Postcard from Provence — The Crypt.
I looked up at the dark grey cliffs, rising up to 6,000 feet against the cotton candy sky. I tried to wrap my brains around the story my Mom had just shared with me. How could my Mom, at the age of 15, have crossed the Pyrénées mountains on foot? She ended up here, in the small village of Gavarnie, on the French side, in the month of April 1947. There was still snow everywhere. There were storms almost every afternoon. She wore a skirt and some small shoes. Her mother and her brother, who was one year younger, did not wear any heavy coat either. They had been walking for several days to get to the border. Then they had hired a local mountaineer to smuggle them across to France in between patrols of the Spanish Guardia Civil. I was 15 years old myself when I heard her story, trying to imagine what it would have been like. I was amazed.
Mom crossed over like thousands of Spanish refugees fleeing the brutal regime of Spain’s dictator, General Franco. Hoping for a better life in France. Her dad, my grandfather, José Sugranes, had been living in the city of Tarbes, south of the Pyrénées mountains, since 1939. As a Republican, he had found himself on the losing end of the Spanish civil war. Had he stayed in Barcelona, his choice would have been prison, execution, or a concentration camp. He went from fighting against one type of fascism to fighting another. As soon as he landed in France, he joined the French Resistance. He forged papers to help British and French aviators escape the Germans. After bailing out over French territory, they would be guided by Resistance groups all the way to the south of France. They would then cross over to Spain and reach Gibraltar. Once in Gibraltar, they could go back to Great Britain and rejoin the fight against Germany. But that is another story.
As my mother and I walked side by side by the river flowing through the village of Gavarnie, I started to realize that I was here, on this earth, thanks to the incredible determination and grit of this woman, who started a new life in a foreign place as a teenager.
45 years later, I find myself in another small French village, in Provence, listening to another refugee story. One which started in the Near-East. This time, the story is a 2000 year-old legend, with several variants and distortions. But some of it rings true enough.
A woman feared for her life and for the life of her unborn baby. The father-to-be had been arrested, judged and sentenced to death for leading a rebellion. The region was under the rule of Rome, and had been occupied for decades. The death sentence had triggered uproar, unrest and division among the people. Some, of course, supported the status quo and the repression of these dissidents. The Roman empire controlled vast areas of land with the help of local sympathizers. Collaborators. Any trouble maker was quickly eliminated. In this case, the matter was made worse because the chief of the rebellion was of royal descent, as well as his female companion. After the man’s death, on a hill in Jerusalem, it was decided that it was not safe for his companion to stay there. Especially if anybody found out that she was about to give birth to a prince with a claim to the throne.
A decision was made. They had to flee. What was left of the underground rebellious group organized the logistics. A safe passage on a boat was found. Money was exchanged. The trip across the Mediterranean, dangerous at the time, took place. The destination: the south of Gaul, in what is now the south of France. A province of the Roman empire that had been conquered and pacified 80 years before. One very influential benefactor had her roots there, and her family would welcome a small group of women. Gaul was far enough from Rome that they could easily disappear within the local population and live in peace, anonymously. News traveled very slowly anyway.
Today, the small fishermen village who saw these women arrive bears their names. They were princesses in their own right. They wore the title of Mary, because of their connection to their ruling house of origin. Marie Madeleine, and her ants, Marie Salomé and Marie Jacobé. The village, where around 3,000 people live in the winter, is called the Holy Maries of the Sea. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. It is located in Provence, in the delta of the Rhône river. It has become one of the most visited sites of the region in the summer, with up to 500,000 tourists and pilgrims per year. It hosts a church in the center of the village, and in that church, there is a crypt.
Every year around the 25th of May, gypsies come from all over Europe to the village. They come down to the crypt to retrieve a small wooden statue. They carry this statue to the sea, in a ceremony attended by thousands, to celebrate their allegiance to her. They call her the Black Virgin. She goes by the name of Saint Sara, and the gypsies have been worshipping her for almost 2,000 years. The legend says she was just a servant, who came with the other three Maries. According to others, she was a princess in her own right. What if she was the daughter of the man who led that rebellion against the Roman Empire, a man who was crucified and is worshipped to this day all over the world?
One thing is sure. The atmosphere in the crypt is like no other. The walls are covered with panels and signs offered by pilgrims and devoted followers. Some mention miraculous healings or thank Saint Sara for surviving a storm at sea. The candles lit up the place and provide a warm glow. Provence is a special place indeed. It is a place where a mother and her daughter found refuge and built a future where they would be safe from persecution.
The beginning of 2022 has been marked by another exodus. New refugees fleeing another war. This time in Eastern Europe. Men remained behind to fight. Women and children have been seeking shelter in other countries. In search of a better life. It is not a new story. It is one that I can identify with. The cruelty of men is still imposing havoc on others. But it is also a story of resilience and courage. Of the will to survive and thrive of all these Ukrainian mothers and children. I salute them.