint Sarah adorned in layers of mardi gras-colored clothes, bright, light-blue, yellow, and red satins, with strings of beads around her neck.
     Candles are for sale in the grotto, one euro for small ones, five for big ones. I bought a candle, lit it in the obscurity of the nave, and made a wish.
     The town of Stes. Maries de la Mer is interlaced with religious history and what locals consider quite a bit of invention. A waitress who worked in a tiny cafe next to the church told me that the miraculous well is simply a normal well that hit the water table and is now largely salt water.
     But, as we found through our tour guide at Mt. St. Michel, miracles really help sell a church, and bring in the alms. Like its much more famous sister, the church in Stes. Maries de la Mer is also the destination for pilgrimages.
     The black Saint Sarah is called the patron saint of the gypsies. And outside the church, a gypsy woman tried to sell me a trinket. I politely declined. With dark eyes staring into me, she said, “Dit pas non a une gitane,” you don’t say no to a gypsy.
     I have to say I hesitated, before turning away, dismissing with difficulty the sense that a hex would come flying after me.
     We had ended up in Stes. Maries by happenstance, the kind of thing that happens when you liberate yourself from the planned itinerary.
     A few days earlier, we were outside St. Remy en Provence, visiting Glanum, the stone bones of a Celtic trading village that over 800 years paid tribute to Greeks and then Romans until it was flattened by German tribes in 260 A.D.
     On a rainy, windy day, I stopped on the way out of Glanum to talk to a couple getting on bicycles. Portly and well out of shape, the man told me they signed up in England for a service that reserves hotels and restaurants in the south of France and then transports your luggage between them, while you ride a bike.
     Erudite in his expression, he recommended an unheralded aqueduct in the region and said he had seen pink flamingos in the Camargue, the delta region of the Rhone River.
     The idea put in my head, we drove off a couple days later to check out the Camargue.
     It is unlike any other part of France, distinct in its people and its customs, taking as much from nearby Spain as from France. It is famous for its wild, white horses and free-roaming herds of black cattle, and the flamingos.
     At the very bottom of the Camargue, where the Rhone empties into the Mediterranean, is Stes. Maries.
     I was immediately at ease when we got there. The town was washed in a mellow, mediterranean sunshine, the buildings were almost all white-walled under rose-colored tile roofs. The whole place had a slow, easy feel.
     Men in the plaza across the way were playing pétanque on the light red, chalky dust, tossing the big metal balls in a high arc. Across from them was a beat-up brasserie.
     Inside the cafe, locals are drinking Pastis, the cloudy, yellowish, licorice-flavored drink of the region.
     The door is wide open, the window panels are wide open and a little sea breeze flows through the place. The locals, men and women, are gathered around two high top tables next to the bar, and I hear the southern French rhythm of speech, its rise and fall. A man says something I cannot make out but says it with an emphasis and depth of conviction that makes the others burst out in laughter.
     The women smoke inside, and I doubt very much that Paris’s writ against it extends to here.
     A sign advertises moules frites for 18 euros. But Sophie, white hair molded around a face etched by thirty-plus years in a port town, tells me she had a fight with her cook the day before. She puts the knuckles of each hand against one another to illustrate.
     So he didn’t show up today, she tells me. No mussels, no fries. I order another beer instead.
     The brasserie finally made me ease up, after three weeks moving around France. It was as though time slowed down or did not matter and life in this spot seemed easy, peaceful, and deeply French, a port town on a sunny Sunday, in the late afternoon.     

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